Friday, October 19, 2007

Mukasey Confirmed

Michael B. Mukasey has not yet been confirmed as Attorney General, but his most recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (on 10/18/2007) have confirmed that he is indeed the "moral idiot" that I described earlier.

Asked whether "waterboarding" (the controlled drowning of detainees to obtain information) might be constitutional, Mukasey answered (evasively) that, "“If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional.” Mukasey either does not know, or does not care, that a Japanese officer, Yukio Asano, was tried and convicted of war crimes in 1947, and sentenced to 15 years hard labor, because he waterboarded a U.S. civilian during the second world war.

Just as troubling (or perhaps more troubling) is that Mukasey adheres to the view that the President as commander-in-chief under Article II of the Constitution can ignore the laws enacted by Congress under Article I of the Constitution. So electronic surveillance carried out on the orders of the President might be legal even if prohibited (and made a criminal act) by the laws enacted by Congress. According to Mukasey, “The president is not putting somebody above the law; the president is putting somebody within the law.”

Or, as Richard Nixon put it, ""When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rating the Democratic Candidates

Everyone else has opinions about the candidates, so why shouldn't I?

What follows is not a prediction of who will win the Democratic presidential primaries, but just my summary of who I like, and why.

John Edwards - I liked John Edwards in 2004, and I still like him. In his interviews, he comes across as intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate. He has been among the leaders in formulating and proposing a specific health care policy and in advocating our disengagement from Iraq. His major weakness is that he's never had an administrative position, and served only one term in the Senate. On the plus side, he's been already through a presidential race and knows how to campaign. I also think that he's more "electible" because he's from the south. (See my comments on Hillary Clinton, below.)

Barack Obama - I like Obama for much the same reasons I like Edwards. I give the edge to Edwards because Obama has yet to serve a full term in the Senate and has never been involved in a national campaign.

Bill Richardson - On paper, Bill Richardson is the most qualified candidate running, with 14 years in Congress, administrative experience (as the federal Secretary of Energy and as governor of New Mexico) and foreign policy experience (as Ambassador to the United Nations). I'd like to like him, but in every interview I have seen, he comes off as flat and uninspiring. I don't hear any new ideas from him, or any leadership, only credentials, and that doesn't interest me.

Hillary Clinton - I used to like Hillary Clinton. In fact, I cast a write-in vote for her for President in the 2000 primary. But she has been less than inspiring in the Senate (such as her vote to authorize the war in Iraq), and the coldness and ruthlessness of her campaign have been somewhat frightening. I no longer see much humanity in her, and I no longer have much confidence in her judgment.

I also have real doubts about Clinton's "electibility." Like her husband, she seems to bring out the bitterness in Republicans and right-leaning independent voters. And no sitting Senator from either party has been elected President since 1964 (Sen. John F. Kennedy), and no northern Democrat has been elected President in the same time, so the demographics and historical trends are all against her.

So I have a lot of misgivings about Clinton as a presidential candidate.

Those are my preferences. But, like most Democrats, I think that this is a highly qualified field, and I would be satisfied to be able to vote for any of them for President.

Next: Republicans

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fort Massacre: Iraq

The movie Fort Massacre (1958), starring Joel McCrea, is usually described as a run-of-the-mill western, but there is a psychological subplot that impressed me when I saw the movie many years ago, and that haunts me still.

Briefly, the movie is about a small group of calvary troops who are caught in hostile Indian territory and are trying to get back to safety. But everything they do, and every move they make, seems to make the situation worse, and instead of avoiding the hostiles and moving closer to safety, they keep having to fight and move further from safety.

The soldiers believe that the problem is with the commanding officer, Sargent Vinson (Joel McCrea), whose wife and child were killed by Indians and who (they believe) is crazy to kill Indians and is deliberately leading them into repeated conflicts with the Indians. In a very memorable scene, Vinson (McCrea) explains that everything he has done was for the right reasons, that he has had rational reasons for everything he did, and that it was just bad luck that things did not go as he planned. And if you have ever seen how charming and sincere Joel McCrea could be, then you'll understand that, watching that scene, I believed him.

The climax to the movie comes when you suddenly realize that Vinson really is crazy and all he ever wanted to do was kill Indians even if it meant the lives of both him and his men.

Now, when I say "crazy," I'm not saying that Vinson was irrational, because he at least appeared to be very rational. What I'm saying is that Vinson did not know his own mind and had not admitted his own feelings to himself and so, when it came to judgment calls that required subjective assessments of risks, Vinson allowed himself to be led into bad choices by feelings and attitudes that he himself might not have been aware of. In other words, Vinson made what might be called a series of "Freudian" mistakes, in which his subconscious was able to affect his conscious decisions, leading to results that his subconscious wanted but his conscious mind rejected.

I don't really consider myself a Freudian, but I have come to believe that there really are very few accidents in life. Most of what happens to us is not the result of chance or luck, but is what at least a part of our mind wants to happen.

The clearest example of this would be an addiction such as alcohol or gambling. As the addiction begins to impose physical, emotional, and financial pain, causing illness, loss of family and friends, and loss of employment, many people think that the addict continues in the addiction despite the pain. A better explanation is that the addict continues because of the pain. Living with the pain of the addiction is in some way more comfortable to the addict than living without the pain, and so the addiction continues until (sometimes) the addict hits "rock bottom" and decides that maybe life without the addiction is not so bad after all.

The misbehavior or risky behavior of many children (and adults) can also be understood more clearly if you understand that the risk-taker might not view the consequences of failure as such a bad thing. A child who shoots a spitball at a teacher is not necessarily discouraged by the possibility of punishment, and in fact might be encouraged to misbehave, because the punishment itself (or the attention the punishment brings) may be part of what the child desires. Similarly, other kinds of unnaturally risky behavior can be the result of a mindset that feels some possible emotional benefit in what what the rest of us would call failure.

Okay, here's today's scary thought. What if everything that has gone wrong in Iraq was not really the result of bad intelligence, poor planning, or unexpected events. What if what we are seeing in Iraq is what George W. Bush really wants, subconsciously but not consciously.

Why would President Bush want such a thing, even subconsciously? We can't answer that question without first knowing why he was an alcoholic (which is pretty much conceded even by his supporters) or why he used cocaine (which is pretty much denied by his supporters, most of whom are in denial about a lot of things). But if you assume that many of Bush's decisions may be affected by some self-destructive desire to fail, then many events during his administration begin to make more sense. The failure to deal with Hurricane Katrina, the lack of attention to (and subsequent reversal of) what had been a successful invasion of Afghanistan, and even Bush's inattention to the famous August 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing (titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside U.S."), which lead to the 9/11 attacks themselves, are all part of a pattern.

It is also telling that, as Bush's post-invasion strategy for Iraq has clearly failed, his response has been to take more risks, ignoring the advice of the Iraq Study Group, committing more troops to Iraq, and pushing for a confrontation with Iran. Bush is like an addicted gambler on a losing streak who is nonetheless sure that his luck will change at any moment and then everything will be okay. And, just as an addicted gambler will not stop until the house refuses to extend him any additional credit, Bush will not stop until the House (and Senate) refuse to fund his military gambles.

At the end of Fort Massacre, Sgt. Vinson dies but most of his troops live. That is not the way Fort Massacre: Iraq will end. Tens of thousands of our troops (and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis) will have been killed or maimed, but the commanding officer will walk away unscathed, physically and (so far) politically.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Clarence Thomas: Complex or Conflicted?

In a news report last week, following a lengthy interview with Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, ABC’s Jan Crawford Greenburg described him as one of "the most complex, compelling, maligned, and misunderstood figures in modern history."

I'm sure she meant that as a compliment, even though the same things could be said of the steamship Titanic or O. J. Simpson, but the word that really sprang out at me was "complex," because to me, "complex" is pretty much synonymous with "conflicted."

I have a cat that's conflicted. She will come over and rub up against your legs, and you can reach down and pet her for a few seconds, but then it's suddenly too much and she will whirl and hiss and swipe at you with her claws. Clarence Thomas seems to be the same way.

Thomas seems to have been the beneficiary of some liberal policies and liberal institutions, allowing him to get a prestigious law school education at Yale and eventually get a place on the U.S. Supreme Court. But it's "too much" and instead of purring, he lashes out with his claws.

He also seems to be angry (and conflicted) about his employment after law school. In his new book, he says that he put a 15 cent price sticker on his diploma after several employers turned him down. During his interview on "60 Minutes," Thomas said that he couldn't get a job, and that he eventually "swallowed hard" and took a job that didn't pay much money. The interviewer, Steve Kroft, described the job as "a $10,000-a-year job in Jefferson City, Mo., working for the state’s attorney general, John Danforth." But, as Frank Rich pointed out in his column in the New York Times, the position Thomas got was as an assistant attorney general, and John Danforth told a very different story in 1991, when he was a Senator supporting Thomas's appointment to the Supreme Court. Danforth testified during the confirmation hearings that he had gone to New Haven to recruit Thomas before he graduated. So Thomas had a job before he graduated, and he went from law school to one of the top law enforcement positions in state government. Furthermore, working for Danforth (also a Yale graduate) led to employment in Washington once Danforth was elected to the Senate, which led to Thomas's positions in the Reagan administration, which lead to his appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which led to his Supreme Court appointment, in which he had the support of his first employer, Senator John Danforth. That sounds like a lot of good fortune, beginning with his first job out of law school, but all Thomas can do is complain about how few other job offers he had and how little his first job paid. (Incidentally, the top law firms paid starting salaries of only $14,000 to $16,000 back in 1974, and government service always pays less than private practice, so his starting salary was probably either average or not much below average for a beginning lawyer, even a Yale graduate.)

And Thomas's continuing obsession with Anita Hill is also puzzling. In his book, he describes her as a "mediocre lawyer." And yet, as Hill herself points out, she was also a graduate of Yale University, he recruited her to come work for him not once but twice, and he wrote a letter of recommendation that helped her get her first teaching job. And she has continued to enjoy what appears to be a successful academic career (she is now a professor at Brandeis) so she is hardly an intellectual light-weight.

And, speaking of Anita Hill, did Clarence Thomas commit perjury during his confirmation hearings in 1991? One of them must have been lying, because she made very specific allegations and he denied all of them. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it is increasingly clear that he was the liar and not her.

One new reason to believe that Thomas lied in 1991 is that he has not told the entire truth about other things since then. As shown above, both his book and the interviews following the publication of his book contain numerous misrepresentations about both Anita Hill and his own career.

Another reason to believe that Thomas lied is his continuing anger. My experience has been that people are more likely to be angered by accusations that contain some truth than by accusations that are completely untrue. In continuing to try to negate Professor Hill, Thomas doth protest too much.

Which exposes another conflict. Thomas was married in 1971 and divorced (despite being raised as a Roman Catholic) in 1984. So when Hill was working for him, from 1981 through 1983, Thomas was undoubtedly going through a great deal of personal pain and might have "acted out." He considers himself a moral person and a good Catholic, and yet he also tried to impose his sexuality onto a female employee and he can't be comfortable with those memories.

And so we have an angry, conflicted, perjuror on the Supreme Court.

Professor Hill has written that, "The question of whether Clarence Thomas belongs on the Supreme Court is no longer on the table — it was settled by the Senate back in 1991." If Clarence Thomas lied during his Senate confirmation hearings, then the issue of whether he belongs on the Supreme Court is not settled, and should be raised again, this time in impeachment hearings.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Torture Lite

Recent stories in the New York Times (see Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations (October 4, 2007) and Debate Erupts on Techniques Used by C.I.A. (October 5, 2007)) make it clear that the Bush administration does not want to allow any meaningful public debate on the proper treatment of detainees.

In August of 2002, the Department of Justice produced what has come to be known as the "torture memo," which concluded that deliberately inflicting pain on a detainee was not "torture" unless the pain was equivalent to "organ failure" or “even death.” According to the NY Times, there was also a separate memorandum that described specific approved techniques.

The "torture memo" was officially withdrawn by the Department of Justice in 2004, after the original author (John Yoo) had left the Department, and after news of the content of the memo had become public. The Department of Justice then put on its website a very sanctimonious opinion titled "Legal Standards Applicable under 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340-2340A" that declared torture to be "abhorrent" and explained the meaning of terms such as "severe pain," but only in the most general way and without ever referring to any specific way of inflicting pain.

That much has been public knowledge for some time. What is news is that in 2005, after Alberto Gonzales became Attorney General, the Department issued a new, secret memorandum, again approving the infliction of physical and psychological pain. According to the NY Times, this new memorandum specifically approved not only the use of slapping, cold temperatures, sleep deprivation, loud music, and waterboarding, but allowed these techniques to be used in combinations. So it might be possible to slap around a detainee, put him in a 50 degree cell for a few hours with "music" so loud he couldn't sleep even if he could stop shivering, and then, if he does fall asleep, wake him up for some waterboarding, followed by more slapping.

(Incidentally, the NY Times and other sources continue to refer to waterboarding as "simulated drowning" or "making the subject think he is drowning." Let's be clear. Someone subject to waterboarding really is drowning. They cannot breathe, and will suffocate unless the waterboarding stops. The only difference between waterboarding and the cruel, crude, medieval practice of "dunking" is that, during waterboarding, no water can get into the victim's mouth or nose. Big deal.)

Okay, so combinations of slapping, cold temperatures, and waterboarding might not be "torture." But then Congress upped the ante, enacting the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and making it a crime for detainees to be subject to "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." Well, guess what? Then the Department of Justice declared (secretly) that the same things that they had decided weren't torture weren't even "cruel, inhuman or degrading." According to the NY Times, another secret memorandum was issued by the Department of Justice in late 2005 that reached that very conclusion.

And now, many members of Congress are upset to learn that the Department of Justice has a practice of issuing memos saying that the laws Congress has enacted don't mean what Congress thought they meant and without telling Congress that. (Which Congress should have expected, given that Bush had attached a "signing statement" to the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 saying that he would ignore the act if he thought he had the constitutional authority to do so. See "Clarification" in this blog.)

And the response by the White House? White House press secretary Dana Perino refused to identify or discuss any specific techniques but declared that "any procedures that they use" are "tough, safe, necessary and lawful." (The "tough" I believe.)

So there you have it. Congress can pass any law it wants regarding "torture" or "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," and those laws don't really mean anything because the lawyers in the Department of Justice (who are appointed by the President, remember) get to define what is meant by "torture" and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" and the President doesn't need to tell us (or Congress) what these definitions are.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Damn the Truth, Full Smear Ahead!

A recent series of ads and commentaries involving Rush Limbaugh demonstrate the all-too-common practice of radical conservatives who, when caught in a baseless smear, simply fabricate new baseless smears.

In this case, Limbaugh made his original smear during his 9/26 program. To put the comment in context, Limbaugh was answering calls from listeners. The first caller, "Mike from Chicago" identified himself as a Republican and said that "I do believe that we should pull out of Iraq. I don't think it's winnable." Limbaugh proceeds to ridicule him, then takes a second call, who begins by saying that he as a "a retort to Mike in Chicago," and proceeds to make a lot of pro-war comments, referring to what "these people don't understand." Shortly afterwards, these exchange occurs:

LIMBAUGH: I -- it's not possible, intellectually, to follow these people.

CALLER 2: No, it's not, and what's really funny is, they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.

LIMBAUGH: The phony soldiers.

So it's not clear who "they" are, but it seems that soldiers who talk to the media against the Iraq war are "phony soldiers."

This comment was immediately attacked by a number of individuals and organizations, because there are many, many real soldiers who have been critical of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq and have called for the withdrawal of American troops. (See, for example, the coverage given to this remark by Media Matters for America.)

Okay, so Limbaugh has uttered another casual, baseless, smear. Nothing new there, and hardly newsworthy. Except that Limbaugh tries to deny that he said what he said.

In his September 28 broadcast, Limbaugh claims that the "phony soldiers" (plural) comment was not about "the anti-war movement generally," but only "about one soldier ... Jesse MacBeth." Limbaugh then claimed that Media Matters "selectively choose what they want to make their point" and then aired what he said was "the entire transcript, in context."

There are at least two problems with those statements:

1. The first mention of Jesse MacBeth (or any other person impersonating a veteran) came more than three minutes after the "phony soldiers" remark.

2. In broadcasting the "entire transcript, in context," Limbaugh committed the same sin that he charged to Media Matters, because (as Media Matters has documented) he edited out 1 minute and 35 seconds of talk between the "phone soldiers" comment and the first reference to Jess MacBeth, making them appear to be closer together in time than they really were and so distorting the context.

Now, it's entirely possible that Limbaugh was thinking about veteran-imposters when he made his "phony soldiers" remark. (Although are there "phony soldiers"--plural--who are critical of the war in Iraq? There have been recent news reports of several persons falsely claiming to be veterans, but they have acted mainly for personal gain. The case of Jesse MacBeth might be unique.) But if that were the case, why didn't he simply apologize? Taken in context, which is a discussion with a caller about "these people," Limbaugh's comment about "phony soldiers" is ambiguous at best. If he knows that there are real, dedicated, patriotic, sincere soldiers who oppose the war in Iraq, why not simply say so?

The answer can be seen in his later comments, on his October 2 broadcast. After a real soldier, with real combat service in Iraq, real wounds, and a real Purple Heart, speaks in an advertisement against Limbaugh and asks why Limbaugh won't call him a "phony" to his face, Limbaugh tries to smear him as well, saying that the people who made the ad ( were "lying to him about what I said, then strapping those lies to his belt, sending him out via the media in a TV ad to walk into as many people as he can walk into." That's right, a decorated veteran is an easily manipulated idiot who has been tricked into becoming a mindless suicide bomber. When Limbaugh finally concedes that the decorated veteran might be able to read and write and form opinions of his own, Limbaugh's tone turns patronizing as he says that "it's just so unfortunate and sad when the truth of what I said is right out there to be learned." (A larger transcript is here, and the soldier's response to Limbaugh can be found here.)

These comments are "the answer" because Limbaugh continues to both evade and deny the real issue: Are there real, dedicated, patriotic, sincere soldiers who oppose the war in Iraq. Limbaugh refuses to answer that question, even while smearing a soldier who claims to be one.

And there you see the essence of the radical right. Smear broadly and, when challenged, smear your challengers. After all, you must be right, so everyone who disagrees with you is either evil or an idiot. Right?