|Man Without Qualities|
Thursday, May 26, 2005
From the Times of London:
May 27, 2005
The EU Constitution appears headed for a French Sunday rout, with recriminations, finger pointing and accusations already begun:
"The thing is lost," [head of Chirac's conservative Union for a Popular Movement,] Nicolas Sarkozy told French ministers during an ill-tempered meeting. "It will be a little 'no' or a big 'no,' he was quoted as telling Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, whom he accused of leading a feeble campaign.Mr. Sarkozy is now - through a spokesman - denying that he ever said that the fight was lost. But he would.
Aside from demonstrating that the French are surrender monkeys not only in military affairs, Mr. Sarkozy's comment demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of a big part of the Constitution's problem: The more vigorously the French elites campaign for the Constitution, the more opposition to it grows.[UPDATE (5/27): Following President Jacques Chirac's last-ditch effort to shift the momentum ahead of Sunday's vote, his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the opposition Socialists (PS) and other treaty backers launched a campaign blitz. .... Two new opinion polls released Thursday said treaty rejectionists would win Sunday's referendum with 55 percent of the vote -- a 10-point advantage over constitution backers, and a rise of two points from earlier this week.]
The reason for that phenomenon is rooted in the decline and disorientation of the French higher education system and the bureaucracy. The reason also suggests why re-voting the same Constitution - which is now advocated by some - will almost certainly not work. Such suggestions are worthy of a response similar to those offered by the professor of differential equations to the then-Governor of Washington State after the collapse of Galloping Gurdy, the bridge that suffered catastrophic failure during a windstorm, when the governor suggested that the state should rebuild the exact same bridge in the exact same place: "If the governor rebuilds the exact same bridge in the exact same place it will collapse in the exact same way." The likely failure of the EU Constitution also sheds light on the fight in the United States Senate over judicial appointments - a light casting unpleasant shadows for Democrats.
The government of Charles DeGaulle erected the French post-War education system - and, especially, the higher education system - to supply competent, trained functionaries for the new "modern" French state. Administration, science, education and other fields all received their designated ecoles or had them greatly enhanced. The education system was a bulwark against the broad (but by no means universal) French tendency to respect only well positioned bureaucrats, not scientists and other people of "merit," and the corresponding nationwide crony network that tends to thereby form. In large measure De Gaulle created a largely meritocratic system of national rule by the brightest kids in the class. And it largely worked: a generation of competent, well trained technocrats and technologists elevated France to undisputed prosperity and largely defied the French tradition of destructive cronyism.
But the system has been breaking down for a long time - in large measure as the result of ill considered "reforms." A few weeks ago I visited an old friend, now a professor at the Ecole Normale, having left the Ecole Polytechnique some years ago after it's focus was "reformed" away from training scientists and towards training scientific bureaucrats. Incredibly, following such "reforms" the Ecole Polytechnique is no longer a particularly good place to learn to be a physicist. But it is a better place to learn to be a bureaucrat who works with scientific jargon. Now, the Ecole Normale is to be similarly "reformed" away from its focus on training educators in favor of a focus on training academic bureaucrat. The "reform" process in higher French education in favor of an ever increasing production of bureaucrats has been likened to the unlimited propagation of "Smith's" in the later, less appealing, "Matrix" movies. The result is an increasing population of elite, selfish, aggressive bureaucrats who don't very much know what they are doing - except in matters of bureaucratic politics. As my friend on the Normale faculty put it: "It's easy to feel that if I could just get any one of the recent graduates of the Polytechnique alone in a room for an hour, I could convince him or her that the earth is flat."
And the French people have caught on. There is a widespread perception in France that recent graduates just don't know very much about the real world (sometimes this concern is tied to the French excessive love of "abstraction," but the problems are only related). There is a direct feed from the higher French education system into the highest ranks of the government and business bureaucracies. That feed was an intended, deliberate feature of the "rule by the smartest kids in the class" system. Not surprisingly, there is a widespread sense in France that elite bureaucrats, especially the younger bureaucrats, don't know very much about the real world but are mostly concerned with manipulating an existing system to secure and maintain a comfortable life for themselves at the expense of the French people generally. The French people sense that because it is all glaringly true and that's what these bureaucrats are increasingly trained to do.
As the post-war meritocratic bulwarks erode, the French system is lapsing into its old cronyism and naked, gluttonous careerism - a kind of sociological pentimento from the Ancien Regime. The French governing elite is now seen as largely parasitic and having values and aspirations quite different from and adverse to those of the governed, who are widely seen as mere hosts. In the darkest versions of these considerations, the elites are considered a kind of non-partisan conspiracy of cronies, trained in the Grand Ecoles in matters of sterile manipulation, and out for nobody's interests but their own, conceived in the most unenlightened and narrowest possible fashion.
A series of recent elite government/business scandals has driven the argument home and made it irrefutable. There is the food-for-oil scandal, which reaches to the highest levels of the French government and oil industry. The French finance minister blotted up $18,000 a month in government paid rent on his luxury apartment, while lying about his need for it and to French workers about their need to tighten their belts. The oil company Total was involved in a court case in France that exposed corruption on a vast scale going to the highest levels of the French state. Many scandals dog Chirac himself, including accusations he presided over a multimillion-dollar political kickback scheme, benefiting his former Rally for the Republic Party when he Paris mayor and French prime minister. And there's plenty more, both serious and not. The cumulative effect has been devastating.
And the French people have caught on to that, too, at least to the point of general suspicion regarding the character and competence of their elites. Such mere public cynicism and suspicion is not a foundation for a social compact. But such is the current state of the ongoing, self destruction of the French system. One consequence of the disillusionment of the Franch voters with their educated classes and bureaucrats is a declining sense that France could dominate the EU through the efforts of these people, which was and is a major reason for French support of the EU. The widely-heard view that the Constitution would unleash "unlimited capitalism" essentially reflects a sense that the elites are wrapped up in their cronyism and don't care about the ordinary people together with a separate sense that the elites are now incompetent to protect ordinary people even where the elites may be inclined to do so.
Into all of this falls the EU and its hapless Constitution, drafted by none other than Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French President, recipient while in office of a diamond necklace from a cannibal and Superieure de Mare of the ruling elite of smartest kids in the class. The elites love the Constitution, and the more they show that love the more ordinary French voters see the document as the creature of that largely detested elite:
"There is a real division in French society today between France from on high and France from below," said Jean-Paul Fournier... who supports the constitution, but whose citizens voted in 1992 against the EU treaty that ushered in the euro. .... Patrice Couderc, secretary general of the CFDT union of the Gard region, added another angle: ... "The worker, the person in the street, doesn't understand the debate of the elite."Such comments understate the dimensions of the problem. Comments like these of Messrs. Fournier and Couderc suggest that it is just a matter of varying perceptions of the Constitution, and of the non-elites not understanding. But that is wrong. The real problem is that the non-elites increasingly detest and suspect the elites and view the Constitution as yet another power grab by those elites. So when the French government pushes for the Constitution, the people further identify that document with the French government and its creatures - and support declines. When the various political parties join together to endorse the document, the effect is to reinforce the public perception that the elite conspiracy and cronyism is no respecter of party affiliation - and therefore that the political parties offer no real choice to the voters and are merely out for themselves in opposition to the interests of the voters. When support for the Constitution comes from other EU member states, ordinary voters mostly conclude that the conspiracy of elites now is no respecter of national boundaries. Take notes, Mr. Sarkozy.
And those ordinary voters are, in large measure, correct - although not in the details. Huge parts of the EU Constitution are extensive, detailed legislative and regulatory provisions that would be more at home in, say, the Code of Federal Regulations than in any constitution. And much of the EU Constitution is at least arguably, and probably absolutely, internally inconsistent. The effect of such a structure will necessarily be to deliver the reconciliation of these sweeping, inconsistent, detailed provisions into the hands of the EU courts and unelected, fact-finding bureaucrats. And, since these are Constitutional provisions, the voters elected representatives - at the levels of both the EU and its constituent member states - will be neatly expelled from much of the bureaucratic paradise Mr. d'Estaing has wrought. How could anything wrought by his hand have been otherwise?
The EU Constitution is famously and absurdly long. Does that mean that a mess like the one this Constitution would create can't happen here in the United States? Of course not - such a mess already has largely been created, although the EU Constitution would admittedly go well beyond its American counterpart! As ably summarized by Lino Graglia only a few days ago:
The battles in Congress over the appointment of even lower court federal judges reveal a recognition that federal judges are now, to a large extent, our real lawmakers. ...
In other words, activist American judges have simply taken the brevity of the original American Constitution as a kind of blank paper on which to write their own, vastly extended EU-variety Constitution. Add to that the growth of the regulatory state - in which Congress passes vague statutes that delegate their construction and enforcement to unelected administrative agencies subject on to remote and abstract judicial review - and one gets a fairly good idea of how the creatures of the Beltway are determined not to be outdone by their EU counterparts in their quests for unaccountable power.
And that quest is what has led to the current ruckus in the Senate over judicial nominations. That ruckus may fairly be said to have reach a standstill at the moment. But it will soon hot up again. And when it does, the Democratic Senators who are so determined that liberal, activist judges dominate the federal courts and continue their re-writing of the American Constitution may want to look across the Atlantic to the disaster the European elites are now facing after so carefully constructing their own bridge too far in the form of this EU Constitution.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Writing in Opinion Journals' e-mail feature "Political Diary," John Fund notes this curious development:
[M]aneuvering over filibusters continues... Yesterday, Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, rose to make a "parliamentary inquiry" meant to establish that filibusters would remain a valid tool enabling a minority to block judicial nominations with a mere 41 votes. Thus he asked Senator John Sununu, the New Hampshire Republican who was sitting as the Senate's temporary presiding officer, how many votes to end a filibuster were required "under the rules and precedents of the Senate." ... Mr. Sununu ignored the question. ... "Is there an answer to my parliamentary inquiry, Mr. President?" Mr. Levin finally said. Again, no answer from Mr. Sununu. After another 30 seconds of silence, the Senate clerk began calling the roll on whether debate should end on Ms. Owen's nomination to an appeals court.
Inquiring minds want to know what is the binding effect of the answer to such a "parliamentary inquiry" - and is such a response subject to immediate challenge or confirmation by Senate vote? Does a "parliamentary inquiry" allow a path around the Kausian Blackberry Option:
[I]f they don't have the sure votes to beat back the proposed Frist/Cheney ruling that you can't filibuster a judicial nominee, Democrats will just decide not to filibuster each particular judicial nominee as that nominee comes up. That means those nominees will be confirmed, one-by-one, but Democrats will avoid setting an anti-filibuster precedent that would affect how Supreme Court nominees are considered later on. ... The key here is that the vote on cloture precedes the vote on the parliamentary "nuclear" rules change.
But Senator Levin's "parliamentary inquiry" came before the Senate clerk began calling the roll on whether debate should end on Ms. Owen's nomination to an appeals court.
Could Republicans pose a "parliamentary inquiry" on the Constitutionality of the filibuster as applied to judicial nominations just as Senator Levin did - obtain a response from the Senate President that under the Constitution only a simple majority is required to impose cloture, and then put the matter to a full Senate vote - all before the Senate clerk begins calling the roll on whether debate should end on whatever judicial nominations are then before the Senate, thereby depriving the Democrats of the Blackberry Option?
Within the past few weeks the Man Without Qualities has spent a good deal of time in France, where the EU Constitution is in trouble, largely (but not solely, more on that in a subsequent post) on concerns regarding international trade. Irish bookies say the French will reject the EU Constitution - with a betting margin of 3%. Scads of polls predict that the French will reject the Constitutional in a referendum on Sunday, many by margins 1% to over 4% or more (although with a big undecided bloc). A full scale, intense nationwide debate is in progress, with commuters seen reading the more than 300-page document on the way to work. One of the big reasons the Constitution is in such big trouble is the belief among both its backers and opponents that it would increase competition among EU members, especially in service industries, and that investments would flow to states with lower wages, taxes and operating costs (that is, Eastern Europe), and nations with expensive welfare systems and lagging productivity would have to modify those. There's lots of argument and discussion going on. Cafes, homes, faculty lounges, commuter trains - you name it - percolate with Constitutional chatter and especially chatter about international trade. And from the airiest and most gaseous academic to the most loquacious cabby, absolutely nobody in France is talking about anything Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman ever wrote, thought or believed.
How can this be? Herr Doktorprofessor's most important works by far are supposedly his early papers in international trade and competition (as discussed here and here and here). In those early papers Herr Doktorprofessor crafted a new way of viewing international trade - one that supposedly displaced old fashioned David Ricardo's comparative advantage "factors" such as relative costs of production, labor and other inputs with fancier concepts like "home market effect."
The EU Constitution stands on the brink of rejection because of concerns over the effects of international trade, yet no one in Europe is talking about "home market effect" or anything else Herr Doktorprofessor allegedly contributed to the theory of international trade. The Constitution's advocates do not speak of "home market effects" or other Krugmania in answer to economic arguments proffered by the Constitution's opponents. Nor do the Constitution's pro-business advocates tremble at the thought that the "comparative advantage" factor considerations (which those advocates count on to increase competition and the profitable flow of investment to Eastern Europe) will be swamped by Herr Doktorprofessor's fancy theories. The fact is that in Europe now the international trade arguments are conducted in neoclassical terms at all levels - with a little silly Marxism on the far left. Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman could not be less relevant to this very real world debate - and yet this is the kind of debate in which his most important theories are supposed to have paramount significance.
One may contrast the insignificance of Herr Doktorprofessor's work on its home turf with the very real and important work of Nobelist Robert Mundell. His work formed the basis of the creation of the Euro and all discussions of the Euro (and most discussion of world currency issues generally) use his thinking and insights in many essential ways every single day.
But the deafening Krugmanian silence is not limited to Europe! It redounds across Central America, where practically everyone is now concerned and arguing about international trade in the form the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) - but nobody gives un asno de la rata about Herr Doktorprofessor and his "insights." The international fight is joined - with web sites, such as Stop CAFTA - bringing the battle to the internet. But there's not one word about Herr Doktotprofessor or "home market effect" or anything else he ever did or said on Stop CAFTA or in any of the many articles to which it links. It's about the role of nationalism and national security in economics. It's about social safety nets and workers' rights. It's about labor costs. It's about production inputs. It's about comparative advantage. It's about the thoughts of David Ricardo and his intellectual heirs. (Pete Dupont today provides some solid analysis here, for example.) But it's not about home market effects or any other Krugmania. Nor in the United States does CAFTA opposition invoke Herr Doktorprofessor or his works - directly or indirectly. US supporters of CAFTA similarly show such distain, with Robert B. Zoellick describing the CAFTA debate to the Heritage Foundation just a few days ago:
Central Americans are talking about freedom, democracy, and hope. Meanwhile, our domestic debate has been dominated by topics such as sugar and whether CAFTA will codify international labor conventions that the United States has not even ratified itself.
What? No "home market effects?" No "imperfect competition models?" And neither the EU nor the CAFTA debates involve a word about Herr Doktorprofessor's "New Geography." It's all about the Old Geography. You know, what's really, geometrically, located close to something else. As in: The United States and Central America are both in the Western Hemisphere, so we should all pay better attention to each other and treat each other better. Or: The EU is all about Europe and how Europeans should relate to each other. Yet Herr Doktorprofessor himself wrote about his still-born baby that the field has been given a big boost in particular by plans to unify the European market. Odd, then that nobody in France is talking about "the field" now - at least not in Herr Doktorprofessor's terms or framework. [Postscript: There is a bit of additional irony in this, since Charles DeGaulle based his advocacy of the EU (then the Common Market) on beliefs he shared with French historians of the Annales school, like Fernand Braudel, that history is mostly determined by geography - that is, by Old Geography.]
UPDATE: The Associated Press reports:
The question being asked of them in a referendum — should we ratify the European Union constitution? — has taken France by storm, dominating discussions in cafes, at political meetings and over dinner tables. Books about the landmark treaty topped best seller lists in France for weeks and three were still among the top 15 this week. Five million viewers also tuned in when a former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, went on TV to support it. ....
WOW! It's a wild, uninhibited intellectual Gallic free-for-all on the nature and consequences of international trade! Almost everything is up for discussion!
Except, of course, that nobody, absolutely nobody, cares to talk about anything Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman ever wrote, thought or believed on the topic de jour! Some things just don't matter at all.
POSTSCRIPT: As the French and Dutch referenda approach, one might think that Herr Doktorprofessor, at least, would weigh in on the applicability of his work on the economics of international trade. After all, he has a New York Times column at his disposal. The topic is timely, interesting - even fascinating. He, himself, has argued that his work has special relevance to the EU - especially Herr Doktorprofessor's "New Geography", since "the field has been given a big boost in particular by plans to unify the European market." And the need is urgent - since the French supporters of the Constitution are in disarray and throwing in the towell! How can this be when the fate of the Constitution is admitted by all sides to turn in large measure on considerations of international trade - and Herr Doktorprofessor's essential contributions have not even been discussed by anyone at all!
But Herr Doktorprofessor is silent! Yes, the fact appears to be that the most important works of Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman are so utterly and completely irrelevant to the current international trade discussions pertaining to the EU Constitution that even Herr Doktorprofessor doesn't think they're worth the mention in one of his own columns.
Of course, he recently wrote a column on Chinese/US trade and currency matters. That column didn't invoke a word of his own work (even indirectly) on either international trade or currency, either. Perhaps Herr Doktorprofessor has learned in at least this one area the wisdom of Dirty Harry's sage maxim: A man has to know his limitations.
Final Note: The Man Without Qualities is fully aware of the silly talk that circulates about Paul Krugman maybe winning the Nobel Prize someday, and not just from the intellectually flatulent Brad Delong. For example, Greg Mankiw recently said:
I was a junior staffer in the Reagan administration. Two members of the senior staff were Krugman and (former Harvard economics professor, Clinton Treasury Secretary and current Harvard president Lawrence) Summers. At that time he was a brilliant economist. I thought he'd win a Nobel prize. I think there's a good chance he still will. His early work on international trade theory deserves it.Perhaps Professor Mankiw meant what he said and I am wrong. But I think it is more likely that Professor Mankiw was annointing himself with the balm of reason in the form of a suggestion he believes is highly improbable while elsewhere in this interview absolutely savaging Herr Doktorprofessor as a kind of Jerry Springer manque. In any event, it would be amusing to see the Nobel Prize committee explaining such an award after what appears at this time to be a looming EU Constitution debacle: "And, most of all, we have given this award to Paul Krugman as the only international economist whose work featured in no significant manner in the discussions or analyses leading up to the recent EU Constitutional catastrophe!" It would take a lot of top drawer anti-Bush palaver from Herr Doktorprofessor to get the often anti-American Nobel Committee to choke that nugget down. In any event, I take as evidence (but far from proof) that Professor Mankiw was speaking tongue in cheek the fact that he mentions absolutely nothing for which Herr Doktorprofessor's work is or has been used. Such allusions to the use of complimented work are normal in genuine comments of this type. For example, if Professor Mankiw had opinied that the work of Nobelist Robert Mundell deserved that Prize, the compliment would naturally and likely have been accompanied with a brief statement along the lines of "His work formed the basis of the creation of the Euro and all discussions of the Euro use his thinking and insights in many essential ways every single day." In addition, Paul Krugman himself seems to consider his own work in currency - not international trade - his strongest.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says:
"There's a new generation of African-American leaders and a new generation of African-Americans. We can't go out and say could you vote for us because we were so helpful during the civil rights era."Dr. Dean is absolutely correct! The problem with his approach for Democrats is that it's a disaster for them - since Democrats essentially depend on African-American civil rights era nostalgia as the main basis for their Democratic support.
That new generation of African-American leaders Dr. Dean recognizes are interested in things like access to good schools - and they don't much care if those schools are accessed by vouchers or something similar. And they also care about family values, especially opposition to same-sex marriage. There are many other such examples, and Republicans are busy, busy, busy working this line:
A conservative black group, the Mayflower Compact Coalition, will also begin collecting signatures next week for its "21st Century Mayflower Compact," a nine-point agenda for black America that includes support for school choice and private Social Security accounts. "We recognize the achievements of the civil rights movement," says Oliver Kellman, the group's chairman. "But we need a civil responsibilities movement." Advised in part by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's consulting firm, Mayflower is planning town hall meetings in up to 20 states--with the emphasis on battlegrounds where black support for Republicans could make a difference, like Pennsylvania and Michigan. The group will publicize the events via black media and churches, being careful to "push this as an issue-driven initiative, not a party-type initiative," says Kellman.
Doctor Dean is right: Democrats shouldn't be relying on civil rights era nostalgia to appeal to African Americans. But Democrats haven't really done much for African Americans lately, and right now Democrats are major obstructions to the new generation of African American leaders reaching their current goals. If African Americans take the Doctor's advice, the Democratic Party will largely loose its most important and loyal constituency.
Monday, May 23, 2005
Fourteen Senators, seven from each Party, have reached a deal to avoid an immediate confrontation over the filibustering of judicial nominations. According to media reports, Democrats agreed to allow final confirmation votes for Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor, named to appeals court seats. "In light of the spirit and continuing commitments made in this agreement," Republicans said they would oppose any attempt to make changes in the application of filibuster rules. The agreement reportedly provides that future nominees to the appeals court and Supreme Court should "only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances," with each Democrat senator holding the discretion to decide when those conditions had been met. Presumably, Republicans hold the discretion to decide for themselves whether the Democrats actually abide by the deal in good faith. So if the Republicans decide for themselves that the Democrats are filibustering in other than "extraordinary circumstances," the Republicans are free to abolish the filibustering of judicial nominees.
What the heck are "extraordinary circumstances" in the meaning if this deal? Well, one place one might look for clarification is in the fact that in the deal there is "no commitment to vote for or against" the filibuster against two other conservatives named to the appeals court, Henry Saad and William Myers. Does this mean that the Senators involved considered these nominations to satisfy the "extraordinary circumstances" requirement? If the deal were consistent, then the answer would probably be "yes." Of course, there may have been generalized pressure on mutual face saving grounds to split the group of pending nominees into "goes" and "no-goes" just to have the deal manifest obvious compromise. In that case, the Senators involved in the deal may consider the Saad and Myers nominations to manifest no "extraordinary circumstances" - but still have permitted their filibustering as a sacrifice to make the deal.
Despite Senator Reid's McCarthyite slur on Mr. Saad, there is nothing particularly suggestive of what in ordinary language might constitute "extraordinary circumstances" about either of the Saad or Myers nominations. And that doesn't bode well for the functioning of this deal, even for immediate future judicial nominations.
Mostly, this deal seems to reflect the deep fear some Senators have of clear, public solutions and their equally deep faith in back room deals.
POSTSCRIPT: Perhaps the best way of seeing the intensely peculiar quality of this Senate "deal" might be to focus on the fact that it only meaningfully comes into play where a simple majority of the Senate would approve a nomination. Can there be "extraordinary circumstances" in such a case - as ordinary, reasonable, informed people would use such a term? Well, yes - but only where those "extraordinary circumstances" are a lot more extraordinary than any the Senators who crafted this deal would care about!
The "extraordinary circumstances" the Senators probably care about are what ordinary people would consider to be very ordinary circumstances. For example, suppose the candidate is to fill a judgeship in a state both of whose Senators don't approve of the nomination! (California?) To ordinary people, that's no big deal - it's part of the extraordinary circumstances of Washington. But to a Senator those are likely "extraordinary circumstances" indeed. Senators have lots of expectations like that when it comes to court of appeals nominations - but not so many with respect to the Supreme Court. How does one convincingly argue on ideological grounds that a Supreme Court nomination poses "extraordinary circumstances" where a majority of the Senate supports the candidacy? That would be tough. Not impossible in every case, but really tough.
So this deal may not be as good for the Democrats as many commentators are suggesting.
UPDATE: Howard Dean says this about the deal:
"It's a real test of whether this is a real long-term agreement. That will come when we find out if the president consults with the Democrats" before sending future nominees to the Senate, including a possible Supreme Court choice.Really? Is that what "extraordinary circumstances" amounts to? - the president's failure to consults with the Democrats?
Well, if what Dr. Dean says is true, the deal is a huge Republican win.
But that's the problem with having a fruitcake like Dr. Dean as the party head. He almost certainly hasn't a clue of what he's talking about. He doesn't say that he's spoken to a single one of the seven "moderate" Democratic Senators who engineered the deal about its terms - which probably means he knows little more than anyone else. Having no clue has never stopped Howard Dean from shooting off his mouth on a topic in the past, and this example is probably no different.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
Let it never be said that Reuters and the New York Times can't see the bright side of what's happening in the Middle East!
Here they provide us with the sunny (not sunni! - this is Iran we're talking about here) headline: 6 Cleared to Seek Iran Presidency.
Isn't that nice?
It's so good to see that Reuters and the New York Times are able to see that the glass is 0.6% full, given that over a thousand candidates were barred from the race.
On the lighter side, we are also told that "The only approved advocate of change was Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament." A former speaker of the Iranian Parliament, eh? No doubt he's a real wild and crazy reformer.
UPDATE: The gloomy Financial Times headlines the same developmets as: Leading reformer is banned from poll in Iran
FURTHER UPDATE: Those killjoys at the Washington Post headline their story on these developments: Most Iran Reform Candidates Disqualified. In other words, the Post sees the glass as 99.4% empty! Dear me, what would Norman Vincent Peale say about that?
OK, OK ... everyone on and off the Blogosphere has something pointed to say about the new Star Wars Movie - Revenge of the Sith - so who am I to swim against the current? Get along, go along and Keep low; run by with the herd. Regular readers of this blog will know That every word is true.
The Man Without Qualities saw the movie in Pasadena with both sons (ages 6 and 11) as well as a host of other 10 and 11 year old boys from their school. I pretty much agree with Glenn Reynolds that apart from the special effects and an occasional good scene, the movie is pale. It's tempting to dismiss the movie's problems with the explanation that because of all those classy, expensive computer special effects, Lucas had to economize on something, so he made do without a script or acting. But perhaps the company with whom I saw this movie made me feel that there is more wrong with it than just that. In fact, there were a few points - especially in that last hour the fans and critics seem to mostly love - that literally gave me the creeps and left me contemptuous of the movie's creators and almost angry.
Specifically, the movie - indeed, arguably, the whole series - builds to one critical, explanatory scene in which Anakin is defeated (in fact, de-legged and partially de-armed) by swift light-saber slashes of Obi Wan, and lies utterly helpless on a rocky shore next to a rising river of molten lava, which ignites his clothing as Obi Wan looks on and then turns and walks away thinking Anakin will die horribly - without lifting a finger to try to help or redeem the young man who saved his life nine or ten times in the recent past.
And then turns and walks away???!!! Most people wouldn't leave a cat to die that way. This high-talking asshole Obi-Wan Kenobi is supposed to be the conscience of the galaxy? I say that if that's what the Jedi and their Code amount to, then I say to hell with them.
Of course, Obi Wan's moral infirmity in this scene is a big step up from the earlier scenes in which Jedis defeat dangerous enemies, hold then helpless, and then ... Anakin himself defeats Count Dooku, and then lops off the Count's head with a bit of prodding from the Emperor (Anakin feels a little bad about this, but it goes away). After another fight scene Samuel L. Jackson tells Anakin that, Code or no Code, the man Mr. Jackson's character thinks is a squirming, helpless, defeated Emperor is just too dangerous to live (and controls the Senate and the courts, damn it!), and therefore should be offed right there and then while he's helpless. Anakin does not agree, and the whole mess ends rather badly.
Well, pardon me, Mr. Lucas, but I thought a Jedi was supposed to have a bit more commitment to justice and procedure than, say, the undertrained Los Angeles cops who creamed Rodney King.
What was particularly disturbing about the moral aspects of Sith was the thought that the "Jedi Code" probably represents what Mr. Lucas thinks is the highest good, but which actually seems to represent some personal version of what might best be termed Nasty Hollywood Pragmatism. It is no secret that the entertainment industry has more than its share of aggressive, self-destructive people. Sometimes such self-destructive people are just plain mean. Sometimes they are confused types who have been seduced by top-drawer professional seducers, like Chancellor Palpatine or any number of mean, vindictive, manipulative, highly talented and destructive people who staff the studios and their suppliers. It is a fact that in most cases all that can be done with such self destructive people is to keep as far away from them as possible and allow them to immolate themselves with the self destructive acts. I have little doubt that over his years in the business George Lucas has had to let many such people burn painfully.
None of that experience excuses presenting a nasty, pragmatic necessity as a high moral virtue - which is what this movie does. In real life one generally stays away from self destructive people with whom one has no special relationship (such as a close relative or good friend) because such people are very difficult to help and can do a lot of damage to those who try to help - and that is usually true even for self destructive people one is convinced are basically good but confused. But if there is (1) a special relationship (such as, say, a friend who has saved one's life nine or ten times), and (2) extenuating circumstances (such as, say, where the young friend has done really bad things because he was seduced by a pro and has been under a lot of stress because he thinks his wife is going to die) and (3) one just happens to have the facilities right there at hand to help one's confused, injured friend (say, a waiting vehicle with built-in medical facilities) without substantial risk to anyone, then one doesn't need much of a moral code to conclude that one should help.
Heck, suppose you were mugged in the middle of the night by a 20 year old kid who, as he attempts to flee, is slammed by a hit-and-run driver and lies dying in a pool of his own blood. What kind of person wouldn't call the police and have them send a squad car and an ambulance and help and arrest the kid? Apparently, George Lucas would have us believe the most all the best people could muster is to just walk away and let the kid die the street.
And in my opinion that's an unnecessarily disgusting, constipated view of human nature and morality, Mr. Lucas.
Of course, Mr. Lucas will have his $800 Million or so to keep him warm. I don't begrudge him that. I really don't.
A few days ago the New York Times announced a new on-line service, TimesSelect, with an annual subscription $49.95 and features including "Access to some of the most influential and insightful voices today, including David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, Bob Herbert, Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, John Tierney, Dave Anderson, Peter Applebome, Harvey Araton, Dan Barry, Clyde Haberman, Gretchen Morgenson, Joe Nocera, Floyd Norris, Joyce Purnick, William Rhoden, Selena Roberts, George Vescey, Roger Cohen, and John Vinocur."
Today, the Times' departing "readers' representative" Daniel Okrent tells us:
Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults. Maureen Dowd was still writing that Alberto R. Gonzales "called the Geneva Conventions 'quaint' " nearly two months after a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments. Before his retirement in January, William Safire vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess.
Pay $49.95 for that? Well, it would be nice to think that the best disinfectant on the Times opinion desk might be market forces. But since many of the Times columnists show serious symptoms of actually being sock puppets for their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., it seems unlikely that anything short of his actual departure or threatened ejection will change things much.
The entire Okrent column is worth reading for some surprisingly frank insights into the Times current difficulties - and, I believe, some of the reasons for its inexorable decline. ("Reader Steven L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., asks, If 'Tucker Carlson is identified as a conservative' in The Times, then why is 'Bill Moyers just, well, plain old Bill Moyers'? Good question.")
Mr. Okrent's column also evokes real sympathy for its author, a man of good intentions who apparently learned the hard way that some thankless jobs are indeed thankless.
The column also raises some unanswered questions - and not just of the "so why the heck didn't you say something then, Mr. Okrent!?" variety. For example, Mr. Okrent recalls:
Last July, when I slapped the headline "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" atop my column and opened the piece ...Isn't it nearly gospel in criticizing the Times that one presumes that a columnist does not "slap" the headline on the column? It is received wisdom that the Times columnist headlines are written and slapped by the Times' squadron of nameless, excitable, professional headline writers and slappers!
So what the heck has been going on here? Have we all be tricked for years? Should we have been holding Krugman, Dowd and the rest accountable not just for the dubious body of those columns but for the often-even-more dubious headlines slapped on to those columns!
Pay attention! This is important!
UPDATE: Speaking of frank insights, Don Luskin correctly notes that Okrent's column displays some of his worst flaws, especially a serious lack of self insight and a tendency to lash out at others - including for his own deficiencies. On the other hand, given the grossly self-important, intellectually dishonest and ultra-vindictive Times culture and dominant personalities, every little bit of honesty Mr. Okrent did manage to eek out must have resulted in a hugely disproportionate personal pain to him. Such is life in the belly of the beast!
Indeed, I would not be a bit surprised to learn that with all of his deficiencies and inadequate pale criticisms of egregious Times' errors, Mr. Okrent was de facto asked to leave because it was felt (that is, "felt" by the boss) that he was being too harsh in his judgments.