February 27, 2003

who are we to do this? (The overdue choice of a reluctant warrior)

Who are we? We're Ted Bundy, and we're Todd Beamer. We're Charles Lindberg and Charles Manson. Ghandi and Stalin are in there, too, arguing...the one determined to topple the other. When examined down to the brass tacks, is there any meaningful difference between them? Are they seperate but equal philosophers, each right in his own way, according to his point of view? Since they each sprang from the same human gene pool, who among us--sprung from that same muddled puddle--can pass judgement on what is right and what is wrong? On what then should our moral choices be based? Should we even bother to agonize ourselves over "moral" choices at all?

Werner Heisenberg, the great German physicist, had a choice to make. Nazi Germany was taking shape...a twisted shape. With war raging and Hitler expanding his reign and his weaponry and what with concentration camps filling up with people and all, Albert Einstein fled Germany for America. Neils Bohr fled Denmark for America. Nuclear physicists, under cover of some of the darkest of all European nights, were escaping Hitler's realm, lest they be "invited" to work for the Nazi nuclear program.

Heisenberg's main achievement was his "Uncertainty Principle"; the realization that the more we established a particle's velocity, the less we are able to determine it's location, and vice-versa. And not just because of a technically limited ability to measure those properties, but because uncertainty is a basic property of sub-molecular form. Uncertainty at the base level of matter was a new and fascinating notion. Extending the idea from the microscopic to the macroscopic world was philosophically inviting. Nietzsche's "Beyond Good And Evil" was a popular read among the intellectuals of 1930's Europe, and it had two well-placed admirers.
Heisenberg found Nietzsche's thesis intriquing. Hitler found it useful. Finding no certain justification to condemn the morality of Hitler over any other, Heisenberg led Hitler's nuclear project, his quest for the atomic bomb.

In America, Albert Einstein implored President Roosevelt to get to work on an atomic weapon...as Heisenberg would surely be making significant progress. Although having made a late start, the Robert Oppenheimer-led Manhatten Project succeeded where Heisenberg's project had failed. Perhaps it was because the best scientists had fled Europe, or perhaps it was because Heisenberg's heart wasn't wholly in it. Either way, one thing that the Nazi atomic bomb project lacked was moral purpose.

It isn't very "intellectual" to talk about moral purpose. Intellectualism is, by default, academic; thoughtful, unextreme...inconclusive. But one wonders in what way that kind of academic non-definitiveness applies to the real world. Moral relativism may be a kind of denial; an "intellectual selflessness". But since when are we ever not ourselves? That amorality is a kind of unreality poetically seems to be self-evidenced by the fact that when a particular point is moot we call it "academic." Thought experiments that don't interface with life experience are moot. They are academic.

France (at times anyway) doesn't consider morality to be a moot point. When Princess Diana et al were killed in a car crash resulting from a high-speed evasion of paparazzi photographers on motorbikes, French (or, perhaps, merely Parisian) law was to come down hard on the bystanders, including the paparazzi, who offered no assistance to the crash victims. Parisians agree, then, that bystanders to a tragedy are not innocent, they are involved in the moment at hand just as much as are the victims and victimizers. To excuse one's self from the events at hand, especially moments of tragedy and/or atrocity, is to have chosen alienation over empathy; selfishness over selflessness. Amorality then reveals itself to be more than a bit self-serving.

Elie Weisel spent some time in a Nazi concentration camp. He's a Pulitzer Prize winning author whom wrote, in "Man In Search Of Himself", about that experience; and his education as a result of it. I remember clearly he imploring President Clinton (at--if memory serves--the 50th anniversay of D-Day commemorative service on June 6th, 1994) not to look the other way while "ethnic cleaning" scourged within what was left of Yugoslavia. What struck me the most was that I discerned a curious expression on the President's face as Weisel, staring to his right and directly at the President, called for what sounded like international intrusiveness. Clinton's expression seemed thoughtful...yet agitatedly so. Actually, the expression had an almost nervously self-conscious dismissiveness to it. Aw hell; Clinton seemed downright irritated by the appeal, as if he were mulling through his mind "Who are we to do this?"

Bill Clinton did eventually do it. He knew he had to intervene because, morally, it was right. And, instructively, he didn't waste time trying to corral the U.N. He simply chose not to join in the synchronous writhing of the Security Council's endlessly contorted academic self-doubt.

Today, with respect to Iraq, the U.N. is trying to decide if it cares whether or not it enforces it's own resolutions. It seems to me that the time has come to either enforce them, repeal them, or just whistle merrily down the same path to obsolescence first blazed by the League of Nations. Wake up and smell the East River, boys; to lead is to choose.

I've seen coverage of the large anti-war rallies that have recently filled world capitals...heard their arguments...witnessed their vitriol at the very idea that we have a "right" to depose a "sovereign" tyrant. In New York I saw Americans; Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, German-Americans. But we have to ask: where were the Iraqi-Americans? More specifically, where were the Iraqis whom are free to protest?

They were in Jordan, having crossed the border under cover of the darkest nights they've ever had to find the strength to see each other through. They were in American cities, too, pleading for the libertation of their country and their countrymen. We won't find Iraqi-Americans at the anti-war rallies, because they know all too well something every willfully ethically conflicted academician will never know: moral purpose. Iraqis know what evil is because they've seen what it does.

And so have we. Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, and the others...all the others; the guy with a steak knife ready to take on his first fight since 2nd grade...the flight attendent with the pot of piping hot coffee--ready to splash it over a high-jacker's face and hands...the Air Force pilot who would take the hot seat if the insurgence were to be--fingers crossed--successful.

Each woke up that morning an average Joe, a plain ol' Jane...same as we had. They, too, had grown up with cats and dogs and slingshots and Mr. Rogers... only they suddenly found themselves in a circumstance where they'd make themselves fully locked and loaded and determined to assault their captors with a brutality that they, up to that moment, probably thought could only arise from within a darkened heart. Yet, all they did was refuse to accept that their fates were sealed.
They knew that they were likely to die trying. And if they couldn't take back that plane, they would at least spare the lives of others at the sheep-shaggers' intended target.

Morality is something we can--and should--examine; but not as a maze of semantic vaguery that we'll never be able to exit. Sometimes we don't think we know that as clearly as we do. The passengers of flight 93 weren't constipated with some academic uncertainty when they faced their moment of decision. They made a choice (perhaps--I hope--the only choice that we could have made), and it was correct. We know that because we honor their choice.
And not just because it may have saved others on the ground. We, I think more deeply, honor their choice because of what it showed us about ourselves. We may have Ghandi and Hitler within us, hiding and arguing somewhere in an unexplorable recess of our psyche; but we know now, through vivid example, that we have every reason to expect that we too can rise above isolation, alienation, and fight...yes, fight...for the reclamation of life, liberty and dignity.

I am a very reluctant warrior, and it's taken me a long time to come around to support the mission to liberate Iraq. And it will be a struggle; ground troops will have to go in (you can't occupy a country from 15,000 feet). But I believe that the degree of horror that is Saddam's method--judging from what is known of it and what is feared to be discovered--as it terrorizes a nation, is enough madness to call us to reclaim the human nature of moral clarity from the soft-bellied doubt of a cynical academia.

Do we have to free a nation--or a region--from the terror in the mirror we call Saddam? No. But we know we can do it. And maybe that's all we need to know--because, even more deeply, we know we will do it, because that's who we are.

Posted by Tuning Spork at 11:05 PM | Comments (0)


I learned what a platypus was from Mr. Rogers, and have some foggy memories of the puppets' personalities and voices (all done by Fred himself). But I remember the sets the most vividly; the opening pan of model streets and houses, the owl's tree, the trolley that disappeared into the wall and reappeared at King Friday XIII's castle...

But what I still, to this day, want to know is; what was the deal with that house? Who's house was it? I mean, the show opens with the panning shot, following the street en route to the little red house, and then Fred opens the door and walks into the house, but we're already in it. Then at the end he changes from loafers to shoes, sweater to jacket, and walks out the door leaving us inside. Huh? Was it supposed to be our houses he was visiting? No, 'cause Fred's stuff was in the closet, Fred's food was in the kitchen, and it's where Mr. McFeeley delivered Fred's mail. So when Mr. Rogers left at the end of the show, why was he leaving us there, and where was he going? It stymied me as a kid, and doggone it, it still does.

But my most memorable visit to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood wasn't a childhood visit. In the summer of 1995 several friends and I took a trip up to York, Maine for a week. Norm and I were up early one morning and turned on the TV. "Wow, Mr. Rogers! Haven't seen this in twenty years!"

There was a momentus event in the Land of Make Believe; a dancing horse and Henrietta Pussycat were to be introduced.
Now, my memory of the show I'd seen in the early '70's is hazey, but I remember Henrietta. She would say things like "how meow meow are you Mister meow meow Rogers?" This time the cat was dressed as a witch. Then it started to get weird.
First they were the "World's Smallest Dancing Horse and the Talking Cat-Witch". Eventually they became "the Dancing Horse and the World's Smalling Talking Witch" ("meow meow Cat-Witch" she corrected). I wouldn't doubt that they finally ended up as "the World's Smallest Talking Horse and the Dancing Cat-Witch". Bugs and Elle joined us during the show, and we were just laughing hysterically in a post-all-nighter morning fog as the bizarre storytelling unfolded.

I also remember Fred destroying the illusion. He had model sets of the Land of Make Believe, and would set them up in a line, to show us how they might look as one. And he would occassionally show the actual model of the town that was shown in the opening and closing credits.
So I think the set was not so much a house as it was a home. It was was where we spent our special time together. Fred's sweaters were in the closet and his milk was in the 'fridge just because he was Fred and we were us. It was a special place that wasn't his or yours or mine; it was ours. It was as much a part of the Land of Make-Believe as X the Owl's treehouse.

My friend Stacy, back in high school, met Fred Rogers on the Metroline commuter train that runs from New Haven to New York City. She got his autograph, and gave it to me:

"To Bob, Best wishes from your TV neighbor. Mr. Rogers 1980." I still have it. It's something I keep to remember two friends by.

Posted by Tuning Spork at 06:14 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2003

what is love

I totally owe Dawn Olsen for inspiring this drivel:

Love is like time; I know what it is until you ask me what it is...then I don't know. But much of the the character of love is time.

Patience is, I think, the best clue. We have the most patience with those we love the most.
Love is where we invest ourselves. We live our lives WITH other people, other things, otherness. Eager for connection. Maybe it isn't always pleasant, but it's what we want anyway.
Love is generous and needful, like any event...any relationship "Please make the most of me--I promise I'll make the most of you." Love is the meaning of life. Without the promise of love why would we even bother.

To see the view from the top of the mountain is worth the effort to climb it. Love is worth that struggle, all of it. But some have climbed that mountain and fallen from it--or have been pushed from it--and have decided that's it's better to settle in the valley than to struggle up the mountainside again.
Maybe the view wasn't worth the heartache. Maybe the view wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

Then, sometimes you climb the mountain and not fall off; but rather the mountain sinks and just crumbles underneath you.
Or, maybe, you're on the summit, she's brilliant and beautiful, you love each other like crazy...then she guzzles a bottle of uppers and hangs herself with the belt to your bathrobe. The view suddenly looks really really different. So you fold your arms, whistle a happy tune, and amble back down the mountain...with no regrets.

Yeah, sometimes we'll wonder why we even bother. That's normal enough. Then my nephew will wonder aloud how a camera works, coin the phrase "lunch powder", and refuse to smell his cousin's fragrant hair. ("Smell ya later" he said.)
We could spend our lives pondering just what love is, and why we should bother it. Me? I don't waste my time anymore. Say cheese and pass the lunch powder.

Smell ya later...

Posted by Tuning Spork at 01:03 AM | Comments (1)

February 24, 2003

who by fire revisited

In "Who By Fire" [see below] I intentionally implied that the band, Great White, might be foremost to blame for the tragedy at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island--and they surely share in that blame. But, as I also, by careful caveat, said that we don't have enough information yet to make any solid determination of who is ultimately responsible. But as more and more information becomes available, it's looking more and more like there's plenty of blame to go around.

This item casts doubt on the club owners' complicity, and the fire inspector's incompetence, in an ever more apparent sleepwalk to disaster.
Darn it, my gut feeling told me that that club owner, in that press statement, was maybe...hmmm...over-emoting. Maybe he was protesting to much(?). All concerned seem to have been force-feeding their time into a routine they'd all been through a thousand times before--comforted by the experience that it had all passed before without incident.

Why not gather the band, the club owners and the fire safety inspectors in a grand circle jerk of professional indifference and shower them all with the sparks of a dozen shows-worth of fireworks until they pass out from the pain? Huh? Then maybe wake 'em up and start again?

Yeah, okay; maybe only the material victims of that holocaust can claim a right of vengeance. But they're all dead.

Posted by Tuning Spork at 10:26 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2003

Independence vs. the courts: entrenchment of the incumbant party

Well, the 2002 election ballots are still warm and the 2004 cycle has begun. Richard Gephardt becomes the 47th Democrat to announce his intention to seek the nomination, John McCain is mulling over a possibility that he might challenge George W. Bush for the Republican nod. Or is he...?

It may seem like old news now, but when all this talk of election campaigns starts raging, my thoughts often turn to that travesty of a New Jersey Supreme Court decision made last October. You remember the one: Robert Torricelli--in a scandal induced freefall in the polls--bowed out of the race in order to be replaced on the ballot by a Democrat who had a chance of winning. The one where State law was tossed aside by the Democrat-packed bench. The one where the so-called "two-party system" was officially codified into law.

In 2000, Sen. McCain threatened court action in the case of the New York state Republican primary--where George W. Bush was the only one of the several contestants listed since, by law, the Republican Party of New York had the right to list only the candidate(s) it wished to list. Steve Forbes, in a televised debate, spoke against the practice as the institution of "a Soviet-style" forced party conformity. Shouldn't Republican primary voters have a choice among willing candidates? While the inner-workings of a political party may seem out of the jurisdiction of a state court; the outer-workings of a general election are clearly subject to existing statute. If McCain decides to seek a "third-party" nomination in '04, he may find his tussle with the New York Republicans to have been inadequate preparation for what lies ahead.

There are many reasons to protest the 2002 NJSC ruling. Sure, they ignored the statutory 51-day deadline for a party to change it's Statewide ballot. Sure, they substituted their definition of a "right to vote" for the Legislatures Constitutional authority to proscribe the voting process. Sure, they invoked their "duty" to divine the legislative intent of a statute that was wholly unambiguous. But those aren't my main concerns with the ruling. (Those are, of course, important concerns. But, for the sake of this post, I'll confine myself to the most unprecedented aspect of the ruling.)

Consider this seemingly high-minded portion:

"...the Court being of the view that -(it) is in the public interest and the general intent of the election laws to preserve the two-party system and to submit to the electorate a ballot bearing the names of candidates of both major political parties as well as all other qualifying parties and groups." "And the Court remaining of the view that the election statutes should be liberally construed --to allow the greatest scope for public participation in the electoral process, to allow candidates to get on the ballot, to allow parties to put their candidates on the ballot, and most importantly, to allow the voters a choice on Election Day."

Since they are claiming that this ruling, on the clear and unambiguous election law, is to "preserve the two-party system", and to make sure that candidates "of the two major parties" get on the ballot, they are stating in no uncertain terms that the Democrat and Republican parties (the Incumbant Party) are to be treated, in a court of law, with priviledge and deference not to be extended to any other party. The "Soviet-style" establishment of political parties has taken root in the New Jersey Judicial branch.

Political parties are not government institutions, they are associations of citizens pooling their resources and working together toward a common cause. The candidate on the New Jersey ballot was Bob Torricelli, not the Democratic Party.
Their defense of voter choice, as they consider that to be "most important", is completely indefensible. The voters had, as allowed by law, a Democrat candidate on the ballot--and his name was Torricelli. There were also six other candidates on the ballot. The fiat that there would have been no choice without both major-party's fronting of a candidate establishes that "third-party" candidates (no matter how many there are, they're always called "third-party" candidates) are henceforth functionally illegitimate; they offer no choice: they are not an option.

One can only conclude that if the New Jersey Legislature were to exercise their constitutional authority and, as was once common practice, appoint their Senators, the NJSC would have to rule that action unconstitutional. Also, that if the justices of NJ were instead in Massachusetts, or Virginia, or any of hundreds of other states, towns and districts, that uncontested elections (such as the uncontested re-election campaigns of John Kerry [D-Ma] and John Warner [R-Va]) would have to be ruled unconstitutional. Shall we mandate that political parties must sponsor a candidate? Should that mandate be restricted only to the "major" parties?. Is that any of the Courts damn business?

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, we've been told. New Jersey may have saved the Democratic Party from defeat last November, but they've paved the way for all "non-major" parties to be lawfully discriminated against in the future. These "third parties" are also associations of citizens pooling their resources and working together for a common cause, and entitled to equal protection under the law. Yet the Court, by virtue of the very stated rationale that formed it's judgement in the Torricelli case, has ruled against them. Shall we all hail the death of dissent?

Posted by Tuning Spork at 06:12 PM | Comments (0)

the Legislation that Ate my Freedom

Seems US Congressmen actually take notice when they realize that the victims of their well-intentioned incremental erosion of liberty turn out to be themselves.
It just makes me giddy these politicians will pass campaign laws they haven't read. They don't notice it--or care--that much when their willful incompetence governs the rest of us, but when the unintended consequences come back to bite them, well, they're positively horrified.

See Wednesday's New York Times story on the McCain-Feingold seminars. It made my week!

Seeing the number of constitutional issues involved (speech, assembly, due process, equal protection et al), one can't help but be further convinced that legislators are willing to knowingly pass unconstitutional laws, add language about "severability", and wait and see if the courts will bother to clean up the mess. In fear that opposition to a popular measure (though campaign finance reform never really was "popular") in defense of the Constitution and rule of law--as they'd taken an oath to do--may not sit well with their constituency, the alleged protectors of liberty shrug, pass the buck, and become the architects of tyranny.

The precedents for this operative contempt for the Constitution have been mounting. The national speed limit, the national drinking age, the Controlled Substances Act, and many others, all claim Federal authority in areas where none is granted by the Constitution.

In the Controlled Substances Act, title 21 sec 801, the difference between inter-state commerce and intra-state commerce is made irrelevent in Federal Satute when the needs of the Government to enforce the spirit of it's pet policies are literally limited by Art. I sec. 8.
In the speed limit and drinking age laws, the 10th amendment is overrun by Federal extortion and strong-arming. The statutes even go so far as to claim that the States still retain their sovereignty since they are free to make a choice about where their Federal dollars are going to be directed; for roads and highways-as they're designed to be, or for public service projects to educate the unwashed masses about the evils of drinking and driving.

When a State or Individual's "free choice" carries consequences, and retaliation, from the Federal government, that Constitutionally protected Sovereignty no longer exists.

Posted by Tuning Spork at 01:56 PM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2003


A live performer will do almost anything to excite his audience.
I say this as a live performer and as a member of many audiences. It's hard to give up a dream...especially one that's become a way of life. When a fisherman wakes up to discover that half the world has gone vegetarian he'll work twice as hard to corner as much of the market that remains. It's his livelihood afterall.

Last week I watched JAWS for the umpteenth time. By now you'd think I could quote the script word for word from memory. "It's a man-eater...it's a Great White!" Matt Hooper tells the Mayor of Amity Island. At least I think those are the exact words.

I read something somewhere recently where Peter Benchley (author of book-form Jaws) talked about his struggle to settle on a title for his story. "Jaws Of Death." "Within The Jaws." "When Jaws Attack" and other such options. The only word anyone liked was "Jaws", and so it became just that.

"In a suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, the '80's band Great White..." the radio spit out before I could hit the snooze button. "Sharks in New England again..." I thought. "...were playing a concert at a nightclub called The Station when a pyrotechnics display set the club ablaze."
More details followed. 30 patrons have perished. Then 35 were gone. The number was sure to rise, we were told.

I'd heard of the band, I must have. Heck, they were nominated for a Grammy--so we're now informed. I don't know their music. But I know now that they began their show; and moments into the opening number sparks were flying. A magnificent site judging from the video that's been playing on the news--taken inside the club by a film-maker doing a documentary on nightclub safety. Yes, the crowd was shouting, woo-hoo'ing, bottles of beer ritually raised in the air. Then there was fire behind the band. A guitar player, tight, a trooper going through his well-practiced riffs and phrases, was staring at the wall. Something had gone terribly wrong, the band played on. Three minutes later a hundred people were dead or dying. The rest were bottle-necked at the front door, firemen trying to pull them apart, to jostle them free. Three minutes; not even enough time to wonder how on God's green earth this could have happened.

"Stare not for too long a time into the fire, lest fire soon be all ye see," someone had cautioned Ishmael in Moby-Dick. Ishmael was mesmerized by burning whale oil, but his cautioner was talking about something else: obsession.

The assignment of blame has begun. The club owners claim they were never asked for permission for the band to use fireworks. The band claims that they asked, and were granted, permission verbally. The club owners had no permit to have pyrotechnic displays in their venue. At least four club owners who've hosted earlier dates in Great White's tour--the Stone Pony in New Jersey for one--claim that the band used those sparklers without permission. Some others say that the band had asked for permission, were denied, and obliged without protest.

Whatever the truth is--and we don't have enough information yet to know what the truth is--someone has made a grave miscalculation.

Could the club owners have been so obsessed with an inflated patronage that they allowed pyrotechnics in the 60-year-old low-ceiling wooden structure?
Could the band have been so obsessed with exciting their audience that they would use the white hot visual aids without regard to the niceties of written permission?
A live preformer will do almost anything to excite his audience. Being that the patrons weren't expecting any fireworks when they arrived at the door; one of those options seems more likely than the other.

Posted by Tuning Spork at 06:06 PM | Comments (0)


Apparently the "severe consequences" mentioned in UN res. 1441 that were to befall Saddam should he fail to disarm--or show proof that he has disarmed--did NOT refer to military action in the mind's of the French, German et al UN delegations. The "severe consequences" were to be more debate and, possibly, more resolutions.
Judging by the headache all of this is giving me, those are indeed severe consequences. Not for Saddam, of course, but for free people around the globe, and especially those yearning to breathe free in Iraq.

Posted by Tuning Spork at 02:13 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2003

Fisking Kinsley


A "fisking" of "MORALLY UNSERIOUS"
by Michael Kinsley
Friday, January 31st, 2003

a.k.a Robt.Warren Jones
Slacker Laureate Of Bridgeport
Sunday, February 2nd, 2003

This is my parsing, or "fisking", of Michael Kinsley's recent column in it's entirety. Since Kinsley took it upon himself to evaluate the inherent "logical consistency" and "intellectual honesty" of George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, I thought it would be fun to use the same standard to him. I've always been fascinated by differing personal perspectives on issues of the day--especially among politicians and pundits; where they come from, what they show, and how they're advanced. It is not my purpose here to make a case for an invasion of Iraq, nor for anything else discussed herein, but rather to examine the way in which a certain gifted political writer made the case against such a mission. In short: this is about method, not madness.

KINSLEY: "The second half of President Bush's State Of The Union speech Tuesday night, about Iraq, was a model of moral seriousness, as it should be from a leader taking his nation into war. Bush was brutally eloquent about the cause and--special points for this--about the inevitable cost. It may seem petty to pick apart the text."

SPORK: Not at all.......

KINSLEY: "But logical consistency and intellectual honesty are also tests of moral seriousness. It is not enough for the words to be eloquent or even deeply sincere. If they are just crafted for the moment and haven't been thought through, the pretense of moral seriousness becomes an insult."

SPORK: Bravo!, so far. Michael will now attempt a logically consistent and intellectually honest critique of the logical consistency and intellectual honesty of some selected passages from the State of the Union address (SOTU).

KINSLEY: "In his most vivid passage, Bush listed practices of Saddam Hussein such as destroying whole villages with chemical weapons and torturing children in front of their parents. 'If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning' he said, telling 'the brave and oppressed people of Iraq' that 'the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.'"

SPORK: All well and good, but we shall presently witness the way in which Michael the K either misrepresents or just plain misunderstands why Bush would invoke such human rights atrocities...

KINSLEY: "This is a fine, noble reason to wage war against Iraq. It would have been a fine reason two decades ago, which is when Hussein destroyed those villages and the United States looked the other way. It would be a fine reason to topple other governments around the world."

SPORK: There are two relevant conclusions one could draw from these three lines about Michael's world view, and they are both, for the most part, more characteristic of a Liberal world view than the Conservative.
Firstly, he responds to the current US President's speech with a hobgoblin's eye on the policy of past Presidents. He doesn't say it explicitly, of course, but by noting that "the United States"--rather than "the Reagan Administration"--looked the other way two decades ago, he is implying inconsistency or even hypocrisy in the policy of Bush today, the current "President of the United States". This may seem to be reading too much into it, but since this column's topic is the "logical consistency and intellectual honesty" of Bush's SOTU speech, I think Kinsley's mentioning of the events of two decades ago is no haphazard aside. It was placed to imply at least some suspicion of said inconsistency and intellectual dishonesty of the current President. What is identifiably "Left-liberal" about this is that it generally doesn't consider a person's identity, chiefly, to be individual...but rather to be defined more accurately by it's larger associations. George W. Bush then is not simply a man whom is currently the President of the United States, rather the implication is that he is "The President Of The United States" as was Reagan, Clinton, Carter, Bush the Elder, etc For Kinsley, this broadly conceptualized "President" is thus fairly criticized as being inconsistent and hypocritical if his 2003 approach to Hussein contradicts Reagan's 1983 approach. As I said, I don't think this is reading too much into it when you consider the topic and purpose of the column. Kinsley's left-leaning world view colors, if not controls, his perception of Bush as Kinsley himself states HIS world view.

Secondly, MK's opinion that Saddam's internal human rights abuses would be "a fine, noble reason to wage war against Iraq" and "to topple other governments around the world" as well, is also characteristically Left-liberal in that I think it stems from the idea that any and all "local" sovereignty should be denied when such sovereignty results in policies that seem to assault our collective notion of right and wrong policy. The characteristically Conservative approach to war (at least since the Vietnam inspired "Nixon Doctrine") was that Americans would be sent to fight ONLY if there were a vital or vitally strategic national interest in doing so (funds and materials could be provided to others, whom we support, in the absence of the vital national interest). Reagan went against the Nixon Doctrine in the case of Lebanon, Bush-41 in the case of Somalia (to the cheers of the Left mainly). Clinton, of course, went 180 degrees and actually boasted that there were, in the operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, no national interests at all at stake. While there were many on the Conservative side who did support the missions in Bosnia and Kosovo (and initially Somalia), those closer to the left seem more apt NOT to support military actions when there IS a national interest. I think this is because it is, by definition, "Nationalism", and that's a dirty word to those of more socialist bent. Therefore, sending Americans to fight and die for the Human Rights of people in other "nations" is noble and just, while sending Americans to fight and die for "America" is self-serving Nationalism. The fact that "America" is constituted of individuals whom happen to be Americans is lost to the logic because, as I noted earlier, of the propensity of social idealists to conceptualize people as members of larger un-personal groups rather than as individuals.

Okay, okay, I've gone on long enough about three seemingly inconsequential lines, but I think it's an interesting exercise to decompose Michael's perspective. Anyway....here is how, as I promised earlier, he either misrepresents or misunderstands Bush's purpose in invoking Saddam's human rights abuses:

KINSLEY: "Is the Bush Administration prepared to enforce the no-torturing-children rule by force everywhere? And what happens if Hussein decides to meet all our demands regarding weapons and inspections? Is he then free to torture children and pour acid on innocent citizens without fear of the United States?
"If Hussein's human rights practices morally require the United States to act, why are we waiting for Hans Blix? Or if the danger that Hussein will develop and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States justifies removing him in our own long-term self-defense, what does the torturing of children have to do with it? Bush was careful not to say explicitly that Iraq's internal human rights situation alone justifies going to war--though he was just careful enough to imply that it does. But Bush has said clearly and often that Hussein's external threat does justify a war all by itself. So human rights abuses are neither necessary nor sufficient as a reason for war, in Bush's view, to the extend that it can be parsed. That makes the talk about the torture of children merely decorative, not serious."

SPORK: Essentially, Michael has chosen here to put words in Bush's mouth by assigning a meaning to them that wasn't intended, and then to knock down that very house of cards that Kinsley himself erected. Of course Bush never said "explicitly" that human rights abuses alone justified going to war, because Bush never meant to say that. But MK suggests that Bush's words about that were meant to be misunderstood with the aside "--though he was just careful enough to imply that it does." I think we can safely presume that Michael, prior to writing the column, had already parsed the language and discovered no announcement that Iraq's internal human rights situation alone justified invasion; that makes the succession of rhetorical questions that preceded the "was just careful enough to imply" line a rhetorical trick, likely designed to arouse a wellspring of suspicious indignation. He surmised no answers to those questions; not because he was too dull to imagine what they could be, but because he already knew the questions themselves were incorrect.
So, just "what does the torturing of children have to do with it?" MK wouldn't tell you--that would stifle the cynicism he is attempting to elicit--, but I will. The riveting account of Iraq's atrocious human rights situation, to anyone who listened and felt the words uncynically, was "illustrative", not "decorative". He is answering questions like "What kind of a leader is Saddam?" "Would he REALLY hurt anyone with nukes?" "What has he ever done to forecast this?" "Just what is the danger of not acting?" A laundry list of past crimes against humanity, the sovereignty of his neighbors and his connections to global terrorist cells and networks, illustrates the seriousness of the threat he would pose to the world were he to acquire nuclear weapons of any grade. So the "talk about the torture of children" was not "merely decorative, not serious", it was instructive about Saddam's approach to problem solving, and is very serious.

KINSLEY: "And tell us again why we're about to invade Iraq but we're "working with the countries of the region" to pinion North Korea, which is further along the nuclear trail and can't even be bothered to lie about it. Bush's "axis of evil" coinage last year and recent flagrant North Korean nose-thumbing made it almost impossible for him to avoid addressing this logical conundrum. His solution was artful but mysterious: 'Our nation and the world must learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula, and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq.' He seems to be saying that the United States should have invaded and conquered North Korea years ago. But as Bush sets it out, the "lesson" of Korea seems to be that if you don't go to war soon enough, you might have a problem years later that can be solved through regional discussions. That doesn't sound so terrible, frankly. So what exactly is the lesson the Korean experience is supposed to offer?"

SPORK: He begins here with "Tell us again..", implication: we haven't been told at all why North Korea is so similar to Iraq that it offers up "lessons" that we can apply, yet so dissimilar that the two should be treated differently. The differences between the two situations are no secret and are readily available to anyone, especially the chronically curious like MK. The uncreative device Michael uses is not to offer the reader any evidence that there are differences while, then assuming that there are none, simply wonder at the "conundrum" of the differences in the approach to the two situations. Another house of cards built and knocked down by Kinsley himself. It's simply a feigned obliviousness of reasoned and plausible counterpoints that might fetter the otherwise cogent persuasion of his presentation...the better not to have to address them. You can usually spot when an author is using this device by noticing how many question marks litter the essay. Blanks are presented; and since a fully honest thesis might be cluttered with underwhelming vagueness, the blanks are left unfilled.
For instance: The differences may be many, but the "lesson" of North Korea, as Bush presented it, is applicable to Iraq precisely BECAUSE of those differences. Iraq has oil to leverage with, North Korea has nothing, and plenty of it. The U.S. trades with Iraq for their oil, and has agreed to trade with North Korea for their commitment not to have a nuclear weapons program. Iraq occupies central real estate in a troubled region, North Korea is surrounded by China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan; all major global traders.

North Korea will be dealt with diplomatically because a war with a nuclear power is a dangerous option, and in such cases diplomacy is almost certainly always and forever the default method of engagement. North Korea's bargaining position hasn't changed really; it's still all about WMDs; whether in it's potential to create them or in the potential that it has them. But that's all they have...no oil, no electronics, no contracts for flip-flops...not even bananas. N.K. at worst has a relatively drop-in-the-bucket sized nuclear program that (hopefully and expectantly) can be dealt with by applying pressure from the Democracies that surround it and, most importantly, from China.

Iraq, on the other hand (buffered by a neighborhood of, at best, liberally ambivalent neighbors), possesses a great supply of oil and leadership with a deep abiding hatred of the West. With nuclear weapons and other WMD Saddam can, if he made up his mind to do so, create havoc, economic and political, regionally and even globally. If we were to learn that Saddam has acquired nukes---either by his admission or through our discovery---and our options for engagement thus were to be largely reduced to that same default method of diplomatic negotiation, then the best position we would be in is exactly the one we are in today: attempting to "contain" a prevaricating, stonewalling, murderous sociopath using an under-effective weapons inspection regime in a perpetually inconclusive game of hide-and-seek.
So the "lesson" of North Korea would be that you don't follow the Carter-Clinton weapons-inspection model of wishful finger-crossing and neglect in the hope that your unverified trust in a tyrant is not misplaced.

MK closes the paragraph with a presumed interpretation of Bush's words, that "the 'lesson' of Korea seems to be that if you don't go to war soon enough, you might have a problem years later that can be solved through regional discussions." He then, accepting that this interpretation, from the side of the ledger of SIMILARITIES ("can be solved", as opposed to the obviously intended "unfortunately in the case of North Korea will be attempted to be solved"), announces that he prefers it and wonders again what the "lessons of Korea" could be. The point Bush was making, of course, centered on the DIFFERENCES between the two cases, and is that the "problem" of Saddam is precisely that it CAN'T be solved diplomatically. It hasn't been, it isn't being, and likely wont ever be.

It's interesting that M the Kinsley seems to prefer endless threat, uncertainty and tension to pro-active engagement; the same weak leadership style that kept the Cold War simmering for over four decades.....anyway;
After all that confusion about why Iraq and North Korea were being handled differently, Michael writes this:

KINSLEY: "There are actually plenty of differences between the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the one in the Middle East, and good reasons why you might decide to bring Iraq to a crisis and steer North Korea away from one. But all of these reasons cut against the Manichean notion of an absolute war against an absolute evil called terrorism. Bush is getting terrific credit for the purity and determination of his views on this subject. But either his own views are dangerously simplistic or he is purposely, though eloquently, misleading the citizenry."

SPORK: Wha...? He now concedes that the differences between the Korean and Iraqi situations may indeed demand different approaches, UNLESS you believe, as Bush does, that terrorism is "an absolute evil." (btw, I have no idea who or what "Manichean" refers to, but it's just an offhand metaphoric adjective and if you leave it out, the sentence reads the same.)
We can draw a major conclusion here about Kinsley's world view in that this entire paragraph presumes that moral relativism is synonymous with moral seriousness. The thrust of MK's observation is that since Bush has an idea about the existence of Evil, then Bush ought to combat It identically in all situations (i.e. not by dealing militarily with Iraq while dealing diplomatically with North Korea). While, in the broadest sense, Kinsley must agree that Bush IS, by Bush's definitions, combatting Evil (though in different ways in different circumstances); Kinsley now seems to imply that by combatting Evil in ways tailored to the risk, threat and consequences specific to each situation, Bush (for which "there are plenty of reasons you might want to" [and none offered for why you might NOT want to"]) is compromising his moral consistency and intellectual honesty.
MK concedes that Bush's more complex multifaceted approach is more sound, which must then mean that "evil" is not "absolute", and therefore terrorism cannot honestly be claimed to be "evil". Michael le K, of course, isn't attempting to make the case that "terrorism isn't evil" (that much is supposed to be understood as base a priori knowledge by the sophisticated reader), he is trying to make the case that either Bush's "moral unseriousness" (a belief in absolute evil) is "dangerously simplistic" [which already has been discredited by the admittedly multifaceted, and MK-preferred, approach], or that Bush himself is "misleading the citizenry" when he asserts that evil exists. And this, my friends, is exactly the case the column is attempting to make: the implications of Bush's "morally unserious" belief in Evil. If moral relativism is, as Kinsley holds it to be, the only serious approach to public policy, then Bush's obvious "moral unseriousness" must impugn his entire agenda; foreign and domestic.

KINSLEY: "Proclaiming the case for war as the second half of a speech that devotes it's first 30 minutes to tax cuts and tort reform also makes the call to arms seem morally unserious. Why are we talking about cars that run on hydrogen at all if the survival of civilization is at stake? Bush declared that the best thing to do with government money is to give it back to the taxpayers, and then put on his "compassionate conservative" hat and propose billions in government spending on the environment, AIDS in Africa, a program to train mentors for children of prisoners and on and on. The dollars don't exist to either give back or spend, of course, let alone both, so we'll be borrowing them if Bush has his way, a point he didn't dwell upon."

SPORK: The first sentence accuses Bush's morality (or perhaps just the speech's morality) of being unserious because, as he writes in the second sentence, "the survival of civilization is at stake." Michael does not explain why he "believes" that civilization itself is at stake.....undoubtedly because Bush never made such a claim. It's hyperbole and sarcasm infused to belittle, once again and without coherent argument, the case for war, - tellingly ending with that anti-committal question mark. Unserious.
He then shifts in mid-paragraph to some of the domestic agenda. This, too, is important not for any factual accuracy or inaccuracy, but for the left-liberal character of the language.
For instance: strictly speaking, tax cuts (as opposed to rebates) are not dollars that the government "gives back", they are dollars that are never collected in the first place--and those dollars do exist. The economic theory behind this, which MK does not present, is that tax cuts will put more money in the economy thus growing the economy, creating jobs, creating wealth which expands the tax base which grows revenue. I'm certainly not going to argue that case at length, as trying to figure out just to what degree a tax cut of X$ would instigate meaningful growth gives me a headache.

KINSLEY: "This orgiastic display of democracy's great weakness--a refusal to acknowledge that more of something means less of something else--undermined the moral seriousness of the call to arms and sacrifice that followed."

SPORK: Here is where Michael's left-ness is blinding. By "democracy" he means "capitalism". There is, it's fair to say, a curious misconception that the Left cling to (or maybe just haven't learned to unlearn) about free market economics: that a poor man is poor because a rich man is rich. Kinsley and others will eagerly maintain that in a falling stock market wealth is being lost, but rarely seem to understand that it had to be created in the first place. Economic activity doesn't just shift wealth from place to place in a zero-sum game. The very activity incites productivity--and wealth is created from that labor. Economic growth exists precisely because "more of something" does NOT necessarily means "less of something else."
Again, I don't mention this in order to advocate any particular magnitude of tax cut or spending initiative--I am not an economist, but rather to note how Kinsley offers not even a cursory mention of the economic theory that underlies Bush's proposals.

KINSLEY: "Sneering at the folly of tax cuts spread over several years instead of right away, Bush failed to note that those gradual tax cuts were part of his own previous tax bill."

SPORK: Kinsley finally cites an inconsistency that indeed exists. But since one could argue that as the economic forecast is updated, so should economic initiative. Bush's current proposed tax cut schedule could semantically be called inconsistent from his previous, but it is quite another thing to call it LOGICALLY inconsistent. Michael makes no case that it is, so the sentence makes no case for the column. So the sentence rings true, but hollow.

KINSLEY: "Bragging that he would hold the increase in discretionary spending to 4 per cent a year, it probably didn't occur to Bush to wonder what that figure was under his tax-and-spend Democratic predecessor. Short answer: lower."

SPORK: Michael doesn't mention that Clinton had a Republican congress, nor that Bush's first congress was split and he made some effort to compromise with Daschel's Senate and negotiated a budget increase of, I believe it was 8% (a large increase perhaps, but less than the Senate wanted).

KINSLEY: "These are venial sins in everyday politics, but Bush was striving for something higher. He had the right words for it. But words alone aren't enough."

SPORK: Words are certainly enough to deliver a morally serious address. Assessing the logical consistency and intellectual honesty of a policy speech should inspire the same in the assessor. Just as a true believer in UFOs might scoff at the "inconsistency" and/or "dishonesty" of someone who claimed openly that space aliens never crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, Kinsley, in his column, fails to take seriously the lens through which Bush has come to--and has presented--his vision.
Some writers will reject the validity of Bush's base frame of reference, and explain why. It may not occur to some others that different personal perspectives even matter. But Kinsley is smart enough to know these things as he's evidenced by carefully citing Bush's words, creatively assigning arbitrary interpretations to them, and finally re-presenting them through the lens of his own world view. A believer in the Loch Ness monster could be excused for this. But from someone as clever as Michael Kinsley it is seems to be an exercise in unserious, purposeful sophistry, replete with intellectual dishonesty.

Michael Kinsley's text copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company

Posted by Tuning Spork at 03:42 PM | Comments (0)
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