Archive: Current Affairs


  • Churchill said “We don’t torture”. It was a big lie then too. Warning: the details are nasty.
  • Jesus was tortured, so God must like torture, so it’s OK. For us to torture them, I mean. The bad guys, I mean.
  • For the “not-me” file. Condi says: “I didn’t authorize torture, I just passed on the orders of those who did”. Maybe she really doesn’t understand that this doesn’t help.
  • Nice idea: the US should exhibit contrition for its crimes.
New makeup
  • On the bright side, I think this may help to drive the word “rebranding” out of polite discourse.
  • Smarts and local knowledge win again over “superior firepower”. Plus: hearts and minds revisited. (This is one of the seven stages of failed foreign intervention. Next stage: our honor requires us to kill more people before we leave.)
  • Let not the flu of swine enter thy body, saith the Lord. But with the Mexican thou mayst consort.
  • Key phrases: “Ponzified risk management” … “exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity”.
  • Pig earth revisited (Missouri is no. 6 in hog production).
Banks and other robbers
  • Chrysler’s fate is in the hands of hedge funds. This is like having an undertaker in charge of your health.
  • Congress and Geithner are wholly owned subsidiaries of the banks.
  • In Sweden, on the other hand, the government owned the banks. But of course they’re socialists. The country must be run by women (see the last item below).
It’s not a recession. The economy’s just taking a little nap
Feelings all the way down
  • Fish feel pain. So do crabs. Another step on the path to panpsychism.
Treats from the Cato Institute
  • Silly women don’t understand that libertarianism is good for them.
  • LinkMay 1, 2009

    The Idea meets Twitter

    The last MLA, as always far in advance of the leading wave, had a panel on Twitter. Novelties included Tweets from the audience.
    Tweets have a 140-character limit. So twittering counts as “writing under constraint”. As constraints go, it’s on the vanilla side.
    I’m bemused by the attention given to Twitter and “twittering”. Twitter is just an enormous chat room in which you can chatter just to yourself if you like.
    Revolutions are not made of this.
    Or this.

    LinkApril 23, 2009

    Looking forward

    The so-called “torture memos” released this week show that not only were prisoners in the hands of the CIA tortured again and again, but that their treatment and the issue of its legality was carefully thought through. No-one was acting out of anger or in haste—no “ticking bombs” here—; everyone made sure their acts were authorized.
    Obama and his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have reassured those CIA personnel, including doctors and psychologists, who “carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice” that they “will not be subject to prosecution”—even though the US government seems to be obliged by treaty to prosecute violations of the Geneva Conventions and of the Convention against Torture whenever they occur, and whoever commits them.
    The canard of the day is that we should look forward, not backward.
    This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.
    This is misleading and base. Misleading because the punishment of wrongdoing isn’t just “laying blame”. It’s doing justice, it’s an attempt to make public the crimes performed by the state and to expose the criminals who performed them, with the hope that no-one will be tempted to perform them again. It’s about the future: Never again should these things happen.
    It’s base because Obama is turning an issue of justice into an issue of unity, and including those who urge the prosecution of war criminals among the “forces that divide us”. Instead we are supposed to unite around “core values” (whenever anyone talks about “core values”, look for the lie). Until now I would have thought that those values preclude torture and that they oblige us to punish those who perform or order others to perform it. The confidence Obama asks for is a confidence based on lies. We’ve been there before.
    In addition to the sites linked to above, see Emptywheel, Talk Left, and Glenn Greenwald for more on torture and the legal issues raised by the acts of the Bush and now the Obama administrations.
    I wrote about the legal memos in 2004. It was obvious then that the memos were not about whether or not torture is illegal under US and international law; they were about making it as difficult as possible for anyone to be prosecuted for whatever acts they performed. People who claim to be shocked only now were either not paying attention or deliberately ignoring the warning signs.

    LinkApril 20, 2009

    Mrs. Miller

    Current Affairs · Music ·· More from April 2009
    Mrs. Miller
    Susan Boyle is not the first middle-aged woman whose voice has made her famous overnight. People of a certain age will remember another middle-aged woman who had an unexpected career as a singer: Mrs. Miller.
    Mrs. Miller’s fame owed something to the same Camp æsthetic that helped promote Tiny Tim and the TV series Batman: from whatever sophisticated beginnings (see Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”), it became largely a matter of “so bad it’s good”. Mrs. Miller, unlike Susan Boyle, had what you might call an unusual voice, with so much vibrato as to moot the question of her being on pitch. Her rhythm was also uncertain. Nevertheless her recording of “Downtown” (Petula Clark’s big hit) was a success, and her first album, Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits sold 250,000 copies in 1966. Eighteen months after her career began, she ended it after her husband passed away. In 1997 she too passed away at ninety after having survived the collapse of her apartment building during the Northridge Earthquake.
    You can see her singing “Inka Dinka Doo” with Jimmy Durante on the Hollywood Palace. He certainly knew how to deliver a line: what timing! That stop-and-go delivery was part of his act, just like the nose and hat.

    LinkApril 20, 2009

    Sacred cow tipping

    A Republican blogger asks (following David Brooks) who will replace Bill Kristol at the New York Times. (I know you’re following this closely.) He likes Megan McArdle from the Atlantic.
    Unpredictable, intellectual, policy-oriented, witty, with a brain the size of a planet. If there a better public intellectual for our day, I don't know who it is. In Megan McArdle, I see the potential to transform the Right; to tear down the sacred cows and rebuild a much more coherent, effective movement.
    Source: EVENE, Vach’Art 2006, Paris
    (Emmanuelle Solinski)
    Extra points if you noticed the misuse of a semicolon and the clause that no verb; bonus extra points if the planet you thought of came in a Cracker Jacks box. Not because Megan McArdle isn’t smart (she has an MBA, just like our former president), but because it’s a silly comparison. She has a resume as bright as a bulb, and as many ideas as a Senator.

    LinkFebruary 3, 2009

    Mistakes were made

    I’m afraid Mr. Olbermann didn’t get the memo according to which you are supposed to remember:
    Great Soviet Encyclopedia
    Source: Wikipedia
    Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping, Maher Arar, the US attorney purge, the billions pocketed by Halliburton and other contractors in Iraq? Irrelevant, just like Al Gore. Watch your mail for new sheets to paste into your encyclopedia, just as soon as Karl Rove gets the Bush Institute at SMU up and running.
    Even Obama wants to look forward rather than backward, as he said more than once to George Stephanopoulos last Sunday. But that is to play into the hands of those who are already attempting to cleanse the record (see Paul Krugman, “Forgive and forget?”, New York Times 15 Jan 2009, and Jonathan Turley’s interview with Olbermann).

    LinkJanuary 18, 2009


    At U.N. headquarters, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli bombardment of U.N. facilities in Gaza “totally unacceptable.” Israel’s shells have fallen around three schools, including the girls school hit Tuesday, and a health center for Palestinian refugees.
    Ban added that it was “equally unacceptable” for militants to take actions that endanger Palestinian civilians, referring to the practice of militants making attacks from residential areas.
    So if two members of Hamas run into a school full of children after firing on their enemy, it’s OK to lob 120-mm mortar shells into the school. No matter how many children die, it’s OK, because after all Hamas is using civilians as shields. So go ahead, kill as many as you want! It’s equally unacceptable!
    The diplomatic term “unacceptable” has no practical effect. Ban Ki-Moon has no means to alter what he doesn’t “accept”. The only consequential thing he could do to prevent future occurrences would be to go to Gaza himself.
    Update: Jimmy Carter calls the current war “unnecessary”, on the grounds that an extension of the ceasefire that had begun on 19 June could have been negotiated (“An unnecessary war”, Washington Post 8 Jan 2009). Neve Gordon, chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, agrees:
    [W]e just had a rocket about an hour ago not far from our house. My two children have been sleeping in a bomb shelter for the past week. And yet, I think what Israel is doing is outrageous, as opposed to what Meagan said before. We have here a situation where actually Israel did leave the Gaza Strip three years ago, but it maintains sovereignty in any political science sense of the term. We’ve controlled all the borders. We’ve basically had an economic boycott on the Gaza Strip. And the people there have been living in what one should probably call as a prison. And they’ve been reacting with rockets, because probably that’s the only way that they can react.
    Source: “Israeli professor under Hamas rocket fire, Neve Gordon, condemns Israeli invasion of Gaza”, Democracy Now 5 Jan 2009.
    Claims that Hamas soldiers were firing from the school grounds are now admitted to be false: “UN: Israel admits claims about attacked school baseless”, antiwar.news 7 Jan 2009
    Update: Ban Ki-Moon isn’t going to Gaza, but he is going to the Middle East, and will visit, among other places, the West Bank: “UN Chief Ban, en route to Mideast: Hamas, Israel must stop fighting now”, AP (via Ha’aretz) 13 Jan 2009.
    Further update: Ban Ki-Moon has visited Gaza; the Guardian has video.

    LinkJanuary 6, 2009


    cactus, a contributor to the economics blog Angry Bear, objects to the use of the word ‘proportionate’ in discussions of the recent bombings in Gaza (11:18am 1 Jan 2009):
    First, because very few people would advocate “proportionate responses” in non-military situations. Consider, for instance, Bernie Madoff. As I understand it, the man is in house arrest and many people wonder why he isn’t already in jail. However, putting Madoff in jail would not be proportionate — there is no indication that he imprisoned or otherwise directly interfered with anyone’s freedom of movement.
    The reason it is important to imprison someone like Madoff, if he is indeed guilty of the offenses alleged (and admitted) is to prevent these offenses (and worse) from being committed again. Proportionate responses do not have a deterrent effect. We (through the state) could collectively seize all of Madoff’s assets, but that wouldn’t even deter Madoff from trying again, much less anyone else.
    On the other hand, if police officers were allowed and encouraged to routinely shoot one out of every two people caught driving faster than the posted speed limit, and the odds of getting caught any time you were speeding rose to one in two, the average speed on the freeways would drop quite a bit. (Note — the issue of what level of response is needed to achieve a deterring effect is a different question than whether that level of response is worth applying to achieve that effect.)
    Second, there is the issue of intent. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda clearly would like to kill us (i.e., and here, “us” amounts to “the West”) all. Every one of us. The fact that they only succeeded in killing a small fraction of us doesn’t mean that in combating Al Qaeda, the West only has the right to go after a small fraction of them. Incompetence is not a defense… and incompetents can succeed at their goals if given enough bites at the apple.
    Third, a proportionate response often doesn’t exist. If Osama manages to get his hands on a bomb and next time around nukes New York, what is a proportionate response? His entire organization doesn’t have as many people in it as would have been killed in such an attack. Of course, if you include his fellow travelers, supporters (financial, material, and otherwise), and plain old well-wishers, you could easily end up with far more than enough people for a “proportionate response.” But is it proportionate to go after say, citizens of countries that are purportedly allies of ours who happily send money to Osama knowing full well that if he could, he’d nuke New York. Is it proportional to go after people who only provided money or material support without knowing precisely that it would be used to nuke New York? Perhaps not, but not doing so guarantees what you’re trying to avoid would happen again.
    Considered as argument, cactus’s three points fall a good ways short of conclusive.
    First point
    The imprisonment of a con artist is indeed not “proportionate” to the losses incurred by his victims. But that is because is no common measure between years in prison and dollars lost (I think cactus agrees: imprisonment can be proportionate only to imprisonment). On the other hand, a person convicted of fraud is often required to make good the losses of his victims, if he can; that penalty is proportional to those losses.
    The first point, therefore, shows that some penalties meted out as punishments are not proportional to the losses incurred by the victims, but only because they are not commensurate with those losses. That does not tell against proportionality in cases where it could be applied.
    Proportionality fits best with theories according to which punishment consists in restitution to the victim of what was lost to them in the crime, or in depriving the perpetrator of goods commensurable to those lost by the victim (retribution). Whether the penalty should be proportional (when that makes sense) to the losses incurred by the victims when the penalty is intended to deter the person penalized (or others like him) from committing the same crime again is unclear. There’s no reason why it should even be commensurable; the intention is to change behavior, not make good a loss. This is one reason why retribution and deterrence don’t sit easily together as aims of punishment.


    LinkJanuary 2, 2009

    With a whimper

    It all started off so well…
    Who could have imagined that it would end like this?
    A podium was set up in the middle of a dirty street. Five small balloons and some tinsel decorated a seating area. The American ambassador and the top commander of U.S. troops didn’t show up. Neither did Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

    LinkJanuary 2, 2009

    Dep’t of Dead Language

    Gravitas had a perfectly fine sense in Latin. It meant ‘weight’. Stones fall because they have gravitas. Smoke rises because it has levitas, the opposite of gravitas.
    On its way through Ellis Island, gravitas was cozened by someone’s PR guy (and I mean guy) into thinking it had a more important job to do. It would now denote that quality in people—oddly enough, almost all of them men—which makes reporters swoon in fits of deference. Whenever I see someone use it, I say to myself: This person’s brain has taken a holiday.
    Our first example illustrates the point:
    Has gravitas Deficient in gravitas
    Fred Thompson Sarah Palin
    Fred is still one of my favorite US politicians, or at least former politicians. The guy just has such a gravitas that you just have sit up to take notice.
    [O’Reilly:] OK, the Rasmussen poll shows that most Republicans like Sarah Palin, and they’d like to see her run again. The general polls show that most Americans don’t believe she has the gravitas.
    Needless to say, as our next example shows, you can’t be a leader if you don’t have gravitas.
    Has gravitas Deficient in gravitas
    John McCain The New Orleans Saints
    Whatever might be said of John McCain’s response back then, it was a response. Mac was acting the way you’d expect a president to act. Obama, on the other hand, had to be dragged off the campaign trail while displaying all the gravitas of a pouting schoolboy.
    This team’s window to win a championship is still open for a couple of years, but it can’t afford to throw away campaigns like this one […] because they don’t have the gravitas to impose their will on opponents.
    Gravitas, for all its, um, gravitas, is a delicate quality. For example, if you have grey hair, even prematurely grey, you may be eligible. But if you’re too young, even the most granitic of coiffs may fail to overcome your juvenile levity.
    Has gravitas Deficient in gravitas
    David Gregory David Gregory
    Enjoying a gravitas boost from his prematurely salt-and-pepper mane and friendships with Tom Brokaw and other of the legendary figures of NBC News, the Los Angeles native quickly became one of the hottest personalities in network news.
    Instead of simply naming a successor to Russert […], executives are considering the possibility of multiple hosts, including a trio of panelists. That could help address any shortcoming in gravitas seen in Gregory or Todd, each of whom is still in his 30s.
    In this respect, gravitas is like baldness. You have to be born with it, even though it doesn’t show up for decades.
    Has gravitas Deficient in gravitas
    Frank Langella Richard Nixon
    For all his attempted gravitas, Nixon was a shifty-eyed lightweight and transparent phony, whereas Langella is a born Shakespearean. Finally, Nixon has the stature that eluded him in life!
    Some things, alas, will never have even the slightest gravitas.
    Deficient in gravitas
    Return of the Jedi
    Britney Spears’s bio
    While many young fans love the cuddly Ewoks, others are rather disappointed that the film lacks gravitas.
    First a big hat tip goes to Pedro Castro, whose gorgeous, lush cinematography made me feel like I was watching something wayyy more important than I was (just like that sweeping camera work on The Hills. MTV has cornered the market on fake swelling gravitas).
    And finally: a crack investigative reporter has discovered that under the new administration we will all experience an increase in gravitas. Maybe that will make up for not having a job or a 401(k).
    Caution: Museums with tantalizing gift shops can defeat the purpose and plonk you right back where you started, in full shopaholic mode. You must resist. You must gird your loins with your newfound gravitas and fight the temptation to buy those Smokey and the Bandit shot glasses.
    Find more Dead Language here.

    LinkDecember 15, 2008