Latest on Mansionization

The argument continues on the pages of the Beverly Press.  Here is my latest post:

As a resident of Beverly Grove, I am gratified at this good news out of the Planning Commission. This decision is an important victory in the fight to protect Beverly Grove from overdevelopment.

I feel compelled to correct some of the mistakes in Charles Tarlow’s characterization of the ordinance. Those interested in finding out what the ordinance actually says can consult it here:

The primary error in Mr. Tarlow’s analysis is his assumption that garages will count against the allowable square footage. This is the case only if homeowners choose to build ATTACHED garages. So long as the garage is DETACHED, it will be exempt from restrictions on square footage (see 4.a. in the ordinance).

It’s true that attached garages will count against the maximum square footage restriction. And for good reason! The simplest way to prevent oversized homes and ensure that neighbors’ light and privacy are protected is to incentivize detached garages.

In short, those choosing to build detached garages will be able to build up to 3050 sq. ft. (on the typical 6100 sq. ft. lot). This is larger than even the bigger older homes in the neighborhood. The ordinance allows for upgrading, remodeling, and even upsizing. The only thing it prevents is overdevelopment that intrudes on the rights of neighbors and undermines the character of the neighborhood.

As for the assertion that the ordinance does not reflect the will of the community, I would just say that the only official survey on the matter confirmed that more than 60% of the neighborhood was in favor of this ordinance. Anything else is mere speculation.

Thanks and congratulations to Paul Koretz and Shawn Bayliss on this. Now we just have to hope that they finish the job soon and shepherd the RFA across the finish line before more of the neighborhood is bulldozed.


“The Enduring Challenge of Rousseau”

I had the privilege of participating in a tercentenary commemoration of Rousseau’s birth at Colorado College in December.  The program for the conference can be viewed here.

The paper I presented on Rousseau and truthseeking is forthcoming in History of European Ideas.  Here is the abstract:

The Sublime Science of Simple Souls: Rousseau’s Philosophy of Truth

Though it has rarely been the subject of academic criticism, there is a philosophy of truth that animates Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s broader philosophical system.  This philosophy of truth was unique for its time in the same way the whole of Rousseau’s thought was—in its emphasis on feeling over reason, the heart over the mind, the simple over the sophisticated, the useful over the demonstrable, the personal over the systematic.  Rousseau’s philosophy of truth might be more accurately called a ‘philosophy of truthseeking’ or an ‘ethics of truthseeking,’ because its focus is on the pursuit and acquisition of truth rather than on the nature of truth itself.  What is needed, Rousseau believed, is a guide back to the simple truths of human happiness, truths that were immediately apparent to us in our natural state but have become opaque in society.  This article describes Rousseau’s normative philosophy truthseeking, of what human beings must do if they hope to (re)discover the truths of human happiness.  This philosophy can be summarized as utility, autonomy, immediacy and simplicity in pursuit of what Rousseau called the ‘truths that pertain to the happiness of mankind.’

Why didn’t the Oak Creek shooting dominate public discourse the way Aurora did?

Coordinated racism (of which Oak Creek shooter is at least in part a product) ought to concern us more than the truly random violence of Aurora. Yet the latter took over the public discourse for days, while the former has not. Robert Wright makes many of the important points, but I would add that James Holmes is probably especially interesting to the people who drive the public discourse, because he isn’t so far from being “one of us.” Same goes for the victims. Going to see a blockbuster is a pretty universal experience.

This made me think of Leigh Bienen’s “A Good Murder.” The perpetrator and the victims have to be properly cast in order for us to pay attention. When violence merely conforms to a pre-existing narrative, it doesn’t have much impact on public consciousness.

Mansionization Update

I’ve been working to stop mansionization in my Los Angeles neighborhood for five years.  Last week, we had a substantial victory, as Paul Koretz, our councilmember, publicly announced a serious proposal.  Our local paper covered the announcement and published my response:

Kudos to the Beverly Press and to Tim Posada for giving mansionization the coverage it deserves.

Paul Koretz’s handling of the mansionization issue is a simple case of a public official doing the job he was elected to do.  That this is newsworthy is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary politics.  Nevertheless, Councilman Koretz deserves credit for identifying an issue of public concern and responding to it.

A simple walk through the Beverly Grove neighborhood confirms what the councilman’s survey makes abundantly clear:  mansionization threatens the integrity, livability, and beauty of the Beverly Grove neighborhood.

McMansions subvert the long-term interest of the community in favor of the short-term, economic interests of developers and realtors.  In the end, homeowners pay the price as neighborhoods degrade.  Councilman Koretz is to be applauded for standing with homeowners in a political climate that is usually far too deferential to unfettered development.

Jason Neidleman

Beverly Grove homeowner


Miss USA and Scientific Illiteracy

There are those who see the theory of evolution as a threat to the viability of their faith tradition.  Why they fear science is itself a question worthy of investigation.  Science can neither validate nor invalidate a faith tradition,  although it may provide compelling reasons to reconsider particular doctrines or interpretations of scripture. Whatever their reasons, these folks have waged a two front war on the theory of evolution.  On one front, they have called into question the evidence for the theory itself.  On the other front, they have advanced various Creationist alternatives, the most recent of which is the theory of “intelligent design.”

Although none of these competing theories have established themselves as scientifically viable, they have been culturally influential.  In particular they have exploited (and deepened) scientific illiteracy.  Put simply, the theory of evolution is not something that one “believes in” or does not “believe in,” as the contestants for the most recent Miss USA pagaent answered when they were asked whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools.  (Only two answered that it should be.)  The theory of evolution, like all scietific theories, is something that one evaluates the evidence for.

The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain an empirical phenomenon.  It is the prevailing scientific explanation of that phenomenon because the preponderance of evidence supports it.  That is the standard for scientific validity.  The arguments for creationism trade on a willful disregard for the application of the scientific method.  To say there are multiple explanations for an empirical phenomenon is a commonplace.  What proponents of creationism and intelligent design have managed to do is to transform the notion of competing explanations into the notion of competing, equally valid explanations.  If there is more than one expalanation, then fairness would seem to dictate that they all be given equal weight.  What this ignores is the all-important fact that the evidence for these various explanations differs massively.  There is no evidence for Creationism and substantial evidence for the theory of evolution.

And yet we have the vast majority of Miss USA contestants taking the position that both intelligent design and the theory of evolution should be given equal weight in discussions of the origin and evolution of species.  Now, Miss USA contestants are not generally known for their scientific expertise, and one might be tempted not to worry too much about their scholarly dispositions.  The reality is that these contestants were offering an opinion that is commonly expressed in American society (and in Republican primary debates).  Does it matter that so many people don’t understand science?  Maybe not, although I think it probably does–particularly with regard to environmental policy.  But, even if it doesn’t have much impact on public policy, I can’t help but be offended by (and feel some responsibility for) the prevalence of scientific illiteracy.

This is not a Budget Battle

As the Ryan plan and the debate over cutting funding Planned Parenthood and the EPA make clear, the ongoing budget battles are really just the latest incarnation of the same old arguments over the role of the budget.  There is one difference, though, and it is a difference that works to the clear advantage of conservatives:  this time around, (almost) all parties to the debate  have accepted the premise that there is an imperative cut government spending (over 1/6 of the budget at least) and to cut it dramatically.

Since conservatives tend to favor smaller government (philosophically, at least), they will have the upper hand in any debate that begins from the premise that a successul outcome requires large cuts in spending.  Moreover, the spending cuts passed for the 2011 budget are restricted to the 1/6 of the budget that includes most of the programs that liberals tend to support and conservatives tend to oppose.  They do not touch military spending, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Barack Obama’s framing of the debate presupposes that it was about cutting the budget, rather than about the role of government.  Consequently, he has described the Democrats’ success in terms of the number of dollars that were cut from the budget.  As Ezra Klein argues, this sets up a discursive context, under which the ongoing budget debates will be constrained by the imperative to make further cuts.  This hurts Democrats in two ways.  First, they will probably have to make further cuts to their favored programs.  Second, they will likely be forced into austerity measures in the midst of an ongoing employment crisis.

Democrats would be better off if they stop competing with Republicans over who can cut more discretionary spending.  They ought instead to recognize that this is a debate about the role and size of government and to make their case on the basis of the programs they have managed to defend and the role of government spending in spurring employment.  They may have to agree to cuts, but that doesn’t mean that they have to agree to allow the debate to be determined by who proposes to cut the most.

Is Honest Public Discourse a Fantasy? Ctd

Yes, I would say it is.  But I would add a couple of caveats:

First, this applies only to politicians, not to those who comment on politics or judge politicians.

Second, although there will always be incentives for politicians to be dishonest, these incentives can be minimized if constituents are themselves committed to knowing the truth and acting on the basis of solid facts and sensible arguments.

Is Honest Public Discourse a Fantasy?

Politicians care about be re-elected, passing legislation, and accumulating power.   The may or may not also care about honesty in their discourse.  Say they do.  Is it reasonable to expect them to be honest when honesty is not the best route to re-election, the passage of legislation, and/or the accumulation of power?  Probably not.  The base we can do is understand this brute fact of politics and try to call them out when they lie.

Part of the reason lies and manipulation work so well is because constituents often prefer them to the truth.  The more we insist on getting the facts right and keeping the arguments straight, the more politicians will discover that their interest lies in keeping public discourse honest.

What is honesty?

We intuitively sense that honesty is a disposition toward the truth.  In particular, it is a disposition to tell the truth or at least a disposition against lying.  But, when we begin to think about honesty in more detail, several questions arise, and these questions sometimes make it difficult to determine when and if people are lying or telling the truth:

  • Must we always tell the truth?
  • Is it permissible to withhold truths?  If so, under what circumstances?
  • Is it ever permissible to obscure the truth or outright lie about it?  If so, under what circumstances?
  • Is it sufficient to believe that what we say is true, or must what we say actually be true?
  • How much are we obligated to verify that what we believe to be true is actually true?
  • Is it a requirement of honesty that we share all the relevant information we know to be true, or is it permissible to withhold some of this information?

As these questions demonstrate, what it means to be honest is not as simple as it might initially seem.  This is why it is so difficult to call someone a “liar” or something they’ve said a “lie.”  By withholding certain information or presenting it in a tendentious way, speakers can claim to have told the truth.  While they may not be able to claim that they have been honest, they can at least escape the charge of having lied.  They do this by what we call “innuendo,” “hype,” “propaganda,” “deception,” “insincerity,” “salesmanship,” “casuistry,” “rhetoric,” “bullshit,” “jive,” or “crap.”

Then there are all the errors in reasoning that philosophers refer to as “fallacies.”  These are mistakes rather than lies or dishonesty, but they are often used by people who know better so as to make people believe things that are not true.

Needless to say, politicians make use of all of these tools to convince us of what they want us to believe.  This is probably an inevitable part of politics, and we may not even want our politicians to tell the whole truth all of the time.

Mubarak: “I am the Only Remedy for the Problem I Created”

Hosni Mubarak’s argument for remaining in power is that he is Egypt’s best and only chance at stability, because he is the only one with the capacity to control the forces of Islamic extremism.

This is reminiscent of Machiavelli’s advice to princes:   find a problem for which you alone are the solution.  This will keep your people beholden to you and fearful of any alternative to you.  If this means manufacturing a crisis or threat, so be it.

The success of Mubarak’s claim validates what Machiavelli believed about his advice–that it would apply to princes in any historical context.  For thirty years, Mubarak’s argument has worked, at least in the United States, and it continues to have a hold over the US foreign policy establishment, even as millions of ordinary Egyptians are inspiring the world with their defense of political liberty.

The problem with the argument is that it was Mubarak himself who systematically purged all opposition parties, except for the Muslim Brotherhood.  And it has been Mubarak himself who has alternately empowered and subverted the Muslim Brotherhood as it has suited him.

Mubarak has consciously created the very problem, for which he now claims he is the solution, and somehow, some in the US seem to be still buying it.

Jared Loughner’s Sanity

In the course of the debate over the role political rhetoric played in Jared Loughner’s rampage, a lot of people insisted that Loughner is crazy, that he alone bears responsibility for his actions, and that anti-government political rhetoric had nothing to do with the incident.

As Loughner’s trial begins and, with it, his inevitable insanity defense, it will be interesting to see many of those same people walk back their earlier remarks.  This is an example of how exaggerating, mischaracterizing or otherwise getting the arguments wrong can come back around to haunt future endeavors, in which it may be really important to to get the facts and the arguments right.

“Government Takeover of Health Care”

The Health Care law involves the government in certain aspects of health care policy, such as setting up exchanges and enforcing the individual mandate requiring everyone to carry health insurance.  To call this a “takeover” of health care is disingenuous at best, particularly since the public option was removed from the final bill.  It’s probably safe to go ahead and call this claim a lie, as the people advancing it generally know it to be false.  We can, in other words, fairly confidently establish intentionality in this case.

The rhetorical advantages of calling the new law a “government takeover” are obvious.  It would be difficult to get people into the streets over “government regulation of insurance companies.”  This is the problem with President Obama’s call to honesty.  Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s not the best politics.

The Obama-is-a-Muslim Lie Lives On

One of the most egregious lies floating around American political discourse is the claim that Barack Obama is not the Christian that he frequently and repeatedly professes to be, but is rather a Muslim.  Last year, a Pew poll showed that more than 30% of registered Republicans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and then, this week, the false claim was made by a large portion of a focus group conducted by Frank Luntz and broadcast on Fox News.

Initially, this mistake would seem to be easily remedied.  After all, it is a simple question of fact, requiring no explanation or context.  Barack Obama has never been a Muslim, nor has he ever claimed to be a Muslim.  On the contrary, he has frequently professed his Christian faith and described his personal path to that faith.  And, yet, the falsehood nevertheless persists.

It is possible that those making this false claim do so with the sincere conviction that it is true.   This, in fact, seems to be the case for those in the Luntz group.  Unless we can demonstrate that those making this claim are knowingly propagating a falsehood, we can’t say they are lying or being dishonest.  At most, we can say that they should know better and are guilty of not knowing better.

So, the important question then–if we are interested in a more honest public discourse–becomes why this falsehood has come to be so widely believed and so widely propagated.  In one sense, the answer is quite clear.  As has been documented by Media Matters and many others, various Tea Partiers, Republicans, and conservative talk show hosts have propagated this lie or, in many circumstances, issued various forms on evasions, shoulder shrugs, non-denial denials, and so on.  Most commonly, Republican leaders could be heard uttering various versions of Mitch McConnell’s pseudo-denial: “The President says he’s a Christian.  I take him at his word.”

But none of this constitutes a sufficient explanation as to why this particular lie has proven so powerful.  Lies are propagated every day, and most do not gain the traction that this one has.  Really, it is not even the lie itself that is worrisome.  (As Colin Powell said on Meet the Press, Barack Obama is not a Muslim, but if he were, so what?)  What’s troubling is the larger narrative within which this lie is propagated and gains traction.  That larger narrative is clearly intended to suggest that Barack Obama is in some way foreign, un-American, or “not one of us.”  As Steve King (R-IA) put it in response to a constituent who was making the claim that Obama is a Muslim:  “He does not have an American experience.”

Public discourse is often dishonest, because public figures benefit (or at least they think they do) by making it dishonest.  Steve King knows the game he’s playing, and the political expedience of playing it.  He may or may not worry about the long-term effects of cultivating ignorance and chauvinism in his constituents.  Again, our only option is to change the political calculus of public figures by making the truth more politically expedient.

Late addition:  Here is John Boehner trying to walk the fine line between being dishonest and capitalizing on the dishonesty of others.  He accepts that the President is a Christian; he “takes him at his word,” using the latest term of political obfuscation.  But, he adds, “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.”

Boehner is trying to avoid being called  a birther himself, while, at the same time, capitalizing on the political advantage made available by the birthers and avoiding the costs associated with calling them out on their lies.  And, so far, it seems to be working.

Variable Standards of Evidence

One way public discourse becomes dishonest is when speakers deploy or demand different standards of evidence for truth claims they agree with and those they reject.  There is a temptation to see almost anything as sufficient evidence for a position that we either already endorse or would like to endorse.  Conversely, we tend to have a much higher standard of evidence for positions that we oppose.

In reviewing the work of David Irving–who is most famous for his being a Holocaust denier–Deborah Lipstadt captures the point:

“[Irving] demands ‘absolute documentary proof’ when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies.  This is an accurate description not only of Irving’s tactics, but of those of deniers in general.”

Promising More than You Can Deliver

One reason dishonesty is so prevalent in politics is that there is a gap what politicians promise and what they can actually deliver.  Politicians do not have much incentive to be honest about the limitations of government, because they derive political advantages from leading voters to believe their wishes can be fulfilled.

This dishonesty is one reason both state governments and the federal government are in budgetary crises.  Obviously, the primary reason for these budgetary crises is the ongoing Great Recession, which has simultaneously decreased government revenues while increasing the demand for government services.  However, politicians have exacerbated the crisis by using borrowing to fuel the fantasy that it is possible to have low taxes and effective public services.  And, oh, by the way, it’s all going to be done while fighting two foreign wars and dramatically increasing the defense budget.

Voters complain about the dishonesty of their leaders, but successful politicians come to understand that there are some issues–such as budgeting–for which dishonesty is safer than honesty.

This point holds, by the way, not just for proponents of government spending.  Proponents of small government also have an incentive to exaggerate the extent to which the budget can be cut without doing damage to services their constituents value.  They have an incentive to exaggerate the role of earmarks on government spending;  they have an incentive to exaggerate the budgetary effects of the notoriously vague “waste, fraud and abuse;” and they have an incentive to exaggerate the extent to which government programs imperil liberty.

The fact is that politicians benefit from promising more than they can deliver.  Sure, they will inevitably fail to deliver on their promises, but, by that point, they may have already been re-elected.  If not, they can always put the blame on those villainous Democrats or Republicans who “despite my great efforts to the contrary, just wouldn’t do what’s right for the country.”

Corporate Taxes

It’s common to hear from Republicans that corporate tax rates are too high in the U.S.  Aside from the fact that reasonable corporate tax rates are an important way of incentivizing corporations to re-invest profits, this claim is largely gibberish.  It leaves out all of the tax breaks, tax loopholes and tax giveaways, by which corporations avoid paying taxes.  Think Progress reports, for example, that ExxonMobil paid no corporate income taxes in 2009 and that companies like GE, CitiGroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Boeing have had entire quarters or years without paying corporate income taxes.

Corporate taxes in the U.S. constitute 1.8% of Gross Domestic Product, according to the CBO.  The international average, by contrast, is 3.4% of GDP (without controlling for size of the economy) or 2.5% of GDP (controlling for the size of the economy).

Meanwhile, corporations are collectively sitting on $2 trillion, and President Obama is reduced to futilely cajoling them into lending it out or somehow investing it in job creation.  The government has a tool to create this incentive:  corporate taxes.  Unless corporate taxes are reasonably high, corporations have little incentive to re-invest their profits.  But, in order for this to happen, it will probably first be necessary to beat back the lie that American corporations pay disproportionately high taxes.


This sounds about right:

“Ever since 9/11, according to opinion polls, Republicans have worried more about terrorism than have Democrats. Initially, this fear translated into overwhelming support for military action abroad. But as Republicans (like everyone else) have grown tired and embittered by America’s wars, they… have TURNED THEIR ANXIETY INWARD, lured by the same idea that attracted Palmer and the McCarthyites: that America could guarantee its safety on the cheap by ferreting out the real threat, which resides within.” — Peter Beinart


It should go without saying, yet it has to be said:

“We don’t distinguish between them and us; it’s just us.” — Barack Obama on AMERICAN MUSLIMS


The DEMOCRATS WILL LOSE SEATS IN NOVEMBER, as is always the case in mid-terms.  However, it may not be as many as the pundits are predicting.  The Republicans have a 10-point advantage in general polls, but they could still lose bunch of elections if their specific candidates are loony.  People may prefer a generic Republican to a generic Democrat, but the Republicans aren’t nominating generic candidates.


Our plan is to BALANCE THE BUDGET by cutting spending that doesn’t exist.

The Futility of Budget Cuts


Three paragraphs that capture the POLITICS OF THE ECONOMIC CRISIS/RECOVERY and the probable electoral implications. Damn you, Mitch McConnell.


Vaugh Walker’s Prop. 8 ruling is a MAXIMALIST DECISION, generally a mistake. Here, anything less may have just encouraged folks to go back and rewrite their “defense of marriage” statutes, construing “rational interest” in some narrow, idiosyncratic way. Still, by extending out so far, Walker may have made it easier for the Roberts court to find some way of overturning.


I’m generally put off by attempts to explain the PSYCHOLOGY OF THE TEA PARTIERS. It seems to me that one could do a similar analysis of any political ideology. Nevertheless, this one is fascinating, and, to my mind, compelling.


As long as opposition to Israeli policy (e.g. the occupation, the blockade, the storming of the flotilla) can be successfully cast as opposition to Israel or worse, as ANTI-SEMITISM, there’s little hope for peace.


Political Science students:  This is a useful analysis of the RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FREEDOM AND GOVERNMENT.  It gives the lie to the claim that more government means less freedom.


It’s worse than we thought.  Because of perverse incentives, GOLDMAN APPARENTLY WANTED SOME OF THEIR INVESTMENTS TO FAIL so that they could collect on the credit default swaps (insurance) they’d taken out from AIG.  And, by the way, in case you forgot, taxpayers paid off all of those claims when AIG couldn’t.


CITIZENS UNITED is a bad decision.  It reveals the emptiness and amorality (not to mention simplemindedness) of “legal formalism” or “strict constructionism” or whatever we’re calling it now.  it’s willful blindness to the most basic of democratic values.


FILIBUSTERING a bill that you end up voting for???  The inescapable logic is that it is worth sabotaging the country if, in so doing, it also sabotages the Democratic Party.


In the world of the global warming denier, a supposed error/gaffe made by a proponent of the theory is interpreted as calling the whole thing into question.  This is the kind of argument they trade on.


This may explain why Republicans don’t answer when asked what they’d like in the HEALTH CARE BILL.  Their recommendations have already been incorporated.


WHAT DO I THINK OF BARACK NOW?  He’s doing situationally well.  Maybe that’s a way to answer the question without going into a long exursus about criteria for evaluation.


The tea partiers and their enablers may not have come up with many persuasive arguments, but they have succeeded in putting defenders of health care reform on the defensive:  “Prove you’re not a socialist!”

Maybe it’s time for a full-throated DEFENSE OF GOVERNMENT.  Let them explain why they don’t want paved roads, safe streets, a safe food supply, public education, a social safety net, and so forth.  E.J. Dionne makes the case.


How is it that Barack wins the NOBEL PRIZE in the same week that the “Obama hasn’t accomplished anything” meme catches on?


The House will pass a bill with a PUBLIC OPTION; the Senate will pass a bill without one.  They will then go to reconciliation and end up with something like the compromise the President articulated in his address to Congress–most likely a “trigger,” whereby a public option kicks in if the insurance companies fail to meet certain benchmarks.

Obama’s healthcare address: The middle man returns


For those of you who are interested, I will be giving a lecture on CITIZENSHIP in La Fetra Hall from 11:00 to noon on September 12.  I will begin with a broad introduction to some of the big questions and then move to a discussion of my own work on the subject.


This point is important. We don’t want to talk about what it would actually mean to CONTROL HEALTH CARE COSTS.

Eugene Robinson – Overheated Health Reform –


So, according to this argument, since Hawking has done so well, I guess SINGLE PAYER is good? Or is it that he would have done even better in a free market system?

Don’t Need To Be a Rocket Scientist | TPM AJC columnist Jay Bookman noticed that in the latest Investors Business Daily editorial about how the ‘death panel’ will condemn all handicapped or disabled people to death on some horrid wind-swept mountain, the editors note that …

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

Needless to say, Hawking, who is recognized as one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th and 21st century, was born in the UK and has lived his entire life there.

As we will discuss in PLSC 301, arguments that are successful politically aren’t always good.


SAUSAGE MAKING OR SOMETHING WORSE? Much like many of their products, the President’s deal with the pharmaceutical companies is tough to swallow.  Check out the reporting in the New York Times.


The more the HEALTH CARE STORY is about how extremists are disrupting meetings, the better. On the other hand, if they succeed in painting themselves as the voice of the silenced majority, health care reform is in trouble.


This interview is useful for understanding the FINANCIAL CRISIS.


I wonder whether liberal indignation is the fuel for much of the right-wing nuttiness we’re seeing. The BIRTHER MOVEMENT is a good example. What is the best response to this?

58 percent of GOP not sure/doubt Obama born in US – Glenn Thrush –

Does outing them/publicizing it/attacking it drive people into the movement or out of it? Maybe it leaves people where they are but causes them to dig in more firmly.


The SCOTT MCCLELLAN REVELATIONS are a real surprise.  Why savage the people that gave you your career?  Why depict yourself as a coward and a dupe?  Bob Dole was certainly taken aback by the book, as reported by

Bob Dole yesterday sent a scalding e-mail to Scott McClellan, excoriating the former White House spokesman as a “miserable creature” who greedily betrayed his former patron for a fast buck.

“There are miserable creatures like you in every administration who don’t have the guts to speak up or quit if there are disagreements with the boss or colleagues,” Dole wrote in a message sent yesterday morning. “No, your type soaks up the benefits of power, revels in the limelight for years, then quits and, spurred on by greed, cashes in with a scathing critique.”

“In my nearly 36 years of public service I’ve known of a few like you,” Dole writes, recounting his years representing Kansas in the House and Senate.  “No doubt you will ‘clean up’ as the liberal anti-Bush press will promote your belated concerns with wild enthusiasm. When the money starts rolling in you should donate it to a worthy cause, something like, ‘Biting The Hand That Fed Me.’ Another thought is to weasel your way back into the White House if a Democrat is elected. That would provide a good set up for a second book deal in a few years”

Dole assures McClellan that he won’t read the book — “because if all these awful things were happening, and perhaps some may have been, you should have spoken up publicly like a man, or quit your cushy, high-profile job. That would have taken integrity and courage but then you would have had credibility and your complaints could have been aired objectively,” Dole concludes. “You’re a hot ticket now, but don’t you, deep down, feel like a total ingrate?”

As if we didn’t know it already, something has gone deeply awry at the White House.  McClellan’s actions don’t make sense.  Could the Administration be so incompetent as to fail to secure the support and good will of high level appointees or at least to protect themselves from this kind of a hatchet job?  As for McClellan himself, he can’t be eyeing a job in a Democratic White House as Dole suggests.  No Democrat will give him a second thought.

It can only be that McClellan was one among many Bush appointees who did not possess even a rudimentary understanding of his position.  He is now describing himself as young and inexperienced at the time he became Press Secretary.  That’s fine, but it in no way absolves him of blame for the role he played, and it just raises more questions about who was doing the hiring at the White House.


IRAN IN IRAQ:  If there is an American attack on Iran, it will not be because the Iranians are undermining US efforts in Iraq.  It will be because Iran is benefiting from US efforts in Iraq.  Iran is doing its best to enjoy the spoils of a war that the US his unintentionally waged for their benefit.  The US is doing its best to make sure that this does not happen

The US invasion and occupation in Iraq has advanced Iranian ambitions in Iraq and the region more generally.  As far as I can tell, there is only one exception–the possibility that the United States will expand its influence in the Middle East.  Iranian and American goals are approximately the same in Iraq:  a Shia-dominated regime that does not constitute a threat to its neighbors.  The only difference is that the U.S. hopes that this Shia-dominated regime will be friendly to the West, while Iran hopes that it will stay close to its natural, historical ally.  Iran and the US have many common allies in Iraq, but the Iranians also support anti-American groups, in an attempt to make this as unpleasant as possible for the United States.  Their hope is that, having installed a Shia-dominated regime in Iraq, the US will be forced to withdraw and leave the Iranians with an expanded sphere of influence.

The Iranians are not so much trying to frustrate US ambitions in Iraq as they are trying to prevent the US from accruing the benefits that are likely to follow from the realization of the those ambitions.


IRAQ CORRECTIVE.  Both critics and proponents of the ‘surge’ have been distinguishing between political and military progress.  Opponents have tended to concede that, while military progress has been made, it has been accompanied by little or no political progress.  Since the whole purpose of the surge was to create a safe space for political reconciliation, they have deemed the surge a failure despite decreases in the overall level of violence.

We are now beginning to hear defenders of the war claiming that political progress has indeed been made.  Frederick Kagan, for instance, was both quoted in the LA Times yesterday and interviewed on the PBS News Hour last night.  His argument is that the Iraqi government is beginning to meet several of the ‘benchmarks’ outlined by the Bush Administration.

Here’ s the problem:  As the recent activity in Basra suggests, the Iraqi government is not sovereign over the territory it purportedly controls.  In other words, reconciliation within the Iraqi government’s extremely circumscribed sphere of influence cannot be taken as an indicator of political reconciliation in Iraq more generally.

The terrain of the conflict in Iraq has changed.  Minorities within the Sunni and Shia communities have joined forces with the U.S., first to fight al Qaeda and, more recently, to attack Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia.  This has had the effect of somewhat broadening the coalition of forces willing to work in concert with US forces.

Is this political progress?  If we accept the administration’s account of what victory in Iraq would mean, I suppose it could be cast as an incremental success.  The coalition of groups with allegiance to the U.S. backed, Shia-dominated government of the Green Zone has grown slightly, though probably only temporarily.  The benchmarks that have been ostensibly met by this quasi-sovereign political entity are highly precarious.  As soon as the Sunnis decide that it’s time to reclaim the homes they were forced to flee during the civil war, that part of the fragile coalition will begin to crumble.  As for the Shia-dominated government, it will either have to incorporate the Sadrists and other anti-American groups into to the governing structure or defeat them militarily, the latter being, for all practical purposes, an impossibility.

No matter how it goes from here, there is one thing that we will not see in Iraq: a client regime of the United States.  Only a decades long occupation with Saddam-like levels of repression could impose such a regime on a country that is hostile to a U.S. presence and, for the most part, friendly toward Iran.


Come see SENIOR PROJECT PRESENTATIONS given by your fellow students, Tuesday evenings from April 15 through May 6.  Presentations will begin at 7:00 in Founders Hall 217. For a schedule, click here.


Curious about recent developments in the CAMPAIGN FOR PRESIDENT? I’ll be speaking on that topic in a forum on March 27 in the President’s Dining Room from 11:30 to 1:00.


Has anyone told you that they won’t support BARACK OBAMA for the Democratic nomination because he is black?  Of late, several Democrats have said to me that they cannot vote for Obama for this reason.  It’s not that they are racist, they assure me; it’s that other people are racist and will never vote for an African American in the general election.  So, in the end, what they end up doing is not supporting Obama because he is black.

Some say they won’t vote for him because he’s too easy to depict as a Muslim.  Again, they don’t believe that he is a Muslim, or a Farrakhan supporter, but other people will fall for that, and so these folks end up not supporting Obama because he can be falsely accused of being a Muslim (the horror!) or a Farrakhan supporter.

In the end, these folks are allowing racism and fear-mongering to govern their votes.  And, there’s no need for it.  It’s all a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It only becomes true if it is acted upon.  If enough people think along these lines, however, the election will be decided by a tacit affirmation of racism and swiftboating by people who are supposedly against those things.


As awful as this week’s SUPREME COURT decision on employment discrimination was, I’m hopeful that the rationale behind it will be useful in the future.

In this week’s case, no one questioned the fact that Lilly Ledbetter was paid less than her male colleagues.  However, by a 5-4 margin, the Court ruled against her because she did not file her claim within the EEOC’s stipulated 180-day period.  In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg outlined the many, many reasons why this decision is so bad.

However, it is worth pointing out that the Court’s pedantic concern for the letter of the law may be useful when it comes to the President’s attempts to roll back civil liberties and expand the power of the executive.  In other words, I’m hoping that, in the future, Roberts’ and Alito’s scrupulous legalism will trump their conservative ideology.


I’ve just returned from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference Center, where I gave a paper on Rousseau and religion.   You can read the abstract here.


Are stereotypes dangerous even when they’re positive?  Zev Chafets completely misses the point today in defending MICHEAL RAY RICHARDSON in the LA Times.  Richardson, a former NBA player and current coach of a CBA team, recently repeated some standard Jewish stereotypes, describing Jews as ‘crafty’ and asserting, ‘They got a lot of power in this world.’  Chafets wonders why Jews would be offended by these remarks.

Excuse me, but Richardson didn’t say anything offensive.  In fact, Jews, as a people are smart, in my experience….  Even if his observations were wrong — which they are not — there’s nothing at all insulting about them.  What is insulting is the notion that you can’t speak honestly about Jews without getting into trouble.

I suppose we can agree that it is not ‘insulting’ to be stereotyped as clever or crafty, but it is nonetheless offensive, and, more importantly, dangerous to stereotype people, even when those stereotypes are positive.

First, this supposedly positive stereotype easily transforms into the negative stereotype of Jews as conniving and duplicitous, a prejudice that has all too frequently been used to justify the persecution of Jews.

Second, all stereotypes, whether positive or negative, undermine the humanity of the individuals in the group being stereotyped.  It can be just as damaging to stereotype Middle Easterners as ‘exotic’ as it can be to characterize them as ‘violent.’  Both deny individuals the power to define their own identity.


Is the Christian Coalition going to give up on the strategy of rallying its minions against the LIBERAL BOGEYMAN?  I have to say that I was shocked and gratified to read about the latest rift within the Christian Coalition.  It appears that the president-elect hoped to expand the group’s focus to environmental and poverty issues.  He was forced out because of it, but it is encouraging to hear about these issues being raised on the Christian right.

It is possible to build unity either by marginalizing outsiders or by reaching out to them.  Vilification of outsiders is effective.  Unfortunately, people are all too easily moved by fear and hate.  Unification through integration is more difficult, which is why politicians tend to lean on fear and hate when they’re in trouble.


Who is stronger, Moqtada al-Sadr or Nouri Maliki?  I don’t think there is any doubt that it’s AL-SADR. When the leader of a militia is stronger than the leader of the government, what kind of government is it?  I think it’s clear that it’s a government that does not possess sovereignty over its ostensible territory.

Keep this in mind when you hear discussion about the need for better leadership in Iraq.  Even if an Iraqi Charlemagne, Ataturk, George Washington, or Simon Bolivar could be airlifted into Baghdad tomorrow, it would make very little difference, because there is no sovereign in place for them to lead.  Harold Meyerson gives a good lay of the land today.


You’re going to hear a lot about how the Democrats dominated the MIDTERM ELECTIONS by running conservative candidates.  While there were some relatively conservative Democratic candidates, there were even more progressives.  At first glance this strikes me as a reflection of the local political culture in these candidates’ respective districts.  At any rate, as John Nichols points out here, it would be a mistake to conclude that Democrats must ‘move to the center’ if they hope to continue winning elections.

My feeling is that the Democrats won this election not so much by moving to the right but by nationalizing the election, keeping mostly quiet about their own policy preferences, and running on the failures of the Republican Party.  You might call it the ‘I’m not with stupid’ approach to winning elections, and, while it may have worked while the Democrats were in opposition, it can’t work again now that they will have to be accountable for the decisions they make.


Welcome back, everyone.  I hope you all enjoyed your summer.  I spent much of it working on two papers on Rousseau, which I presented two weeks ago at the annual meeting of the AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE ASSOCIATION.  Click here for descriptions of the papers.


Blame for the disaster in Iraq is now beginning to be doled out, and I’ve begun to see much of it falling in the lap of INTELLECTUALS.  It’s true that a group of well-connected, neoconservative intellectuals (perhaps better called ideologues) pushed for the war in Iraq.  However, the vast majority of intellectuals with a background in Middle Eastern Studies were quite clear about the folly of an American invasion.

I hope people understand that the mistake here wasn’t listening to intellectuals.  The mistake was listening to pseudo-intellectuals, while ignoring those with real expertise.


Ze’ev Schiff gives a pretty good summary of ISRAEL’S MILITARY STRATEGY IN LEBANON.  He makes no bones about Israel’s broader agenda, eschewing the fallacy that this attack is no more than a response to the soldiers’ kidnapping.  Schiff explains Israel’s motives and describes what he believes can be accomplished.


Today’s LA TIMES OP-ED PAGE is covered with articles on the fighting in Israel and Lebanon, but not one questions the motives or the nature of Israel’s attack on Lebanon.  In response to the strategic kidnapping of two soldiers by a sub-national group, Israel has devastated a country.  Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg is focused on the impotence of UN and its supposed bias against Israel, with the clear implication being that Israel is to be left to its own devices in Lebanon.  Brian Winter is making jokes, while complacently concluding that countries in the Middle East ‘can change so quickly  — or perhaps, …never really change at all.’  (an apparently innocent quip that actually reduces an entire region to a cliché)  Finally, Daniel Pipes pipes in, as he usually does, with an unabashed defense of Israeli aggression.  Not much there to help you get a sense of what is going on.

Yesterday was better.  Have a look at the articles by Amos Oz and Saree Makdisi for two sides of the story.  Robert Fisk, reporting from Lebanon, is also helpful.  Listen to his interview on Democracy Now!


It looks like the LA Times must have received some angry letters.  They’re insisting today that all of THE BLAME FOR THE ONGOING VIOLENCE IN LEBANON falls on Hezbollah.  That’s preposterous.  Israel’s occupation of Arab territory is Hezbollah’s raison d’être. It is what brought them into being.  Failure to grasp this point leads to nonsensical generalizations about the ‘Arab mind’ or Arab anti-Semitism.  None of this justifies Hezbollah’s violence; it simply puts it into a context so that it can be understood.

Hezbollah is pursuing a political strategy, designed to increase its power and to provoke Israel into a response.  Likewise, Israel has its own strategy, designed to weaken Hezbollah directly (through military strikes) and indirectly (by turning the Lebanese population against them).  Both sides also hope to win the sympathy of the international community.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it is certainly inaccurate to paint Israel as an innocent victim.  Things are much more complicated.


Do not mistake ISRAEL’S INCURSION INTO LEBANON for a straightforward attempt to retrieve the kidnapped soldiers.  This is part of a long-term, extensively-planned strategy to destroy Hezbollah.

How does crippling Lebanon’s infrastructure serve this strategy?  The idea can only be to make Lebanon pay for the actions of Hezbollah, in the hope that the Lebanese government will feel compelled to crack down on the militant group.  The risk, of course, is that this strategy will unite Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in opposition to Israel.


Bush’s lawyers appear to believe that the President can do anything he wants in a TIME OF WAR.  While critics question Bush’s assertion of executive power, they tend to concede that we are at war.  I think it makes sense to raise the question of whether we are actually at war — in a legal sense — or at least to insist that the scope of any ‘war’ be specified.  This strategy could be deployed in concert with ongoing attempts to constrain executive power.

There was certainly no Congressional declaration with regard to either al Qaeda or Iraq.  It cannot be the case that the president himself determines whether we are at war, because that would make his power absolute.  He could theoretically justify any action as necessary to national security.  That is pure Hobbesian absolutism.

Rosa Brooks explains how Bush uses the cover of the ‘law of war’ to insulate himself from judicial or Congressional oversight.


Some have wondered why I would question ISRAEL’S RIGHT TO DEFEND ITSELF against Hamas’s rocket attacks.  That assertion misrepresents the nature of the Arab/Israeli conflict.  It goes without saying that Israel will respond to Palestinian aggression.  Whether they have a ‘right’ to do so is not a particularly interesting question.  The more interesting question, I think, is whether Israeli aggression is best understood as a response to Palestinian attacks or as something else.  Both sides have an obvious interest in portraying their aggression as provoked by the aggression of the other side.  Arguments can be made either way, but, underlying it all, is the undeniable fact that Israel is an occupying power and the Palestinians are an occupied people.

This is not a justification of either Palestinian or Israeli violence.  However, it should be kept in mind that the Israeli occupation is itself inherently violent.


I happened to be in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo at the moment Italy became CAMPIONE DEL MUNDOthe chant that rang through the streets in the hours following the victory.

Click on the icon below for a video of the piazza taken just as Italy sealed the win.


Why did the Israeli army  invade GAZA?  The short answer is ‘because it can.’  I mean this not only in a technical sense but, even more, in a political one.  After all, Israel has for decades possessed the technical capacity to control Palestinian territory and subjugate the Palestinian people.  However, Hamas’s electoral victory has altered the political landscape, especially internationally, and this has emboldened the Israeli government.

I regard this, in part, as another casualty of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.  This blanket term legitimizes all manner of aggression against those who have been labeled ‘terrorists’.  Because there is a general international consensus that Hamas is a terrorist group, Israel has little to fear from its aggression in Gaza.

Israel has demonstrated a clear commitment to retrieving its captured soldiers, whether alive or dead.  However, the suffocation of Gaza is about much more than the return of Gilad Shalit.  Shalit provides a politically useful justification for Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas.


Interesting suggestion in Max Boot’s column today:  Generals who favor A PHASED WITHDRAWAL FROM IRAQ should be replaced.  For the entirety of the war, the administration has refused to talk about troop levels, insisting that those decisions would be made by the ‘generals on the ground.’  Will they now replace or marginalize those generals who counsel withdrawal?


I think it is time to stop participating in the LINGUISTIC FICTION OF THE ‘TWO WARS’ that we are supposedly fighting.  That’s my way of suggesting that we call the so-called Iraq War what it actually is — an occupation — and that we only refer to the ‘War on Terror’ in quotation marks.  There is not and there cannot be a war against terror, because terrorism is a tactic that can be used by anyone at anytime.  A war on terror is like a war on ambushes, camouflage or the frontal assault.  So a ‘War on Terror’, by definition, can never be won and can never come to an end.

Politically, the term ‘War on Terror’ legitimizes a constellation of tactics and strategies, some that may be justifiable and others that may not.  But the government should be compelled to justify each of its tactics on case by case basis, rather than by invoking the ‘War on Terror’ as a kind of blanket justification for anything it chooses to do.


How do we measure the loss of the ED RUSHCA MONUMENT?  We’ll never get it back.  We mourn the loss of a work of art just as we do the loss any irreplaceable thing that we love.

Who could have done this?  What could they have been thinking?  It is the consequence of the commodification of everything.  Granted, murals are a somewhat difficult case — art on an object that is almost always commodified.  Still, this is very depressing.


Think the ELECTORAL COLLEGE can’t be reformed?  You’re wrong.  These guys have a great idea, that will work.  With any luck we  will be rid of this retrograde institution soon.  It was designed to give disproportionate influence to the small states and to white privilege and it continues to do just that.  Now if we could just figure out how to democratize the rest of the electoral process.


The U.S. government now says it is willing to TALK TO IRAN.  How big a change is this?  Well, it seems like our condition for negotiation is that Iran give up enriching uranium.  Isn’t that exactly what we’re arguing over in the first place?  This cartoon seems hard to dispute.


The era of the Iraq War is a ‘terrible moment,’ as PHILIP ROTH calls it, but terrible in a more abstract way than was the WWII era or Vietnam, to which he compares it.  Roth evokes the ‘despair’ and ‘powerlessness’ of this current moment, and I believe that is because he feels defeated.  Rage and resistance would be evidence of hope.  Instead, Roth feels despair, and this is at least in part because the war makers have figured out how to keep the suffering abstract—no pictures of dead or wounded soldiers and, for huge swaths of the population, nobody in one’s immediate circle in the armed forces.  We are angry but our anger remains abstract.

If you want to understand any era of American history since WWII, read what Roth has to say about it.  As an added perk, reading Roth’s novels (as opposed to his political criticism) will contribute to your love of existence.


In my previous post, I mentioned two ways in which elites benefit from the presence of ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTSErin Aubry Kaplan’s column reminded me of one more. A large Hispanic labor pool, willing to work of low wages, inevitably breeds resentment from working class Americans, who regard immigrants as a threat to their livelihood.  The immigration issue has the potential to undermine what should be a natural economic alliance between working class people of all races.  These divisions within the working class are convenient for elites, because they make it very difficult for the lower classes to mobilize collectively on behalf of workers’ rights.


On the one hand, demagogues can benefit from demonizing immigrants.  On the other hand, a large pool of IMMIGRANT LABOR tends to dilute demands for higher wages and better workplace conditions.  What choice will political opportunists make?

Many will probably try to have the best of both worlds, capitalizing politically on the resentment toward immigrants, while doing little to deter future illegal immigration.  This strategy has worked well on issues like Roe v. Wade, flag burning and gay marriage.  The conservative strategy appears to be to oppose the heck out of these things, without ever changing anything.  The bogeyman must always be available to call upon, when the political climate demands it.

On immigration, though, there is much more at stake — namely a pool of cheap labor that is usually too scared to organize or demand fair treatment.


What is SCIENCE?  Ask your professors, but if it is anything it is a process or method of accumulating and analyzing data.  That process or method has standards by which its conclusions can be evaluated.  If you wish to dispute the scientific consensus a particular issue, you may do so either by disputing the validity of the scientific method itself or by reaching a different conclusion through the scientific method.

Something called the “Competitive Enterprise Institute” — a front for several big oil companies — has begun running ads to dispute the scientific consensus on global warming.  They have used a piece one piece of a larger scientific paper to make their claim.  The only problem is that the study says exactly the opposite of what they say it does.

Politically, there is something terrible at work here.  Polluters have a lot to gain if they can somehow depict the consensus on global warming as a controversy.  So many people want desperately to believe that global warming poses no danger.  As long as they can believe that there is even some small doubt about the dangers of global warming, they will hang their hats on that so as not to rethink their way of life.

Upton Sinclair captured the problem:  “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  As long as science can be depicted as “just one point of view” in a multi-sided debate, we won’t make headway on this issue or on many others.


George Will makes this ugly argument today, in defense of English-only ballots:

But what public good is advanced by encouraging the participation of people who, by saying they require bilingual assistance, are saying they cannot understand the nation’s political conversation?  …The idea of citizenship becomes absurd when sundered from the ability to understand the nation’s civic conversation.

Will adopts a very particular view of DEMOCRATIC PARTICIPATION.  He presupposes that those who vote must participate in the ‘civic conversation,’ as though there were one, monolithic conversation.  Political conversations go on in every imaginable language and in every imaginable context.

But, aside from that, participation in democratic deliberation is only one justification of democratic governance.  One could equally mount an interest-based defense of democracy, in which members of society advance their interests by exerting leverage over a responsive government.  On this account, it is not conversation that matters most, but the ability to have one’s interests represented and reflected in public policy.  An interest-based defense of democracy maintains that public policy results less from a deliberative consensus than from a balancing of diverse interests.


How can ECONOMIC INDICATORS be doing well (e.g. economic growth, unemployment), while a majority of the American people feel less economically secure?  It all depends on what kind of jobs are being created, how the growth is being distributed, and whether increases in the cost of living do not exceed increases in income.  If your expenses go up 15%, while your income goes up 10%, you will obviously feel poorer, not richer.

Keep this in mind as you try to reconcile the good economic news coming out of the administration with the economic anxiety felt by most Americans.  Jonah Goldberg’s LA Times op-ed, to take one example, misses the point.  Growth and employment are important, but increases in the cost of things like health care, housing and basic goods and services can cancel out gains in income.

It is also critically important to consider how wealth is distributed.  Economic growth can be substantial without having much effect on the majority if it is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.


Understanding the idea of SOVEREIGNTY is critical to understanding what is going on in Iraq.  Sovereignty has two dimensions, which we might call normative and empirical.

• Normative sovereignty refers to a government’s right of authority over a territory and its population.

• Empirical sovereignty refers to the actual power that the governing entity is able to exert over its territory and population.

The administration often refers to the many elections that have taken place in occupied Iraq.  But what is the status of the government that has emerged from these elections?  How much control does it have over its territory and population?  To what extent is the Iraqi government sovereign in both the normative and empirical senses?  How much sovereign power does the U.S. retain in Iraq, and is that power compatible with the notion of Iraqi sovereignty?

One way of thinking about it would be this way:  Just because you have an election doesn’t mean that you have a government in anything other than name only.


It’s not that the American government doesn’t care at all about DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST.  It’s just that there are a couple of things it cares about more.  The hierarchy goes something like this…

1. Open markets and general loyalty to neoliberal economic principles, including access for international capital to natural resources.

2. Commitment to the “War on Terror” ideally including permission to build military bases.

3. Democracy and civil liberties.

If priority three can be achieved without compromising either priority one or two, then the U.S. is all for it.  If either priority one or two are threatened by real democracy, then the U.S. commitment to it quickly fades.  If securing priorities one and two requires compromising priority three, the U.S. doesn’t hesitate.

President Bush is not lying when he says he favors democracy in the Middle East, but he is leaving out the very important caveat that he is far more concerned about other priorities, and that he will not hesitate to compromise democracy in their pursuit.


MAX BOOT’S COLUMN in yesterday’s LA Times makes the following assertion:

“Were it not for FISA’s high standard of ‘probable cause,’ the FBI could have examined Zacarias Moussaoui’s laptop in August 2001 and perhaps saved 3,000 lives.”

The word “perhaps” is obviously important here, given the myriad of intelligence failures leading up to 9/11.  But the more important point is that it will always be possible to retrospectively make claims of this kind.  There will always be something that could have been found had their not been constitutional protections in place.  Free societies inevitably balance liberty and security.  A secret police force, operating with no constitutional constraints whatsoever, could undoubtedly uncover all kinds of criminal activity.  However, the cost to our civil liberties would simply be too high.

In evaluating any law enforcement program, the critical questions are, first, does it improve security?, second, does it compromise liberty?, and, finally, if it does compromise liberty, does the increase in security justify the limitation on liberty?


In case you remain unconcerned about GOVERNMENT MONITORING OF YOUR PHONE CALLS, take a look at this interview with Brian Ross, one of the reporters who broke the story.

Are you comfortable with government surveillance of reporters’ phone records?  Should the government have the right to track down those who speak to reporters?

Many say they have done nothing wrong and so have nothing to fear.  That contradicts the essence of constitutional democracy.  Constitutional limitations must be honored even when circumventing them would seem to pose no immediate danger.  If we do not honor them in these situations, we won’t have them when we need them.  Though it may seem difficult to imagine how, the next administration could have less respect for civil liberties than this one.  If so, we will regret having compromised fundamental constitutional protections.


The RULE OF LAW is critical to a just society, but honoring it is not always as simple as punishing those who break the law.  The laws themselves must be reasonable and they must be justly enforced.  Even breaking the law can be justified under certain circumstances, as when civil rights activists purposely and publicly violated Jim Crow laws.

So in considering President Bush’s speech on IMMIGRATION REFORM, don’t forget to balance the value of the rule of law against other equally important values, such as the dignity of every human being.

It is also important to recognize that the law against illegal immigration has been inconsistently enforced and that those who come illegally are responding to a variety of incentives.  The U.S. simultaneously discourages and encourages illegal immigration.


I took the kids to march in the DAY WITHOUT IMMIGRANTS, and that simple act has completely changed my relationship with the many Latino immigrants I inevitably interact with as part of life in Los Angeles.  What difference do these kinds of brazen political tactics make?  One difference seems to be that they communicate your convictions in a way that mere words cannot.

The issue of illegal immigration is complicated, but, as you think it through, I would encourage you 1. to steer clear of any option that would criminalize a fellow human being’s very existence, and 2. to keep in mind that we are all complicit in a policy that simultaneously encourages and punishes illegal immigration.  The  system of enforcement is set up the way it is to regulate the number of people who come over the border, not to prevent them from coming.



“A person who professes a senseless doctrine cannot tolerate its being seen for what it is.  Reason then becomes the greatest crime.”

Jean Jacques Rousseau, Letter to Beaumont, 1763

This from a man of great faith who believed that religion was necessary for both happiness and morality.


WHAT IS GOING ON IN IRAQ? Even with all the attention being paid to Iraq, it is very difficult to get a good sense of what is going on there.  This is primarily because very few reporters go into the field to get the stories.  Too much of the coverage of the war is just a collection of quotations from unnamed administration sources.  Very few people are on the ground and in a position to report accurately about what is happening in Iraq.  Conditions vary from place to place, and so it is really necessary to have reporters distributed throughout the country.  The security situation precludes that, and the media don’t seem to have the will to support that kind of reporting anyway.

Given that this is the case, we must be cautious about drawing conclusions with regard to what is happening in Iraq.  Patrick Cockburn is one reporter who has spent significant time there.  His recent piece in the New Left Review has some detailed insight.


IRAN MISDIRECTION:  Iran has two distinct governments, one controlled by religious elders and headed by Ali Khameini, another composed of an elected Parliament and headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The religious clerics control Iranian politics.  President Ahmadinejad–the source of so much controversy–is a functionary with very limited power.  The clerics select the candidates for the Presidency and then strictly constrain the authority of the President, once elected.  The impotence of Iran’s elected President was a constant point of emphasis when the sympathetic Mohammad Khatami held the position (through 2005).

Of late, Ahmadinejad has been treated by politicians and pundits, left and right, as the barometer of Iranian policy.  All seem to assume that he has the power to direct Iranian policy.  I see very little, on the other hand, about the relative impotence of the Presidency in the Iranian political system.  What explains the discrepancy?  My guess is it may have something to do with U.S. hostility toward Iran, which has been a constant since the revolution.  U.S. hostility is facilitated by a demonic portrayal of Ahmadinejad just as it was by an emphasis on the sympathetic Khatami’s impotence.


The American press is reporting that the ISRAELI ELECTIONS signal the end of aspirations for a Greater Israel.  Some perspective:  Kadima, the party which won the most seats,  was created on the calculation that there is now more to be lost than to be gained from the forced transfer of more territory to Israel.  Ariel Sharon’s strategically brilliant  (though morally wayward) decision to impose a settlement on the Palestinians  required him to break from the ideologues who refused to support any concessions to the Palestinians.  Kadima was formed in order to advance the idea of an imposed settlement (one that would not require Palestinian participation).

The press has been reporting this as a kind of leftward move in Israeli politics.  I think that’s a bit misleading, because Kadima’s agenda is to annex much more territory than has ever been proposed in any negotiated settlement.


I just presented a paper on Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker at the Western Political Science Association.  Check out the abstract here.


So, President Bush can distinguish between Muslims and terrorists and maybe even Muslims and Islamists.  Isn’t it a good idea to marginalize those preaching violence against the United States?  I only wish the President’s motives were this strategic.  My guess is that the administration wants to contract PORT MANAGEMENT to a Dubai-based company simply because they believe it to be good business.  I guess it’s not a clash of civilizations at all.  Is there any comfort in knowing that rich Christians and rich Muslims can look past their differences and focus on what matters most…making each other richer?


As you follow the news on the CARTOON CONTROVERSY, consider the following:

1.  Historically, depictions of Muhammad have been commonplace, by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  Click here for a good selection.

2.  I think it is fair to say that most European societies have, on the whole, failed to integrate or even accommodate their Muslim minorities.  These controversies always come out of a socio-historical context.  Given the widespread hostility toward Muslims in Europe, it is not surprising that some Muslims have viewed the publication of these cartoons as a provocation.

An analogy:  Did the Rodney King verdict cause the 1992 riots in L.A.?  It may have been the spark, but underlying social, political, and economic forces were the true cause.

3.  Be suspicious of attempts by the administration to blame Syria and Iran for the violence.  Bush has an interest in portraying those two in the most unflattering terms possible.

4.  According to the Jewish tradition, it is not permitted to pronounce one of the names God is called by in the Old Testament.  Nevertheless, people do it all the time.  Harold Bloom has a book out with the name in the title.  This is a prohibition for those who believe it is a prohibition.  Some non-believers may choose to honor the prohibition out of respect, and some others may not.


Thanks to the University of La Verne and the Family Leave Act (thank you Bill Clinton), I am on FAMILY LEAVE this semester, caring for the family’s latest addition.  Please feel free to email me whenever you like and check in here for occasional updates.


As you watch the Congressional hearings on the President’s DOMESTIC SPYING PROGRAM, keep in mind a point that has been totally lost in the debate.  Suspects are innocent until proven guilty.  This is more than just something we say.  It is the very rationale for the rights granted to suspects and the checks placed on the power of law enforcement.  The individuals being spied on under this program are legally innocent.  If, as the President often implies, we could always already know that we were spying on a terrorist, we would have no need for many of the constitutional safeguards granted to those under investigation.  The spying program is a tool used to ascertain whether a suspect is planning a crime or is in some way connected to Al Qaeda.  The courts have disallowed so called ‘fishing expeditions,’ in which law enforcement agents randomly monitor individuals they have no reason to believe may be involved in illegal activity.  This is the probable cause requirement of the 4th Amendment (still there despite what the Deputy Director of National Intelligence might think).

Once probable cause has been established, law enforcement agents are permitted increased powers of investigation.  Our constitutional system requires that probable cause be determined by an agent of the judicial branch.  This is the very essence of American constitutionalism.  These issues are discussed in the last unit of PLSC 304, Contemporary Legal Issues.  See the syllabus here.


If there is a dominant theme in the course I teach on the Middle East, it is that events like HAMAS’S ELECTORAL VICTORY must be studied in their political, social, economic and historical context.  Some will be all-too-tempted to interpret Hamas’s success as still more confirmation of Muslim fanaticism.  There is probably nothing that can be said to dissuade these folks, but that’s really too bad, because this attitude not only justifies Western imperialism, it dehumanizes millions of people.


Under what circumstances would a FILIBUSTER OF THE ALITO NOMINATION be justified?  If the Democrats do filibuster, it will set a precedent that will definitely be held against them should they ever become the majority party.  In other words, Republicans will use it to justify obstructionist tactics.  However, what’s to say that they wouldn’t engage in obstructionism anyway?

It could be argued, perhaps, that the President has abused the ‘advice and consent’ clause of the Constitution–that he has not adequately consulted with the Senate in his choice of nominees.  If that case could be made, it might be a way to justify a filibuster.

Another defensible justification might appeal to recent assertions of executive power and the corresponding affect on civil liberties.  A case could be made that ongoing political developments make it particularly important that the Supreme Court act as a check on executive power and as a defender of civil liberties.  Alito is certain to side with the President on these issues.  Even the often reticent New York Times editorial page felt the need to take a stance.


The debate over SAMUEL ALITO’S NOMINATION is revolving, as usual, around the question of judicial activism and judicial restraint.  Should the Supreme Court actively preserve and protect rights, or should it defer to the directly elected branches of government?  If the Constitution is to play any role at all in our system of governance there must be some occasions upon which the Court is justified in declaring legislation or executive orders unconstitutional.  The question is when? Conservatives tend to favor judicial intervention only when the strict language or intent of the framers is violated, while liberals tend to endorse intervention on the basis of evolving social standards.

The problem is that both ‘framer’s intent’ and ‘evolving social standards’ are too vague yield a consistent jurisprudence.  Consequently, political, social and psychological factors inevitably play a role in a justice’s decisions.  Alito will portray himself as John Roberts did, as a humble interpreter of settled law rather than as a lawmaker.  Don’t believe it.  Whereas liberals generally favor judicial intervention on behalf of rights articulated and defended over the past three or four decades, conservatives tend to do so on behalf of even older principles.  Neither is any more or less activist than the other.

Presumed by both sides in this argument is the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and the compatibility of democracy and judicial review.  In fact, the Supreme Court is far and away the most powerful court in the world, and judicial review is an idiosyncratic practice that does not exist in other democracies.  In our system, nine unelected, unaccountable individuals have the power to invalidate legislation favored by democratic majorities.  When we agree with their decisions, we tend to make enthusiastic arguments for judicial activism.  When we disagree, we suddenly become partisans of judicial restraint.  And that goes for both those on the left and those on the right.


A word on the WIRETAPPING SCANDAL:  The administration has tried to justify its domestic spying program as part of the so-called ‘war on terror.’  The argument is that the president, in a time of war, is empowered to do whatever he deems necessary to national defense.  I don’t want to rehearse the obvious problems with this position.  I would just point out that administration’s argument presumes we are at war.  We are not, at least not in any rational sense.  Whatever we are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and in Eastern European prisons, it is not a war.  Calling it one does not make it so.

I hope this important ideological terrain is not ceded to the administration’s supporters.  The language is important.  If it is generally accepted that we are ‘at war,’ rights can be more easily compromised and dissent can be depicted as disloyalty.


Looking for a way to contribute to hurricane relief?  Click here for some good ideas.

By the way, those who discourage ‘finger pointing’ generally do so because they know the finger points to them.  Those denouncing the ‘blame game’ similarly know where the real blame lies.


A reader points out that the Gaza withdrawal was especially newsworthy because it was exceptional, a case of ‘man bites dog.’  Seizing territory is the norm for the Israeli government; withdrawing is the exception.


Images of settlers leaving Gaza dominated the front pages of newspapers for days.  By contrast, Israel’s announcement on Wednesday that it would annex a large swath of territory in the West Bank was relegated to the bottom of page three of the L.A. Times.  This is a huge story, because the territory in question, Maale Adumim, lies directly to the east of Jerusalem.  Its annexation would cut off Palestinians from Jerusalem, where they hope to cite the capital of their still hypothetical state.

This development would seem to confirm suspicions that Sharon left Gaza in order to justify annexation of territory in the West Bank, a nuance that  would seem to make the story that much more newsworthy.

There is, of course, a difference between the two stories that may explain why Gaza got huge coverage and Maale Adumim has not.  The departure from Gaza makes Israel look good, whereas the annexation of West Bank territory has the opposite effect.


I’ve been asked quite a bit lately about the Gaza pullout and thought it best to post something here.  Most people want to know why Israel decided to relinquish control over Gaza.  Well, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is illegal, illegitimate and immoral.  In other words, perhaps the question should be why Israel was in Gaza in the first place.

Putting that point to one side, there are a variety of possible reasons why Israel has decided to leave Gaza.  Of course, only Ariel Sharon knows exactly why this decision has been taken.  The best we can do is to speculate based on the evidence we have available.  Here are a few possibilities…

1. Economically, Sharon has said that it is too costly to protect 8500 Jewish settlers, sprinkled over a strip of land populated by over one million Palestinians.

2.  Militarily, it may be easier to control the population of Gaza if the territory can be totally sealed off and Israel can redeploy on its side of the border.

3.  Politically, Sharon may be positioning himself for a long-term annexation of portions of the West Bank.  Having conceded Gaza, Sharon may assert Israel’s right to annex portions of the West Bank in return.

One thing more.  As always, think carefully about how this story is told in the various media outlets.  Is the suffering of Jewish settlers privileged over the suffering of Palestinians?  Who benefits from images of settlers being dragged from their homes by Israeli soldiers?


People should be permitted to believe what they want to believe.  Aside from the fact that there is no way to forcibly change minds, centuries of warfare have demonstrated the futility of attempting to do so.  And yet, beliefs are not equal and should be treated equally in all cases, particularly when the public welfare is at stake.  It’s a bit surprising that we have to say it two and a half centuries after the Enlightenment, but, sometimes, a stand must be made on the basis of what the evidence, facts, and reason dictate.

This month’s Scientific American has a great April fool’s joke, in the form of an article, in which the editorial board apologizes for favoring the theory of evolution over competing theories, creationism in particular.  The editors admit to being overly influenced by  ‘tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles’ and ‘mountains of evidence.’


Lots of talk recently about ‘judicial tyranny.’  The judiciary is charged with interpreting the law.  When judges go beyond interpretation and begin to legislate, their actions become illegitimate and unconstitutional.  This is particularly important in the federal courts, where the judiciary wields substantial power and judges are not elected.

However, accusations of judicial tyranny in the Schiavo case are wildly off the mark.  In this case the courts have done exactly what they are supposed to do:  issue rulings based on statute and precedent.  The law is clear on this issue, and the courts have cleaved closely to the law.  Assertions of judicial tyranny are groundless.  Proponents of judicial intervention in the Schiavo case are the ones encouraging judicial overreach.


Missing from the Terri Schiavo conversation is a serious discussion of dying and death.  When has a human being died?  A person has died, it seems to me, whenever his/her heart stops beating or when his/her brain stops functioning.  A person is not alive just because his/her heart can be made to continue beating by artificial means.  Terri Schiavo died, in some relevant moral sense, when she entered a persistent vegetative state.

Does this resolve the Schiavo case?  No.  (Many people live only with the assistance of technology.)  However, it does expose as inane the arguments of those who would accuse Michael Schiavo of murder, and it demonstrates the idiocy of charging proponents of privacy with an ‘indifference to life.’

There is no question that this issue became so political (as opposed to remaining private), exclusively because certain politicians believed it to be in their interest to politicize it.  Thousands of Americans are allowed to die in this way every year, and little or nothing is said, because common sense dictates that, in certain tragic circumstances, passing on peacefully can be the least bad alternative.


How many Iraqi deaths have there been in the latest Iraq War?  I asked my students that question today and no one had any idea.  For one, it is impossible to know how many have been killed.  The U.S. is not keeping track, and, with the Iraqi regime dismantled, neither is anyone else.  Secondly, the U.S. has no strategic interest in disseminating that figure.  Even reports of American deaths are closely controlled, and broadcasting images of fallen soldiers is prohibited.  I have heard estimates of Iraqi deaths between 50,000 and 100,000, though I cannot vouch for their reliability.  These figures, of course, do not include those who perish as a consequence the humanitarian crises that inevitably accompany a bombing campaign.


As exciting as the demonstrations were in Lebanon, it is important to remember that they were dominated by Maronite Christians, who have always enjoyed disproportionate influence over Lebanese politics.  This week, many Lebanese Shias have demonstrated in favor of a continued Syrian presence in Lebanon.  Historically, the Shias have been underrepresented in Lebanese politics, and, while many surely have mixed feelings about Syria’s presence, they nevertheless feel better served by Syrian hegemony than by Lebanon’s existing constitutional structure.  This structure, established under the Taif Accord of 1989, distributes positions of power based on religious affiliation.  Resentments persist under this structure, and it should not come as a surprise if they turn violent upon the departure of Syrian forces.


Is it me, or were the pictures of demonstrators in the streets of Beirut evocative of an authentic, democratic resistance?  We hear talk of democracy day and night from the Administration and the major media, but when an authentic democratic movement appears, the response seems rather muted.  Shouldn’t the Bush Administration be taking credit for the spread of democracy?  Did they miss their cue?  If I didn’t know better, I’d say they have, but I’m sure there is some Machiavellian rationale for the government’s reticence to gloat. It’s no surprise that LA Times columnist Max Boot is doing just that in today’s paper.

How bad does the parking situation have to get before we finally decide to take action?  The first thing we could do is ask ourselves, individually, whether there is a way to get to school other than driving alone.  Is there a way to cycle, carpool, or take public transit?  Many of us live close by, and it could be done.  Of course, this is a hypocritical exhortation, as I drive to work.    To plan your trip to campus by public transit, go to the MTA’s homepage.  For information about cycling in Los Angeles County, check out the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.


When did the Jolly Green Giant decide to enter the mayoral race?  Or is it Godzilla?  Bob Hertzberg, like all of the other mayoral candidates, says a great deal about alleviating traffic in Los Angeles.  Perhaps the first step would be to get the giant men off of the highways.  For more information on state and local politics, take a look at my syllabus for PLSC 416 and visit the website of Livable Places, a local group with an interest in the built environment

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