Archive for September 2012

For Your Reading Pleasure (TL;Ta-Nehisi edition)

September 29, 2012

[BTW:  Self-aggrandizement alert]

I believe many reading this site will have already checked out Ta-Nehisi Coates much discussed “Fear of a Black President,” the cover essay in the September issue of The Atlantic.  If not, go check it out, it is smart, rich, and a fine piece of prose style.

As some of you may know, I have the pleasure of calling Ta-Nehisi my colleague this year — he’s teaching at MIT as a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor.  Better yet, his office is literally across the hall from mine, so we chat fairly often.

On the matter of “Fear of a Black President,” that exchange became more formal.  I was struck when I first read the piece by some the craft choices Ta-Nehisi and his editors had made in putting together that long and complex piece of writing.  So I asked Ta-Nehisi if he’d be willing to talk about the writing choices he had made, questions of structure and approach.  He was, and we had two sessions with a digital recorder running.  Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t confine ourselves to technical writing issues:  you make choices about how to write something based on what you’re writing about and what you intend your words to do.  So we talked about the evolution of the themes and meaning of the piece as well as questions of approach or organization.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and, as you can  now check out the edited outcome of all this over at the Nieman Storyboard site.  (The Nieman site is a great resource for both aspiring and established journalists and writers btw, if that’s where your interests lead.)

And with that, how’s the weekend shaping up?

Pieter de Hooch, Conversation, 1663-1665.

Reality, Meet Conor. Conor, Meet the Real World.

September 27, 2012

As Mistermix has already discussed, the young, and earnest Conor Friedersdorf  wrote this yesterday:

The whole liberal conceit that Obama is a good, enlightened man, while his opponent is a malign, hard-hearted cretin, depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans — along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers — just aren’t valued. Alternatively, the less savory parts of Obama’s tenure can just be repeatedly disappeared from the narrative of his first term, as so many left-leaning journalists, uncomfortable confronting the depths of the man’s transgressions, have done over and over again.

Keen on Obama’s civil-libertarian message and reassertion of basic American values, I supported him in 2008. Today I would feel ashamed to associate myself with his first term or the likely course of his second. I refuse to vote for Barack Obama.

I and lots here agree, I think, that Obama’s record on civil liberties, the use of military power and so on is hardly perfect — not what many of his supporters hoped for in 2008.  I’d disagree with Conor on the weight I’d assign to different counts in his indictment, and it does seem to me important to recognize that presidenting is much harder than it looks (and it looks damn difficult).  Some of the choices Obama has made, as Michael Lewis makes clear at that link, have involved actions Friedersdorf deplores for reasons that nonetheless have a direct moral calculus of their own.  (See especially the discussion of whether and how to intervene in Libya before Qaddafi’s forces got to Benghazi.)

That said, and acknowledging that Friedersdorf has both reason and the right to feel moral revulsion at some of the acts of the Obama administration, in this fallen world you don’t get the choice of the perfect man or government.  Friedersdorf acknowledges the “lesser of two evils” argument with a faint sneer:

If you’re a utilitarian who plans to vote for Obama, better to mournfully acknowledge that you regard him as the lesser of two evils, with all that phrase denotes.

But moral relativism is not for the stalwart Friedersdorf:

Today I would feel ashamed to associate myself with his first term or the likely course of his second. I refuse to vote for Barack Obama. Have you any deal-breakers?

Ahh, the eternal righteousness of the resolutely disengaged.

Much of this is down to the dangerous folly of true single-issue voters.  Friedersdorf ridicules what he sees as the liberal caricture of Mitt Romney as “a malign, hard-hearted cretin,” which, he argues “depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans — along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers — just aren’t valued.”  In the reduction of Obama and Romney to the one issue of the exercise of state violence, Friedersdorf fails to value the old, the young, the sick, the uninsured and so on…but let that slide, as part of the necessary pathology of someone for whom the complications of living in the world are too much for the enduring sunshine of their spotless consciences.

But the problem for Friederdorf is more basic.  His argument rests on the claim that on the crucial matter Romney and Obama are the same.  Which is why this report in today’s New York Times is such a firecracker up his rhetorical butt:

In one of his first acts, President Obama issued an executive order restricting interrogators to a list of nonabusive tactics approved in the Army Field Manual. Even as he embraced a hawkish approach to other counterterrorism issues — like drone strikes, military commissions, indefinite detention and the Patriot Act — Mr. Obama has stuck to that strict no-torture policy.

By contrast, Mr. Romney’s advisers have privately urged him to “rescind and replace President Obama’s executive order” and permit secret “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives,” according to an internal Romney campaign memorandum.

While the memo is a policy proposal drafted by Mr. Romney’s advisers in September 2011 — not a final decision by him — its detailed analysis dovetails with his rare and limited public comments about interrogation.

“We’ll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now,” he said at a news conference in Charleston, S.C., in December. [mp3 at the link]

The shorter:  there are still lives and deaths in the balance even in the face of imperfect alternatives. Symbolic gestures can kill just as surely as sword (ask a Ralph Nader voter).

One last thought.  Memory that extends past the last election can help grasp the catastrophes that can attend principled disengagement.  The historian Peter Gay has written of the “rational republicans” who so honorably undercut the German revolution and the Weimar Republic that emerged from it:

The Vernunftrepublikaner [rational republicans] were reasonable men who had been willing to learn the first lesson of modernity but not the second:  they acknowledged that nostalgia for the Empire was ridiculous, bu they could not see that the Republci might deserve wholehearted support–or, rather, that it might become deserving if enough deserving persons supported it.¹ [italics added]

So it is with Friedersdorf, and with all those who pine for the second coming of whoever.  No doubt we need to keep pressure on both the president and congress to walk back the assault on life and liberty that has taken place in American politics after 9/11.* But to assume that a holy vote for Gary Johnson is somehow going to advance either that cause or make a material difference in the life of a US prisoner under the tender mercies of a Romney administration…that’s worse than foolishness.  It is a cowardly abdication of a basic human responsibility:  the necessity that we make choices where no alternative is without cost.

Or, shorter: Friedersdorf = Wanker!

*And before, of course — but what Conor’s complaining about has a pretty straight line of descent from that moment.

¹Peter Gay, Weimar Culture, Harper Torchbook edition, 1970, p. 25

Image:  Nicolaes Maes, Christ before Pilate, mid 17th century.

Samuel L. Jackson Calmly Discusses The Issue Of Democratic Voter Lassitude

September 27, 2012

One more celebrity weighing in on the imperatives of this election: (Bleeped, but not entirely SFW)

(Non-bleeped, unequivocally NSFW original here.)

In other news — I just this moment received an email from one Barack Obama, asking me to send money…to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  I know this is pretty close to routine, but still, I take it as a good sign for both the presidential race and what’s happening down ticket that he’s extending the use of his network to support the rest of the party.  It isn’t a big thing, of course, but still a positive.

And yeah, I know this is another drive-by post, but work is still brutal.  TL;DR posting to resume…but when? I dunno.

The Right Question

September 20, 2012

Charles Blow, today:

Mitt Romney keeps showing America who he is. When will we start to believe him?

Mitt’s reveal, illustrated:

(PS:  I’m deeply under the gun with work these days, so despite the target rich environment, I won’t be able to get back to my TL;DR kind of posting for a while.   Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing but its my thing.)

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Saturn Eating His Son, 1819-1823

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes Boing Boing Edition/Self Aggrandizement Alert

September 19, 2012

Late in getting this note up, but at 5 p.m. EDT this afternoon — less than an hour from now — I’ll be talking with Maggie Koerth-Baker on my monthly gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  That link takes you to the audio stream (and later the podcast, also available on iTunes) and this one will bring you to the spot in Second Life where you can heckle us in the “live”(ish) studio audience.

Maggie, as many of you may know, is the science editor at Boing Boing, and hence the ringleader and major producer of much that is wonderful in web-based science news, analysis and the odd oddity as well. She’s also just started a gig as a monthly technology-and-its-culture columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Her first column picked up on a subject near and dear to this blog’s community — what makes it possible for facts to matter in a political conversation.

We’ll spend part of the hour talking about her next column, on the concept of technological momentum, or why some seemingly great ideas do or don’t make it in the real world.  We may also get to some of the issues in science writing on the web raised by some of the troubling events of the last few months — think Jonah Lehrer, for one example, and the hype that overwhelmed much of the real science in the ENCODE story for another.  But the major topic will be energy, drawing on Maggie’s  wonderful book from earlier this year, Before the Lights Go Out — which is simply the sanest popular work on energy and paths to a non-disastrous future that  I’ve seen in many months of Sundays.

I’ll leave it there to give this post a chance to catch eyeballs before we go live.  Stop by if you’ve inclination and a moment.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Vegetable gardens and the Moulin de Blute-Fin on Montmartre, 1887.

Randy Newman Creates The Last Romney Campaign Reboot Ad

September 18, 2012

Randy knows how to write till it hurts:

(Via Greg Mitchell.)

I liked the Taft tree climbing line best, meself.

Blunt Clarity (From A Source Not Often Cited In This Space)

September 13, 2012

Via Ed Kilgore, I came across this from frequent blogosphere object of scorn, William Saletan.  He first makes clear exactly what it was the US Embassy in Egypt said in its tweets and other communication through the critical period leading up to and during the attack on the compound:

When you read the tweets alongside the initial statement, the message is clear. Free speech is a universal right. The Muslim-baiting movie is an abuse of that right. The embassy rejects the movie but defends free speech and condemns the invasion of its compound….

He then lines that up against Romney’s disastrous and deeply corrupt performance, stating at one point:

Romney’s description of the embassy’s initial statement—“sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions”—was blatantly false…

And at another:

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Romney escalated his assault: “The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”

Until, the ground prepared, Saletan offers this blunt exegesis of that sorry text:

At his press conference, Romney accused Obama of “having that embassy reiterate a statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech.” Romney claimed that the embassy had said, in his paraphrase, “We stand by our comments that suggest that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.” This, too, was a Romney lie. The embassy had declared five times in writing that free speech was a universal right.
What made Romney’s statement and press conference disturbing, however, was his repeated use of the words sympathize and apology to conflate three issues the Cairo embassy had carefully separated: bigotry, free speech, and violence. The embassy had stipulated that expressions of bigotry, while wrong, were protected by freedom of speech and didn’t warrant retaliatory violence. Romney, by accusing the embassy of “sympathizing with those who had breached” the compound, equated moral criticism of the Mohammed movie with support for violence. In so doing, Romney embraced the illiberal Islamist mindset that led to the embassy invasion: To declare a movie offensive is to authorize its suppression….

Exactly so.  And to my mind Saletan here has expressed as well as anyone yet exactly why Romney’s statements over the last couple of days were more than just grandstanding — a case of shoot first and aim later as our President put it last night.  And it’s certainly more than the Smirk, no matter how bizarrely revealing it was to see Romney grin at the thought of having politicized (successfully, he seem to have thought) the deaths of four Americans.

What Romney’s words actually mean, Saletan says (and I agree) is something profoundly un-, even anti-American.

Which is to say that Romney’s behavior over the last couple of days disqualifies him from the job he seeks both because he’s shown he lacks the basic temperament and analytical habits to do the job, and because what instincts he does have are at war with the values of a small “l” liberal polity.

Or, as Saletan concludes:

I don’t know where you were born, Mr. Romney (just kidding!), but where I come from, there’s nothing more American than recognizing the idiocy of a man’s views and, at the same time, his right to express them. If you can’t tell the difference between those two things, the main threat to our values right now isn’t President Obama, the Egyptians, the Libyans, or our diplomats in Cairo. It’s you.

Yup.  Go read the whole thing. (Or at least that rump I haven’t already lifted…;)

Image: Circle of Rembrandt, Bust of a laughing young man, c. 1629-1630


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