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Change We Can Believe In, XXXIII

June 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Abandoning Moral Authority

Jimmy Carter says it all, in today’s NYT op-ed piece:

THE United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.

Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. …

[snip]

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress …

In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications. Popular state laws permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate.

Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. …

These policies clearly affect American foreign policy. Top intelligence and military officials, as well as rights defenders in targeted areas, affirm that the great escalation in drone attacks has turned aggrieved families toward terrorist organizations, aroused civilian populations against us and permitted repressive governments to cite such actions to justify their own despotic behavior.

… [I]nstead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.

Of course, Bush and Cheney deserve a lot of the credit for this state of affairs, with assists from Congress and countless government officials. But it’s Obama who has taken rogue policies of partisan leaders and made them the bipartisan consensus. It’s Obama who has crafted drone warfare into his own distinctive program. It’s Obama who has insisted on unquestioned authority to do what he deems necessary. Some change.

Categories: Law, Politics

Winning For Its Own Sake

June 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Still can’t bring myself to put up a picture of Romney. This will have to do.

My list of coming attractions in the post I just finished included Romney. I explained in that post that my blogging time has been limited. But I do have time to quote the following trenchant analysis of Romney’s candidacy for president, courtesy of Daniel Larison last Friday at The American Conservative:

The purpose of Romney’s candidacy is simply to win the election, which is as dull and ordinary as one can imagine, and there is not really any pretense that Romney’s candidacy serves a “larger purpose.” People cannot put faith in Romney, because he is thoroughly untrustworthy and prone to saying whatever it is he thinks people want to hear. To the extent that a lot of non-Republicans are willing to give him a hearing, they assume that the policies he is proposing during the campaign cannot possibly be the policies he would pursue once in office. When he says, “I will move for this and this,” the common reaction is to assume that Romney will not so move.

Romney is the embodiment of everything Americans claim to dislike about national politics. He is both a fierce partisan and lacking in firm convictions. If Romney does end up winning, that will be a good indication that a majority of voters isn’t interested in the meaning or purpose of his candidacy. It will mean that enough voters are dissatisfied enough with the incumbent that they are willing to tolerate just about anyone as a replacement.

Categories: Politics

Been Busy

June 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Georgian Room

Not much posting lately. And not for lack of topics. Indeed, I have a growing list. I’ve just been busy with other things. Joel came home Friday. Saturday Gail and I had our anniversary. Yesterday was another day spent with family, until late afternoon, when I headed to campus for a few hours for the start of a summer program I run. Plus, there were European Championship quarterfinal soccer games to watch both days. And a novel to finish. There went my prime weekend blogging time. Today I worked. Tonight Joel’s around. Tomorrow’s his birthday. Etc. Etc. Blogging has had to wait.

Possible coming attractions:

1. Anniversary dinner Saturday at the Georgian Room, our traditional anniversary site, it being the restaurant at the hotel where we were married.

2. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I read at last.

3. Ikat exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. I wrote about this three months ago, after we attended the opening. We returned Thursday morning for a curator-led tour.

4. The situation this month at the University of Virginia, where the president resigned under pressure from an insane faction of board members who presume to understand the needs of higher education better than she does. It may be just as well that I haven’t written about this yet, since the situation keeps changing. Tomorrow is the big day, when the entire board votes on whether or not to re-instate her. Key phrase: strategic dynamism. Favorite (or most depressing line) from early coverage: “Besides broad philosophical differences, they [insane, power-crazed faction of board members] had at least one specific quibble: They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.” Obscure?

5. Romney. Sigh.

6. Alito. Sigh again.

7. Return visit to East Prussia, in light R.J.W.Evans’ review in the current issue of The New York Review of Books of Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia, which I finished in early January and wrote about several times (here, for instance).

More in the coming days.

Categories: Life

Deport the Innocent

June 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Last Friday, the Obama administration announced, as reported in the NYT, that

hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children will be allowed to remain in the country without fear of deportation and able to work … .

Administration officials said the president used existing legal authority to make the broad policy change, which could temporarily benefit more than 800,000 young people. He did not consult with Congress, where Republicans have generally opposed measures to benefit illegal immigrants.

The policy, while not granting any permanent legal status, clears the way for young illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows, work legally and obtain driver’s licenses and many other documents they have lacked.

Later in the day, Atrios devoted a post to what he labeled Asshole Test:

I think a reasonable test of whether someone is an asshole without any hope of improvement is if you sit them down and explain that:

1) People without the legal right to live and work in this country often bring their kids here with them.

2) Those kids are often quite young when they arrive. You know, babies.

3) Such kids also are undocumented.

4) In many cases they grow up not or barely speaking the language of their home countries, depending on their age and particular circumstances.

5) Given whole lack of documentation thing, most of these kids have never been to the country that their parents came from and don’t know any of the family, if any, that are still there.

6) Upon becoming adults, their work and educational opportunities are complicated and limited.

If the person’s response is, “they’re illegal, deport them,” then you know you’ve found an asshole.

Today, in a front-page NYT article, Damien Cave provided a concrete example of the damage done.

Jeffrey Isidoro sat near the door of his fifth-grade classroom here in central Mexico, staring outside through designer glasses that, like his Nike sneakers and Nike backpack, signaled a life lived almost entirely in the United States. His parents are at home in Mexico. Jeffrey is lost.

When his teacher asked in Spanish how dolphins communicate, a boy next to him reached over to underline the right answer. When it was Jeffrey’s turn to read, his classmates laughed and shouted “en inglés, en inglés” — causing Jeffrey to blush.

“Houston is home,” Jeffrey said during recess, in English. “The houses and stuff here, it’s all a little strange. I feel, like, uncomfortable.”

Never before has Mexico seen so many American Jeffreys, Jennifers and Aidens in its classrooms. The wave of deportations in the past few years, along with tougher state laws and persistent unemployment, have all created a mass exodus of Mexican parents who are leaving with their American sons and daughters.

[snip]

Critics of immigration have mostly welcomed the mass departure, but demographers and educators worry that far too many American children are being sent to schools in Mexico that are not equipped to integrate them. And because research shows that most of these children plan to return to the United States, some argue that what is Mexico’s challenge today will be an American problem tomorrow, with a new class of emerging immigrants: young adults with limited skills, troubled childhoods and the full rights of American citizenship.

“These kinds of changes are really traumatic for kids,” said Marta Tienda, a sociologist at Princeton who was born in Texas to Mexican migrant laborers. “It’s going to stick with them.”

Jeffrey’s situation is increasingly common. His father, Tomás Isidoro, 39, a carpenter, was one of the 46,486 immigrants deported in the first half of 2011 who said they had American children, according to a report by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Congress. That is eight times the half-year average for such removals from 1998 to 2007.

Mr. Isidoro, wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat in his parents’ kitchen, said he was still angry that his 25 years of work in the United States meant nothing; that being caught with a broken taillight on his vehicle and without immigration papers meant more than having two American sons — Jeffrey, 10, and his brother, Tommy Jefferson, 2, who was named after the family’s favorite president.

As for President Obama, Mr. Isidoro uttered an expletive. “There are all these drug addicts, drug dealers, people who do nothing in the United States, and you’re going to kick people like me out,” he said. “Why?”

[snip]

Jeffrey, like many other children whose parents have moved them to a country they do not know, seems to be teetering between catching up to his classmates and falling further behind. His parents are struggling to find work and keep their marriage together. Jeffrey, in quieter moments, said he was just trying to endure until he could go home.

“I dream, like, I’m sleeping in the United States,” he said. “But when I wake up, I’m in Mexico.”

Obama’s policy change has come a little late. But I’ll put most of the blame for our benighted immigration policies on the Republican Party leadership, who care far more for children before they are born than after.

Categories: Law, Politics

War-Mongering Romney

June 18, 2012 Leave a comment

[Sorry. I couldn’t find an image of Romney tearing up the Constitution.]

CBS’s Bob Schieffer had a chat with Mitt Romney, broadcast on Face the Nation yesterday. The snippet on Iran got a lot of attention today. Here is that portion’s text, emphasis mine:

SCHIEFFER: Let me turn to foreign policy. Bill Kristol, writing in the Weekly Standard this week, says we are reaching the time of consequence in our dealing with Iran on nuclear weapons. He says it is time for the President to go to the Congress and say, “I want you to authorize me to be able to use military force” if that becomes necessary. And he says if the President is not willing to do that, then the Congress should do it themselves. What’s your take on that?

ROMNEY: Well, I can understand the reason for his recommendation and his concern. I think he’s recognized that this president has communicated that in some respects, well, he might even be more worried about Israel taking direct military action than he is about Iran becoming nuclear. That’s the opinion of some who watch this. And so he wants the President to take action that shows that a military Iran, that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.

And I believe it’s important for us to communicate that. I can assure you if I’m president, the Iranians will have no question but that I will be willing to take military action if necessary to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world. I don’t believe at this stage, therefore, if I’m president that we need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force. The President has that capacity now. I understand that some in the Senate for instance have written letters to the President indicating you should know that a containment strategy is unacceptable.

We cannot survive a course of action would include a nuclear Iran we must be willing to take any and all actions. All those actions must be on the table.

Scary stuff.

Of course, Romney has no beliefs. He says what he thinks will aid in his election, adding that Obama’s position is the opposite even when they agree. But really — the president is free to act militarily anywhere and any time he wants? (Not that Obama acts otherwise.) And we won’t survive if Iran gets nuclear weapons? As conservative writer Daniel Larison observed this morning,

[Romney] is telling the public plainly that he believes the United States cannot survive a containment policy directed against Iran. It is fair to conclude from this that Romney is delusional (or is pretending to be delusional) and cannot be entrusted with the responsibilities of the Presidency.

The United States survived decades of containing Soviet power. America outlasted what may have been the greatest security threat in our history partly because of a policy of containment. Iran is far weaker than any threat the USSR ever posed. If the U.S. could not survive a nuclear-armed Iran, a President Romney would be powerless to change that. On the other hand, back in the real world, if the U.S. has little to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran and is more than capable of deterring any threat from Iran, there is no reason to listen to anything Romney has to say on this subject.

Romney obviously does not believe war is a last resort, and he clearly doesn’t believe that the Congress has anything to say about attacking Iran. According to Romney, it is something that the President could do tomorrow if he believed it necessary. The Constitution is completely irrelevant to Romney, and so is the consent of the American people expressed through its representatives. No one should have any illusions about how Romney would conduct foreign policy if he is elected.

See also today’s post by Greg Sargent.

Categories: Politics, War

The Art of Fielding

June 18, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote six days ago about finishing Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. Next on my reading list were several massively long books, none of which I seemed willing to embark on. It’s not that I don’t want to read them. I just don’t want to devote weeks to them.

There’s Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, which I keep mentioning as next up. Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which got such astonishingly good reviews last year. Do I really want to read 700 or 800 pages on LBJ, or the Civil War? Though the appeal of these books will lie in their great story telling and portrayal of character, even if they cover seemingly familiar ground. And then there are the Hilary Mantel novels I keep deferring, Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, now a bestseller. Three years ago I just had to read the first one. Now it has sat in my bedroom unread for two and a half.

I’ll get to them.

Don’t forget Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, as I almost did. (What would a book be these days without a colonic sub-title? This one is no different. Its sub-title? “A Novel”. Geez, what’s wrong with publishers?) It got rave reviews on its arrival last fall. For instance, by Michiko Katutani in the daily NYT and then by Gregory Cowles a few days later in the Sunday NYT. I made a mental note to myself to read it.

In late November, the NYT named it one of the ten best books of 2011. I re-read the reviews. I downloaded the free opening section, started it, decided to read the book, added it to my list. Two months later, I was still putting it off. Something about 500+ page novels. After another month, I dropped it from my list, having decided that it was probably over-rated. It can’t be that good. And did you see the comments at Amazon? Some people flat-out hated it.

Well, last week, with so many other 500+, 600+, 700+, 800+ page books awaiting me, 510 pages didn’t look so bad. I downloaded The Art of Fielding and began. Progress was slow for three days. A hundred pages in, I caught on that there were five main characters to track. (The fifth one didn’t show up for a while.) Two hundred pages in, things weren’t looking so good for any of them and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to read 500 pages of people failing. Failure may be our ultimate shared fate, but that doesn’t mean I have to read about it. The book starts with such promise for one of the characters. I didn’t anticipate getting much pleasure from his failing, if that’s what was to be. Halfway through, the relationships between the various characters acquired sufficient complexity that simple success or failure on the ball field became less pressing. I could enjoy the characters individually and in pairs and let go of rooting for them.

As for failure, I got to see plenty of that during this past weekend’s US Open golf championship, a subject better left for another post. I’ll just say that my plan on Saturday was to watch the third round, with the final round and Father’s Day activities to fill my day Sunday. However, as Saturday’s golf became its own tale of failure, I found myself shutting the TV in favor of the book, whose last 260 pages I completed over the course of the day.

The book has its weaknesses, perhaps by design. The non-principal characters are barely developed. One of the five principals is thinly developed. At least one relationship I found unconvincing. But no matter. It’s an enchanting story.

Categories: Books

Abolish Tenure

June 14, 2012 Leave a comment

[Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine, 8/16/09]

What? Abolish tenure? Am I — long-tenured professor and one-time university administrator — really saying that?

Well, no. Not regarding academic tenure. I’m thinking of a completely different category of tenure: the tenure the New York Times bestows on its columnists.

Growing up, I knew something was wrong. I would read one Arthur Krock column after another and never figure out why he kept filling space. Then there was Flora Lewis. And now? Yes, once again, it’s time to complain about David Brooks. (See here and here and here and here and here.) What’s with that guy anyway? He’s so totally full of you-know-what.

Two days ago, in his now-famous The Follower Problem, Brooks offered his latest take on what’s wrong with the rest of us. Only by reading it in its entirety can you properly appreciate how dickish Brooks is. Here’s a sample (emphasis mine).

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.

To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.

Good god!

I am so so grateful for our leaders. Where do I begin? Let’s see. There was LBJ. He sent thousands to Vietnam to die in order to look strong. And Nixon. He said he would bring them home, but sent more, and bombed the crap out of Hanoi for no good reason on the eve of a peace agreement. Should I go on? Well, let’s jump ahead a few decades. Bush led us into war on lies so he could one-up his father. Obama kills selected lucky duckies — US citizens aren’t exempt — in countries we’re not at war with because, well, I suppose because he’s extraordinary and we trust his discretion. Oh, and what about all those leaders of financial institutions who destroyed the economy? Extraordinary as well.

I must have an attitude problem. Good thing Brooks is on the case.

Without naming names, Brooks’ neighbor down the NYT hallway, Paul Krugman, slipped in a comment today. Writing a blog post about a Bloomberg article with the title “Hungary Lauds Hitler Ally Horthy As Orban Fails To Stop Hatred,” Krugman concludes: “But remember, the big problem is that the public isn’t showing enough deference to the elite.”

Does the NYT have a tenure review process? If not they certainly should. If so, time to set it in motion. And when they’re done with Brooks, they can turn to Tom “suck-on-this” Friedman.

I’ll give Radley Balko the last word:

Those of us who question authority do so not because we’re vain or think we’re better than everyone else. On the contrary. We question authority because we recognize that human beings, ourselves included, are flawed. And we’ll always be flawed. Which means that we will build flawed institutions and produce flawed leaders. We question authority because we recognize that not only is authority (another word for power) inherently corrupting, but also because we recognize the perverse values, priorities, and notions of merit upon which authority is generally granted.

People like David Brooks think people rise to positions of power and status because they’re better, wiser, or otherwise more meritorious than the rest of us—they’re “Great Men” touched by the hand of God. (But only if we get out of their way!) He thinks people achieve political power because they exemplify the best in us. We “bad followers” recognize that they usually embody the worst. We don’t buy the idea that people who have the power to tell other people what to do are inherently worth obeying simply because they’ve managed to get themselves into a position where they get to tell other people what to do. In fact, we think there’s good reason to believe the institutions that confer telling-people-what-to-do authority grant that authority to all the wrong people, and for all the wrong reasons.

Individualism is of course worth embracing and championing for its own sake. But celebrating and promoting individualism is as much about recognizing, fearing, and guarding against the corruption of power as it is about preserving the right to do your own thing. When a flawed individual (and that would be all of us) makes mistakes, he affects only himself and the people who associate with him. When a flawed political leader (and that would be all of them) makes mistakes, we’re all affected, whether we chose to associate with that leader or not. And the more we conform, follow, and entrust our political leaders with power, the more susceptible and vulnerable we are to their flaws and mistakes.

Categories: Journalism, Stupidity