The Political Animal

Iraq and “Last Days in Vietnam”

At the Los Angeles Film Festival I caught Rory Kennedy’s powerful and moving Last Days in Vietnam. If you think you are familiar with the story of the botched and frantic – and heroic – American evacuation of Vietnam, with the fall of Saigon, including some many tens of thousands of lucky Vietnamese, this film will set you straight. There is an iconic photo from that time of desperate Vietnamese climbing a spindly ladder to the narrow roof top of the American Embassy and the last helicopter out. In truth, it was not the American Embassy (rather the home of the assistant CIA station chief) and there were many more helicopters. There is much, much more to the story. It is a tragic story, and near its close, ex CIA operative Frank Snep, one of a host of American and Vietnamese who recount their experiences of the evacuation, offers the sadness with which he recalls the end of the United States experience in Vietnam and how it represents for him the nature of the whole experience.

The North Vietnamese committed their massive violation of the Paris Peace Accords, by invading the South, in February of 1975, twenty five months after the accords were signed, and the subsequent withdrawal of American combat forces. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The American evacuation, because U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin until then refused to even consider planning one, was effected in a single day, April 29, 1975, into the dark morning of the thirtieth.

The consequences for the South Vietnamese, especially those known to be allied with or sympathetic to the U.S. were great. Up to one million Vietnamese were subsequently interned in the infamous reeducation camps, where mortality rates have been estimated at 10% per year. “Boat people” refugees numbered 1.6 million. What followed were decades of economic stagnation, and for those of the South, the loss of political freedom that persists today.

As the North’s rapid advance southward progressed, President Gerald Ford appeared before Congress with a request for over $700 million to fund an American response, including the possibility of the reintroduction of American military forces. The American people and their representatives were in no mood. As the end credits rolled, carrying with them the enormous sense of the loss, the folly, and the betrayals worked into the very start of that American endeavor, the thought occurred to me: who would argue now, after that long war, fought at such price, with no gain, that the United States should have returned to Vietnam in 1975, in the baseless belief it could have achieved in the end any of what it had failed to achieve the last time around?

Instantly, the answer occurred: the same people now arguing for a return to Iraq, who wish we had never left, who never learn from history. For these people the sum total of political wisdom in international affairs is Hobbes, Machiavelli, and von Clausewitz, Munich and the historical anomaly of total victory in the Second World War, and an American Exceptionalism perverted from an empirical historical achievement into a moral inherency that paves an imperial road not only to folly but to ruin.

If one were to draw out the implications of the judgment these voices make on American military dominance in the post-War era, the seeds of national decadence were planted almost at the reaping of the nation’s greatest harvest: from Korea to Cuba to Vietnam, Taiwan, Iran, Afghanistan and beyond, nothing but lack of national will, a weakness of backbone to fight the ultimate fight, the failed moral courage to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Kennedy completed the thought, “in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He neglected to add in foreign lands, and even when one needs to construct the friend out of grass or clay. The only truly morally sufficient, which is to say total, military achievements were the pathetic accomplishment of invading Granada and the discretely achievable goal of capturing Manuel Noriega in Panama. Even the resounding military success of the Gulf War was compromised, to these foreign policy hands, by George H.W. Bush’s careful decision not to move on Baghdad, a decision ratified in its own resounding fashion by the Iraq War. That is to say the judgment not to advance on Baghdad was confirmed for all but those for whom it was a moral as much as a strategic failure, and who hawked a whole new ward to achieve that end.

Who in 1975 would have been led by McNamara, Rusk, or Westmoreland back into the paddies of Vietnam? Who would not have cried out in repugnance at the shameless reappearance of any of them on the national stage in order to pretend to strategic wisdom, never mind moral suasion, while hawking further military misguidance? These are people who would have reduced the Thirty Years’ War to the bromide of “staying the course.”

While the Arab world continues to struggle in its political development, related, profound strains of Islamic culture reject modernity and illiberally, even barbarically erupt against it. Influences go back a century and far longer. The program and the pitch for external imposition of liberal democratic structures over these conditions has been already an intellectual scandal with mortal consequences and of historic proportion. Those who once again make the pitch – the Cheney’s, McCains, Kristols, Wolfowitz’s, et al – deserve the censure of history, not the spotlight of lazy broadcast journalism and the assembly line of op-ed pages.

As tragic were the consequences of South Vietnam’s fall, there is no reason at all to believe a reengagement there would have produced a lesser tragedy to substitute, or a lesser failure than the first engagement. When the mission is mistaken, no amount of backbone, bombast, or bombing will extract success from it.

The arrogant misreading of history is that missionary liberal democracy can redirect world historical and long-term regional social developments through force of imperial might and inherent moral superiority. This arrogance is, in fact, a signature of post-Columbian imperialism. And when the folly has ended, imperial democracy leaves the Sykes–Picot Agreement or the patchwork of African nation-states and comforts itself in mad, blind delusion that it left the places it tarried better off for the visit. The greater and tragic truth is that we are guided through history by the vaguest sense of a destination while wearing a blindfold. Just ask the people unlucky enough to host the imperial visits.

From the fallout of the Arab upheavals, so sadly and natively labeled the Arab Spring, to the theocratic insanity and barbarism that has come to possess too broad a strain of Islam, the Middle East and North Africa will host dangers for the liberal democracies and the United States for an immeasurable time to come. There may well be times, soon and later, when the United States will need to carry out smaller and larger military operations to destroy enemies and counter threats there. It has not been called by some the Long War unknowingly. But such purposeful actions in self-defense and in careful protection of the national interest are a categorical remove from nation building, and from committing the nation’s human and other resources on behalf of nations and governments that offer no manifest political and cultural alliance. Such military miscalculations – such as the Iraq War in the first place, and any return there to bolster the Iraqi government – actually have, and would, work counter to American self-defense and the protection of American interests, by draining will and resources from what must be accomplished in the attempt achieve what cannot.

James Madison, on a very different domestic topic, warned in Federalist No. 10 that

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

He understood that the times, as the leaders, would not always be so great. They were not great or enlightened in 2003. The same figures, unreconstructed and unconscionable, are no greater now, their cause and argument no more supported by the short or longer history of events. They are a danger to the republic. The doors need be barred against them.


The Political Animal

Citizen Bloomberg & the Fallacy of Appeal to Efficacy


When will it stop? I’m asking. When? These are supposedly educated people. (If all the supposeds in the world were actuals, the world would be a far, far better place than it has ever been before: all the cows would come home to hear the fat lady sing.) When will the people who would lead us, when challenged on their wrongful acts and policies, cease to introduce in argument the red herring of the irrelevant appeal to efficacy? When they cease to try to mislead us or themselves, one might answer. Or when reporters begin regularly to call them on it.

Challenge members of the George W. Bush administration, then or now, on that administration’s torture policy, and you will hear in response how many terrorist plots the policy thwarted and how many lives were accordingly saved.

Challenge figures in the national security apparatus during the current administration about sweeping and excessive data collection on American citizens, and you hear from every Tom, Dick, and Obama how many terrorist plots the policy thwarted and how many lives were accordingly saved.

Challenge his royal mayor of New York – Bloomberg the First, by the Grace of Billions, of the Five Boroughs and its lesser Islands, Head of the City and Defender of the Untermed Out – about the racial profiling at the foundation of New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk policy, and he will reply,

Every day Commissioner Kelly and I wake up determined to keep New Yorkers safe and save lives. Our crime strategies and tools – including Stop-Question-Frisk – have made New York City the safest big city in America. And I’m happy to say we are on pace for another record low number of shootings and homicides this year because our police officers follow the law and follow the crime.

They fight crime wherever crime is occurring, and they don’t worry if their work doesn’t match up to a census chart. As a result, today we have fewer guns, fewer shootings, and fewer homicides. In fact, murders are 50 percent below the level they were 12 years ago when we came into office – something no one thought possible back then.

Stop-Question-Frisk – which the Supreme Court of the United States has found to be constitutional – is an important part of that record of success. It has taken some 8,000 guns off the street over the past decade – and some 80,000 other weapons.


The fact that fewer guns are on the street now shows that our efforts have been successful. There is just no question that Stop-Question-Frisk has saved countless lives. And we know that most of the lives saved, based on the statistics, have been black and Hispanic young men.

It’s worth remembering that as recently as 1990, New York City averaged more than six murders a day. Today, we’ve driven that down to less than one murder a day.

Think about what that change really means: if murder rates over the last 11 years had been the same as the previous 11 years, more than 7,300 people who today are alive would be dead.

Stop-Question-Frisk has helped us prevent those and other crimes from occurring – which has not only saved lives, it has helped us to reduce incarceration rates by 30 percent, even as incarceration rates in the rest of the nation have gone up.

That’s why people across the country and around the world have come to learn about how the NYPD has been so successful, and how we’ve driven crime down to record lows. We are the poster child that everybody wants to follow.

The issue of racial profiling is a legal one. It is a legal issue because it is a moral one. The judge based her decision on Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, and asserted her power of injunctive relief based upon those violations, and the moral considerations around them, not on the effectiveness of stop and frisk.

The effectiveness of stop and frisk is an entirely separate matter, and Bloomberg’s argument in support of the policy on those grounds is markedly deceptive and easily challengeable in its own right. I presented that case here.

Bloomberg followed the comments above by stating,

Throughout the trial that just concluded, the judge made it clear she was not at all interested in the crime reductions here or how we achieved them. In fact, nowhere in her 195-page decision does she mention the historic cuts in crime or the number of lives that have been saved.

She ignored the real-world realities of crime…

The mayor is a bright enough man to know that the reason the judge was, by Bloomberg’s lights, “not interested” in those issues is that they were not the issue before her. She did not rule on the effectiveness of stop and frisk, but on the constitutional violations it was argued before her the policy entails. Yet contrary to what Bloomberg claims, Judge Shira Scheindlin was cognizant of the “real world.”

With regard to the public interest, the City has expressed concern that interference in the NYPD’s stop and frisk practices may have a detrimental effect on crime control. However, as previously noted, I am not ordering an end to stop and frisk.

However, unlike the mayor, Judge Scheindlin properly understood the legal and ethical issues that were the purview of the legal challenge brought before her.

Furthermore, as in Ligon, it is “‘clear and plain'” that the public interest in liberty and dignity under the Fourth Amendment, and the public interest in equality under the Fourteenth Amendment, trumps whatever modicum of added safety might theoretically be gained by the NYPD making unconstitutional stops and frisks.

If one does not recognize the essential germaneness of this point, if, worse, one chooses demagogically to ignore the essential germaneness of this point, then one does not understand or chooses to ignore the very idea of American democracy and constitutionalism, and the purpose of the Bill of Rights.

Judge Scheindlin states later,

I have always recognized the need for caution in ordering remedies that affect the internal operations of the NYPD, the nation’s largest municipal police force and an organization with over 35,000 members. I would have preferred that the City cooperate in a joint undertaking to develop some of the remedies ordered in this Opinion. Instead, the City declined to participate, and argued that “the NYPD systems already in place” — perhaps with unspecified “minor adjustments” — would suffice to address any constitutional wrongs that might be found. I note that the City’s refusal to engage in a joint attempt to craft remedies contrasts with the many municipalities that have reached settlement agreements or consent decrees when confronted with evidence of police misconduct.

If the overriding value is effectiveness – efficacy – what works – then we might spy on everyone without regard to any foolish notions of private lives and individual integrity, we might torture every suspect and hope we get the goods on him – we can claim we did, anyway – and we might even more surely lock up every black male under the age of thirty-five in a Supermax prison. Those policies will surely diminish the costs of terrorism and lower the black on anybody crime rate.

If that rhetorical flight strikes as absurdly hyperbolic – absurdly because it is so clearly excessive and transgressive of bounds – bounds somewhere that most of us at some point would finally notice and observe, then that is the point. Before we can stand on the efficacy of a policy or course of action, we need rise first on an ethical foundation rooted in our values and the principles of our constitutionalism. When challenged on ethical grounds, one cannot resort to leaping onto functional planks. Even if one wishes to argue that practical considerations – what works and what does not – have influence over formation of our ethical understanding, still one recognizes the primacy of the moral ground of consideration and can argue honestly only in acknowledgment of it and by addressing it.

As long as our Bloombergs and our Cheneys (oh, the former surely thinks himself different from the latter, don’t you think) arrogantly disperse through the filter of their commanding judgment – their rule of the real world – our visionary, liberating, and founding ideals, they do not serve, but disserve us. And they argue badly, too. Or boldly deceive us.


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The Political Animal

William Colby and the War on Terror


William Egan Colby, 10th Director of Central I...
Image via Wikipedia

William Colby, according to the new film by his son Carl Colby, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, was the quintessential intelligence agent. He was daring and courageous behind enemy lines with the OSS during World War Two in Europe . He fought the good fight, and won, against the Italian communists in Italy during the 1950s, when it could easily have gone the other way. He fought the less good fight in Vietnam and lost. He ascended to the position of director of central intelligence (DCI) – head of the CIA – in 1973. He was a dedicated public servant and a hard man who lived without illusions. He was a mystery to others and to his son, who “never heard him say a heartfelt thing,” and who the younger Colby isn’t sure ever loved anyone. He was a patriot in the best sense of the word, and in the nature of his craft, few know of his service and even fewer appreciate it.

When Colby assumed the CIA directorship, he learned of the “Family Jewels,” the record of illegal CIA activities that spanned its history. Someone will need to write a thesis in national and organizational psychology to explore the wealth of subterranean meaning buried in the application of that name to those acts. Can we believe that Colby had no inkling of these activities over the course a career that tracked the history of the organization? Perhaps not. Still the record is clear that soon after he became DCI, he began the process of making this history known to the public, including the history of assassinations.

According to Carl Colby and others, Colby, who was vilified by anti-war activists during the Vietnam War as a Nazi, was also the only political liberal to serve as DCI in its history. He believed, in exposing the Family Jewels and cooperating with Congress – the Church committee and others – that he was fulfilling Constitutional obligations and submitting to the rule of law in a democracy. But Colby was also a committed servant of the CIA who believed in its mission and the need for secrecy and tough action in intelligence and national security work: he sought to walk that fine line between the demands of congress and of  the left that he reveal everything and the desire of most others in the CIA and Ford administration that he reveal as little as possible. He sought to save the CIA, not destroy it, but he believed that saving it required reforming it.

One of the themes of Carl Colby’s film, expressed explicitly by Jesuits who knew the devout Catholic William, and others who worked with him, is the tension between the secret, deceptive nature of intelligence work and the higher values that work is intended to serve in a democracy, among them truth and honesty. The danger is always one of losing sight of the ends one serves in practical commitment to the means that may questionably serve them.

Prominent members of the Ford administration national security team – including James Schlesinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Donald Rumsfeld (and which also included Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger) – speak sympathetically of the crucible Colby endured during his brief two and a half years as DCI. He spent that tenure perpetually in congressional hearings – as many as three a month – attempting to save the CIA and also to meet those Constitutional obligations. He pleased no one. Congress and the left believed he revealed too little – still concealed too much – and he became the public face in its concluding chapter, of the Cold War CIA.

On the other side, the members of the Ford administration, as it turned out – despite their expressed personal sympathies – and including Ford, thought Colby disloyal to them. They believe that, contrary to their own wishes, Colby revealed too much and damaged the CIA. Carl Colby even elsewhere quotes former Secretary of State James Baker, III – the American political battles of the Cold War wending their way into the twenty-first century – blaming 9/11 on William Colby.

I trace this back directly to the Senate and House Hearings in the 1970s, when CIA director William Colby was forced to reveal the CIA’s ‘Family Jewels,’ and the CIA’s capacity to engage in covert action was destroyed.

Colby’s sympathetic critics argue – attempting, by personalizing it, to diminish the principle Colby upheld in the course he followed– that the DCI was trying to expiate guilt over the nature of his own career. Schlesinger even claimed off camera, according to Carl Colby at a post-screening Q&A, that William Colby had been “captured by the left.”

It is crucial to understand the argument that Baker and the Ford administration team – a couple of whom, we see, served prominently in the George W. Bush administration – are making, contra Colby. The “forced” in Baker’s criticism is a semantic question, indeed. Were Colby’s revelations not voluntary? The congress has no enforcement arm. When one submits to the requirements of law, of the Constitution – requirements even Baker acknowledges by using the word “forced” – does that constitute submission to force or is it voluntary fulfillment of one’s obligations as a citizen and a public servant? Regardless of what Baker and the rest think, they know what Colby did was in accordance with the law and the prerogatives of Congress – and they believe, even today, that he should not have done it. They believe he should have defied – stonewalled, firmly finessed – the Congress’s exercise of its Constitutional role and ratified the secret, illegal nature of the Family Jewels – the three decade record of CIA assassination and illegality – by keeping them secret and protecting them from submission to legal review.

These people opposed the ultimate rule of law then, still endorse what they believed then now, and some of them reenacted these beliefs in the contemporary War on Terror. The revelations of Bush administration torture policies and deadly practices were made more diffusely, by no single individual, but we know the same people, and their inheritors, took the United States one major step farther toward forgetting the higher values that intelligence secrecy and deception should always serve in submission. And a very great irony is that it is Barack Obama, the liberal political opponents cast as a terrorist-sympathizing socialist, who is in fact so moderate in temperament and so establishment in his alignments, who has fulfilled the desires of Gerald Ford and his team in pursuing no accounting and working to make it all go away.


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The Political Animal

9/10/01: “Ere the sun Swings his noonday sword”*


(9/11/11: fifth in a series)

Photo by Andy Levin+

That much I can give you of these hours. 
That much only, 
fists and blossom forged by salt,
trellising your wounded helixes against our days. 
Tell us how to live for we are shades,
facing, caged, the chastening sun. 
Our eyes are scorched and lidless.
 We cannot bear your light.

David Wojahn, “ “Written on the Due Date of a Son Never Born”

On September 10, 2001, Julia and I arrived in Prague as it seemed we had driven into every city on our travels – about 10 p.m. at night, in the rain, searching for a new hotel on dimly lit streets we didn’t know. In the morning, we would begin to explore the old city, the bridges, and Prague Castle. I would relish all the more the pleasures of our journey, the treasures of the word still open to me, for the life I might have lost eight days earlier in Paris.

“The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor, so say the wise.”

the Katha Upanishads 1.3.14

September 10

== > [•X] After being ignored for weeks, California Senator Feinstein contacts Vice President Cheney’s office to check on the status of urgent proposals for counterterrorism reforms that she submitted on July 20 (Cheney heads the administration’s counterterrorism efforts).  An aide tells her that it could take Cheney another six months to get around to reviewing the material.      [nwwk.May.27.2002 / feinst]

== > [•X] The Congressional Research Service releases the report ‘Terrorism: Near Eastern Groups and State Sponsors.’  The paper describes al-Qaeda as a “global threat” and rates its terrorist activity level as ‘Extremely High,’ the highest of any terrorist group on the list.      [crs.Sep.10.2001]

== > [•XX] The NSA intercepts several conversations between al-Qaeda members indicating that a terrorist attack is imminent, including “tomorrow is zero hour” and “the match begins tomorrow.” The messages aren’t translated until September 12.      [ust.Jun.20.2002]

== > [X] Neil Levin – executive director of the New York Port Authority, operator of the city’s airports, port facilities, bridges, and tunnels, and landlord of the World Trade Center – tells a reporter what he thinks of his job: “It’s just fabulous.  I wake up each morning having no idea what challenges the day will bring.”  Levin works out of the North Tower of the WTC, and next morning he is having breakfast at Windows on the World on the 107th floor when the first plane hits.      [nyt.Sep.15.2001]

== > [X] John O’Neill enjoys an evening at Elaine’s Restaurant in New York City.  Formerly the FBI’s leading counterterrorism expert, O’Neill was recently forced out by bureaucratic infighting, and began his new job as head of security for the World Trade Center on August 23.  At Elaine’s he discusses the possibility of a terrorist attack: “We’re due. And we’re due for something big. Some things have happened in Afghanistan (evidently referring to the al-Qaeda assassination of Massoud the day before).  I don’t like the way things are lining up in Afghanistan… I just — I sense a shift, and I think things are going to happen.” When asked when, he says, “I don’t know, but soon.”  Next morning, O’Neill is in the South Tower when it collapses.      [nykr.Jan.14.2002 / pbsf.Oct.03.2002]

== > [X] On the afternoon of September 10, hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi wires $5,400 in unused funds back to the United Arab Emirates from Boston.     [mcder]
=In the late afternoon, Atta and fellow hijacker al-Omari drive from Boston to Portland, Maine, for undetermined reasons.  They eat their last dinner at a Pizza Hut, buy a pair of box cutters at Wal-Mart, and spend their last night in a Comfort Inn.      [inside / prsac.Dec.01.2001]

=The hijackers have apparently been issued a five-page set of instructions that includes a section meant to console them during their final night.  They are advised to pray and to “be optimistic,” and are assured that they are about to enter “the infinite paradise.”      [wap.Sep.29.2001]

=Hijacker Ziad Jarrah has concealed the extent of his extremist beliefs from his family and from his wife, with whom he has only sporadic contact. On the last night of his life, Jarrah writes her a farewell letter: “You should be very proud, because it is an honor and in the end you will see that everyone will be happy.”      [mcder / bbc.Nov.19.2001]

(from A Road through 9/11: a Chronology.)


* “Before Action,” Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, written on the eve of his death in the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

+Andy Levin’s “View” appears in The New York Times Lens blog . “Showcase: The World, as of 9/10/01.” You can find more of his work at
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The Political Animal

Wikileaks, Anonymous, LulzSec, the MSM and the Entropic Drift toward Crap

The problem with government is not government. It’s people. People make up government, so of course it represents all the flaws we find in people. But as Churchill remarked of democracy, that it “is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” the only form of social organization worse than institutionalized government is no government. Left and right extremists, from Tea Partiers who seek to “starve the beast” to Wikileakers, Anonymizers and LulzSecers who believe in “true freedom, online as well, as the real-life realm” are utopians masquerading as common folk or techno-visionaries rather than the more rudimentary optical kind. Lord, or whoever is filling in, spare us from utopians. See, for this: the Twentieth Century, or the French Revolution. The American Revolution, among its beauties, was not utopian. It’s the pursuit of happiness, my friend, not happiness.

We learned yesterday that Wiki’s latest Leak, not actually new, did not redact the names of individuals whose lives might well be endangered by the outing. We are informed by Der Spiegel, that the exposure of identities was “accident.”

The ongoing conflict between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his former German spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg has led to the accidental release of confidential data that was in WikiLeaks’ possession. Since the beginning of the year, an encrypted file has been circulating on the Internet containing the collection of around 251,000 US State Department documents that WikiLeaks obtained in spring 2010 and made public in November 2010.

The Washington Post, however, reported yesterday that this “accident” is only “possibly” so.

The official WikiLeaks Twitter account has played down the impact of the report. “Current story being spun about wild cables, including from Spiegel, is significantly incorrect,” read one tweet sent out around 10 a.m., Eastern time. “WikiLeaks ‘insurance’ files have not been decrypted. All press are currently misreporting. There is an issue, but not that issue,” the account wrote again at 3 p.m., A third message reading, “There has been no ‘leak at WikiLeaks’. The issue relates to a mainstream media partner and a malicious individual,” followed soon afterward. [Emphasis added]

So, much as Powell jockeyed with Cheney, Assange and Domscheit-Berg, who founded the rival OpenLeaks, have their own contention going on. I am certainly glad, though, as I know are you, that they at least have assumed these powerful positions of responsibility, with state secrets and lives under their not-so-great care, as the consequence of democratic processes. They have been vetted as to training and reputation and subjected to popular review, and are held accountable, at least in theory (theory about all we have these days in the realm of holding the powerful accountable), by established mechanisms of oversight.

No? Oh.

And they do count among the powerful these days. Do you have the power to disturb and disrupt governments, influence and lose lives all over the world? But at least they represent you and your interests more than does Leviathan government, because, because….

Among those who so uncritically and incoherently support the smashing of the system at which Wikileaks plays are those who pleasure vicariously, or even play a role in, the hack attacks on government, banking, and commerce by Anonymous and LulzSec, the latter of which, by name, acts (or acted?) for the sheer juvenile, anarchic joy of disruption. Where once we had Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, now we have the bedroom-dwelling virtual inhabitants of World of Warcraft and The Matrix offering us “the plan” for their war against – they actually say it – “the system.”

Far fucking out, man.

If we wouldn’t all be better off with their, in fact, working for Activision Blizzard, they are, alternatively, caught because they can’t get enough of Xbox.

We understand how it begins, with governments of and for the wealthy and powerful, with political processes that further cynically devolve into standardized dissimulation and manipulation. Add to this a mainstream media establishment that normalizes the behavior, abets it with a love of “the game” and with an essential cowardice. (Who can name an interviewer on Dick Cheney’s memoir publicity tour who has asked him about torture rather than “harsh interrogation”?)

Crap, you understand, is not just excrement. It is nonsense, drivel. It is falsehood, exaggeration, and propaganda. We swim in it. Human beings are natural producers of it. Government is the attempt to clean it up, provide more latrines, even build a hut from it. But government, made up of people, will inevitably, in not too long, become full of it. What to do then is the greatest of challenges. However, the notion that we will be led to some form of liberation by self-selected, disaffected egoists and cyber-social malcontents who produce the same crap, but merely know better than the rest of us how to encode it, doesn’t pass the smell test for anyone without his head up his ass or is not the intellectual court jester of authoritarianism.

Or do you think Anonymous is better than Mark Zuckerberg, and what do you do when Anonymous, like government, can’t get its act together? Well, at least you’ll have some say in the matter.


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The Political Animal


One of the most misused and abused forms of argument is that by analogy. One thing is compared to another, the first intended to be understood in terms of the other as a way of facilitating understanding. The reason for arguing by analogy is that understanding complex subjects and arguments is hard: the analogy, like the example or illustration, is intended to ease the way by helping readers or listeners approach the new via the old, with which they already have some familiarity.

It is very difficult to make a worthy argument through analogy. The things of this world are complex. There are tens, scores, hundreds of points at which, all depending on the things and the situation, they might be compared. Say John is just like Joe and you may find remarkable similarity. Anticipate John’s behavior on your knowledge of Joe, and you are bound to be often surprised. John is a whole other human being, a kind of thing, and the things of this world are complex.

People love to argue politics by way of analogy. It’s easy and it readily prejudices the mind, burdens it unhappily, with all of the baggage carried by the basis of the analogy. “Another Vietnam”? Get me out. “Another Munich”? Call up the army. “Another Hitler”? Death to tyrants!

Or as a number of comedians have wonderfully observed in recent weeks, in response to town hall meeting analogies of Obama and Nazism: “Yeah, that’s just what Hitler was known for – his health care policy!”

Almost all political analogies are false analogies. Rather than compare a point of A to a similar point of B, with the hope of elucidating one element of a larger, more complicated subject, political analogies are almost always analogies in total. But things are not totally the same. Everything is different from everything else. That’s why living is so hard.

Augusto PinochetDick Cheney

I am not making a total analogy here, not even remotely. Dick Cheney did not participate in a coup. He did not overthrow the democratic government of the United States and wage a “dirty war” against American citizens in which thousands were murdered by the U.S. military and other security forces. I am not saying he is no different or no better than Augusto Pinochet, the one time dictator of Chile or Jorge Rafael Videla, the onetime junta leader of Argentina.

I am, instead, making three closely related, analogical points, about how Cheney undermined the rule of law, and thus American democracy, how he believes he did right, not wrong, and how those acts and that belief are like those of others before him who have been found guilty of crimes.

Cheney, as he and his supporters and allies in the Bush administration and out made amply clear, believes in a strong “unitary executive” theory of the presidency. This is a perspective that in national security matters (which, of course, can be very widely understood) and in many others – especially with the aid of casuistic argumentation, toward which we saw Bush administration Justice Department lawyers were quite led and drawn – advocates at the very least, quasi-dictatorial power for the office of president. It is not a conception of American government in which anyone alive in this country was educated.

Cheney has argued repeatedly – and continues to do so – that the torture policies he advocated were necessary for the defense of the nation. Many of his supporters, even those not on Fox News or at the New Republic Online, make this argument regularly themselves. He argues that the practices that both  he and the (ahem) Nazis referred to as “enhanced interrogation” were legal, as various Justice Department memos – since judged by that department to have been poorly grounded in law and poorly reasoned – maintained. Now, however, he has gone even further: even interrogations that exceed approved “legal” guidelines are acceptable to him. In sum, national security, at the very least (perhaps more; who knows?) justifies disregard for the rule of law, not simply by the President, but even by any simple (so to speak) CIA, military, or privately-contracted interrogator.

Argentina’s Videla, immediately after he was pardoned by then President Menem in 1990 (a pardon roundly condemned, after which, just last year, Videla was returned to prison on different charges) wrote a letter to the Argentine military justifying himself as having done what was necessary to defend the nation, against subversion. Said Chile’s Pinochet,

Everything I did, all my actions, all of the problems I had I dedicate to God and to Chile, because I kept Chile from becoming Communist.

Said Cheney,

These were all measures we took that we felt were essential to defeat Al-Qaeda, to head off the next attack, and to defend the nation.

Now, of course, it is the job, the responsibility, they duty of national leaders to defend their country. The relevant question for a democracy, under questionable circumstances, is how they have defended the nation, whether they have done so in accordance with democratic principle and within the rule of law or they have subverted those principles and laws – and seek to justify anything they have done, all they have done, by claiming to have “defended the nation.”

And they will always make this claim. Videla. Pinochet. Cheney. They defended the nation.

Beyond this claim, and the defense these men believe they offer by it, there is another consideration – that the claim is sincerely made. They are all genuine in their belief that what they did they did for the good of their country. Many people are quick – because it is easy and, in a manner, comforting – to demonize political opponents, even extreme opponents. Many on the left, even as they mocked George W. Bush’s clumsy locutions about “evildoers,” and his conceptions thereof, readily, themselves, construed him as evil. We see today how the vile and witless right does the same to Barack Obama. Like conspiracy theories, ready demonization of opponents simplifies the world, renders it in immemorial hues of dark and light, so that it is more easily apprehended and one’s place in it more comfortably determined. And there are, indeed, narcissists and sociopaths effortlessly characterized (if not understood) as evil: Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin. More often, though, bad is done by people who believe they are good. What is wrong is conceived of as right. Like the difference within sameness, the bad contained in good intentions is part of the challenge of living.

But while good intentions may mitigate the originating and concluding circumstances of illegal conduct, they do not determine the legality. Those who raise the argument of “defense of the nation” in responding to charges against Cheney make an irrelevant argument as to the legality of his actions.

Unfortunately, poor argument – sophomorically poor argument – is a mainstay of public discourse. The televised mouths and the prattlers in print – the B.A.s or M.A.s in journalism or public policy or international relations who get fast-tracked into publishing and institute affiliations and media punditry – never met a logical fallacy they didn’t fancy. In addition, then to the false (because facile and superficial) analogies and the irrelevant reasoning we get ad hominem attacks. I don’t mean the usual ad hominem – the name calling, though this is common. I don’t mean the “guilt by association” variety of which I would, in fact, be guilty were I to merely point out certain similarities between Cheney, Videla, and Pinochet and leave it at that unattractive association, without actually countering their arguments. I refer here to what is called ad hominem-circumstantial.

In the circumstantial fallacy, one argues that there should be no prosecutions for violations of law under the Bush administration – for torture, for violations of the civil liberties of citizens – because the people calling for such prosecutions are political enemies of those they want prosecuted, and are therefore making the call for political purposes. In other words, the argument for prosecutions is refuted by the circumstance (the motivation) of those making the argument. But the circumstance is independent of the validity of the argument. First, the fact that someone arguing for prosecutions is of a different political persuasion does not mean that the argument is not sincerely offered. However, as we already know, the sincerity of the argument is irrelevant in determining its validity. And so is the insincerity.

Even if many of those arguing for prosecutions do so out of political animus, that circumstance does not refute the reasons offered in argument. If Cheney and others broke the law, they should be held accountable – independent of whether there are those who will rub their hands in glee at the prospect. I am pleased as matters of principle and of animus by the prosecution of serial killers; that pleasure does not argue against the prosecutions.

Finally, there is the “practical” argument offered as much by certain journalists and other media lights, because they are part of the same system, as some politicos – that the partisan and culturally disruptive nature of prosecutions would be politically disruptive too. Government would cease to function. Already visible scars would be deepened. The nation would suffer. This is a more difficult argument to counter, not because it is a better argument, but because there is emotion embedded in it – the desire that we all get along – and the seductive appeal that we forgive and forget so that the nation can continue to function. There is so much work to be done, no? Health care. Health care and all the rest. How will we ever get anything done if we are preoccupied for years by rage and resentment of prosecutions?

About which to ask there is this: is the United States not as good, as developed a nation of democratic principle and laws as Argentina? As Chile? As South Africa? Each of them – in some cases quickly, in others intermittently and over many years – confronted their dark hours or pasts, and continued to function, too, as they did so. And if efficiency of function is the summum bonum of the American republic, then maybe some few of its founding documents need to be reconsidered, and the American people reconsider who they are and wish to be.

We all have reason to know. There are and will be no excuses.

More here: Torture and a Time of Reckoning. And here: Tortured Argument.