Fueled By Scotch

"I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people." -Mark Twain

Category: Politics

It’s unbelievable that this guy gets to sell a book instead of being tried.

by Cosmo Houck

Nothing should shock any more, but Jose Rodriguez is clearly a bad man. For those unfamiliar with who Rodriguez is, he spearheaded the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” under George W. Bush–he was in charge of torturing prisoners. Sunday night CBS’ 60 Minutes aired an interview with Rodriguez, who has a book out. On it Rodriguez revealed himself to be dangerously divorced from reality and the suffering of others. Read the rest of this entry »

On “Brutal and Catatonic” Countries

by Cosmo Houck

E.L. Doctorow has written an overwrought satirical piece for the New York Times and Will Wilkinson isn’t having any of it:

Mr Doctorow’s not very clever conceit is that because America has failed to avoid all those things he finds especially wretched, it has been rendered “indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world”. That is to say, America’s undoing is a direct consequence of the country having failed to successfully oppose what the author opposes.

Indeed, Doctorow’s primer for the pursuit of “unexceptionalism” seems to be an arbitrary list of things the author doesn’t like, with blame handily pinned–well, he’s not especially precise, but it’s clearly primarily conservatives of some ilk. It begins with the Supreme Court and the handy visage of George W. Bush, but after that it turns to–who knows.

Truly, it’s hard to tell what Doctorow makes of the last few years of policy formation, because he doesn’t say, and lumps in policy that has taken place under Obama and his former congressional majority with things achived by Republicans. The point, as I take it, is that Doctorow does not see this  as a partisan issue so much as an expression of a worrying trajectory for the country; it’s unfortunate, in that case, that he is so imprecise with his complaints.

He laments that college educations have become unaffordable, that immigrants are treated as criminals, that we have suspended progressive taxation (even I, crazy leftist that I am, readily acknowledge that this is certainly not true), and a litany of other ills. Many of these issues are unrelated, are old problems that far predate Bush (college tuition has been rising for decades), and nowhere does he tell us if every problem he lists is a necessary condition for unexceptionalism, or if some smaller smorgasboard of them would prove sufficient. It is every bit as bad as Wilkinson charges.

Wilkinson is too eager to dismiss the most fundamental claim, however, that the United States is “indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world”. In rejecting Doctorow’s puffed up mendacious drama Wilkinson suggests that:

Despite America’s many egregious failings, it is rather harder to distinguish it from the rich, democratic, gentle or vigorous countries of the world. If America has become a plutocratic, jackbooted, war criminal, the correct conclusion to draw is that America makes plutocracy, jackboots and war crime look surprisingly decent.

This is where I differ. It’s certainly true that the United States is readily distinguishable from say, Eritrea or Equatorial Guinea, but that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly hard to draw distinctions between the States and a country like Canada.

The United States may have free elections and comparatively lesser censorship than the “catatonic countries” of the world, but it also has a history of offering considerable military support to “brutal” and “catatonic” regimes, has an express policy of not giving a shit about national soveriegnty, maintains the right to assasinate whoever it would like, imprison and torture whoever it would like, and is spending more and more on surveilling its own population.

That doesn’t sound like Canada–or Sweden, or any one of a number of other “rich, democratic, gentle, or vigorous” nations to me.

If you were to ask me which is worse: a nation whose government broadly oppresses the populace, kills and starves and abuses its own people, or one that is complicit with and supports regimes that do that, unobtrusively gathers massive amounts of data about its population, aggressively and punitively targets government whistleblowers, and is broadly expanding the military’s power to unilaterally take action without oversight–I’d say they both sound pretty bad.

Durable SCOTUS

by Cosmo Houck

Alex Pareene makes a nice point about the power and durability of the Supreme Court, and I don’t have anything to add except this: Democrats, you guys have defended what Republicans call “judicial activism” for years (see: Roe v. Wade). Don’t appropriate conservative arguments now because you’re on the other end of it. Republicans: it’s not “bullying” to use the same arguments you’ve been using for decades–it’s just hypocritical. It’s also not “bullying” to criticize the Supreme Court, which is very, very powerful (perhaps too much so–you used to think that too!) and can take it because they’re big boys and have awesome job security. Carry on.

Political Labels and Polaritzation

by Cosmo Houck

It’s easy for many people to forget that political bifurcation in the U.S. is an artifact of our electoral system, and not an insoluble fact of nature. This came up last week when two of my favorite bloggers, Julian Sanchez and Matt Steinglass, both felt compelled to address a piece by Chris Mooney based on his forthcoming book, The Republican Brain.

Mr. Mooney wants to say that certain character types correspond to either a “liberal” or “conservative” political affiliation. As Mr. Steinglass points out, there’s some sense in which this is a reasonable claim: of course our personalities affect our political persuasions. However, that doesn’t mean–at all–that our personalities predispose us toward political beliefs. That’s a problem for Mr. Mooney, because he wants to say that Republicans live in a fantasy world with policy positions that defy evidence. Certainly this may be true for some Republicans, but a Republican in the 1860s didn’t believe the same things that a Republican does today, and the same obviously goes for a Democrat (we’ll leave the Constitutional Union Party out of this). With that the case, it becomes harder to see personality as the totalizing force Mooney thinks it is. Steinglass lays this out while drawing from a post written by Kevin Drum.

What this means for Chris Mooney is that while character type may tell us something about political persuasion within a specific polity, it doesn’t tell us anything deterministic about policy positions. We can fiddle with this; Steinglass takes small issue with Mr. Drum’s claim that European conservatives aren’t anti-science–instead, he seems to say that they’re less anti-science.

Still, I think this is a sufficient reason to dismiss an argument that conflates personality type with policy positions you dislike, and I’m more interested in Mr. Sanchez’s line of attack.

His position is simple: there’s more than two political persuasions for you to be attracted to! Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are not, absolutely not homogenous groups with universal beliefs. They’re loosely cobbled together coalitions that share diverse and often contradictory policy positions. The reason we think about our polity as bifurcated in this country is because it is systemically. Our electoral system–reliant on plurality voting–essentially ensures two dominant parties. In terms of policy or persuasion there’s no reason why that has to–or does– hold true on a personal level. Read the rest of this entry »

Here’s Something to Make you Angry

by Cosmo Houck

Of the many grossly unjust practices that our government either participates in or endorses, the War on Drugs is arguably the most egregious. Ineffective, costly, and an assault on basic liberties, over at the Huffington Post two days ago Radley Balko touched on one of the many tentacles of law enforcement overreach justified by “cracking down on drugs”. This isn’t the first time he’s touched on asset forfeiture laws, and Reason has an extensive archive chronicling law enforcement abuses.

As a fun bonus, here’s a chart New York Magazine put together awhile ago on how delayed notice search warrants authorized by the Patriot Act are used:

Click the Image for Source

Caricature

by Cosmo Houck

There is a genius post over at Crooked Timber exploring the avenues open to Greece and the EU in dealing with the current economic crisis. Go choose your own path to avoid economic catastrophe! (I ended up at number 5) I’m not an economist, I haven’t studied economics, and I generally try to stay out of the way of people who seem to know a lot more about the dismal science than can be gleaned from casual perusal of Wikipedia, so I haven’t really talked about the EU and Greece much. However, it’s nice to hear someone say something that makes a lot of intuitive sense to me: that the answers to the Greece dilemma aren’t that simple and there isn’t really an obvious and good practical solution.

Maybe I find that admonition refreshing simply because I’m a pessimist. It deserves to be pointed out that most columnists will gesture feebly in the direction of doubt with a disclaimer–something like “obviously, the gravity of the challenges in front of us mean there are no guarantees”–but they invariably continue on to offer “concrete” solutions or to criticize the actions of others as clearly wrong. (I’m sure you can find examples of me doing this) It’s late tonight and I don’t feel like trawling for evidence; feel free to go read some Thomas Friedman on your own time. (Actually, here are two examples of how he blithely and sweepingly caricatures immensely complex challenges in short posts) I’ve written before about how I think that easy answers don’t really exist to many of the social problems we face; our lives are just too complex, governed by the interactions of billions of individuals and the structures that they both create and are created by. It’s naive to think that in less than 1000 words we can make much sense of anything.

I think partly it’s a disease that’s born in education–a miasma of scholarship that demands focused, defined arguments that address specific concerns. I began thinking about this in my senior year of school when I took a seminar on the historiography of the French Revolution. After some groundwork we read Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution. It remains my favorite piece of historical writing. It’s also a bit of a funny book; it’s hard, reading it, to get a sense of how Tocqueville really thinks the Revolution happened. Much of it is self contradictory. Tocqueville took it upon himself to explore everything that led up to the Revolution, and in the process sacrificed internal consistency for astonishing breadth. That approach to scholarship has since, I feel like, been mainly discarded.

As an example: there was an excellent piece of cultural history we had to read later in the class. Some enterprising historian took it upon himself to examine the role of the French affiche (think…a modern day coupon booklet) in precipitating the Revolution. It’s a truly excellent article, and one I enjoyed immensely. And I came away convinced that, indeed, the affiche probably had something to do with the coming of the conflict. But what to do with that information? How does it fit into a larger whole? On some level this is an obviously apples to oranges comparison: it’s not really fair to take a singular journal article and compare it to an astonishingly ambitious attempt at a comprehensive history of an event. But I think the broader point is that Tocqueville’s ambition doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re trying to prove a point, because the circumstances surrounding events are always going to be fractured and contradictory; if you want to make a compelling argument, you have to dial out the noise and specify. And I think the proliferation of micro-histories over the last thirty years–like the examination of the French affiche–is potentially representative of that.

I don’t really know though–it’s just an idea I’ve been kicking around. And I should probably mention that a lot of The Old Regime and the Revolution can be pretty problematic. But there is a general sense I’ve had lately–cultivated by my uncertainty about the nature of many of the political challenges we face, not to mention their solutions–that things are, to some degree, spiraling out of control. That the interrelationships between everything that goes on at a global level defies our ability to theorize about it or, more importantly, to act upon it. Political contingencies are too limiting, and our theory hasn’t kept up with the pace of change.

That’s probably not a claim I would have made yesterday. After all, if you want you can go back into Marx and find passages that presage the housing bubble, just as you can go into Friedman and find plenty on how the government distorts markets. I’ve always loved big theory like that. But that’s macro theory; that’s principles of the world type stuff, and reality is often a lot muddier. On the ground, in the realms of policy, there aren’t really Marxists and Friedmanites; there are mostly pragmatists. And to the degree to which they are governed by theories, they are governed by models and data. And on that level, it seems we haven’t kept up. The world, so far, seems to resist our abilities to make easy sense of it. Indeed, it seems to be getting harder and harder to do so (at least to me).

If this post has meandered, or lacked any evident purpose, I apologize. I usually try to write  about something, but tonight I mainly wanted to write about something. If this post has a conclusion it is one that was better expressed almost a decade ago by William Gibson, in his book Pattern Recognition: 

Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.