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: Private Papers (website of Victor David Hanson) (11-9-09)
Remember the mantra that the region is the "graveyard of empires," where Alexander the Great, the British in the 19th century, and the Soviets only three decades ago inevitably met their doom?
In fact, Alexander conquered most of Bactria and its environs (which included present-day Afghanistan). After his death, the area that is now Afghanistan became part of the Seleucid Empire.
Centuries later, outnumbered British-led troops and civilians were initially ambushed, and suffered many casualties, in the first Afghan war. But the British were not defeated in their subsequent two Afghan wars between 1878 and 1919.
The Soviets did give up in 1989 their nine-year effort to create out of Afghanistan a communist buffer state — but only because the Arab world, the United States, Pakistan and China combined to provide the Afghan mujahideen resistance with billions of dollars in aid, not to mention state-of-the-art anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.
While Afghans have been traditionally fierce resistance fighters and made occupations difficult, they have rarely for long defeated invaders — and never without outside assistance.
Other mythologies about Afghanistan abound.
Is the country ungovernable? No more so than any of the region's other rough countries. After the founding of the modern state in 1919, Afghanistan enjoyed a relative stable succession of constitutional monarchs until 1973. The country was once considered generally secure, tolerant and hospitable to foreigners.
Did we really take our eye off the "good" war in Afghanistan to fight the optional bad one in Iraq? Not quite. After a brilliant campaign to remove the Taliban in 2001, a relatively stable Karzai government saw little violence until 2007. Between 2001 and 2006, no more than 100 American soldiers were killed in any given year.
In fact, American casualties increased after Iraq became quiet — as Islamists, defeated in Iraqi's Al Anbar province, refocused their efforts on the dominant Afghan theater.
Is Afghanistan the new Vietnam? Hardly. In the three bloodiest years, 2007 through 2009 so far, the United States has suffered a total of 553 fatalities — tragic, but less than 1 percent of the 58,159 Americans killed in Vietnam. What is astounding is the ability of the U.S. military to inflict damage on the enemy, protect the constitutional government and keep our losses to a minimum...
Posted on: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 03:54
SOURCE: The Chronicle of Higher Education (11-8-09)
Most college students today were born during the 1980s or early 1990s, but they are far likelier to take a history course about the 1960s than about those decades. Market Data Retrieval, a service of Dun & Bradstreet, lists 525 college instructors teaching "the Vietnam era," meaning the 1960s; courses on the 80s do not even merit a separate category. One publisher's higher-education marketing manager estimates that although 100,000 students may be enrolled in courses on the 1960s, barely 10,000 take courses on the 1980s. This imbalance reflects the biases and passions of today's professors far more than the interests or needs of today's students. Even as many declare the Reagan era over with the rise of President Obama and the fall of the markets, we need more and better courses on the 1980s.
Ten years ago, when I started teaching an honors seminar on Ronald Reagan and the 1980s at McGill University, I could not have made this appeal in good conscience. At the time, I would begin my class with an apology, acknowledging the paucity of good books on the subject. David Stockman and Peggy Noonan had produced riveting memoirs about the Reagan years. But most books followed a predictable path, rehashing the conventional wisdom trailblazed by Garry Wills's insightful Reagan's America and Haynes Johnson's colorful Sleepwalking Through History. We learned again and again about the hedonistic excess of the new Gilded Age and that the president of the United States for most of the decade was considered an "an amiable dunce," in Clark Clifford's memorably biting phrase. Too many books seemed formulaic, with diatribes against American greed leavened by anecdotes about Reagan's declaring ketchup a vegetable (it was actually a Department of Agriculture pronouncement, not his) or Nancy Reagan's having his presidential schedule dictated by an astrologer (which did occur occasionally). "This is a crucial, complex decade," I told my students, "but we history profs have not done our job so that you can learn properly about this era."
History was repeating itself, or actually replicating the politics of the times. Most historians treated Reagan and the 1980s as too anti-intellectual and too conservative to bother studying. The one Bigfoot studying Reagan, Edmund Morris, seemed defeated by the task, unable to complete it, and ultimately unable to keep his work nonfiction. In survey courses, as professors raced through the 20th century, most lingered on the New Deal and the 60s, then ended up sprinting through the 80s, failing to study it properly or situate it within the broader historiographical narrative. Those of us embarking on proj ects or trying to teach classes about the era were immediately suspect, assumed to be conservative renegades out to support the liberals' Antichrist.
It is one of the great ironies of 20th-century scholarship. Most people yearn for peace and prosperity, but most intellectuals, including historians, seem to detest boom times. In the simplistic Kabuki theater of most 20th-century courses, students learn that the 1920s, 50s, and 80s were bad times, eras of greed and selfishness, of retreat from the great march of prog ress toward bigger and bigger government. By contrast, it is the traumatic times, like the Depression, or World War II, the "good war," that are great...
Posted on: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 01:21
SOURCE: The End is Coming (History Blog) (11-9-09)
The Bodycare UK chain of British cosmetic stores has banned its employees from wearing a poppy in commemoration of Remembrance or Veteran’s Day. Worn around the English world for up to two weeks before November 11th each year, the plastic or cardboard flower symbolises the fallen soldiers of the First World War (1914-18) in particular and in a more general sense, all of our lost soldiers since. As such, an employee of Bodycare UK was ordered to remove said poppy from her work uniform under penalty of disciplinary measures. After animated protest, she gave up the insignia. Was the store chain justified in insisting for an unaltered uniform or was this decision made by stubborn administrators blind to the greater significance of the historic symbol?
An armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The First World War or the “War to end all Wars” that was supposed to last but a few months in Europe became a four year international armed conflict that claimed the lives of millions. It was not a battle of ideology or a war of emancipation against social Darwinism and fascism; WW1 was simply a remnant of an old system where diplomatic alliances in Europe and the assistance of their colonial empires led to a global conflict for honour, pride and territorial gain. The Germans signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, taking full blame for the war (one of the reasons why they later elected the Nazi party) but it was truly a war fuelled by all participants and thus when we remember the fallen of WW1, we can make no difference between the bravely perished family men of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy or Russia.
This sentiment was echoed in a 1915 poem by John McCrae, a Canadian military physician that fought on the battlefields of Belgium. Seeing the rolling fields separating Canadians and Germans, he perceived at one time a mosaic of bludgeoned and bullet-riddled bodies and at other times the bloody red poppy that naturally grew there. McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’ describing his fellow soldiers, enemies and his own eventual demise as the flower grew indiscriminately in villages and battlefields, schoolyards and gravesites. The poem, and its eponymous flower have been use ever since in the English Commonwealth to commemorate our, and their, veterans.
Surely every country has a different vision of this poppy and what it may or may not represent. In the British Isles for example, the lapel pin in shunned in Ireland as a representation of British imperialism over the Emerald Esle in the early XXth century. As for Bodycare UK, they claim it is “against company policy” and that “Employees are only allowed to wear their uniform, and charitable pins would not be considered part of the uniform.” Banning charitable pins is strange enough as it is but a veteran-commemorating poppy the British only wear for a few days in November? I mean, it’s not a Nazi commemoration and remembrance fund swastika pin…
The affected employee got her day in the sun as the management never did let her wear the pin but she told her story to the world and we now have a prime example of administrative obtuseness and ignorance of national history and heritage.
We will never forget…or shop at Bodycare UK
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 – 1918)
Posted on: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 00:32
SOURCE: DanielPipes.org (11-9-09)
When a Muslim in the West for no apparent reason violently attacks non-Muslims, a predictable argument ensues about motives.
The establishment – law enforcement, politicians, the media, and the academy – stands on one side of this debate, insisting that some kind of oppression caused Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, to kill 13 and wound 38 at Ft. Hood on Nov. 5. It disagrees on the specifics, however, presenting Hasan as the victim alternatively of"racism,""harassment he had received as a Muslim," a sense of not belonging,""pre-traumatic stress disorder,""mental problems,""emotional problems,""an inordinate amount of stress," or being deployed to Afghanistan as his"worst nightmare." Accordingly, a typical newspaper headline reads"Mindset of Rogue Major a Mystery.".
Instances of Muslim-on-unbeliever violence inspire the victim school to dig up new and imaginative excuses. Colorful examples (drawing on my article and weblog entry about denying Islamist terrorism) include:
- 1990:"A prescription drug for … depression" (to explain the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane)
- 1991:"A robbery gone wrong" (the murder of Makin Morcos in Sydney)
- 1994:"Road rage" (the killing of a random Jew on the Brooklyn Bridge)
- 1997:"Many, many enemies in his mind" (the shooting murder atop the Empire State Building)
- 2000: A traffic incident (the attack on a bus of Jewish schoolchildren near Paris)
- 2002:"A work dispute" (the double murder at LAX)
- 2002: A"stormy [family] relationship" (the Beltway snipers)
- 2003: An"attitude problem" (Hasan Karim Akbar's attack on fellow soldiers, killing two)
- 2003: Mental illness (the mutilation murder of Sebastian Sellam)
- 2004:"Loneliness and depression" (an explosion in Brescia, Italy outside a McDonald's restaurant)
- 2005:"A disagreement between the suspect and another staff member" (a rampage at a retirement center in Virginia)
- 2006:"An animus toward women" (a murderous rampage at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle)
- 2006:"His recent, arranged marriage may have made him stressed" (killing with an SUV in northern California)
Additionally, when a Osama bin Laden-admiring Arab-American crashed a plane into a Tampa high-rise, blame fell on the acne drug Accutane.
As a charter member of the jihad school of interpretation, I reject these explanations as weak, obfuscatory, and apologetic. The jihadi school, still in the minority, perceives Hasan's attack as one of many Muslim efforts to vanquish infidels and impose Islamic law. We recall a prior episode of sudden jihad syndrome in the U.S. military, as well as the numerous cases of non-lethal Pentagon jihadi plots and the history of Muslim violence on American soil.
Far from being mystified by Hasan, we see overwhelming evidence of his jihadi intentions. He handed out Korans to neighbors just before going on his rampage and yelled"Allahu Akbar," the jihadi's cry, as he fired off over 100 rounds from two pistols. His superiors reportedly put him on probation for inappropriately proselytizing about Islam.
We note what former associates say about him: one, Val Finnell, quotes Hasan saying,"I'm a Muslim first and an American second" and recalls Hasan justifying suicide terrorism; another, Col Terry Lee, recalls that Hasan" claimed Muslims had the right to rise up and attack Americans"; the third, a psychiatrist who worked very closely with Hasan, described him as"almost belligerent about being Muslim."
Finally, the jihad school of thought attributes importance to the Islamic authorities' urging American Muslim soldiers to refuse to fight their co-religionists, thereby providing a basis for sudden jihad. In 2001, for example, responding to the U.S. attack on the Taliban, the mufti of Egypt, Ali Gum'a, issued a fatwa stating that"The Muslim soldier in the American army must refrain [from participating] in this war." Hasan himself, echoing that message, advised a young Muslim disciple, Duane Reasoner Jr., not to join the U.S. army because"Muslims shouldn't kill Muslims."
If the jihad explanation is overwhelmingly more persuasive than the victim one, it's also far more awkward to articulate. Everyone finds blaming road rage, Accutane, or an arranged marriage easier than discussing Islamic doctrines. And so, a prediction: what Ralph Peters calls the army's"unforgivable political correctness" will officially ascribe Hasan's assault to his victimization and will leave jihad unmentioned.
And thus will the army blind itself and not prepare for its next jihadi attack.
Posted on: Monday, November 9, 2009 - 23:43
SOURCE: NYT (11-6-09)
FLORENCE — Twenty years is not a very long time in history but the fall of the Berlin Wall already seems like another era. The euphoria, confidence and excitement that accompanied that event were overtaken in short order by cynicism, fear and doubt resulting, according to some quarters at least, from American triumphalism.
Despite the new leaf that Barack Obama’s election appears to have turned over, it will be a long time before the world hears the United States speaking of itself again as the “indispensable nation” or the American way of life as the harbinger of the end of history...
... This is a terrible pity because it seems the lessons of the 20 century learned in Europe are bound to be forgotten.
Namely, that there is no such thing as a permanent rivalry among nations; that neighbors, whatever the obstacles, can be partners; that zero-sum relationships can be the exception, not the norm; that peace is forged both from the top down and from the bottom up; and that global issues — like the environment, crime, trade — are best handled in a regional framework with institutions that promote good neighborliness while at the same time setting higher standards for others to emulate.
For Americans, in particular, a good deal of Europe’s success came down to trusting Europeans and letting them take much of the credit.
It may have taken a half-century of immense destruction at the hands of Europeans to transform the above into axioms that few challenge today. But, again, this is mainly the case in Europe and America...
Posted on: Saturday, November 7, 2009 - 21:26
SOURCE: Salon (11-5-09)
Saeb Erekat, chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization Steering Committee, said Wednesday that Palestine Authority president Mahmoud Abbas should be frank with the Palestinian people and admit to them that there is no possibility of a two-state solution given continued Israeli colonization of the West Bank.
It is morally and ethically unconscionable to leave millions of Palestinians in a condition of statelessness, in which they have no rights. (Warren Burger defined citizenship as the"right to have rights" as my colleague Margaret"Peggy" Sommers pointed out in her new book.) Therefore, if there isn't going to be a two-state solution, there will have to be a one-state solution, in which Israel gives citizenship to the Palestinians. (As it is, 20 percent of Israelis are Palestinian Arabs and that proportion will grow to 33 percent by 2030, if they are not expelled by sometime-Moldavian-night-club-bouncer and now foreign minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman.)
Al-Jazeera English has a video interview with Saree Makdisi on Erekat's statement:
The Israeli colonies in the West Bank are actively encouraged by the Israeli government. Haaretz reported last winter on a hitherto secret database on the settlements kept by the Israeli government:
An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements -- about 75 percent -- construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents. . .
The settlements in which massive construction has taken place on private Palestinian lands. Entire neighborhoods built without permits or on private lands are inseparable parts of the settlements. The sense of dissonance only intensifies when you find that municipal offices, police and fire stations were also built upon and currently operate on lands that belong to Palestinians...
Posted on: Friday, November 6, 2009 - 22:16
SOURCE: The China Beat (11-4-09)
Needless to say, the Shanghai-Disney story, which has just taken a dramatic turn, is one that I’ve been following with great interest. How could I not, when the University of California-Irvine, where I teach and “China Beat” is based, is closer to the original Disney theme park than any other major research university? When my last book not only looked at Shanghai’s past but speculated a bit about what it may become in the near future as it continues to develop? When I’ve published a travel-themed commentary-cum-memoir that alluded to the role that visits to the Magic Kingdom in Anaheim played in my childhood? And when one of the short pieces on globalization I’ve written refers to the strange uses to which Mickey Mouse’s visage was put during a public health campaign carried out in Shanghai in the mid-1980s?
There’s also another reason I’m intrigued by the story, though, which inspires this post. Namely, like many other people who live in or simply regularly visit and are interested in Shanghai, I’ve been fascinated by what the upcoming World Expo has been doing to and could do for the metropolis. And like many other people who have taught and written about World’s Fairs, I’ve thought a lot about the complex ties between the International Exhibition lineage that the 2010 Expo will continue, on the one hand, and Disney theme parks, on the other. Curiously, though, I haven’t seen much attention in the coverage of the Shanghai-Disney story to the ties between World’s Fairs and theme parks, and sometimes, even in generally good articles about the Disney deal, the fact that an Expo is about to take place in the city isn’t even mentioned.
Yes, there are brief allusions in some Shanghai-Disney stories to the fact that the city is about to hold an Expo. Yes, some references have been made to the fact that the World’s Fair planned for 2010 has already involved and the theme park that could open as early as 2014 will require a lot of land being acquired and a lot of major construction. And, yes, there have been scattered comments about how the Disney park could keep a local tourist boom going after the Expo has ended. These Expo-Disney angles all have relevance, especially the land expropriation/construction boom one, as both raise the question of how much more development the already hyper-developed metropolis by the Huangpu River can take, whether those being forced to relocate are being offered appropriate compensation, and how much in general is just too much. Still, at least for the historically minded, the Expo-Disney connections worth pondering go deeper.
Consider these tidbits:
1) Walt Disney’s father worked as a carpenter at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair that is famous for many things, including the premiere of the first Ferris Wheel. Disney grew up hearing stories of the wondrous “White City” created in Chicago, which was visited, according to some reports, by one in five Americans.
2) Walt Disney was deeply involved in the planning of the 1964 World’s Fair held in New York, and there was talk at the time of it becoming an East Coast equivalent to the Magic Kingdom he had recently opened in California. In the end, this didn’t take place, but when Epcot Center opened in Florida, as part of the Orlando Disney complex, it had many aspects reminiscent of a World’s Fair, including separate sections devoted to the food and culture of individual countries. (I’d seen this noted before, but my visit to Epcot definitely came to mind a few years ago, when I took the photo of the scale model for the 2010 Expo grounds that illustrates this post, though in Florida, you go from country to country by walking around a lake, not along a river.)
3) Several attractions created for the New York World’s Fair, including “It’s a Small World,” gained new leases on life after the event at Disney parks (a version of the one just mentioned can be found in the Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong as well as U.S. venues).
4) Japan got its Disneyland, the first in Asia, after hosting the first Olympics held on the continent (the 1964 Tokyo Games) and then the first World’s Fair held on the continent (the 1970 Osaka Expo)–though in that case, in contrast to the Chinese one, the Olympic city got the Disneyland, while the Expo one settled for a Universal Studios.
5) Paris is, perhaps not coincidentally, both the only European city with a Disney park and the city on that continent (where the tradition of grand international expositions originated with London’s Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851) that is most closely tied to the World’s Fair lineage (and early variations of what cultural historian Vanessa Schwartz refers to as “multi-sensory amusements” more generally) –it hosted many of the first great events belonging to this lineage and its most iconic structure, the Eiffel Tower, was built for one of these.
As the Shanghai Disney story develops, it is worth keeping the connections between the World’s Fair and theme park traditions in mind. This is especially true given that the Expo is being promoted within China as an event that carries into a new century the tradition of the 1893 White City that Disney’s father helped build–though an early plan to construct the world’s biggest Ferris Wheel by the Huangpu River near the world’s tallest building has thankfully been dropped.
This is one case in which, at least so far, the most interesting quote I’ve seen has come not from any foreign news report but from a Shanghai Dailystory. The quote, attributed to Huang Renwei of the Shanghai Academic of Social Science, says this of Shanghai Disneyland: “It will be like a never-ending Expo.” If so, let’s just hope that one of the distinctive local “accents” that everyone is saying this particular Disneyland will have will not take the form of performances that team Mi Laoshu (the Chinese name for Mickey Mouse that, given the different rodents dubbed “laoshu,” can also evoke “Mickey the Rat”) with the Gumby-like blue Expo mascot Haibao whose omnipresence in Shanghai these days has been discussed before on this site.
Posted on: Thursday, November 5, 2009 - 00:24
SOURCE: Truthdig (11-3-09)
Sen. Russ Feingold has called the glut of unlimited campaign contributions nothing more than “legalized bribery.” And who among his legislative colleagues deserves to be hit with this denunciation? “Not me,” say Max Baucus, the largest single recipient of health industry funds, and Joe Lieberman, the senator from Aetna Insurance, and, for that matter, just about all of the rest of Congress.
In June 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the intended effects of campaign contributions when it ruled in Caperton v. Massey that a West Virginia judge who failed to recuse himself had run a “serious risk of actual bias” because a person with a personal stake in the case had acquired “significant and disproportionate influence” over the judge by having raised funds for him and directing his election campaign. The issue, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court, “centers on the contribution’s relative size in comparison to the total amount of money contributed to the campaign, the total amount spent in the election, and the apparent effect such contribution had on the outcome of the election.”
One-time U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, now counsel for many conservative causes, insisted in Caperton that the “improper appearance” of campaign money in judicial elections was critical. “A line needs to be drawn,” he said, “to prevent a judge from hearing cases involving a person who has made massive campaign contributions to benefit the judge.”
Now comes Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, which, in a 4-3 vote, has drawn a different line and adopted a rule stipulating that campaign contributions, endorsements and paid ads are not enough to force recusal. The majority acted to “send a message that making lawful contributions is not a dishonorable thing to do and it’s not a dishonorable thing to receive.”
In a hearing on the ruling, the League of Women Voters and a retired associate justice proposed that recusal be triggered if a judge had received a contribution of more than $1,000 from a single source. In the end, two prominent lobbying groups, the Wisconsin Realtors Association (WRA) and the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Association (WMC), persuaded the court that unlimited contributions are protected “free speech.” Two of the four judges of the Wisconsin Supreme Court are beneficiaries of the WRA and WMC’s largesse.
Wisconsin voters have seen John Grisham’s novel “The Appeal” come to life. The book portrays powerful vested interests that wage a deceitful campaign in an unnamed state, pouring millions of dollars into successfully electing a Supreme Court justice, who then works to overturn an important lower court environmental ruling. The grease of corruption pervades Grisham’s imaginary state.
Wisconsin, which likes to see itself in the mirror of its century-old tradition of squeaky-clean progressive government, has had two Supreme Court elections in recent years, contests marked by the influx of WMC money. The manufacturers and commerce group carefully selected unknown, quite obscure lower court judges Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman as candidates. The WMC lavished an unprecedented $2 million on each and financed deceitful ads. For the first time in 41 years, a Wisconsin Supreme Court election—Gableman’s—resulted in an incumbent’s defeat. In the state court’s ruling on campaign contributions, both successful candidates were in the majority. Money trumps all.
For Wisconsin, the change is all too apparent. Forty years ago, the state tried a state legislator accused of accepting a $50 bribe. Later, a district attorney brought charges against a highly respected state senator for allegedly illegally making two overseas telephone calls.
Justice Ziegler stepped aside in 2007 in a case between the WRA and the town of West Point after the town noted she had received $8,625 in campaign contributions from the realtors association. The court divided and returned the case to the lower courts, which ruled in favor of the town. But several months later, Ziegler participated in a case that the WMC considered critical and she wrote a 4-3 decision favoring the organization’s position, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in business tax refunds.
After her election, Ziegler’s new high court colleagues rather gently reprimanded her for not recusing herself in cases involving a bank where her husband was a paid director. Some reprimand.
Gableman’s election brought complaints from lawyers that he had violated the judicial code by lying about his opponent’s record.
Gableman, the court’s newest judge, unabashedly supported the WMC’s position on the campaign contributions rule. Gableman ripped into the League of Women Voters—notoriously nonpartisan—calling it a “left-wing” group that advocated the regulation of campaign speech and demanded government “regulators” who would oversee judges. Gableman said the WMC’s approach properly “memorializes the First Amendment rights of the people to express their political views.” For Gableman, First Amendment rights are all about money—and probably not much else. At one point, he demanded that a spokesperson for the League of Women Voters account for George Soros’ contributions to the group.
Progressive attorney Ed Garvey, a veteran of notable run-ins with the state court on its ethical rulings, said the court’s majority served notice that “it ain’t [a fight using] bean bags—it is pitched battle. A once great court is deeply divided, with a majority that believes money is speech! Absurd but real.”
Money is awash in our politics, and it has invaded the judicial arena. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has noted that 14 states since 2006 broke records for spending in state judicial contests. She particularly drew attention to the influx of special interest money in state judicial elections, calling it a dangerous threat to “the integrity of judicial selection,” one that could “compromise public perception of judicial decisions.”
O’Connor said she feared that the judiciary would become “another political arm of the government.” It is somewhat late in the day to lament the politicization of the judiciary, a condition that has always existed, but extravagant campaign contributions have now perilously altered the landscape.
Justice O’Connor must be appalled by the Wisconsin ruling. Perhaps it challenges the U.S. Supreme Court’s Caperton decision, which held that campaign contributions could force a judicial recusal. The Caperton majority confronted determined dissenters, led by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia. Will the Wisconsin ruling provide them with new ammunition and cover in following Wisconsin’s lead? The fight over O’Connor’s concern for “the integrity of judicial selection” is not over.
Equal justice under equal law for all, we often proclaim; but when disproportionate advantage is given to one class or one group, the damage to that tenet is profound. We struggle today with the consequences of legislation that effectively reduced government’s power to regulate unbridled buccaneering in the pursuit of wealth for individual gain, and at the expense of many. The Wisconsin state court judges denounced “regulators” and invoked the insidious notion that we should trust our watchmen to watch themselves. What happened in Wisconsin is a microcosm of our present nightmares and failures.
Posted on: Thursday, November 5, 2009 - 00:14
SOURCE: The Nation (11-2-09)
It's being called "the most ambitious commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany": "The Wall Project" in Los Angeles -- and its political message will surprise many. Artists commissioned by the organizers have promised works that draw analogies between the Berlin Wall and the wall the Israelis have erected along the border with the West Bank, and the wall the US has erected along the Mexican border.
That's not exactly the sort of thing Ronald Reagan had in mind when he stood in Berlin in 1989 and said "Tear down this wall!"
LA's Berlin Wall anniversary commemoration has been organized by the Wende Museum, a private institution in Culver City, with the support of the City of L.A. It includes "The Wall Across Wilshire," a one-hour event on November 8 at which a replica of the Berlin Wall 60 feet long will be erected blocking Wilshire Blvd. in front of the County Museum of Art at midnight.
Artists have been commissioned to paint the wall with "their creative response to the walls in our lives": the top two are Shepard Fairey, who did the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, and Thierry Noir, a French-born, Berlin-based muralist famous for his paintings on the Berlin wall in 1989.
In an interview with the LA Times, Fairey said his painting on the wall in L.A. would be an "antiwar, anti-containment piece" that "makes a parallel to the Wall of Palestine."
Thierry Noir told the Times that his painting would draw an analogy between the Berlin Wall and the border wall between the US and Mexico – the point being, he said, that "every wall is not built forever."
Maybe Fairey and Noir mean that the Israeli wall and the US border wall should come down, the way the Berlin Wall did, and allow free movement--of Palestinians into Israel, and of Mexicans into the US.
And maybe they mean more than that. The Berlin Wall prevented victims of Stalinism from reaching freedom in the West; Fairey's point seems to be that the Israeli wall prevents victims of Zionism from exercising their right of return to their historic homes in Palestine.
Thierry Noir's point seems to be that the US border wall, like the Berlin Wall, divides one country into two: what was once all-Mexican territory in California and the Southwest. And, like divided Germany, the two sides of the Mexican border -- "Aztlan" -- should be, and perhaps will be, re-united some day.
An undivided Palestine; an undivided Aztlan: these meanings found in the Berlin Wall commemoration are likely to drive conservatives into a wild rage. First Amendment defenders of course will invoke the freedom of the artist. A fight over the meaning of freedom: what better way to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Posted on: Monday, November 2, 2009 - 23:21
SOURCE: The Philadelphia Inquirer (11-2-09)
Let's suppose, for a moment, that conservative critics are correct: Gay educators want to "promote homosexuality" in American schools.
That's the real question raised by the recent attacks on Kevin Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary of education who heads the federal Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.
Fifty-three House Republicans signed a letter last month calling on President Obama to fire Jennings, who founded the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network in 1990. According to its critics, the network advocates the "gay agenda" - that is, it tries to make more people gay.
Of course, GLSEN and Jennings scoff at the charge. They say their goal isn't to promote homosexuality, which they deem a contradiction in terms: You're either gay or you're not, in their view, and no school program is going to change that. Rather, they're simply trying to create school environments in which gay kids feel safe from insults, harassment, and violence.
But that response gives too much away to the other side. By denying the charge that they're promoting homosexuality, gay activists implicitly endorse the idea that it would be wrong if they were promoting it.
Jennings acknowledged the contradiction in an interview in 1997, when he recalled the testimony of GLSEN officials before Congress.
"We were busy putting out press releases and saying, 'We're not promoting homosexuality,' " Jennings said. But one day, he hoped, "most straight people, when they would hear that someone was promoting homosexuality, would say, 'Yeah, who cares?' because they wouldn't necessarily equate homosexuality with something bad that you would not want to promote."
Clearly, we're not there yet. Consider the major complaint against Jennings, as detailed in the House Republicans' letter: Back in 1988, when Jennings was teaching in Massachusetts, a 15-year-old student told him that he had had sex with an older man. Instead of reporting this episode to authorities as a case of sexual abuse of a minor, the charge goes, Jennings simply asked the boy if he had used a condom.
To quell the growing GOP firestorm, Jennings released a short statement confirming the episode and apologizing for it. "I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities," he wrote.
Again, though, this response concedes too much to Jennings' critics. Never mind that the boy he counseled now says he was 16 at the time, not 15, and therefore past the age of legal consent. If the student who confided in Jennings had been a 15-year-old girl who had told him she had had sex with an older man, would the GOP be denouncing Jennings for his failure to report the incident as child abuse? Would we be debating the episode at all?
It seems unlikely. The real question isn't whether Jennings and other educators want to promote homosexuality in schools or anywhere else. It's about being gay, period, and whether there's anything wrong with it.
And on that question, Americans remain deeply divided. Correctly or not, millions of Americans believe that we can - and should - promote heterosexuality in our society. That's the premise of the "ex-gay" movement, which tries to bring homosexuals back into the straight fold.
So I have a proposition, for both sides: Let's have a full and free airing of the question in America's high schools. Bring in speakers from GLSEN and other gay-rights organizations, and pit them against representatives from the Family Research Council and other conservative groups. And may the best man or woman win.
Maybe some formerly straight kids really will become gay, or maybe some gays will go straight. Who knows? I don't really care, one way or another.
Posted on: Monday, November 2, 2009 - 22:50
SOURCE: Commentary (11-2-09)
If media leaks are to be believed, President Obama will attempt to chart a middle way in Afghanistan, sending more soldiers but not as many as General Stanley McChrystal would like. The New York Times describes the emerging strategy as “McChrystal for the city, Biden for the country,” a blend of the diametrically opposed approaches advocated by the general (who favors a counterinsurgency strategy) and the vice president (who wants to do counterterrorism operations only). The Times writes that "the administration is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Maza-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters, officials said." In the rest of Afghanistan, presumably, operations would be limited to a few air raids and Special Operations raids. Other media reports suggest that the administration is looking to send 10,000 to 20,000 troops -- not the 40,000 that McChrystal wants.
To Washington politicians, this no doubt sounds like a sensible compromise. To anyone steeped in military strategy it sounds as if it could be a prescription for tragedy. The administration seems intent on doing just enough to keep the war effort going without doing enough to win it. That is also what the U.S. did in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, and for that matter in Afghanistan from 2001 to today. The ambivalence of our politicians places US troops in harm's way without giving them a chance to prevail.
It is hard, of course, to make any definitive statement until the administration makes public its strategy. It is always possible that the final decision will not resemble the leaks we read today. But if the Times report is accurate, senior White House officials are bent on imposing a curious strategy on our on-the-ground commander. Most of Afghanistan's big cities are not seriously threatened by insurgents. Notwithstanding a few high-profile attacks, Kabul is pretty safe, as I discovered for myself during a recent visit. So too with Herat, Jalalabad, Maza-i-Sharif, and the rest. Even Kandahar doesn't have much violence, although the Taliban undoubtedly exert some control over what goes on inside the city limits. The problem lies in the countryside, where the Taliban have been pursuing the same strategy that the mujahideen used against the Soviets in the 1980s -- consolidate control in rural areas and then launch attacks on the cities where foreign troops are garrisoned...
Posted on: Monday, November 2, 2009 - 17:05
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (11-1-09)
In the worst of times, my father always used to say,"A good gambler cuts his losses." It's a formulation imprinted on my brain forever. That no-nonsense piece of advice still seems reasonable to me, but it doesn't apply to American war policy. Our leaders evidently never saw a war to which the word"more" didn't apply. Hence the Afghan War, where impending disaster is just an invitation to fuel the flames of an already roaring fire.
Here's a partial rundown of news from that devolving conflict: In the last week, Nuristan, a province on the Pakistani border, essentially fell to the Taliban after the U.S. withdrew its forces from four key bases. Similarly in Khost, another eastern province bordering Pakistan where U.S. forces once registered much-publicized gains (and which Richard Holbrooke, now President Obama's special envoy to the region, termed"an American success story"), the Taliban is largely in control. It is, according to Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal of the Wall Street Journal, now"one of the most dangerous provinces" in the country. Similarly, the Taliban insurgency, once largely restricted to the Pashtun south, has recently spread fiercely to the west and north. At the same time, neighboring Pakistan is an increasingly destabilized country amid war in its tribal borderlands, a terror campaign spreading throughout the country, escalating American drone attacks, and increasingly testy relations between American officials and the Pakistani government and military.
Meanwhile, the U.S. command in Afghanistan is considering a strategy that involves pulling back from the countryside and focusing on protecting more heavily populated areas (which might be called, with the first U.S. Afghan War of the 1980s in mind, the Soviet strategy). The underpopulated parts of the countryside would then undoubtedly be left to Hellfire missile-armed American drone aircraft. In the last week, three U.S. helicopters -- the only practical way to get around a mountainous country with a crude, heavily mined system of roads -- went down under questionable circumstances (another potential sign of an impending Soviet-style disaster). Across the country, Taliban attacks are up; deadly roadside bombs or IEDs are fast on the rise (a 350% jump since 2007); U.S. deaths are at a record high and the numbers of wounded are rising rapidly; European allies are ever less willing to send more troops; and Taliban raids in the capital, Kabul, are on the increase. All this despite a theoretical 12-1 edge U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops have over the Taliban insurgents and their allies.
In addition, our nation-building"partner," the hopeless Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- known in better times as"the mayor of Kabul" for his government's lack of reach -- was the"winner" in an election in which, it seemed, more ballot boxes were stuffed than voters arrived at the polls. In its wake, and in the name of having an effective"democratic" partner in Afghanistan, the foreigners stepped in: Senator John Kerry, Richard Holbrooke, and other envoys appeared in Kabul or made telephone calls to whisper sweet somethings in ears and twist arms. The result was a second round of voting slated for November 7th and likely only to compound the initial injury. No matter the result -- and Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's opponent, has already withdrawn in protest from the runoff -- the winner will, once again, be the Taliban. (And let's not forget the recent New York Timesrevelation that the President's alleged drug-kingpin brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, whom American officials regularly and piously denounce, is, in fact, a long-term paid agent of the CIA and its literal landlord in the southern city of Kandahar. If you were a Taliban propagandist, you couldn't make this stuff up.)
With the second round of elections already a preemptive disaster, and foreigners visibly involved in the process, all of this is a Taliban bonanza. The words"occupation,""puppet government," and the like undoubtedly ring ever truer in Afghan ears. You don't have to be a propaganda genius to exploit this sort of thing.
In such a situation, even good imperial gamblers would normally cut their losses. Unfortunately, in Washington terms, what's happened in Afghanistan is not the definition of failure. In the economic lingo of the moment, the war now falls into the category of"too big to fail," which means upping the ante or doubling down the bet. Think of the Afghan War, in other words, as the AIG of American foreign policy.
Playing with Dominos, Then and Now
Have you noticed, by the way, that the worse Afghanistan gets, the more the pundits find themselves stumbling helplessly into Vietnam? Analogies to that old counterinsurgency catastrophe are now a dime a dozen. And no wonder. Even if it's obvious that Vietnam and Afghanistan, as places and historical situations, have little in common, what they do have is Washington. Our leaders, that is, seem repetitiously intent on creating analogies between the two wars.
What is it about Washington and such wars? How is it that American wars conducted in places most Americans once couldn't have located on a map, and gone disastrously wrong, somehow become too big to fail? Why is it that, facing such wars -- whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican -- Washington's response is the bailout?
As things go from bad to worse and the odds grow grimmer, our leaders, like the worst of gamblers, wager ever more. Why is it that, in obscure lands under obscure circumstances, American administrations somehow become convinced that everything -- the fate of our country, if not the planet itself -- is at stake? In Vietnam, this was expressed in the absurd"domino theory": if Vietnam fell, Thailand, Burma, India, and finally California would follow like so many toppling dominos.
Now, Afghanistan has become the First Domino of our era, and the rest of the falling dominos in the twenty-first century are, of course, the terrorist attacks to come, once an emboldened al-Qaeda has its "safe haven" and its triumph in the backlands of that country. In other words, first Afghanistan, then Pakistan, then a mushroom cloud over an American city. In both the Vietnam era and today, Washington has also been mesmerized by that supposedly key currency of international stature," credibility." To employ a strategy of"less," to begin to cut our losses and pull out of Afghanistan would -- they know with a certainty that passeth belief -- simply embolden the terrorist (in the Vietnam era, communist) enemy. It would be a victory for al-Qaeda's future Islamic caliphate (as it once would have been for communist global domination).
By now, the urge to bail out Afghanistan, instead of bailing out of the place, has visibly become a compulsion, even for a foreign policy team that should know better, a team that is actually reading a book about how the Vietnam disaster happened. Unfortunately, the citizenry can't take the obvious first step and check that team, with all its attendant generals and plenipotentiaries, into some LBJ or George W. Bush Rehabilitation Center; nor is there a 12-step detox program to recommend to Washington's war addicts. And the"just say no" approach, not exactly a career enhancer, has been used so far by but a single, upright foreign service officer, Matthew P. Hoh, who sent a resignation letter as senior civilian representative in Zabul Province to the State Department in September. ("To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures or resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war... The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.")
More or Less More?
In this context, despite all the media drama -- Is Obama "dithering" or not? Will he or won't he follow the advice of his generals? -- we already know one thing about the president's upcoming Afghan War decision with a painful degree of certainty: it will involve more, not less. It will up the ante, not cut our losses. As the New York Timesput it recently,"[T]he debate [within the administration] is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many more will be needed." In other words, we know that, in response to a war everyone on all sides of the Afghan debate in the U.S. now agrees is little short of disastrous, he will, in some fashion, feed the flames.
Admittedly, President Obama himself has offered few indications of what exactly he plans to do (if he even knows). It's now being said, however, that, at the end of a highly publicized set of brainstorming sessions with his vice president, top advisors, generals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congressional representatives, and cabinet officers, he may (or may not) announce a decision before he sets out for Tokyo on November 11th.
Nonetheless, thanks to an endless series of high-level Washington leaks and whispers, beginning more than a month ago with the leaking to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward of Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal's report to the president, we do know this: Every option Obama is considering has the word"more" (as in the Vietnam-era term"escalation") attached to it. There isn't a"less" (a de-escalation) option in sight. Withdrawal of any sort has, so press reports tell us, been officially taken off the table.
The most publicity has gone, of course, to the" counterinsurgency" or COIN option put forward by General McChrystal and clearly backed by George W. Bush's favorite Iraqi"surge" general and present Centcom commander, David Petraeus. According to this option, the president would significantly increase the number of American boots on the ground to"protect" the Afghan people. The actual numbers of extra troops urged on Obama have undergone a strange process of growth-by-leak over the last weeks. Initially, as the New York Timesreported, the general was supposedly recommending three possibilities: a low figure of 10,000-15,000 ("a high-risk option"), an in-between figure of 25,000 ("a medium-risk option"), and a top figure of 45,000 ("a low-risk option"). More recently, it's been suggested that McChrystal's three choices are: 10,000, 40,000, and 80,000 (or even possibly 44,000 and 85,000) -- his preference, for now, reportedly being 40,000. These new American troops would, of course, be over and above the approximately 70,000 already slated to be in-country by the end of 2009, more than a doubling of the force in place when the Obama administration came into office. The striking increase to almost 70,000 has, so far, led to a more intense but less successful war effort.
In a recent grimly comic episode, a meeting of NATO defense ministers put its stamp of approval on General McChrystal's robust COIN option -- despite the fact that their governments seem unwilling to offer any extra soldiers in support of such an American surge. (The only exception so far has been British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who agreed to send a paltry 500 more troops -- with hedges and escape clauses at that.)
Beyond General McChrystal's ultimate"more" option, at least three other options are reportedly being considered, all representing"less"; think of these as"less more" options. They include:
*An option to significantly bulk up the training of the Afghan army and police force, so that we might hand our war off to them ASAP. This is, in reality, another"more" option, since thousands of new U.S. trainers and advisors would be needed. It has reportedly been favored by Senator Carl Levin and other Democrats in Congress fearful of major Vietnam-style troop escalations and the ensuing fallout at home.
*An option to leave troops numbers in Afghanistan roughly at their present level and focus not on counterinsurgency, but on what's being called " counterterrorism-plus." This, in practical terms, means upping the use of U.S. drone aircraft and Special Forces teams, while focusing less on the Taliban in the Afghan countryside and more on taking out al-Qaeda and possibly Taliban operatives in the Pakistani tribal border regions. This option is said to be favored by Vice President Joe Biden, who also reportedly fears (perfectly reasonably) that a larger American"footprint" in Afghanistan might only turn Afghans even more strongly against a foreign occupation. This option is, in turn, often discussed by the U.S. media as if it were a de-escalatory approach and the next thing to an antiwar position. It, too, however, represents more.
*An option recently put forward by John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for what Jim Lobe of Interpress Service has termed " counterinsurgency lite." This would, according to the senator, involve more training of Afghan troops and the commitment of perhaps 10,000-15,000 additional American troops immediately. (In his typical way, however, Kerry managed to stop short of mentioning actual numbers.) Meanwhile, we would wait for other factors considered crucial for a successful counterinsurgency campaign to kick in:"enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops,""local leaders we can partner with," and"the civilian side ready to follow swiftly with development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population." Wielding a classic image of imperial control, the senator claims to want to put an "Afghan face" on the Afghan War -- that is, though no one ever says this, an Afghan mask over the American war. (Since the crucial factors he lays out for a successful counterinsurgency campaign are never likely to come into being, his, too, is a"less more"-style option.)
Quagmires, Then and Now
It's quite possible, of course, that the president will choose a "hybrid strategy,", mixing and matching from this list. He might, for instance, up drone attacks in Pakistan, raise troop levels"modestly" à la Kerry, and send in more U.S. trainers and advisors -- a package that would surely be presented as part of a plan to pave the way for our future departure. All we do know, based on the last year, is that"more" in whatever form is likely to prove a nightmare, and yet anything less than escalation of some sort is not in the cards. No one in Washington is truly going to cut U.S. losses anytime soon.
In the Vietnam era, there was a shorthand word for this:"quagmire." We were, as the antiwar song then went,"waist deep in the Big Muddy" and still wading in. If Vietnam was, in fact, a quagmire, however, it was so only because we made it so. Similarly, in changed circumstances, Afghanistan today has become the AIG of American foreign policy and Obama's team so many foreign policy equivalents of Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. And as with the economy, so with the expanding Af/Pak war: at the end of the day, it's the American taxpayer who will be left holding the bag.
Let's think about what this means for a moment: According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the cost of keeping a single American soldier in Afghanistan is $1.3 million per year. According to Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, it costs the Pentagon about $1 billion per year to station 1,000 U.S. troops in that country. It's fair to assume that this estimate doesn't include, among other things, long-term care for wounded soldiers or the cost of replacing destroyed or overused equipment. Nor do these figures include any civilian funds being spent on the war effort via the State Department, nor undoubtedly the funds being spent by the Pentagon to upgrade bases and facilities throughout the country. In other words, just about any decision by the president, including one simply focused on training Afghan soldiers and police, will involve an outlay of further multi-billions of dollars. Whatever choice the president makes, the U.S. will bleed money.
Let's say that he makes the Kerry choice --"just" perhaps 15,000 troops. That means at least $15 billion for starters. And there's no reason to believe that we're only talking a year here. The counterinsurgency types are talking 5-10 years to"turn the tide" of the insurgency. Those who are actually training the Afghan military and police, when quoted, don't believe they will be capable of taking what's called"responsibility" in a major way for years to come, if ever.
Throw in domestic politics where a Democratic president invariably feels safer kicking the can down the road via escalation than being called"weak" -- though Obama is already being blasted by the right for"dithering" -- and you have about as toxic a brew as can be imagined.
If the Afghan War is already too big to fail, what in the world will it be after the escalations to come? As with Vietnam, so now with Afghanistan, the thick layers of mythology and fervent prediction and projection that pass for realism in Washington make clear thinking on the war impossible. They prevent the serious consideration of any options labeled"less" or"none." They inflate projections of disaster based on withdrawal, even though similar lurid predictions during the Vietnam era proved hopelessly off-base.
The United States lived through all the phases of escalation, withdrawal, and defeat in Vietnam without suffering great post-war losses of any sort. This time we may not be so lucky. The United States is itself no longer too big to fail -- and if we should do so, remind me: Who exactly will bail us out?
Posted on: Sunday, November 1, 2009 - 20:37