Ten days ago, I had a post laid out in my head on the mainstream press’s tendency toward false equivalence, but I didn’t get around to writing it. Now Tom Tomorrow’s latest cartoon makes it redundant. See especially the fourth panel. Plus, Jim Fallows has been on the beat with a steady stream of posts (latest here).
The reference to the Constitution in Tom’s fifth panel is a natural lead-in to a post by Gary Wills at the New York Review of Books today. An excerpt:
The people behind these efforts are imitating what the Confederate States did even before they formally seceded in 1861. Already they ran a parallel government, in which the laws of the national government were blatantly disregarded. They denied the right of abolitionists to voice their arguments, killing or riding out of town over three hundred of them in the years before the Civil War. They confiscated or destroyed abolitionist tracts sent to Southern states by United States mail. In the United States Congress, they instituted “gag rules” that automatically tabled (excluded from discussion) anti-slavery petitions, in flagrant abuse of the First Amendment’s right of petition.
The Southern states were able to live in such open disregard for national law because of two things. First, the states were disproportionately represented in Congress because they got three extra votes for seats in the House of Representatives for every five slaves owned in the state—giving them 98 seats instead of 73 in 1833, and similar margins up to the war. Second, the national Democratic-Republican Party needed the Southern part of its coalition so badly that it colluded with the Southern states’ violations of the Constitution. In 1835, for instance, President Andrew Jackson did not enforce the sacredness of the US mail, allowing states to refuse delivery of anti-slave mailings unless a recipient revealed his identity, requested delivery, and had his name published for vilification.
Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has a piece this evening at the New York Review of Books blog whose ending I can’t resist quoting. His subject is the view from abroad of the US government shutdown.
… is mere prelude to the greater panic to come if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, triggering a default. Markets around the world have October 17 circled on their calendars—and the global financial community is holding its breath.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to American voters. They might not realize how closely the rest of the world—their economies as well as their media and popular culture—follow, react to, and are affected by the ups and downs of US political life. But they do. And right now, they look at the stalemate in Washington the same way they look at the periodic gun massacres that afflict the United States: with a bafflement that America, mighty America, for so long the most innovative, creative, energetic society on the planet, cannot solve problems that smaller, poorer, feebler countries cracked long ago. Americans might not realize it, but this shutdown, like the gun epidemic, reduces US influence in the world. It makes nations, and individuals, who still want to regard America as a model see it instead as a basket case.
The big domestic political news a few days ago was the House vote to make deep cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (food stamps). This was a follow up to the House Republicans’ decision earlier in the summer to separate SNAP from the farm bill and approve ongoing subsidies to farmers. And this despite the fact that the cost is minimal, the benefits enormous. I mean, food!
According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly four million people would be removed from the food stamp program under the House bill starting next year. The budget office said after that, about three million a year would be cut off from the program.
The budget office said that, left unchanged, the number of food stamp recipients would decline by about 14 million people — or 30 percent — over the next 10 years as the economy improves. A Census Bureau report released on Tuesday found that the program had kept about four million people above the poverty level and had prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty. The census data also showed nearly 47 million people living in poverty — close to the highest level in two decades.
Historically, the food stamp program has been part of the farm bill, a huge piece of legislation that had routinely been passed every five years, authorizing financing for the nation’s farm and nutrition programs. But in July, House leaders split the bill’s farm and nutrition sections into separate measures, passing the farm legislation over Democrats’ objections.
The move came after the House rejected a proposed farm bill that would have cut $20 billion from the food stamp program. Conservative lawmakers helped kill the bill, saying the program needed deeper cuts.
I don’t quote Paul Krugman often. You don’t need me to find him. But he nailed it in his blog yesterday.
The idea that food stamps represent a problem — not a small blessing that has made this ongoing economic disaster marginally less awful — represents an awesome combination of ignorance and cruelty.
Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a longlimbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county. Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” he counseled one and all, and everyone said, “Amen.”
Major Major’s father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all. He was a proud and independent man who was opposed to unemployment insurance and never hesitated to whine, whimper, wheedle and extort for as much as he could get from whomever he could.
To review, false equivalence is the lazy or knee-jerk or phony-balance tendency of journalists to say “both sides do it,” the two sides generally being the Republicans and the Democrats. Examples abound. Jim Fallows has spent a fair bit of time at his Atlantic blog site recording some. See, for instance, here or, just last week, here.
From today’s NYT, I offer a new entry, courtesy of business columnist Eduardo Porter.
If companies could purchase the Congress of their choice, it’s unlikely they would buy the gridlocked Congress we have. The seemingly inexorable rise of political partisans — mainly on the right, but on the left, too — suggests that corporate money may be playing a much smaller role in the political process than expected.
I actually enjoyed the article, and the passage I’m criticizing is a minor aside. Plus Porter emphasizes that the rise of political partisans is primarily on the right. Nonetheless, a rise of political partisans on the left? Who? I mean, can he name even one?
I can name plenty on the right, Ted Cruz being the example of most recent notoriety. But who is a left-wing equivalent? I’m at a loss. Is anyone so driven by similarly doctrinaire (and detached from reality) views of the country and the world?
Let’s see. Cory Booker, the newest star of the Democratic Party? He’s as much a tool of Wall Street as Chuck Schumer. Al Franken? He’s to the right of his predecessor of half a century ago, Hubert Humphrey.
Where are these partisans?
[Ted Rall, August 22]
The responses of government officials and prominent members of the press to this summer’s Edward Snowden revelations and the trial/sentencing of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning offer me once again the opportunity to discover how far removed my views are from the mainstream. Just two days ago, for instance, I was astonished when I read Providence Journal syndicated columnist Froma Harrop’s latest piece, which the Seattle Times carried. She sure has it in for Glenn Greenwald.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport for nine hours — no waterboarding or electric shocks, just pointed questions and confiscation of David Michael Miranda’s computer gear. That prompted Greenwald to threaten Britain with more of his writings.
“I think they’ll regret what they’ve done,” he said. Miranda, meanwhile, accused British authorities of “psychological violence.”
Greenwald has enthralled paranoids on the right and the left with torrid tales of government perfidy. He’s a skilled enough communicator to leave the impression of revealing, or being about to reveal, appalling truths without actually delivering the goods.
But at some point even his ardent fan base will have to step back, take a look at the sweaty denunciations, the self-dramatization and the “opera buffa” plot, and conclude that this story is ripe for rapid deflation. Some critics call the style “outrage porn.”
Huh? This is both inaccurate and lazy writing. But regardless, is Greenwald really the story? Why not what we have learned from his reporting, and that of the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, among others? For example, Gellman revealed ten days ago that the “National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.” Isn’t that more important?
Which brings me to David Carr’s superb piece in the NYT yesterday.
It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.
What is odd is that many pointing the finger are journalists. When Mr. Greenwald was on “Meet the Press” after the first round of N.S.A. articles, the host, David Gregory, seemingly switched the show to “Meet the Prosecutor.” He asked, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”
Jeffrey Toobin, who works for both CNN and The New Yorker, called Mr. Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison.” This week, he called David Miranda, Mr. Greenwald’s partner who was detained by British authorities for nine hours under antiterror laws, the equivalent of a “drug mule.”
What have Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald done to inspire such rancor from other journalists? Because of the leaks and the stories they generated, we have learned that in the name of tracking terrorists, the N.S.A. has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans, and in some instances, dived right into the content of e-mails. The WikiLeaks documents revealed that the United States turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies, and that an airstrike was ordered to cover up the execution of civilians. WikiLeaks also published a video showing a United States Army helicopter opening fire on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists.
In the instance of the stories based on the purloined confidential documents in the Manning and Snowden leaks, we learned what our country has been doing in our name, whether it is in war zones or in digital realms.
Blame the messenger.
If the revelations about the N.S.A. surveillance were broken by Time, CNN or The New York Times, executives there would already be building new shelves to hold all the Pulitzer Prizes and Peabodies they expected. Same with the 2010 WikiLeaks video of the Apache helicopter attack.
Instead, the journalists and organizations who did that work find themselves under attack, not just from a government bent on keeping its secrets, but from friendly fire by fellow journalists. What are we thinking?
[Tom Tomorrow at Daily Kos, August 26]
[Mike King, in the New York Review of Books]
Two springs ago I found myself plowing through a sequence of books on the history of countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and along the Black Sea. (See, for instance, my post on Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road.) At the same time, the Seattle Art Museum had an exhibition on Central Asian ikats (post here) that reinforced my newfound interest in the region. And then a brochure arrived highlighting a trip to Central Asia and the Caucasus this October sponsored by the Met. (Bad timing.)
No surprise, then, that when I saw an article by Ahmed Rashid with the title Why, and What, You Should Know About Central Asia in the table of contents of the current New York Review of Books, I went straight to it. The article is behind a paywall, so you won’t be able to read it in full without subscribing. Too bad.
The opening draws one right in.
On the freezing night of December 12, 1991, in the heart of Central Asia, I stood on the icy tarmac of the airport outside Ashkhabad, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, watching as the five former Communist Party bosses and future presidents of the republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan arrived wearing fur coats and hats. The honor guard, the military band, and the dancing girls holding frozen flowers went through elaborate drills, shivering all the while as the dignitaries’ planes landed.
It was a critical moment in the history of the world. Four days earlier Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus had signed a treaty dissolving the Soviet Union. The five republics were now suddenly independent but nobody had consulted the Central Asian leaders themselves. Angry, frustrated, fearful, feeling abandoned by their “mother Russia,” and terrified about the consequences, the leaders sat up all night to discuss their future.
It was strange to see the heirs of conquerors of the world—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babar—so cowered. They were tied to Moscow in thousands of ways, from electricity grids to road, rail, and telephone networks. Central Asia had become a vast colony producing raw materials—cotton, wheat, metals, oil, and gas—for the Soviet industrial machine based in western Russia. They feared an economic and social collapse as Yeltsin cast them out of the empire. That night a deputy Turkmen foreign minister told me, “We are not celebrating—we are mourning our independence.”
Rashid reviews three books and two reports, all in the context of what may happen in the region after the US departs from Afghanistan next year. The closing two paragraphs give a sense of what’s at stake.
Tumultuous changes could well be in store—both internally as the Central Asian states are forced into greater reforms and democratization through pressure from below, and by policies pursued by the regional big powers. That the US is more or less exiting the region, while Russia faces a deep economic and political crisis that is unacknowledged by its leaders, will leave China in an even stronger position in Central Asia and Afghanistan. What, if anything, China, with all its strength, may do in the region is a mystery.
Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth-century political theorist, viewed Central Asia as “the pivot region of the world’s politics” and “the heartland” because, he said, “it is the greatest natural fortress in the world.” He reckoned that whoever controlled Central Asia would exercise enormous power. But no power has achieved control there and the battle for influence will take different directions after 2014. One of the great dangers for the US and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there.
I’m particularly intrigued by one of the books under review, Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, which came out in May. Rashid writes:
The weird, the strange, the corrupt, and the grand are all evident in Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia. He writes primarily about Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Tiny Kyrgyzstan has a population of just 5.5 million people who live in the highest mountain ranges in the world, with no resources except sheep herding and income from a single gold mine. They have tried hard to become a democratic state—overthrowing two presidents to do so. The result, not surprisingly, has been more misery and much chaos.
Shishkin, an American journalist of Russian origin, captures these events in a far corner of the world with breathless and poetic prose. … He relentlessly pursues and then tells the stories of the most corrupt and powerful and also the most sincere and admirable characters who inhabit these mountains.
If you can get hold of Rashid’s article, it’s well worth reading.
There’s a big cover story on Caroline Kennedy today in the weekly fluff section of the Sunday NYT, with flattering accompanying photo. When I awoke yesterday morning, it was featured online and I couldn’t resist reading it. Not that I’m a big Kennedy family fan, or a fan of the proliferation of family dynasties in American politics—I’ll sit out the Chelsea Clinton-Jenna Bush 2032 presidential race, thanks—but for anyone around back in the day, it’s difficult to resist reading about Caroline.
Which makes the closing of the article that much more distasteful, as theater and film great Mike Nichols gives us a lesson in “the Washington thing.”
Mr. Nichols described going over to Ms. Kennedy’s apartment last November to watch the election returns come in. “I walked in, and she said, ‘Oh, go find Rupert, he’s in the library. It’s quiet in there.’ ”
She was referring, of course, to Rupert Murdoch, head of the News Corporation.
“It’s the Washington thing: who you work for, what your beliefs are entirely beside the point,” he said of Ms. Kennedy’s attitude. “Everybody is with everybody.”
And that’s part of what he thinks will serve Mrs. Kennedy well in her position in Japan, where she would likely do everything from entertaining at the embassy to meeting with foreign dignitaries and politicians with a variety of ideological persuasions. “If anybody knows those rules,” Mr. Nichols said, “it’s her.”
Ah, yes, beliefs are entirely beside the point. No bad blood between the rich and famous. Fast friends all. Not that Caroline Kennedy hasn’t earned the right to be friends with whoever she pleases. But Rupert Murdoch? Geez.
[Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP]
I keep my quoting of NYT columnists to a minimum. Their work is easy to find. Their views are widely distributed. I don’t need to provide a clipping service that serves up their content. Not to mention that some of them should have retired long ago. They are an embarrassment with their pronouncements from on high on cultural trends and the future. (Yes, David and Tom, I’m talking about you.)
I have also been keeping my criticisms of the Obama administration to a minimum. Words fail on a day when officials confirm that the
State Department has asked Hong Kong to extradite Edward J. Snowden to face espionage and theft charges in the United States.
The NYT article goes on to note that “Mr. Snowden is the seventh person to be accused by the Obama administration of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by leaking secrets to the news media, compared with three such cases under all previous presidents.” So much for Obama’s commitment to transparency and openness.
Anyway, I will now depart from my minimization efforts, turning the remainder of the post over to NYT columnist Joe Nocera. In his Saturday column four weeks ago, just after Obama reiterated his vow to close Guantánamo, Nocera wrote:
Late Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before President Obama made his big national security speech — in which he said, for the umpteenth time, that the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed — a group of American lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees filed an emergency motion with the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia. The motion asked the court to order the removal of “unjustified burdens” that the military command at Guantánamo has placed on the detainees, making it nearly impossible for them to meet with their lawyers.
The detainees are all in solitary confinement. They are shackled when they are taken to the shower. They cannot speak to their families unless they submit to that same repugnant body search. In other words, an already inhumane situation has become even worse on the watch of the president who claims to want to shut down the prison.
In his speech on Thursday, Obama hit all the right notes. He talked about how holding detainees for an indefinite period without charging them with any crime has made the prison “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He noted that it has hurt us with our allies. He even mentioned how absurdly expensive the prison is — nearly $1 million per prisoner per year. “Is this who we are?” he asked.
“History,” he concluded, “will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism.” He’s right about that. But he will hardly be immune from that judgment.
It is my belief, shared by many lawyers who have followed the legal battles over Guantánamo, that the president could have shut down the prison if he had really been determined to do so. One reason innocent detainees can’t get out is that the courts have essentially ruled that a president has an absolute right to imprison anyone he wants during a time of war — with no second-guessing from either of the other two branches of government. By the same legal logic, a president can also free any prisoner in a time of war. Had the president taken that stance, there would undoubtedly have been a court fight. But so what? Aren’t some things worth fighting for?
Whenever he talks about Guantánamo, the president gives the impression that that’s what he believes. The shame — his shame — is that, for all his soaring rhetoric, he has yet to show that he is willing to act on that belief.
I don’t know whether Prism and the other programs truly stop terrorists. I have my doubts. What I do know is that if you are going to lecture the world about right and wrong — and if you’re trying to stop bad behavior — perhaps you shouldn’t be engaging in a version of that behavior yourself.
Instead, this has become one of the trademarks of the Obama administration: decry human rights abuses abroad, but hold men in prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who have never been accused of a crime. Say all the right things about freedom of the press — even as you’re subpoenaing reporters’ phone records. And express outrage over Chinese hacking while carrying on a sophisticated spying operation of your own citizens. It may seem to us a false equivalence, but the existence of Prism will make it far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about stopping their own hacking.
Maybe America’s new motto should be: Do As We Say, Not As We Do.
I have nothing to add.
As we continue to learn more about what President Obama does to keep us safe from terrorists, it may be worth reviewing Article 2, Section 1, Clause 8 of the US Constitution:
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:–”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The president swears to protect the Constitution, not us. Yet, like so many of his predecessors, Obama violates the Constitution in the name of our security.
Ted Rall suggests where this logic leads in his latest cartoon, above. I suppose we should ban cars, too, while we’re at it. (Not guns, of course.)
I quote the Esquire’s Charles Pierce a lot. Sorry. I can’t resist. On the subject of this post, let me link to one of his pieces from two days ago, in which he asks,
Tell me what is being done in my name and I can decide on the level of my own complicity. Tell me what is being done in my name and I can decide that I don’t want to be complicit at all. Tell me what is being done in my name and I can be a citizen, in full, of a self-governing political commonwealth. That’s your job. That’s what those three words [We the people] are about. Don’t tell me it’s for my own good. I’m not 12. I know what is for my own good. Don’t tell me to trust you. That ship sailed long ago. Goddammit, tell me.
The Guardian has released an interview with Edward Snowden, the whistleblower behind the disclosures on NSA surveillance published by the Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian this past week. If you haven’t watched the interview or read portions of it, I recommend doing so. Links:
1. The Guardian article by Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras on Snowden.
2. The Guardian interview. (See also the embedded youtube video above.)
Some attention will now be devoted to attacking the messenger, just as there have been efforts this past week to marginalize or discredit Greenwald. (See below.) I hope we don’t lose sight of the message.
I’m pleased to say that I was suggesting six weeks ago what some have said this past week in light of the NSA revelations—that the government can offer the ultimate cloud service. As I wrote then, “Isn’t it great to know they’re backing up all our email? … Why don’t they offer to charge us a fee for access to old data?”
As for Greenwald, it’s fascinating to observe how the mainstream press has turned on him. Thursday’s NYT had an extraordinary profile by Noam Cohen and Leslie Kaufman identifying Greenwald as a blogger, even though all his disclosures were published in The Guardian, a newspaper founded three decades before the NYT (1821 versus 1851). Not that there’s anything wrong with bloggers, but that’s another issue. The profile ends with the following gratuitous attacks.
His writing has made him a frequent target from ideological foes who accuse him of excusing terrorism or making false comparisons between, for example, Western governments’ drone strikes, and terrorist attacks like the one in Boston.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who is often on the opposite ends of issues from Mr. Greenwald, called him, “a highly professional apologist for any kind of anti-Americanism no matter how extreme.”
Mr. Sullivan wrote in an e-mail: “I think he has little grip on what it actually means to govern a country or run a war. He’s a purist in a way that, in my view, constrains the sophistication of his work.”
Ms. Bailey has a slightly different take. Because of his passions, she said, “he is just as willing to make enemies of anybody.”
The next day, Sullivan (the ultimate political blogger) released the exchange he had with the NYT’s Leslie Kaufman. Check it out here. She asks if they can chat, he says he has no time until Monday or Tuesday, though he can reply by email. She responds:
Needed in the next two hours, daily deadlines and whatnot.
So if you can:
1) He obviously had strong opinions, but how is he as a journalist? Reliable? Honest? Quotes you accurately? Accurately describes your positions? Or is more advocate than journalist?
2) He says you are a friend, is this so? I get the sense that he is something of a loner and has the kind of uncompromising opinions that makes it hard to keep friends, but could be wrong.
So that’s how journalism is done! Pretty revealing. Wait till we get the character assassinations of Snowden.