So, just to be clear, we aren't stipulating you're a dirtbag? Are we?

>> Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not long ago I was walking toward an airport departure gate when a man approached me.

"Are you Robert Reich?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"You’re a Commie dirtbag." (He actually used a variant of that noun, one that can’t be printed here.)

"I’m sorry?" I thought I had misunderstood him.

“You’re a Commie dirtbag.”

My mind raced through several possibilities. Was I in danger? That seemed doubtful. He was well-dressed and had a briefcase in one hand. He couldn’t have gotten through the checkpoint with a knife or gun. Should I just walk away? Probably. But what if he followed me? Regardless, why should I let him get away with insulting me?

I decided to respond, as civilly as I could: "You’re wrong. Where did you get your information?"

"Fox News. Bill O’Reilly says you’re a Communist."

A year or so ago Bill O’Reilly did say on his Fox News show that I was a Communist. I couldn’t imagine what I’d done to provoke his ire except to appear on several TV shows arguing for higher taxes on the wealthy, which hardly qualified me as a Communist. Nor am I exactly a revolutionary. I served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. My first full-time job in Washington was in the Ford administration, working for Robert H. Bork at the Justice Department.

"Don’t believe everything you hear on Fox News," I said. The man walked away, still irritated.
-Robert Reich, "'Are you Robert Reich? You’re a Commie dirtbag!'";
Salon, September 26th, 2013. 

This one always gets me.  Apparently the former Secretary Of Labor for the Clinton Administration, Robert Reich, doesn't dispute being called "a variant of that noun [dirtbag]", but don't you dare call him a "communist".  It's like the Whitey Bulger defense, or something: "I may be a murderous psychopathic criminal who kills, mutilates, extorts, and steals, but don't you dare call me a stool pigeon and I don't hit women."  Sure, I'm scum, but I'm scum on my own terms.

Somehow, I don't think that's what Robert Reich meant to say.

But it's one of these things that baffles me though I understand it pretty comprehensively: in America, you can say just about anything you want about a political figure except that he's a communist.  Even if he is one, which Robert Reich isn't.  In fact, that's why I, considering myself a Euro-style Democratic Socialist (despite the fact I'd probably end up being a bit right-wing, relatively speaking, if I ever expatriated myself), kind of takes it as an affront that somebody like Reich is (a) called a "communist" despite being Secretary Of Labor during the high-water mark of the conservative New Democrats and (b) oi! what's wrong with being a communist if you were one?

I'd be much more upset at being called... whatever else Reich was called.

Probably, I mean.  I doubt I'm about to get accosted in an airport by a Giant Midgets reader, seeing as how I fly even less than I update this blog anymore; but if someone called me, a "communist", I dunno, "asshole", let's say, I think I'd have to concede being an asshole but waffle on the "communist" only to the extent that "socialism" is commonly regarded as a softer subset of "communism" (so in that case, sure, I'm a commie) but to the extent "communism" is now commonly regarded as being a one-party, completely centralized and planned state system then not really, and to the extent "communism" still holds any semblance of its original meaning as a form of common ownership without private property, I think some forms of communism might be possible on a very small scale--from a family to a very small village (or, well, you know, a commune) but that kind of system seems to scale very badly and I don't see how it would possibly work on a nation-scale (or even the scale of a city-state, say).

To the extent "communism" is synonymous with the bastardized, highly-corrupt post-revolutionary regimes of the late Soviet Union or postwar China, no thanks.  But I think what you're talking about in these kinds of states is a kind of communism-in-name-only, not because of some kind of "No True Scotsman" thing, but because these states have (or had) economic and ownership regimes that emerged from complicated histories wherein revolutionary parties--and specifically their elites--never completed an actual Marxist transition to a popular, proletarian state.  (I.e. the revolutionary parties just seized everything and held onto it, allegedly in the name of a workers population that had no actual say in the disposition of the property; the pigs became just like the farmers and "it was impossible to say which was which".)

Of course, in America we have a history of hating socialists that goes back to the 19th Century, when socialism was probably had its widest appeal in this country.  The plutocrats did plenty to marginalize American socialists even then, lumping them in with the anarchists and other radicals, and lumping in the labor unionists as well (regardless of whether the unionist in question was actually a socialist or anarchist, or merely a guy who wanted a living wage working on a machine that wasn't going to cut his fingers off in a building that wasn't going to burn to the ground with him trapped inside of it).  I think things got truly ugly, though, when Eugene Debs, probably America's best-known socialist politician, came out against the Great War, because gods know, pacifism isn't patriotic.  Unless you were an early 20th Century Republic isolationist, that is, because that mostly just meant you didn't want to send the Army to Europe, preferring to send them into Latin America and perhaps the Pacific.

This is all before we get to WWII, and post-WWII into McCarthyism, which are well-trodden boards and I'm not going to recapitulate the whole sordid thing (there's a Wikipedia link, there, if you still have any confusion).  Except to observe that the worst thing about Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt wasn't the false accusations of witchcraft, but rather the fact that some of the people he (and fellow witch-finders like Richard Nixon and Roy Cohn) condemned and destroyed really were witches, which shouldn't matter in a so-called free country.1

Which gets us back to the original point, which is the correct response to being called a communist in an airport ought to be something along the lines of, "So what if I was you fuckin' dink?  You got a problem with a man having a right to his opinion, numbnuts?"  Not, "Oh noes, that Bill O'Reilly man is telling lies, please don't believe him!"  It's a sign of how dumb and shallow the discourse in this country is (and really has been for a long time, to be honest) that "communist" is the pseudo-intellectual-wannabe-pundit's version of "fag" instead of an entryway into an actual conversation about what kinds of property, labor and economic policies, free market or otherwise, would bring about the greatest degree of common weal for the most people and the longest time, and with the best respect possible for whatever individual and civic values we might be able to agree upon.2

I'm really more offended by Reich than by his verbal assailant.  He's a smart guy.  Assuming he wasn't late for his flight, he could have spent five minutes educating the O'Reilly fan, or at least making him feel stupid ("When you say 'communist', sir, do you mean to say I'm a Marxist-Leninist, or would you be referring to French Situationalism or some other socio-economic paradigm... just to clarify, if you'd be so kind.").  And if he was afraid of missing his flight (although a TSA line probably offers one enough time, these days, to not only pursue the various flavors of communist theory but to also have a most excellent conversation about pre-Marxist communism during the French Revolution), he certainly doesn't have that excuse when it comes time to write something up for Salon.  Instead of taking an opportunity to talk about the various flavors of leftism, Reich wants to write Yet Another Article About How Divided Americans Are.  (At least Reich goes on to blame the economy, instead of some kind of Cosmic Cloud.  Still, it's pointless: has this country ever been united on anything without the hostile intervention of foreigners sinking or collapsing something of ours, first?3)

Oh well.  Reich has his centrist reputation to keep, I guess, if he wants to be taken seriously by the Beltway.  Still, I know it's l'esprit d'escalier and all that, but maybe what you should have said, Mr. Reich:  "Well, you're half right."  And walk away.

1The caveat being, so long as you weren't doing anything else illegal, like selling bomb secrets to the Soviets.  But that kind of thing's a problem regardless of your politics: the Rosenbergs shouldn't have been in trouble for being Reds, they should have been in trouble for espionage, just like Aldrich Ames was several decades later, and Ames was a good capitalist whose small business enterprise just happened to be selling CIA secrets to the Russians for the going fair market price.

2Just as "fag" is a stupid insult first because it ascribes some kind of negativity to a status that, in and of itself, isn't anything, and then second because that negativity not only demeans something that isn't demeaning, but by doing so it ends any further thought about its own subject.  That is: "fag" isn't just an insult to those who are GLBTW(hatever), but its an insult to intelligence, cutting off any further discussion of how varied and remarkable human sexuality can be.  The Kinsey Reports, whatever their methodological flaws, are interesting because they open the door to a frank discussion about what it means to be a sexually mature human being; "fag" is just boring, saying all it means to and all it can in three letters, and even if the target of the comment happened to be gay and even if there was something wrong with that, somehow... so what?  A door is closed, instead of opened.  Yawn.

3Lessee: American passengers on the Lusitania, the portion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, the World Trade Center... am I missing anything?  And how odd is it that something these share in common are things dropping in one way or another?



A 21st-Century witch trial

>> Wednesday, September 11, 2013

An Indiana man who made thousands of dollars teaching people how to beat lie detector tests was sentenced to eight months in federal prison on Friday. Though Chad Dixon argued there was nothing inherently illegal about teaching polygraph countermeasures, he couldn’t deny that he had continued to work with two students (actually undercover agents) even after they confided that they planned to use his methods to fraudulently obtain jobs with the federal government. Dixon might not be the last polygraph expert to land in jail: According to a report last month from McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington, D.C. bureau, the federal government has begun to deliberately target for prosecution people who teach polygraph-beating techniques. Why is the government so keen on pursuing anti-polygraph instructors? And why does it put so much stock in a technology that the rest of the world abandoned long ago?
You to Know How to Beat a Lie Detector Test"; Slate, September 9th, 2013.

An Indiana man who taught sex offenders and aspiring federal law enforcement officers how to cheat their court- or job-imposed lie detector tests was sentenced to eight months in prison Friday — a somewhat muted victory for authorities hoping to send a stern warning to those in the business of beating polygraphs.
September 6th, 2013.
Federal agents have launched a criminal investigation of instructors who claim they can teach job applicants how to pass lie detector tests as part of the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on security violators and leakers. 
- Marisa Taylor and Cleve R. Wootson Jr., "Seeing threats, feds target instructors
McClatchy, August 16th, 2013.

I find this stunning.  Obscene, really.  Baffling in the sense that it's hard to get your brain around this really being a thing, even though you know some people--in this case, people in law enforcement and Federal government--are so smugly and self-righteously stupid about polygraphy that it only follows they'd wreck some poor bastard's life to defend their sacred mumbo-jumbo.

But that's what this is.  If there's a crime committed by Chad Dixon and others, it's possibly a fraud in telling anybody that the polygraph needs to be defeated.  The thing is bogus, claptrap, pseudoscience.  To worry about someone instructing people on how to "beat" the polygraph is like worrying about someone teaching hexes to protect against witchcraft, or teaching people how to hide springs on their property from dowsers.

Aldrich Ames passed polygraphs all the time when he was a Soviet mole embedded in the CIA.  It was easy as falling asleep.  No, really: "The KGB advised Ames to get 'a real good night's sleep. Be fresh and rested. Be cooperative. Develop rapport with examiner. And try to remain as calm and easy as you can.'"  Forget thumbtacks in your shoe, deep-breathing exercises, Zen meditation, autohypnosis, learning to control your autonomic nervous system à la Hannibal Lecter; no, just get a nice rest the night before, maybe take a nap in the morning, remember to say "Hi" to your interrogator and ask about his wife'n'kids.  I'm not sure what Chad Dixon was charging a fee for, but, hey, it doesn't sound like he was being charged with some kind of consumer fraud; it appears he was charged with obstruction of justice and collaborating with people to defraud the Department Of Justice by lying to get jobs.  I.e. Dixon's going to prison for bullshitting the bullshitters, not for charging someone a grand and teaching them to breathe instead of telling them to have something nice for dinner and go to bed early the night before.

What the fuck?

The National Academy Of Sciences has said, pretty much, that using a polygraph as a "lie detector" is horseshit.  Even wrote a 400-page book about it, and it was hardly the first time they looked at the damn thing and came to that conclusion.  I'm appealing to them as authorities because they're smart and their reports are easy to find and freely available online, but it's really kind of commonsensical that the polygraph-as-lie-detector is unproven at best and something of a fraud at worst: consider what the polygraph measures (pulse, respiration, skin conductivity) and whether polygraph examiners have ever proven their presumption that these things change in response to unconscious or autonomic changes in the nervous system caused by some kind of awareness one is speaking or thinking a falsehood (they haven't ever proven that); then ask yourself if there's anything else that could cause changes in physical state, known causes of changes in physical state, and whether the polygraph has any kind of mechanism to exclude causes like stress, fear, exhaustion, illness, indigestion et al. (and it doesn't).  Without proof of the premise that lying causes physical alterations and proof that the polygraph can exclude "false positives", you're left with the minimal conclusion that the polygraph measures respiration, pulse, skin conductivity, and so what?  Without proof the polygraph is reliable at identifying the cause of those physical changes, your minimal conclusion is there's something going on, but what?  And when law enforcement agencies and polygraph examiners continue to insist on nothing but faith and whimsy that the machine does something other than measure these alterations and they know better than the whole entire world why those alterations are occurring, you're left with the maximal conclusion there's a con being perpetrated, and the culprit ain't whomever is wearing the pressure cuff.

It works as an intimidation tool because people are ignorant: people are so frightened of what the machine hypothetically could reveal, they do it themselves.  "The polygraph says you're holding something back, Sam."  "I-i-i-it does?!  Aieee!  I stole candy when I was five!  I'm so sorry!"  Only instead of stealing candy, you know, it's killing a hooker or giving microfilm to the dread Chinese or whatever.  It's a bluff, though.  "The polygraph says you're holding something back, Sam."  "Meh," says Sam, "kiss my ass."  Call them and all they have is whatever spike or dip they're imbuing with meaning; which is something they'll do because they're drinking their own spiked hooch.  They think the machine is magic, but they're dumb about it.

And now they're sending a poor sap to prison for it.  Going by the reports, this is ridiculous and unconscionable.  I don't know what to do about it except to rant and rave in the wilderness, letting people who might have missed the news know, this is a thing, this happened, this is bull-sheeit.  They might as well be sending a man to prison for some kind of crime against magic.  He was selling hexes against our hoaxes, and this being the 21st Century and all, we'll send him to prison for eight months.

The fucking prosecutors were asking for two years.  Called Chad Dixon a "master of deceit".  Maybe the masters of deceit are the federal prosecutors who accused Dixon of teaching people how to beat a machine concerning which the Offices Of The United States Attorneys' own Criminal Resource Manual offers this incoherent jumble:

Despite the appeal of a mechanical technique to measure a person's veracity, the polygraph has met with limited judicial acceptance and use as a federal investigative tool. In light of present scientific evidence the Department of Justice continues to agree with the conclusion of the Committee on Governmental Operations of the House of Representatives, which held after extensive hearings in 1965:
There is no "lie detector." The polygraph machine is not a "lie detector," nor does the operator who interprets the graphs detect "lies." The machine records physical responses which may or may not be connected with an emotional reaction--and that reaction may or may not be related to guilt or innocence. Many, many physical and psychological factors make it possible for an individual to "beat" the polygraph without detection by the machine or its operator.
H.R.Rep. No. 198, 89th Cong., 1st Sess. 13 (1965). Following further hearings and study, the same conclusions were reached in 1976. The Use of Polygraphs and Similar Devices by Federal Agencies: Hearings on H.R. 795 Before the House Comm. on Government Operations, 94 Cong., 2d Sess. (1976). And in 1988, as a result of continuing doubts about the usefulness and accuracy of polygraphs as a means of detecting deceit, Congress restricted the use of polygraphs in employment decisions. 29 U.S.C. §§ 2001 et seq. Despite Congress's antipathy toward the polygraph, the Department supports the limited use of polygraphs for investigatory purposes.

The Department Of Justice agrees with Congress that there ain't no such thing as a "lie detector", but notwithstanding Congress' conclusion (which DOJ agrees with), the DOJ "supports the limited use of polygraphs for investigatory purposes."  Isn't that precious.  "There's no particularly good reason to use a coin flip as a prosecutorial tool (except maybe we've convinced some poor schlubs we have a magic quarter), but what the hell, it's kinda fun or something."

Masters of deceit, indeed.


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Thinking of the children

>> Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I am depressed and discouraged.  I have not heard a more dishonest and depressing speech since George W. Bush was the President of the United States.  President Obama, a man I have an enormous amount of respect for, stood up in front of the country and dissembled for about half an hour.

I don't know if I should regret voting for him.  I guess I don't.  What was I going to do, abstain or vote for Mitt Romney, which would have been the same thing?  Gods know, I wasn't terribly likely to vote for John McCain in 2008 even before he threatened to put Sarah Fucking Palin a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  But I have gone, in the space of an evening (mostly) from votes I was sort of proud of to feeling like I barely chose the lesser of evils twice running.

It isn't a good feeling.

Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over a hundred thousand people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition and to shape a political settlement.

And I hate this.  But we didn't do more than work with allies to provide humanitarian support and assist the moderate opposition and work towards a political settlement because we can't count every fallen sparrow.  And there was a time, back in the 1990s, really, when I thought we could, that I thought we could be a force for good in the world and use our own unrivaled power and good intentions to effect positive change in the world; but whatever I had left of that faith was lost when Afghanistan went from girls in school and movies in theatres for the first time in decades to a matter of counting our children's limbs in the middle of the road; I can't do this anymore, no matter how much I wish I could, how much I wish we could be noble.  It could be moral cowardice, but there are limits to what we can do, and certainly limits to what we can do without spending lives and treasure profligately; we made regime change and reconstruction abroad work twice, essentially, but only by invading Europe and Asia with our allies and then spending vast fortunes rebuilding West Germany and Japan at a time when we had what was essentially the sole functioning economy in the entirety of the world and were flush to the gills, and when the world had devolved to an only-slightly-unstable binary where the nations we rebuilt had a choice between kissing our sanctimoniously democratic asses or giving themselves over to Stalinist barbarism.
But I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I suppose this is technically true, though I can't but think, Mr. President, that you said there was a red line.  That you said there would be no military action unless, and thereby created this untenable situation where a promise must be kept or broken, however vague that promise.  What did you mean, precisely?  I think we all assumed you meant you would take the crossing of this line as a call for military action, and groaned.

The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.

This was not always the case. In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust. Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them. And in 1997, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 government that represent 98 percent of humanity.

On August 21st, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity.

Kill a hundred thousand people with arms and artillery, and we'll look aside.  Kill a thousand with gas, and we'll dredge up the scruples of Edwardian hypocrites who were content to gas revolting colonials but balked at turning it upon one another.

A bullet doesn't distinguish between a soldier and an infant.  Nor does an incendiary bomb, which we dropped plenty of upon German and Japanese civilian centers.  One nation has used atomic bombs in warfare, in both cases against civilian targets; hello.  The point here is not that we are as awful and evil as Assad might be, the point is not a false equivalency between us and him: the point is a false difference between Sarin gas and every other weapon of warfare that has ever been used and most likely ever will be.  As if there's a good way to die; as if having a piece of hot metal pierce the skin at supersonic speeds, screaming through the guts and caroming off the bones is pleasant.  As if being set afire alive by phosphorous, magnesium or napalm, the fire clinging to the body like glue as it melts and blackens the skin and boils the blood is a better way to die than a acetylcholinesterase inhibitor shutting down the ends of neurons.  Every violence man inflicts upon man is horrific, and not a one of them happens to be merciful to women and children, not a one is smart enough to pick a soldier instead of an infant.

And when we fire whatever the President means to fire at Assad or his chemical weapons facilities, whenever we make this "targeted" strike, nothing we have in our arsenal will distinguish between innocent and sinner once the trigger is pulled.  We are likely to murder innocents too, as we've done and will do.

No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria. The world saw thousands of videos, cellphone pictures and social media accounts from the attack. And humanitarian organizations told stories of hospitals packed with people who had symptoms of poison gas.

And everyone disputes what we should do.  If anything.  If anything we could do was worth doing at all.

Moreover, we know the Assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area they where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.

Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded. We know senior figures in Assad's military machine reviewed the results of the attack. And the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed. We've also studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested positive for sarin.

And Secretary Of State Powell sat down with the United Nations and showed them pictures of Saddam Hussein's mobile bioweapons facilities.  Which turned out to be interesting because they didn't exist.  And a pretty great man's reputation was tarnished forever, which was awful but not as awful as all the blood we shed in Iraq over a great big stinking lie.  Or error.  I mean, let's be fair and consider that maybe Secretary Powell's boss was misled, too; he was kind of an idiot savant in his way, Yale and Harvard educated and a savvy political op, but the kind of guy who didn't seem to think twice when the very guy he delegated to find him a Vice-Presidential nominee claimed he looked everywhere and couldn't come up with a better choice than his very own self, the kind of thing that would have raised eyebrows most places hither and yon.  The kind of guy who read a lot but nobody was ever really entirely sure if he understood any of it, or, more accurately still, grokked any of it (that excellent Heinleinian coinage for a level of deeper understanding than deep understanding, the feeling in your bones, profoundly kenned).

We can't afford to believe you anymore just because we like you, Mr. President.  It's nothing personal--we can't believe anyone anymore, a President least of all.  We shouldn't have, ever: Gods know, we've had our Tonkin Gulfs and Checkers Speeches, Teapot Domes and all the way back.  You know the Assad regime was responsible, or you say you do; we don't, gods have mercy on us.  Your word and a picture of President Lincoln will get us a grande latte at Starbucks and yet another interminable war in the Middle East.

When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied.

The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people -- to those children -- is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security. Let me explain why. 

Perhaps we're prepared to do what we did when he killed the first hundred thousand.

If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

The slippery slope.  The Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons, though the implicit threat of your red line was, according to you, Mr. President, insufficient to keep him from starting.  Other tyrants will do what they will do.  Our troops have biohazzard gear, and while I don't want them to face chemical weapons, they're as prepared as anyone might be with their environment suits and atropine.  Terrorist organizations can get chemical weapons anyway, anyhow; the dubious good news is that without a delivery system these attacks are likely to be less effective than a really well-built explosive; Aum Shinrikyo killed eight people with Sarin in 1994 and thirteen in 1995, injuring thousands more but still less effective than hijacking four airplanes.

I do not mean to belittle a threat: I don't have an environmental suit nor a convenient atropine shot handy.  A mere droplet of Sarin quickly penetrates the skin and triggers a terrifying chemical chain of events in the nervous system, and only a tiny bit more is agonizingly fatal.  But a well-equipped and fairly organized terrorist group armed with Sarin killed fewer people than one nutjob with his mom's assault rifle, and we've been marvelous effective in preventing the next one of those from happening.

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path. 

Do we think Iran is really going to be deterred by cruise missiles in Damascus more than they might be deterred by the secret war they're already fighting with Israel?  If having their top tier of physicists "mysteriously" murdered in the space of two years isn't stopping them, I think we can assume they're unstoppable and can only be delayed by clever tradework.

This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use. 

Only the world we're stuck with.  Is a targeted military strike against a chemical weapons depot anything like a targeted strike against the Taliban?  Because those are going just-oh-so-well and we're ever so accurate and reliable with those (PDF link).

That’s my judgment as commander-in-chief, but I’m also the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.  

The large print giveth, the fine print taketh away, as someone once said.  I think the President's belief that he has the unilateral power to order military strikes might be as controversial as the presumed source of that authority itself.  Half of this sounds like the President gets it and half of it sounds like the crackling of the Constitution going up in flames.  Okay, the Constitution is a shitty document and this kind of thing is an example of why: the Founders had no idea we'd be dealing with the Presidential authority to launch missiles half a world away in reprisal for alleged threats to the nation's foreign interests, fair enough; but as much as I may think the Constitution is defunct and expired, it's the only bleeding one we've got, and it pains me that this is the state we're in.

...many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are “still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.” A veteran put it more bluntly: “This nation is sick and tired of war.”

My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.

And my response is: we bombed Germany practically to the Stone Age in WWII, and it took Soviet tanks rolling on Berlin to get them to quit; we flattened Japan in the same war, and it took two atom bombs and the threat of an infantry invasion bypassing the rest of the Pacific to convince them we wouldn't take a conditional surrender; for their part, the Germans did a fine job of harassing the British from the air in still-the-same-war, and all they managed to do was stiffen the Brits' collective neck and solidify their resistance long enough for the United States to eventually get into the war and make it completely unwinnable for the Reich.

We bombed the hell out of North Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and I think all we got out of that deal was the second-worst Republican Presidential candidate of the previous half-century.  We also bombed Viet Cong strongholds in Cambodia, and all that did was drive the Khmer Rouge even batshit crazier than they already were (which is saying something), contributing to a radicalization process that eventually caused between two-and-four million deaths (many of them caused by being beaten to death by starving children armed with machetes and unloaded rifles, which is a horrible way to die like all the other ways to die, and probably most of them by starvation, which is also a horrible way like all the other ways to die--did you know that one form of malnutrition, scurvy, basically causes your body to disintegrate and bleed out because your body can no longer form the connective tissues that literally hold you together?).

Point being, nobody wants "boots on the ground," but that's how you actually accomplish anything at all.  Air power is great--in conjunction with ground forces.  Naval support is awesome--in conjunction with ground forces.  Planes and ships don't hold territory, they don't impose a greater will upon the citizens or regime.  There's some evidence, mentioned above, that what a bombing campaign gets you is easily a more-resolved enemy and/or a crazier population; these may be the same thing, the survivors psychologically fused together by the act of survival, driven paranoid by the uncertainty of when death will next rain down and bound in solidarity by that looming, inescapable fear.

What are we going to accomplish shooting things at Assad?  He isn't afraid of us now when we've threatened to shoot things at him; gods help us with what he might do to his own people if we do shoot things at him and he lives through it, or what he does to us if he can get his grubby paws on us.

Speaking of which--
Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria.

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force -- we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.

Restating a dubious proposition in completely different words doesn't make it less-dubious.  Nice dick-waving with the "pinprick" line, though.  Your predecessor would be proud, Mr. President; that's the kind of phrase he used to love.

Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America.

Am I the only one who has a hard time reconciling this passage with the crap about, "Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians"?  It's very hard to take a speech seriously when one of the speaker's choice arguments is a rebuttal to something he claimed less than fifteen minutes previously.

To be clear, I actually buy this part of the President's speech--except I think it's actually an argument for continuing with diplomatic pressures and foregoing a military response, because I think the earlier, contradictory claim where the President tried to press fear-of-terrorism buttons and our-men-and-women-in-uniform buttons is the horseshit argument.  In any case, you can hardly have it both ways in my view: either Assad's (or anyone else's) chemical weapons are a danger to American soldiers abroad and to civilians within our borders, or they aren't, and if we don't need to be afraid of reprisals, we have as little to fear from overconfidence, or vice-versa.

Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated, and where -- as one person wrote to me -- “those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?”

It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people -- and the Syrian opposition we work with -- just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.

Did you notice his failure to actually address the question?  And why can't we redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution the day before any military action, especially seeing as how a military action risks killing or pissing off the opposition we might want to work with?  And when did the alternative to a military strike become "doing nothing", or is that what we've already been doing, in which case why did he say we "worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement"?  I'm confused... no, wait, I'm not confused, this is just a bunch of bullshit, is all.  I understand perfectly.

...I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations -- but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.

I think this translates as "We're ineffectual", which kind of begs the question of why firing a few rockets at Assad and settling on our haunches to see what happens next would suddenly make a resumption of ineffectualities... effectual.

The implication here--which I agree with--is that anything we do is going to be limited in effectiveness.

The exception being, of course, an invasion; which, to be clear, is a really, really shitty idea unless we're going to go the full invasion-of-Germany-followed-by-a-Marshall-Plan route.  Which we obviously aren't.  At most we'd go for the invade-Iraq-and-spend-a-decade-bleeding-to-death route.  Which stinks, do I even have to say that?

However, over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use. 

How the fuck have we gone so far askew that Vladimir Fucking Putin has become the hero of the story?  We are fucking doing it wrong.  We have to be.

And so, to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.

Indeed, I’d ask every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack, and then ask: What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way?

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.” Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.

That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. 

"Think of the children" ought to be an impeachable offense.  This is a naked appeal to visceral sentimentality when the problem is a cold and ugly matter of the limits of American power and the boundaries of American commitment, even leaving aside the ugly fact that we fail to think of the children all the fucking time.  But even if we were as holy as we would like to be, we cannot count every fallen sparrow and never could: we do not have the means or the will to prevent every brutal and unnecessary death in the world, whether we're talking about the deaths of eight-year-olds or eighty-year-olds.

Were I God; were I omnipotent, omniscient, and benign: not a child would be gassed to death, but nor would they be shot (I wouldn't kill them in floods nor in famines, either, nor with fire or plague).  But then, I'm a soft touch: I would reach out and succor the elderly and the middle-aged, those without families and those with, the lonely and isolated and the gregarious and surrounded, alike.  I would give some dispensation to puppies and kittens, too--frankly, I might have to do something about the laws of physics lest the Earth be so terribly crowded the ground cracked under the assembled weight of all those I couldn't bear to see suffer and die.

Perhaps this is why I'm not a god, I'd be terrible at the job.  But then, even grokking this, it's why I don't believe the all-knowing and all-compassionate God so many seem to believe in is the least bit possible.  There's no evidence to my mind of a god at all, but if I concede the possibility, the evidence is He's a monster of violence or ignorance or both.

I digress, though there's a point here: to accept that people of whatever age will die whatever we do is a terrible thing to face, but denying this basic truth is the worst kind of lie there is, it is the cancer of deceits--it metastasizes and seeps over everything in its proximity until it has choked the life out of its host.  If we could do something, it would be different, but I do not see a few rockets fired at Damascus as being something, and most likely doing that will kill children, too.  Were we to invade, it would guarantee something, but that something would include killing children.  (And adults: are we really so precious, now, that we're going to decide whether to go to war by playing the game of setting values on lives like this?  How many dead adults equal a single dead child?  Clearly, from what the President has said and this nation has done so far, the ratio must be in the thousands-to-one.  Do we make distinctions based on whose children have been murdered, or where those children were when they died?  We apparently draw distinctions from whether they've been gassed or exploded.  This is a shitty game: no one comes out ahead by playing it, we do not get a rationale for war from it, only an exposure of just what rotten sophists we really are.)

The President went there, he really went there?  He's a rat bastard for doing it.  Damn him and damn his dissembling.


Dumb quote of the day: the American military has been taken over... by rhythm edition

A U.S.-led attack on Syria is wrong on so many levels, but for one Bible-thumping Christian radio host, the issue is fairly simple. Any attempt to intervene in Syria’s civil war is doomed by the fact that homosexuals and pregnant women have taken over the American military. Yes, there has been a coup. The American Family Association’s Sandy Rios offered up this cogent piece of analysis on Monday arguing that the hostile takeover of the military, which resulted from the overturning of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and allowed women to fight, has hurt the country’s military readiness.

"When I looked at those battleships in the Mediterranean, supposedly getting ready for battle in Syria, I couldn’t help think about all the stories I’ve read about how women are now in the ranks of the Navy, getting pregnant at exponential numbers," she told listeners.

Wow, exponential pregnancy numbers! That sounds bad. But there’s more.

Rios continued, "When I think about the folding in and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the homosexual takeover, really, of our military, I’m not sure how effective those naval ships will be."
Salon, September 10, 2013

I am given to understand Ms. Rios' concerns were raised by this U.S. Navy recruitment advertisement specifically tailored towards Native Americans, residents of the American Southwest, blue-collar laborers, and gang members:

Obviously, this recruitment video appeals to the greatness of America: an ideal in which ethnicity, class and region are ignored, in which the Native American may set aside his ancestors' slaughter and diaspora at the hands of the ancestors of the construction worker, where the cowboy and biker recognize there's little difference between a flesh-and-blood horse and what one poet profoundly described as "a steel horse I [he] ride[s]".

Ms. Rios' homophobia has clearly blinded her to the efficiency of these sailors' maneuvers, which serves them well in combat situations in which crewmembers must glide, shuffle and duck around one another to operate the complex equipment that is now used to operate the modern technological marvel that is an American warship.  In today's Navy, crewmembers like the ones you see in the above advertisement are able to move together as if part of one collective mind--it's not exaggeration to describe their efforts as choreographed.  Their sexuality is immaterial, except insofar as some of these sailors may have learned their moves at any of the nation's many excellent "gay bars", drinking and dancing establishments especially serving America's homosexual males and the many heterosexual women seeking to hook up with a sexually-non-threatening best friend forever (SNTBFF).

As for Ms. Rios' other concerns, I am hoping Ms. Rios will be mollified by the fact current DOD policy is that any child born into any of the United States Armed Services during active duty is considered instantly recruited into the service: the new mother is instantly issued a flak Snugli and the infant provided with a 2.34 mm rifle and sidearm, and the Dual Operation Combat Pair (DOCOP) sent to the front.  Responding to critics during Congressional hearings held to determine whether infants should be provided with more powerful weapons, an Army spokesperson testified, "In America's Global War On Terror, we find that a great deal of combat is close combat, occurring in urban areas, small villages, and even inside residences.  The 2.34 cartridge has more than enough power to distract an unlawful enemy combatant who attempts to ambush a U.S. soldier or Marine inspecting a house in an Afghan village."

In an era when military recruiters have sometimes struggled to meet quotas, reactionary positions like Ms. Rios' threaten to gut our military operational strength.  In the 18th Century, some sources say up to ten percent of the crew of a British Royal Navy vessel consisted of boys 13 or younger; I am happy to say that in the modern era, where technological advances have rendered it unnecessary to manually lug powder from the lower decks to the gun decks, girls and boys as young as six months can press the large, brightly colored, soft rubbery buttons that engage automated, computer-controlled advanced weapons and navigational systems of a contemporary U.S. Navy destroyer (while making an appropriate animal sound, such as a bovine "moo").  Such infants, knowing no life but life at sea, and having been designated as official governmental property upon delivery, are the very backbone of America's unrivaled naval power.  Does Ms. Rios really want to hobble us by returning us to the 1700s, when navies had to wait until sailors could walk?

She must be insane.


Dumb quote of the day: The Truth Is Out There edition

>> Monday, September 09, 2013

So why are we not more outraged that for half a century our government has been feeding misinformation to its citizens? Why are we not demanding an explanation? Why are we not furious that official reports and spokespeople are merely phantoms, figments of the imagination, ghosts in a collective machine?
Salon, September 9th, 2013.

And more along those lines at the link, wherein Lapin rants for fifteen paragraphs about the recent declassification of Area 51's existence and tries to piggyback it with a general rant about governmental secrecy and lies.

There's a conversation to be had about governmental secrecy and the balance to be struck between a society that aspires to be a democratic republic (a system in which transparency is essential, since citizens need to be able to make informed choices at the ballot box) and a society that desires to exist at all (since the fact of the matter is that any country, and not just the United States, is liable to be faced by outsiders who may not have the country's best interests in mind).  There's quite a lot that remains classified that almost certainly shouldn't be; e.g. there was at least one point in time back in the '80s or '90s when the government was clinging to wartime military secrets from World War I in spite of the improbability of maintaining the secrecy of the data or the methods used to gather it being in any way essential to contemporary security interests, and the near certainty that the information would be put to good use by historians and other scholars.

But the problem--the first problem--with attempting to use Area 51 as a case study in democracy versus security is that the capabilities of the aircraft we used to surveil the Soviet Union during the Cold War and continue to use to gather intelligence to this day is exactly the kind of need-to-know information that almost any rational mind would conclude is a necessary state secret, as are the capabilities of combat aircraft also tested at Area 51 and Groom Lake.  Knowing how these aircraft take off and land and something about their flight profiles happens to be useful if you want to shoot these birds down, and these are craft necessarily flying through airspaces someone might not want them in.  I can't imagine reasonable people have a problem with keeping that information confidential.

Ironically, though, having written that, the second problem with attempting to use Area 51 as a case study in democracy versus security is that the secret ultimately wasn't all that well-kept anyway.  For the last twenty or thirty years, maybe even longer, everyone has known Area 51 was involved in the testing of advanced military aircraft and spyplanes, and the only people who didn't believe that were already convinced beyond all reason that the place was hosting extraterrestrial landings and that the military and intelligence programs were either cover for that kind of thing or were in some way related (i.e. the military was testing aircraft, but were testing antigravity vehicles or somesuch instead of something as prosaic as minimized radar profiles).  For decades now, aircraft aficionados have been making pilgrimages out to the "nonexistent" airbase and taking pictures of themselves posing with the "no trespassing or we will kill you on sight" signs on the vast fence enclosing the nowhere before making their way to the surrounding ridges to set themselves up with lawn furniture and binoculars and coolers of beer to get a brief glance at some super-beyond-top-secret plane; and for decades the United States government has been futilely attempting to use eminent domain to lengthen those fences-around-nowhere and put up more of the "seriously, we will murder you without even thinking about it" signs; all part of a fun little game the government and its sky-nerd citizens have been playing that I suspect the intelligence community just got tired of, and so the declassification really represents a forfeit ("Fine, you win, we quit.") as much as anything.

A key thing worth mentioning here is that part of the reason Area 51 was a poorly-kept secret is that the secret was always in plain sight to start with.  I mean, you have mysterious flying things whizzing about out there, that anyone can see, and you have a couple of possibilities.  It might be the weather, it might be alien spacebeings, it might be top-secret fancy American aircraft being tested; there might be a few other possibilities, but the thing is that all of them except "top-secret fancy American aircraft" end up being so improbable or implausible or  just complete off-the-hinge to such an extent that you don't really need anyone to tell you Area 51 was testing ultra-top-secret aircraft to say, "Yeah, well, I mean, that's kind of what I reasonably assumed, but thanks for clarifying."

And these are the reasons nobody is getting angry at decades of secrecy and Joseph Lapin comes off as foolish.  To the extent these were secrets, everybody except the nutters grokked they were necessary secrets, and besides they weren't all that secret.  Which sounds like a contradiction, but is actually a self-reinforcing loop: "Look, we all know that there's stuff going on out there that nobody is supposed to know about, which is why we're okay not knowing about it.  We know why we're not supposed to know about it, and cool beans, y'know?"

I think the funniest thing about Lapin's piece--and by "funny", I mean infuriatingly and insufferably irritating and maybe a little sad--is that there actually is one reason to be annoyed about Area 51 secrecy, and that's the fact the government kind of fucked-over some civilian employees who may have been injured by insufficient safety precautions while serving their country.  Several former government contractors and/or their families filed a lawsuit in Federal court claiming they were injured at Area 51 while handling extremely nasty toxic substances (dioxin being the most-easily spelled and most notorious) involved in various aerospace experiments, in violation of various workplace safety and Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.  Then-President Clinton made a determination that what was happening at Area 51 was so super-top-secret that the government couldn't even respond to a lawsuit and therefore shouldn't have to, and the Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals agreed.  If you don't already know about this, you can get a quick primer from Wikipedia, here.  My thoughts on this are that this is bullshit: not that the United States should necessarily be divulging necessary state secrets in open court (though there are ways around this), but that it seems to me like the kind of thing we ought to settle even if we're not completely sure we did anything wrong and don't acknowledge wrongdoing; I mean, hey, if you're handling Warren Zevon's shopping list of unpronounceable evil and you end up with cancer of the cancer and there's even a whiff of doubt about EPA compliance, it seems reasonable for the rest of us to pony up and buy you some painkillers and your widow a new car.  I suppose it's possible the plaintiffs were lying about their exposure to the extent that nobody never had no polysyllboxin out at that hypothetical Air Force Base we're not saying was or wasn't there, but then it seems there's a less-shitty response to that, too, than the State Secrets Privilege, which the government does tend to use as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, much to the national shame.

Talking about that, and about whether it's too-little-too-late to cut some nice "Thank-you-for-getting-cancer-for-your-country" checks or whether we can now determine the merits of the plaintiffs' case, anyway, seems to me a reasonable angry response to the declassification.  That isn't the piece Lapin wrote, obviously, and I suppose the critique that he didn't write a different essay is a bit lacking in merit even if he could have and should have written something else.  But the piece he did write is kind of dumb.  There are problems with the modern Security State.  That the Air Force spent a couple of decades claiming extended-range CIA spyplanes were swamp gas to try to keep the Russians from blowing up the pilots isn't really one of them.

A POSTSCRIPT:  It doesn't really tie in to the above but nevertheless seems worth mentioning: I have no doubt there are already people who will say the declassification of Area 51 is nothing more than the latest disinformation campaign to hide the existence of space aliens from the American public.  And I imagine Lapin might be capable of calling these twerps justified insofar as the government has been lying about Area 51.  But not all lies are made equal, and the fact the government fibbed about the existence and purpose of Area 51 and what was flying out of there in order to conceal or at least obscure the existence of experimental aircraft doesn't demonstrate that they're also (or in the alternative) lying about alien spaceships.  And the general lack of credible evidence of alien visitors isn't convincing to the Area 51-UFO people regarding the improbability of alien visitations, so what else would be?  I.e. the government could have announced in 1955, "Yeah, we're going to build and test a ginormous-winged spyplane that can fly over the USSR and take huge pictures of their missile silos and call it a U-2 and we don't want anyone looking at it," and some people would have still said that was a big fat lie because aliens crashed in Roswell in 1947, so there; because the critical line for Fox Mulders then-and-always, here-and-everywhere, is, "I want to believe".  For some, evidence will always take a backseat to desire.


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