politics, fringe watching, and other stuff

John J. McKay is a grumpy, aging liberal who lives in a small house with his wife, two cats, and a couple thousand books. To comment on anything in archy, send an e-mail.

Blogs I'm reading this week
The American Street
Angry Bear
Body and Soul
Counterspin Central
Crooked Timber
Daily Kos
Dispatches From the Culture Wars
The Early Days of a Better Nation
The Intersection
Is That Legal?
Kevin Drum
Mark A.R. Kleiman
Matthew Yglesias
Media Whores Online
Off the Kuff
Pacific Views
Preposterous Universe
Progressive Gold
The Right Christians
The Rittenhouse Review
Roger Ailes
Ruminate This
Shadow of the Hegemon
Skeptical Notion
Steve Gilliard's News Blog
Talking Points Memo
Very Very Happy
Waldchen vom Philosophenweg
Whiskey Bar
World O' Crap

Other good stuff
Americans United for Seperation of Church and State
Common Dreams
The Daily Howler
People for the American Way
Political Research Associates
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

? # Pacific Northwest Blogs ? ?

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Saturday, March 20, 2004

Getting tough with Fidel
I see via Jesse at Pandagon that Karl Rove is swearing to find ''new and creative ways'' to tighten the grip on Castro. Pandering to the Miami Cuban exile community is an election year tradition. And why not? They hold one of the most enviable positions in American special-interest politics. Itís difficult to become president without Floridaís electoral votes and itís hard to win Florida if the quarter-million or so Miami Cuban vote against you. Thus a minority in one city in one state manages to hold the foreign policy of the United States hostage.

Itís been shown again and again that the sanctions and election year rhetoric about getting tough with Fidel only serves to strengthen his grip on Cuba. Nothing like a nice outside threat to get the country to rally around the leader. That principle is completely unknown to this administration and thatís why they continue to pursue this failed policy. Right?

Of course, get tough with Fidel is only a failed policy if you assume the goal is to get rid of Castro. If the goal is to deliver the votes of the Miami exile community to the Republican Party, it's been a fabulous success. I wonder what the Republicans will do when Castro finally does die and the Miami Cubans stop voting with one voice. I wonder what the Miami Cubans will do when they become just another minority in a state full of the Republicanís preferred constituency, racist white males.

posted by John at 5:39 PM

Friday, March 19, 2004

Protecting American jobs?
This would make a lovely thirty-second spot for Kerry or MoveOn:
The official merchandise Web site for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign has sold clothing made in Burma, whose goods were banned by Bush from the U.S. last year to punish its military dictatorship.

The merchandise sold on www.georgewbushstore.com includes a $49.95 fleece pullover, embroidered with the Bush-Cheney '04 logo and bearing a label stating it was made in Burma, now Myanmar. The jacket was sent to Newsday as part of an order that included a shirt made in Mexico and a hat not bearing a country-of-origin label.

The Bush merchandise is handled by Spalding Group, a 20-year-old supplier of campaign products and services in Louisville, Ky., that says it worked for the last five Republican presidential nominees.

Ted Jackson, Spalding's president, said, "We have found only one other in our inventory that was made in Burma. The others were made in the U.S.A." He said the company had about 60 of thefleece pullovers in its warehouse, and that a supplier included the Burma product by mistake.

Bush campaign officials did not return calls seeking comment. The imports are potentially an issue because outsourcing has become a hot political topic in the election.

Bush last July signed into law the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, saying "The United States will not waver from its commitment to the cause of democracy and human rights in Burma."

Violators of the import ban are subject to fines and jail, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

If I wanted to be fair about this, I would reason that this was probably an honest mistake on the part of Spalding and its supplier. The supplier, Colorado Trading & Clothing, claims the products were leftover stock from before the sanctions took effect last fall.

But why would I want to be fair? When I was a campaign hack in the eighties, heads would have rolled if we had had so much as a box of pencils at the headquarters that wasn't made in an American union shop. The sole purpose of branded gear like this is to keep the candidate's name in the public's eye. Everything about it--from the color scheme to the country of origin--represents the campaign. While they may not have intentionally desired foreign sweatshop products, they obviously didn't take adequate precautions against getting them. Bad publicity is the price you pay for such sloppiness. That makes them fair game.

posted by John at 10:12 AM

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The imperfect knowledge gambit
Carl Zimmer over at The Loom has a good post today explaining a favorite technique of groups who need to cast doubt on expert knowledge in order to advance their particular agenda. For example, creationists want to convince the public that most biologists, geologists, and, indeed scientists in general, don't really understand their fields; holocaust deniers claim that professional historians have all been taken in by a Jewish fraud; and greenhouse skeptics say the vast majority of climate scientists are just guessing. I've ground my teeth at this technique for years but never had a good name for it. Now I do.

Zimmer describes it this way:
When I ask scientists what's the biggest misunderstanding people have about their work, they often talk about how they know what they know. People tend to think that a scientist's job is to gather every single datum about something in nature--a mountain, a species of jellyfish, a neutron star--and then, simply by looking at all that information, see the absolute truth about it in an instant....

Many bogus attacks on scientific research play on this common misunderstanding of science-as-revelation. If scientists don't know everything they can't conclude anything. Paleoanthropologists have found less than two dozen species of hominids from the past six million years--therefore they can't draw any conclusions about how humans appeared on Earth. Climatologists don't have a perfect temperature record for the planet--therefore they can't say anything about how man-made pollution is warming the atmosphere. In cases like climate change, these bogus attacks spread from science to policy based on science. To hear some people talk, we should only do something about climate change once we have tracked every molecule in the atmosphere since the dawn of civilization and can predict its course for the next thousand years.

The imperfect knowledge gambit is a particularly nasty and effective rhetorical device because it builds on very common misconceptions about how knowledge is created and because it sets the groundwork for a number of follow-up arguments.

Most scientists and historians do not claim to know everything (the ones that do are, by definition, bad scientists and historians (or coaches hired to teach science and history)). If we knew everything, there would be no need for new scientists and historians and they would all have to get jobs making furniture or mowing lawns. Since there is very little demand for bad furniture and uneven lawns, they would become unemployed and sit around all day whining about how hungry they are. This would be even more annoying than their present whining about how unappreciated and underpaid they are, so be thankful that there are still things to find out.

It should be obvious to most people that we do not know everything. But, by harping on the fact that scientists and historians do not possess pure and complete Truth, that their knowledge is partial and provisional, the opponents create an opening for their anti-knowledge. One follow-up argument is to portray their anti-knowledge as equal to our knowledge and demand equal time. This fairness argument is a favorite of creationists and holocaust deniers. Another follow-up argument is the dark horse gambit beloved of conspiracy theorists. This emphasizes the partial nature of knowledge and insists that their anti-knowledge might be the missing explanation that leads to the Truth (at this point they usually compare themselves to Galileo).

The difference between many conspiracy theorists and leading creationists, holocaust deniers, and greenhouse skeptics is that the conspiracy theorists are usually sincere in their confusion, while the latter three are cynically exploiting a rhetorical device to win supporters and advance their agendas. Most conspiracy theorists just want the Truth. Creationists want to introduce religion into the schools and don't care what damage they do to the educational mission. Holocaust denial is usually just an introduction to the larger anti-Semitic program. The do-nothing conclusion of greenhouse skeptics is to the direct benefit of corporate and political agendas. All things being equal, I'd rather spend time with a Velikovsky follower or amateur Templar historian than any of those three

Note I was probably overly subtle in distinguishing between leaders and supporters in that last paragraph. Aside from their rhetorical methods, I lump creationists, holocaust deniers, and greenhouse skeptics together because I view all three groups as being led by cynical manipulators. The individual followers are often sincere and convinced by the rhetorical tricks of their leaders. Many are open to intelligent counter-arguments and eager to understand. The leaders of these three movements, on the other hand, are patently dishonest and have only my contempt.

posted by John at 4:30 PM

Monday, March 15, 2004

Various outrages
Posting has been light for me the last few days because my Mom has been staying with us. Now that she is back in her home and we are back in ours, Iíve had a chance to took at the news and seek out patterns. To my horror and shock, I found that Bush is politicizing the civil service. But he always seemed like such a uniter, not a divider. Heís the very last person I would expect to behave in partisan manner.

1) This one is from Time via those alert eyes at Pandagon:
Administration sources tell TIME that employees at the Department of Homeland Security have been asked to keep their eyes open for opportunities to pose the President in settings that might highlight the Administration's efforts to make the nation safer. The goal, they are being told, is to provide Bush with one homeland-security photo-op a month.

2) This one is from the mighty and majestic Atrios. The original may have changed by the time you go to look at it, so Iíll give you the image.

3) And this one I actually found by myself when glancing over the headlines after getting back from returning Mom to her homestead.
WASHINGTON, March 14 ó Federal investigators are scrutinizing television segments in which the Bush administration paid people to pose as journalists praising the benefits of the new Medicare law, which would be offered to help elderly Americans with the costs of their prescription medicines.

The videos are intended for use in local television news programs. Several include pictures of President Bush receiving a standing ovation from a crowd cheering as he signed the Medicare law on Dec. 8.

The materials were produced by the Department of Health and Human Services, which called them video news releases, but the source is not identifiedÖ.

Federal law prohibits the use of federal money for "publicity or propaganda purposes" not authorized by Congress. In the past, the General Accounting Office has found that federal agencies violated this restriction when they disseminated editorials and newspaper articles written by the government or its contractors without identifying the source.

Kevin W. Keane, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said there was nothing nefarious about the television materials, which he said had been distributed to stations nationwide. Under federal law, he said, the government is required to inform beneficiaries about changes in Medicare.

"The use of video news releases is a common, routine practice in government and the private sector," Mr. Keane said. "Anyone who has questions about this practice needs to do some research on modern public information tools."

An entire agency is charged with finding photo ops to aid their boss' reelection effort. A congressional committee uses their publicly-financed Website to attack the minority party's candidate. Official communications from a department become commercials to drum up partisan support for a controversial policy initiative (during an election year). All three have the same corrupt element in common: the Bush team obviously regards the government as just another advertising medium for them to use in their election effort.

In the last case, Keane, the talking head for DHHS, brings up something that has bothered me for years. When, exactly, did legality become the refuge of choice for scoundrels? It seems that whenever someoneópolitical or corporateóis caught with their hands in the ethical cookie jar, their preferred defense is to loudly quote the letter of the law and announce that they did nothing illegal. Never mind that they may have trampled the spirit of the law and vomited on any relevant concept of ethics, if they are safe within a legal loophole, they can stand tall.

The whole historical point of a professional civil service was to create a body of depoliticized workers whose first loyalty was to performing their defined duties, not to supporting their political masters. The current behavior of the Bush/Rove cohort seems to have the goal of undoing 120 years of political reform for a momentís advantage. Why am I not surprised?

posted by John at 10:15 PM

Copyright 2003-2004 John J. McKay. Use what you want, but give credit where credit is due.
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