Monday, June 30, 2003

Well, it would appear that the ceasefire is up and running. I'm still divided as to whether this is a tactic designed to curry international favor in the belief that the Israelis will attack first, a genuine attempt to end what many consider a "cycle of violence", proof of Abbas' ability to bring people onside, or recognition that some sort of gesture is needed to mollify the Americans.

Whatever it is, I hope it'll stick. Not that I'm happy about the prospect of the Bush administration taking credit for a ceasefire they've been little but an obstacle too, but a cessation of violence is worth any amount of neocon crowing.

Edit: and here's the problem:

Sharon said Monday that, despite its security agreement with the Palestinian Authority,
Israel would not turn a blind eye to the shooting attack in the northern West Bank, in which a Bulgarian laborer was shot and killed.

Krastiu Radkov, 46, was hit in the head and died a short time later after efforts to resuscitate him failed - just one day after the three main Palestinian groups - Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad - announced the cessation of attacks on Israelis.

A local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is affiliated with President Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said his armed group was behind the attack near the city of Jenin and that it would not abide by the ceasefire announced on Sunday.

"We are not committed to so called truce and we will fight the settlers and the Israeli military inside the occupied territories," he said, referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
If there's a dealbreaker, of course, this is it: independent groups that won't recognize the orders from "higher-ups" to cease the attacks, and whom the leaders of the various extremist groups have little real ability to hold back. I doubt anybody would be surprised by this.

The problem, however, is that it could lead to a reconfirmation of already-held beliefs. If the Israelis more than minimally respond, those who lean towards the Palestinians will say "the Israelis broke the ceasefire" and those who lean towards the Israelis will say "the ceasefire was a sham". The pro-Palestinians will say that the Israeli government didn't want the ceasefire: that it deliberately ignored the fact that it has far more control over itstroops than the extremist leaders have over their "soldiers". The'll argue that whole group is being blamed for the actions of a small extremist subset. The pro-Israelis will say that this is proof that the Palestinians either cannot prevent the attacks or was never serious about stopping them, and therefore the Palestinians were never serious about the ceasefire. Both will continue to call the other the "instigator of violence", and both will hold up the same event as "proof" of their position.

(Whether either is true or not is, of course, entirely irrelevant.)
Interesting hypothesis:

Says Alan Cohen, a V.P. of Airespace, a new Wi-Fi provider: 'If I can operate Google, I can find anything. And with wireless, it means I will be able to find anything, anywhere, anytime. Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too.'
So that's how the Matrix got started.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Ha'aretz's Zvi Bar'el pointed out an aspect of the Palestinian ceasefire (or "hudna") that I hadn't thought about- the reincorporation of the extremists into the Palestinian Authority:

this is not merely a step intended to kick
the ball back to the Israeli-American court. The importance of the hudna, if obtained, lies in the two objectives the PA will achieve from it. First and foremost, it will bring the opposition groups and the Hamas and Jihad, which were not part of the PLO, back into a broad national framework under a common leadership.

The second goal, deriving from the first, is the implementation of Abu Mazen's vision to have one law, one security force and one leadership. The PA will be spared going to war against Palestinian citizens to disarm them. The Hamas' weapons will become an inseparable part of the Palestinian defense establishment. The new Palestinian leadership will also be able to relieve the Hamas and Islamic Jihad of the title "terror organizations" and show the world a relevant leadership speaking with one voice and representing one policy.
This possibility highlights one of the difficulties with the situation- the question of purity vs. utility. As the article pointed out, the Israeli position as it stands essentially amounts to a call for civil war within the Palestinian community, as it provides no opportunity for Hamas and the other extremist groups to reintegrate themselves into any sort of "normal" Palestinian state. This means that no Israeli has to worry about the ethical ramifications of making a "deal with the devil", and there's something to that.

Unfortunately, it also means there is little or no incentive for anybody aligned with or sympathetic with Hamas to agree to any sort of compromise when it comes to the makeup of a future Palestinian state. It rewards extremism, because the unlikely possibility of ejecting the Israelis becomes (in their mind) a more rational route than the certainty of (at best) irrelevance or (more likely ) imprisonment and death, even when not considering the existing difficulty of dealing with what is, until now, a hated enemy.

On the other hand, as Mr. Bar'el points out elsewhere in the article, if the Palestinian people decide that their lot is better under the hudna, then it's quite possible that groups like Hamas will bend, if only to avoid political and social unpopularity, irrelevance, and impotence. This is not impossible, and I'd argue that it's not even improbable- we know as westerners that politicians look to which way the wind is blowing in order to maintain power, and I honestly doubt that the leaders of the extremists don't understand power politics.

It's also possible that they will refuse to give up their "vision" of "liberating" their former lands. Political organizations, however, have a way of gravitating towards the position of greatest influence and power even when individuals resist it. This is, I believe, one of the reasons why Hamas has become so influencial- extremism has many and sundry rewards in situations like the Palestinians', and this relationship between power, influence, and extremism has a reinforcing effect that any student of history could easily recognize. Fortunately, although it's harder to recognize, I believe that properly rewarded moderation has the same effect, and it would appear by his position and actions that Abbas believes the same thing. After all, he's staking his political career on it.

So, what is Israel going to do, and how would the Palestinians themselves react to a lessening of tension? In both situations, for both parties, it seems to revolve around one key question: is it better to have a righteous conflict, or to give up that virtuousness in the name of peace and prosperity? The South Africans did it, in the wake of brutal violence and, yes, terrorism. Can the Palestinians and Israelis do the same?

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Jesse is castigating Jonah Goldberg for Jonah's insistence that the president has never lied about anything involving Iraq. He may have been wrong, due to "poor intelligence", but he never lied.

Let's leave aside the obvious buck-passing to the CIA. Let's also leave aside questions about whether asserting weak evidence as incontrovertible is just as bad as out-and-out falsehood when in the support of any activity involving the state using deadly force.

Anyway, take a look at this:

The United Nations weapons inspectors reported time and again throughout the 1990s that Saddam had not disarmed. The only time he could have disarmed was during the four-year period when no inspections took place. No serious person thinks Saddam did that.
Now, first, this is a gross misrepresentation of what the inspectors were really saying, and it begs the question about whether the inspectors were right. Saddam was playing silly games, yes, but that doesn't mean that WMDs were present- it just means that there were things that he didn't want the inspectors to see. This makes sense without the presence of WMDs, when one remembers that he knew some inspectors were American spies. One may also remember that the people who asserted (and assert) the loudest that Saddam maintained the weapons were either misquoted or discredited defectors (such as that "head of the weapons program), or former inspectors that have changed their position like Scott Ritter.

What's really interesting about articles like Jonah's is the oft-used phrase "nobody in their right mind would ever think that Saddam had disarmed", referring to the period between the 1998 bombing and the 2003 invasion. I hear it all the time, and others do too, but it's striking that this phrase is never supported by anything even remotely resembling proof. It's merely an assertion, repeated over and over again, that "you'd have to be nuts to believe this". I'll admit that the conventional wisdom is that Saddam maintained the ability, but there is a difference between conventional wisdom and proven fact. Sherlock Holmes said "once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth". The idea that the WMDs just up and vanished is impossible, and that leaves the possibility that the weapons were destroyed a long time ago because Saddam realized that he'd have little opportunity to use anything like that living in the fishbowl that the U.S. had placed around his country, and proof of posession of them would ruin him. It's improbable, but not impossible- even if it "doesn't make sense", discounting it is poor reasoning and poorer analysis.

(It's also possible that he destroyed them or shipped them out right before the war. Experts have said that they would, however, leave a trace of their presence, and that trace has not been found. Right now that's also improbable, but it's moving quickly towards "impossible".)

Anyway, be careful of "what everybody knows". Often enough, the majority is full of it.

Friday, June 27, 2003

I haven't written much about the Mad Cow incident in Alberta, largely because I don't see it as an overly controversial political issue outside of questions of federal/provincial relations in Canada.

This, however, should be a no brainer:

To combat mad cow disease, Canada should increase the monitoring of possible outbreaks and ban the use of feed made from cattle, sheep or other ruminant animals, a panel of experts said Friday.
This is obvious, but doesn't go far enough. Ruminants should not be fed animal parts. Period. Sheep, cows, chickens, whatever. It's a very sad thing that it was started at all, and the practice should end, now. Not just in Canada, but worldwide. You don't go feeding your cat lettuce, so why feed a burger to a cow?
Well, well, well. I was honestly surprised to discover that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah have apparently agreed to a three-month ceasefire. I had figured they'd keep up the fight, if only to deny Abbas the perceived power of being able to get the organizations to play ball with the PA.

Then again, it might well be simply a tactic. Take a look at the Israeli response:

"It is not worth the paper it's written on," the Israeli source said about the truce, and called
on the PA "to take the necessary steps to eradicate terrorism, dismantle the terrorist
infrastructure, collect illegal arms and end anti-Israeli incitement."

For its part, he said, Israel "will take whatever measures are necessary to defend our
citizens when they are attacked." Israel had already said that it would continue
to act against Palestinian "ticking bombs," despite any cease-fire agreement reached
between the PA and militant groups.
The ceasefire, then, might simply be a tactic. A lot of the debate in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has been over culpability- not just over who started it, but which side is "provoking" the other to action. The Israelis say that they must defend themselves against terrorist attacks, whereas the Palestinians say that were they to eschew violence, the Israelis would simply expand the settlements to the point where a Palestinian state is impossible.

(This is, of course, leaving aside the hard-core "get rid of 'em all" factions on either side, although its undeniable that the Palestinian version is more extreme and likely more numerous. Then again, they've also been losing, and extremism often results from military and political defeat. That's a debate I'm not getting into right now, however.)

Since both sides claim that the other is the instigator, the key question is "what would happen if one side stopped?" Hamas and Co. may well be banking on the Israelis to continue their assassinations of top-level terrorists/militants/whatever even in the face of their counterparts' seeming willingness to put their weapons aside for a little while. If Israel does what the Palestinians expect, then the Palestinians can claim that this is evidence that Israel has no interest in a peaceful solution. That probably won't fly in the United States and Israel, who are likely quite aware of the tactics here. It woud, however, boost the status of the Palestinians quite a bit in Europe and in the Muslim world, and gain "Arab street" support that might goad the Arab states into supporting Hamas and Co. more than they were after Iraq's conquest. It also weakens the status of Abbas and the PA, and brightens Hamas' star.

On the other hand, if the Israelis hold off and start following the "roadmap", then it's Hamas and the rest that are put in an intolerable situation, because they're trapped between either moving towards moderation (territory that Abbas and the PA already own) and likely irrelevance, or giving the PA time to rearm itself and crack down on its greatest competitor for power and influence over the Palestinian people. It might also lead to, well, peace, and that also would be a devestating blow to the power of Hamas.

(Unless, of course, they reposition themselves as a peaceful political opposition to the PA, but that can get you killed if you alienate the wrong people without some sort of percieved benefit that outweighs the loss of "radical purity". I don't know if that's actually happening, but I doubt it.)

So it's a gamble, a very deadly one. Hamas is probably confident that Israel will attack them, so they likely think they've got pretty good odds here, but it's still a gamble. Then again, politics- even the violent terroristic kind- usually is.

(Edit: It is also possible that Hamas, IJ, or Al-Aqsa would attack first. That would be extraordinarily foolish, as it would give the Israelis carte blanche to eradiate them and do pretty much whatever they wish in the Territories. Outside observers would be quickly convinced that the "cycle" is the responsibility of the Palestinians, and support for the cause would probably dwindle, especially in Europe. That's also part of the gamble, because one never knows whether a small splinter group might attack even when the big ones are holding off. )

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Ahh. Finally, there's a "Blog This" widget for Mozilla, one of the few things that had kept me using IE despite my growing preference for Moz.

Thank you, Phil Ringnalda.
After having fiddled around with the new blogger for a little while, I've come to at least one conclusion: the new UI is incalculably better.
Well, well, well... looks like I've been migrated to the new Blogger. Interesting.

To be honest, ever since getting that monitor, I've been at a loss as to what to write about; most of the issues that I've been following (WMDs, the continuing conflict in Iraq, the Bush administration's fast-and-loose relationship with the truth) have been in some sort of disturbing holding pattern, with nothing much improving and nothing much getting worse.

Generously assuming, of course, that such a thing is easily imaginable when it comes to the occupation of Iraq.

Anyway, was delighted to discover DailyKOS had been in contact with Terry McAuliffe, and that McAuliffe agreed with the sentiment of many bloggers (including myself) saying that the Dems need to be more aggressive.

"You know what?" I said, "A lot of people I talk to every day, who comment at my site -- they won't aggressively support the party until the party starts acting like an opposition."

McAuliffe could only agree, "I know. We're trying."

I then launched into my spiel about how the blogosphere could help drive new political activism on behalf of Democrats, how blogs like dKos attracted people who might not otherwise participate in the political process, and how it was in the Democratic Party's interest to nurture the lefty blogosphere.

McAuliffe asked point blank: "How do you think we should do that?"

It's a question I want you guys to weigh in on, since I promised to put together a memo with suggestions.

I'll start it off with the following two suggestions:

1) pull a Dean -- get all the major party officials (starting with McAuliffe, and moving on to Pelosi, Daschle, etc.) to start doing interviews with blogs, commenting on message boards, becoming members of the blogging community, so they can listen first hand to the concerns and ideas that are bantied about every single day; and

2) Start a party weblog. Start communicating with the party faithful on a daily basis, not through newspapers or 30-second spots or any other middlemen.
I'll be putting this memo together this weekend. I would love to hear more suggestions. We have the chairman's ear, let's take advantage of it. How do we use the blogosphere, this wonderful, revolutionary tool at our disposal, and use it to strengthen the party and help it elect real Democrats?
Both are excellent suggestions, but I'm especially interested in the first option.

The big problem with political discussion on the Internet is that most people believe that it's unimportant. Thing is, there's a measure of truth there, and the only true exception to that is the integration between the GOP activist press and the Blogistanians that are aligned with them. The Dems don't have the sort of media machine that the GOP depends on, and thus I don't think they can leverage said machine to "reach out" to blogdom as well as the Republicans have with NRO and the like. (The problem with progressive activist media's poor relation with the electable left in the U.S. is something I'm not going to get into, but it's also an aspect of this.)

A conscious attempt to bridge the gap between bloggers and party will help to alleviate this situation. It will serve the dual purpose of connecting Dems with the (sometimes brutal) discussion and idea-creation machine that is Blogovia, and connecting online pundits (like Kos and, theoretically, your humble host) with the people that have to bear the brunt of the political fallout of the implementation of those ideas. Assuming that blogging grows as a medium, it will also ensure that American liberalism doesn't end up behind in leveraging technological and organizational innovation, as it has so often in the past.

As an added bonus, bloggers and the online political community might start to serve as a bridge between the supposed "far left" and "centrists"; one of the things I like about Blogovia is that dialogues between people aligned with these two groups can be (and often are) quite civilized. (Martin Wisse and Kevin Drum aren't going to call each other names). If there's one thing that the Dems need to learn from the GOP, it's the ability to connect with both the base and the fringe, recognizing both their passion for their ideals and reminding them that elections are supposed to be won by a popular majority, not a determined minority.

As for other ideas... there's one that I have that's related to this, and (unsurprisingly) to my own political interests. One of the problems with American liberalism is that it's letting the right define itself, and I believe that part of the reason that's happening is because those who are doing the thinking about what liberalism is, what its roots are, what its place is in American political culture and where it should go are too often divided from those who are doing politics "on the ground". This is partially due to the divisions between the academic left and the party that's supposed to be representing it, but it has had awful consequences- the GOP has been able to drive the debate, promulgate all the ideas, and control how Americans think about politics.

The reason they've been able to do that due to their funding of enormous numbers of think tanks. Thing is, all think tanks are really just groups of people paid to do the same thing that bloggers do every day: think and write about politics. Considering the relative quality and intellectual honesty of the output of several bloggers I read and some of the larger think tanks (AEI, I'm looking in your direction), I'd say that the Dems could leapfrog over the establishment of these organizations by simply, well, going "virtual"... using things like group blogs, left-leaning message boards, and individual commentators and bloggers to play "idea factory". It's not like it'd be inferior work: I'll take the political analysis of a Digby or a Kos over any number of NRO flacks.

This idea won't replace the necessity of supporting paid political thinkers and analysts; then again, most bloggers probably wouldn't mind a patron of some sort. Anonymity might be an issue, but then again it might not... not only would add an air of mystery in the eyes of some, but it would reinforce the message that it's the ideas that are important, not the people, and its ideas that the Democratic party needs to bring to the table.

There's more, of course, but that's what I can think of off the top of my head. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Ok, I have the new monitor now. It's a Samsung Syncmaster 763mb, for those who are interested. It's pretty good, especially for the price, although the geometry seems a little dodgy. There's a tendency for horizontal lines to "sag" a little in the middle of the screen.

On the off chance the "sag" becomes too pronouced to be tolerable, any suggestions for alternate monitors would be appreciated. Sag or no, now I can actually read them.

Monday, June 23, 2003

Yes, folks, Digby is back, and he revealed his reason for going. He was achieving a lower state of consciousness:

In fact, I am alive and well and returned from a journey into the heart of darkness of George W. Bush's America. Eschewing my pansy-assed effete internet habit for a time, I stupidly got myself hooked on the hard stuff and ended up ripped out of my mind on Rush's AM Ecstasy. Living on burnt meat and raw porn, Fox news and liberal bashing, my mind devolved into an altered state of consciousness, awash in arrogance and testosterone, transformed into the hostile fugue state of the talk radio junkie.
And that's only the start of it... Digby shows his own (quite possibly fictitious, but nonetheness true... readers of Neil Gaiman's work will understand what I mean) adventures reveal the sort of Republican storytelling that I was describing and reveals why the Bush "theme" is so compelling:

After the first couple of days of painful cognitive dissonance, the sheer confidence and daring of Right wing propaganda started to work on my subconscious. And, I tell you, it was a relief, a fucking holiday from the frustration, confusion and lightheadedness I associate with trying to limn reality these days, just letting my id take over. Critical thinking is for losers. See, RushBillSavageSean remove doubt and free your mind. All you have to do is join the team, and suddenly everything makes sense again.

This drug is potent. A quick hit of Rush in the morning and you're sure of yourself and the world around you. You feel strong. You look like a winner. You are on top.

In this era of post modern politics and surreal media tidal waves, this is a drug that brings clarity to a confusing world. It is intoxicating in its simplicity. Unlike the faggoty nuanced Democrats, the Republicans (or Real Americans) are providing a road map through the maze of conflicting quick-cut images and babbling 10 second soundbites that pass for news. If you listen to AM talkradio or watch FoxNews the strange feeling of living in an alternate reality melts away. They have the answers.
That's what it's all about- simplicity, understandability, power, and confidence. The Bushco machine is so compelling because, if you let it, it will tell you how you need to think, and make you feel good about yourself while doing it. It's the same thing that propels paranoids and (ironically, or perhaps appropriately) a lot of hard leftists like Anarchists, Socialists, and any number of other "ists"...In a world that is confusing and frightening, that really doesn't have any overarching story, that is often unfair and which normal people too often feel helpless to change, the drive to find something that makes it all make sense is overpowering.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, actually. Science, both natural and social, is built on the idea of finding out how things work, and there are probabilities, trends, patterns, and even rules that one can discern about human behavior, society, government and the like. The problem is that since people are complex, any attempt to explain what's going on is complex, and those that are either too impatient or too frightened of complexity and chaos often search for someone who can tell them that "it's all actually quite simple". This is especially true when lives are on the line... complexity is doubly frightening when it involves violence and horror.

That's what the Republicans have learned to do; to craft a message that satisifies this need in enough of the population that they can get reliably voted in. They built the tools with which to do it: the organizations that can both come up with the ideas and shape them to fit the story, and the people (like Rush) who can disseminate it and make it feel like the audience are friends and allies against the forces that conspire to keep them down. (Luskin's "conspiracy to keep you poor and stupid" features prominently here, although he's far too inept to be an effective spokesman and storyteller). Policy and politics are both subordinated to this all-consuming idea to keep on message, because without careful husbanding of that message the Republican coalition would quickly fall apart and their support would vanish.

Not that conservatism would disappear, of course. The Republicans could rebuild themselves as the honest advocates of true conservatism, and that would aid American immensely. That isn't happening. Why it isn't happening has a lot to do with neo-conservatism, because neo-conservatism isn't about conservate values at all but the control over society that a knowledgeable elite needs to maintain in order to preserve order. It also has nothing to do with "truth" or "untruth", because it's patently obvious that conservatism has taken postmodernism's attack on truth to heart and are perfectly content to build a story that's only related to the real world around us as much as is necessary, and departs from it when necessary as well.

Digby wrote another piece shortly after the one I just quoted, talking about Bush's image as a cowboy. It fits into this concept of storytelling quite well, so I'll end as I began, quoting Digby:

But, this is actually pretty representative of the kind of feeling that Junior engenders in a good portion of the citizenry. Sure, some of it's just team loyalty, but there are a number of people who think he's a straight shooter, an everyman of simple values and authentic virtues, masculine, good hearted and tough.

Needless to say, those paying attention to even the most obvious biographical details know that none of this is true. He's a spoiled, rich, playboy who fell into politics by trading on his father's name and contacts. He's a failed businessman and ex-alcoholic who's masculine virtues are defined by bullying towel snapping and homoerotic hazing rituals. He's stupid, thin skinned and easily rattled. He consistently shafts the weak in favor of the powerful and he has a callous bloodthirsty streak.

In Bush's Brain, How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential the authors quote Rove as saying that most Americans understand politics as "watching TV with the sound turned off." The thing with Bush is that he looks right in his costumes, whether codpiece or chaps, and his 10 second soundbites are well crafted and effective. And, it's not because people are dupes or morons that they buy this nonsense, it's simply because they understand everything in their lives through simplistic TV images.

...Ronald Reagan wasn't a cowboy. He was a guy who played a cowboy who later became president. George W. Bush is a guy playing Ronald Reagan playing a cowboy who later became president. And it doesn't make any difference. Karl Rove, like Michael Deaver before him, realizes that most Americans see life through a media prism that's now completely self-referential.

It has always been true that politicians and leaders evoked archetypal images for political purposes-- Lincoln the rail splitter, TR the virile "mans man." But, starting with Reagan, we saw for the first time a circular reference between the mythmaker and the image itself. He was a professional actor engaged in making a myth that later became the image for his Presidency.

Junior is like a second generation copy of that same image, slightly off center and lacking clarity. He's a counterfeit Warhol, an ironic image of an image, made valuable only by the wilfull acquiesence of a lazy media that depends upon the Republican establishment to write its scripts and fill its yawning, greedy mouth. (It is no accident that the Bush team has planted the meme of John Kerry as "Thurston Howell III." That's the kind of image the American people understand instantly. According to Salon Kerry's spokesman, David Wade, suggested the GOP "should lay off the 'Gilligan's Island' imagery before we cast George W. Bush as Gilligan in the remake." Oh how perfect that would be...)

The Democrats can do better than President Blurry with almost any candidate in the race if they will just feed the beast what it needs to live (a good story) and recognize that the American people don't care anymore about what a president actually says but only that he is "presidential," however that image is defined by the current zeitgeist.
The point, in the end, is that it doesn't even matter whether or not it's fiction. The lines between fiction and reality, truth and falsehood, creator and created have blurred only where they haven't been annihilated. That isn't the fault of the Republicans... they've never been huge fans of it before now... but damned if they won't milk it for every drop it's worth.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Magnificent post by Jim Henley about the astonishing decision by a U.S. appellate court to allow secret detention of suspects. I can't quote (the computer I'm working on isn't highlighting text properly), so I'll simply give you one word: "Desaparecidos". It means "disappeared". It used to happen back in the days of executives-ran-amok in South America. Looks like the least likely country in North America isn't immune either.Of course, right now it's just the terrorists, right? Maybe, but still...

"First they came for the terrorists, but I wasn't a terrorist, so I stayed silent..."

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

A Candidate is a Product.

This is a truism among those knowledgable about political campaigning, and is nothing new- it's older than television-focused campaigning, and older than most of those reading this. The most important aspect of any political campaign is selling the candidate to the voters, and in that they're not too dissimilar to other kinds of products... the only difference is that you're selling a person, and people are paying with votes, not with money. From this comes the burgeoning (and effective) field of professional political campaigning, and some of the better commentaries on the political process (one that comes to mind is The Candidate, but there are many others) focus on this idea.

Thing is, it's also a truism that in effective advertising, selling a product is not just about selling the product itself- it's about selling an idea, a dream, a scenario in which the product features prominently. Television commericials are often ministories about the travails of people whose lives are improved by the introduction of the product into their lives, and the best advertising is often that which is not too dissimilar to the programming that it's supplanting. The product is an image, or a story. The competing products are ideas and stories too, but they become tragedies.

Therefore, if a candidate is a product, and products are best sold as part of a story, then it follows that the most effective politics are those where the candidate becomes irrevocably tied with some sort of narrative or idea. I've thought about this, and I think the mastery of these two ideas (candidate as product, and product as idea/story) is part of the reason why the Bush administration does what it does, and why it's been relatively successful at selling its policies and ideas to the American people, even when the results of those policies and ideas (such as the problems in Afghanistan, the shifting and dubious rationales for the war in Iraq, the weak economy, etc.) has been of limited success. A lot of intelligent people have supported these various ideas at various stages, only to be hopelessly confused and disgusted when Bush and his advisors seem to completely bungle the job just when its at its most critical, ignoring sound advice and even traditional allies, justified by logic and arguments that seem hopelessly bizarre. When one looks at their behaviour through these ideas, though, it makes perfect sense, as does the various pronouncements of the president and his supporters. It's all about building the stories, and one of the weirder aspects of this presidency is that we don't really know Bush... despite the folksy tone, he's far too tightly controlled and handled for that. He's not only the least accessible president in history, but the least knowable, because it's readily obvious that more than anything he is, like Reagan, an actor.

Take Afghanistan, for instance. After the 9/11 attack, the Taliban was an opponent to America, but more importantly (from a campaigning point of view) they were antagonists towards Bush. The response was partially due to geopolitical thought, true, but it was also an opportunity to create an image of Bush-the-protector-of-America, an image that Republicans have long cultivated and jealously protect... look at their claims about Reagan. Bush (and the military, which is portrayed as an extension of his will, which is more-or-less an accurate portrayal of what an executive is) and his political handlers took the opportunity to craft a story about America wounded and America responding by smashing the bad guys that attacked it, with Bush as a kind of avenging angel, flaming sword cutting through the enemies of Providence. This being the real world, some of this is true (the U.S. did respond, and the Taliban was routed) but much is not... Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Taliban has become a reviving and growing threat. Since this threatens the story within which Bush has situated himself, however, and since even acknowledging it would threaten the idea that they're putting forward, Bush has been quietly burying the entire issue of Afghanistan outside of the story that was crafted for him. America, to which he becomes a father and protector within this story, largely goes along with it, because Americans are the heroes as well in this story, and there's enough truth in the idea that people can latch onto it.

(This story also allows for an associated story to be promulgated and accepted, saying that the economy's weakness was due to 9/11. This wasn't true, of course- the crash long predated it, and had more to do with the Microsoft ruling than 9/11- but one story bolsters the other, making it doubly difficult to dislodge them.)

As for the narrative about Iraq...well, that will be quickly obvious to anybody that's seen The Princess Bride.

Once this is acknowledged, however, it leads to a curious situation, where this process of politics is hurt by the "political process". One of the things that very few commercials do is a direct comparison, and they're often the weaker of the lot... they don't tell a story, they merely compare, and that brings things down from the lofty heights of stories and ideas to mundane products. Quick quotations from "Consumers Reports" may make for great ad copy, but nobody would think of actually turning that sort of comparison into an ad. In politics it would be even more undesirable considering the arcane nature of many political issues in the eyes of voters. The primary process, however, is precisely that kind of comparative enterprise, and the nitty-gritty of primary competition is anathema to candidate-as-idea. Even if a successful idea can be built around a candidate, the battle among the field of candidates works constantly to muddy the waters, and turn it back into product comparisons, or even competitions between the candidates as candidates, nothing more. Debates don't make for great advertising either, unless a story can be built around them.

(This actually happened in 2000, but ended up benefiting Bush more than Gore, because Bush's team was more successful at crafting both the positive and negative ideas of Bush into a story of Bush-as-Reagan redux, which the media was much more sympathetic towards than Gore's image of elite policy intellectualism, and the dishonesty that was projected upon him by the media and his opponents. One of the better Rove tricks was turning Bush's intellectual ineptitude into a positive for him.)

Thus we get to the Democrats, and a central problem that they may have in the upcoming election. Bush's supporters are, more than anything, storytellers, and they've spent years turning Bush into a series of narratives that have little to do with the reality of the man or his accomplishments, but are internally consistent and to many quite compelling. It may not be true, but that doesn't matter... modern movement conservativism has embraced the post-modernist lesson that it isn't "truth" that matters, but stories, and they've built one. This has been going on since before the 2000 election, as a matter of fact, and before the primaries. Bush's elevation by the party elite is one of the biggest reasons they've been so successful- Bush's entire national political career has been subject to this process of storytelling, and while McCain made a dent in his campaign, he never truly threatened Bush's image because he was too busy building his own. The threat of McCain was that his story was, frankly, more compelling. It was never a real threat, however, and it should be recognized that Bush has never really had to deal with a knock-down, drag out primary battle. Unfortunately, the Democrats do. Right now, there are four or five candidates that are chomping at the bit to go against Bush, but what's truly notable about them is their lack of stories... at the moment, they're merely people or, worse yet, politicians. Some have the possibility of becoming products, images, and stories (like Kerry), but they do not and can not enjoy the absolute control that Bush does. That is the single biggest problem that they face, because Gore showed that it's practically impossible to build your own story after the primaries are over, and if you haven't done it, your opponents and the media will do it for you. That will likely spell defeat (although Gore wasn't technically defeated); as Gramsci pointed out, those in control of the narrative will usually retain control, period.

Indeed, the only story about the Democrats right now is about their weakness and division. They will not win with that story, but seem unable or uninterested in building another one.

The solution for this situation? I'm not sure yet, but I wanted to explore the territory before I start talking about charting a map through it. The way to build a successful political story is, I suspect, a matter of the person, the people, and history... one must be aware of the personality of the candidate, the desires and nature of the American people, and the current (and future) domestic and international historical landscape in order to not only check the other guy's image and story, but build an effective one of your own. The Republicans have great tools for doing this, but they're operating with one disadvantage- their image is incongruous with reality, and their product ain't working. It's actually a pretty slim disadvantage at the moment, but it may be the only one the Democrats currently have.

What to do with it, unfortunately, is another question entirely.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Aw heck. I don't normally do this, but I thought I'd post a little red meat I found on the Eschaton comment section about your friend and mine, Donald Luskin.

(This is after Luskin was thoroughly dissected for attempting to discredit a Column by Prof. Krugman for the NRO's increasingly inaccurately named "Krugman Truth Squad", whereby he tries to rebut a column by narrowly analyzing only the first two paragraphs, and mixes up foreign ports and domestic ports. No, I'm not making this up.)

Anyway, it's storytime kids, courtesy of one anonymous commentator:

I worked with Luskin several years ago. At our company he was pretty much universally disliked, and 100% not trusted. Still, no one thought of him as an idiot.

We worked in asset management, where liquidity of the stocks (or whatever) you are trading is important. If you have a reputation for picking good stocks, you don't want the competition to know what you're buying, because they'll start buying it too, bidding up the price of whatever you're trying to "buy low."

Anyway, Luskin's great idea in late 90's was to start a completely transparent mutual fund. Every day, every trade would be posted on the company's website.

Why? I don't know. There is no investment rationale for this structure. It's every inch as stupid as it sounds. But remember, got funding back then.

After setting up the fund, Luskin and his associates would publish regular commentary and sponsor discussions on the company website, using a number of unmoderated bulletin boards. I think this is the Genesis of Luskin as pundit.

As the new economy tanked (i.e., as smirk's pre-election poll numbers improved), Luskin's fund performance went real south real fast. I used to amuse myself by watching his readers tell him, again and again, what an idiot he was, and wailing to him about how he had lost all of their money.

But all good things come to an end, Luskin's stupid idea couldn't be sustained forever, and the fund was closed.

He then started "The Luskin Report" providing general market commentary, but apparently that didn't have a lot of takers.

Now he's figured out what Dennis Miller knows, and he's spouting his dandified, semi-ivy-league, subcoherent "economics" deliria, kicking desperately against the inevitable, swift tide of oblivion.

Just remember: Bush himself was smart enough to finish Yale.
I think the one line that best sums up Mr. Luskin's warped and increasingly amusing take on reality:

"To be that stupid you have to be an economics professor."

No, friend Donald, you just have to be a know-nothing critic. Or maybe, considering the bodyblows this has to be dealing to NRO's reputation, you have to be the guys who pay him.
Ahem. Not to put too fine a point on it, but where the hell is Digby? It's been a month and no sightings, and people in his comments section are getting worried. So am I.

(As for me, I merely remain lacking a monitor, mostly because I'm having trouble deciding on a replacement unit.)

There's been a lot of interesting stories, but none perhaps so interesting as this one, about a "top counterterrorism aide" that has defected to the Kerry campaign.

A top counterterrorism aide to President Bush has signed on as national security adviser for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is mounting a campaign to defeat Mr. Bush, the Washington Post reports.

Rand Beers quit his job as special assistant to the president for combating terrorism eight weeks ago. On Monday, in a provocative interview with the Post, the veteran Washington bureaucrat – who served on the National Security Council under four presidents – lashed out at the administration's handling of the war on terrorism and homeland security.

Beers charged the administration "wasn't matching its deeds to its words in the war on terrorism. They're making us less secure, not more secure. … The longer I sat and watched, the more concerned I became, until I got up and walked out."

He said the administration was "underestimating the enemy" and had failed to address the root causes of terrorism. "The difficult, long-term issues both at home and abroad have been avoided, neglected or shortchanged and generally underfunded," Beers told the newspaper.

Beers criticized the administration's focus on Iraq, which he said came at the expense of domestic security, damaged America's international alliances and could help breed a new generation of terrorists.
Now, he is a registered Democrat, but this is still pretty big news. The biggest weapon that the Republicans have against the Democrats is that they're stronger and more consistent on national security and foreign policy. Many have railed against that from the perspective of the Bush administration's poor handling of both, but the question that Bush backers have always been able to respond with is "why is your guy any better"? Kerry, at least, has an answer- he has an advisor who knows counterterrorism inside and out, and who (at least appears to have) quit the Bush administration on a matter of principle. The very existence of Beers does poke a hole, even if only an infintesimal one, in that line of argument. "Why is your guy any better"? The answer is "because our guy's platform comes from an expert: one who knows terrorism, and knows that your guy is full of it".

The real question, of course, is what that platform is going to be, and I'm planning on watching the Kerry campaign to see what Beers comes up with. His particular critiques highlight one specific attack that intelligent Democrats may want to level at the president: that he doesn't follow through on his promises. He pointed out that Bush has practically abandoned Afghanistan, and that the Taliban are in resurgence there- in direct contradiction to the current Bush campaign rhetoric that Afghanistan is an example of a "mission accomplished". This is important: people already know about Iraq, but don't know about the situation in Afghanistan, other than that Osama isn't caught (but might simply be dead... one of the convenient aspects of bombing-heavy strategies).

Beers also attacked the president's actions on the home front, and this, I think, may be the biggest weakness of the Bush administration in the next election. While he can showcase his foreign adventures, he doesn't really have much at home to trumpet, and there are a lot of broken promises and out-and-out deception when it comes to national security that the Bush administration is having to dodge its way around. I hadn't expected them to actually be so inept as to badly handle the one job that they're supposed to be better at, but as long as they're doing it, Democrats should be hammering away at it. For that, Kerry has just gained a significant ally... and no matter who the Democratic nominee ends up being, Beers' input into the debate will aid in finally formulating a muscular and independent Democratic foreign policy.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Ok, I should be back online and blogging regularly within the next few days. With any luck, someone will have stuck around and waited. Heh.

(Maybe I should go the Eschaton route and give others access? It's probably the wave of the future, blog-as-magazine that is.)


In my absence, I've been noticing a smell permeating the American political landscape. I couldn't identify it before, but I can now: it's the smell of the dying post-9/11 Bush "honeymoon". I hadn't really expected the WMD issue to have legs, because most Americans have probably decided to "move on", but it seems that the media has latched onto this issue. This despite the question of whether it's really a good idea to tick off a loyalty-obsessed White House.

Funny, though, because I think the headlong media-supported rush to war and the current media-supported "where are the WMDs?" controversy stem from the same thing: the desire for a simple narrative. Before the war, the debate over whether to invade didn't really revolve around complex questions of sovereignty and nationality and statehood and nation-building so much as simple questions like "is Iraq a threat" and "Is it right to go kill the evil dictator?" This helped Bush enormously- the arguments against invasion were more difficult (if, in my opinion, ultimately more compelling) than the arguments for it, and as television functions as a kind of Occam's Razor when it comes to debate (simpler the better), we ended up with a drumbeat for war.

Now, though, the situation is different. The war itself is old news, and while Americans (media and otherwise) are glad they won with a minimum of casualties, that desire for an understandable story by the media is still there, and it's being fulfilled by this "where are the WMDs?" furor. It has three very compelling aspects to it: it's relatively simple ("did they lie to us, or were they deceived"?) it's relatively safe (the war is over, and the occupation is a reality, so there's no danger of guessing wrong and getting killed for it), and it taps into that most quintessentially American of attitudes: distrust of authority. Those factors (among others) make it a pretty compelling story.

(Outside the U.S., of course, it's much simpler. They were against it, they thought Bush was lying, and they think they're proven right.)

How far this goes, I can't say. I doubt it'll mess with public attitudes any more than the Clinton impeachment did. What it may do is pry the media away from Bush's spin, just a little. That, I think, will be an unquestionably good thing.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

My apologies for the light updating (although not so light as Digby... what's he up to?) but it's been largely due to low access to computers from which I can properly update.

(Either multiple windows aren't allowable, which means that linking is a severe hassle, or the computer simply doesn't run Blogger properly. Or it uses Netscape 4.7, which is by far the worst problem of the three. Yecch.)

Still, I did want to address one comment that was made over at Talking Points Memo, which is this idea that some have made that attacks on neo-conservatism are actually Anti-Semitic. In a word, this is ludicrous, no matter how you define the word "Semitic". If you're referring to the genetically related ethnic group, then it's a complete non-starter, as political beliefs have squat to do with race/ethnicity. If you're talking about adherents of the Jewish religion, then that doesn't make sense either, because there's no reason why anyone Jewish would adhere to a particular political creed any more than anyone else. If you're talking about some sort of cultural nexus of the two, then that doesn't make sense either, because there's no connection I can possibly see between Strauss-influenced conservatism and Jewish beliefs, culture, and doctrine.

(Indeed, Straussian neo-conservatism might be considered as threatening to Jewish minorities, as it is through liberal concepts of minority protection and individual (and collective) rights that minorities are protected within modern liberal democracies. I'm no expert on Strauss, though, so I may be off on that.)

The only reason one can possibly bring forward for this is that because many neo-conservatives are Jewish, those who are criticizing one are criticizing the other. It fails, however, both for the reasons mentioned above and the simple problem that it would be uselessly ineffectual as criticism. As I've said earlier, although the set "Jewish" and the set "Neo-Conservative" overlap, you'd be wasting enormous time and energy attacking the "Neo-Conservative" set in order to attack the "Jewish" set. You'd be ticking off conservatives and leaving everybody else somewhat befuddled as to the point of the attacks. Why bother, when one could simply attack Jewish people? As many, many far right wing people do, something ignored too often nowadays?

Heck, what was that quote about Dubya saying that the first thing he's going to say to Jewish supporters is that they're all going to hell? Taking potshots at Wolfowitz's policy is pretty pale compared to that.

These sorts of transparent attempts to turn political critique into racism have not been accepted when aimed at the right by the left. Why on earth they think they can get away with it in reverse is beyond me.