Sunday, April 8, 2007

Surveillance and Executive Privilege

So, I read an article recently about how the White House
has for the past few years been eschewing the use of
government e-mail addresses. The reason is that those
e-mails send a carbon copy of all messages to a database
where they are stored, and can from there potentially be
subpoenaed: “Even former President George H.W. Bush said
his son, the current president, spurns e-mailing because
the records could be subpoenaed.” The quote is from the
American Progress Action Report which put out a pretty
comprehensive and convincing report on the issue.
What I found missing from the article however was any
comment upon the manifest irony of the situation. The
Bush Administration has for the past few years been
expanding public surveillance oftentimes unilaterally
and possibly illegally. However, while they’re
scrutinizing us more so than ever before, they’re
doing everything within their power to prevent us,
who they’re ostensibly serving from knowing what they’re
The whole situation makes me wish that we could subject
them to the same sort of surveillance they subject us
to. It makes me, in a way, very angry at the American
system of government that these people have the power
to watch the rest of us, and yet there seems to be no
effective mechanism for us to do the same to them.
They ostensibly work for us, and yet for political
reasons we are prevented from knowing what exactly
they’re doing in fulfilling that service. Fuck this
serving at the pleasure of the President shit that
we’ve heard so frequently from white house staff
recently. They’re supposed to serve at the pleasure
of the American people and the American Constitution.
Anyway, there’s a very real likelihood that the White
House poses almost as serious a threat to the safety
of the American people as do the terrorists which
the White House’s surveillance is supposedly designed
to deal with. Their incompetence in
Iraq has killed more
Americans than the terrorists ever did, and quite
frankly, it looks like a good surveillance campaign
conducted against the white house would probably score
more convictions than Bush’s anti-terror surveillance
ever did.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Doubts About Obama and Edwards

It scarcely took me any time to me figure out who were my favorites in the presidential primaries. They were Edwards and Obama. The two of them were willing to take strong, affirmative stances on very liberal issues, while Clinton, seemed prone to equivocation. An expert political actor, Clinton appeared to be driven by polls and political concerns, not heart-felt, deeply seated beliefs.

I still support Edwards and Obama, but my initial enthusiasm has been tainted by a realization: Edward’s and Obama’s out spokeness is very likely a symptom less of heart felt conviction, than of real politick. Granted, it’s never really possible to speculate definitively about other people’s motivations, but this isn’t an essay about definitive truths, it’s about doubt, about questioning the credibility of candidates who I, by and large, support.

The fact is that the three front runners in the presidential primaries are acting very much in accordance with the logic that real politick would suggest that they ought to. Clinton is the front runner in the primaries because of the popularity of her husband’s administration within the Democratic Party. But, she doesn’t have the same sort of support amongst the general populace, which generally imagines her to be too liberal. Because she can take the support of her party mostly for granted, she doesn’t need to make strong liberal statements, which would attract people to her in the primaries, but could become a liability when she faces moderate voters in November.

Obama and Edwards on the other hand are more popular amongst the general electorate than Clinton, and are therefore less concerned about alienating them than with tackling the juggernaut in the primary elections, Hilary Clinton. To do that they need to be taking radical positions that will appeal to the democrats voting in the primaries. The more desperate they are, the more inclined they are to make more radical statements in the primaries, which they know might come back to haunt them in the general election. Hence Edwards, the one who trails furthest behind Clinton, is calling for universal healthcare, an extraordinarily liberal proposition. The notion that Edwards is making these statements for political purposes is supported in part by the fact that he wasn’t nearly so radical in the last election, during which the field was less crowded, and he didn’t have a name as big as Clinton’s to contend with.

Though, despite these doubts I still prefer Obama and Edwards to Clinton. They’re just doubts, and, quite frankly, what matters is what they do, not why they do it, so the question of motivations is almost a moot point. I’m tried of seeing democratic politicians without backbone. To win democrats need to start electing real leaders, people who stand by the guns. Anyway, sticking to the center is a strategy of extraordinarily dubious utility, since the center might well be far left of where we imagine it is by the time election day rolls around. Already Clinton’s stance on the war puts her well to the right of the majority of the nation, and even further right than some republican politicians. If there really is a political shift happening, we need leaders who aren’t afraid to take advantage of it, who have the charisma to cultivate it, and who can give it a strong, respectable face.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Burden of Experience

One of the central issues that democrats will have to deal with in the coming election is that of experience. Two of the three front runners in the primaries – specifically Obama and Edwards – have only a handful of years worth of experience in politics, and some democrats might hold that against them. Democrats however should be cognizant of one of the sad truths of politics today: that while experience is without a doubt an incredible asset in governing; it has become, in the modern political era, a serious impediment to acquiring the ability to govern. Simply stated, political experience has become the greatest of political liabilities.

It was the confirmation of John Roberts, a man with almost no experience as a judge, to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, which “confirmed” so to say, this principle. Any other nominee would have provoked a vicious struggle, but Roberts was handed the foremost position in the nations judiciary, ironically, precisely because he had almost no judicial experience. Without any knowledge of a man, there’s really no way to slander him, and what is American politics today if not a competition to see who can out slander the other?

Now one might object: “Yes it’s better to have no record than a bad record, but is it not better to have a good record than no record?” The answer is no, precisely because there is no such thing as a good record; any record, properly spun, can be made into a bad record. We saw that fact demonstrated in the 2004 Presidential election. Kerry’s war experience, considered by most to be his primary strength, was spun into a liability by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” Then Kerry's votes on military funding, which took funding away from obsolete parts of the military, votes which were at the time supported by people within the Bush Administration, were spun in such a fashion as to make Kerry look like a liberal commie, destroying our national defense by taking money away from the army. No good deed goes unpunished in the modern political sphere, and every record is a bad record.

Spin and Rhetoric are nothing new – they have existed for millennia before the American Union was so much as a twinkle in the eye of any democratic minded idealist. But a handful of changes have occurred in the past few years to make the airwaves more susceptible to outlandish and even demonstrably false rhetoric. Campaign finance reform has meant that more money has been flowing to unreliable third party political groups like “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” which can make outlandish claims without having to worry about tarring the reputation of their own candidate because the are, at least in name, independent of any party or candidate. Secondly, cable has opened the news up to more competition, and more competition means that news networks have had to sensationalize their news in order to bring in viewers. The result has been a rise in a new sort of yellow journalism, with Fox News at the lead. Finally, and most importantly, there has been radical shift in the way news networks conceive of their mandate for objectivity. Instead of having one impartial anchor, it's not believed that to be objective we need cross-fire style shows with two sides duking it. The idea is to be “fair and balanced” to allow both sides to represent themselves, even if one is demonstrably false, as was the case with the swift boat veterans for truth, who received amble coverage.

The result is that the modern political debate looks a little something like a court of law, with two lawyers arguing their case. We all know how fallible that system is, how one incredibly persuasive lawyer can mislead a jury; but the court of law has an advantage which the court of public opinion does not offer. The court of public opinion is not composed of a captive jury which listens to both sides and comes to understand the whole of the case, it is composed of people flipping through channels, who often times only get to hear one side of the story, or, who only hear bits and pieces of the issue, some of which directly contradict each other. This produces an electorate which has been either indoctrinated into false ideas without ever hearing the facts which would disprove them, or which has been profoundly confused by a flood of contradictory information. The prevalence of the later is why the great political debate today, the one which would provide either side with it’s end game, is not a philosophical one having to do with peace and war or capitalism and socialism, but is rather one about ethos – about which political figures can and can not be trusted. Look at the stream of political literature which is pouring into book stores nowadays. The books don’t have titles like “The Communist Manifesto,” “The Wealth of Nations,” “and “The Spirit of the Laws,” they have titles like “Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them” “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” and “One Hundred people who are ruining America.” The contemporary political thinker is not so concerned about winning a philosophical argument; his first goal is to prove that he’s the one telling the truth, because, in this day and the age, the truth is a very difficult thing to find on T.V.

It’s this fundamental difficulty with truth that makes John Roberts the best man for the job, that makes political inexperience the greatest of political assets. Nowadays, any fact can be altered, any act can be twisted into an unforgivable sin, and, subsequent to that, disseminated freely across the nation to millions of people, spread via word of mouth, and as indelibly grained into the American consciousness as if it were a fact. The only man safe from spin is the man who we know nothing about, the one for whom there are no facts to be twisted, the one utterly devoid of any political experience.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Why Progressivism died, and why it should stay dead

I liked the term "progressive" when I first heard it being thrown around in a modern political context a few years ago. I thought that it managed to, amazingly, be simultaneously quite fresh, but also, rife with historical meaning. Even better, it was a history that it seemed few people could object to. Who nowadays would object to progressive reforms like urban sanitization and clean food?

Of course, I was wrong when I thought progressivism had a clean slate. The progressives were quite fond of, for example, eugenics, and the sort of racial psuedo-science that traditionally accompanies that doctrine. Now, one might argue that all historic movements have their dark sides, and they’d probably be right. But progressive fondness for eugenics is indicative of a larger problem, a sort of sterile scienticism which goes hand in hand with the ideology. It’s easy to see how one might relate scientific administration of the economy, to scientific administration of the gene pool.

The problem with progressivism is that it places as it’s central tenant the noxious idea of “progress.” Progressives never really seem to analyze the notion of progress, or try to understand what’s it’s relationship is to the goals which it aspires towards, but nevertheless they seem to feel as if the word somehow is so meaningful enough to be used as a tag for their ideology.

But what does progress mean? It has one relatively innocuous meaning, which is moving forward physically. But it has another meaning which became prevalent during the Enlightenment period. It was a myth of historical development which usurped ideas of cyclical or regressive development, so popular amongst the Greeks, Roman’s and Renaissance Italians, and argued that man was moving towards some sort of ideal society propelled by the development of technology, and rational governance.

Implicit in this myth was, first of all, a naïve notion that scientific reasoning could both determine what constituted proper values, and how a state could best act in order to realize those values. Secondly there was an exaggerated faith in technology and science (the French during the revolution, for example, practically deified reason.) Thirdly, there was a sense of historical inevitability.

The latter of these three notions -- the idea of historic inevitability -- is the easiest to debunk. No one in their right mind, looking at the 20th century, could say that every political development which occurred constituted an improvement upon earlier forms. The idea of predicting the future via a process of rational thought, also, seems like a dubious endeavor in and of itself. Many of the best minds of the past couple centuries have sought to do precisely that via the logic of Marxism, but we all know how that turned out.

The first two notions -- an exaggerated faith in science, and I naive belief in the ability of reason to provide man with moral values -- a which are the more dangerous elements of the idea of progress, are most easily debunked with history. It’s no accident that the term progressivism fell out of favor with the onset of World War I. The idea that we were moving towards a higher stage of society, propelled via technology, seemed much more dubious after we discovered that technology, along with allowing us to prepare food quicker, also allowed us to kill tens of thousands of people in a single day. But disillusionment with technology, science, reason, and the idea of progress, reached an all time height, understandably, in the wake of World War II. Not only did we see technology being misused, we saw scientific management, almost tayloristic principles of production, being applied to the question of genocide. Horkeimer and Adorno, some of the more astute intellectuals of the period, came to the conclusion that reason was merely a tool, something like math. It could be applied to any problem, whether it be the creation of world peace, or the mass extermination of Jews, with equal validity, because reason could never provide one with moral values. Philosophy’s hundred year decay into moral relativism demonstrates precisely that.

While it may seem tempting to resurrect faith in science in a period during which the very truth of scientific inquiry is being assailed, there’s a huge difference between believing in science’s ability to produce accurate results, and believing that science is always beneficial. We have to be wary of the tools that we develop, and learn to control them right. Moreover, it’s important that we not begin to imagine that history is going to move in the right direction without us working to make it move that way. Finally we need to approach the idea of value justification intelligently.

Now, a lot of people might say that progressives never actually argue for any of this. That’s quite true. But it’s all commonly associated with the idea of progress, and anyone who identifies as a progressive, and thinks at all about what that means, should at least subconsciously begin take in some of these ideas. I know I did. And I have noticed that at least one of these intellectual trends is now quite common amongst the left. It used to be that the left was a bunch of “bleeding heart liberals,” that we were seen, and probably rightly so, as being lead by empathetic emotions. Now I can’t talk to a liberal who doesn’t imagine that he’s right because his ideas are based off of reason, while the right is governed by superstitious irrationality. Not only is that somewhat haughty, it’s manifestly untrue. Science won't tell you what's morally right and wrong. You won't find the answers to your moral dilemmas in a test tube, those answers will only be found inside, by searching through your soul and deciding for yourself what you think is right and wrong.

Borat's Odyssey and the War on Terror.

I’ve read a few articles discussing Sasha Cohen’s latest film, Borat, but they mostly seemed strangely deficient. I’ve heard it described as “the rebirth of snobbery,” as a haughty attack by intellectual elites on uneducated Kazakhstanis or similarly uneducated Southerners. I think that’s just plain obtuse. What about Borat’s slavish obsession with Pamela Anderson, which mirrors America’s obsession with celebrity? What about Borat's stunts in New York, most of which were meant to demonstrate the absurdity of New Yorker’s infamous fear of casual public communication? I mean, there's obviously a sort of symbolism in this foreigner traveling across the entire American nation. This movie is about America as a whole.

Now, this may sound odd, but Borat actually follows a great tradition in Western literature. It’s like Moore’s Utopia or Rousseau’s Second Discourse. It’s one of those works which uses a foreign, exotic, society, real or imagined, to gain a critical prospective on one’s one society.

Of course there’s a way those sorts of works generally tend to operate and Borat does precisely the opposite of that. Generally these types of works critique the dominant society implicitly by showing the way in which things can be done differently. Borat works the other way. It takes a society that we know very little about, and sets it up as something radically different, and inferior. We open up the movie by finding out that people in Kazikistan have sex with their sisters, hate Jews, and consider women vastly inferior to men. Not only does Sasha Cohen highlight differences between us and them, he highlights those things which are almost unanimously considered backwards in American society, things like incest and anti-Semitism, for example.

Borat’s cross-country trip is a journey of discovery and reconciliation, which ends symbolically with Borat marrying an American woman. After we open up with the assumption that his Kazikistani journalist would be radically out of tune with America, we eventually discover that a lot of his beliefs are echoed in the American heartland. While most narratives of cultural difference critique the dominant society via a process of highlighting differences, in Borat, interestingly, it’s the similarities between Kazakhstan and America which reflect poorly upon us. It’s a brilliant rhetorical strategy, because no one wants to be siding with the backwards, sister-kissing journalist, Borat.

But it’s important to remember the most fundamental difference between Borat and the average American -- Borat is a Muslim, not exactly a supporter of Al Qeada mind you, but a pretty reactionary Muslim nonetheless. He is the sort of person we’re supposed to be winning over in the war against terrorism. We’re supposed to be teaching Borat not to subjugate women, not to hate Jews, not to suppress fundamental liberties in the name of religion. However, Borat goes home finding many of his most objectionable beliefs validated by American society.

The fundamental question which Borat ought to provoke, is whether or not we’re in any position to be fighting the war on terror. The war on terror has to be an ideological war. We can’t just go over to the Middle East and shoot everyone in the head who has a Koran. We need to be attacking their heads with something different -- ideas -- but as Borat demonstrates, we might not be in any position to do that. How can we, for example, seriously hope to deal with Muslim intolerance of Jews, when we can’t seem to deal with our own intolerance of homosexuals? How can we tell them to separate religion and the state, when we’re trying to bring them back together here? If we really hope to change the middle east, we need to show them a positive example of what a free, tolerate, liberal society can accomplish. We need to be setting a better example. The first front in the war on terror should be the home front.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

About Philosophia Rei Publicae

This blog was designed in part as a reaction to issues I had with other political blogs. I may have exaggerated these problems. I haven’t done an extensive survey of internet blogs, so perhaps my complaints are founded off of misconceptions. If that's true, this entry still serves its purpose, which is to lay down the objectives of this blog.

First of all, I wanted to strive towards independence. It seems like the vast majority of political blogs identify quite strongly with one political party or the other; one political faction or the other. Tendencies of some sort or another are inevitable, but for an intellectual community to be vibrant it has to be free, and capable of offering criticism from multiple different angles.

It’s especially dangerous for intellectuals to associate closely with political parties because in doing so they're bound to compromise their intellectual honesty. Political parties are broad, encompassing more ideas than anyone could ever actually agree with. They're Machiavellian sacrificing political ideology for political power. Intellectuals can’t in all honesty support everything a political party does, and, in pretending to do so, they are bound to sacrifice they're intellectual honest.

Secondly, I wanted to put less focus on transient issues than other blogs seem to. It’s important to describe the facts on the ground in Iraq, or to discuss the foibles of elected officials, but sometimes writers need to step back and analyze those things, to use Iraq or the recent scandals to talk more generally about war and corruption. The war will eventually end (hopefully), elected officials will eventually be unelected, and to have a substantial movement which will outlast the current political travails, it's necessary to root that movement in timeless philosophical principles. Sure, people are unhappy with the war in Iraq right now, but if we can't convince them that preemptive war is absolutely wrong, that taxes aren't theft, and that it's alright to be gay, then we haven't really accomplished all that much.

It‘s this need to look deeper that made me choose the title "Philosophia Rei Publicae." Philosophy to the Greeks meant looking past the particulars and trying to understand the "forms" -- the underlying concepts themselves. No one today actually believes in the notion of the "forms" as espoused by Plato -- that, for example, there is some perfect manifestation of beauty or righteousness that one can find and use to understand all other examples of beauty. But, in using the word philosophy, I’m trying to hearken back to the idea that we should look past the purely transient manifestations of a thing and try to analyze the deeper concept itself.

Some of my more astute readers will notice that the title of the blog is actually not in Greek, but in Latin. This is largely due to a shortcoming on my own part, namely that while I know Latin, I know not the slightest bit of Greek. Also though, I liked the phrase “res publica“ which is Latin. It’s the root for the word "republic," but literally just means “public thing.” I liked the broadness of the term, because I feel as if any adequate analysis of politics has to encompass not just affairs of the state, but cultural phenomena as well

So, the precise translation of the title is something like the “Philosophy of the State.” I know, it sounds better in Latin. That's precisely why I waited so long to translate it.