Browsing the blog archives for April, 2009.


Justice Souter Retiring

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Obama Administration, Supreme Court

Thank you, Justice Souter, for hanging in there until Bush was gone.

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New Coke

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conservatism

CNN’s John King reports that the GOP is launching a “rebranding” effort today to shine up the party’s image. The initiative is called the National Council for a New America. Its founders include —

  • John McCain
  • Jeb Bush
  • Haley Barbour
  • Bobby Jindal
  • Mitt Romney

Oh, stop giggling and pay attention. Now, this “council” will report to Republican leaders in Congress, and taking part in the launch party today will be

  • John Boehner
  • Eric Cantor
  • Mike Pence
  • Mitch McConnell
  • Jon Kyl
  • Lamar Alexander

I say they don’t need a new initiative. They need new blood. Maybe even a whole new gene pool. Anyway, these dinosaurs will lumber forth from Washington and hold town hall meetings all over the country so that they can listen to the American people.

Whether they will allow nonbelievers to attend these town hall meetings I cannot say. I am skeptical any of them can hold a sensible conversation with anyone who isn’t fluent in “conspeak.” Conspeak is a kind of language substitute created by randomly stringing together standard right-wing talking points and buzzwords regardless of dictionary meanings.

For example — At the New York Times, Adam Nagourney and David Herzenhorn write that Republicans are debating among themselves whether they should be working to create a bigger party or a purer party. Here’s a bit —

Patrick J. Toomey, a former head of the Club for Growth whose primary challenge to Mr. Specter led the senator to bow out in the face of what he thought was a probable defeat, said Republicans should be open to a “wide range of opinions on a wide range of issues.”

As Tbogg says, “As long as those ideas are lowering taxes on the rich, drill baby drill, keeping handguns cheap and plentiful, getting rid of capital gains taxes, and re-naming America ‘Reaganland’.”

“But I think fundamental common ground that the vast majority of Republicans share is the belief in limited government, freedom and personal responsibility,” Mr. Toomey said.

The question of how the party should respond to Mr. Specter’s departure was the main subject of a Senate Republican lunch on Wednesday. The party can be a “big tent,” said Senator John Ensign of Nevada, “but here are some core principles: fiscal responsibility, more personal responsibility, looking for a smaller, more effective government.”

In light of what Republicans actually do when they get their hands on the steering wheel of government, what are Mr. Toomey and Sen. Ensign actually saying?

“Fiscal responsibility” means lowering taxes on the wealthy and cutting programs that benefit the not-wealthy, but at the same time making sure the special interests that helped one get elected are well cared for.

“Personal responsibility” means government is to become primarily a tool for protecting the power and assets of the ruling plutocracy at the expense of the interests of the nation and its citizens.

“Smaller, more effective government” is a government rendered incapable of doing anything not covered by “fiscal responsibility” and “personal responsibility.”

Oh, and then there’s “freedom,” which is a system by which corporations are the landlords and citizens are the serfs/sharecroppers/tenants.

I’m betting that the Council’s town halls will not include anyone not a shill or a true believer.

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What Do They Expect?

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conservatism, Republican Party

There are no end of commentaries on the Specter Defection on the web today. The majority opinion from Dems/progressives/liberals is that the Defection might not make much difference in the Senate, short term. They grumble that Arlen is way too conservative, even with a “D” after his name. The real significance of the Defection, they say, is that the Republican Party is coming apart at the seams.

The majority opinion of Republicans/conservatives/troglodytes is “Yeah? So what?”

You know the Defection was a disaster for Republicans when Bill “Always Wrong About Everything” Kristol calls the Defection “good news for Republicans!” What’s coming from the likes of Rush and Lulu are variations on “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out, Arlen.” And Newt said,

Arlen Specter’s decision to leave the Republican Party in name as he left it in spirit over the stimulus vote is further proof that high taxes, big spending and big government are unacceptable to Republican voters.

This shows us one of the many ways movement conservatives get everything backward. Most political parties exist to represent some part of public opinion. But today’s GOP drives away any part of the public that doesn’t represent its opinion.

In many ways, IMO, the Republican Party is acting like an apocalyptic cult — a small number of true believers waiting for some Big Cataclysmic Event that’s going to change everything, to their advantage. For that reason, present reality doesn’t interest them, because present reality is just a temporary aberration (which it may be, but not in the way they think). Thus, movement conservatives brush off opinion polls that show their positions to be wildly unpopular. They don’t need to worry about election losses, shrinking party membership, an aging political base, or senior senators who jump ship. They don’t need to change with the times. They’ll be vindicated when the Mother Ship arrives. You’ll see.

And they must truly believe in the Event, because they’re betting everything on it. In 2000 they still were shrewd enough to market Dubya as a moderate — a “compassionate conservative” who liked to be photographed surrounded by smiling black children. Now they aren’t even pretending to make adjustments to political reality.

Which brings me to the question — what do they expect? What do they think is to happen that will turn the world back upright (as they see it) and put them on top?

It may be something as simple as expecting the Democrats, and the Obama Administration, to screw up, driving the electorate back to the Right. That’s not an irrational idea, of course. It could happen. But it’s far from a certainty. What if the Dems don’t screw up? Movement conservatives have no visible contingency plans other than doing everything they can to trip up the Obama Administration and make it fail.

We can go to a more fundamental level and think about what drives the Right. The money in back of movement conservatism — the top of the power pyramid — was always about plutocratic control of government and diverting the nation’s wealth into the pockets of the privileged few. That hasn’t changed. The interesting question, at least to me, has always been to understand who on the Right is in on the joke and who isn’t.

I have long believed that the manipulators, the ones with the deep pockets who set the course, stay out of sight, and that most of the visible Right are true believers. And what I suspect has happened is that sometime in the past eight years the true believers started making the decisions and setting the course. Or else, the plutocrats are so dependent on the support of the true believers they’ve manipulated themselves into a corner. Take your pick.

Update and Bonus Question: One of the commenters at National Journal today said the Specter Defection “demonstrates the growing power of the grassroots, conservative base of the Republican party.” In what alternative reality might that be true?

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Specter Switching Parties?

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Congress, Democratic Party, Republican Party

If this is true, it would be huge — CNN is reporting that Sen. Arlen Specter has switched parties. That means when Al Franken finally takes his seat in the Senate the Dems will have 60 votes.

Here’s Chris Cillizza reporting the same thing. Looks like it’s a “go.”

That means, assuming Dems vote together (a big if), the Dems could break GOP filibusters that prevent vital bills from being brought to the full Senate for a vote.

I take it Specter, who is up for re-election in 2010, made the move to avoid a defeat in his primary next year. Republicans were throwing their support behind the more conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey, even though (I’m told) Toomey has little hope of winning a general election unless he’s running against a mollusk.

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Unserious About Flu

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Obama Administration

The World Health Organization announces we may be on the edge of a global flu pandemic. Americans across the political spectrum immediately set about doing what what we do best — blame each other.

When news got out that the Obama Administration was slow to learn about the disease threat, righties held that up as proof of incompetence. On some rightie blogs word that the flu came from Mexico caused a great cry to toughen up border patrols. Apparently, flu can only be carried by people without proper documentation.

Fred Thompson woke up for a few minutes to charge that President Obama is using the flu threat for political gain.

Lefties had just as much fun pointing out that congressional Republicans (nudged by Karl Rove) insisted that epidemic preparedness appropriations be struck from the stimulus bill.

The truth is there’s plenty of blame to share. Part of the reason the Obama Administration was slow to respond is that the Department of Health and Human Services is headless. And it is headless because Republicans are holding up the confirmation of Kathleen Sebelius for petty ideological reasons that have nothing to do with the secretary job to which she is nominated (e.g., she supports the work of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller). Because there is no Secretary at HHS, 20 other top positions at the department are unfilled. Blame Republicans, not the Obama Administration, for that.

(Naturally, Concerned Women for America and Glenn Beck think the swine flu news is just a tactic to confirm the Sebelius nomination.)

However, if you look back over the past few years, you can find politicians on both sides of the aisles of Congress who voted to shortchange epidemic preparedness. So let’s get the finger pointing out of our systems and think about what might be ahead.

Swine flu may or may not be something to panic about, yet. Those of us who remember the Great Swine Flu Panic of 1776 1976 have reason to be skeptical. But there’s an article about the Panic by Patrick Di Justo at Salon, and by his account the Panic was an extreme overreaction to a minor, contained outbreak of flu. What we’ve got going on now already is a much bigger deal. See also a history of Asian flu pandemics at About.com and Eugene Robinson, “Worth Worrying About.”

My understanding is that it’s impossible to know how dangerous, or not, this flu really is. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take precautions until we find bodies in the streets, of course. For now, wash your hands a lot and try to stay out of densely packed crowds.

And also, people, can we get serious about, you know, taking care of the nation instead of just scoring points on each other? Let’s make an effort.

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Some People Still Got Some Learnin’ to Do

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Financial Crisis

Here are a couple of articles that ought to be read together. Paul Krugman points to an article in yesterday’s New York Times (no link provided, sorry; if you know what article he’s talking about, let me know) saying that the pay at investment banks is roaring up again, to pre-financial crisis levels.

Why are paychecks heading for the stratosphere again? Claims that firms have to pay these salaries to retain their best people aren’t plausible: with employment in the financial sector plunging, where are those people going to go?

No, the real reason financial firms are paying big again is simply because they can.

Also,

There’s a palpable sense in the financial press that the storm has passed: stocks are up, the economy’s nose-dive may be leveling off, and the Obama administration will probably let the bankers off with nothing more than a few stern speeches. Rightly or wrongly, the bankers seem to believe that a return to business as usual is just around the corner.

After you’ve read Krugman’s article, check out “The Wail of the 1%” by Gabriel Sherman in last week’s New York magazine. It expands upon Krugman’s premise, that Wall Street execs consider their “humongous paychecks” (Krugman’s words) part of the natural order of the universe. It’s their “normal,” in other words, and they fully expect to go right back to the compensation packages of 2007 as soon as this little financial crisis inconvenience is out of the way.

The sense of entitlement that Sherman captures is pathological, but it also goes a long way toward explaining why Wall Street Is Screwed Up. These people feel they are owed the humongous paychecks just because of who they are, not because of what they’ve accomplished. For example:

“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

Well, no offense to anyone who went to Columbia or Wharton, but your diploma is not a ticket to welfare for life.

To Wall Street people who have grown up in the bubble, the meaning of the crisis is only slowly sinking in. They can’t yet grasp the idea of a life lived on less. “Without exception, Wall Street guys have gotten accustomed to not being stuck in the city in August. So it becomes a right to have a summer home within an hour or two commute from Manhattan,” says the Goldman vet. “There’s a cost structure of going with your family on summer vacation that’s not optional. There’s a cost structure of spending $40,000 to send your kids to private school that is not optional. There’s a sense of entitlement, that you need that amount of money just to live, that’s not optional.” …

… That was an argument I heard over and over: that the high cost of living like a wealthy person in New York necessitates high salaries. It was loopy logic, but expressed sincerely. “You could make the argument that $250,000 is a fair amount to make,” says the laid-off JPMorgan vice-president. “Well, what about the $125,000 that staffers on Capitol Hill make? They’re making high salaries for where they live, maybe we should cut their salary, too.”

Dude, you’re laid off. How much are you makin’ now?

Both Sherman and Krugman point out that one of the reasons Wall Street got so careless with money is that the people handling it were buffered from personal risk. Krugman:

Why, after all, did bankers take such huge risks? Because success — or even the temporary appearance of success — offered such gigantic rewards: even executives who blew up their companies could and did walk away with hundreds of millions.

Sherman:

Bonuses were paid based largely on short-term profits. “It was the culture of what some called IBG-YBG: I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” says Jonathan Knee, a senior managing director at Evercore Partners. Wall Street championed the ethos of “Eat what you kill.” The most aggressive employees, those who took the greatest risks, thought of themselves less as members of a firm and more as independent contractors entitled to their share of the profits. In this system, institutions tended to be hostage to their best employees. “The feeling is, if people don’t get compensated adequately, they’re going to go out and do this on their own,” says Alan Patricof, who founded the private-equity firm Apax Partners.

Sherman points out that this cutthroat culture is generational. He spoke to a 55-year-old who says his age group missed out on the megabucks. The group that benefited the most graduated and got to Wall street 1990 and after. Sherman and Krugman both suggest that the reality that needs to be returned to is pre-1990 (I would argue pre-1980), not 2007. But that’s a reality the current generation of Wall Street execs don’t remember.

However, as pointed out in Simon Johnson’s Atlantic article “The Quiet Coup” and Thomas Geoghegan’s “Infinite Debt,” our nation’s financial survival depends on a financial sector run with some restraint and responsibility, not like a casino.

I’m not entirely sure what safeguards need to be in place, but somehow there must be assurance that the people running the financial sector cannot simply reward themselves as much as they like regardless of how their companies are performing. They have to be made to understand that if they take big, stupid risks and lose, they will live out their lives in the suburbs of Queens, driving their kids to public school in a Hyundai. And no one will pity them but themselves.

Otherwise, even if we bounce back from this financial crisis (I am skeptical) sooner or later there will be another financial crisis . And another. And another.

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Devolved

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Congress, conservatism, elections, News Media, Republican Party

If you want to know how the American Right came to its current pitiful state, consider: Bill Kristol will be awarded a $250,000 Bradley Prize from the the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Yeah, that Bill Kristol.

Eric Alterman and Joan Walsh are both appropriately snarky. They both compile sampler lists of the many times Kristol has been wrong. And not just wrong; stupefyingly, jaw-droppingly, what planet does this guy live on? wrong. I don’t need to repeat all that here. Let’s just say that if stupid were an art form, Kristol would be the Mona Lisa.

In any other context but the American Right, Kristol would be buried in obscurity. Since he’s a white man with a college education one assumes he would rise to a middle management position somewhere, in spite of his obvious handicaps. However, in a true meritocracy he’d be put to work doing something that involved simple, repetitive motions but no sharp objects.

Yes, Kristol graduated Harvard magna cum laude in three years and has a Ph.D., his biography says. But, folks, stupid is as stupid thinks. Either Kristol was dropped on his head post-Ph.D. or Kristol’s professors were paid off. There are no other explanations.

But then there’s Jonah Goldberg, both badly educated and intellectually incoherent. His silly cognitive misfirings are published in the Los Angeles Times and by Doubleday. And if Michele Bachmann belonged to any other party but the GOP, party leaders would keep her locked in the attic and out of public view. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the drift.

I want to call your attention to a section of Thomas Franks’s book The Wrecking Crew published in the August 2008 Harper’s.

For some in winger Washington this is an idealistic business, but what gives it power and longevity is that it is a profitable business. I mean this not as polemic but as a statement of fact. Washington swarms with conservative ideologues not because conservatives particularly like the place but because there is an entire industry here that supports these people—an industry subsidized by the nation’s largest corporations and its richest families, and the government too. We are all familiar with the flagship organizations—Cato, Heritage, AEI—but the industry extends far beyond these, encompassing numerous magazines and literally hundreds of lobbying firms. There is even a daily newspaper—the Washington Times—published strictly for the movement’s benefit, a propaganda sheet whose distortions are so obvious and so alien that it puts one in mind of those official party organs one encounters when traveling in authoritarian countries.

There are political strategists, pollsters, campaign managers, trainers of youth, image consultants, makers of TV commercials, revolutionaries-for-hire, and, of course, direct-mail specialists who still launch their million-letter raids on the mailboxes of the heartland. Remember the guy who wrote all those sputtering diatribes for your college newspaper? Chances are he’s in D.C. now, thinking big thoughts from an endowed chair, or churning out more of the brilliant usual for one of the movement’s many blogs. The campus wingnut whose fulminations on the Red Menace so amused my friends and me at the University of Virginia, for example, resurfaced here as a columnist for the Washington Times before transitioning inevitably into consultancy. A friend of mine who went to Georgetown recently recalled for me the capers of his campus wingnut, whom he had completely forgotten until the guy made headlines as the lead culprit in a minor 2004 scandal called “Memogate.” Later he worked for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, teaching democratic civics to Iraqi politicians.

There is so much money in conservatism these days that Karl Rove rightly boasts, “We can now go to students at Harvard and say, ‘There is now a secure retirement plan for Republican operatives.’”

Consider the conservative movement since the early 1950s — Russell Kirk to William F. Buckley to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gringrich/Grover Norquist to William Kristol/Jonah Goldberg. Whether you agreed with them or not, Kirk and Buckley at least fit the definition of intellectual. Since the 1950s, however, there has been a steady regression of cognitive ability on the Right; a march from reason. And now the entire conservative movement is collapsing into a puddle of utter imbecility.

I am no social darwinist, but I can’t help but think that one of the reasons for this biological devolution is that the money supporting the Right has buffered its specimens from the “survival of the fittest” rule. A “movement conservative” has no need for intelligence or accomplishment, only connections.

We come to it at last: George W. Bush. Removed from his cocoon of privilege he might have clawed his way up to an assistant mangership at the Crawford Wal-Mart, but only because of his ability to bully the employees. He not only never performed the job of President of the United States; I remain unconvinced he understood what his job was. Like Kristol and Goldberg, we’d have never heard of him but for his pedigree.

Of course, not everyone in conservatism was given a hand up by mommy or daddy. Rep. Bachmann appears to have had humble roots, as did Sarah Palin and many others. For that matter, let’s think about Tom DeLay, John Boehner, and that entire generation of Republican politicians. These examples show us that to be successful in the GOP these days requires stubborn ignorance combined with unscrupulous ruthlessness.

In other words, you’ve got to be dumb enough (or, at least, intellectually lazy enough) to mix with the “legacy” conservatives (or want to, for that matter). But it also helps to have the kind of feral hunger for success that aristocrats rarely muster.

In the case of conservative “journalists,” it strikes me that the older generation — e.g., Bob Novak, Pat Buchanan — had enough brains to be genuinely shrewd. They could be infuriatingly disingenuous most of the time, but when these two were in their prime you knew they knew exactly what they were doing. Current right-wing media stars like Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck are, alas, merely pathological.

Writing about Kristol and the state of journalism, Joan Walsh points out that when Kristol’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation award was announced, “a Pulitzer Prize-winner in Mesa, Ariz., had already been laid off from his job,” and “a newspaper journalist who was recently shot in the line of duty lost his job a few days ago as well.” Yet Kristol bombs spectacularly at the New York Times and gets a $250,000 award.

One suspects the next generation of movement conservatives will find it challenging to eat with a fork.

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Good News

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Congress, Health Care

First, one more reminder that tonight at 9 pm EST I’ll be on web radio at Buzz Tok. You can participate in the show by going here. You can also call in at 724-444-7444; call ID is 35186#. The planned topic is the politics of torture.

That wasn’t the good news. Eric Kleefeld writes at TPM Cafe that the NY-20 special election is now officially over, and the Democrat won. Scott Murphy takes over in the seat once occupied by Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to replace Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Senate.

But here’s the real good news — Jonathan Cohn writes,

It’s been in the works for a while and now, according to senior Capitol Hill staffers, it’s a done deal: The final budget resolution will include a “reconciliation instruction” for health care. That means the Democrats can pass health care reform with just fifty votes, instead of the sixty it takes to break a filibuster.

Here’s why this is a big deal: Under Senate rules, it takes the votes of 60 Senators to close debate and actually vote on a bill. Thus, the 41 Republicans in the Senator can filibuster away and stop a bill from passing by not allowing it to come to a vote. Senate Republicans have been very clear that’s what they intend to do with a health care bill.

However, the Senate Budget Committee can add language to the budget bill, called reconciliation language, that instructs specific other committees to produce certain bills with specified spending targets. The committees send the bill back to the Budget Committee, which makes the bill part of an omnibus bill. The omnibus bill gets 20 hours of debate and then is voted on by the full Senate, where it needs a simple majority to pass. A simple majority should not be a problem in either the Senate or House.

The House version of the congressional budget resolution contains the reconciliation language. Until tonight, however, the Senate version did not.

Republicans frequently used the reconciliation language to forward their legislative agenda from 2003 to 2006, while they were in the majority. You might remember that some tried to end the filibuster altogether for judicial nominations in 2004 and 2005. Now, suddenly, some of these same senators speak of the filibuster as the last bastion of democracy. Typical.

Anyway, this step makes it much more likely that a health care reform bill will actually get written and passed in Congress this year.

According to Cohn, the reconciliation language gives the Senate until October 15 to pass a bill in a bipartisan way. But if there’s no bill then, the reconciliation language kicks in, and a bill can be passed without obstruction from the 41 Republicans.

Possible bad news: There is speculation that in order to get the reconciliation in the budget bill, a deal was stuck that would allow conservatives to mess around with Social Security. For this, see Matt Y. and Ezra.

However, right now I would think mucking around with Social Security–especially to privatize any of it–would be slightly less popular than prostate cancer. I am not too concerned, yet.

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Pakistan

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Bush Administration, Middle East, Obama Administration, Terrorism

I apologize for writing short posts the past couple of days. I’m kind of swamped right now.

Also, a reminder that tonight at 9 pm EST I’ll be on web radio at Buzz Tok. You can participate in the show by going here. The planned topic is the politics of torture.

On to Pakistan — Apparently the Taliban have overrun large parts of Pakistan. There is genuine concern that Pakistan — nuclear-armed Pakistan, mind you — will devolve into a territory of warlord-led fiefdoms, sort of like Somalia.

The resurgence of the Taliban in Pakistan is not a new thing. This has been unfolding since the end of 2001, when much of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan were able to escape into Pakistan. I remember sitting in on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2006, and Thomas Friedman and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan talked about the Taliban, and how it was a really bad problem for Pakistan, and getting worse.

If you want to say that Pervez Musharraf also was a really bad problem for Pakistan I hear you, but the point is that events in Pakistan now have been building since 2001, at least (some would say you have to go back about 50 years to find the beginning of the story) and what’s happening now is the fruit of more than seven years of failure to deal with it realistically.

And if I had the time I would love to write a long analysis of how and why the Taliban problem wasn’t dealt with realistically. However, the short version is that the Bushies’ simple-minded worldview caused them to sort everyone into two piles, labeled “Evildoers” and “BFFs,” and Musharraf was in the BFFs pile. This in turn led to all kinds of misjudgments and miscalculations about Pakistan. As I said, I wish I had more time to go into it.

Today I noticed some rightie sites expressing new alarm about Pakistan, as if everything in Pakistan had been just hunky-dory until recently. But I also notice leftie sites aren’t dealing with it much at all, yet. Yes, it’s complicated enough to give one a headache, but it’s important.

A few days ago I was chatting with someone with a large presence on the left side of the Web — I won’t name names — and when I mentioned the Taliban in Pakistan he brushed my remark aside — oh, the Taliban are not a problem, he said. I don’t believe this is a majority view on the Left, but I don’t think it’s an uncommon one, either.

Listen, folks, just because the Bush Administration said the Taliban is dangerous doesn’t mean it isn’t.

What should the Obama Administration do? I don’t have a clue. There may be little we can do, at this point.

An aside — many news stories coming out of Pakistan mention Swat or the Swat Valley. I have some historic background on Swat on the other blog.

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Solzhenitsyn

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torture

First, tomorrow night I’ll be on web radio at Buzz Tok. You can participate in the show by going here. I have no idea what we’re going to talk about.

On to the topic — I’m glad Steve Chapman brought up Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s conservatives wanted to rub Solzhenitsyn in everyone’s faces. Which was aggravating, because liberals were thoroughly appalled at what Solzhenitsyn had to endure in the Soviet Union.

So now, as Chapman says, our government is doing the same awful things that were done in the gulags, and conservatives defend it. The argument seems to be that it’s OK because it’s us doing it.

Be sure to read “My Tortured Decision” by Ali Soufan.

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