Monday, November 24, 2014

Moving Past the Cosby (Side) Show.....

A few weeks ago I read an article in which a journalist was questioning why rape criticisms against Bill Cosby didn't get much media attention. The accusations have been percolating since the mid-1980's and many people were aware of the accusations, although not necessarily the full details. Now they charges have broken through into mainstream public consciousness, and they're all over the media.

The media deserves no award for bravery, coming to the story this late in the game. Whatever excuses may have existed in the past, it is difficult to see the story as anything but the media's siding with the rich and powerful up to the point that the story penetrated the public consciousness -- by virtue of a comedian's accusations against Cosby going viral. While some in the media are offering some introspection, and you'll find an occasional mea culpa, the intensity of the present coverage seems to me to reflect another failure of the media, its tendency to shine a spotlight on an issue of current controversy or debate in order to try to grab as many viewers or readers as possible, even if that means tending toward the salacious or missing the forest for the trees.

Dare I suggest, I think there is a very big forest out there, covering the same time period as the accusations against Cosby, and that the media is continuing to protect the wealthy and powerful.

A few years ago in the U.K., a series of stories broke about a deceased entertainer who, as it turned out, was a serial child molester. If you even scrape the surface of the story, you hit the same sort of issue you encountered in the Jerry Sandusky case -- acts that were sufficiently brazen and careless that they ended up being witnessed by others, but with the decision made not to involve the police. Not to kill the golden goose, or tarnish the image of his employer, but to cover up. The accusations against Cosby are similar to those made against Roman Polanski, except Cosby is alleged to have targeted adults.

Corey Feldman has indicated that, as teen stars, he and Corey Haim were targeted by predatory adults. You don't have to look very hard to find "casting couch" stories in which young actresses, and some young actors, found themselves in awkward situations with people -- usually unnamed -- who were trying to obtain sexual favors in exchange for a part, or other help advancing their careers. Sometimes when a story breaks about a predatory individual it's immediately apparent that his predilections were widely known, and widely ignored. Australian entertainer Rolf Harris, accused of sexually assaulting teenaged girls, earned himself the nickname "the Octopus". An Australian news journalist recounts,
Rolf Harris was known as “the Octopus”. But he wasn’t the only one.

During 25 years in television, I was warned by colleagues about dozens of stars who would grope, molest or harass anyone who took their fancy.

These include a presenter who is a household name.
An example is given of how that nationally famous news presenter sexually groped a female employee as recently as two years ago, but his identity is withheld. The article identifies only two sexual offenders, both of whom had already been publicly identified by others and one of whom had been criminally convicted.

I stumbled across a letter written in response to a Richard Cohen column,
Richard Cohen wrote in his Nov. 18 op-ed column, “None of our business,” that the sexual misbehavior of a “great man” should go unpublished. I disagree.

A man who believes in his own greatness may feel he is exempt from rules of honorable behavior that apply to others. That belief reveals a possibly dangerous arrogance in his character.

Sure, the press can go overboard with scandal, and as a former reporter and journalism teacher, I deplore that. But as a woman, I’d like to know if a so-called great man lies to his wife and uses women as sex objects. I may vote for him anyway when weighing that knowledge against his other attributes, but I’ll see him more clearly as imperfect and flawed, and most certainly avoid calling him “great.”
The column is about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the FBI smear campaign against him,
I did not know at the time [in 1964] about King’s affairs. I learned about them later, once the FBI bugs of King’s home and hotel rooms had become common knowledge in newsrooms around the country. But here’s the thing: No one printed a word of it. I know of no item in a gossip column and, since celebrity TV junk was still in the future, nothing on the air either. Lots of people knew the secret, but the press in those days respected the privacy of public figures: King was saved from ignominy. He was preserved for greatness.
Cohen also mentions Gary Hart, FDR, JFK, Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Lyndon Johnson, Anthony Weiner.... For the most part, examples that involve consensual extramarital relationships. Jefferson's case is particularly discomfiting -- you can't have a consensual relationship with a slave, although contemporary knowledge of the affair might have offended more people based upon her race than upon the fact that it was an extramarital affair or involved a profoundly coercive power dynamic.

Cohen's complaint also is of another time. Gary Hart brought to an end the era in which you could be an unapologetic skirt chaser and still aspire to national office. Senator Bob Packwood helped end the era in which powerful politicians could do whatever they wanted to their employees behind closed doors -- and, if you recall, he threatened to take down other politicians who he claimed had committed acts comparable to his own, before choosing instead to exit politics and enrich himself by becoming a lobbyist.

I find it difficult to be wistful for an era in which the powerful could easily abuse the weak, even in a nominally consensual adult-to-adult relationship. It may be that media coverage of politicians' sexual peccadilloes has the unfortunate effect of causing somebody with non-abusive tendencies to either stay out of politics or to lose an election, but I think there is nonetheless a significant net benefit. We have enough sociopaths and narcissists at the head of government and industry without also giving them -- restoring to them -- free reign to sexually abuse their underlings. In the current era, MLK would know that if he didn't control himself with women he would almost certainly be held accountable in the court of public opinion. It would be up to him to decide if it was worth the risk. It should not be the media's job to protect him from himself, let alone to "protect" us from knowing the truth.

We have had an evolution in our society over the past fifty years, relating to how we treat sexual abusive conduct and how we respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. The improvement has come not only through improved legal remedies for victims of abuse, but through the publicity surrounding abuse cases. There is a valuable social lesson to be learned from stories about abusers being held accountable for their conduct, both in terms of helping other victims of abuse feel less isolated and in letting them know that legal remedies are available.

It's really easy, alarmingly easy, to rally to the defense of the rich and powerful with little risk to your professional reputation. There's certainly a lot more risk in taking on the rich and powerful, and more difficulty in convincing your publication's lawyers to let you push a story into the public consciousness. I find it difficult to give a reporter or commentator credit for ignoring an open secret for years or decades, only to jump onto the story when it is finally broken by others, even if they admit that they should have addressed the story earlier or that the media failed to properly handle the allegations.

If journalists or commentators want to convince me that they're actually sorry to have not covered the story at an earlier time, or that they want to improve their profession, I suggest that they start covering some of the other "open secrets" of business, entertainment and politics, rather than again waiting until they can safely and easily jump onto the bandwagon.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Before Charles Lane Accuses Others of Hypocrisy, Perhaps He Should Look Up the Definition

I've commented in the past about accusations of hypocrisy, and how they are often misplaced. It's not hypocritical for Warren Buffett to pay only the taxes required by current law, while simultaneously arguing that taxes on the wealthy should be raised. Even assuming that the material facts are identical, it's not necessarily hypocritical for somebody to take a different position than the one they took years or decades earlier, as sometimes people change their minds. It's not hypocritical to stop protesting an action or issue that once drew you out to the streets, every time that issue comes up -- you can continue to feel strongly about the issue while succumbing to issue fatigue, recognizing that your protests are not having any effect, or moving onto other issues or priorities that get in the way of organizing protests and rallies.

Still, accusations of hypocrisy abound. Certainly there are times that they are warranted, but often they're the hallmark of a lazy columnist. Falling into that latter category, Charles Lane is waving his finger at "liberals".
Building the Keystone XL pipeline, to speed the flow of crude from Canada’s oil sands to refineries in Texas, would be “game over for the climate,” says NASA-scientist-turned-climate-activist James E. Hansen. Heeding Hansen’s words, environmentalists have sworn to stop the project, which requires U.S. government approval.
Perhaps we should note, up front, that not all environmentalists are liberals, and not all liberals are environmentalists.
Yet large, bipartisan majorities of the House and Senate support Keystone XL, as does 60 percent of the American public, according to the latest USA Today poll.
And... that has absolutely nothing to do with whether the project is environmentally wise.
Today, it is still on hold, because Tuesday night 41 Senate Democrats voted against ending debate on a bill to green-light Keystone XL, thus thwarting what might have been a disastrous exercise of democracy.
Perhaps it escaped Lane's notice, but that is not the first-ever use of a filibuster in the Senate. As Lane himself noted in a prior screed,
Republican opposition to Obamacare may be hypocritical, irrational and opportunistic — especially GOP opposition to the exchanges, which the party previously favored in various forms. And, yes, the modern filibuster takes counter-majoritarianism to an extreme even the Framers probably didn’t contemplate.

But the Constitution lets the Senate write its own rules.
The fact that Senators who are part of an institution that has created and upheld the filibuster actually employ a filibuster is in no way hypocritical. Even if we assume (in defiance of the facts) that each and every one of those Senators would vote for straight majority rule in the Senate, it would not be hypocritical of them to employ the actual rules of the Senate when voting on legislation.
In short, the filibuster may have just saved the planet, at least for now.

Or so it must be believed by Keystone XL’s opponents — even though they include some of the same people who decried the filibuster, not unreasonably, as an obstructionist, anti-majoritarian evil when Republicans employed it against President Obama’s health-care reform, cap-and-trade and other progressive legislation.
Here, through his link, Lane suggests that Markos Moulitsas is a hypocrite for opposing the filibuster and... he doesn't offer a link, but perhaps Moulitsas praised the Senate vote somewhere? As with Warren Buffett and his taxes, even if Moulitsas is overjoyed that the pipeline bill was filibustered, it's not hypocritical for him to advocate changing the Senate's rules while nonetheless encouraging Senators to use those rules to advance policy positions he favors. The concept isn't even slightly difficult to grasp -- it is possible to believe that something is bad on the whole such that it should be eliminated, even when recognizing that it has potential value under certain circumstances.

When I saw the film, Shattered Glass, I had some sympathy for the Charles Lane played by Peter Sarsgaard, a well-meaning guy who got duped by one of his employees. But the Charles Lane who writes for the Washington Post seems to have a different problem -- he seems to be lazy and indifferent to the facts, the sort of approach to journalism that can allow somebody like Stephen Glass to get away with feeding him the most absurd fabrications as long as they don't conflict with his preconceptions. When you click through the link to the actual statement by Markos Moulitsas, Lane's exemplar of a hypocrite, you hear this:
There's a huge movement, and I think it's going to happen, to change the filibuster rules from requiring sixty votes to requiring forty "no" votes. Right now if you want to filibuster you don't even have to show up, you know, the onus is on the "pro" side to round up the sixty votes. So when you turn it to forty votes you gotta have those forty people there, and if one of them has to go to the bathroom, boom, you call cloture, and that's that.
Moulitsas was not calling for the elimination of the filibuster -- he was calling for the perpetuation of the filibuster, but with a change in how you vote for cloture. Given that Lane knows that forty-one Democrats voted to filibuster, and he should know that Moulitsas favors a filibuster rule that would sustain a filibuster based on those forty-one votes, his insinuation of hypocrisy has no basis in reality. It's instead an example of Lane getting his facts wrong. And with that example having been dredged up from September 10, 2010, either Lane couldn't find an actual example of a statement from a liberal that would support his thesis, or he got lazy.
Majority rule is not the only progressive principle some progressives seem ready to sacrifice on the anti-Keystone altar.
First, are we talking about "liberals", are we talking about "progressives", or does Lane view the term as interchangeable? Either way, I am not aware of any consensus among either group that we should eliminate representative democracy in favor of direct democracy.

If we're simply talking about Senate rules, to put it mildly, there is no consensus among liberals or progressives that the filibuster should be abandoned. Some believe that it should be eliminated, but others (as with Lane's exemplar progressive, Markos Moulitsas) favor continuing the filibuster but changing the rules to make it less of a tool for obstruction, and still others would leave well enough alone. Meanwhile, it was not so many years ago that Republicans on the floor of the Senate made frequent calls for a "straight up or down vote" when confronted with the filibuster. Some of that opposition may have been opportunistic, but the fact is that the recognition that the filibuster is anti-democratic and could benefit from reform is not something that is unique to the political left.
Remember the corrupting influence of money on politics? Billionaire Tom Steyer has spent millions on TV ads backing environmentalist Democrats and trashing the pipeline itself, thus purchasing outsize influence in the White House and the Democratic Party.
Although this should go without saying, campaign finance reform has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, once championed by none other than John McCain. As should also go without saying, proponents of campaign finance reform have not proposed that no money be spent on political advertising. But beyond that, we're back to Warren Buffett and his taxes. You can believe that wealthy individuals and corporations gain an outsized voice in politics and government through their direct and indirect contributions, while nonetheless believing that you should take full advantage of the existing laws to advance your causes. There is no hypocrisy in advocating for a change in the law while operating under the existing laws, and it would be extraordinarily foolish to refuse adequate funding for your political goals out of principle when the likely consequence would be that your opponent would win. Heck, Steyer even spoon-fed that reality to those who are a bit slow on the uptake, and Lane quotes the explanation:
“On issues as critical as climate change, we will take action and work within the system that we’ve got until we can change it,” Steyer pragmatically told Forbes magazine.
How can Lane read that statement yet fail to understand that it's not an example of hypocrisy?

Next up, infrastructure,
Most of the time, liberals tout the job-creating potential of critical infrastructure projects, based on the indirect “multiplier effect” that even short-term construction can have on economic growth.
Perhaps lane doesn't realize that with his opening qualifier, he hobbled his argument before it left the starting gate. There is a vast difference between supporting infrastructure projects most of the time, and supporting them all of the time. We should note, also, that many conservative voters recognize the need for and benefit of infrastructure projects -- but that doesn't mean that either side has to embrace every infrastructure project, that they cannot prioritize certain types of project over others, or that they cannot object to an infrastructure project that they deem wasteful or harmful.
For Keystone XL, though, different rules apply.
Apparently, to lane, "different rules" means roughly the same thing as "the same rules".
We are instructed, by Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress, among others, that the $8 billion project will create “only” 3,900 “direct” one-year construction jobs and a mere 50 permanent ones. Forget the 42,000 jobs that a State Department analysis said would be “supported” by the project.
Here, rather than pointing to the actual State Department report, Lane links to a post from the Washington Post's Wonkblog. That blog post indicates that "About 3,900 of [the] jobs would be temporary construction jobs", and that once built, "the pipeline would support 50 jobs". In other words, Lane is complaining not that the one person he mentions got the facts wrong, but that he should have provided additional facts.

When you go to the written statement of Daniel Weiss, you find that his reference to the number of jobs that would be created by the Keystone XL pipeline was specifically addressing the number of permanent jobs that would be created. While Lane can certainly argue that a greater discussion of temporary jobs would make the statement more complete, surely he can understand that temporary jobs are not of great significance to an assertion about permanent jobs. After all, if he cannot make that distinction, he is guilty of the same offense he attributes to Weiss -- Lane does not mention that either that the 42,000 indirect jobs would be temporary, continuing only during the construction of the pipeline.

Lane is also engaged in a sleight of hand. The people -- liberal and conservative -- who favor infrastructure projects have done so in no small basis upon the position that although a typical infrastructure project is relatively short-term, we need to invest in our nation's decaying infrastructure and that the short-term boost in employment can help stimulate the economy. As previously stated, this was never an endorsement of any infrastructure project. In fact, the proposed focus has typically been on public infrastructure.

But as Lane knows, those commenting on the very small number of permanent jobs that will result from pipeline construction are addressing a different issue. They were attempting to rebut exaggerated claims by pipeline proponents about the number of jobs the pipeline would generate, and to point out the indisputable fact that the pipeline will create an inconsequential number of long-term jobs. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the people making these observations about Keystone XL would not say exactly the same thing about other major infrastructure projects.
Construction unions understand that employment in their field is inherently temporary in the sense that it ends when the building is built. They strongly favor Keystone XL. Yet this reliably Democratic middle-class constituency is also being thrown under the anti-Keystone bus.
Wow... crocodile tears for union worker.

It's even slightly surprising that unions whose members would benefit from construction jobs favor construction projects. I would not be surprised if there was significant union support to build "the bridge to nowhere". The question of whether a particular faction supports a project does not answer the question of whether the project is wise or appropriate. Further, given that only a few short paragraphs ago Lane was grousing that progressives have forgotten their principle of "majority rule", Lane wants to have it both ways. If it's hypocritical and an affront to progressive principles to not abide by the judgment of the minority, how can it be simultaneously an affront to progressive principles to not allow a vocal minority to impose its will on the majority? Does Lane not find it obvious that it's one or the other?
The least attractive violation of progressive values by Keystone XL opponents’ was their attempt to recast this joint project of Canada and the United States in xenophobic terms.
Oh, this should be good....
One Steyer-financed ad warned that China is “counting on the U.S. to approve TransCanada’s pipeline to ship oil through America’s heartland and out to foreign countries like theirs.”
So... based on one ad that virtually nobody in the nation has seen, Lane has concluded that progressives have embraced xenophobia.... (Has Lane ever noticed the Republican Party's treatment of issues like immigration?)
The only basis for this claim was that state-owned Chinese companies have a modest investment in Canada’s oil sands. The Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, awarded the ad four Pinocchios, noting that “it relies on speculation, not facts, to make insinuations and assertions not justified by the reality.”
That's it, then? One ad, financed by one individual, seen by virtually no one? It's difficult to imagine how Lane could build a stronger case.
Speaking of the planet, perhaps the only person on it who still hasn’t made up his mind about Keystone XL is President Obama, though his dithering has recently given way to expressions depressingly reminiscent of those in the Steyer ad.
In reality, President Obama has expressed that he is waiting for private lawsuits over the pipeline's proposed path to be resolved, and for the State Department to complete its analysis of how the pipeline will affect the environment, before taking a position on the pipeline. It's easy to understand why some might want the President to take a firm position, pro- or con-, before all of the facts are in. It's also easy to see why the President would instead choose to remain neutral pending either the outcome of litigation and studies that might prevent the pipeline's construction, or the presentment by Congress of legislation for his signature. Lane chooses the pejorative, "dither", but there is no reason to believe that the President is being even slightly indecisive on the question, as opposed to playing a careful political game on a hot button issue.

And yes, obviously, his suggestion that the President is xenophobic is absurd.
“Understand what this project is,” he said at a news conference in Burma last week. “It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land down to the Gulf [Coast], where it will be sold everywhere else.” Their oil. Our land.
Does Lane disagree that the oil belongs to Canada? Does he disagree that a pipeline that will run across the United States is accurately described by the President as crossing "our land"? If Lane actually believes that the President's statement reflects xenophobia or anti-Canadian agitation, he should seek psychiatric help.
Yet his own State Department’s exhaustive review of the project found that re-exports of the oil, either as crude or in refined form, were unlikely.
This time around, Lane links to the actual State Department report. However, he is not being honest about the report's conclusion:
It is likely that increasing amounts of WCSB crudes will reach Gulf Coast refiners whether or not the proposed Project goes forward (products from this processing will be used in both domestic markets and for export). As a result, future refined product export trends are also unlikely to be significantly impacted by the proposed Project.
The report does not suggest that export won't occur. It suggests instead that enough Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) crude will reach the Gulf, with or without the pipeline, that net exports are unlikely to be affected.

Lane's second link is to a Reuter's analysis of the President's statement, which it declares to "ring[] only half true".
"Some of it will stay in Gulf, some of it will leave," said Sarah Emerson, president of Energy Security Analysis, Inc. in Boston. "I don't think anyone would have built if they thought the oil was just going to stay in the Gulf Coast, that is like bringing coal to Newcastle."
It would be fair to accuse the President of overstatement. However, once again Lane is guilty of the very offense he attributes to others -- he is misrepresenting the State Department's report and is implying, in defiance of the facts and his own sources, that export is unlikely to occur.
Hypocrisy and rhetorical flimflam are standard in politics, and liberals are not the only guilty parties in the Keystone XL battle.
At this point, Lane has identified zero examples of hypocrisy. Not a one. It's not even clear that he understands the meaning of the word. As for "rhetorical flimflam", it's a colorful way of describing something that is inherent to politics. To observe, even with colorful language, that politicians are guilty of practicing politics seems somehow banal.
Keystone XL proponents have undoubtedly tapped corporate coffers to fund their share of exaggerations about the project’s benefits.
Lane speaks of this as if it's an assumption, not a fact. It's a fact.
And of course climate change is real and must be addressed.
Which doesn't mean that Lane isn't going to insist that the President state a firm opinion, or insult him for declining to do so, while we await the environmental impact report.
But in this case progressives are not only being intellectually dishonest and traducing their values, they’re doing so pointlessly: This end doesn’t justify these means.
Really, other than waving his hands a lot, all Lane has documented is that one wealthy person produced one TV ad, approved by nobody but himself and seen by virtually no one, that has an element of xenophobia; and that the President has implied that more of the WCSB crude will be exported than is likely to be the case. And in producing that tepid indictment of "liberals", he has misstated the facts, misrepresented the positions of people he has held up as hypocrites, and misunderstood the basic issues under debate.
Far from being “game over” for the planet, Keystone XL would not boost greenhouse gas emissions significantly, according to State Department experts. With or without Keystone XL, Canada’s oil sands will still be turned into crude oil and shipped, often by rail, to markets in the United States and elsewhere. The environmental movement’s energies — not to mention Steyer’s millions — would be far better spent elsewhere.
Lane's implication is that the crude is going to be extracted, shipped and used, so environmentalists may as well shut down and go home. Sometimes, even a fight for a losing cause can bring about results that benefit the losing side -- a better educated, more aware public, the exercise of greater caution when proposing and planning future projects with significant potential environmental impact, and the like. Also, while Lane writes off the possibility, perhaps those environmentalists don't intend to call it quits if the pipeline is not constructed. But, frankly, it's not his place to tell environmentalists how to expend their energies or to tell Steyer how to spend his own money.

In their tendentious effort to deny these realities, progressives risk violating yet another cherished principle that, in their view, distinguishes them from the right: that of letting facts and science, not ideology, determine policy.
And here Lane is back to his earlier trick of conflating the terms "environmentalist" and "progressive" -- as if there are no conservative environmentalists nor any progressives who don't oppose the pipeline. And in relation to letting the facts and science dictate policy, what was it that Lane said only a few sentences ago?
And of course climate change is real and must be addressed.
So which is it -- is this a situation in which climate change is real and must be addressed, or a situation in which that science is already known and weighs in favor of the pipeline? If Lane's theory is that the oil will be extracted and used, rendering the existence of the pipeline irrelevant to the debate, he's missing the actual goal of the environmentalists opposed to this project -- they don't want that oil to be extracted or used at all. That's not because they are ignorant of science and climate change, or because they are refusing to consider the science when forming their positions on WCSB crude -- quite the opposite. Given that Lane is now endorsing making decisions based on science, it also seems odd that he wants the President to get ahead of the environmental impact analysis for the Keystone XL pipeline. It's almost as if Lane is privileging ideology over science.
Campaigning for a symbolic victory over the fossil-fuel industry, they may end up with a pyrrhic one — if any.
It goes without saying that the environmentalists could lose their fight against the pipeline. But it also goes without saying, even with due respect to Lane's accusations of imagined hypocrisy, if the environmentalists who oppose the pipeline prevail they will not view their victory as pyrrhic. More likely, they will be energized for their next battle.

Do you know what would have made Lane's column better? If, rather than launching a poorly reasoned screed about "liberals", "progressives" and "environmentalists", that did little more than reveal his sloppy, lazy fact-checking, he had tried to lay out the case for why the pipeline is a good idea. He might have tried to explain how the pipeline compares to other possible infrastructure projects in terms of need, job creation and long-term benefit. He could have attempted to address environmental concerns, rather than brushing them off. Too much to ask?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Executive Orders - What, Me Worry?

On the editorial pages of a newspaper that can scarcely pass up an opportunity to beat the drums for war, Ruth Marcus has taken up the horror of the executive order. She's not employing in the over-the-top rhetoric of Ross Douthat, but she is concerned about the ever-present slippery slope,
Every Democrat should be nervous about President Obama’s plan for unilateral action on immigration reform.

Not because of the impact on an already gridlocked Congress, or because it risks inflaming an increasingly hostile public. Democrats should be nervous about the implications for presidential power, and the ability of a future Republican president to act on his or her own.
Perhaps Democrats have short memories, because it seems to me that we saw ample evidence of what a Republican president can accomplish through executive orders when G.W. Bush signed a huge stack of them while on his way out of the White House. Leaving that aside for the moment, we're speaking specifically of executive orders that are being proposed because Congress cannot or will not do its job. I'm not particularly concerned about setting a precedent, as there's nothing particularly unique or special about what President Obama is proposing. For that matter, were the President to refrain from acting, I have no reason to believe that a future Republican president would exercise similar restraint.

The very first concern Marcus raises is interesting, but not in the way she imagines,
First, is there a limiting principle that would constrain the president’s authority to effectively legalize everyone in the country?
Obviously, when we're speaking of this type of executive action, we're speaking of a context in which the White House wants to address an issue on which Congress refuses to speak. Executive orders must be consistent with existing law, and if Congress is willing to pass legislation it can either avoid the need for an executive order or preempt the president's plan.

Marcus's slippery slope rests on the idea that, in the face of Congressional dysfunction, a President may stake out the most extreme position he can arguably take under existing law. That's possible -- but I'm not sure that it would be a bad thing -- not because I want Presidents to sidestep Congress, but because that type of action may be the only thing that is sufficient to light a fire under Congress's posterior such that it actually does its job. If Congress won't act when faced with the most extreme interpretations of existing law, it's a fair inference that the demagoguery of its members doesn't amount to much and that they find that interpretation to be acceptable. Would it be a bigger threat to democracy for the President to stake out extreme positions, presenting the loudest possible "put up or shut up" to Congress, or for the President to tiptoe up to the edges of what might inspire Congressional action while taking advantage of that institution's unwillingness to do its job?

Marcus also argues,
Second, is there a limiting principle that would constrain future presidents inclined against enforcing other laws with which they don’t agree — and on which they’ve been unable to convince Congress to act accordingly?
As previously noted, we're speaking of executive action taken in the face of congressional inaction. Although it is conceivable that a future president might refuse to enforce the laws favored by his own party, it's far more likely that such a president would be in a position to simply ask his party to amend the law.

If a President refuses to uphold the laws of the United States in a manner that Congress finds unacceptable, Congress has a well-known constitutional remedy: impeachment. If Congress chooses not to pursue a legislative remedy, and chooses not to initiate impeachment proceedings, it again becomes difficult to regard any table-thumping condemnations of a president as anything but noise.

The situation in which Marcus's concern might have some weight would be one in which the White House and one chamber of Congress is controlled by one party, and the other chamber of Congress is controlled by another. In such a scenario, the chamber aligned with the White House would have to be sufficiently supportive of the President's actions that it would refuse to support impeachment and conviction, but be unwilling or unable to pass legislation addressing the issue due to the divided government. But legislators have easy access to the media, to make their case against a president. The House of Representatives can slow down or shut down the government, or vote to impeach even if it expects that the Senate will acquit the president. The Senate can similarly slow down the government, not only by impeding the progress of legislation but also by putting the brakes on executive appointments, and can also shut down the government. The tools may not be as precise as would be ideal for the theoretical task at hand, but Congress is anything but powerless.

The fact that I'm not particularly impressed with Marcus's arguments should not be interpreted as my supporting the idea of the executive forming policy through executive orders on matters that are best addressed through legislation. My concern is less about the slippery slope -- a form of argument that can be applied to any action, no matter how trivial -- and is much more about what happens when Congress won't or can't perform its duties. Unlike Marcus or the various members of her employer's editorial board, I find the issue of greater concern to be the fact that we are involved in a new war in the Middle East predicated upon an authorization that cannot reasonably be said to apply to the present circumstances, yet Congress is content to let the war wage on while refusing to pass a new authorization bill that could define its goals or limit its scope. There's not even a hint of concern from the editorial board that we should have congressional authorization for war before we get into yet another armed conflict in the Middle East.

The Washington Post editorial board wants the President to commit ground forces, in the form of special forces, to the front lines of the war with ISIS. It is chomping at the bit for the President to declare direct war on what remains of the Assad regime, without any apparent concern for what would follow the collapse of that regime. But one thing about which the editorial board is conspicuously unconcerned? The absence of Congressional authorization for the present war, let alone the escalated, potentially disastrous war that they propose.

To put it mildly, I'm not thrilled that the President is proposing unilateral action in the face of congressional gridlock. It would be better if Congress would do its job. But at least in the context of executive orders we're speaking not of Marcus's slippery slope, but of the President's following precedents set by prior administrations, and proposing lawful orders that are consistent with existing law. When it comes to war, the Constitution attempts to create a clear framework for the separation of powers, with wars to be initiated by Congress. If you're going to pretend concern about a possible constitutional crisis, can't you give that one more than a shrug and a yawn?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Congress Needs to Do Its Job

Daniel Larison is writing about one of his pet peeves:
Virginia Sen. Tim] Kaine’s point [on Congressional abdication and presidential overreach] is well-taken, and this is one more reason why the war against ISIS needs to be debated and voted on in spite of the president’s pretense that he doesn’t need Congressional approval. It is profoundly wrong to commit the U.S. to military action without having first considered the merits of the operation publicly and deliberately, but there is something even worse. It is even worse to commit the U.S. to a war that isn’t necessary for American security whether Congress has gone through the motions of a debate or not.... [Kaine is correct that Congress mustn’t be permitted to keep dodging its responsibilities on matters of war, and presidents mustn’t be allowed to wage wars without Congressional approval, but it’s even more important that members of Congress break the habit of signing off on the latest elective war. It is Congress’ habitual deference to bad presidential judgment on matters of war that is even more appalling than its refusal to debate and vote on the wars presidents choose to start. That can’t be fixed without first reviving Congress’ role in the process, but simply getting Congress to debate and vote on these wars is also woefully insufficient.
When I read Larison's complaint about a Congress that refuses to debate war, or that is excessively deferential to requests for the authorization to start or continue a war, I couldn't help but think of Ross Douthat's complaint that the constitution will be ruined if a Democratic president follows the lead of past Republican presidents and achieves by executive order what Congress has failed to accomplish through legislation. The sort of, "Wars, drones, security state, black hole prisons, torture, whatever.... immigration is serious argument that, to me, represents the worst form of missing the forest for the trees. Congress can pass legislation in response to an executive order, often long before the order takes effect. Congress can't unstart a war.

There is no hypocrisy in Larison's criticism of President Obama. Larison has consistently argued against the type of overreach he describes in Obama's actions. He is an established opponent of military adventurism and wars of choice. He's correct, in my opinion, that the nation would be well-served by Congress doing its job, by not turning a blind eye to unilateral military action by the President or granting its blessing after-the-fact. Larison is unimpressed with past Congressional debates over war authorization, and understandably so, but I'm not sure what the remedy would be short of electing different representatives.

My first reacton to Douthat's over-the-top rhetoric on how immigration reform could destroy our way of life (I exaggerate slightly) was that it was another example of Douthat writing about something that he doesn't understand. The blog posts that follow his editorials sometimes suggest to me that he encounters the basic facts and competing interpretations for the first time only after he publishes an editorial, with his making a strong, subsequent effort to reconcile the facts with his already-established opinion. In relation to unilateral war action, I found this complaint about the President's decision to go to Congress before waging war on Syria:
It would be a good thing for the country if the older constitutional norms regained some force – if we declared war in cases where we now issue so-called authorizations for the use of military force, and issued authorizations in situations where presidents of both parties claim the power to act with no congressional blessing whatsoever. But when a constitutional power atrophies, it’s extremely unlikely to be restored through the kind of last-minute, poorly-thought-out, and self-undermining approach that the White House has taken in this case.
You see, in Douthat's mind the President should have spent months reminding Congress that it has a role in debating the wisdom of involving a nation in a war, and should not have surprised them at the last minute by suggesting that they fulfill their constitutionally defined role. Douthat carries on at some length about legality and morality, bou don't have to spend much time reading between the lines to see what Douthat is actually thinking: He supported intervention in Syria, Congress voted against it, and it was thus wrong for the President to have gone to Congress.
Going to Congress is entirely optional, and it’s what presidents do when they’re pitching wars that they themselves don’t fully believe in, and need to rebuild credibility squandered by their own fumbling and failed alliance management. What future White House would look at that example and see a path worth following?
You see, where the Congress specifically addresses and issue and dictates how wars are to be declared, it is nothing short of weakness for a President to give anything more than lip service to those requirements. That's certainly not what Douthat would want a future president to do. You only destroy the constitution by acting in a legal manner, consistent with its terms, in the face of Congressional inaction, and in a context in which Congress is free to legislate on the issue, not by ignoring its explicit terms and launching wars that cannot be undone.

Douthat also complains,
Ah, you might say, but if Congress actually votes the Syria authorization down, then future presidents will feel constrained by the threat of a similar congressional veto whether they want to emulate Obama or not. Except that it’s actually more likely that future presidents will look at a congressional rejection in the case of Syria and see a case for going to Congress even less frequently than recent chief executives have done.
The problem with that conceit should be obvious: Congress does not have to wait for an invitation before it takes up the issue. Congress can look at a crisis in a nation like Syria and, on its own initiative, take up the question of whether military intervention is appropriate. It can pass resolutions urging the President to act. It can pass authorizations giving the President the power to Act. Or it can do the opposite, using its power of the purse to withhold funding for military action that it deems unwise. The question of whether or not Congress acts is not one that is controlled by the President -- it's controlled by Congress itself.

Douthat closes with the same sort of trademark silliness that he used in his immigration editorial,
It is just possible, I suppose, that if Congress votes “no” on this resolution and then the president unwisely goes ahead with strikes anyway and then the House impeaches the president for violating his oath of office... and then the whole thing spirals out into a wild constitutional crisis that leaves this administration permanently crippled, the end result of that crisis could conceivably reshape the White House/Congress balance of power on foreign policy, and leave future administrations more constrained.
Turning briefly to the Constitution, Article I, Section 8,
The Congress shall have Power... To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
Congress does not need to wait for a president to invite it to participate in a decision to start a war, or to sit on its hands until a president ignores its refusal to authorize war. It can initiate impeachment proceedings any time a president launches a war without its authorization. Congress has done its best to avoid having to take up its constitutional duties, from passing the War Powers Resolution, an ostensible check on presidential power that is effectively treated as a delegation of constitutional responsibility, to allowing the President to declare that pretty much any military action taken by the United States -- even an action explicitly targets a single country for invasion with the purpose of removing and replacing its leadership -- as a "police action".

Whatever temptation might exist to suggest that what we're looking at is a political debate, with Larison supporting a framework that limits international adventurism and Douthat embracing a President's right to unilaterally engage in that sort of adventurism in the role of "world policeman", the text of the Constitution plainly favors Larison. At the same time, it's difficult to avoid seeing Douthat's positions as being driven by anything other than politics. When it comes to war, he doesn't seem to care what the Constitution says, and if anything he is concerned that a president's respect for the Constitution would be too constraining. When it comes to the issuance of executive orders that are consistent with both the law and Constitution, at least when he opposes the outcome, taking action by executive order usurps the authority of Congress and threatens our system of government (never mind that, at all times, Congress remains free to act).

At the end of the debate, though, it boils down to the same fundamental issue: If Congress cannot or will not do its job, the President is likely to look for ways to act unilaterally. In my opinion it's worse in a context like war powers, where Congress has a clear, constitutionally defined role and, instead of fulfilling that role, effectively encourages the President to act unilaterally. Congressional deference to the President on matters that arguably should have required a formal declaration of war did not begin in the 20th Century -- it's a long-standing problem that became particularly glaring when Congress allowed presidents to launch the Korean and Vietnam wars as "police actions". Larison can complain that the President is operating under a pretense that he does not need Congressional approval for military action in Syria, but it's only a pretense if Congress is willing to act. If Congress won't call for a vote, and won't impose any consequence on unilateral action by a President, then (constitutionally or not) Congress has effectively delegated its war-making power to the President. Douthat can whinge that the President should not engage in perfectly lawful action to bypass Congressional gridlock, but again it's only an issue if Congress refuses to act.

Either way, nothing is going to change until Congress decides to start doing its job.

Democracy Will be Ruined if Obama Acts Like... Ronald Reagan

Poor Ross Douthat is in a tizzy over the possibility that President Obama may act through executive order, to address some of the immigration issues that the Republicans refuse to address through legislation. No, of course, Douthat makes no mention of the fact that the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that died in the Republican-controlled House. He instead sees the inevitable death of democracy in the President's following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Douthat's first resort is to the slippery slope, the idea that if the President is willing to shield some groups from deportation in a manner consistent with his constitutional authority and existing law, he could exempt pretty much every person unlawfully in the U.S. from being subject to deportation. He fantasizes,
So the president could “temporarily” legalize 99.9 percent of illegal immigrants and direct the Border Patrol to hand out work visas to every subsequent border crosser, so long as a few thousand aliens were deported for felonies every year.
Even if we assume that to be the case, as Douthat's fantasy has no chance of actually becoming reality, it makes for a weak argument against the exercise of executive prerogative. If anything, though, Douthat's hyperbolic scare tactics reveal the weakness of the Republican position. Perhaps it is only in the face of such a fantasy scenario that House Republicans could be inspired to do their job and actually pass legislation.

Douthat makes an extraordinarily weak attempt to distinguish the President's proposal from past executive actions, revealing his essential ignorance of the facts.
In past cases, presidents used the powers he’s invoking to grant work permits to modest, clearly defined populations facing some obvious impediment (war, persecution, natural disaster) to returning home.
Obviously, the amnesty that Bush and Reagan granted to the wives and children of prior beneficiaries of legislative amnesty do not even slightly resemble what Douthat describes. Douthat also suggests that the number of potential beneficiaries somehow makes the Obama proposal different from what has come before. However, what the numbers truly reflect is the extent to which Congress has neglected this issue -- immigration reform was supposed to be a priority for George W. Bush, but he was never able to get a bill past his own party. As the previously linked article indicates,
"Bush Sr. went big at the time. He protected about 40 percent of the unauthorized population. Back then that was up to 1.5 million. Today that would be about 5 million."
The same article quotes a former Republican aide to then-Senator Alan Simpson that a difference at that time was that Congress indicated that it was going to pass legislation addressing the issue. That's really a distinction without a difference. Nothing is stopping Congress from passing immigration reform legislation, or a narrowly tailored bill directly addressing the issues on which Obama has proposed executive orders. Instead they talk about trying to tie anti-immigration provisions onto "must pass" legislation, potentially triggering a government shut-down. A mature Congress would debate and legislate. We don't have a mature Congress.

From there, it's back to the slippery slope. A President, Douthat argues, could "rewrite" vast areas of public policy through executive order. Again, Douthat ignores the fact that executive orders must be consistent with the law, and thus that Congress has an easy and obvious remedy to overreach -- namely, doing its job. Douthat adds one of his near-inevitable whinges about how Democrats are supposedly hypocritical,
No liberal has persuasively explained how, after spending the last Republican administration complaining about presidential “signing statements,” it makes sense for the left to begin applying Cheneyite theories of executive power on domestic policy debates.
Perhaps Douthat spent years complaining about executive overreach by Bush and Cheney; I can't say that I've followed him closely enough to know, and can say that I don't care enough about his past writings to try to find out. I could point out the obvious, that executive orders are not the same thing as signing statements. A signing statement declares, in effect, "I don't think that this law (or some provision of this law) is constitutional, so I won't be bound by it". Congress can't do much about a signing statement -- it has already legislated on the issue, so passing another bill saying "We really mean it" isn't going to have an impact.

As Douthat should know, an executive order must be consistent with federal law. With an executive order, Congress is free to express its will, and nothing is stopping Congress from passing an immigration law addressing these issues. A better analogy would be to the objections raised to the stack of executive orders that George W. Bush signed on his way out of the White House, but perhaps Douthat doesn't know that history -- or perhaps he doesn't want to allude to facts that betray how pathetic his argument truly is.

It's also interesting that Douthat floats from accusing "liberals" of being hypocrites to relying on a poll that documents that most Democrats oppose unilateral action.
According to the latest IBD/TIPP poll, 73% of the public say Obama should work with Congress on reforms. Just 22% say he should "sidestep Congress and act on his own using executive orders" — something the president has repeatedly pledged to do.

Among independents, 78% say Obama should work with Congress, with only 19% saying he should go it alone. Even among Democrats, only 39% say Obama should act unilaterally, while 54% say he should work with Congress.
Were Douthat more interested in facts and less interested in attacking "liberals" and the President, he might concede that the President's willingness to act by executive action flows from his own party's refusal to legislate on a wide range of important issues, including immigration. He could even call on his party to preempt the President or to make immigration reform a priority in January. Odds are it will take a year from the time any executive order is finalized to when agencies have new regulations and procedures in place to carry out the new policy -- Douthat should note that if the Republicans who will be in control of both chambers of Congress choose not to pass an immigration law during that year, they have nobody to blame but themselves. If they pass a clean bill and it is vetoed by the President, they will be in a strong position to complain -- but they have no apparent intention of being that responsible.

Douthat next resorts to the notion that the midterm election stands as some sort of informal referendum on the President's agenda, I guess signifying that he's supposed to abandon his agenda in favor of whatever the Republicans want. By now, Douthat should be aware that his depiction of a midterm election as a plebiscite is not, in fact, its role, nor is it how legislators treat the outcome of an election. What the election does do, however, is give the Republican Party control in both chambers of Congress, and tremendous latitude to pass an immigration reform bill of their own design come January 1 -- or, if the House Republicans choose to do so, even during the lame duck session.

Douthat follows up by describing his column as "shrill-but-accurae", which shows, I guess, that he can be half-right. After reiterating his position that the number of people who might benefit from the executive orders is larger that with similar prior actions, percentages apparently being beside the point, Douthat expresses the belief that President Obama hopes that his executive orders create "facts on the ground" that a future President won't easily be able to reverse. Wow, now that's the sort of brilliant insight that makes clear why he got his NYTimes gig. Next column, "I just looked in a mirror and realized that there's a nose on my face."

Douthat believes that the executive orders might not be reversed because a "moral obligation" could arise; it's not clear why Douthat believes that such a "moral obligation" would sway a Republican president or legislators. He argues that the "moral obligation" would result in "a form of political pressure", with its supposedly being harder for government "to retract a benefit than to grant it in the first place". Again, no explanation as to why he believes the Republicans -- their party being dedicated to rolling back Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other aspects of the social safety net -- would not give it a college try. Oh, but then he gets to the real issue -- that we're talking about "a Republican establishment that’s fearful of doing anything to alienate Latinos in a presidential year".

A reasonable interpretation of that last point is that the rest is window dressing. Douthat knows that the problem is not so much an issue of executive overreach as it is an example of Republican Party dysfunction. The faction that wants to pass immigration reform can't get a bill past the party's anti-immigration factions, but if you have some form of immigration reform in place the party as a whole won't want to touch the issue for fear of alienating an important voter bloc.
[Recognition of Republican reluctance to alienate Latino voters] is, of course, part of the political calculation here … that claiming more presidential authority won’t just accomplish a basic liberal policy goal, but could also effectively widen the G.O.P.’s internal fissures on immigration, exploiting the divergence of interests between the congressional party and its would-be presidential nominees.)
It's not the President's fault that Douthat's party is dysfunctional on this issue. It's the fault of its elected representatives.

Douthat makes a rather incredible statement,
Then finally, even setting all of the foregoing aside, even allowing that this move could be theoretically reversed, pointing to the potential actions of the next president is still a very strange way to rebut complaints about executive overreach.
It's as if Douthat has never before heard of an executive order. Could he be so ignorant of the U.S. system that he's unaware of the thousands upon thousands of executive orders that have been signed by past administrations, or that there's absolutely nothing unique or special about how Congress or a future President would respond to Obama's proposed administrations as compared to any other executive order?

And this....
But that reality doesn’t really tell us much of anything about whether a particular moves claims too much power for the executive branch itself. Even in the fairly unlikely event that Chris Christie or Marco Rubio cancels an Obama amnesty, that is, the power itself will still have been claimed and exercised, the line rubbed out and crossed; the move will still exist as a precedent, a model, a case study in how a president can push the envelope when Congress doesn’t act as he deems fit.
Given his prior concessions, Douthat knows that's a specious argument. When you're talking about actions that literally track the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, you're not talking about a new line being set. Perhaps Douthat means to indict Reagan and Bush for moving the line that Obama is treating as a fair limit? No, of course not. We're dealing with a standard Republican argument that boils down to, "Whatever may have happened under a past Republican president, it's different when a Democrat does it."

Douthat could have offered a reasoned explanation for why immigration reform is a bad idea, or why his political party is correct to oppose it. He could have offered a balanced argument -- yes, it follows precedent; yes, it follows Republican precedent; yes, it flows from Republican obstruction in Congress; but it's still a bad way to implement policy. He could have implored his party to finally pass an immigration reform bill and render the issue moot. But any of that would be far too surprising. Instead, predictably, Douthat makes what is at its heart an appeal to fear, built on the weak foundation of the slippery slope.

Me? As this whole issue could be preempted if Congress simply does its job, I call on Congress to do its job. If Congress can't do that much, even as Douthat bleats about executive overreach, presidents will be effectively forced to rely on executive orders to circumvent Congressional gridlock. That's bad for the country, but in most cases it will likely be worse for nothing to get done.

Monday, November 17, 2014

"If Only Muslims Would Speak Out Against ISIS...."

A common refrain about Islamic extremists is that not enough ordinary Muslims speak out against it. To me, this raises three essential questions:
  1. Do ordinary Muslims have any responsibility to speak out against extremists?

  2. If so, what form should that responsibility take?

  3. If so, what impact would their statements have?

I find myself sympathetic to the idea that Muslims should separate themselves from extremists for two basic reasons, while at the same time recognizing that my reasons are not particularly fair to ordinary Muslims -- that it's a form of emotional reasoning, not logic. First, by a large measure, at present Muslim extremism is a more significant problem in the world than any other form of religious extremism. Second, there's a popular perception that not speaking out means that you're on the side of the extremists. The unfairness of the expectation comes from the fact that we really don't expect similar denunciations from any other group, and that ordinary people should not be burdened with the requirement that they periodically search out a public platform to denounce extremism lest they be conflated with the extremists.

Even if we assume that such a platform were readily available, it's fair to ask, who would listen? The extremists and their supporters don't care if they're being denounced. Those suffering under their oppression aren't helped or empowered by a denunciation. Those calling for the denunciations are likely to either ignore the expression, assuming it even comes to their attention, or regard it as inadequate because it doesn't actually change anything.

Ordinary people are not ordinarily tasked with separating their own beliefs from those of extremists. Even in high profile contexts, we don't expect people to distinguish their mainstream religious beliefs from those of extremists within their faith. For example, Mitt Romney was not asked to denounce the FLDS based upon its claim that it represents the true face of Mormonism. But what if he had been asked to do so, or had voluntarily condemned the FLDS? For those in FLDS communities, not one thing would have changed. For any who might to point to the FLDS as representing the truth about Mormonism, the statement would mean nothing.

At the end of the day, the calls for denunciation seem to come primarily from two corners. First, from people who are using the absence of public condemnations, real or imagined, as a basis to perpetuate their own prejudices, and second, from commentators and demagogues who benefit -- who seek fame, attention, and profit -- from engaging in anti-Islamic rhetoric.

What "I Voted" Stickers Actually Do

On Bill Maher's latest show, while lamenting that more people in our society don't vote, he lampooned the idea of the "I voted" sticker as bragging about performing a relatively minor civic duty. I see it differently. When you wear an "I voted" sticker in a culture with low voter turnout, the sticker serves as a reminder to others that it's election day. The stickers also have some potential to create social or peer pressure to vote.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Perhaps Kathleen Parker's Problem is That She Doesn't Understand Honesty

At least if you're a Republican. Penning yet another childish screed about President Obama, Parker whines,
Moreover, people don’t like being insulted and misled, as many feel they have been by this administration. This is not just a feeling but a demonstrable fact, especially vis-a-vis the Affordable Care Act. And it’s not just the far-right fringe who object to the strategic misrepresentations along the way.
If Parker thought you had even a smidgen of intelligence, her next paragraph might cover some of the most outrageous lies about the PPACA. You know... like death panels. Or even some of the lesser Republican lies, like arguing that Obamacare would cover illegal immigrants, cause massive budget deficits, cause massive increases in insurance premiums, or involved the government taking over the insurance industry. Heck -- she, herself, is lying even as she writes about public sentiments toward the PPACA -- she knows that the key elements of the law, save for the mandate, are in fact supported by clear majorities of Americans, that it's the label that drags the law down. She probably giggles about the voters in Kentucky who praise Kynect and express their gratitude that it's not Obamacare, even though... it's simply the name Kentucky gives the exchange through which its residents can enroll in Obamacare.

What are the horrible lies that Parker attributes to Obama?
These obfuscations include telling the American people that they could keep the insurance they had if they liked it and also writing the law in such a way that the ACA’s mandate to purchase government-approved insurance was not a “tax,” despite the Internal Revenue Service’s role in policing its compliance.
Oh, the horror. An overstatement that was made in good faith, and run-of-the-mill machinations designed to get a better CBO rating. Politifact, the "fact-checking" outfit that made the declaration upon which the "lie" accusation is premised initially rated the statement as "true", making me wonder if they're producing a reliable analysis or if they're channeling an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Dean Baker has capably responded to those who want to hang their hats on the third (yes, in between declaring the statement "true" and "false", Politifact also rated it as half-true) analysis of the statement.
If Obama's pledge was understood as ensuring that every plan that was in existence in 2010 would remain in existence, then it would imply a complete federal takeover of the insurance industry. This would require the government to tell insurers that they must continue to offer plans even if they are losing money on them and even if the plans had lost most of their customers. This would at the least be a strange policy. It would be surprising if many people thought this was the meaning of President Obama's pledge....

On closer inspection, the claim that President Obama lied in saying that people could keep their insurance looks like another Fox News special. In the only way that the pledge could be interpreted as being meaningful, the pledge is true. The ACA does not eliminate plans that were in existence at the time the bill was approved.
Parker, of course, knows all of this, but anticipates that her intended audience does not.

Similarly, anybody who was following the debate over the PPACA knows that there was an absurd insistence that the law be revenue-neutral. They know that many compromises were built into the law, including significant delays in its implementation, to keep the books nominally balanced. Parker knows that the Republicans she serves would have shrieked like banshees had the mandate been explicitly enforced through a tax, as opposed to a penalty. Parker knows that the penalty is based on income and enforced by, you guessed it, the IRS. Within that context, her feigned surprise that the penalty could be characterized as a tax is quite revealing.

But wait -- there's more. Parker knows that her party and its supporters spent two years and spent vast sums of money litigating against the PPACA, and insisting through that litigation that the penalty was not a tax. If it was so obvious to everybody that the penalty was a tax, why spend years litigation the case, causing taxpayers to pour millions of dollars into its defense, only to reach the inevitable conclusion that it is a proper exercise of Congress's power to levy taxes? Why did the political right attack and vilify Chief Justice Roberts for joining the majority on that issue? What are we supposed to make of the refusal of Scalia, Alito, Kennedy and Thomas to join what Parker tells us was, at all times, a known and obvious fact? Parker later lectures,
This ruling, indeed, was the reason the ACA was able to go forward, which is why so many Republicans were apoplectic with Roberts’ siding with the liberals in a 5 to 4 ruling. In other words, Obama’s obfuscation was simultaneously revealed and rewarded by the court. And the American people were smacked with a health-system overhaul many more would have rejected had they known the truth.
If it is so blindingly obvious that the penalty is a tax, and if Parker truly believes that lying by politicians is a bad thing, why does she implicitly applaud the Republicans for lying about the mandate in order to perpetuate costly and divisive litigation? Why does she implicitly defend attacks on Roberts for accepting what she tells is is an obvious truth, rather than embracing a partisan lie in order to take down the law?

What inspired Parker's attack on the President? If you've been following the headlines, you already know. An economist who worked with the Obama Administration in developing the PPACA made an off-the-cuff comment that has been demagogued into the suggestion that the Obama Administration thinks voters are stupid. As a reference, Parker links to an idiotic screed against the PPACA, but fastidiously avoids introducing the facts -- that the statement she wants to attribute to "the White House" was made in an off-the-cuff manner by economist Jonathan Gruber, a non-politician who is long out of the Obama administration, and who most people wouldn't know from Adam.

Parker follows that absurd attribution with a sentence that starts, "Punditry aside...." It would appear that Parker believes that "punditry" and "demagoguery" are synonyms. Incredibly, after having linked to a diatribe that relies upon Gruber to suggest "", Parker then explicitly invokes Gruber,
Those who feel defrauded by their own government got third-party confirmation recently when remarks by one of the ACA’s chief architects, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber — invoking the stupidity of voters and lauding the political advantage of a lack of transparency in government — went viral.
Parker appears to believe that her readers are too stupid to click the links and find out that there's only one story.

Now, it is no surprise that Parker and her ilk feign deep offense at the most trivial impropriety, real or imagined, by a Democratic President. But really?
We also know that once trust is gone, it’s very hard to restore. Over time, and not just during this administration, we have lost trust in one institution after another. But when we have lost faith in our government, we have lost faith in ourselves.

At their core, the midterms were really about restoring that trust.
To Parker, it seems, having somebody once associated with the Obama Administration suggest that, as many voters aren't always informed on the issues and are inclined to latch onto labels instead of substance (you know, like "death panels"), it can be necessary to construct legislation that avoids certain "trigger words", is on par with Watergate. Parker, it seems, has no problem with such robust honesty as proposing something as a Social Security privatization plan, then objecting to any use of the term "privatization" as an unfair distortion. Or proposing a Medicare voucher plan then objectin to any use of the term "voucher" as an unfair distortion. Because, you know... that's her party. Let's ignore the $millions earned by Frank Luntz, coaching Republicans on how to mislead voters on issues ranging from the "death tax" to "climate change". When it comes to healthcare reform, Luntz kind of takes us full circle:
In the spring of 2009, a Republican strategist settled on a brilliant and powerful attack line for President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to overhaul America's health insurance system. Frank Luntz, a consultant famous for his phraseology, urged GOP leaders to call it a "government takeover."...

PolitiFact editors and reporters have chosen "government takeover of health care" as the 2010 Lie of the Year. Uttered by dozens of politicians and pundits, it played an important role in shaping public opinion about the health care plan and was a significant factor in the Democrats' shellacking in the November elections.
Yeah, that Kathleen Parker is horrified by dishonest politicians, and does nothing but overestimate the intelligence of her readers.....

Monday, November 03, 2014

Why Bill Maher is the Wrong Target for a Commencement Speaker Protest

As part of the fallout from Bill Maher's comments about Islam, comments from which he finds no room for retreat, some individuals and groups are arguing that Berkeley should withdraw its invitation for Maher to speak at its fall commencement. On the issue of Islam, Maher relies almost exclusively on the spotlight fallacy and hasty generalization, plucking examples of horror from around the Islamic world and arguing that they prove that Islam is somehow worse than other religions. He stubbornly refuses to consider challenges to his position -- people pointing out that he conflates regional, cultural practices that arose and exist independently of Islam with the teachings of Islam, people pointing out that he draws his primary examples from Islamic nations without regard to whether those nations reflect what is typical in other Islamic nations or populations, or the practices of the majority of Muslims. He'll present Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwah against Salman Rushdie as if it reflected -- and reflects -- the views and wishes of every Muslim in the world.

On the most recent episode of Real Time, Bill Maher quoted his friend Reza Aslan, on the issue of whether or not he's a bigot, emphasizing that Alsan is Muslim and says he's not a bigot. Here's the larger quote:
I've done [Real Time] every season for four or five years. I love being on the show. And listen, I've said repeatedly that Bill Maher is not a bigot. I know him. We are friends. We hang out with each other, backstage. He loves having me on the show despite the fact that he disagrees with me on a lot of things and that shows the kind of person that he is.

What I have said, however, is that if people are constantly saying that the way you are talking about something is coming across as bigoted, you might want to stop and think about how you’re saying these things. Bill Maher says he's not a bigot, I absolutely believe him. So maybe he needs to reexamine why people keep talking about him as a bigot.
Aslan has also pointed out that Maher is not very sophisticated in his views of Islam. What I think Aslan is trying to say, in a somewhat gentle way, is that Maher is not advancing his position out of animus or intolerance, and thus is not guilty of that form of bigotry, but is instead advancing his position because he does not have a sufficient body of information, and has not applied a sufficient amount of thought to the subject. I believe Aslan is suggesting that if Maher were to do so he would likely reconsider his position. [Insert maxim about leading horses to water.]

From my perspective, Maher's position on Islam and the Arab world, notably including his positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, reflect a cognitive insularity on those subjects, epistemic closure. At times he ridicules conservatives as living in the bubble -- these subjects are his bubble. He appears to have held consistent views on Arabs and Islam for much of his life, he's quite comfortable with those beliefs, and he sees no need to let facts get in the way. That doesn't mean that he completely avoids the facts -- to the contrary, as his mode of argument suggests, he is inclined to search for, interpret, and prioritize information in a way that confirms his existing beliefs -- confirmation bias. Maher is clearly more than smart enough to take a step back, review the evidence, and see what people like Aslan are trying to explain to him -- but, as occasionally happens to all of us, he isn't ready to let go of his preconceptions.

The funny thing is, all of Maher's leading critics, including those who were or are Muslim, share his perspective that there is something wrong with the practice of Islam in the Middle East and in some other parts of the world. They see Islam as being abused in the same manner that other religions have been historically abused, and in which they continue to be abused in some nations and cultures. It's an argument that Maher, an avowed atheist and critic of all religions, should find quite consistent with his other views -- it's not that there's something special about Islam that makes it particularly vulnerable to fundamentalism and extremism, but that there's something wrong with the political, cultural and economic contexts from which the fundamentalism and extremism emerge. Islam is a problem not because it's special, but because it's the dominant religion in those regions, and thus the one most easily exploited by fundamentalists and extremists. You speak the language of your audience.

Like Maher, his critics also rely heavily on the spotlight fallacy, plucking quotes out of Maher's past performances, speeches and monologs, where he has made some pretty outrageous statements. But what else would you expect? The man is a comedian who loves to jokingly scold his audience for groaning at the less outrageous of his jokes. He has made a career out of being politically incorrect, a term that you may recall was the name of the T.V. show that made him famous. I recently read one of his monologs in which, his sarcastic tone of voice being invisible on the printed page, he appeared to be endorsing birtherism. You will have absolutely no trouble finding quotes with which to condemn him, even if his presentation of the quoted material might suggest that he held a different opinion than the one he was ostensibly voicing. He's not Sarah Silverman, but he does sometimes go for the punch line that's going to shock, rattle, or even offend his audience -- and it's all too easy to inadvertently or deliberately misinterpret that sort of punch line.

If Maher were invited by Berkeley to participate in a panel discussion on Islam, where a variety of voices could be heard, I would hope that the students that are offended by the prospect of his giving a commencement address would welcome his participation. (Or perhaps criticize it from the standpoint of, "Can't we find a scholar instead of a comedian" -- although back when Bill Maher frequently had comedians participate in his Real Time panels, sometimes the comedians provided more interesting and thoughtful commentary than the experts.)

A compelling argument made about commencement addresses is that they're not like other forms of on-campus speech. If you want to participate in commencement, you are a captive audience for the commencement speaker and are expected to act with appropriate decorum. Also, commencement speakers are often paid very large sums of money for their presentations, money that is drawn from the students. It is fair to say that students should have a larger voice when it comes to objecting to the participation of certain controversial figures in their commencement ceremonies than in other campus activities, where in my opinion the focus should be on debate, not exclusion.

If Bill Maher were going to address graduating students with an exposition of his views of religion and Islam, the students would be justified in objecting to his speech. He's not an expert in those areas, his commentary on Islam is deeply flawed, and it would be an abuse of his platform to speak about his views of religion. However, it is more than safe to say that Maher has no intention of using his commencement presentation to speak about religion, gender relations, or any of the other issues that occasionally land him in warm to hot water. He's already said as much:
But let me say this to those students worried about that: I promise this will be your day. This is a commencement speech. The issue is you. My speech was, is, I hope, going to be about you and whatever tips I thought that could actually help you in life because I already lived through it. That and my funk about how Jewish women hate to have sex.
That last sentence, of course, is an example of the sort of punch line I previously mentioned. I'm not arguing that Maher's punch lines and groaners don't reflect his political views -- but I am pointing out that some of them quite obviously do not, and many others fall on a spectrum between what he believes and what he believes will generate the loudest laugh or groan -- with his being one of the nation's wealthiest comedians -- one of the nation's wealthiest people -- by virtue of his knowing how to go for the laughs and groans.

I am not sure that the students opposed to Maher's appearance ever thought that he was going to address religion in his speech. I think that their primary concern is that he is hostile to Islam, and that students should not be compelled to sit through a speech by somebody whose views they find troubling, or even odious. Ibraham Hooper of Cair pointed out that nobody is going to suggest that the Grand Wizard of the KKK is an appropriate commencement speaker -- that is, we can reach a point where there will be near-universal agreement that an individual should not speak at a college commencement even if he promises not to touch on subjects that his audience might deem offensive -- but there's an enormous distance between Maher and a KKK Grand Wizard. Inviting Maher to speak doesn't open the floodgates.

The exchange with Cooper illustrates how opportunists and demagogues can take a quote out of context to use it to bash the speaker. During the exchange, Cooper's debate opponent jumped on the reference to a KKK Grand Wizard, chortling, "So Bill Maher is the Grand Dragon of the KKK? I can’t until Bill Maher hears that. I think Bill will have a heyday with that." The host immediately pointed out the obvious -- that no such comparison had been made -- but that didn't stop hacks like Eric Bolling of Fox News or Alex Griswold at the Daily Caller from plucking the statement out-of-context and lying about what Hooper meant. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that after making his false characterization, Griswold quotes the exchange and thereby makes plain that his characterization is false.

Why let Maher speak?
  • Protesting Maher reinforces his position - When Maher argues that Muslims don't do enough to object to the actions of extremists who claim to be acting in the name of their religion, he's not really being fair -- people have the right to live their ordinary lives without having to comment to anybody willing to listen, "That wackaloon you read about on the news doesn't represent my views." But when Muslims loudly protest Maher, they risk perpetuating the stereotype that Muslims want to shut down any criticism of their religion, while fueling the argument that "Those people find the time to protest Maher, but have nothing to say about the wackaloon I heard about on the news." I'm not arguing that Muslim students should never try to have an anti-Muslim speaker excluded from giving a commencement address, and it is appropriate to object to those who for example argue for the forcible conversion of Muslims to other religions, advocate bombing Muslim holy sites, advocate suppressing the speech and religious rights of Muslims. But when you target somebody like Maher, the more effective way to get your point across is not to try to shut him up, but to avoid playing to his stereotype.

  • If You Look Hard Enough, You'll Find Something Offensive About Your Commencement Speaker - In the YouTube era, with news archives at students' fingertips, and with the long memory of the Internet, we're in an era in which it will be difficult for any celebrity to give a commencement speech, as if you look hard enough at any person you're likely to find a quote that can be presented (or misrepresented) as offensive to somebody. Finding offensive quotes is easy with somebody like Maher, as they're literally his bread and butter, but pretty much every famous person is going to have a gaffe or misstatement, or a political position they've long abandoned, preserved somewhere.

  • You lay a foundation for exclusion of other speakers - Once you create a context in which a person can be excluded from giving a commencement speech based upon views that some students find offensive, even though those views will not be shared in the commencement address, you open the floodgates. It is far better to set a high standard for exclusion than to create what amounts to a heckler's veto. Sure, a great many commencement speakers may end up falling into the gray area between the tiny number who have immaculate public records and those virtually all would agree to be villanous, but free speech will fare better if we keep the line for exclusion as close to pure black as comfortably possible.

Maher's appearance presents the students of Berkeley with a tremendous opportunity to very publicly challenge Maher's positions on Islam. Rather than pressing forward with an effort to exclude Maher from giving a commencement address, I suggest taking advantage of the fact that the eyes of the world are now on Maher and Berkeley. Organize a symposium on Islam and fundamentalist violence, bring in some knowledgeable scholars, invite Maher to participate in a panel. You can't buy publicity like this -- if you want to take advantage of an opportunity to educate the public about Islam, run with it.