Category Archives: Politics

A brief thought on King v. Burwell

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the GOP’s latest legal strike against the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known colloquially as “Obamacare.” The justices appeared to split largely along familiar ideological lines (with Chief Justice John Roberts remaining mostly inscrutable), but one exchange — no pun intended — stood out to me.

I’ve excerpted the relevant portions below:

 

Something about Justice Scalia’s comments here immediately struck me as bizarre, but I couldn’t figure out exactly why the first time I read it.

I think now I do. The thing is, we’ve come to expect a scarily high level of partisanship on the Court, echoing our broader political divide in the legislature and, indeed, in the nation at large. So it’s no surprise to see Scalia, Alito, et al. bringing out the knives against the solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, Jr. (just as it’s no surprise to see Kagan, Sotomayor, et al. do much the same to Michael Carvin on the challengers’ side).

But what’s interesting here is the specific reasoning Scalia employs in his favor. He had at least two options for how to defend the challengers’ reading of the law. The first, and more obvious, tactic would have been to simply characterize the phrase “Exchanges established by the State” as unambiguous under a strict textualist reading of the ACA, and leave it at that. In essence, he could have just argued that the possibly disastrous effects of eliminating healthcare subsidies in numerous states is simply not a judicial matter and that the law must be interpreted as written, regardless of the outcome. Moreover, this would have been fully consistent with Scalia’s stated originalist approach to jurisprudence.

But he didn’t stop there. Instead, he stated or implied multiple times (in the excerpts displayed above) that, if the consequences were as terrible as Verrilli believed, Congress would step in to fix the problem — in this case, the loss of health insurance to citizens who would have otherwise been covered by Obamacare subsidies.

This is a strikingly odd perspective. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with American politics knows, the chance of a Republican-led Congress — in both houses — enacting emergency legislation to save ACA subsidies is practically zero. Scalia, as someone intimately aware of the American political process, knows this better than most. And so did the audience attending the oral argument, which burst into laughter when Verrilli countered: “Well, this Congress, Your Honor…”

In other words, in a brazen attempt to persuade his fellow justices of the merits of the challengers’ arguments, Scalia made a deliberately disingenuous prediction about the likely outcome of ruling in their favor. Indeed, the idea that Congress would fix Obamacare is so obviously comical that it underscores just how desperate Scalia is to dismantle it: he would gladly suffer the public indignity of making an obviously absurd political prognosis for the mere opportunity to shape his undecided colleagues’ eventual ruling.

This may or may not tell us something about the Court’s likely decision — perhaps it means Scalia is privy to wavering on the part of Kennedy or Roberts, and perhaps not — but it tells us much about the lengths to which Justice Scalia will go to achieve an ideological objective.

Alarmism and the “special relationship”

Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner's home page, eh?
Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner’s home page, eh?

Later this morning, at 11 AM, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make his much-ballyhooed speech before a joint session of Congress (minus a few dozen members). It will contain the same platitudes and hyperbolic warnings — “I am leaving for Washington on a fateful, even historic, mission,” he said, with characteristic understatement — that have been his staple for two decades. (Yes, two decades!) People will clap numerous times. They will stand, sit, and then stand again in a spectacle that would put your average Catholic mass to shame. Bored DC residents (but I repeat myself) are lining up to ask for tickets.

But something is different this time around: namely, Bibi — who is in the midst of a reelection campaign — has managed to anger President Obama more than usual by accepting an uncoordinated invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, which in turn upset a lot of congressional Democrats.

The rhetorical phrase of the moment seems to be “politicizing the special relationship,” which is a euphemism for “pissing off Democrats:”

  • John Kerry: “It was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process. But the administration is not seeking to politicize this.”
  • Samantha Power: “This partnership should never be politicized, and it cannot and will not be tarnished or broken.”
  • Rep. Greg Meeks, D-NY: “We shouldn’t be playing politics on the floor of the House.”
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL: “I just think [the Netanyahu speech before Congress] is a very bad idea. It’s politicized — he shouldn’t politicize our relationship and the Congress of the United States.”
  • Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-TX: “But by politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship with an address which will be seen as a refutation of our foreign policy and our president, one that will take place two weeks before national elections in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker Boehner are playing a destructive and reckless game with the U.S.- Israel relationship and will potentially upset the delicate state of our negotiations with Iran and our leadership of the P5+1.”
  • J Street: “Wading into partisan American politics behind the back of our elected president damages the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
  • Benjamin Netanyahu: “The last thing anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want, is for Israel to become a partisan issue, and I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”

Enter Jeffrey Goldberg, Netanyahu’s-staunchest-critic-except-when-he’s-in-fact-underhandedly-needling-Obama:

Netanyahu is engaging in behavior that is without precedent: He is apparently so desperate to stay in office that he has let the Republicans weaponize his country in their struggle against a Democratic president they despise. Boehner seeks to do damage to Obama, and he has turned Netanyahu into an ally in this cause. It’s not entirely clear here who is being played.

Therein lies the crux of the issue. It is actually easy to see, with increasing clarity, just who is getting played here, and it is neither Boehner nor Netanyahu: it’s the American public, for being told time and again that, above all, the “special relationship” is at stake and must be protected at all costs. Worse yet, we have to bear these same costs in the form of dead American soldiers, widespread anti-Americanism, and increased insecurity.

And for what? Since when, in the arena of international relations, do permanent “special relationships” even make sense? “America doesn’t have friends. America only has interests,” Henry Kissinger once said. But to this rule Israel is a glaring exception: unlike the American relationship with virtually every other country in the world, the American-Israeli bond is “unbreakable” a priori — its logic depends on nothing. And it is self-perpetuating: the “unbreakable bond” must remain as such because it has always been so: “Israel has always been a bipartisan issue.” (This is, of course, as true as “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”)

Look at the American relationship with China over the past several decades — or with Egypt, or Iran, or even India. These relationships have all seen ebbs and flows, summits and nadirs, depending on mutually expressed interests. By contrast, the Israeli-American relationship, while enduring the occasional bump, including this one — slight hiccups that, in the absence of a genuine rift, nearly always manage to generate a greater media stir than they warrant — has held remarkably steady even as the two nations’ strategic interests drift ever farther apart.

And yet, in view of these contradictions, what we seem to hear most from political analysts is a collective handwringing over the relationship’s “deterioration,” not recognition of its longtime illogicality in the first place.

Goldberg is so torn up over Bibi’s clash with Obama that he wrote a Q&A in which he played both the Q and the A himself.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, warned: “What you’re going to see is a very, very deep disagreement over policy by an American government led by President Obama and an Israeli government for now led by Netanyahu…[which is] only going to get worse if an agreement is struck with Iran, and then you’re in a very serious clash between the two countries.”

A liberal rabbi, John Rosove, got downright Gladwellian: “It’s a tipping-point moment. It’s no longer the Israeli government, right or wrong. The highest form of patriotism and loyalty is to criticize from a place of love.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), the sole Jewish member of Congress, said of Netanyahu’s speech: “It is an opportunity to let not just the Israeli prime minister know, but the Israeli people know, that America is united in strengthening our relationship with Israel.”

Perhaps strangest of all was the statement by aptly-named Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who noted: “When you separate Israel from the policies of its government, it complicates the matter for Congress.” Indeed it does. But whether Netanyahu loses his premiership on March 17th or not, American interests will continue to differ meaningfully from Israel’s. In other words, it is about the state, not just the current government.

For example, Iran poses a much-reduced threat — in any meaningful conception of the term — to the United States in comparison to its effect, however exaggerated, on Israel’s security. ISIS cannot possibly hope to directly threaten American territory in the same way it can worry Israeli citizens. The radicalization of Arab opposition movements poses a greater immediate concern to Israel than it does to the United States. And so on.

Stranger still, the peak alarmism we seem to be reaching now in the upper echelons of the Israeli-American diplomatic clique is entirely contradicted by all available evidence. The U.S. has, for example, placed crippling sanctions on Iran. It’s bombed ISIS. It continues to bankroll billions of dollars of military aid to Israel each year. Just yesterday, while Netanyahu was at AIPAC sowing panic over a potential Iran deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was at the UN’s Human Rights Council, asking its members to end their “obsession with Israel.”

All this is to say: after watching Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likudnik allies cry wolf, engage in warmongering, and inject themselves into American politics in the past couple decades, we’re learning the wrong lesson when we lament the “politicization” of the special relationship. It’s possible this may be just the gift horse we need.

Why net neutrality is winning

Today The New York Times is reporting that the legislative fight over net neutrality is all but over:

Senior Republicans conceded on Tuesday that the grueling fight with President Obama over the regulation of Internet service appears over, with the president and an army of Internet activists victorious.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve regulating Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet. While the two Democratic commissioners are negotiating over technical details, they are widely expected to side with the Democratic chairman, Tom Wheeler, against the two Republican commissioners.

And Republicans on Capitol Hill, who once criticized the plan as “Obamacare for the Internet,” now say they are unlikely to pass a legislative response that would undo perhaps the biggest policy shift since the Internet became a reality.

Net neutrality has always struck me as an outlier issue in modern American politics. We hear all the time about moneyed special interests and their corrosive effect on the democratic process, but net neutrality seems to be a glaring exception to this general trend — with one huge qualification: while Congress may have surrendered, there’s little chance the telcos are quite as willing to resign themselves to their fate. So the chances of seeing litigation, as opposed to legislation, attempting to overturn the expected Thursday FCC ruling approach 100%.

Nevertheless, I believe there are several reasons for net neutrality’s present-day victory:

1) It is not entirely accurate to paint net neutrality proponents as Davids facing off against the telco Goliaths. Here are just a few of the major brands who’ve come out, at one point or another, in favor of net neutrality:

  • Google: “If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome.”
  • Twitter“Through The Internet Association, Twitter has joined other leading Internet companies to urge the FCC to promulgate common sense net neutrality rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed securing the legal foundation for these rules in Title II of the Communications Act (along with other statutory authority). We strongly support ensuring that such rules include prohibitions against blocking or throttling of sites and services as well as the paid prioritization of some traffic over others. These rules should govern Internet service whether users are at their desk at home or on their smartphone across town.”
  • Netflix“Strong net neutrality rules are needed to stop Internet service providers from demanding extra fees or slowing delivery of content to consumers who already have paid for Internet access.”
  • Tumblr“The FCC has a tool available to them called ‘Title II.’ Rules written under Title II could act as a bill of rights for traffic on the internet, and ensure that cable companies can’t abuse their positions as carriers of that traffic. Through Title II, we can make certain that the future of the internet is in our hands. Not theirs. The internet belongs to everybody. Let’s keep it that way.”
  • Etsy“That’s why I, along with many others in the startup and public-interest communities, started encouraging the FCC to establish new rules protecting real net neutrality under the strongest legal authority available to them — Title II of the Communications Act — allowing them to ban paid prioritization, throttling and blocking. The previous rules were overturned by the courts because the FCC used the wrong legal authority to justify them. This time, we want them to get it right.”
  • Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Amazon, Reddit, Dropbox, eBay, etc.

In other words, the battle lines are more precisely described as existing between old-guard Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon on the one hand and new-school content companies like Google and Facebook on the other. Did all indications originally appear to favor the well-connected, rent-seeking old guard? Absolutely. But the upset was hardly a pure-and-simple triumph of the vox populi. There were moneyed interests at stake for the good guys too.

2) Prominent political writers and journalists are both a) unusually focused on this issue and b) unusually united in their views on it. Net neutrality occupies a strange space in the political landscape in that its general contours are widely supported by the public (even if most people don’t truly understand what it means). This is especially so among the digital-native political set, as you might expect: the dissolution of net neutrality would have especially negative connotations for journalists and writers whose livelihood depends in large part on their ability to propagate content easily and cheaply on the Internet. A world in which establishment outlets like, say, The New York Times, The Economist, and CNN fork over large amounts of cash to obtain preferential treatment from broadband networks is not one in which any other journalist or freelancer wants to live.

3) Net neutrality is generational. Like marriage equality, another issue to which younger people are especially attuned, net neutrality is a generationally-weighted concept that tends to attract similar viewpoints from across the political spectrum. In this way it stands in stark contrast to culture-war issues such as gun control and abortion, which hew to regional and ideological fault lines. Kids and young adults intuitively grasp the transformative nature of the Internet in a way that baby boomers and their elders simply cannot: in short, we’ve seen the Internet, we love it, and we don’t anyone changing it. And like gay marriage, politicians sense which way the wind is blowing and would rather not be remembered for their opposition to something that’s so fiercely defended by so many.

Matt Bai v. Tom Fiedler

About a week or two ago, I ran across a Matt Bai piece in The New York Times called “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics.” It recounted the by-now familiar saga of the eponymous antihero, the presidential candidate who in 1987 had famously disputed allegations of marital infidelity, remarking: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” Weeks later, Tom Fiedler and his colleagues at The Miami Herald did just that, and the rest is history.

There are several problems with this, Bai argues. First, the Gary Hart story itself —  that is, the version told and retold time and again — is not an historically accurate, nor chronologically faithful, recounting of the events surrounding Gary Hart’s downfall.

But these inaccuracies disguise an even larger problem, which strikes at the root of journalistic self-identity: what is news? Does marital infidelity cross that threshold? Does lying about it?

Bai took a walk down memory lane, briefly touching on the well-known but mostly ignored liaisons of presidents past, and explaining that it was Watergate — and the instant celebrity its exposure afforded Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — that decisively transformed journalism into a perpetual quest for the moralistic coup de grâce. The Point of Journalism somehow shifted to emphasize hypocrisy and moral failures, as opposed to, say, failures of policy.

I think the highest compliment I can pay the piece — and its author, Matt Bai — is to call it challenging. Even as someone who follows both the news and meta-news (that is, news about journalism and the news business), I was struck by how absent these types of questions had been from my mind. For all of us — certainly those who lived through the Watergate era, but perhaps even more so for those of us who’ve lived our entire lives in an ever-thickening cloud of cynicism about the political process — the natural assumption has been that the job of journalists is to take politicians down a notch. Matt Bai took a step back and asked, as if for the first time, why that is.

I suppose it should have come as no surprise, given the tenor of his article, that Bai would soon provoke a response from Tom Fiedler. But what is most astonishing is just how feeble, and just how riddled with unquestioned premises, that reply was. Fiedler asks: “But was it inconsequential when Hart repeatedly, and for weeks before the confrontation, publicly denied that he was a ‘womanizer’?”

Two paragraphs later, Fiedler repeats the question: “That’s not news?” Oddly enough, in both cases he presumes the answer is so patently obvious that it hardly necessitates explanation (which he twice elects not to provide, at least explicitly). But this is precisely the flaw in modern journalism that Bai is questioning: the point is that perhaps this really is not news at all. I’m inclined to agree with him. And Fiedler’s vaguely mocking response doesn’t constitute much of a rebuttal.

Fiedler continues:

Twenty-seven years later, here is the question I would ask of Bai: What should we have done at that moment? Should we have closed our notebooks and caught the next plane back to Miami, concluding that reporting the lie wasn’t newsworthy? That it was inconsequential—and not just to us, but to potentially millions of voters?

Well…yeah. Or perhaps they should never have boarded the plane from Miami to begin with. I can’t speak for Matt Bai here, but it seems to me that this is precisely the question he’s asking: are the lies of Gary Hart newsworthy? But Fiedler doesn’t attempt to answer this: he simply expresses disbelief, repeatedly, that it’s being asked in the first place.

Here he is again:

Some voters might want the media to report a candidate’s positions on the economy, abortion, civil rights, immigration, gun safety and so on. They care little about the candidate’s personal beliefs or behavior. But some voters—indeed, the great majority of voters—are more interested in who the candidate is. This is the much-discussed character issue.

Much-discussed by whom? By the media, of course, of whom Fiedler was a member. At the very least, he’s mistaken correlation for causation. More realistically, he’s simply reversed causation 180 degrees: it’s not that the media discusses character issues because the people want it. People want it, in large part, because the media — conflating journalism and entertainment — helpfully provides it nonstop. Why? Because, among other things, Woodward and Bernstein are household names now, and every other journalist would like to become one as well. Exposing lies, no matter how pedestrian or tangential, is the golden ticket for a career in political media.

Of course, media coverage is an infinitely complex topic, and many factors affect its composition. But Fiedler belies this complexity with his implicit suggestion that it’s not up to journalists to decide what’s newsworthy: “For a journalist to withhold information that more fully reveals the character of a candidate,” Fiedler writes, “would, in my opinion, be a sin of omission.”

But editors commit this sin of omission every day when they decide which stories to run and which to drop, which ones to mount on the front page and which ones to relegate to the back and underneath the fold. Fiedler’s protestations resemble former New York Times editor Bill Keller’s when confronted over his reluctance to use the word “torture” to describe…torture:

Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don’t care whether he uses the word or not. I’m happy — and fully equipped — to draw my own conclusion.

Fiedler’s argument, akin to Keller’s, is essentially: I just provide the facts, and the readers decide whether it’s relevant. But this is patently false: a work of journalism is inextricably interwoven with the countless reportorial and editorial decisions that produced it. The reporter is no more bound to report on so-called “character issues” than he is on a candidate’s proclivity for pets, or fast food, or French films. But to the extent that he relates any of these facts, he has helped fashion the narrative around which that candidate is viewed.

In other words, there’s no such thing as “just the facts, ma’am” in journalism. As it relates to a candidate’s fitness for office, the closest thing to an “essential” element of political journalism is to examine the policy proposals. Marital infidelity — except for the rare cases in which it demonstrably interferes with one’s ability to conduct official business on behalf of constituents — is a long way from that.

Fiedler begins to wrap things up:

Many people forget that although Hart dropped out of the campaign just days after the Herald’s story in May, he revived his campaign in late December of that year and began running the gauntlet that begins in Iowa, goes on to New Hampshire and then stretches nationwide to the nominating convention. His reemergence provided the acid test of whether Democratic Party voters would sublimate the character question to the policy issues.

So what happened? In Iowa, of the seven Democrats on the caucus ballots, Hart finished sixth. In the next stop in the nominating process, New Hampshire’s fabled primary, Hart finished last. Dead last. This time he quit the race for good. Hart’s positions on the issues hadn’t changed from the heady days when he was the front-runner, before Donna Rice and Monkey Business entered the public discourse. What had changed were the voters, who now knew that Hart had been living a lie.

Once again Fiedler fails to understand something as simple as causation. Matt Bai is asking whether we should fixate on matters of personal character to the extent that we do. And Tom Fiedler’s response is to point out that, after his newspaper did so, voters changed their minds about Gary Hart. But this is an answer to a question that no one’s asking.

Ferguson, and national moments

The following was first published for We Find, You Read, a new email newsletter to which you should subscribe.

America is fond of declaring Moments, with a capital M. There is The Libertarian Moment, currently embodied by Kentucky senator Rand Paul. The financial crisis — and, later, French economist Thomas Piketty — helped usher in The Keynesian Moment. Jason Collins and Michael Sam facilitated The Gay Moment.

These Moments are not confined to happy events. Following the Newtown massacre, we rushed to proclaim A National Moment on gun control: needless to say, the opportunity came and went. The National Football League was said to have a Moment regarding concussions. And today we find ourselves, once again, heralding what Reverend Al Sharpton has deemed a “defining moment for this country” in Ferguson, Missouri.

Moments pass. Or worse, they become “conversations,” the universal American signifier (favored by network anchors and Washington pundits alike) for a deluge of words that quickly drown all meaning. Millions of people yelling at once does not a conversation make.

Neither does one person speaking to millions. Last night — after watching live as her colleagues Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Marc Lamont Hill struggled to breathe following the police’s indiscriminate use of tear gas — CNN anchor Rosemary Church wondered aloud why the Ferguson police had failed to deploy water cannons for crowd control. Any conversation in which perspectives such as hers play a principal role is not one worth having.

Indeed, our “national conversation on race” is less useful than silence, never more obviously so than when its loudest interlocutors alternate between caricature and farce. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the keenest observer of racial issues in America, memorably wrote in 2010:

The very nomenclature–“conversation on race”–betrays the unseriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American narrative, that you can somehow talk about Thomas Jefferson without Sally Hemmings; that you can discuss Andrew Jackson without discussing his betrayal of the black artillerymen who fought at the Battle of New Orleans; that you can discuss the suffrage without Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass; that you can discuss temperance without understanding the support of the Klan; that you can discuss the path to statehood in Florida without discussing Fort Gadsen; that you can talk Texas without understanding cotton, and so on.

Transforming a Moment into a movement is the Holy Grail, and it is not easy. Defining an organizing objective is the first concern, and limiting scope must follow closely behind. (Today, Zuccotti Park is just a park.) If we are to confront, at long last, the dual menaces of police militarization and systemic racial discrimination, we must be sufficiently determined to delve into more fundamental questions.

These inquiries should prod the American conception of masculinity itself, one whose chief metric often appears to be the extent of lethal weaponry one can amass. It should similarly encompass racial disparities in both policing methodologies and judicial decisions. And it should make note of the disparate language so often used when a crowd is white (“protest”) and when it is not (“riot”).

Fashioning a movement, lastly, will create uncomfortable bedfellows. But there is much the left can agree on with the likes of Rand Paul, who observed (correctly): “There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement.” One is not obligated to wish for a return to the gold-backed dollar in order to Stand with Rand against police brutality. The Ferguson Moment will soon vanish, but let us make something of its passing.

“Telegenically dead Palestinians”

We try to target the rocketeers, we do, and all civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use, I mean it’s gruesome, they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.

– Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

No one fears propaganda quite like a propagandist.

When Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” he is attempting to negate, via sardonic aside, the collective effect of hundreds of images of bloody, lifeless bodies — often very tiny ones — being mourned by men and women in the throes of unspeakable agony. These images, vivid in their specificity, he considers propaganda. Netanyahu fears “telegenically dead Palestinians” precisely because Israel’s dwindling foundation of international support hinges on their invisibility and, therefore, on his ability to foster a telegenic humiliation of the Palestinian people.

That for years he has managed to accomplish this, and to do so with remarkable dexterity, is a testament both to Netanyahu’s media savvy and his interlocutors’ credulity. He is helped along, too, by a decidedly non-telegenic  bête noire in Hamas — one whose nonchalance towards the civilian Palestinian death toll rivals Israel’s.

But Netanyahu increasingly resembles the boy who cried wolf. His monotonic recitations of impending doom at the hands of the blockaded and helpless Palestinians (or, in convenient moments, Iran) evoke Joe Biden’s damning encapsulation of Rudy Giuliani, a kindred opportunist in gleeful exploitation of tragedy for political gain: “…A noun, and a verb, and 9/11. I mean, there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else.” (Netanyahu’s adherence to the Giuliani playbook is in fact doubly insidious: while he liberally trades on the memory of the Shoah to lend gravitas to his hawkish policies, he has abandoned actual Holocaust survivors badly in need of food, healthcare, and other basic necessities.)

Netanyahu’s problem — and, by extension, Israel’s — is that the impact of his militaristic drumbeating is undermined by his obvious lack of interest in regional peace: acquiescing to American pressure shortly after Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Netanyahu — the same man who had once exulted in scuttling the Oslo peace process and boasted that “America is a thing you can move very easily” — cannily declared himself, for the very first time, in favor of a two-state solution. Determining which statement represents the truth is, as always with Bibi, a matter of finding whichever quote was spoken the furthest distance away from a visible television camera. Just as telling are his insistence on settlement-building and his plans for a long-term occupation of the West Bank.

Most Americans, however, are not following along closely enough to parse out fact from fiction. It is no accident that, in his frequent appearances on American television and in person, Netanyahu is fond of appropriating American imagery to vivify Israel’s existential threat of the moment for a receptive audience. In 2011, he described the 1967 borders as “indefensible,” explaining: “Israel was all of 9 miles wide — half the width of the Washington Beltway.” Four days later, he used the same line in front of a joint session of Congress.

Two weeks ago, Netanyahu told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “I mean, imagine what Israel is going through. Imagine that 75% of the U.S. population is under rocket fire, and they have to be in bomb shelters within 60 to 90 seconds. So, I’m not just talking about New York. New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Miami, you name it. That’s impossible, you can’t live like that.” (Nearly two million Gazans do live like that, and far worse.)

Netanyahu’s communicative style here is in keeping with a 116-page booklet called “The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary,” authored by Republican strategist Frank Luntz. The document was written for “visionary leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel,” and it contains blunt strategic advice on how to promote Israel’s point of view to the foreign public, especially Americans:

  • “Don’t talk about religion. Americans who see the bible as their sourcebook on foreign affairs are already supporters of Israel. Religious fundamentalists are Israel’s ‘Amen Choir’ and they make up approximately one-fourth of the American public and Israel’s strongest friends in the world…The primary reason for this is that their religion tells them to do so.” (p. 12)
  • “Personalize the problem for the American audience…’Imagine Washington, DC under missile attack from nearby Baltimore.'” (p. 42)
  • “Israel is so rich and so strong that [leftists] fail to see why it is necessary for armored tanks to shoot at unarmed kids or why Israel needs to level homes or attack villages or, most importantly, why a Palestinian state is a threat to Israel’s existence.” (p. 96)

Similarly, Israeli officials seem to be heeding the report’s admonition to communicate empathy from the start: “Indeed, the sequence of your conversation is critical and you must start with empathy for BOTH sides first” (p. 4). On July 29th, Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, responded thusly to CNN host Jake Tapper’s  question about the death of Palestinian children:

You know, we had a special press conference in Tel Aviv last night.

And the chief of staff of the Israeli military, the most highest Israeli official in uniform, he said it in openly, and he said it in Hebrew to the Israeli public. It wasn’t something for foreign consumption. He said, every innocent victim in Gaza pains us.

And I think he was saying something very genuine, something very real that Israelis feel. We don’t want to see innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire between us and Hamas.

While the above approaches are tailored to a more skeptical audience, the Israel Defense Forces’ Twitter account, by contrast, is a tour de force of wartime propaganda.twitter On August 2nd, for example, the IDF tweeted the following text accompanied by a video: “WATCH: More Hamas tunnels successfully destroyed in Gaza.” The tweet just prior linked to the IDF’s blog and declared: “Israel accepts ceasefires, Hamas rejects them.” (That tweet — which was posted at 9:39 AM EST on August 2nd — was directly contradicted by Haaretz, which had reported just minutes earlier that “Israel will no longer seek a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip via negotiations with Hamas, senior Israeli officials said.“)

Given this meticulous attention to words and their varying effects on foreign ears, it is unsurprising that Netanyahu is just as carefully attuned to media coverage of the Palestinians. It especially explains his description of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” a phrase as notable for its dismissal of authenticity as it is for its derision.

The problem for defenders of Israel’s actions in Gaza, however, is that the Palestinian death toll, now surpassing 1,500, is all too real. The vast majority of these appear to be civilians: some estimates place the percentage at 80% or above, and even Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzachi Hanegbi acknowledged that he was only able to confirm that 47% of Palestinian deaths were combatants. (This is not to say that Hamas eschews propaganda; however, its efforts in this arena are so ham-handed as to be nearly comical.)

The civilian casualties have shaken even some of Israel’s allies. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, unaware that he was being captured on microphone, fumed to an aide about the extent of Israeli military actions in Gaza: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said twice. In recent days, both New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait (“Israel Is Making It Hard To Be Pro-Israel“) and Vox founder Ezra Klein (“Why I have become more pessimistic about Israel“) have penned pieces airing their discomfort with Israel’s bombardment as well.

The cumulative effect of on-the-ground reporting and photography streaming out of Gaza is beginning to create a rare dynamic for Israel: in this conflict, at least, young Americans no longer see Israel as David, but as Goliath. Based on the threads of evidence from recent polling by Gallup and Pew, young adults are starting to look at Israel and feel, if not always say, “Enough.”

This empathy for the Palestinians’ plight was precisely Netanyahu’s target when he described dead Palestinians as telegenic (a rhetorical device whose horrendous history ought to especially shame Netanyahu). But even according to Frank Luntz’s handbook, this technique does not play well: “The Israel-against-the-world, woe-are-we approach comes across as divisive” (p. 17).

This leaves Israel, and its advocates, precious little material to work with, and the result is a predictable regurgitation of “What would you do if…” questions. But this intellectual conceit is wearing thin, especially since the immediate riposte is so obvious: Stop occupying the West Bank and bombarding Gaza. (Another tactic, attempted by former presidential speechwriter David Frum, is to deny reality altogether.)

In truth, there is no effective Israeli response to the video of a weeping Chris Gunness (above), the spokesman in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), just as there is no appropriate reply to the images of dead children. The authenticity is bracing, and it leaves little room for caricature or dismissal. The question is just how long it will take Israel to stop playing the cartoon villain.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Case for Reparations”

From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder. Adhering to middle-class norms is what made Ethel Weatherspoon a lucrative target for rapacious speculators. Contract sellers did not target the very poor. They targeted black people who had worked hard enough to save a down payment and dreamed of the emblem of American citizenship—homeownership. It was not a tangle of pathology that put a target on Clyde Ross’s back. It was not a culture of poverty that singled out Mattie Lewis for “the thrill of the chase and the kill.” Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.

We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

Both of these powerful passages are taken from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stunningly ambitious new essay, “The Case for Reparations.” The guy is probably best described as our national conscience on race: here, he advocates forcefully for an acknowledgment of centuries of institutionalized, systemic racism in the form of cold, hard cash.

The essay builds slowly: in the first half, I wondered where he was going at times as he dutifully recounted horror stories from the distant past. But as his chronology eventually began to catch up to the present, the contours of his argument became visible and the point is crystallized: American national crimes against African Americans are not past sins for which we owe penance, but an ongoing travesty that continues — in various sinister forms — through today.

To be clear: the essay is a masterpiece. Ta-Nehisi Coates is nothing if not an elegant thinker (a phrase I’ve admittedly stolen from Victoria), and his piece is at once a painful read and a uniquely invigorating one: it confronts the reader with the centuries-long litany of black suffering and then, as if by miracle, presents the (at least partial) solution: reparations.

Which is where “stunningly ambitious” comes in. The only point in the essay at which Coates briefly contemplates an appropriate figure for reparations is here:

Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

$34 billion in 1973 dollars is equivalent to $181.56 billion today. If this total were paid out yearly for one decade, the 10-year result would be a $1.82 trillion payout. This is equal to:

These numbers would, of course, be doubled if $181.56 billion were paid out annually over two decades, and not just one.

Suffice it to say, this is not an easy case to make. But if anyone can do it, it’s Coates. (To be clear, he didn’t actually make the case for any specific number, but the above example is the only figure he discussed at all in relation to the American experience. He also discusses West Germany’s reparations to the state of Israel following World War II, which amounted to the relatively minuscule total of $7 billion in current U.S. dollars.)

Although it’s difficult to explain, I find his argument compelling and challenging on the one hand, and almost too easy somehow on the other. I realize that makes basically no sense. But here goes anyway:

There is a certain beauty to the simplicity of his proposal: African American wealth would be doubled in just ten years (in reality, the effect would likely be far greater as some of the initial payments are invested in businesses, financial markets, and so on), significantly shrinking the disparity between white and black Americans. That part makes sense — to me, anyway — and is, while highly debatable, certainly an idea worth discussing. As Freddie deBoer put it (somewhat bluntly), it’s about “using the power of the federal government to redress historical injustice and contemporary inequality by giving black people money.”

On the other hand, there is something truly irreversible about such an enormous sum of money being transferred directly to such a large group of people. Leaving aside the obvious practical questions that would arise as to funding, how to disburse money to mixed-race people and households as well as recent immigrants, and so on, two immediate fears spring to mind:

  • What if it doesn’t work?
  • Couldn’t such a high-profile payment plan backfire if it is substituted for all other efforts at combating African American poverty and social discrimination? Couldn’t it be seen as a panacea?

I’ll address these in reverse order. The latter point is actually an example of a type of reasoning I find absolutely appalling whenever I encounter it in someone else’s writing, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t similarly self-flagellate for bringing it up myself.

And so, to answer my own fear, I must admit that it’s patently ludicrous to base one’s objection to a proposal on the predicted reaction of other people who will also oppose — or, at the very least, remain apathetic to — the proposal as well. If a decade-long payment plan to African Americans results in everyone else collectively turning their backs on the collective plight of their countrymen of color, well, whose fault is that really? What’s more, in even that worst-case scenario, African American wealth would double in ten years, an unalloyed good and certainly preferable to the status quo.

Good, then: we’ve dispatched with that. But the first bullet point concerns me even more. I am truly frightened by the prospect of what would happen if, after ten years — or even five, or three, or one — of scheduled payments to black Americans, little or no discernible socioeconomic impact manifests itself. This could be absolutely catastrophic for the future of African Americans in this country, in a way that dwarfs even their current situation.

Keep in mind that any such effort to substantively welcome black Americans into the national economic sphere inhabited by their white peers would meet vicious, sustained opposition right from the start. (Coates is well aware of this, as is Charles Ogletree, a fact which one can easily deduce from his own different proposal.) Just look at the struggle that the Affordable Care Act — watered-down, battered, and compromised down to a fragment of its idealized version — underwent to get passed, and there wasn’t even an explicit racial component to its redistributive effect.

A very large portion of the country, therefore, would be literally licking its chops and hoping against hope for the policy’s failure — or, in the case of officials in positions of power, actively using their authority to thwart it (as Republican governors are doing now, with regard to Obamacare). Even the slightest indication of anything other than an unequivocally resounding success would produce enormous pressure on politicians to abandon the plan. And if such an end were to come for the program, it would decisively alter the course of African American history for the worse. It’s hard to imagine being able to try anything like it again for at least another half-century or longer.

To answer my own criticism again, even this could be responded to thusly: “So what? Black Americans are already in a desperate position socioeconomically: what could possibly be wrong with giving something else a shot after years of failed policy?” Which is an entirely fair point.

But I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way of accomplishing the same thing. By “better,” I mean that in the strictly objective sense of resulting in a higher level of income and/or wealth for African Americans after ten years than they would achieve under this hypothetical ten-year program.

So perhaps that’s the whole question: I’m onboard to spend massive amounts of money to improve the socioeconomic standing of African Americans. (I haven’t even addressed my admittedly underdeveloped thoughts on whether such efforts should be explicitly linked to slavery by invoking the term “reparations,” but — like Freddie deBoer — I’m not nearly as interested in debating that side of the coin.) But is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ idea the best way to go about it?

The self-negating FCC

It’s easy to forget that the Republican Party is still capable of the occasional surprise. Its members have grown so accustomed to anti-governmental rhetoric that I’ve lost the raw sense of disbelief that accompanied some of their more absurdist speeches four or five years ago.

And then are moments like today. The Federal Communications Commission voted today to open its proposed net neutrality rules for a four-month period of public comment starting now. The chairman of the Commission, Tom Wheeler (himself a former telecom lobbyist), is pushing for an ersatz version of “net neutrality” in which there are no slow lanes, only fast ones. (If that doesn’t sound logical to you, it’s probably because you’re not an Internet service provider.)

This is bad enough. But there was a nugget in the New York Times article on the day’s events that especially caught my eye:

The two Republican members, who voted against the plan, said that it exceeded the agency’s legal authority, that there had been no evidence of actual harm or deviation from net neutrality principles and that elected members of Congress should decide the issue, not regulatory appointees.

Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the commission, said all the members shared “some important common ground: namely, a bipartisan consensus in favor of a free and open Internet.”

But, he added, “a dispute this fundamental is not for us, five unelected individuals, to decide. Instead, it should be resolved by the people’s elected representatives, those who choose the direction of government, and those whom the American people can hold accountable for that choice.”

The fifth commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, was the most forceful in his dissent. “The premise for imposing net neutrality rules is fundamentally flawed and rests on a faulty foundation of make-believe statutory authority,” he said.

(Emphases mine.)

Is it just me, or is it patently insane for two of the FCC’s duly-appointed five commissioners — whose self-described mission is to “[regulate] interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories” — to actively lobby against their own employer’s stated purpose?

It’s one thing for, say, a Treasury Secretary or Federal Reserve chairman to make a judgment call on anti-inflation measures or quantitative easing or liquidity injection. It would be quite another thing entirely for Janet Yellen to abruptly decide that returning to the gold standard is the correct approach, and then proceed to actively sabotage the work of her own central bank. That is what’s happening here with the FCC, and it should be a scandal.

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Donald Rumsfeld: the known unknown

I finally had the opportunity to watch Errol Morris’ latest film, The Unknown Known, last night. In the tradition of Morris’ earlier work on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, The Unknown Known features a Donald Rumsfeld who speaks directly into the camera, confronting his interviewer and the audience head-on. This he does with the characteristic self-assuredness long associated, for better or (mostly) for worse, with virtually the entire George W. Bush administration.

The film’s title is borrowed from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous statements, initially spoken at a Department of Defense briefing on February 12, 2002:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The title of Errol Morris’ film, then, refers to the omitted fourth category: unknown knowns. Although he chose, in his public briefing, to leave out any references to this final combination, Rumsfeld indeed ruminated on it later on. In an internal memo, or “snowflake,” to his staff in early 2004, Rumsfeld wrote:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

At Morris’ request, Rumsfeld reads this memo aloud in The Unknown Known, the audio of which was repeated several times throughout the film. Each time I heard it, it grated on me: wasn’t it all backwards? An unknown known isn’t something you think you know that you actually don’t, but vice versa: something you don’t know that you know. Stranger still, Rumsfeld describes it correctly in the film itself, without acknowledging his opposite characterization in the 2004 memo.

Towards the end of the film, after repeatedly teasing the audience with this uncorrected interpretation, Morris finally raises the discrepancy with Rumsfeld. The former defense secretary, after asking Morris to display the text of the memo onscreen, subsequently reads it aloud, slowly, as if listening to the words for the very first time. (Earlier on, he’d told an incredulous Morris that he had yet to read the infamous “torture memos,” citing his lack of legal training as justification.)

Upon completing his recitation of his own memo from a decade before, Rumsfeld pauses for a moment, then says:

Yeah, I think that memo is backwards. I think it is closer to what I said here, than that.

This was, in its own way, the crux of the film. Although Morris neglected to prod Rumsfeld in the aggressive manner of an investigative reporter, “his questions” — to borrow David Denby’s line — “lead the Secretary to nail himself.” Donald Rumsfeld, steward of one of the most disastrous foreign policy eras in American history, swats away a fundamental philosophical error — one with enormous, fatal, and long-lasting implications for the United States, the Middle East, and beyond — with a metaphorical wave of his hand.

It is this very nonchalance that most strikingly contrasts Rumsfeld with McNamara. Where, in The Fog of War, McNamara revealed self-doubt and even regret for his role in the outcome of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld’s performance is gripping for his utter detachment from the events that followed the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.

It is as if the entire output of his tenure as Defense Secretary were simply an academic experiment he’d conducted in order to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity. (In one portion of the film, Rumsfeld demonstrates his obsession with the minutiae of semantics when he quotes a memo in which he asked his staff for the definition of the word “several.”) The tragic aftermath of his decisions, it necessarily follows, is just as theoretical, a reality thoroughly abstracted from the parallel one in Rumsfeld’s head. When Morris asks him if the United States would have been better off avoiding the Iraq invasion altogether, Rumsfeld replies: “Well, I guess time will tell.”

The statement bears a superficial resemblance to George W. Bush’s repeated assurances that he is comfortable waiting for history to judge his two terms in office. But beware the misleading comparison: it is nothing of the sort. Bush’s trademark is his unwavering belief in himself and his decisions (his memoir is called Decision Points): when he emphasizes his patience in the face of criticism, it is with the self-satisfaction of a man who knows himself to be right and the rest of the world wrong.

Rumsfeld, by contrast, appears not to care one way or another. Right or wrong, he is too concerned by theory and process to let a little thing like consequences trouble his conscience. That those consequences are now, and have long been, the embodiment of a “known known,” leaves one to wonder just what Donald Rumsfeld knows about anything at all.

Is the Electoral College doomed?

I certainly hope so. And so does The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, following New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s signing into law this week of the National Popular Vote Compact, making the state the 11th jurisdiction to do so and nudging the national movement closer to its ultimate goal (now at 61% of total electors needed). Here’s what the law does:

Here’s how it works: Suppose you could get a bunch of states to pledge that once there are enough of them to possess at least two hundred and seventy electoral votes—a majority of the Electoral College—they will thenceforth cast all their electoral votes for whatever candidate gets the most popular votes in the entire country. As soon as that happens, presto change-o: the next time you go to the polls, you’ll be voting in a true national election. No more ten or so battleground states, no more forty or so spectator states, just the United States—all of them, and all of the voters who live in them.

Unless you’ve been following this pretty closely, it will surprise you to learn that, before this week, ten states (counting D.C.) had already signed on. Now it’s eleven, and between them they have a hundred and sixty-five electoral votes—sixty-one per cent of the total needed to bring the compact into effect.

Hertzberg thinks the movement has a fighting chance:

But it’s not just the voters in those spectator states who are ignored. It’s also the politicians, including the state legislators—no matter which party they belong to, no matter whether their state is red or blue, no matter whether the sure winner in their state is the candidate of their party or the other party. Either way, they’re nobodies. The National Popular Vote plan would make them somebodies—and that, perhaps more than the high-minded stuff, is why N.P.V. has a pretty good chance of actually happening.

Nate Silver, meanwhile, is far more skeptical (his headline: “Why a Plan to Circumvent the Electoral College Is Probably Doomed“). He pays special attention to the swing states:

Soon after comes outright swing states, such as Ohio, New Hampshire and Colorado. These states, along with Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, collectively had a 98.6 percent chance of determining the Electoral College winner in 2012, according to the FiveThirtyEight tipping-point index as it wascalculated on election morning. In other words, these nine states are 70 times more powerful than the other 41 (which collectively had a 1.4 percent chance of determining the winner) combined. That’s part of the reason so many Americans object to the Electoral College. But states whose voters have a disproportionate amount of influence may be in no mood to give it up.

My personal view is that the Electoral College should be abolished (even if that means we’d have to change the name of this website). But based on the signatories to the compact, blue and red states seem to think of it as a zero-sum game. And the purple states, which might otherwise swing the balance, have the least incentive of all to sign on.

I’m onboard. But I wonder how a close national election — especially one that would’ve split the popular and electoral votes under the current rules (such as the 2000 election) — would play out under such a scenario. Would states whose voters selected the candidate that lost nationally grow disillusioned with the new system and revolt, by reverting to the old system and breaking apart the compact?

This leads directly into a second concern: although the movement technically needs only enough states to attain the 270-vote mark, in all likelihood it will need at least one or two additional states as a safety buffer. Without this, any state with sufficient electoral leverage (the bigger the state, the higher the risk) could take the rest of the country hostage by threatening to leave the compact.

I could imagine a situation, unlikely as it may seem, in which such a scenario may result in an even denser concentration of presidential candidates’ attention on one or two states in particular, in an effort to maintain — or vice versa, to abolish — their adherence to the compact, depending on each candidate’s standing in the national polls and in the electoral forecasts.

My instinct is that these unsavory outcomes are worth the risk of attempting to reform the status quo, which is terrible for much of the country.

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