Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Surge of Magical Thinking

Perhaps it is too early to declare the much-vaunted troop escalation in Iraq (dubbed by George Bush the peppier-sounding "surge" which has been dutifully parroted by the press) a failure. But that judgement is no more precipitous than the near-immediate declarations of "success!" made by virtually everyone.

The troop escalation has been called a success because it has been credited with bringing about a dramatic drop in violence in Iraq. Because of this, the troop escalation has been just about the last thing Bush loyalists and Iraq war cheerleaders can hang onto. They have so desperately wanted something here to work in what has otherwise been an abject failure that they almost immediately seized on the troop escalation, and its architect, David Petreaus. Chirpy Republican apologist David Brooks recently called the troop escalation Bush's signature success and one of the most courageous decisions made by any president.

We should acknowledge, however, that correlation is not necessarily causation - Iraq had descended into what should have been called a civil war; civil wars have their own gruesome dynamics and the decrease in violence may also correspond to the exhaustion of warring parties; and despite the troop escalation, Iraq remains one of the most violent, dangerous places in the world. And, of course, many of the warring parties in Iraq put down their weapons because the US Army paid them to - once the money stops, who knows what will happen?

The larger point is that reducing violence was never supposed to be the goal of the escalation. Getting the violence under control was a means to an end. It was supposed to create the space for the political process to work. And the results here, while perhaps not yet a failure, surely don't look like success.

In the past week, Prime Minister Maliki seems more and more like he is consolidating power in purely sectarian ways, shutting out other players, who, in turn, have access to fighters and weapons. And a new round of bombings have been deadly enough to land on the front page of the papers, rather than in the middle. Iraq, to judge by the news coming out of there right now, seems no closer to peace and stability than it was a year ago.

Many people have made the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam, and there are haunting similarities. But it has always seemed to me that the better, and even more horrifying, analogy is Cambodia. Once a prosperous and stable country - in the 1960s it was a net exporter of food - Cambodia was brought to ruin once the Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger orchestrated secret (and illegal) bombings in their pursuit of North Vietnamese soldiers. Just as Iraq was turned into a proxy in the "war of terrorism," Cambodia was the collateral damage of our feckless Vietnam adventure.

Once American troops left Southeast Asia in 1975 Cambodia descended into a fratricidal civil war which ended with the triumph of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians thus went from bombing raids, to civil war to genocide in just under a decade. It has not really recovered in the thirty years since (it still must import food each year, for example).

American troops must be withdrawn from Iraq. But as we prepare to pull them out, we ought to use the remaining time there to push for political solutions rather than simply congratulating ourselves on the "success" of the troop escalation. No one can envision where Iraq might be in 30 years, but then no one envisioned what became of Cambodia either. Perhaps we can learn something from that tragedy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Experts Agree. . ."

"Ed Meese is a pig."

More than twenty years ago that pithy little phrase made its way onto buttons and t-shirts. A bicycle messenger in DC happened to be wearing such a shirt when he made a delivery to the Justice Department. He was promptly arrested. Such was the nature of the First Ammendment under Attorney General Edwin Meese.

You remember Ed Meese right? The pudgy, not-the-brightest-bulb-in-the-chandelier that Reagan made Attorney General? Long before Alberto Gonzalez stained the Justice Dept. Ed Meese served as a Reagan's friend and ally during the Iran-Contra scandal and subjected Justice Department employees to ideological litmus tests.

Meese's legacy has been much in evidence these past few weeks as the Obama Administration has released the torture memos. These memos have removed whatever doubt might have remained about the brutalities committed by the Bush Barbarians. We tortured. We did it repeatedly. We invented legal excuses to justify those act that makes the reasoning of the Spanish Inquisition look positively profound.

Perhaps Meese's most famous utterance (or maybe it's just the one I remember most bitterly) was his pronouncement that anyone arrested by the police is almost surely guilty. He had little patience for the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty. That was just liberal nonsense. The ethos embodied by Meese drove Americans into a get-tough-on-crime frenzy. Three strikes and you're out. Lock 'em up and throw away the key. After a generation of Meesian-style justice, the United States now leads the world in incarcerations.

Senator Jim Webb, for one, thinks it's time we re-examined our entire penal system. And increasing numbers of states are finding that they simply can't afford to pay for what many have called "the prison-industrial complex."

Those who still defend torture have essentially invoked Meese's principle. If you've been arrested and thrown into Guantanimo or some black site somewhere you are probably guilty of something. Or will be guilty of something in the future. So we can torture you. Phil Musser, for one, recently insisted that he walked through Guantanimo and could just tell these were guilty people.

The scandal of torture has specific roots in the Bush administration's key players and in their response to 9/11. But those roots grew in a cultural soil tilled by Ed Meese: the comtempt for due process, the impatience with things like habeus corpus, the presumption of guilt before innocence, the substitution of politics for the law.

For a generation now, the Meesian "you can't ever be tough enough on crime" position has been hugely successful politically. I suspect that as we now confront the fact that we tortured people, defenders of torture - like virtually all House republicans - will move from definitional squabbles and term-parsing (what we did wasn't really torture, it was something else) to embracing torture as perfectly justified, just like throwing people in jail for life for minor drug possession. After all, you can't be too tough on terrorists. Even if you torture them.


Kevin Boyle, one of the great historians of his generation (his book, Arc of Justice, won the National Book Award in 2004), is also a native Detroiter and a true Rustbelt Intellectual. He grew up on Chatsworth Street, on the city's East Side during the 1960s and 1970s, and witnessed the dramatic racial and economic transformations that left Detroit--and so many other cities like it--ravaged by disinvestment.

In this moving article, Boyle revisits his childhood neighborhood where today, you can buy a single-family detached house for about $5,000 more than what his parents paid nearly fifty years ago. Boyle offers a subtle reflection on the intersection between memory and history. It's one of the most powerful, personal meditations on urban change that I have read--and a rare one that evokes childhood memories without slipping into maudlin nostalgia.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I've taken the liberty of reprinting this post from tax day last year.

This morning, I walked down to the corner, put my children onto their school bus, and then made a quick stop at the mailbox. In my hand were three envelopes containing checks to the Internal Revenue Service, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the city of Philadelphia. I don't want to sound hokey, but I feel a sense of pride every April 15. I am fulfilling one of the central responsibilties of citizenship. My checks will provide some of the funds to pay for my children's trip to school (part of the way on a road that is being rebuilt with federal funds). And more importantly, my modest tax payments will help other people's children, and their parents, and grandparents too.

For those of us who groan and moan that our tax dollars are being wasted, watch this classic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Even if our tax dollars are sometimes wasted or misdirected, it’s time to talk about what our local, state, and federal governments are doing right. What has Uncle Sam ever done for us? Social Security. OK, but other than Social Security? Subsidized medical research...OK, but other than subsidized medical and scientific research and Social Security? Well we have the National Park system. Other than Social Security, medical research, and National Parks? Well you get the idea. I could go on.

It will forever bar me from running for political office to say this: We don’t pay enough. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Our schools, especially those in inner cities and declining Rustbelt towns, are struggling with budget cutbacks when they need more to recruit and retain teachers and serve some of the country’s most disadvantaged students. Our public transportation systems deliver a lot, especially given how underfunded they are, but for those of us who depend on regional rail and Amtrak, the consequences of funding cuts have been devastating. And, yes, the National Institute for Mental Health and the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes for Medicine underwrite a lot of critical research. But we’ve allowed too much of our scientific and medical agendas to be dictated by the private sector. And don’t get me going about what our taxes aren’t going to, including an inclusive health care system, better environmental and workplace safety regulation, and urban redevelopment.

It is a cliche to say that anti-tax sentiment as an essential part of the American political tradition. It is, but not in the way that we usually think. American Revolutionaries railed against “taxation without representation.” We pay a lot of attention to the first word, but not as much to the second two. The protestors who joined the Boston Tea Party didn’t throw the principle of taxation into Boston Harbor. They demanded more democracy, the freedom to determine the fair rates of taxation and the uses to which tax dollars would be put.

Berkeley historian Robin Einhorn has written a brilliant study of the origins of Americans’ aversion to high taxes. I recommend reading her book, American Taxation, American Slavery. Here are some of her insights:

Americans are right to think that our antitax and antigovernment attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. They have more to do with protections for entrenched wealth than with promises of opportunity, and more to do with the demands of privileged elites than with the strivings of the common man. Instead of reflecting a heritage that valued liberty over all other concerns, they are part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition.

America's anti-tax tradition, she argues, is one of slavery's many strange fruits.

[S]laveholders had different priorities than other people—and special reasons to be afraid of taxes. Slaveholders had little need for transportation improvements (since their land was often already on good transportation links such as rivers) and hardly any interest in an educated workforce (it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write because slaveholders thought education would help African Americans seize their freedom). Slaveholders wanted the military, not least to promote the westward expansion of slavery, and they also wanted local police forces ("slave patrols") to protect them against rebellious slaves. They wanted all manner of government action to protect slavery, while they tended to dismiss everything else as wasteful government spending.

Her sobering conclusion:

The irony is that the slaveholding elites of early American history have come down to us as the champions of liberty and democracy. In a political campaign whose audacity we can only admire, charismatic slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries—and then generations of historians looking back—that the elites who threatened American liberty in their era were the nonslaveholders! Today, this brand of politics looks eerily familiar. We have experience with political parties that attack "elites" in order to rally voters behind policies that benefit elites. This is what the slaveholders did in early American history, and they did it very well. Expansions of slavery became expansions of "liberty," constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of "equal rights," and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the "common man." In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien "government" to oppress "the people."

If we throw off the yoke of slavery, we might recover the lost promise of the Boston Tea Party: that taxation and liberty are fundamentally compatible.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You Get What You Pay For: An April 15 Meditation

I don't know exactly when it happened, but at some point over the last generation or two Americans began to think of themselves less and less as "citizens" and more and more as "taxpayers." The implications of that subtle shift of identity have been enormous at all levels of government. In a nutshell, Americans have been persuaded that we pay too much in taxes; that taxes should always be reduced; and that government spending of our taxes is wasteful. A shrunken sense of shared obligation, an inflated sense of righteous entitlement.

The debate over taxes has been framed this way, and those on the liberal and left side of it have been reduced to saying, in effect, Americans don't really pay that much - not as compared to Western European countries for examples. It hasn't been a compelling argument.

But this is exactly the wrong way to think about taxes. We don't pay "too much" or "too little" in any absolute sense, of course, but only in relation to what we expect those taxes to do for us. In fact, Americans - especially those in the tax-cutting Red states - have made steadily more demands on the public purse even while insisting that they shouldn't have to pay for those things (see: the Federal balance of payments). If we want our roads paved, our police to show up when we call, our food safety monitored (and we do), then we have to fund those things. Americans consistently report that they want Cadillac schools for their kids, but they want them at Hyundai prices. The first rule of economics is: you get what you pay for.

Looked at this way, I do think we are paying too much in taxes - because what we get in return for them, more than anything else, is the Defense Dept. Since the end of WWII year in and year out roughly 50 cents out of every dollar of Federal discretionary spending goes to the Pentagon. Which means that the other 50 cents has to pay for everything else. And let's face it, most of us don't get that much for all that military spending - not better roads, not better schools, not better health care or cleaner air etc. etc.

The easiest (and I realize that it is anything but easy) way for us to pay for the ambitious programs this nation so desperately needs - from health care to public transportation - is to hack the Defense budget mercilessly. Shrink it to even twice the percentage of the British or the French and we'd be rolling in cash to pay for more useful things.

As it happens, I'm writing this from Washington, DC, a city whose cultural magnificence is available to me for free (thanks to taxes). I'm sitting in the glorious Main Reading room at the Library of Congress (more tax dollars at work) and thinking that we really can get great things for our society if we re-order the priorities of how we spend our taxes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

State of the Ward

Academic life provides an almost bottomless reservoir of shenanigans of the sort that keep novelists from Vladimir Nabokov to David Lodge employed. Usually this stuff is interesting only to academics - for a while there was even a journal devoted to academic gossip, the short-lived, much-missed Lingua Franca. Occasionally, however, one of these stories breaks through to the national news. And this past week the Strange Career of Ward Churchill became such a case.

For those who have better things to do than follow the tawdry details of this episode, a quick recap: Ward Churchill, a professor of "ethnic studies" at the University of Colorado, was fired from his tenured position by a committee of faculty and administrators after they determined the he had engaged in a variety of academic frauds - plagiarism and dishonest scholarship among them, though there were also questions about the legitimacy of his academic degrees as well.

Churchill had labored in academic obscurity, publishing largely in the field of Native American studies, until he published an essay in which he called the victims of September 11 "little Eichmanns," asserting that they, and America generally, essentially got what what we all deserved.

That essay was merely stupid, and alas "dumb" is not necessarily a disqualifier in academia. But the essay was incendiary and circulated widely on the web. At that point the University of Colorado began to examine Prof. Churchill's record. What they found, as I mentioned, got him fired.

Churchill, in turn, sued the university in civil court claiming that he had been fired for that essay, and thus for exercising his first amendment rights. This week a jury agreed. And didn't. They found in favor of Churchill, but then awarded him damages of exactly $1.

Churchill, for his part, offered a remarkable defense: the university only discovered the academic fraud, he has basically insisted, because of that Sept 11 essay. No one would have noticed otherwise. Thus, he was being fired for having written it.

And the sad part is: he is largely right. Churchill apparently got tenure at Colorado without serious vetting - no one there seems to have paid much attention at all to this scholarly snake-oil salesman until some of his embarrassing writing briefly escaped the hot-house world of academia and appeared to a larger public.

There are only two conclusions I can draw from this silly bit of business from Boulder, neither of them good. Either the system for evaluating scholarship at the University of Colorado was so badly broken that faculty were too negligent to examine Churchill's publications with a critical eye. Or we have gotten to a point in humanities scholarship where claims to authority and truth can be made without any real rigor at all. Assertion substitutes for evidence; passion and feeling substitute for reason and argument.

If this latter is the case - an academic version of "I'm ok, you're ok" - then what the case of Ward Churchill reveals is a practice of the humanities that has lost any self-confidence. Believing that nothing can be known with any certainty, many in the humanities have decided that therefore all assertions must be equally valid and they need not be defended in any systematic way, because after all, that system is part of the problem in the first place. In such a world, Churchill's fabrications are no different than any other scholarship, which relies on real evidence and proper citation. Liberation through increased ignorance!

Scientists, of course, laugh at the humanities for this and other reasons. But our collective lack of self-confidence also explains why those of us in the humanities have had so little impact on the debates that have really mattered over the last 30 years. Playing post-structuralist parlor games, those in the humanities have largely ignored our responsibility to speak with authority and truth to the pressing questions of the day. We've been afraid to do so.

Ironically, the jury in Colorado deliberated just as the great historian John Hope Franklin passed away. It's a wonderful compare/contrast exercise: On the one hand, Franklin, a scholar of impeccible standards who devoted his life to the humanities in the fullest and richest sense, a man who repeatedly put his scholarship in the service of a political goal, but who always insisted on the difference between scholarship and politicis. On the other, Churchill demanding his job back because he was fired for being a fraud, and calling this a brave political act.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Does the Treasury Department need a Rustbelt Intellectual?

The demands of the new quarter require this post to be brief, but I wanted to highlight what I think are some interesting and important dilemmas faced by the Obama administration in the current economic crisis.   

Two main observations:  1)  America appears to be experiencing the first significant wave of economic populism in many decades; 2)  Obama's Treasury Department policymakers and staff of economic advisers appear to be unaware of this or to understand what it means (see Tom's post of February 10).  

A series of Frank Rich columns in the New York Times over the past several weeks brilliantly exposed this political blindness or insensitivity.  And the Times is still hammering home the basic point--a story from yesterday showed the troubling ties that Lawrence Summers (never known for his political acumen) has to hedge funds. 

Watching the political missteps leads me to believe that the Obama administration needs a Rustbelt Intellectual at Treasury or on the staff of economic advisers.  I use that term to refer to the spirit of this blog's many posts and reader comments--as a shorthand to mean only that the administration economic policy needs a voice from someone---anyone--who can truly empathize with the common American, with the working and middle classes.  

Yet the story on Summers indicates the difficulties that Obama faces in balancing politics and policy.  How can we reconcile the interests and concerns of the common American with the arcane world of 21st-century finance?  

Given the highly technical nature of our current financial crisis, does Obama have any other choice than to hand over the keys to the policymaking to folks who presided over and arguably contributed to the crash?  Would providing a seat at the table for a spokesperson for the middle and working classes simply put that person in over their head?  Are the concerns of working families hopelessly naive and likely to worsen the crisis if made a driving force in policy?  In other words, would a Rustbelt Intellectual just mess everything up?  

In the short term, it appears that handing economic policy over to technocrats is politically risky.  In the long term, it may be our only option:  Americans may just have to hold their noses and hope the Wall Street tycoons both in the Obama administration and on Wall Street can save the nation. 

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fear and Loathing at 30,000 feet

Recently I was stuck in airport purgatory, thanks to USAir's inability to keep track of its planes, its crews or its schedules (and I didn't even check any bags). So with unending amounts of time to kill, I spent much of it perusing the book sellers in two different airports.

Featured are several of the latest titles from the cast of Fox News and Friends: Hannity, Coulter and several others. They all have "books" out just at the moment (I'm reminded of a sneer that Gore Vidal, or was it Truman Capote, made toward another author's book: "That isn't writing; it's typing.") I didn't actually touch any other them for fear of getting some dreadful (anti)social disease. But the titles are revealing.

They all use the Manichean language of freedom and tyranny; liberty and war.

I'm not particularly interested in what these books say - all one needs to do is read is the title and you get the punchline - nor do I think most Americans care either. Ann Coulter, after all, has given dumb blondes a bad name. These are books which will be advertised as "best-sellers" and then sent straight to pulp.

Nor I am surprised about that language: Republicans for a generation now have been wrapping their looting of American society as super-patriotism or as god's work, or both.

What confuses is me is why we don't call this rhetorical posturing what it really is: American fascism.

Pretend for a moment that a far-right political party emerged in France or England. It claimed that the interest of the state and the interest of the party were identical; it insisted that any opposition to that party was a form of treason; it drew thinly-veiled racial distinctions between the "real" French and those others; it fulminated that those others were responsible for the decline of everything good and right. What would you call such a party?

Of course, you'd call it a fascist party, and we have seen exactly such politics in England with the National Front and in France with the Le Pen movement.

But the examples I've cited above all come from the last 15 years of the Republican party - from Sarah Palin's "Real Americans" speech to Newt Gingrich's 1995 declaration that Democrats were ipso facto traitors. And as we've seen since January, the notion of a loyal opposition has been perverted by Republicans to mean only opposition to Obama and loyalty only to the party.

So let's start calling these people what they are: American fascists. They appeal to a substantial percentage of the population for sure - I remind students that the closest we've come to electoral unity in a presidential election was 61% - which means 39% voted for the other guy (Alf Landon in 1936; Barry Goldwater in 1964). But we should at least be forthright about what we're now dealing with.