Saturday, December 30, 2006

Two End of 2007 Observations

Just two.

Saddam Hussein: Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't a show-execution held after a show-trial which was the direct result of unnecessary and unpopular US military action inh Iraq.

Gerald Ford: He did NOT heal the country by pardoning Nixon. Rather, he betrayed the will of the American people who wanted to see a criminal president brought to justice. He should not be praised for that. Rather, we should all be reminded that Ford, a man never elected to the Presidency, acted without regard for the wishes of the electorate.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Time's Person of the Year

Is... You?

Er, me?

I dunno. Can't tell. They should have at least called me for comment though, if they're going to write about me. That's just polite. Unless they mean you. Did they call you?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Anti-Semitic Carter?

So, Jimmy Carter just published a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a lot of people are freaking out.

That's predictable. It's a freak-out topic. When a former US President writes about it, the freak-out will be significant.

A disclaimer: I haven't read the book. I'm not doing a book review or a review of the book reviews. But I have heard Carter talking about why he wrote the book and what he thinks of Israel and Israelis a couple times, and I'm pretty sure that he's not an anti-Semite. So I'm curious why people feel okay calling him one.

Yes, Carter is critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. But Carter also speaks glowingly of democracy within Israel, and I've never heard or read anything he's said that would make him sound like Hitler, or David Duke, or Louis Farrakhan. He hasn't even called New York "Hymietown."

That didn't keep people from calling him an anti-Semite. A case study is New Republic Editor-in-Chief Marty Peretz, who writes, "I believe [Carter] feels deep rancor towards the Jews and deeper rancor towards Israel. And those feelings give him all the knowledge he thinks he needs." Without quoting meaningfully from the book, Peretz speculates on why Carter is such an anti-Semite: "Maybe it comes from his mother. Or maybe it comes from his brother." Ultimately, it doesn't matter." He then goes on to conclude "[W]herever it comes from, it is now a part of his life and his legacy. That's how he will go down in history: as a Jew hater."

Ouch! "Jew hater!" Other Carter critics like New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz have confined himself to calling Carter anti-Israeli or "deeply cynical." I don't think he's either, but those are fair enough accusations to make in response to a critique of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. But "Jew-hater"?

I don't think I'm alone in saying that I'm tired of people getting called Jew haters for criticizing Israeli government policy. I understand that Israel is for most Jews the religious homeland and, if not a literal homeland, then at least a comforting reality--with Israel there, even if the world turns as (truly) anti-Semitic as Germany was under the Nazis, there will be a strong, well-organized government dedicated to the protection of Jews and the Jewish religion. I understand that, and I don't underestimate Israel's importance psychologically and geopolitically.

But let's not lose track of the fact that Israel is a state, as such, it has a government and armed representatives who help that government control territory. That territory includes land seized during war, land populated by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in a political limbo, citizens of neither Israel nor the neighboring Muslim states (which often exploit the Palestinians' predicament without actually helping them). It's possible to criticize Israel's treatment of Palestinians without being anti-Israeli. (Israelis do it all the time.) And it's possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. (Just as it's possible to criticize Iran or Syria or Saudi Arabia without being anti-Muslim.)

In addition to resenting any criticism of Israel per se, Peretz also calls Carter "silly," "ignorant," and "malicious" for comparing Israeli policy in the occupied territories to aparteid. Dershowitz and Goldberg, though more polite (and reasoned), make much the same point. They say that since Carter is claiming that the "separation barrier"--Israel's enormous wall in and around the occupied territories--is a land grab by Israeli settlers at the expense of Palestinians, it's cynical and/or foolish to compare it to the racialized hierarchy of South African aparteid.

Well, okay, but let's remember how the colonial world that produced aparteid worked. It's not like a bunch of Afrikaners and English people said to themselves, "Hey, since we're superior to black people, let's all move 10,000 miles to put a society in place that reflects that superiority." I don't underestimate the deep and irrational movements and powers of racist beliefs in those colonists (and in pretty much everybody in the world at that time and now), but I'm pretty sure that the huge majority of colonists who moved to South Africa and fought the Zulu (and one another) in bloody war after bloody war over centuries as well as the governments and corporations who supported those colonists did so in order to make money and to control land. Racism might have been a primary motivation for some, and was surely a primary rationalization for many, but colonialism always has been about money, land, and the power that they confer. And if you're in the role of colonizer--if you both exist under and survive courtesy of the threat of force, if you live on land that other people lived on and still believe belongs to them--it's pretty much inevitable that you'll become bigoted against those people. The only other possibilities are hysterical denial, substance abuse, going insane, or joining a revolution.

So when Carter says that a land grab in the occupied territories and the laws needed to support that land grab look like aparteid even though it isn't motivated by the same kind of racism that motivated the white colonizers of South Africa and the aparteid system that came out of their consolidating their hold on South Africa, he might well be right. I don't know. I haven't been to Gaza or the West Bank. (He has.)

And if Carter is right, Israel's supporters should (as many Israelis do) push their government for a serious change in policy, not spend their time calling him a Jew hater.

And if he's wrong, call him wrong. Not a Jew hater. Unless he actually, you know, says something hateful about Jews.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A bit about Iraq

It's been awhile since I wrote about Iraq here. Partly, it's because I'm sick of the topic. Which is a good enough reason to write about it now. Rumsfeld is out. The Baker commission is recommending a drawdown without a timetable. Former Iraq hawks are revising their earlier positions on the war. John McCain and Joe Lieberman and George Bush are staying the course.

It strikes me that being "sick of the topic," puts me in the mainstream of public opinion for once. Americans have had enough. But, those of us who opposed the war in the first placed had warned, four years ago, that it would be so hard to win that, inevitably, we'd reach this point. We went to war anyway. That prewar debate we had was kind of a one time thing. Once we invaded, the path was set. It would either be the cakewalk we were promised or the quagmire that we have. It can't be undone.

As a war opponent, the McCain/Lieberman notion that we shoukd double down and send more troops and spend more money is offensive. You want more devoted to a cause that I didn't support in the first place? But the notion that a US pull out would end hostilities is a bit too wishful and is basically the dovish equivalent of the "cakewalk" promise.

We're stuck.


There's not an easy answer. There aren't even palatable answers. The Bush administration screwed America.

There are so many issues that should be more important than Iraq. But we're stuck. Bush sent us down a path that's all sacrifice and no reward.

The best I can hope is that we learn from this. Our failure in Viet Nam actually kept the US out of a lot of wars in the years that followed. I remember that our quick victory in the first Gulf War was considered by many to be a tonic for the pain that Viet Nam caused. Over time, and despite the warnings that we experienced in Somolia, that tonic managed to unleash a militant US foreign policy once again. The only good that might come from Iraq would be that our failure there will reign us in again.

Lying Through Her Lipstick

So I'm sitting here listening to Torie Clarke telling Worldview host Jerome McDonnell that, by challenging her assertion that America has entered a "no-spin era" in which it's basically no longer desirable or even possible to spin stories, he is engaged in just such profitless spinning

If you hear faint popping sounds, that's my incredulity triggering explosions in various portions of my cerebral cortex.

Torie Clarke is a CNN analyst (and Comcast consultant) probably best known for having been Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Donald Rumsfeld (2001-2003), in which capacity she helped justify preparations for the invasion of Iraq.

If one takes a first-grader's definition of "spin," one might be able to grant her claim as a claim that somebody could plausibly make. That is, if one thinks that "spin" simply means lying blatantly and persistently through one's teeth despite the ready availability of contrary facts, it's possible to theorize an era in which screamingly obvious lying is so easy to expose that politicians shouldn't even bother trying. Recent, ancient, and middlin' history of course suggests that such an era is a fantasy. But at least it's a conceptually plausible fantasy: more Leave it to Beaver than Lord of the Rings.

But, come on. We all know that spin--real spin, effective spin--isn't only lying outright about factually verifiable things. For spin to work, that sort of lying is sometimes necessary but never sufficient. You need to mix lies with facts, miscontrue facts, or simply withhold crucial and inconvenient facts.

Clarke's approach during her interview with McDonnell (in which she's discussing her new book Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game) is a particularly good example of how the most effective form of spin is often the pretense that one is simply, as she's saying over and over is, "providing facts" rather than presenting a position. This is a favored tactic of debaters and spinmeisters of all varieties. It's been a particularly widespread and effective tactic for the right-wing punditry--it's not a coincidence that the subtitle of Clarke's new book echoes Bill O'Reilly's famed "No-Spin Zone" (spin central on O'Reilly's show). O'Reilly is particularly obvious in framing his opinions and assertions as facts, and Clarke is doing a much more sophisticated version of the same tactic with McDonnell.

The ostensible point of Clarke's new book (at least, as she's just represented it to McDonnell in the now-finished interview) is that public officials who screw up should admit it--fast--or reporters will be all over them. It's a nice thought. Maybe it's even true, sometimes at least. (Let's set aside that it took years and an invasion before reporters decided to ask tough questions about Saddam Hussein's phantasmagorical weapons of mass destruction or that it took Hurricane Katrina for the national press to make a big deal out of the fact that experts kept saying that neither New Orleans nor FEMA was ready for a Category 5 hurricane.)

But Clarke is either being naive or dishonest when she goes on to say the news media themselves need to learn to focus more closely on the facts than on the spin. For one thing, the claim undercuts her central argument--if the media are too easily caught up in their own spin, how likely are they to be voracious predators of haplessly spinning politicians? Moreover, what she means as "the facts" seems often to simply mean "the administration's stance."

In a revealing example of the easy slide between facts and opinion, Clark criticized reporters for obsessing over whether to call the mess in Iraq a "civil war" because doing so kept them from looking carefully at "the facts." But the whole point of those stories is an attempt to look at the facts in order to form a responsible opinion about what's happening. What counts as a fact? What facts count? Those are the basic questions of journalism. Claiming that it somehow distracts from the "real" task of journalism to figure out whether Iraq is in the middle of a civil war is downright peculiar. Virtually all journalists have to speak or write, even if it's just captions. That means they're going to have to name whatever they're covering. The phrase "the situation in Iraq" has one set of implications, as do the phrases "the Iraqi insurgency," "the Iraqi resistance," "the sectarian conflict in Iraq," "the violence in Iraq," etc. None of these are purely factual--they all result from and encourage particular appraisals of the situation on the ground.

And that's inevitable. The real problem isn't that kind of "spin." The real problem is the kind of spin that pretends complex problems are simple and that the spinner's opinions are facts.

Saturday, December 02, 2006 Special Report on Books

I really shy away from drawing my work at Forbes into this blog, but am making an exception this time. I just edited a special report on books and the future of publishing for the Forbes web site and even though I didn't write a piece for it, the whole package expresses my personality more than anything I've done for Forbes Magazine over the last 7 years. The company was really kind to give me this real estate and if anyone's lurking around this blog, I hope you'll click the link and check it out.

The big theme of the special report, by the way, is that whatever talk you might hear about the death of books is wrong and that while new technologies and the Internet certainly compete with books, they've also made books more relevant, prominent, and prevalent. The whole package is optimistic about the book's future in these "new media" times.

Read through it, please. And post your thoughts on it here.