October 30, 2007

New soldiers

Head over to the Washington City Paper and take a look at this photo essay by Darrow Montgomery featuring new recruits to the armed forces. The implied question is, Who is signing up for the military in the middle of the Iraq War? Here are a few answers from the accompanying text by Jason Cherkis (but follow the link and listen to the subjects speak for themselves in the audio-visual slide show):

* From a 21-year-old Navy recruit: “'I can’t swim...That might be a challenge.…I know it’s awkward. I didn’t want to go in the Air Force. I figured, ‘Hey, I’ll learn how to swim."
* From a 17-year-old who one day hopes to be a broadcast journalist: “Don’t know what to expect. But after basic training, it looks like smooth sailing.”
* A 23-year-old antiwar Duke graduate with a degree in Middle Eastern history and a minor in Arabic is shipping out with a copy of Tom Ricks's Fiasco in his luggage.
* And an 18-year-old whose job will include interrogrations and who knows she might be asked to use torture: "I’m not really concerned with it... If I have to do it, I will. Hopefully I won’t have to do anything like torturing anybody. If I have to do that to do my job, it will just come along. If it’s to help protect someone else, then yeah."

October 29, 2007

Jenna v. Chelsea!

My esteemed colleague T.A. Frank is backing Jenna. Why? Well, while Jenna has been assiduously working to erase our memories of her hard-drinking, thong-baring youth with a Unicef internship and a new book, what has Chelsea been up to?

"Chelsea's post-9/11 resume has consisted of stints as a McKinsey consultant and as an investment analyst at Avenue Capital, a hedge fund run by the nuns of Calcutta. Oh, sorry-- make that Clinton donor Marc Lasry... Quoth the Times: 'Friends say financial independence is important to Ms. Clinton; she may improve on her low- six-figure McKinsey salary by hundreds of thousands of dollars.'
Chelsea didn't exactly spend her Oxford days tending to the world's unfortunates, either: Among the events she attended were a Versace couture show in Paris (sitting next to Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow), a ball thrown by Sir Elton John, and a film premiere with Paul McCartney. Nor did she join her British celebrity friends in visiting landmine amputees, unless the amputees happened to be holed up at Oscar de la Renta's Dominican villa. In New York, Chelsea has befriended celebrities like Tara Reid (who, to be fair, may actually qualify as a public service cause) and become a regular at establishments like Schiller's and Bungalow 8. In short, while Jenna has used her celebrity--at least in part--to help impoverished children, Chelsea has used her celebrity to get herself good tables at Nobu."

Read the rest here.

Publish and Perish

We have a new piece by Avi Klein in the Washington Monthly that I think is well worth a read. It begins with the mysterious suicide of a man named Ken Kronberg, who ran the printing operation for the notorious Lyndon LaRouche. As Avi notes, there is some indication that Kronberg may have been goaded to commit suicide by an internal memo from the LaRouche leadership that Kronberg read the morning that he died.

As Avi investigated this incident and learned more about Kronberg, he figured out an essential truth about the LaRouche movement: more than a cult of personality or a political movement, what it really resembles is a "vast and bizarre vanity press." LaRouche's MO for changing the world was to bombard its citizens with printed disquisitions on esoteric subjects (see above). He also depended on his printer financially, using his various magazines and dubious intelligence reports to raise cash (although the movement always seemed to be on the run from its creditors.) As the owner of the printing operation, Kronberg was at the center of all this. And as the movement's finances became increasingly shaky (a development brought on, in part, by LaRouche's obsession with the printed word in the face of the rise of the Internet), Kronberg came under increasing strain. The demise of Kronberg and his printing company tells a fascinating story about the decline of the LaRouche movement itself, a strange and unique presence in American politics for the past thirty years. Check it out.

Bonus reading: via Kevin, this piece in Inside Higher Ed takes a look at some of LaRouche's more quixotic causes (although, to tell you the truth, his causes all tend to be incredibly quixotic.) For instance:

"LaRouche has also determined the correct pitch for tuning musical instruments. Any other tuning bothers him, besides being incompatible with the structure of the universe. In the best of all possible worlds, people found in possession of “incorrect” tuning forks and pitch-pipes would be fined. His followers in Italy once proposed legislation to that effect. It failed. That campaign seems to be at a standstill, but it once drew close attention in the pages of Opera Fanatic magazine."

Ah, Opera Fanatic magazine --almost certainly the only opera publication whose cover once promised nude centerfolds and “For the First Time: Photos of Castrati.” But that's another story.

LaRouche pamphlet image from Flickr user whitbackup81 under a Creative Commons license.

October 25, 2007

The Distant Future

"...in 10,000 years time humans may have paid a genetic price for relying on technology. Spoiled by gadgets designed to meet their every need, they could come to resemble domesticated animals.

Social skills, such as communicating and interacting with others, could be lost, along with emotions such as love, sympathy, trust and respect. People would become less able to care for others, or perform in teams.

Physically, they would start to appear more juvenile. Chins would recede, as a result of having to chew less on processed food."

Two Districts

A new study of the Washington DC economy finds that the capital has the third-greatest level of income inequality of any American city. Plus:

-- The gap between high-wage and low-wage workers in the District is at an all-time high.
-- Between the early 1980s and early 2000s, the average income of the poorest fifth of DC households rose three percent. The average income of the wealthiest fifth rose 81 percent.
-- African-American median income is no higher than in 1980.
-- African-American residents are five times more likely than white residents to be unemployed.

The conclusion? -- "These findings show that the District has two different economies: one represented by construction cranes, new jobs, and growing incomes—-and another represented by people who work but earn very little, who are not moving into better jobs or higher wages, and who may not be working at all. The gleaming side of DC’s economy could continue to grow and prosper, but there is little evidence to suggest it would lead to any improvements for the thousands of residents who live on the other side."

Rudy and torture

In my Washington Monthly piece I note that Rudy Giuliani has already indicated his support for quite a few of the Bush administration's most disturbing policies in the area of detention and interrogration:

"In 2006, Giuliani told the Wall Street Journal that he would probably keep the detention center at Guantanamo Bay open, saying that its conditions had been "grossly exaggerated." This year, at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, he refused to say whether the Bush administration had gone too far in denying the protection of the Geneva Conventions to terrorist suspects. Giuliani has also indicated that presidents have the power to indefinitely detain American citizens without trial. At a debate, he declared himself opposed to torture but refused to say whether he would outlaw waterboarding, instead offering that interrogators should perform "any method they can think of."

For most of those comments it's possible for Giuliani's supporters to argue that he was just speaking off the cuff to a reporter or voter, and that these statements don't necessarily reflect deeply held positions. I don't think that's true. Witness this exchange from at a campaign event in Iowa yesterday, in which Giuliani explicitly lays out a policy of officially sanctioned torture (emphases mine).

Questioner: "He [AG nominee Mukasey] said he didn't know if waterboarding is torture."

Giuliani: "Well, I'm not sure it is either. I'm not sure it is either. It depends on how it's done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it's been defined in the media, it shouldn't be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that's the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn't be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is. Because I've learned something being in public life as long as I have. And I hate to shock anybody with this, but the newspapers don't always describe it accurately."
“Now, on the question of torture. We should not torture. America should not stand for torture, America should not allow torture. But America should engage in aggressive questioning of Islamic terrorists who are arrested or who are apprehended. Because if we don’t we leave ourselves open to significant attack.”

“And the line between the two is very delicate and very difficult. But we can’t abandon aggressive questioning of people who are intent on coming here to kill us. Or killing us overseas. I think that that’s the point that the attorney general designate was trying to make.”

“And the powers of the president are pretty significant in protecting the national security of the United States. They always have been. So I think what he was also trying to do was protect the powers of the United States to deal with unforeseen circumstances like the hypothetical we were asked during one debate – I’ve forgotten which one: If there was a terrorist attack on an American city, and it was clear that there were all going to be additional attacks, some of them were going to be nuclear, and they were planned for the next couple of days and one of the people involved in it was arrested, and the head of the C.I.A. came to you and said we have to do certain things to get the information from him, would you authorize it? And I think most of us answered it, yes we would, we would authorize doing whatever we thought was the most effective to get that information.

The president has to have that kind of leeway. We’ve got to trust our president well enough to allow that. If we surround this so much with procedure, we’re going to have some unforeseen circumstance in which a president’s not going to feel comfortable making the right decision, particularly if you have the wrong person there. “

“So I think America should never be for torture. America should be against torture. It violates the Geneva Convention. [sic] Certainly when we’re dealing with armed combatants, we shouldn’t get near anything like that. There is a distinction, sometimes, when you’re dealing with terrorists. You may have to use means that are a little tougher.

October 24, 2007

Rudy and executive power

I have a cover story in the new issue of the Washington Monthly. It takes a close look at Giuliani's mayoralty to argue that he would be even more aggressive in his use of presidential power than Bush and Cheney have been. Like most of you, I knew when I started reporting the piece that Giuliani favors many of Bush's policies on interrogation and detention, and that he's temperamentally inclined to be a bit of a bully who threw his weight around a lot as mayor. What I didn't realize was how adept he was at using the same tactics that have become hallmarks of the Bush-Cheney presidency: circumventing the law, obstructing oversight, obsessive secrecy, and above all a canny exploitation of the weak points in the system of checks and balances. I'll have more to say on all of this later, but for now, here's the link.

October 23, 2007

Hillary and executive power

Michael Tomasky has an interview with Hillary Clinton up at the brand new Guardian America site, which includes this nugget:

MT: If you become president you'll enter the White House with far more power than, say, your husband had. What is your view of this? And what specific powers might you relinquish as president, or renegotiate with Congress - for example the power to declare a US citizen an enemy combatant?
HC: Well, I think it is clear that the power grab undertaken by the Bush-Cheney administration has gone much further than any other president and has been sustained for longer. Other presidents, like Lincoln, have had to take on extraordinary powers but would later go to the Congress for either ratification or rejection. But when you take the view that they're not extraordinary powers, but they're inherent powers that reside in the office and therefore you have neither obligation to request permission nor to ask for ratification, we're in a new territory here. And I think that I'm gonna have to review everything they've done because I've been on the receiving end of that.
MT: I guess I'm asking, can a president, once in the White House, actually give up some of this power in the name of constitutional principle?
HC: Oh, absolutely, Michael. I mean that has to be part of the review that I undertake when I get to the White House, and I intend to do that.

It's a very careful answer that doesn't promise anything specific, (note that what's she's promising is the review of Bush's power grab, not the relinquishment of powers). But I'm very glad that Tomasky asked the question.

October 19, 2007


Matt Yglesias writes today that Michael Mukasey initially seemed "an admirably non-terrible choice for the job of attorney general" but "the hearings process has revealed him to be completely unacceptable." This makes my head hurt. Sure, Mukasey is not a hack like Alberto Gonzales -- he's a serious man who's had a serious career in the law. (So, by the way, are John Roberts and Samuel Alito.) I expect that the DoJ will be better run, I don't expect Mukasey to continue the rampantly politicized hiring practices that existed under Gonzales (although how far he'll go to clean out the ranks of political hires who are still there is another question entirely.)

But... we've known for several years now that practically every decision the Bush administration makes is shaped by a view of presidential authority on steroids. The Mukasey nomination never seemed like a compromise to me, but just a rerun of the same brilliant tactic the administration used with its judicial nominations. When the administration nominated Roberts in particular, but also Alito, many in the legal establishment seemed almost flattered by their impeccable credentials and courtly manners. Unlike, say, a Harriet Miers, these guys seemed respectable, part of the club, and so many in the world of elite opinion murmured their gratified approval; the Senate got a lot of non-answers from both men, but because they were given politely, it confirmed them all the same. As Charlie Savage explains in his indispensable book, though, Roberts and Alito happened to share the administration's vision of executive power (as their records inside the Reagan administration clearly demonstrated). That is why they were nominated.

Over the last week or so, we've seen Washington making a very similar mistake. Even Andrew Sullivan, normally outstanding on the issues of torture and abuse of executive power, initially took the bait, although he has since changed his mind. In the Senate, Patrick Leahy has realized that there is "a loophole big enough to drive a truck through” in Mukasey's position on whether the president needs to obey the law. Mukasey has also refused to call waterboarding torture -- despite the fact that the U.S. has, historically, successfully prosecuted the practice as a war crime under international law. But so far the Senate appears set to confirm Mukasey, because he is at least answering their questions, even though the answers he is giving are unacceptable.

Here is the issue: despite the Bush administration's declining fortunes, its attitude towards the power of the presidency remains unchanged. It is detaining people on the basis of secret evidence and then claiming that it has lost the evidence. It is successfully strong-arming a weak-willed Congress into legalizing its illegal wiretapping. Despite the disclosure of its torture policy, that policy remains unchanged. Given the centrality of the DoJ to the administration's exercise of unfettered power, was there ever any doubt that Bush and Cheney would nominate someone for Attorney General who didn't share their basic beliefs about presidential authority? Sure, they might have preferred Ted Olson. But there's no way they would have nominated Mukasey if they thought he would jeopardize their seven-year mission to remake the presidency. And that's why he shouldn't be confirmed, no matter how serious and independent and impressive he seems in contrast to Alberto Gonzales.

October 14, 2007

Lonely Isles

After I came to the U.S., I developed a habit of checking in secondhand bookstores for titles by New Zealanders or about New Zealand. It's interesting to see what bits of flotsam and jetsam from your home country make their way here. For instance, in Fredericksburg, Maryland, I bought New Zealand by William Cameron, a history of the country's attempt to "lead the islands of the South Pacific in the creation of a new Anglo-Polynesian civilization." It was published in 1965 in Englewood Cliffs, NJ (where, incidentally, I once spent a miserable five weeks as a freelance fact checker for Life&Style magazine.) I was leafing through it today and found an interesting passage in a chapter titled "From Bonanza to Export Drive." (For the record, I'm not one of the many New Zealanders who disparage the country's history as boring and not worth reading about, but I must say that titles like that don't help.) Anyway, over the years I've heard many explanations for the solitary strain that runs thought a lot of New Zealand art and writing and culture, but Cameron's take was new to me:

"There can be no doubt that the peculiar form of isolationism that prevails in New Zealand is produced by the occupational habits of her farmers. Preoccupation with producing wool, butter, cheese, and meat for a seemingly inexhaustible market created by a continuation of Great Britain's nineteenth-century concentration upon industrialization has tended to make New Zealanders think that all one needs to worry about is producing the goods and they will sell themselves. This attitude was probably engendered in the pioneers very early by bonanza conditions. No one needed to worry about a market for gold; all one had to do was find it and mine it. No one needed to worry about a market for wool; all one had to worry about was the price offering.... The consequences of having one's main market on the other side of the world induced the feeling that one could not really manipulate that market.. The New Zealander soon learned to keep his eyes on his own garden."

I'm not sure about explaining the national character through the vagaries of the export market, but I do think that, as with most places, the way New Zealand was settled had a lot to do with the kind of culture that developed there. I remember my grandmother telling me about how her mother came to New Zealand from the island of Jersey in the English Channel. She had only known her husband for a few months before she decided to take a three-month sea voyage to the other side of the world with him. She spoke only French, no English, and couldn't read or write, so at first it was hard for her to communicate with her family at home, at least until her children grew old enough to help her write letters. They lived on a farm several miles from the nearest road and even further from the nearest town, which was the small settlement of Eketahuna, a Maori word which means "to run aground on a sandbank."

Being a pioneer in New Zealand wasn't like being a pioneer in the American West. Unlike the wide plains that you find in the Western states of the U.S., New Zealand is all hills and gullies, mountain ranges and valleys. Today, the landscape is mostly settled farmland, but back then it was covered in dense, tenacious bush. You couldn't see past the next hill or the bush that hemmed in your house or your town. Driving in New Zealand, you very rarely get that sense of unimpeded possibility that is a common experience in the American West--and nor did you get the optimism and recklesseness that those limitless horizons inspired. Instead, you got caution and pessimism, a sense that if things were bearable where you were, you'd better stay put, because they might be worse if you moved on. And a pragmatic self-sufficiency and an ability to cope without other people that later became a culture which put less value on community, and had a kind of loneliness soaked into its bones.

I think I mention this because I was thinking about my grandmothers today. Both are over 90 (the older one is 96). Both of them are extremely resourceful and independent and, until very recently, lived for quite a long time on their own. My Nana is cheerful and practical; my Grandma is curious and inquisitive. I've always thought that in their different ways, they embody some of the more admirable aspects of that older New Zealand culture, which has changed a lot in my lifetime, mostly for the better, and looks likely to keep on changing.

October 13, 2007

My eyes!

OK, I take back everything I said about New York magazine's cover last week being creepy. If you have had your morning coffee, and are not hungover or otherwise prone to retching, check out Radar's parody of Vanity Fair.

Obama and black voters

Andrew Sullivan has been doing some interesting posts this week exploring why black voters aren't rallying behind Obama to the degree you might expect. A few of his readers have mentioned that they don't feel obliged to vote for him simply because he's black. Fair enough -- I can't vote myself, but if I could I wouldn't pull the lever for Hillary just because she's a woman. Some of the reasons, though, were sobering:

"You would gain tremendous insight by talking to some Black, middle age folks. You will gain insight as to why this group favors (rightly or wrongly, Hillary. And they will tell you that (1) Obama is not ready; (2) He will be assassinated if he gets within striking distance of the White House. Middle-age Blacks know a thing or two about how America really is. One does not hear these insights from younger white folks."

And in today's Times, Katherine Seeyle takes the temperature at some beauty parlors in South Carolina and finds "an almost maternal concern for Obama's safety" was a common theme:

“'I fear that they just would kill him, that he wouldn’t even have a chance,' she said as she styled a customer’s hair with a curling iron. One way to protect him, she suggested, would be not to vote for him."

Obama's rise has been so swift that it's easy to forget how unlikely his candidacy is and how slowly America changes. A country that has never elected anyone but white men is finally considering not only an African American but a woman too (albeit one who owes her momentum to her husband's presidency). Still, there are many currents that will tug voters of all kinds to retreat from the audacious choice and revert to something safer. A dark view of the fate of prominent black men is just one of those currents. This election may seem like a historic one, but it's really only a beginning.

October 6, 2007

One small Hitch

Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to a piece by Christopher Hitchens about his experience meeting the family of a young soldier who recently died in Iraq, having been inspired to enlist in part by Hitchens. Hitchens' article is honest and moving, and he is obviously stricken by his role in the death of Mark Jennings Daily, by all accounts a remarkable man from a remarkable family. But I was struck by Hitchens's response when he first read in the LA Times that "writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced" Daily to go to Iraq.

"I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.?" (emphasis mine.)

When I read this, I froze. Could it be true that this possibility had never occurred to Hitchens before? He is a columnist and an opinion-writer; persuading people he has never met is his trade. By arguing forcefully in prominent venues for the war in Iraq, surely he must have realized that his words could have at least two potential consequences. One, his forceful arguments might influence the thinking of the policymakers and opinion-shapers whose support is vital for the launch of any war--and war will almost certainly lead to the deaths of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. Two, an idealistic person might read Hitchens' writing and be so inspired by its moral arguments that he decides to participate in the struggle for democracy in the Middle East. Perhaps opinion writers tend not to consider that their words might have the direct impact of the latter example, and are more comfortable with exerting their influence at the safe remove offered by the former. The consequences, however, are ultimately the same.

October 3, 2007

The other torture memos

We knew there were more disturbing memos floating around somewhere in the Office of Legal Counsel, and they're finally starting to come out. The Times has pieced together a large part of the story of how the OLC authorized the CIA to perform torture on the fly:

"With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture. The agency officers questioning prisoners constantly sought advice from lawyers thousands of miles away... [such as] “These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature — can they be combined?” Or “Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?”

The piece also introduces us to Steven Bradbury, who took over the OLC after the resignation of Jack Goldsmith. He seems to have become the OLC's chief enabler of the administration's torture policy after the departure of John Yoo (nicknamed "Dr. Yes" by John Ashcroft because of his apparent willingness to find a legal rationale for any interrogation technique that the administration could think up.)

One theme that runs throughout the piece is the politicization of the OLC--a once highly respected office whose role is to provide a sound interpretation of the law for the executive branch--not to offer creative suggestions for how the government can get away with what it wants to do. The politicization had already begun before Bradbury's arrival, but the Times points out that the administration “decided to watch Bradbury for a month or two" and put him on probation, making it difficult for him to disagree with the White House if he wanted to make the job a permanent one. I couldn't help but think of the disturbing revelation that the White House was secretly interviewing John Roberts about a Supreme Court vacancy while he was deciding Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld on the D.C. Court of Appeals--effectively turning the case into an audition. (Roberts, of course, passed with honors.)

And here's the thing that tends to get lost in the dramatic stories of the departures of Gonzales and Yoo, the revolt by principled lawyers like Jack Goldsmith and James Comey, and the withdrawal of Yoo's infamous 2002 memo:

"The 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said. They show how the White House has succeeded in preserving the broadest possible legal latitude for harsh tactics."

It will take a new administration and a new Congress to repair the damage.

October 1, 2007

Michael Crowley thinks that this week's cover of New York magazine is hilarious. Personally, I think it is creepy. You really have to look twice to tell that it's Bill under that bouffant.

The piece itself--by Jennifer Senior--has some interesting thoughts about how the Clintons might manage reversed roles in a second presidency. (It's only when you write a sentence like that that you realize how weird the prospect is in the first place.) What really unnerves me, though, is that lately I've heard the odd Democrat with fond memories of the Clinton I era admit that their sympathies are drifting Hillarywards because they'd "get Bill back." I wouldn't be so sure about that. I imagine that Hillary will be very anxious to distinguish herself from her husband. And--as Senior also points out--although Bill and Hillary have similar goals, they have very different instincts. If Hillary becomes president, it's her instincts that we'll get.

Dollars and Cents

Radiohead announced today that not only do they have a new album coming out in ten days that nobody knew about, but that you can decide how much you want to pay to download it. The band is able to pull off this nifty trick because it's no longer signed with a label, and now releases all its music through its own website. If you go there to pre-order a download of In Rainbows, you name your price, in British pounds, no less. (Incidentally, I hadn't realized until utilizing the site's helpful currency converter that the dollar was doing quite so badly against the pound.)

As others have noted, this seems like rather a big deal, in terms of the future of the music industry and all that. I have been, in my time, an energetic user of, um, certain informal forums in which music can be acquired without payment of money. But there are a number of artists that I will always pay to support, and Radiohead is among them. For that reason, I'm probably not the best test of how this bold experiment will work. For the record, I paid $11 (an awfully stingy-sounding 5 pounds) to pre-order In Rainbows. I'll let you know if it's any good.

P.S: An update from the Village Voice:

"Rather than putting their audience through months of traditional hype-cycle tedium, they've compressed the prerelease anticipation period into a week and a half and made it more intense in the process. They've figured out a way to exploit the devotion of their cult without insulting that devotion. And they've cut themselves loose from a sick, dying, hostile industry by selling direct to the people who want to hear them. So far, it's working; the In Rainbows website is taking forever to load because too many people are clambering over each other to give this band their money."