Memo to academics: if you ever want to go into politics, publish nothing. Don’t write a single word which can be sourced back to you, and certainly nothing as provocative as Cass Sunstein has had a habit of being. Libertarians have discovered this article he wrote back in ’08 on the topic of conspiracy theories. They are none too happy.
On page 14 of Sunstein’s January 2008 white paper entitled “Conspiracy Theories,” the man who is now Obama’s head of information technology in the White House proposed that each of the following measures “will have a place under imaginable conditions” according to the strategy detailed in the essay.
1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.
2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.
That’s right, Obama’s information czar wants to tax or ban outright, as in make illegal, political opinions that the government doesn’t approve of. To where would this be extended? A tax or a shut down order on newspapers that print stories critical of our illustrious leaders?
I feel this is a little unfair to Sunstein, or at least locates the problems with his paper in the wrong place. From my reading of it, Sunstein actually dismisses the notion of either banning conspiracy theories or taxing those individuals/groups which hold them (since both, of course, are unworkable and abhorrent propositions).
His preferred method for dealing with these nutters is what he calls “cognitive infiltration”, which he describes as “weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.” If I’ve read him correctly, this basically means trolling internet message boards, and is a much tamer proposal than those he’s (erroneously, in my book) being criticised for.
But whose message boards to troll? The problem with Sunstein’s piece is that it’s ridiculously broad: there are conspiracy theories about the Kennedys; the CIA being responsible for heroin use in black neighbourhoods; the rulers of the world being secret lizards and Barack Obama being the antichrist/muslim/fascist/socialist.
Does a state really target all of these groups? Since Sunstein is so inspecific, it’s understandable that civil libertarians are up in arms about it. For me, I wouldn’t have ethical objections to this being practiced, providing it was targeted solely at undermining or disrupting radical and violent Islamist groups – or any domestic group which incites violence. In fact, I suspect that such a method is being practiced at Langely as we speak.
The question here is trust, and how a state can retain the trust of its citizens. Sunstein argues that even by being transparent and fulfilling Freedom of Information requests which debunk certain theories, you still won’t convince its ardent believers. This much is obvious; in addition to satisfying the conspirators’ fringe politics and/or their feeling of powerlessness, conspiracy theories are also sustained by the social interaction between people who believe them.
But whilst transparency can’t kill a good fairy tale, it can limit its scope and power. It seems to me that the only truly ethical & effective way of regulating conspiacy theories is by releasing as much factual information as possible and then allowing the consumers to do what they like with it. This won’t kill the conspiracy theory, of course, but it will undermine the argument that the state has ‘something to hide’, which can be a powerful recruiting tool. As I wrote in a slightly different context:
There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.
I think this is why many conspiracy theories have a libertarian component to them, and demonstrates why government action to regulate them would’ve been self-defeating. If you want to use the state to reduce the amount of make-believe on the fringes of the public sphere, you’re only going to reinforce those who believe the state has the power to do a bunch of other shady, manipulative things. By all means, let’s monitor & disrupt those who threaten the safety of others, but by doing anything other than that, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
To borrow from one of the Senator’s most memorable speeches, Edward Kennedy need not be idealised or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. There will not – and should not – be a single obituary which avoids mention of the murky & tragic death in Martha’s Vineyard, and every attempt to pay tribute to his life & work must recognise how starkly this act of private cowardice contrasts with the determination & bravery which marked his public life.
Kennedy was as flawed & tragic a figure as one could find in professional politics. His two brothers were murdered, his first marriage collapsed as his wife battled alcoholism, he survived a plane crash which left him with chronic back pain, and his twelve-year-old son only survived cancer by having his leg amputated. He was known to be a womaniser & heavy drinker, and reports of his sordid & boorish escapades were commonplace among Washington’s gossipy elite.
But if the occasion of his passing does not mean we can excuse or ignore a troubled life, nor can those black marks distract from recognising him as one of the most important and effective Senators in American history. Ted Kennedy was involved in passing (and in many cases authoring) practically every progressive accomplishment in the past fifty years: the Civil & Voting Rights Acts which ended discrimination against African Americans; the Medicare & Medicaid programmes which have provided healthcare to millions of poor Americans, and the S-CHIP scheme which extended care for children. He secured increases in the minimum wage, Family & Medical Leave, and reform which opened America up to immigration from all over the world.
He was perhaps America’s first mainstream advocate for gay rights, consistently supported a woman’s reproductive freedom, was a critic of the wars in Vietnam & Iraq, and of Apartheid in South Africa. He worked to implement the ‘Great Society’ of Lyndon Johnson, and then stood to defend it during the days of Nixon, Reagan & Bush. Very simply, his work helped to improve the material conditions of millions of Americans in a way that very few politicians, past or present, can compare to.
It will be widely mentioned, of course, that his death came before a victory on health care reform, an issue Kennedy described as the ’cause of my life’. But the Senator has still done more than most to make this a success; the committee he chaired has already passed a bill which would expand health coverage, and the delay is being caused by the gutless dithering of Senators in a different committee. If President Obama does finally get a healthcare bill through Congress, that too will have been partly due to his hard work.
It’s never wise to regard modern politicians as heroes. They can be prone to hypocrisy, susceptible to self-interest, and when they get things wrong they hurt not just themselves or their cause, but a vast number of people with whom they have never met. In his private life, Edward Kennedy made many bad decisions and was privileged enough not to suffer their consequences, but that still won’t detract from a record of public service which few will ever match.
Meet Jim DeMint. Jim is a United States Senator from South Carolina, one of the most conservative members of Congress and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Silly Analogies.
Worried that Barack Obama might merrily lead his country to dictatorship, DeMint has claimed the administration is eerily redolent of Orwell’s 1984; has suggested that America now resembles Germany just before WWII; and has speculated that the Hopey One may – in the words of ABBA – finally be facing his Waterloo. He’s also protested Obama’s habit of exporting his tyranny abroad, supporting “despots like Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Castro” and the ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
The removal of Zelaya from office by Honduras’ miltary (which I’ve discussed here & here ) was condemned by the Obama administration but gleefully embraced by conservatives like DeMint, who insists that the ‘transition of power’ in that tiny, impoverished country was no more of a coup than Gerald Ford’s ascension to the Presidency or Al Franken’s recent election as Senator for Minnesota.
‘Interesting’ comparisons, I guess, except that Gerald Ford lawfully assumed the Presidency after his predecessor turned out to be a crook, whilst Manuel Zelaya was bundled out of the country at gunpoint whilst dressed in his pajamas. As for Al Franken, well, he at least won a slim majority of the votes in Minnesota; the Honduran junta has yet win the votes of even its closest family members.
But whilst it’s always fun to point & laugh at preposterous little hacks, the reason I highlight DeMint’s mad ramblings is to demonstrate that despite the Obama administration taking the correct position in denouncing the coup, the country still bears some responsibility for its origins and its continued existence.
Earlier this month, supporters of ‘President’ Roberto Micheletti hired two lobbyists to massage the American political class into viewing it, perversely, as a victory for democracy. Both Lanny Davis and Bennett Ratcliffe had previously held important roles in the Clinton administration, and Davis was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic Party’s Primaries. In Congress, an informal ‘coup caucus’ has emerged, with the apparent aim of unifying the message they use to sell the junta’s actions. As others have noted , the American media’s response has also left a lot to be desired, with anti-Zelaya bias noticable in a great deal of the reporting & commentary – this editorial by the Wall St. Journal even had the temerity to call the coup ‘democratic’. The aim of this lobbying is simple; with Honduras so reliant on the international community for aid and the huge export market of the United States, America could exert real pressure on the illegal regime. As such, the best way for this motley crew to maintain power is for domestic pressure to be placed on the Obama administration in the hope of restraining it from fully exerting its own power.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of the American military/intelligence communities and their decades-old influence in the region. I think it’s generally accepted that CIA interference in Latin America is not what it was, and has reduced considerably since the days of Kissinger. However, it’s still the case that several key figures in the coup, including the leader, General Romeo Vasquez, were trained at the US-funded School of the Americas . On top of this, the country continues to receive training & millions of dollars in military aid, ostensibly for the purpose of combating drug trafficking. So the United States may not have permitted or endorsed this coup, but it did, albeit inadvertently, fund and train those who carried it out.
For the Obama administration, Honduras represents a number ironies. On the campaign, Senator Obama promised a different approach to Latin America; one which was more collaborative than coercive and which saw the decades of overt & covert interference from successive administrations come to an end. Now as President, he can see two large obstacles towards achieving this. First, such is the U.S.’ long history in the region, his office doesn’t actually have to do anything for the United States to be somehow implicated in events. Second, after years of wishing for the more collaborative relationship he promised, I think there’s now a trend in Latin America towards wanting to America to resume its position of regional leadership. Even the frequently combative & combustible Hugo Chavez recently sent Obama a simple, but rather surprising, message on the crisis: “do something.” For a man who has fancied himself as something of a regional powerhouse, that’s quite some deference.
With talks between Zelaya & Micheletti’s representatives still in a seemingly intractable stalemate and the deposed President once more seeking to return to his country, I doubt this conflict’s going to be over any time soon. But the events in Honduras demonstrate that presidents don’t always have the luxury of choosing their own foreign policy or even making a completely clean break from the past. Sometimes you just have to make the best of what other people have handed to you, whether that’s grouchy, paranoid Republican Senators, or small, poor & volatile South American states.
Image: A supporter of Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya holds up a placard with a picture of Honduras’ interim President Roberto Micheletti during a road blockade on a highway on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa July 23, 2009. Zelaya’s supporters called for a two-day national strike on Thursday and Friday to demand his return, and say they will also set up roadblocks across the country. Around 1,000 people blocked a road on the northern outskirts of Tegucigalpa on Thursday, burning tyres and causing a tailback of trucks. (Source)
A few days ago, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the NAACP , Barack Obama stood before a room packed with African American supporters and reflected on how far the civil rights movement – and the country as a whole – had come in such a short century:
From the beginning, these founders understood how change would come — just as King and all the civil rights giants did later. They understood that unjust laws needed to be overturned; that legislation needed to be passed; and that Presidents needed to be pressured into action. They knew that the stain of slavery and the sin of segregation had to be lifted in the courtroom, and in the legislature, and in the hearts and the minds of Americans. They also knew that here, in America, change would have to come from the people.
For anyone who has followed the President’s public rhetoric over the past few years, all of this will sound very familiar. His theory of change, as enunciated in town halls and stadiums, campaign stumps and churches, is one of communities banding together, organising and, with one voice, demanding change from their elected officials. It’s a theory which envisages people as the drivers of change, and reduces government to the role of facilitator, merely acceding to the clamour of its citizens. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a vision of change which is compelling and often true – but, as recent events have shown, not without its flaws.
A little later in the speech, the President reminded his audience that the NAACP’s mission to overcome prejudice was far from over. Whilst America had taken the momentous step of electing a black President, the pain of discrimination was still felt by African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and by “our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.” Very true, but as he spoke those words, Obama must’ve known that he is now complicit in the kind of discrimation he’d spent much of his life working against.
As the head of a federal government which bans gays from serving in the military and denies them the right to marry, it is now Barack Obama who is involved in denying LBGT people the same rights as their heterosexual friends and upholding – however reluctantly – the last form of state-sanctioned discrimination. Whilst the President promised to repeal both injustices during the campaign, gay rights activists have been frustrated by the lack of legislative action and concerned that the White House does not consider gay equality to be any sort of priority.
In fact, you could argue that his administration has done more to extend discrimination against homosexuals than he’s done to end it. When the Defense of Marriage Act was challenged in the courts, the Obama Justice Department filed a brief not only defending the legislation, but invoking incest and the marrying of children in doing so. On top of this, officers are still discharged from the military for the ‘crime’ of being gay: in May, an Arab translator was dismissed after his sexuality was revealed, depriving the country of an able linguist at a time when there aren’t enough people who can do that job. With these things in mind, even some of Obama’s strongest supporters have been questioning his commitment and wondering whether the LBGT community has been taken for a ride yet again.
In this context of growing dismay, journalist Rex Wockner interviewed Steve Hildebrand – Obama’s deputy campaign director, who has also advised the President on gay issues and recently met him to convey the concerns of activists. Hildebrand said that Obama was unhappy with the way the defense of DOMA was handled and restated his commitment to fulfilling all the promises he made on the campaign. He expressed confidence that the President would stay true to his word, but was being painstakingly methodical in trying to bring it about:
He has to move the minds of the public, he has to move the minds of Congress and he has to move the minds of military leaders. And once that happens, and the ducks are in a row, I believe he can successfully move forward for repeal, something that he feels very strongly about and something that he spoke very passionately about.
So what might these events reveal about the theory of change which Barack Obama espoused from the first day of his campaign for president? Well, on the one hand, the gay rights movement is an example of a group which has already banded together, already organised, already contributed a great deal to American political life, and yet still can’t get their few simple wishes granted – even under the most liberal president of modern times. Does that not reveal the limits – maybe even the futility – of Obama’s vision of grassroots political campaigning?
In some ways, perhaps, but I think that if you turn your gaze away from Washington, you’d find a much healthier picture. For one, take a look at the states already recognising same sex marriage or civil unions. In each state where this was achieved, there needed to be grassroots support, organisation, campaigning and commitment, and that’s only possible when ordinary people give up their time to help others. Even in places where activists have come up short, such as Prop 8 in California, the arguments for marriage equality have now been embedded within that state’s political rhetoric, and the passing of time only makes it likelier that they’ll win in the end.
On top of this, there should be some solace or inspiration to be found in the extraordinary dedication & bravery shown by people from a bygone era. Even a superficial reading of American political history will tell you that it wasn’t enough to simply rid racial discrimination from the statute books; it had to be ended in the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. Likewise, whilst the President can and should repeal legislation aimed at discriminating against gays, that alone won’t end discrimination in the minds of their fellow citizens. The only way you can do that is by waging a permanent campaign, by making the political seem personal and by slowly helping shape communities into the change you want to see.
None of which should let President Obama off the hook. When he told his supporters that their ‘moment is now‘, his words spoke not just of the need for change or the opportunity for change, but the necessity and urgency of change. For that reason, all those who shared the big dreams he sold on that memorable campaign should stay restless, impatient, loud and determined to help him achieve what he promised. The gay community, which has already waited far too long for that elusive change to arrive, must not be let down again.
Blame Reagan for making me into a monster
Blame Oliver north and Iran-Contra
I ran contraband that they sponsored
Before this rhyming stuff we was in concert
Jay-Z – ‘Blue Magic‘
First, I might as well endorse Ben Thompson’s positive review of the new, ‘implausibly impeccable’, Mos Def record. It’s been 10 years since Dante Smith’s exceptional debut, and in the intervening years he’s seemed more interested in his acting career than mouthing rhymes into a microphone. For that reason, The Ecstatic is an unexpected delight. Musically & lyrically, it’s the most enthusiastic, eloquent & interesting thing he’s produced since Black On Both Sides and should be regarded as one of the best hip hop records of recent years.
But as good as that album is, this post isn’t really about that. Instead, I want to discuss an incident which Thompson briefly refers to in his review; an awkward, awful exchange between Smith and Christopher Hitchens on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher:
Obviously, neither of the two men covers himself in glory here. Smith’s habit of repeatedly proclaiming – and then defending – his ignorance about Al Qaeda & the Taliban (to the point of mixing the two groups up) is cringe-makingly embarrassing, and Hitchens is at his sneering, condescending worst, delighting in dishing-out put-downs to someone he clearly considers an intellectual inferior. But Mos Def certainly isn’t the idiot Hitchens assumes him to be; whilst wasn’t lucky enough to go from private schooling to Oxford and then various journals of world renown, he is a dextrous rapper, a fine actor and a man who can speak eloquently on a number of subjects – just not the beliefs of Islamic militants. For a kid from public housing in Brooklyn, that ain’t half bad.
But what I found interesting in Smith’s contribution was the parallel he offered between these Islamic militants and the case Assata Shakur. Shakur was a political activist and Black Panther who was indicted of 10 crimes throughout the 1970’s, including robbery, kidnapping, attempted murder and murder. She was eventually convicted of murdering a state trooper at the New Jersey turnpike, but has always denied the charge. Her defenders insist to this day that she was a political prisoner of the United States and – years after escaping from prison – she successfully claimed political asylum in Cuba. Rightly or wrongly, she is still widely celebrated as a living martyr for black emancipation, and her life story is cited as ‘proof’ of the federal government’s mistreatment of African Americans and why the state shouldn’t be trusted.
What I think Smith was trying to get across – with difficulty given the rude belligerence of Hitchens – was that the people from his community who believe Assata Shakur was a political prisoner won’t automatically believe the federal government and media when they describe Islamic terrorists as a mortal enemy. With such a history of grievance about how the levers of power have been pulled against them, distrust of the state can be a reflex reaction, and that can occasionally lead you to some pretty unorthodox – and sometimes unsavoury – positions.
I think he’s wrong, of course: Osama Bin Laden is no Assata Shakur, Al Qaeda are no Black Panthers and the ideology, aims and practices of bomb-throwing Islamists are infinitely more deadly, malevolent and morally debased than anything the Black Panthers did to advance their own goals. But by inviting that comparison, Mos Def does (albeit inadvertently) demonstrate that the distance between a government and a deprived, disenfranchised community allows for the growth of conspiracy theories as a way of explaining the world around them.
The conspiracy theory is something Mos Def should know plenty about, for they abound in his realm of hip hop. Listen to a few rap albums and it won’t be long before you find an ‘interesting’ interpretation of history: the Jews’ role in black oppression, the CIA flooding the ‘hood’ with heroin, giving black people HIV, killing Tupac & Biggie, or George W. Bush being responsible for 9/11. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this wealth of crank theories happens to originate from people who’ve lived in some of the most isolated & impoverished communities in America.
There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.
Update: Lou Perez wrote about the same incident a while back and has some interesting thoughts.
There’s an episode of The West Wing where an Air Force One filled with figures from a fictitious past flies to the funeral of a former President. In the background is a Middle East which is once more a powder keg of political turmoil, and in the lulls between each earnest, highly-charged debate, Jed Bartlett’s staff glance at the Kissingeresque ex-statesmen around them and rue the role they played in shaping the ruinous, explosive politics of the region.
Meanwhile, Bartlett has a difficult decision to make: he can either opt for a radical, risky change in foreign policy which carries countless unknown consequences, or he can stick to convention and opt for a safe, formulaic retread of the Presidents who preceded him. He opts for the latter, and in a moment tinged with as much resignation as honesty, tells Toby Ziegler: “when we were elected, I really thought we were going to own the place — do it differently, better. Now I realize the men on this plane are the only others who have been there before — who really know.”
The present-day relevance of that scene shouldn’t be lost on Democrats who, throughout the powerlessness of the Bush era, saw in The West Wing a dream of how they could do things differently; how they might do things better. Like his fictional counterpart, Barack Obama embodied the highest hopes of his liberal supporters, distilled their idealism into bumper sticker slogans and sold a rhetoric of change which promised a clean break with the failures of the past. But barely 100 days in to his term in office, a growing number of his supporters are seeing a President so straightjacketed by the actions of his predecessor that he’s even continuing those policies he once renounced.
On its own, the decision to reverse a promise to release photographic evidence of detainee abuse could’ve been seen as just a mild mis-step on America’s road to accounting for the crimes of the Bush era. But when taken in the context of his administration’s mimicry of Bush’s line on secrecy, the revival of military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the promise of immunity for torturers and the flagrant bullying of the British state over Binyam Mohamed, we see not a few isolated incidents, but a concerted effort by the White House to control and restrict what the public is permitted to know about the torture committed in their name.
There are, of course, rational explanations for all of these decisions: the wish to avoid seeing the CIA descend into acrimony & recriminations; the desire to avoid inflaming anti-Americanism when the country is trying to rebuild its image; the need to protect the troops from having the same torture inflicted upon them that we know was inflicted on America’s detainees; the desire to insulate Obama’s Presidency from the warfare which would erupt if it was to investigate and prosecute figures from the Bush administration.
However reasonable these excuses may sound when they’re made by Democrats, and however much we might understand that pragmatism is often necessary, it remains true that each of these excuses could’ve been (and were) made during the eight inglorious years of Republican rule. Put another way; had it been a President McCain making these decisions, Democratic activists would already be demanding impeachment.
None of this is to detract from the good progress being made in his adminstration’s domestic policy, nor the promising – if patchy – beginnings of his general foreign policy. We also should refrain from seeing these incidents as proof that Obama will spend his term obstructing the pursuit of justice; given the scale of the furore and the fact that his administration has allowed some openness, it’s still quite possible that proper public investigations will be carried out during the next 3 1/2 years.
But what these obstructions do show is that opponents of torture – especially among those who supported him – can no longer afford to give his administration the benefit of the doubt. They must decry every attempt at secrecy, denounce every delay and immerse the White House in such a sustained wall of sound that full accountability becomes the only politically sensible course of action.
For a demonstration of why it’s so important to hound the administration, one only need glance at the snarling figure of Dick Cheney. The former Vice President – whose office is strongly implicated in allowing the abuses we know about – has granted a startling number of interviews since his supposed retirement, and all have been in staunch support of his administration’s actions. At the simplest, most superficial level, Cheney is trying to save himself from prosecution by mounting an early and public defense, but he is also up to something with far greater long-term consequences. By continuing to proclaim the advantages of ‘harsh interrogation’, Cheney is trying to frame torture not as a matter of Right & Wrong, but as a policy argument where the choice isn’t between what is ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, but what what works to secure America’s safety.
If President Obama’s term ends without a full public inquiry, without a single investigation of war crimes or prosecution for acts of torture, Cheney will have won the argument & given his successors a precedent to allow future abuses. For if he leaves office without successfully pursuing justice, Obama will have helped relegate torture to an ‘almost crime'; a breach of decorum which is too ugly to be admitted to, but not serious enough to prevent. And something which won’t ever be prosecuted again.
And if any of that ever came to pass, Cheney’s last act in public life would’ve been one final, lasting victory over the President who promised change and the public who voted for it. For the sake of America’s values, its future and its traditions, he cannot be allowed to win.
From the moment Barack Obama became President, there was much debate inside his party over how the new administration should investigate and prosecute any crimes committed by his predecessor. Of the two most widely-discussed proposals, liberal activists argued for a Special Prosecutor to take action against officials at all levels of the government, from CIA interrogators who conducted torture to anyone in the White House or Justice Department who may have sanctioned it. Others have embraced Sen. Patrick Leahy’s idea of establishing a bi-partisan ‘Truth Commission’ which would try to lay out the facts as impartially as possible, but with the primary aim of establishing truth rather than prosecuting crime.
Thus far, neither of these proposals have materialised, but following the release of another round of DoJ ‘torture memos’, the case for an independent inquiry becomes much stronger – as does the conflict between the pursuit of truth and the search for justice.
The four memos released by the Department of Justice are at once shocking and unsurprising. They shock not just because they provide further evidence of the depths the Bush administration sunk to, but because of their clinical, legalistic, matter-of-fact descriptions of depravity. That said, the steady drip-drip-drip of leaked stories and accusations from Guantanamo detainees have already prepared us for much of what is contained in these documents, and to that end, they only serve to confirm what many people suspected.
But what will keep this story running for months – maybe years – to come are the important questions these documents dare us to ask. As Spencer Ackerman writes:
What the memos leave unclear is how much the CIA jumped into the torture game and how much the Bush administration pushed it. The memos are written to be responsive to the CIA lawyer — the malefactor going to the priest to give his work absolution. They’re written to guide the interrogators. But they leave unclear — as does most of the narrative so far — who’s compelling Rizzo in the CIA counsel’s office to keep pushing for more. The senior leadership of the agency? The heads of its directorate of operations, which overseas the interrogators? The Counterterrorist Center leaders? Without this information, we don’t have a clear sense of moral culpability for the torture. And then we’ll need to know what kind of pressure they were under from the Bush administration. Who was pressured? Who was eager to comply? Who resisted? Who pressed his or her colleagues into acquiescence or insubordination? All of these questions are related but separate to the question of legal culpability.
Reacting to the release of the memos, President Obama argued that this is a “time for reflection, not retribution”, and warned against ‘spending our time and energy laying blame for the past’. A nice sentiment, perhaps, but he must surely know that by releasing these memos, the call for more information, for investigations and for the commencement of criminal prosecutions is becoming irresistible. According to Glenn Greenwald, there is clearly enough evidence already in the public domain to prosecute several individuals for war crimes, and that’s without anything like the kind of far-reaching investigation which is now being demanded.
But the Obama administration remains reluctant to talk about prosecutions, and for a number of reasons. First, I think the (admittedly rather weak) Nuremberg Defense reflects a desire to (a) avoid embroiling a department which should be fighting terrorism in accrimony & accusations, and (b) to avoid a repeat of the situation where someone like Lynndie England was made a scapegoat for abuses which went much higher up the chain of command. Second, the ultimate responsibility for sanctioning these acts of torture looks likely to rest on some very senior figures in the CIA, the Justice Department, and possibly the White House itself, and with that comes the risk of engulfing the Obama administration in the kind of highly-charged partisanship not seen since Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
By releasing these memos, I think the Obama administration is attempting to reveal the truth of America’s torture regime whilst (for now, at least) resisting the call for justice. I can’t see how this will succeed in the long run; these revelations have only prompted calls for more information, and as Guantanamo Bay begins to close down and more inmates tell their stories, the administration will be forced to reveal even more about what the prisoners were subjected to – and who was ultimately responsible. The steady trickle of horror stories about the Bush administration’s brutality hasn’t stopped yet, and those responsible may yet drown in it.
Quite an achievement:
“All British reporters bring to their reporting an impish desire to entertain as well as inform,” said Shipman, a graduate of Cambridge University who’s leaving Washington to cover Westminster politics for the Daily Mail. “Britain is very intensive newspaper market and you don’t get anywhere unless you tell your readers something extra. We take the view that politics ought to be fun.”
That isn’t the view of Democrats who have been burned by the Telegraph’s stories. “They use anonymous sources to a degree that makes you wonder if they actually have them,” said Bob Shrum, the retired political consultant who managed the presidential campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “I would have murdered someone from the Kerry campaign if they talked to the Daily Telegraph.”
Democrats have a long list of grievances with the Telegraph, the most recent examples all traceable to Shipman. In the past year he reported that close allies of Gore were pushing him into the Democratic race to end the Clinton-Obama standoff, that former President Bill Clinton warned that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama would have to “kiss his ass” to get an endorsement and that a source close to the new president worried that the insultingly cheap gift of DVDs he gave to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown meant that Obama was “overwhelmed” by his job. Democrats who worked with those campaigns told TWI that these stories were, respectively, “a total lie,” “just not true,” and “something nobody thinks is true.”
Dave Wiegel has more here.
For whatever it’s worth, I think it’s a good thing to see the Republican Party rediscover its low-spending, small-state past. For one thing, nobody will be able to claim in either 2010 or 2012 that there’s no difference between the major parties, and I’d like to think that a focus on fiscal responsibility will, for a time at least, extinguish the power of the fundamentalist fringe. Sure, in the aftermath of the stupendous financial mismanagement of the Bush years, all the rhetoric coming out of Camp Elephant sounds hilariously hypocritical, but I suspect they were doomed to around 12 months of ridicule no matter what they said.
But one slightly more surprising consequence of all this political & economic change has been the explosion of interest in the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, which is staunchly defended in a piece by Bella Gerens which has been doing the rounds . Being one of those damned collectivists, there’s obviously not an awful lot I can relate to, but it’s still an excellent piece of writing.
On the topic of Ayn Rand: I suspect I’ll see the inside of a casket before I try to start Atlas Shrugged, but when you consider that my list of Books To Read Before Death only grows longer by the year, that’s not too much of a slight. Beyond that, I’m not going to pass comment on something I haven’t read, except to note that this book, like Orwell’s 1984 , is just a work of fiction.
Nevertheless, political fiction has a rare ability to make ideology come to life. When done right, it can turn abstract theories into practical scenarios and force readers to confront their established ways of thinking. Rand did libertarianism a great favour by novelising its key concepts, and there are plenty of people who describe themselves as libertarian today because of that book’s influence.
But the problem with Kids These Days is they don’t have the attention span to read anything longer than a Twitter feed, so how does a libertarian persuade the ‘Yes We Can’ generation to change their slogan to ‘Tax Is Theft’? As foolish as it might be to give a helping hand to a political foe, I think I have the answer: get ’em listening to Gangsta Rap.
Yes, I am being serious. Whilst it’s suffering from a creative and commercial decline at the moment, hip hop remains one of the most listened-to musical forms on the planet, and reaches people far beyond the reach of most politicians, nevermind novelists. What’s more, the genre is full of themes which are suspiciously similar to libertarian ideals.
First, rap celebrates individualism. Rappers use the personal pronoun like hairdressers use a pair of scissors, and most songs speak of overcoming great adversity, celebrating triumph or just simply being ‘the shit’. Rap is about agency, not structure, and the message that anyone can make something of themselves if they work hard at it .
Rap is also idealised as the freest of free markets. In The Battle, rival MCs square off and verbally attack each other onstage, and the crowd roars its approval for whoever does the best job of destroying his/her rival. This old footage of Eminem shows how he overcame the white jokes by simply being far superior to those doing the taunting; towards the 3:40 mark, he splits his enemy in half by ad-libbing “everybody in this fucking place will miss you if you try to turn my facial tissue into a racial issue. Nobodys hearing you, you’re a whack liar; there, all your white jokes just backfired“. For anyone not au fait with rap, that’s quite exceptional lyricism, and shows that freestyle battling is one of the truest forms of meritocratic art. On stage, talent is all.
Gangsta rap is one of the few art forms where success is celebrated in song and entrepreneurship is sacrosanct. As Jay-Z reminds us, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” The Re-Up Gang speak of their recent past when they rap about a “million dollar corner from the school of the hard knocks, built an empire off of hard rock. The phrase “mind on my money & my money on my mind” is so often-used that it might as well be a cliche, and rappers regularly use sales figures to slap down their less successful rivals, like when Jay told Mobb Depp that “I sold what your whole album sold in my first week”. In gangsta rap, commercial success equals influence, validity, even virility.
There’s more: rappers can speak from first hand experience about the wretched war on drugs, as many made their millions from rapping about dealing them. And then there’s a fondness for the Second Amendment, and protecting their hard-earned property by ‘any means necessary ‘.
Individualistic, meritocratic, proud firearm owners, sworn enemies of the War on Drugs and possessing a mixture of social liberalism and personal responsibility – for a libertarian, what’s not to like?
Sure, the hip hop community, like the wider black community, is heavily affiliated with the Democratic Party, and some of the rappers mentioned in this post worked very hard to elect Barack Obama President. But if libertarians really wanted to try to expand their movement into some unlikely places, they could do a lot worse than appropriating some of the motifs and messages prevalent in thousands of million-selling rap songs.
There is one problem, however; what the hell rhymes with ‘libertarian’??
Always in persuit of truth, Tim Montgomerie asks:
Does the ideology of the Left make some of their supporters more hateful towards the Right than we are to them – or are we just as bad?
To illustrate his point, Tim cites the outpouring of boos which greeted President Bush at the inauguration, and contrasts his post-election civility with the behaviour of Team Clinton, who ‘removed’ the ‘W’s from many White House keyboards in a petty act of revenge.
Alas, the problem with claiming this spot of white collar vandalism and the booing of a man who’s presided over meltdown are representative of the Left’s rampant hate is that one of these things never actually happened:
Now it seems those closely detailed stories were largely bunk. Last week it was revealed that a formal review by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative agency, “had found no damage to the offices of the White House’s East or West Wings or EOB” and that Bush’s own representatives had reported “there is no record of damage that may have been deliberately caused by the employees of the Clinton administration.”
The Bush administration helped the vandal scandal along, publicly appearing to try to douse the flames, while privately fanning them with detailed, off-the-record allegations of damage. On Tuesday, after the GAO’s review was made public, Fleischer was left trying to spin himself out of a very deep hole, insisting he had tried to “knock down” the vandal story when it first emerged.
But a transcript of Fleischer’s Jan. 25 briefing on the issue contradicts him. It shows the Bush spokesman coyly encouraging reporters’ suspicions about the vandal scandal, while refusing to confirm or deny the reports of damage. According to one leading White House reporter, the story was also nudged along by two unnamed Bush aides.
Since he seems so concerned with rueing the left’s bad manners, perhaps he could explain how spreading long-debunked myths about your opponents counts as the height of etiquette…
Throughout our lives, we learn that whenever we think or talk or write about politics, it’s a mistake to succumb to optimism. We learn not to set our hopes too high; not to trust too easily; not to rush into the embrace of some silver-tongued chancer just because (s)he claims to share our values. We learn all about false dawns, the self-serving instincts of politicians and their tendency to tell us only the most convenient truths.
We learn these things through bitter experience. Our histories are filled with opportunities lost, hopes unfulfilled and promises broken. Each time a leader fails to meet the high standards they’d set, good people who’d shown enough faith to cast a vote become a little more tired, more cynical, and more inclined to withdraw or abstain from those causes they once held dear.
But whilst there are days which cause us to wonder what on earth led us into such delusions of hope, so too are there times when you could wonder whether we’re not hopeful enough.
After Barack Obama’s inaugural speech as President of the United States, there was a benediction by Joseph Lowery. An icon of the civil rights struggle, Reverend Lowery led the march from Selma to Montgomery demanding the right for black people to vote, and has remained a voice for equality ever since. Of all the moments – both symbolic and substantive – from this day, I’m not sure any can top the image of this 87-year-old man – who risked his life in the peaceful persuit of freedom – standing before a monument built by slaves and offering a prayer for America’s first black President.
We know, of course, that the progress towards social justice in the past 40 years has been too slow, partial and incomplete. We know that Obama’s potential to hasten the pace of change is as limited as his potential to disappoint is limitless. And we know that despite his best efforts, there will still be much left undone when he leaves office.
But whilst we can accept all of that as true, we should also remember that everything which has been achieved was done in spite of strong opposition along the way. What if George Wallace had succeeded in stamping down the insurrection in Selma? What if John F. Kennedy had lost that most narrow of elections? What if Lyndon Johnson had failed to find enough votes to pass the Civil Rights Act? Or the Voting Rights Act?
The past 24 hours have been the culmination of a history which is filled with small victories won in spite of great resistance – victories which were only achieved through the force and nagging persistence of activism. Had Kennedy lost to Nixon, had the Civil Rights Act failed or the murderous menace of the Klan managed to scare ordinary Americans out of supporting their black brothers and sisters, the United States would be waiting a lot longer to see this day arrive. Instead, through the hard work and high hopes of millions, Reverend Lowery and his comrades have finally completed their long march from Selma to Washington and witnessed that most self-evident of truths being finally, conclusively affirmed.
If only for a few fleeting days of celebration, perhaps that’s enough to give people hope that politics – for all its frustrations, failures and imperfections – can still be a worthwhile, noble pursuit.
Somehow, I’m always last one to comment on articles like this, but after seeing it generate a substantial amount of comment in the blogosphere, I’ve finally gotten around to reading A.C. Thompson’s detailed, forensic and chilling account of the violence that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
For anyone too pushed for time to read it all, the story is centred around New Orleans’ Algiers Point; a rich, white enclave within the predominantly black district of Algiers. Unlike most of the city, ‘The Point’ was lucky to avoid the worst of Katrina’s damage, but with the city’s infrastructure at the point of collapse and the local/national media sensationalising looting and civil disorder among the city’s black population, its residents resolved to protect their homes using any means necessary.
And so the residents hoarded guns and ammunition, built barricades and makeshift alarms to detect trespassers, patrolled their ‘territory’ in SUVs and aimed weapons at anyone suspected of threatening the ‘peace’ of their neighbourhood. What followed was a spate of shootings which resulted in a number of serious casualties and even murders. In every single incident Thompson uncovered, the shooters were white and the victims were black. To this day, none of the assailants has ever been charged with a crime, nor has the city’s police department sought to investigate any wrongdoing. As one of the militia observed “no jury would convict.”
The Nation describes this story as evidence of a ‘race war’, and that’s certainly not too far off the mark. Whilst the victims weren’t hunted down per se, nor shot solely for being black, the reason they encountered violence and intimidation was because in that isolated, racially segregated and utterly paranoid part of New Orleans, their skin colour made them seem like a threat. Equally disturbing is the ambivelence Thompson’s interviewees showed toward victims’ lives, the lack of reflection on whether – in hindsight – the residents did the right thing, and the ease with which they were all described as ‘niggers’.
We should remember, of course, that these were exceptional (and hopefully unrepeatable) circumstances: the city’s infrastructure had collapsed, law enforcement was at a minimum, essential resources were in short supply, lots of people had access to a firearm and city officials and the media were complicit in spreading stories about violent black boogeymen. With such chaos and fear, otherwise decent people can be driven to extremes of violence and cruelty they might otherwise have not been capable of, and there is no suggestion anywhere in Thompson’s piece that this ramshackle militia was formed solely with the intention of killing black people. Whatever we can or cannot learn from this story, I think we should restrain ourselves from seeing it as representative of race relations in America, in Louisiana or even in New Orleans.
Nonetheless, there are some questions this story raises which I think should be addressed more widely. As Rebecca Solnit asks, why has this story never been a part of the accepted history of Katrina? In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, we heard plenty about black men committing acts of violence, looting and rape; why is it that the story of a white armed militia, which has been an accepted as fact in New Orleans for years, has never been a part of the narrative? Furthermore, why has it required a liberal magazine to publish this story before the New Orleans Police Department decided to investigate exactly what happened in Algiers Point?
Beyond that, the story raises uncomfortable questions about our social psychology: how we behave when the state loses its ability to police and protect us; whether social groups are intrinsically incapable of regulating the use of violence; whether, in times of crisis, the identity politics of class and race will always shape and constrain human solidarity.
But the last and most obvious conclusion, of course, is that these events needn’t have happened. If the levees had been stronger, if New Orleans had been sufficiently evacuated, if enough law enforcement had been put in place to deal with the aftermath, and if state and federal bodies had been swift enough to deal with the human catastrophe which followed, there might never have been a need for an Algiers Point militia, and its fear-stricken victims might have survived.
I suppose the time for New Year’s Resolutions has passed, but let’s hope we won’t have to say ‘never again’ ever again.
Photo by Flickr user wallyg (Creative Commons)
In news which may come as a shock to those who wrote melodramatic op-eds about the election of an unknown, untested and altogether unlikely-sounding black man to the office of President, it turns out that Barack Obama’s Historic! Change-making! Victory! hasn’t forever banished nepotism, elitism and the long-stay permanance of political dynasties from holding great influence over public life.
Lest he upset some very wealthy Manhattanites and disrupt what the media and her society cheerleaders have already hyped-up as her long-delayed coronation as queen of Camelot, New York Governor David Paterson will name Caroline Kennedy as his state’s next Senator, replacing the outgoing (and, for all her faults, studiously competent) Hillary Clinton.
If it does happen, it should be troubling on a number of levels. First, whilst Ms Kennedy might well become as impressive and dilligent a Senator as her predecessor, she has shown precious little evidence of it thus far. She has no experience in legislative politics, no substantive record of public service, has not given a press conference in support of her candidacy and all that is really known of her political views are the brief answers she (or her advisers) gave to questionnaires submitted by the Times and the Politico.
Of those answers, there are some telling gaps in either her knowledge or her openness. When asked about her views on the future of New York’s enormous financial sector, her team responds with “at this time, Caroline does not have a specific plan to fix New York’s financial services industry”, instead pledging to work with her peers. When querstioned on local issues, like the budget for New York State or education reform, her answers are similarly vague, and a question about Israel was batted away with the most banal political platitudes.
And then there’s the issue of restoring another political dynasty. DailyKos diarist Morus found that the US Senate is actually more heriditary than the UK’s House of Lords, with 15% of its members being directly related to previous or current holders of high office. For a country which fought a revolution to banish such privileges, I imagine this is enough to give anyone pause for thought.
Of course, you’ll find hereditary aspects to many other professions besides politics, from the modest, family-run business to the world’s largest media empire. But what makes political dynasties different is their access to the machinery of power, as well as their ability to sell the ‘brand’ of their surnames to the general public in a way which sometimes obscured their policies or competence. For Caroline, the Kennedy brand seems to be used as a substitute for demonstrable experience in public service, and whilst the people of New York will eventually have the chance to decide whether or not she’s done her ‘brand’ and her state justice, I think it’s unlikely that someone with the same CV but a less illustrious surname would be on the verge of taking a seat in the United States Senate.
None of which necessarily means she’ll be bad at her job, of course. But for as long as glitzy political brands are favoured over unfashionable, hard-working public servants, the practice of egalitarianism and social mobility will always be somewhat stifled.
You’d struggle to place a cigarette paper between George Monbiot and myself on the broad principles of climate change. We both recognise that it exists, that it has the potential to wreak unimaginable havoc on our environment & our way of life, that only a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions will stop its most extreme effects, and that there is a fierce urgency to act now.
But whilst his passion, his breadth of knowledge and his tireless persistence are all very valuable to the cause, there is a tendency towards dogmatism, even extremism, in Monbiot’s work which – deliberately or not – reduces all other political issues to this one, non-negotiable crusade.
I doubt there’s a better example of this than in his latest column condemning the Bush Administration’s $17.4bn bailout of America’s car manufacturing industry. Monbiot’s argument is simple: given the inefficiency of their products and their failure to produce the kinds of cars needed in the 21st century, there is no justification for a ‘new round of corporate socialism’ which will only throw more money at a failed business model.
And so he praises Senate Republicans at the same time as calling them “neocon nutcases”, blames the industry for being the author of its own woes whilst admitting the need to bailout a similarly self-harming banking system, and dismisses President Bush’s argument that he must safeguard jobs before denouncing the wage & benefit cuts to the jobs he has saved. To say this is all a bit inconsistent is putting it mildly.
But it’s the lack of concern for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who would lose their jobs which is most troubling. Monbiot spends no time pondering what impact the industry’s collapse would have on a city which relies on its existence, nor does he spare a thought for more than one third of its residents who live below the poverty line. His column reads like classic wrecking ball environmentalism: cars pollute the atmosphere, so we must destroy the industry, and to hell with the consequences!
The uneasy implication within the piece is that it is not possible for the priorities of environmentalists & labour activists to coexist peacefully, and that politicians and policy-makers should always prioritise the former even if it comes at the expense of the latter. If this view was to be adopted at the level of political campaigning, it would create an incredibly damaging split within the progressive coalition which would make progress towards either group’s goals so much harder to achieve.
As the New York Times reports, this is not a good bailout; there’s little corporate accountability, workers’ wages will be cut at a time when they can least afford it, and the industry is only safe until March, when the then-President Obama will have to make a decision about its long-term viability.
But for now, at least, hundreds of thousands of working/middle class Americans in one of the most economically blighted cities in the Union will still be able to live above the breadline. Monbiot would be a far more sympathetic figure if he could stop sounding so upset about it.
Image by Flickr user freeparking (Creative Commons)
Over at Gristmill, there’s a slighly folorn post by Sharon Astyk on Barack Obama’s selection of Tom Vilsack – the former Governor of Iowa and a man politically indebted to the entrenched interests of agribusiness – as his Secretary of Agriculture. For Astyk, this appointment follows the same dispiritingly changeless trajectory as the appointments of Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Robert Gates:
In order to be the president many of us hoped Obama would be, he would have to be willing to betray many of the people who brought him and dismiss their hopes and investments in his future. This is no easy feat for anyone, and it is probably less so for someone who came so far, so fast, with the hand of so many.
But presidents are known by the company they keep — the reality is that no man can supervise all the elements of the nation alone — they depend enormously on appointees. He will rely on reports and summaries from those he appoints, and those summaries will be given by men whose viewpoints are already formed. Vilsack cannot but describe our food system through the lens of his prior investments, and this will be disastrous.
Obama has overwhelmingly chosen one, very narrow set of viewpoints — the viewpoints of people who have power now and to whom he is already indebted for his power. I don’t claim that there is no hope for Obama, but before he chose these people to surround him, there was hope that an ordinary man of integrity, hearing a range of viewpoints, might choose something different. Now, we have to imagine that Obama is an extraordinary man, one with the power to find unconventional paths to knowledge and the willingness to override the viewpoints in which he has invested himself.
I wrote in an earlier post that it’s mistaken to interpret Obama’s cabinet as marking a break from the policy content of his campaign, and I still think that’s the case. None of the appointments he’s made necessarily conflict with his campaign promises to reinvest in the country’s infrastructure, create ‘green jobs’, start taking firmer action on regulating & reducing carbon emissions and expanding health coverage to all Americans. Nor do they conflict with his pledge to raise the minimum wage, pass the Employee Free Choice Act, close Guantanamo, stop waterboarding, become more diplomatically engaged and begin a cautious withdrawal from Iraq. What’s more, I didn’t read online progressives campaign for anything beyond these core issues, which perhaps indicates they were too narrow in their focus and too indiscriminate in their support.
Policy will be the real litmus test of the Obama administration, and if he’s too timorous in chasing EFCA, if his environmental plans are too tepid or his economic rescue plans prioritise capital at the expense of labour, then those policies will reflect badly on both the people Obama appointed, and the President himself.
That said, I don’t think it’s unfair to conclude – as Astyck does here – that these appointments place greater pressure on Obama to be the driver of change. His Defense Secretary has been on the opposite side to Obama on nuclear disarmament. His Secretary of State has been on the opposite side to Obama on Iraq, relations with Cuba and the use of cluster munitions. His economic team is full of ghosts from an era where easy credit, low wages and the abandonment of effective regulation was thought to fuel long-term prosperity. With people like this, creating an administration which is markedly different from its predecessors will require a greater resolve from the President than if he were surrounded by outsiders with new, untested ideas.
Let’s not forget that Obama hasn’t renounced one of his general election pledges yet. If he does, then his choice of advisers will take some of the blame, and that will reflect badly on the President. But until then, and as awful as ‘wait and see’ is in an opinion-thirsty blogosphere, it’s still the most sensible advice I can give.