Saturday, April 25, 2009

100 Days

So, we've reached the mythical, point that always seems to be some kind of benchmark for Presidential Administrations. "100 Days!".

Except, Barack Obama doesn't operate like that. He doesn't operate on the nightly news schedule. He gives speeches, to be sure, and does appearances - most recently at a green factory in Iowa - but he isn't focused on whether or not he gets a good story on the three networks, or a good spin during the on-going 24-hour news stations. Recognizing the artificiality of the pressure-cooker created by 24-hour news channels, Obama has opted, for whatever his reasons may be, to govern as an adult. He understands the depth of the challenges he faces, not the least of them being an establishment that is geared to doubt the effectiveness of any attempt he may make at correcting the situation.

For that reason, his one big piece of legislation - the Economic Stimulus package - passed pretty much as he proposed it, after some back and forth, especially in the Senate. This remarkable victory - which is yet to be seen for what it is - shows both his intelligence and political abilities. His refusal to make more of the pirate situation, and the swiftness and almost absolute silence that accompanied it, also shows his confidence, and his refusal to allow events, or the conventional wisdom of the chattering classes, to dictate how he should respond.

We are at the beginning of a very long ride with Pres. Obama; he understands this better than we do. He operates with that understanding. The Washington-based new media, in particular, is still locked in to certain mindsets, relying on some very tired - and occasionally unreliable - sources for analysis and commentary. One of the biggest assumptions, I believe, is the necessity to play to the 24-hour news channels. Precisely because of their ubiquity, however, they create a sense of importance and crisis in even the most mundane situation.

The most important thing I have taken from the first 100 days of the Obama Administration is that we are dealing with a President, and senior staff, who refuse to allow the agenda to be set by others. That would include how to respond to the most serious economic situation in a quarter century.

On the other hand, many liberals are upset that Obama has not simply moved with lightning speed, for example, to take legal action against those who authorized the use of torture during the Bush Administration. I think that he will no more be pushed to act by his natural constituency than by his opponents. Part of the reason for this, I think, is a sense of propriety; one of the things Obama is asserting is the inherent limitations of the Office of the President, and simultaneously the independence of the Department of Justice. He has also refused to insist that Congress do anything - in regard to the torture memos or anything else - precisely because it is an equal branch of government to the Executive.

In other words, we are looking at a patient, fairly deliberate man using that patience and deliberation for the long-term benefit of the country.

With just 100 days under his belt, Barack Obama has already signaled to the country that he is in this for the long haul. I think the best is yet to come.

Saturday Rock Show

From John Barleycorn Must Die, this is "Empty Pages".

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rights, Freedom, And Words

It all started so innocently. A friendly little discussion on the Second Amendment. Crabwalking toward Armageddon, however, left me figuring that I had better make my position clear, or at least clearer than a few scattered comments on a blog post could render. I realize my position sounds funny, especially for a self-confessed liberal (I was accused of sounding like Robert Bork! That hurt . . .), but in my own defense I believe that while there might be some superficial resemblances, we come out in very different places.

First of all, just by way of general understanding, I think that much of the talk about "rights" fails because it is embedded in a far larger point of view, world view, what have you, that I don't accept. Human beings, as far as we know, have never lived in some fantasy land called "the state of nature". Human beings do not, as far as I am concerned, have some metaphysical properties that inhere in them precisely because they are human beings. It would be nice if this were true, but it isn't.

That being said, yes, I agree with Judge Bork, and would go even further and insist the entire Constitution of the United States is nothing more and nothing less than "ink blots on paper". All writing is just that and nothing more. This is bad how? Even this blog post is nothing more than a series of black dots on a white screen. Whatever "meaning" it may or may not have comes not from those dots, but from the readers who assign those dots a meaningful value, related to other such marks they have encountered before. In other words, it's all just words, and all words are nothing more than sounds we make or marks on some surface. Meaning comes from those who have assigned such to these marks (and for the monolingual amongst us, excludes other marks as meaningful for him or herself in the same way).

Having said that, I would reiterate the point I made in comments: There is a difference between rights and freedoms. The rights we as American citizens possess, if they are truly "natural" and, indeed, inalienable (according to Thomas Jefferson), should not only be recognized universally; there should be no reason to enumerate these rights because they would be an assumed part of our identity as human beings. Yet, I challenge any American to go, say, to Uzbekistan, and stand on a street corner and call the President of that country a dictator. I know I wouldn't do it, because I have no desire to end up in an Uzbek prison.

Traditional contract theory would say that the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution of the United States recognize the limits of state action in the face of our claims against the state, claims that inhere in us prior to our membership in a given society. Thus, the opening clause of the First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law . . ." Why can't it make such a law? Traditional contract theory would state that such a law would be a violation of natural law.

Now, it is a curious phenomenon that less than a decade after passing the first ten amendments to the Constitution, Congress indeed curtailed all sorts of rights in the Constitution, including freedom of speech, when it passed the Alien and Sedition Act. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in territory occupied by the Union Army, first Maryland, and later in occupied states that had surrendered. The Supreme Court endorsed this action ex post facto. Another Alien and Sedition Act was passed after the First World War, during the first Red Scare. The Smith Act of the early 1950's made membership in the Communist Party (CPUSA) illegal.

Don't even get me started on the PATRIOT Act. . .

That's just a sampling of ways our "rights" have been legally curtailed. Everything from search and seizure, trial by jury, speedy trials, to the general statements of the 9th and 10th Amendments have been abridged, ignored, set aside, violated, what have you, in the course of our history. For this reason - i.e., because the reality is far different from the theory about "rights" - I stated that the Constitution, at least as it pertains to individual liberty and justice before the law, is far more aspirational than descriptive. I don't think this is a bad thing; it would be nice to have a society as described in the Constitution. We don't, and tear ourselves in knots over what, exactly is, for example, an "unreasonable" search and seizure, what constitutes "probable cause" for a police officer to believe a crime is being committed, or what "the people's right to bear arms" means in light of the qualifying clause concerning "a well regulated militia" (the amendment that started this brouhaha).

At one point, Feodor asked if he had the "right" to walk down the street. No. He certainly has the freedom to do so. In traditional contract-theory language, neither he nor anyone else has a prior claim against the state inhering in him by nature to walk down the street. He has the freedom to do so, to be sure, provided he obeys all relevant laws and regulations pertaining to such activity. He has no right - no claim against the state's ability to so regulate - to do so. That is the difference, in traditional "rights" language, between a right and a freedom.

In a more mundane, contemporary understanding, I would say he has no "right" to walk down the street because such a right isn't in the Constitution.

Now, this is not to say that unenumerated rights haven't been found, or discovered, or claimed. For example, one of the more notorious discoveries was Supreme Court Justice William Douglas' discovery of a "right to privacy", existing in "penumbras and emanations" from various specific, enumerated rights.

TStockman mentions the following amendment:
Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Had Justice Douglas used the 9th in his argument, he might just have been on a little firmer footing. Yet, he did not. Rather, he divined the right of privacy, in essence, from shadows cast by some rights, and ejaculations from others. Since, to my knowledge, no new right has ever been delineated as flowing from the 9th - and since the lack of specificity leaves this Amendment, to my mind, utterly meaningless - I'm not sure arguing that we have various "rights" because one Amendment in the Constitution says such is possible is a good argument.

The question of what constitutes our freedoms, our rights, and even our understanding of the law has been in full force over the past week or so, with the release of previously classified legal memoranda from the Bush Administration Office of Legal Council (OLC) concerning what has euphemistically been termed "enhanced interrogation techniques". Now, to someone who might imagine that what is described crosses certain legal boundaries, these are onion-skin-thin rationalizations for torture. The entire process of setting down on paper these legal opinions was done to give legal cover to those who would actually perform them. Now, to most people with a lick of sense, the reasoning was so bad it would have been laughed out of any court of law. Yet, before Barack Obama could end the practices outlined (contrary to myth, the '06 curtailment did not end, only reduced the number, of "enhanced interrogations"; the OLC recommendations were still in force on January 20, 2009), his own OLC had to rescind those opinions, which they have done.

Rights, freedom - we are constantly in need of making sure that these words mean something for us. That is the struggle. We must always be moving toward the state outlined in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. We should never, pretend, however, that our rights are anything more than the words of the Constitution, interpreted by Courts, or enacted under laws passed by Congress in light of those rights and freedoms.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Gravest Threat

One would think that an image such as the one below would warm even the coldest heart. Yet, such is the insanity of the right that, rather than see such closeness and devotion as something to celebrate, they see nothing more than the most dire threat to our entire political, economic, and social structure.

Which only goes to show how ridiculous, stupid, and hate-filled they really are.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Foreign Policy

Ever since I was a freshman in college, I have been an interested observer of foreign policy. In the old college bookstore - it moved at some point - I found a remaindered copy of Einstein on Peace, an edition of Albert Einstein's writings on matters pertaining to war, peace, international and supranational organization, and nuclear armaments running from the beginning of the First World War up until his death. While I didn't agree with much of what he wrote, and I agree that his attempt to defend some kind of supranational structure, especially in light of Stalinist Soviet adventurism was beyond naive, I found it refreshing to consider alternatives to the realpolitique that governs so much of our considerations of foreign affairs.

The intervening quarter century, however, has given me a greater appreciation for political realism in dealing with other countries. I do not mean the kind of realism epitomized by Henry Kissinger (and outlined in his too-long book Diplomacy in which, among other things, he reveals a serious man-crush on Josef Stalin). I mean realism as practiced by most countries most of the time. Our foreign policy has been driven, in my lifetime, first by Cold War lunacy and its near-kin of nuclear gamesmanship, then by a kind of empty-headed triumphalism (New World Order! Ronald Reagan Won The Cold War!), then by another kind of weird synthesis of the two (Nuke The Muslims!), with occasional forays in to Cold Warism (Boycott Cuba! Hugo Chavez Will Kill Our Men And Steal Our Women!) just to keep things interesting.

Bill Clinton's attempt to create a foreign policy driven by considerations of trade failed in the face of Republican intransigence and the notion that he was selling our sovereignty to China.

With the right out of power, we are slowly attempting to right the ship of State Department toward a more classically realistic approach to foreign affairs. This was epitomized this past weekend during the Summit of the Americas, when President Obama shook hands with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, which made heads explode all over the place. During the summit, Cuba's leader, Raul Castro, offered open negotiations with the United States even as the President said that travel restrictions to Cuba will soon be lifted (I look forward to a sojourn on one of Cuba's beaches in the near future). These are good first steps. Even as the President seems to be doubling down in Afghanistan - a few years too late, I believe - and keeping a wary eye on Pakistan and North Korea (without, in the latter case, getting too worked-up over a failed missile launch a couple weeks ago), he is moving at a pretty rapid pace towards making American foreign policy far more sane, and the United States a serious, credible international actor, rather than, as Noam Chomsky pointed out, the largest rogue state in the world.

One of the biggest obstacles toward a truly realistic foreign policy is the persistence of the idea of American exceptionalism. The last dregs of this farcical idea are still with us, and we need to toss them down the drain in order to deal with the world. We are no more some special case in world history than was the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, or any other imperial power. An accident of history, combined with an abundance of natural resources - that's us in a nutshell.

In light of my preference for a return to sober, mature realism in our dealings with other nation-states, I find it amusing to consider what Matthew Yglesias calls the "alternate reality" and "fever swamps" of the American right. I especially love the idea, in the first linked piece, that Argentina is in some manner, fashion, or form, an American antagonist. The move in Latin America toward various places on the social democracy continuum should be a welcome development, as is the attempt by Brazil, Argentina, and Chile to become far larger actors on the world stage even as their societies mature and move away from the pendulum swings of economic and political collapse and authoritarianism.

The marginalization of the kinds of nonsense we continue to hear and read from the American right is a good thing. Obama's adult approach toward the realities in the world is also a good thing. After a quarter century of really bad foreign policy, it will be nice to see how this unfolds.

Monday, April 20, 2009

More Humor For Your Monday

Courtesy of our President.
Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States’. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. I don’t think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.

All of which is to say, in extremely polite, diplomatic talk:

Some Humor For Your Monday

Classic Monty Python. Why? Because I want a laugh.

"The Dead Parrot" - a classic that never gets old.

Why not another classic? "The Lumberjack Song", preceded by a little sketch in a barbershop. . .

A love song. . . Not Safe For Work:

From Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a scene that makes me laugh so hard I usually end up running to the bathroom. French taunting, indeed . . .

Presidents And Dictators

In the days just before he and his shoe collecting wife were booted out of the Philippines for good, Ferdinand Marcos got a huge boost of rhetorical support from then-President Ronald Reagan. When Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was fleeing for his life from his own private fiefdom of Haiti, he received it in part courtesy of the CIA. After murdering hundred, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government received the American Secretary of State, James Baker, who showed proper respect to the butchers of Beijing. The list of murderous thugs in Latin America given kid-glove treatment by American Presidents is long and stretches back at least a century - shoot, the CIA managed to start an uprising in Chile against a popularly elected leftist President - and the body count is enormous. South Vietnam, Indonesia, the Congo, apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, Angola, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Iran under the Shah - the list of countries whose dictators have been photographed with American Presidents, whose regimes have been given money by the American government, is long and bloody.

Let's not even start with Stalin dealing with two American Presidents during the Second World War, Kruschev with Kennedy, Breznev with Nixon and Ford and Carter, or Gorbachev with Reagan. The Soviet Union was the sine qua non of dictatorships, and Stalin second in line behind Mao Tse-tung in butchering his own people (and, of course, the Chairman received Nixon in 1972), and was given the sobriquet, "Good Old Joe", by Pres. Roosevelt (not one of his brighter moments, let us confess).

Now, the right is enraged because Pres. Obama shook hands with, and received a gift from . . . Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

As police Chief O'Rourke used to say on the old Batman TV series, "Saints preserve us!"

First off, giving air time to Newt Gingrich is always a good thing for Democrats, so I'm all for allowing him to get his mug out there and yap about anything he wants. The President's approval rating probably gains five points just from Gingrich talking smack about him.

Second, so what? Who is Hugo Chavez? The twice-elected President of a sovereign nation with whom the United States has had (until recently) normal relations, including business ties. Then, along came the Bush Administration that supported a coup attempt that failed miserably (which certainly didn't hurt Chavez re-election bid). Whether or not I'm a fan of Chavez is immaterial. Like equally loud, and irrelevant, Bolivian President Evo Morales, he happens to be the President of the country, and we have to deal with him. Period.

Standing behind all this is, I think, a fascinating phenomenon outlined in the linked piece in TPM. Josh point out that American power, properly understood, shouldn't be something we wave around like a big old sword or gun pushed in other people's faces. Rather, true power rests in not having to show how powerful one is. The former is the act of a bully, someone afraid of his or her lack of power. The latter is the way a leader accepts power, and uses it wisely. For all those out there frothing at the mouth at the temerity of the President of the United States shaking hands with the President of another sovereign country - and please, remember, that is all he did (well, he took Chavez' gift) - please remember: this is a President supremely confident, a practitioner of Theodore Roosevelt's dictum of walking softly, precisely because he knows that the US has a stick larger than the next 20 nations' combined militaries.

It would be nice if we had better people with which to deal in other countries. Unfortunately, we do not. I think that Chavez revels in the status given him by right-wing Americans, using it to bolster his position at home, and giving him leverage with, for example, the Russians, who are desperate for a return to a Caribbean port for its navy. Most of Latin America is, currently, swinging toward social democracy in its politics. Former military dictatorships from Brazil and Argentina right up through Nicaragua and El Salvador are moving away from Banana Republic status, reforming their politics, and staking a claim to enter the century as modern states (Brazil, Chile, and Argentina in particular are determined to show they are major world players in a variety of ways). American leverage over Latin America has been declining for 20 years, and will erode even further in the coming decades, and this is a good thing for everyone involved. The sooner we grow out of our imperialist ways with our southern neighbors, the better it will be for all involved.

Part of that pattern is treating the duly-elected President of a sovereign country as a . . . President of a sovereign country. You shake his hand, you smile, you thank him for his gift. Then, you move on. If the right needs devils and enemies everywhere around the globe, they certainly know how to create them. Obama, a far more intelligent and self-possessed individual than the combined foreign policy team of the Bush Administration, has no need of devils. All he needs is for the rest of the world to know that he isn't George W. Bush. I think he's done quite well.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Torture Memos (UPDATE)

As anyone paying attention knows by now, the Obama Administration released four memos relating to the legal justification for what it called "enhanced interrogation techniques", otherwise known as torture. Coming on the heels of the release of those memos was the President's announcement that those who acted under the aegis of these memos will not be prosecuted. There has been more than a little furor raised over the announcement, even as Obama has been praised (and vilified, by an anonymous Bush Administration official) for starting to open doors and windows, at least a little, on the dark world that was the Bush Administration.

I have been cautious in addressing this issue because I think I see a pattern of Administration behavior that might not be clear. I could be wrong, but I believe that what many, including myself, see as foot-dragging on overturning Bush-era policies is actually a deliberate attempt on the part of Pres. Obama to be the anti-Bush. While I know it might be difficult to remember pre-9/11 Bush Administration practices, one of the complaints against them was that, in essence, they went out of their way to undo Clinton-era policies. They reflexively overrode pretty much anything that Clinton did.

While there is much merit to the idea that part of what Obama needs to do is simply reverse course, I believe that Obama is being very deliberate in his cautious approach to policy review. Thus, for now, we have the spectacle of the Obama Justice Department hewing the Bush-era line on matters of secrecy in the courts. As far as the release of these memos is concerned, and the ensuing outcry over the President's announcement that those who acted under these memos will not be prosecuted, I believe this might just be a signal of this deliberateness in action.

At the same time, the President certainly didn't rule out investigating those who actually ordered and those who wrote these memos. Part of the issue, of course, is that, from a legal point of view, we don't have a crime yet. While this may be difficult for many on the left to grasp, we do not, as yet, even have a case that anything illegal was done. Nothing has been brought before the courts. No individual has been indicted under war crimes laws, or crimes against humanity. Before we get to the point where such prosecutions take place, we first have to determine, from a legal point of view, whether laws were broken.

From a common-sense perspective, of course, this might seem cut and dry. Yet, our legal system being what it is, it isn't, and we need to remember that part of this long process is restoring the rule of law. Part of restoring the rule of law is not rushing to judgment. It might be well and good for a constitutional lawyer like Glenn Greenwald to make arguments that amount to summary judgments on the guilt or innocence of individuals, it should be noted that he does so not as a lawyer, but as a political commentator. I might even agree with his opinions. That doesn't mean, however, that we can then, willy-nilly, go out and grab folks and put them behind bars because they set in place policies and practices with which we disagree. There is a difference between the common sense understanding that, indeed, the Bush Administration violated any number of American and international laws. This is not the same thing as a legal case.

If I had to guess, I would say that the Obama Justice Department is being as deliberate as possible in order to make sure that no one believes that any potential legal action is politically motivated. While I know that many on the right will believe this no matter what happens, most Americans, even conservatives, are fair-minded enough to accept that, if done with deliberateness and thoroughness, an indictment of senior Bush Administration officials for crimes related to reports of torture would be far more acceptable than a quick rush with a whole lot of press coverage.

It certainly doesn't satisfy many liberals and leftists - including me at times - but it does have merit. We should also remember that Obama has not yet completed the first 100 days of his first term; consider how profoundly different our political discourse is, our politics is, in less than 100 days, and perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE: I may have spoken too soon. Apparently, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel announced on This Week that there will be no prosecutions even of senior Bush officials who created the policy that led to torture.

We'll see, won't we?

Virtual Tin Cup

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