Left Blogistan

2007 07 18
On the call for more of the same old rhetoric

Norm links approvingly to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on rhetorical responses to terrorism, the upshot of which is that Western leaders fail to engage in enough moral denunciation of terrorism, eschewing this for practical and “logistics-heavy rhetoric about getting to the bottom of each case.” Norm remarks: “Merely to read his proposal brings home how rare a language of forthright public condemnation of terrorist politics now is.”

This strikes me as mostly silly. The most obvious feature of, say, British and U.S. political leader’s responses to terrorism over the last six years has been a cynical attempt to exacerbate and exploit hysteria about possible future attacks in order to push unrelated agendas. If people are now coming to favour a more measured and practical approach to terrorism, surely this ranks as the most obvious reason for it, as opposed to, say, political correctness, which the author puts at the top of his list of explanations. And, contra the author of the piece, we’ve seen plenty of morally loaded language, much of it from bad politicians pursuing rotten agendas who want to obscure that rottenness by fulminating vaguely about evil and whatnot. Neither Norm nor the author bothers to mention the contraction of civil liberties in the U.S., the dishonest selling of the Iraq War, or the massively expanded use of torture and extraordinary rendition by the United States — all policies defended explicitly and repeatedly by hysterical appeals to the threat and insincere and hypocritical moralizing about its nature. I’m guessing these things made a bigger difference to public attitudes than the fear of offending terrorists.
Add to this the fact that terrorists want to terrorize, and one way of thwarting them is to not get too ruffled (which is perfectly compatible with taking the threat seriously). And so on.

Just to be clear, if you want to denounce terrorists as morally reprehensible, by all means go ahead. But it’s pretty weird to offer an analysis of people’s responses to political rhetoric that ignores the political context in which the rhetoric is employed. The context here involves the repeated abuse of the rhetorical tropes in question, so I hardly think it’s irrelevant.

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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 01 07
War and Peace, Horn of Africa Edition

I’m getting to it a little late, but allow me to direct your attention to this post by Timothy Burke.

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2006 06 01
Rhetoric and Sympathy

I think Yglesias makes a point in this post that could also be directed at the Euston Manifesto folks. The latter tend to treat left-wing rhetoric as though it were issued into a vacuum, free of any particular political context. I’ve complained about this before.

Update: Many thanks to Norm for his comments.

Let me try to clarify, since this was an awfully brief post. I’m not trying to say that we ought to refrain from all criticism of Iran simply because the Bush administration would love the chance to attack it. And I’m also (obviously?) not trying to say that we should limit our criticisms to our own governments. As a Canadian living the States, I’ve been both very critical of the U.S. government, and also of a lot of other countries (including Iran) in the course of my blogging. And rightly so.

Rather, I meant to make the modest point that context really does matter sometimes. It does matter that the U.S. would love a war with Iran now, that if war gets closer there will be a mounting propaganda campaign to highlight abuses in Iran, that the abuses will be cited as reasons in favour of war. In such a political context, statements about the badness of the regime in Iran will tend to play a role in political discourse that they would not otherwise play.

Now, Norm points out that they needn’t play that role. He’s right. Part of my point was simply that a responsible critic will want to be careful about this.

So if you want to slag Iran, by all means, go ahead. In case anyone is wondering what a secular, atheist, hedonist, feminist like myself thinks of Iran, well, I think it sounds like a horrifying place to live. From the start the regime has been bent on imposing a lifestyle which is, I think, objectively inferior to the one I prefer. It is as a feminist that I find the set of values imposed especially revolting. And anyway, even if the values imposed were reasonable, the manner in which they’re imposed on Iranian citizens seems to me to treat adults as if they were children.

Fair enough. So slag away, with no more than a gentle reminder from me about the political context in which you’re doing it. Let me just insist a bit more firmly on a distinct point, and one which I was really aiming at the Euston Manifesto folks. Remember that lots of people (especially on the left) will be nervous about the possibility of a war with Iran, and they will be especially sensitive to the kinds of considerations I mentioned above about political context. They have good reason to be sensitive, especially after the cynical use the Bush administration made of humanitarian concerns about Iraq. If war with Iran becomes more likely, they may reasonably consider that their hands are already full trying to prevent the war – too full to go on and on about the wretchedness of the regime. If you actually want to understand, engage with, and learn from these people, you’ll do well to consider that their silence or relative silence on the barbarities of the Iranian regime stems from these sorts of reasonable anxieties, rather than from indifference, parochialism, anti-American hysteria, self-hatred, or moral relativism.

I aimed this point at the EM folks not because I wanted them to stop talking about evil regimes that the U.S. also considers evil so much as that I think that as a group they tend to systematically misinterpret a lot of left wing discourse. They’ve done this repeatedly in the case of the debate over Iraq, so I thought it would be nice to avoid it if we’re going to have a debate over Iran. That’s really the point I was trying to make: I’ve nothing against slagging Iran. It’s all the inevitable pissing and moaning about how evil [edited: large parts of] the rest of the left is for not joining in that gets my back up.

Hope that’s clearer that what I originally wrote.

Howls of outrage (6)

2006 05 12

Posted by in: Left Blogistan

Today, Norm profiles Jonathan Edelstein, probably the most shockingly well-informed person I’ve ever had a beer with. If you don’t know Edelstein’s blog and you find “democratization and rule of law in developing countries, comparative diasporas and minorities, international law and legal history” interesting, you ought to head over and give it a try.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 05 10
The Euston Manifesto on humanitarian intervention

I wanted to write something long and thoughtful here about the Euston Manifesto, but I keep running out of time, so perhaps it’s best just to go at it piecemeal when the mood strikes.

Today, Norm responds to the criticism that the Manifesto is crypto-imperialist and crypto-colonialist:

The support for the aforementioned interventions [i.e., in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq] by the people Wheatcroft is talking about was based on human rights and just war considerations, not on empire-building ones. Indeed, the very principles informing that support rule out support for imperialism, even a putatively ‘progressive’ imperialism. Self-determination and political independence for all peoples is one of the basic rights we Eustonians defend.

[. . .]

There’s a difference between an imperial project that seeks to build an empire ruled by a superpower, and an internationalist politics that regards human rights as universal and inviolable – and, beyond a certain threshold of human suffering, as rendering the claim to national sovereignty forfeit and justifying outside intervention.

I think a lot of the criticism (and defence) of the Euston Manifesto has been heated in an unproductive way, so I’ll try to stick to being heated in productive ways.

Whatever the merits of Wheatcroft’s argument, I think there is something to the worry that the Euston Manifesto, and the larger political movement it’s a part of (the so-called Decent left), plays unwittingly into an imperialist project. The movement would be stronger, and its defence of its core principles far more convincing, if it took more care to avoid that, or at least its appearance.

For now, just let me illustrate that with the Euston Manifesto’s position on humanitarian intervention:

Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the “common life” of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a “responsibility to protect”.

I think this is easily read as a very strong, or even absolute, claim about the necessity to intervene in such circumstances, but Norm later clarified the point that, on his understanding at least, this paragraph identifies only a prima facie duty to intervene.

Either way, two things seem to be missing here. First, it seems to me that the main theoretical challenge facing a proponent of military humanitarian intervention today is to specify restrictions on the parties who may legitimately intervene in such circumstances. The document vaguely gestures at the international community as the relevant actors, but in practice, of course, it’s rarely that simple. It’s typically powerful, and highly imperfect, actors with agendas of their own – agendas which may well conflict with the very goals set by the humanitarian intervention. This was the point of my repeatedly asking, back in the day, whether Iran would be justified in invading Iraq on a humanitarian pretext (the obvious answer being “no”). Failing to address this problem in any serious way really helps provide ideological window dressing to an imperialist project in retrospect (Iraq), and to God only knows what imperialist projects in prospect (Syria? Iran?).

The second (related) thing missing is some recognition that the view of humanitarian intervention set down here was very recently cynically misused by the U.S. to defend it’s imperialist project in Iraq. This does not mean that there is necessarily anything wrong with the principles articulated in the EM. But it seems to me that the practical problem currently facing any defender of these principles is to try to detach in some way what is valuable in the principles from their recent and very cynical abuse in the defence of an imperialist project. Failing to address this problem in any serious way really does contribute to the appearance that what is going on here is a sly defence of an imperialist project.

Now look. I accept that this is just a manifesto, that it doesn’t have time to spell out every little point, and that it was formulated very broadly at some points in an attempt to find common ground among very different views. But still. The bloody thing has room for a paragraph on open source software (which is great!!!), so it should damn well have made room for these points. At least, if I were interested in trying to reach out to the rest of the left in defence of this view of humanitarian intervention, I would be very anxious to a) demonstrate some recognition that the issue of intervention requires serious thought about interveners as well as intervenees, and b) distinguish myself very clearly from people who have given some of my views a very bad name. Cause there are lots of decent, well-intentioned people here on the left who get awfully jumpy now when we hear this stuff.

Now you could deny that the U.S. project in Iraq was an imperialist project. But you’d be wrong, and that would be another way you could be accused of supporting an imperialist project. At any rate, there’s more to be said on this point, particularly the way that the EM frames the occupation of Iraq. But I’m really tired now, and this post is sloppy enough as it is.

Howls of outrage (10)

2006 04 25
“You can’t make this stuff up.”

Posted by in: Left Blogistan

Dear Josh,

Please find a new stock phrase.


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2006 03 04
Blair and God

Natalie Bennett is not impressed with Tony Blair:

Our dangerous, religious, Prime Minister

Tony Blair says “god will judge” his decision to go to war in Iraq.

“If you have faith about these things then you realise that judgement is made by other people. If you believe in God,it’s made by God as well.” His remarks, made in an interview to be shown on ITV’s Parkinson show tonight.

Odd, really – I thought that he had been elected by voters – the citizens and residents of Great Britain, not by a small collection of cardinals, or indeed by the “hand of God”. And since those voters elected him, you’d think he should be worrying about their verdict on his decisions – not some “inner voice”.

I’ve thought for a long time that the messianic gleam all too frequently spotted in Blair’s eyes has been a serious worry, and this only goes to prove it. Such a pity that you can’t just ban religious fanatics from politics.

. . .

Once again the Prime Minister refused to answer when asked if he prayed for guidance before taking the decision to go to war. But given the general tenor of his remarks the conclusion that he did can hardly be avoided. So great, a key decision is made because a voice in the PM’s head told him it should be war. There are other words for that …

As an anti-war atheist, I’m not terribly impressed with Blair or his belief that God will judge the war to have been a good idea. And as a liberal of a certain sort, I do think that providing religion reasons for political positions in the public sphere is a tricky business indeed. Very briefly that’s because religion reasons aren’t the kinds of reasons that we can reasonably expect others to share. In the political sphere we often try to offer our opponents reasons they can reasonably be expected to share, and procede to construct our arguments from that point. At least we do if we’re my sort of liberal. But having said all that, I don’t think that Bennett is right in the bit I’ve quoted.

First, all Blair needs to get his position to fly is the claim that there is such a thing as being right or wrong about an issue independently of what anyone thinks. Since I believe that the Iraq War would have been wrong even if it had had the support of 90% of the people, I’m committed to this claim as much as Blair is. Sometimes unpopular decisions are the right ones. Of course, Blair puts this point in terms of God’s judgement, but in this context that just amounts to saying “really, in fact, right.” God isn’t being appealed to here to back up the claim that the Iraq War was right. Rather, he seems to mean that there’s some other standard for judging these matters than what the latest opinion polls say.

[Update: That needs more care than I’ve given it. I don’t mean that it’s just fine and dandy to simply ignore public opinion. But all the same, the fact that public opinion swings against a position also doesn’t automatically mean that it’s wrong. And sometimes we do admire politicians for taking unpopular positions.]

OK, now what about praying for guidance? Big whup, I say. Decisions like the one that Blair made take their inspiration from all kinds of sources, and it’s pretty obvious that Blair made this particular decision for all kinds of reasons (many quite bad, I’m sure). As far as I can tell, often when people pray, it’s a bit like consulting their conscience or wondering what to do. Prayer can be an expression of humility, or part of an honest attempt to figure out the right thing. Lots of people do it all the time. Surely it’s unreasonable, unfair, and insulting to write off all these people as “hearing voices in their heads.”

(And just to be clear: Of course there’s no God and of course the Iraq War was a terrible idea.)

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 12 18
Praise and blame

I have an enormous backlog of comments to make about Normblog, but no time or energy to do much about it. Plus, I have a pretty serious conflict of interest since Norm bought me a coffee on his last trip to NYC and I’m angling for another if he ever returns. Still, here’s a quick point about this:

Through gritted teeth:
Opponents of the war in Iraq may be irritated at the triumphal notes emanating from Washington and London after Thursday’s peaceful election. George Bush – who mentioned the word “victory” no less than 15 times in a recent speech – called the event “historic”. Tony Blair went for “extraordinary and inspiring”. The adjectives are not incorrect.

Not incorrect. Naturally, however, amongst the many qualifications that follow there’s one to the effect that if there were to be a good outcome not much credit would be due to those who cleared the way for it by removing the Baathist regime. Funny how the discredit for everything that has gone wrong does seem to be wholly theirs. It’s called making a balance sheet, you know.

I’m not sure if I understand Norm correctly here. For one thing, the “wholly” makes the position that Norm is arguing against quite extreme, and obviously indefensible. Indeed, I doubt very much that many people actually believe that the Bush/Blair crew is literally wholly responsible for everything that has happened, even if they tend for various reasons to save most of their energy and scorn for the Bush/Blair crew. So perhaps the position I want to defend isn’t a position that Norm is trying to argue against.

But anyway, what I’m interested in here is the idea – if Norm means to suggest it – that we ought to give Bush credit for positive results of the invasion as much as blame for the negative results, since by being responsible for the invasion he’s responsible for both sets of consequences. Sometimes we do indeed hold people equally to the good and bad consequences of their actions. But if there’s a valid general principle lurking somewhere around here, it’s application is going to be tricky business.

Suppose I maliciously shove John, and he accidentally falls into the path of Jane, putting her attempted bank robbery to an end*. In that case we’re not likely to heap praise on me for stopping Jane but blame me for maliciously shoving John. That’s because, whether we’re thinking about my character or about the character of the action, our praise and blame typically take into consideration my intentions, as well as the consequences of my action.

Pragmatic considerations may also guide our decisions about praise and blame, apart from any considerations about character or intention. Suppose that I am a well-meaning guy, but also so clumsy that my attempts to help others often end in their injury or death. Suppose that this leads to my having a reputation. Bystanders have seen me guide a little old lady unwittingly into the path of a bus while attempting to help her across the street; they have seen me drop a baby down the stairs in the subway while attempting the good deed of carrying a baby cart for someone; etc. But one day, although I am growing discouraged with my good samaritanism, I actually succeed in helping someone across the street without his being injured. Now, in this case, it would be reasonable for people to be cautious about praising me much at all. Everyone can see that I’ve finally managed to do something right, no one regrets it, and everyone can see that my intentions have been good all along. But given my track-record it would be reckless to praise me: praise at this point might encourage and empower me to “help” even more people, and it’s probably best for everyone, or almost everyone, in the long run if I just stop trying.

Now, I’m trying to make a few really basic and general points about the logic of praise and blame here. I’m not going to bother to tie them back again to the question of Iraq and the Bush/Blair crew. To do that, I would need to say a lot about the relevant characters, intentions and effects. But of course I do think that a clear view of the relevant characters, intentions and effects would support our giving no, or very little, credit to the Bush/Blair crew for any good that comes of the Iraq war, and an awful lot of blame for the bad effects. And there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about that. Moreover, while I would try to give credit where it’s due if I thought much credit were due to Bush, I wouldn’t want to dwell on it much. He’s done so much harm already, and the last thing I would want to do is encourage him to “help” even more people.

* Assume for the sake of argument that robbing a bank is morally wrong.

UPDATE: Norm is not convinced that the cases I’ve given apply to the Iraq War. That’s understandable, since I haven’t given him any reason to think that they do. My only ambition in this post was to make the point that it isn’t necessarily inconsistent or incoherent to withhold praise for the good consequences of an act or policy while laying on the blame thick – as I thought Norm might be suggesting, and as I thought Norm might have suggested in the past but couldn’t be bothered to double-check. At any rate, I think the point I’ve made in the post was worth making since it blocks any quick and easy criticism of the Bush/Blair critics who do this, since the quick and easy criticism seems to rest on the (false) general principle. Of course, the Bush/Blair critics have their work to do too, since sometimes it is inconsistent to withhold praise and direct blame in this way.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 10 28
Bizzaro World Belle on SSM

I find opposition to same-sex marriage so infuriating that I usually just want to walk away from a debate about the issue before I punch someone in the nose. (See here and here, for slightly more restrained statements of my opinion.) Still, I think Belle Waring’s exercise of attempting to develop as sympathetic as possible a view of the anti-SSM position is a very helpful one. If I weren’t so pressed for time, I would actually address the points she makes. Since I am pressed for time, let me just make this far more modest point: She really has nothing at all to apologize for. A really important part of thinking about an issue is sympathetically reconstructing various positions you disagree with. And I think the way she engaged in the exercise was spirited, but it wasn’t flip or casual or mean-spirited.

Indeed, I think the blogosphere would be a better place if everyone were obliged to write at least one bizzaro world post for every five regular posts on any given subject.

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2005 07 07
Why Does She get a Seat at the Table?

Remember Anne-Marie Slaughter? In 2003, as the war on Iraq was getting geared up, she was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton (maybe she still is). In a New York Times op-ed (scroll to the bottom) published March 18, 2003, Slaughter argued that since NATO’s bombing of Kosovo was justified even though it wasn’t authorized by the UN Security Council, maybe just maybe Bush’s invasion of Iraq could be justified too.:

So, how can United Nations approval come about? Soldiers would go into Iraq. They would find irrefutable evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime possesses weapons of mass destruction. Even without such evidence, the United States and its allies can justify their intervention if the Iraqi people welcome their coming and if they turn immediately back to the United Nations to help rebuild the country.

The United Nations…cannot be a straitjacket, preventing nations from defending themselves or pursuing what they perceive to be their vital national security interests.

That is the lesson that the United Nations and all of us should draw from this crisis. Overall, everyone involved is still playing by the rules [because they all saw some reason (moral? prudential? whatever..) to involve the UN]. But depending on what we find in Iraq, the rules may have to evolve, so that what is legitimate is also legal.

So the rightness of bombing Kosovo is assumed without argument; Iraq’s posing a threat to the US’s “vital national security interests” is a reasonable possibility; and even if there was no reason before the war to fear Iraq, our finding something after the invasion can serve as a post hoc argument justifying the invasion itself. Remember, she was a dean at Princeton. Amazing.

But now I learn that Slaughter has acquired a seat at the table over at TPM CAFE. And when I saw that she had a post up about today’s London bombings, my curiosity got the better of me. Sadly, not much has changed:

After all the predictions of apocalyptic terrorism, the assurances that we are in a new era in which al Qaeda�s chief goal must be to top its last attack in drama and number of deaths (hence the overriding likelihood that it will try to acquire and use a weapon of mass destruction), we seem to be back to fairly ordinary � albeit horrible � bombings of transport systems.

For many Europeans, however, the lesson of London will be to prove what they have been saying ever since 9/11: that all Americans overreacted to the 9/11 attacks and have forced fighting terrorism to the top of the global agenda as a result, when in fact, 9/11 was just another version of the kinds of attacks Europeans have been living with for decades � bad, but not worth �a war on terror� however prosecuted. For this group, the G-8 agenda of fighting poverty, disease, and climate change is the real global security agenda. I don�t think Americans of either party are prepared to go quite that far.

In fact, however, the experience of being physically together during a terrorist attack in a major global capital is likely to remind the world�s leaders…of their common responsibilities to protect their people and of the values they share.

OK, admitted: this bombing was a “fairly ordinary” bombing. What does that say about how this war on terror is going? Slaughter seems to think it reflects success, however modest. I’m not so sure. And how many Europeans are you aware of who really think that the events of September 11 were “bad, but not worth ‘a war on terror’ however prosecuted“? The fact is that there are wars on terror and wars on terror. One way to fight a war on terror is to remove those features of the world that are both morally abhorrent and causes of terrorism. Unfortunately for Slaughter, such features include things like dropping bombs on Kosovo when dropping bombs will only make matters worse, and bombing, invading and brutally occupying an Arab country that posed no threat to any nation’s security.

Many of the demonstrators at the G8 certainly are demonstrating against real causes of terrorism. Is it really controversial that the United States’ foreign policy is part of a larger project to retain the US’s global dominance in every respect, militarily, politically, and economically? The reason why so many Europeans (and others) are not aboard on the US’s “war on terrorism” and so many Americans are is that Americans are the only ones who believe US political elites when they claim that “war is always our last resort.” Bullshit. War is the last resort for the US when all others prove too inefficient to secure continued US domination of natural resources, economic markets, and general global political compliance. If you want to know what I’m talking about and don’t already, spend some time reading around Znet and Counterpunch. And if the mention of those websites sends chills down your spine, then nothing I’ve got to say is going to sway you. I’m just too tired these days to start from the beginning.

So why does Anne-Marie Slaughter have a seat at the table over at TPM Cafe? I know Josh Marshall is a genuinely good guy and journalist, and that many other contributors to his new venture are too. But c’mon, Slaughter is a hack and an an apologist who ignores or deems irrelevant the most pertinent (and commonsensical) reasons to question US foreign policy. Perhaps, however, that’s just what we can come to expect from an eminently able, connected, and powerful journalist who has decided to expend considerable energy and attention on the dubious dealings of some second-rate congressman. Then again, I fear we’re all going to come to regret how little attention we paid to the real causes of the hopelessness that feeds the desperate resort to terrorism.[1]

[1]Yes, yes, I know: even if the US’s policies were as virtuous as I would like them to be, there might well still be people ready and willing to fly planes into buildings. But if you think that is a reason to refuse to make any changes that would significantly lower the chances that terrorism will be resorted to, then I wish you luck in your studies at the Donald Rumsfeld School of Tank Armament:

If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and a tank can be blown up.

Howls of outrage (14)

2005 06 18
Small World

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Left Blogistan

Today I helped him move to Brooklyn. After we had unpacked the van, I introduced myself to the two people present that I hadn’t met before. A few moments of conversation later, I discovered I was talking to her. Everyone else there was a jazz musician, so no one could figure out why I suddenly started acting star-struck. Cool!

I’ve met a few other bloggers before, but this is my first completely random blogger encounter.

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2005 06 08

Just for the record, I wish that Amnesty International hadn’t used the word “gulag” recently in criticizing the U.S.’s detention and extraordinary rendition practices. It’s not a helpful comparison. It’s not crucial to the good work the organization does publicizing the truth. And it’s allowed apologists for torture to distract attention from the main issue.

A lot of liberal/left bloggers are busy now pointing out that most of the people making these points are apologists for the Bush administration. And so they are. Indeed, it is not hard to make fun of these raving fuckwits. But I am not a raving fuckwit (you have to imagine me saying this in a Nixon voice), and I hope that a quick perusal of my archives will establish that I’m not a supporter of the Bush administration. And yet I’m still pretty sure that using the word “gulag” was a mistake. It’s not the kind of mistake you’d want to devote a new cycle to, or that you’d want to make the focus of all the coverage of this issue. But I do think it is a mistake worth briefly acknowledging before we return to our regularly scheduled horror at what America has become, and is becoming.

Howls of outrage (3)

2005 05 19

Do you read Bradford Plummer? Why not?

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2005 05 09
Blogs have changed everything

At long last, let the silenced voices be heard.

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