Saturday, September 20, 2014

Can our Politics Survive Tabloid Journalism?

Mat Bai was the chief political correspondent for New York Time Magazine, he has covered three presidential campaigns, and has written for the Times, and is currently the national political columnist at Yahoo News.  He has a new book coming out in October:  "All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid."  He is previewing the book in an interesting essay this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. 

The essay is about the implosion of the Gary Hart presidential campaign in 1987 over some hanky-panky with a bikini model, Donna Rice.

Pretty tame compared to the Clinton-Lewinsky-cigar allegations, but made out of the same stuff.  Just as Congress and the national press corps dropped everything for two years to pursue the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal full time, Gary Hart was hounded out of the campaign by a pack of Papparazzi.

The article raises interesting questions about the nature of how our media covers politics, and problems this causes.

For purposes of thinking about this, let's take as true Bai's characterization of Hart as a "brilliant and serious man", "the most visionary political mind of his generation," who, had he been elected,  would have affected the course of history for the better, but who also engaged in some adulterous hanky-panky.

What has changed in our coverage of politics?

Bai argues that for decades prior to Watergate, ...
the surest path to success (for journalists) was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world. Proximity to power and the information and insight derived from having it was the currency of the trade. By the 1980s, however, Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition. If you were an aspiring journalist born in the 1950s, when the baby boom was in full swing, then you entered the business at almost exactly the moment when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post — portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the cinematic version of their first book, “All the President’s Men” — were becoming not just the most celebrated reporters of their day but very likely the wealthiest and most famous journalists in American history (with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite). And what made Woodward and Bernstein so iconic wasn’t proximity, but scandal. They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.
Journalism has shifted, says Bai, from gaining the trust of politicians, to gaining wealth and fame by exposing scandal. Instead of seeking understanding and insight, journalists are now seeking to score points.
If you were one of the new breed of middle-class, Ivy League-educated baby boomers who had decided to change the world through journalism, then there was simply no one you could want to become more than Woodward or Bernstein, which is to say, there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking. .... 
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.” 
As an industry, we aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, “We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.” That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.
As a result Politicians were forced into a defensive crouch.  Journalists were no longer on the inside. Journalists lost access and journalism suffered.  At the same time politicians revealed less, and our politics suffered.
Predictably, politicians responded to all this with a determination to give us nothing that might aid in the hunt to expose them, even if it meant obscuring the convictions and contradictions that made them actual human beings. Each side retreated to its respective camp, where they strategized about how to outwit and outflank the other, occasionally to their own benefit but rarely to the voters’. Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites. But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway. 
Changes in technology have made this problem much worse. The internet, smart phones, surveillance performed by businesses, the government, and private individuals alike provides a vast amount of opportunity to uncover unflattering or embarrassing material on even the most saintly among us.  If the goal is to dig up dirt that can be used to embarrass a politician, and campaigns have whole "opposition research" teams dedicated to this task, there are none who will stand pure at the end of the day. It's no wonder cynicism is running amok.

It is doubtful that our politics are better off for this. How can we combat this? Telling politicians to lead exemplary lives misses the point.  Of course they should lead exemplary lives. We all should; but the point is that no one's life will stand up to the full scrutiny of a motivated press corps, opposing campaigns, and the full resources of modern technology applied to uncover dirt.

Surely the answer must lie in a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We need to be able to distinguish between sexual hanky-panky and lying pretexts to go to war. Is there an App for that?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Alba Gu Brath

In 1995 Quebec nearly voted to secede from Canada.  I trust the Scottish vote yesterday will help Canada stay Canada for the foreseeable future.  I'm in favor of that.

Quebec 1995--From Wikipedia:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?
Yes or noVotesPercentage
Yes check.svg Yes2,308,36049.42%
X mark.svg No2,362,64850.58%
Valid votes4,671,00898.18%
Invalid or blank votes86,5011.82%
Total votes4,757,509100.00%
Voter turnout93.52%

Scotland, September 18, 2014: 

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

BBC Projection: 7:00 a.m, September 19, 2014 (GMT):  "With 29 out of the country's 32 council areas having declared after Thursday's vote, the "No" side has a 55% of the vote, with the "Yes" campaign on 45%.

Yes check.svg Yes      45%
X mark.svg No       55%

It was formulated as a stark question.  People were debating the effect that formulation of the question might have on the vote.  The Registrar of voters was asked to remove an initial formulation of "Do you agree that....", which is how the Quebec referendum was written.  In addition, it's noteworthy that the Quebec referendum ('95) was couched in lots of wishy washy, tentative sounding "after having made a formal offer" and "political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec...."  

We'll likely not find out if a different formulation would have affected the outcome.  I trust it will be a while before they get to try with another formulation.  

I know many of our Scottish friends were rooting for "Yes" in this. But it looks like they'll get some more local powers... and, most important, they'll always have this....

and this.... 

and, of course, this....

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Occupation and the Challenge of the Modern Surveillance State

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the universal monitoring of all American citizens by the NSA, not to mention the likes of Angela Merkel, Obama has attempted to put us at ease by explaining "We are only gathering Meta-Data." How far does one trust this?  Would we trust J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, for example, with the full power of the modern surveillance state? What can we do about it?

Now that the information is available, state security agencies will always be drawn to abuse these powers. The cat is out of the bag. 

For a sobering example, consider Israel and it's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  


Israel has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza since 1967--coming up on a half century.  The Palestinians don't like this. One of the reasons they don't like it is it subjects them to military law, not a civilian legal system.  Under military law, all Palestinians are subject to administrative detention, which means detention without charge or the whim of 19-year old soldiers.  Some 37 percent of Palestinians have served at least six months in administrative detention at one time or another. For a chilling view of this from the point of view of the judicial officers who administer the system, see the documentary by Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz "The Law in These Parts."  PBS is making the full film available on line through September 17, 2014. 

Check out the film at PBS.

The Unit 8200 Disclosures

Now consider that on September 12, 2014, 43 Israeli Reservists serving in Israel's secretive 8200 Unit signed a letter of protest to PM Netanyahu, saying that they will refuse to "take part in activities against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as instruments to deepen the military rule over the occupied territories."

Dahlia Scheindlein explains:
8200 is practically a legendary unit within the intelligence corps of the army. It is responsible for both internal and foreign signals intelligence-gathering, alongside the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. A large unit with various subdivisions, some members are known for their Arabic language skills, used to monitor life and media in the Arab and Palestinian world. Perhaps its strongest reputation is as Israel’s high-tech incubator, developing the cutting edge technology related to communications, focused on hacking, and encrypting, decoding and transmitting information. 
As civilians, its highly educated and largely Ashkenazi graduates, particularly the men, have often leveraged their skills in Israel’s high-tech industry and are commonly thought of as the sparky, plucky drivers of the “start-up nation.”
Larry Derfner notes that the government does not appear to be denying the fact that the 8200 unit is gathering private information on all Palestinians which is then used to blackmail anyone susceptible  to act as an informant.  Information thus gathered is used in turn to administratively detain people without charge or trial, for months and years on end.

Here's Derfner:
Interviewing six of the letter’s signatories, Yedioth’s Elior Levy wrote (in Hebrew),“According to them, the Israeli public believes that intelligence is gathered only against those involved in terror. They want to publicize the fact that a substantial portion of the targets they follow are innocent people who are not connected in any way to military activity against Israel, and who interest the intelligence branches for other reasons.” 
According to “N.” one of the six dissidents interviewed, “At the base they told us that if we turn up some ‘juicy’ detail, this is something important to document. For instance, economic hardship, sexual orientation, a severe illness that they or someone in their family has, or medical treatments they need.” 
“N.” continued:  -- "If you’re a homosexual who knows someone who knows a wanted man – Israel will turn your life into a misery. If you need urgent medical treatment in Israel, the West Bank or overseas – we’re on your tail. The State of Israel will let you die before it lets you go for medical treatment without your first giving information about your cousin, the wanted man. Every time we hook an innocent person who can be blackmailed for information, or to conscript him as a collaborator, that’s like gold for us and for the entire Israeli intelligence community. In a training course we actually learned and memorized the different Arabic words for homosexual."
This intelligence gathering is a lot more than "meta-data" which is how Obama has characterized the NSA surveillance; it's the full power of the modern surveillance state exploited in support of an occupation of 4.4 million people.  And how secure should you feel if you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel?  Or a peace activist of any stripe within Israel?


If the use of this technology cannot be prevented (overtly or covertly), then this puts a HUGE premium on the importance of establishing clearly articulated civil rights, and the protection of a robust and independent legal system to protect and enforce those rights.

No state should be allowed to blackmail citizens.  If you have a secret to hide, or a special need, and the government discovers this through surveillance and attempts to use this information to coerce you in a way that violates your civil rights, you should  be able to go straight to court and obtain swift and effective relief.  But defining what those civil rights are, and keeping such courts truly independent and effective are big challenges.

Hand wringing about how the government is abusing these powers will only get us so far.  We need to organize and militate for clearly defined civil rights and we need to organize and stand up for a strong and independent judiciary.  If we don't have that we're screwed.

The Palestinians are a case in point. Activism against the Israeli government engaging in surveillance is likely futile. The game has to be to establish Palestininan civil rights: the right not to be blackmailed, the right not to be administratively detained without charge or trial, and the right to access independent, transparent, and effective civilian courts if those rights are abused.

One State, Two States, Confederated state....Beyond the Headlines

Lisa Goldman of Blogginhead TV leads a discussion with Dov Waxman of Northeastern University and Dahlia Scheindlein of +972 Magazine about the options for political solutions in Israel/Palestine.

As I listen to them discussing the pros, cons, why's, and how's of ethnic separation vs. territorial separation, one state vs. two states vs. confederation, it seems to me that ethnic separation is the worst of the options.  The separation barrier, of course, is a monumental fact on the ground towards this worst of all possible worlds.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Not Doing Stupid Stuff in Ukraine While We Work For Better International Structures

It's been six months since the Russian take-over of Crimea, and Crimea just completed local elections for the Crimean assembly and the local municipal offices along with the rest of Russia. The pro-Russian forces seem to have consolidated political power there in Russian fashion. Compare Reuters and Sofia News Agency. Meanwhile, in Eastern Ukraine the situation is still very much in flux. 

In the Donetsk region, rebels declared an "independent" Donetsk People's Republic. The government in Kiev, too weak to assert itself  in the eastern parts of the country, is attempting to purchase peace by agreeing to provide more autonomy to the break-away regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Legislation was submitted on Monday, September 15, 2014 that would grant these areas "special status" for three years. As the New York Times reports: "The main points include amnesty for those who participated in the “events” in those regions; the right to use Russian as an official language; the election of local councils; funds for social and economic development from the state budget; and the right to form local police forces." 

On Sunday, six monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe came under attack in Donetsk. In the meantime, in the western part of the country, 15 countries are participating in U.S. led military exercises in an effort to support and prop up Kiev. New York Times

Should We Just Accept Russian Dominance of Ukraine? 

John Mearshimer is a neo-realist professor at the University of Chicago. He has an article in the September issue of Foreign Affairs magazine suggesting that, because Ukraine is in the Russian sphere of influence, the West should not attempt to "democratize" or otherwise attempt to ween Ukraine away from Russia. The West should not attempt to deepen ties between Kiev and the European Union, should not expand NATO, and should not promote democracy, human rights, or the rule of law there. The fate of Ukraine should be left to Ukrainians and Russia.

Here is Mearshimer, under the provocative title ("Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault"):
Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events [in Ukraine] only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics. They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy.  But this grand scheme went awry in Ukraine. The crisis there shows that realpolitik remains relevant -- and states that ignore it do so at their own peril. U.S. and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, it would be an even greater mistake to continue this misbegotten policy.... 
The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states.... It is in Ukraine’s interest to understand these facts of life and tread carefully when dealing with its more powerful neighbor.

Say What? 

In the study of international relations, realists like Mearshimer explain that the machinations of countries are rooted in the structural constraints surrounding security competitions among nations. They focus on nationalism, the self-interest of individual nations, the "balance of powers," and they counsel the continuation of viable military frameworks.  It's an amoral, Machiavellian, and ultimately fatalistic and depressing vision of the world. States are naturally and rationally greedy for power; all they care about is their own survival.  In  his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearshimer wrote:
Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive. (P. 35).
In other words, by annexing Crimea and making a power play for eastern Ukraine, Putin and Russia are acting just as you would expect any country to act while feeling hemmed in by its neighbors: Russia is fearful of the growing influence of NATO and the EU with the countries along its perimeter--Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Russia saw an opportunity to push back by seizing Crimea--forestalling a possible future NATO naval base on that peninsula; Russia is now following its opportunity into eastern Ukraine...and the West should lay off and butt out!

This Hits a Nerve with Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong, a political economist at UC Berkeley, posted a response to the Mearshimer article on his blog. 
DeLong, judging from his tone, believes it is borderline obscene to abandon Ukraine to Russian thugs just because those thugs might not like Kiev gradually incorporating with the West. If Ukraine is hoping to make progress by upgrading its democracy and promote the rule of law we should encourage it and facilitate such a transition. Nation states are not abstract metaphysical entitites, says DeLong: at heart Russia is a conglomeration of people, and those people have organized themselves very differently at different times. Brad gives a brief run down of Russian history over the past 800 years that is witty and interesting.

As Al Michaels argues (the producer of the NBC figure skating programs in Sochi), it is not crazy to hope that Putin will be a passing phase; that the people will overcome, leave Putin behind, and that Russia also will rise as a modern democratic republic. Even if the purpose of states is "to survive," there is no rule of nature which says Russia cannot survive by opting to join the modern world and the community of nations. For that matter, just as people join together in individual nation states and agree to recognize a higher sovereign authority (Hobbes), states are in the process of establishing international structures that recognize a higher sovereignty in  international structures. That is, in part, what's at stake in Ukraine. Do we surrender to the amoral thuggish authority of random states--or do we build international structures and the rule of international law to govern disputes. 

DeLong suggests that Ukraine and Russia will stand a better chance to develop into modern democracies and join the modern world if we engage with them and help them do so.
[W]here ... is it written in stone that whoever rules in the Kremlin speaks for Russia–or, at least, speaks for Muscovy ‘Rus–and has the right to install a corrupt thug of this choice in Kiev, or to veto any Kievan government he does not like?
If John Mearsheimer were a smarter man, he would, I think, be speaking not to Obama but to Putin. He would not be telling Obama to cool it on “social engineering” in–i.e., the economic development and democratization of–the Ukraine. He would be telling Putin that the imposition of Soviet puppet regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary produced an enormous running sore and was a long-term source of great weakness for the Soviet apparatchicks who ruled in the Kremlin. And he would be telling Putin that pulling the Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk away from Kiev will do more than anything else could to ensure that those who rule in Kiev will offer him and his successors in the Kremlin as little as possible. And that going beyond that to install and maintain a puppet regime in Kiev will do more damage to the security of Muscovy ‘Rus than almost anything else one could imagine. 

Seeking More Robust International Structures 

It seems certain that the West will continue to try and integrate with Ukraine. The optimist in me says this will work out in the long term if we and the Russians don't "do stupid stuff" along the way. Mearshimer is a pessimist and he would say, "Yes, but this type of security competition always leads to stupid stuff....and hence the tragedy of great power politics."

The way out of this dilemma of the "tragedy of great power politics" is for all nation states to band together and recognize a higher sovereignty in disciplined, workable, and just international structures. It's a work in progress.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Radio Discussion on Liberal Zionism

.... and here is a radio discussion on Boston's WBUR "Open Source" with Jane Eisner (editor of the Forward), Peter Beinart, Bernard Avishai, and Phil Weiss discussing liberal Zionism, Gaza, and the way forward in Israel/Palestine.

  • Peter Beinart: nicely sets the table with a description of the fundamental tension that exists in Zionism between (a) the state of Israel as a country that has "protection of Jewish life" as its mission statement, and (b) a democracy with complete equality for all.  He notes that since '67 this tension has increased. 
  • Jane Eisner brings the mainstream American Jewish perspective: Israel is under attack, Israel has a right to defend itself, and, yes, what happened to the people in Gaza is sad.
  • Phil Weiss is the activist and emphasizes that Zionism structurally privileges one people over another. 
  • Bernard Avishai focuses on Hebrew culture, and the Hebrew language: "It's the country of Israel, not Ishmael, so, of course Hebrew culture will dominate...." (paraphrase b/c my memory is not perfect)  However, the Israeli democracy must be brought up to code. 

Mondoweiss Smackdown of my Avishai Post, Some Clarifications, and a Question for Everybody

Phil Weiss has been kind enough to post some of my pieces at Mondoweiss from time to time.  I submitted the post on the Avishai response to Lerner for his consideration.  He felt my post was not clear on the distinction between Avishai's aspirational Hebrew Republic and the miserable politics in Israel today.  

Phil sent me an email:  
"I got the impression from your piece that you are accepting Avishai's description of Israel as a democracy and I think that's difficult for our readers, and me too, given the intolerant strains in that society that we've sought to document. Slater, a liberal Zionist, says Israel can be fascistic (at his site Jeromeslater, which we picked up today)." 
So it prompted me to re-read my piece and provide the following clarification: 
"I think the Lerman post and Avishai's response raise some interesting questions about Zionism.  Lerman suggests that "Liberal Zionism" is an oxymoron, and Avishai reacts to that.  Does "Zionism" have any place in Israel-Palestine today, and what is that place?  And what does Zionism mean in that context? 
Avishai thinks that modern Israel is the result of a secular liberal/socialist Zionist movement.  This strikes me as correct.  As I understand Avishai, he believes "Zionism" today should consolidate these gains by firmly committing to a secular state with equal rights for all its citizens.  He would do away with the Jewish Law of Return. My understanding is he would advocate for a Basic Law with an Equal Protection Clause not unlike our 14th Am. Avishai understands the task of Zionism as carving out a space for Jewish culture based on the Hebrew language.   
Carving out space for a Hebrew culture with a firm separation between state and religion leaves open the political structures of Israel-Palestine. It is not incompatible with a parallel protection for Palestinian culture and the Arabic language. Avishai envisions a confederative arrangement with the West Bank and Gaza.  Avishai and Lerman agree, I think, on building a movement to do away with the occupation and building political structures that provide equal rights for everyone. Avishai would say the end game has to include protections for his Hebrew Republic. Lerman's formulation, as stated, doesn't include that.  Confronting where one stands on that is important, I think, when we are critical of Israel. 
Some of the ambiguities in the term "Zionism" in both pieces made me think of this in a new light.  Zionism is one of those terms that is like a vessel that can be filled with any content.  We have to formulate what it is for ourselves, an defend it--or reject it.  Avishai has done this with his Hebrew Republic.  It's not clear to me that Lerman has confronted the question. If you look at the David Bernstein link I provided (and what a smarmy Hasbarist that guy) it's clear he's not thought it through.   
I don't think Avishai has any illusions about the fascist currents in Israel today that Slater describes.  His current piece in the New Yorker makes that clear. Avishai sketches a vision for a liberal Zionism to strive for.  His vision of Zionism is one I can get behind.  You?"