- "Why Nancy is Tougher than Rahm," -- Guardian online, March 2010
- What Happens When Your Country Drowns?" -- Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2009
- "The Price of Health Care Reform: Abortion Rights?" -- Mother Jones online, November 2009
- "Prisoner 345" -- Columbia Journalism Review cover story, July/August 2007
- "Rudy Awakening" -- Washington Monthly cover story, November 2007
- "Crusaders in Wingtips" -- Legal Affairs, March 2006
- "Apps Lit" -- Novels about college admissions; Washington Monthly, September 2006
- "In Defence of Dull Politics" -- Guardian online, November 2008
- "Why can't Obama be as smart on the economy as he is on the law?" -- Guardian online, January 2009
- "Dog's Truth" -- Review of Trial of the Cannibal Dog, New Zealand Listener, March 2008
- "The lost America" -- Review of Gilead: New Zealand Listener, July 2005
- "The Crusader" -- Profile of Jeffrey Sachs: New Zealand Listener, July 2005
December 18, 2008
July 7, 2008
Erosion -- a photo essay
The Clifton motor camp on the East Coast of New Zealand has been here for more than 50 years. It is an example of a distinctly New Zealand type of camping ground that is increasingly rare, as more and more coastal land is converted into wealthy subdivisions and expensive homes. The land is now being aggressively reclaimed by the sea. Residents have tried to halt the erosion with a retaining wall composed of construction debris, but the entire camping ground will be lost by 2060.
June 7, 2008
"The notion of a frontier waiting to be explored is central to LOT-EK’s vision, and in all cases, that frontier is an urban one. Tolla and Lignano, who are in their mid-40s, grew up in the same Naples neighborhood but did not really know each other until they were university students. After graduation, they spent three months traveling around the United States and were bowled over by what they saw — especially in contrast to Europe’s “untouchable history,” as Tolla put it. And as if America’s size and relative newness weren’t enough, the two were particularly awed by its industrial landscape, which would ultimately shape their design vocabulary... They also began recording in notes and photographs the chaotic, random and banal elements of the man-made landscape."
In my case, I didn't come from a country with an untouchable history, like Italy, but from New Zealand, a country with not much constructed history at all. To Tolla and Lignano, America's urban and industrial landscapes appear as a new frontier, something to be adapted and explored. They are equally mesmerizing to me, but almost for the opposite reason. When I look at a disused factory, rows of shipping containers in a field, plastic bags caught in razor wire fences, what I see is the history of a spectacular effort to remake the environment--one that seems to me to be distinctly American in its scale and ambition. But structures that begin their life as something proudly manmade revert to or mimic nature in the end, and in doing so they create their own kind of weirdly beautiful landscape.
(Photos are of LA's Mt Vernon industrial area; Pecos, Texas; and Washington DC.)
May 13, 2008
Dana Priest, of course, is the reporter who broke the story of the abysmal conditions at the Walter Reed army hospital, and also uncovered the CIA's use of "black sites" for suspected terrorists.
I really like the fact that the Post is letting Priest take the reportorial skills she used to ferret out ultra-classified secrets from the intelligence world, and deploy those skills on the world of immigration detention. These kinds of pieces are hard to do well, people find them depressing, and many reporters would consider this subject less prestigious than writing about the CIA. But this is an important story too, and putting your best reporters on it is one way to make it work.
May 8, 2008
Before the Indiana and North Carolina primary, Klein watched Clinton's pandering on the gas tax with a mix of disapproval for the idiocy of the proposal but reflexive admiration for her audaciousness in suggesting it:
"It seemed like smart politics too. It was the kind of thing I have seen "work" throughout my nearly 40-year career as a journalist, an era that coincided neatly with the rise of consultant-driven flummery: you could fool most of the people most of the time."
But then Obama won North Carolina and came far closer than anyone excepted in Indiana. To his credit, Klein sees that this was not only a triumph of Obama's more adult style of campaign over Clinton's "reliance on the same-old"--but also a rebuke to the kind of campaign that the media is trying to give us, one that is all about flag pins and pastors instead of the war, the economy, etc:
"In the end, Obama's challenge to the media is as significant as his challenge to McCain. All the evidence — and especially the selection of these two apparent nominees — suggests the public not only is taking this election very seriously but is also extremely concerned about the state of the nation and tired of politics as usual. I suspect the public is also tired of media as usual, tired of journalists who put showmanship over substance ... as I found myself doing in the days before the May 6 primaries."
And then this:
"our knee-jerk reactions — our prejudice toward performance values over policy — could infect the campaign to come between Obama and John McCain, just as it has the primaries.... A general-election campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama doesn't need any hype. It won't be boring. The question is whether we, politicians and press alike, will grant this election — and electorate — the respect that it deserves."
More like this, please.
May 5, 2008
May 1, 2008
MORE: One of the major themes of my CJR piece was the lack of interest in Al Haj on the part of major American news organizations (this was not the case in Britian and the Arab-speaking world, where Al Haj's case was regularly covered). The lone exception in the U.S. was Nicholas Kristof, who has an update to his previous columns here. William Glaberson of the NYT (who does great reporting on Guantanamo) has a news piece here. And here is Al Haj himself, in Sudan and already on YouTube. According to this report, he will not face any charges from the Sudanese government.
"At the hearing, a department official, John P. Elwood, disclosed a previously unpublicized method to cloak government activities. Mr. Elwood acknowledged that the administration believed that the president could ignore or modify existing executive orders that he or other presidents have issued without disclosing the new interpretation.
Mr. Elwood, citing a 1980s precedent, said there was nothing new or unusual about such a view.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, challenged Mr. Elwood, saying the administration’s legal stance would let it secretly operate programs that are at odds with public executive orders that to all appearance remain in force."From the bottom of the story, DOJ spokesman Brian Roehrkasse (ed note: apply grain of salt) explains:
“With respect to classified programs, however,” Mr. Roehrkasse added, publicly changing an executive order might “not be in the interest of the country’s national security.” In such cases, he said, the Congressional Intelligence Committees or their leaders would be informed."
Sounds like it's time to ask everyone on the intelligence committees whether they've been told of any executive orders the Bush administration has put out of commission.
April 30, 2008
I'm a bit late in posting this, but I recommend this perceptive piece by Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books comparing Obama's speech on race with Lincoln's famous address at the Cooper Union on race, abolitionists and the Constitution. I especially liked this passage:
"...[If] Obama did not go into the specific outrages of Wright, his criticism of him was profound and instructive. He praised the concern for the community that Wright had shown. That has always been a mark of black religion in America. Unlike the Calvinist stress on individualism, on the private experience of being saved, blacks thought in terms of the whole people being saved—all of them riding on the Ark, all reaching the Promised Land. This journey of the people is deeply embedded in the spirituals. As Jacob wrestled the angel till the break of day, "and never let him go," so:
I hold my brudder wid a tremblin' hand;
I would not let him go!
I hold my sister wid a tremblin' hand;
I would not let her go!
It was this aspect of black religion that impressed Abraham Lincoln, who became an instant friend of the former Sunday school teacher Frederick Douglass. Lincoln's Second Inaugural would eloquently argue that the whole people had sinned in slavery, was being punished together, and would repent and be saved together.
Obama's deepest criticism of Wright was not in terms of personal attack. On that, he would hold his brother with a trembling hand. The problem was that Wright saw the whole people as the black people, while Obama sees the people as the entire nation. Wright did not reach his hand to the wider circle of brothers and sisters. His view of the world was static. He would freeze the Ark's motion, though the spiritual tells us "the old Ark's a-moverin', a-moverin.'"
I know that people are saying, yes, of course there are other obnoxious people out there, but most presidential candidates don't ask Jerry Falwell or Michael Moore or whoever to baptize their children. And I don't have a problem with people exploring Obama's relationship with Reverend Wright. It's the hysteria I don't get.
I can't help but think back to the reporting I did on Rudy Giuliani for this Washington Monthly piece. At the time, I was surprised that his relationship with a guy named Alan Placa didn't cause him more trouble. Placa is a priest who was suspended from the Catholic Church after multiple allegations of child abuse. (A grand jury concluded that Placa had sexually abused teenaged boys "again and again and again," but didn't bring charges because the statute of limitations had expired.) Giuliani has been friends with Placa for almost 40 years. Placa was best man at his first wedding and officiated at his second. He baptized Giuliani's children and conducted the funeral for Giuliani's mother. A few months after the abuse accusations came to light, Giuliani hired Placa to work at his consulting firm. After Giuliani started running for president, their friendship was occasionally mentioned on left-wing blogs. But although Giuliani was considered the Republican frontrunner for most of 2007, the story didn't get a ton of media attention. Even after CBS and ABC did reports, Giuliani refused to fire Placa, stating:
"I know the man; I know who he is, so I support him... We give some of the worst people in our society the presumption of innocence and benefit of the doubt. And, of course, I'm going to give that to one of my closest friends."
After that the story faded, and, as far as I know, Placa kept his job.
April 24, 2008
"Along with the New Zealand flap, she's twice created real tension with key heads of state: Putin, who took it badly when she said he "doesn't have a soul"; and Musharraf, whose government reacted furiously when she suggested he might have had Benazir Bhutto killed... These stories haven't really been told as a narrative, because they don't fit the existing narrative. But they are, together, a fairly striking batch."
UPDATE: Also worth reading is this LA Times piece on the international reaction to Clinton's claim that she would "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel. She gets politely rapped on the knuckles by British diplomat extraodinaire Mark Malloch Brown:
"While it is reasonable to warn Iran of the consequence of it continuing to develop nuclear weapons and what those real consequences bring to its security, it is not probably prudent... in today's world to threaten to obliterate any other country and in many cases civilians resident in such a country."
"Here's a good one. Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand: her opponents have observed that in the event of a nuclear war, the two things that will emerge from the rubble are the cockroaches and Helen Clark. [Laughs]"
Setting Hillary's sense of humor aside for a moment (the joke doesn't get funnier even if you happen to know something about New Zealand politics) Helen Clark is the current prime minister of New Zealand.
The diplomatic ramifications of this become even more dire when you consider that New Zealanders have been somewhat skeptical about Hillary Clinton ever since she met Sir Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to climb Everest, and mentioned that she had been named after him. It was later pointed out that Sir Edmund climbed Mt Everest six years after Hillary Clinton was born.It appears that the local press is more indignant about Hillary calling Clark the "former" prime minister than the suggestion that Clark is a cockroach. You can read local press reactions here and here.
Photo from Flickr user lestath_x under a Creative Commons license.
April 15, 2008
"A review of the record shows that McCain has neither changed his position on torture nor taken sides with President Bush on the substance of the issue."
It's true that McCain explicitly said that he wasn't in favor of allowing the CIA to use water boarding or other abusive tactics, but that there were non-abusive tactics which aren't in the field manual and which he believes are appropriate for intelligence services to use.
But... a) McCain knows that the current occupant of the White House has fostered a culture in which the wording of the law is twisted far beyond its original meaning to sanction abusive interrogation tactics and b) Bush has dealt with every previous attempt to define acceptable interrogation practices with bad faith.
I'd like to see a reporter ask McCain whether, given his own abhorrence of torture, the better course of action might have been to vote for the bill, to try to prevent the current president from allowing further abuses. Then, if McCain is elected, he could ask Congress to approve the additional, non-abusive techniques he'd like the CIA to use. And if he loses, he could lead a similar effort from the Senate and ask a Democratic president to sign it into law.
"Writers are sensitive souls--generally intelligent and hardworking but easily bruised. Treat them right, though, and you will be rewarded. Writers shape words into luminous sentences and the sentences into exquisitely crafted paragraphs. They weave the paragraphs together into a near perfect article, essay or review. Then their writing--their baby--is ripped untimely from their computers (well, maybe only a couple of weeks overdue) and turned over to editors. These are idiots, most of them, and brutes, with tin ears, the aesthetic sensitivity of insects, deeply held erroneous beliefs about your topic and a maddening conviction that any article, no matter how eloquent or profound or already cut to the bone, can be improved by losing an additional 100 words."
...On the other hand, when I'm editing a piece, then my feelings change completely. Kinsley again:
"Writers, [editors] say, are whiny, self-indulgent creatures who spend too much time alone. They are egotistical, paranoid and almost always seriously dehydrated. Above all, they are spectacular ingrates. Editors save their asses, and writers do nothing but bitch about it. "If anyone saw the original manuscript from ..." (and you can insert the name of your favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning writer here) "... that guy wouldn't get hired to clean the toilets at the Stockholm Public Library. ... Editors are selfless, editors believe. They labor in anonymity and take their satisfaction vicariously. The writer gets all the glory. He gets the big bucks. He gets invited to the parties, the openings, the symposia, while the editors toil at their desks turning the writer's random jottings and pretentious stylistic quirks into something resembling English prose."
April 14, 2008
April 10, 2008
Up until now, I think most people have assumed that Colin Powell was wholly on the right side of the torture debate. We know that in 2002 he argued that the Geneva Conventions should be applied to prisoners captured in Afghanistan. After retiring, he supported the McCain amendment to outlaw torture in 2005, and in 2006 opposed the Military Commissions Act that denied habeus corpus to Guantanamo detainees.
But according to the ABC piece, "all the Principals present approved" of the techniques under discussion, which included sleep deprivation and water boarding.
April 7, 2008
In The Real McCain, a new biography, author and Democratic strategist Cliff Schecter reports:
"Three reporters from Arizona, on the condition of anonymity, also let me in on another incident involving McCain's intemperateness. In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain's hair and said, "You're getting a little thin up there." McCain's face reddened, and he responded, "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt." McCain's excuse was that it had been a long day."
I can't believe he called his wife a trollop!
I had a similarly alarming moment this week when reading a New Yorker story by David Owen on the costly anachronism that is the American penny. Towards the end of the piece, when Owen is marshaling his arguments for abolishing the penny and possibly even the nickel, he writes:
"In 2006, in an initiative called Change for the Better, New Zealand eliminated its five-cent coins, and dramatically reduced the size and weight of its ten-, twenty-, and fifty-cent coins... This total transformation of the country’s currency was received with calm pragmatism by most New Zealanders—even though the lowest-denomination coin in the new system, the redesigned ten-cent piece, is worth about eight American cents at the current rate of exchange."
The last time I was in New Zealand was early 2006, and I had no idea about any of this.
April 6, 2008
Taking a welcome break from politics, I recently wrote an article previewing The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, a contemporary opera based on Captain Cook's voyages to the Pacific. That sounds like a rather dreary entertainment featuring a lot of men in wigs and tight trousers singing jolly sea shanties. However, this opera, by the US-based New Zealand composer Matthew Suttor, was based on a book by the anthropologist Anne Salmond, who made a point of exploring both how Cook changed the Pacific, and how the Pacific changed Cook. Rather than merely fetishizing Cook as the model of an enlightenment explorer, she looks at some of the Pacific Islanders who boarded ships for England and did a considerable amount of exploring on their own.
This was a very interesting project to research, because Suttor found a lot of historical documents relating to Cook's travels at the British Museum in New Haven. My personal favorite was A Narrative of the Death of Captain James Cook, to Which Are Added Some Particulars Concerning His Life and Character and Observations Respecting the Introduction of Venereal Disease into the Sandwich Islands. They just don't write titles like they used to.
February 15, 2008
"Examples of [Hillary Clinton and John McCain's] mutual respect typically include a tale of holding a vodka-drinking contest in Estonia. Such a celebration may have been unlikely to happen with Mr. Obama, who on a trip to Russia in 2005 asked that his shot glass be filled with water."
February 12, 2008
"The dream of the teacher... not just to teach to the test, but teach art, music, science, literature..."
which the MSNBC captions rendered as "art, music, science, litter cher..."
February 6, 2008
"Professional Celebrity Rock Music Band, group not to exceed seven people for tour of FOB's in Kuwait and Afghanistan for February 4-13 2008. The band should be an active rock band, with a music genre consisting of Southern Rock, Pop Rock, Post-Grunge and Hard Rock. At least one member of the band should be recognizable as a professional celebrity. Protective military equipment, such as kevlar, body armour, eye and ear protection will be provided when the group is travelling on military rotary or fixed wing aircraft."
"To hear Hillary Clinton talk, she's spent her entire career putting her Yale Law School degree to work for the common good.
She routinely tells voters that she's "been working to bring positive change to people's lives for 35 years." She told a voter in New Hampshire: "I've spent so much of my life in the nonprofit sector." Speaking in South Carolina, Bill Clinton said his wife "could have taken a job with a firm ... Instead she went to work with Marian Wright Edelman at the Children's Defense Fund."
...The whole story is more complicated — and less flattering.
Clinton worked at the Children's Defense Fund for less than a year, and that's the only full-time job in the nonprofit sector she's ever had. She also worked briefly as a law professor.
Clinton spent the bulk of her career — 15 of those 35 years — at one of Arkansas' most prestigious corporate law firms, where she represented big companies and served on corporate boards."
When you can stop on your way to work in the morning for Botox injections.
Mitt and Ann Romney: $202 million
John and Cindy McCain: $40.4 million
Hillary and Bill Clinton: $34.9 million
Barack and Michelle Obama: $1.3 million
January 28, 2008
“The water will flow downstream, and often pool in great reservoirs of power that will then be taken advantage of by those who have been smart enough to figure out how to pull the levers. And I know from my own experience, and certainly watching how deeply involved Bill was in those areas that he thought were important, what it takes to try to get the government to respond. It’s not easy. We’re talking about this massive bureaucracy . . . and you have to be prepared on Day One to basically wrest the power away in order to realize the goals and vision that you have for the country.”
I think that Hillary's great fault is that she sees this task as the primary work of the presidency, and fails to grasp the importance of communicating with citizens and winning meaningful support for her ideas. But she's absolutely right that the task of managing the bureaucracy is critical, and no president can succeed without mastering it. This, incidentally, is the area where I worry most about Obama. Mark Kleiman agrees:
"Those 100 Regent University Law School grads in the Justice Department are now civil servants; they don't leave automatically when the White House changes hands... it's possible that [Obama's] extensive reading didn't include Neustadt's Presidential Power, and that he doesn't know how to do — or doesn't even know that a President needs to do — the part of a President's job that involves wrestling with the various bureaucracies to get them to perform in the public interest. That would be bad."
In addition to Presidential Power, I also recommend The Best and the Brightest for a primer on how easy it is for bad policies to gain an unstoppable momentum within the government, regardless of what the president wants to do.
January 25, 2008
"The reason I think [Hillary's] the most electable Democrat has nothing to do with race or gender,'' he said, adding he believes his wife is the most electable because she has ''a lot of scar tissue and knows how to handle it.''
January 24, 2008
Obama, in contrast, "is trying something many observers say has never been done here: He is circumventing entrenched local leadership and building a political machine from scratch. His staff consists largely of community organizers -- many from out of state or with no political experience -- who are assembling an army of volunteers. It is a strategy often used by labor organizations and in neighborhood and town politics... Mr. Obama's team says his grass-roots approach -- tapping younger African-American voters who have never been engaged in elections -- has the potential to permanently change the way politics are practiced here."
Obama's strategy may or may not work -- the Clinton campaign remains dubious. But it displays a desire to engage with voters in a meaningful way that, to me, is the most ambitious and interesting aspect of Obama's candidacy.
January 21, 2008
He jumped off the Mitt Mobile to greet a waiting crowd, took a picture with some kids and young adults and awkwardly quipped, ”Who let the dogs out? Who who.”
He took pictures with many in the crowd and greeted one baby wearing a necklace saying, “Hey buddy! How’s it going? What’s happening? You got some bling bling here!”
Horrendous. (via Andrew.)