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Ryan Overcomes His Fear of Podcasting

My very good friend Ryan Koronowski is my guest on the latest edition of the Obcast. Ryan is a chief-deputy-editor-blogger-muckity-muck at Climate Progress (part of Think Progress), but don’t worry, we don’t spend much time talking about how awful things are going to be. Mostly, we talk about things like the peculiarities of DC life, the insanity of working on big political campaigns, and reading lots and lots of books.

We also learn that, like my three-year-old boy, Ryan poops on the potty! It makes sense in the show

Ryan was a little spooked to do the Obcast, as he’s not used to being the subject of media interviews, but I think you’ll agree that his fears were unwarranted. 

As always, you can subscribe to the Obcast in iTunes or through this link

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The Approval of the Civilized World

Stephen Fry says Russia’s treatment of gays and lesbians must have international consequences. In an eloquent and moving post, he declares:

An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.

Meanwhile, Obama is asked about a potential boycott by the U.S., and he responds:

We’ve got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard who are doing everything they can to succeed. Nobody’s more offended than me about some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia. But as I said just this week, I’ve spoken out about that not just with respect to Russia but with a number of other countries, where we continue to do work with them but we have a strong disagreement on this issue.

One thing I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which i think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes were seeing there. And if Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, it’ll probably make their team weaker.

No, who wins is not the point. At all. Let Russia bring its gay-free team to lose in Lillehammer, if that’s all that matters. But bringing home medals is not a “response” — it does not rise to the level of gravity warranted by Putin’s bullying, opportunistic thug-state and the message a proposed boycott is intended to send.

I’m often disappointed by the president. I’m often inspired by him. And I am willing to hear meaningful, reasoned arguments in favor of participation in these Olympics. But his flip, dismissive attitude toward what is a legitimate and serious proposition is extremely dismaying.

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It’s American to Welcome the Weirdos

In a previous post, I mentioned how Emily Hauser directed me to a revelatory article on introversion by Jonathan Rauch. One of the things I like about that piece is that it says to the planet-dominating extroverts, hey guys, it simply can’t just be about you. We have to figure out how we’re all going to be okay together (and in the Rauch piece, specifically it was about how intros and extros can get along in a relationship).

Maybe that’s what spurred Emily to write this, but it’s not mentioned. Either way, it feels really related: the idea that part of the very core of “America the concept” is that we take all kinds, and we strive to find ways to intertwine without getting tangled:

What we’ve been saying for the last six decades, with more and more people listening as the years fly and crawl by, is that all of this belongs to all of us. We all get to say what society is and does. We all get to set and then move the boundaries of what’s ok. We are — all of us, even (often) the straight, white dudes — rethinking and reshaping the social compact itself.

This strikes me as a fundamentally American thing to do — wasn’t Independence the breaking of one compact to build something new? Isn’t our very Idea rooted in an ever-expanding circle of rights and interconnected responsibilities? Our system is flawed, positively riddled with imperfections, but it’s structured to allow us to continuously fix those flaws. It’s fundamentally American to do so.

Now, introverts don’t need a civil rights movement, per se, we’re not oppressed. But we are dampened, and much of that is our own fault. I mean, we’re introverts after all! I guess what I’m saying, and what I see reflected in Emily’s writing here, is that there are many ways in which a dominant group can — even unwittingly — shut out another group, and that the onus is on all of us to correct that. And that’s whether we’re talking about politics and civil rights, or if we’re talking about one-on-one relationships and day-to-day, mundane interations.

One’s decibel level and quantity of communiqués should not determine one’s value to society, culture, the workplace, or within a relationship.
This is the work we do concerning the traits that continue to roil society and separate us (race, gender, sexual orientation, able-ness, religion, etc.), and thereby demand social and political change to bring things closer to fairness, to equalibrium.

Here’s an example of an “other” on the more subtle scale, not “oppressed” in the political sense. It’s been within my lifetime that being a “geek” was without question something to downplay, a label you did not want, but we saw what this “type” of person was capable of (in technology and the creative arts), and now it’s becoming a badge of honor. Most people didn’t want “geeks” around, seeing them as universally risible. Not anymore. We’re bringing them in, culturally, but it took the work on their part first to show their value, to claim social territory.

And this is an American thing to do, to recognize and foster the potential value of all types of people, seeing their difference from ourselves as a benefit — and it’s also probably an American “bootstrappy” thing to do to put a lot of the responsibility on the “others”. Even though we have failed and continue to fail in so many ways to live up to “The Idea,” and indeed the very folks who came up with The Idea failed too, we’ll keep trying.

So listen up, normals. Be nice to the weirdos in your life. Your country needs you.

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Threats, Trade-offs, and a Tinderbox

Pratap Bhanu Mehta at the Financial Times compares American perceptions of threat and the liberty-security balance, which leads me to contemplate an unpleasant state of affairs coming our way. Mehta says:

How do societies draw the line on what constitutes an acceptable trade-off? The American debate is peculiar because the standards seem perversely different in different contexts. By all accounts, gun violence kills upwards of 20,000 people a year in the US – yet the trade-off between security and the right to bear arms seems doggedly to ignore considerations that would make society safe.

This is because we have a gun lobby that has taken an already machismo- and paranoia-prone constituency and convinced it that these guns are not a safety problem, but a safety solution. This is, of course, so they will buy more and more guns and make the manufacturers, represented by that lobby, richer. Simple.

Meanwhile, most Americans aren’t interested in the whole PRISM-spying thing. To Mehta, this constitutes consent from our society for the whole enterprise. Mostly true I think. He says:

[M]any would argue – though this is debatable – that casualties from terrorist violence have been limited because a full measure of methods have been used against it. But even if we accept these arguments at face value, is there something more going on? Why would a society so willing to ignore security in one domain embrace it so uncompromisingly in another? Is it merely because an exaggerated threat of the foreigner makes it easier to immobilise other considerations?

You have to understand exactly who the American people feel threatened by. Yes, they feel threatened by “terrorists,” but many also feel threatened by each other and their own government. Think of it; here we have a situation where most Americans don’t know or care about the NSA situation, largely because they fear terrorism.

But how’s this for a tinderbox: for those who are upset about the NSA, they have new reason to fear the government. These folks also overlap, I’d presume, very much with those who the gun lobby has convinced are under threat by, who else, the government–and minorities. And OMG! Both the government and minorities come together in the form of Obama!

Stock your bunkers, folks. Things might get uglier before the apathetic urbanite and mainstream Americans have any idea what’s going on.

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We Asked for This

The NSA snooping story is fishy. Here’s Ed Bott at ZDNet:

. . . a funny thing happened the next morning. If you followed the link to [The Washington Post‘s] story, you found a completely different story, nearly twice as long, with a slightly different headline. The new story wasn’t  just expanded; it had been stripped of key details, with no acknowledgment of the changes. That updated version, time-stamped at 8:51 AM on June 7, backed off from key details in the original story.

Crucially, the Post removed the “knowingly participated” language and also scrubbed a reference to the program as being “highly classified.” In addition, a detail in the opening graf that claimed the NSA could “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to read simply “track foreign targets.”

David Simon, meanwhile, gauges the reaction:

You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about. And you would think that rather than a legal court order which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame.

Nope. Nothing of the kind.

And how is that then? It appears that an already-existing, already-controversial program has been given a Hollywood style treatment. Bott again:

The real story appears to be much less controversial than the original alarming accusations. All of the companies involved have established legal procedures to respond to warrants from a law enforcement agency or a court. None of them appear to be participating with widespread surveillance.

So what went wrong with the Post?

The biggest problem was that the Post took a leaked PowerPoint presentation from a single anonymous source and leaped to conclusions without supporting evidence.

And now back to Simon, who tries to put things into sane perspective, reminding us that the collection of call records and the scraping of emails is not the same as surveillance and recording, if for no other reason than that there’s not enough human and computer power to take on such a massive task.

There is a lot of authoritarian overreach in American society, both from the drug war and the war on terror.

But those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy. And for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks. After all, we as a people, through our elected representatives, drafted and passed FISA and the Patriot Act and what has been done here, with Verizon and assuredly with other carriers, is possible under that legislation.  . . We asked for this. We did so because we measured the reach and possible overreach of law enforcement against the risks of terrorism and made a conscious choice.

Simon does acknowledge in a later post that there is a substantive difference between the Verizon phone records being given to the government, and the kind of monitoring that PRISM does to Internet activity, which requires more oversight than it currently has. But this is still not really news.  

I’m trying to keep my own apathy about this in check, as I imagine what my reaction would be if there were a Republican administration running the executive. I assume I’d be presuming guilt and nefarious intent. I hope the fact that I am far less freaked out by the current administration running such an operation (which, again, turns out to be nothing new anyway) will inform and mitigate any future knee-jerks.

We simply can’t each have ubiquitous presence and expression on the Internet and also expect airtight privacy for all of our activity. We just can’t. As Simon says:

We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.

Of course we do. So let’s pick which one is more important to us, or more accurately, let’s adjust the dials to the mix of privacy and security that better suits us — based on what this thing actually is, not simply as it’s portrayed. We asked for this, and maybe we don’t like what we got. So let’s ask for something else. 

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Syria, Us, and Nothing

For the sake of my own sanity, I don’t keep up with the day to day developments of the world’s centers of crisis. Syria, however, holds a special fascination for me, given how stark and seemingly clear the lines of conflict are (as opposed to, say, the moral muddles of Iraq and Afghanistan). But the more I read, the more I despair, because it seems Syria’s battle lines are perhaps even more crooked than anywhere else the U.S. might consider involving itself.

Patrick Cockburn at the London Review of Books tells us that, for one, things have not been going the way they were once believed to be:

Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.

So by helping, we may be hurting. Sounds familiar. And the more confounding question may be how we could possibly help when it’s not clear what, exactly, we’d be trying to solve. Look at this clustercuss of conflicting interests:

Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.

Okay, so what ought we do, then? Taking into account our experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, here’s the advice of David Bromwich at NYRB:

The day of the Boston Marathon bombings saw seventy-five killed in Iraq, and 356 wounded: just one story, which few Americans will have read, out of dozens about the aftermath of the American occupation. Our rehearsals of our own good intentions, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now in Syria, have swollen to the shape of a rationalized addiction. What then should the US do? Nothing, until we can do something good.

Oh, good.

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Where Obama Has and Hasn’t Blown It

Norm Ornstein looks to dispel the notion that Obama’s agenda is stifled because the president lacks some certain, special, nameless something that forces enemies in Congress to do his bidding. For example, on the myth that arm-twisting is some kind of chief executive panacea:

On the gun-control vote in the Senate, the press has focused on the four apostate Democrats who voted against the Manchin-Toomey plan, and the unwillingness of the White House to play hardball with Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska. But even if Obama had bludgeoned Begich and his three colleagues to vote for the plan, the Democrats would still have fallen short of the 60 votes that are now the routine hurdle in the Senate—because 41 of 45 Republicans voted no. And as Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has said, several did so just to deny Obama a victory.

Indeed, the theme of presidential arm-twisting again ignores history. Clinton once taught Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama a lesson, cutting out jobs in Huntsville, Ala. That worked well enough that Shelby switched parties, joined the Republicans, and became a reliable vote against Clinton. George W. Bush and Karl Rove decided to teach Sen. Jim Jeffords a lesson, punishing dairy interests in Vermont. That worked even better—he switched to independent status and cost the Republicans their Senate majority. Myths are so much easier than reality.

Ornstein doesn’t absolve Obama of all failures, but does a service by throwing cold water on the idea that there is a magic spell, unique to denizens of the Oval Office, that Obama has neglected to cast.

Indeed, if you want to see an example of where Obama has really blown something, big time, take a look at Ryan Lizza’s piece on the failure of climate legislation from 2010. That initiative didn’t fall apart because Obama didn’t sufficiently schmooze or bully, but in large part because the president and the White House essentially stumbled all over themselves with wretchedly timed communication and inadvertent sabotaging of the efforts of John Kerry and others. But that’s nuanced, and requires reading something longer than a Buzzfeed post to get. And so we are where we are.

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Delicious Disunion

In Kansas, they’ve declared that they won’t abide by any federal law having to do with guns. In North Carolina, some folks tried to pass a law that would allow them to establish a state religion, and it enjoyed a great deal of popular support. Louisiana not only wants to teach creationism to its kids, but it cites the Loch Ness Monster as proof. And Texas. And Florida. Need I go on.
More often than not, I feel that a populace that thinks along the lines of the aforementioned states, an electorate that chooses lunatics and frauds and Bronze Age theocrats for its representatives and leaders, is not one that I want to share a body politic with. (I know it’s not everybody in those states, obviously, but I’m speaking in broad terms here.) There was a lot of kidding-on-the-square after the 2000 and 2004 elections about the blue states seceding from the red states, but I didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was necessary. Can you blame me?

But maybe it’s not as black and white as cutting the country in two. In The American Conservative, Joseph Baldacchino reviews the ideas presented in a book that explores the idea of mutually beneficial disunion.

According to Rethinking American Union for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Donald Livingston, those seeking a cure for America’s political dysfunction should consider a rarely mentioned topic, that of size and scale. The thesis of this collection of essays is that American government has grown too large and too centralized to be compatible with free, effective, or truly representative politics. The authors agree on the unacceptability of top-down government as practiced in this country: having 435 House members, 100 senators, nine Supreme Court justices, and one president rule more than 300 million people in one-size-fits-all fashion. The authors share the belief, dating back to ancient Greece, that, to be genuinely self-governing, republics must be small in population and territory, i.e., wholly unlike America. They consider ways to devolve political power to smaller, more manageable units of government. With varying degrees of persuasiveness, the authors address philosophical, political, moral, and constitutional issues bearing on such a task.

Livingston, in a thoughtful essay, presents several possibilities. One, suggested as a starting point for debate by the late George Kennan, architect of the U.S. policy to contain the Soviet Union, is to divide the Union into “a dozen constituent republics”: New England, the Middle Atlantic states, the Middle West, the Northwest, the Southwest, Texas, the Old South, Florida, Alaska, and three self-governing urban regions, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Livingston concedes that Kennan’s idea “will cause some to panic,” but he insists that the idea of dividing America into several allied federations was shared by numerous early American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and possibly James Madison.

Hey now. This sounds more like it. If it were as simple as Blue America and Red America, one concern I’d have is Red America deciding that, what the hell, let’s go ahead and liberate the Blue Americans from liberal tyranny with a full scale invasion. And if not, you’d have instead one hyper-industrial state and another that makes most of the food. Awkward.

With lots of smaller nation-states, you have more incentive for normal, peaceful trade among allies, but no ideological interference. If the nation of New England (where I’d live) wants to enact socialized medicine and nationalize its banks, the opinions of legislators or voters in the conservative Old South or even the financial empires of the Middle Atlantic or New York City would be irrelevant.

It sounds…glorious.

Yes, yes, yes, I’m sure it’s far more complicated than I’m giving it credit for. And I want to check this book out to see what ideas are inside it.

But let me dream, goddamn it.

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Bowser the Fascist, Mario the Warchief

I’ve just finished Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, and I’m generally trying to get myself better acquainted with the societal and political conditions that surrounded the World Wars.
But who needs real history? For a serious lesson in statecraft and warcraft, check out Domhnall O’Huigin’s explanation of the political context of the universe of Super Mario, as explained on Quora:

The Mushroom Kingdom is currently ruled by Princess Peach who is a member of the minority human population.

As the least numerous faction, humans in the Mushroom Kingdom are under constant threat from within and without.

Internal threats include a significant terrorist faction led by Bowser, the leader of the Koopas; one of the most populous species in the Kingdom.

It is important to note that Bowser does not command the allegiance of all Koopas, but those under his authority are organised into paramilitary ranks or units in a caste-like system. This concentration of political power in a single leader arguably makes Bowser a fascist. Although as he self-styles himself “King Koopa” it is apparent that he claims (or is seeking) parity of esteem with Princess Peach; that is to say that he does not regard himself as a ‘terrorist’ but as a ‘freedom fighter’ or entitled ruler in his own right.

It is precisely this self-contained, quasi-military structure that has allowed Bowser to remain a thorn in Princess Peach’s side for this long, culminating in his kidnap of her, in an attempt to force her to marry him and therefore achieve ‘legitimate’ control over the Kingdom. Only the intervention of the independent oligarch (or ‘warchief’, depending on your point of view) known as “Mario” – see below – prevented this from occurring.

Sounds to me like Mario’s a kind of Genghis Khan, marauding across alien lands. But I’m no historian.