Monday, January 31, 2005

The perpetual insecurity of democracy

Iraq had its historic elections yesterday as millions defied death threats to turn out to vote for the first times in their lives. The votes are still being counted, but it is a mistake to think that the process of building a democratic Iraq is now complete.

That there remains much work to do is all too clear from our own example: although the framers envisioned a nation built on the principle that all men are created equal, it has taken more than two centuries and counting to realize that vision. African-Americans could not vote until after the Civil War, and it was perhaps another century before this right to vote was realized in practice, and as recent elections show, there still remains much work to do in this respect. Women did not even receive their right to vote until Woodrow Wilson was president. There is still a long way to go in perfecting the democratic process in this country. Campaign contributions are a form of legalized bribery. The impoverished education of millions deprives them of an opportunity to participate effectively in the political process and the lack of health care and day-to-day survival concerns make political participation the last thing on the minds of many of people.

As we watch the process of democracy unfold in Iraq, it is important that we all support the process, even those of us who marched against the war. Although the merits of going to war remain debatable, perhaps more so today after no weapons of mass destruction were found, history may look kindly upon the invasion as a "mistake" that worked itself out in the end. This would go especially if Iraq becomes a relatively stable Muslim democracy in the mold of Turkey. But of course this outcome is by no means guaranteed. There could well be an Islamic revolution that transforms Iraq into another Iran. Middle Eastern politics, already messy, could become even messier.

Judge Learned Hand once remarked that "the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." Iraq stand its guard, always insecure about whether democracy can survive, while pressing full steam ahead in the quest to form a more perfect democracy that treats every voice with the respect that each deserves. This development of democracy will always remain an incomplete process, just as in America, where we ourselves still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

New look

With the end of the Winter Term, I had the time to update the look of this blog for a new, sleeker look. The picture of Mr. Lincoln is in tribute to the inspiration for this blog, as was explained back in the first post. I welcome suggestions for improvement.

I will be on vacation and will not post again until Monday, January 31. In the meantime, enjoy the blog's new appearance!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Senator Clinton on abortion

Senator Hillary Clinton made headlines this week on the heels of the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade when she said that pro-choice and pro-life forces should find "common ground" to reduce unwanted pregnancies and reduce the abortion rate. Senator Clinton's comments are the continuation of her efforts to position herself as a moderate in advance of the 2008 elections. But while her tone may be conciliatory, make no mistake that she remains pro-choice. Her comments are consistent with the statements that her husband made while as president that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare."

Her political motivations aside, Senator Clinton raises the good point that we should try to find common ground; why harp on differences when doing so will only widen gulfs and make resolution less likely? Yet, abortion is not an area where there is much common ground between the pro-choice and pro-life sides. Fundamentally, the two sides are separated by ideology: the pro-life side tends to paint a picture of stark moral choices while the pro-choice side is more pragmatic, willing to wade into the messy morality that comes with working in shades of gray. Senator Clinton falls decidedly into the latter category. Observe the following comments that she made, as reported by the New York Times:
The senator [] made a nod to the values issue on Monday in praising faith-based and religious organizations for promoting abstinence.

"Research shows that the primary reason teenage girls abstain from early sexual activity is because of their religious and moral values," Mrs. Clinton said. "We should embrace this and support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do."

Mrs. Clinton made clear that she did not favor abstinence-only programs of sexual education.

"We should also recognize what works and what doesn't work and to be fair, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs," Mrs. Clinton said. "I don't think this debate should be about ideology - it should be about facts."

The last quote is ingenious. Senator Clinton claims that the debate should be about "facts," implying that those who disagree are too ideological and therefore may be dismissed from the debate. But the willingness to look to empirical evidence is itself a form of ideology. Senator Clinton's views are informed by a worldview that is more pragmatic and open to experimenting to see what works and what does not. But those who only support abstinence programs come from different ideological starting points that view other programs as illegitimate and therefore not an option in the struggle to contain unwanted pregnancies.

If Senator Clinton and pro-choice forces want to find common ground, they will have to do so on the terms of pro-life forces. This is because the pro-life side is more constrained by its ideology than the pro-choice side is, and therefore much less likely to find pro-choice strategies palatable, if at all. Senator Clinton discussed the efficiency of abstinence-only programs; were she to find such programs effective and back them, she would be able to find such common ground on pro-life terms. But she questioned whether such programs really work; if she pushes for other programs instead, she will be forced to move away from seeking common ground because the pro-life side is much less flexible in what it will accept.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Social Security indexing

Yesterday, on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, Representative Bill Thomas, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee refused to rule out the possibility of taking race and gender into account when determining Social Security benefits:

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think Congress, Mr. Chairman, would accept any formula that said that people would be treated differently because of their gender or their race?

REP. THOMAS: If we discuss it and the will is not to do it, fine. At least we discussed it. To simply raise the age and find out that you've got gender, race and occupational problems later, I would not be doing the kind of service that I think I have to do. You and I have been around quite a while. We went through the '80s. We went into the '90s. And now we're in the 21st century. We saw the choices that were made in the past. We went to the well over and over again with the same old solutions which really aren't solutions. We've reached the point where we have to fundamentally examine it in my opinion. The president has given us that opportunity. We ought to take it.

Thomas is known for being outspoken, but he likely committed a political blunder in floating this possibility and providing Democrats with an opening to score political points. This notion that benefits should turn on race and gender seems troubling given our history of invidious discrimination on the basis of those categories.

So why would Thomas even say such a thing? One possibility is that he detests Social Security and wants to sink it by any and all means possible. But something more fundamental is going on. What Thomas says actually makes sense in terms of the insurance market. As a statistical matter, if women live longer, their monthly benefits should be reduced. Similarly, if African-Americans tend not to live as long, perhaps because they as a class receive inferior health care, they should receive higher monthly benefits. (If one wants to hold benefits constant, women would have to make greater contributions and African-Americans less contributions.)

There are real questions about the viability of Social Security and whether it should exist in its current form as a redistributive program, and I do not profess to try to answer those questions in this post. But assuming that indexing on the basis of race and gender is even constitutional (and I have my doubts especially about the race aspect), this is exactly the wrong way to go about to try to fix the program. I outline below several reasons why.

The Supreme Court held this form of disparate treatment on the basis of sex inconsistent with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 in a 1978 case called City of Los Angeles, Department of Water and Power v. Manhart. The city of Los Angeles had required female employees to make larger contributions to its pension fund than male employees because female employees as a class lived longer. The Supreme Court struck down this plan as a violation of Title VII because it discriminated on the basis of sex. The principle that seems to emerge from this case is that making sweeping generalizations is inconsistent with the individualized inquiry that the statute calls for; people should not be judged on the basis of their race or sex without more, but as individuals in their own right. Social Security in fact operates much in this way; benefits received are dependent on contributions while working. The point of this individualized inquiry is that it avoids relying on stereotypes and overbroad generalizations that may not hold true for individual women or African-Americans.

Assuming that any change in Social Security would probably not conflict with Title VII (and if it did, Congress could simply amend Title VII to create an exception), the principle emanating from the Manhart case should apply in this context. The harm of classifying broadly is expressive in that it could deal a symbolic setback to the advances in civil rights over the last several decades. Although there may be real statistical differences across categories, civil rights law has never pretended that all men (and women) are created equal. This notion of equality is aspirational rather than descriptive. People are not in fact equal to one another in their talents, and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but this reality that there are differences between people does not mean that we should not treat everyone equally. Rather, we should aspire to overcome any differences that there might be between people as classes; people should not be set back (or advanced) by mere accident of their race or gender. We should seek to treat people as individuals.

Classifying on the basis of race and gender does not treat people as individuals; although this might appear to run counter to principles of the insurance market, a difficulty with indexing Social Security to race or gender is that doing so codifies certain statistical differences while ignoring others. Why race and gender, and not whether someone is a smoker? Why not go on the basis of obesity? These characteristics would seem far more pertinent in determining benefits than race or gender. Singling out race and gender while ignoring these other traits seems to suggest that sweeping generalizations are being relied on in order to avoid the hassle of making more exact determinations. Denying actuaries the ability to classify on the basis of race and gender could force them to devise tables that take into account individual characteristics such as whether they smoke (bad) or exercise (good). The result over the long run could be a better “fit” between individual characteristics and benefits.

In short, Thomas is wrong not to rule out the possibility of indexing on the basis of race and gender because he does not appreciate the setback that it might represent in our never-ending march towards a world of equality where people are considered for who they are, and not for what race or gender they happen to be.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Old times' sake

It's bound to be a slow day when the Drudge Report runs as its banner headline "Blizzard Buries Boston," and up to 40 inches of snow are predicted.

So what better time to revisit old times? Although President Bush may have just been re-elected for a second term, life in the political spotlight is often short and turnover high. Observe the following pictures, all of which were taken only a few short years ago:

Who knows, Bibi may still come back!

Are we getting nostalgic yet?

Finally, how about this whopper:

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Spongebob Squarepants

This past week, conservative Christian groups charged that a Spongebob Squarepants music video for promotes homosexuality. It is not clear what exactly about the movie that these groups say promotes homosexuality. As CNN reports, the groups are upset that the maker of the video, the nonprofit We Are Family Foundation, has a tolerance pledge on its site that asks people to respect, among other things, the sexual identities of others.

This is not the first time that cartoon characters have been targeted. More from CNN:

SpongeBob, who lives in a pineapple under the sea, was "outed" by the U.S. media in 2002 after reports that the TV show and its merchandise are popular with gays. His creator, Stephen Hillenburg, said at the time that though SpongeBob was an oddball, he thought of all the characters in the show as asexual.

It is not the first time that children's TV favorites have come under the critical spotlight of the Christian right. In 1999, the Rev. Jerry Falwell described Tinky Winky, the purse-toting purple Teletubbie, as a gay role model.

These charges seem absurd on their face. These are cartoon characters! But there are very real issues at stake that are at the heart of the culture wars that divide the reddest of the red from the bluest of the blue. Although this goes to gay rights, surprisingly, this may also speak more broadly to gender issues and the role of men and women in society.

Because none of the cartoon characters are explicitly gay, the real issue seems to be one of boundaries. The conservative Christian groups seem to envision a world where people are explicitly heterosexual or explicitly homosexual, with those in the latter category engaging in sin. This conception of sexuality in black and white terms is at odds with the biological understanding of human sexuality as existing along a continuum of bisexuality between the poles of pure heterosexuality and pure homosexuality, with people occupying positions somewhere between these two extremes. Although personal identities may be roughly correlated with one’s position on this spectrum, traditional self-identifications as either straight or gay do not map perfectly on the biology of human sexuality. One obvious reason for such rigid categories of self-identification is the stigma attached to homosexuality; those who do identify as gay may do so proudly, in defiance of that stigma.

This need to classify on the basis of either/or categories is not limited to sexuality. Society is rife with examples of dichotomies with one class receiving social preference and the other stigmatized. This is the case with race. Plessy in the infamous segregation case Plessy v. Ferguson was seven-eighths white, and yet was refused access into a whites only train cabin. Similarly, the newly minted senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, is half-white, yet is thought of as almost singularly black. Society similarly has insisted on gender classifications, with the man superior to the woman. Though there has been greater tolerance for women taking on traditionally male jobs, perhaps by working in the field of construction, and men moving into the traditionally female world, perhaps as stay at home dads, those who cross these boundaries still face discrimination. An extremely controversial law review article by Andrew Koppelman suggests that discrimination against homosexuals is really sex discrimination on the theory that society discriminates against homosexuals in order to maintain traditional gender boundaries between men and women.

There are at least two responses to these continuums. One is that such continuums are threatening and separate spheres are to be preferred. Conservative Christian groups clearly take this approach, and not just with respect to homosexuality. Many of these groups also insist on separate domains for men and women, preferrably with men taking on dominant roles and women submissive roles. Stigma operates to reinforce these either/or categories. A second, more tolerant approach is to accept that people do not always fall readily into socially defined categories and tolerate ambiguities in identities relating to race, gender and sexual orientation. Barriers between identities are broken down with the removal of stigma.

Although I prefer the second, more tolerant approach for libertarian and welfare utilitarian reasons, I harbor no illusions that I will convince those who believe that rigid categories are necessary to the healthy functioning of society. All I hope to accomplish is to encourage more well-reasoned responses that clearly explain what it is about ambiguous cartoon characters that is so troublesome.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Put on your specs

Can you imagine this being done by the Clintons?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Previewing the second term

After being sworn in for a second presidential term by Chief Justice Rehnquist, President Bush delivered an inauguration speech that was for the most part composed of flowery words with little in substance. Most speeches of this sort tend to be like that, but nonetheless there were still some revealing moments that may predict Bush's agenda over the next four years:

On democracy:
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

So why are we still doing business with corrupt countries around the world, most of all the Arab dictatorships that rely on oil for their survival? I've not seen the Bush administration do much to support democracy anywhere except in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then only for primary reasons very different from fostering the growth of democracy. I would not be surprised if Bush uses the democracy argument to intervene again somewhere in the next four years. And to think he said he was against "nation building" when he ran four years ago!

More on democracy:

America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way.

What have we done in the last four years but impose our visions of freedom on others? From Iraq to Afghanistan to free trade, the Bush administration has consistently advocated but a single conception of freedom. Whether this is the best form of freedom is another question altogether, and a very controversial one.

On social security:

In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act and the GI Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time.

To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will bring the highest standards to our schools and build an ownership society. We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance -- preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society.

By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.

The last sentence in particular comes straight out of the New Deal, when President Roosevelt proposed a second bill of rights that would have guaranteed freedom from want and fear. Do not be fooled. By simultaneously harkening back to the New Deal and laying the groundwork to "widen ownership" of retirement savings, Bush is praising social security while preparing to undermine its very foundations.On good citizenship:

In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service and mercy and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love.

I haven't heard the term "compassionate conservatism" bandied about much lately, but whenever I hear this phrase, I know that something bad is about to happen to those in need. I think only half-jokingly that rather than describe people who are genuinely compassionate, the term "compassionate conservatism" tends to describe those who are conservative with their compassion. The phrase is a way to try to soften the blow by implying that those in need will still be taken care of, but all the goodness of people's hearts won't help many of those in need. Many of the problems of those in need stem from structural factors that the private sector alone cannot solve, such as the persistence of ghettoes and the more than 40 million people without health insurance.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Senator Kerry's e-mails

I received a mass e-mail yesterday from Senator Kerry, who continues to use the list that he amassed during the presidential campaign. Although I use the term "mass e-mail," I'm tempted to call it "spam" because for goodness' sake, the campaign is over! But the e-mails do have value in that they provide for some headscratching moments. Three such moments during the reading of yesterday's e-mail:

1. Kerry opens the e-mail with the line that "I have just come back from Iraq." Maybe it is just me, but I completely missed that item in last week's news.

2. Kerry then proceeds to call for Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation. Although there is a strong case to be made for Rumsfeld to go, and Bush likely made a tactical error in committing himself right after the election to keeping him onboard, the secretary seems fairly secure in his job. At least for now.

3. Finally, why focus on Rumsfeld when Dr. Rice is today's news? This is all the more puzzling because Kerry was one of only two Democrats in committee to vote against her nomination.

His use of the e-mails and refusal to fade into the woodwork like Gore did after the election make it painfully obvious that he hasn't stopped running for the presidency. I'm not sure anyone will listen much to what Kerry has to say, because he had his chance last year and lost. Who knows, Kerry may prove relevant again, but these days, I just don't see it happening. Not with e-mails like these.

UPDATE: Shortly after the above post, I received another mass e-mail from Senator Kerry explaining his vote against Dr. Rice as an "expression of [his] determination that we hold the Bush administration accountable." An interesting line from his e-mail:

[W]e've got to remain firm in our insistence that those who create policies that don't work have the courage to admit their mistakes and the wisdom to change course. Our community has been expressing that determination in huge numbers.

For reasons I explained in a post two days ago, President Bush is unlikely to admit his mistakes. But even if the reference to a community reads like a bad joke, continued criticism may provide Bush with the "wisdom to change course."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Put on your specs

The Bush presidency in a nutshell?

(This picture ran in the New York Times today.)

Monday, January 17, 2005

President Bush's rhetoric

Over the weekend, President Bush said that the elections provided an "accountability moment" and professed to press full steam ahead with his plan in Iraq. Any mistakes that were made, he suggested, were an inevitable consequence of the fog of war. I believe his rhetoric about having a mandate and keeping a straight course is less a consequence of deeply held beliefs and more the result of political calculations.

Claiming mandates in the aftermath of bitterly divided elections is nothing new in the history of the American presidency. It is a strategy that has worked for President Bush, and there is no reason for him not to try to spend political capital that he believes he has earned. After all, if that political capital turns out not to be there, he won't have lost much in trying to spend what he doesn't have. Time will tell whether he truly has a mandate, or is already something like a lame duck.

A major theme of President Bush's campaign was that he was a man who meant what he said and a man who always stuck to his beliefs. However, there is no reason to believe that he has a better track record than anyone else. President Bush has often reversed course, from initially opposing the Department of Homeland Security and then using the issue to sink Democrats in the 2002 elections and then supporting the creation of the Department of Intelligence only after Senator Kerry endorsed the idea. On Iraq, he has recast the rationale for the military intervention from disarming Saddam Hussein to making Iraq safe for democracy.

But it probably makes good politics for President Bush to insist that he is staying the course in Iraq, even if he has had to adjust his strategy in response to the situation there. Even if Iraq has been a mistake, what is the alternative? Admit to the nation and to the world that Iraq was a mistake? Although this might be a first step towards restoring credibility on the global stage and obtaining the help of other nations on Iraq, such an admission might backfire in undercutting the foundations of whatever democracy there is in Iraq. But all this is pure speculation. Who knows, President Bush might even prove right and Iraq worth it over the long run.

One final point. President Bush parried Senator Kerry's criticisms of his handling of the war in Iraq with the charge that such attacks undermined the morale of U.S. troops, implying that the senator was being unpatriotic in questioning the handling of the war. President Bush had the right to make such a charge, and probably had no real alternatives anyway. But Senator Kerry was right to question the handling of the war, and critics today should continue to say what President Bush himself cannot say about the realities on the ground in Iraq. Ongoing debate is part of what makes a vibrant democracy and can help point the way to better strategies that President Bush may quietly incorporate into his policies all the while claiming to hold the course in Iraq.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Red and blue

AP reports that Berns Rothschild came up with the idea for COUNT ME BLUE bracelets modeled on the wildly popular yellow LIVESTRONG bands after spending 10 days in London and wishing she had a way to show people that while she may have been an American, she did not vote for President Bush. Her father, a Republican, countered witih COUNT ME RED bracelets. Together, they are donating a portion of their proceeds to UNICEF.

The value of these bracelets is probably purely expressive. Wearing these bracelets is a way for people show who they supported in the past election, though whether people will pay any attention is another question entirely. Since most people have limited attention spans, they are not likely to pay much attention to gimmicks like these until the next election cycle, especially when the 2004 election ended anticlimatically with a clear margin of victory for President Bush. Although there have been conspiracy theories about what really happened in Ohio and congressional Democrats forced debate before results were made official, for the most part there have not been the hard feelings like those that persisted after Florida in 2000, when the election dragged on for an extra 36 days.

After the Inauguration ends this week, it will be mostly back to business and there will be few reminders other than these bracelets that we ever had the election in the first place. Although the election exposed deep faults in American politics, some of these divides were superficial at best, creations of the campaigns and the national media. While red Utah and blue Massachusetts may have been on opposite ends of the spectrum, their residents share much in common, most of all in that they are all Americans and want what is best for their country, even if their visions are somewhat different. Whatever the divisions were during the election campaign, the passage of time has for the most part healed these wounds as the campaigns closed up shop, the media moved on to other news, and voters returned to living their daily lives. After such a long campaign season, probably the last thing most Americans want is to go through it all again so soon. But by 2008, we will be at it again, ready or not.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Taking stock

After about a week of blogging, I want to take a step back and think about what has worked well and what has not worked so well. Although I offer some of my own thoughts below, I invite responses suggesting ways that I might sharpen this blog.

When I recounted the inspiration for the title of this blog, I referred to Mr. Lincoln’s genius in understanding that politics has its lighter moments even when the issues are grave. I had planned to take up residence mostly in the refuge of political humor, and have been surprised that most of my daily responses have taken on a more serious tone. My attempts at the lighter side have been mostly half-hearted, with the commentary about the potential 2008 match-up between Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich and a “what were they thinking” response to Harry the Nazi and the apparently unwitting voyage of Margaret Thatcher’s son into the coup politics of Africa. I offered little in the way of interpretation, repeating in essentially unfiltered fashion what had been reported elsewhere. The one time where I think humor worked was when I offered my own spin on recent developments in recounting the history of the Department of Homeland Security. (Interestingly, comments divided along party lines: while most readers seemed to enjoy that particular post, those who I know to be Republicans were indignant at my irreverence on the subject of national security, much the way President Bush claimed that Senator Kerry was undermining morale when he criticized the situation in Iraq.)

I have been pleasantly surprised at the response I have gotten to the more serious posts. I enjoyed reading the comments, all of which were thought-provoking, and sometimes even engaging in a back-and-forth with some of the commenters. The value of this blog, if there is any, may be in that it allows me, and my readers in reacting, to voice our reactions to political developments even if ultimately it does not matter very much in the grand scheme of things what we think.

In touching upon more serious subjects, I harbor no illusions that I will change anyone’s minds. Richard Posner, a legal academic at the University of Chicago and sitting judge, wrote a book called the Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory in which he dismissed “academic moralism” -- moral theory -- as “bunk” because such debate never changes anyone’s minds, instead only hardening opinion fault lines. The only real way to change people’s opinions, he wrote, was to present empirical data. But I am skeptical that even advances in empirical knowledge can make much difference because hard data must be interpreted for it to have any meaning, and how one interprets data is dependent on that person’s pre-existing worldview. For example, suppose that a sociological study showed that legalizing gay marriage resulted in a lower rate of traditional marriages. What to do with such data is a matter of interpretation: opponents of gay marriage might point to such data to bolster their argument that gay marriage should not be permitted because it threatens the demise of the traditional family, while supporters might see such data as supporting their side on the basis that the traditional model of the family was repressive in that people were pushed in that direction because there were no socially acceptable alternatives. In this way, it is unlikely that such empirical observations really resolve any disputes because they require interpretation to have any value and, once interpreted, can be used as ammunition by those committed to their views.

But even if I don’t change any minds, I still hope that I can challenge my readers to think more critically about current events, and that they in turn will force me to sharpen my own arguments. This has been a great learning experience for me, and I hope it has been for you as well.

Friday, January 14, 2005

British princes

The following can only be placed under the heading of "what the hell were they thinking?":

Prince Harry dressed up like a Nazi for a private party and his picture is taken, resulting in uproars around the world. He donned the costume two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Although Prince Harry probably only had poor taste, he should have known better and realized that as a public figure, there is no such thing as a purely private affair. And as such a public figure, he should conduct himself as if everyone will learn of everything he does, and this incident was an unfortunate lapse in that respect.

And now for something that really is a headscratcher:

Although Sir Mark Thatcher is not a prince, he the son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He pled guilty this week to unwittingly helping to bankroll a botched coup plot in Equatorial Guinea, a country rich in oil. Given the obscurity of Equatorial Guinea in the otherwise generally neglected continent of Africa, it is hard to believe that he really was so innocent. Really what the hell was he thinking?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The evolution of science

The ACLU today prevailed in federal court against a Georgia school district that had put stickers in high school biology textbooks calling evolution at best a theory. The stickers read:
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.

Although the federal judge was probably correct that by denigrating evolution, the school district was endorsing creationism or variants thereof even if it did not explicitly say so, isn't this sticker right? Isn't evolution in fact a theory that remains to be improved upon, even if it has been largely accepted by the scientific community? Science, at least good science, is inherently skeptical, even when it comes to apparent scientific truths. What were once accepted as truths are often revised after new findings lead to new layers of understanding.

The real problem is not that the sticker urged an open mind -- which after all is good science -- but that it targeted only evolution. All science textbooks should come with such stickers to remind students that an open mind is the most important component of a good scientific mind and that what today seems like truth may be ridiculed tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Last Sunday, the Islamic Government of Sudan reached a peace agreement with a Christian rebel group based in the southern part of the country. Although this deal offers hope in tentatively ending one civil war in the embattled country, the conflict in Darfur continues.

The genocide at Darfur ranks as one of the worst human rights disasters, but few have paid much attention. One particularly telling moment occurred during the first presidential debate on Sept. 30, 2004 between President Bush and Senator Kerry, when both men veered off subject to talk about other issues while supposedly on the topic of Darfur:
LEHRER: New question, two minutes.

Senator Kerry, you mentioned Darfur, the Darfur region of Sudan. Fifty thousand people have already died in that area. More than a million are homeless. And it's been labeled an act of ongoing genocide. Yet neither one of you or anyone else connected with your campaigns or your administration that I can find has discussed the possibility of sending in troops.

Why not?

[Kerry had thrown out a line about there being genocide in Darfur when on the question of whether there might be a need for more U.S. military interventions around the globe.]

KERRY: Well, I'll tell you exactly why not, but I first want to say something about those sanctions on Iran.

Only the United States put the sanctions on alone, and that's exactly what I'm talking about.

In order for the sanctions to be effective, we should have been working with the British, French and Germans and other countries. And that's the difference between the president and me.

And there, again, he sort of slid by the question.

Now, with respect to Darfur, yes, it is a genocide. And months ago, many of us were pressing for action.

I think the reason that we're not saying send American troops in at this point is severalfold.

Number one, we can do this through the African Union, providing we give them the logistical support. Right now all the president is providing is humanitarian support. We need to do more than that. They've got to have the logistical capacity to go in and stop the killing. And that's going to require more than is on the table today.

I also believe that it is -- one of the reasons we can't do it is we're overextended.

Ask the people in the armed forces today. We've got Guards and Reserves who are doing double duties. We've got a backdoor draft taking place in America today: people with stop-loss programs where they're told you can't get out of the military; nine out of our 10 active duty divisions committed to Iraq one way or the other, either going, coming or preparing.

So this is the way the president has overextended the United States.

That's why, in my plan, I add two active duty divisions to the United States Army, not for Iraq, but for our general demands across the globe. I also intend to double the number of special forces so that we can do the job we need to do with respect fighting the terrorists around the world. And if we do that, then we have the ability to be able to respond more rapidly.

But I'll tell you this, as president, if it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I'd be prepared to do it because we could never allow another Rwanda.

It's the moral responsibility for us and the world.

LEHRER: Ninety seconds.

BUSH: Back to Iran, just for a second.

It was not my administration that put the sanctions on Iran. That happened long before I arrived in Washington, D.C.

In terms of Darfur, I agree it's genocide. And Colin Powell so stated.

We have committed $200 million worth of aid. We're the leading donor in the world to help the suffering people there. We will commit more over time to help.

We were very much involved at the U.N. on the sanction policy of the Bashir government in the Sudan. Prior to Darfur, Ambassador Jack Danforth had been negotiating a north-south agreement that we would have hoped would have brought peace to the Sudan.

I agree with my opponent that we shouldn't be committing troops. We ought to be working with the African Union to do so -- precisely what we did in Liberia. We helped stabilize the situation with some troops, and when the African Union came, we moved them out.

My hope is that the African Union moves rapidly to help save lives. And fortunately the rainy season will be ending shortly, which will make it easier to get aid there and help the long-suffering people there.

Although the United States has pledged significant aid, it is unclear that such aid will have much impact as long as the war continues. Pledging troops is not a realistic possibility, not only because the U.S. military is already overextended, but also because Africa is not high on the world's priority list. Had this conflict been in Europe instead, we would have likely sent troops by now. Rwanda should have been a wakeup call the way the Holocaust was in Europe, but Darfur shows that this has not been the case. This neglect of Africa is unfortunate, and the continent's plight will likely continue unabated until the world really starts paying attention.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Department of Homeland Security: A History

President Bush today announced that he was nominating Michael Chertoff to head the Department of Homeland Security. After the debacle with Bernard Kerik, it is a safe bet that the Bush administration thoroughly vetted Chertoff before announcing his nomination (note to future presidents: you know when your nominee is in trouble when you wish he had only nanny problems). Whether Chertoff proves to be a good pick will depend on whether he has the administrative skills both to run a large department and to work with other departments (including the soon to be created Department of Intelligence).

On the lighter side, some observations about the progression of the men who have headed, would have headed and will head the department:

Maybe Bush thought that bureaucracy would scare away the terrorists so he created a new department and installed Tom Ridge, who looks the part of the ubiquitous bureaucrat.

After Ridge announced he was stepping down, Bush must have decided that it was now time for phase two of the war on terrorism, that it was time to show that we really meant business (the M&Ms alerts must not have been terrifying enough). Kerik looked macho enough, a guy you wouldn’'t dare mess with or else he would pin you to the ground (that he looked vaguely like Jesse Ventura didn'’t hurt).

After Kerik was exposed as a joke of the highest order, Bush must have decided that macho was out but that it was still important that the new secretary personally be able to scare away the terrorists. Chertoff looks evil. Who knows, his eyes may even be able to penetrate the mountains of Tora Bora and conclude that game of Where’s Osama. I'm just glad Chertoff is on our side.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The myth of the unbiased reporter

CBS News today fired four staffers that played key roles in the airing during the presidential campaign of the since-discredited report about President Bush's military service during the Vietnam War. Although serious ethical issues were implicated if the staffers knew or had reason to suspect that the report was false, the firings cannot restore the status of CBS News as a source of unbiased news because it is impossible for any media outlet to be objective.

The argument that major newspapers and television networks should be objective assumes that objectivity is possible. This objectivity is not possible even if reporters make every effort to present all sides. The very decision to decide what to cover in the face of potentially infinite topics out there requires judgment that will necessarily incorporate reference to values about what is important and what is not. Media outlets, when deciding what to cover, may decide on the basis of who they think their audience is, what is important to this audience, and what they think their audience should know. Throw in the competition for coverage by those who would be covered, and the process becomes even more subjective. These factors are further influenced by social circumstances: how these judgments are made will differ across the country and around the world. In this way, the New York Times' motto that it prints everything fit for print is circular because it tells us nothing about how it decides what to run.

Media outlets should come clean and drop all pretense of objectivity. Even when they try to balance coverage, they should try to unsettle the expectations of readers that their coverage will be objective. While such outlets may never be purely objective, openly making their readers uncomfortable may actually achieve something closer to the objectivity the outlets seek by forcing readers to think about where their news comes from. Although running explanations justifying each article might be overly cumbersome, general mission statements may go a long way towards clarifying for readers why the coverage was presented in the way that it was.

This goes especially for Foxnews, which has been the butt of many jokes for trying to have its cake and eat it too by claiming to present fair and balanced coverage while also targeting a conservative audience. Were it to drop this pretense of objectivity, it would do the country a great service in making clear the source of its values and promoting discussion about the validity of these first principles. And in so doing, Foxnews could lead the way in restoring public perception of reporter integrity.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Let's restrain the optimism

Early returns suggest that Mahmoud Abbas captured about 65 percent of the Palestinian vote in the elections to succeed Yasir Arafat. Although Abbas' election has been seen as the best hope for peace in years on the theories that Abbas is a more reliable partner than was Arafat and that Israel and the United States have been willing to deal with him in a manner that they would not with Arafat, I'm doubtful that there are any prospects for permanent peace on the immediate horizon.

Politicians are limited by their constituencies; it is unclear to me how Abbas' election is going to achieve permanent peace when Palestinian children are taught to hate the Jews and Sharon can hardly pull out of Gaza without his own government collapsing. Extreme Palestinian and Israeli factions do not want to share the land and will go to almost any length to prevent that from happening, whether it is in the form of suicide bombers or settlements.

Although we should always be cautiously optimistic lest the despair result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, I worry that unbridled optimism will raise expectations too high, with anything less deemed a failure and therefore cause for more violence. Better to be pleasantly surprised than to be bitterly disappointed.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Apocalypse 2008?

If you thought the nation was polarized during the 2004 elections, just wait Hillary goes up in 2008 against potentially none other than a certain former congressman from Georgia:
Newt Gingrich is taking steps toward a potential presidential bid in 2008 with a book criticizing President Bush's policies on Iraq and a tour of early campaign states.

The former House speaker who led Republicans to power a decade ago said he soon will visit Iowa and New Hampshire to promote his book, try to influence public policy and keep his political options alive.

"Anything seems possible," including a White House race, Gingrich told The Associated Press.

What ever happened to "that" woman anyway?

Friday, January 07, 2005

Why poys?

The famous debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas dealt at great length with the grave subjects of the day, not the least of which was slavery. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the debates had their lighter moments, including this excerpt:
Mr. Lincoln: Now, gentlemen, I hate to waste my time on such things; but in regard to that general Abolition tilt that Judge Douglas makes, when he says that I was engaged at that time in selling out and Abolitionizing the old Whig party, I hope you will permit me to read a part of a printed speech that I made then at Peoria, which will show altogether a different view of the position I took in that contest of 1854.

Voice: "Put on your specs."

Mr. Lincoln: Yes, sir, I am obliged to do so; I am no longer a young man [laughter].

Part of Mr. Lincoln'’s genius was that he understood that politics does not have to take itself too seriously, even if it sometimes does. Politicians are as much media figures as are Hollywood stars, and are prone to just as many foibles, if not more. Partisan bickering is always fun to watch, even if it is sometimes painful, as is also the case when politicians spin so fast that the folly of it all can reach dizzying heights and knowing who said what or who really believes what can sometimes become a little unclear, as when it came to what Mr. Lincoln actually said at Peoria when he came up in 1854.

Looking to politics as a source of comic relief can be a form of ironic detachment. I often feel that I follow politics merely for personal consumption, just as much as the next person might read Sports Illustrated or Good Housekeeping. I say this because there is nothing I can do about most of the events that get front page coverage. There is nothing I can do about the more than 40 million people in this country who lack health insurance, nothing I can do about the violent crime rate, nothing I can do about the endangered species. There i’s even less than I can do on the global stage. There’s nothing I can do about Iraq, nothing I can do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and nothing I can do about AIDS in Africa. Although I might be able to write a check every now and then and maybe contribute to local problems that slip under the radar of the national media, by and large, I feel a sense of distance from the events I read about in the New York Times. Regardless of whether this is due to problems of collective action or political access, our roles often seem marginal and political humor may be one of few ways of responding to the utter insignificance of the roles we play in politics that many of us may feel. Although there is nothing funny about many of these problems, putting on our specs can be a form of relief.

This blog will sometimes offer serious thoughts, but more often than not will be on the lighter side. Although I’'m fairly liberal, I will try to be an equal-opportunity offender (though the endangered status of Democrats in Washington may force me to make fun of Republicans a bit more than I would like). Most entries will be about politics, though it is possible that some will also be about law school, an institution in its own right with politics both ideological and petty in nature.

A final word. My observation of other blogs is that successful ones are updated on a fairly regular basis, while failed blogs have initial spurts of activity and then quickly die out. I will make every effort to post on a daily basis, even if it is only to offer a quick thought. There will be guest bloggers on those days when I cannot post.

I hope you enjoy this blog.