Frank Rich Strikes Again!

Just when you thought the world is safe from the inane, retarded bullshit spewed by the gaping asshole that is Frank Rich, he strikes back, come from the dead, like a zombie that refuses to be killed no matter how many times you’ve shot its head with a 12 gauge. He’s like the Rasputin of the newspaper columnists: you can belittle, ridicule, and ridicule him again, but every time he rises, like a very resistant case of the herpes.

Okay, the previous paragraph is of course a very hyperbolic, and let me add, unfair, assessment of Frank Rich. He’s not a gaping asshole that spews retarded bullshit: he is the merely the orifice from which unholy things emerge.

But seriously, I don’t personally know the guy, so I am just busting his balls a little bit (or a lot). I do, however, have a huge problem with the way he writes, especially about the way he writes about Hillary Clinton. Now look here, I am not going to vote for her, but I really think Frank Rich has got it in for her.

As if writing an op-ed column in which he compared HRC’s campaign management to Bush’s management of the Iraq war is not enough (see my response here), Frank Rich decides to write a column in today’s New York Times, trying to rip HRC a new one about her “gaffe” about the whole “dodging sniper bullets in Bosnia” story.

The title of the op-ed column?: “Hillary’s St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.”

If I didn’t know any better, or maybe it’s because I do, I think Frank Rich is trying very hard to replace Maureen Dowd as the NYT columnist with the most amount of “snark.”

The other thing about Frank Rich is that he is predictable, very predictable, especially when it comes to making exaggerated claims of comparison. Check out this claim in his column:

Instead, her fictionalized derring-do may have stirred national trace memories of two of the signature propaganda stunts of the war: the Rambo myth the Pentagon concocted for Pvt. Jessica Lynch and President Bush’s flyboy antics on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln during “Mission Accomplished.”

I honestly don’t know how in the fucking world Frank Rich can justify HRC’s story with “propaganda.” Again Frank Rich tries to argue, with all the subtlety of a motor-impaired alcoholic wielding a hammer in a china shop, that HRC is just like Bush. How in the fucking world can anyone equate the Jessica Lynch spin-job and “Mission Accomplished” with a fictitious story that HRC told on her campaign stops?

Like Jules used to say in Pulp Fiction: “It ain’t even the same fucking sport.”

The broader point about the whole “incident” with HRC’s Bosnia story is that we are still very firmly attached to the teat that is the 24 hours news cycle. Just like the Rev. Wright’s remarks were played over and over again on cable and youtube, HRC’s gaffe was being played over and over again now.

And that, friends, is the state of election coverage in this country. Now that Obama speech is brought back into sharp focus, especially when he says:

I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

He’s fucking right: who really cares if HRC told a lie about Bosnia? What the fuck does that have to do with anything about being the president? Does lying automatically disqualify you from being the president? If that is the case, then no one in America today is fit to run for that office, ever. What is the discussion about HRC’s lie really about? Because God help me, I can’t see that it has anything to do with a real meaningful discussion about her being the next president.

And that is the thing: we have become so fucking petty in our view on politics.

But who the fuck am I kidding right? After two more days, HRC’s little Bosnia story blows over in the news cycle, and we will all soon be watching some little stupid mistake that John McCain has made on YouTube, and all the talking heads (and here I am reminded of a great couplet from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men“: Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralysed force, gesture without motion”) will be arguing themselves to death and oblivion about whether the obligatory “apology,” the inevitable “renounce-and-denounce” speech served its political purpose of appeasing the so-called “controversy.”

Don’t you just love American political coverage by the media?

But lest y’all be confused: I, too, am guilty, and no less guilty than Frank Rich and others like him. After all, if it wasn’t for the fact that I check all the major newspapers and political blogs every morning when I wake up, between every break I have from work, then I would not be able to write the things that I do.

I, too, am a complicit actor and spectator of this theatre of the absurd, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Voting as a Problematic Expression of "Freedom"?

I meant to write about this post over at Crooked Timber a while ago, a post about the coercive elements in voting and its moral justification (or possibly its lack thereof).

I suddenly remembered that particular post when I was reading some Hannah Arendt for my political philosophy class. The assigned reading is from the fourth chapter of Arendt’s book Between Past and Future, titled “What is Freedom?” This book explores the traditional concepts often associated with political philosophy, such as freedom, justice, responsibility, etc., and tries to show that our traditional understandings of them have become increasingly in tension with contemporary reality. As you can see from the title of the chapter, Arendt was concerned with the notion of freedom as understood from a political perspective.

Reading that particular chapter reminded me of something that Harry Brighouse, who wrote in his original blog post that

voting, whether in a referendum or in a representative election, usually involves attempting to wield coercive power over others, and that many of those others are non-consenting.

Brighouse than goes on to say that just because voting is a form of coercive behavior does not automatically mean that any and all form of coercion is morally unjustifiable. It is an interesting argument, and it raises many questions which challenge the normal American conception of voting as a fundamental expression of political freedom.

However, what I am interested in is not the normative aspects (although those are certainly interesting, and warrants its own post, if I ever get around to putting down my thoughts). What interests me is that Brighouse doesn’t seem to think that the fact that voting is essentially coercive behavior is problematic–to me, he seems to take it for granted, something to be mentioned only in order to move on to his normative work.

To be fair to Brighouse, I know that his intention is to focus on the normative aspects of voting, but since I am reading Arendt, I can’t help but think that there is something problematic with the liberal conception of “freedom.”

The problem, or at least the tension, is this: in liberal political thought, especially American liberal political thought, voting is the fundamental expression of freedom, if not identical with freedom itself. After all, voting is seen as the only fair and legitimate way for individual citizens to express their political opinions and try to enact their political goals.

But I agree with Brighouse, because there is something very coercive about voting, at least voting in the American political system. And this coercive nature of voting comes from another pillar of liberal thought: the social contract, as seen in Locke’s writings. Locke was the one who wrote that the social contract is binding in a way that the body politic moves with the majority, and the minority moves along with it, and that so long as the decision-making procedures are fair (reasonable availabilities for participation, equality of voting, etc), then the social contract binds the minority to move along with the majority.

So where exactly does this leave room for freedom? After all, if there are 100 members in a political community, and 51 of them votes one way, 49 votes the other way, then the 49 are being coerced by the 51. Or even worse, the 49 are really being coerced by 2, since it is only those last 2 votes which are decisive. There is no real meaningful sense in which the 49 members who voted the other way are “free,” unless everyone acknowledges that whatever decisions made by the majority are binding upon everyone in the community. But again, why should that be the case? Why should the majority simply be obeyed because they are the majority? (To see a more extended, and more radical argument in this vein, check out Robert Paul Wolff’s short book titled In Defense of Anarchism).

The only meaningful freedom under this kind of political regime is at the moment of the regime’s creation: that is to say, when everyone in the community was free to participate in the regime and negotiate its operating terms. But once that moment is over, the members are bound by that regime. Sure, they can vote, but voting then becomes not an exercise in freedom, but an exercise in luck, because you don’t know which side you will come out on. Sure, you can try to persuade, build coalitions, or use other political maneuvers to increase the chance of your side being the winning one, but this is not guaranteed at all. And this is not to even mention that a lot of people simply don’t vote, and are denied even this very limited sense of freedom.

This kind of freedom is problematic with our usual understanding of freedom in the liberal sense: that is to say, freedom as sovereignty. In this kind of political regime, it is hard to see how individual freedom is individual sovereignty when the method of participation (voting) is essentially coercive. It is very difficult, at least for me, to see how an individual on the losing side can be “sovereign.”

But my main concern is not normative: I am not here to argue that any one conception of freedom is better than any other (at least not in this entry anyways). I am merely pointing out that the traditional liberal conception of freedom as sovereignty is problematic, or at least in tension with, the liberal tenet of voting as the expression of that freedom. Because the result, as I have tried to argue, is that only those whose votes end up in the majority are sovereign, while the minority are deprived of their sovereignty.

Thus, as I am inclined to agree with Arendt, the problem of freedom is such a huge problem in liberal political thought precisely because of this built-in tension between freedom in the abstract and freedom in practice in liberal political regimes defined by voting.

The choice is to either keep doing this philosophical dance, or to start over and try to come up with a new notion of political freedom that jives more with our political realities.

The War is Back

I was just thinking last week that it seemed strange that, after five years, the war was surprisingly receiving little (at least compared to 2007) play in the media.

But then this week, it looks like the war is back on the news cycle, precipitated by the Maliki government’s decision to launch a heavy assault on the Shiite militia. The Administration is spinning this as a sign of political independence, as this offensive was supposedly entirely coordinated by the Maliki government.

Which begs the question: if this is entirely the effort of the Maliki government, why are American forces involved? I clearly remember administration officials’ singing a different tune last year, when they were all saying that American troops should not play sides in a sectarian conflict.

Over at Crooked Timber, there are a couple of pretty good analysis of the Basra offensive (here and here), taking a deeper look at the political motivations behind the offensive. In short: Maliki needed to show his cards, or at least try to call a bluff on the militias, by launching this offensive in order to show that his government can try to do something even as the troop surge is set to expire, and the next president, whoever that is, will probably start withdrawing troops. Or, alternatively, it could be just a play to get continued American commitment.

Congressional Puff Pieces

My job at Maplight.org. is to research who supports and who opposes federal legislation, and then to find out how various special interest groups’ position on legislation dictate their campaign contributions to members of Congress who voted either yes or no on that bill.

So today, this bill comes down the pipeline into my assigned cue, and I just had to laugh, because my God, what a puff piece. This legislation (S. 720), titled “Army Specialist Joseph P. Micks Federal Flag Code Amendment Act of 2007,” amends title 4 of the US Code to

“to authorize the Governor of a State, territory, or possession of the United States to order that the National flag be flown at half-staff in that State, territory, or possession in the event of the death of a member of the Armed Forces from that State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty.”

If you actually read the bill, you will find out that it doesn’t do or say anything that is remotely meaningful. After all, what does it really do: it allows a governor of any US territories to fly the flag at half-staff if a solider from that territory died on active duty.

Well, boo-fucking-hoo.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that giving soldiers who died on active duty their due respect is a morally legitimate thing to do. But to make a law out of it? And a puff legislation at that? That is just ridiculous.

This bill is constructed in a way that no one can possibly be opposed to it, because to do so is to be called unpatriotic. But how exactly is enacting such a law truly patriotic? This is a blatant piece of manipulative, self-masturbatory law that is designed for no other purpose than for its sponsors and co-sponsors to go back to their districts and states and puff up their chests and say that they “really respect the sacrifices that our brave men and women have made while serving in the line of duty.”

Anyone who has done some research into how Congress, especially the Senate, works, realizes after a while that the Senate really doesn’t do that much, but whatever little work that Senators do end up consisting of puff piece legislations like this.

I recommend this video which hilariously explains just how little Congress actually works:


Lost in Translation: American Political Theory in Chinese

It is hilarious to me how Chinese people my family’s generation do not really have any grasp of the fundamental workings of the American political system. This became really apparent to me when I tried to explain, to both my family and their friends, what kind of jobs I am looking for after graduation, since with their good intentions, they wanted to know so they can ostensibly help me look for jobs.

But it soon became very very obvious to me that Chinese people really don’t have a concept for “civil society,” at least as it’s understood in American political theory as this intermediary layer between private citizens and traditional state apparatuses. Chinese people of my family’s generation have no such concept, and why should they, since a broadly Confucian political theory has no analogous concept.

When I try to explain to them that I’m looking for jobs at NGOs, they are always confused. So are you working for the government, they always ask? When I tell them no, they ask if I’m working for a corporation or a for-profit company. When I tell them no, they have this confused look on their face, because they don’t have a concept for organizations that are neither state institutions nor for-profit private companies.

This confusion has really given me some insight as to why Asian Americans tend to be politically very inactive compared other minority groups in America. After all, how could they be politically active if they do not understand the fundamental and critical roles that civil society interest groups play in American politics? To them, there is no such concept as a “civil society” in the Western sense, because it doesn’t exist in Confucian political theory. There is no intermediary between the state and individuals in Confucian political thought, and certainly in Chinese politics today the idea of “interest groups” do not really have a lot of purchase.

Sometimes I wish I would have just applied to law school so that when these people ask, I can say that I’m going to law school. And they would probably smile and congratulate me…

That is, until I tell them that I really don’t want to be a lawyer that goes to trial, at which point they will be confused again, because to Chinese people of an older generation, they can’t imagine a lawyer who doesn’t go to court, but who is instead a player in the policy process.

But what can you huh: it’s all lost in translation.

On the Use and Abuse of Truth

One question must be asked: what is the value of truth?

It all started recently with the revelation that a couple of well-known memoirs turned out to be fake, and there was a huge outcry among the media. But that puzzles me: after all, what does it matter, if it matters at all, that these memoirs are fake?

To me, these “fakes” only matter from a legal point of view: they mislead their publishers by selling the publishers stories which they did not create. But that is about it. Would there even be a controversy if these people simply told these stories without selling them?

Which brings me to the question at the beginning: of what value is the truth?

What is exactly wrong with making stuff up, if you are not doing it for the wrong kind of motives, i.e., to make money in an illegal way, to manipulate others and ultimately harming them, etc.

In other words: can one lie in a good way?

I think the answer is yes, because ultimately I am a pragmatic person. And as such, I will cite William James in The Varieties of Religious Experiences and say that if a fiction is needed in order for some people to live a better life, then so be it.

Then what ultimately matters is what kind of stories we make up and tell to others. This is why I am not ultimately opposed to mythologizing and telling narratives. I am with Nietzsche on this: sometimes society needs a myth in order to be life-affirming. Sure, the Founding Fathers were less than perfect than their words in the Constitution: they owned slaves, legalized the slave trade, but why should those FACTS matter if we are truly serious about pursuing equality and liberty?

All I’m trying to say is that stories matter, especially stories we tell about ourselves, because they constitute who we are in part. Sure, there are stories which are harmful, like Nazi stories about Aryan superiority. But that is only to say that that particular story is harmful, not that all stories are harmful. If society has a myth about peace, equality, freedom and establish those values as national values to be pursued, then I see no reason why those stories should be discredited simply because they are not the “truth.”

In fact, it is precisely because I know what actually happened that makes me value narratives and myths MORE. I know America has had a less than stellar record of treating its people equally, of granting all of its citizens liberty, of not living up to its professed ideals. But the knowledge of that, that is precisely what makes me appreciate the founding myths of America: the stories about the pursuit of liberty and equality.

Lying is a fundamental characteristic of America: Americans are obsessed with self-invention, to get rid of past histories, to create a new identity in a new place. Whether it’s John Winthrop saying that America must be a city upon a hill, or Gatsby’s reinventing himself into a capitalist–it’s all the same to me. The fact that many self-inventions and reinventions end tragically does not diminish my appreciation of the act.

This is not to say that the truth has no value; far from it, truth is valuable, but not in ALL circumstances. All I’m saying is that there can be good reasons for deliberately deviating from the truth.

It’s really easy to look at a story and do research and claim that the story is not 100 percent accurate–that is really easy. Anyone can say that something is not true, but it take an artist to lie in a way that makes life interesting, and ultimately, better.

The Weekly 10 #7

A little early this week, because I’m leaving on Sunday afternoon to fly to DC for my job interview.

So click here for the DL.

1) Billie Holiday – They Can’t Take That Away From Me (from Body and Soul)
By the time this album was recorded, Billie Holiday’s voice was pretty much shot (at least compared to her voice in the 30s and 40s) because of too much drug and liquor. But like Brian once said on Family Guy: no junk, no soul. And I think her voice here is extremely soulful, making up for her lost power. Personally, I think Billie Holiday’s interpretation of this standard song is more pessimistic than most interpretations, and that is refreshing. And the accompanying players are also very good: check out Ben Webster’s sax solo in the middle.

2) Duke Ellington – Prelude to a Kiss (from Duke’s Big 4)
Again, when this album was recorded, the Duke was already pretty old, but I am a fan of Duke’s small combo recordings just as much as his big band days. And his supporting cast is all excellent: Joe Pass on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Louis Bellson on drums. Duke can obviously still play the keys, and I really love how the song starts with Joe Pass’ quiet guitar intro.

3) Ghostface Killah (featuring Raekwon) – Kilo (from Fishscale)
I never understood what Raewkon was rapping about in the last verse of this song when he’s talking about different kinds of colored tops. But after watching The Wire, it totally made sense. This song is hilarious, especially the chorus: all around the world today, the kilo is a measure. As two of the best MCs in the Wu Tang Clan, Ghost and Rae do not disappoint.

4) John Coltrane – I Want to Talk About You (from Live at Birdland)
The best part of this song is at the end, when ‘Trane is just going wild by himself, going up and down the scale, just blowing like a wild man. But before that, it starts out sounding like a ballad, but by the end, the fireworks are going off.

5) Miles Davis – Love Me or Leave Me (from Walkin’)
The last cut on the album is a good indication of Miles’ apparent move in the hard bop direction after this album. As always, a good Miles cut is probably worth more than whole lotta other shit combined.

6) Muddy Waters – I’m Ready (from Fathers and Sons)
In tongue-in-cheek fashion, let me advance a theory that says that all blues originate from not getting laid. Just listen to this song and tell me that you don’t think this is about Muddy Water’s singing that he can’t get any. Well, you can’t. Anyways, I love this song because it is so energetic, featuring Muddy Waters’ booming voice and an exciting electric guitar and harmonica solos at the end. This song makes me want to move to Chicago, drink too much gin for my own good, and start a fucking fight.

7) OutKast – B.O.B. (from Stankonia)
This week marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, so what better way to celebrate (or not) than a song whose abbreviation stands for Bombs over Baghad. Ostensibly, the song has nothing to do with Iraq or Baghad, but it just sounds cool. Listening to OutKast makes me lament the state of modern hip hop: just think, it wasn’t THAT long ago when creative hip hop like OutKast had commercial success and critical acclaim.

8) Philip Glass – The Grid (from Koyaanisqatsi)
Is there anyone who has not seen Koyaanisqatsi? Well if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. This song is matched to that part of the movie that captures the modern American city, with its people and cars going in extremely quick motion.

9) Pornosonic – Cramming for College (from Pornosonic: Unreleased 70s Porno Music)
Someone hipped me to this on a forum, and I have to say that this is hilarious shit. Apparently Pornosonic made a bunch of adult-film music in the 70s, but due to various copyright hurdles, they were not released till now. This album is so campy and cheesy that it’s good: after all, how could you not love the album cover? In this specific track, Ron Jeremy has a voice-over intro, which is campy enough on its own. As for the song itself, it sounds like a mixture of Sly and the Family Stone and music on the Stax label, what with the horns, scratchy guitar riffs and all.

10) Portishead – The Rip (from Third)
Portishead’s third album has been leaked, and I couldn’t resist. “The Rip” starts out with a theremin and gentle guitar plucking. Soon enough Beth Gibbon’s voice comes in, and it sounds like it’s been processed with some reverb. The song remains pretty minimalist until about halfway in, the percussion and the synthesizer come in. So there is both an element of lo-fi and more produced style mixed in this song, which I would say is emblematic of the album as a whole.