Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Supreme Court: Scalia v Sanity

In his article, Why Justice Scalia Wants to Execute the Innocent, Conor Clarke makes the astonishing statement that
liberals who are dumping on Justice Scalia for his dissent in the Troy Davis case...are being a bit harsh.
Scalia and his right-wing cronies have been trying for years to limit the powers of the Supreme Court. But this time Scalia is saying that the high court has not got the power to correct a lower court ruling, even if the defendant in the case is innocent.

If the judges on the high court cannot protect the lives of innocent persons wrongfully convicted, what are they there for? In Justice Scalia's opinion, they are there to see that the correct procedures were followed.
Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the hearing would be “a fool’s errand,” because Mr. Davis’s factual claims were “a sure loser.”
Davis's appeal included a brief signed by 27 prosecuting attorneys and judges. These people are all convinced that Davis deserves another review of the evidence, based on changes in witness testimony and the possible impeachment of a major prosecution witness. But that's not good enough for Justice Scalia, because
This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.
It is obvious from this statement that the guilt or innocence of the defendant is immaterial. The only important thing is the "full and fair trial", in other words, that the process was correct. This is akin to the old bromide about the operation being a success, even though the patient died.

In Justice Scalia's view, the show trials of the Stalinist era were perfectly fine. The defendants were all tortured until they confessed and then sentenced to death by impartial judges. If nothing in the constitution prohibits the state from taking an innocent life so long as the rules of court procedure are followed, the powers of the state indeed become limitless. This is precisely the state of affairs that the framers of the Constitution wished to avoid, since there have always been legal systems where the conviction of someone for a crime is more important than whether he actually committed the crime.

Mr. Scalia's views support the contention that the state is more important than the individual, and that the purpose of the Constitution is to assure that the executive power can exercise its authority without interference from the judiciary. For if the state is permitted to execute people who are known to be innocent, and if the Supreme Court can refuse a new hearing because, in their opinion, the case of the defendant is "a sure loser", there is no judicial protection for anyone. Moreover, the state loses its prestige in the eyes of its citizens because they recognize that it tolerates injustice.

Process does not create justice. Wisdom and mercy together create justice. The deliberations of enlightened men create justice. The petty quibbles of Mr. Scalia can only debase and demolish it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Nation v. Dirty Harry

Although masquerading as a movie review, Akiva Gottlieb's article in the Nation is nothing more than a diatribe against Clint Eastwood, filled with a priori judgments and inexplicable conclusions. What are we to make of his initial statement that people "have been writing Clint Eastwood's obituary about as long as the man's been making movies"? Which people? What obituaries? Gottlieb must make this completely unsupported statement to justify his conclusion that Eastwood himself encourages these nonexistent obituaries.

Eastwood was born in 1930, making him 37 during the Summer of Love (1967), and a bit long in the tooth to partake in its pleasures. He was certainly influenced by the beats, however, learning to play jazz piano and making a movie about jazz great Charlie Parker. Later he wrote musical scores for his own movies and is currently involved in a project about Dave Brubeck, another Jazz great.

The charge that Eastwood like a male "Athena emerged fully formed from the Nixon-era hive mind" is particularly absurd, unless you ignore his early work. As Rowdy Yates on TV's "Rawhide" Eastwood played a handsome young cowboy with a penchant for getting into trouble. The "Man With No Name" was an iconic western hero based on Toshiro Mifune's samurai warrior in Akira Kurasaki's "Yojimbo". Kurasawa pioneered the idea of having his actors wear "real" clothing; Eastwood bought his outfit in "Fistful of Dollars" in California and took it to Spain with him.

His grubby look in the movie and its two sequels owed more to Kurasawa and Sergio Leone than to Eastwood himself. In private life, he was a ladies' man, with numerous liaisons. His character in "The Beguiled", while still a soldier, was a pacifist who deserted during the Civil War. He was also an attractive young man. Perhaps a little too attractive.

Of course, Gottlieb may be referring only to the Dirty Harry persona that has clung to Eastwood throughout his career, although even then his reference to the Nixon era is inaccurate. The Man with No Name is almost indistinguishable from Dirty Harry. Both are accomplished warriors, both have no respect for authority, and both see themselves as fighting for good. While Gottlieb sees Harry/NoName as a manichaean figure, this is never the case in the movies. Harry is always deeply conflicted, trying to protect ordinary citizens but guilty about people he harms while he pursues his goal.

Since Gottlieb has nothing original to add, he cites Pauline Kael's review of Dirty Harry, published just 38 years ago. Kael accuses the movie of being fascist, but clearly knew nothing about what fascism is. Dirty Harry is the antithesis of fascism, which is characterized by intrusive state control in every aspect of people's lives. Even though he works for the state, Harry is continually at odds with his bosses. He takes his oath to protect and serve literally, but the people he works for are the common people. The enemy he challenges is anyone who abuses power. In The Dead Pool, the enemy is other cops, who have taken the law into their own hands. In the Gauntlet, it is an array of crooks and corrupt politicians. In the Unforgiven, it is the town sheriff and the town businessmen. In each of these cases, Clint is cast as the defender of little people against government run amok.

Thrashing around for someone to smear Eastwood with, Gottlieb runs into Ayn Rand, but once again has insufficient understanding of her subject to make the smear stick. Rand extolled the virtue of the individual, all right, but from the entirely fascist, Nietschean side. For Rand, superior individuals, whom Nietsche dubbed the "Supermen", are laws unto themselves. While this sounds similar to Dirty Harry, the resemblance is superficial. None of Clint's heroes is extraordinary except in their skill with weapons and their dogged determination. They all have working class roots. Cops, bounty hunters, a trucker, a wild-west show promoter, a country singer, a photographer, a secret service detective: None of these bears any resemblance to Rand's heroes: industrialists, a senator, and an architect. Harry is marked, not by his creativity and intelligence, but by his faithfulness to the ideal of justice and his persistence in its pursuit.

Gottlieb cites Harry's most famous line, "Go ahead, make my day", as a suggestion that killing can be fun. This removes the quote both from its context and from its delivery. Eastwood's character does not enjoy killing; the line is delivered with utter sarcasm and world-weariness. Harry does not seek violence; it is continuously thrust upon him. In Tightrope, his policeman persona relieves the stress of his job with sado-masochistic sex; in the Unforgiven, his persona escapes from a violent existence, only to be drawn back into it by poverty and the bonds of friendship.

Nearly all the conclusions of Gottlieb's article are false, clearly snap judgments based on a superficial knowledge of his subject. Others are incomprehensible. He does Eastwood an injustice with his sloppy scholarship and glib aspersions. Reviewing films may not be the most intellectual occupation, but it should at least strive for respectability.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cyber Wars

On 24 July 2008, Spam King Eddie Davidson [pictured at right] killed himself, his girl friend, and a child after walking away from a federal prison where he was serving a 21-month sentence for charges related to spamming activities.

Today, President Obama announced the creation of a new post, which he called Cyber Czar. This new position would have responsibilty for protecting world computer networks from attacks that cost the economy billions of dollars every years. The only surprising thing about his announcement is how long it took the government to take action.

Imagine if there were gangs of criminals roving the interstate highways, putting up phony signs that divert traffic from its intended course, stopping trucks and carrying off their cargo, and causing delays and traffic jams on a daily basis. Wouldn't the public be enraged? Wouldn't government be forced to step in?

That's exactly what is happening to our "information superhighway." But even though most Americans use computers or rely on their performance in their daily lives, few understand how they work or what dangers lurk there.

The internet began as ARPAnet, a U. S. Deparment of Defense project back in the 1960s. Although security must have been a prime concern at that time, by the 1980s something had gone terribly wrong. Hacking, or breaking into a computer network surreptitiously, was considered by many to be an innocent pastime. The movie "War Games(1983)" showed how a teenager might hack into a top secret military computer. Although the story was somewhat fanciful, still there were many computer users who amused themselves by trying to gain access to various computer networks.

As the Internet exploded, both the opportunities for hacking and the danger from abuse escalated dramatically. Today, there are thousands of hackers, some of them amateurs, but many others professionals employed by governments, who are busily at work trying to defeat the plans that have been laid to protect our data, our websites, and ultimately, our lives. Since computers intrude into every aspect of our lives, they control information that could be used to fire weapons, or prescribe medications, to direct traffic on busy highways, or suck funds out of bank accounts.

Internet Enemy Number One: Spam.
Much of the president's attention is focused on "cyber attacks", where networks are invaded, usually to obtain information, but sometimes to disrupt operations. The most expensive kind of attack, however, is the most common, one which every computer use encounters every day. It's called spam. The propagation of spam, unsolicited email messages, is as sophisticated as any network breakin. In fact, they use the same tools and have developed similar tactics to evade detection.

What does the sending of spam involve? In the first place, the spammer must have some method of gathering millions of email addresses. This may be accomplished by software programs called "spiders" that enter every website on the internet and harvest email addresses, which are later used for spam or sold to spammers. These programs are sold openly on the internet. Greedy and unscrupulous people have sold books and articles about email "marketing" in which they explain how to send spam and make money doing it.
Advanced spamming also uses viruses, trojan horses, and malware. Trojan horses take over your computer and use it to send spam. Malware installs itself on your computer and steals all your email addresses. When a hacker manager to install malware on large computers like government or university databases, it can steal thousands or even millions of email addresses at the same time. This same ability to steal email addresses and take over computers can also be used to steal data, like bank records, social security records, and medical records.

Cyber Wars

During the Cold War, computer programmers employed by governments on both sides of the iron curtain invented programs to disrupt or disable computer networks of the other side. Bulgaria was particularly active in this area, which was related to "cracking", a way of making commercial software available to users who had not purchased a legal copy. So a programmer could make a "cracked" copy of Microsoft Word, for example, and hundreds of people could use the pirated copy without paying royalties to Microsoft. Other programs were also placed on these disks, viruses and trojan horses, which could use the installer as an entry point into a computer.

Since the end of the cold war, programmers trained by their governments in hacking techniques have gone rogue, so to speak, continuing to practice their trade, either for monetary gain or for recognizable sociopathic reasons, which is to say that they want to destroy something because they enjoy doing it. One famous example of this was a Bulgarian called Dark Avenger, who used his programs to attack anti-virus researcher, Sarah Gordon.

Computer hacking lends itself to asymmetrical conflict, where small, relatively weak organizations attack large, powerful ones. Computers are small, relatively cheap, and easily connected to sophisticated systems through the internet or wireless networks. This use of hacking techniques increases the danger associated with cyber crime, much as the use of plastic explosives and hijacked airliners increases the deadliness of guerilla war. The sophisticated weapons systems of technological warfare as practiced by the American army are far more vulnerable to attack by one or two sophisticated hackers than the tanks and bombs of previous wars. America must perforce become better at repelling cyber attacks in order to maintain its military superiority.

Which brings us full circle, because the techniques used to subvert weapons systems (or any other highly integrated system on which lives rely) are the same--viruses, trojan horses, malware--as have been used by less malign hackers since the 1980s. We need our government to begin combatting these threats without delay.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Goodbye Mr. Rose

[Jasper Rose was a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz during the 1970s and 1980s. This piece appeared in City on A Hill, the UC Santa Cruz student newspaper 20 February 1986. It was written by Douglas A. Erdman, but the views expressed are, of course, pure Jasper.]

The only thing louder than Jasper Rose's bow-tie is the man himself. "My dears," he bellows at 400 students, waving his walking stick wildly over his head, "you must pay attention! I'm trying to teach you something!" They--do, and he does.

A founding member of UCSC, Rose has been delighting students for 20 yars with his flamboyant style and his genuine concern for undergraduates. One out of every eight undergraduates at UCSC is currently enrolled in his Art History 10B, making the class a recordbreaker at 882 students. Yet, at what appears to be the height of his popularity, Jasper Rose is leaving UCSC.

In a recent interview with City on a Hill, Rose refused to discuss personal reasons for his departure, claiming it wasn't "worthwhile going into." A native of England and a graduate of King's College at Cambridge University, Rose bludgeons unsuspecting words with a dignified English accent. "One doesn't resign or retire for a single motive," said Rose, rolling his eyes, his intonation becoming grandiose. "One retires for a great, curious cloudbank of hovering reason!"

Rose was, however, willing to comment on the public ramifications of his retirement. Since 1965, Rose has remained a staunch advocate of "alternative education." While others falter in their commitment to what UCSC was intended to be, Rose stands as one of the last of a dying breed--a voice to be reckoned with. Forthright and articulate, he spoke passionately--often bitterly--about the University he has poured his life into, and why he feels he can no longer stay.

"If you really want to understand," said Rose, "why some of us have succumbed to a certain amount of disappointment, bitterness, and disillusion, [it is because] we had a sense of how vulnerable American undergraduate education was to the vulgarization [and] the commercialization of mass-production, and wanted to make a stand against it. To some extent, Santa Cruz fulfilled an element of its function by, for a while, setting a higher standard, which then became of interest to the rest of the University of California. It was particularly important at a time when mass-production of students was very much in the air." Rose paused thoughtfully, shaking his head. "But, you do sometimes get the feeling that you might just as well be in an egg factory at the present time. That's worrying. Quantity is not the thing that counts. Receptivity, responsiveness, susceptibility, sensibility--are what count."

Among Rose's primary concerns is what he describes as a "dangerous level of hypocrisy" at UCSC. "Something I simply cannot stand which has emerged more and more strongly in recent years," said Rose, "is the tendency for the administration to put out glossy little pamphlets saying how much everybody cares about teaching a UCSC." His eyes glow with outrage at the thought of such obvious fraud. "It should be made perfectly clear that this is not true. There are many professors who teach a very small number of classes and avoid teaching if they can. They're much more interested in administration and should be delighted to get into an administrative post where they're excused from teaching.

"I know a lot of good teachers on this campus who've stuck around as associate professors for years," he continued. "Some of them have now become full professors. I know others who are good teachers and don't get promoted, and they say, 'Well, I'll forget teaching. I'll research my way into the next steps up the ladder.' Chancellor [Robert] Sinsheimer said, I think quite openly, that only on the rarest kind of occasions can excellence in teaching reap significant rewards, unless it's accompanied with excellence in research." Rose shook his head in disappointment. "My view of it fundamentally very different. If you want to talk about your institution as caring a great deal about teaching, you must then be fairly liberal and generous in rewarding the people who teach and teach well."

Rose laments that faculty get punished by non-advancement for being "too interested" in the daily lives of undergraduates. In previous years, professors who spent too much time meeting with students socially and advising them found themselves "cajoled and harassed" about their research. Those who weren't "putting up a show of publishing" were not advanced with the same speed as other professors, he added, explaining that as a result, many faculty today are frightened for their careers if they interact too closely with students. This directly contradicts Rose's personal commitment to personalized undergraduate education.

"The people who don't get advanced," said Rose, "become discouraged. They become known as people of no importance in the University. They don't count much because they're not `nationally visible,' in that terrible phrase." He is clearly repulsed by the thought. "I well recall it being used in a personnel case. A very senior person said, `Oh, we can't advance this person, because he's not nationally visible! And I wrote back, saying, 'I suppose what this campus now wants is local invisibility and national visibility! And I didn't get an answer which denied that."
Rose tries his best to adhere to his commitment to faculty/student interaction. "I'm one of those unfortunate people who are nationally invisible," he said, chuckling with irony. I always make it my business to greet students as I walk about, and talk with them if I possibly can, as it seems only civil to do." He spread his hands wide in question. "One knows that the students belong to the same institution. Why should one put one's head down and pretend they don't exist?"
"In terms of the ambitions and proclaimed ideals of the place," he added scathingly, "the amount of interaction between faculty and students now is pathetic. The number of faculty who said to me quite early on, 'Well, my place with the students is in the classroom; that's where I know how to deal with the students,' struck me as being such an admission of failure, and also a kind of cowardice."

"One of the things that has horrified me is the growth of midterms, which then become quarter terms, and then eighth terms ... this sort of continuous examining of students." Rose shook his
hands in frustration. "If you treat students in this way, you don't have to be specially intelligible, or interesting, or entertaining when you're teaching them. All you have to do is make it perfectly clear that if they want to get some credit, they're going to have to do exactly as you tell them, which I'm afraid smacks to me of anything but a university. It smacks to me of a military establishment. And I do get very frightened about the seizing up of free inquiry:'

ACCORDING TO ROSE,-THERE IS no reason to expect professors to be equally skilled at both teaching and doing research. "One of the biggest and most foolish myths which is perpetuated here is that 'all-arounders' are immensely common." He leaned forward in emphasis. "They're not very common. Actually, the people who are gifted at teaching very often are-not going to be terribly gifted at certain kinds of research. To be gifted as a teacher-requires a certain amount of
gregariousness... teachers are fulfilled by talking and public exposition." Rose's tone showed how obvious he considers this. "If you're fulfilled in that kind of way, you're not very likely to be keen to rush away into an odd corner and sequester yourself from the public world. You may have some good ideas, but the forum for those good ideas is not a learned journal. The forum for brilliant ideas is very often open discussion."

Rose knows better than anyone that gregariousness and genuine interest in under-
graduates add up to enormous popularity. As he explained ,"When the proportions start changing to those who are really interested in students and those who are not, and the student body grows, those who make themselves available to students become mobbed. The issue of showing respect to students is really fundamental. By the late 70s, UCSC's colleges no longer had the power to choose or reward faculty for their respect towards students—or for any other qualifications.

The UCSC reorganization of 1978-79—which Rose refers to as the "disorganization"—dealt the final blow to the concept of collegiate autonomy. Many professors left whatever college they were affiliated with to congregate where their board of study was located. Rose's idea of "tradition and continuity" was crushed. "The healthy interchange of ideas between professors in different disciplines collapsed," he said sadly. "It became clear to me that the sort of things that I represented were things which are not very much wanted by the dominant impulse; that I would have to struggle hard to maintain the sort of things I cared about. There comes a moment when you get tired of struggling ... and I got tired of struggling."

"I think the University has to worry about something which is connected in some way with me," said Rose thoughtfully, "and that is that it does need some people who are ready to answer back. I always think of most American graduate schools as schools of calculated humiliation; they humiliate the people who enter them." He spoke faster, trying to impart the futility. "Those people then go on to become professors, and they are so scared of their own shadows, and they have to wait eight years to get tenure, which is a ludicrous thing. This University needs some faculty who are more ready to answer back, who are ready to take up an independent stance!'
Rose sighs, folding his hands onto his knee. "It also desperately needs some faculty who retain a sense of humor and a sense of fun. When the joy and pleasure run out of an institution, it's
due for a very grim, dull time. I think you might worry about my leaving not as an event, but as a symptom, and a serious symptom. When people like myself leave the University, crying that it has become hard and cruel, the University has to worry. Is it becoming a very heartless and empty place? Because if it is, it's going to have terrible,, repercussions."

Rose never wanted it to end this way, and his sorrow is etched into his features and his words. "I had hoped, and I initially thought of myself about the year 2000, very lottery, as a kind of `Mr. Chips' figure—an elder of the tribe who would occasionally say to an undergraduate, `Very interesting, the early days here, but you're lucky you don't have to put up with that now.' "
Instead, he will retire into the English countryside to paint. "My final decision was made in England. I saw a lovely house that I suddenly realized I could afford, and a number of immediate problems had depressed me very greatly." His voice drops in recollection. "I had deeply lost confidence in the [UCSC] administration. And so I thought, 'I need to do something different.' "

Does Rose see any hope for UCSC? "Not in the near future," he said. "There is still an inheritance, that's true. My son said to me today, 'Come on ... for students who know how to find their way about, Santa Cruz still offers more than almost any other place.' And I'm ready to believe that." Rose nodded his head slowly. "I still think there lingers about it a humane spirit, a sense of humor, some kind of festive quality...they're they're all things that are very badly needed. But another major growth could easily destroy it. It's nothing to be complacent about." His voice became heavy with pain. "Compared with what could be, and indeed what needs to be ... what terribly needs to be..."

His voice trails off. Jasper Rose sits back and considers. "A long time ago I thought about this University, and I thought, 'I'm being defeated.' That was about 1967, I suppose. And I said to myself, `Why are you being defeated? Is it because you're standing up to your neck in a morass, and you can't move your arms?' Because then you don't go on fighting, you get out of the morass, and you find some other place. I think that's the only way to look at it. I have to find some other place in which to exercise what talents I have. And," said Rose quietly, "I'm also tired, my dear."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Jasper Rose, Uniquely Himself

Jasper Rose was a professor of Art History at UC Santa Cruz for many years. During those years, he touched the lives of many people. Oddly enough--probably because Jasper felt modern technology was the downfall of civilization--he has left little trace of his passage on the internet. As shown by the interview in this blog, "Goodbye, Mr. Rose", he believed his talent lay in teaching, not publication, so it is no surprise that he has published little. If you knew Jasper and would like to tell a story about him, please add a comment to this post. I would also like to hear from people who know his personal history, or where I can find that information. Once I have collected this information, I intend to write a wikipedia article about him, or some other appropriate tribute, with the assistance of my wife, Holly, nee Holst.

As of this writing, Jasper is alive and well and living near Bath, England, with his wife and a box of watercolors.
Sketch of a Hay Wain and a dog by John Constable (1821)

Recently, an artist of our acquaintance criticized a friend of mine's ability to draw. This made me remember (a la Proust) a lecture given by Rose about the English landscape artist, John Constable. Rose projected the painting, The Hay Wain, which is a full-size landscape. In 2005 this painting was voted the second greatest English painting, after Turner's, The Fighting Temeraire. So it is definitely one of the icons of art that Rose loved to deflate.

Next, Rose projected a sketch of a hay wain Constable had drawn as a study for the famous painting. He pointed out in what ways the sketch was not very well drawn. Also in that sketch is a dog that is so poorly drawn as to be barely recognizable as a dog. It looks like one of James Thurber's animals. Rose concluded his lecture by saying that anyone in the lecture hall could draw a sketch as well as that one by Constable. And he urged everyone not to be discouraged in their artistic endeavors.

To date, more than 2700 people have viewed this post. Please comment on this post to add your thoughts, positive or negative, about Jasper Rose.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Qi Revolution: Supreme Science Qigong

I just got back from a Qigong workshop that I attended with my wife. Neither of us knew anything about Qigong, so we didn't know what to expect. To say that we were disappointed would be incorrect; rather, we were appalled and disgusted, not by the Qigong instruction itself, but by the instructor, Jeff Primack.

To begin with, the event was misrepresented. The Qi Revolution website declares,
With live music & the most powerful techniques you can’t go wrong.
With the exception of music played by a duo during lunch breaks (when most people were eating lunch elsewhere), all the music was canned.

Primack is a personable young man, but he is about as spiritual as a carrot. He decided to dedicate his life to Qigong, he said, when he realized that “chi was the greatest thing since sliced bread.” There is nothing spiritual about sliced bread, nor about the metaphor he used. He refers to this incident as his “enlightenment”, but it is not that, only a decision taken about his career. He tells how his life has been directed by “miracles”, which he defines as “statistically improbable” events.

Primack found $72 in a bush one day. This he considered miraculous because he had studied the 72 names of God one week previously. But finding money is not an unusual event, or even rare. Nearly everyone has done it. The coincidence of having found $72 only becomes unusual in retrospect. This is a mystical number for the kabbalah, but if he had found $10, he could have considered that the number of commandments; if $3, the number of the holy trinity; if $9, a mystical number for Qigong; and so on, so that whatever amount of number he found, he could have discovered some “meaningful” correlation.

A second miracle he described involved looking out though the window of a house he was considering purchasing and seeing a dolphin jump from the water. Since he lives in Miami, where dolphins leap from the water every day of the year, this can hardly be construed as a miracle.

Primack lectured about spirituality and the existence of what he at first called the “true source”. His discourse was a jumble of Eastern philosophies, primarily Daoism and Buddhism, with many references to the kabbalah and Christianity. He claims to have studied with a “Siberian Shaman”, but a little research indicates that he is referring to Tanya Storch, a professor in Eastern Religions who at that time was teaching at the University of Florida. Storch does not represent herself in published literature as a Shaman. What he seems to have learned from Storch is a syncretistic knowledge of world religion with an emphasis on Daoism and Buddhism as an academic discipline. His understanding, and his explanations, are entirely superficial, however. He sprinkles his lectures with vignettes from several religions. He tells of Shaolin monks who stand “on the edge of a cliff” for hours or days; of monks who meditate for years without sleeping or going to the bathroom.

But Primack did not explain why monks might meditate for years; he only mentioned the fact that they did. Nor did he mention the great sage Bodhidharma, who is famous for having spent years in meditation and who brought zen meditation to China. Bodhidharma is also supposed to have introduced qi exercises to the shaolin monks.

Later on, Primack led the assembly in an advanced Daoist meditation. This meditation included meditation on four organs corresponding to four colors, all of which was to be visualized. He stated that this meditation was usually not taught to beginners, and proceeded to lead it without any explanation whatever. Such meditations are part of yogic teaching, but they are always preceded by exercises to enhance visualization abilities and accompanied by explanations of their esoteric meaning. Primack had three 8-hour days to explain Daoist teachings like this one, but he imparted little information on this subject. Instead, he regaled us repeatedly with slogans like “soy is not a toy... not for your boy” and “beets beat disease”.

Primack calls his Qigong style, “Supreme Science Qigong,” and intersperses his teachings with phrases like, “absolutely scientifically proven”, and with scientific-sounding words like “phytonutrients”, although he never offers any evidence of scientific proof nor an adequate definition of a phytonutrient, making it seem more mysterious than it actually is. But his understanding of science is just as limited as his understanding of religion. He claims that a man in the Himalayas lived 250 years eating goji berries, and that avocado pits are scientifically proven to be full of lifesaving chemical compounds, but he offers no proof for these extraordinary claims, nor have I been able to find corroboration on the web. His interest in these two subjects is not mere intellectual curiosity, since he is selling bags of goji berries at $20 a pound and a heavy-duty blender for $400 on the basis of its ability to pulverize avocado pits. As evidence of the healthful virtues of seeds, he cited verses from Genesis; he then quoted more scripture to “prove” that humans should be living to the age of 120. He left out the part about Methuselah's 900 years... but perhaps even Primack found that Biblical assertion far-fetched.

The Foundation (or Primack) makes a hefty profit on the sale of each blender, probably $150 or more. It is repulsive to see a man who claims to be interested in spiritual enlightenment demonstrating of a blender on stage during a Qigong workshop one day, and the next day beginning his lecture by taking a drink of his concoction and musing, “I wonder what they're eating for breakfast.”
Primack's commercialization of religion is crass. He repeatedly told his audience that they don't need to take notes, because everything he says is in the manual; he sells this “manual”, a set of printed powerpoint slides, for $45. In point of fact, he had a lot of merchandise for sale, all of it grossly overpriced ($95 for a cd; $145 for a book)-- and he managed to mention every item, at least once.
Another “smart” business move Primack made involves the way he got 2,000 people to enroll in his seminar. He used his Master's Degree in Eastern Religion to set up a “class” in Qigong, then invited Florida's Licensed Massage Therapists to take the class under the auspices of the state regulatory board. So 2,000 people came to his event, but many, perhaps most, of them were only interested in getting cheap credits to continue working in the state. This must have been disappointing to Primack, who claims to have trained 600 instructors nationwide, for with that number of instructors, including 130 at the event itself, surely more than 1,000 devotees should have shown up to take a workshop from the master? Even those most impressed by the energy of the convention must doubt how sincere a group of disinterested therapists can be, especially when they are subjected to sales pitches for food products which have no relationship to the course they signed up for. Prices were high and sales were slow, but then massage therapists are not wealthy.
Speaking of other conventions I have attended, I don't recall being confined in a large hall with 2,000 people and little else. Sure, there were tables where we could buy Jeff's merchandise (and only Jeff's merchandise). The floor was bare concrete and pretty unforgiving when covered only by the yoga mats we brought with us. The music was constant, and constantly loud and rhythmic, not what I consider conducive to meditation. Perhaps Primack could have spent a little more of the $200,000+ that the foundation grossed from entry fees to put down a few carpets and have a few “optional” events in smaller meeting rooms, which were available but not used. In fact, the event used less than half the space available, curtaining off the rest. This caused friction at times between people who wanted to place their mats in the same general location.
One corner of the hall was carpeted, with cushions and a shrine, but this corner had room for no more than 10 people and was always full. The people in it may have been seeking solitude or refuge. I recall them looking out with wide, sad eyes.
Since Primak does not believe in starting on time, the people had to wait for 1 to 2 hours at the beginning of each day, and since Primack does not like to stop talking when he has a captive audience, his final presentation of the day ran over from 30 minutes to an hour. He also enjoys keeping people from eating lunch at noon, one day waiting until nearly 3 pm before releasing us for a one-hour break: just enough to get back to the hotel room, eat, and get back to the convention center.
Although many of the people there were new to qigong, the exercises were intense and long. Primack reminds me of a personal trainer who keeps saying, “just one more rep, just one more!” We did not sign up to be abused, however. The long group exercise at the end of the third day, using the “nine breath” method was particularly excruciating. Since we were all holding hands, we felt compelled to continue, despite discomfort and, for some, a strong objection to the prayers that Primack was reciting pretentiously during the exercise. The nine breath method, according to him, is an advanced method that is usually taught only after several years of instruction. There are reasons for teaching subjects in a certain order. It is irresponsible for a teacher to give instructions to novices that may harm them.
On the first day, Primack was careful to speak of the “true source”, by which I supposed he meant the Dao. By the third day, he was directing each prayer to divine father, divine mother, or God. As a long-time student of Asian religions, I was offended by this. My wife took extreme personal offense to being constrained to listen to his “directed prayer” routine. Neither of us is Christian and neither wanted to be part of someone else's religious fantasy, especially since it seemed designed to offend nearly everyone.
On the way out, after the prayer circle was over, I spoke with others who were disconcerted by the event. I saw a couple of women who were too upset to speak and others who were simply discussing their reactions. My wife and I left and did not return for the fourth day of the event.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bush Trials: What lawyers can and can't get away with

Many lawyers believe that their knowledge of the law places them beyond its reach. After all, they spend their lives inventing elaborate means for their clients to circumvent justice.

But there are some things a lawyer just can't do. The Justice Trial, one of the trials at Nuremburg after World War II, set the limits. According to Douglas O. Linder,

"prosecutors had to show that the defendant consciously furthered...human rights abuses."

Among those on trial were judges who sentenced Jews and other Nazi victims to death. Eventually, again according to Linder,

“the police were given carte blanche to punish all 'criminal' acts committed by Jews without any employment of the judicial process.”

Those accused were not only judges, but also members of the Ministry of Justice who wrote decisions that made such treatment legal under German law. They were not necessarily members of the Nazi party. Instead, they were frequently

“ultraconservative nationalists who were largely sympathetic to Nazi goals.”

The men on trial had not participated in the worst excesses of the Nazi regime. In comparison with others who were more directly involved, they were minor figures. Some had sentenced hundreds to death, some had only facilitated the transfer of prisoners to the SS. But the court at the Nuremburg trials concluded that their crimes were just as great, because
The prostitution of a judicial system for the accomplishment of criminal ends involves an element of evil to the State which is not found in frank atrocities which do not sully judicial robes.
Crimes against humanity are defined in the War Crimes Act of 1996 to be violations of the Geneva Conventions, that is, crimes
...committed against persons or property protected by the Convention: willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health.
Among those specifically protected by the Conventions are prisoners of war. Notice that the Convention doesn't get bogged down defining torture. It could be inhuman treatment or willfully causing great suffering. It is clear the delegates to the convention forsaw the likelihood that someone might try to define torture narrowly in order to avoid prosecution. It is just as clear that they made the definition very broad so that there was no room to weasel out.

John C. Yoo, in his capacity as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Council(OLC), gave the opinion that members of the US government, including soldiers, need not regard the War Crimes Act as binding because the President was given the sole responsibility for waging war by the constitution and later court rulings. He failed to acknowledge that the responsibility for treatment of prisoners of war was given to the Congress, both by the Constitution and subsequent court rulings. Therefore, his opinion, submitted as a memo to the Attorney General, could be considered to consciously further human rights abuses, which the Nuremburg Justice Trial set as the standard for determining guilt.

Jack Goldsmith took over the OLC in 2003. He withdrew the memos written by Yoo, writing that he was

“astonished by the deeply flawed and sloppily reasoned legal analysis”

But its ideas informed Bush administration policy for 2 years, while an unknown number of prisoners were tortured in accordance with its faulty legal reasoning, an unknown number of innocents locked up without a trial, and an unknown number of people killed. Yoo performed exactly the same function for the Bush administration that those jurists had provided to the Third Reich: He gave their crimes the color of law.

Furthermore, Yoo's action sullies the reputation of the United States. It turns us from a 'City on the Hill', whose existence inspires the world, into a pariah, the butt of insults from our friends as well as our enemies. Instead of using our strength to help the weak, we torment helpless individuals already in our power and deny hold them indefinitelyl. How can we boast of our liberties and rights when we have so clearly abandoned them?

So what should be done? Should we, as many suggest, investigate the Bush administration to find the truth? Or should we punish the wrongdoers and set an example for future apparatchiks of what happens when someone robs another of their rights and dignity as human beings?

Look at it this way. John Yoo is currently enjoying the rights and privileges of a successful party hack. He is a tenured professor at one of the country's most prestigious law schools. His case was referred by the OPR to the Bar Association for possible disciplinary action. But he won't even need to give up teaching if he is disbarred. So what penalty will he suffer?

The jurists on trial at Nuremburg committed similar crimes, some worse, some not so bad. Some served life sentences, some were acquitted. But the important thing is, they were brought to trial. The people whose rights they violated had their day in court.

Just as we should never forget the Jews and gentiles who died in the holocaust, we should not forget the people who suffered torture because someone thought it was a good idea and John Yoo was a willing stooge.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy-talk: right-wing talk radio and its fans

The AM airways are filled with conservative happy-talk. People like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others have not so much invented something new as they have tapped into an already existing vein of talk. Using buzzwords and catchphrases, they reassure their listeners that their ideas are the right ideas and their feelings, the right feelings. This is especially important because many of those feelings and ideas suffer severe criticism in other arenas.

Happy-talk is primarily a radio phenomenon. The words themselves, not their meanings, have an effect on their listeners. On television, images arouse feelings of fear, revulsion, or amazement. Their impact is more forceful when the images are negative. No one can forget the sight of a commercial airliner crashing into the world trade center.

Happy-talk is subtler than that. It performs the same function as a men's club or prehistoric hunting group. It gives people a sense of belonging, and a feeling that all is well in the world. It does this by creating a nexus of words with positive associations: America, freedom, victory. The talkers themselves create a sense of membership with code words that act like a secret handshake. Limbaugh's fans are “dittoheads”. Their membership greeting is “Megadittos”. This does not imply that they are merely carbon copies for Limbaugh's happy-talk. Instead, the shared greeting indicates that both are members in a wider fellowship whose members all share common values: patriotism, the virtue of hard work, and a belief that wealth is itself something admirable. Limbaugh refers to this group simply as “us”.

Hannity's listeners are “freedom-loving Americans”. His fans greet him by saying, “You're a great American,” a sentiment that he returns.

When you are a member of the club, your understanding of the happy-talk is different from the casual listener. The following phrases have special meaning for insiders.

1. Happy-talkers claim that America is a great country

For conservatives, America is not just a great country, it's the only great country. Ronald Reagan called it a City On A Hill and captured the imagination of many who wish to believe they have some sort of a sacred mission. This is why the right wing applauded when the U. S. ignored the UN and invaded Iraq on his own. There is an arrogance born of power. They believe the U. S. should have special privileges, including the right never to have soldiers under the command of a foreign officer, as in a U. N. peacekeeping mission. The feeling that the U. S. is a great country fills them with pride and the feeling that they, too, share in the greatness. People who point out America's flaws arouse their unreasoning anger.

2. Happy-talkers claim that Liberalism is the problem

Conservatism is the solution to the world's problems, although the mechanism is a little vague. So it follows that Liberalism is the problem. But the liberalism here is not a philosophy of goverment but simply the opposite of everything conservative. So we see all sorts of infamous people--Stalin, Mao, even Sirhan Sirhan--called liberals. Conservatives preach small government and lower taxes, but they don't explain how that can happen in a modern society. Undoubtedly they only yearn for a simpler time, a golden age when governments were small and people did as they pleased. But in this longing they face the same problem as the Russians did when they saw Western countries on tv. The Russians wanted the material goods they saw. People of today want the things they know other countries provide, health care, security, and a happy retirement. When conservatives say they want smaller government, they can't prevent spending that benefits the wealthy backers who elected them. President Bush took care of the pharmaceutical industry with his budget-busting Medicare program, the agriculture business with his ethanol subsidies, and the oil industry by failing to address global climate change and alternative energy development. Although continuance of these policies would ruin the U.S. economy, businessmen are even more afraid of liberals, who would take away their money in taxes.

3. Happy-talkers claim that a free market is the answer to every economic ill.

If the markets puff up like balloons and then go pfluie, it's not the fault of the markets; it's the fault of liberals and their mania for regulation. The markets aren't free enough. If social security is becoming a burden to taxpayers, then we should let people invest their money in stocks or other securities. They will make more money that way, through the magic of the free market. Rising health care costs will be solved by letting providers compete with each other on the free market. That this never happened before is never blamed on the free market, but on the regulators, and especially the poor. Spiraling health care costs are caused by poor people whose government benefits must be paid by the rest of us. The conservative alternative to public health care, as Alan Greyson has pointed out, is for the uninsured not to get sick, and if they do get sick, to die quickly. That will save everyone a lot of money, but is completely immoral.

4. Unbelievably, happy-talkers claim that only African-Americans are racists.

This belief reassures happy-talk fans that their anti-minority opinions are not racist, which would be a bad thing. Instead, happy-talkers preach that white racism ended in the 1970s. Now, the blacks are the racists. Happy-talker Hannity played endless loops of Rev. Jeremiah saying “God damn America”, which he said proved Obama is a racist. From the context, it is clear that Wright was talking about the U. S. Government, not the people, which would exclude the comment from any charge of racism. Anti-Americanism, yes, but not racism. But Hannity and other copycat happy-talkers find it made their listeners feel better to imagine that African Americans, not whites, are racist.

5. Happy-talkers believe that using the government to help the poor is redistribution of wealth.

Redistribution of wealth will lead the poor to be less self-reliant and destroy their work ethic. Why wealth doesn't have this effect on the wealthy is a mystery. If poor people have enough to eat and a roof over their heads, they are likely to become lazy and stop working. Then where would America be? The same thing happens when you train greyhounds to chase a mechanical rabbit. They must never be allowed to catch the rabbit, or the whole game would be ruined.

6. Happy-talkers believe that using the government to help the wealthy is justified.

The best option would be to do away with government altogether. Then the wealthy would be able to keep all their money without interference. Poor people do not pay taxes so they are out of the game. Government's best use is to recycle money to the wealthy in ways that make the rich richer.

7. Happy-talkers believe that preferential hiring of minorities is un-American and therefore wrong.

The only discrimination in America should be in favor of the wealthy. They have always had the best land, the best houses, and the best cars. Their wives wear the best clothing and have the best plastic surgeons. Their children have the best toys and go to the best schools. That is the American way. Any other system is un-American.

8. Happy-talkers believe that European countries are un-American.

Programs that work in Europe, even market-based programs, will not work in America. We can safely ignore anything that happens over there. Whenever an American politician mentions a European country, his patriotism is immediately called into question. Better stick with an idiot who doesn't know where Europe is then take a chance on an intellectual who might have imbibed anti-American ideas on a sojourn abroad. An exception to this happens when an immigrant, like Henry Kissinger, admits that America is the one great country and repudiates everything he learned abroad. Also, certain English conservatives, like Margaret Thatcher, can be considered conservatives. It helps if they knew Ronald Reagan and he said they were okay.

9. Happy-talkers believe that terrorists are cowards who can be tortured or killed without trial.

This is hard for non-conservatives to understand. Someone who attacks the United States of America, armed only with a knife, may be insane but he is not a coward. But he is also a human who should be treated with the same respect we would wish for ourselves. What is the Geneva Convention on torture but an updated version of the Golden Rule? Yet people who call themselves Christians don't understand its importance. It is important for the happy-talk listeners, however, that their own deep-seated desire for revenge receive validation. Their own bloodlust would bother them if they did not hear constant reinforcement.

10. Happy-talkers believe that illegal immigrants should be deported and the border sealed.

This is another impossible dream. Deporting 10 million people would constitute an act of genocide under the Geneva convention, whether we call it ethnic cleansing or just cleaning house. In this area, as in so many others, the hard-core conservative is not deterred by the facts, even of his own experience. History shows us that people will emigrate to the U.S., whether legally or not. Our problem is how to handle the people after they arrive, not how to prevent their arrival.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's So Great About Dinesh D'Souza?

[Note: The Heritage Foundation is Rush Limbaugh's brain trust This is the first in a series of articles that explores its writings and their effects on America.]

Rush Limbaugh says the Heritage Foundation are scholars, but not eggheads, brilliant geniuses, but not elitists. But Limbaugh is a reliable judge of what makes a brillian scholar or a genius. Like other conservatives, he appreciates people because they agree with him, not because their ideas are sound or their arguments persuasive.

Heritage House advertises itself as “Washington's preeminent think tank”, but some of its writers are less than stellar. A case in point is Dinesh d'Souza, who has written the first essay in the Heritage House series, “First Principles.” His article, entitled “What's Great About America”, exposes him as a gifted writer but mediocre thinker.

In the view of America's critics, he says, “America can do no right”. Many of America's critics are patriots who believe that their country has made mistakes that should be rectified. But D'Souza frees himself from having to answer their criticisms by creating a straw man who thinks everything about America is wrong. So all he has to do to win the argument is to show one single thing about the country that is right.

America's greatest weakness, says D'Souza, is a lack of moral self-confidence.
Americans cannot effectively fight for their country without believing that their country is good and that they are fighting in a just cause.
Apparently D'Souza approves lying to our troops to improve their morale, just as he lies in this essay to make his arguments more convincing. But others are not so certain; they argue that lying about our goals and methods to encourage our troops is immoral and cannot be tolerated in a democracy.

So D'Souza sets off to examine the charges of America's critics. He is in a good position to do this, he says, because he is an immigrant, who “is in a good position to evaluate American society.” This may be true, in the case of a brilliant observer like Alexis de Tocqueville. Even so, Americans have far more experience on which to base their opinions of their own country. If D'Souza wants us to believe that his position as an immigrant gives him special insight about our country, he needs to show us something special.

But in the very next sentence, D'Souza shows us that his insights are pedestrian:
As a “person of color,” I am competent to address such questions as what it is like to be a nonwhite person in America, what this country owes its minority citizens, and whether immigrants can expect to be granted full membership in this society.
His insights are flawed because he does not have adequate experience on which to base his opinions. The experience of a “person of color” in America is a group experience. We learn about the effects of race on our lives in our families, our neighborhoods, and our shared experiences over a lifetime. We can't draw conclusions from what people say at cocktail parties or how we are treated by the staff in luxury hotels, or even at elite think tanks like the Hoover Institute.

D'Souza admits his differences:
Unlike many of America’s homegrown dissidents, I am also acutely conscious of the daily blessings that I enjoy in America.
In other words, people who complain about racial discrimination are ungrateful; they should count their blessings. This is exactly what African Americans did for decades after the Civil War, until they decided to start speaking out about their problems and conditions started improving.

Notice that D'Souza hasn't mentioned anything that makes America great yet, but has already insulted Americans by claiming that he, as an immigrant, knows more about our country than we do and insulted African Americans by telling them they should keep quiet about racial discrimination.

D'Souza now takes a couple of paragraphs to explain how hard life is in the developing world:
For most poor people on the planet, life is characterized by squalor, indignity, and brevity.
This may be true, but it has nothing to do with the question at hand, namely, what makes America a great country? D'Souza has not promised to tell us how life in America is materially better than life in India. I don't think anyone questions that. What we would like to know is what makes America great; not just better, but great. Remember, I didn't ask D'Souza to tell me this; he volunteered.

D'Souza stumbles on with a description of how good things are in America:
The place is full of countless unappreciated inventions: quilted toilet paper, fabric softener, cordless telephones, disposable diapers, roll-on luggage, deodorant.
Quilted toilet paper? Disposable diapers? That's what makes America great? Is D'Souza joking? Laundry lists of curiosities may make America interesting or even unique, but they can't make it great.

D'Souza finally lists some things he believes make America great:
The moral triumph of America is that it has extended the benefits of comfort and affluence, traditionally enjoyed by a very few, to a large segment of society. Few people in America have to wonder where their next meal is coming from. Emergency medical care is available to everyone, even those without proper insurance. Every child has access to an education, and many have the chance to go to college.
Here at last we have some observations that might help us decide if America is great. But we also find some problems. Calling something a moral triumph does not make it one, but if it is, then the morality surely comes from American liberalism. Morality does not happen by accident; it must be intentional. Liberalism intentionally uses government to ameliorate the conditions of the less advantaged. If “few people...have to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” then food stamps, social security, food banks, unemployment, and other liberal programs must be the reason.

D'Souza proudly proclaims that emergency medical care is available to all, but fails to note that this is a defect of the system, not a virtue. Poor people go to emergency rooms because they don't have access to other forms of medical care. The care they receive is costly to the general public, which would be much better served by medical plans that provide non-emergency care to everyone, thus reserving expensive emergency care to those who really need it. Furthermore, those who can pay for emergency care will be billed if they make use of it, and the costs are steep.

Although it is true that every American child has access to an education, not all have access to a first-rate education. Many go to college, but every child of rich parents has the opportunity to go to college, while many children of the poor are forced to work to support their families. Besides, not all college educations are equal. Only a few colleges and universities, because of their reputations and connections with wealth, can promise their graduates good careers on graduation.

D'Souza notices that
we live in a country where construction workers regularly pay $4 for a nonfat latte, where maids drive rather nice cars, where plumbers and postal workers take their families on vacation in Europe or the Caribbean.
But here again he seems to believe that these things are merely accidents of society, not products of intentional actions. In many places, a maid must have a reliable car to make a living, but it is a huge expense, not a benefit; her car takes money away from her children, food, clothing, and other necessities of life. Besides, having a car does not mean you have insurance for it, or even a license. If plumbers or construction workers can afford some cheap luxuries, it is most likely because the construction industry is heavily unionized. We can't be sure of that because D'Souza is vague about such details—D'Souza does not mention trade unions in his essay—but it is a reasonable inference. We can be certain, though, that postal workers belong to a strong union that has worked to get them those vacations in Europe.

In all of these examples, D'Souza reminds me of Republicans who voted against the stimulus package and then took credit for the benefits provided to their constituents. Far-right conservatives admire America as it is, not as they would make it.

Up to this point, D'Souza has merely been uninformative. He makes a few observations, but tells us nothing about their causes. Now, however, he becomes dishonest:
As a result, people live longer, fuller lives in America.
There are 41 other countries in the world with longer life expectancy than the US. So life expectancy in the US is neither unique or exceptional. It is deceptive to imply that it is. Here again the US is being compared to India rather than other developed economies.


Having closed his section on America's good life with a deceptive statistic, D'Souza plunges into America's history. He starts out by denying the genocide of the American Indians:
Let’s begin by asking whether the white man was guilty of genocide against the native Indians. As a matter of fact, he was not.
His extraordinary thesis: The American Indians were wiped out by epidemics, not genocide. But even a cursory reading of American history reveals numerous genocidal events, among them
  • 1637. Puritans massacre 500-600 Pequod Indians at Mystic Fort.
  • 1835. 4,000 Cherokee die during forced march from Carolinas to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears.
  • 1864. American Cavalry murders 134 at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory.
  • 1868. American Cavalry murders 103 Cheyenne at Washita.
  • 1890. American Cavalry murders 146 Sioux at Wounded Knee.
These events were genocidal under the definition established by the UN General Assembly resolution 260 A (III) of 9 December 1948. It should also be understood that deaths from disease, such as those on the Trail of Tears, are also considered genocide if they are caused by direct government action.

With regard to slavery, D'Souza commits even greater blunders. First, he excuses American slavery by saying that "everyone does it":
No one will deny that America practiced slavery, but America was hardly unique in this respect.
But American slavery was not like everywhere else. Alexis de Tocqueville, himself an aristocrat and conservative, nevertheless severely condemned Southern Americans for their treatment of African slaves:
The legislation of the Southern states with regard to slaves presents at the present day such unparalleled atrocities as suffice to show that the laws of humanity have been totally perverted.
Those are strong words. De Tocqueville contrasts the treatment of slaves by the ancient Romans, who educated their slaves and frequently liberated them, with that of the Americans of the South,
who do not admit that the Negroes can ever be commingled with themselves, [and] have forbidden them, under severe penalties, to be taught to read or write; and as they will not raise them to their own level, they sink them as nearly as possible to that of the brutes.
It is this unrivaled ferocity of American Slavery, which we recognize today as racism, that sets us apart from the rest. Without excusing that for which there is no excuse, D'Souza raises a new argument:
What is distinctively Western is not slavery but the movement to end slavery.
So instead of describing slavery as it was in the South, D'Souza emphasizes the good done by the people of the North, namely the abolition of slavery. He then quotes Mohammed Ali, whom no one ever accused of being a scholar, to support the incredible conclusion,
though slavery was oppressive for the people who lived under it, their descendants are in many ways better off today.
This statement is not only morally repugnant, it is demonstrably false. It is morally repugnant because almost any atrocity could be justified by saying that some distantly related good came from it. It is false because between 5 million and 65 million Africans died during transport to America. These people had no descendants, so their descendants are not better off in any way.

For his next attempt to falsify history, D'Souza repeats the commonly held belief that
For a few decades now, blacks and some minorities have enjoyed more rights and privileges than whites. The reason is that America has implemented affirmative action policies that give legal preference to minority groups in university admissions, jobs, and government contracts.
This stands history on its head. The reason that affirmative action policies have been implemented is precisely because these groups continue to lack equal opportunities, due to poverty, poor schools, language difficulties, and discrimination. African Americans demonstrably lack the same opportunity with whites. The US Census shows that the median income for an African American household is just 60% of the median white income. If it were true, as D'Souza suggests, that African Americans have enjoyed more rights and privileges “for a few decades”, surely they would be richer than whites, but the opposite is true. Clearly, African Americans still carry the burden of prejudice.

D'Souza enlists Jesse Jackson as a witness to the lack of racism in America. Once again, he chooses a celebrity, not a scholar, as a source. He says he challenged Jackson to show him
how racism today is potent enough to prevent his children or mine from achieving the American dream.
Any number of scholars could give a detailed answer to that question, but Jackson could not, and D'Souza never asked anyone better qualified. Jackson may have been stymied because his children, and D'Souza's, being children of celebrities, did not face the same problems as most African Americans.

Finally he mentions de Tocqueville and his famous depiction of American equality. Whereas the earlier writer draws conclusions about the negative aspects of equality, D'Souza gives an example that just isn't true. In India, he says,
the rich enjoy the gratification of subservience, of seeing innumerable servants and toadies grovel before them and attend to their every need.
But in America,
If [Bill] Gates were to walk the streets of America and stop people at random and say, “Here’s a $100 bill. I’ll give it to you if you kiss both my feet,” what would the typical American response be? Even the homeless guy would tell Gates to go to hell.
This is a marvelous image, but reveals a misunderstanding of American culture. There are many humiliating things a homeless guy would do for $100—apparently D'Souza never watched Survivor. Furthermore, most Americans would not enjoy the gratification of subservience the way an Indian might. But more importantly, D'Souza assumes that because he cannot see something at first glance, it does not exist. As the CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates not only had innumerable toadies, but he probably had a hard time finding anyone to disagree with him, even when they knew him to be dead wrong. I doubt that Gates ever heard one of his employees tell him to go to hell.

The Pursuit of Happiness

D'Souza next relates a number of stories that might be prefaced, “Only in America...” But it is all anecdotal evidence that can easily be refuted with statistics. He nevertheless draws the conclusion that
Most societies offer limited opportunities for and little chance of true social mobility.
Once again, D'Souza proves that the US is better than India and invites us to conclude that the US is a great country, and again he mindlessly recites a conventional wisdom. But Miles Corak presented research showing that the possibility of upward (or downward) mobility in the US is actually smaller than in several other countries, including France, Germany, Denmark, and Canada. The probability of an American born into the poorest 20% of the population rising to the top 1% was, in 2000, only 1%. The odds, in other words, were 100-1 against it. On the other side, the probability of an American born into the richest 20% remaining in the richest 20% was 51%.

This may seem trivial. After all, D'Souza only claims that many Americans acquire wealth, not that all do. But he is clearly using this as an example of why America is great. If Germans or Danes have a better chance to improve their fortune than Americans, why isn't he talking about economically developed countries, instead of going on about the Founding Fathers? America did not invent the blueprint for a successful economy. We received one from European thinkers like Adam Smith, John Locke, and J. S. Mill, to name only a few.

D'Souza cannot admit this. His task is not just to show that America is a great country, but also to provide support for the beliefs of right-wing conservatives. One of their beliefs is that we can't look to Europe for inspiration or leadership. If Sweden (or Japan) have gone through economic crises similar to ours, we can't use their experiences as examples because America is, somehow, different. So D'Souza must prove that America is great by omitting all references to other countries similar to our own.

Right-wing conservatives, like those associated with the Heritage Foundation, pretend that all wisdom begins with the Founding Fathers and Milton Friedman. All of their arguments for monetary policy and morality rest on this premise. If there is some other way to find truth, their entire belief system falls apart, primarily because it cannot stand criticism from outside its own carefully prescribed limits.

The Ethics of Work

Having described how America is better than India and other developing economies, D'Souza begins to attack antiquity. Once again, his arguments are more effective if the reader knows nothing about history. He announces, without proof, that
[i]n the cultures of antiquity, Western as well as non-Western, the merchant and the trader were viewed as low-life scum,
This is certainly true for the middle ages and for Islamic societies where religion is paramount. In societies where trade is difficult, as it was upon the fall of Rome, the merchant and the trader have nothing to do. But in antiquity, this was not the case. Athens (and many other Greek city-states) rose to prominence through trade. The mosaics at Ostia testify that merchants were not shunned at Rome. Among famous Romans, the triumvir Crassus obtained his great wealth by running a sort of insurance company. The Medicis during the Renaissance obtained their great wealth as bankers. While Crassus lost out to Caesar in the struggle for absolute rule, the Medicis achieved high status, titles, respect, and even the Papacy. In Northern Europe, the mercantile cities of the Hanseatic League held monopoly power between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the South, the trading cities of Genoa and Venice became the leading powers in Italy. Mercantilism, an economic system that places trade at the center of state policy, was dominant in Western Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Trade became ever more important as the middle ages receded. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise when D'Souza claims that
In America, it is different, and the American Founders are responsible for the change.
Once again D'Souza is ambushed by right-wing mythology. Since that mythology states that the American Founders are the fount of all wisdom, he ignores all evidence to the contrary. In this instance, however, he does give a nod to the English philosophers, although he insists that the Founding Fathers, drawing on the inspiration of John Locke and Adam Smith, “altered the moral hierarchy of the ancient world.”

The Americans did not need to change anything from the way the English regarded trade. English law had favored business interests for centuries. The wealth of the nation came from trading slaves, spice, rum, and anything else they could buy, seize, or steal. English government policies favoring trade helped start the Industrial Revolution in England. An important part of the motivation for the American Revolution was the desire of American merchants to compete with their English counterparts. In order to do this, they had to make laws favoring American trade over British trade. It's hard to see how this “altered the moral hierarchy of the ancient world”; rather, it altered the balance of economic power in favor of the Americans.

D'Souza gives more credit to the Founding Fathers than they deserve. They were primarily practical men. The theorists whose ideas led to the American Constititution were Europeans. D'Souza implies that they were inventors, not just followers, when he says that they “devised” a system of checks and balances:
In the public sphere, the Founders took special care to devise a system that would prevent, or at least minimize, the abuse of power.
But the Founders did not invent the idea of separation of powers. The Roman Republic incorporated it into its system of government in ancient times. In modern times, the idea was discovered and elaborated on by the Baron de Montesquieu in 1748. He invented the name, “separation of powers”, and described as well a system of “checks and balances”.

Freedom of Religion

Finally D'Souza hits upon an idea that truly originated with the Founding Fathers, one that has proven to be a great boon to American society: The idea of separation of church and state, attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Religious tolerance in America attracted many of its early settlers. Their combined and peaceful efforts contributed to the rapid growth of the colonies. But separation of church and state was not envisioned until the Founders realized that any other solution might prevent acceptance of the Constitution by the States.

D'Souza interrupts his description of religious tolerance to bring up what he sees as an instance of intolerance:
Of course, Americans have not always lived by these principles, and there are exceptions, such as affirmative action. Such policies remain controversial because, in a sense, they are un-American.

D'Souza apparently believes that it is un-American to favor one ethnic group over another; but he is wrong. Discrimination was written into the Constitution, where it is famously stated that slaves are worth three-fifths of free men when apportioning representatives and taxes. After the Civil War, the former Confederate states passed Jim Crow laws that legalized descrimination against African Americans. Some states adopted poll taxes and literacy tests to keep African Americans from voting. So passing discriminatory laws is hardly un-American.

But perhaps D'Souza means that affirmative action regulations are unjust As stated above, these laws are intended to counter the injustices of poverty, inadequate schools, and housing that African Americans must deal with in our society. These injustices continue, and the few examples of affirmative action make hardly any difference to the African American community.

Ideals and Interests

D'Souza begins this section with his boldest lie yet:

America has the kindest, gentlest foreign policy of any great power in world history.

All great powers have their own interests at heart and never hesitate to crush anyone who gets in their way. Even when they appear to be magnanimous, great powers usually have ulterior motives. Like America, they clothe their true motives in high-sounding words like liberty and morality. When France aided the American revolutionaries, it did so as part of a world-wide struggle with England. But ordinary Americans believed they acted out of friendship and idealism.

America itself has fought one-sided wars with the Indians, with Mexico, and with Spain, primarily to seize land and power. Terms of peace were equally one-sided, requiring Indians to give up their lands and relocate to distant reservations, requiring Mexico to cede half its territory, requiring Spain to hand over naval bases around the world. America's treatment of allies is not always kind, either. During World War II, America took advantage of Great Britain's desperate plight to acquire naval bases in return for food and munitions.

America has refused to set up a legal way for Mexicans to enter the country and work, instead requiring such workers to undergo hardships to perform tasks useful to the host country. It has installed a rigorous trade embargo against another neighbor, Cuba, for 60 years, even though the embargo clearly has no effect on Cuba's internal politics other than to stiffen their resistance.

After World War II, America loaned money to European nations to help them recover from the effects of war, but this was almost entirely through selfish motives, since the economic troubles in Europe after World War I led to another catastrophic war within 20 years, and since America also required the assistance of Europe to combat the emerging threat of Soviet Russia.

During the post-war era, America helped destabilize the governments of Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, and others. It also prosecuted a bloody war in Indochina that led to the deaths of millions, and sponsored a guerilla action in Nicaragua and a terrorist regime in El Salvador.

These actions may have been justified, or even necessary, given the political climate of the time. But they were not kind and gentle. D'Souza understands this, so he has taken care to claim that American foreign policy is the “kindest [and] gentlest”, instead of simply “kind and gentle”, which would have been impossible to defend. Certainly some acts of violence and treachery are kinder and gentler than other, more vicious acts, but they are nevertheless violent and treacherous. The governments of Vietnam and Cambodia killed far more of their own citizens than did America, but we did kill our share.

But here again D'Souza uses a rhetorical trick to bolster his case. He compares America with some of the worst foreign policy offenders:
Imagine how the Soviets would have acted if they had won the Cold War...Thus, if the Chinese, the Arabs, or the sub-Saharan Africans slaughter 10,000 of their own people, the world utters a collective sigh and resumes its normal business. We sadly expect the Chinese, the Arabs, and the sub-Saharan Africans to do these things.
When praising America's economic conditions or quality of life, D'Souza compares us with India. When praising our political policies, he compares us with China and Russia. But Mao's China and Stalin's Russia were two of the most vicious dictatorships in the history of the world. Almost any country would seem kind and gentle in comparison with them. In order to show how great America is, D'Souza ought to compare us with other democractic empires, such as England or France, or even with the anti-militarist policies of Japan and Germany in the last half-century.

D'Souza should recognize the weakness of this argument:
On occasion, the U.S. intervenes to overthrow a tyrannical regime or to halt massive human rights abuses in another country, but it never stays to rule that country. In Grenada and Haiti and Bosnia, the United States got in and then got out.
Because he is an Indian, D'Souza knows that a great power does not need to govern a country in order to benefit by trade and military bases. The British ruled India only through intermediaries. They seized no territory. What they wanted was the right to exploit India's riches; they left the governing to others. In the same way, when America acts to defuse possible catastrophes in international hot spots like Bosnia or the Middle East, it does so out of self-interest, not charity. D'Souza admits as much:
However one feels about these cases, let us concede to the critics that America is not always in the right.
Shouldn't a great country always be in the right?

America's Virtue

At the start of each section of this essay, D'Souza makes another dubious claim. For this last section he makes two.
America, the freest nation on earth, is also the most virtuous nation on earth.
Here, D'Souza doesn't bother to prove his first claim, that America is the freest nation on earth. This isn't as easy to prove as it might seem. The Heritage Foundation itself ranks countries on the basis of how much freedom they have from government interference in economic matters. They rank America fifth in this year's list, behind Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland, and Australia. One doubts whether we will remain so high next year, after quasi-nationalizing the banks.

Other measures of freedom are just as difficult to determine. Any independent country is free, of course. We consider that citizens in a democracy have more personal freedom than under other forms of government. But there are degrees of personal freedom. India itself is one of the freest countries on earth. Its government is weak and unable either to raise taxes or enforce laws. In the matter of traffic laws, for example, Indians do as they please, knowing the government is powerless to stop them. There are no effective rules about how many people can ride on a bus, or which side of a divided highway to drive on, or how fast a vehicle must travel on the roads.

But D'Souza here is only interested in religious freedom, since that is what leads to virtue.

Similarly, when D'Souza claims America is the most virtuous nation on earth, he sets himself an impossible task. There are endless shapes and forms of morality. Trying to decide which is best has been the neverending quest of moralists since we began keeping records of such things. To extricate himself from this confusion, he compares America to the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran. Then he uses another rhetorical trick to win his argument.

D'Souza assumes that we all have free will. This is a Christian concept, and once he has made this assumption, the claims of another religion to superior virtue vanish.
In externally directed societies such as Iran, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue. Thus, the free society is not simply richer, more varied, and more fun: It is also morally superior to the externally directed society.
This is true only if we accept the existence of free will and discount the validity of another's religious experience altogether.


D'Souza is an intelligent man with a certain rhetorical brilliance. But he is operating at a disadvantage because he cannot use any arguments to support his point of view that conflict with the tenets of far-right conservatism espoused by the Heritage Foundation. Furthermore, far-right conservatism preaches that America is the only great country, perhaps in all history. This would be a difficult point to prove in any event, but D'Souza does not even begin. Instead he sets up several straw man arguments which he has no difficulty in proving: Life in America is easier than in India; America's foreign policy is more moral than Soviet Russia's; and America has more individual freedom than Iran.

These points made, D'Souza is still far from proving that America is a great country. Nevertheless, I believe that America is a great country; but I also believe that D'Souza doesn't understand why.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Limbaugh's Leadership Role

On January 23, President Obama told a group of Republican legislators, “You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”[1] By doing so, he recognized Limbaugh as one of the chief spokesmen for conservative politics and a leader of the Republican Party. Kathleen Parker verified how highly the right wing esteems Limbaugh when she crowed

Excuse me, Mr. President, but you've been baited by none other than the Master Fisherman. Limbaugh tossed you a lure and you chomped.[2]

Reporter Joe Garofoli, at sfgate.com, went further still, claiming that Obama's remark elevated Limbaugh's status and influence:

But in citing Limbaugh as influential, the president of the United States elevated a talk show host to his level - the leader of the free world. And in a leadership vacuum like the one that conservatives find themselves in after last November's devastating electoral losses, loud voices - like Limbaugh's with his 13 million weekly listeners - echo even louder.[3]

Garofoli cites David Keane, chairman of the American Conservative Union, as denying that Limbaugh is a leader of the party.

"He can't fulfill that role because that's not where he works."[3]

But anyone who denies that Limbaugh is a leader of the party is either confused or intentionally obtuse. A leader is one who can give his followers instructions that he expects to be carried out and that is exactly what Limbaugh did in the case of Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.

After President Obama called him out, Limbaugh crowed that Obama is

obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He's more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn't say much about our party.[4]

Gingrey replied in an interview with politico,

I think that our leadership, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, are taking the right approach[4]

That seems tame enough. Gingrey probably figured he could score some easy points with the leadership by defending them in public. But he made the mistake of directly contradicting Limbaugh. A “high volume of calls and correspondence to his office”[4] persuaded Gingrey to go on the air with Limbaugh the next day to apologize.

I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments (laughs) and I just wanted to tell you, Rush, and -- and all our conservative giants who help us so much to maintain our base and grow it and get back this majority that I regret those stupid comments.[5]

So Limbaugh is not a leader of the Republican Party? I'm reminded of Stalin's dismissal of the Pope: “How many divisions has he got?” Plenty, apparently.

2008 Republican Campaign

Limbaugh's leadership of the Republican Party over the past two years has left them in desperate straits. The most important item on the Republican agenda was the Presidential Election. Then-President Bush had little influence remaining with the party and the nomination was up for grabs. Rush began pushing the candidacy of Mitt Romney by bashing John McCain.

RUSH: [McCain] stabbed his own president in the back on legislation, a number of times. He doesn’t support his party or his president when the chips are down. He called people who want to protect the border racists, nativists, protectionists, and worse. And what kind of character is it that tries to slide all that through under cover of darkness, in a back room.[6]

Never satisfied with half-measures, Rush predicted McCain's nomination would destroy the Republican party.

RUSH: I'm here to tell you, if either of these two guys [Huckabee or McCain] get the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party, it's going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren't going to vote. You watch.[7]

But his efforts on behalf of Romney failed. Instead of admitting failure, Limbaugh claimed he was being blamed unfairly and denied supporting anyone:

RUSH: Let me help you with something here. You are asserting here that I had the power to coalesce people around Huckabee, and since I chose not to do it, we got McCain, and therefore you are somewhat blaming me --

CALLER: Yes, I am.

RUSH: -- that we lost because McCain is the nominee. All right, you tell me what I am supposed to do when I am sent an e-mail quoting a Huckabee campaign advisor speaking anonymously saying, "We don't care about Limbaugh, he's just part of the Republican National Committee talking points, he just says what he's being fed to say by the Republican establishment." I mean the e-mail I got was entitled, "Huckabee Forces Attack Limbaugh." Now, what am I supposed to do there, Ivan?

CALLER: Well, Rush, what I want to say is --

RUSH: I don't endorse people during primaries anyway. Candidates are supposed to win elections, not me. [8]

Limbaugh's stock in trade is a continuous stream of talk. He puts out an amazing 10,000 words a day during a three-hour show that airs 5 days a week. [9] That's the equivalent of writing the King James Bible every three months. So people forget what he says, remembering only that he denied saying it.

For all the words he broadcasts, though, Limbaugh is surprisingly careful about what he says and how he says it. Notice in this case he says he doesn't “endorse people”, which was literally true in that Limbaugh made no “official” endorsement. But it's hard to claim you didn't endorse anyone when you say that the election of his rivals would destroy the Republican Party.

Towards the end of February, Limbaugh began urging Republicans in primary states to reregister as Democrats and vote for Hillary Clinton. He called this idea “Operation Chaos”.[10]His intent, he claimed, was to make the Democratic Party appear confused and indecisive. But perhaps Limbaugh was just playing games with his listeners.

Although McCain had wrapped up the Republican nomination by April 8, Limbaugh kept up his criticism, saying

I don't know who in government I would hire to do anything if I ran a major corporation. I don't know who I would hire to fix it, streamline it, and run it. Senator McCain hasn't run a business like this, yet he's saying, "I'm going to rein in CEO pay." This is all just liberal lingo. It's all pandering on the basis of class envy.[11]
This is vintage Limbaugh, the non-attacking attack. He doesn't directly accuse McCain of anything, but he implies that McCain is liberal, or at least not a true (Limbaugh) conservative. He also implies that McCain is a hypocrite because he panders to the liberals. Finally, he implies that McCain is socialistic, because he arouses class envy.

As late as the end of April, Limbaugh criticized McCain for not being a conservative and not being a good Republican:

Senator McCain, with these outbursts last night and today, seems to have reserved the right to dictate to all Republicans what they should say, what they shouldn't say, what they should think; while at the same time reserving for himself the right to abandon the Republican Party whenever he so chooses. [12]

Limbaugh Reveals the Mystery Behind the Money Market Meltdown

On January 27 2009, Congressman Kanjorsky appeared on CSPAN to discuss the financial aftermath of the failure of Lehman Brothers. He said that the Federal Reserve Board had told Congress there had been an electronic run on money market funds two days later, on [16 December 2008]. The Bush Administration immediately suspended trading in money market funds and announced that accounts would be insured to $250,000. Kanjorsky said

If they had not done that, their estimation was that by two o'clock that afternoon, $5-1/2 trillion dollars would have been drawn out of the money market system of the United States, would have collapsed the entire economy of the United States, and within 24 hours the world economy would have collapsed. It would have been the end of our economic system and our political system as we know it.[13]

This amazing development came on the heels of a deliberate decision by the Bush administration to allow Lehman Brothers to fail. But Limbaugh never mentioned the Lehman Brothers failure in his account. nor the possibility that Bush's laissez-faire policies may have been responsible for the crisis. Instead, he began casting around for someone else to blame.

The question is who was doing this? Who was withdrawing all this money? And the next question is why? That's where my mind starts exploding, and this is dangerous to have these explosions going this way. Could it have been George Soros? Could it have been a consortium of countries -- Russia, China, Venezuela -- countries that are eager to have Barack Obama elected because they know that will make it easier for them to continue their own foreign policies in the world?[14]

This fanciful speculation, two days after the Lehman Brothers failure, is the equivalent of finding an angry bull in a shop filled with broken crockery and saying, “I wonder how all this stuff got broken?” Instead of making an intelligent guess, Limbaugh simply rounds up the usual suspects.

Later investigation proved that the crisis was not caused by George Soros et al., but by

pullouts by investors such as corporations and pension funds that threatened the whole system, leaving the government scrambling to prop up an industry holding about $3.4 trillion in assets.[15]

Limbaugh Takes On Obama

Obama's challenge to Limbaugh did not come out of the blue. On 16 January 2009, Limbaugh declared his intention to oppose Obama's plans to rejuvenate the American economy:

I know what his politics are. I know what his plans are, as he has stated them. I don't want them to succeed.[16]

Asked by a magazine (or so he said) to send a 400 word essay on his “hope” for the Obama presidency, he replied bluntly over the air,

Okay, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails...Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what's gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here.

Even after the Bush administration recognized its error in letting Lehman Brothers fail, Limbaugh and his supporters are recommending that the government should let all the banks fail and let the market take care of itself. Clearly the Republicans in Congress are following his lead. But Obama should not be advising them to stop because they are following him right over the cliff.

In 2008, while gaining listeners, Limbaugh failed to stop the nomination of John McCain. He has failed to stop the nomination and victory of Barack Obama. He still influences Congress, but Republicans are losing head count. Instead of reviewing the policies that lead to the credit crisis, Limbaugh still blames liberals.

The Republican dead-enders in Congress can read the polls. They have feared Limbaugh's attacks in the past because he can mobilize his supporters to support right-wing challenges in their districts. But the polls tell a different story today. They are warning that the danger lies in a challenge from the left. Sooner or later the Republicans must rethink their position and begin to rebuild their party with a philosophy that does not conflict so dangerously with reality.