Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Move

Here we go, folks! From now on Ich Bin Ein Oberliner is at

See you there!

Lawrence O'Donnell is Wrong

Look, I like Lawrence O'Donnell. Sure, he's a slow talker and occasionally a bit repetitive, hammering home on issues whose relevance seems dubious at best, but I like him. He reminds me of a grandfather—a grandfather who tells me about the issues of the day and beats up (in very grandfatherly way) on people who generally deserve it. I think I even like him more than Keith Olbermann, with whom I had a very complicated relationship (call me, Keith, you handsome devil).

But last night (or this morning, when I watched the video online), he made the curious pronouncement that Rand Paul's position on Libya was incoherent. In general, when I hear that Republican X's position on issue Y is incoherent, I say something to the effect of, no shit. (Deficits are bad; let's cut taxes! Freedom is good, unless you're a woman, or gay, or me! The middle class is in trouble; let's shovel money into the mouths of corporations and the really, really, really rich! I could do this all day.)

Rand Paul is confused about a lot of things, but his position on Libya—roughly, we should have intervened, but President Obama's action was unconstitutional as it didn't get a declaration or war or authorization of military force from congress—is not only understandable, but true.

(Before I continue, I should probably tell you that Rand Paul is something of an ass, and please God let this be the only time I find myself defending him.)

If you've been reading my blog (hi, mom!), then you know that I've had my doubts about Libya. But despite the thorny issues involved, our intervention there was morally necessary. If you're a deontologist, then to you I say good for you. Also, I say that the principle that the United States should try to prevent massacre is applicable in Libya. If you're a consequentialist, then to you I say good luck with that. Also, I say that the moral mathematics worked out for intervention in Libya.

I say this, and I also say that Congress abdicated its duty, and President Obama abdicated his, when we went to war—and this is a war—limited (relatively) though it may be—in Libya.

Now, Lawrence O'Donnell brought up SR 85, a resolution condemning Gadhfi, advocating regime change, and expressing the hope that someone would intervene, specifically in the form of a No-Fly Zone. And O'Donnell mentioned that Senator Paul voted for SR 85, saying,

He voted for everything—everything—President Obama has said he is in favor of doing, and everything President Obama decided to do. And he voted for it weeks before President Obama decided to do it.

This is the basis for O'Donnell's belief that Paul—and, I'm assuming folks like me—are holding being incoherent. At first blush, that seems like a reasonable critique. We support an objective and a means, but when someone takes those means to achieve that objective, we cry foul.

But, alas, things are not that simple. One of those means, one of the ways in which we would achieve the very noble objective of preventing a massacre in Libya, is that we would do it within the strict confines of the law. Meaning that before the Executive branch takes acts to achieve a good objective, it gets the go-ahead from Congress.

President Obama didn't. Even if you think he didn't have time—if you believe that the weeks he spent getting international support (a good—perhaps even necessary—thing, by the by) didn't afford enough time to get congressional approval—nothing has precluded him from getting approval for continued operations in Libya now.

And by the President's own lights, he didn't even try or think it necessary to do that. He talks about consultation, not approval, as if Congress is a friend you go to when you need advice and not a check on Executive power.

So Senator Paul and I are not being incoherent; our position is clear: Intervene in Libya, and do it the right way.

Perhaps I'm being to hard on the President, though. He did, for the most part, do it the right way. He was prudent and careful; he's got the support of the international community—including the Libyan people. He didn't lie to the public (man, Bush really set that bar low). He's keeping our footprint small. He is, in short, allowing this to by Libya's revolution, not America's occupation.

What's more, it's not as if Congress has been doing its job, either. They haven't been serious about their constitutional obligations regarding military force in decades. Members of congress are too concerned, if I can assign a motive, with keeping their political options open, being able to weasel out of a vote if things go bad, to acutely do their jobs. They fear, I imagine, falling victim to the trap set by Republicans during the 2004 election. Senator Kerry, you'll remember voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, and then, when Bush bungled the job, Kerry attacked the war. And what did Republicans do? They called him a flip-flopper.

(Of course, Iraq is very different then Libya, and though I disagree with Kerry's vote, I don't think he's "flip-flopping" for saying that he supported the objective, but disagreed with the means.)

So, where does this leave us? We have a congress that is afraid the American people are too stupid to tell the difference between means and ends, a President that—like all Presidents—wants to preserve Executive power, and people like Rand Paul and me (did I really just write that?) who aren't all that pleased with the idea that presidents can pretty much do what they want when it comes to war.

So, can we blame Lawrence O'Donnell for being mistaking Rand Paul's nuance for hypocrisy? I think yes, with an important caveat. The modern GOP—pretty much since Nixon, have claimed the mantle of libertarianism while behaving like statists. They've been such hypocrites for so long that when one of them might be principled, it's hard to take it at face value. Further, the "principled" positions of conservative libertarians (all five of them) are so abhorrent that it's easy want to hit them with everything you can.

And, I'm not going to say—as one big-eared Congressman did—that this is an impeachable offense. It's not. It would be if Congress had said no and then the President did it anyway. He didn't. Congress has done such a thorough job of not doing its job that it's almost necessary for Presidents to take that power for themselves—almost.

But as for the critiques of nuance, let's not forget, Mr. O'Donnell, that liberals champion nuance. Let's not forget that, more often then not, complicated and tough problems require complicated and tough thinking, and we considering the utter lack of thought in what passes for today's bawdy politic, we could now use a little nuance more then ever.

Meta Update

The nearly-completed website for Tanwir, Oberlin's student Middle Eastern studies association.

That, ladies and gents (see above) is why I haven't yet migrated; I've been working to finish up Tanwir's website. 500-ish lines of CSS, twelve template files, and 300 lines of code to extend WordPress later, it's very nearly done.

I should have the new blog up and running later today, god willing. Of course, I'll announce it to all five of my readers once I do...

Station Identification

"Two Oil Barrels"

From a series of posters for an Oberlin mini-course on oil and the Middle East

It's once again sunny and freezing, but that's all right, because I'll be on true vacation in about 24 hours.

This is Ich Bin Ein Oberliner, gearing up to set automatic vacation response to "on" on Gmail.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Big News

That lovely website is the alpha version of the new and improved Ich Bin Ein Oberliner. I've been working on it for the last couple of days (though, frankly, I've been a looking to have a little more flexibility than what Blogspot allows for quite some time...).

I will, of course, let you know when I'm ready to make the jump so that all two of you who still follow this blog can make it with me.

I just have to get the comments working, then we're ready to go--and of course, deal with the inevitable bugs that pop up when one does these sorts of things (building a template, with some truly beautiful CSS, from scratch, and extending WordPress, with some truly hideous PHP, from staring at the WordPress Codex until your eyes glaze over).

So that should be fun.

In other news, a couple people are wondering what a Mandelbrot Set is, and the Wikipedia page is a little unhelpful. Here's this layman's take on it. The Mandelbrot Set is what helped make the Chaos Theory famous. It's a set of numbers (which aren't really the important part) that can be used to generate a fractal image (which is the important part). Fractal, meaning that the shape of the whole is the shape of its constituent parts. Here's a thought experiment: Imagine a shape. This shape is, roughly, a triangle, but each of its sides have a half-sized triangle sitting on it, and each of those triangle's sides have a half-sized triangle sitting it. Continue ad infinatum. That is a perfect fractal shape.

So when I say that the tea party is a political Mandelbrot Set of masquerade, I mean that the tea party is a masquerade, but if you zoom in you'll see that there is a masquerade inside of that, and if you zoom in you'll see that there's anonther masquerade inside of that...

It's a goofy analogy, I know, but I was feeling fanciful.

Station Identification

I's a frosty morning here in Obieland, where only the brave, strong, or stupid stay for spring break.

This is Ich Bin Ein Oberliner, a little of all three.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tea and Sympathy

No! ne'er was mingled such a draught In palace, hall, or arbor, As freemen brewed and tyrants quaffed That night in Boston Harbor! -Oliver Wendell Holmes, “A Ballad of the Boston Tea Party”

On December 16, 1773, men got dressed up as Indians and threw tea into Boston Harbor. It’s strange to think that such a weighty moment—a turning point in the birth of our nation—would sound so like a night of drunken, teenage revelry. But it was, I am told, for more than that: It was a matter of principle. Oliver Wendell Holmes, before reading his “A Ballad of the Boston Tea Party” proclaimed,

The tax on tea, which was considered so odious … was but a small matter, only twopence in the pound. But it involved a principle of taxation, to which the Colonies would not submit. Their objection was not to the amount, but the claim.

I should have learned that lesson, I suppose, but what stuck with me was a little different.

“I have never gotten over,” writes Garret Keizer in Harper’s, “the notion that the history of the United States begins with an act of masquerade.” Nor have I. I can’t get the image of George Hewes—a Boston shoemaker—out of my head. I see him putting on “the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which [he] and [his] associates denominated the tomahawk.” I see him carefully smearing his “face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith.” I imagine Hewes, and I can’t help but think how much fun it must have been.

I have the same—if somewhat tempered thought—as a new generation of Tea Partiers dons its tricornes and picks up the fife and drum, as the masquerade that began with men in Mohawk costumes finds new life in the trappings of pre-Revolutionary Americana. Tea Partiers flock to historical Williamsburg, the Washington Post reports, to gain insight into the minds of the founders. They cheer as some pretend Patrick Henry cries, “Give me Liberty or give me death!” They pepper the ersatz George Washington with questions about what we ought to do now.

And the dance continues. Like a political Mandelbrot set, the Tea Party creates a fractal structure of masquerade. The billionaire Koch brothers’ groups, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, pour money into—and the ceaselessly self-satirizing, fair and balanced Fox News Network actively promotes—the “grassroots” Tea Party. A rouge and a rodeo clown, leaders of a leaderless movement, paint themselves part-prophets and part-Average Joes—all without, apparently, any sense of self-awareness or shame. That Glenn Beck would dream that he is akin to Martin Luther King, Jr. or that Sarah Palin would make herself up as representative of Real America stretches irony to its breaking point, but the show must go on.

Largely older and male, and overwhelmingly white and Republican, they are, in demographics and ideology, from the same set that wanted austerity in thirties, wrote paeans to the imagined Leave it to Beaver fifties, and hippie-punched their way though the sixties. “We the people,” their manifestos read, yet they speak for but a sliver of the America. ’Twas ever thus.

But the rage is real—real and raw and born of bereavement for a wished-for America, nursed with fear and perceived persecution. That rage brought them to the Washington Mall to hear Beck take up the mantle of the persecuted prophet. It brought them to the polls this last November to vote in the most reactionary, xenophobic, and mean-spirited congress in years. And, they imagine, it brought Hewes and his cohort to Boston Harbor that fateful night, dressed as Mohawks, wielding hatchets.

On September 29, 2010, firefighters watched a man’s home burn to the ground. Gene Cranick, who lived just outside South Fulton, Tennessee, forgot to pay the 75 dollar fee that the South Fulton fire department required for those living outside the city limits. Fireighters arrived at the scene, but not to put out the flames licking from the Cranicks’ house; they arrived to insure the fire didn’t spread to a neighbor’s house—a neighbor who did pay the fee. Cranick offered to pay anything, if they would just put out the fire. They refused, under strict orders to let the Cranick place burn—and burn it did.

Reportedly, some of the firemen became ill. Some wept. The Cranicks’ son, Timothy, was arrested after he attacked the Fulton fire chief.

Glenn Beck had no tears for the Cranicks, having spent them already, weeping for “the voiceless” in America, for those who feel alone, for his fear of the communist, Marxist, Maoist, Nazi president in the White House. For the Cranicks, Beck had a stern lesson. Behind Beck, as he lectured America about moral hazard and railed against the Cranicks’ attempt to “sponge” off his neighbors, was mounted a picture of Benjamin Franklin, beneath whose face was written, in bold letters, CHARITY.

The policy of the South Fulton Fire Department is that, if one lives outside the city limits, then in order to receive fire protection, one must pay a fee to cover the cost. Otherwise, they are receiving services for which they do not pay. They would be, to use Beck’s word, sponging off their neighbors. (It’s worth noting here that Gene Cranick offered on the spot to pay the fee, a fee that—as he told numerous news outlets—he paid in the past.) And it’s not an altogether uncommon policy: rural towns, without the population densities and tax bases of large cities, can’t afford to pay to extend their fire services to outlying areas—areas that don’t pay taxes. So the Cranick’s house burned.

One might think that another government entity might come into play here. Perhaps the county or state might extend the same protections to its rural citizens that it does to nearly all of us who expect that when we call 911, the men and women who come will do more than stand and watch. One might think that the just as we view charity—just as Ben Franklin and Glenn Beck view charity, apparently—as a noble trait among men, we might view charity in our governments as a good thing, too.

But no, we don’t—or at least the Tea Partiers don’t. If they have a unifying message, it would be that government is doing too much. Government, as Gorver Noquest put it out to be small enough to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” And long gone are the days that we might dispute that desire; now we spend most of our time bickering about the size of the bathtub. Too bad Cranick’s home couldn’t fit.

I called my parents a few nights after the Cranick’s home burned, and we talked about their plight. There was, in my father’s voice, a thin strand of pain, “People don’t care about the collective good anymore.” My father cried during the finale of M*A*S*H, my sister told me, and I remember once, as a child, watching a movie—I don’t remember what it was now—and being shocked to see tears in his eyes. That phone call hit me the same way. He told me about the cuts in Minnesota’s—my home state—budgets, that the homeless were dying of exposure, that their deaths were on all our hands. We the people, through our inaction, through our governmental representatives’ inaction, were causing the deaths of men in Minneapolis that night.

It’s hard to square the Cranick’s shell of a home or the exposure deaths of the most vulnerable in Minnesota with the idea that government does too much. Already, when our fellow citizens turn to government, government—the embodiment of we the people—as often as not, stands and watches. And so, when the Tea Partiers get together and dress up as revolutionaries, it’s hard to call that anything other than mere masquerade.

On February 14, 2011, thousands gathered in Wisconsin’s state capitol to stand up for the rights of their fellows. The America for which they were fighting—for which they still fight—is one of safety, security, and agency for its citizens. The America for which a Boston shoemaker struck a blow was one of self-determination for its people. And here’s the kicker: the America for which the Tea Partiers pine and hope is one and the same—safety, security, agency, and reasons to hope. But Glenn Beck called the Wisconsin protesters communist tools.

The greatest masquerade in which the Tea Parties dance has no pageantry—no revolutionary regalia, no drums and fifes. It is a dance so subtle, the dancers do its moves without knowing the tune. These are men and women, patriots and concerned citizens who have been taken in by wolves in sheep’s clothing. Beck and Palin, Bachmann and Walker, they play their populist song and all the while dismantle the very things that Americans—union “thugs” and Tea Partiers alike—want America to be.

I’ve learned my lesson, I think: the tea party had nothing to do with taxes; it was a masquerade.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

four mubaraks

"Four Mubaraks," a poster I'm working on for an upcoming event on the events in Egypt.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Slouching Toward War

God, I hope that the combined efforts of the United States, France, Britain, and a host of other Western countries are able to do some good in Libya—and thank God I'm not the one who had to make the decision either to allow a brutal, insane megalomaniac to massacre his own people while we sit on our hands or to get the US involved in yet another war in the Middle East. It's an incredibly tough decision, with fair and good arguments for both sides, and if I were in the Oval Office today, I have no idea what I would do.

But there is this, from Et tu, Mr. Destructo?'s article "Slouching from Benghazi" by General Rehavam Ze'evi (note: not actually the assasinated Israeli general who described Palestinians as a "cancer" whom Israelis should deal with "the same way you get rid of lice." Also, please note, Mr. Destructo is not actually run by Mobutu Sese Seko...):

Gaddafi has spent the past fifteen years ingratiating himself with the "good guys," flipping over small-fry terrorist schemers, churning the oil, scrapping his two-bit nuke program. This is a pretty impressive feat for a guy who made his name sponsoring full-throated bloody murder against American and British civilians. Those governments might not give a shit about anyone else in the world, but killing their people is sure as fuck off-limits. Gaddafi nearly killed Margaret Thatcher herself through his IRA support, hit U.S. servicemen several times in Europe, and downed Pan Am Flight 103, at a cost of two hundred and seventy Brits and Yanks. We live in a world where Obama's kaffeeklatch with toothless ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers was a major campaign issue, yet Gaddafi — a man so radically unhinged and pathologically vainglorious that he makes Saddam look like Thomas Pynchon — was embraced by a startling coalition of Western elites. The difference was that he could buy them. These supplicants pocketed blood money ripped from the heart of Libya. The darkest stain, the damn spot that won't come out for decades, came from Gaddafi's billfold, crumpled and stuffed into the pockets of owl-eyed trans-Atlantic mediocrities dispatched to Tripoli with all the dignity of a bachelor party stripper van. Gaddafi has spent the last two decades buying respectability, and my, what a bargain it is when you know the right people. They deserve to be hounded into suicides for this, to never live this down. So let's name names.

Ze'evi then proceeds to detail the reprehensible Western involvement in Gaddafi's kiss-and-make-up tour—or, as Ke'evi puts it, "The Magical Monied Muammar's Comeback Tour, or: 'The Most Disgusting Story Ever Told.'"

And then there's the ever-delightful Republican inability to decide if Obama's a war-monger or a pussy. All the while, their favorite, bloated, fat-assed nephew—and America's very own merchant of death—is about to get another handout from good ol' Uncle Sam. As Andrew Exum notes (via Ezra Klein, in a would-be-funny-because-of-the-understatement titled post, "Bombing people costs money."):

A Tomahawk Missile cost $569,000 in FY99, so if my calculations are correct, they cost a little over $736,000 today assuming they are the same make and model. The United States fired 110 missiles yesterday, which adds up to a cost of around $81 million. That's twice the size of the annual budget of USIP, which the House of Representatives wants to de-fund, and is about 33 times the amount of money National Public Radio receives in grants each year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which the House of Representatives also wants to de-fund in the name of austerity measures.

Thank god for military contractors! I assume that eighty-one million dollars will be put to good use, like more making more canisters of tear gas that the repressive governments can use on their own citizens or something. Also, this: as Jon Stewart said last night, "You can't simultaneously fire teacher and Tomahawk missiles."

Stewart is wrong, though: a government can, and ours does, which is to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars that we've spent on the great American misadventures in the Middle East (and Africa. and Latin America. etc.) simultaneously in the name of propping up brutal strong-men and for America's watchword, freedom (which is to say, freedom elect governments that will support America's further experimentation Over There).

Make no mistake, the upshot of the Military-Industrial complex using the Middle East as a playground is that our government gives them a giant wad of blood-drenched money for their even-increasing allowance. And then they call for austerity measures at home. It's regressive redistribution of wealth, and the beneficiaries of it now get to spend their hard-earned government bling on electing ever-more redistributionist elected officials.

As Rachel Maddow might say, it's not about the budget. These calls for austerity? They lead to cuts for teachers and new Tomahawk missiles.

I seem to have lost sight of the point of all of this, which is Libya. Libya, where rebels are fighting and dying. Libya, which has just become the West's next war in the Middle East. Libya, that great exemplar of the ambiguities of a region so long dealt with in absolute terms.

I suppose it will be worth it—the missiles, the money, and most importantly, the bloodshed—if this lets the Libyan people evict the Mad Dog. If we can help stop the inevitable atrocities that would follow if Gaddafi gets his hands on Bengahzi. That would be worth it.

But given our track record in the Middle East, can anyone blame us if we have our doubts?

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Crazy Thought

If you've been able to tear yourself away from the coverage of the uprising in Egypt (it's been hard for me), then you might have heard about the newly-minted Republican House of Representatives trying to define rape down. From Mother Jones (via Pandagon):

Rape is only really rape if it involves force. So says the new House Republican majority as it now moves to change abortion law.

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to "forcible rape." This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith's spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)

Given that the bill also would forbid the use of tax benefits to pay for abortions, that 13-year-old's parents wouldn't be allowed to use money from a tax-exempt health savings account (HSA) to pay for the procedure. They also wouldn't be able to deduct the cost of the abortion or the cost of any insurance that paid for it as a medical expense.

That sickening provision was removed, leaving yet another horrible bill that would make it harder for poor women to get access to abortions. Here's Digby on the subject:

[T]he Republicans are saying over and over again that they are just codifying existing practice. Nothing to see here folks. Let's just dot the is and cross the ts. Except, of course, that's a lie. These bills go much further that anything we've seen and have the result of pretty much taking abortion out of the health insurance system altogether. And why in the world should anyone who says they believe in women's rights allow that to happen? This is, until further notice, a constitutional right we're talking about.

How does it go further than the already-odious Hyde Amendment? My understanding is that instead of simply denying direct federal dollars to women seeking abortions, it denies the use of any federal dollars. So, no matter how far down the chain it is from the federal government, that money can't be used. i.e., did your health care provider get a tax break or credit? Then no abortion. (RH Reality Check has more.)

Here's my crazy thought: Democrats fight--not only to defeat this travesty of a bill--but also to make it easier for all people to access to the healthcare they need.

In other words, fuck H.R. 3; let's repeal the Hyde Act.