Monday, January 31, 2005

a bit slow on the uptake

This has been coming for months, and I only realized today that the date for the Iraqi election was driven by the need for an applause line in tomorrow's SOTU. It was pushed back as far as possible in hopes that the security situation would improve, but there was a hard deadline. The election had to go forward, and it had to be this weekend. I'm glad only 40 paid with their lives.

I wondered this morning why the story of Sunni non-participation was so hard to find, then I wandered around some of my usual haunts and discovered that they weren't talking about it either. Kleiman has nothing to say. Josh Marshall is uncharacteristically silent. Atrios has nothing to say. Kevin Drum takes note of it, but only to (unintentionally) understate the amount of Sunni marginalization likely to result when the 7% of representatives they'll get in the assembly aren't the ones they'd have choosen had they voted. The silence is eerie, if not stunning. I guess they all have more important things to talk about.

below the fold

I spent a busy day yesterday not watching the news. This morning, the Chronicle's headline read, "Big Turnout Buoys Hopes." President Bush says the vote shows his policies are paying off. Etc. "Wonder what's happening today," I think to myself and access "Historic," "Large turnout." Etc. Wonder what the rest of the world thinks. In an otherwise triumphant Australian article, I find this:
Polls were largely deserted all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji.

In Baghdad's mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open at all, residents said.

A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

Wasn't the lack of Sunni arab cooperation the problem leading into the election? Is the fact that the Kurds and Shia went to the polls the least bit surprising? Does it tell us anything new about what's likely to happen next?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

thank you, senator feinstein

Thank you for opposing the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales. I never thought I would live to see the day when the United States claimed the right to torture under national and international law. I never thought I would have to go abroad with images of Abu Ghraib following my passport around the world. I never thought my fellow citizens would legitimize torture be reelecting those who fostered and condoned it. It is scant comfort but still relief that my Senator voted against a man who played (and no doubt continues to play) a pivotal role in one of the darker chapters in nation's history.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

but don't call it discrimination

I know it's not an original observation, but when cultural guardians like Mary Gallagher extol the virtues of marriage, citing evidence like

Adults, too, benefit from healthy and stable marriages. They tend to live longer, healthier lives and are more affluent. Married mothers suffer from considerably lower rates of depression than their single counterparts. Like a good education, a good marriage is a real asset. Married men earn between 10 and 40 percent more than similar single men, and married couples accumulate substantially more wealth. By the time they’re ready to retire, married couples have, on average, assets worth two and a half times as much as their single counterparts. (The figure for married couples is $410,000, compared with $167,000 for those who never married and $154,000 for divorced individuals...)

doesn't it undercut the argument that depriving gays of the right to marry isn't discriminatory? Wouldn't it do so in a just legal or political system? Isn't the undeniable message, "We don't like you, and we're quite happy to hurt you to get our way."

Again, I know there's nothing new or original here. It's just that if you asked those questions of Ms. Gallagher, she'd deny the obvious implications, go home and sleep quite comfortably, and rise the next morning refreshed, ready to fight the perverts without a second thought.

Friday, January 14, 2005

you follow the leader you have

While perusing Paul Krugman's bad novel, I was taken back to the days right after 9/11, when I watched the country fall into place behind the President and his approval ratings soar. He hadn't done anything. The attack took place on his watch. He reacted to it in the crudest possible manner, elevating those who attacked us to avatars of evil, not merely criminals but worthy adversaries in a war between good and evil. His actions made no sense to me then, they make no more sense to me now.

But he was (and is) the President. If he's not up to the task, where are we? Is it really surprising that people would find it harder to distrust a leader in a crisis than to trust one? Is it really surprising that after the price we've paid to follow this path, people would be loathe to change course, to admit that this path is the wrong one, that we have paid this price in vain?

Iokiyar. The alternative might be too much to bear.

torture and partisanship

Andrew Sullivanwonders whether Kerry thought
the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents
and fears he may have been right. If his review is any gauge, those fears are justified. Two paragraphs before, he characterizes those who "made the most fuss" this way:
dedicated opponents of the war in the first place...eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas.

If Sullivan can't avoid characterizations like this in an article critical of the administration and its torture record, can there be any doubt how Kerry criticism on this subject would have been judged?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Sarbanes-Oxley and business practices

Mark Kleiman asks why the WSJ would complain about Sarbanes-Oxley, which he characterizes as making "it just a little harder for corporate managers to steal from their stockholders." Sarbanes-Oxley is much more than that. It (and similar measures) have created entire new categories of computer products to meet record-keeping requirements. Companies are starting to store several years of e-mail in write-only devices, with near instantaneous recall. Many functions that used to be distributed are being centralized to increase control and ensure that business practices are uniform and compliant. People are making the kinds of defensive decisions blamed for increasing medical costs. Compliance costs small companies more (it's expensive just to maintain the expertise necessary to comply).

Are these changes rational reactions to SOA? I don't know. The number of actual prosecutions is small, and I don't know whether the actions being taken in the name of compliance are either necessary or sufficient. The overhead may indeed be justified, given the costs of a business system without integrity. The reactions are real, however. It's a bit glib to say that it's only effect is to make it a little harder for a few greedy rich managers to steal.

Monday, January 10, 2005

it's easy to say no when you're never asked

Jeffrey invites and how can I refuse?
I swear that I have never taken money -- neither directly nor indirectly -- from any political campaign or government agency -- whether federal, state, or local -- in exchange for any service performed in my job as a journalist (or commentator, or blogger, or whatever you think I should be called).
I feel pretty safe taking this oath, and in saying that the likelihood of temptation is remote. This would be a much harder oath for most to take:
I swear that I have never chosen my public positions or based my judgments of the world around on expectations of future gain or position.
I don't think I've done that, but the mind is a powerful engine for rationalization.

Friday, January 07, 2005

dishonest government

Dishonest government can't be good, but apparently once you know how things work, it becomes a little hard to see why, beyond kindergarten-level morality. It never seemed that hard to me. An informed populace is the foundation of democracy, and officials who lie to the public show a corrosive contempt for democracy itself. Being more of an insider, Matt digs deeper and finds a more serious problem: that officials who've lost credibility will have a harder time acting in the future, when action might be critically necessary.

This is an odd argument in any number of ways.

The Bush administration had demonstrated its belief that policy was more important than truth long before Iraq, indeed long before Bush took office. When the administration laid out its case for Iraq, many people (including myself) concluded it was deceptive. Generally speaking, such judgments were written off precisely because they were informed by judgments of Bush and his people, because they were based partly on a well-founded distrust of the administration, a distrust the administration had already earned. Is there any reason to believe the next time will be any different? One can argue whether 51% is a mandate, but one cannot deny that support for Bush is greater now than it was four years ago or that his institutional base is stronger now than it was two years ago.

In any case, if dishonesty were to curb the ability of dishonest leaders to act, wouldn't that be a good thing? Isn't dishonest
leadership itself so grave that it could only be trumped by the most profound external crisis, and wouldn't such a crisis generate its own political base? The public reaction after 9/11 certainly suggests that it would. The frightening thing today isn't that the prevarications of the Bush administration have weakened its support, but that they have not. If Bush is limited today, it's due to an overextended military, not a weakened political base.

It's not hard to understand why dishonest leadership is bad for the nation. It is hard to understand why insiders struggle to explain it. It is hard to understand why those who watch officials lie every day remain easy to deceive, why they struggle to find realpolitik reasons to explain why such dishonesty is, in fact, bad, and why they characterize the obvious answer--that dishonesty leadership corrupts our society--as kindergarten-level morality.

I know I'm being harsh on Matt. He has chronicled many of the known deceptions. He knows they're important. It bothers me, however, that he sees a possible weakening of Bush as the most compelling basis for criticizing his past actions.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

feudal religions

Religion and I parted ways before I was ten. The reasons aren't that
important. I think there were too many contradictions, too many
inconsistencies, but whatever the reason, once I stopped believing,
nothing about the creeds I know inspired new belief.

My wife is Catholic, and I accompany her to mass when asked. Every
so often, something strikes me in ways it hasn't before. Christmas
Eve it was "Dominum." I've heard "Lord" my entire life, but it was
just a word, just how people talked in prayers. When I heard
Dominum, I had visions of lords, serfs, and vassals, and realized
that's what everyone heard for hundreds of years and maybe what everyone
who wasn't born in a democracy hears today.

God as King, as King of Kings, is a profoundly different vision
than God as Love. When I hear, "What would Jesus Do?" I think of
turning the other cheek. A king is first and foremost a leader of
war, embodying authority, demanding obedience. A king is responsible
only for his subjects and punishes disloyalty with death. From
someone with such a conception of Christianity, "What would Jesus
do?" would sound different. At least to me.

And when I look at today's evangelical movement, at the people
following the Rose Parade saturday morning with bullhorns, at Brother
Jed in the Quad warning of the "Lake of Fie-uh!!" at President Bush
with his Crusade, I can't help thinking that they worship a king,
not a man of peace.

The odd thing (to me) is that I see Protestantism, particularly
as seen in the sects that migrated here, as a reaction against
such attitudes, away from a feudal notion of religion and toward
more personal relationships and the American Revolution as a
continuation of the same process. When today's evangelicals strive to
put God back in government, they may be installing the God our
forefathers moved here to escape.

Monday, January 03, 2005


I often find myself at a loss for words at times like this. The gap between what I want to say and what I can say is simply too large, and everything I try comes out trite and empty. I try to find perspective, but I can't.

The most destructive part of a hurricane is the storm surge, but it's effects are concentrated in the eye. The tsunami was vast. If a typical storm surge is 30 miles wide, this was like the storm surge of 30-60 cat 4-5 hurricanes hitting at once, without warning.

Three years ago, 3000 people died and it changed everything. As I write this, 155,000 are known dead. Some are taking the time to write about the benefits the tragedy will have for the local economy. I hope this will change something, that the world will build something better from this.

This is harder, though. There's no enemy to attack. There's no clear defense (warning systems are nice, but hurricane evacuations take hours and all the isolated communities would still be isolated). I haven't heard anyone stand up and say, "Today, we are all Indonesians. We are Sumatrans." Is that because the horror wasn't on live TV, because it happened someplace we care less about, or because it lacked the evil of human agency?

Could we build a Coast Guard Disaster Relief service with global reach, to respond to disasters of global scale? Could we support one, even though it might only be needed once a century? We spend trillions on defense, even though we've only been attacked twice in the last hundred years and those attacks were of much smaller scale. Could we invest in tsunami/flood/storm shelters in limited-access coastal areas? Would such shelters be an extravagance in poor communities where people struggle to feed themselves from day-to-day?