Justifying universal and existence statements

My post on how we should implement the Year of Reason by asking religious people why they believe in god provoked quite a spirited back-and-forth in the comments section.

In the post, I said that there was no substantive reason that religious people could give in response to the question “Why do you believe in god?” and I categorized the likely things they would say under the headings Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, and Argument From Vague Feelings. I endorsed Sigmund Freud’s assertion that religion was a form of mass delusion since so many people believed in something for which there was no credible evidence whatsoever.

Commenter Lucas took exception to my post and critiqued it saying that I should not make statements such as that “There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence” without substantiating them. He said that he himself did believe in god because he had “studied the evidence” and found it to be “extremely convincing”.

This is where the discussion in the comments took an interesting and somewhat surprising turn. I asked for an example of the convincing evidence that he had that did not fit under the three umbrella headings that I had given. But Lucas resolutely refused to do so, saying that that was a detour, and that I was using it as an excuse to avoid addressing his challenge to my lack of substantiation.

This post seeks to clarify what seems to be a basic misunderstanding between us about where the burden of proof lies and what kinds of statements need evidence in support of them and what kinds of statements are justified by the absence of evidence against them.

To begin, let me repeat what I said in an even earlier post.

As mathematician John Allen Paulos argues in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), basic logic requires that existence claims and universal claims be treated differently.

Existence claims can be proved but not disproved. “No matter how absurd the existence claim (there exists a dog who speaks English out of its rear end), we cannot look everywhere and check everything in order to assert with absolute confidence that there’s no entity having the property.” (Paulos, p. 42) But all the person making the existence claim needs to do to prove it is to produce just one specimen. So the burden of proof is on the person making the existence claim, and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to deny the validity of the claim.

On the other hand, universal claims can be disproved but not proved. For example, the claim that all swans are white can be disproved by producing just one black swan. But no one can prove the universal claim since we can never say we have checked each and every swan. So the burden of proof is on the person denying the universal claim and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to assume the validity of the universal claim.

My statement that “There is no evidence for god” is a universal statement whose justification depends on the lack of a counter-example, and so according to the rules of logic, the burden of proof is on the person who challenges it to provide that counter-example. Equivalently, the statement by someone that he or she has convincing evidence for the existence of god that does not fall under the three categories that I provided is an existence statement, and again the burden of proof is on that person to provide an example, not on me to show that he or she has no such evidence.

But if we accept to Lucas’s rules of logic, it seems like I cannot even make a claim such as that “there does not exist any dog that can speak English out of its rear end” unless I can provide citations from peer-reviewed journals that assert that the authors have checked every dog (or at least an extensive number of them) and found this statement to be true.

But of course that is absurd. The reason we can confidently make such a statement and expect them to be believed even in the absence of controlled studies is because we apply the commonly accepted rules of logic, not Lucas’s rules. I have never personally encountered a dog that can speak out of its rear end and base my statement on the confidence that if anyone in the world had such a dog, it would be an event of such enormous significance that it would be publicized widely and known by everyone. So the absence of a counter-example is, by itself, sufficient to justify the statement.

Of course, someone could claim that I should still not say this because there may be a dog somewhere that can speak out of its rear end but that the owner is keeping it secret and that I do not know for sure that this is not the case. But no one would credit such a statement until the dog is actually produced. This is because the statement that such a dog exists is an existence statement, and the burden of proof is on that person to provide the evidence. It reminds of the claim by the Raelians in December 2002 that they had cloned a human being and would produce the baby later. While this generated a blizzard of publicity, when no baby was forthcoming, people rightly concluded that the whole thing was a hoax.

The point is that there are many statements that all of us can and do routinely make that are perfectly justifiable and accepted as such even if they are generalized from our personal experience of just a few cases, provided the negation of such statements would be extraordinary. These rules of logic are so commonplace and so basic that people may not even consciously realize that they are using them.

So I can confidently say that no cows have seven legs, although I have personally seen only a few cows, noticed that none of them had seven legs, but have not done an exhaustive literature search to see if anyone else had found one. This is because my statement that there does not exist a cow with seven legs is a universal statement. Someone who says I am wrong has to produce such a cow.

This is why I can make the statement that the stated reasons for the beliefs of religious people (except for people like Pat Robertson who have a direct line to god) will fall into the three categories: Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, or Argument From Vague Feelings. My statement is a universal statement, based on all the reasons that have been given to me over a long time discussing these issues with thoughtful people, and similar to the ones about the absence of seven-legged cows or rear-end talking dogs. Its validity has to be challenged by providing a counter-example.

So getting back to Lucas’s concerns, I am not even asking that any counter-evidence he produces be convincing because what is convincing to one person may not be convincing to another. All I am asking is that he produce any evidence at all that does not fall under those three categories because I am really curious what form such evidence would take, the same way I would be really curious to see what a rear-end talking dog would look like.

It is his choice whether he wants to provide such evidence.

POST SCRIPT: Why science and religion can never be reconciled

Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, has written a terrific review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller.

The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.

Why journalists should not schmooze with politicians

A week before his inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of conservative columnist George Will (aka “the man who confuses pomposity with profundity”). Also in attendance were conservative and neo-conservative columnists Bill Kristol (aka, “the man who is almost always wrong”), David Brooks (aka, “the man who can be depended upon to say the most obvious things in the most banal way”), and Charles Krauthammer (aka, “the man who loves torture”).

This caused a stir in the pundit world. A few liberals worried whether Obama would be swayed by this group and abandon his policies and suddenly declare that more tax cuts for the rich, more torture, and more wars was the way to go. Conservatives worried that ‘their’ pundits would be charmed and won over by Obama and put away their knives and become lapdogs.

The very next day, Obama put these alarmed pundits mind at ease by meeting with a group of supposedly ‘liberal’ columnists (Andrew Sullivan, Roland Martin, Rachel Maddow, the Gene Robinson, the Boston Globe’s Derrick Z. Jackson, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Jerry Seib, Ron Brownstein, DeWayne Wickham and E.J. Dionne Jr.)

So in the world of politicians and elite media, everything was ok. That desirable quality of ‘balance’ had been restored. Rarely did you find the sentiment expressed that both events should never have happened.

I find the whole idea of journalists schmoozing with politicians distasteful. I don’t blame Obama or other politicians for doing it. Shrewd politicians love to cultivate social interactions with journalists because they know that they can use that access to reward and punish journalists and thus control them. John McCain was very good at this, even calling the media ‘his base’, and used them to advance his career before the relationship turned sour towards the end of his last campaign.

The people I fault are the journalists. They have no business having off-the-record, friendly, social meetings with the politicians they are supposed to be covering. The ideological labels attached to the participants are irrelevant. Journalists and politicians should never be friends.

I. F. Stone, one of the greatest journalists America has produced, refused to meet socially with politicians for very good reasons. This is what Stone said:

It’s just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, ‘Izzy, why don’t you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.’ Well, you know, you’re not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won’t pay any attention to you anyway. He’ll hold your hand, he’ll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you’re brighter than anybody else is — or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!

Victor Navasky writes of Stone that “although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.” How? Because as Stone said, “if you didn’t attend background briefings you weren’t bound by the ground rules; you could debrief correspondents who did, check out what they had been told, and as often as not reveal the lies for what they were.”

Contrast Stone’s attitude with that of the late Tim Russert, a truly awful journalist, who said at the trial of Scooter Libby, “When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it’s my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission.” As Dan Froomkin points out:

According to Russert’s testimony yesterday at Libby’s trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That’s not reporting, that’s enabling.

That’s how you treat your friends when you’re having an innocent chat, not the people you’re supposed to be holding accountable.

Glenn Greenwald describes how Richard Cohen excuses the actions of those politicians whom he considers friends, and adds:

Reflecting the vast diversity of our national media, Richard Cohen now joins fellow Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus, David Ignatius, David Broder and Fred Hiatt — as well as virtually every other Beltway journalist — in demanding that Bush officials not be prosecuted even if they committed felonies.

Why? Because they are all friends, the politicians, the journalists, and the powerful business interests, and they look out for each other.

Stone’s journalistic credo was summed up this way:

To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.

It is hard to fight for those things if you socially hobnob with those who commit the very injustices you are against.

This is why journalists should refuse all invitations to socialize with politicians.

POST SCRIPT: Asian stereotypes

The Daily Show takes the opportunity of the rumor that the awful Sajay Gandhi Sanjay Gupta (Thanks to Kural for the correction) may be appointed Surgeon General by Obama to let Asif Mandvi do a hilarious riff on Asian-American ambitions.

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Bogus exaltation of women

I was on a panel recently that sought to clarify any misconceptions that people might have about the various religious beliefs, or the lack of them. I was the atheist, and the other panelists consisted of people having backgrounds in Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Scientology, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

Each of us were asked to begin the session by speaking for a few minutes about what we felt were the biggest misconceptions. I said that when it comes to beliefs, it should be easy for everyone to understand what atheism is all about because everyone is an atheist. After all, religious people are atheistic about all gods other than their own, while those who call themselves atheists merely add one more god to that vast list of disbelieved gods, making a clean sweep of it. The reason we do so is for the same reason that religious people disbelieve other gods.

Atheists live by a very simple and commonsensical principle: There is no sense believing in something for which there is absolutely no evidence. Atheists disbelieve in the existence of any and all gods for the same reason we disbelieve in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy or the Loch Ness monster or unicorns.

During the question period, one student asked whether it was the case that some religions treat women as second class. The response of the religion panelists was, “Of course not!” It is a sign of progress that nowadays no one can openly and explicitly declare the superiority of one gender ort race or ethnicity over others. If they do believe such a thing, they have to practice a quiet hypocrisy.

The awkward fact is, of course, that many religions do not allow women to do many things that they allow men to do. I am not even talking the cruel, absurd, and rigid prohibitions that women face in some Islamic countries. Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, mainstream Islam, and Mormons all have restrictions on the role of women, especially in their religious rituals and even extending to their dress.

So how to reconcile this with the assertion that women are equal to men? The panelists gave various reasons and took an interesting tack. Some argued that the dress rules that highly restrict what women can wear in some religions arise out of general modesty rules that apply to both men and women. They also argued that women were biologically different, that they had a childbearing capacity denied to men and that as a result, their religions highly valued women because of the immense importance of the role of childbearing and motherhood in the life of any society. Hence, according to them, women actually enjoyed an exalted, not inferior, status in their religions. Because of the special and important role only they could play, women were encouraged to devote their full attention and energies to their superior biological role and leave the other supposedly minor stuff to men. In other words, all the restrictions imposed on them were not restrictions at all but should be taken as signs of how much women were valued. The rules had been created to allow them to play their superior role unencumbered by having to worry about other mundane things.

This is typical of the absurd logical knots that religions tie themselves into trying to incorporate universally accepted standards of equality in their fundamentally unequal doctrines. Their argument was so manifestly self-serving rubbish that it could have been demolished by even a middle-school level debater. Its advocacy by religious people shows the extent to which these religions are being squeezed as their outdated doctrines confront a modern world and modern values.

These religious people were trying to glide past the uncomfortable fact that the women in their religions had no choice whatsoever about their roles and were being forcedto accept their position based on ancient books written and interpreted by men.

There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to dress extremely modestly by covering herself from head to toe, or to stay at home and devote her life to bearing and raising children, or to not want to become a priest or similar religious leader. But there is a world of difference between making such a choice freely and being told that they have to do so, otherwise they will be expelled form their religious group or suffer an even worse fate.

Can anyone be expected to take seriously the suggestion that women in Saudi Arabia are exalted because they are forbidden freedoms that women elsewhere routinely have access to? We see where this kind of absurd religious thinking leads to when a Muslim cleric recently said that women should wear a veil that reveals only one eye because ” showing both eyes encouraged women to use eye make-up to look seductive.” The article goes on “The question of how much of her face a woman should cover is a controversial topic in many Muslim societies.” (my italics). Really? The only thing that should be controversial is the fact that this is even a question or a topic for discussion at all. It clearly shows the inferior status of women, because that kind of decision should be left solely to each individual woman to make freely without any pressure or coercion.

Any religion or society that does not allow women equal access to every single aspect of life that men have is a religion or society that treats women as second class. There is no denying that even if there are women in that religion or society who find their situation acceptable or even desirable and even become advocates of such restrictions being imposed on their fellow women.

I hope that bogus exaltations of women such as those offered by the religious panelists will be increasingly seen as the laughably ridiculous arguments they are.

POST SCRIPT: Who does god really talk to?

Turns out it is to Stephen Colbert.

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Don’t leave Obama alone!

Irish orator John Philpot Curran said in 1790 that “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” This has since been abbreviated to “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” and attributed to many people, including Thomas Jefferson. Those who supported Obama during the campaign should take these words to heart. People have to be extra vigilant when their preferred candidate wins because that is when people let their guard down, thinking that the winners will look after the interests of those who put them into power.

In fact, having your own person win can sometimes lead to times when your interests are most endangered.

Let us not forget that it was Jimmy Carter’s administration that started much of the deregulation process that led to the eventual economic crisis we faced, that it was Carter that supported the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan that later morphed into the Taliban, and it was Carter who supported awful dictators like Suharto in Indonesia and Reza Pahlavi in Iran.

This is not to say that Carter was worse than others. In many ways, Carter has been one of the better presidents of recent years and clearly one of the best ex-presidents. But the point is that you cannot assume that just because a candidate supports some or even most of your interests while campaigning, and may even be genuine about it, that he or she will fight for those interests after getting into office.

Bill Clinton is another example. Because he had the support of liberals, he was able to push through policies that went against their interests such as the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, his anti-poor welfare ‘reform’ program, and letting Wall Street interests dominate financial policy.

It will also be easier for those who wish to privatize Social Security to do it through Obama than through the Republicans, so we will have to be vigilant on that front too.

If one accepts the thesis that what we have is a pro-war, pro-business one party system with two factions, then the interests that elected representative will try to pursue are pro-war, pro-business interests. The only counterbalance to that permanent pressure is to exert counter-pressure.

So one has to be even more vigilant now that Obama is in power because it will be easier for Obama to start a war with Iran because those who would have vociferously opposed Bush on such a move might support Obama on it. Look at how Democrats supported Clinton in his war in the Balkans.

Even though Obama spoke of having talks with the leaders of Iran, he will be under pressure to make unreasonable and unilateral demands of them, to show that he is ‘tough’. These demands will of course likely be rejected by Iran, thus allowing for the manufacture for yet another fraudulent case for war with that country, egged on by political chameleons, those warmongers who have now dressed themselves in new clothing and claim to have been critics of past wars.

Already Obama, despite claims to the contrary by US intelligence agencies in its own National Security Estimate, is making unsubstantiated claims that Iran is making nuclear weapons. Hillary Clinton at her confirmation hearing made the same claim. Remember how we got into Iraq because the Bush regime determinedly ignored facts that were contrary to their agenda? It looks like Obama and Clinton are doing the same thing with Iran. Obama is also rumored to be hiring Dennis Ross, former AIPAC lobbyist whom John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt identify as a member of the Israel lobby that seeks the overthrow of Iran’s government, to advise him on relations with that country.

As the ever-quotable Glenn Greenwald says:

Right this moment, there are enormous pressures being exerted on Obama not to make significant changes in the areas of civil liberties, intelligence policy and foreign affairs. That pressure is being exerted by the intelligence community, by the permanent Pentagon structures, by status-quo-loving leaders of both political parties, by authority-worshipping Beltway “journalists” and pundits (such as the ones who wrote the wretched though illustrative “What Would Dick Do?” cover story for this week’s Newsweek).

If those who want fundamental reform in these areas adopt the view that they will not criticize Barack Obama because to do so is to “help Republicans,” or because he deserves more time, or because criticisms are unnecessary because we can trust in him to do the right thing, or because criticizing him is to “tear him down” or “create a circular firing squad” or “be a Naderite purist” or any of those other empty platitudes, then they are ceding the field to the very powerful factions who are going to fight vehemently against any changes. Do you think that those who want the CIA to retain “robust” interrogation powers and who want the federal surveillance state maintained, or want a hard-line towards Iran and a continuation of our Middle East policies, or who want to maintain corporate-lobbyist-domination of Washington, are sitting back saying: “it’s not right to pressure Obama too much right now; give him some time”?

As an example of the value of applying pressure, during the campaign Obama was emphatic about closing Guantanamo. But he then began saying that closing of Guantanamo and either trying its inmates using the regular court system or freeing them is not going to be easy because some of the people are ‘bad’ people who should not be freed but it may not be possible to put them on trial in regular courts since the evidence against them may be ruled inadmissible because it is ‘tainted’, which is an euphemism for the fact that it was likely obtained using torture and other forms of severe coercion.

In other words, although Obama says that he is against torture, he wants to reserve the right to use information obtained using torture to keep people who have been tortured incarcerated indefinitely. We thus see him sliding into Bush-Cheney mode of thinking, using the same excuse of saying he wants to ‘protect’ us.

Fortunately his remarks caused considerable uproar amongst his supporters who had taken seriously his vow to close the camp immediately, and the next day he issued a statement saying that an executive order would be signed immediately after taking office, although that still leaves him room to delay closing it.

If many of those who vociferous critics of torture under the Bush-Cheney regime now become silent, thinking that because Obama is ‘their’ guy (and by definition ‘good’), he must have good reasons for doing it, we can be sure that those appalling policies will continue. This is the kind of pressure that must be continually applied on your own people to prevent them being sucked into the maw of the pro-war, pro-business party.

POST SCRIPT: The 50 most loathsome people in America

I usually don’t care much for lists of this sort but this one was fun. Obama was #50. Guess who ranked #1?

Why bloggers are more interesting than newspaper columnists

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog and as is my custom I want to reflect on the nature of blogging and, briefly, my own blog.

When I began, I never thought that I would write so much. I have written over a thousand posts and a million words. I also did not anticipate the form that it would eventually take, which was a cross between op-ed type essays and long form articles that I broke up into multi-part series with each episode an op-ed sized chunk. One such series of posts formed the basis of a book The Case of God v. Darwin: Evolution, Religion, and the Establishment Clause that will be published later this year and some others will form the basis of future books and articles.

But enough about me. I want to talk more about blogging and bloggers in general and their influence on the national political scene. There is no question that they are here to stay and are going to play increasingly important roles.
About three years ago I was on a local PBS TV talk show called Feagler and Friends, along with the then editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The topic was the role of blogs and the future of newspapers. I predicted on the show that while there would always be a need for old-fashioned reporters and reporting, newspaper columnists like Dick Feagler himself were an endangered species because there was absolutely nothing that they offered that was not available, in superior form, on blogs.

I think it is already apparent that that prediction is coming true. Bloggers provide far more varied, interesting, and incisive commentary than traditional media columnists.

It is not hard to understand why. Newspaper columnists are usually former reporters who are ‘rewarded’ for their long service by being given regular space on the editorial pages. They are people who have ‘paid their dues’ to the industry. But paying their dues means more than merely learning their craft. It also means that they have internalized the one party pro-war/pro-business mindset that characterizes the mainstream media. They have either learned to think within the narrow spectrum of respectable opinion that requires not questioning that basic assumption or they have left the business. But bloggers are freed from going through that filtering system.

Take for example, Glenn Greenwald’s take on how the Democratic leadership colluded with the administration to approve the warrantless wiretap program. The kind of analysis he makes and the conclusions he draws is not the kind that would be commonly found amongst the standard columnists because they have internalized the need to maintain a façade of fierce partisanship between the two parties, and the thought that they collude to deceive the public would not even occur to them or if it does they would keep silent. Greenwald would never have risen through the ranks of newspapers with his willingness to express such views.

This is why there is such dreary uniformity in the ranks of newspaper columnists, with hardly any original thinking or sharp critiques. This is why we have the dreary predictability and pablum put out by people like George Will, David Broder, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, etc. What protects them is that nobody buys those newspapers just for the opinion columnists. They are packaged together with news, sports, and entertainment, and hence these writers have an audience delivered to them.

But bloggers are not packaged together with other material. They have to find their own audience. And because they stand alone, people will only read them if they are saying interesting things in an interesting way. It takes a certain kind of brashness to start out on your own, relying purely on your own ability to garner an audience one reader at a time. Since there is no percentage in repeating the same ideas that can be found elsewhere, bloggers tend to develop specialized niches where they can provide quick, informed, incisive commentary. And sometimes they become so good at it, and draw such a large readership that they get hired as columnists for bigger operations, like Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Steve Benen at Atlantic Monthly, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, etc.

But the free-wheeling, shoot-from-the-hip style of bloggers can sometimes clash with the buttoned-down ethos of traditional media. Some of the people in the bigger operations that have blogs do not quite understand this new form of commentary or the benefit that accrues from giving bloggers their full freedom to say what they think. When they try to apply some ‘editorial oversight’, they receive feedback that can only be described as brutal. This is what happened recently when some muckymuck at ThinkProgress, concerned about criticisms that their resident blogger Matt Yglesias had made about a group they were affiliated with, tried to soften Yglesias’s message by preempting space on his own blog. Read the comments made to the intruder’s post. A kind of bond develops between a blogger and his or her readership and woe on anyone who tries to get in between.

Most of the blogs I read are written by people much younger than me, some young enough that I could be their father. They write with an energy and attitude that is refreshing because it has not been beaten out of them. They have not been filtered out in the way reporters are filtered before they can rise to be columnists. Sure they sometimes use profanity. They are also sometimes wrong, of course, and their readers are quick to correct them.

But compare the errors of the better blogs with some of the columnists and you will see why those bloggers are better. I have never seen anyone as consistently wrong as Bill Kristol who has a regular column at the New York Times, and yet he continues blithely along. [UPDATE: The paper announces that today's (as usual) inane column will be Kristol's last.] Roger Cohen and Maureen Dowd have to be two of the most inane commentators, and yet they too are fixtures. They would never last as bloggers.

But the king of mindless punditry is, of course, Tom Friedman. I must admit that I am completely baffled by the admiration that many people I know, so-called ‘liberals’, have for Friedman. I recall a faculty member who deplored the lack of awareness of current students, using as an argument that many of them did not even read Tom Friedman’s columns. He was startled when I said that I thought Friedman was a high-functioning idiot and that our students were showing admirable good sense in steering clear of him.

Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally dissects Friedman, exposing not only the vapidity of his thinking and the shallowness of his research (“This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.”), but also his appalling writing style.

I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f— is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.

The last election saw bloggers provide most of the analysis and commentary and drive a lot of news stories. After initially sneering at bloggers as ignorant and profane shouters who should be ignored, every mainstream media outlet now has its own blogs although, oddly, the sneering can still be heard.

Steve Benen argues that although the ‘conservative’ wing of the one-party political spectrum has a lot of well-funded outlets, they do not seem to have the people with the skills to be interesting bloggers which is why the ‘liberal’ end of the spectrum is largely dominating the blogosphere.

POST SCRIPT: Jason Jones goes to pundit school

The Daily Show explains why TV talk shows are the way they are.

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Gaza and the Israel lobby

The main thesis of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy by University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt can be summarized as follows:

The US gives Israel a level of unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support that far exceeds what it gives to any other country, both in absolute and per capita terms. This level of support cannot be justified on strategic or moral grounds and in fact has resulted in actual harm being done to the long-term interests of the US and even Israel. The existence of the current policies can only be explained as due to the successful lobbying efforts of a powerful group that they call the ‘Israel lobby’. A frank discussion would quickly reveal the negative consequences of these policies but this has not occurred because the lobby not only has the ability to influence the speech and actions of the administrative and legislative bodies, it also tries to stifle in the media any examination of its role in influencing policy by accusing critics of the policy and the lobby of being anti-Semitic, and lumping them with Holocaust deniers and purveyors of various conspiracy theories.

An example of how the Israel lobby reacts to any criticisms of the actions of Israel can be seen in what happened recently to Bill Moyers when he spoke about the human cost of war in general and in Gaza in particular. Here is the original Moyers clip.

I thought it was extremely moving. Not so Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League who immediately fired off a letter to Moyers hauling out the usual charges and accusing him, among other things, of anti-Semitism, ‘moral equivalency’, and historical revisionism. Moyers is an old hand who knows that anyone who criticizes the actions of the Israeli government has to expect this kind of thing from people like Foxman and responded in his usual tempered manner. You can see the correspondence here and Glenn Greenwald’s reaction to the episode here.

But Foxman is refreshingly candid in his demand that the US must not have an impartial stance when it comes to the Middle East. He said that he was “concerned” that Obama might appoint former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, which was announced yesterday. Why? Because he says “Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed. But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support. So I’m concerned. I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.” Fairness is a bad thing? John Rawls must be turning in his grave.

The type of response of Foxman to Moyers (or to anyone who advocates for even slightly more balanced treatment in the Middle East) is actually routine. In 2006 Kenneth Roth of the group Human Rights Watch was attacked when his group produced a report critical of Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon. Roth was promptly accused of making a ‘blood libel’, participating in the ‘de-legitimization of Judaism’ and employing ‘a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews.’ This was despite the fact that not only is Roth Jewish but his father was a refugee from Nazi Germany.

As Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks said of such responses:

But what’s most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn’t that it’s savage, unfounded and fantastical. What’s most troubling is that it’s typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn’t possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism.

Writing recently in The American Conservative Mearsheimer analyzes the real purpose of the Israeli assault on Gaza.

The campaign in Gaza is said to have two objectives: (1) to put an end to the rockets and mortars that Palestinians have been firing into southern Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in August 2005; (2) to restore Israel’s deterrent, which was said to be diminished by the Lebanon fiasco, by Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and by its inability to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

But these are not the real goals of Operation Cast Lead. The actual purpose is connected to Israel’s long-term vision of how it intends to live with millions of Palestinians in its midst. It is part of a broader strategic goal: the creation of a “Greater Israel.” Specifically, Israel’s leaders remain determined to control all of what used to be known as Mandate Palestine, which includes Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians would have limited autonomy in a handful of disconnected and economically crippled enclaves, one of which is Gaza. Israel would control the borders around them, movement between them, the air above and the water below them.

The key to achieving this is to inflict massive pain on the Palestinians so that they come to accept the fact that they are a defeated people and that Israel will be largely responsible for controlling their future.

Mearsheimer recites the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and why the attack on Gaza might well turn out to be a major setback for Israel. The whole article is well worth reading as is this article titled Israel’s Lies by Henry Seigman, former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.

One sometimes finds a barbarous way of thinking by those who should know better that if some people are made to suffer on a massive scale, they will simply give up their struggle to achieve justice and let the people inflicting the suffering do what it wants to them. As an example, see Glenn Greenwald’s evisceration of the despicable Tom Friedman, who seems to think that raining death and destruction on ordinary Palestinians to achieve political and military ends is just fine, that if you “inflict a heavy death toll and heavy pain on the Gaza population” their elected representatives Hamas can be “educated” into giving up, despite the fact that punishing civilian populations to achieve political and military aims is about as clear a definition of a war crime as you can get.

Oddly enough, this is exactly the same kind of ‘logic’ of people like bin Laden and groups like al Qaeda, who seem to think that killing huge numbers of American civilians by means of crashing airplanes into buildings would cause Americans to feel defeated, turn on their own political leaders, and reverse their policies in the Middle East. Columnist Mark Steel also noticed this parallel and pointed out in a column laced with black humor, that if you replace “Gaza” with “western” in Friedman’s comments, his words could have been written by al Qaeda.

We know how well that strategy turned out. The events of 9/11 resulted in Americans rallying around Bush and unifying them against the terrorists. Even the ever-clueless Friedman earlier said that the 9/11 attacks caused him to rally round his own government and want to lash out in retaliation, using the macho, tough language that seems to come so easily to these armchair warriors safely ensconced in their suburban mansions.

So it’s time we got tough. It’s time that we looked people in the eye. It’s time that the terrorists were the ones who are always afraid, always looking over their shoulder, and to create that, you do have to fight a different kind of war. I was a critic of Rumsfeld before, but there’s one thing…that I do like about Rumsfeld. He’s just a little bit crazy, OK? He’s just a little bit crazy, and in this kind of war, they always count on being able to out-crazy us.

Friedman does not draw the obvious conclusion from his own reaction to 9/11 to what is likely to be the Palestinian reaction to the events in Gaza. As Jonathan Schwarz notes sardonically, “Huh. Well, I’m sure it will work differently on the filthy wogs, given that they’re subhuman.”

POST SCRIPT: Tide turning?

There are hopeful signs that a more balanced discussion on the Middle East may be starting to take place in the mainstream media. On a recent episode of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, thanks to the absence of the regular obnoxious host Joe Scarborough, a surprisingly reasonable discussion took place about what is happening in Gaza.

Part 1:

Part 2:

It was interesting that Richard Haass could say unchallenged that the problem is that Israel has no partners for peace to negotiate with in Gaza since it ‘obviously’ could not negotiate with Hamas. The idea that Israel has the right to decide who should represent the Palestinians was not challenged. No one had the temerity to ask him whether it would be acceptable if Hamas said that they cannot negotiate with the Israeli government but would only talk with the peace groups in Israel. To pose such an audacious question would be to commit ‘moral equivalency’, that dangerous sin of applying the same standards to all parties in a conflict.

But things are changing. Veteran Australian war correspondent John Pilger says:

Across the world, people once indifferent to the arcane “conflict” in the Middle East, now ask the question the BBC and CNN rarely ask: Why does Israel have a right to exist, but Palestine does not? They ask, too, why do the lawless enjoy such immunity in the pristine world of balance and objectivity? … In France, 80 organizations are working to bring war crimes indictments against Israel’s leaders. On 15 January, the fine Israeli reporter, Gideon Levy, wrote in Ha’aretz that Israeli generals “will not be the only ones to hide in El Al planes lest they are arrested [overseas].”

Let’s hope this trend continues.

Infantilizing people

One of the extraordinary features of the last decade is the extent to which people have accepted as necessary or even desirable the most appalling crimes done by the government. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, torture, sending people secretly to authoritarian countries to be tortured, warrantless wiretaps and other invasions of privacy, have now become seen as ‘normal’.

How was this achieved? By political leaders inflating the threat of terrorism in the US, making people terrified, and then acting as if those same leaders alone can protect us provided we give them all the power they ask for to do so. In effect, we have seen the steady infantilizing of people, not unlike a father who terrifies a small child by telling ghost stories so that the child looks up to him even more for protection.

One of the symptoms of this strategy is that one frequently hears the statement by US political leaders, especially Bush and Cheney, that they are taking this or that action to ‘protect the American people’. As a consequence of the drumming of this message, ordinary citizens often say in interviews that they expect the president to ‘protect’ them and that this is his main job.

I find this kind of language to be extremely distasteful due to its highly patronizing and condescending nature. It baffles me that so many people say that they are grateful to president Bush for ‘protecting’ them from another terrorist attack. It seems to me that this is sign of an infantile disorder, where people feel the need for a father figure to keep them safe from real and imagined threats.

During the campaign, one of the refreshing things about Obama was that he seemed to treat the American people like they were adults, and this was especially so in his speech about race delivered in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright episode. But now Obama seems to have picked up on the Bush-Cheney disease, saying in an interview on ABC’s This Week (Sunday, January 11, 2009) that “My number one priority every single day that I wake up is how do I make sure that the American people safe.”

Obama should stop not lose sleep over my safety. I do not need or want him to ‘protect’ me or to ‘keep me safe’. I just want him to run a lawful, constitutionally based government and adopt policies that improve the welfare of people, especially those who need it the most.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the government should not be in the position of providing public security. One of the most important roles of a government is to ensure that people have services that protect them from violence against their person and from crime and fire and flood and other calamities, and that they can call upon those services as needed. The leaders of a nation also have a duty to defend the nation from hostile actions by nations that seek to conquer any or all parts of it.

I am also not opposed to some supposedly ‘anti-terrorist’ measures like taking off your shoes and not carrying liquids through airport checkpoints. I think that some of these things are excessive and annoying and promote fear and anxiety (which may actually be their main purpose) but they are not gross violations of civil liberties or constitutional rights, which are the things I am most concerned about.

But those are not the kinds of things that Bush-Cheney (and now I fear Obama) seem to mean when they say they must have the tools to ‘protect the American people’. What they are doing is trying to conflate two separate things – the normal expectation that people have that they should be safe from everyday crime, with the heightened fear that they will be at the receiving end of a major catastrophe at the hands of mass murderers,

These political leaders are implying that if they are not allowed to be able to use torture and all the other things I listed above, then the next thing you know, al Qaeda or similar groups are going to detonate a nuclear weapon in downtown Cleveland

No one has suggested that these murderous groups have the remotest intention of taking over the US. No other country, however strong, has the remotest chance of ever subjugating the US or has expressed any intention of doing so. It would be insane to even try. If there is a threat to US dominance of the world at all it will come from within, because of economic collapse due to corruption and looting by its own elites and the financial sector, to expensive and unnecessary wars, and the neglect of basic infrastructure and services.

Bush-Cheney exploited the fears of a terrorist attack to gain compliance for acts that violate the laws and constitutional safeguards and basic human rights, on the basis that such violations are needed to ‘protect’ us from some shadowy external threat. What they were saying is that beyond the normal levels of protection that people enjoy and that can be provided within the parameters of laws while still preserving long-accepted standards of civil liberties, there is another level of protection that can only be achieved by violating those rights for some people, purely on the basis of suspicion. What the government is doing is similar to the protection racket run by mobsters.

I do not need or want this extra level of protection, whether it is from Bush, Cheney, or Obama. The national security state, which is what we have now, is an evil thing that must be dismantled. I would rather take my chances with a terrorist attack than see the systematic dismantling of the long-standing, hard won protections of habeas corpus, the right to a speedy and fair trial, freedom from torture or the fear of torture both here or abroad, freedom from arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, and freedom from the invasion of privacy.

I do not believe that we can be totally protected from internal or external terrorist threats and we pay far too high a price in seeking to do so. We should resist being infantilized by political leaders who are seeking to increase their own authoritarian powers by promoting such fears. We must realize that there are some threats that we have to learn to live with if we are not to see the complete abandonment of the civil liberties and freedoms we have long taken for granted.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart looks at this protection racket

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Obama and Russia, Cuba, and the neoconservatives

Jim Lobe reviews some articles and the book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons by Jacob Heilbrunn who speculates on what the neoconservatives, those instigators and cheerleaders for the disastrous policies of Bush-Cheney regime, will try to do now:

It speculates on the internal splits that the neo-cons are going through as a result of the political campaign and Obama’s victory, and the possibility (I would say probability) that at least one major faction — headed by people like Robert Kagan, David Brooks and even David Frum — will seek to forge an alliance with liberal interventionists, presumably led by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton (although Susan Rice also fits the bill), in the new administration, much as they succeeded in doing during the Clinton administration with respect to Balkans policy. As I’ve written before, the two movements have similar historical origins (inspired in major part by the “lessons” — “never again” — they drew from Munich and the Holocaust) and tend to see foreign policy in highly moralistic terms in which the U.S. and Israel are “exceptionally” good. While I don’t agree with everything in Heilbrunn’s analysis, it offers a good point of departure for watching the neo-cons as the Age of Obama gets underway.

As I wrote yesterday, the most immediate foreign policy issues confronting the Obama administration involve Iraq and Afghanistan. On other issues, the residual effects of neoconservative and cold war politics is likely to constrain Obama to continue to follow their agenda, at least for a short while. So far he has taken very much a standard pro-war establishment stand. We will have to observe whether the neoconservatives have any success in infiltrating the Obama administration and influencing its policies in the long run.

For example, during the campaign Obama was absurdly belligerent towards Russia on the Georgia/South Ossetia issue. After first making a fairly reasonable statement calling for restraint on both sides, under pressure he resorted to the required anti-Russian belligerence, blaming Russia (on August 9) for “aggressive actions” while sidestepping the provocations of the Georgian president.

What the pro-war one party state demands is that Georgia be portrayed as this plucky little democratic, innocent, western-friendly country that was suddenly attacked without provocation by the big bad Russians, and Obama belatedly but dutifully got on board with the program. However, as was clear from the beginning for anyone who read outside the mainstream media in the US, this picture was far too simple and that Georgia, far from being purely an innocent party, suffered from the actions of their own reckless president. As always, the unpalatable truth leaks out later in dribs (November 7) and drabs (November 17) long after the strong false but initial impressions have been created.

Governments and public relations professionals know how easy it is to manipulate public impressions if you have first crack at shaping the news. In an article (An Orwellian Pitch: The inner workings of the war-propaganda, LA Weekly, March 21-27, 2003) in which he analyzed the way that lies were used to rush the public into invading Iraq, John R. McArthur quotes Peter Teeley, George H. W. Bush’s press secretary when he was vice president, who explained it this way: “You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it.” If it happens to be untrue, “so what. Maybe 200 people read [the correction] or 2,000 or 20,000.”

In a post in 2005, I gave several examples of this lying technique in action. Uri Avnery points to some new examples in the current Israeli assault on Gaza

An example of this process surrounds the most shocking atrocity of this war so far: the shelling of the UN Fakhura school in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Immediately after the incident became known throughout the world, the army “revealed” that Hamas fighters had been firing mortars from near the school entrance. As proof they released an aerial photo which indeed showed the school and the mortar. But within a short time the official army liar had to admit that the photo was more than a year old. In brief: a falsification.

Later the official liar claimed that “our soldiers were shot at from inside the school”. Barely a day passed before the army had to admit to UN personnel that that was a lie, too. Nobody had shot from inside the school, no Hamas fighters were inside the school, which was full of terrified refugees.

But the admission made hardly any difference anymore. By that time, the Israeli public was completely convinced that “they shot from inside the school”, and TV announcers stated this as a simple fact.

So it went with the other atrocities. Every baby metamorphosed, in the act of dying, into a Hamas terrorist. Every bombed mosque instantly became a Hamas base, every apartment building an arms cache, every school a terror command post, every civilian government building a “symbol of Hamas rule”. Thus the Israeli army retained its purity as the “most moral army in the world”.

Governments that lie take careful measures to prevent independent voices from gaining access to the news. In the case of Gaza, until yesterday Israel prevented journalists from entering Gaza, even defying the order of its own Supreme Court to allow them in. As a result, the only independent news sources are from Al Jazeera and from individuals, such as this eyewitness report from an Irish human rights worker that details in horrifying detail the terror and destruction that Israel has inflicted on the people of Gaza.

The morgues of Gaza’s hospitals are over-flowing. The bodies in their blood-soaked white shrouds cover the entire floor space of the Shifa hospital morgue. Some are intact, most horribly deformed, limbs twisted into unnatural positions, chest cavities exposed, heads blown off, skulls crushed in. Family members wait outside to identify and claim a brother, husband, father, mother, wife, child. Many of those who wait their turn have lost numerous family members and loved ones.

Blood is everywhere. Hospital orderlies hose down the floors of operating rooms, bloodied bandages lie discarded in corners, and the injured continue to pour in: bodies lacerated by shrapnel, burns, bullet wounds. Medical workers, exhausted and under siege, work day and night and each life saved is seen as a victory over the predominance of death.

BBC reporters now allowed in say (and the videos show) that parts of Gaza looks like it has been hit by an earthquake with entire neighborhoods flattened and bodies still buried in the debris. The killing of a well known doctor’s daughters in their own home is another example of the horror inflicted on the people of Gaza.

But the Israeli government knows that by limiting first access to the news to its own sources, by the time the truth emerges and makes it into the mainstream press, it has had time to shape public perceptions in ways that are hard to correct.

This is why you have to be skeptical of the statements made by any political leader or government, especially in the immediate aftermath of some major event. They are not trying to inform you, they are trying to shape perception in their favor, and using the fact that they are the ones with immediate access to the media to distort the truth.

The only foreign policy area where there is some hope for quick improvement with the Obama administration is with Cuba. The tide seems to be turning as far as Cuban-American sentiment goes towards Cuba. The older hard-line anti-Castro embargo supporters are dying off and the younger generation wants to create normal relations. This may enable the cautious Obama to open channels towards that country, which has suffered so cruelly from the sanctions, without suffering loss of domestic support. Cuba’s president Raul Castro has offered to hold direct talks with Obama and I hope he accepts.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on Bush’s final media blitz – clueless to the end

Is there anyone less capable of being reflective than Bush?

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Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan

Yesterday I gave my sense of the direction the Obama administration is likely to go on domestic policy. When it comes to foreign policy, I expect continuing trouble in the coming years, perhaps even worse (if you can imagine it) than what we experienced during the Bush years.

Obama may be able to fulfill his campaign promise to get out of Iraq fairly soon but I worry about his repeatedly stated goal to escalate the war in Afghanistan. The latter country has long been a pawn in geopolitical games played by big powers and its people have suffered tremendously as a consequence. It has also historically been a graveyard for foreign armies and there is no reason to expect anything otherwise this time. It is true that Obama is putting more pragmatic and less warmongering ideologues in the top ranks of the defense and security agencies but that in itself is no guarantee of a good result.

The fact that his administration is stacked with people who have plenty of formal academic credentials is no guarantee that they will not create huge foreign policy disasters. We have to remember that the incoming John F. Kennedy administration also brought with them an ivy-league educated technocratic elite. As chronicled in David Halberstam’s memorable book The Best and the Brightest, they got America hopelessly mired in Vietnam. Even the ‘best’ technocracy cannot make a bad policy successful, and trying to remake other countries to one’s own liking by invading them is always bad policy, not to mention a clear and unequivocal violation of international law and morally unjustifiable.

If Obama is not careful, Afghanistan could be his Vietnam, the millstone around his neck the way Iraq was for Bush. His best hope might be for a new intelligence report to come out that Osama bin Laden is dead, which some intelligence people already believe to be true given his long absence from the public eye, and use that to say that the battle is over, the man responsible for 9/11 is gone, and that it is time to put that event in the past and move on. (The release last week of an audiotape by bin Laden, if it turns out to be recent and authentic, will dash that hope.)

Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai has given Obama an opening by calling for a timetable for a withdrawal of US troops and he should seize it.

This does not mean that the US can wash its hands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two countries have suffered terribly because of US actions and we have a moral obligation to help them rebuild the infrastructure that we have been party to destroying. Sarah Chayes gives an eye-opening account of the problems in Afghanistan and how the corruption of the US-supported Karzai government is increasing the influence of the repressive Taliban and the warlords.

It is unfortunately true that unstable states tend to bring to power the most hard line extremists and Afghanistan is a good example of that, where the Taliban gained power because of its ability to bring about order, even though it represents a brutal and repressive Islamist ideology. But the disorder that provided them with this window of opportunity did not arise spontaneously. As I pointed out nearly two years ago there was a deliberate US policy decision taken by the Carter administration to intervene and destabilize Afghanistan so as to lure the Soviet Union into invading that country, so that they would get stuck in their equivalent of Vietnam. The Carter administration did this by having the CIA begin aiding the Islamic forces called the Mujahadeen in July 1979, six months before the Soviets invaded.

As a result of that invasion, Afghanistan has been in turmoil ever since. The US supplied arms and ammunition (including sophisticated Stinger surface-to-air missiles) to the Mujahadeen fighting the Soviet army, and the Soviet Union eventually was forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving behind a government they had put in place. But that government was unstable and collapsed in 1992, leading to a period of instability. The Taliban, originally a loose confederation of local units, became a unified body in 1994, gained popularity surprisingly quickly, and took over the government in 1996. The founder of the Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar was once a Mujahadeen fighter.

Current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was at that time executive assistant to Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzerzinski, the architect of that inhuman strategy, that saw the people of Afghanistan as merely expendable pawns in superpower political games. (Brzerzinski is one of those political chameleons who is now re-branding himself as a ‘sensible’ foreign policy voice because of his mild criticisms of Bush’s Iraq war policy.)

There is a rich irony in Obama now having Gates in charge of fighting the very forces in Afghanistan that he once helped create. But for the long-suffering Afghan people, caught in the middle of a war involving the US and its NATO allies, its puppet Karzai government, the Taliban successors to former US proxies the Mujahadeen, and the warlords, this is no laughing matter. Right now it seems that the US is trying to combat the Taliban by supporting the warlords, the very people whose oppressive and exploitative behavior resulted in the Taliban gaining popularity because they drove the warlords from power.

The US owes the Afghan and Iraqi people a huge debt for what it has put them through. The best way to do that is to focus on building roads, hospitals, schools, and providing good government wherever it has control. Otherwise the people will have no incentive whatsoever to risk the wrath of the brutal Taliban and warlords. It is when people have an interest in preserving their society that they will oppose, often with great courage and sacrifice, those who seek to oppress them.

So while I do not expect much from Obama, I hope that he will at least do the following: end the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, help rebuild those shattered countries, and end the practice of torture and renditions. On the last point on torture, some of his appointments for the Justice Department give a glimmer of hope.

So on the day of his inauguration, I wish Obama well. He at least starts out with one big advantage. No president could be as appallingly bad as the George W. Bush.

POST SCRIPT: Ah, memories!

Marcus Brigstocke during last year’s campaign.

What to expect from the Obama administration on domestic issues

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I want to muse on what we might see in the coming years.

There has been considerable hand-wringing amongst some liberal supporters of Obama about the people he has selected so far for his administration, since many of them are warmed over Clintonites and other establishment types. But I have not been really surprised. As I have said repeatedly, Obama is a cautious and centrist politician. He is definitely not a progressive, even though some progressives read into his words and campaign more than what he actually said he stood for. The willingness of so many people across the political spectrum to think that Obama represents them is probably a measure of how fed up they are with Bush. Obama is seen as not-Bush and that is enough for them.

I expect Obama to continue the bipartisan practice of being servile to Wall Street financial interests because they are the true rulers of the economy. It will be interesting to see if he can resist the efforts of those who are using the bailout of the auto industry to achieve their long-standing goal of destroying unions, even though the unions are not the cause of the auto industry’s troubles.

I do not expect him to push for real changes like a single-payer universal health care system, even if such proposals are advanced by members of his own party, like Congressman John Conyers and his House Bill 676 which calls for just such a sensible plan.

H.R. 676, also called the United States National Health Insurance Act, is a bill to create a single-payer, publicly-financed, privately-delivered universal health care program that would cover all Americans without charging co-pays or deductibles. It guarantees access to the highest quality and most affordable health care services regardless of employment, ability to pay or pre-existing health conditions.

The benefits over the plan over the current wasteful, inefficient, and positively cruel system that actually profits from denying needed health care should be obvious to anyone. (See my earlier series of posts on this topic.) But this bill will be strenuously fought by the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries and some physician group lobbies because they make huge amounts of money from the current system. It will also be opposed by those who have no idea of how such a system operates in places in France and have been completely brainwashed into thinking that the ‘free market’ system works best for everything (despite the evidence of the collapse of the unregulated financial sector) and that it will mean they will have no choices in their doctors and hospitals or that they will have long waits to see a doctor. I cannot see Obama or the Congress, most of whom have been bought by these lobbies, taking any action in furthering bill 676 unless there is huge public pressure on them.

As readers of this blog know, I supported Obama over McCain in the last election. But as soon as he is inaugurated, I will immediately become one of his critics. It is nothing against him personally. He seems like a nice person, to the extent that one can infer the nature of public figures. But as someone once said, it is very hard to figure out what a politician really thinks and it is not worth the effort to do so. What a politician may want to do and what he or she actually does are not the same.

All elected officials need to have pressure put on them constantly in order to get them to do the right thing and to counterbalance all the pressure they receive from the moneyed interests that normally control them. So I disagree with those who say that we should leave Obama alone at least for awhile and not criticize him because to do so is to give ammunition to his enemies. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

Politicians, by definition, respond to political pressure. Those who decide that it’s best to keep quiet and simply trust in the goodness and just nature of their leader are certain to have their political goals ignored. It’s always better — far better — for a politician to know that he’s being scrutinized closely and will be praised and supported only when his actions warrant that, and will be criticized and opposed when they don’t. (emphasis in original)

Just because Obama is sympathetic to a particular policy does not mean that he will push for it on his own. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to a group of people who were appealing to him to act on a deeply felt cause “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

So my hopes for an Obama administration have never been very high and his appointments so far have not caused me to change my mind about what to expect. But he is a realist and pragmatist and such people, given the circumstances, can sometimes be pushed to take radical steps that they are not temperamentally inclined to simply because they do not rule out sensible policy options purely on ideological grounds.

The best we can hope for from an Obama administration are some sensible actions on some domestic issues. To get us out of the economic troubles, he is correctly pushing for spending on big projects to repair and improve the nation’s infrastructure, actions that will at least create jobs and improve everyone’s lives by uplifting the environment and providing better services. Even though it will increase the deficit and the national debt in the short and intermediate term, at least we will have some public good to show for it. This is definitely better than the stupid Bush policy of sending people checks (even to those who don’t need them) and encouraging them to spend it on expensive baubles like flat-screen TVs. Unfortunately Obama seems to be caving in to Republican pressure to give tax cuts to those who don’t need it.

I do expect Obama to take some positive steps on policies to create sustainable alternative energy sources, on increasing conservation measures, and on the environment because I think in those areas the public has come a long way towards those views and he can count on their support.

So there is some hope on a few sectors on the domestic front. On foreign policy, things don’t look so good, as I will discuss tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Don’t let the door hit you on your way out

As George W. Bush leaves office with deservedly the lowest approval rating of any president (22%) since Gallup started measuring it 70 years ago, David Letterman lists his top ten Bush moments.