The Political Animal

Arguments in Defense of the Iran Deal and Their Implications

There are many areas on which to focus one’s attention in the Iran deal. My own has been consistently drawn to the administration’s arguments in defense of the deal. Attended to, they are remarkably revealing in their implications about administration thinking, while not, in fact, actually being much remarked upon.

It is a tediously if necessarily repeated truism that negotiation requires compromise in positions about which the parties were previously uncompromising. Thus there will always be opportunity for absolutists not at the table to carp and condemn. Negotiators are charged with perfidy by those they represent only a little less often than battlefield turncoats. However, when the very subject of negotiation is a matter of life and death, and previously stated demands were presented as the conditions of life and death, against a foe more than hyperbolically and otherwise rhetorically malevolent, talking back concessions is a harder sell.

The administration has confidently affirmed without discomfort that the deal will protect the world from a nuclear Iran for somewhere between 10 and 15 years. As Leon Wieseltier wrote, “15 years is just a young person’s idea of a long time.” For many humanities Ph.D.s 10-15 years is about the time between that first seminar and the final granting of the degree. It is about three World Cups from now, the middle of a third presidential term after Obama leaves office, the start, looking backwards, of George W. Bush’s second term. Seem like a very long time?

Feels like a long time to junior; for mom and dad – where did the time go? For nations in geo-political historical time? Blink.

When the eyelid opens to see again, what does it see? Iran as a changed nation, no longer the active state sponsor of terrorism it remains today? If it is not changed, will an economic sanctions regime will be re-imposed, from scratch, all over again? Based upon what international will to challenge Iran to the ultimate end result that did not extend the length of the agreement this time around, when all was at last in place in an arrangement of pieces not likely to be duplicated?

Some other president will do what is necessary? What is that? Are we witnessing at the end of this long negotiation, unacknowledged, the most elaborately primed kick of the can down the road ever attempted?

The contention over a nuclear Iran has always been founded in the insistence that there be none, certainly not militarily, and this has always been the stance of President Obama. It is a position grounded only in a credible military threat. There was no such credible threat towards North Korea – a lot of bluster, but no brawn – and there is now a nuclear North Korea. The delicate balance for a leader so situated and genuinely open to, but not invested in, negotiations is how to extend the one open hand while withholding in the rear the other cocked fist. There is little doubt for other than the most uncritically devoted that Obama has not maintained this balance. For all of the drone-driven anti-terrorist mini wars he has maintained, his wise determination not to do “stupid stuff” abroad has also revealed what turned out to be the unwise bluster he would not, as in Syria, back up. It does not matter what the truth is, Obama came to be perceived by his critics and his enemies as fatally invested in the negotiations, offering just a lot of talk about “options” and “tables.”

Too often, when challenged about concessions in Geneva, the Obama-Kerry response essentially has been “you’re a fool to think you could have done better.” Sometimes that response is the knowledge of the negotiating table; other times, it is the revelation of a hand weakly played. Outside the room, we can only judge by the terms and general conditions.

When it became known that the terms of the IAEA investigations into the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s program were contained in separates agreements between the IAEA and Iran, on which the U.S. was briefed, but to which it was not privy and has no access, Secretary Moniz told the Senate committee, ‘“These kinds of technical arrangements with the IAEA are as a matter of standard practice not released publicly or to other states.”

It is, said Moniz, a matter of ““customary confidentiality.”

Members of the committee were as startled by the explanation as Kerry, alongside Moniz, was stumbling in offering it. Is a negotiated nuclear containment agreement with an internationally aspirant, totalitarian theocratic state “standard practice” and a “customary” matter?

“This is the way the agency works with countries,” Moniz also said. “If countries choose to make the documents public, then the IAEA of course can do so.”

Which is it, then, that we are to understand?

That the U.S. did not demand as a condition of the agreement that Iran authorize the IAEA to make the documents, not public, but available to the P-5?

Or that the U.S. did make the demand, Iran rejected it, and the U.S. accepted that rejection?

Would Iran have scuttled the deal over the issue? Would it not have been telling had they been so willing?

There are multiple such puzzlements over life and death matters. There is the transformation of the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that Kerry now says he never heard of into a supposed “24” days that turn out to be many more, and the embarrassing confusions over it (see the update near the bottom).  Yet despite the array of problematic elements, the administration, which argued, then, for everyone to wait to see the agreement before challenging it, argues now that we must accept this deal or have war.

“If we walk away, we walk away alone,” Kerry said.

Our partners are not going to be with us. Instead, they will walk away from the tough multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the table to begin with. Instead, we will have squandered the best chance we have to solve the problem through peaceful means.

As the administration constructed the context in which the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been presented, the following might be argued now by Kerry about any less than satisfactory agreement:

If Congress rejects this, Iran goes back to its enrichment. The Ayatollah will not come back to the table … the sanctions regime completely falls apart.

We will have set ourselves back. I don’t know how I go out to another country if that happens and say: ‘Hey, you ought to negotiate with us,’ because they will say: ‘Well, you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.

If this is so, we may ask, how has it come to be so?

But first, let us note that it was a determined, controversial course set by the White House not to treat an Iran deal as a treaty. The Senate has a constitutional, democratic role in the approval of treaties and it has nearly as long a history of rejecting them. The constitutional requirement of a two thirds vote tells us that the framers intended the treaty to require overwhelming support. It is not without precedent even for a potentially presidency-defining treaty to be rejected by the Senate. (See Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles.) In this history, and in this constitutional requirement, the nation and its founders have anticipated the critique of “you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.” We have still managed to negotiate treaties.

President Obama did not want to meet Woodrow Wilson’s fate. John Kerry was clear about the motivation in his testimony to congress. The choice to frame the Iran deal as an executive agreement rather than a treaty was not academic.

“I spent quite a few years trying to get treaties through the US Senate, and frankly, it’s become physically impossible,” Kerry said. “You can’t pass a treaty anymore.”

So the administration, first, constructed a process aimed at easing the prospects of approval over the opposition of congressional opponents, then argued that skeptics should hold their comments until the deal the process intended to achieve was reached, and now that is has been reached, argues that it was the only possible deal and that the only alternative to it – the consequence of rejecting the deal – is war. It is a kind of rhetorical blackmail. It is a blackmail that utilizes, too, as its key pressure point – that threat of war – the very details it has all along diminished and even mocked coming from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Time to Breakout

In September 2012 at the United Nations, with the aid of his ball bomb and fuse chart, and calling for the establishment of “red line,” Netanyahu famously claimed,

By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.

From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb. [Emphasis added]

Netanyahu was mocked for the cartoon diagram, but as usual, too, was derided, in the later words of the Guardian, for his “alarmist tone” as someone, “who has long presented the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat to Israel and a huge risk to world security.”

The Guardian would then, early this year, with a Wikileaks release, headline that “Leaked cables show Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad.” A closer reading of the cables told a different story, but that is not the point here. A few months later, the White House offered its own, visual jab at the Israeli prime minister by sending out a tweet that used the bomb graphic.

WH mocks BN

Note that the consequences of “Without the Deal” are bad, but unspecific. Now, however, at the White House’s Iran Deal website, while sparing us a repeat of that particular graphic (maybe with good reason), the White House claims the following:

As it stands today, Iran has a large stockpile of enriched uranium and nearly 20,000 centrifuges, enough to create 8 to 10 bombs. If Iran decided to rush to make a bomb without the deal in place, it would take them 2 to 3 months until they had enough weapon-ready uranium (or highly enriched uranium) to build their first nuclear weapon.

Putting it together, to clarify, in September 2012 Netanyahu projected as late as the summer of 2013 for the completion of medium enrichment, with perhaps a few months more before the development of sufficient enriched uranium for a bomb. As a reminder, the interim agreement between the P5-1 and Iran was reached in November 2013. That is a few months after the summer of that year. According to the interim agreement, all progress in Iran’s nuclear enrichment was halted for the period of negotiations toward a more lasting agreement. Now, at the conclusion of the current negotiations, the Obama administration is warning, in rather alarmist tones, that failure to accept the JCPOA will leave the world confronting the almost immediate threat of a nuclear Iran. The timelines match, with a “few months” wiggle room, and the administration is, in other words, setting a “red line,” in the agreement itself, by warning that the consequences of a failure to accept it could be war.

The only difference in this between Netanyahu then and Obama now are the terms of the agreement and the willingness to demonize the one and lionize the other.

Declares the President:

Instead of chest-beating that rejects the idea of even talking to our adversaries, which sometimes sounds good in sound bites but accomplishes nothing, we’re seeing that strong and principled diplomacy can give hope of actually resolving a problem peacefully. Instead of rushing into another conflict, I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort, and that before we put their lives on the line we should exhaust every alternative. [Emphasis added]

This disappointing distortion is more characteristic of the President’s conservative political enemies than his own customary reasoned argumentation. We do see, of course, the usual-suspect neocon chest beaters, but there are also many others, open to talk, offering good, reasoned criticisms of the deal – as well as those alternatives that the President and the Secretary of State habitually assert are absent from the critiques, but which, rather, they simply do not wish to credit.

Far from fitting the stale, auto-rhetorical charge of “rushing” to war, American policy toward Iran has involved a multi-decade effort, over three presidencies constructively to engage the Iranian government. It has included a formal acknowledgement of the CIA role in the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the easing of a previous regime of economic sanctions. It has also consisted of an earlier offer from the George W. Bush administration that Iran rejected.

The open hand of the Clinton administration was spurned. The more generous offer of the Bush administration, when Iran was not sufficiently hurting, was spurned. There is no doubt that the current sanctions drove Iran to negotiate. The matter now in dispute is how well the U.S. played its hand at the table. The trump card in that hand was always the prospect of American, or an American-Israeli, use of force. The ideal play of a trump lies in its effective force when not used, activated by the credible threat of use. That effective force is some product of a genuine willingness to use the trump and the opponent’s belief in such willingness. What have been the presiding conditions for that belief among the Iranians? What are they now?

The former Massachusetts senator also dismissed the idea that military strikes were a realistic way of containing Iran’s nuclear potential.

“Iran has already mastered the fuel cycle,” [Kerry] said. “They have mastered the ability to produce significant amounts of fissile material. You can’t bomb away that knowledge any more than you can sanction it away.”

The tone of the administration’s pitch to Congress appears to have shifted in recent weeks from actively selling the merits of the deal to stressing the lack of viable alternatives….

Imagine the conversations this kind of talk stimulates in the covert corridors of Tehran.

So desperate is the administration in defense of its deal that is actively undermining Israel’s international position and legitimizing Iranian arguments

Said Kerry of a potential Israeli strike, “Iran would then have a reason to say, ‘Well, this is why we need the bomb.’”

Rather than defend any Israeli preemptive act as a response to the constant threat of Iranian annihilation of Israel, Kerry has framed such an act as a justification for the development of an Iranian nuclear capability.

In light of this flaccid posture, continuing pro forma declarations that “all options remain on the table” are met now by Iranian leaders with disbelief:

Kerry and other US officials “have repeatedly admitted that these threats have no effect on the will of the people of Iran and that it will change the situation to their disadvantage,” Zarif claimed.

They are even met with derision:

“The US should know that it has no other option but respecting Iran and showing modesty towards the country and saying the right thing,” Rouhani told a crowd in the western Iranian city of Sanandij on Sunday.


“The table they are talking about has broken legs.”

There is even reason to believe that this administration is willing, in the end, to accept a nuclear Iraq. Argued Vice President Biden,

“Imagine stopping them now in the Gulf of Aden” — referring to Iran’s backing for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen — “and stopping them if they had a nuclear weapon,” Biden said. “As bad, as much of a threat as the Iranians are now to destabilizing the conventional force capability in the region, imagine what a threat would be if we had walked away from this tight deal.”

The U.S. has not stopped Iran in the Gulf of Aden. Now it acknowledges how further disarmed it would feel before a nuclear armed Iran. And Biden here predicates that nuclear Iran as the alternative to acceptance of the current Iran deal.

Given the arguments of government officials and of many supporters in general, it is not unreasonable to question, with Iran, as it was with North Korea in a far less combustible area of the world, whether the will is actually there to prevent a nuclear Iran.

That administration officials are swinging wildly in this fight is obvious. They are throwing whatever argumentative punches they think will land, including roundhouse swings that hit their friends and hooks they launch from the knees that end on their own noses. If, in the end, they do win this fight, and the deal passes, and Iran cheats, or develops its bomb in thirteen years, the best chance to play the trump without actually slamming it on the table will have been squandered.


The Political Animal

The Voting Rights Act and the Consequences of Our Actions


A little over a year ago, to counter a vein of left criticism of President Obama during the election year, I wrote, of the 1968 presidential election,

Significantly, while Nixon won 86% of the registered Republican vote, Humphrey won only 74% of registered Democrats. Democratic division before and after the ’68 convention [primarily over the Vietnam War] caused many McCarthy, Kennedy, and McGovern supporters to withhold their votes from Humphrey.

Because of that 12 percentage point difference in support from registered party members, Nixon won the presidency, by 512,000 votes. Ironically, or not, Al Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election by just under 544,000 votes. If 12 percent of the Democratic electorate had not convinced itself that Hubert Humphrey was no better than Richard Nixon –  because he had been, of course,  a loyal vice-president to Lyndon Johnson, under whose leadership the Voting Rights Act was first passed – Nixon would not have been elected president.

Had Nixon not been elected president, William Rehnquist would not have been appointed to the Supreme Court.

Had William Rehnquist not still been sitting on the Supreme Court in 2000, he could not have been part of a 5-4 conservative justice majority that interfered with the Florida recount and effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

If over 97,000 Floridians had not voted for Ralph Nader, rather than Al Gore – as 12 percent of the registered Democratic electorate had withheld its voted from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 – there would have been no Florida recount controversy and no consequent Supreme Court vote to deny the presidency to Al Gore and deliver it to George W. Bush.

Had Al Gore become president in 2000, and not George W. Bush, John Roberts and Samuel Alito would not have been appointed to the Supreme Court.

Were Roberts and Alito not on the court, there would be no likely 5-4 majority to overturn section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which, when last renewed by congress, in 2006, was passed by a vote of 99-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.

Given the efforts of GOP legislatures in a variety of states during 2012 to suppress the minority vote through new voting provisions very much in the spirit of Jim Crow, not only should section 5 not be eliminated, but its reach should probably be extended.



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Israel The Political Animal

A Political Hall of Mirrors


Puppet Master (franchise)
Puppet Master (franchise) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bob from Brockley writes (from Brockley, I presume) to offer compliment and commentary to my last post on Maureen Dowd. Bob and I are usually in close alignment on such issues as have arisen from Dowd’s recent column on the neocons. In this case not. Bob (whom, if you don’t, you really should be reading over at BobfromBrockley) thinks, like other of her critics, that Dowd used problematic language in a subject that seems to touch on Jewishness. Contrary to my more common thoughts on these matters, I think Dowd’s critics got it all wrong this time. And then again…

I have to say that I do not read Dowd often. I find her brand of snark far too facile and empty of nutrition. Sort of like Cheetos, which have their place, mind you. So I don’t know if Dowd has a history here. I suspect not, though others are welcome to enlighten me. I think history, context, matters. For the sum of Dowd’s offense in this instance is that she used the term “puppet master” in relation to behind-the-scenes necons influencing the foreign policy pronouncements of international neophyte Mitt Romney; her editor adopted the word “slither” from Paul Wolfowitz, used against the Orthodox Barack Obamawitz, for the title of Dowd’s column, back against the neocons; and as we all know, a pretty fair number of influential neocons – by no means all, including some very influential figures – are Jewish.

Absent any history on Dowd’s part, and considering that there is nothing even close to a Jewish reference in her column – despite the gross distortion of some, like Dylan Byers, in reporting on Dowd’s column – I find this an attack (and it was swift and serious) to have been very misguided. It is misguided because, I think, wrong, and because it tends (mistakenly) to confirm the common dismissals these days of all those lined up against Israel of unfounded charges of anti-Semitism. It is very much to the point that many (not all) of the most damning critics of Dowd are representative of the kind of foreign policy positions she was decrying, American politicos deeply invested in devising an umbilical tie between support of Israel and the most conservative, jingoistic expressions of American foreign policy.

It seems apparent to me that Dowd was incensed – as we all should be – that American neocons are still part of any foreign policy discussions in our politics, just as Romney-Ryan are running on the similarly failed GOP plutocratic economic policies that failed just as miserably under George W. Bush and before. The anger comes through very clearly, if the brief particulars are not deeply thought out. Dowd’s neocon opposition is as extreme and simplistic as are neocon ideas themselves. The Jewishness of some neocons is entirely incidental to the column, and even that incidental nature is never even alluded to – unless, of course, it is now considered to be so that the very use of the terms “puppet master” and “slither” conjures up Jews. That is an ill-considered destination.

James Fallows has written an excellent post on the issue, all of which should be read, and that makes the essential points quite well.

– For what it’s worth, I know that the term “puppet-master,” which Dowd uses about the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Dan Senor, fits some anti-Semitic tropes. But it also is a normal part of English that has nothing necessarily to do with anti-Semitism. I remember hearing a college lecture about Iago’s role as “puppet-master” of Othello; one biography of J. Edgar Hoover had the title Puppetmaster. As a kid I read a Robert Heinlein sci-fi novel of the same name. The very ugliest term in Dowd’s column, the statement that a certain group was “slithering” back into control, was something that Paul Wolfowitz had said about President Obama! No one is identified by religion, Jewish or otherwise, in what Dowd wrote.

I agree exactly with what Kevin Drum said:

There’s nothing anti-Semitic in Dowd’s column. She just doesn’t like neocons, and she doesn’t like the fact that so many of the neocons responsible for the Iraq debacle are now advisors to Mitt Romney’s campaign.

People who are not members of a certain minority group should be careful to avoid terms that that can do harm. But we all have a stake in keeping discussion as free and open as possible. In my view Dowd, with whom I often disagree, was making a valuable point [about the resurgence of the neocons]

Well, there I stand – except I just caught a glimpse of the politics of all this in a mirror, and there is another mirror reflected in that mirror, and some fun-house distortions begin to appear.

Bob commented on my last post a second time, to direct us all to Andrew Sullivan’s post on the matter, from yesterday. It’s getting to where you can begin to term this sort of thing “pulling a Sullivan.” It’s about how one gets to be un-PC and wrong at the same time.

Sullivan does not just defend Dowd, unsurprisingly – he actually manages to upend my argument and confirm the currents in American politics that Dowd’s critics feel. I don’t think it confirms anything in the least about Dowd – but offering a bat to someone  likely to use it for bashing someone else over the head ought to give one pause. Of course, if Dowd’s column had been allowed to pass without the attack, the likes of Sullivan would not have had the opportunity on one day to show himself, and we ought to see him clearly.

What did Sullivan do and say?

To begin, there is in the post title, “Another One!” and the photo of Dowd with a Hitler mustache, and the mockery of concerns over, and charges, of anti-Semitism. This kind of thing is common today, in quarters, too, where the denizens would be outraged by a like display showing Dowd with a KKK conical hat and mocking concerns over anti-Black racism. Or anti-Latino or, in many instances, anti-Muslim. An observable reality is, too, that whenever resentment of, for instance, charges of anti-Black racism are expressed, anti-Black resentment itself, indeed, is not often hard to see. So it is with Sullivan regarding Jews.

In the obverse action of Dylan Byers, distorting Dowd’s column in order to criticize her, Sullivan performs the identical distortion in order to promote an anti-Israel argument that Dowd did not make.

Dowd wrote a column in which she noted how Greater Israel fanatics run the Romney campaign’s foreign policy (which they do), and their neoconservative bubble is part of what explains Romney’s nasty and divisive attempt last week to politicize the recent flare-up of violent anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

Dowd wrote a column noting no such thing: Dowd makes no even implied reference to “Greater Israel fanatics” or the issues that would follow from such a reference. This is all Sullivan: Sullivan confirming, indeed, that when a Maureen Dowd writes what she did, there are people like Andrew Sullivan who will always see the Jew in it.

So many mirrors.


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The Political Animal

Said the Sad Red Earth


I’ve been lying low, collecting evidence…

Brought to mind by recent events for David W. Blight And Allison Scharfstein in their Op-Ed at the New York Times, the little known proposal by Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Kennedy in May 1962 to issue another Emancipation Proclamation, to end segregation. Kennedy took it under advisement and never acted before it was too late. Even Lincoln did not act until the nation was already at war. Marriage equality is not a matter of localized state ordinance governing a mundane civil procedure. It is a human and civil right to be addressed federally and universally. Even the partisan pollsters know what is coming. But the GOP remains, into a second century of shrinking ideas, a party of smallness far different from the kind it professes.

Speaking of shrinking human capital, John Derbyshire, whom National Review employed for quite some time, even after his racism began to leak from him, has chosen, post termination, to come a gusher and write now for the white nationalist VDare – whose Peter Brimelow was at this year’s CPAC – where he observes,

White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don’t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.

Even non-whites acknowledge this in unguarded moments.

Just as dispiriting – all forms of human diminishment in the name God and race are just so – is this crucial account by Jonathan Spyer of “The Rise of Hamas-Gaza.”

The nature of the regime created by Hamas in Gaza, and its strength and durability, has received insufficient attention in the West. This may have a political root: Western governments feel the need to keep alive the fiction of the long-dead peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. One of the necessary components of this is pretending that the historic split between nationalists and Islamists among the Palestinians has not really happened, or that it is a temporary glitch that will soon be reconciled. This fiction is necessary for peace process believers, because it enables them to continue to treat the West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

But fiction it is. An Islamist one-party quasi-state has been built in Gaza over the last half-decade. The prospects for this enclave and its importance in the period ahead have been immeasurably strengthened by the advances made by Hamas’ fellow Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.


Palestinian nationalism has traditionally favored words and gestures over concrete deeds. This is one of the sources for its historical failure to produce anything much tangible of note. Palestinian Islamism has a different approach: in line with the traditional strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood, it understands the importance of concrete, patient building on the ground.

This does not mean that Hamas in Gaza has lost sight or will lose sight of the maximalist ideological goals of the movement. It does mean, however, that the split in the Palestinian national movement should now finally be internalized as a long-term development. The more formidable, serious element of that movement is in control of Gaza. The Islamist one-party statelet in Gaza, in turn, is allied with the trend that is proving the major beneficiary of the Arab upheavals of 2011 — namely, Sunni Islamism.

Of a piece – the opposite piece – is Fareed Zakaria’s regrettable (piece o’) pie in the sky advancement of the “Arab Spring” fiction, here choosing to side with George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” against everybody’s favorite BiBi bogeyman. “Demographics, Zakaria argues, won’t permit Arab autocracies to much longer shield themselves from “modernity.” Because of that bright and hopeful Arab Spring (why, just look around and see the buds burstin’ all over), “Arab democracies will have the legitimacy that comes with public participation,” Zakaria simply asserts: witness, as an example, the legitimacy of one person one vote one time in the coercively militaristic theocracy of Gaza, above, he forgot to say. “What in the World,” indeed.

Look at this video. It’s only a minute forty four. Everything about it is stupid, and there are a ton of them on YouTube, but it’s clear. The guy pursuing the conflict gets beat good. The guy who beat him had wanted none of it.  It had to hurt, though he deserved it, and men have taken beatings like it, and worse, since men were stupid. Would the beaten young man have been justified in pulling a gun and shooting the other? He’ll have some cuts and bruises. Even in the dark, with no one else there, would he have been within his rights to shoot and kill the other guy? What is even less defensible than the fixated George Zimmerman, in what he did – I’m sure he was scared once he was in for it – is the more detached yet still angry justification and promotion of his conduct by others.

In its wide-ranging assault on voter rights, labor rights, women’s rights, and straight up democracy itself, in Michigan, the contemporary GOP is the most reactionary and anti-Democratic force the nation has seen since the active hostile forces of pre Civil Rights movement Southern segregationism. Here is a look at what should be a very frightening graph from the Guttmacher Institute.

Has the filibuster, especially as normalized as it now is, producing an almost uniform requirement for super majority to pass any legislation through the Senate, risen to the level of constitutional offense under the GOP? James Fallows has been arguing so, and for some time now against false equivalence between the Democrats and Republicans in congressional dysfunction. Now Common Cause intends to pursue the matter, and the filibuster’s abolition, to the Supreme Court.

At Tablet, Akiva Gottlieb delivers a profile of the always unattractively strident, yet surprisingly uncertain David Horowitz. Among several humanizing passages, there is this rather tender and sad one involving his late daughter Sarah.

Sarah’s passions made her one of David’s most spirited interlocutors, and at times A Cracking of the Heart serves as an object lesson in political empathy—making it a poignant outlier in Horowitz’s oeuvre. In an earlier memoir, he attested to his inability to internalize the monotheistic religious prophets’ agreement that all human beings, no matter their trespasses, are incarnations of the divine spirit: “[I] cannot embrace this radical faith. I feel no kinship with those who can cut short a human life without remorse; or with terrorists who target the innocent; or with adults who torment small children for the sexual thrill.”

Sarah, who respects her father but harbors little patience for his bluster, hand-writes a response that aims to cut him to the quick. “First, have a little humility,” she begins. “You are not smarter than Moses, Jesus and Buddha.” She continues by articulating as eloquent a plea for understanding across ideological lines as I’ve ever heard:

If you see someone in the fullness of their humanity, you see how they are acting out their own confusion and suffering. This does not justify hurtful or evil acts. It doesn’t even always inspire forgiveness. But if you see someone this way, you respond more in sadness than in anger. And that is simply a more excellent state of being. Even if you’ve never had this experience (and more’s the pity), respect the experience of those who have.

She did not send her father these words. “Or if she did,” he writes, “I failed again to understand them.”

A more excellent state of being. She was a loss.

And finally, from the department of some people have all the luck, we have “Finger In Arby’s Sandwich: Michigan Teen Ryan Hart Spat Out ‘Rubbery’ Digit,” while, of course, in contrast, several people have found Jesus in a Cheeto.


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The Political Animal

From the People Who Brought You Richard Nixon & George W. Bush

Who has a shorter memory than the perpetual loser? Over and over the perpetual loser performs the same self-defeating act. Again and again, the loser fails, and failing, finds cause for failure in the inadequacy of others. Charlie Brown runs, as he has run countless times before, for the football Lucy holds to the ground, and which she withdraws yet again, at the ultimate instant, just before Charlie’s flailing kick. Upending himself, he falls to the ground, and cries out in despair, “How long, O Lord.”

Lucy, analyzing Charlie’s unknowing allusion to scripture, offers the final verdict.

“All your life, Charlie Brown. All your life.”

And you thought Peanuts was all sweetness and Christmas specials.

If you are a self-described liberal or progressive anticipating the 2012 presidential election, then you need to beware. For Lucy is coming and she brings her football with her. The same Puritopians who helped elect Richard Nixon president and who practically gave the 2000 election away to George W. Bush, now want to persuade you that the reelection of Barak Obama is not a momentous and meaningful prospect.

Here is Glenn Greenwald, one of the more popular voices of Puritopia (and neither liberal nor progressive anyway) sounding the meme:

Watch the Soros video yourselves. Apparently for the lawyer Greenwald, nuance is like the exculpatory evidence that refutes appearance and shows the defendant innocent. If a mainstream journalist distorted events like this, Glenn Greenwald, blogger, would burn his ass. But who made George Soros the arbiter, and that isn’t even the point.

In 1968 white segregationist George Wallace ran as a third party candidate against Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon, declaring that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between the Democratic and Republican parties. The meme may have been that of a racist Southern governor, but the belief was adopted by that era’s version of the Puritopian – the most extreme elements of the antiwar left, who refused to forgive Humphrey for his loyal service to Lyndon Johnson and thus withheld from him their support. In September 1968 Humphrey was 18 points behind Nixon in the polls. He made moves to mollify his Democratic critics, and by just before the election, he was only 2 points behind. He lost the popular vote by a mere 500,000 votes. Significantly, while Nixon won 86% of the registered Republican vote, Humphrey won only 74% of registered Democrats. Democratic division before and after the ’68 convention caused many McCarthy, Kennedy, and McGovern supporters to withhold their votes from Humphrey.

It is so recent, we need not review the events of 2000 and the direct link between the candidacy of Ralph Nader and the loss of Al Gore to George W. Bush, after Nader conducted his campaign on the claim that the two major party candidates were “Tweedledee and Tweedledum.” First, then, consider, in just the broadest terms, how different would be the history of the contemporary United States had Hubert Humphrey gained the presidency in 1968 rather than Nixon. Watergate and the following twenty-four year Democratic exile from shaping the national direction are the broadest strokes. Here, in contrast, is a detail, a dot, that broadens to a wide swath across the canvass: in 1972, Nixon appointed William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court. Rehnquist served for thirty-three years, nineteen of them as the third-longest serving Chief Justice in history.

Rehnquist was still on the court in 2000 and was part of the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority that gave the 2000 election victory to Bush over Gore. One Puritopian deliverance of the presidency to the GOP played a role thirty-two years later in another.

Imagine, again, in just the broadest terms, the changed history of the United States had Gore rightfully gained the presidency. Almost certainly, there would have been no Iraq War. There would have been no Bush tax cuts. These are the two largest contributors to the national debt. Observe Bush’s appointments to the Supreme Court – young men likely to serve as long as Rehnquist.

From 1968 until Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans held the presidency for 28 out of 40 years. Had Humphrey and Gore been president, the numbers would have been reversed. When we speak, as all on the left do these days, of the thirty-year decline in middle-class financial security, earning power, and wealth, and the obscene increases in riches and plutocratic power among the wealthiest Americans, this is a democratic decline concurrent with the rise of American conservatism and its access to presidential power.

When the Puritopians speak of no difference between the parties, they are like interplanetary probes scanning an alien planet. They cannot see the trees for the forest. Because the two parties both espouse capitalism and run candidates subject to the same human foibles and who play by the same corrupting rules they are given as brokers of power, Puritopians want to pull the ball away. They obscure in their every resentful, rageful blast against the system the individuals who would have jobs under democratic governance, with union protection, and growing earnings, enabled to love and marry and serve as they choose, living under the protection of law and agency enforcement that would uphold their rights in difference, and work to protect their water and their food.

Remember how you felt, if you were around, the night Richard Nixon won, and every day of his presidency. Remember the fallen hopes of December 2000, and the years that justified their fall. Listen to these GOP candidates when they speak. Imagine the country you will face on November 6 of this year if one of them wins. Try to persuade yourself it will be no different from the country you wake up to tomorrow, or the one that Barak Obama will continue to try to develop as of that post-election day, especially with a Democratic congress. Do you think the GOP and Tea Parties and conservatives hate him so much because he is no different from them? They know. How can you not? And who is it who tries to persuade you to diminish the circumstances of your own life out of rage against an imperfect world and system that can never deliver to you all you wish it could?

Has this belief that there is no difference between the parties gained the results its adherents hoped for before? In 1968? In 2000? Is the country better for it? Did we smash the system, start all over, make it all better? Or did we only hand power to those who made it worse?

If you wish for some kind of revolution, that dismantling of the system and believe in starting all over, then I can say nothing to you.

Do you think some third party candidate will win in November? Who? Really? Come on.

Do you think, well, we didn’t make it happen in 2000, or with Nader 04 and 08, but we’ll make it happen one day, we’ll get it done? Well, then, my friend, you believe in the hard work of slow change, and sometimes faster, and the gradual betterment of a human and imperfect world. Instead, then, of believing all your effort the invisible, wondrous cause of an outcome, someday, of successive defeats, and all the dispiriting losses that follow from them, why not work along the way to feel that change a little bit each day, even though there will always be so much more to do?

It is a far better thing to be disappointed in your president, if that’s how you feel, than to despise everything he stands for. You can work with the former. With the latter you can only talk idly again about leaving the country. Or, worse, you can do it – after just handing it over.

If Obama loses in November, Glenn Greenwald will still be writing for Salon (probably, or if not, some other publication). He’ll still be shuttling between the U.S. and Brazil. He’ll get to rage against another perfidious president and the same old rot – but, really, you know, rather worse.

And you, progressive, liberal, mon semblable, mon frère – what will be the prospects of your life on the day New Gingrich or Mitt Romney takes office? How will fare the poor, the uninsured, the working man and woman, the retired, the immigrant, the gay, the different, our environment? How better will we manage the American role in the world? Will you really feel no different?

How many times do we have to do this? How many times do we have to play this game? Because I’m telling you, Glenn Greenwald is kneeling with his ball in his hands. He’s whispering, “I’ll hold the football, and you come running up and kick it.” And he’s smiling.


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The Political Animal

Two and a Half Centuries before 9/11


(9/11/11: the first in a series)

Long ago loosed from popular memory, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was not only a natural catastrophe but a crisis of the enlightenment mind as well. The quake is estimated to have lasted ten minutes, with three distinct jolts. Modern seismological estimates, based on recorded observations of the temblor’s effects, are that the quake was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, the same as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake off Sumatra. It was felt in North Africa and Central Europe and was quickly followed by the three tsunamis, with waves of perhaps fifty feet, sweeping out to sea not only thousands from shaky ground, but many who had sought refuge from the disaster in boats. Then came the fires. Much of Lisbonwas destroyed. Varied estimates are that up to sixty thousand people lost their lives. And it happened the morning of All Soul’s Day.

A common sentiment at the time, among those both more and less Christian, was that the disaster was God’s punishment on a sinful world. Even among those of less apocalyptic bent, there was a crisis of faith. Why would God unleash such punishment so indiscriminately upon even the innocent? Voltaire, among other thinkers and artists across Europe, was profoundly influenced by the historic calamity, and he went to intellectual war, in Candide and elsewhere, with Leibniz’s optimism that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Artists depicted the event well into the next century. Yet the Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the development of natural science and the rationalist response to life on earth. Vast efforts were made to understand the quake as a natural phenomenon. Modern seismology may be said to have been born from the event. The prime minister of Portugal, Sebastião de Melo, amid much political infighting and contestation, organized probably the first modern governmental disaster relief and reconstruction program. Lisbon was rebuilt.

There is a comparison to be drawn between the Lisbon earthquake, over two hundred and fifty years ago, and the 9/11 attack on the United States. Though an obvious dissimilarity is that the quake was a natural disaster, and 9/11 decidedly not, that distinction was not so clear to mid-eighteenth century Europeans, and there were far too many, those who are religious (including, obviously, the perpetrators of the attack) and even those who are not, who considered 9/11 to be, if not God’s, at least some form of ideologically righteous judgment upon the United States. Another argument against the comparison is the number of monstrous and very inhuman human catastrophes that came between. What is 9/11 compared to the Holocaust, to choose an easy example? Yet for many, 9/11 still seems hugely significant, its dramatically visual and its symbolic character not to be overlooked.

A crucial consideration in the making of analogies, however, is whether one intends them to elucidate or in actuality delimit. In the former instance, the analogist seeks to understand the unavoidably new and different in the light of the old and suggestively prototypical. In the latter instance, the thing compared is captured in the net of what it is compared to, the analogist’s purpose to deny the thing the freedom to be more and other than its predecessor, even though everything in this world, for all the haunting similarities, is irreversibly other than everything else. The analogies of political argumentation are usually of the latter kind. To use a popular set of political terms, while they pretend to liberate the imagination, their intent is to occupy the reason. For that reason, metaphor, like a lepidopterist releasing his catch from the net, will always be superior to analogy. Of course, with the literary it is never necessary to decide; one may remain delightedly undecided – in no place exactly at all – inhaling the ambiguous breeze. In politics there is a different reason not to make decisions – one may comfortably believe what one is determined to believe, analogies be dammed, or used.

One reason, then, that I invoke the Lisbon earthquake is that it so profoundly influenced even those who did not directly experience it. Those who were neither in New York City nor Virginia nor Pennsylvania were terrified, distraught, grief-stricken, sleepless, angry, confused, disillusioned. People all have their own stories, including me – a New Yorker living in Los Angeles – thousands of miles away at the time, in Prague. And if the historical is not personal in the end, it is purposeless. If the personal is not situated somewhere in time, in history, then it is aimlessly, absurdly adrift – which may well be….

But history will make its claim on us nonetheless, most unexpectedly, like a 350,000 pound jet flying at over 500 miles per hour into a 110 story building containing 87,000 tons of steel, even if you are merely some tourist in from Japan hoping for an early start to the day and a chance at the unparalleled view.

Now it is ten years since 9/11 and the Afghan war that followed, and it has become a commonplace, in the period since the lead up to the Iraq war that followed later still, to say that America squandered the goodwill directed toward it in the aftermath of 9/11. This facile commentary is both demonstrably true and false. It is true that large numbers of ordinary people around the world felt sympathy for Americans in the manner that most people are touched by the vividly knowable ill fortune of others. The implicit proposition in references to these squandered sympathies, though, is that such feelings had significant political implications, specifically regarding people’s understanding of, and relation to, America’s role and power in the world. I think such a proposition arguable at best. The “squandered goodwill” truism is demonstrably false because of the extensive public record documenting a widespread lack of goodwill at the time of 9/11, from various quarters, both predictable and unexpected. In fact, outright hostility emanated not just from Islamic extremists and confusedly aggrieved segments of the Arab populace, but, very prominently, from the political left, including the American left – that very quarter (which would widely oppose action in Afghanistan too) from which, after Iraq, the squandered goodwill truism later emerged like a carefully cultivated hothouse flower, humid and flushed with forgetfulness.

In truth, whatever goodwill we find absent among many, it was not squandered but already long withheld, before George W. Bush, the easy and obvious scapegoat, became President. September 11, 2011 revealed – should really have only reminded – that despite the fall of the Soviet bloc and the death throes of state communism, the ideology, the historical analysis, and the political sentiments that bore, supported, and rationalized them live on in all the usual quarters. The labels are different – scholarly and theoretical – or the same Marxian as before, but sewn on an inseam instead of a breast pocket. New developments in cultural and political contest have been clarified – Islamism and a new reactionary Republicanism – to skew perceptions and fundamental judgments about where to stand between them. But the contention is the same: the plutocratic and militaristic only confirm the Marxist-inspired, postcolonial challenge; the latter only justifies the imperialistic reaction. Liberals, not uncommonly, remain toothless, and often nominally in charge, until they are not.

And now we are two-hundred and fifty-six years since the Lisbon Earthquake, already ten from 9/11.



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The Political Animal

Obama & Bin Laden: “A Politically Courageous Decision of the First Order”

Steve Schmidt, 2008 political adviser to the John McCain campaign appeared yesterday on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and demonstrated what it means to be a “political opponent” and not a “political enemy.” While many other conservatives, in their grasping meanness, have sought to diminish President O’bama’s leadership in his action against Osama bin Laden, while reaching to claim credit for George W. Bush and justify torture, Schmidt hailed “a decision-making process that was impeccable.” He described the decision to send Navy Seals on so risky a mission “a politically courageous decision of the first order.”  Said Schmidt, Obama “ignored all of the political consequences and he executed his oath as commander in chief of this country.”

All the other responses that seek to qualify and even belittle Obama’s leadership in this act are small, including any puerile justifications based on the excesses perpetrated against Bush. People who cannot recognize an estimable opponent diminish only themselves: they are the squawkers and the second rate.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (3)

from Eric Scheie at Classical Values, on the subject of “odious debt” from which a citizenry might be granted relief:

The Cato Institute has another piece on odious debt:

Most debts created by Saddam Hussein in the name of the Iraqi people would qualify as “odious” according to the international Doctrine of Odious Debts. This legal doctrine holds that debts not used in the public interest are not legally enforceable.Far be it from me to compare people like Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to Saddam Hussein. They didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies. But how can reckless policies which are certain to bankrupt a country ever be considered to be in the public interest? Saddam Hussein would say that his were, and I think all tyrants would make the same claim. As to consent, once again, all the Saddams would argue that of course the people consented. Just ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; I am sure he will say that the people love him and he is acting in their interest.

But tyranny is tyranny. It doesn’t have to reach the bloodthirsty levels of a Saddam Hussein. Tyranny is arbitrary power, especially illegal and unconstitutional power.

Which raises the question of the day: Are we now living under tyranny?

I sometimes get myself worked up into emotional states, and when I do I try to avoid writing about the topic that upset me, because I find I am more capable of being logical, analytical, and rational when I am calm. And it is really easy to get all worked up and scream that these people who want to invade our privacy, steal our money, and run every last aspect of our lives are tyrants.

But the other day I was calm, collected, unemotional, relaxed, you know, completely sober in every sense of the word, and I concluded that, yes, it is beyond question that the United States government has become tyrannical.

On sober reflection, I still agree with my sober and reflective thought.

Let’s start with Scheie’s gracious concession that Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid might be distinguished from Saddam Hussein on the basis that they “didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies.” Good that he was able to find some moral space between the parties. I think the same space may be found between Hussein and G.W. Bush. Yet there has to be for Scheie some basis of comparison, so he finds it in fiscal policies that are “certain to bankrupt a country,” and in this the parties are all alike. But, of course, the current policies are not certain to bankrupt the country (if I were required to bet money on the prospect – I’d rather not – I would bet they won’t), but because that certainty is required for the foolish moral equivalency Scheie draws, he asserts it anyway. He then claims, out of some faculty other than a critical one, that Saddam Hussein, like the Democrats, thought his fiscal policies for the good of his country – another equivalency. There is good reason, actually, to think that Hussein did not think about the good of his country, not in any way, by any definition of the words “good” and “country,” that the rest of us would understand, but even if he did conceptualize in those terms, Scheie would here be making the kind of relativistic argument that a believer in “classical values” would otherwise reject. He has just offered the fiscal equivalent of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Just because Hussein might have made the same claims as Democrats – and Republicans – doesn’t mean that the claims are true or equivalent, anymore than wrapping oneself in a banner of national liberation and freedom fighting means, on the basis of the claim alone, that one doesn’t meet a definition of terrorist. Individual cases need to be judged against established criteria.

Let’s continue with the observation that Scheie takes no note in his agonizing over the debt of the policies of George W. Bush and the amount of debt his administration racked up, or the trillions – a quadrupling – accumulated during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wherever we are right now, we didn’t get here by the guidance of Barack Obama alone, but this kind of slanting is necessary when you want odiously to compare people to a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, as many people Scheie would reject compared Bush and Hussein. Playwright Tony Kushner said he thought both of them evil. I’ll bet that really burned Scheie. Now look what he is up to.

Scheie says we’re “living under a tyranny.”

Here is is

/ˈtɪrəni/ Show Spelled[tir-uh-nee] Show IPA
–noun, plural -nies.
1. arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.

2. the government or rule of a tyrant or absolute ruler.

3. a state ruled by a tyrant or absolute ruler.

4. oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler.

5. undue severity or harshness.

6. a tyrannical act or proceeding.

Some of these words are subjective. Your “oppressed”?  Hey, I feel oppressed, too. I use you, but you abuse me. And just and unjust we could argue all day. There are times many of us, when young, feel our parents to be tyrants. But “unrestrained,” “absolute rule” is the starting point for tyranny, from which the severity and harshness and all the rest may objectively follow. You can dislike the policies of your government a whole, whole lot – it can even, actually, be misguided – but that doesn’t make it a tyranny. That’s why Scheie is waiting so eagerly for November. The meanings of words do matter, and one might think a believer in “classical values,” like good, honest democratic debate, might well believe that, too.

Judging by this nonsense, apparently not.

(H/T Shrinkwrapped)



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The Political Animal

Politics and Shame

In the concluding paragraph of The Open Mind IV: Riposte, I wrote,

To comment generally, the record of the Left’s response to 9/11 and of supporting the Bush administration in its response to that attack – a record I have researched and inscribed– is embarrassing and often shameful. Many conservatives today speak and act no less shamefully in their failure to adequately support their President in his genuine efforts to protect and defend us all. They hysterically demonize Obama just as elements of the Left did Bush, and with no lesser conviction of his perfidy than is felt by some conservatives about Obama.

Ever keeping me on my toes, Copithorne offered, in part, this comment:

I don’t understand what you are referencing in the last paragraph about the shamefullness of the record of the Left’s response to 9/11 and supporting the Bush administration. I 411DBMC6AEL._SS500_remember the left vigorously supporting George Bush after 9/11. He had his 90% approval rating and he got his blank checks for Afghanistan and even Iraq. Is that the shameful part — tantamount to the shame of the conservative reflexive opposition to Obama?

Let me, then, both clarify and amplify. I was, in a single brushstroke, conflating eight years of the left’s relation to Bush with a mere one of the right in its relation to President Obama. That obscured some necessary distinctions. Let’s first give a moment’s attention to first years, and for Bush I’ll foreshorten to pre-9/11. Unlike Obama, who won a clear popular and electoral victory across multiple demographics, Bush, we all know, lost the popular vote and took office under the most controversial circumstances of any new President ever. Obama has reversed his campaign commitments on a few matters – mostly to the unhappiness of the left of his own party, not conservatives – but overwhelmingly he is pursuing policies on which he ran and his commitment to which the electorate had reason to well know when it chose him.

When Bush took office, though his assumption of the Presidency was procedurally, constitutionally legitimate, a very large part of the electorate, perhaps that full majority, considered his presidency to be, politically, illegitimate. Consider, for a moment, the hysterical, often unhinged, sometimes racist opposition that exists from the right to Obama in his very first year, the honeymoon ended at the altar: now imagine that, rather than his convincing electoral victory, he had assumed office having lost the popular vote, and only through a clear politically partisan vote of the Supreme Court, in which the liberal justices had, in reaching their majority determination, actually, very specifically, betrayed a defining judicial philosophy of liberalism in order to deliver the presidency to Obama. Given the level of vitriol as matters actually stand, with some on the right actively challenging Obama’s legitimacy, patriotism, and his very41fMVVnNzCL._SS500_ Americanism – and many more, like the moderate Muslims whom those very people chastise for not publicly rejecting the extremists, failing to strongly condemn this behavior – were circumstances such as I propose imagining them, we might well have active insurgent militias popping out of the woodlands.

Despite these circumstances, Bush’s 2001 tax cut, for instance, received the vote of five Democratic senators and twenty-eight Democrats in the House. In 1981, a much more comparable situation – another clear electoral victory – the Reagan tax cut received the support of thirty-seven Democratic senators and forty-eight Democrats in the House.

Compare those situations to the past year and the well-known commitment of the Republican Party to oppose Obama at every turn and give him not a single vote. Wrote Andrew Sullivan for The Sunday Times of England, this commitment reflects

a partisanship that seeks to impugn the core motives of the president, implying that he is, in fact, something alien and destructive to America, and must be opposed in everything he does, whatever it is, because his success would mean the end of America itself. It is not a declaration of opposition; it’s a declaration of war.

Whatever anger and contempt the left felt for George W. Bush in his first year, it does not measure up to the adversarial position assumed now by the right to Obama and that teeters at every moment on the unpatriotic and even subversive.

Post 9/11, matters changed, and became more complex. In almost all respects, the reaction to Bush from the left became more, not less, severe. Yes, there was an immediate rallying of popular support for Bush among the general, even liberal population – of a kind it is difficult to imagine for Obama from the right. (It is manifestly clear from the experience of the past year – Cheney, Limbaugh, Beck, blah, blah – and post Christmas bombing attack, that the reaction of the right to any future successful attack will be recrimination and charges that Obama was derelict in the performance of his responsibilities.)

But here we need to acknowledge distinctions, between an amorphous emotional support and solidarity with a leader at a time of crisis, and support for his actual policies; distinctions too between segments of the general populace and the public figures who represent them culturally and ideologically. We have to see the left, as we must the right, along a long sliding scale of leftness, so to speak. I have to be clear, too, that I am not just speaking of the American left, though there is plenty of shame to be found there alone.

Julia and I were in Europe on 9/11, in Prague, and we remained in Europe for several more weeks. We knew what was transpiring in the U.S. through television, the Web, and email correspondence. I also had, then, the opportunity of a European perspective. A truism quickly sprang up around 9/11 that the American people were unified in its aftermath, and that the United States had the sympathetic solidarity of all the world, squandered only in the progress toward war in Iraq. There is a very extensive record that offers a different story. I can touch here only quickly on some highlights.


Within hours of the attack, I myself received, among other critical communications, an email from an acquaintance who referred to the event as “chickens coming home to roost.” That metaphor became rampant on the left in subsequent days and weeks. By October 14, there were already anti-war demonstrations (against pending action in Afghanistan), and Marc Cooper of The Nation took his side of the quickly developing diving line on the left when he wrote in The Los Angeles Times, in “Liberals Stuck in Scold Mold” of a D.C protest:

Virtually nothing was said about what America should do in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks–other than to flagellate itself for a sordid list of foreign policy sins and transgressions….

Some conservative critics have lambasted this left for being subversive, even treasonous. I prefer to characterize it as traumatized and dysfunctional….

Hence, that odious whiff of “chickens coming home to roost” that has permeated much of the left’s reaction to Sept. 11.

By this point Christopher Hitchens was completing a debate with Noam Chomsky in the pages of The Nation that preceded Hitchens’ leaving the publication over its response to 9/11. In the October 8 issue, Katha Pollit unselfconsciously reported on her refusal to let her daughter hang an American flag from their Manhattan window as a sign of American solidarity in the days following the attack. Pollit explained, “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” The letters section of The Nation during this period was a tortured expression of readers’ impulse to recognize a crime against their own people and their ideological inability to view the U.S. as either wronged or justified in taking military action. Indeed, on October 18, in a talk at MIT, Chomsky asserted that the U.S., in its preparations for action in Afghanistan, was already, in that country, perpetrating a “silent genocide.”

In Europe, only forty-eight hours after the attacks, on the BBC’s Question Time, a largely anti-American audience spewed hateful accusations against the U.S. and its policies at former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Philip Lader. Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director general, later apologized to Lader for the display. On September 18, Charlotte Raven in the Guardian unashamedly wrote “A Bully with a Bloody Nose Is Still a Bully” and declared that she was ashamed of Dyke for apologizing to Lader. On October 8 Madeleine Bunting published “Intolerant Liberalism” and expressed that

What is incredible is not just the belief that you can end terrorism by taking on the Taliban, but that doing so can be elevated into a grand moral purpose.

She saw the “the outline of a form of Western fundamentalism.”

Literary theoretical darling Slavoj Zizek, on September 14, 2001, only three days after 9/11, first posted to the internet “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” later published in book form by Verso, and the title of which, addressed to the U.S., conveys its taunting, retributive message.

Not to be outdone, In France, on November 2, Le Monde printed Jean Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism,” later published in book form by, of course, Verso, in which he said that it415MWY4JAZL._SS500_ is the U.S. that

through its unbearable power, engendered all that violence brewing around the world, and therefore this terrorist imagination which – unknowingly – inhabits us all….

That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, – this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

The situation on the left became so embarrassing that by the spring of 2002 Dissent editor Michael Walzer felt compelled to write “Can There Be a Decent Left?” It was followed in the fall by Michael Kazin’s “A Patriotic Left.”

In fact, outside of congress itself, the public voices on the left were profoundly ambivalent about military action in response to 9/11, if not in outright opposition to it. The situation descended to even lower levels in anticipation of the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, with Democratic members of congress aligning themselves with Saddam Hussein on national television from Iraq, and American academics cheering pronouncements[1] that

The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle.

Of course, undeterminable numbers of mainstream liberals in the Democratic Party were represented by none of this, as presumably – one hopes – there are large numbers of Republicans who feel ashamed of Cheney, Limbaugh, Beck, blah, blah. But much of the representative intelligentsia of the left shamed itself after 9/11, as much of what passes for the same on the right is doing after the election of Barack Obama – what should stand as a less traumatic experience – and the right seems well-positioned and inclined to steal a tarnished mantle.


[1] Transcript of full speech by Arundhati Roy at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, California on August 16th, 2004. I have heard a full audio tape of the speech that was frequently interrupted by cheers.