Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Best Result From Congress — James Fallows in The Atlantic articulates why Congress should vote No on going to Syria.

One week ago at exactly this time — it seems like a year — the political world was on waning-moments countdown for the expected U.S. strike on Syria. Then about an hour later, President Obama took the surprising and highly welcome step of saying he would request approval from Congress.

Let me spell out what was implicit in the items I was putting up just before and after the President’s decision. You can find them all collected here, including the one by William Polk that continues to get a lot of attention. In the past few days, like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates (and for the same reason, the nightmare of actual article-writing), I’ve mainly been off line. Here is how things look to me a week further on:

  1. Obama’s decision to involve Congress is the one clearly positive result of the horrific Syrian civil war. Whatever the reasons for his decision, it will help redress the decades-long distortion in executive and legislative power over military action.
  2. If I had a vote in Congress, I would vote No. I wasn’t sure of that a week ago, as I’ll explain below. But it is how I feel now because of this next reason #3.
  3. The President and many of his supporters have made an ironclad case that something should be done about the disasters and atrocities in Syria. But they have barely even tried to make a case that the right something is U.S. airstrikes without broad international support. Thus:
  4. Obama himself should hope that the Congress turns him down. A No vote would offer a legitimate if temporarily “humiliating” way out of what is looking more and more like an inexplicable strategic mistake.

Now the details.

On why Obama’s decision was so valuable: I gave part of my explanation nine days ago. Garrett Epps explained the legal and historical reasoning around the same time. Zachary Karabell talked about the (wholesome) political implications yesterday. Many others have stressed the same thing. Overall: since at least the Vietnam era, people on all sides of American politics have lamented the seemingly unstoppable rise of an Imperial Presidency. Obama may not have had this in mind a month ago or even a week ago, but his decision will help brake (and break) that trend.

On why I was ready to hear his case, once he decided to make it to Congress: I had obviously been skeptical of unilateral military involvement Syria. A week ago we were headed toward action that was unilateral in two ways. One was the absence of UN, NATO, EU, UK, or other broad alliances that have been amassed for nearly all modern military strikes. The other was the domestic unilateralism of Obama’s deciding this all on his own.

For me, the very fact of going to Congress made the plan presumptively more legitimate. If we went ahead, it would be a national decision, not one man’s choice. A broader and more systematic U.S. process might in turn attract wider allied backing — which in its turn could mark any action as a defense of truly international, not just American, norms. And the need to testify and debate in Congress, even this madhouse Congress, would ensure that basic questions about evidence, plans, and contingencies got asked and (presumably) answered. Therefore I thought a week ago that after hearing a case made, in these legitimizing circumstances, I could imagine being convinced that Congress should offer the support that the president, to his credit, had requested rather than assumed. Overall, we might have a least-worst outcome: bipartisan agreement, American leadership, reinforcement of the anti-chemical norm.

On why I would now vote No:  From what I can tell, approximately 100% of the pro-strike arguments have been devoted to proving what no one contests. Namely, that hideous events are underway in Syria, that someone (and most likely Assad) has criminally and horrifically gassed civilians, and that something should be done to reduce the ongoing carnage and punish the war crimes. And approximately 0% of the argument has addressed the main anti-strike concern: whether U.S. military action, minus broad support, any formal international approval, or any clear definition of goal, strategy, or success, is an effective response.

For instance, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, with whom I usually agree, argues powerfullysomething should be done to and for Syria. His case for missile strikes is that they ”just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.” If anyone has seen a defense that says, “These steps, in this way, match means to objective, and have the following path to success,” please let me know.

There is such a thing as too much caution in committing force, often known as McClellanism after the reluctant-warrior Union commander at the start of the Civil War. (Leading of course to the famous line attributed to Lincoln, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”) And nations, like individuals, predictably over-learn the lessons of their most recent mistakes.

But even if the Iraq-war disaster had not happened, even if the tiny handful of Americans who are in the military had not been worn out through a decade-plus of nonstop deployments, any decision about use of force should be accompanied by answers to these most basic questions:

- What, exactly, is its goal?

- How will we know if our plan has succeeded or failed?

- What happens after we make our first move? In this case, suppose the Assad regime, or Iran, or Russia, responds in a way we don’t anticipate. What second- and third-round moves are we allowing for?

- Is our choice really as stark as turning our back, or sending in bombs?

Many past items have gone into one or more of these questions. For instance, on basic questions, please check out this. Maybe Obama and his team have answers. If so, he had better start sharing them. For now he has not come close to making the case that, while “something” should be done, this is the right something. As the young Obama himself said so memorably 11 years ago, “What I am opposed to is dumb wars.”

“They Ripped Him Apart” — From Pauls Toutonghi in Salon, searching for answers in a gay teen’s suicide.  A long read but very well worth it.

On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, Jadin Bell—the only openly gay student at La Grande High School, in La Grande, Ore.—left his home, on foot, in 20-degree weather. He walked down Walnut Street to the campus of Central Elementary—past the empty bike racks, past four leafless cherry trees and a single, white-barked birch. He sent a text message to his friend, Tara, telling her where to find his suicide note. Then he climbed onto the school’s playground equipment. He hanged himself with a length of rope. He was fifteen years old.

Doctors later told the family that the rope had deprived Jadin of oxygen for roughly nine minutes—nine minutes before a passing stranger had seen him, and taken him down, and begun to administer CPR. Those nine minutes, while not immediately fatal, had been enough to shut down all activity in his brain. Though paramedics had restored his heartbeat during the flight to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Jadin never regained consciousness. On January 29, his parents, Joe Bell and Lola Lathrop, made the decision to take him off of life support.

“He was having seizures at that point,” Bell later told me. “It made it so he didn’t suffer anymore.”

Still, Jadin lived for five days without food or water. In La Grande, the small logging town in eastern Oregon’s Union County, 200 residents held a candlelight vigil at the library. At a school assembly, students shared stories about Jadin and sang—with a soft, tremulous cadence—“Lean on Me.” Details of Jadin’s story filtered out through the media. He’d been taunted and harassed by his peers—both in person and on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram—because of his sexuality. “He was different from the mainstream,” said family friend Bud Hill, “and they tend to pick on the different ones.”

When he finally died on Feb. 3, Jadin’s suicide became part of the nation’s ongoing dialogue about bullying. Salon wrote an article about him, as did the Huffington Post. Nationally syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage reiterated his call for parents to home-school their gay teenagers, if home schooling was what the teens, themselves, requested, “because you don’t want to find out the abuse was more than your kid could bear when it’s too fucking late to do anything about it.”

As a recent father of twins, this story wouldn’t leave me alone. It lingered, with granular specificity, in the fabric of my imagination. So much of the joy of the early years of parenting, for me, was the physicality of my kids’ bodies—the way it felt to lift and to hold them, to smell the buttery scent of their skin, to pull them close against me. Now, I imagined the converse of this: Jadin’s parents, watching their son die in his bed in the pediatric ICU, beloved but unreachable, a compression bandage holding the IV in his wrist, his immobile body tucked into the starched cotton sheets of the hospital bed.

Jadin’s death opened a deep reservoir of some kind within me. Because when I was 15 years old, I, too, tried to kill myself. I, too, was a bullied teenager who was unable to fit in, anywhere. And though I survived—though it did, in fact, get better—it wasn’t linear, or quick, or predictable. It took many years for my life to improve. Today, as an adult, I still struggle to overcome the feelings that nearly killed me 20 years ago—and I live in fear of their replication, someday, in my daughter, or my son.

Florida Flails — Fred Grimm at the Miami Herald on Florida fighting yet another losing case in court.

Pam and Rick were hanging out in Tallahassee last week, putting our government priorities in order. They wondered, “What can we do to improve the lives of Floridians?”

Of course, you already know the answer. Couldn’t be more obvious. We’ll trick out 18-year-olds with handguns.

Yes, indeed. We who can not abide the notion of an 18-year-old bellying up to the bar for a Budweiser sure as hell want to spend taxpayer money to insure the same knucklehead can buy himself a Beretta.

So Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has committed state resources to that great cause and joined yet another quixotic lawsuit, this one against the United States government. Bondi added Florida to a list of NRA subsidiary states seeking to overturn a 45-year-old federal law that forbids licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to anyone under 21.

It’s another likely loser of a case. Like Rick and Pam’s futile attempt to overturn the Affordable Health Care Act. Over the last few years, the Scott years, we’ve frittered away hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in court defending an ideological agenda. State lawyers and pricey outside law firms have been dispatched to state and federal court to defend, without much success, the privatization of prisons, drug testing of welfare recipients, drug testing of state workers (though not state legislators or the governor) the shifting of pension costs onto state workers, and election laws designed to tamp down turnout among minority voters.

The Story of # — Keith Houston at The New Yorker explains where some of our more obscure punctuation (#, &, >, ¶) comes from.

Octothorpe (#)

01-octothrope.jpgLeft, from the pen of Isaac Newton; right, detail from Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia” (1698). Courtesy the Othmer Library of Chemical History, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

The story of the hashtag begins sometime around the fourteenth century, with the introduction of the Latin abbreviation “lb,” for the Roman term libra pondo, or “pound weight.” Like many standard abbreviations of that period, “lb” was written with the addition of a horizontal bar, known as a tittle, or tilde (an example is shown above, right, in Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia,” from 1698). And though printers commonly cast this barred abbreviation as a single character, it was the rushed pens of scribes that eventually produced the symbol’s modern form: hurriedly dashed off again and again, the barred “lb” mutated into the abstract #. The symbol shown here on the left, a barred “lb” rendered in Isaac Newton’s elegant scrawl, is a missing link, a now-extinct ancestor of the # that bridges the gap between the symbol’s Latin origins and its familiar modern form. Though it is now referred to by a number of different names—“hash mark,” “number sign,” and even “octothorpe,” a jokey appellation coined by engineers working on the Touch-Tone telephone keypad—the phrase “pound sign” can be traced to the symbol’s ancient origins. For just as “lb” came from libra, so the word “pound” is descended from pondo, making the # a descendent of the Roman term libra pondo in both name and appearance.

Bonus Video — If you have been paying attention to the New York City mayoral race, the one thing that stands out — so to speak — is the spectacular demise of former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s campaign.  Stateless Media put together a short documentary on how the race went from being about the issues and the state of the city to being about anything except that.

Doonesbury — Fire, dude.

3 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. War isn’t the prospect, punctuation is. We read now that Syria has the largest stockpile of deadly chemical weapons on the planet accumulated through the auspices of Iran, RUSSIA and chemical companies in both Europe and Maine, USA. It’s even possible that Assad didn’t order the use of poison gas against his citizens, meaning he’s not in control of the stockpile either – what could be scarier? I’m hoping that if the Congress turns thumbs down on missile strikes on selected targets that we’ll do it anyway. It may not have any real or lasting effect but we’ll have spoken loud and clear, Assad will take notice (maybe) and we’ll will not have gazed into the distance and said, “not my problem”.

  2. Did you see that some packing company in Illinois (I think) is now marketing “Carlos Danger Wieners”? Of course., being the twisted prick that I am, my first thought was to send some as a gift… to those idiots at Westboro Baptist.

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