Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Stephen Harper: Campaigning or Changing?

Over at the creatively-titled "peace, order, and good government", comes this take on Stephen Harper:

From Chantal Hébert's column in today's Toronto Star:

But almost one month into the election campaign, the evidence is that the past 17 months have also had a profound transformational impact on Canadian politics.

Start with the Conservatives. Their campaign should put to rest the notion that the merger of the right was little more than an Alliance takeover of the former Progressive Conservative party.

Not even close. They can say anything they like while it's just campaigning. The proof that they themselves believe it would lie in the way they govern, not in what they tell us while they're trying to win votes. In order to find out, we'd have to give them the chance to prove they mean it.

Personally I remain sceptical. Harper's transformation from his stated views of just a few years ago is too abrupt. See Tim's post on this site from just a few days ago.
One of the odder aspects of Canadian politics that I've noted before is that unlike, say, the United States, you really don't want to look too right-wing or you'll lose most of the country. That doesn't mean that you can't be right wing in truth, but that you shouldn't appear as such.

This is the main reason why the Liberal party has been so controversial. They have a tendency to "campaign left and govern right" that consistently wins elections, but frustrates both the left, who don't see their favored policies enacted; and the right, who are treated as anathema during elections. Still, everybody at this point knows how this works, and undermining it by somehow creating a Liberal-NDP coalition is a popular concept among both voters and the liberal literati. Unfortunately, aside from the poorly implemented idea of "strategic voting", Canada's electoral system makes that difficult-at-best.

This has culminated in the government of Paul Martin, but with somewhat of a difference. Martin's centre-right positions during his tenure as finance minister and leadership candidate (where he had to distinguish himself from other liberals, including Jean Chretien's hand-picked successor, John Manley) have given way to centre-left positions on, if not the majority of issues, enough to show a significant change from what he was promising back before he was leader. This is at the core of the "Mr. Dithers" charge- he cannot remain consistent with his old positions, his somewhat conservative advisors' beliefs, and what (at least appears to be) his relatively liberal attitude as PM, so has moved back and forth between them in order to keep everybody happy.

This has made him unpopular in certain circles, particularly opinion journalists, but at least it kept Canada from openly supporting the missile defense boondoggle. (This is important: what the United States needs from Canada is symbolic support, not financial or military support. Canada openly defying the US on issues takes away from any rhetoric of consensus that the United States can bring to bear: if even Canada doesn't support something, then why the hell should anybody else?)

The side-effect of these two effects, though, is the weird perceptions that are out there about Stephen Harper. The "run left, govern right" trick is well known, and there's little reason to believe that the Conservatives won't do the exact same thing. Stephen Harper has every reason in the world to make himself and his party look more moderate than they really are, and even the most cursory examination of his record and his campaign promises would, normally, set off alarm bells.

Yet, if one looks at Paul Martin, one does see a candidate who has changed. Whether it is base political calculation, a change of heart, or perhaps even a movement back to his own true beliefs now that he is no longer minding the books or engaged in his long run for the liberal leadership, he's not making the policies that people expected the Paul Martin of old to make. If Martin changed, then logically Harper can change, right?

And therein lies the problem: Harper is a horse of a different colour. He is, first and foremost, something that Canadians don't usually have to deal with: a libertarian. I don't believe he is truly a social conservative, although he has had to work with them (like the more libertarian Republicans in the US) in order to achieve power, but I know that he's a fairly doctrinaire libertarian when it comes to social programs, the role of government, and the usefulness of a social safety net.

This explains the attacks on "corporate welfare",for example. Corporate stalking horses like your typical Republican (or, indeed, too many Liberals) don't dare touch these programs, but Harper ran on promises of eliminating them during the last elections. These are the promises of a libertarian, not a social conservative.

If you look at the Hebert article, you'll see that the positions that they're willing to jettison are all socially conservative ones-and to be honest, Hebert is reaching when she describes the new positions as "progressive in the first place. The ones that actually near and dear to Harper remain solidly in place.

So, has Harper actually changed? I agree with POGGE- there's little reason to believe that a man's political positions can change so much in 2 or so years, and every reason to believe that he's just playing the same old positioning game.

(Which, of course, gets back to the opinion makers: they seem to be of the belief that the best thing for Canada would be for the Liberals to "be out in the wilderness" for a while, and then come back as a better, meaner, leaner party. I personally think this is nonsense, and will engage the question later.. but a significant component of this belief is that Harper wouldn't be too bad, so it's fine for the Liberals to lose. The problem is that as far as I can see, yes, Harper really would be that bad. No matter how much they dislike Paul Martin and his supporters, they can't simply wish Harper's libertarianism away.)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Whatever (Plus: Bolivia and the American Divide)

See title. Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Solstice, or whatever religion you happen to follow.

Not that playing with the (apparently narcoleptic) Paul Wells isn't fun, but the Canadian election isn't the only even going on in the hemisphere.. or even, in many respects, the most important.

(Before the topic shift, though, I do have to ask: does Canada's PM have any defenders on the internet nowadays? Aside from maybe Jason Cherniak, it seems that the vast majority of small "l" or big "L" liberals are demonstrating lukewarm support at best, and he certainly seems to lack much support in the Canadian media, aside from the "Harper as a trojan horse for social conservatism" stories.)

No, the most striking event is the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, and what it means for South America and the Americas in general. It heralds a trend that most people in North America would never have expected.

That trend?

Socialism is back.

Still derided as a "dead" ideology in the North(witness Marcus Gee's comments about Jack Layton), its reach is inescapable in the South. Bolivia, Venezuela, even Brazil and Argenina (to a smaller extent) are moving in a socialist direction, and Cuba hasn't gone anywhere. Some are democratic, some aren't (depending on how you feel about Venezuela), but the trend is unmistakable.

What's even more surprising is that this has happened in the United States' backyard, in the region that has been synonymous with neoliberal reform in the minds and words of every political economist in academe. That would appear to simply show these countries to be "hard cases", but in every one of them, the changes are clearly due to American neo-liberal influences, rather than in spite of them.

Why? Well, we're seeing the side effects of the gaping hole at the centre of neo-classical, neo-liberal economics: distribution. While neo-liberals are very good at maximizing the theoretical efficiency of an entire economy, thus improving the average income, they seem to either be unable or uninterested in affecting the median income. It's showing itself in the enormous inequality that characterizes South and Central America either not improving, or getting worse, thanks to these reforms.

(It makes perfect sense. Every economist knows that that which you prioritize is going to do better than that which you don't. They prioritized systemic growth over income equality, and, well....)

Of course, the decline of the Washington Consensus isn't news, but the decline of Washington's influence is. There is no way that the cold warriors that still hold sway in the halls of power in Washington should have allowed their backyard to be infested with socialists, but in all cases they've been powerless to do a thing about it. Whether the stories are true of the CIA monkeying with elections in the past, it's doubtlessly true that they were unwilling or unable to do a damned thing about Bolivia. The ongoing embarassment that is the presidency of Hugo Chavez also speaks volumes about American power- how on earth does an American-sponsored coup (like the one a few years back) not succeed, with the power and reach that the United States is supposed to have?

Maybe it's just that the United States is ignoring the Americas right now, with its collective vision so focused on the Middle East and East Asia. That would explain a lot- Washington wasn't paying attention, and got blindsided. Continuously. For the better part of a decade.

The problem for Washington, though, is keeping it in South America. Vincente Fox isn't doing that well, and the indigenous Mexicans aren't going to ignore the success that their Bolivian counterparts have enjoyed. Last I heard, Subcommandante Marcos hasn't gone anywhere, and equality in Mexico isn't doing so well either. Mexico could easily follow in Bolivia's footsteps.

Or, even more disturbing for Washington, is the possibility that this trend could start making waves in the United States as well. I had written a while back about Paul Krugman's analysis of the "jobless boom" in the United States- that while corporate profits and capital gains are exploding, wages are relatively stagnant, and the divide between the wealthy and poor is growing faster than it ever has been. Krugman couldn't explain how and why this was happening, but he noted that it was creating a huge division in perception between the classes in the United States over whether the economy was doing well or not. This is reflected in sales statistics: whereas Wal-Mart's profits are dwindling despite its notoriously exploitative wages, high-end sales are skyrocketing.

(SOMEBODY'S buying all those plasma screens you see at Best Buy and the Sony store, and it ain't Wal-Mart employees.)

This raises the question: what happens if those Americans who are perceiving a weak economy start believing that it's only weak for them? In the past, perceptions of a class divide in the United States have always been dampened by the combination of the overwhelming racial divisions in the country and the perception of civil equality. Civil equality doesn't mean much when people believe that the state is unimportant and the parties are indistinguishable (as an increasing number of Americans do), and I believe (perhaps optimistically) that the racial divide is improving.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not predicting that a social democratic party or president is going to sweep into power anytime soon. I do think, however, that once Americans start looking inward again as the threat of terrorist attacks on American soil recede and the war in Iraq winds down, people are going to start asking questions.

With neoliberals unable to provide evidence that their answers solve a damned thing, will the proletariat start wondering, again, about the words of the man who popularized that term?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

What is it with Wells?

In all honesty, I've had problems with Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin, or at least since he became Prime Minister. I think that in trying to be all things to all people, he has weakened his ability to do good policy and good politics. I think a lot of that is due to relatively benign reasons, though. He is surrounded by both a large number of relatively conservative advisors that he has deep loyalty towards, and a Liberal party rank-and-file that has wildly different political positions from said advisors.

Walking that line isn't easy for any politician; for Martin, leader of a party that can't quite decide if it's centre-left or centre-right, it's brutally difficult. I personally think he'd be better off going with the rank-and-file, as hewing right is neither good policy nor good politics, but it's a difficult choice to make.

That said, I must also say:

Paul Wells, this has become silly.

"I would never for a moment suggest that Stephen Harper would prefer, for partisan political reasons, to see a separatist victory."
—Paul Martin, Wednesday morning

"All that motivates [Duceppe] in Ottawa is to work for separation — and it's obvious….Why else would he team up with Stephen Harper? Think about it. Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe."
—Paul Martin, Wednesday evening
One of those "Gotcha!" moments that I said weakened his analysis.

Let's see where that comes from, though, shall we? From the Globe and Mail (Wells, sadly, didn't link):

Mr. Martin also questioned yesterday why Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe co-operated on some issues with Mr. Harper, who holds views different from Quebeckers on such things as the war in Iraq, ballistic missile defence and daycare. Mr. Martin said all that motivates Mr. Duceppe in Ottawa is to work for separation.

"It's obvious. Why else would he team up with Stephen Harper? Think about it. Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe. Stephen Harper who wanted to send our soldiers to Iraq against Quebeckers' values. Stephen Harper who was for missile defence against Quebec's values."

It is clear, from context, that Martin's attack was aimed at Duceppe, not Harper, and I don't recall anybody saying that Duceppe wasn't fair game. It's a very legitimate attack on the social democratic Bloc Quebecois- they really wouldn't have much to do with the Conservatives, were the Conservatives not holding out the possibility of further dissolution of federal powers to the provinces.

Why did you misrepresent what Martin said, Mr. Wells?

It is, yes, implied that Harper would be willing to work with seperatists, but even that claim is worlds different than Harper's incredible claim that the Liberal party wants the Parti Quebecois to win Quebec so they'd have a strawman to beat up. The former is simply an indictment of one's choice of alliance partners; the latter is tantamount to saying that you'd be willing to risk the country's dissolution for partisan ends. For all that the sponsorship issue revealed about the Liberals' ethics, they never went THAT far, and it is an incredible claim to make that they would.

(For readers who may not understand what this is all about: the Bloc Quebecois is the Quebec seperatists' federal wing, whereas the Parti Quebecois is the Quebec seperatists' provincial wing. All the former can do is gum up the works in the Canadian parliament, but the latter has the theoretical power to break up the country. The difference in their power shows the relative severity of Harper's accusation.)

It's a pity. Paul Wells, when he wants to be, is an intelligent, insightful commentator on Canadian politics. It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that he doesn't want to be. For whatever reason, he wants Stephen Harper to be Prime Minister of Canada, despite not betraying the slightest conservative inclination.

Perhaps he is, like Warren Kinsella, willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater out of loyalty to former PM Jean Chretien.

Perhaps not.

Whatever the reason, it's yet another chapter in the decline of Macleans, and a sad testament to the disorganization of the Canadian left.

(More entries about American and international politics soon.)

Canada's Referendum

Edit: I hadn't realized that Mr. Wells was a reader! He wrote an extra-friendly note to my last piece on Canadian politics, and I wrote a friendly response back. Feel free to read them.

Oh, and by the way... Mr Wells?

Chris Dornan had Maclean's nailed- the Svend cover was ludicrous, and the shift in the magazine's tone under Whyte is bizarre, considering the rank failure that was his stewardship of the National Post.

I realize that you have a job to do, and I'm sure nobody begrudges you that, but c'mon... "Canada should sell its water to the Americans before they steal it"?

You gotta be kidding.

I criticized Paul Wells a little while ago for his misrepresentation of Paul Martin's positions and his seeming personal dislike of Martin. I haven't changed in that opinion, but I do think that an article he wrote claiming that "this election is about Stephen Harper, and whether he'll be trusted to lead" provides a useful jumping-off point for an idea that both Canadians and Americans should consider:

Canada's election is, primarily, about George W. Bush.

Leave aside, for the moment, the issue of Canadian unity. The main points of contention are protection of the social safety net, the Conservatives' social conservatism, and Canadian sovereignty in its foreign policy. The main reason why Mr. Harper is attacked as being out of the mainstream is his views on these three broad issues: they see him as disdainful of social welfare, backed by hardcore social conservatives, and supporting tight fiscal and strategic integration with the United States.

Yet, for all three of these issues, the basic idea is similar: Harper wants to make Canada more American, and less European. Harper and the other conservatives insist that they are not stealthy Republicans and aren't THAT conservative, but they're still derided as "scary".

Scary? Harper isn't scary, not in-and-of himself. He's a policy wonk who never learned how not to look wooden on television. What makes him scary is that the a significant plurality (if not a majority) of Canadians absolutely, positively, and viscerally LOATHE George W. Bush, and everything that he represents.

This is not due to envy, as Republicans seem to believe--few Canadians envy American political and popular culture, but simply appropriate what they like about it and jettison the rest, just as the rest of the world does--but simply because he represents a part of Americana that is almost entirely unexportable, because it relies on a religiosity that doesn't exist in Canada and a neo-conservative sense of American mission that, by definition, almost any outsider doesn't share. Americans themselves? Like many non-Americans, Canadians regard the vast majority with fondness. Not identification, but fondness.

Canadians don't like Bush or what he represents, but they have an advantage over those Americans who don't: they have that big beautiful border, protecting them from his follies. It's not just a geographical line, but a policy-based one- as long as Canada is different, that line keeps them independent. It kept them from going to Iraq, it kept them from domination by the religious right, it kept them from the attempted gutting of social security, it kept them from the Department of Homeland Security... the more that Bush has screwed up, the better that line on the map looks.

Thus, Harper's woes. It's not just about whether or not the policies he espouses would be good for Canada. It's about that line, and whether or not the policies would make that line fade or disappear. Paul Martin's anti-American tirades are code for "I'll keep that line sharp and safe", which (since it's the most important issue in American politics) is also code for "I'll keep your friends and family from bleeding to death on the streets of Baghdad". He pledges that as long as he is Prime Minister, George W. Bush and the Other that he represents will be kept down where they belong, until whatever the hell caused the American people to actually vote for the man dissipates or burns itself out.

So, to a certain extent, this isn't about Harper. It's about W. The worse Bush looks, the more important that line becomes, and the easier it is for Martin to ride these fears to victory. Harper cannot retain his policies and also allay these fears. His talk about standing up to the United States is immaterial, because his policies would make Canada more like the United States, and thus blur the border. The best he can do is show that Martin would blur it as well, which is why the Conservatives have been trying so hard to paint Martin as a fair-weather nationalist. Jack Layton's NDP is doing much the same thing, because they also can't credibly claim to be able to defend the line: they don't have the power, and won't have the power.

The only two provinces that don't really care about this are Alberta and Quebec. Quebec, because it will be distinct from the rest of English-speaking North America no matter what its policies are. Alberta, because the conservative political movers-and-shakers there are just fine with Republicans and Republicanism, and see the blurring of the line as a feature, not a bug.

(In fact, it is this that is Harper's biggest millstone: Ontarians and Albertans have a deep distrust of one another, at least partially due to this issue. It is Ontario, however, that Stephen Harper--the self-identified conservative Albertan--needs to win.)

It is unfortunate, but events down south will almost certainly have an effect up in Canada. It won't be easily measured, and as an intervening variable, it will likely not show up on any poll... but it will have an effect nonetheless. Harper is running against two men, and judging by the latest news, Bush is likely to remain a serious, serious problem.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Brilliant idea over at Daily Kos: IMPEACH: The Guerrilla Marketing Movement.

So, now that all impeachment bets are off, what can we do to take this topic off the TV talk shows and the blogosphere, and put it where the rest of America can see and feel it?

Anything you want to.

But I have a few suggestions, and they include everything from simple act that anyone can afford, to elaborate collective action schemes that no one can miss.

The key thing to keep in mind: The message is simple, universal, and non-specific. But if it's the same everywhere, there will be no mistaking what it is, and how widely it's supported.

So, let's talk.

This idea isn't new, by any means. It's just being put to a new use -- taking impeachment out of the realm of broadcast wonkery, and making it real.

This isn't about achieving the result of impeachment directly. I think we all know where we stand on that score. This is about building resonance, and making impeachment "real," because it's being brought to the attention of real people.

What I'm proposing is this: Go into your word processors right now, and type out the word "IMPEACH." Go ahead, use caps. Center it. Bold it. Make it 72 point. Turn the page to landscape if you like, and make it bigger.

You've got a sign. Print it out. Xerox it. Put it up on a lamp post. On a supermarket bulletin board. Inside a newspaper vending machine. Anywhere.

You've joined the movement.

How does it feel? Want more? Would you be willing to spend a little money on it?

Pick up a pack of Avery labels down at the office supply store. Print out a page worth of stickers that say the same thing. IMPEACH.

Not impeach Bush. Not impeach Cheney. Not Chimpeach. Just IMPEACH.
Bolded that last bit because it's the most important. This is a brilliant idea, because if it takes off it'll create buzz and make the concept more acceptable. The key is the use of the single word: everybody knows who the "impeach" refers to, and trying to weigh it down with arguments and cases and whatever doesn't matter. The case is out there. The argument is out there.

Instead this should be like the teaser campaign that happens long before the movie is even finished. Just the force of one word over, and over, and over, and over again, everywhere you look, in places you don't expect it. It'll piss Bush supporters off, but that doesn't matter: the act of arguing against an idea is the most important one for legitimizing it. And hell, how do you argue against the repetition of a single word?

Do it right, and it becomes a trend, and while Bush's corporate backers know how to coopt a trend, they have no idea how to stop one.

Just one word:


Monday, December 19, 2005

Breaking Blogiquette

I realize I should be linking, but instead I'll just respond to the panopoly of defenses of Bush's illegal wiretapping of Americans simply.

The defense is "he's using it against bad guys, and we can trust him not to use it against political opponents".

My question?

What the hell WOULDN'T this justify? You could play apologist for anything, up to and including secret police death squads, using this argument or one like it. It's a call for absolute executive power.

It's not even Orwellian, because even 1984's party was a little more subtle than this.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


For those following Canadian politics, they had their first english-language election debate tonight. The format was unimpressive and stifled real exchanges, but it highlighted the three issues that grab me about Canadian politics right now: the difficult relationship with the United States, the wrangling over whether to embrace european-style social democracy or American-style capitalism, and the threat of the province of Quebec seperating from Canada.

(One of the four parties during the debate, the Bloc Quebecois, openly advocates seperation... showing just how different Canada treats seperatists than the vast majority of other countries.)

The most striking moments? Both involved Prime Minister Paul Martin: his argument over whether he'd send troops to Iraq, and his passionate attack on the sovereigntists for their often-dubious legal claims of the right to unilateral seperation. It's not often that you see a Canadian prime minister so incensed as Martin was with Duceppe's claim that Quebec could leave whenever and however it wishes, in contravention of Canadian law. With Martin, it's even rarer, yet there it was.

The best commentary on the election online? So far, the "CalgaryGrit", a Liberal supporter who nonetheless asserts his independence and avoids clear partisan apologetics.

(Unlike, say, Paul Wells, whose obvious personal loathing of Martin weakened his election analysis considerably, leading him to side with Martin's America-friendly opponent Stephen Harper on thin grounds over the Iraq issue. Or the Grit's largely conservative commentators, who sound like Harper's spin doctors.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Go, man! GO!

Sirota ripping on the DLC:

Less than two weeks ago, the Democratic Leadership Council said that people like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Vietnam War Hero Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) were "offering surrender" by supporting an exit strategy from Iraq. This followed on the DLC's long record of slamming anyone who it disagrees with (for more, just see the DLC's treatment of Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential primary). Now, the DLC is desperately attacking those like Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) who have been critical of Sen. Joe Lieberman's (D-CT) support for the Iraq War, and in the process, actually claiming the DLC has always been for "inclusion" in the Democratic Party and against "polarized politics."

This is how pathetic and corrupt it has gotten in Washington. The nation's capital has become a place where corporate-funded institutions like the DLC can one day viciously stab courageous progressives, and then the next day turn around and claim they are actually for "inclusion" - all without batting an eye, or thinking twice about how dishonest and hypocritical such behavior really is. What an insult to the public's intelligence.

Apparently to the DLC, "inclusion" is defined as being in lockstep with their far-out-of-the-mainstream views, and the only thing important to them is preserving their status on the D.C. cocktail party circuit by issuing press releases touting their "friendship" with those who undermine the Democratic Party.
The bolded bit is, as always, the key to this. It's groupthink--hardly a new thing--and the groupthink is clearly being exploited to ensure that the right thoughts are held by the right people. It's also, however, the loose party structure in the United States; when the connection between partisans is so weak, and the "bipartisan" ties of power and circumstance are so strong, is it any wonder that people choose the latter over the former?

All the DLC does, in the end, is reverse Milton. Better to serve in "heaven", than to rule in "hell". That these things are defined by their supposed opponents is immaterial.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Digby on Richard Pryor

A great and insightful man passed away from us today, and digby gives him the moving eulogy he deserves.

(Or perhaps I should say "elegy": it is definitely a lament... but I think more of a lament for all the things that we never learned from him. Or, perhaps, forgot.)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Growing Radicalization in America

I'm going to take a step back and look at the broader picture in the United States, because I think we have some clues about where things are going to go in American politics.

First, no matter what happens, it's unlikely that foreign policy is going to be fruitful for either party- the dominant Dems are those that are stuck between their votes for the war and against it, and the Republicans are too identified with the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq to really run on foreign policy. Yes, there's still the terrorists, but let's face it: as a means of mobilizing the people, the war on terror has had its run barring another attack. (Even then, the results would be predictable- it would have happened on the Republicans' watch.)

Second, take a look at this important column from Paul Krugman on monday. he calls it ""The Joyless Economy" for a reason: the economic growth that is raising GDP and average income isn't doing a damned thing about median income, which is actually declining, implying that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening, not closing. This isn't new, but it is creating a huge disconnect between public perceptions and elite perceptions of the economy- the latter is worried more about inflation than anything else, whereas the former perceives that the economy is in a recession. To them, it is.

The most important part of this, however, is that Krugman acknowledges that this is not President Bush's fault:

It's much harder to explain why. The disconnect between G.D.P. growth and the economic fortunes of most American families can't be dismissed as a normal occurrence. Wages and median family income often lag behind profits in the early stages of an economic expansion, but not this far behind, and not for so long. Nor, I should say, is there any easy way to place more than a small fraction of the blame on Bush administration policies. At this point the joylessness of the economic expansion for most Americans is a mystery.
Thus, this isn't really good news for the Republicans, because if they aren't responsible for it, they can't really do much about it.

(The Dems could, through income redistribution, but the actions of the DLC's proxy candidate Hillary Clinton shows that they have no intention whatsoever of veering leftward.)

So, where are we? The people are pissed off about the economy, foreign policy is unlikely to serve as a distraction, and the government can't really do much about it.

So what happens in 2006/2008?

Enter Thomas Frank. Remember, Frank's thesis about the culture wars is that those who are being hurt the worst by these economic trends are paradoxically the most likely to embrace social conservatism- it's a way of gaining self-respect, political relevance, and moral superiority for those who have no other avenue for it. There is an element of deliberate deception by those wealthy Republicans who want to distract the people from the economic issues, but they've been the victims of their own success, as the socially moderate apologists for wealth get elbowed aside by the growing power of social conservatism. This is only going to increase- while the social conservatives are ticked about Bush's behavior, they aren't going anywhere.

The Dems aren't willing to tack left on the economy, though, not really: they're still trapped in the "triangulation" paradigm that they think helped Clinton in '92. They'll probably push for some level of socialized healthcare, but unless they're willing to go up against the most powerful lobbies in Washington, it's not going to go anywhere, and the base is unlikely to be impressed by it. Thus, unless the power structure in the Democratic party shifts, they aren't going to be able to "shift the debate" to economic issues. The core economic problem is, as Krugman said, something that they probably can't do much about.

Without a serious debate on economic issues and with foreign policy off the table, though, what's left?

Frank's culture war.

Hence the title of this post. Dem leadership is clearly trying to move right on social issues, so as to (supposedly) reassure the elusive swing voters that they aren't Godless Liberals and refocus the debate on economic issues. This is going to lead to two effects: the social conservatives on the right will pocket the advantage and move further to the right on pretty much every issue but abortion....

...assuming that Roe V. Wade isn't dead: if it is, it becomes a huge election issue in every state in the country...

...while the urban liberal Democratic base, abandoned by the leadership, gets more and more ticked off at what they see as the creeping dominance of social conservatism, with honest libertarians likely to follow suit.

Frank's effect will ensure that even more people become more radically socially conservative, so as to regain the respect and moral foundation that they once enjoyed as prosperous middle-class workers. They sense, rightly, that something's wrong with the country, but many will blame it on collective moral failings instead of impersonal economic forces- the flip-side of the "can-do spirit" that Americans laud themselves for is that they don't easily believe in structural responsibility.

Since the economic debate won't address the real problems, it won't go anywhere or "hit people where they live", and it will be vulnerable to a social policy counterattack. The Dems, true to form, will try to triangulate by moving right on social policy and attempting to reframe the debate on "the economy, stupid"... but this isn't 1992, and even Hillary Clinton isn't Bill Clinton, so all it will mean is "moving goalposts". The base will see this, get ticked, and likely get really, really loud about it, both online and offline.

(The libertarians will too, but I imagine their days as movers and shakers in the Republican party are very much numbered.)

What I can't predict, however, is what America will look like at the end of the day. It depends on how far this goes. If things just kind of muddle along, then it'll probably look a lot like now, just more so. If things get really bad, though, then the scapegoating may well shift from liberal political philosophy to other convenient "Others".

Considering the current atmosphere about the "war on christmas", "borders under siege", and "the Chinese threat", it doesn't take much imagination to think of who those scapegoats will be.

Again, I'd suggest looking to the controversy over video games as the canary in the coal mine. The attacks on games are a proxy for attacks on secular culture, as it's the newest and thus most vulnerable form of expression of that secular culture.

Rest assured: what starts in Silicon Valley will end up in Hollywood.

"Those People"

Courtesy of Atrios and Ailes, one of the dumbest lines I've heard since the last time I read Townhall:

"But the dirty little secret in America is that anti-Semitism is no longer a problem in society; it’s been replaced by a rampant anti-Christianity."

The best part?

This is from a jewish guy.


(Me, I'll be spending the holidays with Jon Stewart at Osama's Homobortion Pot 'n Commies Jizzporium.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Once Again, a Quick Tip for Hillary Clinton:

No matter how ludicrous your attempts to reposition yourself to the right become, you're still going to be a Stalinist to Republicans.

Yes, that includes backing anti flag-burning legislation, as Jon Tasini points out.

I personally find it deeply disturbing that of all the rights that the American people have, it seems the the right of free speech seems to be the one that the DLC's surrogates seem most willing to jettison for popularity.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Kevin on Those Who Were Correct:

From Kevin Drum:

I'll have more to say about this over the next few days, but for now I'd just like to mention one thing. I've seen a lot of lefty critics who have hammered Packer because he supported the war and, in their eyes, hasn't been forthcoming enough about admitting he was wrong about that. Michael Hirsh led the charge here in these pages a couple of months ago. I have three words for these critics: get over yourselves. Perhaps someday we'll ship Packer and his fellow liberal hawks off to reeducation camps and force tearful confessions of doctrinal error out of them, but for now partisans on both sides could do worse than admit that the world comes in shades of gray and neither success nor failure in Iraq was quite as preordained as you might think. A little bit of difficulty figuring out where you stand on the war isn't quite the moral failing some seem to think it is.
Kevin, that isn't what happened and you know it. Yes, there are shades of grey, but that doesn't mean that a person who hasn't been blinded can't tell the difference between off-white and near-black. That failure wasn't practically preordained is definitely an open question too: a violent insurgency had been a strong possibility from the beginning, and it could easily have been worse than it has been.

Considering what has happened, though, what on earth is the reason to "get over ourselves"? Critics were derided then and are (incredibly) derided now that they've shown they were right, and were the enterprise successful, the "liberal hawks would not be defending the "anti-war left" now. That they weren't right, yet expect forbearance for mistakes of judgement that could easily happen again, simply doesn't make sense.

The comment, by the by, was contained within a review of Assassin's Gate, a book by George Packer on the war and what happened. I haven't red the book and don't presume to be able to judge it, but there was one other thing related to it that I wanted to mention;

Blog readers know a fair bit of this history already from magazine articles and newspaper reporting, but as I was saying a few days ago, the only way to really know a subject is to read a book. It's true that most of us don't remember everything we read in books, but that's not the point: only when you get the whole story, in all its glorious detail and told all at once, do you really get a narrative sense of what happened. That's what Packer has done in Assassins' Gate.
Don't get me wrong- I love books, and narrative especially. That said, there is always a danger of a book like this forcing events and motivations into fitting said narrative. Real life is often random at best, and history often doesn't fit convenient narratives.

I'm not saying this is a weakness of Packer's book, I'm not able to judge: but this is a potential problem with any attempt to take a complex event and summarize it in 200-300 pages. I think Drum needs to be aware of this.

Edit: The commentators on Drum's site are engaged in an all-out war over this. There is a good point there that needs to be made, though: the "liberal hawks" have never admitted that they were wrong. They have admitted that Bush is incompetent and that they shouldn't have put their faith in him, but their faith in the idea that it was a good idea to go into Iraq, period, has seemed to have never wavered. This issue still very much matters, because any future administration doing this is going to argue that they will "do it right", and the danger exists that the liberal hawks will roll right back in and back these guys.

(Especially if they're Democrats.)

Admitting that Bush screwed it up is very different than admitting that the whole thing was a bad idea. Mixing those up doesn't get anybody anywhere, because it's the latter point that is important.

Further Edit: Greg Sargent argues that the problem was not doctrine, but judgement. He does a good job of highlighting why judgement is important, but there's a fundamental problem.

The problem is that doctrine can cloud judgement, and the question remains as to whether or not doctrine did in the eyes of the "liberal hawks" (not, as he seems to suggest, merely Bush and his friends.) The doctrine in question, I'd say, is that of being "reasonable", "mainstream", and "bipartisan" over all else, and that classic doctrine of American exceptionalism, but these things are open to dispute.

What isn't open to dispute, however, is that the judgement was flawed, and that the question of "why" needs to be addressed more deeply than "whoops, I didn't realize that Bush's crew were incompetent".

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The CIA: Working Together With You for a Brighter Future!

How? By making innocent people disappear.

[Innocent prisoner Khaled] Masri was held for five months largely because the head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center's al Qaeda unit "believed he was someone else," one former CIA official said. "She didn't really know. She just had a hunch."
The best part? He was kidnapped (what other word is there?) from Germany! Apparently, the CIA can grab you from free, democratic countries (he was travelling to Macedonia) and send you to some dictatorial hellhole (ah, sweet Uzbekistan) where, because you aren't an American citizen, you have no rights!

Then, if you aren't actually a terrorist, you'll get sent to Gitmo.

About a dozen men have been transferred by the CIA to Guantanamo Bay, according to a Washington Post review of military tribunal testimony and other records. Some CIA officials have argued that the facility has become, as one former senior official put it, "a dumping ground" for CIA mistakes.
Hey, at least you'll get a free Quran.

Ok, enough joking. As the article implies, there appears to be a disconnect in the CIA between the intelligence analysts (who seem to be by and large intelligent, careful people) and the operations group, who have been playing fast and loose. This isn't exactly a new thing. Anybody who's done any reading on the CIA's involvement in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or their history in Central America, is going to be familiar with the attitude of the some in the operations group. Most are careful professionals, of course: but the nature of the game means that overly enthusiastic agents can get away with a lot if it's politically justifiable.

But what is new is the appetite for flashy covert operations in the White House, and the political environment they occur in. The White House (and too much of civilian DoD) is being run by people that embrace a view of covert ops informed by Tom Clancy novels and "Plan B" paranoia. That's bad. What's worse is that the natural check on covert operations--the possibility that they'll be found out and no longer be covert--isn't really a check anymore, because the White House doesn't care and the rest of the world can't or won't do a damned thing about it.

Fortunately, Masri was released. What worries me are the ones who haven't been.

(Oh, and by the by? Secret detention and torture of Sayyid Qutb was one of the main radicalizing influences on fundamentalist Muslims in the first place. The guys who get out aren't going to be big fans of the United States.)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Game Violence, part 2

A law in Illinois that regulated game sales, the Safe Games Illinois Act, just got shot down by an Illinois judge.

(Linked article found at the increasingly interesting Gamepolitics site.)

In reading his ruling, Judge Kennelly obviously grasped what games are about:

"Video games are one of the newest and most popular forms of artistic expression. They most resemble films and television shows by telling stories through pictures, text, and sound, but they also parallel popular books, such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which enable readers to make decisions about how the plot and characters will develop. Video games are generally designed to entertain players and viewers, but they can also inform and advocate viewpoints. They are therefore considered protected expression under the First Amendment. See Am. Amusement Machine Ass'n v. Kendrick, 244 F.3d 572, 579 (7th Cir. 2001)."

Regarding testimony on behalf of the Illinois video game law by Dr. Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, Judge Kennelly said:

"Dr. Anderson testified that playing violent video games is one activity that primes aggressive thoughts and teaches aggressive scripts... As a result of regularly playing violent video games, Dr. Anderson testified, these scripts or knowledge structures become 'chronically accessible' and ultimately become 'automatized.' The research underlying Dr. Anderson's testimony, however, does not support such a stark and sweeping conclusion."

There's more...

"Even if one were to accept the proposition that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts or behavior, there is no evidence that this effect is at all significant. Dr. Anderson provided no evidence supporting the view that playing violent video games has a lasting effect on aggressive thoughts and behavior – in other words, an effect that lingers more than a short time after the player stops playing the game."
I'd suggest reading the ruling itself- the judge completely destroys Anderson's argument, and (by extension) the bases of the "games make people crazy" argument.

The important part is the bolded one, though, because the key question is whether or not electronic games count as protected speech, not whether they're harmful, as there's no way that they could approach the level of harm that would warrant ignoring protections (as in, say, child pornography.) That they were clearly identified as such settles the issue.

It also makes sense. Any number of games' underlying plots could count as political speech through analogy. Some, like the popular Metal Gear Solid series, are very much overt about it. Even controversial games like Grand Theft Auto series, however, can have underlying themes and messages that could count. The ultra-controversial GTA: San Andreas draws heavily on films like Menace II Society and Boyz in the Hood, and makes many of the same points about urban violence and the abandonment of urban African-Americans and the communities they live in by society at large. It also supports the (admittedly controversial, but popular) idea that authenticity and family loyalty is more important than success and lawfulness. This led to one of the odder thematic transitions in gaming history, but the underlying message was reasonably clear.

(Don't get me wrong: GTA:SA isn't Citizen Kane, but it can easily be considered protected speech, and there are underlying themes.)

Finally, to those who'd wonder why this matters: it's clear by now that video games are the new proxy in the culture wars, and are the vehicle by which DLC Democrats are going to burnish their social-conservative cred. They're almost certain to be a punching bag in 2008, so this question of protection needs to be settled now. Fortunately, it seems that it has.

"Craven" and the Chickenhawk

I've never been a huge fan of the "chickenhawk" label. It's used constantly to describe anybody who supports the war (or even the concept of war) who isn't actually a veteran or a member of the military. While it's always funny to torture Jonah Goldberg, and Dick Cheney really is evil, the validity or invalidity of their case has nothing to do with service.

That matters. If you're trying to argue against that case, using the "Chickenhawk" label can be counterproductive. You aren't going to sway anybody who understands (explicitly or implicitly) that there's no connection between the argument and the arguer. You might even hurt your case, because they'll be less inclined to believe anything else you say.

That said, there are cases where the "Chickenhawk" label is valid. This is one of them. Check the bolded comment in the quote:

This insane calculus—which is the position of the Democratic leadership, at least in the House—argues, in essence, that going to war puts a strain on our troops, and that protecting ourselves is impossible if our troops are stretched thin from protecting us.

Again, I’m not sure how this message has gained any traction whatsoever; but then, I’m stunned each passing day by the number of people who throw their support behind a political party whose base is so obviously and unabashedly craven that it refuses even to find a workable rhetorical mask for its power-at-any-cost message that doesn’t insult the intelligence of anybody paying close attention.
Now, this is all twaddle, of course, and I wouldn't expect anything different from Goldstein. He's clearly just throwing red meat to Bush's dwindling base of support. It's not like he can change horses at this point. The point he's attacking is perfectly valid: a military that is overstrained and overworked due to lack of manpower and an overly ambitious mission is going to be less effective. He attempts to say that it's somehow invalid because in both cases they are "protecting us"... neatly dodging the legitimate question of whether or not they're protecting a damned thing, and whether the manpower can be more effectively used elsewhere.

(That's why you can tell it's red meat: it's only a valid argument if you share Goldstein's assumptions. Either he's aware of this or he's not- if he is, he's pandering, and if he's not, he's dumb.)

But again, look at the bolded section:

a political party whose base is so obviously and unabashedly craven that it refuses even to find a workable rhetorical mask for its power-at-any-cost message. "Craven" is a synonym for "cowardly". This is where the chickenhawk label should go. While he dresses it in nonsensical complaints about "rhetoric", the meaning is clear: he's saying that everybody who doesn't support the war is a coward.

Jeff Goldstein, you don't get to call anybody cowardly, least of all the Democratic base. You're not out there fighting and dying for a mistake. You aren't responsible for any lives, or forced to accept orders that you disagree with that may end up getting you killed. You aren't the one who has the nightmares about the lives you've taken.

You aren't even politically brave. You're speaking power to truth. You're defending the easy, safe, and scurrilous idea that if only enough of the bad guys get killed (by someone else) we'll be safe. You're doing it in the face of all evidence to the contrary, because to disagree would leave you ostracized. Andrew Fucking Sullivan is braver than you are, and David Brock leaves you in the dust.

(To forstall an inevitable defense: That you use your own name means nothing when you choose those positions that require the least courage and extract the most gain. You'd actually be braver using a pseudonym, because it would demonstrate that you say things because you mean them, not because it will make you the right friends. I may hide behind a pseudonym, but you hide behind power, Jeff.)

Every one of us (even the pseudonymous bloggers like myself) who have been saying since 2002 that this war was a mistake are braver than you. We've suffered, to mangle Shakespeare, "slings and arrows of outrage"; endless maligning of patriotism, of bravery, of sanity, even, from those like yourself who took the easy and profitable path of apology for liars and scoundrels.These were and are attempts to stifle dissent, and the media's behavior during the buildup to the war, and its treatment of those who disagreed, shows that the attempts worked very well.

(There is, for example, no other reason for Horowitz's "Discover the Network" and Pipes' Campus Watch to exist; the latter has led to threats to safety and is little more than character assassination. As is everything Ann Coulter has ever written.)

We've suffered it and continued, because we understood what the American people have finally realized: that the United States' children should not bleed to death in the desert for a pack of lies about WMDs and the regional ambitions of the neo-conservatives.

You are a Chickenhawk, Jeff. You are every inch the coward, Jeff. Not for the quality of your argument, although it was poor, but for this pathetic attempt at accusing others of cowardice in order to mask your own.

But, at least, you're an excellent object lesson. Use the label Chickenhawk wisely, folks, because leveling it at everybody means you don't have it when you need it.

Edit: Credit should go to Oliver- got it from this post.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dave GIbbons is Smarter than Tom Shone- Another Aside

In the vein of Ebert's earlier nonsense about games comes this review of the uber-influential and provocative comic series "The Watchmen" (a deconstruction of the tropes and shorthand that underlie superhero comics).

Predictably, it commits the same error that these things always do: it mistakes a faux-sophisticated and self-consciously ironic surface reading of the material for understanding of any deeper themes and concepts. Shone namedrops Postmodernism and modernism without bothering to check how or whether these frameworks are being used; the old game of saying "it's deconstruction!" without trying to figure out the problematic that it's supposed to deconstructing in the first place.

The worst error, though, is missing the fact that Watchmen is, by its nature, a visual medium, and completely ignores the visual elements involved.

The suspicion lingers that Watchmen was more a triumph of writing than draftsmanship. The graphics were by Dave Gibbons, one of many artists who made their name on Judge Dredd, although he always felt a bit like the fill-in guy, lacking the ravaged punk impudence of Mike McMahon or the ebullient absurdity of Brian Bolland.
Already we see the warning signs: why "draftsmanship"? If you aren't willing to concede the term "art", you probably aren't going to get the visual element of the work. And why the hell is Judge Dredd relevant to discussing Watchmen? There's a lot there, you don't need filler references.

Gibbons' style was neat, tidy, and strong-jawed, which lent his work for Watchmen a flicker of irony, although it was unclear whether the hokey costumes he came up with for Moore's superheroes were deliberately hokey or just the kind of stuff he came up with anyway. In which case, the joke was on him and the irony was all Moore's. A typical comic script is 32 pages; for Watchmen, Moore's ran to 150 pages, heavy with voice-over narration and speech balloons.
Cripes. The visual design is very much deliberate, hearkening back to the classic character and costume design of golden-age comics: characters Watchmen was designed to superficially resemble. Were he to use any other kind of style, the connection would not only fall apart, but the wild discontinuity between the character design and the events would disappear. Nobody blinks at gore, say, Preacher, because the design makes you expect it. Comics Code era "cape books", on the other hand... that's shocking. And, yes, the work of the artist.

Also, who on earth actually thinks that the character design in Watchmen is "hokey"? Rorschach's ever-changing (and suggestive) black-and-white mask (along with his classic 50's "detective" fedora-and-trenchcoat) is one of the best character designs in the field! All of the character designs are reminiscent of golden-age comic characters, without being derivative, which is completely in tune with the general visual theme!

Edit: I had forgotten that the Watchmen were based off of DC's acquired Charlton Comics characters. Another important point that was lost by Shone amidst the carping about Judge Dredd. That Gibbons was able to take what most consider second-rate characters and turn them into icons that rival DC and Marvel's own is another testament to his skill.

(The art in the "black freighter" comic-within-a-comic illustrates this:Gibbons completely changes the visual design to fit the different themes and history of "EC"-style horror comics, and contrasts it with the general Watchmen visual style in order to emphasize the severe limitations that were imposed on comics by the CCA.)

Gibbons found himself cramming his graphics into a neat box-arrangement of nine frames per page, and the result was a minimalist, Philip Glass-y, metronymic tone. Watchmen also took comic-book chronology to new levels of complexity.
Proof positive that Shone Just Don't Get It, but is working hard to fake it. (Nice namedrop, by the by.)

Edit: waitasec, I didn't catch this at first. The word Shone wants is "Metronomic", isn't it? A "metronymic" is a name deriving from one's mother! I had just assumed that no editor would let that by, so went with his spelling. Whoops.

First rule of using big words, Tom, is to make sure you're using the right ones. I use ten dollar words all the time and I will not apologize for it, but at least I use the right ones.

The design of the panels was very much deliberate, and not simply for a "metronomic tone". The regular progression of 9 panel pages, evenly spaced, was chosen to contrast to the wild and chaotic design the panels of your typical superhero comic. The simplicity and regularity emphasizes the mundane world that the characters live in, and the fundamental mundanity that invades the lives of people who are considered to be synonymous with novelty and action.

(It's also used for emphasis: panel designs were set up as mirrors for earlier pages to reinforce themes and concepts, were regularly alternated to create thematic connections between "A" and "B" plots, and when full-page panels WERE used, as in the beginning of last issue, the effect was tremendous. Having wild panels means that you can't make them wilder- Gibbons' use of mundane arrangements meant that when he changed the style, it was arresting.)

Yes, panel design indicates time, and on that Shone is correct in the even procession of panels, but it's a hell of a lot more important than that. Using space to denote time is at the heart of the medium, and provides enormous possibilities to blend time and space together to make a larger point.

It features an elaborate flashback structure and a fascination for slo-mo simultaneity that wouldn't have embarrassed your average Modernist—when they coined the term "graphic novel" nobody mentioned that the novel in question was Ulysses—although how well this technique melded with the more straightforward dynamism of traditional comic-book panels is open to question.
Funny- most of the discussions of The Watchmen I've read have noted that there's no way that it could be anything but a comic, and that the movie project is doomed. The flashback structure, and juxtaposition of different viewpoints (I assume that's what he meant by "slo-mo simultaneity".. using terms appropriate to the medium would have been helpful) are probably impossible in any other medium, as Watchmen makes a point of using the tools that comics employ to denote time (panel size, shape, and position) to also engage in thematic juxtaposition, meta-commentary and reinforcement.

The pirate comic-within-a-comic, again, shows this theme most clearly... the seemingly unrelated story eventually resolves itself as a way of showing how different genres of comics address the same themes; how ideas that must be explored through allegory in one genre are directly addressed in another, using visual juxtaposition and timing that simply wouldn't work in either cinema or straight literature. The symmetrical design of chapter 5, for example, would also be utterly impossible.

It's honestly not that hard to pick up all this stuff, either. All that namedropping and faux-analysis and Shone appears to miss the very visual elements that make Watchmen a classic to begin with!

And finally, the piece de resistance?

Before Moore came along, comic books were not generally in the habit of quoting Nietzsche, or scrambling their time schemes, or berating their heroes for their crypto-fascist politics, or their readers for reading them. It was Moore's slightly self-negating triumph to have allowed it to do so. But did the comic book have to "grow up"? The last time I looked, the only ones reading Ulysses and quoting Nietzsche were teenagers. No adult has time for aesthetic "difficulty" or "self-consciousness." Life is too short. Frankly, we'd much rather be watching The Incredibles.
Emphasis mine, because it's really, really funny. Unlike the main point of this section, which appears to be "I don't have time for anything challenging, I'm gonna go watch the tube". That is, honestly, just kind of sad.

Kinda like this whole piece.

Not so Final Edit: This is making me really, really miss Prisoners of Gravity.

Possibly Really Final Edit: A commentator on a Bugsy Banana complained that I was attacking an overall positive review because it was not positive enough. I had thought about this when I decided to write this, and I do agree that it has an overall positive tone.

What bothered me is the dismissive attitude towards the work, the tone with which it was addressed, and (most vitally) with the treatment of Gibbons' work. Gibbons' art is as important as Moores' writing; without Gibbons' work, the Watchmen simply wouldn't have been able to accomplish what it did. Shone's attitude towards the artwork maligns the work itself. That he's ignorant of this doesn't change it; that The Watchmen is one of the most important works in the medium makes it matter.