Dispatches from the Culture Wars

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Saturday, November 29, 2003

My take on the Iraq war

First, we need to dispel the myth that human rights had anything to do with it. Yes, Hussein was an absolutely brutal dictator. But anyone who thinks that really had anything to do with the decision to go to war is breathtakingly naive. Rule #1 - wars are fought for strategic interests (the need for land, economic hegemony, access to resources, balance of power, etc) and sold on the basis of two things - moral crusades and response to an imminent threat. That's how you get the public behind a war, you tell them that we're going there to protect Freedom and Democracy and Apple Pie, and you tell them that if we don't get them, they'll get us - probably by next weekend.

Our foreign policy exists to serve the perceived interests of those who control our government. Hussein was a brutal dictator from the first moment he came to power in Iraq. He was a brutal dictator throughout the 1980s when he was our ally and we didn't care, because he served our perceived interests, which was to balance off the perceived threat from Iran. So when he gassed the Kurds in the late 80s, we not only didn't care, we even provided diplomatic cover for the operation by claiming that Iran did it, a ruse that lasted all of a couple weeks before the truth came out. But now our perceived interests lie in taking him out of power, and he makes a convenient bad guy for the wanted posters.

So why DID we go to war? I think the explanation lies in the redacted pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee report. As you will recall, that report blacked out 18 pages that dealt with Saudi Arabia. According to almost everyone who has read that section, it details the wide ranging connections between the terrorists and Saudi Arabia, including the possibility that a few members of the Saudi royal family have either directly or indirectly aided Bin Laden and his ilk. The House of Saud is on shaky ground, according to a wide range of analysts. Islamic militants are a major threat to the Saudi government, and they have been a bit reluctant to cooperate too much with the US lest they anger their citizens. I can foresee two possibilities - either the House of Saud falls, or we are forced by their intransigence to withdraw relations with them. In either case, we risk losing access to their oil and we needed to insure that this not happen. The only oil fields capable of replacing the flow of Saudi oil are in Iraq, especially in Northern Iraq in the Kurdish area. But those fields have been devestated, first by the war with Iran and then by the Persian Gulf war with the US. They are pumping a fraction of what they could pump. And in order to rebuild them, Hussein had to be removed so that the sanctions could be lifted and resources brought to bear without enriching him and his henchmen. And since he made a convenient boogie man, it wasn't too difficult to sell the moral crusade or the imminent threat position.

I think two other major strategic goals need to be mentioned. First, controlling Iraq would give us a forward staging area, a permanent military base, from which to project our power directly into the middle east. Second, by increasing the flow of Iraqi oil we gain an on/off valve with which to diminish OPEC's control of world oil prices and bring them down.

All of these are reasonable and valid strategic concerns. Does that mean the war was a good idea? I'd say that's still an open question. No one is sad to see Hussein gone, of course, he truly WAS a genocidal maniac. I think almost no matter what system replaces the Baathist government, the Iraqi people will ultimately be better off. But it seems clear that while we were very well prepared to win the war and take control, we were ill prepared for the occupation and transition. We won the war easily, but we've bungled the peace, and while things seem to be catching up in terms of restoring services and returning Iraq to normal daily life (electricity, schools, hospitals, etc), we've now got a determined and dangerous insurgency to deal with that is wreaking havoc on our troops and on the new Iraqi leadership's ability to establish itself. And this is a very, very difficult situation to improve - there's not much you can do to stop a suicide bomber.

There are some calls in the US for an immediate pullout of troops, which would be a huge mistake. We have a responsibility to help rebuild Iraq and restore stability. If we pull out now, the result will almost surely be sectarian violence between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, quite possibly on a genocidal scale. I think if the US would cede control of the transition to the UN, many other countries would send troops and resources, which would diminish both the threat to American military personnel and the perception around the world that we really only went in there to control Iraq for our own purposes. Unfortunately, I think the truth is that we did go in there to control Iraq for our own purposes - this is why we are so keen on our stooges like Ahmad Chalabi controlling the new Iraqi Authority - and while the strategic interests were compelling, we did not really understand the ramifications of that.

I also think that the way the war was sold and prosecuted has done a great deal of damage to key American institutions. The Pentagon and the White House has done enormous damage to the State Department and the diplomatic corps, and to our intelligence services. The State Department had a study with recommendations on how to handle the transition that anticipated a lot of the problems we've encountered, and had a high-ranking official in the thick of the planning, but Rumsfeld forced Jay Garner to fire him, according to a recent interview. Analysts inside the beltway say that relations between the Defense Department and the State Department have never been worse.

The intelligence agencies are in even worse shape. There has been a very clear pattern of the White House distorting intelligence reports to exaggerate the threat from Iraq in the buildup to the war. The spooks, to be blunt, are pissed beyond belief to be taking the political blame for it. The Niger story is a textbook example. The CIA was asked to investigate the story, apparently by Cheney's office, they sent Joseph Wilson there to check it out, he came back and filed a report saying the claim is likely false, and the next thing they know the White House is trumpeting it as though it was true. And when it blows up in their face, they handled it with the two worst possible responses - they blamed it on the spooks, and they tried to play hardball by outing Wilson's wife. Make no mistake about it, the spooks are LIVID about that. According to a friend of mine who is a former NSA agent, this is why we've seen so many media accounts quoting unnamed intelligence sources to the effect that the White House has been distorting their reports on Iraq - they're pissed at being the fall guy for what was simply a bungled marketing campaign for the war, and they're absolutely beside themselves that the Bush administration would burn an intelligence asset like Plame to send a political message.

In the long run, the damage to our diplomatic corps and our intelligence services may be the worst thing to come out of this war. If we are going to sustain a real battle against terrorism around the world, those two institutions will be our primary weapons in the long run. The military is a great tool for a short term battle, but to win the long term war we will need the concerted and cooperative efforts of those agencies to build alliances and provide reliable information to act upon. We may not know the ultimate rewards, good or bad, of this war for a long, long time. Stay tuned.

Ed Brayton | 7:37 PM | | | Permalink

Friday, November 28, 2003

Evolution and Science Education

No idea in science is as controversial as the theory of evolution. The controversy comes not from within science, but in that grey area where science and religion intersect. This is an issue I've been involved with for many years. Since my late teen years, in fact. I'm part of a group that administers the Talk.Origins Archive, which is probably the largest repository of information about the evolution vs creationism battle on the web. I'm also a founder and advisory board member of Michigan Citizens for Science and have worked closely with the National Center for Science Education for many years.

When Darwin first offered his theory of evolution, with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, it was immediately met with a great deal of opposition from many religious groups. Only one year after the publication of his book, scientists and clergy were already dividing into opposition groups and debating the issue. In 1860, a famous debate was held at Oxford between Thomas Henry Huxley (thereafter referred to as "Darwin's Bulldog") and Bishop Wilberforce over the validity of Darwin's theory. But in scientific circles alone, the impact of Darwin's theory was immediate and decisive - within a decade, two at the most, it was rare to find a scientist or naturalist who did not hold that Darwin was essentially right. So what did Darwin actually propose?

The theory of evolution says that all modern life forms (species) are derived from one or a few common ancestors in the far distant past through descent with modification. This was not an entirely new proposition. What Darwin added, primarily, was the explanation for why this occurs - natural selection, acting upon diversity within a population. That basic outline - common ancestry and natural selection - endures today. After nearly 150 years, we have learned an enormous amount about the natural history of life on earth, none of which makes much sense outside of an evolutionary explanation. And while a good deal has changed in terms of the details of how evolution occurs (after all, Darwin did not know what genes were or how they worked, what DNA was, etc), the basic truth of common ancestry remains one of the best supported ideas in science.

Contrary to popular misconception, the theory of evolution does not conclude "and therefore there is no God." Like all scientific theories, it does not mention God at all, or any other supernatural explanation, because such explanations are not a part of science. They cannot be tested or falsified, so they are immune to disproof and therefore the tools of science do not apply. Most mainstream Christian denominations long ago reconciled with evolution. For a list of religious groups who recognize the vaidity of evolution and see no conflict between this theory and their theological views, see this page.

The opposition to evolution comes from those who argue for a literal reading of Genesis 1, including the idea that God created the universe, the earth and all life on it in 6 literal days. Mainstream Christian theologians, from St. Augustine to modern times, generally dismiss such a literal reading. Indeed, some Christians today argue that not only are evolution and their faith compatible, but further that evolution provides powerful confirmation of their faith. Ken Miller, a Catholic cell biologist from Brown University, has written a powerful book on that position called Finding Darwin's God.

Polls in the US have consistently shown that about half of all Americans reject evolution and favor creationism. But one thing that is clear to anyone who has spent any time discussing the issue with people is that their opposition is not based upon study of the issue but on the notion that evolution contradicts their most dearly held religious beliefs, so it must be wrong. Few people, even scientists unless they're in relevant fields of study, have taken the time to learn what the theory says and the volumes of evidence that it explains so well. They just have an innate sense, brought about by years of having been told this by their ministers and peers, that evolution is anti-God. And they have been helped in that belief by the likes of Richard Dawkins, who compromises his impeccable credentials as a scientist and science popularizer by also being stridently anti-religious. That's fine, of course. I've been known to critique religious views rather harshly myself. But he doesn't bother often to make the distinction between science and the inferences he draws from science. Science is distinct from philosophical inferences drawn from science. For example, take big bang cosmology. Quentin Smith argues that if big bang cosmology is true, God does not exist. William Lane Craig argues that if big bang cosmology is true, it is proof that God exists. So is big bang cosmology theistic or atheistic? Neither, of course. They are each inferring a philosophical conclusion FROM big bang cosmology. The theory, like all scientific theories, says nothing whatsoever about the existence of God. And by the same token, the theory of evolution can also provide different inferences. While Dawkins infers from evolution that God does not exist, Ken Miller and other Christian scientists infer the opposite. I'll let Miller have the last word for now:
It is often said that a Darwinian universe is one whose randomness cannot be reconciled with meaning. I disagree. A world truly without meaning would be one in which a deity pulled the string of every human puppet, indeed of every material particle. In such a world, physical and biological events would be carefully controlled, evil and suffering could be minimized, and the outcome of historical processes strictly regulated. All things would move toward the Creator's clear, distinct, established goals. Such control and predictability, however, comes at the price of independence. Always in control, such a Creator would deny his creatures any real opportunity to know and worship him - authentic love requires freedom, not manipulation. Such freedom is best supplied by the open contingency of evolution.

Ed Brayton | 6:11 PM | | | Permalink

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Robert Bork and the 9th amendment

Another book I've just finished rereading is People Rising: The Campaign Against the Bork Nomination, by Michael Pertshuk and Wendy Schaetzel. I was in college when Bork was nominated for the US Supreme Court in 1987, and at the time I was taking a course in judicial history. We ended up using the Bork nomination as a pretext for studying the issue for most of the course, so I did a great deal of research on Bork's judicial philosophy, his law review articles, speeches and decisions as an appeals court judge. The primary thing that sticks out in my memory about the entire affair was how surprised I was that Bork was continually referred to as a pre-eminent legal scholar even by his political opponents like Lawrence Tribe and the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. After reading literally a few thousand pages of his writings, Bork struck me as anything but a sophisticated legal theorist. The contradictions and shortcomings in his thinking were so obvious to me, even as an amateur, that I was astonished to hear him praised so effusively by those who surely agreed that Bork's judicial philosophy was shallow at best and downright dangerous at worst. Purely on the basis of his resume, he was certainly more qualified than almost anyone else who had ever been nominated for the Court - Yale law professor, Solicitor General of the United States under Nixon, Appeals Court judge. His resume and credentials were impeccable. Still, I think the nation dodged a metaphorical bullet when his nomination was voted down by the Senate. Let me explain at least part of the reason why....

One of the most important judicial decisions in history was Griswold v Connecticut. The case involved a state law which forbid the purchase, possession or use of contraception even by married couples in the state of Connecticut. In 1965, that law was challenged and the Supreme Court agreed with them and struck it down as a violation of the basic right to privacy guaranteed by so many provisions of the Bill of Rights. Bork was one who railed against that decision, as he railed against virtually all of the Supreme Court decisions of the last half century that expanded the sphere of various protections either specifically stated or implied by the Bill of Rights. His argument was fairly straightforward - nowhere in the bill of rights does it specify any "right to use contraception", and therefore the government has the authority to prohibit it. The crux of the argument is that anything not specifically stated the bill of rights is not to be considered protected from government coercion. But is this true in our constitutional system? Certainly not in the system that the founders intended.

One of the great arguments that took place among the founders was over the need for a Bill of Rights. Some argued that it was not enough merely to limit government through such provisions as the checks and balances and separation of powers inherent in the governmental structure that the constitution provided. It should be set out in no uncertain terms, they said, not just what the government may do - the authority granted to the government - but also what the government may not do. Others countered that by specifying only certain rights, it would leave the impression that anything not specified would be fair game for the government to regulate or prohibit. James Madison, during the deliberations on the framing of the Bill of Rights, proposed the 9th amendment specifically to allay such fears. He introduced the proposed 9th amendment by saying:
"It has been objected also against a bill of rights, that, by enumerating particular exceptions to the grant of power, it would disparage those rights which were not placed in that enumeration; and it might follow by implication, that those rights which were not singled out, were intended to be assigned into the hands of the General Government, and were consequently insecure. This is one of the most plausible arguments I have ever heard urged against the admission of a bill of rights into this system; but, I conceive, that it may be guarded against. I have attempted it, as gentlemen may see by turning to the last clause of the fourth resolution [the Ninth Amendment].
This amendment passed both the House and the Senate with virtually no opposition, and little change in wording, and the final version of the 9th amendment reads, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Bork renders this amendment, with such clear intent behind it, completely meaningless in his judicial philosophy. How does he do so? By setting up an almost surreal dichotomy between the desire of an individual to be free and the desire of another individual or group of individuals to deny them freedom. He sets this out in an Indiana Law Journal article in 1971, stating:
"Every clash between a minority claiming freedom and a majority claiming power to regulate involves a choice between the gratification of the two groups...why is sexual gratification more worthy than moral gratification?
Well Mr. Bork, there is a very obvious reason why the first "gratification" is more worthy than the second - because the first "gratification" involves only control of one's own choices and actions, while the second involves the control of someone else's choices and actions. But Bork sets up a bizarre and tortured equivalence between the two desires, arguing that "No activity that society thinks immoral is victimless. Knowledge that an activity is taking place is a harm to those who find it profoundly immoral." This is truly an irrational statement, but no more irrational than many others made by Bork in that same article. For example, his views on freedom of speech would dramatically scale back the protections afforded by the first amendment. He writes:
"Constitutional protection should be accorded only to speech that is explicitly political. There is no basis for judicial intervention to protect any other form of expression, be it scientific, literary, or that variety of expression we call obscene or pornographic. Moreover, within that category of speech we ordinarily call political, there should be no constitutional obstruction to laws making criminal any speech that advocates forcible overthrow of the government or the violation of any law."
Imagine a country governed under Bork's judicial philosophy. Calls for civil disobedience, the basis of the entire civil rights movement in the United States, could be punished. Publishing scientific theories or papers that the government objects to would have no constitutional protection whatsoever and the scientist could be imprisoned for offering an explanation that the government finds objectionable (Galileo, anyone?). There would be no right to publish any book or magazine, or give any speech that was not explicitly political. And this from the mind of a man that was allegedly an eminent legal scholar? I beg to differ. Bork's legal philosophy amounted to little more than a continual apology for authoritarian government and a dramatic limitation on the rights of conscience considered sacrosanct by Jefferson and Madison. Had Bork been confirmed to the Supreme Court, there would have been much spinning in the graves near Monticello.

Ed Brayton | 7:38 PM | | | Permalink

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Political discourse

"Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." - HL Mencken

Mencken certainly would not be surprised by how little the average American understands about the constitution or the nature of the American political system it was intended to establish. Anyone who has frequented internet political chat rooms can attest that that understanding is very shallow indeed. In a conversation I watched this afternoon concerning prayer in schools, one chatter kept repeating over and over "but what about the will of the people?", arguing that since he believes that the majority of people in the US wants compulsory prayer in schools, it should exist. Is the chatter so ignorant of history that he doesn't realize that the entire purpose of the bill of rights was to insulate the individual from "the will of the people"?

Madison, the driving force behind the bill of rights, certainly knew that encroachments on liberty were far more likely to come from a vote than by usurpation of power by a dictator. The bill of rights declares, through numerous specific enumerations and in overall effect, that no majority, no matter how large, may impose its will upon the individual. If the establishment clause of the first amendment means anything at all, it surely means that no one can be forced by the government to take part in a religious exercise against their will. Justice Robert Jackson, in a landmark decision that struck down the authority of schools to force Jehovah's Witness children to recite the pledge of allegiance, wrote:
"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
Simply put, no matter how fervently "the will of the people" (i.e. the will of the majority) wishes it, the government may not compel a citizen to confess a belief, or take part in a religious ceremony, or take a position on any issue. So why are so many Americans not aware of this fact? I largely put the blame on the lack of sophistication with which we teach history and political theory (which can't really be separated) in our schools. We teach history as a cartoon, with good guys in white hats on one side and bad guys in black hats on the other. And this is done, I would argue, quite intentionally. The more simplistic one's view is on such matters, the more easily they fall for what passes for political discourse in the US. Our political culture is now driven by the tools of marketing, with all the accompanying emphasis on buzzwords and catchphrases and slogans that one would expect as a result. In that morass of cliches, phrases like "freedom and democracy" become little more than empty catchphrases, with little thought given by those who hear them to what it means or requires. No thought is given to the fact that freedom and democracy are often in conflict, as our founding fathers obviously realized. Unchecked rule by "the will of the people" would rapidly transform into authoritarianism.

If it were up to a single yes or no referendum in the US, how many of the amendments found in the bill of rights would be ratified today? Would a single one survive? Polls show that the public supports all sorts of limitations and encroachments on those rights. The first amendment would say that we have freedom of speech, except....you can't protest during wartime....you can't burn a flag in protest....you can't advocate political ideas that the majority finds objectionable. Free exercise of religion, except....you have to pray in school....and Wiccans can't be teachers....and Indians can't use peyote in their religious rituals because, as we all know, drugs are bad. The fourth amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures would have all kinds of limitations placed on it were it up for a vote. Certainly, an exception would be made for drug dealers and "terrorists". And never mind that the fourth amendment applies before someone is convicted of such crimes, not after.

Such ignorance of the purpose of the bill of rights is truly dangerous to our society. If the citizenry does not understand that in order to have freedom for themselves they must also protect the freedom of others, lest through the shifting of political winds they find themselves in the minority, our rights are not secure. "When liberty dies in the hearts of men and women there is no constitution, law or court that can save it", wrote Judge Learned Hand. I would only change that to read "the minds of men and women", for it is with our minds that we must learn and understand that the nature of liberty is that it must apply to others as well as to us, that no matter how large our majority might be, we cannot impose through coercion our will on others without putting our own liberty at risk.

Ed Brayton | 7:42 PM | | | Permalink

Did anyone stay tuned? Come on, 14 months isn't that long, is it? I began this blog in September of 2002, as the post below makes obvious. And then, evidently, I fell asleep. Alas, I have returned and, having been reminded by someone who actually likes my writing that I might enjoy throwing out my thoughts on the world, have decided to put fingers to keyboard now and then. Hope someone actually bothers to read it and enjoys it. For now, a brief glimpse into what I'm feeding the sponge these days:


Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee - Nat Hentoff. I like Nat Hentoff because A) he's a consistent civil libertarian and B) he's a jazz afficianado. I've recently finished re-reading this excellent book, which examines the continual threats to free speech coming from both sides of the partisan divide in America.

My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-lived Search for Sainthood - Joe Queenan. Another brilliant bit of satire from Queenan, who is easily the funniest writer in America today. The amusing journey of a ne'er-do-good as he tries to become as virtuous as Sting or Ben and Jerry.


I'm in a decidedly jazz standard mood lately, lots of John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman and Sinatra. Though I did take a brief detour for an evening of Rage Against The Machine a couple nights ago. Such is life inside my musical psyche.

Ed Brayton | 5:46 PM | | | Permalink

Dispatches from the Culture Wars