Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: WashingtonIndependent.com (1-16-08)
Mike Huckabee is a master at using the clever quip to deflect tough questions.
He toys with criticisms of his “fair tax” policy; at times he ignores the Sixteenth Amendment which makes the income tax indisputably constitutional. He has also made a shambles of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which the Framers of the Constitution intended as the means for ensuring separation of church and state, and social peace in a diversified nation. Now, Huckabee has weighed in another constitutional matter. Again he has demonstrated his fecklessness, if not his ignorance.
On CNN’s “The Situation Room” (Jan. 8), Huckabee finessed the allegation that he favored stripping American citizenship from children born in the United States to illegal immigrants. That ever-present “someone,” he said, had suggested to him that bestowing citizenship on such children “needed to be reviewed.” The status of children of illegal immigrants who had come for the purpose of giving birth, Huckabee added, might indeed might be reconsidered.
As he said, “I simply said that’s something the Supreme Court would have to rule on.” He maintained that rejecting citizenship “was only a conversation that someone had with me.” Again, that “someone.”
But why would – why should – the Supreme Court “reconsider” a constitutional amendment that has been clearly understood for more than 140 years? It could be that Huckabee betrays his “Old South” roots.
Does Huckabee want the Supreme Court to rule whether a constitutional provision is “constitutional” – or not? Perhaps Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, our leading “originalists,” might find that the Fourteenth Amendment violated the so-called “original understanding” of the Constitution.
You bet it did – and thankfully so. The Fourteenth Amendment settled the meaning of American citizenship and repudiated the so-called “three-fifths compromise” of the original document, in which “all other persons” – that is, slaves – counted only as three-fifths of a person. In this, and other ways, the original Constitution had legitimated slavery. The amendment provided a resolution of our constitutional division before 1861. The victorious North inscribed its triumph into the Constitution: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, . . . are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” (Italics added.) The Constitution theoretically has no superfluous language; the command is unequivocal. The United States has, it should be added, the clearest, most generous and most humane definition of citizenship.
As both a preacher and a politician, Huckabee, naturally, loves to talk. But he appears to babble only silliness when he contemplates the possibility that the Fourteenth Amendment does not mean what it clearly states – or that the Supreme Court will say otherwise. He well knows that the Supreme Court – even his kind of Supreme Court – would have no choice. The Constitution is unequivocal.
In the remote chance that such a case wound its way through the courts, the highest court would undoubtedly dismiss the cause without comment. Perfect for Huckabee and others who choose not to consider real, valid solutions to fix the immigration “problem.”
They can claim that they tried—only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court. They would not be the first politicians to beg off responsibility and accountability.
For those who desire Draconian measures to deal with illegal immigrants, expelling the children or purging their proper citizenship is only for their dreams – and our nightmares.
Posted on: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 - 17:21
SOURCE: Naked Historian at the website of US Politics Today (1-16-08)
It's another one of those jump out the window days on Wall Street again, where incompetence and outrageous irresponsibility are taking their toll on the cash reserves of our nation's leading banks. This time its Citibank's turn at the great confessional before the national conscience, and it looks like another $20 billion will be reported as evaporated and in need of timely replacement. What makes this bank failure all the more unpalatable to the American palate is that the short fall is being made up by Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) behind which stand the very same nations which the 9/11 terrorists called home. Is this a new, more subtle terrorist attack on lower Manhattan, or are these just foreign-held dollars looking for the best bargain out there? From an historical perspective, it is simply water seeking its own level.
One of the more spectacular cases of massive bank losses in history is the story of Austria's Kreditanstalt- Europe's largest bank in the 1920's. Backed by Rothschild money and seemingly buffered from any catastrophe, it was the pride of the European side, despite its exposure in short-term credit. After 1929, gold repatriation began to deplete the bank's capital base, and by May, 1931, the institution declared insolvency; the Austrian government took over the bank. Note that it wasn't due to bad debt that Kreditanstalt faltered, but by massive depletion of reserves. Today's Citibank offers a lesson in how far the banking industry has progressed: in that case it was simply bad management that was responsible for the losses. But should ownership in such a prestigious monument of economic development such as Citibank be sold off to a lurking SWF?
Kreditanstalt ultimately survived the Depression and World War II, though in an altered and disfigured form. Interestingly, it became a major investor in the Austrian economy, and on its board sat none other than the Austrian government. Back then, it was better to keep bad debt in the family, so to speak, and keep ownership of this duality within the country. This little alpine nation shares an interesting history of blocking foreign capital or nationals from owning any part of what the Austrians consider "national institutions". Up until the country reluctantly joined the EU, Germans were not allowed to buy land in Austria- for fear of 80 million Germans over-running the 5 million Austrians in one swoop. Again. Most nations have laws that foreigners cannot hold certain assets, or percentages of assets, in even some of the most benign of industries. Volkswagen must always be German, Airbus manufacture will be in Europe, and Russia is in the habit of taking those things back that it considers are in danger of being misused- so Europe expanded the EU so it could lock the gates later, and the United States went the other way.
The catalyst was the "Washington Consensus", which was the belief that free trade was also a political goal and that Washington should use the World Bank and IMF to convince the world to open its markets to foreign capital- preferably American. When the dollar was down back then, for those of us who remember, it was the Japanese who came in and bought up Manhattan and some other over-priced real estate, and back then everybody thought it was the end of the American century. But the Japanese economy tripped and fell over its monumental debt and the Japanese investment machine divested shortly after. In the 1980's, we learned that foreign capital was good. Today, we can only send Christmas cards to Daimler Benz, which spent ridiculous amounts of money over here- and then ran away. Meanwhile, the banks learned in an uncluttered legal environment they could re-package their real estate obligations and sell them on the uncluttered stock exchange and no one would hold them to the 10% rule of how many mortgages a bank can make. By the turn of this century the American banking industry had the opposite problem that Kreditanstalt had back in the 1920's: too much cash and lots of ways to make more.
So in some ways the coming recession will have something in common with the American Great Depression of the 1930's, but the effects it will have on international finances won't be the same. This is where SWFs come in. Unlike institutional investor money with its origin in another world capital, an SWF is actually a lot of cash held by a government that is overseeing an economy with considerable reserves it has to invest. Naturally, the only economies that have this problem are the oil-producing ones, so an SWF is really a foreign government that is purchasing what it believes to be a good deal. It is more aggressive than a bank or fund, and the motives behind the investment are subject to political extortion invisible to the naked American eye. But it isn't dangerous.
Citibank is in dire straits because of bad loans; the SWFs which are interested should be encouraged to purchase as much of this debt as it wants to. A government bailout can be considered for a banking industry that is hit with external forces, such as Kreditanstalt was in 1931, but this is not the case today. The problem with the present situation is that the fault lies with the banking industry. Just as homeowners have to take a hit on the value of their homes now, so must banks be prepared to reduce their earnings and pencil in their losses as part of good faith. CEO's usually lose their jobs over mistakes like these.
In the end, the SWF is simply the oil money that was spent on Saudi crude before. The coming recession should be long and shallow- thanks to the return to the US of a massive cash influx, which is aided by the weak dollar. If we take the 20th century example and apply it to the present case, a simple devaluation of the US dollar is the best remedy for the banking industry. Why are those foreigners so interested in US companies? Understand that the SWFs will lose the value of their dollars as soon as they are turned into Euros, Yen or Yuan for investments in those countries. But they won't lose it if they invest in America, where at this time there just happen to be some really good deals to be picked up. In the end, a sell-off of property in the United States will buy us out of the recession, and we should remember how difficult it was in history to reach the understanding of capital behavior that we have today.
Posted on: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 - 16:28
SOURCE: Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH blog) (1-14-08)
It is not “the West against the rest.” All throughout human history, civilizations have coexisted and competed, and there is no good reason to assume that this will change in the foreseeable future. True, there is still considerable resistance to accepting such obvious facts as, for instance, the shrinking importance of Europe—demographically, economically, politically—even though the rise and decline of civilizations is a phenomenon as old as the hills. The position of America in the world without a strong Europe will certainly be weakened.
But looking ahead, the present threat is not really a “clash of civilizations,” but fanaticism and aggression, which are of particular importance in an age of weapons of mass destruction. There is no need to spell out where fanaticism is most rampant and dangerous at the present time. But it is less clear how durable fanaticism is, how long its intensity will last.
History seems to show that it is largely (albeit not entirely) a generational phenomenon. It seldom lasts longer than two or three generations, if that. How little time passed from the desert austerity of early Islam to the luxury of the Abbasid court in Baghdad! The impetus which led to the the Crusades petered out in several decades. More recently, in the age of secular religions such as Communism, fanaticism (even enthusiasm) evaporated even more quickly. The pulse of history is quickening in our time, everywhere on the globe.
All of which leads to the question: what undermines and weakens fanaticism, aggression and expansion—and what follows it? (In some respects this resembles the debate prompted by Leon Festinger a few decades ago: what follows if and when prophecy fails?) The importance of economic factors in this context has been exaggerated (with certain exceptions); the impact of culture (in the widest sense) has been underrated.
It is a phenomenon that can perhaps best be observed among the Muslim communities in Europe. On one hand, there has been palpable radicalization with the emergence of a new underclass, the failure in the educational process, the sense of discrimination, the search for identity and pride. There seems to have been the emergence of what was called in nineteenth-century France les classes dangereuses. But even in these social strata, it is becoming more difficult to keep the fold in line. As a leading Berlin imam put it, the road to the (fundamentalist) mosque is long, the temptations are many and “we are likely to lose about half of the young on the way.” It is a process which virtually all religions have experienced, and Islam seems to be no exception. The importance of the street gang (as yet insufficiently studied) could be as great as that of religion or ideology.
There is the contempt for Western decadence as expressed for instance in the growth of pornography denounced by Muslim preachers. Pornography has a very long history. It is a term often used loosely and arbitrarily; views and attitudes have radically changed in time and not only in Western culture. Kleist’s Marquise of ‘O, a novella published two hundred years ago, was dismissed as pornography at the time. Today it is deemed a jewel of world literature and no one would consider it particularly erotic. For centuries, there has been an erotic strain in Islamic literature, and greater experts than I have written about it. Salafis now regard it as pornography, which is haram because it is fahsha (obscenity, abomination, fornication) as stated in the Quran.
But the preachers seem not to have been too successful. The list of the countries with the most frequent surfers on the Internet looking for “sex” is headed by Pakistan, followed by India, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Indonesia and even Iran. As Oscar Wilde sagely noted, he could resist anything but temptation—or as the New Testament puts it, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
In brief, there is a tremendous difference between the holy writs and their exegesis and the reality in matters sexual. And this is true for many aspects of modern mass culture. After the Iron Curtain had come down and the cold war had ended, some astute Soviet observers noted that the Beatles had played a role in the breakdown of the Soviet empire. I’m in Love and Good Day, Sunshine probably did not play a decisive political role in the fall of the Soviet Union, but they were part of an underground culture which spread and contributed to the gradual subversion of the official secular religion to which everyone paid lip service.
Sexual issues and mass culture have been mentioned as a mere examples; many other factors contribute to the dissolution and breakdown of fanaticism. The point is that the fanatical impulse does not last forever, and it may peter out more quickly than we tend to think today.
But this should not lead to a feeling of great relief—the assumption that the danger has passed and that all we have to do is to sit patiently and wait. It could still be a process of a few generations, and the question arises whether that much time is left to humankind to avert a disaster (or disasters). For the first time in history, small groups of people will have the potential to cause millions of deaths and unimaginable damage; no great armies will be needed for this purpose. It is a race against time.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 22:54
SOURCE: http://www.sptimes.com (1-13-08)
It was a bumper year in 2007 for newspaper reports about the flow of people and objects between China and America. We read about tainted toothpaste coming here, Hollywood film crews going there to film the latest Survivor and Yao Ming crisscrossing the Pacific to marry in Shanghai and shoot baskets in Houston.
With the 2008 Olympics set to take place in Beijing in August, international tourism to China is likely to reach an all-time high.
That road runs both ways. On a recent Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran two stories about new developments in East-West tourism. One predicted that changed visa rules would bring record numbers of Chinese travelers to the L.A. area to visit Disneyland, shop for brand-name luxury goods and stay at hotels where Mandarin is spoken. The Travel section's lead story was "Revved Up for the Silk Road," an account of a motorcycle tour through terrain Marco Polo first made globally famous.
Such increasing East-West connections have inspired scores of breathless commentaries about the future. But as 2008 begins, it's worth trying to catch our breath and use some recently published books to look over our shoulders and ask: What can we learn from past moments when East-West exchanges proliferated?
A good starting place is Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, in which Timothy Brook treats the objects appearing in the Dutch artist's paintings - tobacco and beaver pelts from North America, silver from South America, fine porcelain from China - as doors that open to reveal the surprisingly global dimensions of the 1600s.
Just published, this elegantly crafted book sheds light on everything from art to colonialism, but its biggest payoff has to do with fakes.
In Vermeer's time, Brook notes, European-made faux Chinese porcelain pieces were more common than Chinese imitations of Western goods....
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 22:39
SOURCE: Gloria Center (1-14-08)
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles have been written on President George Bush's visit to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And not a single one that I've seen has mentioned the ridiculously obvious point that goes so far in explaining everything.
To paraphrase the nursery rhyme about circling endlessly, Bush is merely taking us around the mulberry bush once more. Namely, this is an exact replay of Bill Clinton's presidency. Eight years ago, in his last twelve months in office, Clinton, too, decided that the conflict must be resolved right away. Result: total, humiliating failure and a five-year-long bloody Palestinian war on Israel.
As if this were not enough, whether or not even more violence will follow, Bush, through no fault of his own, is in a far worse position to play this game than was his predecessor.
Let's compare these two cycles and see what should have been learned already. Perhaps, though I doubt it, the next administration will figure things out better.
In 2000, a seven-year-long peace process was due for completion. The Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank had been turned over to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Yasir Arafat. The PA had been given billions of dollars and military equipment, becoming a virtual client of the United States. Despite these efforts, there was anarchy in the PA-ruled territory, constant incitement to violence against Israel on the official news media, no psychological or ideological preparation of the Palestinians by their leadership for peace, and a massive wasting of funds.
Later, some analysts would explain away the failure by saying it was a mistake to force Arafat to the negotiating table for a decision. At the time, though, all one heard was how Arafat needed progress or he would lose control of his people and that the window of opportunity was closing. The U.S., Israeli, and European governments also wanted diplomatic progress for interests of their own. The result was not only the Camp David summit but also, and in some ways even more important, the Clinton plan that followed. The Palestinian leadership rejected both and instead opted for war.
Bush's new policy may be a big change for him but, after all, he is merely making the same analysis and offering the same terms as his predecessor. It was an understanding of what went wrong with Clinton's thinking and his generous bid--in part taught them by Clinton itself--that explains the Bush administration's lower level of effort for most of its time in office.
What does Arafat's situation and behavior tell us about those of his successors today? In all but a single respect--and that one only apparently--things are worse today. The one potential salvation was that Arafat had the power to make a deal if he wanted to do so. Of course, he did not. The Palestinian leader was restrained by his own character, ideology, and fear of his own people (who he had trained toward extremism for decades).
The apparent improvement regarding PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is that he is more willing to make peace. Yet this is more than counterbalanced by his extraordinary weakness. Not only has Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip--which everyone knows--but also Abbas does not have control over Fatah itself. If anything, Palestinian attitudes, where it counts in terms of public politics and not merely personal opinions, is even more extreme.
One can almost hear experts saying in a few years: "Of course it was a mistake to force Abbas into a position where he had to say 'no' instead of always saying 'maybe.'' And that's why he fell from power to be replaced by Hamas (or even more anarchy)."
But aren't the Palestinians desperate for a solution, given all their suffering? Don't they pant after a state; won't the refugees rejoice at returning from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to the new state of Palestine?
The answer, as it was in Clinton's time, is "no." The ideology of extremist nationalism and Islamism, belief that total victory is possible, miscomprehension of Israel, and suspicion of the West are all still in place.
Even if there was a Palestinian leader able to transcend all those pressures he would still restrained by knowing that to make a deal might not only be personally fatal but--far more certain--would destroy his reputation and career. Nobody will act like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in making peace with Israel because look what happened to him (reviled, boycotted by the Arab world, and assassinated).
Nor do Palestinian leaders feel a need to run such risks. A far easier, successful policy is to take billions of Western aid dollars while doing nothing and blaming everything on Israeli intransigence and U.S. mistakes.
After all, who acts as if they desperately needed a diplomatic solution right away and would pay anything to get it? Not the Palestinians or the Arab states but, of course, the West and the United States. The bargaining tool of choice is: offer everything up front and ask for little or nothing in exchange.
Why is there such a shocking gap between reality and policy? In part, there is ample ignorance and foolishness but there are also solid reasons (though partly illusory ones) for the prevailing strategy. For U.S. policymakers, goals include trying to build an anti-Iran/Islamist alliance, gain domestic support, make European allies happy, and soothe Arabs and Muslims in the hope this will reduce Islamism and anti-Americanism.
Some policymakers are suitably cynical. Others are true believers who really think that solving the conflict will make all the other regional problems go away and are simply unaware why this issue is different from all other, at least non-Middle East, issues. The ultimate rationale is: we must try; it can't hurt to try.
Of course nothing will happen. But the real question is whether anything is learned? Some will get wise, as happened in 2000; others won't. They will find easy excuses: Bush was incompetent, if only the seating had been arranged differently or the plan worded differently, or the United States had tried five percent harder.
The great rock group Bill Haley & His Comets did a new version of the nursery rhyme in 1953, optimistically entitled, "Stop Beatin' Round the Mulberry Bush"Â What is most important, though, is that history always has the last laugh. In the end, the intellectual supposes; the policymaker proposes, but reality has its way.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 22:14
SOURCE: FrontpageMag.com (1-14-08)
The Palestinian"right of return" entered the lexicon of American policymakers in December 2006, when the Iraq Study Group Report urged the U.S. government to support Israel-Palestinian negotiations that addresses what it termed a"key final status issue." That recommendation came as a mild shock, given that the"right of return" to Israel is transparently a code phrase to overwhelm Israel demographically, thereby undoing Zionism and the Jewish state, and so never before a goal of official Washington.
A year later, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino adopted the term, though without much notice. Out of seemingly nowhere, she informed journalists at a press briefing on November 28, 2007 that"The right of return issue is a part of the road map and it's going to be one of the issues that the Israelis and the Palestinians have to talk about during … negotiations."
Indeed, on schedule,"right of return" emerged as a motif before and during George W. Bush's recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, when he mentioned it three times publicly:
January 4: In an interview with Israel's Channel 2, Bush announced himself"optimistic that we can have the outlines of a state defined. In other words, negotiations on borders and right of return and these different issues can be settled."
January 9: At a joint press conference with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he referred to the core issues of the conflict as"territory and right of return and Jerusalem."
January 10: In a parallel joint press conference with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he stated that the two-state idea"really doesn't have much bearing until borders are defined, right of return issues resolved, Jerusalem is understood, … [and] the common security measures will be in place."
In a different setting, also on January 10, Bush, somewhat elusively, stated his belief that"we need to look to the establishment of a Palestinian state and new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue." Is the"right of return" to be one of those new international mechanisms?
Comments: (1) Despite the major shift in policy implied by the U.S. government adopting the"right of return," the media has largely missed the story, as"The Lurker" documents in"Censoring Bush's call for Palestinian ‘right of return'." In particular, the Jerusalem Post reported on this reference, then posted a second story denying it.
(2) When the Iraq Study Group Report first appeared, analysts puzzled over the"right of return" mention, as one person close to the process explained:"It's hard to know whether that language got in there because of carelessness – I know there were many revisions up to the very last minute – or whether it was a deliberate attempt to fuse something to the Bush rhetoric which wasn't there before." Retrospectively, it appears that the reference was indeed intentional – and quite successful in its purpose."The Lurker" concludes, perhaps correctly, that James A. Baker, III, lead author of the Iraq Study Group Report,"has once again become a major factor in setting U.S. Middle East policy."
(3) This is only one of several problematic statements from the Bush administration, such as the president's morally equivalent reference to"terrorism and incitement, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis" or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's calling the Arab-Israeli conflict the central issue of the Middle East and seeing Palestinians as analogous to Southern blacks.
(4) Bush prefaced his January 10 comment by asserting,"I'm the only president that's really articulated a two-state solution so far," and he is right. Put differently, he is the only U.S. president to promote a"Palestine" and now to call for a Palestinian"right of return." More broadly, throughout his presidency, Bush has marched to his own drummer on the Arab-Israeli issue, offering novel and personal solutions to a century-old problem and throwing out the rulebook on Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
(5) One can only guess how often Bush raised the"right of return" in his private conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, and with what intensity and pressure.
(6) Looking ahead, to the last year of the Bush presidency, quoting myself:"should the Israelis resist a joint U.S.-Palestinian position, I see a possible crisis in U.S.-Israel relations of unprecedented proportions." I am not predicting this will happen but noting that the pieces are all in place for such a development.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 21:53
SOURCE: Religion in American History (blog) (1-12-08)
It is hard not to love a good pair. Two socks are always better than one; I still hope that Sonny and Cher will reunite in the afterlife; and who can imagine Clyde without Bonny. I guess this makes me a little like Noah; not the last righteous man or drunk and naked under a vine, but having a propensity for twos. So today I want to draw your attention to two Randalls: Stephens and Balmer. Both have recently published incredible books in American religious history – one on presidents, the other on Pentecostals; one of friends in high places, the other, well, with friends that traffic with Garth Brooks. Interestingly, Stephens’s The Fire Spreads and Balmer’s God in the White House may have more in common than at first glance.
Randall Balmer is a name we all know. I first encountered him in the summer of 1999; I was babysitting at the pool and reading Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. It was great vacation reading then, and is still today. His sensitivity and insight for religious people often misunderstood is amazing. Balmer fashioned himself then as the grand critic and insider of evangelical America, and everyone seemed to agree he was ideal for the role. Now, with God in the White House, Balmer has taken up a prescient task – explaining the relationship between religion and the American presidency over the past four decades.
God in the White House is a book we desperately need. Balmer has studied and thought deeply about what is on everyone’s mind: religion and the modern presidency. Whether we’re trying to figure out Romney’s chances as a Mormon or Obama’s connection to African American Christianity, God in the White House helps us to understand the possibilities and perils of linking religion and politics. Balmer shows, hilariously at times, sadly on other occasions, a sweeping change over the past four decades. In 1960, John F. Kennedy urged Americans to disregard a politician’s faith when making a choice. By 2008, personal faith is ubiquitous in American politics. Balmer narrates how this happened. He takes the reader through the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush; through the streets of Dallas, the hallways of Watergate, the tax status of Bob Jones University, and the prayer meetings of Bill Clinton. This is a remarkable book. It is much about the American present as it is the past.
It’s also funny. I laughed riotously when Jacqueline Kennedy faulted John’s critics about his faith when she commented, “I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic, … He’s such a poor Catholic.” There are bunches of quotes just like this.
Those vying for the White House should rush off, buy God in the White House, and read it immediately (or at least they should have an aide look into it). Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert should line up Balmer (and heck, other political news anchors, such as Tim Russert, should court Balmer’s time too). This is certainly the type of religious literacy we need far more than knowledge about the New England Primer. Balmer has an outrageous idea that Americans should consider, one that might make politicians shudder: we, the people, should hold our politicians accountable for the religious rhetoric they use. Say Jesus inspired you most, for example, then you better prize the humble, the poor, and the downtrodden. If not, then expect the wrath of the people.
Some scholars may dislike Balmer’s penchant for moral criticism, especially of conservative politics and politicians. It is true, Balmer tends to believe Bill Clinton while distrusting George W. Bush. Dissenters might say that Balmer is too political, too much of a presentist. But I think this type of criticism is misguided. Howard Zinn shouldn’t have had to tell us almost forty years ago, nor now, that history is political. There is no getting around it. And Balmer shouldn’t have to remind us, as Sydney Ahlstrom always said (so I’m told, I never met him) that one of the offices of the religious historian is to look at the moral world she sees and to tell the narrative of how we arrived there. Rather than lambast Balmer for being too political, his opponents should write honest moral histories of the Bush clan, of Ronald Reagan, and of Richard Nixon. Show Balmer, prove to him and others, that these men led Christian lives that translated into policies that supported Christian aims of love, mercy, forgiveness, honesty, compassion, and caring....
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 19:40
SOURCE: WaPo (1-6-08)
... If you're looking for the origins of Kenya's ethnic tensions, look to its colonial past.
Far from leaving behind democratic institutions and cultures, Britain bequeathed to its former colonies corrupted and corruptible governments. Colonial officials hand-picked political successors as they left in the wake of World War II, lavishing political and economic favors on their proteges. This process created elites whose power extended into the post-colonial era.
Added to this was a distinctly colonial view of the rule of law, which saw the British leave behind legal systems that facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government. And compounding these legacies was Britain's famous imperial policy of "divide and rule," playing one side off another, which often turned fluid groups of individuals into immutable ethnic units, much like Kenya's Luo and Kikuyu today. In many former colonies, the British picked favorites from among these newly solidified ethnic groups and left others out in the cold. We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today's conflicts in Africa. In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.
It's no wonder that newly independent countries such as Kenya maintained and even deepened the old imperial heritage of authoritarianism and ethnic division. The British had spent decades trying to keep the Luo and Kikuyu divided, quite rightly fearing that if the two groups ever united, their combined power could bring down the colonial order. Indeed, a short-lived Luo-Kikuyu alliance in the late 1950s hastened Britain's retreat from Kenya and forced the release of Jomo Kenyatta, the nation's first president, from a colonial detention camp. But before their departure, the British schooled the future Kenyans on the lessons of a very British model of democratic elections. Britain was determined to protect its economic and geopolitical interests during the decolonization process, and it did most everything short of stuffing ballot boxes to do so. That set dangerous precedents. Among other maneuvers, the British drew electoral boundaries to cut the representation of groups they thought might cause trouble and empowered the provincial administration to manipulate supposedly democratic outcomes.
Old habits die hard. Three years after Kenya became independent in 1963, the Luo-Kikuyu alliance fell apart. Kenyatta and his Kikuyu elite took over the state; the Luo, led by Oginga Odinga (Raila Odinga's father) formed an opposition party that was eventually quashed. Kenyatta established a one-party state in 1969 and tossed the opposition, including Odinga, into detention, much as the British had done to him and his cronies during colonial rule in the 1950s. The Kikuyu then enjoyed many of the country's spoils throughout Kenyatta's reign....
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 19:31
SOURCE: WaPo (1-13-08)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's upset victory in the New Hampshire primary last week was every bit as impressive as Sen. Barack Obama's Iowa caucus breakout five days before -- if anything, more impressive, since his win was predicted and hers unforeseen. But the reactions to the two events couldn't have been more different. Obama's Jan. 3 triumph let loose a giddiness bordering on exhilaration among voters and, especially, media commentators, who hailed his triumph as "historic," even though he was not in fact the first African American to win a major presidential nominating contest. (Jesse Jackson won 13 primaries and caucuses in 1988.) By contrast, when Clinton overcame long odds to become the first woman in U.S. history to win a major-party primary, no leading news outlet trumpeted this landmark feat. Many failed to mention it at all.
This startling difference underscores one of Obama's advantages heading into the do-or-die Feb. 5th contests. "Obamamania" sputtered in the Granite State, but it is far from dead. Many of the voters and pundits who were thrilled by Obama's compelling Iowa speech 10 days ago remain intoxicated, heady with the hope that he can deliver not just "change" -- any candidate running would do that -- but a categorically different kind of change from Clinton or the Republican candidates. So what explains the magic?
The most obvious explanation is Obama's stirring oratory, with its notes of generational change and unity. The key to his seduction, though, resides not just in what he says but in what remains unsaid. It lies in the tacit offer -- a promise about overcoming America's shameful racial history -- that his particular candidacy offers to his enthusiasts, and to us all.
Obama's allure differs from the infatuations of past election cycles because it can't be traced to what he has done or will do. In his legislative career, Obama has produced few concrete policy changes, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a rank-and-file fan who can cite one. Not since 1896 -- when another rousing speechmaker, William Jennings Bryan, sought the White House -- has the zeal for a candidate corresponded so little to a record of hard accomplishment. But merely asking if Obama has done enough for us to expect he'd be a good president misses the point, because that measures the past rather than imagining the future.
Yet if Obama charms us by pointing to tomorrow, he doesn't come bearing a new ideological vision. In the 1980 primaries, the insurgent Ronald Reagan won on his robust, pro-military, anti-government conservatism, a philosophy that until then had languished even within the GOP. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton triumphed because he was the first Democrat since the 1960s to formulate a viable and vital new liberalism -- one rooted in years of policy wonkery, a frank reckoning with his party's failures and an early recognition of the importance of globalization.
But where Clinton converted voters to his philosophy with binder-thick proposals, from AmeriCorps to welfare reform to the earned-income tax credit, Obama fans rarely tout his specific ideas. No one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's. On the contrary, Obama's ideology, insofar as he has articulated it, seems to be a familiar, mainstream liberalism, heavy on communitarianism. High-minded and process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic Party's working-class base than to upscale professionals.
The Obama phenomenon, then, stems not from what he has done but who he is. ...
Ultimately, it is a fantasy of easy redemption....
KC Johnson: Obama as"White Hope"?
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 19:30
SOURCE: Origins (2-1-08)
Earlier this year, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the District of Columbia’s local gun-control law on Second Amendment grounds. The D.C. Court is only the second Appeals Court to affirm that the Second Amendment protects an individual (as opposed to collective) right to bear arms, and the first one to actually strike down an existing gun control law on this basis. The case is now heading to the Supreme Court, which has not taken a Second Amendment case in almost seventy years. District of Columbia v Heller will likely shape the contours of future discussions of gun control for decades to come.
It might even have an impact on the dynamics of the 2008 presidential election. For better or worse, history—the history of the 2nd amendment and the history of how Americans have interpreted it—is also likely to be at the heart of the case.
The Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” What do these words mean? Well, the answer to this question depends on who you ask. Supporters of the so-called collective rights interpretation believe that the Second Amendment only protects the right to bear arms within the context of well regulated militias. Supporters of the so-called “individual right” interpretation view the right to bear arms as a right vested in individuals, much like the 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The fact that there are two such divergent interpretations is the result of significant changes in how Americans view the 2nd Amendment that occurred during the latter part of the twentieth century. For most of the last century, the meaning of the Second Amendment was not particularly controversial: the courts, legal scholars, politicians, and historians endorsed some version of the collective rights interpretation. As late as 1991, Chief Justice Warren Burger described the individual rights view as an intellectual fraud. Yet, the growth of a revisionist individual rights theory of the Second Amendment in the years since Burger made his comment has been nothing short of astonishing....
No First Amendment scholar would argue that we ought to interpret freedom of the press exactly as the Founders understood it. Yet, claims like this are common in Second Amendment scholarship where the original meaning of the Amendment seems to figure more centrally than in other areas of constitutional law. In part the propensity toward originalism—the theory that we ought to interpret the Constitution according to its original meaning—mirrors the ideology of modern conservative thought. Originalism fits with conservatism because it provides a strong critique of the modern regulatory state created after the New Deal. Second Amendment originalism also draws on a potent set of myths associated with America’s past, particularly the idea of the Minuteman. Thus, gun rights sites on the internet invariably carry images of the Minuteman. (Although these images are generally drawn from the individualistic and romantic 19th century memorials to the Minuteman and have little to do with the real Minutemen who were part of the Founding era’s well regulated militia.) http://www.gunowners.org/
Ironically, the originalist arguments in favor of an individual rights view of the Second Amendment are probably the intellectually weakest arguments to support this position. One could make a much stronger and intellectually more interesting argument in support of an individual rights view if one adopted a living constitution argument. Supporters of a living constitution believe we ought to interpret the Constitution according to modern concerns and beliefs, recognizing that America has changed radically since the 18th century. Polling data over the last few decades have consistently shown that most Americans believe the Second Amendment protects an individual right. http://www.pollingreport.com/guns.htm
It would be easy to imagine a theory of the 2nd Amendment that defended this right as part of a living Constitution that has evolved toward a more individualistic conception of rights. Yet, most gun rights advocates eschew this line of argument in favor of originalist historical claims about the Second Amendment. In part this decision reflects the underlying political ideologies behind gun rights. Libertarians and social conservatives, the two groups most closely identified with the individual rights view, are generally uncomfortable with living constitutional arguments because the idea of an evolving constitution has been closely associated with modern liberalism over the past century.
There are problems, however, with this reliance on an originalist interpretation: it rests on a distorted view of the past. Consider some of the claims made by gun rights supporters. No figure has been more abused by Second Amendment originalists than Thomas Jefferson. As one gun rights advocate noted: “It is clear Jefferson was strongly in favor of personal arms. In June of 1796, Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington, 'one loves to possess arms.’” This quote has been cited by four different pro-individual rights scholars in law reviews. The quote is accurate, but it is clearly taken out of context. In a forthcoming article in the Albany Government Law Journal, historian David Konig points out that this quote had nothing to do with firearms. Jefferson was actually talking metaphorically, about having all of the facts one needed in an argument—going into an argument with all the right “ammunition.”...
HNN Hot Topics: Gun Control
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 16:35
SOURCE: Salon (1-15-08)
Republican voters seem to trust the former prisoner of war on matters military. Ironically, the foremost proponent of the surge in the 2008 field, the man who proclaimed a willingness to stay in Iraq for a century if necessary, has even emerged as the favorite of those Republicans who express anxiety about the Iraq war and question the Bush administration's conduct of same. McCain won heavily among that constituency in New Hampshire last Tuesday, and a Detroit Free Press poll found that McCain led former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by more than 15 percentage points among the nearly one-quarter of Michigan Republicans for whom Iraq is the No. 1 issue. Looking past Tuesday's primary, however, McCain's strategy of declaring an ongoing victory is extremely risky. January has already seen a sharp uptick in violence, leaving dozens of Iraqi civilians and 20 U.S. soldiers dead since the beginning of the year, with the potential to bring into question the Arizona senator's credibility if the violence continues at that rate.
In December, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of ground forces in Iraq, had cautioned that "what has been achieved here remains tenuous and is still fragile in a number of areas." His prudence was vindicated the week after New Year's Day when Iraqi insurgents killed nine U.S. troops in two days. The deaths came in the course of a U.S. push against radical Muslim guerrillas in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. In the latter, U.S. troops entered a booby-trapped house while pursuing guerrillas, and when the bombs detonated they killed six soldiers and wounded four. On Saturday, a bomb killed one U.S. soldier and wounded four while they were operating in the northern province of Nineveh. In all of December, 23 U.S. soldiers had died in action, whereas by mid-January the toll was already 19....
Posted on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - 13:17
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (1-13-08)
It's a presidential campaign like no other. The candidates have been falling all over each other in their rush to declare the depth and sincerity of their religious faith. The pundits have been just as eager to raise questions that seem obvious and important: Should we let religious beliefs influence the making of law and public policy? If so, in what way and to what extent? Those questions, however, assume that candidates bring the subject of faith into the political arena largely to justify -- or turn up the heat under -- their policy positions. In fact, faith talk often has little to do with candidates' stands on the issues. There's something else going on here.
Look at the TV ad that brought Mike Huckabee out of obscurity in Iowa, the one that identified him as a"Christian Leader" who proclaims:"Faith doesn't just influence me. It really defines me." That ad did indeed mention a couple of actual political issues -- the usual suspects, abortion and gay marriage -- but only in passing. Then Huckabee followed up with a red sweater-themed Christmas ad that actively encouraged voters to ignore the issues. We're all tired of politics, the kindly pastor indicated. Let's just drop all the policy stuff and talk about Christmas -- and Christ.
Ads like his aren't meant to argue policy. They aim to create an image -- in this case, of a good Christian with a steady moral compass who sticks to his principles. At a deeper level, faith-talk ads work hard to turn the candidate -- whatever candidate -- into a bulwark of solidity, a symbol of certainty; their goal is to offer assurance that the basic rules for living remain fixed, objective truths, as true as religion.
In a time when the world seems like a shaky place -- whether you have a child in Iraq, a mortgage you may not be able to meet, a pension threatening to head south, a job evaporating under you, a loved one battling drug or alcohol addiction, an ex who just came out as gay or born-again, or a president you just can't trust -- you may begin to wonder whether there is any moral order in the universe. Are the very foundations of society so shaky that they might not hold up for long? Words about faith -- nearly any words -- speak reassuringly to such fears, which haunt millions of Americans.
These fears and the religious responses to them have been a key to the political success of the religious right in recent decades. Randall Balmer, a leading scholar of evangelical Christianity, points out that it's offered not so much"issues" to mobilize around as"an unambiguous morality in an age of moral and ethical uncertainty."
Mitt Romney was courting the evangelical-swinging-toward-Huckabee vote when he, too, went out of his way to link religion with moral absolutes in his big Iowa speech on faith. Our" common creed of moral convictions… the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet" turned out, utterly unsurprisingly, to be none other than religious soil:"We believe that every single human being is a child of God… liberty is a gift of God." No doubts allowed here.
American politicians have regularly wielded religious language and symbolism in their moments of need, and such faith talk has always helped provide a sense of moral certainty in a shape-shifting world. But in the better years of the previous century, candidates used religion mostly as an adjunct to the real meat of the political process, a tool to whip up support for policies.
How times have changed. Think of it, perhaps, as a way to measure the powerful sense of unsettledness that has taken a firm hold on American society. Candidates increasingly keep their talk about religion separate from specific campaign issues. They promote faith as something important and valuable in and of itself in the election process. They invariably avow the deep roots of their religious faith and link it not with issues, but with certitude itself.
Sometimes it seems that Democrats do this with even more grim regularity than Republicans. John Edwards, for example, reassured the nation that"the hand of God today is in every step of what happens with me and every human being that exists on this planet." In the same forum, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that she"had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought. And that's all one can expect or hope for."
When religious language enters the political arena in this way, as an end in itself, it always sends the same symbolic message: Yes, Virginia (or Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina) there are absolute values, universal truths that can never change. You are not adrift in a sea of moral chaos. Elect me and you're sure to have a fixed mooring to hold you and your community fast forever.
That message does its work in cultural depths that arguments about the separation of church and state can never touch. Even if the candidates themselves don't always understand what their words are doing, this is the biggest, most overlooked piece in today's faith and politics puzzle -- and once you start looking for it, you find it nearly everywhere on the political landscape.
The Threat to Democracy
So, when it comes to religion and politics, here's the most critical question: Should we turn the political arena into a stage to dramatize our quest for moral certainty? The simple answer is no -- for lots of reasons.
For starters, it's a direct threat to democracy. The essence of our system is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don't discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, and therefore to change. In a democracy, there should be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view -- and to change his or her mind. It's a process whose outcome should never be predictable, a process without end. A claim to absolute truth -- any absolute truth -- stops that process.
For those of us who see the political arena as the place where the whole community gathers to work for a better world, it's even more important to insist that politics must be about large-scale change. The politics of moral absolutes sends just the opposite message: Don't worry, whatever small changes are necessary, it's only in order to resist the fundamental crumbling that frightens so many. Nothing really important can ever change.
Many liberals and progressives hear that profoundly conservative message even when it's hidden beneath all the reasonable arguments about church and state. That's one big reason they are often so quick to sound a shrill alarm at every sign of faith-based politics.
They also know how easy it is to go from"there is a fixed truth" to"I have that fixed truth." And they've seen that the fixed truth in question is all too often about personal behaviors that ought to be matters of free choice in a democracy.
Which brings us to the next danger: Words alone are rarely enough to reassure the uncertain. In fact, the more people rely on faith talk to pursue certainty, the more they may actually reinforce both anxiety and uncertainty. It's a small step indeed to move beyond the issue of individual self-control to controlling others through the passage of laws.
Campaigns to put the government's hands on our bodies are not usually missionary efforts meant to make us accept someone else's religion. They are much more often campaigns to stage symbolic dramas about self-control and moral reassurance.
Controlling the Passions
American culture has always put a spotlight on the question: Can you control your impulses and desires -- especially sexual desires -- enough to live up to the moral rules? As historian of religion John F. Wilson tells us, the quest for surety has typically focused on a" control of self" that"through discipline" finally becomes self-control. In the 2008 presidential campaign, this still remains true. Listen, for example, to Barack Obama:"My Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance can help fortify… a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy."
Mitt Romney fit snugly into the same mold. He started his widely-heralded statement on religion by talking about a time when"our nation faced its greatest peril," a threat to"the survival of a free land." Was he talking about terrorism? No. He immediately went on to warn that the real danger comes from"human passions unbridled." Only morality and religion can do the necessary bridling, he argued, quoting John Adams to make his case:"Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people" -- in other words, people who can control themselves. That's why"freedom requires religion."
All too often, though, the faith-talk view of freedom ends up taking away freedom. When Romney said he'd be"delighted" to sign"a federal ban on all abortions," only a minority of Americans approved of that position (if we can believe the polls), but it was a sizeable minority. For them, fear of unbridled passion is stronger than any commitment to personal freedom.
In the end, it may be mostly their own passions that they fear. But since the effort to control oneself is frustrating, it can easily turn into a quest for" control over other selves," to quote historian Wilson again,"with essentially bipolar frameworks for conceiving of the world: good versus bad, us versus them" --"them" being liberals, secular humanists, wild kids, or whatever label the moment calls for.
The upholders of virtue want to convince each other that their values are absolutely true. So they stick together and stand firm against those who walk in error. As Romney put it,"Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me."
That's the main dynamic driving the movements to ban abortion and gay marriage. But they're just the latest in a long line of such movements, including those aimed at prohibiting or restricting alcohol, drugs, gambling, birth control, crime, and other behaviors that are, in a given period, styled as immoral.
Since it's always about getting"them" to control their passions, the target is usually personal behavior. But it doesn't have to be. Just about any law or policy can become a symbol of eternal moral truth -- even foreign policy, one area where liberals, embarked on their own faith-talk campaigns, are more likely to join conservatives.
The bipartisan war on terror has, for instance, been a symbolic drama of"us versus them," acting out a tale of moral truth. Rudolph Giuliani made the connection clear shortly after the 9/11 attack when he went to the United Nations to whip up support for that"war.""The era of moral relativism… must end," he demanded."Moral relativism does not have a place in this discussion and debate."
Nor does it have a place in the current campaign debate about foreign policy. Candidate Huckabee, for example, has no hesitation about linking war abroad to the state of morality here at home. He wants to continue fighting in Iraq, he says, because"our way of life, our economic and moral strength, our civilization is at stake… I am determined to look this evil in the eye, confront it, defeat it." As his anti-gay marriage statement asks,"What's the point of keeping the terrorists at bay in the Middle East, if we can't keep decline and decadence at bay here at home?"
On the liberal side, the theme is more muted but still there. Barack Obama, for instance, has affirmed that the U.S. must"lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good. I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth." Apparently that's why we need to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq indefinitely. Clinton calls for"a bipartisan consensus to ensure our interests, increase our security and advance our values," acting out"our deeply-held desire to remake the world as it ought to be." Apparently that's why, in her words,"we cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran."
When words and policies become symbols of moral absolutes, they are usually about preventing some"evil" deed or turning things back to the way they (supposedly) used to be. So they are likely to have a conservative impact, even when they come from liberals.
The Future of Faith Talk
In itself, faith in politics poses no great danger to democracy as long as the debates are really about policies -- and religious values are translated into political values, articulated in ways that can be rationally debated by people who don't share them. The challenge is not to get religion out of politics. It's to get the quest for certitude out of politics.
The first step is to ask why that quest seems increasingly central to our politics today. It's not simply because a right-wing cabal wants to impose its religion on us. The cabal exists, but it's not powerful enough to shape the political scene on its own. That power lies with millions of voters across the political spectrum. Candidates talk about faith because they want to win votes.
Voters reward faith talk because they want candidates to offer them symbols of immutable moral order. The root of the problem lies in the underlying insecurities of voters, in a sense of powerlessness that makes change seem so frightening, and control -- especially of others -- so necessary.
The only way to alter that condition is to transform our society so that voters will feel empowered enough to take the risks, and tolerate the freedom that democracy requires. That would be genuine change. It's a political problem with a political solution. Until that solution begins to emerge, there is no way to take the conservative symbolic message of faith talk out of American politics.
This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.
Posted on: Sunday, January 13, 2008 - 22:28
SOURCE: New Republic (1-12-08)
In war, truth is the first casualty--but in politics, it appears that the first victim is history.
The latest maiming of the historical record and elementary historical logic has come over Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson--and the presidential primaries of 2008. The media echo chamber is now booming with charges that Senator Hillary Clinton has disparaged Dr. King, praised President Johnson in his stead, and thereby distorted the history of the civil rights movement. It is the latest evidence, say the talking heads, that Clinton is running a subtly racist campaign--or, as the theology and African-American studies professor Michael Eric Dyson worded it on MSNBC, that she is carrying a message with an "an implicit racial subtext."
Ben Smith of Politico was among the first to stir things up, charging that remarks by Clinton on MLK and LBJ offered "an odd example for the argument between rhetoric and action" that Clinton has been making in her contest with Senator Barack Obama.
By the time the charge reached Maureen Dowd's column in The New York Times on Wednesday, it had morphed into a false claim that Clinton actually compared herself to Johnson--a comparison Dowd claimed she never thought "any living Democrat" would do in trying to win the New Hampshire primary. (Dowd had 1968 and Vietnam on her mind, which, unfortunately, was not the matter in dispute: civil rights.)
Now, Representative James E. Clyburn, the most prominent African-American elected official from South Carolina, has picked up the ever-changing story and implicitly accused Senator Clinton of denigrating Dr. King and the civil rights movement. "We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics," Clyburn told The New York Times.
So--let us very, very carefully look at that historical record.
In a pair of television interviews earlier this week, Clinton made the uncontroversial historical observation that Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement put their lives on the line for racial equality, and that President Johnson enacted civil rights legislation.
Her point was simple: Although great social changes require social movements that create hope and force crises, elected officials, presidents above all, are also required in order to turn those hopes into laws. It was, plainly, a rejoinder to the accusations by Obama that Clinton has sneered at "hope." Clinton was also rebutting Obama's simplistic assertion that "hope" won the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the end of Jim Crow.
The historical record is crystal clear about this, and no responsible historian seriously contests it. Without Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, black and white (not to mention restive slaves), there would have been no agitation to end slavery, even after the Civil War began. But without Douglass's ally in the White House, the sympathetic, deeply anti-slavery but highly pragmatic Abraham Lincoln, there could not have been an Emancipation Proclamation or a Thirteenth Amendment. Likewise, without King and his movement, there would have been no civil rights revolution. But without the Texas liberal and wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson, and his predecessor John F. Kennedy, there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Hope, in other words, is necessary to bring about change--but it is never enough. Change also requires effective leadership inside government. It's not a matter of either/or (that is, either King or Johnson), but a matter of both/and.
Behind this argument over Clinton's comments lies a false, mythic view of the 1960s in which the civil rights movement supposedly pushed Johnson and the Democrats to support civil rights against their own will. In fact, the movement and the elected officials were distinct but complementary elements in the civil rights politics that changed America....
Posted on: Sunday, January 13, 2008 - 19:32
SOURCE: American Progress (1-10-08)
... Remember Iraq?
While everyone is obsessing about New Hampshire and Iowa, let’s take a few steps back and take a look at two other locations that, like those two states, have come to signal so much more than geography: Iraq and Vietnam. Comparisons between these two disastrous U.S. military interventions are hardly uncommon. Everyone from George W. Bush, to Harry Reid, Henry Kissinger, and even Osama bin Laden, has made the analogy. With so many people insisting that the metaphors imply conflicting conclusions, one is tempted merely to let the matter drop.
That would be a shame, however, because the analogy has a great deal to teach us about our own country, if not about the nations of Iraq or Vietnam. Thankfully, a group of historians of U.S. foreign policy have attempted to tie together what some of these lessons might be in a recently published collection, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Marilyn B. Young. The book reveals many telling similarities between the two occupations, along with several key differences.
Iraq may not be “Farsi for Vietnam,” but one truth emerges in this collection of essays: America is still America, and we make the same mistakes over and over. When we heard the drums of war in 2002-03, the alarm bells were sounding. Alas, most of our media and political establishment could not be bothered to stop and think about them, and our soldiers and the Iraqis are paying the price for that today.
When a democracy decides to launch an offensive war, the public must be convinced in advance. And so it’s appropriate that the collection begins with an overview by Gareth Porter of the process of threat exaggeration, if not invention, in both wars.
In the first weeks of the Kennedy administration, a National Intelligence Estimate was produced that concluded that the fall of Vietnam and Laos to Communists would produce no “falling dominoes”—no states that would subsequently ally with Communist China. The report acknowledged there would be less willingness among Southeast Asian nations to go along with policies of hostility towards China as there was in the past, but as Porter writes, this assessment did not make the case that war hawks in Kennedy’s cabinet needed to make.
Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—fully aware of the NIE’s analysis to the contrary—wrote in a memo to Kennedy that “the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would lead to the fairly rapid extension of Communist Control, or complete accommodation to Communism, in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia and in Indonesia.”
A sensibly skeptical John Kennedy rejected this incorrect analysis, but following his assassination, McNamara and his followers made the false “domino theory” case again to Lyndon Johnson—even though yet another NIE was issued stating that while the fall of Vietnam might force a series of “livable settlements with the Communists” among Southeast Asian nations, no dominoes would fall. However, as John Prados writes in his essay “Wise Guys, Rough Business, and Iraq,” Johnson’s hawkish advisors consistently presented the opposite opinion to Johnson until he eventually acquiesced.
The historical record was certainly clear by March 2003 that in the run-up to Vietnam, hawkish elements inside the government had fabricated a threat contrary to all the intelligence in order to justify a war of choice. Had the media learned the lesson of Vietnam, they may have actually questioned the predictions of mushroom clouds and WMDs much more aggressively. Liberal hawks and politicians who now claim they were simply fooled by Bush would have been a little less susceptible had they, too, engaged in a moment of historical memory....
Posted on: Friday, January 11, 2008 - 15:51
SOURCE: Naked Historian (1-11-08)
Ever since Iran presented itself as a qualified target in the War on Terrorism, the Bush Administration has orchestrated a silent campaign to draw lines in the sand and tempt the Islamic Republic to cross it. Speculation is running high that the Bush Administration in its final year has nothing to lose but its approval rating and may goad the Iranians into a military confrontation. Evidence of this strategy surfaced this week when the US Navy nearly wiped out an Iranian patrol boat group over a "threatening message". While the Iranians have come to their own defense with video footage of the exchange, other nations in the trajectory of American foreign policy haven't been so lucky. This escalation in the Persian Gulf reminds us of a similar naval incident in 1964 that gave President Johnson the starting point for a confrontation that would later be known as the Vietnam War.
Now that the hand wringing has abated, it turns out that either the US Navy exaggerated, or was simply exposed as the instigator in an act of military brinkmanship with the Iranian navy this weekend. In either case, the tacticians were clearly shortsighted of what might become of the incident if additional evidence were introduced. In a recently released video by the Iranian government, the footage reveals a normal exchange of communication between the patrol boat commanding officer and the US war ships in the area. This counters the Navy's recording of an unidentified voice threatening to "blow up the ships in 5 minutes". Despite the new audio-visual component the defense Department is defending its decision to label the confrontation an "international incident".
Expert speakers of Farsi- the language of Iran- now say that the recorded threat that the US released probably did not come from an Iranian, because the speaker had an accent. Further, on bridge-to-bridge communications it is impossible to isolate from where the radio signal is coming, so no smoking gun could be found. But premeditated action is justified in the afterworld of 9/11; in the build up to the Iraq War, the United States was accused of using exaggerated claims of imminent danger from Iraq to build support for the war. In the wake of the invasion, no weapons were found, but the political goal of removing Saddam Hussein was achieved. Analysts now agree that this was the original motive of the Bush Administration.
The issues of international waters are many, and they make a good gray area from which to operate if antagonizing your enemy into striking first is the objective. In the early months of 1964, the US Navy had already been operating covert missions along the North Vietnamese coast in support of South Vietnamese troops. On the nights of August 2 and 4, it was reported that North Vietnamese patrol boats had fired on two US naval ships, the Maddox and Turner Joy, which, if true, amounted to an attack on the United States in international waters. But the truth was buried under the political agenda of the Johnson Administration to knock a leg out from under Soviet expansion in the Third World. History has revealed that the first attack by the North Vietnamese did indeed occur, but that it was aggravated by the maneuvers of the US naval warships in the area. The second attack never even happened; thousands of pounds of ammunition were expelled into the empty seas, and shortly after this President Johnson appeared on national television to appeal for chaos and over-reaction. The Congress was quick to tow the party line and issued the famous "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" which allowed Johnson to wage war for the rest of his term in office without ever declaring it.
The Gulf of Tonkin is widely held to be one of the greatest misuses of the US Navy in achieving foreign policy aims. Americans are quick to come to the defense of the armed forces whenever they are attacked, and Johnson's antics depleted the moral trust that the country had in its military. The incident this weekend in the Persian Gulf could have easily turned into a similar catalyst for another undeclared war, but luckily the cheap audio-visual technology of the 21st century prevented this from happening. The Iranians were careful to equip their patrol boats with cameras to record the incident from another angle; even if the "threatening words" were produced from that captain in the video, the David and Goliath imagery was hard to contest. The United States looked very secure in its nuclear armada, and the Iranian guards- however sinister they may be- looked like they were holding on to the edges of the boats for dear life.
In 1988, the US Navy shot down an Iranian passenger plane and killed all 290 people on board. The captain of the boat was not court-martialed for negligence- he was given a medal. Provocative actions in international waters occur at regular intervals, but the Persian Gulf is the current venue of fashion for the pounding of war drums. The United States must maintain- or rather, return to- the policy of never striking first in a conflict. The Pentagon should learn from the failures of Tonkin, not repeat them.
Posted on: Friday, January 11, 2008 - 15:16
SOURCE: Edge of the American West (1-11-08)
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Clinton said. “It took a president to get it done.”
The quote is already infamous. But it’s worth a second look with news from South Carolina that Congressman Jim Clyburn may rethink his neutral stance in the that state’s upcoming primary. That could be very bad for Hillary Clinton.
Josh Marshall, three days ago, asked his readers to take a deep breath, pointing out that the excerpt above was only a small part of a larger quote:
“I would, and I would point to the fact that that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the President before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became a real in peoples lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.”
Josh made the point that Hillary referred to two presidents. Said he:
“Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, one of whom inspired but did relatively little legislatively and Johnson who did a lot legislatively, though he was rather less than inspiring. Quite apart from the merits of Obama and Clinton, it’s not a bad point about Kennedy and LBJ.”
Josh is right, I think, in arguing that the full quote casts Hillary in a more favorable light, particularly if one is concerned about her understanding of political history. Kennedy did relatively little for the Civil Rights movement. His greatest contribution to the struggle for African-American equality was, there’s no polite way of putting this, dying. Lyndon Johnson used JFK’s memory to whip votes for the Civil Rights Act, accomplishing what Kennedy had not — as Hillary notes.
But that’s a narrow view of MLK’s dream, which extended beyond voting rights, beyond de jure discrimination to the more complicated de facto realm:
“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Hillary, whether in the truncated or the complete quote, ignores the expansiveness of Dr. King’s dream. Instead, she offers an inside-the-Beltway revisionist history of the Civil Rights movement, a top-down interpretation, in which presidents were the key players rather than the men, women, and children who marched and sat-in and faced mortal danger to realize an ephemeral dream that, in many parts of the nation, including swaths of South Carolina, is still a dream deferred.
Congressman Clyburn, meanwhile, fought for that dream. The biography on his website indicates that he became a leader in the local chapter of the NAACP when he was just twelve years old. He later took part in several important Civil Rights marches. He also met his wife in the movement. And then he became a history teacher in Charleston before helping, one assumes after he entered Congress, to raise more than $1.5 million for an Archives and History Endowment established at South Carolina State University, his and his wife’s alma mater.
Clyburn, in other words, has a command of both the lived and learned history of the Civil Rights movement. Of Hillary’s comments he said: “We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics.” “It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.”
Bill Clinton may have been our first Black president. But if Hillary is perceived by African-American voters as being on the wrong side of a memory fight over the Civil Rights movement, she’s in trouble. She could, if she isn’t more careful with her use of the past, come across as the Goldwater Girl she once was.
Update: I should be clearer on a few points. First, I don’t believe that Hillary is racist — really, I don’t — or that she doesn’t know the history of the Civil Rights movement. My point is largely about perception: in suggesting that she has a top-down view of the struggle for African-American equality, a view in which presidents were more important than the movement’s leaders or rank-and-file, it becomes easy for people to believe that she lacks the proper respect for Martin Luther King and the people who fought so hard to help realize his dream.
Second, if I’m right about that, about that issue of perception, and Clyburn’s comments suggest to me that I am, that’s a problem for Hillary. The Clinton name has great resonance with African-American voters. The Toni Morrison piece, linked above, calling Bill the “first black president,” is telling. But, I remember back to Coretta Scott King’s funeral, where Bill was brilliant. Hillary was, well, less brilliant. So even if she was speaking strictly about political history when she made her comment to Fox’s Major Garrett, she runs the risk of tarnishing an important part of the Clinton brand — especially if Clyburn endorses Obama.
Third, the one way in which I’m not willing to be as charitable to Hillary as Josh is this: I think her formulation does misread the history of the Civil Rights movement in an important way. And her misreading is just the sort of thing that I’d expect from someone who has lived in the White House. Hillary suggets that the Civil Rights Act was a kind of capstone to the movement, and that President Johnson, therefore, realized Martin Luther King’s dream. Wrong and wrong, as far as I’m concerned. The King dream, as noted above, was not just about clearing away legal impediments to Black equality; it was about transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” The individuals who would be the key players in such a symphony were not going to be presidents or Supreme Court justices; they would have to be ordinary Americans. If the dream is ever going be realized, in other words, it will have to be from the bottom up.
Posted on: Friday, January 11, 2008 - 14:58
SOURCE: City Journal (1-10-08)
The common thread that ties Mike Huckabee’s come-from-almost-nowhere victory in Iowa to Hillary Clinton’s unexpected resurgence in New Hampshire is a shared ability to speak to widespread middle- and lower-middle-class economic anxiety. In Iowa, Huckabee effectively disparaged Mitt Romney—who made a fortune at Bain Capital and outspent him 20 to 1—as someone who couldn’t possibly understand “people at the lower ends of the economic scale,” who fear that they’re losing ground in the increasingly globalized economy. And in New Hampshire, while Barack Obama’s rhetorical flourishes spoke most effectively to the young and to the “creative class” that has flourished in the global economy, Clinton—like her husband before her—felt the middle class’s pain, devoting most of her campaign events to highlighting economic issues and offering narrowly tailored programs to address everything from the rising cost of tuition to mortgage defaults. And it paid off: she defeated Obama by ten points among those who felt they were falling behind financially.
Clinton’s comeback aside, the most surprising fact to emerge from New Hampshire was that voters in both parties named the economy as the Number One issue. New Hampshire, where more than 81 percent of the voters have at least some college education, is prosperous by any standard. It enjoys the lowest poverty rate in the country, one of the lowest unemployment and taxation rates, and is in the top echelon of income. Yet only 14 percent of its Democrats and half of its Republicans believe that the economy is doing well, while a stunning 98 percent of voters in the Democratic primary and 80 percent in the Republican primary were “worried” or “very worried” about the economy.
Some of these worries are no doubt a response to $100-a-barrel oil and the decline in home values tied to the subprime lending meltdown. But why aren’t more conventional measures, like high incomes and low unemployment, having a more positive influence on the electorate’s state of mind? The answer, in part, is that the public has a set of fears connected, in one way or another, to the inexorable advance of globalization. Voters see offshoring, increased competition from low-cost countries, and illegal immigration as reflections of an unfriendly world that is closing in on them. Investor’s Business Daily, citing the enormous growth of both jobs and gross national income that freer trade has brought about, insists that “globalization is a boon to all Americans.” But the distributional effects of globalization have been problematic. An October 2007 Pew poll found that “three-quarters of the population is worried about growing income inequality.” The relative stagnation in middle- and lower-middle-class incomes, combined with a net decline in high-tech jobs, has, for once, made palaver about “what will happen to our grandchildren” somewhat credible....
Posted on: Friday, January 11, 2008 - 14:16
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (1-8-08)
Consider the debate among four Democratic presidential candidates on ABC News last Saturday night. In the previous week, the price of a barrel of oil briefly touched $100, unemployment hit 5%, the stock market had the worst three-day start since the Great Depression, and the word"recession" was in the headlines and in the air. So when ABC debate moderator Charlie Gibson announced that the first fifteen-minute segment would be taken up with"what is generally agreed to be… the greatest threat to the United States today," what did you expect?
As it happened, he was referring to"nuclear terrorism," specifically"a nuclear attack on an American city" by al-Qaeda (as well as how the future president would"retaliate"). In other words, Gibson launched his version of a national debate by focusing on a fictional, futuristic scenario, at this point farfetched, in which a Pakistani loose nuke would fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, be transported to the United States, perhaps picked up by well-trained al-Qaedan minions off the docks of Newark, and set off in the Big Apple. In this, though he was surely channeling Rudy Giuliani, he managed to catch the essence of what may be George W. Bush's major legacy to this country.
The Planet as a GWOT Free-Fire Zone
On September 11, 2001, in his first post-attack address to the nation, George W. Bush was already using the phrase,"the war on terror." On September 13th, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz announced that the administration was planning to do a lot more than just take out those who had attacked the United States. It was going to go about"removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism." We were, Bush told Americans that day, in a state of"war"; in fact, we were already in"the first war of the twenty-first century."
That same day, R.W. Apple, Jr. of the New York Timesreported that senior officials had" cast aside diplomatic niceties" and that"the Bush administration today gave the nations of the world a stark choice: stand with us against terrorism… or face the certain prospect of death and destruction." Stand with us against terrorism (or else) -- that would be the measure by which everything was assessed in the years to come. That very day, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the U.S. would"rip [the bin Laden] network up" and"when we're through with that network, we will continue with a global assault on terrorism."
A global assault on terrorism. How quickly the President's Global War on Terror was on the scene. And no nation was to be immune. On September 14th, the news was leaked that"a senior State Department official" had met with"15 Arab representatives" and delivered a stiff"with us or against us" message: Join"an international coalition against terrorism" or pay the price. There would be no safe havens. The choice -- as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage would reportedly inform Pakistan's intelligence director after the 9/11 attacks -- was simple: Join the fight against al-Qaeda or"be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age." The price of a barrel of crude oil was, then, still under $20.
From that day to this, from the edge of the $20 barrel of oil to the edge of the $100 one, the Global War on Terror would be the organizing principle for the Bush administration as it shook off"the constraints,""took off the gloves," loosed the CIA, and sent the U.S. military into action; as it went, in short, for the Stone Age jugular. The phrase, Global War on Terror, while never quite catching on with the public, would become so familiar in the corridors of Washington that it would soon morph into one of the least elegant acronyms around -- GWOT -- sometimes known among neocons as "World War IV," or by military men and administration officials -- after Iraq devolved from fantasy blitzkrieg into disaster -- as"the Long War."
In the administration's eyes, the GWOT was to be the key to the magic kingdom, the lever with which the planet could be pried open for American dominion. It gave us an interest everywhere. After all, as Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke would say in January 2002 (and this was a typical comment of that moment):"The estimates are anywhere from 50 or 60 to 70 countries that have al Qaeda cells in them. The scope extends far beyond Afghanistan." Administration officials, in other words, were already talking about a significant portion of existing states as potential targets. This was not surprising, since the GWOT was meant to create planetary free-fire zones. These al-Qaeda targets or breeding grounds, after all, had to be emptied. We were, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials were saying almost immediately after 9/11, going to "drain" the global "swamp" of terrorists. And any countries that got in the way had better watch out.
With us or against us, that was the sum of it, and terror was its measure. If any connection could be made -- even, as in the case of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, a thoroughly bogus one -- it immediately offered a compelling home-front explanation for possible intervention. The safety and security of Americans was, after all, at stake in every single place where those terrorist mosquitoes might be breeding. If you had the oil lands of the planet on your mind (as was true with Dick Cheney's infamous Energy Task Force), then the threat of terrorism -- especially nuclear terrorism -- was a safe bet. If you wanted to fortify your position in new oil lands, then the ticket was to have the Pentagon move in -- as in Africa -- to help weak, possibly even failing, states prepare themselves against the forces of terror.
For us or against us in the GWOT, that was the way all things were to be judged, no matter the place or the complexities of the local situation -- in Pakistan no less than the Gulf of Guinea or Central Asia. And that was to be true at home as well. There, too, you were for us or against us. Those few who opposed the Patriot Act, for instance, were obviously not patriots. The minority who claimed that you couldn't be at"war" with"terror," that what was needed in response to 9/11 was firm, ramped up police action were simply laughed out of the room. In the kindliest light, they were wusses; in the worst light, essentially traitors. They lacked not only American red-bloodedness, but a willingness to blood others and be bloody-minded. End of story.
In the wake of those endlessly replayed, apocalyptic-looking scenes of huge towers crumbling and near-mushroom-clouds of ash billowing upwards, a chill of end-time fear swept through the nation. War, whatever name you gave it, was quickly accepted as the obvious, commensurate answer to what had happened. In a nation in the grips of the politics of fear, it seemed reasonable enough that a restoration of"security" -- American security -- should be the be-all and end-all globally. Everything, then, was to be calibrated against the successes of the GWOT.
Domestically, a distinctly un-American word,"homeland," entered our everyday world, was married to"security," and then"department," and suddenly you had a second defense department, whose goal was simply to make the American people"safe." Alone on the planet, Americans would now be allowed a"safe haven" of which no one could rob us.
From Seattle to Tampa, Toledo to Dallas, fear of terrorism became a ruling passion -- as well as a pure money-maker for the mini-homeland-industrial complex that grew up around the new Department of Homeland Security. A thriving industry of private security firms, surveillance outfits, and terror consultants was suddenly among us. With its help, the United States would be locked-down in an unprecedented way -- and to do that, we would also have to lock down the planet by any means necessary. We would fight"them" everywhere else, as the President would say again and again, so as not to fight them here.
The Elephant and the GWOT
If the Global War on Terror initially seemed to be the royal road to the Bush administration's cherished dream of a global Pax Americana and a local Pax Republicana, it was, it turned out, also a trap. As manipulatively as they might use their global war to stoke domestic fears and create rationales for what they wanted to do anyway, like so many ruling groups they also came to believe in their own formulations. The GWOT would, in fact, be a Presidential monomania. According to journalist Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine,"The President himself designed a chart: the faces of the top al Qaeda leaders with short bios stared out. As a kill or capture was confirmed, he drew an ‘X' over the face." According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, the President kept that"personal scorecard for the war" in a handy desk drawer in the Oval Office for the next hot piece of good news on terror.
In the universe of the GWOT and homeland security, everything would be obsessively U.S.-centric. In fact, the administration's"war" brings to mind an old joke in which various nationalities are asked to write essays on"the elephant." The Frenchman, for instance, writes on L'Éléphant et L'Amour. In an updated version of the joke, the American would, of course, write on "The Elephant and the Global War on Terror". The media picked up this obsession. On some days you can still see this reflected clearly in news accounts -- as in this typical first paragraph from a news piece in the January 2nd Wall Street Journal on the aftermath of fraudulent presidential elections in Kenya.
"Kenya's marred presidential vote and the violence that has spiraled from it are threatening an island of stability in the otherwise volatile horn of Africa and endangering U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region."
Or, to return for a moment to Charlie Gibson's loose-nuke terrorism scenario in that Democratic debate: It was a given that neither Gibson, nor any of the Democratic presidential hopefuls on stage would mention the single country for which such a scenario might have an element of realism -- Pakistan's neighbor, India. But that's just par for the course, since other countries, other peoples, except as they relate to the American War on Terror, have neither purpose, nor reality. Without the GWOT, without the (narrowly defined) issue of American"insecurity," they all qualify as just"the elephant." And yet, as an obsession, as war policy as well as domestic policy, banking everything on the GWOT has proved about as foolish, as self-defeating, as -- let's say it -- mad, as anyone could possibly have imagined.
To put this Bush legacy and its significance in perspective, here's my own fantasy scenario for you to debate:
Imagine that, by some unknown process, the GWOT succeeds. Instantly. Al-Qaeda and other like-minded terrorist and wannabe terrorist groups are simply wiped off the face of the Earth. They cease to exist. Tomorrow. No al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. No original al-Qaeda (with its local admixtures) in the Pakistani tribal areas or Afghanistan. No al-Qaedan-style car bombers lurking in London. No more hijacked vehicles heading for American buildings or U.S. Navy vessels. No more trains blowing up in Madrid railway stations. No more al-Qaeda-labeled suicide car bombs going off in Algiers, or Istanbul, or anywhere else. The end. Finis.
This would mean, of course, that the American obsession of these last years, the Global War on Terror would be ended, too. There would then be no reason for the world to be with us or against us, no need for a Department of Homeland Security, or draconian laws, or major surveillance programs, and so on.
Now, we still have a few minutes left in this segment of our"debate," so let's just keep imagining. Take a glance around the world -- theoretically made"secure" and"safe" for Americans -- and ask yourself this: If the Global War on Terror were over, what would be left? What would we be rid of? What would be changed? Would oil be, say, $60 a barrel, or even $20 a barrel? Would Russia return to being an impoverished nearly Third World country, as it was before 2001, rather than a rising energy superpower? Would the Iraq War be over? Would the Arctic Sea re-ice? Would Afghans welcome our occupation with open arms and accept our permanent bases and jails on their territory? Would all those dollars in Chinese and Middle Eastern hands return to the U.S. treasury? Would Latin America once again be the"backyard" of the United States? Would we suddenly be hailed around the world for our"victory" and feared once again as the"sole superpower," the planetary"hyperpower"? Would we no longer be in, or near, recession? Would hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs begin flowing back into the country? Would the housing market bounce back? Would unemployment drop?
The answer to all of the above, of course, is resoundingly and repeatedly"no." Essential power relations in the world turn out to have next to nothing to do with the war on terror (which may someday be seen as the last great ideological gasp of American globalism). In this sense, terrorism, no matter how frightening, is an ephemeral phenomenon. The fact is, non-state groups wielding terror as their weapon of choice can cause terrible pain, harm, and localized mayhem, but they simply don't take down societies like ours. The IRA did not take down England despite years of devastating terror bombings in central London; nor did al-Qaeda take down Spain, even with a devastating bombing of trains entering a Madrid railway station. And neither the British, nor the Spanish acted as though that might happen.
The Global War on Terror's greatest achievement -- for American rulers and ruled alike -- may simply have been to block out the world as it was, to block out, that is, reality. When it came to al-Qaeda's ability to cause death in the United States, any American faced more danger simply getting into a car and hitting an American highway, taking up smoking, or possibly even (these days) going to an American suburban high school.
A Nation of Cowards?
Most of the things that needed to be done to make us safer after 9/11 undoubtedly could have been done without much fuss, without a new, more bureaucratic, less efficient Department of Homeland Security, without a new, larger U.S. Intelligence Community, without pumping ever more money into the Pentagon, and certainly without invading and occupying Iraq. Most societies which have dealt with terror -- often far worse campaigns than what we have experienced, despite the look of 9/11 -- have faced the dangers involved without becoming obsessional over their safety and security, without locking down their countries, and then attempting to do the same with the planet, as the Bush administration did. In the process, we may have turned ourselves into the functional equivalent of a nation of cowards, ready to sacrifice so much of value on the altar of the God of"security."
Think of it: nineteen fanatics with hijacked planes, backed and funded by a relatively small movement based in one of the most impoverished places on the planet, did all this; or, put more accurately, faced with the look of the apocalypse and the dominating urges of the Bush administration, we did what al-Qaeda's crew never could have done. Blinding ourselves via the President's GWOT, we released American hubris and fear upon the world, in the process making almost every situation we touched progressively worse for this country.
The fact is that those who run empires can sometimes turn the right levers in societies far away. Historically, they have sometimes been quite capable of seeing the world and actual power relations as they are, clearly enough to conquer, occupy, and pacify other countries. Sometimes, they were quite capable of dividing and ruling local peoples for long periods, or hiring native troops to do their dirty work. But here's the dirty miracle of the Bush administration: Thinking GWOT all the way, its every move seemed to do more damage than the last -- not just to the world, but to the fabric of the country they were officially protecting.
Among their many GWOT-ish achievements, top administration officials demarcated an area extending from the western border of China through the territories of the former Central Asian SSRs of the Soviet Union and deep into the Middle East, down through the Horn of Africa and across North Africa (all of this more or less coinciding with the oil heartlands of the planet), and dubbed it"the arc of instability." Then, from Somalia to Pakistan, they managed to set it aflame, transforming their own empty turn of phrase into a reality on the ground, even as the price of crude oil soared.
Opinion polls indicate that, in this electoral season, terrorism is no longer at, or even near, the top of the American agenda of worries. Right now, it tends to fall far down lists of"the most important issue to face this country" (though significantly higher among Republicans than Democrats or independents). Nonetheless, don't for a second think that the subject isn't lodged deep in national consciousness. When asked recently by the pollsters of CNN/Opinion Research Corporation:"How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism," a striking 39% of Americans were either"very worried" or"somewhat worried"; another 33% registered as"not too worried." These figures might seem reasonable in New York City, but nationally? As the Democratic debate Saturday indicated, the politics of security and fear have been deeply implanted in our midst, as well as in media and political consciousness. Even candidates who proclaim themselves against"the politics of fear" (and many don't) are repeatedly forced to take care of fear's rhetorical business.
Imagining how a new president and a new administration might begin to make their way out of this mindset, out of a preoccupation guaranteed to solve no problems and exacerbate many, is almost as hard as imagining a world without al-Qaeda. After all, this particular obsession has been built into our institutions, from Guantanamo to the Department of Homeland Security. It's had the time to sink its roots into fertile soil; it now has its own industries, lobbying groups, profit centers. Unbuilding it will be a formidable task indeed. Here, then -- a year early -- is a Bush legacy that no new president is likely to reverse soon.
Ask yourself honestly: Can you imagine a future America without a Department of Homeland Security? Can you imagine a new administration ending the global lockdown that has become synonymous with Americanism?
The Bush administration will go, but the job it's done on us won't. That is the sad truth of our presidential campaign moment.
Posted on: Thursday, January 10, 2008 - 13:50
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog) (1-10-08)
A new World Health Organization study estimates the excess numbers of civilians killed in violence in Iraq from April 2003 through June 2006 at between 101,000 and 224,000. They settled on 151,000 or so as the most likely number. This number is an estimate of how many people died of violence beyond what you would have expected from the 2001-2002 baseline. Violent deaths increased 17 times over once the Bush administration invaded the country. As I read the AP article, the study actually found more like 302,000 excess deaths, but only attributed 151,000 to violence. It seems to me possible that some of the other 151,000 excess deaths could also be chalked up to the US invasion and the reaction to it, even if they are not violent. There have been disease outbreaks, shortages of medicine, poor medical care, displacement of populations to tent cities with poor sanitation, and difficulties in traveling to distant hospitals. Bears looking into.
The Lancet study found 600,000 excess deaths from violence. I'm not qualified to make a methodological judgment as to the virtues of the two studies. I don't think the validity of the Lancet estimate should just be dismissed by journalists or bloggers, for the same reason. If someone is a specialist in the public health field and a whiz at statistics, then I'd be interested in a judgment from that person. But I would point out that the last time Bush admitted his war had killed civilians, he quoted the figure of 30,000, and we can definitely dismiss such tiny numbers as woefully inaccurate. Bush has to face up to what he has done.
Passive gathering of death statistics from newspapers, which always misses a lot of unreported deaths, such as at the Iraq Body Count site, came up with 47,668 civilian deaths in the same period. IBC is now up to about 84,000 civilian deaths. If the 3 to 1 discrepancy between reported and unreported deaths visible in the WHO study held steady, that would take us to a further 100,000 or so deaths in the past 18 months, and to roughly 250,000 excess deaths through violence since the war began.
There is also the question of how many Iraqis have sustained significant or crippling injuries from the same violence that has left so many dead. For US troops, the ratio is nearly 4,000 killed to nearly 10,000 severely wounded, or 2.5 times. If the same rate held true for Iraqi civilians in the war, and if it is true that 250,000 have by now been killed, it would equal 625,000 severely wounded.
One of the arguments warmongers gave for overthrowing Saddam Hussein was that his regime was responsible for the violent deaths of some 300,000 civilians between 1968 and 2003. That estimate now appears exaggerated, since the number of bodies in mass graves has not borne it out. But what is tragic is that in 4 1/2 short years, a foreign military occupation has unleashed killing on a scale achieved by the murderous Saddam Hussein regime only over decades. Bush did not kill all those people directly, of course, but he did indirectly cause them to be killed, since these are excess deaths beyond what you would have expected if there had been no invasion and occupation.
I am often struck by how clueless the American public is to the vast destruction we have wrought on Iraq and its people, directly or indirectly. It strikes me as a bitter joke that 4 million are displaced, often facing hunger and disease, and the rightwing periodicals and presidential candidates are talking about how the"surge" has"turned things around." For whom? How many orphans have we created? How many widows? How many people who weep and cry every night while trying to fall asleep on straw mats? I estimate on the basis of a UN study of refugees in Syria that as many as 600,000 or 700,000 Baghdadis were ethnically cleansed from the capital under the nose of the American troops implementing the surge. There is an old Chinese proverb,"Children throw stones at frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest."
See our Global Affairs blog for more on this issue, and for recent postings on Iran and Pakistan.
Bush has gutted American civil liberties, and turned us into a hateful nation of spies, torturers, bigots, and colonialists occupying someone else's country. (See Tomdispatch.com for an impassioned argument on how this was accomplished. And he has managed to unleash a maelstrom of violence in the Middle East that has wiped out the population of a medium-sized city. Surveying civilian deaths in Iraq is like walking through Lincoln, Nebraska, after it was hit by a neutron bomb, with everyone dead. Everyone.
Posted on: Thursday, January 10, 2008 - 11:35
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (1-10-08)
This is not the post that I had planned for the day after New Hampshire. I had a brilliant little piece on the self-immolation of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and I can only thank the moderators for stopping me. I am probably in good company as most of the columnists in the country were wearing out their delete buttons or busy with re-writes. I will keep that piece somewhere close by to remind myself why I am an academic and not on television.
So Hillary “won,” and now she can expect a healthy bounce in the polls to show for her “victory.” She should be cautious about believing any of it because there will be much hand-wringing over what is wrong with our major media outlets’ polling outfits given how badly they blew modeling the New Hampshire electorate. Will the polls that show that she is back be any better than those that showed that she was dead?
However, I am thinking about another type of mathematical peculiarity in this process - namely, in what sense did Clinton “win” in New Hampshire?
About 270,000 New Hampshire voters went to the Democratic primary polls, and Clinton garnered about 7,500 more of those votes than Obama did. That is a margin of 2-3% points depending on how you choose to round (and the Clinton camp loves MSNBC and others who put Obama at 36% rather than 37%). She appears to “win” because she had more votes.
However, when we call this a “win,” we are confirming what I have argued before in this blog, namely that our presidential selection process is not a state-by-state race for convention delegates who will gather next August to nominate candidates for the major parties. If we were looking for delegate counts to determine who “wins” New Hampshire, we would say that this was a tie. There are 22 Democratic delegates selected by the New Hampshire primary, and by that count, the score is Clinton 9, Obama 9, and Edwards 4.
When we said Obama “won” Iowa, we were talking about the delegates to the state party convention. We had nothing else to talk about. We don’t know how many Iowans actually went to the polls to caucus for each candidate because the Iowa Democrats keep raw vote totals secret from the general public. There’s good reason to do so given that the formula distorts the actual vote count in funny and unpredictable ways that might compromise Iowa’s reputation for having such a “serious” process if it were fully revealed.
See my earlier post on this topic, but the short version is this - In one room of the small town high school where I watched the caucus, Obama garnered nine more votes than Edwards and got the same number of delegates. In the next room of the same small town high school, Obama garnered one more vote than Edwards and got one more delegate. Make sense? In fact, some estimates assert that in 2004, Edwards persuaded more Iowans to caucus for him than Kerry did, and yet Kerry got more delegates because he was strong in the right precincts.
However, if you think New Hampshire is blessedly and democratically more straightforward than Iowa, think again. Not only did Obama earn as many delegates for his second place finish as Clinton did for finishing first, but it is also possible that Edwards could end up in a tie with them for control of the New Hampshire delegation, even though he received fewer than half of the votes that his rivals did on Tuesday night.
New Hampshire has 22 delegates who are selected by and bound by the results of the primary and 5 more super delegates, Democratic party insiders and officials who are free to vote for whomever they choose. If all five chose to go for Edwards, he would have as large a share of the New Hampshire delegation as Obama or Clinton - 9 delegates for everyone.
Of course that probably won’t happen, but it is another reminder that the real power of these early state contests is not at all related to the actual number of votes cast or the actual number of delegates won. The five New Hampshire super delegates have as much power over the delegation as 80,000 New Hampshire voters. The delegate counts, and even the vote counts, are fascinating scorecards with no bearing on reality. As of right now, Romney has the most pledged delegates among the Republicans. Does anyone on the planet think that he is “winning”?
All of this brings me back to the real point that we should have in mind - We are engaged in a bizarre national election in which those with money, power, party influence, or time to volunteer throw themselves progressively at a series of early states, trying to use national resources to convince a small group of localized voters to cast ballots for their chosen candidate. The value of those votes is directly proportional to our willingness to believe that those votes represent some reality that is meaningful in determining America’s choice for presidential candidates.
If we believe that Joe Biden’s failure to get over the 15% threshold in those Iowa caucus precincts means that he is not a viable candidate, he is not a viable candidate and thus drops out. If we believe that Rudolph Giuliani’s sixth and fourth place showings are OK because he did not “try to win” in Iowa and New Hampshire (all the money he spent in New Hampshire notwithstanding), he is still in the running. At the same time, if we believe that a pair of fifth place finishes for Ron Paul is proof that he is on the lunatic fringe (in spite of the fact that he has garnered nearly 5,000 more actual votes than Giuliani at this point), then he is on the lunatic fringe. It is a fascinating exercise in building (and tearing down) castles from thin air.
We could do all of this without the actual voters or the election night rallies and speeches. They are, in some respects, utterly superfluous to the actual dynamics of the race. Next week, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic front-runner, not because of what New Hampshire voters did but because of what we have decided her “win” “means.” We could get this whole experience just by reading the columnists and the daily polling reports, but then again, they have their own problems with fuzzy math.
Posted on: Thursday, January 10, 2008 - 11:29