When Smart Folks Miss…

One thing about the penetration of blogging into the Real World is the rise of blogs by people who actually Do Stuff For A Living That Most Of Us Blog About – in my case, the rise of the professional counterinsurgency blogs like Kings of War, Abu Muquama, MountainRunner, etc. etc.

I’ve talked about the change it necessarily brings to amateurs like us when grownups start showing up in the space.

But even though I have mad respect for authors like that – I take them seriously enough that my default position when I disagree with them is to change my mind – every so often they just flat get it wrong.In this case, it’s Dr. Irack writing approvingly (if with qualifications) at Abu Muquama’s place about an oped by Andrew Bacevich.

In this context, Andrew Bacevich has an interesting critique of the “Long War.” Bacevich argues that the entire notion, embraced by both the reviled Rumsfeld and the adored Gates, inevitably leads us down an endless imperial path in a Sisyphusian attempt to transform other societies when we should be focusing on renewing our own not-so-shining “city on the hill.”

Here they are treading a bit on my own turf – American political theory. And I’ll suggest both that Bacevitch is factually wrong (“little talent for changing the way others live”? Japan and Germany, anyone? It’s amusing to me that we’re both imperialists and totally unsuccessful at actually, you, know, having an imperium…) and deeply misreads the American situation and the American project.

Here’s Bacevitch, with my comments:

Back in September 2001, Rumsfeld put it this way: “We have a choice — either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live; and we chose the latter.” In this context, “they” represent the billion or so Muslims inhabiting the greater Middle East.

When Rumsfeld offered this statement of purpose and President Bush committed the United States to open-ended war, both assumed that U.S. military supremacy was beyond dispute. At the time, most Americans shared that assumption. A conviction that “the troops” were unstoppable invested the idea of transforming the greater Middle East with a superficial plausibility.

Yet by the time Gates spoke last month, the limits of American military power had long since become apparent. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the opening rounds of the generational campaign are now well underway. By historical standards, each qualifies as a fairly small war. In neither case, however, have U.S. forces been able to achieve decisive victory. In both cases, barring drastic changes in U.S. policy, fighting will drag on for years to come.

I’m constantly puzzled by this. Everything I have read about counterinsurgency – and I’ve read many of the books on the Abu Muquama reading list – suggests that it is, at best, the matter of much of a decade. Yes, the fighting will ‘drag on’ for years to come, and yes – as always, as in all wars, it is a matter of making sufficient progress before the political will to sustain runs out. Here Bacevitch isn’t asking whether it’s worth it, or whether victory is a good idea – he’s simply saying it’s too hard.

In the meantime, what has the Long War achieved? The answer to that question is indisputable: not much. Counting on military might to change the way they live isn’t working. If anything, the effort has backfired.

Since 2001, the price of oil per barrel has quadrupled, adversely affecting all but the wealthiest Americans. Efforts to spread democracy have either stalled or succeeded only in enhancing the standing of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The much-hyped Iraqi nuclear threat turned out to be illusory. To sustain the overstretched American imperium, we are accumulating debt at a staggering clip. And with U.S. soldiers shouldering repetitive combat tours, the strength of our army slowly ebbs away.

I don’t know; I missed the part where we were fighting for cheap oil anywhere except in the fevered imaginations of the DU crowd. Yes, oil is going up in price – in part because of the raging economic success of China and India, in part because of the manipulations of market-makers, in part because we refuse to sensibly plan an energy policy, in part because we lack a government willing to really lay out the hard choices to the American people. What did he think was going to happen in Arab countries where there has been repression for centuries and where the leading forces of opposition also happen to oppose us. We are accumulating debt to maintain the imperium? That’s flatly ridiculous. We are accumulating debt because our population keeps wanting to increase its standard of living beyond what it can afford – in large part to mask the reality many face in the newly flattened world of competition with Korea, India, the Philippines and Vietnam – among others. It’s the failure of our leaders to face this – not some fantasy imperium that lives on in the imaginations of the wild colonial boys in academe. yes, we are stretching and straining our army, and yes, we will have to do something about it. But, simply, I’ll ask if we have military better able today to face the real challenges of the next decade than we had five years ago. yes, materiel must be replaced, and yes many of the good ones – the Nagls – are leaving. I don’t want to underestimate the challenge the next Administration will face in maintaining and refitting our military. But I do think it ridiculous to suggest that it is irretrievably broken.

Meanwhile, the immediate danger to the American way of life comes not from terrorists but from our own adamant refusal to live within our means. American profligacy, not Islamic radicals, triggered the mortgage crisis that underlies our current economic distress.

The mortgage crisis is a symptom, not a cause. To suggest that that relatively typical and minor blip in the financial markets is a nation-threatening crisis is simply hyperventilating. Someone get him a paper bag, please.

Bluntly, the Long War has proved to be a monumental flop. Yet Gates, channeling Rumsfeld, would have us believe that perpetual war constitutes the sole option available to the world’s most powerful nation. This represents a profound failure of imagination. It also misreads our own history.

Look, we face not one problem, but many. Some are interrelated in obvious ways, some less so, some in ways we won’t understand until far in the future. It’s absurdly simplistic to suggest that the conflict with Islamic radicalism is the only issue we face, or that our response to it – regardless of what form it takes – is the root cause of every problem we have.

The truth is that the United States, with rare exceptions, has demonstrated little talent for changing the way others live. We have enjoyed far greater success in making necessary adjustments to our own way of life, preserving and renewing what we value most. Early in the 20th century, Progressives rounded off the rough edges of the Industrial Revolution, deflecting looming threats to social harmony. During the Depression, FDR’s New Deal reformed capitalism and thereby saved it. Here lies the real genius of American politics.

No, the real genius of American politics is its ability to absorb, its ability to accommodate, its ability to adapt – all within a core framework of values which, when shared, become the center of the American experience. And I’ll suggest that sharing it – not necessarily, or even usefully, at the point of a gun – is the modern American project. I’ll refer you to Schaar on this as he channels Lincoln’s call for an American civic religion.

Rumsfeld got it exactly backward. Although we do face a choice, it’s not the one that he described. The actual choice is this one: We can either persist in our efforts to change the way they live — in which case the war of no exits will surely lead to bankruptcy and exhaustion. Or we can recognize the folly of generational war and choose instead to put our own house in order: curbing our appetites, paying our bills and ending our self-destructive dependency on foreign oil and foreign credit.

And that will – somehow, miraculously – defuse Islamic radicalism? That’s flatly ridiculous.

Salvation does not lie abroad. It’s here at home.

Oh, please. Autarky again? that’s beyond stupid, and not worth the ink wasted in the LA Times, much less the attention of a smart person like Dr. Irack.

The Question Of Hillary’s Competence

One reason I’m comfortable with supporting Obama is one that I imagine is going to be a stretch for many of you – because I believe he is likely to be the most competent candidate out there today.

I can say that because I really do view a modern Presidential campaign as a decent proxy for the strains and magnitude of actually being President. The difficult managerial task faced by a candidate is the coordination of lots of loosely-affiliated powerful individuals, delegating appropriately, and doing it all in the whirlwind of massive public attention.

Hillary – whose campaign theme was “I’m ready” clearly – wasn’t.Take a look at this TNR article – a list of damning quotes from campaign insiders:

“Hillary assembled a team thin on presidential campaign experience that confused discipline with insularity; they didn’t know what they didn’t know and were too arrogant to ask at a time early enough in the process when it could have made a difference, effectively shutting out even some long-time Hillaryland loyalists. Her innermost circle of [Patti Solis] Doyle, [Mark] Penn, [Mandy] Grunwald, [Neera] Tanden and [Howard] Wolfson formed a Board of Directors with no single Chairman or CEO; nobody was truly in charge, nobody held truly accountable.”

“[Original campaign manager] Patti and [her deputy] Mike [Henry] sat up there in their offices and no one knew what they did all day. Patti’s a nice person who was put in a job way over head. She was out of her element. Mike Henry was hired because he was the flavor of day, the catch everyone wanted. I’m sure he was really great, but presidential politics require a unique skill set and knowledge.”

“[Policy Director] Tanden and [Communications Director] Wolfson, the HQ’s most senior department heads, had no real presidential campaign experience, and no primary experience whatsoever. Notoriously bad managers, they filled key posts with newcomers loyal to them but unknown to and unfamiliar with the candidate, her style, her history, her preferences.”

“Probably our second biggest mistake was much more operational: Making our chief strategist our one and only pollster. It is impossible to disagree and have a counter view on message when the person creating the message is also the person testing the message.”

Ouch. It reminds me of the Newsweek article (can’t find it in their archive) on Kerry’s campaign…another reason I don’t for a moment regret not supporting him, in spite of the fact that he served in Vietnam.

And one thing that makes me comfortable with Obama is the simple fact that he’s assembled a staff loyal enough not to air his dirty laundry in public. Good for him, and good for them.

Well, Thank God For That…

Huckabee just spoke at the NRA convention, and cost himself the Vice-Presidential nomination…

“That was Barack Obama, he just tripped off a chair, he’s getting ready to speak,” said the former Arkansas governor, to audience laughter. “Somebody aimed a gun at him and he dove for the floor.”

What a tool…I watched the video, and at least the audience treated that comment with the shocked silence it deserved.

CA Supreme Court Decides On Gay Marriage

The California Supreme Court just ruled that it is unconstitutional, under state law, to discriminate between same-sex couples in the matter of marriage.

I wrote about the issue a long time ago – ‘Why I Support Gay Marriage, and Why I Will Never Be Angry At Those Who Do Not.’

Personally, I’d rather it had been resolved in the Legislature. But it’s step toward resolving it…

The press release from the state Judicial Council:

San Francisco – The California Supreme Court today held that the California legislative and initiative measures limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violate the state constitutional rights of same-sex couples and may not be used to preclude same-sex couples from marrying. (In re Marriage Cases, S147999.)

The court concluded that permitting opposite-sex couples to marry while affording same-sex couples access only to the novel and less-recognized status of domestic partnership improperly infringes a same-sex couple’s constitutional rights to marry and to the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the California Constitution.

The decision directs state officials who supervise the enforcement of the state’s marriage laws to ensure that local officials comply with the court’s ruling and permit same-sex couples to marry. The decision becomes final in 30 days unless that period is extended by court order.

The 121-page majority opinion, which sets forth the decision of the court, was authored by Chief Justice Ronald George, and was signed by Justices Joyce Kennard, Kathryn Werdegar, and Carlos Moreno; Justice Kennard also wrote a separate concurring opinion. Justice Marvin Baxter authored a concurring and dissenting opinion that was signed by Justice Ming Chin, and Justice Carol Corrigan wrote a separate concurring and dissenting opinion. Both concurring and dissenting opinions disagree with the majority’s conclusion that the marriage statutes are unconstitutional. All opinions are available online at www.courtinfo.ca.gov.

Today’s ruling resolves several lawsuits that were filed in 2004 by the City and County of San Francisco and a number of same-sex couples after the California Supreme Court determined that, in the absence of a judicial determination that statutes limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples are unconstitutional, San Francisco officials lacked authority to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In April 2005, Judge Richard Kramer of the San Francisco Superior Court issued a decision holding that the current California marriage statutes contravene the California Constitution insofar as they limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. The State of California and the other parties defending the marriage statutes appealed from the trial court decision, which was stayed pending appeal.

In October 2006, the Court of Appeal, in a two-to-one decision, reversed the trial court, concluding that the marriage statutes are constitutionally valid. The Supreme Court then granted review. The parties and numerous amici curiae filed extensive briefs. The Supreme Court heard oral argument on March 3, 2008, and issued its decision today, reversing the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which had upheld the marriage statutes.

The California Supreme Court majority opinion notes at the outset that the court held in Lockyer v. City and County of San Francisco (2004) 33 Cal.4th 1055, that San Francisco officials had acted unlawfully by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the absence of a judicial determination that the California statutes, by limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples, are unconstitutional. The opinion explains, however, that the Lockyer decision emphasized that the question of the constitutional validity of the marriage statutes was not before the court at that time, and that its decision in that case did not reflect any view on that substantive constitutional issue. The In re marriage Cases proceeding squarely presents the constitutional question that was not addressed in Lockyer.

Majority Opinion Addresses Distinct Legal issues

In considering that constitutional question, the majority opinion discusses a number of distinct legal issues.

First, the opinion analyzes the scope of Family Code section 308.5, the statutory provision enacted by the voters’ approval of Proposition 22 at the March 2000 election. The parties challenging the marriage statutes asserted that the limitation on marriage embodied in section 308.5 was intended, and should be interpreted, to apply only to marriages performed outside of California – leaving the Legislature free to authorize the marriage of same-sex couples within California. The majority opinion rejects the challengers’ contention on this point, concluding that the provisions of section 308.5 properly must be interpreted to impose a limitation on marriages performed in California as well as on out-of-state marriages.

Second, the opinion addresses the nature and scope of the constitutional right to marry under the California Constitution. The opinion observes that although, as an historical matter, civil marriage and the rights associated with it have been afforded in California only to opposite-sex couples, the California Supreme Court’s landmark 1948 decision in Perez v. Sharp, 32 Cal.2d 711 – which found that the California statutory provisions prohibiting interracial marriage were inconsistent with the fundamental constitutional right to marry, even though those statutes had existed since the founding of the state – demonstrates that “history alone is not invariably an appropriate guide for determining the meaning and scope of this fundamental constitutional guarantee.”

Upon reviewing the numerous past California decisions that examine the underlying bases and significance of the constitutional right to marry, the opinion explains that the core substantive rights embodied in the right to marry “include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish – with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her life – an officially recognized and protected family possessing mutual rights and responsibilities and entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage.” The opinion then observes that “in contrast to earlier times, our state now recognizes that an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation, and, more generally, that an individual’s sexual orientation – like a person’s race or gender – does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.”

The opinion concludes that “in view of the substance and significance of the fundamental right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples.”

Furthermore, although the opinion acknowledges that the recent comprehensive domestic partnership legislation enacted in California affords same-sex couples most of the substantive elements embodied in the constitutional right to marry, the opinion concludes that by assigning a different name for the family relationship of same-sex couples while preserving the historic and honored designation of “marriage” only for opposite-sex couples, the California statutes threaten to deny the family relationship of same-sex couples dignity and respect equal to that accorded the family relationship of opposite-sex couples and thereby impinge upon a same-sex couple’s right to marry as protected by the California Constitution.

Third, the majority opinion addresses the equal protection issue raised by the case. In considering whether the assignment of a different name for the official family relationship of same-sex couples as contrasted with the name for the family relationship of opposite-sex couples violates the state equal protection clause, the opinion initially examines whether the different treatment between opposite-sex and same-sex couples should be evaluated under the deferential “rational basis” test that is applied to ordinary statutory classifications, or under the more exacting “strict scrutiny” standard that is applicable when a statute’s differential treatment rests upon a “suspect classification” or impinges upon a fundamental right.

In addressing this point, the opinion first rejects the contention of those challenging the marriage statutes that in treating same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples, the marriage statutes embody an instance of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender and are subject to strict scrutiny on that basis. Nonetheless, the opinion concludes that the strict scrutiny standard is applicable in this case (1) because the statutes discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, a characteristic the majority determines represents – like gender, race, and religion – a constitutionally suspect basis upon which to impose differential treatment, and (2) because the different statutory treatment impinges upon a same-sex couple’s fundamental interest in having their family relationship accorded the same respect and dignity enjoyed by an opposite-sex couple.

Finally, in applying the strict scrutiny standard, the majority opinion determines the challenged statutes do not satisfy that standard, because the state interest underlying the marriage statutes’ differential treatment of opposite-sex and same-sex couples – the interest in retaining the traditional and well-established definition of marriage – cannot properly be viewed as a compelling state interest for purposes of the equal protection clause, or as necessary to serve such an interest.

The opinion explains that the exclusion of same-sex couples from the designation of marriage clearly is not necessary to protect all of the rights and benefits currently enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples: permitting same-sex couples access to the designation of marriage will not deprive opposite-sex couples of any rights and will not alter the legal framework of the institution of marriage inasmuch as same-sex couples who choose to marry will be subject to the same obligations and duties that are currently imposed on married opposite-sex couples. The opinion further observes that retaining the traditional definition of marriage and affording same-sex couples only a separate and differently named family relationship will, as a realistic matter, impose appreciable harm on same-sex couples and their children, because denying such couples access to the familiar and highly favored designation of marriage is likely to cast doubt on whether the official family relationship of same-sex couples enjoys dignity equal to that of opposite-sex couples, and may perpetuate a more general premise that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects “second-class citizens” who may be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples. Under these circumstances, the opinion finds that retaining the traditional definition of marriage cannot be considered a compelling state interest.

Consequently, the majority opinion holds that the marriage statutes are unconstitutional.

The opinion also explains: “[Affording same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official, or any other person; no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.”

concurring Opinion by Justice Kennard

In her separate concurring opinion, Justice Kennard explains how the majority’s decision in this case is consistent with its decision in the earlier Lockyer matter. The concurring opinion also reiterates the position that Justice Kennard set forth in her separate opinion in Lockyer, in which she concluded that the court in that case should not have declared void all of the marriages of same-sex couples that had been performed in San Francisco prior to this court’s issuance of a stay, but rather should have reserved the question of the validity of those marriages until after the constitutionality of the California marriage statutes was authoritatively resolved through judicial proceedings.

At the same time, the concurring opinion recognizes that the decision in Lockyer finally and conclusively invalidated those earlier marriages of same-sex couples and that the decision in the current case does not alter the voiding of those marriages. Finally, the concurring opinion emphasizes why, in Justice Kennard’s view, “the constitutionality of the marriage laws’ exclusion of same-sex couples is an issue particularly appropriate for decision by this court, rather than a social or political issue inappropriate for judicial consideration,” explaining that “[the architects of our federal and state Constitutions understood that widespread and deeply rooted prejudices may lead majoritarian institutions to deny fundamental freedoms to unpopular minority groups, and that the most effective remedy for this form of oppression is an independent judiciary charged with the solemn responsibility to interpret and enforce the constitutional provisions guaranteeing fundamental freedoms and equal protection.”

concurring and Dissenting Opinion by Justice Baxter

In his concurring and dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Chin, Justice Baxter explains that although he agrees with several of the majority’s conclusions, he disagrees with the majority’s holding that the California Constitution invalidates the statutes – including an initiative measure recently adopted by the voters – that define marriage as an opposite sex union. In reaching this decision, Justice Baxter contends, the majority “violates the separation of powers, and thereby commits profound error.” Citing the legislative progress that gays and lesbians have already achieved in California, Justice Baxter urges that the future definition of marriage should also be decided by the democratic process, not by the courts.

Justice Baxter criticizes the majority’s mode of analysis in reaching its constitutional conclusion, stating that the majority “relies heavily on the Legislature’s adoption of progressive civil rights protections for gays and lesbians to find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. In effect, the majority gives the Legislature indirectly power that body does not directly possess to amend the Constitution and repeal an initiative statute.” Emphasizing that “there is no deeply rooted tradition of same-sex marriage, in the nation or in this state,” Justice Baxter concludes that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage “because marriage is, as it always has been, the right of a woman and an unrelated man to marry each other.”

The concurring and dissenting opinion also disagrees with the majority’s equal protection analysis in a number of respects, concluding (1) that “same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are not similarly situated with respect to the valid purposes of” the current marriage statutes, (2) that the state, by assigning different labels to same-sex and opposite-sex legal unions, does not discriminate directly on the basis of sexual orientation, and (3) that, in any event, sexual orientation is not properly considered a suspect classification because “gays and lesbians in this state currently lack the insularity, unpopularity, and consequent political vulnerability upon which the notion of suspect classifications is founded.”

Concluding that the normal rational basis test – rather than strict scrutiny – is applicable to evaluating the validity, under the California equal protection guarantee, of the distinction drawn between opposite-sex and same-sex couples by the current marriage and domestic partnership statutes, Justice Baxter concludes that there are ample grounds for upholding the assignment of a name other than marriage to same-sex couples.

concurring and Dissenting Opinion by Justice Corrigan

In her concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Corrigan states at the outset that although “[in my view, Californians should allow our gay and lesbian neighbors to call their unions marriage,” “a majority of Californians hold a different view, and have explicitly said so by their vote.”

Justice Corrigan believes the court’s ruling exceeds the bounds of judicial authority: “This court can overrule a vote of the people only if the Constitution compels us to do so. Here, the Constitution does not.” In explaining her position, Justice Corrigan notes that, under California law, domestic partners have virtually all of the substantive legal benefits and privileges available to traditional spouses, and states, “I believe the Constitution requires this as a matter of equal protection.”

Her separate opinion goes on to explain, however, that “the single question in this case is whether domestic partners have a constitutional right to the name of ‘marriage,’ ” and on that point Justice Corrigan disagrees with the majority’s conclusion, finding that the majority improperly denigrates domestic partnership by describing it “as ‘only a novel alternative designation . . . constituting significantly unequal treatment’ and ‘a mark of second-class citizenship.’ “

Indicating that her view “on the question of terminology rests on both an equal protection analysis and a recognition of the appropriate scope of judicial authority,” Justice Corrigan concludes first that, as a matter of equal protection, “while plaintiffs are in the same position as married couples when it comes to the substantive legal rights and responsibilities of family members, they are not in the same position with regard to the title of ‘marriage.’ ” With respect to the question of the proper scope of judicial authority, Justice Corrigan finds that the majority fails to exercise appropriate judicial restraint, maintaining that “[instead of presuming the validity of the statutes defining marriage and establishing domestic partnership, in effect the majority presumes them to be constitutionally invalid by characterizing domestic partnership as a ‘mark of second-class citizenship.’ ” Her concurring and dissenting opinion concludes: “We should allow the significant achievements embodied in the domestic partnership statutes to continue to take root. If there is to be a new understanding of the meaning of marriage in California, it should develop among the people of our state and find its expression at the ballot box.”

Lynn Holton

Public Information Officer

Judicial Council of California – Administrative Office of the Courts

The Atlantic Annoys Me Yet Again

I’m a believer that the current US higher-education system is dysfunctional, and that it is at some level a Ponzi scheme that creates PhD’s who then get teaching jobs, and ever-expand university-level education because more PhD’s are minted than there are seats for them. This happens in concert with the devaluing – both economically and culturally – the craft work done by people who typically haven’t had college degrees as a gateway to their careers.

So I was happy to see an article on this – ‘In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,’ subtitled ‘The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.’

Until, of course I read it and I immediately understood why the author wrote under a pseudonym as ‘Professor X’ – because forgetting the students whose efforts he devalues, anyone who isn’t deeply elitist would be tempted to go bitchslap him into sensibility with a copy of Strunk and White.

Go read the article, and see if maybe your reaction to it mirrors mine:

Maybe it’s just that you suck as a teacher…

A Hero Leaves Us

From Bayou Renaissance Man:

A real heroine has just left us. If you want to know what true heroism is, take a few moments to think about her life.

Irena Sendler was a social worker in Warsaw, Poland, when Germany occupied that nation in 1939. Almost immediately the Jews of that city were confined in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, which existed from 1940-1943. Even before the ghetto was established, Sendler began helping them.

Irena Sendler died today, May 12th, 2008, at the age of 98.

Stupidest Act Of The Month

From Kings of War:

Abu Aardvark: resource tradeoffs and the war on ideas

Via Marc Lynch at the link above I note that the US government because of ‘budgetary shortfalls’ is forced to fire analysts in Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty. Those receiving pink slips are apparently to include RFE/RL analysts Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo authors of important reports on Iraqi insurgent use of media The War of Images and Ideas and Al Qaeda’s use of the Internet The Virtual Network Behind the Global Message.

I really don’t get this administration. Actually I do get something: six years into the GWOT they still haven’t got a clue about the nature of the war they are in. It’s not just the ignorance which galls its the studied, committed blindness and warped priorities which they exhibit. RFE/RL’s annual budget is $79 million. By comparison that kind of money would buy you about one half of a single F-22 – pilot and fuel not included.

I’ve bashed Bush for years for failing to explain the war to the domestic public, and by extension for failing to participate meaningfully in the information conflict that is inextricably a part of the war. The fact that they are cutting budget for components of that conflict as we’re getting our asses kicked in the space makes so little sense to me that I can’t begin to explain it.

Chocolate Fountains And Bubblegum Trees

You know, when they talk about antiwar folks saying that there were chocolate fountains and bubblegum trees in Baghdad before the war, I usually take it as a kind-of-lame attempt at snark. And then there’s this:

There’s more shots from this photographer at this album and others have posted more. Iraq was beautiful before the ‘war.’ None of this will ever be the same.

I think a lot about the people of Iraq. I look at the shots at the last link, of ordinary people smiling, the kids with innocence still intact in their eyes and it breaks my heart. I haven’t been able to get through the whole nine minutes yet. I find it physically painful to think of all those normal comfortable lives forever disrupted for the crass ambition of politicians.

Two weeks before the invasion Baghdad was a happy place. The people smiled on the lighted streets, filled with sidewalk vendors and laughing party goers. An American traveler was safe to wander them at will. Now you need a flack vest and an armed guard to leave the Green Zone.

Two weeks before the invasion, the Tigris river was blue. Today it’s a different color. The lights don’t go on in the city at night. The remaining vendors stalls are nearly empty and no one laughs in the streets. This is the legacy our tax dollars have bought.

Libby, meet Geraldine Brooks, writing in Salon:

And then in 1988, on a searing summer day, I stepped off a plane in Baghdad and began my acquaintance with a regime of such unfathomable cruelty that it changed my views on the use of force.

I learned from Iraqi dissidents about mothers, under interrogation, tortured by the cries of their own starving infants whom they weren’t allowed to breast-feed; about thalium, the slow-acting rat poison Saddam Hussein used on his enemies; about Iraqi government employees whose official job description was “violator of women’s honor” — i.e., prison rapist.

One bright spring day during the Kurdish uprising, I followed Kurds into the security prison they’d just liberated in northern Iraq. It was dim in the underground cells, so my face was only inches from the wall before I was sure what I was looking at. Long, rusty nails had been driven into the plaster. Around them curled small pieces of human flesh. One withered curve of cartilage looked like part of an ear.

There just aren’t enough Flikr galleries from those torture sessions, I guess.

Department Of “Damn, I Wish I’d Said That…

I’ve been getting more and more into data visualization as an aspect at work (think Tufte), and have started following some of the excellent blogs on the subject. On one of them, Flowing Data, the author just made a point about context – which applies both to my criticisms of newsmedia, and to my efforts to but a basic quantitative frame around some of the policy claims that are made – that is so perfectly written that, to quote Jack Black “You bastard! That’s so good – that should have been mine

Without further ado, Nathan from Flowing Data:

If I were to skip straight to the part in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Durfesne climbs out of the pipe of poo (and put it on mute), someone who never saw the movie might see an escaped convict who steals money from a warden and fleas to some random place in Mexico called Zihuatanejo. Out of grief, the warden kills himself and Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding eventually teams up with Andy to commit more crimes.

Those of us who have seen the movie though know this isn’t the case. Why? Because we saw the whole movie and have context.

Context Matters

As Andrew, a FlowingData reader, put it, “For statistics to be useful, it needs to be explained in a context.” When I get my hands on some data, whether I’m analyzing or visualizing, I want to know the context of data first. I want to know who collected the data, how it was collected, when it was collected, and what was done to it before it arrived in my hands. Without that meta-information, I could easily make an incorrect assumption about the data or misrepresent it somehow in a visualization – which is very bad.

Simply put, we use visualization and statistics to tell stories with data. If we don’t have all the information, then we can’t tell a complete story.

Can we just tattoo that on the inside of the eyelids of all journalists, commentators, and policymakers?