Later On

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Archive for May 8th, 2009

Good example of cultural blindness

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Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating article in the 11 May New Yorker that gives examples of a particular kind of cultural blindness: not being able to see something because your culture blocks it out. Those few who do see are roundly criticized because of their transgression of cultural mores. [I’ve added below the beginning of the article. – LG]

Such blind spots can go away. One example that comes to mind is fist-fights—the kind of fight that happens when two guys who have had it up to here with each other decide to fight it out. Our American culture didn’t see effective use of the feet, shins, and knees in such fights. Some would use their feet, normally to kick an opponent who’s been knocked down, but this behavior is outlaw behavior—it’s “not done.”

But as people learned fighting techniques from other cultures and saw (a) that the use of the feet, shins, and knees was effective and (b) required training and skill to learn the techniques, somehow it became visible as a part of the way “we” (now) can fight.

And the cultural mandate is powerful. In the article, Gladwell points out several instances in which a better technique is known, but culturally not allowed so that use of it remains rare. People would rather be conventional than effective.

The cause of this blindness, then, is different from the blind spots Daniel Goleman discusses in his excellent book Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Update: A recent example, which more akin to the blind spots Goleman describes: being blind to something because seeing and acknowledging it would be too painful. (He opens the book with a particularly poignant example.) Although this blindness is culture-wide, it seems clearly a way of avoiding pain.

The beginning of Gladwell’s article:

When Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles. The first was that he would never raise his voice. This was National Junior Basketball—the Little League of basketball. The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting. He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm. He would speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense.

The second principle was more important. Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

Ranadivé looked at his girls. Morgan and Julia were serious basketball players. But Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and his own daughter, Anjali, had never played the game before. They weren’t all that tall. They couldn’t shoot. They weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening. Most of them were, as Ranadivé says, “little blond girls” from Menlo Park and Redwood City, the heart of Silicon Valley. These were the daughters of computer programmers and people with graduate degrees. They worked on science projects, and read books, and went on ski vacations with their parents, and dreamed about growing up to be marine biologists. Ranadivé knew that if they played the conventional way—if they let their opponents dribble the ball up the court without opposition—they would almost certainly lose to the girls for whom basketball was a passion. Ranadivé came to America as a seventeen-year-old, with fifty dollars in his pocket. He was not one to accept losing easily. His second principle, then, was that his team would play a real full-court press, every game, all the time. The team ended up at the national championships. “It was really random,” Anjali Ranadivé said. “I mean, my father had never played basketball before.”

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

Consider the way T. E. Lawrence (or, as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia) led the revolt against the Ottoman Army occupying Arabia near the end of the First World War. The British were helping the Arabs in their uprising, and the initial focus was Medina, the city at the end of a long railroad that the Turks had built, running south from Damascus and down through the Hejaz desert. The Turks had amassed a large force in Medina, and the British leadership wanted Lawrence to gather the Arabs and destroy the Turkish garrison there, before the Turks could threaten the entire region.

But when Lawrence looked at his ragtag band of Bedouin fighters he realized that a direct attack on Medina would never succeed. And why did taking the city matter, anyway? The Turks sat in Medina “on the defensive, immobile.” There were so many of them, consuming so much food and fuel and water, that they could hardly make a major move across the desert. Instead of attacking the Turks at their point of strength, Lawrence reasoned, he ought to attack them where they were weak—along the vast, largely unguarded length of railway line that was their connection to Damascus. Instead of focussing his attention on Medina, he should wage war over the broadest territory possible.

The Bedouins under Lawrence’s command were not, in conventional terms, skilled troops. They were nomads. Sir Reginald Wingate, one of the British commanders in the region, called them “an untrained rabble, most of whom have never fired a rifle.” But they were tough and they were mobile. The typical Bedouin soldier carried no more than a rifle, a hundred rounds of ammunition, forty-five pounds of flour, and a pint of drinking water, which meant that he could travel as much as a hundred and ten miles a day across the desert, even in summer. “Our cards were speed and time, not hitting power,” Lawrence wrote. “Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, men quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country, courage.” The eighteenth-century general Maurice de Saxe famously said that the art of war was about legs, not arms, and Lawrence’s troops were all legs. In one typical stretch, in the spring of 1917, his men dynamited sixty rails and cut a telegraph line at Buair on March 24th, sabotaged a train and twenty-five rails at Abu al-Naam on March 25th, dynamited fifteen rails and cut a telegraph line at Istabl Antar on March 27th, raided a Turkish garrison and derailed a train on March 29th, returned to Buair and sabotaged the railway line again on March 31st, dynamited eleven rails at Hediah on April 3rd, raided the train line in the area of Wadi Dhaiji on April 4th and 5th, and attacked twice on April 6th.

Lawrence’s masterstroke was an assault on the port town of Aqaba. The Turks expected an attack from British ships patrolling the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba to the west. Lawrence decided to attack from the east instead, coming at the city from the unprotected desert, and to do that he led his men on an audacious, six-hundred-mile loop—up from the Hejaz, north into the Syrian desert, and then back down toward Aqaba. This was in summer, through some of the most inhospitable land in the Middle East, and Lawrence tacked on a side trip to the outskirts of Damascus, in order to mislead the Turks about his intentions. “This year the valley seemed creeping with horned vipers and puff-adders, cobras and black snakes,” Lawrence writes in “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” of one stage in the journey:

We could not lightly draw water after dark, for there were snakes swimming in the pools or clustering in knots around their brinks. Twice puff-adders came twisting into the alert ring of our debating coffee-circle. Three of our men died of bites; four recovered after great fear and pain, and a swelling of the poisoned limb. Howeitat treatment was to bind up the part with snake-skin plaster and read chapters of the Koran to the sufferer until he died.

When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men. The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert. This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court.

Vivek Ranadivé is an elegant man, slender and fine-boned, with impeccable manners and a languorous walk. His father was a pilot who was jailed by Indira Gandhi, he says, because he wouldn’t stop challenging the safety of India’s planes. Ranadivé went to M.I.T., because he saw a . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Secret email argument among psychologists about torture

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Very interesting story by Sherri Fink of ProPublica:

Earlier this week we published a story examining [1] the psychology profession’s tortured relationship with the Bush Administration’s War on Terror. We found that psychologists warned officials as early as 2002 against using potentially ineffective and dangerous interrogation techniques on detainees, according to a recently-released Senate Armed Services Committee report. However, what had been little noticed was that the same psychologists helped develop the harsh interrogation policies and practices they warned against.

As part of our report, we posted a listserv of internal emails between staff of the American Psychological Association and members of its "Psychological Ethics and National Security" task force. (Here’s the entire listserv.) [2] That listserv offers a rare look into a process that led to the adoption of an influential and controversial policy for the world’s largest professional organization of psychologists [3], which represents the profession of psychology in the United States. It also provides a window into a heated discussion among medical professionals grappling with their ethical obligations and their possible complicity in torture.

The task force was set up after news reports [4] suggested that psychologists and other health professionals had been complicit with abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, for example by sharing information about psychological vulnerabilities with interrogators. The group’s charge was to examine the ethical dimensions of psychologists’ involvement in "national security investigations" and consider whether the APA should develop policies to guide psychologists involved in those activities. The task force produced a 12-page report [5] stating that the APA’s ethics code prohibited torture, obligated psychologists to report any instances to appropriate authorities, and banned psychologists from using health care information in ways that could harm detainees.  Click to see the e-mail listserv obtained by ProPublica.

[2] But the report also gave psychologists an ethical blessing to continue consulting in national security-related interrogations. An organization of psychiatrists, in contrast, decided its physician members should not participate. In response, the Department of Defense changed its guidance [6] to state that psychologists, but no longer psychiatrists, should participate in so-called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams or "BSCTs" (pronounced "biscuits"), which assist interrogators in prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After the report was issued, the APA task force itself became a target for criticism, when it was revealed that some members had consulted on interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, trained other psychologists to do so, or worked within chains of command that authorized the very practices the task force was established to consider (six of the nine voting members were members of or had consulted for the military or intelligence agencies).

The email traffic on the APA task force listserv [2] forms a dense but riveting narrative…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Torture

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Lieberman & Graham: An ignorant public is best

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Daphne Eviatar in the Washington Independent:

Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote to President Obama yesterday urging him to block the impending release of photographs showing detainees abused by U.S. military personnel, reports Secrecy News, the blog of the Federation of American Scientists.

The photos are supposed to be released on May 28 in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The release of these old photographs of past behavior that has now been clearly prohibited will serve no public good, but will empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country’s image, and endanger our men and women in uniform,” the senators wrote in a May 6 letter. “We urge you in the strongest possible terms to fight the release of these old pictures of detainees in the war on terror, including appealing the decision of the Second Circuit in the ACLU lawsuit to the Supreme Court and pursuing all legal options to prevent the public disclosure of these pictures.”

The ACLU, meanwhile, is keeping the up fight for the photos:

“These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib,” ACLU attorney Amrit Singh told Secrecy News. “Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.”

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 1:56 pm

Posted in Congress, Torture

The Mideast Peace Process

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From the Center for American Progress:

Earlier this week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), "the nation’s major pro-Israel lobby," held its annual policy conference in Washington, DC. Attended by "more than half the members of the House and Senate," the conference featured major foreign policy speeches by Vice President Biden and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). Noting America’s "commitment to the peace and security of the state of Israel," Biden said that"all of us have obligations to meet, including the Israeli and Palestinian commitments made in the road map." "The Palestinian Authority must combat terror and incitement against Israel," the Vice President said, "but Israel has to work towards a two-state solution. You’re not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement based on their first actions." Kerry echoed Biden’s themes, arguing that while the Palestinians "must do enormous work to uphold their end of the bargain," "Israel, too, must take hard steps towards the path to peace." "And nothing will do more to show Israel’s commitment to making peace than freezing new settlement activity," Kerry said. Though new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "has so far shied away from publicly supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the AIPAC conference this week indicated some potential movement toward that position. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas noted yesterday, "The AIPAC delegates’ wish list included endorsements for two congressional letters that unequivocally support a ‘viable Palestinian state.’" "Such an endorsement for the concept by AIPAC is unlikely to have come without some sort of nod from Jerusalem," wrote Kampeas, pointing out that "Netanyahu addressed the conference via satellite and sent some of his top advisers."

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8 May 2009 at 1:53 pm

Obama’s culpability in the cramdown failure

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Obama regularly disappoints—and also regularly raises hope. The cramdown silence was one of the disappointments, but I guess he wants to stay friends with the financial industry. Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent:

Though mortgage bankruptcy reform has been a central component of the Obama administration’s foreclosure prevention strategy, the White House all but abandoned the proposal in the days leading up to last week’s Senate vote, providing some Democrats with the political cover to kill the bill and leaving supporters scratching their heads in wonder why the administration didn’t push harder for passage.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), would have empowered bankruptcy judges to reduce, or “cramdown,” the terms of primary mortgages, allowing some struggling homeowners to avoid foreclosure. Obama supported the measure on the campaign trail last year, and endorsed it again in February as he unveiled his anti-foreclosure plan.

Yet in the days before Thursday’s Senate vote, the silence emanating from the White House was palpable. Unlike Obama’s high-profile support for legislation to reform the credit card industry, the president made no public statements on cramdown, nor did he pressure Democratic lawmakers to support the bill.

“When the time came to stand up to the banking lobbies and cajole yes votes from reluctant senators — the White House didn’t,” The New York Times wrote in a biting editorial Monday.

The administrative hush led some lawmakers to believe that issue was no longer a priority for the White House. Indeed, a spokesperson for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — who opposed the proposal, saying it was too broad and would have raised interest rates — told The Denver Post that a “no” vote was not inconsistent with Obama’s position.

That sentiment allowed on-the-fence Democrats to oppose the measure without being perceived as defying the White House. Indeed, the measure failed 45 to 51 — 15 votes shy of defeating the GOP filibuster — with 12 Democrats joining every Republican to kill the bill.

The vote arrived at a time when foreclosure rates are skyrocketing and more and more homeowners find themselves “underwater” — owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

In another curious move, the White House issued a statement last week reiterating its support for “appropriately tailored bankruptcy language” as part of its anti-foreclosure strategy. But the statement wasn’t released until a day after the Durbin’s cramdown amendment had already failed on the Senate floor.

Administration officials deny that Obama’s support for cramdown ever waned. [Well, of course they deny it. – LG]

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Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 1:46 pm

Jeffrey Rosen defends his smear campaign

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Jeffrey Rosen published an article in The New Republic that contained many anonymous smears of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Glenn Greenwald did an excellent dissection of Rosen’s hatchet job in this column, and then Rosen attempted to respond. Greenwald’s discussion of the (inadequate and misleading) response begins:

Jeffrey Rosen and The New Republic really are owed a debt of gratitude for shining a light on how shoddy, arrogant, non-responsive and deliberately misleading so much of our establishment "journalism" really is.  Rosen purports to respond today to what he condescendingly refers to as the "energetic response in the blogosphere" to his anonymity-dependent attack on Sonia Sotomayor’s intellect and judgment.  Rosen doesn’t deign to name any of the critics and links to only a couple in passing, and is thus free to ignore many of the serious ethical problems and factual errors in his "reporting" raised by numerous commentators and to distort that which he does address.  Rosen takes full advantage of that freedom:

(1) The single most serious charge against Rosen was raised by Law Professor Darren Hutchinson, who conclusively documented that one of the very few verifiable factual assertions Rosen included was, as Hutchinson put it, "patently untrue."  Specifically, Rosen claimed that a footnote from a "senior judge on the Second Circuit" accused Sotomayor of "misstating the law" and "misleading litigants."  But the footnote did no such thing — not arguably, not remotely.  It’s simply a factually false claim by Rosen, as documented by a fellow law professor.

In reply, Rosen simply asserts …

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Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 1:37 pm

Posted in Democrats, Government, Media

CIA lies, ABC echoes the lie

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As Marcy noted back on April 29th, the issue of Nancy Pelosi’s briefing back in 2002 on the Bush/Cheney torture program, whether or not it was being applied to Abu Zubaydah and, if so, to what extent, has really turned into a he said-she said game. (See also here regarding the Porter Goss offensive against Pelosi and Harman).

So, it should not come as any surprise that yet another missive has been launched in this little passion play. Today’s strike comes courtesy of Rick Klein at ABC News:

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah in September 2002, according to a report prepared by the Director of National Intelligence’s office and obtained by ABC News.

The report, submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee and other Capitol Hill officials Wednesday, appears to contradict Pelosi’s statement last month that she was never told about the use of waterboarding or other special interrogation tactics. Instead, she has said, she was told only that the Bush administration had legal opinions that would have supported the use of such techniques.

MadDog has slithered into the depths of Human to find what they claim is “the report“. He has also given us a hand glossary for the abbreviations. The Washington Post seems to think it is “the report” as well, for what it is worth: …

Continue reading. And at the link is a video.

Marcy Wheeler continues:

As bmaz has reported, the CIA has sent a list of torture briefings to Crazy Pete Hoekstra on when and whom in Congress got briefed that the CIA was in the torture business. And ABC news, just off having to admit the CIA lied to them about torture in the past, has taken what the CIA gave them and treated it totally uncritically. Again.

Based on the list (which I’ve also obtained), they’re out with a post claiming they’ve caught Pelosi in a contradiction.

The report, submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee and other Capitol Hill officials Wednesday, appears to contradict Pelosi’s statement last month that she was never told about the use of waterboarding or other special interrogation tactics.

Setting aside the fact that the list doesn’t mention waterboarding specifically in its description of that briefing (it does in quite a few others), there are huge problems with using the list as a basis to claim anything.

First, there’s this paragraph the CIA included in the letter they sent with the briefing list to Crazy Pete (which ABC didn’t think important enough to include when they first posted this story): …

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Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 1:14 pm

More on Sen. Sessions, racist

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Brian Beutler and Eric Kleefeld in TPMDC:

When it became clear that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was poised to become ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, we recalled this 2002 article by Sarah Wildman which addresses some of the controversies that kept Sessions from being confirmed in 1986 as a U.S. District Court judge in Alabama.

Wildman writes in particular that the testimonies of two witnesses–a Justice Department employee named J. Gerald Hebert, and a black Sessions subordinate named Thomas Figures–helped to doom Sessions, then a U.S. Attorney, at his Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. According to Wildman, Hebert testified reluctantly "that in a conversation between the two men Sessions had labeled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) "un-American" and "Communist-inspired." And Figures–then an assistant U.S. Attorney–told the committee that "during a 1981 murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions was heard by several colleagues commenting that he ‘used to think they [the Klan] were OK’ until he found out some of them were ‘pot smokers.’"

Today we obtained a copy of the transcript of the Sessions hearings–over 500-pages worth–and it turns out there’s quite a bit more. We’re still going through it, of course, but the Figures testimony alone contains some damning details.

Figures recalled one occasion in which the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent them instructions to investigate a case that Sessions had tried to close: "We had a very spirited discussion regarding how the Hodge case should then be handled; in the course of that argument, Mr. Sessions threw the file on a table, and remarked, ‘I wish I could decline on all of them.’"

All of them, according to Figures, meant civil rights cases generally. As he explained at one point: "[T]he statement, the manner in which it was delivered, the impression on his face, the manner in which his face blushed, I believe it represented a hostility to investigating and pursuing those types of matters."

Figures said that Sessions had called him "boy" on a number of occasions, and had cautioned him to be careful what he said to "white folks. "Mr. Sessions admonished me to ‘be careful what you say to white folks,’" Figures testified. "Had Mr. Sessions merely urged me to be careful what I said to ‘folks,’ that admonition would have been quite reasonable. But that was not the language that he used." …

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Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 1:06 pm

Robert Reich on Obama taking on tax havens

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Why, one may ask, is Obama taking on yet another huge fight by taking aim at foreign tax havens? Yes, it’s unfair that multinationals pay an average tax rate of only 2 percent on their foreign revenues, and it’s unfair that some wealthy Americans are avoiding taxes altogether by parking their fortunes abroad. But, hey, these have been true for decades. So why take them on now, when the President is also taking on universal health insurance and global warming, and trying to get the economy going again?

The White House says that some jobs go abroad because American companies are lured there by tax loopholes which, if closed, would bring the jobs home. True. But a crackdown on tax havens might also cost American jobs if companies decided that a higher tax burden here required them to cut payrolls in order to stay competitive or to simply leave the United States altogether.

Another possible explanation is that it was a campaign promise. Obama frequently criticized the tax code for allowing American companies with overseas operations to defer paying taxes on corporate profits if they placed the money back into their foreign subsidiaries. But this can’t be it, either. He criticized several other things as well — such as the North American Free Trade Agreement — which he now seems comfortable with.
So again: why this, and why now?

Two reasons, both strategic. The President needs …

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8 May 2009 at 1:03 pm

The Right’s hair-trigger outrage

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One thing that (I believe) marginalizes the Right is their tendency to flip out over things sensible people take in stride. The result is that the Right increasingly seems loony. An example from the Center for American Progress:

Yesterday, President Obama signed a proclamation recognizing a National Day of Prayer (NDP), but he did not continue George W. Bush’s practice of holding a "formal White House event." Leading up to the proclamation, conservative commentators spent days suggesting that Obama was in some way attempting to downplay the significance of the NDP — and thus faith in general. Hate radio talker Rush Limbaugh went so far as to suggest that Obama was trying to "cancel" the NDP, while the conservative National Day of Prayer Task Force issued a statement suggesting that Obama was departing from historical tradition. The Task Force claimed that Obama’s decision was "contrary to the administrations of President George W. Bush, President George H. W. Bush, and President Ronald Reagan." On Fox and Friends yesterday, co-host Steve Doocy echoed the claim that Reagan and George H. W. Bush held events similar to that of George W. Bush. Guest Elisabeth Hasselbeck asserted that public events at the White House on the National Day of Prayer stretched back to President Truman and strangely suggested that Obama’s decision was interfering in Americans’ right to "gather and pray" in public. In reality, it was Bush who broke with tradition by holding official White House events on the NDP. Indeed, the National Day of Prayer Task Force spokesperson Brian Toon actually admitted days before that "[t]here was no East Room event until George W." Indeed, despite the Task Force’s claim yesterday that Reagan and H. W. Bush were in the habit holding White House events on the NDP, U.S. News and World Report explained that each of them held such events only once during their presidencies.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 12:57 pm

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Religion

The US’s 45-year history of engagement with torture

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A shameful record, reported by A.J. Langguth in the LA Times:

As President Obama grapples with accusations of torture by U.S. agents, I suggest he consult the former Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle.

I first contacted Daschle in 1975, when he was an aide to Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota, who was leading a somewhat lonely campaign against CIA abuses.

At the time, I was researching a book on the United States’ role in the spread of military dictatorships throughout Latin America. Daschle arranged for me to inspect the senator’s files, and I spent an evening reading accounts of U.S. complicity in torture. The stories came from Iran, Taiwan, Greece and, for the preceding 10 years, from Brazil and the rest of the continent’s Southern Cone.

Despite my past reporting from South Vietnam, I had been naive enough to be at first surprised and then appalled by the degree to which our country had helped to overthrow elected governments in Latin America.

Our interference, which went on for decades, was not limited to one political party. The meddling in Brazil began in earnest during the early 1960s under a Democratic administration. At that time, Washington’s alarm over Cuba was much like the more recent panic after 9/11. The Kennedy White House was determined to prevent another communist regime in the hemisphere, and Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, was taking a strong interest in several anti-communist approaches, including the Office of Public Safety.

When OPS was launched under President Eisenhower, its mission sounded benign enough — to increase the professionalism of the police of Asia, Africa and, particularly, Latin America. But its genial director, Byron Engle, was a CIA agent, and his program was part of a wider effort to identify receptive recruits among local populations.

Although Engle wanted to avoid having his unit exposed as a CIA front, in the public mind the separation was quickly blurred. Dan Mitrione, for example, a police advisor murdered by Uruguay’s left-wing Tupamaros for his role in torture in that country, was widely assumed to be a CIA agent.

When Brazil seemed to tilt leftward after President Joao Goulart assumed power in 1961, the Kennedy administration grew increasingly troubled. Robert Kennedy traveled to Brazil to tell Goulart he should dismiss two of his Cabinet members, and the office of Lincoln Gordon, John Kennedy’s ambassador to Brazil, became the hub for CIA efforts to destabilize Goulart’s government.

On March 31, 1964, encouraged by U.S. military attaché Vernon Walters, Brazilian Gen. Humberto Castelo Branco rose up against Goulart. Rather than set off a civil war, Goulart chose exile in Montevideo.

Ambassador Gordon returned to a jubilant Washington, where he ran into Robert Kennedy, who was still grieving for his brother, assassinated the previous November. "Well, he got what was coming to him," Kennedy said of Goulart. "Too bad he didn’t follow the advice we gave him when we were down there."

The Brazilian people did not deserve what they got. The military cracked down harshly on labor unions, newspapers and student associations. The newly efficient police, drawing on training provided by the U.S., began routinely torturing political prisoners and even opened a torture school on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to teach police sergeants how to inflict the maximum pain without killing their victims.

One torture victim was Fernando Gabeira, a young reporter for Jornal do Brasil who was recruited by a resistance movement and later arrested for his role in the 1969 kidnapping of Charles Burke Elbrick, the U.S. ambassador. (Elbrick was released after four days.) In custody, Gabeira later told me, he was tortured with electric shocks to his testicles; a fellow prisoner had his testicles nailed to a table. Still others were beaten bloody or waterboarded. When Gabeira’s captors said anything at all, they sometimes boasted about having been trained in the United States.

During the first seven years after Castelo Branco’s coup, the OPS trained 100,000 Brazilian police, including 600 who were brought to the United States. Their instruction …

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Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 12:54 pm

The US Army: still stupid, still undercutting their mission

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From the Center for American Progress:

During the presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) said that if elected, he would repeal the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT) policy, which bars openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces. Obama argued, "We’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need." But the Obama administration has resisted moving to repeal the policy, with Defense Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying he hoped to "push that one down the road a little bit." Now, the first Arabic linguist is being dismissed from the military under Obama’s watch. "Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and officer in the Army National Guard who is fluent in Arabic and who returned recently from Iraq, received notice today that the military is about to fire him. Why? Because he came out of the closet as a gay man on national television,"University of California political science professor Aaron Belkin wrote yesterday. In a handwritten letter to Sandy Tsao, another soldier dismissed for being openly gay, Obama wrote that he is "committed to changing our current policy" but that "it will take some time to complete (partly because it needs Congressional action)." According to Belkin, a soon-to-be-released study by a group of experts in military law will show that "President Obama does, in fact, have stroke-of-the-pen authority to suspend gay discharges."

It’s perhaps worth noting that the Army’s action, if done by some civilian business, would be illegal: outright discrimination.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 12:46 pm

The puzzle of public education

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Interesting column by Matt Levinson in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Several years ago, when I taught Advanced Placement U.S. history, I had a student who grossly underperformed during the school year, yet somehow managed to score a 5 on the AP exam. When I asked him how he managed to accomplish this feat, he said, "I spent two weeks straight studying, reading, and reviewing, and that’s all I needed."

In the same class, I had a student who read every word of the text, took copious class notes, met with me during office hours, yet only scored a 2 on the same exam. How could this happen?

Students are different, and the quicker and more honestly that teachers, schools and policymakers address this critical issue, the less likely it will be that two students in the same class in the same school will end up as far apart as my two students.

My mistake was not seeing the difference in the two students and their needs while I was teaching them. I missed the mark with both of them. Or did I? One student scored a 5, so I was a successful teacher with him. But, he produced very little work for me and for himself over the course of an academic year. The other student, who scored a 2, failed, yet he showed up each day in class, contributed to discussion, was an active learner, acquired analytical thinking and writing skills.

The indications that President Obama will continue with No Child Left Behind, and look to standardized test scores to measure school, teacher and student performance, presents misguided thinking. Looking to standardized test results misses the subtle and sometimes vast differences that exist between students and their learning styles. The one-size-fits-all approach fails to account for customized approaches to measuring student performance and bolstering low-performing schools, teachers, and students.

The premise of NCLB does nothing to address the needs of higher-end learners, like the first student described above…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 12:44 pm

Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World

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This sounds like a fascinating book. The review appeared in the Washington Post Book World:

Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World
by Diana Preston

A review by Jonathan Yardley

More than two millennia after it took place, the story of Cleopatra has lost none of its grip on the world’s imagination. It has inspired great plays (Shakespeare, Shaw and Sardou), novels, poems, movies (Elizabeth Taylor!), works of art, musical compositions both serious (Handel and Samuel Barber) and silly ("Comin’ Atcha," by Cleopatra), and of course histories and biographies. Yet for all this rich documentation and interpretation, it remains at least as much legend and mystery as historical record, which has allowed everyone who tells it to play his or her own variations on the many themes it embraces.

The latest to take it on is Diana Preston, a British writer of popular history. On the evidence of Cleopatra and Antony, I’d say she’s a thoroughgoing pro. Her research is careful and deep; her prose is lively and graceful; her sympathy for her central character is strong but wholly without sentimentality; her depiction of the worlds in which Cleopatra lived is detailed, textured and evocative. If there is a better book about Cleopatra for today’s reader, I don’t know what it is.

She calls her book Cleopatra and Antony, thus reversing the order as immortalized by Shakespeare. History and legend have usually given priority to the two great men in the Egyptian queen’s life, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but Preston argues that "Cleopatra perhaps deserves first place because her tenacity, vision and ambition would have been remarkable in any age but in a female ruler in the ancient world they were unique." She was "a charismatic, cultured, intelligent ruler," yet thanks to the propaganda put about by Octavian — later the Emperor Augustus but in the fourth decade B.C. Mark Antony’s rival for control of the Roman Empire — she "was transformed into a pleasure-loving houri, the very epitome of fatal beauty and monstrous depravity, bent on bringing animal gods, barbarian decadence and despotism to the sacred halls of Rome’s Capitol."

That, Preston persuasively insists, is "propaganda and myth," made all the more difficult to resolve because "the four main classical sources for Cleopatra and Antony — Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and Dio Cassius — were writing respectively some 130, 140, 160 and 230 years after the lovers’ death," and because as is "so often the case with ancient history in general and with so much of women’s history of any but the most recent period, there are silences to be interpreted." At this task Preston is exceptionally skilled, indeed her interpretations are so subtle and nuanced that they repeatedly sound the proverbial ring of truth. When she tells us how "Cleopatra’s mind must have been in turmoil" after the assassination of Caesar, because "she had lost both her main emotional bulwark and her political support," the reader believes her. When she tells us that after the Battle of Actium, in which Octavian turned back Mark Antony’s forces and gained the upper hand in the fight for Rome, Antony "needed time, perhaps even a drink, to compose himself," we know she’s right.

Cleopatra was 21 years old — well educated, sophisticated, a virgin — when Gaius Julius Caesar, "master of the Roman world," visited Alexandria in 48 B.C. She presented herself to him in one of history’s most fabled moments — …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

The NY Times reveals some biases

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Very good points raised in this Glenn Greenwald column:

There’s been a major editorial breach at The New York Times today, in this obituary of an American fighter pilot who was captured by the Chinese:

Harold E. Fischer Jr., an American Flier Tortured in a Chinese Prison, Dies at 83. . . .

From April 1953 through May 1955, Colonel Fischer — then an Air Force captain — was held at a prison outside Mukden, Manchuria. For most of that time, he was kept in a dark, damp cell with no bed and no opening except a slot in the door through which a bowl of food could be pushed. Much of the time he was handcuffed. Hour after hour, a high-frequency whistle pierced the air.

After a short mock trial in Beijing on May 24, 1955, Captain Fischer and the other pilots — Lt. Col. Edwin L. Heller, First Lt. Lyle W. Cameron and First Lt. Roland W. Parks — were found guilty of violating Chinese territory by flying across the border while on missions over North Korea. Under duress, Captain Fischer had falsely confessed to participating in germ warfare.

So that’s torture now?  To use the prevailing American mindset:  a room that doesn’t meet the standards of a Hilton and some whistling in the background is torture?  My neighbor whistles all the time; does that mean he’s torturing me?  It’s not as though Fischer had his eyes poked out by hot irons or was placed in a coffin-like box with bugs or was handcuffed to the ceiling.

Also, using the editorial standards of America’s journalistic institutions — as explained recently by the NYT Public Editor — shouldn’t this be called “torture” rather than torture — or “harsh tactics some critics decry as torture”?  Why are the much less brutal methods used by the Chinese on Fischer called torture by the NYT, whereas much harsher methods used by Americans do not merit that term?  Here we find what is clearly the single most predominant fact shaping our political and media discourse:  everything is different, and better, when we do it. In fact, it is that exact mentality that was and continues to be the primary justification for our torture regime and so much else that we do.

Along those same lines, I learned from reading The New York Times this week (via The New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson) that Iraq is suffering a very serious problem.  Tragically, that country is struggling with what the Times calls a “culture of impunity.” What this means is that politically connected Iraqis who clearly broke the law are nonetheless not being prosecuted because of their political influence!  Even worse, protests the NYT, there have been “cases dismissed in the past few years as a result of a government amnesty and a law dating to 1971 that allows ministers to grant immunity to subordinates accused of corruption.”  And the best part?  This:  “The United States is pressing the Iraqi government to repeal that law.”

Thankfully, we’re teaching the Iraqis what it means to be a “nation of laws.”  We Americans know how terrible it is to have a system where the politically powerful are permitted to break the law and not be held accountable.  A country which does things like that can fall into such a state of moral depravity that they would actually allow people to do things like this and get away with it.  Who could imagine living in a place like that?

* * * * *

One related point: …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 10:36 am

More problems from "clean" coal

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I blogged yesterday about the problems from coal ash ponds. The problem turns out to be worse than I thought. Renee Schoof for McClatchy:

People in 34 states who live near 210 coal ash lagoons or landfills with inadequate lining have a higher risk of cancer and other diseases from contaminants in their drinking water, two environmental groups reported on Thursday.

Twenty-one states have five or more of the high-risk disposal sites near coal-fired power plants. The groups — the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice — said that a 2002 Environmental Protection Agency document that the agency didn’t release until March of this year adds information about toxic releases from these facilities to nearby water systems and data on how some contaminants accumulate in fish and deer and can harm the health of people who hunt and fish.

The report said that people who live near the most problematic disposal sites have as much as a 1-in-50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic. The highest risk is for people who live near ash ponds with no liners and who get their water from wells.

The report said the ash ponds also produced an increased risk of damage to the liver and other organs from exposure to such metals as cadmium, cobalt and lead, and other pollutants.

Although the health information mainly came from an EPA study released in August 2007, the information was largely neglected and was too technical for most people to understand, the groups said. The report and a chart of the sites “takes the numbers and fleshes them out so the most dangerous units are identified,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice.

Evans also said that the actual number of coal ash disposal sites is nearly three times larger. EPA has long estimated there are about 600 ponds and landfills storing the material, but its 2007 survey only looked at 210.

Coal-fired power plants annually dispose of an estimated 100 million tons of ash and sludge scrubbed out of their emissions. The EPA has found that the highest health risks are from water contamination from unlined ponds where both coal ash and other waste products from coal are mixed. It also found unlined ponds increased the risk of other problems, such as damage to the liver and other organs. The risk also is elevated when the disposal sites are only lined with clay.

Evans said that proper storage requires …

Continue reading. We need to find ways to move away from coal as an energy source.

UPDATE: From the Center for American Progress:

Competing with Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” the coal front group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) is launching an online “Factuality Tour” of five states to obscure the toxicity and pollution of coal. As part of the tour, ACCCE is selling “Factuality” hats, “Factuality” tank tops, and “Factuality” organic baby bodysuits. You can even “spread the word” online with “Factuality” widgets and badges.  However, as the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson wrote, “No amount of PR spending or jazzy jingles can obscure the actual facts about coal: it’s a dirty killer of jobs, health, and the environment.” The first stop on the “Factuality Tour” was Arch Coal’s Black Thunder Surface Mine in Wyoming. In 2008 alone, Arch Coal generated 223 million tons of carbon dioxide, approximately three percent of all U.S. emissions. Yet despite having made $929 million since 2003, Arch Coal is not investing in a single project to develop the technology needed to capture and store coal’s global warming pollution, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. What Arch Coal is investing in, however, is lobbying members of Congress. The company spent $970,000 last year lobbying Congress, and has already spent $240,000 this year. Indeed, the “Factuality Tour,” is just another product of the ACCCE’s $40 million budget for lobbying and ads promoting the idea of carbon capture without actually investing in the technology to bring the idea to fruition.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 10:33 am

Megs playing Hot Paws

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A little too contrasty, but here is a good example of the game Hot Paws: kitty lies in shade with only the paws out in the sun. The Wife’s cat Stella loved this — game? lifestyle? therapy? whatever it is for a kitty. And this morning I discovered Megs in Hot Paws position.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 10:27 am

Posted in Cats, Megs

Late start

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First I slept quite late (had a reading accident) and then had to go see the phlebotomist for my quarterly blood draw. This time I felt nothing at all when the needle was inserted—either they are using much finer needles (and getting better training) or my nerves are deadening. I think it’s the former.

The book I finished last night was Fault Line, Barry Eisler’s first thriller that doesn’t have John Rain as a protagonist. It’s an exceptionally interesting thriller: the fault line of the title falls between two worldviews embodied in two brothers: one, a latte-swilling Silicon Valley lawyer; the other, a skilled black-ops assassin; and each misunderstanding the other. It’s a fast-paced and absorbing thriller (which is why I couldn’t put it down and go to bed), and it’s especially fun for a blogger because some minor characters bear the names of well-known bloggers: John Cole, Josh Marshall, Hilzoy, Atrios, and Scott Horton. Well worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 10:22 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

New shaving stuff

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I just got my first order from and couldn’t wait to try out the new stuff. I have to admit that one reason for ordering the Figaro shaving cream was that The Wife once had a cat named Figaro—Figgy for short. I’m quite glad I did order: a wonderful bitter-almond fragrance and a fine lather. Very good stuff. The Bolzano blade shown was another new one for me, and it’s very nice indeed: a sharp, smooth blade that makes shaving a pleasure. The Floris London JF aftershave is another favorite: wonderful fragrance and very nice feel.

I’m a fully satisfied customer. 🙂

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2009 at 10:15 am

Posted in Shaving

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