Johann, Son, Rush, and Slovoj

Johann Sebastian BachIt is quite a day for birthdays! I’m really going to have to limit today’s article to those who are really worthy. The great mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier was born on this day back in 1768. Theater producer Florenz Ziegfeld of Ziegfeld Follies fame was born in 1867. The great blues man Son House was born in 1902. And the great independent filmmaker Russ Meyer was born in 1922.

There are lots of birthdays today. Rose Stone of Sly & the Family Stone is 68 today. Timothy Dalton is 67. The brilliant philosopher and social critic Slavoj Zizek is 64. The great British actor Gary Oldman turns 55 today. And The Young Turks creator Cenk Uygur is 43.

I really had to grapple with giving the day to Zizek or Meyer or Son House. But in the end, I had to give it to Johann Sebastian Bach. It is interesting that when he was alive and for a while afterwards, Bach was not that popular. It was only toward the end of Mozart’s life that people began to appreciate just how great a composer Bach the elder was. Here is one of his best known works, Toccata & Fugue in D Minor:

Happy birthday old man! You’ve made my life incalculably richer!


I can’t help it. Here’s a little Son House:

And a bit from an early Russ Meyer film that I really like, Eve And The Handyman:

And an animated Slavoj Zizek lecture:

Update (29 April 2013 9:36 pm)

I made a mistake. Bach was actually born 31 March 1685.

Trust and Political Ideology

Fox News - Not NewsAfter years of badgering my father, he has given up watching Bill O’Reilly. Instead, he now watches Shepard Smith. That’s a great improvement, and it makes my argument more difficult. There isn’t as much outright lying on Smith’s show. Its deception is in what the show chooses to cover. (Yes: this is also a problem on MSNBC, but not nearly as big a one.) As a result, it has been interesting to watch my father’s position on gun control change over the last few months.

For the first couple of months after the Sandy Hook shootings, my father was in favor of all kinds of gun control. In fact, he was taking positions that were far more liberal than mine. This is, by the way, typical. If you keep my father from watching Fox News, he spouts the most amazing opinions that would put him very much in the mainstream of Swedish political thought. Since Fox News was treading pretty lightly on the gun issue for those first months, my father was left to make up his own mind. And his mind was made up on this: not only should we ban assault rifle sales, we should make assault rifles illegal—you know, confiscation or forced buyback.

Then just last week, my father flipped. He was no longer for the assault weapons ban. Why? He had heard that there were 30,000 gun laws on the books and that we should enforce them first. That sounded like a good idea to him. I pointed out this was just a distraction argument. The vast majority of those laws were small, technical laws. What’s more: they weren’t federal laws. Anyway, what do laws against sawed off shotguns have to do with a proposed law limiting the size of magazines? I finished by pointing out that regardless of all these laws, there was no law that prevented 40% of all gun purchases to be performed without background checks. So he flipped back.

But it won’t last. I’m sure if I spoke to him today, he would have some other NRA-provided argument for why it would be tyranny to require background checks of all gun purchases. It might even be John Boehner’s new argument that gun laws are useless because, “Criminals don’t respect the law.” (We could say the same thing about murder laws, but I’ll leave that point for now.)

The problem here is one of trust. My father trusts the conservatives and so all they need to do is provide reasonable sounding arguments. That’s true of all of us. I’m extremely well informed, but I’m inclined to accept liberal arguments on shakier evidence than I would require for conservative arguments. Similarly, I assume that Dean Baker (for example) is right and I have to be shown that he isn’t. It is the opposite with Rush Limbaugh.

This is why conservatives put out arguments that we liberals find laughable. This is as true of gun policy (“We should enforce the existing gun laws!”) as well as economics (“Tax cuts stimulate the economy and always pay for themselves!”). As a result, we must constantly shoot these false arguments down with as much force as possible. Conservative people will accept these arguments if they are left alone in the right wing echo chamber. But there is more at stake than any one issue. If we counter enough of these claims, we might develop a critical mass that will make a conservative become a liberal. I’m still hoping with my dad.

Enough with the Iraq Pseudo-Mea Culpas

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait made a mistake earlier this week: he explained why he supported the Iraq War. It was very disappointing.

The main argument he makes is exactly the one that Peter Beinart makes in The Icarus Syndrome. He documents all the fear about the Gulf War based on our experiences in Vietnam. This is very true; everyone feared a total clusterfuck. So after the Gulf War was just a raging hard-on of a success for everyone, he was “conditioned” to trust the military hawks.

Let’s step back a moment and think about that. After the Gulf War, I was glad that it was brief and that the US didn’t lose many people. But I certainly didn’t think it was a success. The purpose of the war (to put a monarchy back in power in Kuwait) didn’t seem a particularly great reason to go to war. What’s more, we ended up killing about 30,000 Iraqis, almost all of whom were poor conscripts. There were also several thousand civilian deaths. And the Iraqi Republican Guard was pretty much untouched by it. So Chait’s takeaway from this war is entirely based upon its effects on the Coalition.

But even if we accept Chait’s take on the Gulf War that it was ripping good fun, how could he equate the very clear and careful planning done by the Bush Sr administration with the slapdash preparations of Bush Jr? This is where Chait really gets himself into trouble. He knew that the administration’s rationale for the war was a pack of lies. But this didn’t bother him because he came up with an alternative way to justify the war.

This was an extremely popular way to support the Iraq War. Chait is not alone by a long shot. But this is faulty reasoning. One must assume that the administration is providing the best rationale for war. They have the best information access, after all. If that case is weak, then coming up with your own is nothing but an exercise in apologetics. The administration’s case for war is the case for war. Any other arguments are simply your own justification for supporting the administration.

And this gets to my primary problem with all of these pseudo-mea culpas: they aren’t mea culpas. They are justifications for why support for the war was reasonable or at least understandable. When an administration is recklessly pushing us into war, it is no less reckless to follow them—regardless of the justification. It was clear at the time that the administration was hell bent on going to war. If that doesn’t cause a person to call for restraint, what will?

I don’t mean to beat up on Jonathan Chait. I am using him as an example because he is one of the most reasonable people offering such justifications. And that just shows how flawed this whole exercise is. It isn’t about having a “conversation” or about learning from our mistakes. As I just wrote about in America’s Arrested Development, this just allows people to go on to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.


Chait ends his article with an attack on Matt Yglesias’ general anti-interventionist stance. He seems to be arguing that just as the Gulf War tainted his thinking on war generally, so did the Iraq War taint the younger Yglesias’ thinking. This is false equivalence. Yglesias has yet to be shown to be dead wrong about his anti-war opinions. But more important: what the hell is such an attack doing in Chait’s supposed mea culpa?

America’s Arrested Development

Arrested Development Season 3On Tuesday, Michael Cohen wrote a very insightful article called, The First Step. It is about the lessons we should have learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But as the title indicates, the first step of that process is to admit that we’ve lost these wars.

This comes from the old Alcoholics Anonymous platitude that the first step in dealing with your addiction is to admit that you have a problem. I think this is more fundamental than that. In order to grow, it is necessary to admit mistakes. I’ve noticed that people who cannot admit mistakes get stuck at developmental levels and never move beyond making the same kinds of mistakes over and over. Cohen is right that the same thing applies to groups of people and even nations.

I still run into people who argue that the only reason we lost the Vietnam War is that the government “wouldn’t let us win.” This is a bizarre claim. The truth is that we have enough fire power to destroy any country. If we had decided to, 20 or so well placed nuclear bombs would have killed everyone in Vietnam. There would have been no opposition. Thus: we would have won the war! But as Karl von Clausewitz wrote, “War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” In other words, it is meaningless to say that the government prevented the military from winning in Vietnam because the military was not allowed to fight more aggressively.

But what’s most important in this discussion is the denial of proponents of the “they wouldn’t let us win” theory. They think that war is some kind of game where one wins by making the other side surrender. In fact, we go to war because we wish to accomplish something by doing so. We didn’t, for example, get into World War II because we hated Emperor Hirohito. Thus whether we win a war is not a question of which side gives up; it is a question of whether we succeeded at accomplishing the goals that we wished to attain by going to war in the first place.

As I discussed on Monday, as a nation we tend to regret our last war even while we eagerly anticipate our next war. I think this is because we never really accept that we lost the last war. For example, when people look back at the Iraq War, they tend to focus on the lack of WMDs. This makes no sense. If we had found WMDs, would that have made the fiasco that was the Iraq War acceptable? I don’t think so. But by focusing on this, people assume that next time that won’t be an issue.[1] And they may be right: that may not be an issue; but something else will be.

I am forever struck by how people hold up the Afghanistan War as somehow noble. I still don’t get this. To me, we started this war because we were attacked on 9/11. After that attack we felt that we had to go to war with someone. It was our Pearl Harbor. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t the Afghanistan government who had attacked us. I remember at the time that a lot of people claimed to be glad that Bush was president rather than Gore. Bush, they said, took us to war and that was the right thing to do; Gore would have dealt with it as a police matter. Now I seriously doubt that’s true; I think Gore would have taken us to war too. But was going to war the right thing to do? It strikes me as an immature reaction to a painful event. And looking at Afghanistan, I just don’t see what any of it has to do with 9/11—especially when it took us almost a decade to get Osama bin Laden, and then outside of the war effort.

America is a nation of many myths. Even with Vietnam, people tend to think that we’ve never lost a war. And we’re supposedly “Number one!” in just about every other way. All these delusions keep us from doing better. I think there is a direct connection between the claim that America has the best healthcare in the world and the fact that we have a poor system that leaves tens of millions without healthcare at all. Until we can look at our country, warts and all, we will continue to be stuck where we are—suffering from arrested development. Or, as many wish, we will move backwards.

[1] Sadly, in Iran, we seem set to repeat exactly the same error. Most people in the US think that Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon. The actual intelligence indicates that while Iran was once doing that, they are not now and have not been for a number of years. If we did go to war with Iran (which many people want to do), these same people would be shocked to learn we had gone to war based on faulty intelligence. But just like in Iraq: the intelligence wouldn’t have been faulty. It was just that no one in power wanted to listen to the intelligence.