Tuesday, August 15, 2006

the pathetic little satisfactions of the humble blogger

Blogging doesn't change the world. Most bloggers can't even change a single mind. The activity yields mostly modest satisfactions: an e-mail or comment giving you props or an exchange that inspires a coherent thought. Even flamewars that lead to barbed insults can be fun, if it so happens that you think you got in the better dig. Then there's the satisfaction of learning that your words have found their way to people you admire (or loathe).

That leads to today's installment of little satisfactions: it looks like a snarky little comment on Kevin Drum's blog was highlighted by Robert Wright in an exchange on bloggingheads.tv. I had written:

Watching [Kaus] battle the estimable Robert Wright on bloggingheads.tv is akin to [watching] a one-on-one basketball game between Helen Thomas and Dwayne Wade.
Wright brought up my line in a long exchange with Kaus about how everyone in the blogosphere hates him (for good reason).

Why has this little line-dropping proved so satisfying to me? Here's the context:

(1) Robert Wright is awesome. Robert Wright is probably the intellectual I most admire in public life. His work in evolutionary psychology is mind-blowing, and seemingly everything he's written about geopolitics, bioethics, technology, and what have you has been impeccably reasoned. His lengthy Times op-ed making the case for "progressive realism" is about the most sensible foreign policy doctrine I've seen. What's great about Wright's writing is how clearly he shows his work. He marshalls facts in support of arguments and arrives at conclusions through clear, logical reasoning. He'll address strong counter-arguments and methodological difficulties along the way. In the world of punditry, he's a mad baller.

(2) Mickey Kaus is a smarmy half-wit. On the other hand, there is no contemporary pundit I despise more than Mickey Kaus. Imagine a witless Larry David, except unfurling his neurosis not through self-effacing comedy but through incoherent, bilious screeds against Democrats (the party to which Kaus unconvincingly still insists he belongs) and you have this small, petty man. Like Lieberman, Kaus is the product of the late 80s, when self-loathing Dems were in vogue and not a bad type to be. Nothing wrong with being critical of liberal orthodoxy per se -- I'm all for welfare reform, reducing the power of teacher's unions, means-testing Social Security, and skepticism on affirmative action, etc. It's just that, like Lieberman, he's not making any constructive "centrist" critiques (or taking proportionate measure of the right-wing-led disaster currently playing at a town near you). Instead, we're treated to an endless stream of self-congratulatory nonsequiturs, with the odd snipes at assorted liberal bogeymen. For a man who hasn't uttered a useful idea since the Herbert Walker Bush administration, when he was a leading proponent of welfare reform, Kaus has got quite an ego. I think people still pay attention to him out of habit, since he's published by Slate and is, by all accounts, the first "name" blogger. But he's about as obsolete as the pica font at this point.

(2) (a) Kaus haters of the world unite! The one great thing about Kaus is the bond Kaus-haters have. One day, needing my Kaus-hatin' fix, I googled "Kaus moron" and found this terrific group political blog called Lawyers, Guns and Money, which has a continuing series on why Mickey Kaus blows chunks, weekly battleship blogging, and even a little something on Olivier Assayas' awesomeness for good measure. So Kaus can be a force for good -- by helping Kaus haters locate one another.

(3) bloggingheads.tv is misguided but addictive to hopeless wonks. However smart Wright is, I can't vouch for his business acumen. His current project is bloggingheads.tv. The format pits two talking heads against each other on the topic of the day, with links on the side of the page. The visuals add very little to the debate (except by humanizing the debaters), and it's mostly the kind of dry back-and-forth that can't possible interest anyone outside of the wonkiest of wonks. I am, of course, hooked, mainly because I'm a nerdy wonk, but also because of my fanboy interest in both Wright and guest-blogger Matthew Yglesias's takes on the great issues of the day. Unfortunately Wright is frequently pitted against Kaus, who evinces the same level of intellectual incoherence in these "diavlogs" that he does on his blog. It is like watching Wade play Helen Thomas or Harry Knowles in hoops -- the obvious disparity in intellectual firepower is so staggering as to become distracting within the first two minutes of any diavlog. It's instructive, I suppose, to watch Wright reason through an issue while minutes later Kaus will simply try bulldoze his way to some pre-ordinained conclusion that makes no sense (Kaus's desperate defenses of Nazi drag queen An(thony) Coulter is probably the nadir of many low-points). If you want your kid to learn the value of rigorous thinking as opposed to lazy thinking, you can do worse than to show her these diavlogs. Otherwise, seeing Kaus get destroyed in this debate club format would be more fun if the self-delusional twit actually realized he's getting pwned.

Conclusion: No point, really. I guess it's kind of awesome when you write something that makes an impression on both an intellectual idol and an object of scorn.

Monday, August 14, 2006

More macho than thou

What's left to say about Joementum besides concluding that he's a world-class wanker? The blogosphere has about five thousand ways of saying the same thing, and I don't disagree with much of it, but the one useful column comes from Spencer Ackerman today. Taking a break from the increasingly unhinged New Republic, Ackerman takes a considered look at Joe Lieberman's actual record in The American Prospect, and finds his record pathetically weak. Nut graph:
But belligerence isn't the same thing as wisdom -- and hawkishness does not always lead to a safer America. Lieberman has, of course, been the most vigorous Democratic defender of the Iraq quagmire, which has laid waste to U.S. defense capabilities in a way that not even Vietnam was able to....Indeed, Lieberman's judgment on defense questions is like that of a stopped clock: the hawkish position, applied consistently, has to be right sooner or later. What Lieberman is asking Connecticut -- and the Democratic Party, and the country -- to accept is that the only secure America is a bellicose America. And that position is a guarantee of future Iraqs.

The Washington establishment, with Lieberman as a surrogate, continues to perpetuate this idea that the only badge of national security seriousness is knee-jerk "hawkishness". But what does this mean? The bizarre idea that one should support every proposed war, always? It would seem so, if you take a look at what people like neocon Robert Kagan are saying.

One of the grand memes that has taken hold among lazy writers (and thinkers) is the hawk v. dove dichotomy. Implicit in these terms is the idea that "hawks" take national security seriously while "doves" don't. In practice, the idea is less than useless -- it's pernicious. The formulaton inverts priorities by neglecting what actually matters -- whether a policy choice is *effective* in furthering national security goals -- in favor of an undue emphasis on the machismo implicit in one's war stance. Wes Clark, who led the NATO campaign in Kosovo, is apparently a "dove" or "antiwar" because he opposed the Iraq War and had exceptionally good reasons to do so. Joe Lieberman, who's wrong about the Iraq War every step of the way, is a tough-on-defense hawk, according to the media narrative. Never mind Lieberman's position has actually made America weaker and less secure. All that matters is that Lieberman talks tough, at least he does if you can ignore the whiny, schoolmarmish timbre of his voice. But if you scrutinize his statements, he's as "unserious" as they come, a guy who can't get the first thing right in measuring and identifying current threats. But Lieberman's a symptom of a larger ailment. As Ackerman puts it: "
If there's one myth that neocons have cultivated -- and the media have bought into -- since their post-Vietnam origins in the 1970s, it's that the greater danger to U.S. security comes not from disastrous wars but from overzealous opposition to disastrous wars."

The hawk/dove formulation leads to a strong bias in favor of war. But if the Iraq debacle tells us anything, it's that wars should not be entered into lightly, not only due to the sacrifices in blood and treasure, but because war dramatically increases the number of unpredictable or uncontrollable variables. We should always be skeptical of war. But we apparently haven't learned much. If Sy Hersh's new bombshell New Yorker piece is correct, the Lebanon incursion was vehemently supported by the U.S., especially by Dick "Mr. Fucktard" Cheney, as a warm-up for Iran. Predictably, the Israeli offensive did not go as well as expected and now the West needs a face-saving way for Israel to get out of there. Quelle surprise.

It would seem obvious that the war
├╝ber alles mindset is not a sign of seriousness but of a feeble and weak mind. Shouldn't we go to war only when we must, and only when we can achieve our objectives by way of war? The War in Afghanistan was a shining example: it was just (we were attacked), there were discrete, achievable goals (destroy al Qaeda cells and remove the Taliban), and we had decent intelligence on the ground (aided by Pakistani intellegence). The Iraq War was just the opposite. Supporting both wars isn't the sign of seriousness or consistency or strength. To mix animal metaphors, the hawks, those who advocate war at the slightest provocation, are not unlike the donkeys in poker who will push all-in in any situation where they're uncertain. Yeah, the donk *might* take it down, but he will often go bust as well. Better poker players analyze all the information available before coming to a decision for all his chips. That would include the cards, the other player's tendencies, past play, what your opponent's likely hand (or range) is, what he thinks you have, what he thinks you think he has, etc. Shouldn't this be the approach to any important policy decision?

Remarkably, many writers, even smart, contrite hawks like Andrew Sullivan, are still inordinately obsessed with optics rather than efficacy. One long-standing Sully stance is his apparent insistence that the surest sign of national security seriousness is one's inclination to denounce our enemies with great gusto.
So only someone who vocally express his hatred for Islamic terrorists or evil dictators is worth taking seriously.
"You hate Saddam? I hate Saddam more!"
"Oh yeah? I hate Saddam so much I'll send a bunch of poor kids to die to prove it!"
"Oh, yeah? Me, too!"
This is the sort of peurile thinking at the heart of "hawkish" calls for war. Most reasonable people can agree that Saddam is an evil dude. But I don't think going to war, absent other considerations, is a good way to express one' s moral indictment. I mean, we can all agree Stalin's a bad, evil dude. But we didn't freaking invade the Soviet Union just to prove our "moral resolve" either.

What's a good approach? I think Robert Wright's proposal for "progressive realism" is a great start, with weapons-monitoring and deterrence, image-building, and economic liberalization as the three pillars of our foreign policy. On the false machismo front, check out Glenn Greenwald's invaluable analysis of that most odious of species, the chickenhawk. When talking about chickenhawks, the idea isn't that only those with military experience can hold legitimate opinions about war and peace. Rather, "chickenhawk" is an apt description of the type -- usually an out-of-shape, overweight white guy suspiciously over-concerned with demonstrating "masculinity" (think Dick Cheney) -- who thumps for war as a first option. Being a warmonger is supposed to be a sign of personal strength in the chickenhawk world view, but it bears pointing out (again and again) that, when it comes to actual fighting, these wusses have their tails between their legs (think Dick Cheney and his five deferments). It's easy to call for war against any and all enemies when one's neck is conveniently not on the line.