Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Generous Humanity

One of my abusive father's constant lines was that he was so cruel because he was preparing me for the world "out there." But when I got to the world out there, it turned out to be very giving and generous toward me.

That's especially been the case since I developed massive food allergies. I'm allergic to fruit, mold, and corn. I'm especially allergic to corn which works to suppress my respiratory system. I start reacting if I even smell microwave popcorn. The bad thing is that corn syrup and corn starch are in used as sweeteners in most processed foods. As a result, I have to be very careful with my diet when I go out to eat.

At the same time, the people who have hosted Mrs. RSI and me for dinner have always bent over backwards to be accommodating to my allergies. In fact, people in Morehead and Philadelphia are so unfailingly generous about my allergies that I'm usually embarrassed by their solicitousness.

Last night, I had dinner at the home of some long time friends in Philadelphia. The hostess asked me what I could eat and not eat a couple of times in advance and her concern for my health and sense of ease was heartwarming. A cynic might object that these are my friends, but I find that the same is the case at university events, restaurants, and in the homes of acquaintances and strangers.

Most of us have a keen awareness of the crime, dishonesty, and conflict in the world. But I see the other side all the time and am beginning to wonder if we don't grossly underestimate the weight of consideration, "niceness," friendship, and love in our lives.

Friday, June 29, 2007

What About Bush and the Next Administration?

TPM has an article on the difficulties of Congressional Democrats getting the information they've subpoenaed from the Bush administration. That makes me wonder about the future. Much of what the Bush administration has done has been criminal activity in violation of American and international laws against torture. Is the next Democratic administration going to investigate criminal conduct in the Bush administration and to what extent will Bush's people provide them with information if they do?

Snape Puts a Stopper on Death

Drenched in sweat when I got back from a grocery run, I was taking a shower when my mind drifted toward Severus Snape. Why not? I'd been thinking of evil people all week--Dick Cheney, Ann Coulter, and a couple of others. Why not think about fictional evil as well?

Like a lot of people, I wonder what J. K. Rowling is going to do with Snape in the final book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Originally, I thought Snape was going to be a straight villain, but I've gradually come to think that Snape will be some kind of ally to Harry by the end. Snape is just too powerful to fit comfortably in Voldemort's camp anymore. Like the Malfoys (because of their love for Draco) and Peter Pettigrew (because it was foreshadowed at the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban), Snape will end up as a source of instability for Voldemort and eventually leave to form a tension-filled alliance with Harry. It's like David Addington leaving Dick Cheney's side to join the Obama campaign.

Actually, Snape might be the hinge that gets the story moving toward Harry's final showdown with Voldemort. The key here is that Snape announced to his first-year class in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that knowledge of potions allows a person to put a "stopper on death." Rowling doesn't follow up this reference in the following five books. Why would she? The only person who knows this way to escape death seems to be Severus Snape and he hasn't faced death yet. So, there was no need for Rowling to go into the chemistry of stopping death. In Deathly Hallows, however, I think there's a good chance that Snape's ability to escape death will be a significant plot device. I can imagine Snape escaping death at the hands of Voldemort, joining up with Harry, and teaching Harry to do the same. In this sense, Harry could "die" and come back to life. More impressively, Harry's access to potions knowledge could give him an access to immortality that could trump Voldemort's horcruxes and add some drama to the end of the book.

Snape could also be the vehicle through which Harry figures out how to use legilimency to break into Voldemort's mind and find and destroy Voldemort's horcruxes. I've argued in previous posts that legilimency will be Harry Potter's most important weapon against Voldemort. In fact, legilimency is one of the dormant powers revealed in The Sorcerer's Stone (apparition and metamorphing being the others) that Harry is not yet practiced in. Harry has already broken into Voldemort's mind many times without consciously employing his powers. Given that Snape is such an accomplished legimilens, he might be the person who lets Harry know fully of Voldemort's vulnerability on this score and teaches Harry how to mobilize his own superior powers. In fact, Harry has a stronger mind than Voldemort, this was shown by the struggle to move the beads of light at the end of The Goblet of Fire. It may turn out that Harry needs to be taught how to use his mind in a disciplined way in order to finally defeat Voldemort. This could be another place where Severus Snape is a big help.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Coulter Speaks, the Right Applauds

(From TPM) Brent Bozell, the proprietor of a conservative media watchdog site, sent an e-mail to a lot of media sources (but not RSI) about liberal abuse of Ann Coulter.
But Ann Coulter is owed an apology from those outlets, including NBC’s Nightly News, The Washington Post and CNN’s American Morning, which have mis-reported her comments. And conservatives, take note: Today it’s Coulter, tomorrow it may be you. The left has demonstrated that it will stop at nothing, including flat-out dishonesty, to undermine our leaders.
Both Greg Sergeant of TPM and John Amato of Crooks and Liars respond forcefully. But they also miss the depth of "Coulterism" in the contemporary conservative movement. Disgusting as it is, Bozell would be right to refer to Ann Coulter as a "leading conservative figure" even if she's not the leader of an institution like James Dobson or a power broker like Ralph Reed.

Working essentially as a political comedian, Coulter is the raging id of the conservative movement. As Bush, Cheney, Republican presidential candidates, and Republican Congressional leaders have been discredited, Coulter has become more visible and prominent. Conservatives now look to Ann Coulter to express exactly what they think of Muslims (death and conversion), immigrants (roaches), John Edwards, Al Gore, and liberalism in general. The war in Iraq might be failing, Bush couldn't do anything about Katrina, and the Republicans in Congress might be corrupt, but Coulter nails exactly what they think in the punchline of every political joke. When she joked about John Edward being killed in a terrorist attack, Coulter expressed just what her fans think about Edwards and other liberals as well. In a time when conservatives don't have much to feel good about, Coulter has gone from just entertaining their bigotries to being a symbol for what they like about themselves.

As a result, Bozell's right about the danger that right-wingers face. The Paris Hilton-like disgust now directed at Coulter could easily be directed at them too.

Personally, I don't have a problem with directing that kind of disgust at the right, as long as no one gets put in jail on ham and egg charges like Paris Hilton.

My Not-So-Secret Fear

I was reminded of my biggest fear in life by a Fox story on five young women who were killed in a car accident outside Fairport, NY near Rochester. That crash was sensational enough to make the national news, but at least one high school student dies in a car wreck every year in my home county in Kentucky. Four of my nieces and nephews in Morehead went through high school in the last ten years and their parents refrigerator was once filled with pictures from the funerals of their friends and acquaintances.

I haven't seen a lot of statistics but it seems like there's more teen deaths on highways now than there was in the early seventies. I only remember one teenager dying from a car accident in my home town of Waverly, NY during my three years of high school (her car fell down a steep embankment while she was approaching her parent's driveway). However, my mother claims that there's now a lot more driving deaths there now as well.

I blame it on better cars. Teen-age drivers aren't any dumber than they were when I was a teen driver. My friends and I were pretty dumb anyway. And the roads haven't changed much. Country roads and rural highways are still narrow and windy. However, the cars handle better than they used to and I believe that gives dumb teen-age drivers more wrong-headed confidence which unfortunately tends to get them killed.

Anyway, it's getting close to the day when it's my turn to worry. My oldest daughter will be thirteen on Aug. 1. That puts her three years away from her drivers license and I worry a lot more about her and her friends driving than I worry about drugs, alcohol, sex, or boys--or other girls for that matter.

There's not much I can do about it except talk to her about safe driving (which I do already). Otherwise, it's just one of those things you have to live with.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dick Cheney and the Romance of Evil

Cheney exposes are coming out like weeds. The Washington Post, Salon, and Huffington Post all have "important" stories about Dick Cheney's Vice-Presidency in recent editions. Despite the interesting detail about Cheney's machinations, all of these stories are disappointing. Much like there's always been a Hitler romance among journalists and historians, the current stories have a "Cheney romance." In the Hitler romance, writers are suitably horrified by Hitler's overthrow of democracy, the monumental violence of WWII, and the genocide of the Jews and other populations, but they're just "fascinated" about the manuevers through which Hitler accumulated all that power. The writer's shocked, but shocked in an awe-struck, titillating kind of way. Hitler's a monster, but they love watching him rise before he falls.

It's the same with Cheney. Even though the Washington Post writers are repulsed by Cheney's pursuit of a torture agenda, they're extremely impressed by the way that Cheney cut John Aschcroft, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice out of the decision-making process. What a slick manuever! We may not like Dick Cheney's policies on interrogation, warrantless wiretapping, and capital gains taxes, but we have to admire Cheney as the zen master of bureaucratic manuevering. Look how Cheney fooled all those people!

It's all nonsense. Dick Cheney has been an enormous failure as a vice-president. The Iraq War is probably the biggest mistake ever made by an American government and much of the blame for the war rests with Dick Cheney. The current journalism doesn't investigate Dick Cheney's role in promoting the Iraq War, but Cheney must have been just as central to the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation as he was to everything else. Consequently, much of the responsibility for the dismal failure of the war rests with Cheney.

The same is the case with Cheney's signature effort to concentrate as much power as possible in the office of the President (through the Office of the Vice-President). It's been a failure. After six years in office, George W. Bush has less power than his father did. Bush and Cheney can barely fend off all of the investigations of their abuses let alone exercise any power to control the agenda, launch initiatives, and control events. One could say that passing immigration legislation would be a manifestation of political strength, but Bush is completely dependent on the Democrats to get any kind of legislation passed. Even Harry Reid can smell out the president's weakness and call him to task for it.

In many ways, Dick Cheney has been a danger to American democracy. However, with the failure of Cheney's program, the danger has passed.

Some Advice for Ann Coulter

If I were Ann Coulter, I would make sure my driver's license is up to date. If she has personal assistants to take care of "that sort of thing," she should make sure they're doing their job. If she has a couple of glasses of wine before she drives home after a long day of comic nastiness, she should give that up. Obey the law at every point. Spend more time with her personal trainer.

That's the ticket.

Why? Based on her exchange with Elizabeth Edwards, it strikes me that Coulter is starting to enter Paris Hilton territory. Like Hilton, Ann Coulter has made a brand name out of a vice--in Coulter's case her comic political nastiness. However, it looks like public disgust with Coulter is reaching the kind of danger point that could find an outlet in arrest and prosecution.

I'm not a fan of Coulter's. Ann Coulter's professional life is one long and entertaining tease of stepping up to the racist, misogynist, vindictive, and brutality lines, and then putting her foot just far enough to "shock," "outrage," and entertain her audience, just not far enough to get her bounced off the op-ed pages and best seller lists. It's a sad and disgusting way to live.

But I also don't believe that Coulter should pay a price in jail time for her particular path to wealth and fame.

So, I'd advice her to be careful.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Congressional Republicans Taste the Bullet

Republicans on Capital Hill aren't exactly biting the bullet on the war in Iraq, but they are giving it a little taste. Yesterday, it was Sen. Richard Lugar from Indiana announcing that the surge policy wasn't working. Today, George Voinovich called for a change in direction in Iraq. At the same time, neither senator promised to start voting with the Democrats to either defund the war or set a timetable for withdrawal.

President Bush would call these kinds of announcements "meaningless political theater." I call it begging the president to save them from political disaster. But I'm not sure there is much of an alternative to going over the cliff with the president. If Bush does admit defeat and begins to draw down American troop levels, it's not going to help the Republicans. Democrats and liberal bloggers like myself are going to ask why Bush wasted another 500-600 American lives on the fruitless surge policy that was destined for failure and why Republican senators supported Bush despite all their "misgivings" about the policy. And we'll be right to ask.

And the answers won't be easy because Senate Republicans won't want to say the truth--that they supported the President because they didn't want to give in to the Democrats. Talk about a hell of a reason for hundreds of American troops to lose their lives. The Iraq war has been driven by Republican politics from the very beginning. Staying another nine months to avoid losing to the Democrats would be the icing on the whole cake of mendaciousness and deceit.

Supporting President Bush means losing considerably more political ground in 2008. It's likely however, that giving up their support for the President would result in a much sharper Republican collapse. As a result, it's no surprise that the GOP is only tasting the bullet.

Boys and Girls, We Have Another Scandal on Our Hands

The Bush administration is not only incompetent at war and disaster relief, it also does a poor job of handling classified information. It's already known that President Bush and VP Cheney refuse to let their handling of classified information be inspected by The Information Security Oversight Office. Today, Henry Waxman revealed information indicating that Bush and Cheney's offices are extremely lax in handling classified information. (Quote via TPM)

In another example described to my staff, a junior White House aide reported that a senior assistant to the President improperly disclosed “Sensitive Compartmented Information” to the junior aide, even though the aide had no security clearance. Although SCI is the highest level of security classification, the White House Security Office took no steps to investigate or take corrective action. ...

One example cited by the officials involved security procedures in the White House sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF). The security officers said that Mr. Knodell and Mr. Greeson habitually brought their Blackberry devices and cell phones into the SCIF in the White House Security Office in violation of the rules. The officials said that (White House Security Office head James) Knodell and (WHSO Deputy Ken) Greeson also allowed others, such as visiting White House personnel, to bring their Blackberries and cell phones into the SCIF. According to the officials, these improper practices were allowed to continue even after security officers
repeatedly informed Mr. Knodell and Mr. Greeson that the practices violated security rules and set a poor example.

Why would an administration obsessed with secrecy do such a poor job of handling classified material. Actually, I would bet it's because they're obsessed with secrecy. Bush administration personnel have been so eager to classify everything that they have no sense of a distinction between what needs to be kept secret and therefore handled carefully and what doesn't. A great deal of political information, scheduling logs, and personal communication has been given the highest clearance. But none of it is important to any security other than the Bush administration's political security. What appears to have happened is that Bush officials are treating real national security information with the carelessness that they're treating the political information that they've classified.

And now, they've been caught red-handed. Pretty soon, the Bush administration's approval rating might fall below the ratings for Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. Maybe they should bring Tom DeLay in as a political consultant.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bush: It's Worse Than the Numbers

One of the interesting features of my visit back to my hometown was the revulsion for President Bush among my basically conservative relatives. My Aunt Donna, age 74 and high school educated, was especially emphatic. When I said mentioned writing something against the Bush administration every day, she replied that she said something critical against the Bush administration every day. And she put a lot of determination into that reply. My father, who probably hasn't voted in forty years, casually mentioned talking about Bush with one of his neighbors. Given that my dad and his girlfriend are strongly opposed to the war, I'm sure he wasn't saying nice things about our president either.

Bush is at 31.1% in the latest RCP average. But if non-political people like my older relatives are criticizing Bush on an everyday basis, that means that people not only disapprove of Bush but are feeling strong about it. For Democrats, that means that the obvious strategy for candidates is to tie their Republican opponents to the failing president.

Obviously, Republican candidates are going to have a much harder road in any but the safest districts and states. Maybe Susan Collins and Gordon Smith should start thinking about ritual suicide techniques.

The Neo-Cons Have a Friend in Plato

My day job is teaching political philosophy and honors courses at Morehead State University in Kentucky. As a result, I was very interested in Salon's interview with Simon Blackburn about his new book Plato's Republic.

One of issues that the interview explores is the extent to which Leo Strauss and his contemporary neo-conservative supporters have an accurate understanding of Plato. Why, one might ask, is Leo Strauss significant? It's mostly because so many of his followers have served in the Bush administration and figured in the neo-conservative movement. Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Zalmay Khalilzad, Douglas Feith, and William Kristol are probably the most prominent people in public life who have had Straussian training. However, Straussians are dispersed through the lower levels of the Bush administration as well. As Harvey Mansfield, the Straussian political theorist at Harvard, notes, his students can "go to Washington and run the country" when they can't find academic jobs.

Simon Blackburn has an extremely low opinion of Strauss' analysis of Plato:

This was kind of a covert message, Strauss thought, of [Plato's] text. Strauss thought that this covert message or esoteric message was supposed to be perceived only by a number of people of special illumination, amongst which he included himself . . . And that was the ideology that eventually became American neo-conservatism, the view that the servants of the state are entitled to do anything -- to lie, to manipulate, to foment war, to destabilize neighboring states, to disguise their actions under a hypocritical cloak of goodness. So it's an extreme example of realpolitik, which I think is just a 180 degree misreading of what Plato is about. But it just shows that you can put down the clearest words on the page and it will be read saying the opposite.
In a way, Blackburn is most certainly correct. Strauss' idea that writings like Plato's Republic contain "esoteric" messages that can only be deciphered by "people of special illumination" is one of the dumbest ideas ever proposed by an academic. One of the reasons why academic Straussians are so annoying is that they have the smugness of people who are sure they have "the secret." In this way, Straussianism is a kind of secular religious cult.

However, one doesn't have to engage in an esoteric reading to view Plato as sanctioning the kind of deceptiveness alluded to by Blackburn. This is because Plato was such a determined opponent of democracy. Actually, Plato's situation was somewhat analogous to that of current Straussians. Just as Plato was an aristocrat living in the democratic city of Athens, contemporary Straussians live in an American society that has been extensive democratized since the sixties. With the success of the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements, the onset of the counter-culture, high levels of immigration and a cultural emphasis on toleration and openness, 21st century America has emerged as the most important successor to the freedom and multi-colored diversity of ancient Athens.

Plato's Republic seeks to refute, devalue, undermine, and subvert Athenian democracy at every turn and he doesn't hesitate to use dishonesty to achieve this purpose. The most obvious dishonesty was the "noble lie" that there were three classes of people--some with souls mixed with gold, others with silver, and most with bronze. The core deception in the noble lie is that Plato sought to convince most people to believe a false view that class hierarchy is based on the nature of the metal mixed into their souls. Of course, Plato is convinced that the Guardian class is superior in nature to the other two classes because the Guardians have the ability to contemplate the Ideas. At the same time, he is willing to engage in the crass manipulation of the three metals scheme to convince the lower orders of their natural inferiority. Given the fundamental character of this particular deception, there's no reason to think that Plato would not engage in wholesale deceptions in order to manipulate populations to give up the substance and form of democracy.

In this context, it's relatively easy to see Plato as viewing the relentless "swift-boating," the "gay marriage" scare that Karl Rove engineered in 2004, Doug Feith's phony intelligence, and the internment policies of the Bush administration as legitimate measures to convince the population to cede authority to the upper classes. As Blackburn argues, Plato wanted ethical government based on a knowledge of the Ideas, but he was also willing to sanction dishonest and unethical tactics if they served to undermine democracy.

As repugnant as the Straussians can be, they do have a philosophical friend in Plato.

Red State Philly Impressions Featured on RealClearPolitics

Onward and Upward. Well, sort of. My on-line discussion with Dan Gerstein was featured on the conservative RealClearPolitics blog last Saturday. People didn't click through much if at all. Still, it was good to nudge the blog a little further out in the public eye.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fredo's Fredo

President Bush's shrinking set of admirers have long compared him favorably to admired former presidents. It seems that the rhetorical tactic has become somewhat degraded recently when Michael Gerson highlighted the similarities between President Bush and Bill Clinton. What happened to Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Jackson?

But why compare to former presidents at all? Why not famous movie characters? In today's Washington Post, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker mention rather off-handedly that President Bush's nickname for Alberto Gonzales has always been "Fredo" after Michael Corleone's dim-witted brother in Godfather I and II.

This rankles with liberal bloggers. Matthew Yglesias, for example, thinks the nickname was a sign that "Bush was . . . trying to warn us" that Gonzales was an incompetent. Talking Points Memo is pretty disgusted as well.

But I think it's better to think of a nickname like "Fredo" as an especially endearing bit of man-love from George Bush. For the longest time, Bush was a Fredo figure himself. George wasn't exactly the brains in the family. George was notoriously immature and irresponsible well into his forties. In the Bush family, the brains and maturity all went to Jeb while older brother George was the embarrassing ne'er do well. Bush also flubbed all the projects handed to him by people who wanted a Bush as their business figurehead--someone who didn't worry about digging dry holes because he wasn't playing with his own money. It wasn't until George was handed the opportunity to put together the Texas Rangers deal that he did anything right.

Having spent his whole adult life as the Fredo of the Bush family, George probably took a special liking to an Al Gonzales whose only apparent talent was his ability to lie on behalf of George Bush. Because George Bush knows what it's like to play the role of Fredo, he had a special appreciation for someone who could reprise the role like Al Gonzales. Being Fredo's Fredo was a sign of the special favor with which Gonzales was viewed by George Bush.

Cheney-Scale Failure

I'm in a hotel while visiting my family in Waverly, NY. The older I get the more I find myself drawn to the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers which run by the east and west sides of the village. "Two rivers" is an image that underlies a fair amount of what I write and think.

Back to politics, the Washington Post has an article on the concentration of power in Dick Cheney's office over the last six years. But they failed to mention that Dick Cheney is one of the major reasons why the Bush administration has been such a failure and why they'll leave office as perhaps the most reviled administration in American history. Cheney has generally escaped comparisons to other VP's but I believe that history will look at him as the worst vice-president since Aaron Burr.