Umm, don’t we like Democracy?

I was surprised to see this headline on the New York Times website:

U.S. and Israelis Are Said to Talk of Hamas Ouster

I mean, stop me if you’ve heard this one, but once upon a time, a large, prosperous Democracy invaded a country that represented no serious threat to itself, supposedly (retroactively) for the sole purpose of spreading Democracy. After all, Freedom is on the March! It seems to be the case, however, that Democracy is totally sweet until the guys we don’t like get elected. Then we have to get our hands dirty and spread Democracy all over again, like this:

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.

So, to recap, the Palestinian people duly elect Hamas to lead their government, and we refuse to let it happen!?!?!? Where were the French with this kind of logic when George W. Bush was elected President? It gets way classier though:

The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.

This seems a little funny. We make a bunch of speeches about how awesome Democracy is for people. We invade Iraq, and then, once we discover that we went to war for no good reason, substitute the installation of Democracy as our goal. And yet, when an election takes place whose outcome we do not like, we plan to inflict suffering on the people for, I guess, voting wrong? Don’t misunderstand me, I am not a fan of Hamas and I was not psyched when they won the election. But I’m often not psyched by the outcomes of elections (viz. 2000, 2004), and I don’t want or expect other nations to try and ruin my country over it. What a dick move. I find myself eerily in agreement with this guy:

Mr. Asaad, a former Israeli prisoner, said: “We hope it isn’t U.S. policy. Because those who try to isolate us will be isolated in the region.”

. . .

Mr. Asaad laughed and added: “First, I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. But there is no way to retreat now. It’s not possible for the U.S. and the world to turn its back on an elected democracy.”

You’re welcome?

More Factual Relativism

As I wrote in this post, as I think of the GOP’s many awful tactics, one common thread concerns the devaluation of facts and/or evidence as the foundations of a coherent argument.

In this vein, two more examples of this phenomenon have occurred recently, and if we unpack and examine the phenomenon in these contexts, we can learn a lot about how Democrats can turn these into winning issues.

We’ve all read about the ex-press aide for NASA who left his job amidst accusations that he had attempted to censor scientists, but the interesting thing about the coverage has been the total lack of either general evidence presentation or specific scientific analysis.

The second case worth taking a look at is the Abramoff-Bush Photo Hunt. In this case the Factual Relativism kicks in when the Bush Defenders try to claim that these pictures were initially withheld because people might try to use them for political purposes. They don’t even slow down to try to explain a) Why Bush and Abramoff had their picture taken together, b) Whether the two men knew each other, c) Whether anything about the relationship that may or may not have existed was improper. In other words, the facts of the case are discounted.

Let’s look first at the case of George C. Deutsch, sometime NASA Press Aide. From the New York Times we get this amazing series of grafs:

George C. Deutsch, the young NASA press aide who resigned on Tuesday amid claims that he had tried to keep the agency’s top climate scientist from speaking publicly about global warming, defended himself publicly yesterday.

Speaking to a Texas radio station and then to The New York Times, Mr. Deutsch said the scientist, James E. Hansen, exaggerated the threat of warming and tried to cast the Bush administration’s response to it as inadequate.

Mr. Deutsch also denied lying about having a college degree.

So, what facts might be relevant to this article? Off the top of my head I can think of: Did the scientist exaggerate the threat of global warming? Did the scientist try to cast the administration’s response as inadequate? And, of course, the real winner, Is the administration’s response adequate or inadequate?

There is evidence that pertains to these questions out there, but the article just continues. Oh, and don’t forget the part about lying about graduating. I’ll close up that loose end at the end of the post.

Meanwhile, from a White House Press Briefing, we get this charming explanation about the Abramoff Photos with Bush Scandalette:

Q What do you hear or your staff hear about releasing of photographs of Jack Abramoff with you, Mr. President? If you say you don’t fear anything, tell us why you won’t release them?

THE PRESIDENT: She’s asking about a person who admitted to wrongdoing and who needs to be prosecuted for that. There is a serious investigation going on, as there should be. The American people have got to have confidence in the — in the ethics of all branches of government. You’re asking about pictures — I had my picture taken with him, evidently. I’ve had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn’t mean that I’m a friend with them or know them very well. I’ve had my picture taken with you — (laughter) — at holiday parties.

My point is, I mean, there’s thousands of people that come through and get their pictures taken. I’m also mindful that we live in a world in which those pictures will be used for pure political purposes, and they’re not relevant to the investigation.

Q Do you know how many?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t have any idea.

Fine, I get all that, but what of the relevant factual questions: How many times did Bush meet Abramoff? What did they discuss? In this case, I actually suspect that the President is sort of telling the truth in that he lets Rove run the whole K-Street deal, but rather than answering the Press’ claims with evidence, he approaches the question from a footing of political tactics.

As Talking Points Memo has brilliantly covered, these photos were being scrubbed for weeks. This makes the question all the more interesting.

I promised above to satisfy your burning curiousity about George C. Deutsch’s college degree, so here you go

The Times reported on Wednesday that contrary to his resume on file with NASA, Mr. Deutsch, who is 24, never graduated from Texas A&M. Yesterday, in an interview with The Times, Mr. Deutsch said he had written the resume in anticipation of graduating.

“When I left college,” he said, “I did not properly update my resume. As a result, it may appear misleading to some. However, I was up front with NASA about my undergraduate status when they hired me.”

I’m pretty sure that my employer would have had a problem with this kind of impropriety on my resume. Oh well. Must be fun being a Republican.

But seriously, this Factual Relativism is a real probelm for Democrats, because our strengths are all in the real, factual world. If facts are inadmissible, we’re in trouble, and the Republicans can get away with reprehensible garbage (like that time they intimated that Max Cleland was a terrorist) unscathed. To counteract this Democrats must push the Common Sense Solution hard: we argue that even though it may be true that the evidence is not 100% pure in a given situation, we ought to roll up our sleeves and do our best nonetheless. The truth is, after all, Democratic.

PS Big shout out to dopper0189 at Daily Kos for pointing out even more ways this problem is hurting us.

Hertzberg’s SotU Thoughts

In this week’s New Yorker Hendrik Hertzberg makes two interesting points regarding the language of W’s State of the Union Speech.

First, the requisite description of the inherent silliness of a term like “War on Terror:”

“War on Terror” has always been problematic, at both ends. The word “war” has the requisite urgency, and it has proved useful in intimidating the political opposition at home. But, as we have seen in Iraq and elsewhere, its associations–pitched battles, clashing states, disciplined armies with general staffs–can invite actions that are, at best, beside the point. “Terror” is not a conquerable enemy, or an end in itself.

This rings very true. As time has passed since 9/11, the War on Terror has become less a system to eliminate extant threats to the United States and more a justification for the President to do basically whatever he wants. Overwrought 1984 references notwithstanding, when the President authorizes himself to do whatever he wants because we are at war, and yet defines that war such that it can never end, it doesn’t take a pessimist to sense dystopia around the corner.

The second point in Hertzberg’s article that I liked dealt with exactly that administration position:

He defended–no, boasted of–the National Security Agency’s vast, formerly secret program of warrantless electronic eavesdropping, undertaken on his orers and rebranded in his speech as “the terrorist-surveillance program.” “If there are people inside our country wwho are talking with Al Qaeda,” he said, “we want to know about it, because we will not sit back andd wait to be hit again.” But those who are questioning Bush’s program, both Democrats and Republicans, agree that terrorists must be surveilled. What alarms them is not jusst that the President is breaking a particular law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but that his rationale for doing so amounts to a claim that he can flout any law at all, as long as the flouting is under cover of an endless . . . war.

Dystopic indeed. I love reading Hertzberg because he gets right to the heart of the matter, and with such clarity. Bush appears to think that as long as the War on Terror is going on, which will be forever, he can do anything he personally deems necessary to prosecute it. I can’t wait for 2006 mid term elections.

Both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life?

As someone who feels that the framing of the abortion debate is a little ridiculous, I was really excited when I came across this “interpolation” in the essay “Authority and American Usage,” by David Foster Wallace:

This reviewer is thus, as a private citizen and an autonomous agent, both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice.

The “interpolation,” even though it is a brief aside presented in a footnote to a review of a usage guide, was the first piece of writing I had seen in a long time that clearly and successfully described why defending a woman’s right to choose makes good sense no matter what one believes about the beginning of life.

A little context is in order. You may have seen the book Consider the Lobster And Other Essays in your local bookstore; I love David Foster Wallace and I bought it as soon as I saw it.

I almost skipped the essay “Authority and American Usage,” because it was dense and narrowly (I thought) focussed on, well, american usage.

Yet at one point DFW mentions the constant battles in our national discourse about “what to call things.” As a footnote, he writes a lengthy exegesis of his views on Pro-Choice and Pro-Life, and he concludes that the logical position is to be both. The quotes below appear on pp. 82-83 of the book.

On the Pro-Life side, he writes:

Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.

As I read this, I felt my world shaking. I am zealously Pro-Choice, a feminist, and a Democrat to the max, and yet none of the argument rang false in any way. Happily, immediately following the above, DFW writes:

At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.

This statement of our belief in choice is excellent. We all agree to respect each other as moral actors, and that’s that. It even has built in protection against the slippery slope argument that I often encounter in these debates, because of the irresolvable doubt standard.

All of this makes me think about the framing of this issue. As it stands, Republicans get to be Pro-Life, while Democrats get to be Pro-Choice. This is not really fair, because from a linguistic standpoint I suspect life is more important to most people than choice, Patrick Henry notwithstanding. As I think over Wallace’s ideas, though, the thought occurs to me that there are many humans who are clearly alive and clearly suffering, and for whom the GOP is doing nothing (if they are lucky; if not, the GOP is actively legislating them into the poorhouse), and for whose challenges Democrats can offer real, positive ideas.

It seems a powerful way to restate the framing, because by reclaiming the Pro-Life term (for things that are undoubtedly alive) as it applies to healthcare and tax policy, while retaining the Pro-Choice term as it applies to abortion specifically as well as civil liberties generally, we redefine the debate and blunt one of their favorite wedge issues.

Wallace describes the difficulty of holding this position:

Every time someone I know decides to terminate a pregnancy, I am required to believe simlutaneously that she is doing the wrong thing and that she has every right to do it. Plus, of course, I have both to believe that a Pro-Life + Pro-Choice stance is the only really coherent one and to restrain myself from trying to force that position on other people whose ideological or religious convictions seem (to me) to override reason and yield a (in my opinion) wacko dogmatic position. This restraint has to be maintained even when somebody’s (to me) wacko dogmatic position appears (to me) to reject the very Democratic tolerance that is keeping me from trying to force my position on him/her; it requires me not to press or argue or retaliate even when someone calls me Satan’s Minion.

While it is no fun, this approach to the question neutralizes almost every attack of the Anti-Abortion crusaders. We can agree that abortion is wrong, and then coherently remain Pro-Choice. While I don’t personally believe that abortion is wrong, this approach works well no matter what you believe about abortion. As such, I think it represents a clue for Democrats that can lead to successfully reframing the debate.

Cross Posted at The Daily Kos

GOP’s Factual Relativism

Time was, Republicans worried that liberals wanted to infect the United States with cultural relativism, a school of thought whose predilection for understanding other cultures and respecting their varied traditions, as opposed to blowing them up, would cause Americans to lose touch with their moral center.

Yet a different kind of relativism has been sneaking up on the American people. This time, however, it is factual relativism, and it is the GOP that is employing it in the hopes of eliminating the relevance of evidence, which inconveniently tends to favor Democratic positions, in our national dialogue.

We’ve all noticed it on the TV news, or in the statements of politicians. Instances where we shout at the television, “Is that true or not? Do the research!” They never seem to get around to it. Evidence, it turns out, is becoming irrelevant. More examples, and my suggested solution, below.

The success of Factual Relativism depends in part on the growing complexity of scientific research. For example, in a recent NY Times article:

E. Calvin Beisner, associate professor of historical theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helped organize the opposition into a group called the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. He said Tuesday that “the science is not settled” on whether global warming was actually a problem or even that human beings were causing it.

Well, there you have it. An expert in historical theology tells us that the science is not settled. Except, wait. What expertise does this guy have in the area of climate science? What about this assertion, anyway? The paper, it seems, could not be troubled with such questions. And why not? Because the answers would be boring.

That’s the problem with science, and facts in general: they are often boring and complicated. They don’t get readers, ratings, or, unfortunately, voters. Republicans, knowing this, have adopted a strategy which bypasses facts and evidence and heads straight for emotional response.

Like in this CNN story on Bush’s Remarks to the House Republican Caucus:

The eavesdropping program has come under fire from Republicans as well as Democrats. They argue that Bush already has the authority to monitor such communications through existing law that requires a warrant from a secret court set up to act quickly, or even after the fact. Bush has argued that the system isn’t nimble enough.

Is it legal? Does he already have the authority? Who cares? The system wasn’t nimble enough. 9-11. Vote for us or you die. Any questions? Apparently, CNN didn’t have any.

Indeed, once facts are unimportant, balance becomes the standard for which the media aims. We are all familiar with the the crucify-Reid-for-balance’s-sake bandwagon:

Reid, D-Nevada, has led the Democratic Party’s attacks portraying Abramoff’s lobbying and fundraising as a Republican scandal.

But Abramoff’s records show his lobbying partners billed for nearly two dozen phone contacts or meetings with Reid’s office in 2001 alone.

The “But” says it all. There’s probably some kind of evidence in there somewhere, but no one wants to read that, so why check. Why ask, for example, if Reid changed his position after receiving contributions (No), or if this situation is qualitatively similar to the rampant corruption of the K-Street Project (you know the answer)?

It is frightening to think that evidence is becoming irrelevant. This new factual relativism weakens the ability of Democrats to make their points effectively. It weakens education and national unity. I mean, when I read that

President Bush waded into the debate over evolution and “intelligent design” Monday, saying schools should teach both theories on the creation and complexity of life.

it tells me that he’s ignoring the evidence, but it tells American children that there’s no point in studying the facts. After all, if the president doesn’t know which is true, who can?

Here I want to mention this section of Bush’s remarks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast:

This morning we also reaffirm that freedom rests on the self-evident truths about human dignity. Pope Benedict XVI recently warned that when we forget these truths, we risk sliding into a dictatorship of relativism where we can no longer defend our values. Catholics and non-Catholics alike can take heart in the man who sits on the chair of St. Peter, because he speaks with affection about the American model of liberty rooted in moral conviction.

A dictatorship of relativism, hmm? That would be pretty bad. It would be awfully sad if Democrats could no longer defend our values by citing studies and other evidence to support our claims. After all, that’s really all an atheist like me has to go on. By encouraging people to give up on figuring out the tough questions, the president is irresponsibly imposing factual relativism on all of us.

So what to do about it? I’ve implied above that this tactic is successful because raw facts are boring and complicated, whereas catchy, upbeat slogans are fun and simple. Yet Americans are practical and savvy as well. After all, there’s usually some hack with a Ph.D. willing to peddle the GOP talking points involved somewhere, and there’s usually some bought and paid for “scientific” study that shows whatever the GOP is selling. These are clues that expertise and authority are still relevant, and this creates an avenue of successful attack.

A common sense argument works well. When someone says that global warming science is not settled, I say “you might be right. But I figure, if 95% of the doctors I talk to advise me not to mix certain medications, I probably wouldn’t do it.” And so on. In other words, stop debating the purity of the facts, and start debating the practical course of action given what we know right now. That’s an avenue that Democrats can follow brilliantly.


I am the Liberal Walrus, and I’m happy to welcome you to my briny domain. Dive in with me as we explore the muddy depths of our national discourse. Who knows what delicious secrets we might unearth?