Another Step Toward A Decent – And Effective – Left

Marc Cooper points me at an interview with Fred Halliday, historian and one of the former editors of the New Left Review.

Halliday’s journey – from the ‘indecent’ to the ‘decent’ Left matters, as does Norm Geras’ (and mine, for that matter), because the tropes we hear on the news are pale reflections of the ideas we read in places like TAP, which are in turn less-strident reflections of what is being said in the Academy. Which are echoes of what was said there a generation ago.

Just as the project of creating an environment for reform in the Islamic world is a generation-long one (read Thomas Kuhn if you’d like to know why), the process of recapturing the Western, Social-Democratic Left from the place where it fell off the tracks in the late 1960’s will take a generation as well.


The issue of rights is absolutely central. We have to hold the line at the defense, however one conceptualizes things, however de-hegemonized, of universal principles of rights. This is how I locate my own political and historical vision—it is my starting point. What this means very practically, to cut a long story short, is the issue of intervention. It seems to me that certain interventions in defense of rights are justified—Bosnia and Kosovo, to take two obvious examples, or the defense of the Kurds in Iraq in 1990-1991. The New Left Review and others on that wing of the Left attack not just these particular interventions, but the very concept of rights—and are consistent in doing so. My fundamental disagreement with the Review, and with Tariq, is really about this.

Once you start talking about defending individual rights, you are fundamentally talking about some variant of Enlightenment liberalism. That’s a good thing, in my view, and deserves to be encouraged. Read the whole thing, and be happy that this change is starting to happen.

Starring the Smug, Bisexual, Hybrid with The Automatic Transgressiveness …

Sadly, the new film “Cars” doesn’t, and that whiff of patriarchy and Castrol Type R has sent NY Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis careening ’round the bend in writing her review.

To watch McQueen and the other cars motor along the film’s highways and byways without running into or over a single creature is to realize that, in his cheerful way, Mr. Lasseter has done Mr. Cameron one better: instead of blowing the living world into smithereens, these machines have just gassed it with carbon monoxide.

Even stranger, the film turns Detroit’s paving over of America into an occasion for some nostalgic historical revisionism. Surreal isn’t the word.

“Cars” is rated G (General audiences). Everything is clean but the fossil fuel.

Read the whole thing, it’s charming in it’s West Hollywood/Manhattan insularity.

Actually, it’s too bad Manohla didn’t study her urban history better; in the idyllic cities she so obviously misses, the biggest hazard to human health was the tons of horseshit that were left in the streets.

I’ll leave the snarky comment to the readers…

Weird Site Behavior

I’ve been having some weird behavior on the site for the last few days – the columns resize when I click on any ofthe links (not in the ways I’d expect). Anyone else seeing this? Please note what browser/OS you are using, if so.

Steve Lopez Looks Into The LA Times’ Past, Mis-states it.

An interesting day yesterday, Debra Bowen won her primary – which is great news – and an interesting mix of election results otherwise.

I biffed my election-day post favoring Bowen, but will try and make up for that in the next few months.

Meanwhile, a LA Times sidenote.

Steve Lopez – who is, I have to admit, frustratingly good sometimes, and frustratingly thick others – has one of his thick columns up today.

He’s lauding the LA Times coverage of the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls:

Whatever the results of Tuesday’s hold-your-nose primary for governor, this much is true:

Democrats Steve Westly and Phil Angelides were both gutted and fileted by this newspaper over the past several weeks. I mean that in a good way.

Readers learned, primarily from reporters Dan Morain and Evan Halper, that Westly and Angelides were anything but the upstanding, straight-talking crusaders they claimed to be. It was this newspaper, let’s remember, that pointed out the absurdity of an Angelides TV ad blasting Westly for donations from “a corrupt Chicago businessman.” As Morain and Halper discovered, Angelides himself had tried to tap the same guy.

The Times deserves the attaboy. But then, S-Lo steps off the cliff:

I almost hesitate to mention any of this, because there’s nothing surprising or unusual about the way Westly and Angelides were knocked around by The Times. That’s a newspaper’s job: Hold candidates up to public inspection, study the viability of their promises and slap them around as needed.

I’m just wondering why the paper hasn’t gotten huzzahs from the professional gas bags who worked themselves into a frenzy three years ago over our equally tough reporting on a candidate named Arnold Schwarzenegger. As that doddering shill Hugh Hewitt put it back then, The Times was “an organ of the Democratic Party” with no interest other than “agenda journalism.”

I was one of those “gas bags” in my post here. here’s what I said then:

…what I think torqued me off as a consumer of mass media – and I think others as well – was the LA Times blindness to the fact that it is a part of a larger ongoing dialog, and that the stories on Arnold’s sexual – I’m not sure how to characterize this – behavior clearly would have an impact, and were in fact reported to have an impact, by Carroll’s own admission.

I’ve said all along that what matters is that the paper act with at least the appearance of impartiality, or as my pet journalist said, ‘fairness’. Had the Times wrapped its Thursday piece in an explanation that made three simple points:

1) We’ve been working on this full-bore since August 6, we wish we’d run it sooner, but we didn’t believe it was right not to run it before you voted;
2) We understand the problems this presents for Arnold and his campaign, as well as the appearance it gives that we’re ‘hitting’ him, and we’ve given him and his campaign space to respond;
3) We devoted equal resources trying to dig into rumors about Davis’ behavior and been unable to come up with enough solid, sourced information to make a story out of it.

I’d have been mildly unhappy, but certainly not angry, and would have had no cause to be angry.

But the Times didn’t so any such thing.

What was the point?

That the Times had erred in running a thinly-sourced last-minute slam on Schwarzenegger the Thursday before the election.

And, that the public perception of the Times’ positions could be looked at by looking at the positions of it’s paid columnists – who were uniformly opposed to Ahnold. (As an aside, in the Calendar section today, there’s an article titled “Unity, yes, but still no anthem” with the secondary headline (the one after the jump) of “Wanted: a song that will rally the immigrant rights movement”. Imagine if you would the Times leading with “Wanted: a song that will rally the border-security movement” – having trouble? So am I)

I absolutely think the Times should be critiquing candidates – including the incumbent.

I just don’t think they should be doing it, out of the blue, on the weekend before the vote. That looks more like a campaign tactic than valuable reporting.

And if Lopez doesn’t understand that difference, he should step back from writing about electoral politics and write more about homelessness and the local politics about it. In fact, I can seed him with some good stories on the subject.

The Palestinian Referendum

Work and election stuff all day, and off to an election-eve event.

But I saw something while scanning the blogs I thought more people should see.

Via Global Voices, I got linked to the blog of Palestinian Daoud Kuttab, who discusses the internal implications of the referendum being called by Abbas.

Abbas’ referendum has exposed a simmering split within the Islamic resistance movement, which Hamas tried to keep behind the scenes. It has shown at least three different positions vis-à-vis recognition of
Israel. Ironically, it turns out that the most moderate position within Hamas belongs to those in prison; those in the bigger prison of occupation and siege are not as moderate and those completely free in Syria are the most radical.

A deeper look reveals the obvious. Everyone knows that the balance of forces is not in favour of the Palestinians. So the differences of opinion are often focused on accepting a compromise now or waiting for the possibility of a better deal later; optimists hope the balance of forces will redress in the Palestinians’ favour. The more restrictive the conditions people live in the more they see the need for short-term relief and not just long-term dreams.

Hamas’ leaders in Damascus can wait for a long time because their daily lives are not affected by occupation, siege and imprisonment. There is an appropriate Arabic proverb. “Those who are feeling the whip are not like those counting the number of flogs.”

There is an even more important reason why prisoners and those under occupation have a more pragmatic point of view. A quick look at the Palestinian and Arab positions over the past half a century does not give much hope that things will be any better in 10 or 20 years. On the contrary, an honest look will show an erosion of the political programme. What we accept today (the 1967 borders) we rejected some time ago, and so on. Therefore, prisoners, whether behind bars or behind checkpoints, are not willing to waste their lives waiting five or ten years for their leaders to accept what they are rejecting now.

Interesting, and a blog worth keeping track of.

Improving Democracy By Improving Voting by Voting For Debra Bowen

[Update: I wrote this post while doing nine other things and failed to make elementary arguments supporting my claim that voting for Debra – or getting your friends to vote for Debra – will make a massive difference in how voting is handled in the U.S. (hint: it will; go see Brad Friedman at HuffPo – and remember that he’s a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist while I’m a committed debunker of those theories and we completely agree on this) and see my letter below.]

As an aside, if you live in California and are a registered Democrat or Independent, the most important thing you can do to improve voting is to vote tomorrow for Debra Bowen for Secretary of State.

There’s been an interesting and long (if thinly populated) comment thread on my post regarding RFK Jr’s risable Rolling Stone article.

Note that while I’m passionate about improving voting systems – meaning improving the accuracy, auditability, transparency, and trustworthiness of the systems (meaning human, physical, and technical) we use for voting, I’m very dismissive of Jr’s claims.

I’m dismissive because my biggest concern is building the political will to make the changes we need to make to get us where we need to go. And as long as the argument is framed as “we need to fix the system to keep your side from doing all the bad things you do” – which is fundamentally the position of two of the commenters – two things happen. Instead of a bipartisan reform movement (the only way it will succeed), we get a wedge issue. Worse, instead of an issue where we can calmly agree on facts and work outward to plans, we get a conflicting array of unproven (and unprovable) assertions which quickly degenerate (as the thread has) to “did so!” and “did not!”I’ll make my position clear – again – in saying that both sides have and do game the system, and that I do not doubt that both sides have committed fraud. If you’re a Democrat, you should want to fix the mechanics of voting to make sure that Ohio can’t happen again. If you’re a Republican, you should want to fix the mechanics of the system to make sure Washington State doesn’t get done to you again.

I think it is highly unlikely that there has been ‘massive’ organized fraud in recent elections. That doesn’t mean that elections – local and national haven’t turned on votes that were a) from people who shouldn’t have been able to vote; b) that never were placed, because of people who were unfairly kept from voting; c) that were – at a retail level (i.e. in the hundreds or thousands but not tens of thousands). Like bad calls in baseball games, I tend to see them as averaging out.

But the game is being watched more closely – there are cameras that can secnd-guess the umpires’ calls – and there is more at stake.

So we need to work together to determine what it would take to have a system in place that both sides – that all Americans – can trust.

As I noted at the top of this post, tomorrow there will be an election in California where we have a chance to mark the low point in electoral trust in this country, and to begin – not in arguments on blog pages, but in reality – to build a system that we all trust.

We’ll do it by voting for Debra Bowen. If this issue matters to you, and you live in California and can vote for her, do it.

If you can’t, find your friends who can, and tell them to vote for her.

That way we can turn this argument from sniping to building, and start debating the ways that we can build a system that each of us will trust.

That’s Bowen for Secretary of State.

[Update: Here’s the email I sent to 1,200 people in my address book. I got about 100 positive replies and about 50 dinner invitations…

I’m sending this to everyone I know in California, and asking you all to vote for Debra Bowen for Secretary of State in the Democratic primary on Tuesday.

Sending out mass requests isn’t usually my thing, but this is important enough for me to put that discomfort aside.

Why? Secretary of State is a downballot race that few, if any, people pay much attention to – which means that getting a small group to vote for Debra will make a big difference. And it will be a difference that will mean a lot to all of us.

Because one of the critical functions of the office is overseeing election procedures and technology in California.

In the last decade, the mechanics of elections – something that only the hardest-core of hard-core political junkies cared about – have suddenly become news. This month’s Rolling Stone has an article by Robert Kennedy Junior challenging the handling of the Ohio presidential balloting in 2004 (note that Mother Jones had an article in November that disproves many of his claims). But the article is evidence of a growing loss of faith in the mechanics of our political process.

[horrible metaphor alert!…I’m wincing reading this now…]

The fuel provided by this loss of faith combined with increasingly bitter partisanship on both sides is about to be ignited by the implementation of deeply flawed technology in the form of voting machines using technology and procedures that no corporation could use under Sarbanes-Oxley.

I believe, more than anything, that people’s faith in the electoral process is what ties us to our political system and provides legitimacy to our government at all levels.

To defend that we need voting systems – technology and processes – that can be defended when challenged, that are widely perceived to be fair, and that restore confidence in our political process.

Debra gets this.

She gets the nitty-gritty technical and procedural details that it will take to make this happen. I’ve listened to her opponent, Deborah Ortiz, and she doesn’t.

It’s important that you vote on Tuesday, but I’m asking you all to please, please vote for Debra because I think that it’s critical that in 2008 and thereafter you’re confident that your vote was actually counted.

Her campaign website is at and it’s not too late to donate a few bucks, if you’re so inclined.

For those that I haven’t talked to in a while, howdy, things are going well, and please drop me a note and let me know how you’re doing.

To everyone, please understand that I wouldn’t send this if I didn’t think it was vitally important. Thanks for taking a moment to read it. Feel free to contact me with questions – this is obviously important to all of us.]

RFK Jr. Swings and Misses – Mother Jones Called Him Out

OK, Robert Kennedy Jr.’s article on “Was The 2004 Election Stolen?” (hint: he thinks the answer is ‘Yes) is up at Rolling Stone.

Commenter hypocracyrules lays it down as a trump card to prove that “repugs” are inherently bad, evil, etc etc.

I thought I’d take a few minutes after cleaning the wok to quickly Google Jr’s claims and see what comes up.

What happened was that I found a pretty dispositive article – in the sense that independent investigation was done on several of the specific claims made by Jr. – in, of all places, Mother Jones (the noted neocon journal).

The article, in the November/December 2005 issue is by Mark Hertsgaard, an investigative reporter whose books include “On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency” goes through several of the same claims that Jr. highlights, and traces the intellectual history of some of Jr’s claims.

Go read both articles, if you want to – but here are some highlights.

Jr’s claim:

In Warren County, GOP election officials even invented a nonexistent terrorist threat to bar the media from monitoring the official vote count.


Now to Warren County, where officials locked down the building used to count votes and told a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter that there’d been a terrorist threat. The skeptics are right that the FBI denied issuing any such warning. But it’s not true that votes were counted in secret, say both Susan Johnson, the Republican Board of Elections director, and Sharon Fisher, the Democratic deputy director. Not only were Johnson and Fisher present, so were the four Board of Elections members (two Democrats, two Republicans) plus an observer from each party. The only person shut out, Johnson says, was the reporter, “but reporters have never been allowed into our counting room before.”

Jr’s claim:

Officials there purged tens of thousands of eligible voters from the rolls…


Blackwell’s two most potent acts of disenfranchisement, skeptics say, were the purging of 133,000 mostly Democratic voters from the rolls and the non-counting of 92,000 ballots rejected by voting machines as unreadable. “It’s clear to me that somebody thought long and hard back in 2001 about how to win this thing,” says Fitrakis. “Somebody had the foresight to check an obscure statute that allows you to cancel people’s voter registrations if they haven’t voted in two presidential elections.” Fitrakis notes that newspapers reported the purging of 105,000 voters in Cincinnati and another 28,000 in Toledo. But because the purging was conducted gradually between 2001 and 2004, no one saw the big picture until the Free Press connected the dots.

O’Grady, the Democrats’ general counsel, agrees that Blackwell purged voter rolls, especially in large urban counties that figured to lean Democratic. But he points out that the purging was done legally, and he says it wasn’t necessarily underhanded. The Democratic base, he says, is more transient, so a voter may accumulate three different addresses on state voting rolls—a perfectly sound reason for a purge. As for the larger argument that Ohio was stolen, O’Grady says, “That point of view relies on the assumption that the entire Republican Party is conspiratorial and the entire Democratic Party is as dumb as rocks. And I don’t buy that.”

Jr’s claim:

The first indication that something was gravely amiss on November 2nd, 2004, was the inexplicable discrepancies between exit polls and actual vote counts. Polls in thirty states weren’t just off the mark — they deviated to an extent that cannot be accounted for by their margin of error. In all but four states, the discrepancy favored President Bush.(16)


The discrepancy between exit polls and the official results is a key part of the skeptics’ argument: Kerry was projected to win nationwide by a close but comfortable 3 percent, and in Ohio by 6.5 percent. But the skeptics betray a poor grasp of exit polling, starting with their claim that exit polls are invariably accurate within tenths of a percentage point. In truth, the exit polls were wrong by much more than that in the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections.

Warren Mitofsky and Joe Lenski, the pollsters who oversaw the 2004 exit polls, concluded that one source of their incorrect forecast was an apparent tendency for some pro-Bush voters to shun exit pollsters’ questions. “Preposterous,” claims Mark Crispin Miller, who also sees trickery in the adjusting of exit polls after the election, though that is utterly routine. And is it really so strange to imagine that Bush supporters—who tend to distrust the supposedly liberal news media—might not answer questions from pollsters bearing the logos of CBS, CNN, and the other news organizations financing the polling operation?

Besides, how do skeptics explain New Hampshire? The state conducted a hand recount of precincts that critics found suspicious; the recount confirmed the official tally, as Ralph Nader’s campaign, which paid for the exercise, admitted. Apparently one reason Bush did better than expected in those precincts was an influx of conservative Catholics who relocated from neighboring Massachusetts—the kind of anomaly that can confound even persuasive-sounding assumptions about voters.

Look, I don’t doubt that there were a host of irregularities in Ohio, which went narrowly for Bush. Just as there were in Minnesota, which went narrowly for Kerry.

To take my earlier metaphor of umpiring a step further – and as someone who has been Chief Umpire of a competitive Little League – the goal is to minimize the number of bad calls, try and make sure they don’t favor one team over the other, and hope like hell they don’t determine the outcome of the game.

I’ll leave the final word to Hertsgaard:

Meanwhile, the focus on vote rigging distracts from other explanations for the 2004 outcome and, more importantly, from what Democrats need to do differently in the future. Paul Hackett, the Iraq combat veteran whose congressional bid is covered elsewhere in this issue, suggests an answer. Hackett, who made no bones about his disdain for Bush and the war, nearly won a district that in 2004 chose Bush over Kerry 64 to 36 percent. Lesson: Democrats can do well, even in staunchly Republican areas, if they give people a reason to vote for them—an unapologetic alternative. Do that in 2008, and the election won’t be close enough to steal.

Votes and Outs

People with political opinions that can’t be expressed without neck-vein popping rage aren’t totally new to me; it’s just that they used to be a small sliver of humanity, usually found on the steps of university buildings, as gadflies in city council meetings, or convening fringe political parties deeply concerned about fluoridation and a return to the gold standard.

Sadly, they’re much more common now. I tend to see the Democratic version, because my social circles are composed of urban professionals – the cohort keeping the Democratic Party alive (like the pudgy – but well dressed! – man in the elevator today who talked about “DumbFuckistan. You know, the people between the coasts who fell for Bush’s bullshit.” – that’s a verbatim quote, by the way). I see my share of the other wing on my shooting lists and in other areas of the Right that I visit, places where Hillary is busy wiping the fingerprints off the gun she used to murder Vince Foster.

So What? you ask. Other than making the political precincts depressing places to visit for normal human beings, why does this matter?It matters because the glue that holds us together is starting to crack, and there is one narrow and specific place where we ought to be able to restore it and make it better.

It’s about voting.

On some level, it’s the vote that keeps us together. We believe in the overall fairness of the umpire’s calls, in the system where losers shake winners’ hands and plan for next time.

Or we believed it.

Rolling Stone is about to run a series by RFK Jr. setting out charges that the Presidential election in 04 was stolen and that Republican operatives succeeded in – again – stealing the election.

I haven’t seen the article as of this writing (it hits the Net tomorrow), so can’t comment on the specifics, which in a lot of ways don’t matter. What does matter is that the fight – which should be about policies and competence and what can and will be done – is now about to be over simple legitimacy. And the people who say “Not my president” will stand a little taller and pop their veins a little more proudly.

The problem, of course, is that in ’09, we’ll hear the same things – even if the Democrats win. because now the strain of mad vitriol that has been uncapped is our common property.

We can put the cap back, however.

We can do it by fixing a fundamentally damaged voting system. The system is damaged today – and has been for some time, as residents of Chicago and some precincts in Milwaukee know. And the rise of the clunky voting machines is about to make it whole lots worse.

I raise this issue not because I agree with RFK Jr. about much of anything, necessarily. But because I want to see a system where charges like the ones he is about to raise can be categorically proved – or disproved.

It’s a simple thing – an honest umpire – and one that we can and must demand. I’ll talk more about specifics over the next few days.