Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How to Lose a Counter-Insurgency: Part I

PART I: Kill Civilians

The Senate Armed Services Committee is apparently very concerned about our rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Before they confirm General David Petraeus to the Afghanistan command, they want to make sure that he will loosen up those rules of engagement to allow more airstrikes and more artillery strikes. He has made soothing voices to the effect that he will be sure not to hold back the heavy firepower too strictly.

As soon as you're worried that your counterinsurgency troops aren't using heavy enough firepower, the counterinsurgency strategy is all but dead. I could easily write a thousand tedious words explaining why, but I would like to offer this image instead.

The Senators' concerns seem to have been specifically prompted by the Rolling Stone article that brought down General Stanley McChrystal. In addition to featuring a number of shockingly undisciplined and insubordinate remarks by McChrystal and his aides, that article includes a number of complaints of the strictness of McChrystal's rules of engagement from frustrated rank and file soldiers who'd prefer to "get [their] gun on." While I've criticized McChrystal's strategy and believe (based mostly on the results in Marja) that it's failing, the problem isn't that McChrystal is too squeamish about accidentally blowing away civilians. "Too careful about killing civilians" can really never be the problem with executing a counterinsurgency. But a reflexive desire to do more shooting, whether that reflex is expressed by grumbling soldiers on the front lines or anxious lawmakers in the capital, is a sign that the counterinsurgency strategy hasn't been fully accepted or understood. The goal of a counterinsurgency is to protect the civilian population and build up political support on the ground. Killing Afghan civilians achieves all of the key counterinsurgency goals, but it achieves them for the Taliban.

Our British cousins have generously provided us with a clinic on how to lose a counterinsurgency. In fact, they demonstrated those lessons for us in person, at great sacrifice, over two hundred years ago. Consider that knowledge base part of the United States' national starter kit. Since we seem to have lost touch with those lessons, I'd like to celebrate the Glorious Fourth (in part) with a short series of posts reviewing a few of the military tutorials left by Generals Gage, Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne, and Cornwallis, with generous underwriting by George III.

Am I really comparing George Washington to the Taliban on Fourth of July weekend? The political, philosophical, and moral answer is to that question is No, No, and Hell No. I take proud, patriotic delight in the Revolution's success, and I want to see the Taliban utterly destroyed. But the military history answer to that question is: Sadly, Yes. I wish to God that the situations didn't look so much alike. But in each case you have a highly trained, superbly equipped and deeply professional force of soldiers facing an ideologically-driven local opponent, largely composed of irregulars, across a large land area full of rugged terrain. The analogy isn't perfect; no analogies are. But in some ways, we have it harder than Gage, Howe et al. had it. Washington's army was much more conventional than the enemies we're fighting, and thus easier to defeat by conventional means, and the cultural gap between the British occupiers and British-American rebels was almost nothing. Howe and Washington had thousands of times more in common than we have with our Afghan allies, let alone with our enemies.

It's tempting of course, to view the situations as different because the Continental army fought for noble principles that we admire, and the Taliban fight for a fanatical ideology that we despise. But if we're thinking about how to win a war, we can't yield to that temptation. On the ground, the difference between soldiers fighting from deep commitment to a good idea and soldiers fighting from deep commitment to a bad idea is nothing at all. It doesn't matter that the Taliban only think that they're right. What matters is that they do think they're right, and they act on that. The British didn't think the American rebels were right; most didn't even think that the rebels were acting from sincere principle. And that mindset was part of the British problem.

Let's consider the illustration of the Boston Massacre again, and try to see it from the British point of view. Most Americans learn about this in grade school as a piece of outrageous, unmotivated bloodthirst, which is certainly how it looked to people in Boston. But the British soldiers viewed themselves as protecting themselves from a dangerous mob, and their position was reasonable enough to get the soldiers acquitted. They were in fact, surrounded by an angry crowd, and it was impossible to know how serious a danger that crowd posed. If Crispus Attucks looked aggressive to them, it's because Crispus Attucks actually did look aggressive, and he was angry as hell. There had been daily brawls between soldiers and Boston crowds for the previous three days, and it looked like only a matter of time before a British soldier was badly injured or killed. The soldiers had marched into the crowd on March 5 to rescue a private who was surrounded and under attack by a whole gang of infuriated locals; their mindset going in was about protecting the corps. And eventually their commander, Capt. Thomas Preston decided to err on the side of protecting his troops. He wasn't going to wait for one of his men to get hurt or killed before he decided that the mob was really dangerous. When in doubt, bring your own men home alive. The rest is history.

Captain Preston's logic is exactly what the Senate has been urging on General Petraeus. The soldiers who chafe at McChrystal's strict rules of fire would prefer to serve under a Thomas Preston themselves. And truth be told, there are lots of junior officers in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, charged with leading their own troops through confused and dangerous streets, following the Preston handbook. In their position, charged with their responsibilities, I would probably do the same. Threats are hard to identify until too late, some attacks come from people who seem like civilians, and the American officers want to protect their own men. The duty to their own troops is much too basic, too fundamental, to deny. Better to make a reasonable mistake that kills a civilian than any mistake that kills one of your own, the logic goes. I don't know how I would tell a captain or lieutenant leading a patrol anything different.

The problem is that those mistakes don't seem reasonable to the home team. When civilians from your own city or town or village get killed by soldiers, you don't say, "Well, it was an easy mistake to make, and those soldiers are under a lot of pressure." Nobody sees the heavily-armed foreigners as the ones whose safety is in jeopardy. And nobody ever forgets or forgives.

Of course, from the other side of the Atlantic, what matters is bringing your own troops home safely. Half a dozen civilians killed in Boston didn't make much impression in London, but having a British soldier killed would be a huge problem. It's natural to count your own losses first, and to forgive mistakes made in the name of protecting the boys on the front line. It's hard to feel deeply about a few regrettable accidental deaths on the other side of the world. But a few civilian deaths in your neighborhood is just flat-out murder, a bloody massacre, and there's no dealing with the people who ordered it. Captain Preston and his men got acquitted in Boston, but even their lawyer didn't have any sympathy for them. His letters always refer to their actions as simply "the massacre," and he became one of the loudest, most radical voices for independence. His name was John Adams.

One last lesson from the bloody events of March 5, 1770: it was only March 5, 1770. It was three years before the Boston Tea Party, five before Lexington and Concord, six before Washington forced the British out of Boston. But the Massacre was firmly on New Englanders' mind the whole time. Washington just had to say "March 5" to get his troops fired up. They never got over it. They never moved on. And that's the sobering lesson for us, seven years into Iraq and almost nine into Afghanistan: what happens early matters. Events from early in an occupation can change the direction course of events in powerful ways, and those events can't be reversed easily. The strategy that you should have used in 2002 isn't necessarily available in 2010. There's no do-over button. Things happen, they have consequences, and you have to deal with them.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In Praise of Professor V.

Flavia and The Fretful Porpentine have recently led some terrific discussion threads about how often students describe female professors as "intimidating" when those professors are behaving pretty much the way their male colleagues do. The conversation starts here in Flavia's comments section, gets picked up by FP here and carries back to Flavia's blog here, with this coda by The Little Professor. A lot of great feminist academic bloggers chime in on the comment threads, drawing on their experiences both as students and as teachers. It's worth a read.

I have less directly to add to the discussion, being large, loud, male. I've never been called intimidating on a student evaluation, for the perverse reason that I look like the academic authority figure the students have been trained to expect. If I use a bunch of words the student doesn't understand, they take that as a sign of my intelligence. If a woman under forty uses the same words to a similar student in a similar classroom, the response is too often "She's trying to make us feel stupid," or even, bizarrely, "She thinks she knows sooo much more than the rest of us!" Yes, that's right; there's a certain percentage of college students, of both genders, who feel that a professor who doesn't conceal the fact that she has a Ph.D. is just being a jerk about it.

This problem only became plain to me in graduate school, as I watched my female colleagues wrestling with challenges that I never had to. I did not see this problem when I was an undergraduate because I didn't know any junior faculty who were women; all my woman teachers were full professors, and very accomplished ones at that. (I did know graduate-students TAs of both genders, who fell everywhere along the spectrum of classroom authority and skill.) This is a reversal of the normal experience: women in the academy skew young and junior, and twenty years ago that skew was much more pronounced than it is today. But the only assistant professors I met in college were men; the women were all remote authority figures encountered in large lecture halls. I never doubted their authority. My relationship with them was simple. They talked, and I wrote down what they said.

The first teacher in the first class meeting on my first day of college was an eminent figure whom I'll call Professor V. (And if that nickname seems too easily-decoded to readers who are academics, well, it's not like "Doctor Cleveland" is serious cryptography either.) The class was a large year-long survey that was one of the gateways into my major, and Professor V. was just taking it over for the first time. I've thought a lot over the years about the way the younger male faculty I met as an undergraduate have influenced my own teaching. They were the obvious role models, both because they were men and because it was early in their careers. I still speak with their classroom inflections sometimes and use techniques that I first saw them using. But it's only in the last six or eight months I've been thinking about Professor V.'s influence on my teaching, and begun to realize just how far it extends.

So, on that first Monday morning of first semester, Professor V. talked, I wrote down what she said, and I carefully noted what to read by Wednesday. Then two startling things happened.

First, when Professor V. ended her lecture, my classmates applauded her.

I'm sure I started to applaud, too. I was a first-year-first-day undergrad, and still navigating college with the old monkey-see-monkey-do-on-the-half-beat strategy. If a couple hundred of my classmates were doing something and it wasn't obviously depraved or immoral, I imitated them. Then the second startling thing happened:

Professor V. told us not to applaud her.

She held up her hand and said, not lecturing any more, "No, please don't do that. I'm not a performer, and this is not a performance." She said a bit more which I've lost to time but the general sense was that academic discussion was not theater, and her relationship to us was about academic conversation, not acting. Even more instructive than the words was her tone of voice, which was actually conversational; she wasn't just pronouncing a rule. She was addressing us as junior peers, and explaining her reasoning. It was the pedagogy of respect. (When my students feel I explain too much of the reasoning behind my syllabi, they can thank Professor V.)

One lesson I internalized at that moment, without fully grasping it yet, was: Professor V. is too big to need her ego stroked. Getting applause from undergraduates is something a small-timer craves, but the serious players, like Professor V., are above that petty nonsense. It was a pretty good lesson, then and now.

Professor V. also smoothly demonstrated how to use self-deprecation as a sign of confidence, a way to admit her human failings even as she bolstered her authority. On the first day, talking about the fact that the survey covered a lot of material that she didn't usually work on, she said, "This morning, as I was preparing for class, I realized I don't know when the Jews were expelled from England! Then I realized, I don't know why the Jews were expelled from England!" We laughed, she became a warmer classroom presence, and her authority in the room grew. It was another subliminal lesson: Professor V. is too big to front. She doesn't have fake knowing everything.

If I was looking at a specifically female style of academic authority, I had no idea. It was simply authority to me, plain and simple. And if I'd seen an eminent male professor behave differently, I'd just assume he was doing it wrong. Ten years earlier, Professor V. simply wouldn't, couldn't have been at that lectern in that room at that school. Twenty-odd years later, it's still too rare for women to fill those roles. But in that room, in the presence of V.'s powerful mind, it was impossible to imagine things being any other way.

I had no idea of the struggles that V. had overcome to get to that place, or of the number of eminent intellectual men, including old faculty at that very school, who had openly threatened or prophesied the end of her career. I only began to hear those stories, some of which are breathtaking, a decade later. And I had no idea how very big a deal V. was within her discipline. I only began to realize that after my year as her student was over. I didn't fully grasp how important she was until I had become a professor myself. But I clearly remember standing at a news stand near campus a year or two later, and opening a national magazine to see Professor V.'s picture inside. The caption called her the best professor in her field in America.

She hadn't told us anything about her own achievements. Of course not. That was for us to figure out on our own, if we were going to figure it out. She hadn't needed to throw her full weight around with the kids. She'd had as much authority as she needed. I took that as a lesson, too, when I started to teach. There's no reason to stand around showing off your credentials.

I did understand, somehow, that Professor V. was a very senior player in her department, and viewed her decision to take over the huge gateway class for new majors as intellectual noblesse oblige. Surely, V. would have derived more personal satisfaction from teaching two small advanced classes directly related to her research instead of spending half her teaching time breaking things down into simple lessons for the newbies. But I took her decision to spend half of her time doing just that to be intellectual leadership, and it continues to shape my understanding of how senior colleagues should exert such leadership. I took away the lesson that the heavy hitters make sure the important jobs are done right, and the lesson that getting undergraduate education right was one of the important jobs. I still believe in those lessons. It never occurred to me that V. might have been saddled with the job by her male peers, and looking back I don't believe that she was. It is not my impression that V. can be pushed around.

Neither did I think about the pattern in which more women are forced into teaching elementary courses while equally-qualified men get the advanced students to themselves, because studying with Professor V. simply didn't feel like that. What she was teaching did not feel elementary, but elemental. She was defining what was essential to the discipline, telling us This is where we begin. These are the essential tools, and this how we first learn to use them.

Only in retrospect did I realize that Professor V. might be interested in promoting a particular vision of the profession, or that the way she was teaching us was part of larger debates about the discipline and its future. Professor V. is a methodological traditionalist, who uses time-honored tools in brilliant and subtle ways. If V. were a chef, she would be a master of classical French cuisine, capable of creating dazzling meals that nonetheless straight come from the heart of the tradition. Her results aren't old-fashioned, but her techniques are classic; one of the secrets of V.'s hard-won success is that she is a better guardian of the classical tradition than any of the old boys who tried stopping her. They simply didn't have V.'s chops, and she pretty much embodies the tradition they tried to preserve through imitation. V. isn't so much part of the old guard as she's one of the Old Masters herself.

I suspect now that one of Professor V.'s goals was to make more of us into classical practitioners like herself, and perhaps to steer us away from newer methodologies. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but I think that V. was good at long-term strategies. The career she'd already had by then, the twenty-five or thirty years from "Gentlemen Only" to "Best Professor in America," was a testament to the long view.

But if making us into professionals in her image was really one of her goals, she both failed with me and succeeded. I am not at all sure what Professor V. would make of my first book, but some of the books on my bedside shelf are there because of her. I was never going to be a strict traditionalist; I was always, always going to run off and cook some newer fusion cuisine. But if I would never limit myself to only the tools that suffice for V., I would also never do without them. (I may not cook many of the old recipes, but I believe in certain fundamental kitchen skills. There is a way to prepare a chicken or reduce a sauce, no matter what you're cooking.) I still believe in the tools that V. taught us as essential: a beginner's set, to be supplemented with others that V. herself might proscribe, but never, ever to be abandoned. I teach those tools to my own undergraduates, because she persuaded me that they are indispensable. And perhaps there is the mark of the great teacher: to shape your students even as they become someone very much unlike you.

I didn't see my female professors struggling for authority when I was an undergrad. I didn't have the normal experience for my generation. Oddly, in a very traditional and sometimes backward-looking place, I got a glimpse of the future. Professor V. and her unimpeachable authority showed me the way every university could be someday, and the way all the best ones will.

cross-posted at dagblog

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

McChrystal's Failures

cross-posted at Dagblog

If you tune out the upcoming storm of spin, distraction and hype, what just happened is very simple: a general whose strategy has failed has tried to tie the Commander-in-Chief's hands by running to the press. McChrystal's goal was to create a political situation inside the Beltway in which the President would face problematic amounts of criticism if he changed either the unsuccessful strategy or the unsuccessful commander.

It's insubordination in an attempt to conceal failure, the full McClellan. It is a threat both to our Constitutional traditions and to the proper military defense of our nation.

When President Obama took office, he made a decision to commit further resources to gaining some credible form of victory in Afghanistan. It would have been easier in some ways for him to plan a simple phased withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of Obama's political base was against any extension of the war. At that time, McChrystal promised that his own strategy, backed by a certain number of additional troops, would achieve certain results in a certain time frame. Based on those promises, Obama approved McChrystal's strategy instead of others (including strategies based on troop drawdowns), committed more troops, and gave McChrystal the Afghanistan command.

McChrystal has not delivered the promised results. The recent American offensives have not achieved their goals, and it's increasingly apparent that McChrystal's plan isn't going to work. So, having let the President down, McChrystal has attempted to cover his backside by letting the President down. He has permitted his aides to commit insubordination by slagging the civilian authorities around Obama to the press, and to relay McChrystal's own personal contempt for the Commander-in-Chief. Of course, McChrystal delegated aides to do this, not being man enough to take responsibility for his own insubordination.

Some right-wingers are going to take up McChrystal's cause and depict Obama as a soft, decadent civilian and McChrystal as a tough, upright, honorable soldier. But nothing about McChrystal's behavior is remotely tough, honorable or upright. He is treacherously backstabbing the leader who promoted him. McChrystal's ability to work back-biting and ass-covering into the same motion just shows how very supple and flexible his character is, and how little he's burdened by any spine. McChrystal is willfully violating the military's code of ethics and conduct. He is trying to duck his own command responsibilities by whining and slinging mud. And he's sent his deputies to do it for him. I'm having a hard time seeing any soldierly virtue here.

But more importantly, there's a question of our Constitution at sake. As I've pointed out before, civilian authority over the military is one of the central principles for which the American Revolution was fought. The Massachusetts Minutemen were fighting to end a military governorship of their colony. George Washington went to enormous pains to make clear that the Presidency was a civilian and not a military office, and that every military officer served the civil political authority, the power delegated by the people. The Constitution designates the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces for exactly this reason.

Over the last few decades, parts of the right wing in this country have tried to use the phrase "Commander-in-Chief" to mean exactly the opposite of what it means, to imply that the President is somehow a military officer and thus answerable to the military's norms or the military's approval. This is completely backwards. The intent of the Constitution and its Framers is that the military exists to serve the people, not the other way around, and so the military must be absolutely subordinate to the country's elected leader. George Washington wrote that chain of command. It's not for Stanley McChrystal to go outside it.

Civilian authority over the military is necessary for any real democracy; you can't have a democracy if a bunch of people with guns refuse to honor the elected leaders. But it's also a smart principle for national defense. A military that isn't accountable to any higher power is a military that allows itself to stick by strategies after they stop working. Giving the generals and admirals freedom to make all the decisions can actually make the military less effective and the nation less safe. Someone has to have a veto when a field commander is too stubborn or proud to admit that things aren't working, or when the military brass refuses to accept changing times. Sometimes you need a politician like FDR to tell the Army that cavalry has become obsolete. Sometimes you need a civilian like Lincoln to replace a West Point thoroughbred like McClellan. What gave Lincoln the right? The Constitution. What made some Illinois lawyer think that he understood strategy and tactics better than General George McClellan? The facts on the battlefield. That McClellan went whining to the newspapers and the opposition party only confirms the man's unfitness.

The same old truths are true today. If McChrystal can't win the war in Afghanistan, he shouldn't try fighting one in the media. And if we start letting the paper battles of the news cycle decide how we fight our actual wars, our country will lose over and over again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Libertarian Wonderland Is Not So Great

cross-posted at dagblog

It is a truth universally acknowledged that lower taxes and smaller government lead to economic growth, while higher taxes and bigger government hold the economy back. And like many truths that are universally acknowledged, it is frequently contradicted by easily observable facts and that makes no difference. Economics especially seems to be full of these ironclad universal rules that only hold true some of the time, in elegantly controlled micro-economic examples. The rest of the time these "truths" are obviously not true, and no one would be fool enough to behave as if they were true except when it's time to set crucial government policy. Then, anyone who argues against the Universally Acknowledged Truth is just "not facing facts."

Now, since many of our lawmakers, policy wonks, and media pundits still believe in the fact that low taxes make stronger economies, and that this fact is true in virtually all cases, let me propose a small thought experiment that I will call "New Hampshire."

New Hampshire, of course, has no broad-based taxes of any kind: no state income tax, no sales tax, and no politicians with a prayer at state-wide office unless they take "The Pledge." What Pledge? The Pledge not to have any sales or income taxes, ever, you pinko. This basically means that New Hampshire is Galt's Granite Gulch, and libertarianism is a major part of the state's political culture. (Maybe twenty years ago I was in a bookstore a couple of blocks from the Capitol Building in Concord, and my first thought was: That's more Ayn Rand than I've ever seen in once place.) And of course everyone knows, deep in the granite of their bones, that having almost no state taxes is good for the economy.

New Hampshire's southern border is with Massachusetts or, as we called it in the 1980s, "Tax-a-chusetts," which has state income tax AND state sales tax AND all kinds of other state licenses and fees: like Cuba with cranberry sauce, really. You may remember this from the Bush/Dukakis election of 1988, when The Elder Bush pointed out to America what kind of punitive socialist redistributionist joint Dukakis was running, and everyone agreed that we'd all be crazy to want any part of that. New Hampshire's taxes are of course lower than those of its other neighbors (Maine, Vermont, Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean) but the contrast with Massachusetts is especially sharp, especially since the vast majority of New Hampshire's population lives in the southern part of the state, close to the Massachusetts border.

Naturally, New Hampshire's low-tax, small government environment should long ago have left Massachusetts' creaky outmoded welfare state in the economic dust. But reality, evidently, lacks common sense. Because New Hampshire's economy is much, much smaller than Massachusetts' is, and isn't gaining on it. Low-tax Libertarian Wonderland is poor. Taxachusetts prospers.

Really, my experience growing up wasn't so much that New Hampshire had an economy as that it was allowed to borrow Massachusetts' economy on weekends. Massachusetts was the main economic engine, and southern New Hampshire basically an adjunct to that economy. A huge percentage of southern New Hampshire's population actually work in Massachusetts or else serve clients and customers from Massachusetts; one way or another, the income comes from south of the state line. The big economic strategy is to put a big mall, sales tax free, right across the state line in order to lure Massachusetts shoppers. That's really it. When I was fourteen, I thought it was clever to respond to the slogan "Make It in Massachusetts" with "Spend It in New Hampshire." My excuse for that was that I was fourteen. What's unfortunate is that my shallow 9th-grade jeer was actually the plan at the top levels, and still is. New Hampshire's main approach is to try to drain off what it can from the bigger and more productive economy to the south.

Now, some of the economic differences are surely about size and about pre-existing development. Boston wasn't created overnight, and you don't create an equally attractive and economically developed city just by cutting taxes in Nashua and waiting. The universally acknowledged truth that lowering taxes and "getting out of business's way" is the optimal plan simply denies reality; getting out of the way of businesses that doesn't exist isn't even a plan. But even if you control for size and existing development, taxless New Hampshire isn't pulling away from high-tax Massachusetts, and it isn't just Boston that New Hampshire can't compete with. Portsmouth, NH may not be able to slug it out with Boston, by can't it outshine Newburyport, MA? Manchester, Nashua and Concord should be more economically vibrant than Worcester, Springfield, or Lowell. But they aren't so much. Even the inglorious mill towns in northeastern Massachusetts, declining places whose factories closed in the 1960s, are still economically more powerful than their Granite State neighbors, the center around which New Hampshire border towns orbit. And the high-tech businesses along Route 128 in the Boston suburbs somehow stay where they are, instead of migrating an hour up the interstate.

When I lived in New Hampshire we all simultaneously believed the Universally Acknowledged Truth about low taxes and acted as if precisely the reverse were true (because it is). If you'd asked us, we would have told you that New Hampshire was clearly whipping Massachusetts, because living tax free was so much better than being one of those poor overtaxed socialist drones. But we also acknowledged in virtually everything we did that the real source of the money and economic energy was overtaxed socialist Massachusetts. That was clearly where everything was going on, and where our own economic lives were made possible. After all, that's where the jobs were.

New Hampshire libertarianism only makes sense if many of the people talking about the free market and economic opportunity actually want exactly the opposite of what they claim. New Hampshire and its tax laws make a lot of sense if you actually want to keep it economically underdeveloped. If what you value about the place is that it is rural, and generally inexpensive, then making sure that it doesn't develop either much of an economy or much of a public infrastructure becomes a comprehensible goal. When people say "Low taxes are good for the economy," they mean precisely the opposite; they want to keep one side of the border a relative backwater. They're not lying. They're simply expressing an ideology, a Universally Acknowledged Truth that they experience as always true, especially when it is not.

If you dislike cities and crowds and other signs of economic progress, a nice libertarian enclave is just the place for you, and when you say "a good economy" you really mean lots of undeveloped land and not many jobs. Of course, if you put your libertarian enclave too far from an economically developed area, you won't be able to make a living yourself, so it's ideal for libertarians to commute.

Most American libertarianism is like this, in one way or another: economically dependent upon the very things that it claims are holding the economy back. Libertarianism is essentially the pretense that your suburb would be better off on its own. Of course, without the big dirty leftist city the suburb wouldn't exist at all. Libertarianism isn't really a philosophy. It's a theme park.

Friday, June 04, 2010

American History Before America (The 1689 Rule)

cross-posted at Dagblog

Ta-Nehisi is running some excellent comment threads about how deeply torture runs through American history, prompted by George W. Bush's appalling endorsement of torture. In those threads, I realized something about my own perspective on American history: because my academic work is on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I see the Founders not so much as founders but as people responding to their own ugly history. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not starting points, but pointed replies; not abstract term papers for some philosophy class, but a practical summary of the history that the Founders did not want repeated.

So, when a lot of Ta-Nehisi's commenters see the United States as a country which has always officially disavowed torture but often tacitly permitted it, and point to a long, compelling trail of evidence, I see a country taking the step of officially disavowing torture after centuries in which torture was an official part of the judicial system -- hell, after centuries in which public torture was considered morally edifying. It's certainly true that various kinds of torture have flourished without legal sanction in this country, but that comes after hundreds of years of mind-boggling cruelty perpetrated by the law itself. I'm talking about courts sentencing people to bodily mutilation, confessions being extorted with the strappado and the rack and the wheel, defendants being crushed to death under heavy weights if they did not enter a plea. That the Founders explicitly rejected that history makes a difference. An America that lives up to its ideals and an America that only pretends to live up to its ideals have never been the only choices. We could have had, could have, an America that pretends to no ideals at all.

I have a classroom rule that I phrase as a joke: I don't discuss current events in class, and my definition of "current events" is everything after 1689. In part, I began blogging in order to have a venue for the strong opinions and the partisan politics that would be inappropriate in my classroom. When I formulated the 1689 Rule, only six years ago, it seemed perfectly safe to me. The great political-philosophical questions of my period were thoroughly settled. Obviously, the 1689 Rule would always keep me well out of whatever cable-news debate was raging at the time. Nobody could still have hard feelings over the execution of Charles II. But gradually, to my real horror, I found that the 1689 Rule no longer worked completely, because American conservatives began to reopen debates that had been settled three hundred years before.

One day, delivering a brief lecture about Christopher Marlowe, I mentioned that some of the scandalous accusations against Marlowe can't be taken as completely reliable, because they were obtained by torture. And I saw a strange expression, a flicker of deliberate self-control, cross a student's face. I realized, suddenly, that he thought I was politicizing the class, taking a stand on a public debate. Obviously, I was commenting on the Bush/Cheney torture policies. But just as obviously to me, I was not. I hadn't formed my opinion about Elizabethan torturers because of Bush, or Cheney, or any of their minions. I'd come to my understanding of that question before Bush ran for President; statements taken under torture are essentially dictated by the torturer. (I've seen cases where this becomes obvious even on the grammatical level, as the document shifts back and forth between first and third person.) I hadn't broken the 1689 rule. 2006 had.

Over the past few years, modern "conservatism" has kept encroaching on my 1689 boundary, turning questions I had considered entirely non-controversial into objects of partisan debate. Once they got around to habeas corpus and the right to a jury trial, I realized we weren't even back in the 1500s anymore. Our contemporary political debates had taken us back to 1214, to a world without a Magna Carta. I couldn't say that I was avoiding current debates by sticking to my field; the arguments had moved back to centuries before my field.

My goal in the classroom is to offer students tools for thinking questions through on their own, and not pre-fabricated conclusions. I avoid bottom-line statements about current events because that doesn't teach them to think. But our degraded national discourse has put me in a position where I can't teach sound thinking skills without taking a position. I can't pretend that the words in a document are a self-evident "fact" when they were extracted from a man hanging from the ceiling with dislocated shoulder blades. I can't responsibly teach students to ignore that context. If I did, I would be actively making them stupid. And that brings Bush and Cheney and John Yoo into my classroom when they don't belong there. I can't keep contemporary debates out of my classroom because so-called "conservatives" are bent on disputing the foundational truths on which America was built.

So what worries me these days is not the dark underside of American history, but the dark preludes to that history. Most progressives still frame the debate as a choice between the ugly parts of the last two hundred years and the possibility of a better future. But the alleged conservatives are no longer confining themselves to that debate. They aren't satisfied with America's original sins any more. They want to go back to earlier darkness and chaos, to crimes and abuses that the Founders renounced in horror. It's no longer a choice between a nation that gives lip service to basic rights and a nation that genuinely honors them. It's becoming a choice between a nation that expresses certain fundamental values and a nation that openly renounces them. When George W. Bush boasts of ordering torture and brags that he would do it again, he is declaring that torture is an outright good, that it is an expression of justice. And it puts the lie to the pretense of Constitutional "originalism." What part of the proscription against "cruel and unusual punishments" is unclear? What phrase would allow drowning a man until he almost dies, over and over again? Bush is not committed to our nation's origins. He is essentially post-American: no longer believing in this country's foundational principles or feeling obligation to them.

That is not merely evil, but folly. The Founders were not infallible oracles or prophets, God knows. They did not perfectly foresee America's future or its future challenges. But about the past, their own historical past, they were very, very shrewd. Their response to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century history is the fruit not just of reason but of hard, bitter experience. The Constitution is a map to places that the Founders could still see in the fading distance, and to which they never, ever wanted to go back. On that, we should trust them.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Nikki Haley Is Being Railroaded

cross-posted at Dagblog

Let me start with this: I don't want Nikki Haley to be Governor of South Carolina. No way. No how. I don't especially want her to win her primary, and I would actively root for her defeat in the general election. But the way Haley is being treated is dead wrong.

I don't want Haley to become Governor because I think her ideas are mistaken and misguided. I don't think modern conservatism leads to good policies. So I hope she loses. But the question of whether or not she's perfectly faithful to her husband has nothing to do with what kind of leader she would be.

Haley has now had two Republican political operatives come forward to boast that they've slept with her: first the conservative blogger Will Folks, who claimed that he was forced to blog about this because a local newspaper was going to expose it (like that makes sense), and now a lobbyist named Larry Merchant, who came forward just because. The circumstances of the accusation are absolutely bizarre. I can't recall another case where the alleged sex partners volunteer this kind of information, unless they're being paid by a scandal rag. Folks's and Merchant's motives remain an interesting question. But the bigger question is: who the hell cares?

If Haley has had relationships outside her marriage, that's a problem for her to work out with her husband. It has absolutely nothing to do with how she would serve the people of South Carolina. That's true whether she's a liberal or a conservative, a Republican or a Democrat. People can be good governors and problematic spouses, or wonderful spouses but catastrophic governors. If I thought Haley could lead South Carolina into a new golden age of prosperity but would be cuckolding her husband while she did it, I'd urge South Carolinians to elect her. If she were a model of married chastity but ruined the state during her term, that seems like a pretty bad deal for the voters. They are separate issues. And if I think this when it's my candidate getting dragged through the mud, I'm obligated to speak up when it's someone from the other side being dragged. The way Nikki Haley is being treated is wrong. Both she and the voters of South Carolina deserve better.

There are some cases in which sex scandals incidentally cast light on fitness to lead, but for a scandal to be fair game it has to have lead to some real misuse of office. If politicians use public money to enrich their lovers, that's a scandal. If they're sleeping with the lobbyists who lobby them, that's a scandal. Mark Sanford's trips to Argentina are a problem because he neglects his public duties to take them; the Governor of South Carolina can't just disappear for a week because he's in love. Eliot Spitzer's sex life is a problem partly because prostitution is illegal but mostly because the prices were so high that he had to launder money to pay, which means supporting the dirty banking that enables other, uglier crimes. But sleeping with Will Folks doesn't harm the people of South Carolina; it only harms his partner's self-esteem. (Sleeping with Will Folks is probably its own punishment.)

I'm also disturbed by the way even the usual vicious rules of the scandal game have changed because the target is a woman. I don't recall any male politician, ever, having someone inside his own party's political establishment stepping forward to smear him. Either investigative journalists dig up their own proof, or tabloid journalists pay an aggrieved ex-girlfriend who has no prospects of her own left. (Gennifer Flowers wasn't going anywhere in politics. Neither was what's-her-name Hunter.) What's shocking here is that two men who expect to have futures in the Republican Party feel free to smear a Republican front-runner. They don't even need to offer proof; they just say they've slept with her, like they're bragging in the locker room. The double-standard here is pretty hard to miss: extramarital sex is imagined as much more shameful for the woman than for the man. These men figure they can end a female politician's career just by publicly saying, "Yup, I did her," but only suffer a mild setback for themselves. [UPDATE: My main man Wolfie sees through the double-standard in record time.] Seriously, can you imagine a female Congressional staffer coming forward all on her own to bring down a gubernatorial candidate from her own party, and ever getting work inside the party again? But evidently Folks and Merchant believe (and expect others to believe) that Nikki Haley should be a hundred times more ashamed of sleeping with them than they're ashamed of sleeping with her. And you know what? In a certain way, they're right.