Archive for the ‘Bush follies’ category

Porcine Flight 476, You Are Cleared For Landing

June 20, 2014

Go check on your friendly neigbhorhood Sus scrofa.  Examine the potbellied porker ambling down your too-hip avenue.  Make sure the boar in the corner sty (you could name it Dick Cheney if you’re that kind of person) is still properly rooting about in his muck.  Now look extra carefully:  any ailerons, flaps, wings?

Max_Liebermann_-_Schweinekoben,_Wochenstube

They’ve got to be there.  See this, from our old friend BoBo:

The Iraqi state is much weaker than the Rwandan one, but, even so, this quick survey underlines the wisdom of the approach the Obama administration is gesturing toward in Iraq: Use limited military force to weaken those who are trying to bring in violence from outside; focus most on the political; round up a regional coalition that will pressure Iraqi elites in this post-election moment to form an inclusive new government. [Emphasis added.]

Now I confess to deep uneasiness about everything David Brooks writes, given the argument from negative authority.*  I lack the knowledge to assess but have no faith at all that his potted history of post-genocide Rwanda is reliable.  And then there’s Brooks’ usual reflexive nod to the political value of elite authoritarianism.   Most of all, nowhere does Brooks acknowledge explicitly that the Bush years were a colossal f**king mistake/moral disaster, nor that he was a complicit cheerleader in that catastrophe.

But here you see Brooks implicitly acknowledging the failure of the neocon adventure and, mirabile dictu stating without a hedge, an “on the other hand” or any qualifier that President Obama is getting it right, is wise.

Smacked in the gob am I.

All I can say is:  be careful standing under today as those flocks of pigs fly by.

*I.e. While it’s never reliable to say that because someone is labelled an expert in something, anything they say is likely right (see, e.g. Shockley, William…), it is a very useful heuristic to assume that someone who is wrong a lot is going to be similarly wrong going forward.  That’s especially true for someone — so many in our pundit class — who are wrong for a living.

Image:  Max Liebermann, Schweinekoben, Wochenstube [My German sucks, but the Google machine tells me that this could be read as “Pigsty, Maternity room” — any help from the commentariat gratefully received], 1887

Funny/Tragic

June 17, 2014

This is so on-point it hurts:

iggy pop amnesty

 

Iggy’s confessing that  “Justin Bieber is the future of rock ‘n’ roll”  — and the caption reads “Torture a man and he’ll tell you anything.  Torture isn’t just inhumane, it’s ineffective.  Stop it.”

This comes from the brilliant folks at or working with the Belgian operation of Amnesty International

Here’s another one:

Dalai Amnesty

Same caption to the Dalai Lama admitting that “A man who doesn’t have a Rolex at fifty is a failure.”

It’s worth remembering that the claque who clamored us into war more than a decade ago and are trying to do so again include many of the same people who told us torture would keep us safe.

There is no limit to the wrongness of these people — and as our Belgian friends reminds us, their dishonesty is both a moral and a practical failure.

And by the way — thanks to Iggy Pop and the Dalai Lama for their willingness to take part in this campaign.

No, Really. Democrats are Just Republicans in Cheap Suits.

March 1, 2011

The Obama Administration can play it cool when it wants to.

Via Feministing by way of TPM, we learn that the forced birth/hate teh gayz crowd took one on the chin last week, and, despite all efforts to the contrary, women (and gays, and transexuals, and just about anyone who thinks it’s none of anyone else’s damn business what we and our doctors decide works for us) regained just a smidgeon of that autonomy the American Inquisition the modern GOP seeks to steal from us.

Which is to say that AFAIK, this slipped past just about every radar screen:

After two years of struggling to balance the rights of patients against the beliefs of health-care workers, the Obama administration on Friday finally rescinded most of a federal regulation designed to protect those who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on moral or religious grounds.

The decision guts one of President George W. Bush’s most controversial legacies: a rule that was widely interpreted as shielding workers who refuse to participate in a range of medical services, such as providing birth control pills, caring for gay men with AIDS and performing in-vitro fertilization for lesbians or single women.

Friday’s move was seen as an important step in countering that trend, which in recent years had led pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraceptive Plan B, doctors in California to reject a lesbian’s request for infertility treatment, and an ambulance driver in Chicago to turn away a woman who needed transportation for an abortion.

Can I hear an Amen?

But yeah, Obama is just Bush with a better jump shot.

(Not to mention that this is just one more reminder of why, in fact, it does matter who wins next time round.  Just sayin.)

Image: Octave Tassaert The Waif aka L’abandonnée, 1852.

The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy.

January 5, 2010

Read this article in the New York Times.*

Here’s the gist of what it’s talking about in this effort to piggy back on national technical intelligence gathering tools (satellites, remote sensing, etc.):

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests….In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The investigators tout the access to data that can be acquired in no other way; they note its economic significance (ice forecasts, aids to oil and gas exploration; and the article also notes that the CIA itself has perceived a national security concern in the prospect of climate change.

And with that, here’s the gist of what I want to talk about:

In October, days after the C.I.A. opened a small unit to assess the security implications of climate change, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said the agency should be fighting terrorists, “not spying on sea lions.”

and

The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

It is unclear why Medea died in the early days of the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives. Officials said the new body was taking on the same mandate and activities, as well as the name.

Perhaps the problem is that the scientific opportunity was and is immense.  Among the most difficult elements of the climate system to study is the cryosphere — the ice covered portions of the earth’s surface.

Understanding ice dynamics, especially those of sea and polar pack ice, is an essential component in coming to grips with a whole range of important issues in climate change:  the rate at which it is occurirng, the sensitivity of the climate system to various forcings, the risk of rapid alteration in parts or the whole of the global climate system.  (See as one example among a ton of such research, this paper picked up at random through the magic of teh google.)

If therefore, your political advantage rests (a) with a denial of the usefulness of expertise, of verifiable knowledge combined with the training and skill needed to interpret the data and (b) with economic interests for whom the reality of climate change is costly, what should one do but shut down a cash and risk-free program that would help us grasp the predicament of the planet.  Better a joke about sea lions than inconvenient truths.

And by the way: for all those who say Obama is no different from the guy, consider this:

The Obama administration has said little about the effort publicly but has backed it internally, officials said. In November, the scientists met with Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director.

“Director Panetta believes it is crucial to examine the potential national security implications of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels and population shifts,” Paula Weiss, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Elections matter.  They matter in this country now more than ever.  And if you care about science — and I don’t mean just funding levels, but rather the ideal of science, the notion that living a good life includes notion that it is better to know what’s going on than to dream of sugar plum fairies — then the difference between the two parties in their approach to science is existential.

None of this “they’re all alike…I’ll vote for Nader” sh*t, in other words.  We have work to do this and every year.

*I dump on the MSM with reasonable regularity.  I’m working on one of my several thousand word screeds about the Times’ own David Brooks right now.  But it’s important to remember how big media institutions matter — and encourage them to do more of what the informal media can’t.  This is an example.  The article turned on a reporter’s ability to access both very high level science sources (Ralph Cicerone is a seriously good get, for those of you without scorecards handy) and with at least some kind of hook into the intelligence community.  That takes institutional support to develop sources and an understanding of your beat.  So kudos to reporter Bill Broad, one of the Times’ long lasting good ones, and to the great grey lady formerly of 43rd St. herself.

That kind of knowledge/access can be acquired from an independent base — but it’s very hard and it is what the big media at its best distinguishes itself by achieving.  If only places like the Times, and even the Post, long since returned to its roots as the house organ/gossip rag for DC, understood that the one real unique asset they have is reporting other people can’t do because they lack the scale and institutional memory to do so.  That’s a barrier to entry no amount of internet servers can bridge.  Go there, my friends.  We need you to do so, and you can make money there.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wreck in the Ice Pack” 1798.

Torture…An Unnecessary Post, Part Two (The prehistory edition)

May 18, 2009

Friday, I ranted.  To channel my inner Bob Dole, I wanted to know where is the outrage over torture, over the use of the name and power of the US to give official, legal sanction to the acts that we hung people for after VE and VJ days.

It was a completely superfluous rant; others are saying the same, better (h/t Eric Martin) and with more eloquent rage.

But it’s still important, I guess, just to add one more jot to the load of outrage. If everyone who can, does, perhaps we will begin to feel what is necessary after eight years of sustained, calculated official nattering intended to numb moral judgment.

So in this half of my superfluous post, I want to inject just a little history into the chorus, some perspective on just how badly wrong the Bush torture cabal got it, and how much moral and practical damage they have done to the legitimate exercise of state power.

The pre-Bush view of torture has a number of modern sources, but it ultimately derives from the English experience of law, pain and vengeance.  I found myself doing some research into this history for my book on Isaac Newton’s little-known career as a crime fighter, in part because one of his earlier biographers, Frank Manuel, in his mostly excellent Portrait of Isaac Newton made the claim that Newton revealed himself as a monster in his pursuit of the currency criminals it was his duty to police as Warden of the Royal Mint.

I found myself disagreeing with Manuel, a little nervously, given his stature as a historian of science.  But I found that while Newton was no pacifist, no advocate of Satyagraha, he was no sadist either. He knew that imprisonment in the notorious Newgate Jail was bitter, dangerous, and put the inmate at risk of real abuse.  He was certainly willing to use the known horrors there to frighten informers into speech.  But there is no evidence in the over four hundred documents I read in his hand or over his signature that he relied on physical violence to elicit the evidence he used to convict the coiners and countefeiters it had become, as Warden, his job to pursue.

In fact, the legal framework in which torture had been a regularized tool of the English justice system had fallen into disuse a half a century before Newton began to act as a cop.  It was supplanted  for the same reasons that we have throughout most of American history understood torture to be illegitimate — then, and until very recently, it was understood to be both ineffective and illegitimate, corrosive of the state’s moral authority.

To see how this transformation occurred, I looked into the history of a document called a royal torture warrant, used to formally authorize the use of torture.  My main source was John H. Langbein’s excellent Torture and the Law of Proof, which conveniently included a table with details on all 81 known torture warrants.

It is not particularly surprising that Elizabeth I was the most prolific user of royal torture warrants in English history, issuing (or having issued) 53 of the surviving warrants.  She had as much as any monarch to fear from her subjects, given the vicious intrigues of succession that followed the death of her father, Henry VIII, religious conflict, wars with Spain, internal court rivalries, fueling resentment at rule by a mere woman, and so on.  That Elizabeth was as tough as required to retain her throne and her head is a matter of historical fact; among the means she used was state violence against those of her subjects deemed to dangerous to leave at large.

Among the techniques used were several that are recognizably the same as those that the moral bankrupts within the Bush administration attempted to define into legality.  They include confinement in a dungeon with rats (Thomas Sherwood, 17  Nov. 1577, during an investigation of one of the plots against Elizabeth); manacles — essentially a stress position, as the manacled prisoner is lifted to the point where his feet do not support his weight, all of which pulls on the suspended wrists of the victim (several times through Elizabeth’s reign); whipping (Humfrey “a boy” for burglary in 1580 —  note that Jesus too would have had some knowledge of Humfrey’s suffering) and “Little Ease” — confinement in a cell so small that the inhabitant could not sit, nor stand, nor move.  This was used on several occasions including the case of George Beesley, a priest in violation of the Anglican acts in 1591.

The most common techniques ordered specified  in the warrants were either the rack, or else simply “torture”  — once “such torture as is usual,”  a chilling  statement to carry the force of law if ever there was one.

It is also important to understand that the English in this period understood –as Bush’s thug’s willed themselves to deny — that torture was not simply about causing physical pain.  During the century or so of torture authorized by royal warrants in England, the administration of the technique came in two steps.  First, the prisoner would be shown the implements of torture, to see if the horror of the thought of the pain his body would suffer on those devices would induce a confession.  If that psychological coercion failed, the next step was to begin the actual process of imposing physical pain on the prisoner.  Both steps were included in the instructions within torture warrants.  Thus, in 1642, when the apprentice glover John Archer was to be put to torture to gain information about a riot outside the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Lambeth, he was first given time to stare at the rack — and only if he remained silent, according to the warrant, the last to be issued in England, was he to be bound onto the machine.

Such mental torture was recognized to be genuinely coercive as well — though in this case it did not persuade the luckless Archer to betray any of his fellow rioters.

That is:  fear of pain and the terror of plausibly imminent death, have been recognized as elements of torture for a very long time. 

There is much more to the history of English legal theories of torute, but the point of this lightning fast gloss is simply to reinforce what should be obvious:   the opinions of the Bush “Justice” (sic) department were nothing more than words in the form of law whose sole purpose was to provide cover for what any competent lawyer would have had to recognize as crimes. Those who wrote them were teaching theselves to unknow what they know; they were wounding themselves, amputating their own capacity to reason. 

That’s the pity of it; the terror lies in whatever success they have in persuading the rest of us to so self-mutilate.

And what is worst of all is that the Bush administration descent into moral deformity came four hundred years after our English legal antecedents recognized that torture was both ineffective and irrelevant.   

The last monarch-issued torture warrant dates from 1642, just before the start of the Civil War.  This was hardly a time when Charles I could have felt any more secure than Elizabeth at her most precarious; the revolt that would cost him his life was almost upon him, and no one on either side of the Court/Parliament divide had any doubt about the potential for violence at every turn.  So why did the King cease to brandish the rack at his subjects?

Several reasons have been advanced for the forgoing of torture as a tool of investigation or the discovery of evidence. Two matter most.  First, even then, it was understood that information received under torture was unreliable.  Second, and much more important in the current context:  the fact that England had adopted the system of using juries at trialspermitted the evolution of new ideas about judicial truth. 

In traditional approaches to justice confessions were seen as certain proof of guilt, and hence, absent some system for finding fact, were almost essential to legitimize verdicts. But with juries, other evidence could take on more and more weight, rendering confessions less significant and finally unnecessary in making a judgment of guilt.

That is:  the English in the early 17th century figured out (a) that you hurt someone enough they’ll confess to murdering Father Christmas and (b) that there were smarter ways both to find out what you need to know to preserve security (in much more precarious states than our own) and to convict those who did in fact commit harm to individuals or the body of the state.

To sum it up in one sentence:  if you trust the rule of law, you don’t need to act in ways that would make Jesus weep.

And that’s why it’s past time to shine a light on what crimes the Bush torture cabal actually committed in our names.

[The accounts of the history of torture in England of this post were originally published by Andrew Sullivan in slightly different versions as messages from an anonymous emailer, written a couple of years ago (before I started this blog).  I felt and feel the argument I was trying to make then needed reformulation now; hence the resurfacing of this material.]

Images:  Jacopo Pontormo, “Torture of St. Quintus,” 1517-1518.  

William-Adolphe Bouguereau “The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1880.

1000 Words’ Worth…Bush Fail dept:

February 7, 2009

Check out this graph at Brad DeLong’s indispensible site.  See also Krugman’s version, with the boundaries of the Bush disaster conveniently marked in gray.  (Should have been black crepe– ed.)

It is perhaps too much of a simplification to suggest that this picture tells you all you need to know about the efficacy of tax cuts for employment creation…but not by much.

PS:  What the nonesense of last week was really about from the horse’s ass mouth:

Despite the struggle, some Republicans seemed to sense the White House would ultimately prevail, and sought political mileage.

Obama “could have had a very, very impressive victory early on,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who heads the Senate Republican campaign committee. “But this is not turning out to be an impressive victory. it is turning out to be a little bit of a black eye.”

Image:  Ernest Lindsay, “WPA Camp,”1936. U.S.Forest Service Database, Photo Number: 340843

Numbers: MSNBC’s Gots Them/George Bush Gots Indicted by Them

January 8, 2009

This blog always likes numbers as a way of providing a check on qualitative claims about reality.  Here’s a nice set

It’s a Harper’s Index-like treatment of basic numerical assessments of the well being of the United States from the beginning of the Bush II presidency to now. (h/t Ezra Klein).  With the increasingly less young  Mr. Klein (joining the rest of us at a constant rate of one day per day), I wonder what metrics one could choose to produce a different outcome.  ‘Cause right here, the embattled self-made-son is losing on ten out of ten judge’s cards.

Image:  Fresco from Akrotiri (Santorini), “Children Boxing,” before the last quarter of the 17th century B.C.E.

A Quick Thought on the Wall St. Mess: No Virginia (AKA George Bush/John McCain), This Comes as No Surprise

September 19, 2008

There is plenty on the web today that is more informed and more detailed than anything I could write about the current mess, so I’ll just offer these two brief notes as we struggle to avoid our own personal visit to a new Great Depression:

1:  This should have come as no surprise to anyone.  The connection of the subprime mess to the mortgage backed securities market — and that market’s significance to the financial market as a whole — has been documented everywhere for a long time.  See Duncan Black’s long list of posts with the words Big Shitpile in them for just one of an unbelievable number of more or less ordinary folks who know of this toxic intersection.

Crucially, smart money — really smart money — knew about the dangers of the new financial engineering years ago.  My own realization of this came when I did a quick google search about a year ago to find some more detailed coverage of the concept of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) — the name for one of the major culprits in the current fiasco.

Near the top of my search I found this, a briefing paper from Nomura Securities that dates from February 5, 2005.

The paper discussed in only slightly technical and fully comprehensible detail, how a particular form of CDO called a CDO squared is structured so that a relatively small number of defaults concentrated in a single instrument can bring down a much larger pool of otherwise more or less stable financial instruments — in effect reversing the expected result of creating a diversified pool of assets.

This is just one paper, of course, and it discusses just one of the species of lovely new ways to monetize debt that flowed through the financial system in the wake of the housing bubble.  But the point is that this kind of knowledge had already, by the beginning of 2005, filtered down to the level of publically available brokerage research.

And this leaves aside the chorus of folks who pointed out that the underlying driver of this crisis, the housing bubble itself, was driven by the kind of practices documented in car-wreck-on-the-highway obsessed detail here. This was not exactly a difficult disaster to forsee.  The full dimensions, maybe (just maybe) — but the fact of folly — that has been obvious for a long time.

And that brings me to my second point:

2.  As this post from Think Progress documents in gory, painful detail, the claim from the Bush administration that no one could have seen this coming is, politely, that which emerges from the south end of a north facing bull.

What this means in terms of thinking through to the new administration?  Well you have a choice between the man who has chosen as one of his lead economic advisors (and a potential Secretary of the Treasury) one of the chief architects of the deregulatory scheme that enabled this crisis, and who had this coherent thought on the economy to utter as recently as Monday.

Or you could choose the fella who had this to say today.

As they used to say on football Sundays:  You Make The Call.

Image:  Dorothea Lange “Tractored Out” — tenantless farm in Childress County, Texas, 1938.  Shot for the Farm Security Administration.  United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID ppmsc.00232.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

More Mental Health: Gilbert and Sullivan Take On Science And The Modern Presidency

September 17, 2008

From Jim Easter, a delightful gloss on the fate of science in the hands of the Christianist GOP.

Read it, laugh, and weep.

Image:  A.S. Seer Print, New York, Poster for The Pirates of Penzance, 1880.  Theatrical Poster Collection (Library of Congress), http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/var.1961.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals study logistics: The Surge, Afghanistan, Bush, McCain edition

July 3, 2008

The running theme of this blog is the importance of being able to count. Genuinely elementary arithmetic, if actually applied, is the foundation of scientific thinking, and scientific thinking is how we arrive, however imperfectly, at reliable guides to experience in the world.

That said, this post is another in my informal series arguing that because John McCain can’t count, can’t take advantage of the tools of analytical thinking, he is unfit to be President. A corollary of the argument I’m about to make is that the latest news out of our multiply mismanaged foreign wars provides independent support for General Wesley Clark’s argument that Senator McCain’s military career has not given him the experience needed by a President.

What’s the news?

This: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, yesterday told reporters that the US military has run out of troops, that it cannot dispatch more units to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is on the rise, unless and until the US draws down its forces in Iraq.

What does this have to do with counting, with analytical thinking? Here is John McCain, from his campaign website, on the”success” of what he calls “The McCain Surge” of US troops in Iraq:

Today, our new counterinsurgency campaign is showing signs of success, and John McCain believes we can still prevail in Iraq if Washington politicians exercise resolve not panic.

Remember: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics (a quote attributed to General Omar Bradley).

Leave aside the question of whether or not the surge is working even in its own limited sphere. (There is, sadly, a very strong argument that its primary accomplishment has been to prop up an unpopular, inept, Iranian-leaning government, leading to a decrease in US power, and an increase in that of our primary regional rival. See Michael Massing’s latest from Baghdad for the depressing details.

(As an aside: I don’t usually link to David Brooks, who I regard as a fact-deprived, innumerate writer, but his column of June 24 illustrates the problem of punditry without a grasp of the details. Massing’s on the ground report demonstrates why just about everything Brooks says is wrong in this particularly empty bit of triumphalism. (Find one actual testable claim in it, and I’ll give you a lollipop.)

Back on track: the question isn’t just whether or not the surge can work in a local sense, but whether it does now or ever did make sense in the context of the larger war in which we were and are engaged.

The answer was and is no — because the ground forces at our disposal were insufficient for the task of fighting in Afghanistan at the level of intensity required even before the surge began, and more or less everyone in a responsible position knew it.

The military equivalent of the green-eyeshade folks knew in in 2004, as Sy Hersh documented way back then, that the diversion of resources to Iraq threatened operations in that first theater of engagement — the one that actually hosted those who did us harm on 9/11, the ones whose presence on the border was disrupting a key ally, which also happened to be a genuinely nuclear armed Muslim-majority state.

They certainly knew in late 2006 that John McCain and the rest of the armchair generals, those daring knights of the keyboard (h/t Ted Williams) who called for winning in Iraq by shoving a brigade here and a battalion there, were talking tactics, and ignoring logistics.

At that moment, Afghanistan was already receiving scant attention. The Taliban and its allies were already resurgent. Pakistan was already spiraling into political turmoil. The war we failed to finish was and is now in danger of being lost — and no professional, no one who understood the hard data of what it takes to keep boots on the ground, had any reason to doubt what would follow a further starving of this campaign to pour more resources down the sump of Iraq.

This isn’t higher math; this is arithmetic.

And what of McCain? He has focused his claim on the Presidency on the assertion that he has more experience than his rival, especially in military matters, which is certainly true. But General Clark raised in public the issue that a lot of folks have wondered about for a long time: what is the impact of that experience on McCain’s judgment and decision-making.

Now, Admiral Mullen has given us the sadly obvious answer: not much good. It helps to be able to count.