Voting for Obama, right now

Do you have five bucks to spare? If so, how about contributing to the Obama campaign today to boost his donor count as we reach the end of the reporting quarter?

If you don’t actively want to see Barack Obama in the White House, read no further. This post isn’t directed to you.

If you do want to see Barack Obama in the White House, and you have five bucks to spare, there’s something you can do about it, today. With the end of the fundraising quarter approaching, Obama is trying to build his donor base to 350,000 and his number of separate contributions to 500,000. You can go here, right this minute, and make a $5 contribution by credit card. Yes, this will get you on the campaign’s email list for future pitches, but that’s not such a heavy price to pay for casing a vote early. Neither is $5.

It’s no secret that the polls have been stagnant, showing a big lead for our weakest candidate in November and the one least likely to bring with her a strongly Democratic Congress. And the Clinton campaign is playing the “inevitability” card for all it’s worth. A strong fundraising quarter for Obama &#8212 not so much in dollars as in numbers of contributors and contributions &#8212 will help put a brake on the HRC Express. This is one of the very few ways in which you can cast an early vote; why pass it up?

Obviously, if you have serious money to give, that’s even better. The campaign is running a “matching fund” gimmick that will add some leverage. Or you can just set up for a monthly donation.

Footnote Four years ago, when this was a solo blog and I was a Wesley Clark supporter, there was a “contribute” button above the blogroll. Now that we’re a group, there will be no “official” endorsement, unless it happens that we’re unanimous.

Saki’s Easter egg

Gavrilo Princip and Saki’s easter egg.

The reports about the bomb plot foiled by German cops using the rule of law

include the tidbit that the cell stored their materials in a house in Freudenstadt in the Black Forest.

I know Freudenstadt; it’s a cute resort town, where after you’ve bought your hand-carved ornaments in the Christmas market and sipped your Glühwein, there’s not really much else to do.


I was reminded of the chilling short story by Saki (the English writer H.H. Munro), set in a Central European town like Freudenstadt, The Easter Egg.

(Continuation gives away the punch line, so I suggest you read it first).

Continue reading “Saki’s Easter egg”

Stalinism in the White House

Finishing up John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War: A New History, a passage on the Marshall Plan resonated with me, in chilling fashion.

Gaddis observes (pp. 103-104) that the exhausted Soviet Union could never have competed with the Americans in resuscitating European economies after the Second World War:

The Americans had another advantage, however, that had nothing to do with their material capabilities: it was their pragmatic reliance on spontaneity. . . . They were impatient with hierarchy, at ease with flexibility, and profoundly distrustful of the notion that theory should determine practice rather than the other way around.

It did not unduly disturb Truman and his advisors, therefore, when the American military authorities in Germany and Japan reqrote their directives for the occupation of those countries to accommodate the realities that confronted them. . . . Nor, staunch capitalists though they were, did Washington officials object to working with European socialists to contain European communists. Results were more important than ideological consistency.

The next time some neoconservative starts comparing George W. Bush with Harry Truman, keep this passage in mind. One could describe the current White House in many ways, but “pragmatically focused”, “results over ideology”, and “accommodating to realities on the ground” would not be the phrases that come to mind.

But Gaddis does present something that does raise the shock of recognition:

The Soviet Union under Stalin, in striking contrast, suppressed spontaneity wherever it appeared, lest it challenge the basis for his rule. But that meant accepting the proposition that Stalin himself was the font of all wisdom and common sense, claims his acolytes made frequently. . . So this was what the aspirations of Marx and the ambitions of Lenin had come down to: a sytem that perverted reason, smothered trust, and functioned by fear.

No, George W. Bush is not Stalin. But the insistence on secrecy and centralized control, perfected by his Imperial Vice President, the claim that it is always right, the assault on science and professionalism, and the demand for untrammeled power resting on absolute trust, bears a frightening resemblance to regimes past.

The issue here isn’t whether the current administration will destroy our democracy: I don’t think it will, partially because of last year’s elections. Rather, recall the Gaddis’ point is that the Soviet Union could not compete internationally with its ideological adversary precisely because of its ideological inflexibility. The facts did not conform to the theory, and were thus disposed of.

Radical Islam is not the ideological threat that fascism was, but it is a serious threat nonetheless. It competes with us throughout the 1 billion-strong Muslim world (and thus large portions of Europe as well). And the rigidity of the Bush Administration–its insistence on pursuing torture even when it doesn’t work and alienates our allies, its conflation of different threats, its inability to come up with ways to attack radicalism outside of military force–is making it stronger and stronger.

The 9/10 President: Whatever Happened to Homeland Security?

I have just finished reading Stephen Flynn’s wonderful new book, The Edge of Disaster, which is an excellent introduction on homeland security and disaster recovery issues. Three facts about current policy stand out:

1) Under the Bush Administration’s budgets, there is far more money spent by the Pentagon protecting its own domestic military installations ($16.5 billion) than protecting the rest of us.

2) In 2002, as part of the legislation creating the Homeland Security Department, Congress directed the administration to construct a list setting priorities for protecting critical national infrastructure: which energy facilities, utilities, bridges, ports, water and other crucial services are most at risk of terrorist attacks and what are the plans for protecting them. Five years later, the Administration still has not developed this list.

3) There was one important pre-9/11 success story: Project Impact, in which the federal government helped fund and worked closely with local governments in developing resilient systems that could provide services in the wake of disasters and terrorist attacks. It was cancelled by the Bush Administration.

Feeling safer yet?

A radical thought experiment in halting climate change

A benevolent world dictator tackles climate change.

You wake up tomorrow as Tamerlane Asoka Bentham Khan, Princeps et Imperator Mundi, Son of Heaven, Great Inca, King of Kings, Executive Secretary General of the United Nations, Governor for life of the State of California, and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Sitting down at the jade desk in your palace in Persepolis at 6 a.m – being emperor of the world is no sinecure – you find a file marked “Climate Change”. What do you decide?

It is stipulated that you are as benevolent as Asoka, as strictly utilitarian as Bentham, and as ruthless as Tamerlane. Justice, rights, and national feeling are to you just petty foibles of your subjects, and there are few practical limits on your power to coerce obedience to your commands. (I won’t bother making this male fantasy gender-neutral).

Let’s open the file.

Continue reading “A radical thought experiment in halting climate change”

Princess Zeka (Trans-Sib 6)

In honour of Maria Volkonskaya, princess, convict’s wife, survivor, and Janeite

In a glass case in the small museum in the Tobolsk kremlin is an early photograph of a haggard Siberian convict with “K” (katorga) and other symbols on his cheeks and forehead. Next to it is a neat wooden box with what looks at first sight to be a set of rubber stamps. But the business ends are covered not with rubber but half-inch steel spikes. It’s a convict tattooing kit.

(I think it probably dates from after 1845, when branding, that had fallen into disuse under Alexander I, was reintroduced by the governor of the Nerchinsk katorga.)

The soulless, bureaucratic character of Tsarist criminal justice in some ways prefigured modern totalitarianism; you could be convicted for mere words said against the tsar (though only 10% of convicts were political), and as a prisoner flogged to death for disobedience with the birch or knout, as in Nelson’s Royal Navy. We should not airbrush tsarist tyranny just because Soviet rule was worse. Still, the katorga in Siberia was very much smaller than the Soviet gulag and on the whole less cruel. It allowed forms of protest that the gulag did not. Chekhov’s reporting from Sakhalin was one; another was far stranger, though even more heroic. This is the story of Princess Maria Volkonskaya.

Continue reading “Princess Zeka (Trans-Sib 6)”

Literary history extended

A common parable about leadership goes as follows:

Halfway through the construction of the cathedral, the architect died. The bishop, not knowing what to do, went out to walk through the stoneyard, and found a man hammering on a chisel. “Bless you, my son. What are you making?”

“About twelve centimes a day, your excellency.”

The bishop moved on, and found another mason doing the same thing. “Bless you, my son, what are you making?”

“Your excellency, I’m making the third voussoir for the second arch on the right up there,” pointing up toward the vaulting.

“Bless you, my son, ” said the bishop, feeling a little better, and walked on to another mason hammering on his chisel. “And what are you making?”

“As any fool can see, your excellency, meaning no disrespect, a cathedral.”

“Bless you, my son. Put down your chisel and come with me, I have a job for you.”

New archaeological research in the middle east has unearthed a probable antecedent of this classic. Gene Bardach helped me translate some of the archaic text.

During the building of the Second Temple, the architect suddenly died. With no idea how to proceed, the High Priest went for a walk through the work area, and found Moishe, chiseling a stone. “Sholem aleichem,” said the priest, “what are you making?”

The mason said, “About time someone asked! I’m making a stone to go up on the second arcade there, but the whole concept of that arch is wrong, it doesn’t go with the rest of the facade and it’s not structurally sound. I explained this to the foreman, but he’s such a potzer, deaf and blind. It’s about time this project got some competent leadership, that’s all I can say. “

“You should live till a hundred and twenty,” said the High Priest aloud, muttered something inaudible, and went on his way.

He asked another mason, “What are you making?”

The mason said, “So, what should I be making? I get a couple of hours to get some work done in between trying to teach that idiot Moishe how to chisel, and now I’m on a quiz show? Better I should ask you: if I don’t get a decent hammer, how do you think we’re going to get any kind of temple before the Messiah comes?”

The high priest came to a third mason, sitting on an untouched stone with his hammer and chisel on the ground, nose buried in a scroll, and just stared at him. The mason eventually looked up. “What?” he said, and after a pause, “Do you not preach to us that study of The Law is preeminent among all things?”

Further along, and near despair, he came upon Itzik’s mother Rachel, bringing him his lunch. “How many children do you have?”

“Eight, including of course my son the lawyer and my other son the doctor and my daughter the rebbetzin. Do you know her husband Isaac? Such a wise man….” At this point they arrived at Itzik’s work area. “Here, bubbele, your lunch,” she said lovingly.

Itzik put down his tools, opened the sandwich, and said “Oy, Mom, you forgot the pickle again! And it has mayonnaise and you know I hate mayonnaise! I told you last week…” At this point Rachel fixed him with the look that distinctively empowers Jewish mothers, and Itzik fell instantly silent and began to eat his sandwich.

“Come with me, woman. I have a job for you,” said the High Priest, smiling broadly.

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”

Harvey Mansfield, in good Straussian style, unmasks the Bushite project of tyranny under cover of ironic praise.

The left blogosphere is in an uproar about Harvey Mansfield’s suggestion in today’s WSJ Online that the President has, by Constitutional design, “executive power” unfettered by, and indeed opposed to, “the rule of law” as represented by Congress and the courts. (Full Mansfield text below the fold.)

Hilzoy is duly horrified:

Harvey Mansfield has written one of those articles in which the writer’s elegance, erudition and stylistic flair make an abhorrent position sound halfway reasonable. One lovely sentence follows another, and if you aren’t careful, they lull you into overlooking the fact that he is arguing against the rule of law.

No doubt, some in the White House and the wingnutosphere will take comfort in such an argument, made by a scholar so eminent.

But both sides are missing the point. Those of us who have been his students know that Mansfield is far more a philosopher than he is a partisan. Moreover, he is a philosopher of a particular bent: a Straussian.

It is a core Straussian belief that in times of maximum political danger philosophers dare not, for their own sakes and for the sake of the community, tell the truth in plain language. Instead, they must conceal the truth under elaborate cover, and especially under cover of its opposite. By writing apparently in defense of a given position, in a way that leads those who hold that position to agree but makes obvious to those who do not hold it how vicious or trivial it truly is, philosophers can safely unmask obnoxious ideas and potential tyrants.

In The Prince, for example, Machiavelli warns Florentines about the emerging Medici tyranny by frankly stating the horrible tactics required to help a new tyrant consolidate power: “Whoever becomes master of a free city and does not destroy it, must expect to be destroyed by it.”

Similarly, Mansfield lays out the principles of Banana Republicanism for all to see. In the midst of a seeming panegyric on “energy in the executive,” Mansfield, in an apparently unguarded moment, lets the cat out of the bag:

We are talking about Machiavelli’s prince, the man whom in apparently unguarded moments he called a tyrant.

Mansfield fearlessly unmasks the claim that Presidential violations of law derive from, and are therefore limited by, the demands of temporary emergencies:

The case for a strong executive begins from urgent necessity and extends to necessity in the sense of efficacy and even greatness. It is necessary not merely to respond to circumstances but also in a comprehensive way to seek to anticipate and form them. “Necessary to” the survival of a society expands to become “necessary for” the good life there, and indeed we look for signs in the way a government acts in emergencies for what it thinks to be good after the emergency has passed.

Moreover, with a broad wink, Mansfield signals that arguments of the very type he purports to make are necessarily partisan and insincere. But he does so in a way that demands the “close reading” Straussians teach. Early in the essay, he writes:

In other circumstances I could see myself defending the rule of law.

Hmmm … just what might those “other circumstances” be? A hint is given in the middle (where Straussians argue that the truth is most cunningly hidden):

The American Founders heeded both criticisms of the rule of law when they created the presidency. The president would be the source of energy in government, that is, in the administration of government, energy being a neutral term that might include Aristotle’s discretionary virtue and Machiavelli’s tyranny, in which only partisans could discern the difference. (Emphasis added.)

And, just in case the reader is especially dense, Mansfield frankly provides the answer to the riddle near the end of the essay:

Democrats today would be friendlier to executive power if they held the presidency, and Republicans would discover virtue in the rule of law if they held Congress.

So, Mansfield, in his adopted character of an apologist for Bushism, reveals the Bushite project of ruling in defiance of the law as fundamentally tyrannical, fundamentally unlimited, and defensible only from a position of partisan bad faith.

And of course, if challenged, Mansfield would deny all this, and dismiss the above interpretation as fanciful, which is the normal reaction of the uninitiated to Straussian interpretations of classical texts.

Continue reading ““He that hath ears to hear, let him hear””

Corzine and the seat belt

After a respectful moment of sympathy for Gov. Corzine’s pain, and his family’s:

and another to wish him a full recovery:

what the hell is the matter with him? How could the chief executive of a state routinely put the chief executive of his state, elected by and responsible to the voters to discharge his duties for a full term, at risk of death or injury for something so self-indulgent as not wearing a seatbelt? Not to mention that a governor has some duty to model responsible and rational behavior. If the motor pool were found to have neglected maintenance of the brakes or tires of a governor’s vehicle, heads would roll, and rightly so. Apparently he routinely doesn’t wear a belt: Corzine is not just being stupid, he’s acted recklessly and put the welfare of his state at pointless risk, just as surely as if he decided to take up bungee jumping or Russian roulette while in office. This is really, really, bad behavior.

[UPDATE: Andy Sabl points out that bungee jumping is not as dangerous as it looks. The facts matter here (and per-hour-of-participation sports risks are actually not that easy to find). Plug in your own genuinely dangerous behavior – BASE jumping? free rock climbing? ]

Eugene Volokh on assassination and academic freedom

Eugene Volokh argues:

1. War is sometimes justified.

2. Assassination is sometimes more humane than war.

3. Therefore assassination is sometimes justified.

4. If assassination is sometimes justified, then advocating assassination is sometimes justified.

5. Even if the assassinations argued for would be criminal under current domestic or international law, those laws could be changed.

6. Thus advocacy of assassination is not a crime.

7. Since academic freedom includes, within wide limits, the right to advocate for unpopular or wrong positions, academic institutions should not sanction faculty members for such advocacy.

It would be possible to quarrel with some of the logical steps here:

Continue reading “Eugene Volokh on assassination and academic freedom”