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Monthly Archives: March 2012

The House that Jack Built

March 30th, 2012 - 10:42 pm

What is at least partly driving  Al Sharpton’s call for civil disobedience if the city of Sanford doesn’t arrest George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin? What is at the heart of Keith Olbermann’s dispute with Al Gore? Why are Rosie O’donnell and Oprah Winfrey no longer best friends? What has made the Huffington Post bloggers sue Arianna Huffington?

A subject as old as the ages; a matter discussed in the Bible which has gone by many names down through time. A matter so solid some have called it the foundation of society — even a memorial to dead presidents on which their likenesses are emblazoned. Found in large quantities it is called grand. The central pole of the Big Tent is made of it. Yes, we’re talking about money.

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The Talking Points Memo headline reads: “Dems Warn Of ‘Grave Damage’ To SCOTUS If ‘Obamacare’ Is Struck Down.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), a former attorney general of Connecticut, pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court  would damage itself if it did something so ridiculous as find Obamacare unconstitutional:

The court commands no armies, it has no money; it depends for its power on its credibility. The only reason people obey it is because it has that credibility. And the court risks grave damage if it strikes down a statute of this magnitude and importance, and stretches so dramatically and drastically to do it.

Blumenthal was clearly engaged in “begging the question”:

A type of logical fallacy in which a proposition is made that uses its own premise as proof of the proposition. In other words, it is a statement that refers to its own assertion to prove the assertion.

By saying Obamacare is so self-evidently wonderful and legitimate that only someone crazy would disagree with it, Blumenthal makes you wonder why this matter is even before the Court in the first place. For the answer to that question, see “begging the question.”

What is less clear is whether Blumenthal, in reminding the court that the executive branch had the monopoly on physical power, was not engaged in a kind of subtle menace. After all, the Court’s power is not based on “credibility.” It is based on power vested in it by the Constitution. What would the administration say if someone argued that the president’s authority was based on “credibility” rather than his legal power as chief executive?

So unworthy a sentiment as intimidation would not occur to Blumenthal any more than it would to Winston Churchill, who when speaking to Stalin in 1944, trying to persuade the Generalissimo to give Poland a break after the war, drew from him one of the bon mots of the 20th century.

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What Lies Behind the Whisper?

March 29th, 2012 - 10:32 am

Whenever a series of events are observed, it is natural to ask whether they can be explained by a single underlying theme.  Here are the events, but what is the theme?

The US has expressed dismay over Iraq’s decision to let Iranian aircraft, which may be carrying weapons, use that country’s airspace for transit to Syria.  But Ken Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center said, “Maliki’s not looking gratuitously to piss us off, but at the end of the day Iran is wielding a lot more influence in Iraq than we are.”

“The Obama administration hasn’t figured out what it wants to do about Syria,” he said. “It’s hard to make a judgment that we need to invest a whole lot of political capital in getting the Iraqis to turn this off if we don’t know what we are doing ourselves.”

Meanwhile,  operations in Afghanistan are definitely either winding down, being scaled back or increasingly restricted. The AP reports that the White House offered to curtail drone activity operating from that country in an effort so salvage some of it. Pakistan rejected the offer as insufficient.

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The Secret Chord

March 27th, 2012 - 9:49 pm

One Tagalog word for which no exact translation in English exists is “kuryente.” It literally means “electric current,” but the word can be applied to the practice of spreading sensational but faked news in order to produce a media jolt. One newspaper translates “kuryente” as “a bum steer”; others have rendered it as “actually but not really” or “confirmed but not definite.” At any rate, the phrase applies perfectly to the storm of bogus rumors swirling around the Trayvon Martin media feeding frenzy. The Daily Mail reports:

Fake Will Smith tweet about Trayvon Martin sweeps the internet  — and Spike Lee retweets wrong address for George Zimmerman. … Man tweeting as Will Smith tweeted angry post about no justice for Trayvon — Spike Lee retweeted incorrect Florida address for Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman — Man posing as Will Ferrell also tweeted about high-profile case.

Americans are no stranger to the phrase “fake but accurate.” But kuryente takes things to another level where the lie becomes the truth; or worse, to where nobody can tell the difference.

The couple who actually live at the address which Spike Lee wrongly believed to belong to George M. Zimmerman now fear for their lives. The address was actually associated with the electoral roll of a different Zimmerman — George A. Zimmerman — though of course such fine distinctions are lost in the wash. As for the “Will Smith” tweets, the author of his missives is actually a “white man from Nashville, Tennessee.”  Nor is Will Ferrell the Will Ferrell — his spokesman says his tweet was a hoax.

Not that it will make any difference. The main thing about faked news is that it shouldn’t matter whether it is in the slightest degree true. It is far more important for the news to confirm what we want to hear: our deepest suspicions about our neighbor or our wildest vanities about ourselves. People will believe it because they want to. As for the truth, well what about it?

Even the most basic facts becomes surprisingly irrelevant. Media Matters, for example, apologized to Matt Drudge after accusing him of being a “racist demagogue” for running a fake photo of the victim — only to discover it was actually a real photo. You would have thought Media Matters would know true from fake to play the fact-check game, but really, why would factuality be important?

Winston Churchill once observed that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” The immense power of kuryente consists in that it operates in the world of myth. It does not belong in the universe of fact. Hence what happened when, who liked what, what reasons there were for which: these are irrelevant.

Kuryente addresses what some might call a “deeper truth,” and it is therefore proof from falsification. You cannot falsify the re-telling of a myth. Take The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for example:

The Protocols purports to document the minutes of a late 19th century meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles and by controlling the press and the world’s economies. It is still widely available today — still presented, typically, as a genuine document — on the Internet and in print in numerous languages.

Even if you could show that none of the events, meetings, or correspondence depicted in Protocols ever took place, it could never meet the objection that, taken as a whole, the narrative still contained the “truth” about the Jews. In that plane, evidence has no place. What predominates in that airy sphere are symbols, sacraments, and chants.

One of George Orwell’s most important insights is that all totalitarian ideologies — all methods of control — fundamentally required a religious liturgy to persist. It was faith — or its evil twin prejudice — that you really had to appeal to.

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Who Knows, Grows

March 27th, 2012 - 10:12 am

A few days ago the BBC summarized expert testimony before the US Senate on the extent of the penetration of classified networks. “In an open session, experts from the US National Security Agency and government labs said America had to change the way it thought about protecting Department of Defense (DoD) computer networks” because foreign countries were carting off classified information wholesale.

Foreign spies should be assumed to have penetrated the computer networks of the US military, American politicians have been told.

Security experts testifying to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee said the penetration was likely so complete that attempts to curb it should stop.

Instead, cyberdefence should be about protecting data not controlling access.

The experts said the US should look into ways to retaliate against nations that had access to its networks.

DOD Buzz adds that the degree of penetration is so complete that intruders are doing specific lookups on classified systems. They know what information they lack and where to go. The article argued that the “cyber Pearl Harbor” may have already happened.

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Shall We Dance?

March 26th, 2012 - 10:41 am
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Jake Tapper describes an off-mic conversation between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

When asked to explain what President Obama meant, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes told ABC News that there is room for the U.S. and Russia to reach an accommodation, but “there is a lot of rhetoric around this issue — there always is — in both countries.”

It’s hard to avoid drawing the inference from the dialog that President Obama intends to concede something to the Russians in his second term which, if revealed now, would prevent him from being elected to a second term in the first place.  Here is yet another instance of our old friend, the principal-agent problem.
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After the Goldrush

March 25th, 2012 - 5:07 pm

Where have we hear or seen this before?  Thousands head for where, so the prophecy says, the Mother Ship will arrive to take them to the Place we were intended for. Depending on when you grew up, the answer is either:

1. The Twilight Zone.
2. Neil Young.
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind;
4. Jim Jones; or
5. modern day France.

A mountain looming over a French commune with a population of just 200 is being touted as a modern Noah’s Ark when doomsday arrives – supposedly less than nine months from now.

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Can’t Hear You

March 25th, 2012 - 12:20 pm

Although it went largely unnoticed outside of Australia, the electoral massacre of the Australian Labor Party — coming as it does after a similar debacle in New South Wales — suggests not only that Julia Gillard is doomed, but that an entire political formula no longer works. Andrew Bolt writes:

Fatal news for Julia Gillard. Labor’s humiliating annihilation in Queensland proves voters can’t forgive a politician who lies – and then taxes them.

Worse, it proved Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was right to say Saturday’s election was in part a referendum on the carbon tax.

Oh, and a third lesson: sliming opposition leaders is dangerous.

Bang. Three out of three. The Prime Minister’s re-election hopes destroyed.

The parallels with US politics are obvious, provided they apply. But assuming that the same factors affect American politics if only to a partial degree, what possible lessons can be learned? The first is that you can’t fight arithmetic. Australian voters apparently do not like the combination of higher taxes, rising prices and ‘Green Energy’.

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Only You

March 23rd, 2012 - 4:56 pm
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The Life of a Nation

March 23rd, 2012 - 2:02 pm

Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer, a novel which follows the activities of Warsaw’s intelligence resistance through the underground Europe, has no particular plot, but it has a tremendous sense of time and place. Polish Captain Alexander de Milja struggles through a world without a narrative. That would come later. But as Furst shows us, people at the time — even the best informed of them — could only ever hazard an educated guess about future events.

“The Germans will be smashed by the French” they said;  and the after the French fell, confidence turned 180 degrees around to despair: “the British will have their necks wrung like chickens”.  In 1940 the surrender of London was not the view of a defeatist. It was the obvious conclusion of anyone who could read a map after Dunkirk. When the contrary outcomes occurred these were simply accepted as facts; they had to be. History makes sense only in retrospect. In prospect only the propagandists know what is going to happen. In contemporaneous view everything has all the appearance of chaos.

That makes events like the Polish Battle for Wizna as incomprehensible as the Fall of France. If the question raised by the latter is ‘how did it happen’, with respect to the Poles at Wizna the mystery is ‘why did they do it?’ Why did 720 Poles hold off four divisions of Germans for three days when even their success only meant eventual failure?

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