Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Dean flap, Part I: A sign of passion that's good for Democrats

As some of you may know, DNC Chair Howard Dean is at the center of a storm of controversy, much of it exaggerated by both the mainstream media (which isn't focusing on the real news) and the right-wing commentariat/blogosphere (which doesn't want to focus on the real news), over certain comments he has made recently regarding Republicans. Here's the story, such as it is, but let's take a look at this a bit more closely over a couple of posts:

I'm philosophically liberal but more of a centrist, Clintonian Democrat, but I honestly have no problem with Dean as DNC Chair. Although the right has (at times successfully) painted him as some sort of Vermontian radical determined to guide America towards some sort of socialist hell (in their view), and although I may disagree with him on any number of specific issues, he brings a passion and a fire (yes, the infamous scream was an unfortunate manifestation) to the table that seems to elude many Democrats. Compare Reid or Pelosi, for example, the Democrats' two Congressional leaders. Now, much of the criticism of late has come from Biden and Edwards, two men who are already running for president and who are trying to stake out territory to the right of Dean (at least in terms of perception). But why can't the Democratic Party be big enough for all of them?

Now, I agree that Democrats need to frame issues more effectively, and it won't help if their leaders, not least the DNC Chair, is mouthing off in such a way as to alienate moderate voters. But what exactly did Dean say? This is important because both the mainstream media and the right-wing commentariat/blogosphere are content to focus on the fact that Democrats are bickering internally rather than on the facts of Dean's comments. First, he said that DeLay should be in jail. Okay, fine. That's blunt. And honest. And, in my view, not all that far off. If not in jail, he should at least be removed from public life -- even if his continuing presence in Congress is a boon to Democrats looking ahead to 2006. Second, he said that Republicans don't understand working-class issues. Well, yeah. That's right on. They don't. They understand some of the values of some working-class Americans (such as those weird Kansans who seem to have something the matter with them), but they don't understand the economic plight of so many of them. Isn't this a big Edwards issue, too?

But then both Biden and Edwards, two nationally-prominent senators, come out (on TV, where they hope secure ever more attention) and claim that Dean doesn't speak for them, that he doesn't speak for many Democrats. I just don't see the problem. The Democratic Party is (or should be) a big-tent party. If you disagree with Dean, fine, but why go out and be so public about it, why try to create a wedge within the party? Why not stand united against the Republicans, while allowing for internal dissent. Personally, I respect the Demcratic Party much more for the fact that it is big enough to contain both Dean and moderates like Biden and Edwards.

I think AMERICAblog gets it right here: The right-wing commentariat, including its vitriolic blogospheric component, is all over this because they love to see Democrats feed on each other. But I do think that Biden and Edwards are both to blame for contributing to the divides that have characteristically sunk the Democratic Party. I'm all for diversity and debate, but let's make sure it's healthy diversity and debate, where different people and ideas are taken seriously and not simply ridiculed or otherwise held up to contempt. If we can learn anything from the Republicans (at least from Reagan's Republicans), it's that, in the end, unity matters.

(For Part II, see here.)

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Friday, June 10, 2005

It's the culture, stupid! But what to do about it?

There's a fine piece on parents and the culture wars by Mark Schmitt over at TPM Cafe, some of it based on his personal experience working for Bill Bradley in the mid-'90s. Schmitt's four main points:

  • "First, this is one of those issues about which the only reasonable reaction is an ambivalent one, and it's fair to assume that many of those who say they're concerned about culture in this way have a similarly ambivalent or complex reaction."
  • "Second, be careful about assuming that this is an area where there's a lot of opportunity for left-right alliances... [Y]ou can quickly find yourself in bed with people who seem to be talking about the same thing, but whose real gripe is with the positive portrayal of gay people, single parents and sexually active single people in the media."
  • "Third, avoid 'policy literalism.' Just because people in polls say, "I'm concerned about sex and violence in the media," that doesn't mean that the only plausible response is to propose a law that would somehow limit sex and violence in the media."
  • "Fourth, there may be an opportunity here for a broader shift in the debate about the market and government."

Where do I stand on this? Back in the early-'90s, when I was at Tufts, I found myself submerged in the culture wars, largely as an op-ed columnist for The Tufts Daily (my column was also called The Reaction). Then, my target was the academic left, which was very much in the ascendancy on college campuses across America. Tufts may not have been the most radical college in America, but it seemed to me that it had largely given in to political correctness, deconstruction, relativism, the dismantling of the traditional curriculum in favour of superficial interdisciplinary pursuits, and a rejection of the Great Books as educational tools. No, I didn't call for the return of Greek and Latin, but I objected to what I saw as a hijacking of higher education by an academic left more concerned about social engineering and its radical political agenda than with liberal education. Absolutism is the enemy of liberal education, and, back then, absolutism was very much a phenomenon of the left.

I still stand by what I wrote back then, but, clearly, the absolutism has shifted to the right. And now that I'm away from the cultural hotbed of an American college campus, I find myself defending a liberal culture -- liberty supported by education -- against the absolutism of the right. This makes me something of a cultural libertarian, I suppose, and in this respect I'm very much in agreement with Schmitt. I do worry about the so-called coarsening of the culture, and, though not yet a parent, I do worry about the exposure of children to what is at times an awfully vulgar culture. But this, to me, requires responsible parenting, education that prepares young people for an increasingly complex cultural environment, and a recognition that, in many cases, the world of adulthood should be closed to children. The great cultural critic Neil Postman once wrote about the disappearance of childhood, that is, the breakdown of the necessary divide between childhood and adulthood, and he was, as usual, right on the mark. But what we don't need is censorship. There need to be barriers to prevent children from accessing what is specifically "adult" culture, such as pornography or even certain mainstream movies, but adults, in my view, should be able to access such adult content freely and without fear of recrimination.

But, let's face it, even my cultural libertarianism has its limits. This is the problem that plagues all liberals. We want liberty, not licence, but where is the line between the two? Liberty at its limits, after all, resembles licence, and the two ultimately become one and the same. For example, I support the legality of pornography for adults, but clearly I don't support all pornography: some crosses the line, the moral line that I set somewhere out on the fringes, but my line might not be your line and I may find myself in disagreement even with accepted communal standards, which are themselves constantly in flux. So what to do? Perhaps the answer is not the draw some firm legal line between acceptable and unacceptable "culture," but rather simply to acknowledge that the issue is complex and that absolutism will get us nowhere.

Ultimately, the rule of law must prevail, and that means the usual interplay between different branches of government, with different interests balanced against one another and transient public opinion set against constitutional safeguards. And this means that different communities will have somewhat different standards of what constitutes appropriate culture. As long as individual liberty is protected, and as long as public policy does not descend into the quagmire of censorship, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Scandal fatigue revisited: The Bush version

The Carpetbagger Report, one of my favourite blogs, has a good post today on so-called "scandal fatigue" (a concept which emerged during the Clinton years), and it takes a look at what we'll here call One Week in the Life of the Presidency of George W. Bush.

Call it "scandal fatigue," sure, but the key word here is "scandal". Reagan was once known as The Teflon President, but Bush is so slippery that he makes the Gipper look more like The Velcro President. The problem is, there's too much "fatigue" out there -- not least on the part of the media -- to do much about it. No, I'm not saying that I want to see investigation after endless investigation, and I'm certainly not saying (unlike some liberals out there) that Bush should be impeached, but I do think that it is in the best interests of the American people to have the confidence that their government, and its highest office, is clean. The re-emergence of Watergate as a popular topic of conversation this past week only serves to remind us of what can happen when it isn't clean and when Americans lose that confidence, when their trust is shattered. (And we Canadians know all about this, given the corruption that plagues Ottawa at the moment).

So much scandal, so much fatigue. The irony is, they seem to be cancelling each other out.

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Sign of the Apocalypse #7: Welcome to Brangelina

A brilliant dissection of America's celebrity culture (and those of us who live vicariously through it), via the Sawyer-Pitt interview on ABC a couple of days ago, by Slate TV critic Dana Stevens. A must-read. Key passages:
In its particularly stark association between gossip and guilt -- watch these dying kids for a while, and we'll throw you a Pitt/Aniston tidbit for your trouble -- the Prime Time encounter exemplified the kind of sadomasochistic push-pull that's constantly at work between the celebrity media and its consumers. For weeks, ABC has been dangling snippets of the upcoming interview that promise some kind of revelation or intimacy; when, as instructed, we tune in to watch, we're upbraided for having been interested, then offered a drop of Jolie juice, then scolded again. How can we even think about such things when children are starving in Africa? But look: Brad and Angelina are so hot together! The dialectic carousel goes round and round, all the way to the bank: Brad Pitt is above all of this media frenzy. Brad Pitt has his priorities in order. Therefore, go see Brad Pitt's new movie...

The inner lives of celebrities have become our Torah, our Quran, our Book of Revelations (or maybe our Dianetics), to be scrutinized and deciphered as if performing exegesis on some cryptic sacred text. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes leap on talk-show sofas, snog openly in front of hordes of paparazzi and hysterically declaim their passion to the press ("I miss him right now," Katie told one reporter, "And it's been like an hour!") -- but we know, we just know, they are lying -- their fake affair must conceal some far more perverse reality. Conversely, Brad Pitt wearily denies the existence of the mutant couple-creature that Access Hollywood has already dubbed "Brangelina" (that 60-page photo spread in the July issue of W, featuring Pitt and Jolie as a fictional suburban married couple, should be a big help in quelling the rumors), but we know he's lying too. Is our suspicion a healthy sign of resistance to celebrity bullshit, or just another trick to keep us buying magazines?

Memo to the celebrity-industrial complex, for whenever you hold your next top-secret cabal in a secure bunker beneath the "Hollywood" sign: It isn't fair. You can't brainwash us with the culture of celebrity, only to scold us for wanting the myth. You can't have your publicity-machine cake -- a tasty confection made entirely of money -- and eat your moral righteousness too. If the studio wants to use every means necessary to hawk tickets to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, so be it. But I'll take mine without the guilt, and worry about Africa on my own time.

Exceptional stuff from one of our finest cultural observers. (So good that I'll avoid my usual commentary, which in this case would be just a bit too obvious.)

This "celebrity-industrial complex" is truly the mother of all Signs of the Apocalypse, perhaps even the Apocalypse itself. I think I need to lie down.

(Anyone wanna see Mr. and Mrs. Smith with me? I can't resist!)

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Colin Powell on The Daily Show

Politics and partisanship aside, a truly admirable man who deserves our attention. I may not always agree with him, and he may have unintentionally misrepresented the Iraqi threat at the U.N., but I have nothing but respect for him. If only the other actors behind the Iraq War were so eloquent in defence of their actions. If only those other actors had listened to him at the time (and on so much else).

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Yuan a piece o' me?

My friend and colleague Vivek Krishnamurthy, who runs the Dominion Wine & Cheese Society (see link, right) and who has provided a good deal of technical support over here at The Reaction (in fact, he turned me on to Blogger in the first place), is something of an expert on economics and international trade (not to swell his ego or anything), and the other day he posted an excellent piece on America's trade deficit, specifically in relation to China. Check it out here. As something of a fiscal (moderate) conservative myself (a real one, that is, one who believes in responsibility), I agree that the U.S. would do well to get its "own fiscal house in order" by rolling back some of Bush's tax cuts and substantially reducing the deficit (which only burdens future generations with a massive debt that may sink American prosperity). In this sense, Vivek is right that the U.S. is currently plagued by "responsibility avoidance". It's time to do something about it.

In short, there's nothing conservative about the conservatives in Washington -- where conservatism, under Bush, has come to mean class warfare in the form of irresponsible tax cuts that favour the highest tax brackets and renewed dedication to the very unconservative concept of Big Government. This should concern both liberals and conservatives, not to mention sober moderates who emphasize responsibility, but the madness goes on.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

No filibuster for you, Janice Rogers Brown!

I've already written a good deal about the filibuster deal that essentially paved the way for three of Bush's more extreme judicial nominees to be confirmed -- see here, here, and here -- and today Janice Rogers Brown followed Priscilla Owen as the second to be confirmed, also by a 56-43 vote in the Senate. The Post reports here.

It's tough not to be worn down by all this. I generally opposed the filibuster deal struck by moderates and mavericks in the Senate, not because I myself promote opposition for opposition's sake when it comes to anything Bush and the Republicans want to do, nor because I'm so far on the left that I simply oppose most or everything they want to do, nor because I oppose moderate solutions (in fact, we need more moderate solutions in this time of extreme partisanship). Indeed, I realize that a conservative president will nominate mostly conservative judges and that most of those nominees will go through, and that, on the whole, that's not necessarily such a bad thing. After all, a liberal president will nominate mostly liberal judges, and that's just the way it goes when judicial nominations are political. No, what I object to here is that the filibuster deal has allowed for the confirmation of three judges who, in my opinion (and in the opinion of many others), are well outside the mainstream of American life (after the Brown vote, the Senate voted to end the filibuster of William Pryor's nomination -- he will soon be confirmed). The Democrats allowed the vast majority of Bush's nominees to sail through, but they attempted to block these particular nominations for good reasons, not just to win some meaningless partisan battle. I address some of this in my previous posts (see links above), but Echidne of the Snakes, a fellow blogger, has a good post on Brown's extremism here.

The Democrats may yet try to block Bush's four other extremist nominees (Henry Saad, William Myers, William Haynes, and Brett Kavanaugh), as they were not included in the filibuster deal, but the damage has already been done. All I will say is that I would similarly object if a Democratic president attempted to push through similarly extremist nominees on the left. The filibuster is a valuable parliamentary tool to protect the minority party and to prevent extremism (although I realize that Southern segregationists used it in opposition to civil rights). The confirmations of Owen, Brown, and Pryor show what can happen when it is removed. (For more on this, see Mark Schmitt's interesting take on the filibuster and the intensity of political desire here. Although I worry about the relationship between desire and politics, and don't necessarily think that passion should guarantee success, Schmitt makes the persuasive point that the filibuster is "one of the few ways our democracy has to measure intensity of conviction".)

The filibuster deal may have been seen as a victory for the moderates, but it has not yet contributed anything to the cause of political moderation.

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Blogging for Darfur

As I have written about Darfur in recent days, I thought I should mention a blog called Coalition for Darfur, a joint effort by Demagogue (on the left) and Southern Appeal (on the right). Such bipartisanship is rare in the blogosphere, I know, but the Coalition does some excellent work raising awareness and otherwise generating support for a truly worthy cause. How best to deal with Darfur remains the big question. Nicholas Kristof suggested a few ideas (short of full-out military involvement) in the Times yesterday, and I responded to his column, and vented my own moral outrage, here at The Reaction: see here (and check out the comments to that post for additional reflections). This debate will continue, with different suggestions proposed, but one thing is clear: What's going on in Darfur is an atrocity. Let's at least agree on that. Then maybe we can work to get something done.

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Does America need a good therapist?

Over at TPM Cafe, an excellent new group blog where I occasionally cross-post some of my writing for The Reaction, Josh Marshall (Mr. TPM himself) recently brought up the old (and seemingly forgotten) question of how the U.S. got into Iraq in the first place. "[O]n this question," he says, "the country is in an eerie state of national denial." Well, his post provoked many, many comments from readers, including two by me. I reprint the more significant one here. I wrote it quickly, and, reading it over now, there are obviously parts of it that seem undeveloped and that I'd like to flesh out a bit. But I'll leave it more or less as is, and, needless to say, I'd certainly like to know what you all think about America's state of denial:

In this context (Iraq and what got us there), I liken America (and, sorry, I say this as a Canadian) to an individual who just won't go to therapy lest he or she discover shocking truths about his or her past. Even if we suspect we know the truth, not many of us are strong enough to handle the truth, to deal with what makes us who we are. We prefer to live under the cover of some self-made mask, a thin veneer of self-protection that allows us to lead relatively "normal" lives.

It seems to me that Americans have begrudgingly come to accept that Iraq is a reality. The enthusiasm of the invasion quickly gave way to the drudgery of occupation. That may have been interesting at first, but it's given way to a certain, well, numbing of the American mind, where even the most grotesque violence seems banal (18 killed in a mosque, 40 others injured -- what does this even mean anymore?). It's sort of like Darfur: even if we could get our head around it, many of us just don't want to, lest we lose whatever shred of sanity keeps us going from day to day.

All this is to say that any understanding of America in Iraq will require psychohistory if the story is to be told in any meaningful way in terms of the homefront. That may be the case with any war, but there does seem to be an unusually high amount of self-denial here. Maybe because the spectre of Vietnam looms ever present in the background. Or maybe because the incessant coverage in the media leads to an equal counter-reaction of detachment. All this is speculation. We need therapy to get at the answers.

It's easy to see why the Bush Administration is doing what it can to suppress the history of the lead-up to war. Whether they knew what they were doing or whether they just got it wrong (and I suspect it was quite a bit of both), the urgency is to spin a different yarn, lest Bush's approval rating fall ever lower. For all the rhetoric, they know that things haven't gone according to plan (whatever plan there was), but, no, the truth can't come out so blatantly.

But I wonder why Americans themselves aren't more outraged by this. Is it because they, too, can't handle the truth? Or because they don't want to know what they already know but are pretending not to care much about? Thousands died in Vietnam, after all, and for what? The pain of that war lingers so profoundly in the American psyche. Can it take yet more meaningless death? Thousands have died in Iraq, both American forces and even greater numbers of civilians -- and how many more (do we even know?) have been severely, even irreparably, wounded? Do we really want to find out that it was for a lie? Or a mistake? For some utopian neocon vision? Or Bush's Freudian efforts to overcome his father? Or for the sake of -- gasp -- politics? (Note: In my last post, I wrote that there were legitimate moral and humanitarian reasons to intervene in Iraq. Still, questions linger.)

Admittedly, some of it may also have to do with the fact that American attention spans have dwindled into obscurity. What was it Bart Simpson said when he learned that Homer had been a member of the B-Sharps? I can't even remember what happened eight minutes ago. And they all laugh. Some of that must be going on here. We're too busy with the Michael Jackson verdict or Rob and Amber's wedding to care much about the nuances of intelligence gathering and political manipulation. That's not a good thing, but it's the unfortunate truth.

I wonder, too, what the history books will say. I suppose it depends on how Iraq turns out. But it will also come down to who writes the history books. Right now, I'd even take Dr. Phil. A dose of therapy is what America needs most. Otherwise, Iraq, like Vietnam, will seep ever further into America's subconscious, forever to wreak havoc with her more noble ambitions.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Thanks for your support, but please don't bring up global warming!

A special relationship, to be sure. Posted by Hello

Say what you will about Tony Blair -- and these days in hyper-partisan America he can apparently be anything from a Clintonian Democrat to a neoconservative fellow traveller -- the guy tries. I developed enormous respect for him during the build-up to Iraq, when it seemed that he and Colin Powell (U.N. presentation notwithstanding) were the lone voices of reason and sanity in an overheated environment of hawkish warmongering. At the time, I supported the war, and I did so because I believed what I was being told (i.e., that Saddam had WMDs), because there didn't seem to be any other workable option to contain Saddam once the push to war was underway, and because of Tony Blair. Simply put, I'm a hawk myself. Although I realize that war and diplomacy must be pursued within the parameters of national self-interest and the contexts of any given situation, I generally believe that foreign policy must allow room for moral, humanitarian intervention. This doesn't mean that, for example, the U.S. needs to invade China, or even North Korea, but it does mean that America's foreign policy ought to be guided, at least in part, by such moral and humanitarian considerations. This is essentially what I was suggesting in my last post, and I invite you to read through an interesting discussion between me and one of my loyal (and extremely thoughtful) readers in the comments section of that post -- click here (and scroll down).

Well, Blair was in Washington to meet with Bush, and, as the Times reports, both men strongly rejected the notion that the so-called Downing Street Memo implicates the U.S. in "fixing" intelligence and in planning for war with Iraq as early as 2002. For a detailed examination of the DSM, see here. For a transcript of the DSM, see here. There's a lot out there on the DSM, especially in the liberal blogosphere, and I won't add much more here (just Google it). Suffice it to say that it seems to be a damning piece of evidence that the Bush Administration effectively lied about alleged Iraqi WMDs, about related intelligence matters, and about its own reasons for going to war. (In addition, AMERICAblog reports on Bush's collapsing approval ratings: see here.) However, the DSM doesn't necessarily provide a rejection of the moral, humanitarian grounds for intervention, nor of the many other reasons to go to war, reasons that the Bush Administration largely ignored or downplayed. Ed Kilgore addresses some of this at TPM Cafe: see here. Specifically, Kilgore mentions "Saddam's serial defiance of the international community, his genocidal behavior in the past, and his refusal to allow adequate inspections to ensure he had abandoned an earlier WMD program". As much as the DSM may arouse our ire -- although I find calls for Bush's impeachment somewhat irresponsible -- it's important, I think, to keep these less controversial reasons in mind. Blair did, and that's why I admire him still.

But let's move on. As much as Blair has been linked to Bush on Iraq, he isn't the American puppet that some of his critics make him out to be. The DSM is getting all the press, of course, but at least one hugely positive development came out of the Bush-Blair meeting, specifically concerning African debt-relief. But here's where Blair want to go further (and where we see that he isn't just Bush's yes-man. According to the Times, "Mr. Blair failed to persuade Mr. Bush to agree to a doubling of aid to Africa, to $25 billion, from the world's richest nations, or to close the gap with the administration on policy toward climate change. Mr. Blair has cited the two areas as top foreign policy priorities." All Bush said about aid to Africa was that more will be done "down the road". Clearly, however, global warming isn't one of his own priorities. As the Times reports, "[a] White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming". In addition:

Efforts by the Bush administration to highlight uncertainties in science pointing to human-caused warming have put the United States at odds with other nations and with scientific groups at home.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who met with President Bush at the White House yesterday, has been trying to persuade him to intensify United States efforts to curb greenhouse gases. Mr. Bush has called only for voluntary measures to slow growth in emissions through 2012.

Yesterday, saying their goal was to influence that meeting, the scientific academies of 11 countries, including those of the United States and Britain, released a joint letter saying, "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.

Blair is clearly a formidable world leader on these issues. Not the only one, of course, but his commitment to these and other important causes is undeniable, as is his continuing commitment to moral, humanitarian intervention where possible. More to the point, though, his close relationship with Bush clearly allows him a certain access to the highest reaches of the world's superpower that eludes most other world leaders. He may not have secured an agreement to boost aid to Africa, and his efforts to focus on global warming may not have gone anywhere, but at least he tried.

When we all worry about American unilateralism and the innumerable crises that confront us all, it's good to have someone like Tony Blair in the Oval Office, if only as a key ally. At least Bush listens to him and takes him seriously. Maybe that's all we can really expect, but it's something.

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Monday, June 06, 2005

Genocide under our noses: What to do about Darfur?

Nicholas Kristof's column in the Times today is a must-read -- as I've mentioned before, he's at his strongest when he's reporting from faraway forgotten lands, and his work on Darfur is notably powerful.

Last fall President Bush declared the slaughter here in Darfur to be genocide, and then looked away. One reason for his paralysis is apparently the fear that Darfur may be another black hole of murder and mutilation, a hopeless quagmire to suck in well-meaning Americans - another Somalia or Iraq.

It's not.

We're again making the same mistake we've made in past genocides: as in the slaughter of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans and Bosnians, we see no perfect solutions, so we end up doing very little. Because we could not change Nazi policies, we did not bother to bomb rail lines leading to death camps; today, because we have little leverage over Sudan, we do not impose a no-fly zone to stop the strafing of civilians or even bother to speak out forcefully.

So what exactly is going on in, say, the town of Labado?

For months, Labado was completely deserted and appeared destined to become a ghost town. But then African Union forces, soldiers from across Africa who have been dispatched to stop the slaughter, set up a small security outpost of 50 troops here. Almost immediately, refugees began returning to Labado, followed by international aid groups.

Today there are perhaps 5,000 people living in the town again, building new thatch roofs over their scorched mud huts. The revival of Labado underscores how little it takes to make a huge difference on the ground. If Western governments help the African Union establish security, if we lean hard on both the government and the rebels to reach a peace agreement, then by the end of this year Darfur might see peace breaking out.

For now, Labado is only an oasis, and when the people here step out of the town they risk being murdered or raped by the janjaweed militia.

Refugees fleeing to Kalma from a village called Saleya described how nine boys were seized by the janjaweed, stripped naked and tied up, their noses and ears cut off and their eyes gouged out. They were then shot dead and left near a public well. Nearby villagers got the message and fled.

Aid workers report that in another village, the janjaweed recently castrated a 10-year-old boy, apparently to terrorize local people and drive them away. The boy survived and is being treated.

So what to do? Kristof is right on the mark:

Yet along with atrocities, there are hopeful signs. While Mr. Bush should do more, he has forthrightly called the killings genocide and heaped aid on Darfur, probably saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

Indeed, aid shipments have brought malnutrition rates in much of Darfur below those of other places in Sudan, partly because donor governments have "borrowed" aid from other regions. So children are going hungry in southern and eastern Sudan as a consequence of Darfur.

If Mr. Bush led a determined effort to save Darfur, there would be real hope for peace here - plus, the international image of the U.S. would improve. And a new Zogby poll commissioned by the International Crisis Group found that Americans by margins of six to one favor bolder action in Darfur, such as a no-fly zone.

But Mr. Bush is covering his eyes. Last year administration figures like Colin Powell and John Danforth led the response to Darfur, but now neither Condoleezza Rice nor the White House seems much interested.

Darfur will never be a Somalia or Iraq, because nobody is talking about sending in American combat troops. But simply an ounce of top-level attention to Darfur would go a long way to save lives...

Mr. Bush values a frozen embryo. But he hasn't mustered much compassion for an entire population of terrorized widows and orphans. And he is cementing in place the very hopelessness he dreads, by continuing to avert his eyes from the first genocide of the 21st century.

One wonders what lessons we've learned. I understand that Vietnam and Somalia and now Iraq have justifiably scared many of America's even more determined hawks. And I understand that Darfur seems like an awfully remote place of little relevance to American national self-interest. And I understand that this isn't just an American problem that demands American unilateral action. After all, one could be equally critical of Canada, for example, or, more severely, of Europe. But let's keep this confined to an American context for now. Genocide is happening. Period. But nothing is happening. For all the rhetoric about the spread of liberty and the march of democracy, for all the talk of regime-change and nation-building, Darfur remains a distant thought, if a thought at all. Instead, we -- and I include myself here -- worry more about the Bolton nomination, or a few extremist judges, or the filibuster, or the European Constitution, or whatever -- often to absolute overkill, especially out here in the echo chambers of the blogosphere.

Look, I do no better. I sit here at my computer day after day and write posts on a variety of seemingly fascinating topics, linking to other sites and hoping for an occasional link in return, probably more concerned about my "traffic" than about thousands of anonymous deaths on a continent I've never even been to. And I comment and I comment and, from time to time, I wallow in my own self-importance and lust for recognition. Some of this is only natural. We live in our own worlds and what is our own -- ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbourhoods, our countries -- is most immediate and most important to us. There's no way around that, and even a healthy humanitarian perspective can't overcome that innate prejudice. And, too, opening our eyes to the horrendous events of some faraway forgotten land only brings shame. And who wants to feel such intense shame? But maybe that's exactly what we need. Maybe we do need to be shamed into doing something serious about what's going on in a place like Darfur.

And maybe we need to get angry. Why can't we all open our windows, lean our heads out, and shout, I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore? I'm not going to sit idly by while so many of my fellow human beings -- people I've never met but who, for all intents and purposes, are a lot like me -- suffer so horribly. Some such suffering may be inevitable. I'm enough of a realist about human nature, after all, to know that suffering and the infliction thereof won't go away. It's human, all too human. But it's also human, I think, to seek justice. The Greeks called it thymos, or spiritedness. It's that non-rational, non-erotic part of the human soul that underpins political action, preferably directed toward justice. It may to tough to muster that kind of spiritedness for the sake of justice across national boundaries and, indeed, across oceans and continents. But the world is smaller than ever before, and perhaps even flatter than ever before. We know what's happening in Darfur because people like Kristof are there, because accounts and images of the atrocities are available all over the media, not least on the internet, and because, in many ways, Darfur really isn't all that far away. The 20th century was marred both by totalitarianism and by mass genocide all around the world. The 21st century is already witnessing its first genocide. But there's time to do something about it, to put a stop to it.

If we learn anything from history, it's that we must act. And we must do so with a firm commitment to ensuring that justice is done. It's the right thing to do. Nothing less is acceptable.

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Forgetting about history: Watergate and the Nixonian mind

In my last post, I wrote that David Brooks just didn't get it. Well, David Broder reminds us that he's hardly alone.

In an excellent column in Sunday's Post, Broder reviews recent remarks by Pat Buchanan, a Nixon speechwriter, and Chuck Colson, Nixon's special counsel, both of whom have taken shots at Mark Felt. Where Brooks suggested that the major life lesson of Watergate has to do with Bob Woodward's youthful "frenzy," more or less ignoring Watergate itself, Broder is right on the mark in assessing Watergate's lasting significance:

The great benefit of W. Mark Felt's decision to identify himself as "Deep Throat," the famous Watergate secret source, is that a whole new generation of Americans now has a chance to learn just how perverse were the values that infected the Nixon White House.

Exactly. The main lesson of Watergate involves "the values that infected the Nixon White House," not Woodward's shameless vanity. But Brooks at least had a point -- and one with which I do not necessarily disagree -- and I even suspect that Brooks would agree that those Nixonian "values" were, well, bad. But the Nixonian apologists (and Watergate revisionists) who have emerged to try to discredit Felt, some way out on the conservative fringes, are clearly desperate to undermine Felt's credibility and to do so without addressing Watergate itself. Buchanan's lunacy was the most vivid: "There's nothing heroic about breaking faith with your people, breaking the law, sneaking around in garages, putting stuff from an investigation out to a Nixon-hating Washington Post." And then this: "[W]hat he did was help destroy an enormously popular president and, partly as a consequence of that, what 58,000 Americans died for in Vietnam was poured down the sewer."

What the hell is he talking about? The insane Vietnam comment simply doesn't deserve a response, but I would say that, whatever Felt's motivations, it is heroic to side with truth and justice against the lies and injustice of even "an enormously popular president". After all, lest the Buchanans of the world forget, it was that "enormously popular president" and those who worked for him who are to blame for Watergate, both the burglary and the cover-up, not a couple of diligent reporters who brought the story to light (even when no one believed them), and certainly not the man who pointed them in the right direction along the way. And it was that "enormously popular president" and those who worked for him who so cavalierly brought American democracy to a point of crisis from which it has still not fully recovered. Broder puts it brilliantly:

In these comments, Americans born in the 1970s, '80s and '90s can learn everything they need to know about the dangerous delusions of the Nixon era. The mind-set that created enemies lists, the blind loyalty to a deeply flawed individual, the twisting of historical fact to turn villains into heroes and heroes into villains -- they are all there.

Such tendencies are not unique to one White House; they go with the territory. They must be consciously resisted by men and women of conscience working within an administration and checked by those on the outside -- notably journalists -- whose job it is to monitor the presidency.

That is why excessive official secrecy is always suspect and why the isolation of a president behind a closed circle of advisers can lead to abuse of power.

Mark Felt did what whistle-blowers need to do. He took his information to reporters who diligently dug up the evidence to support his well-founded suspicions. The republic was saved and the public well served. That Colson and Buchanan still don't get it speaks volumes about them.

What is it they say about not learning the lessons of history?

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Sunday, June 05, 2005

The (real) lessons of Watergate

In his column in today's Times, David Brooks attempts to draw life lessons from the Watergate saga. Given the various right-wing assaults on Mark Felt in recent days, mostly from former Nixon cronies like Pat Buchanan and G. Gordon Liddy (but also, predictably, from the likes of Bob Novak), I was eager to read a sensible conservative's take on that sordid story from America's past, expecting some thoughtful insights into the nature of power, politics, and corruption. After all, the shadow of Watergate lingers still over America's political and cultural landscapes. With Vietnam, it put an end to innocence forever, and much of the cynicism and mistrust that plagues the country today can be traced back to those watershed events.

But... no. As it turns out, the major life lesson involves Bob Woodward's role in that story, specifically the egotistical career ambitions that drove him as a reporter, ambitions common to young people finding their way in New York and Washington. Brooks calls it "the starting-gate frenzy". On this point, he may be right (though I'll spare you his facile psychoanalysis). I've seen it, to lesser degree, in the world of academia that I've inhabited for much of my adult life, but it's obviously quite common in a place like Toronto. And it may very well be that Woodward was possessed by a certain "frenzy" early on in his career. We sense this in Woodward's own account the other day in the Post about his relationship with Felt (which, like so much else that he's written, is more about Bob Woodward, the greatest journalist in the history of journalism, than anything else). So, fine. I'll acknowledge that Woodward's role in Watergate does offer a valuable life lesson. But here's Brooks's conclusion:

For that is the purpose of Watergate in today's culture. It isn't about Nixon and the cover-up anymore. It's about Woodward and Bernstein. Watergate has become a modern Horatio Alger story, a real-life fairy tale, an inspiring ode for mediacentric college types - about the two young men who found exciting and challenging jobs, who slew the dragon, who became rich and famous by doing good and who were played by Redford and Hoffman in the movie version.

Woodward was nervous once, like you.

Fair enough. Woodward and his gigantic ego have indeed become parts of the story, as is often the case in today's media. But Brooks is wrong on one crucial point: Watergate is still "about Nixon and the cover-up," much more than it's about Woodward and his youthful "frenzy" to climb the ladder of journalistic success. And it's not "a real-life fairy tale" or "an inspiring ode," and it's not about the Redford-Hoffman movie -- it's about what happens when power corrupts, when a democracy even as strong as America is taken over by renegade elements that threaten its very foundations -- it's about how a presidency was brought down by its own shameful behaviour, by its own circumvention of the rule of law -- and, in the end, it's about the triumph of justice over corrupted power and about the preservation of American democracy altogether.

Years from now, as Woodward's name recedes into the mists of history, the teller of the story rather than the story itself, that's what people will remember about Watergate. Young people in New York and Washington will no doubt continue to succumb to that "frenzy," but the real lessons of Watergate, the lessons that should be uppermost in the minds of a vibrantly democratic people ever vigilant, ever watchful for the signs of encroaching tyranny, will retain their timeless significance.

To overlook those lessons is to draw down a veil of ignorance over the democratic spirit.

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