Thursday, October 27, 2005

Harriet Miers Withdraws Her Name

. . . from consideration for the US Supreme Court. Remarkable, isn't it, that the sacred principle of "giving every nominee a fair up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate" should be discarded the moment Bush offers a nominee who appears to fail the political correctness tests of the extreme right? One might almost be tempted to accuse the wingers of hypocrisy, if we didn't know how seriously they take their Christian ethics . . .
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Friday, October 21, 2005

Please Support Guantanamo Protest

If you've been following the story, you're aware that the US detention center at Guantanamo is one of the more disgraceful legacies of the current administration. Bush's lawyers continue to argue in the courts that the government should have the power to imprison people, including US citizens, indefinitely without charges and without access to legal counsel. It goes without saying that this would establish a horrific precedent and mark a major step down the road toward transforming this country from a democracy into a dictatorship.

On Tuesday, November 1, I'll be participating in a fast to protest this abuse and to support a hunger strike by about half of the 540 prisoners currently being held at Guantanamo. For many of these prisoners there is apparently little or no evidence of any connection to terrorist activities; leaks suggest that they are still being held largely to prevent the administration from having to face the embarrassment of admitting that they were imprisoned needlessly. The fast is being organized by The Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group founded in 1966 by a group of lawyers including William Kunstler.

Please consider joining this effort. Personally I find that fasting can be a meaningful way to contribute psychologically and spiritually to a cause, particularly if one channels the energy produced via prayer and reflection. I've given a donation to CCR that represents the money I would otherwise spend on food for that day. If you prefer, you might consider donating to other organizations that promote freedom and democracy, such as Human Rights Watch, The American Civil Liberties Union, or The Carter Center (see the link on the right).

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

WaPo Columnist: Let's Dump Roe To Ease My Guilt

I respect Richard Cohen's honesty in describing his long-ago experience with abortion and his recent second thoughts about it in today's column in WaPo. Unfortunately, those second thoughts have produced no useful new insight but just a muddle of feelings and ideas that only confuse the discussion, along with a policy prescription that would be downright disastrous.

Here's the heart of Cohen's column. It follows his description of how, decades ago, he fairly casually helped a girlfriend get an abortion:

I would do things a bit differently now. I would give the matter much more thought. I no longer see abortion as directly related to sexual freedom or feminism, and I no longer see it strictly as a matter of personal privacy, either. It entails questions about life -- maybe more so at the end of the process than at the beginning, but life nonetheless.

This is not a fashionable view in some circles, but it is one that usually gets grudging acceptance when I mention it. I know of no one who has flipped on the abortion issue, but I do know of plenty of people who no longer think of it as a minor procedure that only prudes and right-wingers oppose. The antiabortion movement has made headway.

That shift in sentiment is not apparent in polls because they do not measure doubt, only position: for or against. But between one and the other, black or white, is a vast area of gray where up or down, yes or no, fades to questions about circumstance: Why, what month, etc.? Whatever the case, the very basis of the Roe v. Wade decision -- the one that grounds abortion rights in the Constitution -- strikes many people now as faintly ridiculous. Whatever abortion may be, it cannot simply be a matter of privacy.

For the moment, I'll ignore the somewhat high-handed tone of Cohen's "I would do things a bit differently now." (Hey, Richard--it was your girlfriend's body that was involved here, not yours. At a fundamental level, the abortion decision was not yours to make and certainly wouldn't be yours to make today. For any male talking about this issue, humble recognition of this basic fact is an essential starting point.) Instead, I want to focus on the leap from Cohen's misgivings about abortion to his conclusion that Roe must go.

Since abortion strikes Cohen as in some sense a life-or-death decision, he concludes that "it cannot simply be a matter of privacy" (as, he concedes, birth control is). Suppose we grant that. Then what? What compelling interests other than privacy are at stake? How do we define those interests? Who should represent them? In what way? How should those interests be balanced against the wishes and needs of the mother, and her right to (yes) privacy?

All of these questions are deeply contentious. Cohen offers no answers to any of them. He simply bemoans the fact that the word "privacy" seems too flimsy a reed on which to base the concept of choice. On that basis, he appears ready to jettison Roe and allow the states to regulate abortion independently--despite the fact that, as he recognizes, this would certainly create hardship for women seeking abortions and could in fact dramatically curtail or even eliminate the right to choose.

This is casual gamesmanship with women's lives, not serious reasoning. Of course abortion decisions are tough and painful, involving shades of gray rather than black or white. How would eliminating Roe help matters? Does Cohen actually think that getting fifty state legislatures involved would clarify the moral choices faced by real, individual women? Would the life of his long-ago girlfriend have been improved by taking away the abortion option--or forcing her to drive a thousand miles to find an abortion provider?

The principle of privacy is crucial in this debate precisely because abortion is such a complex, shades-of-gray issue. Most people agree that the rights and wrongs of any particular abortion involve many variables. The world's religions differ greatly in how they judge abortion, and individual ethical attitudes differ even more. Under the circumstances, it makes no sense to turn the decision over to a state government that will draw up Procrustean-bed regulations based on which party, pressure group, or lobby happens to be in the ascendancy that year. Instead, we should let women make their own decisions, since they are the individuals who are vitally affected. Call that "privacy" or "autonomy" or "freedom of conscience" or what you will--in any case it strikes me as obviously the American way to handle the issue.

It's nice that Richard Cohen has evolved over time into such a sensitive, thoughtful, philosophical guy, one who wishes he had agonized more over his own (second-hand) abortion decision all those years ago. That's not a good reason for wanting to restrict the freedom of women to make their own tough decisions in the future.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Two Pathetic Plame Defenses

It's almost too easy to shred the ridiculous talking points that the Republicans are trotting out these days in regard to the CIA leak investigation. But experience shows that it's also necessary. So here are two points worth noting:

1. On the talk shows, right-wing spokespeople have been waxing indignant over the "nepotism" that led Valerie Plame to recommend her husband for the Niger investigation, and defending the leak as necessary to expose this appalling instance of cronyism. Question: After all we've been through together, how can anyone assert with a straight face that strategists for the Bush administration are on a mission to rid government of nepotism and cronyism? (Just asking.)

2. Another widespread Republican assertion is the claim that the Plame leak was, at worst, "political hardball," more likely an appropriate act of whistleblowing in defense of the truth, and certainly not a crime. Question: If that's true, why has the administration from the beginning made every effort to cover up its involvement in the leak? As noted by E. J. Dionne in today's WaPo:

Before he trashed Wilson to Miller in a July 8, 2003, meeting, Libby asked that his comments not be attributed to a "senior administration official," the standard anonymous reference to, well, senior administration officials. Instead, he wanted his statements attributed to a "former Hill staffer," a reference to Libby's earlier work in Congress. Why would Libby want his comments ascribed to such a vague source? Miller says she told the special prosecutor that she "assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson."

Is this how people normally behave when they are doing something that is perfectly innocent or even laudable?

Again--I'm just asking.

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Richard Cohen's Non-Apology

At the end of his column in today's WaPo, Richard Cohen offers this note about his previous ridiculous comments on the Plame scandal:

A clarification: A number of readers, some of them formerly of the CIA, got the impression from my last column that I don't consider the outing of a covert employee a serious matter. I do.

Unfortunately for Cohen, in the age of the Internet, there's no memory hole down which one's words can vanish. Here's where we "got the impression" from his last column:

This [i.e., leaking] is rarely considered a crime. In the Plame case, it might technically be one, but it was not the intent of anyone to out a CIA agent and have her assassinated (which happened once) but to assassinate the character of her husband. This is an entirely different thing. She got hit by a ricochet.

Cohen made it clear then that the outing of Valerie Plame was, in his estimation, "technically" a crime, though one committed with innocent intent and therefore not worthy of punishment. It's hard to see how we are supposed to square this with his new assertion that he considers it "a serious matter."

It's nice that the firestorm of protest over this absurd position has prompted second thoughts, but it's not enough for Cohen to blandly assert that readers got the wrong "impression" from the plain meaning of his words (as if the "misunderstanding" was our fault, not his). The intellectually honest thing to say would be either, "What I wrote is not what I was trying to say, and I'm sorry I confused people," or, even more to the point, a simple yet dignified, "I was wrong."

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Matthews: "Not Even Hardball"

Digby's comment that MSNBC is the network best positioned to capitalize on the Plame scandal (as CNN capitalized on the first Gulf War and Fox on Monica/impeachment) is probably right. Keith Olbermann in particular has the skepticism and cojones needed to stay focused on the case and not swallow the (increasingly desperate) Republican talking points.

But like several of Digby's commenters, I refuse to put Chris Matthews in the same category. As part of his macho this-is-how-the-big-boys-do-things-in-Washington routine, he has been pooh-poohing the importance of the scandal. I even heard him say the other day that the outing of Plame "wasn't even hardball, it was just the administration defending itself from an attack."

It's a little odd because the way Matthews has been covering the story (leading with it, dissecting it at great length with a panel of commentators etc.) implies that he thinks it's very important. I think the explanation is that Matthews does think it's important, but not because of what it reveals about the criminality of the Bush administration but rather as a really fun bit of inside baseball.

Matthews epitomizes the totally amoral approach to politics that's one of the worst features of MSM. Judging by his show you would never know that what the government does has any impact on the actual lives of people--or that the Plame leak case is all about dragging the country to war on false pretenses, with fatal results for thousands of individuals and potentially disastrous effects on our nation's global standing for decades to come. To Matthews, it's just part of the game of politics, not something that ultimately matters.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Friendly Service Run Amok

Since our local Fleet Bank was taken over by Bank of America several months ago, there have been some changes in the approach to customer service that are totally well-meaning but which frankly bug me.

Whenever I walk into the branch (generally to deposit a check, since I use the ATM outside for withdrawals), one of the desk-bound officers always calls out a cheery "Good morning!" This of course obliges me to respond, and since I am rarely in an equally cheery mood the encounter leaves me feeling vaguely guilty. Why am I so grumpy to the nice lady behind the desk? The fleeting moment of introspection that results strikes me as unnecessary and unwelcome.

Then, if the line for the tellers is more than a couple of people long, the same officer will come over and ask, with a helpful smile, "What are you here for? Can I help?"

I mumble, "Making a deposit."

"Fine!" she chirps. "I can handle that for you!" And she takes my check and deposit slip, writes out a receipt, and whisks me on my way.

Very nice, except it bothers me to have only a hand-written receipt (rather than the computer-printed-and-dated receipt I get from the regular teller). Is it real? Is it official? How do I know the woman who claims to be a bank officer isn't really a scam artist who will keep my signed check for herself? (This has never happened, of course, but the possibility unnerves me.)

Petty quibbles, you may say. But this week they went too far. After I made one of my usual deposits with the teller behind the counter, she handed me my receipt and perkily asked, "Can I delight you with anything else today?"

Can I delight you . . . ?! Please! This is a bank! What on earth could she possibly do to delight me (short of handing me the combination to the big vault and saying, "Help yourself, we'll look the other way")? And does the wording of her statement mean she assumes that depositing my check has already delighted me? If so, I beg to differ. I was probably delighted to get the check in the first place. (As Robert Benchley once remarked, we freelancers need those checks to keep the wolf from getting upstairs into the bedrooms.) But putting the darn thing into my account strikes me as a routine transaction whose successful completion I ought to be able to take for granted.

I'm sure it's tough being Bank of America's vice-president of marketing. For "normal" people like me (i.e. not filthy rich patrons of "private banking" with dedicated account managers, tea served in china cups, etc. etc.) banking services are a standardized commodity that's practically impossible to differentiate. In their desperate efforts to retain customers and attract new ones, banks must feel driven to absurd efforts like these to "personalize" the service they offer. Unfortunately, the desperation is all too apparent.

What's more, I don't really want personal service when I do routine things like deposit money in the bank. The banker is not my friend and I don't want to feel obliged to act as though she is. Some days it takes all the energy I can muster to be nice to my real friends without extending the obligation to people like bank tellers, supermarket clerks, and the guys at the jiffy oil-change shop. If I wanted to be constantly surrounded by friendly people who know my name and my personal affairs, I would move to Mayberry or its 2005 equivalent (wherever that may be).

I guess I sound like a real grouch. And maybe I am. But I don't think I'm the only person who feels this way. Judging by advertising and comments in the media, there seems to be a general assumption that most Americans yearn for a return to "an old-fashioned feeling of community." Hence the attempts by companies like Bank of America to simulate that feeling in their customer service programs. But I think this is one of the many instances in which people tell pollsters what they think they're supposed to feel rather than what they actually feel.

If most people want the intimate feeling of small-town life, why have they moved by the millions to the impersonal cities or the equally impersonal, drive-everywhere, mall-culture suburbs? If they want personal service from a friendly store owner who knows their name, why have they abandoned Main Street to shop instead at Wal-Mart?

Yes, I know that the prices are lower at Wal-Mart, and that makes a big difference for some people. But most middle- and upper-middle-class people could pay a few per cent more at Joe's Housewares if they really yearned for a personal connection along with their vacuum cleaner bags and plastic freezer containers. I think that, like me, what they really want is to get in and out of the store without having to answer questions about how their kids are doing, how they enjoyed their vacation, and whether they'll be at the big game next weekend.

I think most people also prefer not being "friends" with the checkout gal at the supermarket (who rings up all their guilty pleasures, from bags of peanut M&Ms to boxes of frozen White Castle cheeseburgers) or with the guy from the drugstore (who knows whether or not they have hemorrhoids or color their hair or take Viagra).

And I definitely think they prefer not having to pretend to be "delighted" by run-of-the-mill service.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Safire on Bugs Bunny: Geez, What a Maroon

In tomorrow's "On Language" column in the Times Magazine, Bill Safire does his usual etymological roundup, this time focusing on words and phrases related to baseball (it's playoff time). The last two paragraphs deal with what he calls his "favorite" piece of baseball slang, the expression Bugs Bunny change-up, which describes a pitch that looks like a fastball as it leaves the pitcher's hand but ends up being much slower--pretty much like any good change-up.

Safire naturally asks, "Why name the pitch after Bugs Bunny?" Here's his answer:

Because, to take a fanciful leap, in the tale of the tortoise and the hare, the rabbit starts out fast and then, exhausted, falls behind the steadily plodding turtle.

Note how the columnist's reference to "a fanciful leap" gives the game away. Safire has no idea where the expression comes from and is just making something up, hoping against hope that he might guess right.

As any Bugs Bunny aficionado would know, the phrase is clearly a reference to the classic 1946 cartoon "Baseball Bugs," whose plot is summarized this way on Earth's Biggest Movie Database: "At a baseball game between the Gashouse Gorillas and the Tea-Totallers, a heckling Bugs Bunny is forced to play all positions against the brutish Gorillas. Naturally, their muscle is no match for Bugs' wit and pitching skill."

In the crucial scene, Bugs throws a tantalizing change-up so slow that, as the ball floats towards the plate, no fewer than three Gorilla sluggers each swing futilely at it three times in succession, accompanied by the umpire's rapid-fire call, "One, two, three strikes, you're out! One, two, three strikes, you're out! One, two, three strikes, you're out!" Thus Bugs records three outs with a single pitch.

Does this sound like an obscure source for an evidently widely-used phrase? No way. Those old Warner Brothers cartoons are in constant rotation on TV (nowadays on cable). As a kid in the 1960s I must have seen "Baseball Bugs" at least a dozen times.

Sad to think that William Safire hasn't seen it even once. All these years he must have been wasting his time reading Roll Call and thumbing through dictionaries looking for words that he hoped would make his political columns sound more like William F. Buckley, Jr.

* * *

Seriously, what a wasted opportunity Safire's "On Language" has always been. Think about it--a column in the Times where a Washington reporter could analyze the myriad ways in which language is used and abused in politics, culture, and the media; the prevalence of question-begging, distortion, deception, logical fallacies, and misleading emotional appeals disguised as rational discourse; the reduction of political debate to sound-bites, image-mongering, and sloganeering derived from advertising; and the ways in which linguistic choices made by writers, editors, reporters, TV anchors, advocates, and politicians influence and limit the national agenda.

It could be a fascinating and important column. But instead, Safire prefers to recount the latest theories about who first used the word gerrymander. Fun stuff, but ultimately trivial.

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Defending the Plame Leakers

In today's Washington Post, Richard Cohen writes an astonishingly wrong-headed column urging that Plame leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald close up shop, "return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals" rather than hand down any indictments.

Cohen deploys several arguments in his attempt to prove that the crimes in the Plame case were trivial and that prosecuting them would harm rather than help the public interest. Let's consider them one by one.

First, Cohen remarks that using leaks to impeach political opponents is "Not nice, but it was what Washington does day in and day out." Of course it's true that leaks are frequently used to settle political scores, but that's not what's Fitzgerald is investigating. He's investigating the public exposure of an undercover CIA agent, an act which Congress deemed heinous enough to criminalize. Are secret government intelligence operatives exposed in Washington "day in and day out"? Obviously not, or by now there would scarcely be anyone left undercover.

Of course, Cohen knows this, so he quickly moves on to his second argument:

This [i.e., leaking] is rarely considered a crime. In the Plame case, it might technically be one, but it was not the intent of anyone to out a CIA agent and have her assassinated (which happened once) but to assassinate the character of her husband. This is an entirely different thing. She got hit by a ricochet.

Here is a more substantive argument. Unfortunately for Cohen, it makes no sense. Apparently the columnist has unilaterally decided that "intent" is a crucial part of the definition of the crime in this case--that outing a secret CIA agent is criminal only if your motive is to have the agent assassinated. In Cohen's world, it's perfectly okay to out a secret agent if you have purely political motives or, perhaps, simply want to eliminate the agent's cover and thereby ruin her career.

Unsurprisingly, the law doesn't see it this way, since its purpose is to protect the value of American undercover assets--not to punish naughty motives. It doesn't matter why you expose a spy. Doing so is a crime. Period.

Even Cohen's own rhetoric exposes the flimsiness of this argument. He says that Valerie Plame "got hit by a ricochet." In factual terms, this is wrong: The information leaked was specifically about Plame, with the hope that her husband would be harmed as a form of "collateral damage." But even leaving that aside, since when can you defend criminal activity by claiming that the victim was an innocent bystander "hit by a ricochet"? The next time some five-year-old is killed during a drug shoot-out, should the district attorney decline to prosecute on the grounds that the Cohen Doctrine exonerates criminals with bad aim?

Perhaps sensing that his arguments so far have been pathetically weak, Cohen reaches for the big finish:

The greater issue is control of information. If anything good comes out of the Iraq war, it has to be a realization that bad things can happen to good people when the administration -- any administration -- is in sole control of knowledge and those who know the truth are afraid to speak up. This -- this creepy silence -- will be the consequence of dusting off rarely used statutes to still the tongues of leakers and intimidate the press in its pursuit of truth, fame and choice restaurant tables.

Taken at face value, all of this is correct. But lay it next to what actually happened here and you see that it bears no relationship to the facts. The Plame leak is not about a brave administration whistleblower daring to break the government's monopoly over information the public needs to know. It's about an administration operative using secret information as a stiletto in an attempt to silence a critic.

Cohen's hand-wringing about "intimidating the press" seems especially egregious. I haven't heard any speculation that Fitzgerald is considering indicting journalists. I don't like the precedent set by the Judith Miller jailing, and I would favor passage of a shield law protecting journalists, which would basically solve the problem. There's no way we need to also protect the Karl Roves and Scooter Libbys of the world in the process.

The Bush administration has taken the fetish for secrecy to new heights in an effort to consolidate its control over information and therefore its power. It's an appalling trend and one that Richard Cohen certainly ought to be writing about. But if I wanted to launch a crusade for greater government openness, I would focus on things like the Abu Ghraib photos, the CIA's report on pre-9/11 intelligence, and the deliberations of Cheney's energy committee. Wouldn't this information do more to enlighten the public about crucial policy matters than knowing what Valerie Plame did every day in Langley?

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Why George Will Isn't Teaching French Lit at Amherst

New York Times columnist John Tierney is deeply concerned about the fact that academia slants left, a problem he attributes to "cronyism." (As you know, I can no longer offer you a free link to the Times op-ed pages, but in this case I assure you it's no great loss.)

You may be surprised to learn that for once I agree with Tierney. It's deplorable that liberals dominate the professorial ranks, and I would gladly support a program to get more conservatives hired to teach at our top universities. Provided, of course, that it's coupled with a program to require that more liberals be hired as corporate CEOs, police chiefs, four-star generals, and radio talk show hosts.

Now can we get back to discussing some actual problem faced by our society?
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