American Political Culture

2008 01 11
All monotheists are equal, and above others

Via Eszter Hargittai, this report of a court decision that atheists cannot be adoptive parents in New Jersey. It’s now being appealed. The reasoning of the decision as described in that article is transparently loopy. For one thing, it suggests that the state would need take away the biological children of atheist parents, as well. Also [bitter semi-coherent rant about other nutso consequences of this judge’s theory redacted].

One of my students brought a related amazing fact to my attention this past semester. In Maryland, the original state constitution forbade atheists from holding public office. The clause (and similar ones in other state constitutions) were rendered ineffectual by a US Supreme Court decision in 1961, but the text remains in the state’s constitution. Here’s an explanation with details – scroll down to “religious discrimination in state constitutions” and then to “why these clauses are no longer valid”.

This kind of shit fills me with burning fiery anger. I don’t have anything funny to say about, maybe youse guys can come up with something.
(Also, isn’t it odd that fiery is spelled that way, rather than “firey”?)

Howls of outrage (14)

2007 07 21
Standing as one

After Paul posted a deliciously silly Kevin Costner movie trailer, Anne confessed in the comments that she just assumed that everyone had already seen it. People, this is how utility goes unmaximized! So, in the spirit of recycling old favourites for the odd soul who might have missed it the first time, I give you America: We Stand As One. When I first found this video, I showed it to my roommate at the time, a Serb who finds the U.S. deeply puzzling in many respects. We agreed that after much searching, we had probably finally found the Essence of America.

Howls of outrage (30)

2007 07 17

Bill O’Reilly likens Kos to David Duke and the Nazis, and says that it’s real easy to regulate online forums. He says boycotts etc. are called for. I’m sure it’s been noted somewhere else, but I’ve not seen it: NewsCorps owns Fox News. It also owns Myspace. You wanna make O’Reilly pay? A good place to start is right here.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 07 14
Movie night with Karl Rove

Archives are fun!

Tucked away inside 78,000 pages of documents from the Nixon administration, released by the National Archives earlier this week, is a little gem: a strategy memorandum from the man who would go on to become the architect of President Bush’s rise to political power.

And in the memorandum, this:

In his memorandum, Mr. Rove offered suggestions, from having college Republican clubs show “nonpolitical films for fund-raising (e.g. John Wayne flicks, ‘Reefer Madness’)” to developing a “Student Guide to Lobbying” with a “forward by Bush/Nixon.”

I found the reference to “Reefer Madness” confusing at first. Why in the hell would young Republicans be gathering to laugh at anti-drug propaganda, I wondered? Finally I realized that the interest in the film wasn’t ironic. But don’t accuse me of being stoned for taking a while to appreciate this point. Seriously, have you seen it? Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can watch the entire thing here.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 05 16
“Only in America”

This post by Rubber Hose about the overuse of the phrase (and sentiment) “only in America” made me giggle, and not just because I am mentioned favourably. In an earlier post complaining about William Safire I made the point that the U.S. actually has a fairly mixed record of dealing properly with wrongdoing. As an example, I gave Henry Kissinger. But Kerim at Keywords has another nice example of the American failure to properly investigate and punish war crimes.

Let me try to put this in perspective, so that I don’t come off as just another America-hater. Compared to most other militaries in the world, I think the U.S. is highly professional. There is simply no comparison between, say, the U.S. and Russia on the issue of responsiveness to war crimes.

There is still a point to dwelling on American failures in this regard. The point is partly to challenge American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. somehow stands morally apart from the rest of the world. The notion can be very useful, since it gives critics of the U.S. who fear abuses of its power some dialectical purchase when they argue against some policy or another. Hypocrisy is, all things considered, better than shamelessness. But it can also be extremely dangerous, since Americans sometimes seem to feel that American exceptionalism entitles them to do things which they would never accept from anyone else. In a hyperpower, that is a very troubling tendency.

Comments Off

2004 03 18
He said, He said

Certain things are true. But wacky journalistic conventions often prevent reporters from just coming out and saying them. This piece in the times is a great example of that. The piece contrasts two speeches, one by Kerry and one by Cheney. The piece makes some kind of attempt at balance, but ends up falling flat on its face. Thus, after reporting a series of outrageous lies from Cheney, more than half-way through the piece, the reporter finally gets around to telling us what’s wrong with them:

After Mr. Cheney’s speech, the Kerry campaign issued a rebuttal, calling Mr. Cheney “the wrong man to challenge John Kerry on defense.” Aides to Mr. Kerry found quotations that showed Mr. Cheney expressing varying views over the years, including advocating cutting some of the same weapons systems that Mr. Cheney was faulting Mr. Kerry for wanting to cut.

Moreover, the Kerry aides said, the Bush administration did send troops to Iraq without proper equipment. And they noted that the Pentagon in the summer of 2003 sought to hold down growth in pay and benefits, saying the budget could not sustain higher salaries for the military.

OK, so Kerry aides said this. Is it true? If it’s true and independently verifiable (it is both), then why did the reporters let this go until the story was more than halfway gone? Why do the reporters distance themselves from the facts by reporting them as if they are merely one side of a dispute in which – who knows? – either side might turn out to be correct?

A real reporter like Dana Milbank of the WaPo would have handled this differently. After each one of Cheney’s lies, he would have reported the facts as we know them. And he wouldn’t have hidden behind the “he said, he said” format, as the authors of the Times piece did.

(I haven’t gone trolling through the blogosphere yet today. But I imagine a lot of people are saying the same thing. My apologies for what is almost certainly not an original post.)

Comments Off

2004 03 06

Another thought about the Brooks’ piece, which is actually quite interesting in the way that it reveals some of his prejudices.

Brooks seems to think a) that Democrats have a unreflective hatred of rich people; and b) both Bush and Kerry (and before him, Dean) are blue-bloods, and that cancels out the Democratic complaint that Bush is an undeserving rich guy.

I think the thing to see is that it isn’t Bush’s wealth or priviledge that is especially enraging. It’s his sheer inability to see past them. It’s this inability that seems so strongly connected to the policies he pushes, policies which have extraordinarily harmful long term effects on people who aren’t as sheltered as he has always been.

If Bush had enjoyed all his advantages and then turned around and attempted to put into effect policies which benefited people outside of his social class it would have been another story altogether.

Dodging Vietnam is another great example. It’s not just that Bush dodged Vietnam. Lots of people did that. It’s that he dodged it while supporting the war, that he never seems to have reflected on the unequal burden involved in the fighting, and that he drew no broader lessons from it. That’s why Dean’s dodging the draft wasn’t like Bush’s dodging the draft.

That’s the point of the strong dislike for Bush’s pampered past, and it’s not the sort of thing that is neutralized by pointing out that Kerry is filthy rich. It’s interesting that Brooks doesn’t seem at all aware that this is the main point of all the criticism.

Comments Off

2004 02 22
[Effects of the war]

What are the long term political/cultural implications of the war in Iraq? Well, here’s one way to think about it, though I admit it’s just a guess. Wherever they fell on the political spectrum, most people recently had the unnerving experience of finding someone to their left whose judgment about the war – at least with respect to the prudential questions – has turned out to be more sound than their own: more sound about the evidence, about the motives of the players, about the delusional quality of much of the pro-war camp’s grand plans, and so on. (Of course, the extremely low quality of much of the anti-war commentary counts against this to a certain extent. But even people who looked like wingnuts got some stuff right, and anyway the point I’m making is mainly a sociological one. And the sociological point really turns more on general impressions than strict standards of evidence and rationality.)

I don’t mean that it’s all over. If things drammatically improve in Iraq over the next few years, then this will certainly change. But right now (and probably permanently), that’s the way things look.

It’s not often that you get that kind of clarity on a single issue which is at the absolute centre of political debate for an extended period of time. Probably the last time this happened was Vietnam, an issue which helped to gell together a whole set of instinctive reactions about the appropriate uses of US foreign policy for years, at least in the minds of a great many people.

So my guess is that the long term result of the war will be a shift – in ways both obvious and subtle – to the left in thinking about US foreign policy. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the State Department will be wearing Chomsky t-shirts, or that the grand neo-con dreams will just vanish from the scene without a trace. But it may mean that leftwing critiques which weren’t previously acceptable in the mainstream will get a more receptive hearing. Certainly it will be harder for years to come for hardliners to push the condescending line that their political opponents, they are sad to say, simply don’t understand power or the way the world works, and so on. And this will be morale sapping for defenders of “muscular” approaches to American power. This sort of thing really does seem to have the power to induce broad shifts across the political spectrum.

Just a guess.

If I’m right, then one worry might be (as Kenneth Roth recently pointed out) the long-term discrediting of humanitarian intervention. And although I think humanitarian interventions ought to be very carefully scrutinized, there are circumstances in which they are not simply acceptable, but, I think, obligatory. Rwanda falls into this category I think.

(It is true that parts of the right opposed the war, especially the libertarian right – the Cato Institute, for example, struck hard at the plans for war early and often. Still, the left dominated the dissenting party, which then gradually filled with centrists as time went on, and is now swelling to include more and more right wingers. And, again, I’m making a sociological point here, which is that a lot of people had to have noticed this. I certainly did.)

Comments Off