Friday, September 30, 2005

bennett, delong, bush, and kleiman

It's weird watching Bennett reveal himself, DeLong defend him for doing so, and Kleiman proclaim that DeLong's defense of Bennett is somehow more admirable than Bush's denunciation of his words.

Let's start from the top.

Bennett did not advocate genocide. Anyone who believes he did is simply wrong. That fact does not make what Bennett said defensible. His crime was not that (as DeLong put it) reductio ad absurdum arguments don't work on talk radio, but that the implicit assumption underlying his argument (that African-Americans are inherently criminal) is abhorrent. That wasn't an accident. That's a belief. Those beliefs are more than deserving of condemnation.

DeLong's defense of Bennett opens by calling him a fungus ("Your honor, my client is worthless scum"), but that still doesn't quite explain why he would say that Bennett's primary mistake was a poor choice of rhetorical technique. Maybe he'd just returned from a journey to the rhetorical forest he mentioned in another post. If he found the racial characterization abhorrent, why did he focus on the genocide as the point on which Bennett needed defense? Wby did he bother defending Bennett at all? Perhaps he focused so hard on the question of whether Bennett had actually argued for genocide that he failed to notice the problem the genocide might solve.

Kleiman then steps in to admire DeLong's careful parsing of a transcript of a radio conversation. Even assuming that such a careful parsing is deserved (I believe, btw, that charity would be more appropriate than precision in evaluating such a transcript), he also misses the point, again suggesting that the genocide that Bennett didn't propose was the reason Bennett has been criticized. Kleiman, regrettably, takes matters one step further, citing statistics to support Bennett's claim on the inherent criminality of blacks. In DeLong's case, it's possible that he reacted to the wrong part of Bennett's statement. Kleiman can't make that claim.

Garance does good job of describing what makes all of this so skin-crawling. If past history is a predictor, a post describing how this free-thinking is what differentiates academics from the rest of us will soon follow.

comedy in an age of censorship

Perhaps it has always been so, but it seems to me that more stories go untold today than even ten years ago, not the obscure but important stories that don't get the play they deserve, but the stories that everyone knows but decides not to talk about: the questions about whether Bush is drinking again, the deliberate underplaying of bad news from Iraq, etc. It often feels like the press sees its collective narrative of the country as the country itself, and worries that if that narrative were threatened, the country itself would disintegrate, that the Fourth Estate sees itself not as a check on government or the powerful, not as a servant of the public, but as the essence of the polity, the Establishment in a more profound and broad sense than any a 60s radical railed against.

Somerby has, of course, documented the political narratives for years. More recently, he's focused more on how the prevailing narrative shapes efforts at educational reform. I don't know journalists well enough to judge his views of journalistic motives, but it's hard to deny the narratives themselves.

It doesn't work, of course. Reality never matches the narrative completely, so the public is never completely fooled. The public may not know which parts of the story to disbelieve, but they know that they're being told a story, they know parts of the story are lies, that even if the facts are verifiable, the narrative that ties them together is not. The public is, of course, complicit in the charade. We may know enough not to trust the narrative, but that doesn't prevent us from craving it, any more that it prevents addicts from craving the poison that may eventually kill them. We choose to watch and read and listen to the voices that reassure us, even though we know they lie.

And that's where comics come in. Stewart, Letterman, and Co. live in the gap between the standard narratives and unfolding events. The NBC Nightly News can't run a story about rumors of Bush drinking. Letterman can tell jokes about it. The Nightly News can't say that Iraq is spinning out of control. The Daily Show can run the tagline Mess O'Potamia for years.

Humor takes the edge off. The question of where truth ends and joke begins allows people to say and hear things that wouldn't otherwise be acceptable. Mark Kleiman and I discussed this in e-mail in the context of Letterman's Bush joke, leading him to comment on the eerie similarity between the role of today's comics and the role of comics in the old Soviet Bloc. Eerie, yes, but hardly surprising when you compare the role played by our media today with the role played by communist media in the days of the Cold War.

not in defense of Bill Bennett

Brad Delong defends Bill Bennett with faint praise:
Bennett is attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument...Never attempt a reductio ad absurdum argument on talk radio. You can't keep exact control over your phrasing in real time, and so somebody is bound to think you are endorsing the horrible absurdity that you are rejecting.
The problem with what Bennett said isn't that he suggested aborting all African-American babies, or that he didn't state strongly enough that doing so would be reprehensible, but that he made the implicit claim that African-Americans are inherently criminal. The problem isn't that he thinks that genocide is an acceptable solution, but that he thinks it's a solution at all.

lagging indicators

I think Kevin got this a bit wrong:
Violence is "above norms" but that doesn't mean things are getting worse. In fact, violence is a "lagging indicator of success"! The more bombs, the better we're doing!
Saying that violence levels were a lagging indicator only means that levels of violence might persist for a while, even with a successful counterinsurgency effort. That's not ridiculous on its face, though the current Pentagon position seems to be that levels of violence may lag success by years or even decades, and in the absence of any leading or current indicators, there's no reason to believe that a successful counterinsurgency effort is in fact under way.

judith miller

I'm probably the only one who finds it strange that Miller's lawyer has been arguing with Scooter Libby's lawyer whether his release of confidentiality was coerced and therefore doesn't allow her to reveal her source. If it weren't Libby, how could that argument be relevant? I suppose it's one of those legal fictions, where Fitzgerald can't legally conclude that Libby was the source based on the dispute over confidentiality. Or perhaps the topic of interest isn't that Libby was a source, but exactly what he said, that he's willing to release Miller from confidentiality so she can reveal that information, but isn't willing to reveal it himself. Or perhaps he has revealed the conversation and the prosecutor is looking for corroboration, in which case Miller went to jail to protect...who knows?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

qualifications of justices

As many have noted, the hearings were an empty piece of theatre, a ritual without import, without even the redeeming insights of good entertainment. The goal, after all, was never to enlighten or inform, but to prevent enlightenment and to obscure. As Somerby asked, why would Roberts have to recuse himself for expressing views on legal matters when his future co-justices have done so in legal opinions for years?

To me, however, that is not the crowning idiocy of the process and its groundrules. That I reserve for the view often expressed by the White House that the Senate should only consider whether the nominee is a good lawyer. For example, after Senator Reid announced his decision to oppose the nomination, the White House responded:
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, responding to Reid's comments, said, "Judge Roberts is clearly qualified in terms of intellect, ethics and temperament. Â… The public does not want to see the Supreme Court become an extension of partisan politics."
In other words he's smart, he knows how to argue the law, that's all that should matter.

What little I know of law and lawyers, however, tells me otherwise. Lawyers are trained to argue any side of any case. The better the lawyer, the more ably they do so. Legal competence may be a requirement for a seat on the Court (though I believe there have been Justices with limited legal background), but the more skilled the nominee in the law, the more important it is to know who or what he represents. A nominee with only nominal legal skills may find it much more difficult to write a coherent opinion that radically shifts the legal status quo than a brilliant lawyer will not. The greater the legal skills, the more important it is to know the nominee.

Judge Roberts didn't merely refuse to share his views with the Senate Committee, he refused to share his views with the American people. He didn't merely say that the Senators had no right to know him, he said that no one had a right to know him, even as he sought confirmation for a lifetime position at the top of American law. Conservatives have been known to rail against the Court as anti-democratic and elitist. It is hard to imagine a more elitist stance than that taken by Roberts and other Bush nominees.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

anonymous sources

While I don't see the point in protecting sources that have used the cloak of anonymity to lie in the past, it may be too much to expect the press to change its practice in this regard. For one thing, if protection becomes something the press can withdraw, it could become more difficult for the press to protect sources in cases where protection is needed and deserved. At that point, the press would no longer be saying, "We protect our sources," but, "We think this source deserves protection."

Fortunately, "outing" dishonest sources is not required to encourage honesty among background sources. If a "senior administration official" gives inaccurate background information, that fact could be reported with as much prominence as the original story. If such an official repeatedly gives inaccurate information, they could be described as an "sometimes unreliable senior administration official." If an administration or group has a track record of lying or twisting the truth, anonymous comments can be accompanied by disclaimers reflecting that history: "A senior administration official said that the moon is made of green cheese, but such statements from the administration have proven unreliable in the past."

Today, of course, our news outlets do little or none of this. Not only don't they expose dishonest sources, they don't expose their dishonesty, leaving the strong impression that they're more concerned with currying favor with those in power than in informing the public. As long as that perception persists, it will be difficult to generate public support for reporters such as Judith Miller.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

the deft use of incentives

From the Red Cross:
Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?

Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.

The state Homeland Security Department had requested--and continues to request--that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.

For those who haven't been following at home, I'll translate:
The top priority was to get people out of New Orleans, so the decision was made to prevent aid from entering the city. That would only have encouraged people to stay.

Perhaps the failure to provide aid wasn't merely incompetence. Perhaps it was policy. Perhaps people were dying in sewage and those in charge were more interested in providing incentives than food or water. It would be absurd if it weren't eerily reminiscent of arguments against welfare: "We shouldn't provide food, shelter, and medical care for the poor. Doing so will only encourage them to breed."

Friday, September 02, 2005

the no blame game

I visited the Volokh Conspiracy, as I sometimes do, and came across the following from Prof. Kerr:
I have absolutely no interest in assigning blame. My sense is that the crisis is sufficiently great that we need to be forward thinking right now. Assigning blame looks back; it's something you do when the emergency is over, and you have time to reconstruct what happened and see how you could do better next time.
It seems to me that those in power (and those siding with those in power) use this argument to avoid taking responsibility for their actions when things go wrong. I don't blame the President and the Republican Congress to score political points. I blame them because they have never been serious about governing the country. I blame them because they turned Homeland Security funding into just one more pork barrel. I blame them because they staffed FEMA with cronies. I blame them because they spent money where their friends were instead of where it was needed. I blame them because they were more concerned with finding a country to beat up to show that America was still Number One than with making our country safe.

But this isn't news. These things were true before 9/11, and they've been true ever since. I see little reason to give these guys a pass now, simply because their incompetence and lack of compassion has been on open, painful display. To say that I shouldn't blame them now is to say that now that their corrupt view of government has killed who knows how many people, I should be less angry with them than I already was.

I'll leave that forbearance for their fans, for their teammates who can't afford to believe that their leaders don't deserve the description, much less the job.

sometimes people die

It's small and petty of me, I know, but I can't help wondering whether the New Orleans levees would have gotten more attention had the New Orleans Member of the House been Republican, or had New Orleans voted 4:1 for Bush rather than Gore (assuming the Kerry and Gore votes were similar). There's been a lot written over the past few years about pork barrel politics and the way our governing majority has viewed federal funds as spoils to be distributed rather than tools to build a better country. These decisions have consequences. Sometimes people die.