Archive for the ‘Fish’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Bruni

August 18, 2013

The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Kristof are off today.  In “Let Our Client Go” The Pasty Little Putz has a question:  If we don’t cut off our aid to Egypt now, when would we?  MoDo is whaling away on one of her little tin drums.  Obama gets a week off, since it’s the Clintons this week.  In “Money, Money, Money, Money, MONEY!” she also hisses a question:  Why don’t the Clintons ever have enough cash?  Mr. Bruni has decided to take a look at “The Past’s Future Republican.”  He says, FSM help us all, that Chris Christie, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul may be grabbing headlines, but Jeb Bush shouldn’t be forgotten, least of all by Republicans concerned about the party’s health.  Frank, honey, we barely survived the first two.  We need another Bush like a fish needs a bicycle.  Here’s The Putz:

In a simpler, more reasonable world, the government of the United States would have enough leverage in Cairo to put an end to the Egyptian military’s brutal crackdown on its Muslim Brotherhood opponents. We are, after all, the longstanding patron of Egypt’s generals; they are among our best-financed clients. We are the world’s sole superpower; their country is a needy basket case. We’re supplying them with $1.5 billion in aid this year; they can certainly use the money.

Instead, our impotence as Egypt burns is the latest case study in a reality that American statesmen should always keep in mind: Client governments are never as tractable as their patrons in far-off capitals expect, and a great power that thinks it’s buying influence is often buying its way into trouble instead.

This trouble can take a variety of forms. The most destructive is the longstanding tendency of client states to pull their patrons into needless wars. Sometimes the patron’s promise of support persuades the client to act recklessly, and then the patron ends up backing the recklessness because its own credibility is at stake. Sometimes the patron-client relationship just creates a closed circle of bellicose misjudgment. And sometimes the relationship inspires the patron to overestimate its client’s strategic importance and engage in an unwise or futile intervention.

Many of the 20th century’s crises were touched off or worsened by these kinds of great-power/client-state dynamics — between Russia and Serbia in 1914; between Stalin and Kim Il Sung in 1950 and Khrushchev and Castro in 1962; and between the U.S. and various South Vietnamese governments across our long Indochina debacle.

The problem is still with us today. The brush-fire war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, for instance, probably wouldn’t have happened if America’s patronage hadn’t made our Georgian allies overestimate their ability to engage in brinkmanship with Vladimir Putin. (Happily, John McCain’s half-cocked declaration that “we are all Georgians” was the closest we came to starting World War III on Tbilisi’s behalf.) And the 2003 Iraq invasion was shaped, in part, by perverse patron-client dynamics as well: it was both a continuation of Gulf War I, which was fought on behalf of our gulf-state clients, and an attempt to effectively replace those (highly problematic) allies with what various Bush-administration optimists hoped would be a new and very grateful client in the heart of the Middle East.

In Egypt today, the stakes are lower for the U.S., since we are unlikely to be dragged into a shooting war on the Egyptian military’s behalf. But that’s partially because we’ve given them enough weapons to do all the shooting for themselves. Which means our patronage has created a different kind of problem: Even absent an actual military footprint, we’ve been dragged permanently into Egypt’s domestic politics, where we’re seen — for understandable reasons as well as conspiratorial ones — as the real power behind whatever the state decides to do.

In the 1980s and 1990s, that seemed a price worth paying, since a bought-and-paid-for (and Israel-friendly) Egypt was preferable to either a hostile secular dictatorship in the style of Nasser’s regime or a hostile religious dictatorship in the style of postrevolutionary Iran. (Prerevolutionary Iran being another case, of course, where an American patron-client relationship ended badly for all concerned.)

The events of Sept. 11 made the price seem considerably steeper, since the terrorist attacks were, in part, a case of client-state blowback. Al Qaeda’s mission and worldview were forged in Egypt’s prisons, and the 9/11 plot itself was spearheaded by a young Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, who made no distinction between his country’s rulers and their American patrons.

Still, given the post-9/11 situation, it was understandable that our aid kept flowing and our close relationship endured. And it was understandable, too, that the Obama White House would hesitate to upset the relationship in the last few years, with Egypt in the throes of what seemed as if it might be a democratic revolution.

Now, though, the calculus has to change. Egypt is rolling back into authoritarianism along a track that’s soaked in blood. The cycle of crackdown-radicalization, crackdown-radicalization is likely to get worse, the cost of being intimately tied to the military regime is getting higher, and the window for demonstrating that America’s favor really is conditional is closing fast.

Right now, the Obama administration is trapped by its client state the way that great-power patrons often are. Because our aid to Egypt is our most obvious leverage over its military, and because we can really only pull that lever once, Washington is afraid to follow through and do it.

But leverage can be lost through inaction as well. If we can’t cut the Egyptian military off amid this blood bath, we’re basically proving that we never, ever will.

Far better to act like the superpower we are, and make an end. It’s time, and past time, to let this client go.

And now here’s MoDo’s latest rant (and she does love her little alliterations and plays on words, doesn’t she…):

Clinton nostalgia is being replaced by Clinton neuralgia.

Why is it that America’s roil family always seems better in abstract than in concrete? The closer it gets to running the world once more, the more you are reminded of all the things that bugged you the last time around.

The Clintons’ neediness, their sense of what they are owed in material terms for their public service, their assumption that they’re entitled to everyone’s money.

Are we about to put the “For Rent” sign back on the Lincoln Bedroom?

If Americans are worried about money in politics, there is no larger concern than the Clintons, who are cosseted in a world where rich people endlessly scratch the backs of rich people.

They have a Wile E. Coyote problem; something is always blowing up. Just when the Clintons are supposed to be floating above it all, on a dignified cloud of do-gooding leading into 2016, pop-pop-pop, little explosions go off everywhere, reminding us of the troubling connections and values they drag around.

There’s the continuing grotesque spectacle of Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin. And there’s the sketchy involvement of the Clintons’ most prolific fund-raiser, Terry McAuliffe, and Hillary’s brother Tony Rodham in a venture, GreenTech Automotive; it’s under federal investigation and causing fireworks in Virginia, where McAuliffe is running for governor.

Many Israelis were disgusted to learn that Bill Clinton was originally scheduled to scarf up $500,000 to speak at the Israeli president Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday festivities in June. I guess being good friends with Peres and brokering the accord that won Peres the Nobel Peace Prize were not reasons enough for Bill to celebrate. The Israeli branch of the Jewish National Fund had agreed to donate half a mil to the Clinton foundation. Isn’t the J.N.F. “supposed to plant trees with donor cash?” Haaretz chided before the fund pulled back. “I guess money does grow on trees.”

I never thought I’d have to read the words Ira Magaziner again. But the man who helped Hillary torpedo her own health care plan is back.

In a Times article last week headlined “Unease at Clinton Foundation Over Finances and Ambitions,” Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick offered a compelling chronicle about an internal review of the rechristened Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation that illuminated the fungible finances and tensions between Clinton loyalists and the foundation architects Magaziner and Doug Band, former bag carrier for President Clinton.

You never hear about problems with Jimmy Carter’s foundation; he just quietly goes around the world eradicating Guinea worm disease. But Magaziner continues to be a Gyro Gearloose, the inept inventor of Donald Duck’s Duckburg.

“On one occasion, Mr. Magaziner dispatched a team of employees to fly around the world for months gathering ideas for a climate change proposal that never got off the ground,” Confessore and Chozick said.

We are supposed to believe that every dollar given to a Clinton is a dollar that improves the world. But is it? Clintonworld is a galaxy where personal enrichment and political advancement blend seamlessly, and where a cast of jarringly familiar characters pad their pockets every which way to Sunday.

“Efforts to insulate the foundation from potential conflicts have highlighted just how difficult it can be to disentangle the Clintons’ charity work from Mr. Clinton’s moneymaking ventures and Mrs. Clinton’s political future,” Confessore and Chozick wrote.

The most egregious nest of conflicts was a firm founded by Doug Band called Teneo, a scammy blend of corporate consulting, public relations and merchant banking. Band, a surrogate son to Bill, put Huma, a surrogate daughter to Hillary, on the payroll. Even Big Daddy Bill was a paid adviser.

As The Times reported, Teneo worked on retainer, charging monthly fees up to $250,000 and recruiting clients from among Clinton Foundation donors, while encouraging others to become foundation donors. The Clintons distanced themselves from Teneo when they got scorched with bad publicity after the collapse of its client MF Global, the international brokerage firm led by the former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine.

And Chelsea is now shaping the foundation’s future, and her political future. So there may not be as much oxygen for her troublesome surrogate siblings.

As George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, Bill Clinton earned $17 million last year giving speeches, including one to a Lagos company for $700,000. Hillary gets $200,000 a speech.

Until Harry Truman wrote his memoirs, the ex-president struggled on an Army pension of $112.56 a month. “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable,” he said, “that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”

So quaint, Packer wrote, observing, “The top of American life has become a very cozy and lucrative place, where the social capital of who you are and who you know brings unimaginable returns.”

The Clintons want to do big worthy things, but they also want to squeeze money from rich people wherever they live on planet Earth, insatiably gobbling up cash for politics and charity and themselves from the same incestuous swirl.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni’s thinking on yet another Bush:

Let Rand Paul have his epic filibuster and Ted Cruz his scowling threats to shut down the government. Let Chris Christie thunder to a second term as the governor of New Jersey, his hubris flowering as his ultimate designs on the White House take shape.

Jeb Bush, lying low in the subtropics of Florida, has something they don’t: the unalloyed affection of many of the Republican Party’s most influential moneymen, who are waiting for word on what he’ll do, hoping that he’ll seek the 2016 presidential nomination and noting with amusement how far he has drifted off fickle pundits’ radar, at least for the moment.

Politics today has a shorter memory than ever. It also has a more furious metabolism, which Bush hasn’t fed much since March, when he was promoting a new book on immigration and created enormous confusion about whether he does or doesn’t support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who came here illegally. (He later clarified that he does, with caveats, and even later praised immigrants for being “more fertile.”) That awkwardness gave some of his supporters pause, as they wondered whether he’d been too long out of the fray and was too clumsy for the split-second hyperscrutiny of the Twitter era. He hasn’t run for anything since 2002, when he was re-elected as the governor of Florida, an office he left in early 2007. A whole lot has changed since.

But with the exception of that immigration mess, Bush has been a more articulate advocate of a new tone and direction for the Republican Party than have Paul, Cruz, Christie or others currently in the foreground of the 2016 race, which has already begun, on both sides of the aisle. (Hillary Clinton gave a big policy speech last week and has another already announced.)

He has signaled more willingness for fiscal compromise with Democrats than Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, for example, have. He has rightly emphasized the importance of social mobility to America’s fortunes and has rightly sounded an alarm that such mobility is on the wane.

At 60, he’s older than any of the five potential Republican presidential candidates I’ve already mentioned or than Scott Walker (don’t forget him), Bobby Jindal or Rick Santorum. His face is less fresh, thanks largely to a surname shared with the party’s last two presidents.

But here’s the first great irony, oddity, oxymoron or whatever you want to call it of the 2016 race: if Republicans care about safeguarding their future, their wisest and best bet may be to reach back into their past. In a pack not exactly brimming with moderate, sensitive voices, Bush’s stands out as less strident, more reasonable and more forward-looking than his potential rivals’.

Lately the news media’s attention has focused on Paul, Cruz and especially Christie, who was just on the cover of New York magazine and has drawn headlines with veiled and unveiled swipes at fellow Republicans. He’s serving notice, as he did with his embrace of President Obama during Hurricane Sandy, that he puts less stock in party etiquette or ideological purity than in the practicalities of governing and the necessities of winning.

But he’s also scaring some Republican power brokers, and not solely or even mainly because he’s iconoclastic. It’s because he’s so very loud, so very proud, a ticking time bomb of self-congratulatory bellicosity and gratuitous insult. Would he really be the best nominee?

In a meeting with Republicans in Boston last week, he prematurely lashed out at several possible competitors, including Jindal, whom he no doubt had in mind when he reportedly said, “I’m not going to be one of these people who’s going to come and call our party stupid.” No, Christie’s much, much too tactful for that.

Bush has registered concern with the way the party can come across as “anti-science.” He has also referred to it as “the party of no,” correctly noting that Republicans right now are defined negatively, by all they’re against.

So what is he for? He talks extensively about educational opportunity, grounded in school choice. He has called for a “patriotic energy security strategy” that diminishes our reliance on foreign oil by more thoroughly tapping domestic sources of oil and natural gas. He’ll need a broader agenda than that, a longer list of affirmatives in order to turn Republicans into the Party of Yes. But he’s seemingly aware of the challenge and hasn’t sprinted away from the autopsy that the party performed on itself after Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election.

Bush may lack Christie’s verve, but he’s shown some of Christie’s nerve. Last year he said that both his father and Ronald Reagan would have a difficult time fitting into the intensely partisan Republican Party of today and “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”

“We’ve lost our way,” he said earlier this year.

The party needs to do better with Hispanic voters, and Bush isn’t just bilingual but also, in a sense, bicultural, with a Mexican-born wife. The state he governed and still lives in, Florida, has a large Hispanic population.

Swing voters looking for a Republican who supports abortion rights or gay marriage aren’t going to find one in him. But then they’re not going to find one in Christie or Ryan, either.

I’m told by people in the know that while Bush is definitely mulling a candidacy, there’s only a 20 to 30 percent chance that he’ll press the button. Many factors play into that decision: his family’s privacy; the reality that he and Rubio, his onetime political mentee, can’t both run; the nascent political career of his son George P. Bush, who might be better served by a longer Bush lull.

And then there’s the question that every presidential contender about to submit to a brutal and brutalizing process must ask: is a burning desire for the White House really present? The fabled fire in the belly? It certainly seems to rage inside Paul, Cruz, Christie. They’re infernos of untempered ambition.

Bush has a cooler temperature. But for the party’s prospects in 2016 and its image beyond then, that could be good. Just as Republicans can’t be the Party of Stupid or the Party of No, they can’t be the Party of Perpetual Ire, and Bush isn’t great at irate.

He’s better positioned for 2016 than he was for 2012, when the bitter disappointments of his older brother’s presidency were more keenly remembered and frequently invoked. Besides, if Hillary Clinton indeed rolls to the Democratic nomination, Republicans needn’t be so concerned about a nominee of their own with a dynastic aura. Clinton versus Bush would be political royalty versus political royalty.

Just imagine Barbara Bush’s muttered asides. That alone is almost reason to wish for the matchup, or cause for her second-born son to take a pass.

Dear God, spare us another Bush…


Fish and Rich

August 12, 2007

Stanley Fish writes about a proposed new ABC show, “Cavemen,” and says that there is nothing edgy or risky about a show taking on racial discrimination.  Frank Rich warns that the White House public relations strategies for the disaster that is Iraq are gathering steam, to our peril.  Here’s Mr. Fish:

The buzz about the new ABC show “Cavemen” is not good. The negative vibes take two forms. Some who have seen the pilot episode find it slapdash, poorly written and unfunny. Others worry that the show will reinforce racial stereotypes by encouraging viewers to identify the maligned Cro-Magnons with African-Americans.

If those who voice the first kind of criticism turn out be right, there will be nothing more to say; after the first week, no one will be watching. The moral objection is a trickier matter, too tricky it seems for the show’s producers, who are backpedaling as fast as they can.

Asked about the charge that plotlines like the perils of interspecies dating seem racially insensitive, one of the producers, Josh Gordon, disclaimed any intention to have the cavemen “stand in for” any racial group. The show, he insisted, is about “the fish-out-of-water experience.” (As a fish out of water myself, I’m tired of people who think that they can deflect criticism by hiding behind a fish metaphor.)

Another producer, Mike Schiff, added that he and his colleagues just want people to “care about these three guys under a lot of makeup.”

Maybe the producers should read the description of their show on the network’s Web site: “They have been around since the dawn of time … making them one of the world’s oldest minorities. … Joel, Nick and Andy have to overcome prejudice from most of the Homo sapien world.”

Of course it’s a show about minorities and racism, despite the writer Joe Lawson’s demurrer that it’s really about people struggling to acclimate, “something everybody deals with …whether you’re a minority or not.”

Why all this pussyfooting? The truth is that there is nothing risky or edgy about a show taking on (or pretending to take on) racial discrimination. Nothing could be safer, for reasons explained briskly by Walter Benn Michaels in ”The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,” just issued in paperback.

Michaels’s big point is that Americans, especially Americans on the left, love discrimination. Not that they love to practice discrimination; they love to deplore the fact of discrimination. And they love to propose strategies for lessening it: affirmative action, the celebration of diversity, the promotion of a culture of respect.

The reason we love those strategies, Michaels says, is that they involve cosmetic changes that allow us to feel good about ourselves while also allowing us to turn our eyes away from the economic inequalities that remain untouched as we busily respect everyone in sight.

Respect is an easy coin to proffer; it doesn’t cost much.

Michaels argues that if we think “racism is the problem we need to solve,” all we have to do to solve it is “give up our prejudices.” But if we think our problem is that too many people are poor, hungry, homeless and uneducated, solving that problem “might require us to give up our money.”

Far easier to add three minority representatives to the board of directors, or 10 minority faculty members to the roster of an Ivy League college, and then congratulate ourselves for having fought the good fight by slightly altering some statistics. Confession, absolution and good works in one pain-free package. What a bargain!

So bring on the cavemen. If Michaels is right, and the differences we ritually complain about are the differences we love (because beating our breasts about them is a cheap form of virtue), any controversy that the show might provoke will fit right into the society’s unwillingness to contemplate real social change.

Already, before the first episode is broadcast (if it ever is), we’re getting a taste of what is to come. After ABC canceled his show, the comedian George Lopez began talking as if he had been the victim of discrimination. “So a Chicano can’t be on TV, but a caveman can?” he said.

Is Lopez upset because one minority is being preferred to another? Does he believe there are cavemen? Or is he upset because a fictional minority is being preferred to a real one? Would he feel better if it were not cavemen, but Gypsies?

As long as the show, even in prospect, generates questions like these, and as long as such questions define the parameters of social concern, no C.E.O. making $130 million a year need worry about a thing.

Stanley Fish, a contributing columnist to TimesSelect, is a guest columnist.   Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman are off today.

Here’s Mr. Rich:

The cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch were ugly enough. So surely someone in the White House might have the good taste to draw the line at exploiting the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. But nothing is out of bounds for a government that puts the darkest arts of politics and public relations above even the exigencies of war.

As Jane Mayer told the story in last week’s New Yorker, Mariane Pearl was called by Alberto Gonzales with some good news in March: the Justice Department was releasing a transcript in which the long-incarcerated Qaeda thug Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to the beheading of her husband. But there was something off about Mr. Gonzales’s news. It was almost four years old.

Condoleezza Rice had called Ms. Pearl to tell her in confidence about the very same confession back in 2003; it was also reported that year in The Journal and elsewhere. What’s more, the confession was suspect; another terrorist had been convicted in the Pearl case in Pakistan in 2002. There is no known corroborating evidence that Mohammed, the 9/11 ringleader who has taken credit for many horrific crimes while in American custody, was responsible for this particular murder. None of his claims, particularly those possibly coerced by torture, can be taken as gospel solely on our truth-challenged attorney general’s say-so.

Ms. Pearl recognized a publicity ploy when she saw it. And this one wasn’t subtle. Mr. Gonzales released the Mohammed transcript just as the latest Justice Department scandal was catching fire, with newly disclosed e-mail exchanges revealing the extent of White House collaboration in the United States attorney firings. Had the attorney general succeeded in enlisting Daniel Pearl’s widow as a player in his stunt, it might have diverted attention from a fracas then engulfing President Bush on his Latin American tour.

Though he failed this time, Mr. Gonzales’s P.R. manipulation of the war on terror hasn’t always been so fruitless. To upstage increasingly contentious Congressional restlessness about Iraq in 2006, he put on a widely viewed show to announce an alleged plot by men in Miami to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and conduct a “full ground war.” He said at the time the men “swore allegiance to Al Qaeda” but, funnily enough, last week this case was conspicuously missing from a long new White House “fact sheet” listing all the terrorist plots it had foiled.

The Gonzales antics are, of course, in the tradition of an administration with a genius for stirring up terror nightmares at politically opportune times, like just before the Democratic convention in 2004. The Sears Tower scenario came right out of the playbook of his predecessor, John Ashcroft. In 2002, Mr. Ashcroft waited a full month to announce the Chicago arrest of the “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla — suddenly commandeering TV cameras in the middle of a trip to Moscow so that this tardy “news” could drown out the damning pre-9/11 revelations from the F.B.I. whistleblower Coleen Rowley. Since then, the dirty bomb in the Padilla case has evaporated much like Mr. Gonzales’s Sears Tower extravaganza.

Now that the administration is winding down and the Qaeda threat is at its scariest since 2001, one might hope that such stunts would cease. Indeed, two of the White House’s most accomplished artificial-reality Imagineers both left their jobs last month: Scott Sforza, the former ABC News producer who polished up the “Mission Accomplished” spectacle, and Peter Feaver, the academic specialist in wartime public opinion who helped conceive the 35-page National Security Council document that Mr. Bush unveiled as his Iraq “Plan for Victory” in November 2005.

Mr. Feaver’s document used the word victory six times in its table of contents alone, and was introduced by a speech at the Naval Academy in which Mr. Bush invoked “victory” 15 times while standing on a set bedecked with “Plan for Victory” signage. Alas, it turned out that victory could not be achieved merely by Orwellian incantation, so the plan was scrapped only 13 months later for the “surge.” But while Mr. Feaver and his doomed effort to substitute propaganda for action may now be gone, the White House’s public relations strategies for the war, far from waning, are again gathering steam, to America’s peril.

This came into sharp focus last weekend, when our military disclosed, very quietly and with a suspicious lack of accompanying White House fanfare, that it had killed a major terror culprit in Iraq, Haythem Sabah al-Badri. Never heard of him? Usually this administration oversells every death of a terrorist leader. It underplayed Badri’s demise for a reason. The fine print would further expose the fictional new story line that has been concocted to rebrand and resell the Iraq war as a battle against Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda — or, as Mr. Bush now puts it, “the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th.”

To understand how, revisit the president’s trial run of this new narrative, when he announced the surge in January. Mr. Bush had to explain why his previous “Plan for Victory” had gone belly up so quickly, so he came up with a new premise that absolved him of blame. In his prime-time speech, the president implied that all had been on track in Iraq after the country’s December 2005 elections until Feb. 22, 2006, when one of the holiest Shiite shrines, the gold-domed mosque in Samarra, was blown up. In this revisionist history, that single terrorist act set off the outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq now requiring the surge.

This narrative was false. Shiite death squads had been attacking Sunnis for more than a year before the Samarra bombing. The mosque attack was not a turning point. It was merely a confirmation of the Iraqi civil war that Mr. Bush refuses to acknowledge because American voters don’t want their troops in the middle of one.

But that wasn’t the only new plot point that the president advanced in his surge speech. With no proof, Mr. Bush directly attributed the newly all-important Samarra bombing to “Al Qaeda terrorists and Sunni insurgents,” cementing a rhetorical sleight of hand he had started sketching out during the midterm election season.

In fact, no one has taken credit for the mosque bombing to this day. But Iraqi government officials fingered Badri as the culprit. (Some local officials told The Washington Post after the bombing that Iraqi security forces were themselves responsible.) Since Badri is a leader of a tiny insurgent cell reportedly affiliated with what the president calls “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Mr. Bush had the last synthetic piece he needed to complete his newest work of fiction: 1) All was hunky-dory with his plan for victory until the mosque was bombed. 2) “Al Qaeda in Iraq” bombed the mosque. 3) Ipso facto, America must escalate the war to defeat “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” those “very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th.”

As a growing chorus of critics reiterates, “Al Qaeda in Iraq” is not those very same folks. It did not exist on 9/11 but was a product of the Iraq war and accounts for only a small fraction of the Sunni insurgency. It is not to be confused with the resurgent bin Laden network we’ve been warned about in the latest National Intelligence Estimate. But this factual issue hasn’t deterred Mr. Bush. He has merely stepped up his bogus conflation of the two Qaedas by emphasizing all the “foreign leaders” of “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” because that might allow him to imply they are bin Laden emissaries. In a speech in Charleston, S.C., on July 24, he listed a Syrian, an Egyptian, a Tunisian, a Saudi and a Turk.

Against the backdrop of this stepped-up propaganda blitz, Badri’s death nine days later was an inconvenient reminder of the hole in the official White House narrative. Mr. Bush couldn’t do his usual victory jig over Badri’s demise because there’s no way to pass off Badri as a link to bin Laden. He was born in Samarra and was a member of Saddam’s Special Republican Guard.

If Badri was responsible for the mosque bombing that has caused all our woes in Iraq and forced us to stay there, then the president’s story line falls apart. Far from having any connection to bin Laden’s Qaeda, the Samarra bombing was instead another manifestation of the Iraqi civil war that Mr. Bush denies. No wonder the same White House “fact sheet” that left out Mr. Gonzales’s foiled Sears Tower plot and, for that matter, Jose Padilla, also omitted Badri’s name from its list of captured and killed “Senior Al Qaeda Leaders.” Surely it was a coincidence that this latest statement of official Bush administration amnesia was released on Aug. 6, the sixth anniversary of the President’s Daily Brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

And so the president, firm in his resolve against “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” heads toward another August break in Crawford while Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains determined to strike in America. No one can doubt Mr. Bush’s triumph in the P.R. war: There are more American troops than ever mired in Iraq, sent there by a fresh round of White House fictions. And the real war? The enemy that did attack us six years ago, sad to say, is likely to persist in its nasty habit of operating in the reality-based world that our president disdains.

Fish and Rich

August 5, 2007

Stanley Fish apparently has had a bad time at some mega-coffee-mart (probably the one from Seattle) and yearns for the day when you could just order a cup of coffee and have it brought to you.  Frank Rich writes about the super-patriots who love the troops to death.  Here’s Mr. Fish:

A coordination problem (a term of art in economics and management) occurs when you have a task to perform, the task has multiple and shifting components, the time for completion is limited, and your performance is affected by the order and sequence of the actions you take. The trick is to manage it so that the components don’t bump into each other in ways that produce confusion, frustration and inefficiency.

You will face a coordination problem if you are a general deploying troops, tanks, helicopters, food, tents and medical supplies, or if you are the C.E.O. of a large company juggling the demands of design, personnel, inventory and production.

And these days, you will face a coordination problem if you want to get a cup of coffee.

It used to be that when you wanted a cup of coffee you went into a nondescript place fitted out largely in linoleum, Formica and neon, sat down at a counter, and, in response to a brisk “What’ll you have, dear?” said, “Coffee and a cheese Danish.” Twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page.

Now it’s all wood or concrete floors, lots of earth tones, soft, high-style lighting, open barrels of coffee beans, folk-rock and indie music, photographs of urban landscapes, and copies of The Onion. As you walk in, everything is saying, “This is very sophisticated, and you’d better be up to it.”

It turns out to be hard. First you have to get in line, and you may have one or two people in front of you who are ordering a drink with more parts than an internal combustion engine, something about “double shot,” “skinny,” “breve,” “grande,” “au lait” and a lot of other words that never pass my lips. If you are patient and stay in line (no bathroom breaks), you get to put in your order, but then you have to find a place to stand while you wait for it. There is no such place. So you shift your body, first here and then there, trying not to get in the way of those you can’t help get in the way of.

Finally, the coffee arrives.

But then your real problems begin when you turn, holding your prize, and make your way to where the accessories — things you put in, on and around your coffee — are to be found. There is a staggering array of them, and the order of their placement seems random in relation to the order of your needs. There is no “right” place to start, so you lunge after one thing and then after another with awkward reaches.

Unfortunately, two or three other people are doing the same thing, and each is doing it in a different sequence. So there is an endless round of “excuse me,” “no, excuse me,” as if you were in an old Steve Martin routine.

But no amount of politeness and care is enough. After all, there are so many items to reach for — lids, cup jackets, straws, napkins, stirrers, milk, half and half, water, sugar, Splenda, the wastepaper basket, spoons. You and your companions may strive for a ballet of courtesy, but what you end up performing is more like bumper cars. It’s just a question of what will happen first — getting what you want or spilling the coffee you are trying to balance in one hand on the guy reaching over you.

I won’t even talk about the problem of finding a seat.

And two things add to your pain and trouble. First, it costs a lot, $3 and up. And worst of all, what you’re paying for is the privilege of doing the work that should be done by those who take your money. The coffee shop experience is just one instance of the growing practice of shifting the burden of labor to the consumer — gas stations, grocery and drug stores, bagel shops (why should I put on my own cream cheese?), airline check-ins, parking lots. It’s insert this, swipe that, choose credit or debit, enter your PIN, push the red button, error, start again. At least when you go on a “vacation” that involves working on a ranch, the work is something you’ve chosen. But none of us has chosen to take over the jobs of those we pay to serve us.

Well, it’s Sunday morning, and you’re probably reading this with a cup of coffee. I hope it was easy to get.

Stanley Fish, a contributing columnist to TimesSelect, is a guest columnist. Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman are off today.

Here’s Mr. Rich:

Gerald Ford spoke the truth when he called Watergate “our long national nightmare,” but even a nightmare can have its interludes of rib-splitting farce.

None were zanier than the antics of Baruch Korff, a small-town New England rabbi who became a full-time Richard Nixon sycophant as the walls closed in. Korff was ubiquitous in the press and on television, where he would lambaste Democrats and the media “lynch mob” for vilifying “the greatest president of the century.” Despite Nixon’s reflexive anti-Semitism, he returned the favor by granting the rabbi audiences and an interview that allowed the embattled president to soliloquize about how his own faith and serenity reinforced his conviction “deep inside” that everything he did was right.

Clearly we’ve reached our own Korffian moment in our latest long national nightmare. The Nixon interviewed by the rabbi sounded uncannily like the resolute leader chronicled by the conservative columnists and talk-show jocks President Bush has lately welcomed into his bunker. For his part, William Kristol even published a Korffian manifesto, “Why Bush Will Be a Winner,” in The Washington Post. It reassured us that the Bush presidency would “probably be a successful one” and that “we now seem to be on course to a successful outcome” in Iraq. A Bush flack let it be known that the president liked this piece so much that he recommended it to his White House staff.

Are you laughing yet? Maybe not. No one died in Watergate. This time around, the White House lying and cover-ups have been not just in the service of political thuggery but to gin up a gratuitous war without end.

There is another significant difference as well. Washington never drank the Nixon Kool-Aid. It kept a skeptical bipartisan eye on Tricky Dick throughout his political career, long before the Watergate complex had even been built. The charmed Mr. Bush, by contrast, got a free pass; both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and both liberals and conservatives in the news media were credulous enablers of the Iraq fiasco. Now a reckoning awaits, and the denouement is getting ugly.

The ranks of unreconstructed Iraq hawks are thinner than they used to be. Some politicians in both parties (John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Gordon Smith) and truculent pundits (Peter Beinart, Andrew Sullivan) who cheered on the war recanted (sooner in some cases than others), learned from their errors and moved on. One particularly eloquent mea culpa can be found in today’s New York Times Magazine, where the former war supporter Michael Ignatieff acknowledges that those who “truly showed good judgment on Iraq” might have had no more information than those who got it wrong, but did not make the mistake of confusing “wishes for reality.”

But those who remain dug in are having none of that. Some of them are busily lashing out Korff-style. Some are melting down. Some are rewriting history. Most seem more interested in saving their own reputations than the American troops they ritualistically invoke to bludgeon the wars’ critics and to parade their own self-congratulatory patriotism.

It was a rewriting of history that made the blogosphere (and others) go berserk last week over an Op-Ed article in The Times, “A War We Just Might Win,” by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. The two Brookings Institution scholars, after a government-guided tour, pointed selectively to successes on the ground in Iraq in arguing that the surge should be continued “at least into 2008.”

The hole in their argument was gaping. As Adm. Michael Mullen, the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said honorably and bluntly in his Congressional confirmation hearings, “No amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference” in Iraq if there’s no functioning Iraqi government. Opting for wishes over reality, Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Pollack buried their pro forma acknowledgment of that huge hurdle near the end of their piece.

But even more galling was the authors’ effort to elevate their credibility by describing themselves as “analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” That’s disingenuous. For all their late-in-the-game criticisms of the administration’s incompetence, Mr. Pollack proselytized vociferously for the war before it started, including in an appearance with Oprah, and both men have helped prolong the quagmire with mistakenly optimistic sightings of progress since the days of “Mission Accomplished.”

You can find a compendium of their past wisdom in Glenn Greenwald’s Salon column. That think-tank pundits with this track record would try to pass themselves off as harsh war critics in 2007 shows how desperate they are to preserve their status as Beltway “experts” now that the political winds have shifted. Such blatant careerism would be less offensive if they didn’t do so on the backs of the additional American troops they ask to be sacrificed to the doomed mission of providing security for an Iraqi government that is both on vacation and on the verge of collapse.

At least the more rabid and Korff-like of the war’s last defenders have the intellectual honesty not to deny what they’ve been saying all along. But their invective has gone over the top, with even mild recent critics of the war like John Warner and Richard Lugar being branded defeatist “pre- 9/11 Republicans” by Mr. Kristol.

It’s also the tic of Mr. Kristol’s magazine, The Weekly Standard (and its Murdoch sibling The New York Post), to claim that the war’s critics hate the troops. When The New Republic ran a less-than-jingoistic essay by a pseudonymous American soldier in Iraq, The Weekly Standard even accused it of fabrication — only to have its bluff called when the author’s identity was revealed and his controversial anecdotes were verified by other sources.

A similar over-the-top tirade erupted on “Meet the Press” last month, when another war defender in meltdown, Senator Lindsey Graham, repeatedly cut off his fellow guest by saying that soldiers he met on official Congressional visits to Iraq endorsed his own enthusiasm for the surge. Unfortunately for Mr. Graham, his sparring partner was Jim Webb, the take-no-prisoners Virginia Democrat who is a Vietnam veteran and the father of a soldier serving in the war. Senator Webb reduced Mr. Graham to a stammering heap of Jell-O when he chastised him for trying to put his political views “into the mouths of soldiers.” As Mr. Webb noted, the last New York Times-CBS News poll on the subject found that most members of the military and their immediate families have turned against the war, like other Americans.

As is becoming clearer than ever in this Korffian endgame, hiding behind the troops is the last refuge of this war’s sponsors. This too is a rewrite of history. It has been the war’s champions who have more often dishonored the troops than the war’s opponents.

Mr. Bush created the template by doing everything possible to keep the sacrifice of American armed forces in Iraq off-camera, forbidding photos of coffins and skipping military funerals. That set the stage for the ensuing demonization of Ted Koppel, whose decision to salute the fallen by reading a list of their names in the spotlight of “Nightline” was branded unpatriotic by the right’s vigilantes.

The same playbook was followed by the war’s champions when a soldier confronted Donald Rumsfeld about the woeful shortage of armor during a town-hall meeting in Kuwait in December 2004. Rather than campaign for the armor the troops so desperately needed, the right attacked the questioner for what Rush Limbaugh called his “near insubordination.” When The Washington Post some two years later exposed the indignities visited upon the grievously injured troops at Walter Reed Medical Center, The Weekly Standard and the equally hawkish Wall Street Journal editorial page took three weeks to notice, with The Standard giving the story all of two sentences. Protecting the White House from scandal, not the troops from squalor, was the higher priority.

One person who has had enough of this hypocrisy is the war critic Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University professor of international relations who is also a Vietnam veteran, a product of the United States Military Academy and a former teacher at West Point. After his 27-year-old son was killed in May while serving in Iraq, he said that Americans should not believe Memorial Day orators who talk about how priceless the troops’ lives are.

“I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier’s life,” Professor Bacevich wrote in The Washington Post. “I’ve been handed the check.” The amount, he said, was “roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning.”

Anyone who questions this bleak perspective need only have watched last week’s sad and ultimately pointless Congressional hearings into the 2004 friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman. Seven investigations later, we still don’t know who rewrote the witness statements of Tillman’s cohort so that Pentagon propagandists could trumpet a fictionalized battle death to the public and his family.

But it was nonetheless illuminating to watch Mr. Rumsfeld and his top brass sit there under oath and repeatedly go mentally AWOL about crucial events in the case. Their convenient mass amnesia about their army’s most famous and lied-about casualty is as good a definition as any of just what “supporting the troops” means to those who even now beat the drums for this war.


August 1, 2007

Stanley Fish is alone behind the firewall today, writing about why parents should encourage their college-age kids to attend state schools:

Whenever I’m asked, and sometimes even before I’m asked, I advise parents of college-age children to not send their sons and daughters to private schools, but to send them to public institutions, at least if there are any good ones in their state.

I say this for the obvious reason. The tuition/fee difference between a good private school and a good state school can be as much as $40,000, and, aside from the dubious coin of prestige, it’s hard to see what you would be buying. Ivy League colleges once had a monopoly on world-class faculty, but today high-powered scholars and teachers can be found in the classrooms of any number of good state universities.

There’s that word “good” again. A (relatively) inexpensive education may not be such a bargain if along with the lower price comes a lower quality. The challenge is to combine first-class schooling with affordability and access. The temptation is to do things on the cheap.

Both the challenge and the temptation are on display these days in Florida where a drama in many acts is unfolding. A former governor, Bob Graham, is suing to take away the Legislature’s claimed authority to determine tuition and fees at the state’s 11 public universities. Graham contends that the Legislature has been ignoring Amendment 11, which created a board of governors in 2002 to manage the university system. The board, in turn, has been accused of surrendering its responsibilities to the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the same Legislature voted a 5 percent tuition increase, which was promptly vetoed by the current governor, Charlie Crist, at the same time that statewide budget cuts threatened to remove $100 million from the system’s coffers. Gov. Crist has, however, reversed his opposition to a differential tuition raise of 15 percent for three of the state’s research universities.

Confused yet? I am. But things clarified a bit on July 10 when the board of governors, sometimes called the “somnolent overseers,” woke up and took three actions that amounted to laying down a gauntlet.

First, the board joined Graham’s suit, thereby defying the Legislature. Second, the board voted for a 5 percent tuition increase, thereby defying the governor. Third, the board froze enrollment at current levels, thereby defying everyone, including, potentially, parents with children in high school. Moreover, the board did these things despite warnings issued at the meeting by two state legislators who serve on the House and Senate higher education appropriations committees.

These actions did not come out of the blue. Carolyn K. Roberts, chairwoman of the board, fired a warning shot in an op-ed in The St. Petersburg Times in June. “By every indicator,” she wrote, “Florida falls behind in higher education.”

Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system, brought a “background and options” paper to the July 10 meeting, documenting in detail how bad things are (lowest tuition and highest student-faculty ratio in the country). After their vote, board members braced themselves for a firestorm of criticism. But except for a dyspeptic threat by Senate President Ken Pruitt (“See you in court”) none arrived. Instead, state newspapers published editorials with titles like “At Long Last” and “Universities’ Board Right.”

What does it all mean? The hope is that it means the beginning of the realization of the goal announced in 1980 by Graham, who called for “a thrust for greatness” and the building of a world-class university system.

More easily said than done. At present, as Rosenberg and his board know, Florida is not even in the second tier of university systems in this country. Florida does not have a single campus that measures up to the best schools in the systems of Virginia, Wisconsin and Georgia, nevermind first-tier states like California, Michigan and North Carolina. Climbing that hill will be an arduous task, and the key will be a persistence few states are up to.

The conditions that leave a university system depressed have been a long time in the making and will take time to reverse. Five straight years of steadily increased funding, tuition raises and high-profile faculty hires would send a message that something really serious is happening. Ten more years of the same, and it might actually happen.

Stanley Fish, a contributing columnist to TimesSelect, is a guest columnist.

Thomas L. Friedman and Maureen Dowd are off today.

Fish and Herbert

July 14, 2007

Stanley Fish writes on a recent Supreme Court ruling in a piece called “History, Principle and Affirmative Action.”  Bob Herbert writes about school children being murdered in Chicago — 34 since school started last year.  Here’s Mr. Fish:

On its face, the affirmative action case decided on June 28 by the Supreme Court turns on whether two school districts in Washington and Kentucky violated the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection guarantee when they assigned children to schools on the basis of race.

But the underlying issue is whether the court should be attentive to history and the societal consequences of its decision, or should turn a blind eye to those consequences and attend only to the principled protection of individual rights. The plurality opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, strongly affirms the latter position, citing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s declaration (in Metro Broadcasting Inc. v. F.C.C., 1990) that: “Our Constitution protects each citizen as an individual, not as a member of a group.”

From this it follows that while groups may suffer disadvantages in the course of history, race-conscious efforts to ameliorate those disadvantages sacrifice constitutional principles, which are timeless, to the achieving of a result that is considered good by the ephemeral standards of the time.

Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the motives for race-conscious policies may seem benign, but he quoted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s admonition (again in Metro Broadcasting) that “ ‘Benign’ carries with it no independent meaning, but reflects only … the current generation’s conclusion that a politically accepted burden, imposed on particular citizens on the basis of race, is reasonable.” By “independent meaning,” Justice O’Connor meant a meaning independent of history.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens accused the majority of ignoring history and thereby obscuring what is at stake both now and when the 14th Amendment was passed. He is particularly incensed at Roberts’s invoking of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in the concluding paragraph of his opinion. “Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and not go to school based on the color of their skin.” Now, the chief justice said, it’s happening again.

Stevens retorted with irony and anger: “The chief justice fails to note that it was only black children who were so ordered.” That is, Brown and the 14th Amendment were not responses to an abstract principle of equality, but efforts to redress a historical injustice inflicted on one race by another. You don’t redress that injustice by barring attempts to mitigate its consequences.

The plurality, according to Stevens, failed to see that “a decision to exclude a member of a minority because of his race is fundamentally different from a decision to include a member of a minority for that reason.”

No it isn’t, replied Justice Clarence Thomas. “Every time the government uses racial criteria to bring the races together, someone gets excluded, and the person excluded suffers an injury solely because of his or her race.” He equates the minority’s arguments with those traditionally made by segregationists, who, he says, “repeatedly cautioned the court to consider practicalities and not to embrace too theoretical a view of the 14th Amendment.”

The conflict between the accidents and practicalities of history and the principle that race consciousness should not drive government policy is restaged around the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation. The distinction, Roberts explains, is “between segregation by state action and racial imbalance caused by other factors.” The results of these other factors — individual choice, economic inequalities, historical biases — may be regrettable and include de facto segregation, but in Roberts’s view, they should not be remedied by law.

Why? Because history, not government did it, and what history has done, history, not legislation, should undo.

That’s all very nice on paper, declares Justice Stephen Breyer in dissent, but it simply ignores “the long history and moral vision” that stretches from the 14th Amendment to Brown and beyond — the vision of “true racial equality,” not as “a matter of legal principle but in terms of how we actually live.” In other words, my principle — true equality — is more principled than yours.

This move of Breyer’s shows that while I have framed the opposition as one between history and principle, the identification of principle is itself the work of history, and history can always go the other way. This is Stevens’s point when he slyly reminds Roberts of one of his own recent pronouncements: “history is written by the victors.” In short, there will be another day. Count on it.

Stanley Fish, a contributing columnist to TimesSelect, is a guest columnist.

Here’s Mr. Herbert:

The colorful playground outside Frederick Funston Elementary School has swings and sliding boards and a heartbreaking makeshift memorial for the 13-year-old girl who was shot to death in the playground a few weeks ago.

“It’s difficult out here,” said a woman who sat on a bench, watching her two small boys scampering around the playground.

What she meant was that there was nothing particularly unusual about schoolchildren getting blown away in Chicago’s black and Latino neighborhoods. Since September, when the last school year started, dozens of this city’s public school students have been murdered, most of them shot to death. As of last week, the toll of public schoolchildren slain in Chicago since the opening of the school year had reached 34, including two killed since the schools closed for summer vacation.

“That’s more than a kid every two weeks,” said Arne Duncan, the chief executive of the city’s school system. “Think about that.”

The girl killed in the playground was Schanna Gayden, who, according to the police, was shot in the head by a gang member who was aiming at someone else. Blair Holt, a high school junior, was shot to death on a city bus. Another teenager was killed as he walked home from a library.

Lazarus Jones, a 13-year-old computer-lover who was looking forward to beginning high school in the fall, was jumped by several members of a gang and beaten to death. Twelve-year-old Laura Joslin was stabbed to death, police said, by an 18-year-old girl on Thanksgiving Day. Victor Casillas, 15, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

And so on.

This should be a major national story, of course, and it would be if the slain children had come from more privileged backgrounds. But these are the kids that most of America cares nothing about — black, Latin and poor.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper covered the story. He said of the kids, poignantly: “Their names should be known. Their lives should be honored. Their deaths should be remembered.”

But that was an exception. Outside of Chicago, very little reporting has been done on this horrifying wave of murders. The truth, of course, is that Chicago is not alone. It may be jolting, even in our blood-drenched society, to have so many students from one school system killed over the course of a single school year. But most people know (and take for granted) that boys and girls growing up in America’s inner cities often have to deal with conditions that can fairly be compared to combat.

“There’s just a tremendous amount of passivity and a lack of public outrage,” said Mr. Duncan, a fierce champion of efforts to control the relentless arming of Americans — young and old, rich and poor — with firearms.

“No one even talks about all the kids who are shot but not killed,” he said. He mentioned a 7-year-old who was shot at a family barbecue. “The amount of trauma these kids and their families are living with is just staggering,” he said.

We know at least some of the things that need to be done about the slaughter of poor children in the U.S.

Mr. Duncan is surely right when he says that the easy availability of guns is roughly the equivalent of spraying gasoline on an already fiery situation. The effect of the guns is to make a bad situation much, much worse.

Beyond the guns, apart from the horrifying fact that they might meet up with a bullet at any time, poor youngsters are suffering from a ruthless pattern of abuse and neglect that has lasted for many years.

Too few have been afforded the benefits of a quality education. Too many are left to their own devices because of an absence of after-school programs and other kinds of activities — clubs, sports, art and music programs, summer camps — that can enrich the lives of children and shield them from harm.

Summer jobs programs have been decimated by the federal government.

And in far too many cases, the very people who should be caring for these youngsters the most, their parents, have walked away from their most fundamental responsibilities. Fathers, especially, have abandoned their young in droves.

Life is not fair. Society will not make these vulnerable youngsters whole. We all have a responsibility, but the kids desperately need those closest to them to step up, especially the ones who gave them life.

Cohen, Fish and Kristof

July 12, 2007

Roger Cohen writes about “tweens,” and says they’re the future, but they’re also the present.  Stanley Fish’s column is titled “A New Life After Death.”  Nicholas Kristof  writes about “progress” in Iraq.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

At dinner the other night, my nine-year-old daughter asked me what the greatest shopping city in the world is. I confess I was not ready for that one. Vague memories of nightmare hours at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, stirred. But I decided to go with something more cosmopolitan.

“Hong Kong, I guess.”

“Really?” she shot back. “That’s fascinating. I had always heard it was between Paris and New York.”

It is not often that I say something to my daughter that qualifies as fascinating. Still, the “always” was ominous. I wondered how long the small person opposite me had been pondering this weighty issue and who her source was on shopping heaven. “That’s what my friends say,” she told me.

Could she and Maggie and Sophia and the rest of them really be sitting around discussing the relative merits of London, Tokyo and Moscow for chocolate-sundae lip balm or purplish-pinkish nail polish or the latest cellphone model? Yes, they could.

I am the proud father of a “tween.” Tweens, falling roughly into the 8-12 age group, used to be called pre-teens. They are now in a generational category of their own in part because that gives retailers a clearer target, but also because their preternatural state – between childhood and all-knowingness – demands it.

Tweens are worth studying. They are the future. In fact, they are also the present. The U.S. military and their families are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the rest of America is shopping or watching the Disney Channel or dreaming of becoming American idols.

There is a wider phenomenon of which tweens are a part. It is called “age compression” – roughly the cramming of experience into ever younger human vessels, creating an eerie disconnect between the outer child and the inner sophisticate. Marketers have an acronym for this, “KGOY,” which stand for “kids getting older younger.”

KGOY represents opportunity, of course. The U.S. apparel market for tween girls is now worth upward of $11 billion.

Tweens are discerning consumers. They think a lot about what they are going to wear, whether their outfit matches their peach-sparkle nail polish, how clothes sit with a teal-colored cellphone (“Can you believe Mom didn’t know what color teal is?”), what kind of sushi they are going to eat, and what to read after books like “30 Guys in 30 Days.”

What should be made of all this? It is plausible to take a dark view, seeing in the spread of “tweendom” the commercial exploitation of young girls (and to a lesser extent boys), their corrupting transformation into shop-until-you-drop mini-citizens, and their premature sexualization.

Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and the co-author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes,” sent me an e-mail saying, “Tween is a word made up by marketers in order to sell teen items to younger and younger girls.” She added: “Shopping itself is sold as a quintessential girl activity before girls even have an allowance to spend.”

I cannot argue with that, although tween is also a term that seems to capture the psychological tension of late childhood in the Internet age. Moreover, the sophistication of tweens is not confined to shopping.

Another thing my daughter said to me recently was that we should buy a “high bird.” I eventually worked out she meant a “hybrid.” We needed one, she explained, because the world is getting warmer, ice caps are melting, and too many cars in America are belching heat-trapping gases.

Right. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was smart in declaring that the fight against global warming will be his first priority, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, has been smart in leading a campaign against greenhouse gases. Green is sexy. Any tween will tell you that – and they will be voting within a decade.

It is encouraging that the tween generation has taken global warming, as well as global shopping, to heart. The world is knit ever closer. It is itself in a “tween” state – poised between hope and menace.

Tweens keep you on your toes, which is important. When I suggested to mine the other day that she should brush her teeth, she retorted that George Washington had very bad teeth. But, I noted, the girls in “Twist” and other magazines for tweens, as well as the girls on Disney channel, all have white teeth.

“You want me to take them as a model rather than George Washington?” she asked.

There is hope out there in tween city.

Here’s Mr. Fish:

Literary history is full of stories of men and women whose once rising stars fell below the horizon, but who were rediscovered and even canonized (in the literary sense) after they died. What must that feel like?

Unless you believe that not only is there life after death but also that in the other life you will be able to keep tabs on this one, it doesn’t feel like anything. It certainly doesn’t feel like success, even in prospect. No one opts for the “undervalued when alive, but admired when deceased” track. The pleasures of being vindicated in the long run are experienced by those left behind, by biographers and torch bearers; it is their careers that flourish. How can that be satisfying?

I ask because of what is now happening (after the fact, as it were) to an old friend of mine, someone I once knew well as a colleague, friend and fellow basketball player (unlike me, he really could play the game), someone I lost touch with, someone who died in 2003. His name was, and on the page still is, Leonard Michaels, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s his first two collections of short stories (“Going Places” and “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could”) earned him the praise of people like Susan Sontag, who said, “I think Leonard Michaels is the most impressive new American writer to appear in years.”

A novel in 1981, “The Men’s Club,” seemed to seal the promise, but then the production slowed, the notices were less positive and, as Wyatt Mason observes in a retrospective in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine, by the time he died at the age of 70 his story had become one of “an apparent exhaustion of resources, as common in the arts at it is in life.”

Right after his death, the story didn’t get any better. An obituary in The New York Times took away the Ph.D. he had earned at Michigan (it was restored to him a week later, but few ever read the corrections) and dispatched his mother by leaving her off the list of survivors (she was restored, too). But now that Farrar, Straus & Giroux is reissuing his fiction and essays, the story is being rewritten and is on an upward trajectory. Michaels is now being recovered, reappreciated and, in a way, resurrected.

Now people say things like: “Leonard Michaels’s stories stand alongside those of his best contemporaries — Grace Paley and Philip Roth”; “He was among the few essential American short-story writers of the past half-century”; “The author’s five decades of short fiction argue effortlessly for a place beside the work of America’s paragons of the story form.”

And there are confident predictions like: “Four years after his death, it seems he’s finally poised to get the audience he deserved”; “The republication of his work … should bring Michaels to a new generation of readers and remind us of his lasting achievement.”

It is a cliché that we Americans love comebacks and second chances. We especially love them when they’re given to the dead.

In this case, the revival — I say the word in the hope of furthering it — has another byproduct: it has produced a new work for which Michaels can now be praised. In 1997, Michaels wrote a story titled “Nachman,” and followed it up with six others. Nachman is a middle-aged mathematician, whose “need for ecstasy was abundantly satisfied.” In place of the untidy war zones inhabited by Michaels’s earlier, volcanically passionate characters, Nachman inhabits a simple, clean space: “The room looked as if Nachman weren’t guilty of existence.”

He is determined to be ordinary. “It was Nachman’s deepest pleasure to feel like everyone else, regular, not like a freak.” But, of course, he is like everyone else, a freak, and the “internal resources” he takes pride in are always being frayed by contacts with a world that is itself deeply freakish.

Written in a style outwardly calmer than the snap and crackle of his earlier stories with their sentences that explode like cluster bombs, the Nachman stories are nevertheless just as tensile, disturbing and unpredictable. Collected in a slim volume as they should be (they now occupy the last 90 pages of “The Collected Stories”), they will surely win their author posthumous prizes, as if he cared.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

As we debate what to do in Iraq, here are two facts to bear in mind:

First, a poll this spring of Iraqis — who know their country much better than we do — shows that only 21 percent think that the U.S. troop presence improves security in Iraq, while 69 percent think it is making security worse.

Second, the average cost of posting a single U.S. soldier in Iraq has risen to $390,000 per year, according to a new study by the Congressional Research Service. This fiscal year alone, Iraq will cost us $135 billion, which amounts to a bit more than a quarter-million dollars per minute.

We simply can’t want to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us to be there. That poll of Iraqis, conducted by the BBC and other news organizations, found that only 22 percent of Iraqis support the presence of coalition troops in Iraq, down from 32 percent in 2005.

If Iraqis were pleading with us to stay and quell the violence, maybe we would have a moral responsibility to stay. But when Iraqis are begging us to leave, and saying that we are making things worse, then it’s remarkably presumptuous to overrule their wishes and stay indefinitely because, as President Bush termed it in his speech on Tuesday, “it is necessary work.”

We can’t afford universal health care at home — but we can afford more than $10 billion a month so that American troops can be maimed in a country where they aren’t wanted? If we take the total eventual cost of the Iraq war, that sum could be used to finance health care for all uninsured Americans for perhaps 30 years.

Or imagine if we invested just two weeks’ worth of the Iraq spending to fight malaria, de-worm children around the globe and reduce maternal mortality. Those humanitarian projects would save vast numbers of lives and help restore America’s standing in the world.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush argued that we should give the surge a chance and that the costs of withdrawal would be enormous.

Just because President Bush says something doesn’t mean it is fatuous. It’s true, for example, that our withdrawal may lead to worse horrors in Iraq. But don’t ignore the alternative possibility, believed overwhelmingly by Iraqis themselves, that our departure will make things better.

Mr. Bush is also right that the surge is only just in place and may still enjoy modest success. Sectarian violence initially dropped in Baghdad (although it seems to have risen again since May), and it’s impressive to see Sunni tribes cooperating with us in Anbar against foreign jihadis. Then again, even the Green Zone is now a daily target, Turkish troops may invade Kurdistan and brace yourself for battles in Kirkuk between Kurds and Arabs.

Meanwhile, since Mr. Bush announced the surge, 600 American troops have been killed and 3,000 injured.

But whatever happens on the streets that the Americans patrol, the only solution in Iraq is political, not military. The surge was supposed to build political space for that solution, and that is not happening.

Progress has stalled on de-Baathification and constitutional reform, one-third of Iraq’s cabinet is boycotting the government and people are turning to sectarian militias for protection. The Pentagon itself reported last month that 52 percent of Baghdad residents say that militias are serving the interest of the Iraqi people.

In this desperate situation, the last best hope to break the stalemates in Iraqi politics will come if Congress forces Iraqi politicians to peer over the abyss at the prospect of their country on its own. If Congress makes it clear that the U.S. is heading for the exits — and that we want no permanent bases in Iraq — that may undercut the extremists and lead more Iraqis to focus on preserving their nation rather than expelling the infidels.

It’s nice that Mr. Bush is still confident about Iraq, telling us on Tuesday: “I strongly believe that we will prevail.”

Apparently, we’re doing almost as well today as we were in October 2003 when he blamed journalists for filtering out the good news and declared: “We’re making really good progress.”

Then in September 2004, Mr. Bush assured us that Iraq was “making steady progress.” In April 2005: “We’re making good progress in Iraq.” In October 2005: “Iraq has made incredible political progress.” In November 2005: “Iraqis are making inspiring progress.”

Do we really want to continue making this kind of inspiring progress for the next 10 years?

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

Stanley Fish, part 2

April 16, 2007

Stanley Fish follows up on his March 31 op ed in the New York Times (available below) on the wisdom of teaching religion in schools.  He called this piece “Religion Without Truth, Part Two.”

In a March 31st Op-Ed column I critiqued Professor Stephen Prothero’s claim (quoted in Time magazine’s April 2nd issue) that the “academic study of religion … takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” I questioned how anyone could take something seriously by leaving it at the door or putting it on the shelf. And I said that in the absence of its truth claims – claims like salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead and redeemed us by taking upon himself all our sins – a religion was nothing more than a set of stories and ritual practices bereft of any transcendent meaning of which they would be the expression. You can teach those stories and practices – just as you might teach the stories and practices of baseball (which is, I know, the religion of some people) – but you wouldn’t, I insisted, be teaching religion, only its empty shell.

Of the hundred or so comments I received, only a few indicated agreement with my point. The others raised a number of objections, and among those objections three were prominent: 1) I fail to understand that one can teach the truth claims of religion as historical and cultural facts without either believing or disbelieving in them: “To understand the works of Christians such as Chaucer, Dante, Milton or Shakespeare, one must understand something of Christianity. One must not, however, become a Christian.” 2) Teaching the exclusive truth claims of a religion as matters of fact goes against the principles of liberal democracy and liberal education: “Teaching religious thought as dogma is not education, but theocracy.” 3) What I said in this column is contradicted by what I said in earlier columns: “The argument you present seems to run counter to your prior claim that any potentially controversial topic can and should be studied within ‘academicized’ grounds.”

First of all, I stipulate to the usefulness of teaching the bible as an aid to the study of literature and history. I’m just saying that when you do that you are teaching religion as a pedagogical resource, not as a distinctive discourse the truth or falsehood of which is a matter of salvation for its adherents. One can of course teach that too; one can, that is, get students to understand that at least some believers hold to their faith in a way that is absolute and exclusionary; in their view nonbelievers have not merely made a mistake – as one might be mistaken about the causes of global warming – they have condemned themselves to eternal perdition. (“I am the way.”) What one cannot do – at least under the liberal democratic dispensation – is teach that assertion of an exclusive and absolute truth as anything but someone’s opinion; and in many classes that opinion will be rehearsed with at best a sympathetic condescension (“let’s hope they grow out of it”) and at worst a condemning ridicule (“even in this day and age, there are benighted people”).

In short, what one cannot do is teach a religion as true, because as Patrick Tharp notes, to do so would be to teach a singular truth – “All religions can’t be taught as truth, only one” – and a chief tenet of liberal education (it is a religion too) is that a range of religious views should be taught in the sense of being noted and indexed in the manner of sociology or anthropology.

On this point, there is really no difference between me and my critics. We agree that you can’t – or shouldn’t – teach religion, in the strong sense, in the public schools; and we agree too that you can and should teach about religion in the public schools. Where we disagree is in the judgment of what, if anything, is lost when the assertion of dogma (a word that acquired its pejorative association late: it originally referred to the systematic content of a theology) gives way to a discussion or survey of dogma. When Barbara Schutz declares that “There is a difference between professing a faith and describing and discussing it,” she and I are on the same page; the question is whether the difference is one that makes discussing a faith an affront to it rather than a tribute to it.

That question and one Christian author’s answer to it are on display in a key section of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678), once the second-most-read work in Christendom after the Bible. Bunyan’s hero meets up with a fellow pilgrim named Talkative and is at first quite taken with him because he seems so knowledgeable about the faith they supposedly share. But in a short while Christian comes to see that while his new friend has all the answers to any question of doctrine – he boasts “I will talk of things heavenly or things earthly; things moral or things evangelical; things sacred or things profane, things past or things to come” – none of his answers has made its way from his lips to his heart. That is, they come from a rote erudition and not from an inward conviction.

That is finally the judgment Christian passes on Talkative: “Paul calleth some men, yea, and those great talkers too, ‘sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,’ that is… ‘things without life, giving sound.’” And later his friend Faithful comments: “To know is a thing that pleaseth talkers; but to do is that which pleaseth God.” Faithful’s point is that true religious knowledge is not something one delivers in precepts but something one performs at every moment, because its lesson and one’s being are indistinguishable. (“In him we live and move and have our being.”) There is, he explains “knowledge and knowledge. Knowledge that resteth in the bare speculation of things; and knowledge that is accompanied with the grace of faith and love which puts a man upon doing even the will of God from the heart.”

To have, or to be had by, this second, superior, knowledge is to have undergone a reorientation of being such that the content of both the world and your consciousness has been transformed. You now see the world as everywhere displaying the single truth of which you have become an extension. As Augustine puts in (in “The Christian Doctrine”), “To the pure and healthy internal eye, He is everywhere.” When Zach Johnson won the Masters golf tournament a week ago, he replied to a reporter’s standard questions about how he had done it by saying “Jesus Christ was with me every step of the way” (on the model of Paul’s “Not me, but my master in me”). The reporter looked unhappy and ended the interview abruptly.

The characterizing feature of the knowledge that does not save and transform – speculative knowledge, empirical knowledge, knowledge about – is the distance between the knower and the thing to be known, a distance that must be bridged by some methodological or technological apparatus. But with respect to the knowledge Bunyan and his characters celebrate, there is no distance – the knower and the object of knowledge are one – and the appearance of distance is a sign that you have joined the superficial Talkative in his ability to discourse on everything, but really know nothing. The lesson is given in Proverbs 3: “Be not wise in thine own eyes.” “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; lean not into thine own understanding.”

Leaning into your own understanding – cultivating it, extending it, refining it, adding to it – is what liberal education is all about. The project is to move forward to knowledge you do not yet have rather than to enact a knowledge that is written in the fleshly tables of your heart (II Corinthians, 3:3). The empiricism to which liberal education is devoted – let’s assemble the evidence and figure out where it leads us – is well encapsulated in the familiar saying “Seeing is believing.” The model of religious knowledge inverts that proverb and declares instead “Believing is seeing.” And that is why, as I have already acknowledged, teaching religion in the strong sense – the sense that would internalize its truths rather than study them – does not belong in the public schools, informed as they are by a theory of knowing that puts at its center a mind that stands apart from the objects of its analytical attention.

And that brings me to the charge that I have contradicted my assertion in previous columns that the business of liberal education is to “academicize” controversial topics — that is, to refrain from either embracing or rejecting the substantive positions of any party and instead subject all positions to an academic interrogation of their structures, histories, affiliations, etc. Can’t religions texts and the truth claims that come along with them be academicized too? Yes they can, but the effect on them of academicizing would not be the same as it would be on a vexed political issue like the issue of whether the United Sates should move toward a confrontation with Iran. An inventory and examination of the various perspectives on that issue would preserve, and indeed cast a spotlight on, all that is at stake in choosing one course rather than another, even though the choosing would not be part of the classroom exercise. But an academic inventorying of the competing candidates for religious truth will inevitably slight what is at stake in believing any one of them because it will treat the alternatives as objects to be thought about rather than as visions to be lived. To academicize a political topic is to deepen our knowledge of it. To academicize the truth claim of a religion is to kill it, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (II Corinthians, 3:6).

Finally, I note that some of those who responded negatively to the column identified themselves as members of religious studies departments. That put me in mind of something my friend and noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say: ‘The only requirement for being a member of a religious study department is that you not believe in God.”


March 31, 2007

This morning Stanley Fish is alone behind the firewall.  He’s wading into the controversy over teaching the Bible in public schools.

In 1992, at a conference of Republican governors, Kirk Fordice of Mississippi referred to America as a “Christian nation.” One of his colleagues rose to say that what Governor Fordice no doubt meant is that America is a Judeo-Christian nation. If I meant that, Fordice replied, I would have said it.

I thought of Fordice when I was reading Time magazine’s April 2 cover story, “The Case for Teaching the Bible,” by David Van Biema, which also rehearses the case for not teaching the Bible. The arguments are predictable.

On the one side, knowledge of the Bible “is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen”; also, if you get into a debate with a creationist, it would be good if you knew what you’re talking about.

On the other side: bring the Bible into the schools and you are half a step away from proselytizing; and besides, courses in the Bible typically play down the book’s horrific parts (dashing children against stones and the like), and say little about the killings done in its name.

As the Time article reports, the usual response to those who fear that allowing the camel’s nose under the tent will sooner or later turn the tent into a revival meeting is to promise that the Bible will be taught as a secular text. Students will become familiar with the Bible’s stories and learn how to spot references to them in works of literature stretching from Dante to Toni Morrison.

There may be a bit of instruction in doctrine here and there, but only as much as is necessary to understand an allusion, and never to a degree that would make anyone in the class uncomfortable.

Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who is cited several times by Van Biema, describes the project and the claim attached to it succinctly: “The academic study of religion provides a kind of middle space. … It takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” But that’s like studying the justice system and bracketing the question of justice. (How do you take something seriously by putting it on the shelf?)

The truth claims of a religion — at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity.

The metaphor that theologians use to make the point is the shell and the kernel: ceremonies, parables, traditions, holidays, pilgrimages — these are merely the outward signs of something that is believed to be informing them and giving them significance. That something is the religion’s truth claims. Take them away and all you have is an empty shell, an ancient video game starring a robed superhero who parts the waters of the Red Sea, followed by another who brings people back from the dead. I can see the promo now: more exciting than “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Matrix.” That will teach, but you won’t be teaching religion.

The difference between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of other academic topics lies in the penalty for getting it wrong. A student or a teacher who comes up with the wrong answer to a crucial question in sociology or chemistry might get a bad grade or, at the worst, fail to be promoted. Those are real risks, but they are nothing to the risk of being mistaken about the identity of the one true God and the appropriate ways to worship him (or her). Get that wrong, and you don’t lose your grade or your job, you lose your salvation and get condemned to an eternity in hell.

Of course, the “one true God” stuff is what the secular project runs away from, or “brackets.” It counsels respect for all religions and calls upon us to celebrate their diversity. But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims. Thou shalt have no other God before me.

This is what Governor Fordice meant. He understood that if he prefaced Christian with “Judeo,” he would be blunting the force of the belief he adhered to and joining the ranks of the multiculturalist appreciators of everything. Once it is Judeo-Christian, it will soon be Judeo-Islamic-Christian and then Judeo-Islamic-Native American-Christian and then. … Teaching the Bible in that spirit may succeed in avoiding the dangers of proselytizing and indoctrination. But if you’re going to cut the heart out of something, why teach it at all?

Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University, is a guest columnist this month.
Maureen Dowd is on vacation.

Fish and Friedman

March 28, 2007

Today Stanley Fish instructs us on how to select a book at the airport.  (What IS it with the lawyers the Times finds as guest columnists?) Then Thomas Friedman has thoughts on Gov. Schwartznegger’s plan in California to address global warming.  Here’s Mr. Fish:

You’re at the mystery section of an airport bookstore and the loudspeaker has just announced that your flight is in the late stages of boarding. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice. (That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go about deciding?

Look at the back cover? No, back-cover copy is written by an advertising flack who probably hasn’t read the book and is trying for something short and punchy like (and I will be making none of this up) “As unpredictable as trade winds” or “It couldn’t get any worse. Until it does.” Besides, rarely will the style of back-cover prose be anything like the style of the book itself, so reading it won’t tell you what you want to know. Depending on your taste, it might tell you something usefully negative. The moment I spot a reference to any country but this one, I move on. No international settings for me. Ditto for any promise that the book I am holding will be funny. Funny is for sitcoms and stand-up comedians. When it comes to mysteries, I’m a Matthew Arnold guy, all for high seriousness.

How about the blurbs, especially if a few of your favorites are touting the merits of an author new to you? I used to take direction from blurbs until I told a very famous mystery writer that he was right to have praised a book I had bought on his authority. He replied that he didn’t remember it, probably hadn’t read it, and was no doubt doing a favor for his publisher. Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each other like party favors.

The only thing left — and this is sure-fire — is to read the first sentence. The really bad ones leap out at you. Here’s one that has the advantage of being short (you can close the book quickly): “He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a shark fin through water.” Enough said. Here’s one that begins O.K., except for the heroine’s name, but then goes on a beat and a half too long: “Brianne Parker didn’t look like a bank robber or a murderer — her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone.” You don’t need the stuff after the dash. Brianne’s not looking like a murderer is the hook that draws you in to find out why she is one. The “pleasantly plump baby face” bit lets you off the hook and dumps you on a cliché, which might be all right if the author gave any sign of knowing that it was one. This guy is going to hit false notes for 300 pages, but I won’t be listening.

Sometimes a first sentence is bad because it’s pretentious. “Some stories wait to be told.” That’s an opening Tolstoy or Jane Austen might have considered (although they would have produced superior versions of it). But mystery writers usually aren’t Tolstoys or Austens, and a first sentence like this one is a signal (buyer beware) that the author is intent on contemplating his or her “craft” and wants you to contemplate it too. No thanks.

Time is running out, the doors will soon be closing. Here’s something much better: “Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son.” High marks for compression, information and what I call the “angle of lean.” A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it. As you read this one you already want to find out (a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what happened that turned a “boy” into a murderer, and (c) what sequence of events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction.

And here, finally, is the real thing, efficient, dense, and free of self-preening: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.” The name is nicely cadenced and sounds serious; “eleven years old at the time” takes the seriousness away, but it comes back with a vengeance and with a question: descent into murder, how did that happen? The answer — “with a bus ride” — only deepens the mystery, and we’re off. And look, the book is big and fat. Sold.

Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University, is a guest columnist this month.

Oh, in case you were curious, that was just a plug for Elizabeth George’s “What Came Before He Shot Her.”  Now here’s Mr. Friedman:

Sometimes you read something about this administration that is just so shameful it takes your breath away. For me, that was the March 20 article in this paper detailing how a House committee had just released documents showing “hundreds of instances in which a White House official who was previously an oil industry lobbyist edited government climate reports to play up uncertainty of a human role in global warming or play down evidence of such a role.”

The official, Philip A. Cooney, left government in 2005, after his shenanigans were exposed in The Times, and was immediately hired by, of course, Exxon Mobil. Before joining the White House, he was the “climate team leader” for the American Petroleum Institute, the main oil industry lobby arm.

The Times article, by Andrew Revkin and Matthew Wald, noted that Mr. Cooney said his past work opposing restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions on behalf of the oil industry had “no bearing” on his actions at the White House. “When I came to the White House,” he testified, “my sole loyalties were to the president and his administration.” (How about loyalty to scientific method?) Mr. Cooney, who has no scientific background, said he had based his editing on what he had seen in good faith as the “most authoritative and current views of the state of scientific knowledge.”

Let’s see, of all the gin joints. Of all the people the Bush team would let edit its climate reports, we have a guy who first worked for the oil lobby denying climate change, with no science background, then went back to work for Exxon. Does it get any more intellectually corrupt than that? Is there something lower that I’m missing?

I wonder how Mr. Cooney would have edited the recent draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, written and reviewed by 1,000 scientists convened by the World Meteorological Society and the U.N. It concluded that global warming is “unequivocal,” that human activity is the main driver, and that “changes in climate are now affecting physical and biological systems on every continent.”

I am not out to promote any party, but reading articles like the Cooney one makes me say: Thank goodness the Democrats are back running the House and Senate — because, given its track record, this administration needs to be watched at all times.

But I also say thank goodness for the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has built a Republican-Democratic coalition in California to blunt climate change. The governor is not only saving the Republican Party from being totally dominated by climate cranks, like Senator James Inhofe, and hacks-for-hire, like Cooney, but he also is creating a bipartisan template for dealing with climate change that will be embraced by Washington as soon as the Bush team is gone. I went out to Sacramento to interview the “Governator” a few weeks ago.

“The debate is over,” he said to me. “I mean, how many more thousands and thousands of scientists do we need to say, ‘We have done a study that there is global warming?’ ”

What is “amazing for someone that does not come from a political background like myself,” said Governor Schwarzenegger, is that “this line is being drawn” between Democrats and Republicans on climate change. “You say to yourself: ‘How can it be drawn on the environment?’ But it is. But the great thing is more and more Republicans are coming on board for this. Seeing how important this is. And more and more Democrats and Republicans are working together. … I said in my inaugural address: ‘There isn’t such a thing as Republican clean air or Democratic clean air. We all breathe the same air.’ Let’s get our act together, fix this problem and fight global warming.”

Last September, Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act, requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.

“Everybody recognized that it was so important that we should not argue over philosophy — that we Republicans believe in this and we Democrats believe in this and get nothing done,” he said. “We did it carefully. … We gave it enough ramp-up time to start in the year 2012 and by the year 2020 we want to hit that level. I am a business-friendly guy. I’m all about economic growth. I am not here to harm businesses. I am here to make businesses boom, but let’s also protect our environment. Let’s make our air clean. Let’s make our water clean. And let’s fight global warming because we know now that this is a major danger, that this is not a debate anymore.”

Fish and Stewart

March 24, 2007

Today it’s Stanley Fish and Rory Stewart in the NYT.  Mr. Fish discusses a bill in Missouri covering what can and cannot be required in college, and Mr. Stewart on how government policies must respond to Afghanistan’s fragmented pluralism.

Here’s Mr. Fish:

When a bill before a state legislature bears a woman’s name, it is usually because someone has been abducted or raped or murdered. But in Missouri, House Bill 213, or the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, is under consideration because someone was given an assignment.

According to a complaint filed in the United States District Court in Missouri, Emily Brooker, a student at Missouri State University, was required by her professor in a social-work class to participate in writing a letter supporting gay adoption. The letter was to be signed by every student and forwarded to the state legislature. (It was never sent.)

Ms. Brooker declined to sign, saying that the position taken in the letter conflicted with her religious beliefs. A month later she was called before a faculty-student committee to respond to questions about her academic performance and her fitness for social work. Nine months later (Sept. 17, 2006), she filed her complaint, and on Nov. 8, 2006, the university settled out of court and agreed to pay Ms. Brooker a sum of $9,000, waive academic fees totaling another $12,000, clear her academic record and remove her professor from his administrative duties and the classroom. In short, a slam-dunk.

A story with a happy ending? Yes and no. Yes, because at least on the reported facts, she was obviously in the right. No, because no one involved in this little drama got the issue right.

Ms. Brooker apparently believed that the issue was religious freedom, and this was certainly the argument made by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that brought the case on her behalf.

“Being a Christian shouldn’t make you a second-class citizen on a college campus,” said David French, the fund’s senior legal counsel. The injury, however, was not done to Ms. Brooker as a Christian, but to every student in the class, Christian or not, opponent or proponent of gay adoption.

For what the professor was requiring of his class was public advocacy, and it doesn’t matter whether an individual student would have approved of the advocacy; advocacy is just not what should be going on in a university.

Once advocacy is removed from the equation — once issues, including gay adoption, are objects of study rather than alternatives to be embraced — the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of either students or professors, become irrelevant.

A student assigned to study an issue must be equipped with the appropriate analytical skills. Acquiring and applying those skills in no way depend on political or ideological affiliations. If the assignment is to give an account of the dispute about gay adoption rather than to come down on one side or the other, two students with opposing views of the matter might very well produce the very same account. Academic performance and individual beliefs are independent variables. They have nothing to do with each other.

If the distinction between studying and advocating were honored, there would be no need for Provision J of House Bill 213, which deals with “conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments.” There could be no such conflicts if classroom assignments asked students to analyze an issue rather than pronounce on it; no one’s personal beliefs about anything would be in play.

Not only is Provision J beside the point; the entire bill is beside the point because it addresses a problem that should never arise, and proposes a remedy no different from the disease it claims to cure. Under House Bill 213, institutions of higher education would be required to report each year on their efforts “to ensure and promote intellectual diversity.”

“Intellectual diversity” — a term of art introduced by the conservative activist David Horowitz — mandates the proportional representation, on the faculty and in the curriculum, of conservatives and liberals. Its watchword is “balance,” but balance is a political measure, not an educational measure, for it could be achieved only by monitoring the political affiliations of professors and the political content of the materials they assign.

Emily Brooker’s professor was wrong to enlist her in a political campaign. Promoting and actively enforcing something called intellectual diversity would vastly extend his wrong and make it the law of the state.

Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University, is a guest columnist this month.
Maureen Dowd is off today.

Here’s Mr. Stewart:

Afghanistan is now both more and less than a nation. Dialects of its official language are spoken from Iran to India. Its greetings and rituals are recognizable in Chechnya. Kabuli woodwork incorporates motifs from Syria, the Mughal Empire and pre-Islamic Uzbekistan. On Tuesday, I heard a song from a mystical order, founded in Afghanistan, which was played by musicians from the borders of Nepal.

But Afghanistan is internally fragmented. It contains diverse Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Baluch people, who dominate the neighboring ‘stans.’ The Pashtun majority was split with Pakistan in the 19th century. The recent civil war has eroded nationhood further.

Government policy must respond to this fragmented pluralism. The myriad social organizations, histories and experiences of isolated Afghan communities should be liberated, and the state should become less centralized. This is because Afghans do not want to be ruled by an overbearing, alien government, and the civil service does not have the capacity to govern effectively across the country.

Devolution, however, should be counterbalanced by a new idea of a nation. President Hamid Karzai has embraced ethnic diversity in his elaborate Uzbek robes and Pashtun prayer beads. He must rebuild Kabul as a national symbol. He needs a new unifying definition of Afghanistan to replace the old and still powerful myth of jihad against foreign occupation.

Afghanistan is defined by its organic relationship to wider Muslim Asia. It is a barren country that first flourished as a trading station, connecting Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan, taking silk to Rome and cotton to China. It is historically entrepreneurial, adept at exploiting foreign financial support and finding varied irregular incomes. It is now supported by the cash of four million recently returned refugees and many remittances. Afghan carpets, tiles and calligraphy are attractive to neighboring markets because they draw on a regional tradition. Afghanistan should benefit from the overland trade between its resource-rich or rapidly growing neighbors.

This trade can be developed by increasing the United States investment in building roads. A year ago, it took nearly a day to get from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan — which was the time it took in 1933. Now the journey can be done in half the time.

But Kabul airport, which could easily make money, is pathetic; imports are taxed 15 times as they move from the borders to the capital; exports are crippled by cumbersome regulations and transportation costs.

Karzai’s largest problem lies with his Muslim neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. He must use everything that Afghanistan shares with these countries: linguistically, historically, culturally and religiously to charm, outwit and influence them. He should do the same throughout the Islamic world. The Middle East has never been so wealthy or so generous. Yet Afghanistan has failed to win its financial support.

The United States must, like Karzai, approach Afghanistan consistently as part of a wider region. There are identical tribal and political groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, separated only by colonial line. We emphasize democracy and human rights and pursue an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, but we support Pervez Musharraf, a military ruler, who takes a political, negotiated approach to the same groups in Pakistan. As a result of this schizophrenia, Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders base themselves in Pakistan and attack our interests from there.

Actions in one country spread quickly to neighbors. The invasion of Iraq disturbed Iran, then the election of a Shiite government emboldened it to finance other Shiite groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Concessions to India frighten Pakistan into financing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Our response to the Taliban angers Muslims in Europe and Indonesia. Yet Afghanistan’s influence can also be positive. Shiite-Sunni violence has spread from Pakistan to Iraq. But the Murad Khane district in central Kabul, which contains five Shiite and Sunni ethnic groups, has, like the rest of Afghanistan, recently avoided sectarian violence.

This year is the 800th anniversary of the poet Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, traveled through Central Asia, Persia and Arabia and died in Turkey, without being aware of leaving a single country. Tens of millions can recite his poetry. His line applies well to Afghanistan:

“Ma chu kuhim o sada dar ma ze tust.”

“We are mountains, our echoes are from you.”

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month.