Friday, July 29, 2005

Frist's stem-cell flip-flop

Hard to believe, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician himself, has abandoned Bush and embraced a bill to expand federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. He was way off on Schiavo, and he's spent much of his recent political career cozying up to the relgious right, but, finally, he's right on this one. It is imperative that there be more federal support for stem-cell research to support and complement efforts in the private sector, and Bush now finds himself alienated from both the overwhelming majority of Americans and his own party's majority leader in the Senate. (Bush may still end up vetoing the bill. It would be his first.)

Frist may yet be setting himself up for a presidential run in 2008, and this may or may not hurt his chances (conventional wisdom says it will, given how his allies on the religious right will respond, but I think it actually broadens his appeal), but he's shown some welcome independence here.

See Joe Gandelman's excellent post -- including an impressive round-up of responses in the blogosphere -- here.

Santorum's one thing. Do I now respect Frist, too?

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The Iraqi nightmare: What to do, when to get out

Two must-reads:

At Slate (see here), Fred Kaplan offers a plan to get out of Iraq by 2007:

The withdrawal clock can't -- and shouldn't -- start ticking until after this December's election, when the Iraqis vote for a new government. (They voted in January for an interim government, which would draft a constitution. The constitution is supposed to be completed in August and ratified in October. This is another reason for Rumsfeld's agitation: Fundamental differences among Iraq's religious factions are threatening to push back the deadline, which would push back the next elections, which would delay—for who knows how long—the U.S. withdrawal.)

At that point, it may take another 18 months for the Iraqi security forces to be equipped and trained -- assuming that, this time, the new government cooperates. So, under this scenario, the United States can start pulling out of Iraq, as Gen. Casey projected, by the spring or summer of 2006 -- and be out entirely by mid-2007.

This schedule would fit well with Republican election plans -- and it's unlikely the Democrats would strenuously oppose the plan. (Do they want to bill themselves as the party in favor of prolonging the war?) It also has the virtue of being a good idea. If the Iraqi assembly hammers out a constitution, if the elections take place, if Sunnis take part and win a proportionate share of seats, then enough citizens may be sufficiently satisfied with the arrangement to undermine the insurgents' base of support and legitimacy -- which is the key to all successful insurgencies.

And if none of these things happen, it will be time to ask whether the American troops in Iraq are serving any purpose, whether it makes any difference if they're back here or over there -- and, if it makes no difference, to ask why they can't just come home.

In the Post (see here), David Ignatius argues that Iraq will survive, though there are signs that the country has already descended into civil war:

A useful rule about Iraq is that things are never as good as they seem in the up times, nor as bad as they seem in the down times. That said, things do look pretty darn bad right now, and U.S. officials need to ponder whether their strategy for stabilizing the country is really working.

Pessimists increasingly argue that Iraq may be going the way of Lebanon in the 1970s. I hope that isn't so, and that Iraq avoids civil war. But people should realize that even Lebanonization wouldn't be the end of the story. The Lebanese turned to sectarian militias when their army and police couldn't provide security. But through more than 15 years of civil war, Lebanon continued to have a president, a prime minister, a parliament and an army. The country was on ice, in effect, while the sectarian battles raged. The national identity survived, and it came roaring back this spring in the Cedar Revolution that drove out Syrian troops.

What happens in Iraq will depend on Iraqi decisions. One of those is whether the Iraqi people continue to want U.S. help in rebuilding their country. For now, America's job is to keep training an Iraqi army and keep supporting an Iraqi government -- even when those institutions sometimes seem to be illusions. Iraq is in torment, but the Lebanon example suggests that with patient help, its institutions can survive this nightmare.

I would only repeat what I have said here before: The U.S. must finish the job it started and must push forward with a more effective plan to build the new Iraq. However, I suspect that domestic political considerations leading up to 2006 will prompt Bush to withdraw a significant number of American troops (and to lessen America's presence substantially) before that job is done.

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Northern Ireland: Peace in our time?

"It's the same old theme since 1916..." (The Cranberries, "Zombie")

Well, that might be changing...

Last night, I wrote a post over at The Moderate Voice on the I.R.A.'s decision to lay down its arms and to pursue a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Since that long post quotes extensively from articles in the Times and the Post, I'll just provide the link here. Go check it out. (And then come back and read some more! Actually, no, since I write at both The Reaction and TMV, I encourage you to read both blogs regularly.)

But let me at least offer some of my commentary:

As a Brit myself (dual citizenship with Canada), I've long wrestled with what to do about Northern Ireland, and, honestly, I've never reached anything resembling a conclusion. Part of me wants Britain to stay and fight for the Protestants who want to remain in the U.K. (and the Protestants are the majority), part of me wants Britain to pull out and give up on Northern Ireland entirely (why insist on holding on to such a mess?), and part of me -- thankfully, the largest part -- wants to see some kind of peaceful, democratic resolution to the decades of violence.

I hope that Blair's right and that "[t]his may be the day on which, finally, after all these false dawns and dashed hopes, peace replaced war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland," but the question still comes down to sovereignty. The violence may end, but what will happen to Northern Ireland? What kind of peaceful, democratic resolution will there be? After all, either Northern Ireland remains within the U.K. or it doesn't. Or, perhaps, it's split in two, just like Ireland is now. But then what?

For now, I think it's important to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. I have friends and family who have lived and worked in Northern Ireland, and I know British soldiers who served there at the height of the "Troubles". Aside, perhaps, for the extremists (who will never be satisfied by any compromise), everyone wants peace. Everyone wants to believe that there could be a non-violent resolution to the question of Northern Ireland's future.

Hope abounds, and rightly so, but we'll have to see just how effectively peace and politics replace war and terror. For if a widely satisfactory political solution doesn't emerge in the near future -- and there simply may not be one that appeals to the extremists and reins them in -- violence could return with a vengeance, sinking Northern Ireland back into bloodshed and hatred.

The will may be there to end the violence, at least for now, but it's not at all clear that this new effort will solve the problem of Northern Ireland.

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A bomb scare in Toronto

This one hits close to home. There was a bomb scare in Toronto's subway system yesterday morning. The Globe and Mail reports here:

A false bomb scare sent police and bomb-sniffing dogs into subway stations across Toronto on Thursday, exactly one week after failed bombings in London's underground train network.

Police found nothing suspicious after shutting down parts of two subway lines for about an hour just after 10 a.m., sending about 60,000 commuters onto the streets and crowded shuttle buses.

In the end, it turned out to be a false alarm, but authorities suspect it was a copycat threat in the wake of the London bombings. They also say that there will likely be more such threats in future. This one may have been a false alarm, but terrorism has us all on edge. Who knows if and when an alarm will be real? Toronto is, after all, one of North America's largest and most important cities. Why wouldn't it be a target?

I live in downtown Toronto. I take the subway to work every morning. Guess what'll be on my mind later this morning?

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Reaction to science: Dinosaur embryos and electrical currents

I already do "Reaction to the news" and "Reaction to the blogs," so why not "Reaction to science"? Two fascinating stories caught my eye today:
  1. See here: "Scientists have uncovered the oldest dinosaur embryos ever found, dating to the beginning of the Jurassic age 190 million years ago. The find, which has taken years to decipher, is helping them understand the development of a long-necked, plant-eating giant called Massospondylus carinatus." (The research was partly funded by the University of Toronto.)
  2. See here: "Scientists at the Nevada Test Site said they generated a current Wednesday equal to roughly four times all the electrical power on Earth. The experiment was conducted at the test site's Atlas Pulsed Power Facility by scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, along with staff from the test site and contractor Bechtel Nevada. During the few millionths of a second that it operated, the 590-tonne Atlas pulsed-power generator discharged nearly 19 million amps of current through an aluminum cylindrical shell about the size of a tuna can, the National Nuclear Security Administration said."

Check out the two articles, both from The Globe and Mail. Fascinating stuff.

Alright, now back to politics...

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The rise and fall and rise of "the bran muffin of fish"

We don't always have to talk politics, do we? Here's a great article on salmon -- yes, salmon -- by Bryan Curtis at Slate. Sure, there's certainly "salmon fatigue" out there (I experience it myself from time to time), but very few things in the culinary world beat salmon sushi and sashimi. Trends aside, that's good eats.

Alright, back to politics...

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Mission accomplished? The end of "the global war on terror"

That's the name, not the "war" itself.

Forget "the global war on terror," it's now "a global struggle against violent extremism".

Honestly, does the Bush Administration think we're not paying any attention to this nonsense? Do they think that they can just change their rhetoric without anyone noticing? Look, Joe's right, the problem is more than just a military one, and it may very well be that "struggle" captures the essence of the conflict better than "war". But what exactly does "violent extremism" mean? I've long criticized the use of the phrase "war on terror," often prefacing it with "the so-called". And I do acknowledge that a "war" on "terror" doesn't make much sense: "Terror" is an intangible quality, like fear, and how exactly do you wage war on something intangible? But isn't it nonetheless true that the enemy, such as there is a definable enemy, is terrorism? Or, rather, terrorists -- those who engage in terrorism, those who use terror as a weapon? Why blur that truth by switching from "war" to "struggle" and from "terror" to "violent extremism"?

Could it be that the "war on terror" wasn't going so well? Ah, there's a thought.

Just like the rationale for going into Iraq -- WMDs, then Saddam's brutality, then the spread of democracy -- the name of this war (or whatever you want to call it) is changed according to political necessity (i.e., when things go bad, the Bush Administration changes the terms -- like when Iraq's WMDs became WMD-related program activities). But you know what? I don't think Osama or his followers care what we call it, and they're going to keep doing what they're doing regardless of how we define them.

Revamped rhetoric pumped out for domestic consumption to prop up a failing presidency simply won't get the job done. And this from a president who campaigned on the war on terror and who has repeatedly touted his war leadership? Yeah, right.

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41% of Americans...

...approve of Bush's job performance. Steve Soto asks the all-important question: "[E]xactly how much political capital does a 41% president have to demand anything?"* (Note also the poll results on Roberts and abortion. Looks like I'm with the majority here.)

* Answer: not much at all.

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A prehistoric dildo?

Apparently. Gingersnapp has the BBC story here:

A sculpted and polished phallus found in a German cave is among the earliest representations of male sexuality ever uncovered, researchers say.

The 20cm-long, 3cm-wide stone object, which is dated to be about 28,000 years old, was buried in the famous Hohle Fels Cave near Ulm in the Swabian Jura.

The prehistoric "tool" was reassembled from 14 fragments of siltstone.

Its life size suggests it may well have been used as a sex aid by its Ice Age makers, scientists report.

It's nice to know that our distant ancestors were so sexual, but a prehistoric vibrator would be an even more impressive find.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Reaction to the blogs: The Plame Game continues

A round-up of what some of my favourite blogs are saying:

War and Piece (see here): Laura Rozen has the latest on Plamegate/Rovegate, with some good links to the Post and the Globe. It seems that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is looking into more than just the outing of a CIA agent, as he's turned to the possible (although quite likely) manipulation of pre-war intelligence by the Bush Administration. It's about time. At Hullabaloo (see here), Digby addresses the same story, but he's not getting his hopes up. At Talking Points Memo (see here), Josh Marshall sums it up nicely: "And all of this, of course, [is] meant to cover up the big lie -- the administration's knowing use of bogus WMD reports to convince the country to go to war."

Political Animal (see here): Kevin Drum addresses the Republican/conservative response to Plamegate/Rovegate: "Until Patrick Fitzgerald finishes his investigation, we won't know everything that really happened here. In fact, we still might not know even then. But we've learned one thing already: when presented with even a hint of evidence that someone on their team has treated national security with cavalier disdain, conservative concern with national security gets thrown overboard without a second thought. Dealing with Plamegate as a factual matter — did someone in the White House expose Valerie Plame's identity to reporters? — is no longer acceptable, because, after all, when facts are involved, there's a chance they can turn against you. Instead, for most conservatives, Plamegate has now turned into the public relations task of convincing the public that even if Rove did out Plame, outing a covert CIA agent is a perfectly acceptable thing for a White House aide to do. Welcome to the modern Republican Party." Truly disgusting. (And for those of you who think I'm being excessively partisan, let me just say that I'd be similarly disgusted if Democrats/liberals were doing this.)

The Carpetbagger Report (see here, here, and here): Steve Benen is all over Plamegate/Rovegate with three recent posts -- 1) The national media are finally paying attention, but there haven't been many critical editorials in the mainstream newspapers; 2) Wilson was right; and 3) After the Roberts nomination diversion, the White House press corps is asking questions again. Good news, sort of.

The Blue State (see here): Todd Haskins reports on a CNN/USA Today poll that has Rove with a "favorable" rating of just 25%. Of course, 25% also say they've "never heard of" him.

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Science vs. politics: The Bush Administration's twisting of the truth

Thought Mechanics has an excellent post on the Bush Administration's activities at the intersection of science and politics, arguing that policy decisions on such issues as stem-cell research and climate change have been based largely on "flawed, ideologically-driven, and intellectually-dishonest science". Or, to put it in a different (and perhaps more familiar) way, the science has been fixed around the politics. Result: climate change is overstated, just as Iraq has WMDs. But there's more. As T.M. points out, this fixing has also contributed to "the destruction of the public trust surrounding scientific inquiry itself".

Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, it was at least assumed that truth, however nebulous in any ultimate sense, could be discovered through scientific inquiry. There may yet be other truths, but science was a good start at trying to figure out the truths of the physical world. That's still true, of course, but the Bush Administration has done its utmost, it seems, to cast doubt on science as it pursues its own faith-based understanding of reality.

(Thanks to CommonSenseDesk for the link.)

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GERD revisited: The state of R&D in Canada

In a recent post, I argued, by way of Paul Wells of Macleans, that Canada is falling behind both its G8 partners (G7, substracting Russia) and up-and-coming, still-developing economic powers like China, India, and Brazil in terms of investment in R&D. The quantitative basis for this assessment is a statistic known as GERD, or Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (measured as a fraction of GDP) -- hence GERD/GDP. Wells notes that Canada's GERD has been declining over the past few years and suggests that this is a serious problem. In my post, I concur.

A reader, whose comments can be read if you link to the post in question (above), argues in response that "[t]his is a misleading analysis". More, this reader calls it "dishonest". He or she notes that "[t]he only thing the GERD is saying is that R&D growth didn't keep pace with Canada's GDP growth". Indeed, Canada's GERD "was actually higher than the EU's in a straight comparison of R&D without taking it as a percent of GDP".

Fair enough. Like all statistics, GERD/GDP isn't perfect, and he or she makes some valuable points, especially in his or her follow-up comment. But let me respond:

To begin, I'm not so sure that comparing Canada to the E.U., a notoriously laborious economy, makes much sense. So we're doing better than Europe. Good for us. If Europe was truly the benchmark it once was, then fine. But it's not. The rest of the world -- which, as Thomas Friedman likes to point out, is becoming ever more flat -- is leaping ahead, and it's to these newer, more dynamic economies that we should be looking. (I'm pro-European, on the whole, but even I must acknowledge that its economy, taken aggregatively, is clunky.)

Before I go on, let's look at some actual GERD numbers:

  • Israel (2001): 4.48%
  • Sweden (1999): 3.78%
  • Finland (2000): 3.37%
  • Japan (2000): 2.98%
  • United States (2000): 2.70%
  • South Korea (2000): 2.68%
  • Germany (2001): 2.52%
  • France (2000): 2.15%
  • Taiwan (2000): 2.05%
  • Netherlands (1999): 2.02%
  • Canada (2001): 1.93%
  • United Kingdom (2000): 1.86%
  • Australia (2000): 1.53%
  • Ireland (1999): 1.21%
  • New Zealand (1997): 1.11%
  • Russia (2000): 1.09%
  • Italy (1999): 1.04%
  • China (2000): 1.00%
  • Spain (2001): 0.96%
  • Hungary (2000): 0.81%
  • Poland (1999): 0.70%
  • Greece (1999): 0.67%
  • Turkey (1999): 0.63%
  • Mexico (1999): 0.40%

Now, if nothing else, this ranking more or less matches common sense. At the top of the list are dynamic, vibrant, forward-looking, post-industrial countries/economies. Israel, for example, has invested heavily in the high-tech and defence industries, and Sweden, Finland, Japan, the U.S., and South Korea tend to be at the forefront of technological progress. At the bottom of the list are traditionally backwards countries/economies that are either making the transition from communism to capitalism (Russia, China, Hungary, Poland) or that are still quite agrarian or industrial (Spain, Greece, Turkey, Mexico). On this basis alone, GERD/GDP tells us something.

In addition, as I wrote in my reply to this reader, GERD means little if taken in absolute terms. What would it mean, for example, if a country's GERD doubled over the course of a few years if, in the same period, its GDP quadrupled? Shouldn't investment in R&D (GERD) at least keep up with GDP? Should we not expect a country with a dynamic, forward-looking economy to invest in R&D at a rate that exceeds GDP growth? Should we not expect, at the very least, GERD consistency? Canada's GDP may be going up -- and I agree that our economy has been quite good recently -- but a declining GERD/GDP means that our investment in R&D is going down relative to our overall economic performance.

Look at it this way, if I may try my hand at a layman's analogy: Let's say that my income for June was $1,000 and that during that month I spent $50 on books (consider it forward-looking intellectual development, which is why I'm not including my DVD expenditures). That would be a GERD/GDP, so to speak, of 5.00%. Now, suppose that my income for July jumps to $2,000 while my book expenditures rise to $75. In absolute terms, the GERD would show an increase of 50% ($50 to $75). Not too shabby. But my GERD/GDP would be 3.00%. One number looks good, the other not so good. One shows an increase, the other a decrease. Which one is more important? I'd say the latter -- i.e., GERD/GDP. Given the increase in my income, my book expenditures should have risen accordingly (to $100). But they didn't, which means that I'm not keeping up with past performance. Now, that $25 might have been well spent elsewhere. Perhaps I used it to pay down my debt or to buy armor to protect myself or to go to the dentist. Sure, paying down the national debt, national defence, and health-care are important issues, and they need to be addressed. But there's a trade-off. If I (or a country) spend more on, say, health care, I (or that country) will have less for intellectual development (or R&D).

Reading through the some of the literature, it's clear that GERD/GDP matters. Some Australians, for example, are deeply concerned about their country's low R&D expenditures relative to GDP -- see here. And here: "The Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee’s Key statistics on higher education (2001) reports that Australia’s gross expenditure on research and development of 1.49% of gross domestic product is still seriously below the OECD simple average of 1.71% and the OECD average weighted by GDP size of 2.18% of GDP... An additional investment of $US 1,017 m or an increase of 15% would be needed to bring Australia’s gross expenditure on research and development up to the OECD simple mean, and an additional $US 3,154 m or an increase of 47% would be needed to bring Australia up to the OECD mean weighted by size."

The same is true in Canada. According to Michael Volker, director of Simon Fraser's University/Industry Liaison Office, "[n]o matter which study or report you read which compares Canada’s research and development expenditures to those of other countries, the findings are usually disappointing". Referring to "the oft-cited GERD/GDP ratio," he argues that in British Columbia and Alberta "the growth in R&D expenditures and the magnitude thereof pale in relation to other jurisdictions". (See here for Volker's piece.) This assessment of poor GERD/GDP in western Canada is backed up by government research (see here). Elsewhere, the government has itself acknowledged (see here) "Canada’s backwardness with respect to the G7 countries".

Trust me, I don't like this at all. But, in the government's own words, "[t]he percentage of GDP devoted to research and development (R&D) [i.e., GERD/GDP] remains one of the most commonly used indicators to measure support for innovation". Canada may no longer be "[bringing] up the rear among industrialized countries," but we could be doing much better than we are. And we don't really need a statistic to tell us that.

Given our relatively healthy economy, as measured by GDP growth, it seems to me that we owe it to ourselves -- and, more importantly, to future generations of Canadians -- to devote a greater percentage of our GDP to R&D.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Roberts, Roe, and the American judiciary

The Anonymous Liberal, with whom I now cross-link, has an excellent piece on abortion, liberalism, and judicial philosophy in anticipation of the upcoming confirmation hearings for John Roberts -- see here. I encourage you to read his entire post, but I want to quote it extensively here:

[A] nominee's opinion as to whether Roe was correctly decided is virtually meaningless. It's certainly no indicator of how "liberal" the nominee is. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been quoted as saying that she thought Roe was a questionable decision. Simply put, what a nominee thinks about Roe says virtually nothing about how that person will rule on any other issue.

Liberals, therefore, should not let the Supreme Court nomination process focus on Roe. We should instead focus on what a nominee thinks about the importance of legal precedent. Is the nominee the kind of person who respects precedent and understands the real world consequences of overturning well-established law? Or is he the kind of person who allows ideology to blind him to such consequences.

Liberals should also focus on highlighting the inconsistency and consequences-be-damned recklessness of originalist thinking. For instance, even the most devout originalists, such as Justice Thomas, often fail to follow their own philosophy. Affirmative action is a good example of this inconsistency. There is a veritable mountain of historical evidence that the drafters of the 14th amendment did not intend to outlaw affirmative action. Indeed, the very people who drafted the amendment simultaneously created the Freedmen's Bureau, a massive government agency devoted solely to large scale affirmative action initiatives. Thomas nevertheless insists that affirmative action violates the 14th amendment. Similarly, both Scalia and Thomas have decided cases based solely on unwritten "principles of federalism" that are somehow implied by the structure of the Constitution. These principles, however, are just as illusive as the infamous "right to privacy" that originalists are so quick to condemn.

Pointing out hypocrisy only gets you so far, though. Liberals must also point out the extent to which originalism is incompatible with our modern laws and institutions. For instance, people must be told that under Thomas's originalist interpretation of the Establishment Clause, the separation of church and state that we take for granted would only apply to the Federal government. States would be free to found churches or build monuments to Jesus in the public square. On a more fundamental level, originalist thinking puts much of our modern administrative state in jeopardy, including virtually all important regulations governing the environment, public safety, working conditions, etc.

With so many important things to talk about, it's a pity we always focus on the one that's the least illuminating.

I tend to agree with A.L. here, but, admittedly, there is much more that could be said for and against "originalist thinking" and its application, as well as for and against the "hypocrisy" of Scalia and Thomas.

But it is certainly true, I think, that abortion's hold on the American political (if not judicial) mind -- and, more specifically, on the minds of those of us who are paying attention to the Roberts nomination -- is disproportionately high. There is a knee-jerk tendency to think about Supreme Court justices and those either nominated for the Court or considered to be candidates for such nomination in terms of where they stand on abortion -- and, more specifically, of where they stand on Roe, as if one's judicial philosophy and political ideology can be determined by whether one thinks Roe should be upheld or overturned. It's an unfortunate black-and-whiteness that oversimplifies a complex issue (who except the radical fringes doesn't think abortion is a complex issue?) and pushes aside other and in some cases more significant areas of constitutional law, such as commerce, crime and punishment, civil rights, the environment, and the separation of church and state.

This is not to say that abortion isn't an important issue, nor that Roberts's (or any other candidate's or nominee's) views on abortion shouldn't be considered. But the centrality of abortion in American political life does need to be reconsidered, especially when we're talking about the Supreme Court. It's simply not the most illuminating issue.

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Eunuchs in Alabama

Fellow TMV co-blogger David Schraub looks at castration-as-punishment here. Yikes. Who knew there was precedent for this? Who knew that the Supreme Court had already waded into the castration quagmire, back in 1927 and 1942? You know, I have a lot of relatives down in 'Bama, but their state is certainly one of America's most insane.

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The return of the DLC

Over at Booker Rising, a black moderate/conservative blog that kindly links to The Reaction, Shay posts on the Democratic Leadership Council's meeting in Columbus, a meeting headlined by the moderate likes of New York Senator Hillary Clinton (is she a moderate?), Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, Virginia Governor Mark Warner, and Iowa Governor (and new DLC Chair) Tom Vilsack -- all of them eyeing 2008, of course. Shay: "The DLC is headed in the right direction. Democrats were stupid to discard the strategy that enabled them to elect and re-elect a Democrat for the first time in decades. Instead, the unsuccessful leftist wing has hijacked the party." (I see that Amba comments here.)

I'll have more to say about the state of the Democratic Party in the days ahead, when I look at why Republicans are winning and Democrats are losing.

For now, given how late it is, suffice it to say that I agree with Shay... to a point. Although I tend to side with the DLCers against, say, the Deaniacs, I worry that the Democrats, as per usual, are engaging in vicious internecine strife at the expense of party unity. The two major American parties, after all, are big-tent parties, and electoral success often means harnessing the strengths of internal diversity and translating them into a coherent platform with broad appeal to a diverse electorate. (If you want ideologically rigid parties, go to Europe and seek out PR electoral systems.) Internal debates may be useful in a stimulating sort of way, and I certainly prefer parties that allow for dissent over ones that enforce conformity, but narrow ideological squabbling tends to be counter-productive by diverting attention away from the ultimate goal of electing candidates.

Why can't the DLCers and the Deaniacs and all the other sub-groups of Democrats just get along? Can't they see that they have a common opponent? Don't they realize that they won't succeed without each other? Or would they all rather be ideologically pure than politically successful? Time will tell. 2006 is right around the corner.

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What the deuce?

Did I just admit that I respect Rick Santorum? Uh, yes. Was I out in the sun too long today? Am I delirious? No, and I don't take it back. But this now means I'll have to find a new least favourite senator. Candidates: Byrd (D-WV), Coburn (R-OK), DeMint (R-SC), Frist (R-TN), Inhofe (R-OK), Lott (R-MS), McConnell (R-KY). (I'm leaning towards McConnell, but Coburn and DeMint are close.) Okay, that's 6-1 for the Republicans. (Yes, I tend to support the Democrats.) But gimme a break, I just admitted that I respect Rick Santorum. That's all the "fair and balanced" outreach to the GOP I can muster for the time being.

(And you, dear readers, who are your least favourite senators?)

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Yes, Rick Santorum is insane... maybe...

I first asked the question here, but now I find out that he's on The Daily Show tonight. I'm watching it an hour late on CTV (that's a major Canadian network, my American friends), and he should be on any minute. Let's see how our favourite late-night host handles him. With respect and a healthy sense of humour, I suspect...

Yes, Jon's being nice. He and Rick agree that ice cream is a tasty treat.

Rick refers to the breakdown of social capital. Who is he, Robert Putnam? Next thing you know he'll complain about bowlers who do it alone.

The family, "the basic unit of society". Okay, fine. "Marriage has been under siege." By whom? By all those straight people getting divorces? By all those loving gay and lesbian couples who want to unite for life? Shouldn't defenders of marriage admire those who want to enter and uphold the institution they so cherish? Jon: "Virtue is unrelated to sexuality [and] unrelated to religion." Well, sometimes. But what is the basis of such secular virtue? Rick: "What government should be for is what's best." This from a guy who supports Bush?

How amazing is this? A liberal and a conservative bridging the chasm of bipolar politics and having an intelligent discussion about virtue! Disagreeing yet doing so respectfully. Rick makes a passionate defence of traditional, heterosexual marriage. And? Why is the "best case" a union of one man and one woman? And how exactly will changing the laws to sanction same-sex marriage "harm children"? Rick: "In my mind, we've lost virtue." Maybe Bill Bennett and his gambling problem would help. Rick: "I'm more worried about Victoria's Secret ads." Well, I'm worried about them, too, where children are involved. Oh, Rick just mentioned Bennett's book (The Book of Virtues). And Jon makes a gambling reference. Nice.

Rick seems to be having fun. Good sense of humour.

And that's it. Good interview. Good conversation.

Okay, Rick Santorum doesn't look insane, he doesn't sound insane, and, for all I know, he doesn't smell insane. And you know what? He's more intelligent than many of Jon's political guests, whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, and at least, at the very least, he has the courage to go on The Daily Show to share his views with a fairly hostile audience. Too many of Jon's right-leaning guests have no idea what to make of him and end up looking confused. Not so Rick Santorum.

But here's the problem: He's said so many insane things. And now, from what I can tell, he's written some pretty insane things, too. Check out what Echidne has to say here.

So is he insane? Ah, I don't know. He's an easy target for the left, he seems to be a fairly narrow-minded ideologue somewhere out on the fringes of the Republican Party, and, overall, I've never much cared for him, but I suppose I -- gulp! -- respect him. I still hope he loses to Bob Casey next year, but, in the meantime, let's hope he a) does as little harm as possible; b) provides ample ammunition to Democrats; and c) continues to amuse us with his outrageous rhetoric.

I suppose insanity is a matter of perspective.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

The Reaction 10,000

Late yesterday evening, The Reaction passed 10,000 hits since its inception at the end of March. Obviously, success is relative, and I certainly have dreams of the heights to which this blog could go, but I must admit that I'm doing better than I ever could have predicted back when I ventured out into the blogosphere without much of a clue.

I would like to thank the many friends, acquaintances, and supporters I've met out here, especially those who have linked to me, included me in their blogrolls, and generally welcomed me into the community with open arms. Just check out my own blogroll over on the right sidebar and you'll find some truly wonderful blogs run by some truly wonderful people.

I'd like to thank Vivek Krishnamurthy and Ari Baum for helping me out with the technical side of blogging. The Reaction wouldn't look nearly as good had they not been there for me.

I'd like to thank my friends and family for being so supportive. A lot of hard work goes into blogging, and it's all come to seem like a full-time commitment, but I wouldn't be where I am today without that support.

And, of course, I'd like to thank all of my readers for checking me out, coming back, and, hopefully, enjoying what The Reaction has become. Some of you have been here since the beginning, others have become loyal readers along the way, and, of course, many of you are new. And I continue to welcome you all. Needless to say, there's more to come.

Is 10,000 a lot? I don't know. It certainly is to me. Every single new hit makes me happy, and I hope that everyone who stops by finds something of interest. Of course, the biggest political blogs get hundreds of thousands a day, and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, which just passed the million mark after a few years in existence, now has its sights set on two million.

Sure, I want more hits -- who doesn't? -- but to me blogging is more about the writing -- about engaging myself and my readers, about addressing the world in an intelligent way, about encouraging thoughtful discussion of a wide range of issues and stories, about doing my bit to raise the level of public discourse -- than it is about popularity. Now, I'm a glutton for popularity, don't get me wrong, but I hope that whatever popularity (whatever success generally) I achieve out here (and thus far it's quite modest, let's be honest) comes as a result of these efforts.

Thanks again. On with The Reaction!

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Eyes (still) wide shut, part II: Cheney defends torture

Well, more or less. Amba has the story here, quoting extensively from an article in today's Times. Here's some of it, and I think it speaks for itself:

Vice President Dick Cheney is leading a White House lobbying effort to block legislation offered by Republican senators that would regulate the detention, treatment and trials of detainees held by the American military.

In an unusual, 30-minute private meeting on Capitol Hill on Thursday night, Mr. Cheney warned three senior Republicans on the Armed Services Committee that their legislation would interfere with the president's authority and his ability to protect Americans against terrorist attacks.

The legislation, which is still being drafted, includes provisions to bar the military from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross; prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees; and use only interrogation techniques authorized in a new Army field manual.

The three Republicans are John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John W. Warner of Virginia, the committee chairman. They have complained that the Pentagon has failed to hold senior officials and military officers responsible for the abuses that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad, and at other detention centers in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.

McCain, Graham, and Warner. Hardly a triumvirate of bleeding-heart liberals. Would anyone care to defend Cheney on this one? I'm just not sure how mandating the humanitarian treatment of detainees is such a bad thing.

(For part I, see here.)

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The meaning of moderation: Beware the siren call of extremism

It may now be somewhat self-serving of me to link to The Moderate Voice, but here I simply must. Joe has written a passionate and thoughtful defence of being a moderate (and of political moderation generally). Please give it a look here. Joe's analyses of politics and culture are always balanced and nuanced -- which is why I'm excited to be a part of TMV -- but he knows as well as anyone that moderates tend to be squeezed out of the left-right bipolarism that characterizes so much of today's political discourse, especially in the preaching-to-the-converted echo chambers of the blogosphere.

In Book VI of Plato's Republic (Bloom translation), Socrates and Glaucon address moderation, one of the four cardinal virtues:

Socrates: Now is it possible that the same nature be both a lover of wisdom and a lover of falsehood?

Glaucon: In no way.

Socrates: Therefore the man who is really a lover of learning must from youth on strive as intensely as possible for every kind of truth.

Glaucon: Entirely so.

Socrates: But, further, we surely know that when someone's desires incline strongly to some one thing, they are therefore weaker with respect to the rest, like a stream that has been channeled off in that other direction.

Glaucon: Of course.

The problem nowadays is that there is no longer such a vital distinction between "wisdom" and "falsehood". Nor is there much of a striving after "every kind of truth". And, indeed, what we find on both ends of the political spectrum, among liberals and conservatives alike, are narrow and sometimes extremist advocates whose "desires incline strongly to some one thing" to the exclusion of "the rest". Plato is discussing the difference between philosophers and non-philosophers (and false philosophers), but, as always, the lessons of the Republic are universally applicable.

However I label myself, or however others label me, I would like to think of myself in political terms as a partisan of moderation. History is replete with examples of what's wrong with extremism, and of what can go wrong when extremism takes over, whereas moderation is, as Leo Strauss understood, both one of the central virtues of citizenship and one of the key elements of classical political philosophy: "For moderation is not a virtue of thought: Plato likens philosophy to madness, the very opposite of sobriety or moderation; thought must not be moderate, but fearless, not to say shameless. But moderation is a virtue controlling the philosopher's speech."

Politically speaking, today's moderates -- liberal, conservative, centrist -- must be fearless as they attempt to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of extremism.

Reader: How can you call yourself a moderate?
TMV: Like this: I'm a moderate.

"We're going to keep reading ALL ideas and positions and present to readers on this site MANY IDEAS from MANY people -- and our own." Exactly, Joe. That's the way to do it.

Moderates, beware the siren call of extremism. It will lead you to your destruction.

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Clinton and Rwanda

Former President Bill Clinton has apologized for not doing enough to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Back in 1994, about 800,000 Rwandans -- mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- were killed by Hutu militias. It's still not clear what was known, and when, but I think Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time, was right to lay the blame broadly on the international community for failing to act. Clinton's apology is sincere, no doubt, and he is working valiantly to deal with the AIDS epidemic in Africa, but we all need to learn from that international failure and to intervene, where necessary, to prevent history from repeating itself -- yes, that means Darfur, but also Rwanda's neighbours, such as the Congo (see here for the latest).

Last year's Hotel Rwanda (****) did much to raise awareness of the Rwandan genocide. Let's hope we don't need a Hotel Darfur or a Hotel Bukavu a decade from now to show us what went wrong this time.

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