As I often tell people, there seems a totally unpredictable, even random aspect to major American media coverage. Whether a scandal explodes into the public eye or escapes without notice seems difficult to foretell.
Consider the recent example of Dr. Jason Richwine, late of the Heritage Foundation, whose ideological travails became one of Washington’s major scandals-of-the-month over the past week. Googling his exact name now yields half a million web results, and I’d guess that 99% of these are of extremely recent vintage.
As some media commentators have suggested, Richwine himself may be wondering Why Me and Why Now? After all, the racial writings and opinions that provoked so much media fury had never been secretive or disguised; they were always hiding in plain sight.
His Harvard doctoral dissertation asserting the strong connection between race and IQ and suggesting that American immigration policy should be changed to reflect this relationship has been freely available on the Internet for years, as have been video clips of his public pronouncements on the same subject. His articles and columns arguing that Hispanics have unusually high crime rates—mostly written in rebuttal to my own contrary findings—have always been a mouse-click away, and anyone checking would have noticed that these writings had appeared in Alternative Right, a racial nationalist webzine whose ideological orientation has now suddenly been classified as poisonous by the Washington commentariat. Read More…
I just finished chatting about the IRS and AP scandals on the Marc Steiner show with Ari Berman of The Nation, the ACLU’s Gabe Rottman, and for the second half, FDL’s Kevin Gosztola. Podcast forthcoming here.
We disagreed, obviously, about how the IRS’s discrimination bears on campaign finance reform. I don’t see how the IRS scandal argues for putting even more power in their hands.
But I’d like to return to a finer point about which we disagreed but didn’t really get into. Berman seemed convinced that the discrimination was the result of front-line IRS employees deluged with a glut of new, post-Citizens United filings, that needed to come up with some criteria for sorting through it. This is more or less the argument the IRS itself has made (and somewhat similar to the one officials are making about Benghazi). For his part, Rottman contended that the politics didn’t matter so much as the discriminatory questioning itself. Here are four reasons why it’s hard to believe the IRS wasn’t just coping with an overflow of applications, despite the IG report’s assertion to the contrary.
- The questions themselves — If the IRS employees did not know that 501c4s are not required to disclose their donors when they asked for lists, then they are shockingly incompetent. So why did they want them? Either they intended to embarrass the donors by leaking them, or somewhat more benignly, it was just another question in a litany of unreasonable requests designed to hold up the approval process.
- Democratic calls to crack down on 501c4 groups — These are far from the only ones.
- Behavior and connections of IRS employees — The IRS commissioner knew about the targeting for at least a year and hasn’t reported it. She’s not even the one getting fired, and currently runs the IRS’s Affordable Care Act office. Director of the exemptions unit Lois Lerner’s initial apology contained a number of statements that were untrue, such as the number of organizations targeted and that it was confined to the Cincinnati office. Last night Jon Ward reported a congressional source said that Lerner hasn’t agreed to testify before Congress, is in Montreal, and has hired the same lawyer as Dominique Strauss Kahn.
- Leaks to liberal groups — ProPublica reported Monday that IRS employees leaked the applications of nine conservative groups. The National Organization for Marriage is now accusing the IRS of doing the same with their confidential information
There’s a lot we still don’t know, and today’s hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee (in progress) is only the first step in finding out. And IRS employees behaving in a partisan way does not imply White House involvement, of course. But I’d argue the totality of the evidence already points strongly toward there being political motivations behind the targeting.
Update: An early highlight from today
The Buchanan-Hitchens interview that Dan posted brings back such a welter of memories and nostalgia. To see the then youngish Hitchens make a cutting “lying us into war” barb about John F. Kennedy! The very Hitchens who, a short decade later, would take pride of place among ”liberal hawks” arguing for the invasion of Iraq, a project spurred far more by lies than Vietnam, which was based on crude application of the quite reasonable and successful doctrine of containment. Yet I don’t want to be hard on Hitchens—for generally in the interview he is lucid and pleasant.
And boy, those were good times. We had just won the Cold War, the economy was gearing up into its first early internet boom, the crime rate topped out and was beginning to decline. Global warming was no more than a theory, and we still seemed to have plenty of time prevent it. You were unlikely to hear (as one does hear nowadays) young adults talking about looming environmental collapse as a reason not to have children.
Of course 1993 was more or less the last historical moment before the internet. Salon has just posted an provocative interview with author and tech guru Jaron Lanier, who sets down some guideposts for sociological analysis of what changes the internet has wrought. This is a critical subject, because in most ways the internet has changed life for the worse. (Of course you are reading and I am writing on a website, but readers and writers could find one another a generation ago, and the experience was no less rewarding—for the writer, probably far more so.) Lanier argues that the digital revolution is a principal cause of the collapse of the middle class, the drying up of jobs which provided the backbone for most American family life. He points out that while we once had Kodak (and its 140,000 jobs), now we have Instagram, which employs something like a dozen. Gone with Kodak are 140,000 corporate health plans, and no doubt countless Little League teams and brownie troops. This argument feels correct to me, and it deserves to be thoroughly explored in the months ahead.
I occasionally bore my grown children by pointing out that the level of technology we had even a generation further back, in the 1960s, was completely fine. You could travel by jet. Antibiotics existed (and were probably more effective than now), no one died tragically of scarlet fever or something. (On second reading, I would note that AIDS, apparently non-existent in the 1960s, was still a death sentence in 1993 and would be for another couple of years.) People could make make a living writing books or working for newspapers, or working in a factory. Email didn’t exist of course, much less twitter, but somehow people were able to communicate. And I don’t want to go overboard and overpraise the quality of political leadership then, but I think the Congress run by Jim Wright and Bob Michel was probably a great improvement over the current one. Is it just me, or is the general tone of the Buchanan-Hitchens exchange far more elevated than political talk you see on TV today?
Both the title and the trailer of Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (now playing in DC at the E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema) suggest that this will be the story of how a man becomes a fundamentalist: how a young-gun New York financier, humiliated and mistreated after 9/11, turns his back on America and returns to Pakistan to become an Islamic terrorist. This is not the actual story of the film. In a sense the movie has too much story for this summary, and the protagonist, Changez Khan (a changeable, intense Riz Ahmed), gets trapped in the conflicting interpretations by which other people file down his life into intelligibility.
The Republican Party has become the Southern Party. Or so we’ve been told ad nauseam, at least since Richard Nixon launched an effort wean disaffected whites from the Democratic Party. There’s more debate about the chronology and causes of the South’s realignment than many people realize: the wonderfully named Sean Trende argues that it began long before 1968 and had more to do with urbanization than than with race. For some critics, however, the electoral map is irrefutable evidence that the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of the Confederacy (plus the mountain West, which no one ever talks about).
But it may not always be that way. As the outcomes in 2008 and 2012 showed, the Upper South is much more competitive than it used to be. Virginia leans blue. And North Carolina is up for grabs.
Larry Sabato offers an intuitive but nevertheless interesting explanation of what’s going on (h/t @jbouie). Using data from the 2010 census, Sabato observes that states that have experienced big declines in the number of voters who were born there (the “nativity rate”) tend to turn blue. That’s largely because minorities, whether from foreign countries or other states, are more likely to move than whites. They are also more likely to be Democrats.
Virginia, whose population has also been transformed by the growth of the affluent D.C. area, has been the pioneer of this change. North Carolina is following a similar pattern. Based on current trends, Georgia’s nativity rate is likely to drop below 50 percent within the next decade or so. If that happens, and if Sabato’s right, it may again become possible for Democratic presidential candidates to win there too.
The loss of the Upper and Coastal South would be bad news for Republicans. On the other hand, the correlation between high nativity rates and support for the GOP means that the Republican stronghold may be shifting to the Midwest, which attracts few new residents but still commands a pile of electoral votes.
Consider the irony of such a scenario. Republicans have lost ground in North and gained it in the South partly because their appeal is concentrated among whites. But the South is becoming far less white than it used to be, partly because of immigration and partly because its weather and lower cost of living have made it an attractive destination for domestic relocation. As a result, Republicans are beginning to struggle there, just as they do in the more diverse Northeast and West Coast.
So could the GOP return from Southern exile to its origins in the Midwest? Doing so would refute the geographic argument that it’s the party of the Confederacy. But that’s mainly because the Confederacy ain’t what it used to be.
Human cloning is real.
Yesterday, the prominent scientific journal Cell published a paper by scientists at Oregon Health & Science University announcing that they had successfully derived stem cell lines from cloned human embryos. Some context is necessary, however, to start to grasp the implications of what has taken place.
First of all, a brief primer to the science. Cloning is more commonly referred to in scientific circles as “somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT),” where scientists take the DNA from an adult (somatic) cell and transfer it into an unfertilized egg, which has had its own DNA removed. Normally to begin developing into an embryo, a fetus, and ultimately an adult human being, the egg has to be fertilized by a sperm to which kick off the series of coordinated steps that constitute human development.
Instead of having the genetic material from two parents combine into a unique new life, however, cloning takes the full genetic information from an adult and places it into the emptied egg. These researchers immersed the egg in a caffeine solution and delivered regular electrical shocks, among other techniques, forcing it to enter development, dividing and growing until it reached “blastocyst” stage, where a protective outer layer called the trophoblast surrounds the mass of inner cells (ICM) that will constitute the myriad parts of a human body, and being.
At this point, as is the necessary procedure to obtain embryonic stem cells, they dissolved that protective outer layer to obtain the inner cells rich in total potential, and grew them into an “immortal” line of stem cells. To prove their success, some of those cells were programmed into muscle cells and grown into tumors under the skin of immune-suppressed mice. The muscle cells were made to contract, and filmed doing so.
The controversies and debates about cloning specifically are legion, and will be given new intensity with this announcement, but some points can be made at the outset. For those who believe that human life is worthy of protection from its inception, the creation of a human life for the express purpose of destroying it, and manipulating what could have been a child into reproducible tissue for manipulation and research is abhorrent.
Cloning compounds these considerations by transforming the nature of human life itself. As sexual beings, every child is the product of a union, possessing a unique inheritance unto themselves (identical twins notwithstanding) that will generate and govern their own story going forward. Cloning, however, gives that child the inheritance of a life already once lived. Many of our reproductive technologies already run perilously close to making the creation of life into manufacture, and cloning would drastically advance that by beginning to recycle the very material of life, to some degree inevitably making a newborn into a do-over. The demand is already there, to recover a lost child, to regenerate a dead genius, to live on forever genetically intact. We should not provide the supply.
These scientists protest that they have no interest in reproductive cloning, though, and indeed claim that a forthcoming paper will prove that their technique cannot be used to bring a child to term even if they wanted to do so. Even here, their justifications are weak. Embryonic stem cells, far from the promises of universal supply kits of personalized medicine promised at the DNC a decade back, have an inherent limit: human embryos are hard to come by. They require women to undergo highly invasive and sometimes risky techniques not to give birth, but to give scientists material to work with. The women used in this study were paid thousands of dollars, raising concerns over the exploitation of the poor, the commodification of the human body, and the commercialization of women’s reproductive powers. Furthermore, the research shows that while these scientists were very efficient, techniques obtaining more than 16 eggs at once produced eggs drastically less capable of being used for cloning.
Moreover, human embryonic stem cell research has fallen off dramatically since the discovery in 2006 of a technique for turning adult cells back into the “pluripotent” state embryos are so desirable for, at much less cost and without the ethical concerns of destroying embryos. Those cells, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), won Shinya Yamanaka a Nobel Prize for his efforts this year, and have revolutionized the stem cell research world. That breakthrough, it must be recognized, took place under a Japanese regulatory regime that made experimenting on human embryos almost impossible.
Taken together, a strong case is made for banning human cloning of any sort, and for keeping scientific research within the bounds of what is morally acceptable. Science wields awesome powers for achieving the ends we set before it, and we should not do it so little credit as to assume that medical progress must be ethically transgressive.
A classic C-SPAN clip from 1993 is doing the rounds on Facebook. Brian Lamb is frustrated when the “balanced” left-right discussion he tried to set up on Bill Clinton’s presidency is stymied by Pat Buchanan and Christopher Hitchens agreeing that Clinton is a neoliberal corporatist. Long clip, but worth watching—bookmark it.
According to many Republicans, Barack Obama has been scandal-plagued since sometime shortly after his inaugural parade. But only within the past few days have national political media begun to adopt the same view, as a cluster of controversies—over Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative activist groups, and the Department of Justice’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records—emerged in quick succession, prompting journalists to announce that a watershed moment for the Obama presidency was at hand. “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic reversal of the nation’s political narrative,” declared Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg, who wondered whether all this augured a “game changer for 2014.” Continuing the theme, Politico theorized that these scandals will expose the limits of “a growing and activist government” and consequently “bolster the conservative worldview.”
Of the three controversies, Benghazi is most purely a product of the contemporary “conservative worldview”—Republicans have been promoting the story for eight months, fueled by a barrage of fury on Fox News and right-wing internet outfits. But the outrage has had virtually nothing to do with discontent over “a growing and activist government.” Instead, what seems to animate it is continued suspicion that the Obama administration deliberately lied about the nature of the attack to avoid suffering a potential setback in the heat of a presidential campaign. Last week’s hearing did lend a degree of credence to the theory—progressives are now less inclined to casually dismiss concerns that the post-attack talking points were manipulated—but regardless, recent developments had no bearing on the desirability of “a growing and activist government.” With very few exceptions, Republicans have not used the Benghazi saga as an opportunity to challenge the underlying logic of the Libya incursion, though a considerable swath of voters could be receptive to such a challenge, including disaffected Democratic-leaning folks who object to Obama’s interventionism and militarism.
In the case of the IRS “scandal,” when the news broke, Obama swiftly denounced the agency’s conduct as “outrageous,” and Democrats vowed to fully investigate. Assuming there is no further conspiracy, this issue may harm Obama in the short-term but seems unlikely to effect a broad-based shift in attitudes toward government power other than to intensify feelings among conservatives who already detest the president and the IRS. As the “Tea Party” brand remains extremely unpopular, progressives and independents will generate little sympathy for the self-described “Tea Party” and “Patriot” groups that were targeted.
By stark contrast, Monday’s revelation that the Justice Department seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press is a veritable “game-changer”—a full-blown scandal in every sense of the word. DOJ officials obtained these highly sensitive records in secret, preventing the AP from seeking judicial review; sources for as many as 100 reporters may have been compromised. Pulitzer Prize winners Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, whose investigative journalism has been indispensable, were among the targets.
The gravity of this “massive and unprecedented intrusion,” as the AP described it, cannot be overstated. Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed that his department carried out the action pursuant to a criminal investigation into a national-security leak that “put the American people at risk,” creating a situation that “required aggressive action” to remedy.
A substantial set of Americans, young people especially, has grown deeply cynical of state officials’ rote invocation of ill-defined “threats” to justify abridging core civil liberties. Ironically, this scandal is by far the most compelling example of what “a growing and activist government” might wreak—yet it also appears to be the scandal in which the GOP has the least interest. It most threatens Obama precisely because it is not tainted by partisan grandstanding. It is a scandal on its face and required no trumpeting from congressional zealots in order to enter the mainstream discourse.
But since the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable inability to capitalize on Obama’s many vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding pumped-up “narratives” about the administration’s imminent downfall, there is little reason to expect much will change.
The most basic criticism of Obama turns out to be the truest. A one-term Senator doesn’t have much preparation for governing anything—yes, a risk that Republicans will have to keep in mind with Marco Rubio and Rand Paul—and government under Obama often seems to be run by functionaries. It’s all too plausible that Obama didn’t know, or care to know, about the IRS applying discriminatory standards against right-leaning 501(c)(4) groups, and his attitude toward Eric Holder’s Justice Department grabbing Associated Press phone records appears similarly blasé.
This is rather unlike the disgraced president to whom many Republicans want to compare the incumbent. As Dana Milbank puts it: “Nixon was a control freak. Obama seems to be the opposite: He wants no control over the actions of his administration. As the president distances himself from the actions of ‘independent’ figures within his administration, he’s creating a power vacuum in which lower officials behave as though anything goes.” That’s not exculpatory: a president is responsible for the abuses of his administration whether he orders them directly or simply creates the conditions in which they can happen.
It’s doubtful, alas, that congressional Republicans will treat these matters as anything other than opportunities for Benghazi-style partisan hype. There are fundamental matters behind each of these scandals that the GOP establishment does not want to face any more than Obama does. Namely: exactly what the CIA was doing in Benghazi (and why the U.S. had to be so deeply involved in Libya in the first place), the tremendous discretion the IRS enjoys over whom it targets and how, and the extent to which the War on Terror is really a War on Transparency in government. Failure to strike these problems at their roots only reinforces the idea that the GOP’s leadership cares not a whit for the substance of the issues but only about embarrassing Obama. That may be enough to rally the base ahead of 2014, but there are many other Americans—not nearly enough, to be sure—who actually would like someone to stand up for consistent standards, not only for the IRS but to check and limit arbitrary executive power across the board.
As Jordan Bloom mentioned yesterday, Corey Robin has a provocative essay on the connection between between Nietzsche and the “Austrian” economists in The Nation. The piece is titled “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”, as if Menger, Mises, Hayek and Schumpeter were Nietzsche’s direct heirs. The actual argument is more subtle: “the relationship between Nietzsche and the free-market right…is thus one of elective affinity rather than direct influence, at the level of idiom rather than policy.”
According to Robin, both Nietzsche and the Austrians saw value as a subjective commitment under conditions of constraint rather than an objective contribution by labor. For this reason, they endorsed agonistic social relations in which individuals struggle to express and impose valuations to the limits of their differential strength, while rejecting egalitarian arrangements that attempt to give producers a fair share of the value they have generated. Although he was most interested in philosophy and art, Nietzsche also described the conditions necessary for cultural renewal as “great politics”. For the Austrians, by contrast, the marketplace was the setting for contestation over value.
Like Robin’s argument in The Reactionary Mind, this interpretation is bound to appeal to leftists who are already convinced that there’s something sinister about conservative and libertarian thought (see the comments at Crooked Timber here). But it has serious problems, which Brian Doherty and Kevin Vallier have already begun to point out.
For one thing, there’s nothing unique to Austrian economics about the subjective theory of value. As Robin acknowledges, the foundations of the so-called marginal revolution were laid by the Frenchman Walras and the Englishman Jevons, as well as the Austrian Menger. That wouldn’t matter if the influence of these writers had been especially strong in the milieu that eventually produced Mises and Hayek. But in fact, almost all modern economists, whatever their theoretical or political orientation, accept some descendant of Walras, Jevons, and Mengers’ arguments. What’s more, Robin generally ignores the technical mathematical background of the marginal revolution, which he presents primarily as debate in moral philosophy. That decision obscures the most important cause of the transformation of economic thought in the 19th century: the demand that economics become a science on the model of physics.
Robin is also evasive in his chronology. He acknowledges that “[a]round the time—almost to the year—that Nietzsche was launching his revolution of metaphysics and morals, a trio of economists [Walras, Jevons, and Menger], working separately across three countries, were starting their own.” But he doesn’t deal explicitly with the possibility that this temporal coincidence makes any connection between Nietzsche and marginal economics circumstantial.
It’s true that Hayek and his Austrian contemporaries received the new theories of value in economics in a cultural context influenced by Nietzsche. But that tells us nothing about those theories’ original inspiration—let alone their truth. In any case, the fact that marginal economics became dominant in a setting where Nietzsche had little or no influence, such as the British academy, suggests that the heroic individualism he so brilliantly articulated was by no means a necessary condition of the transformation of economics. And given the variety of reactions to Nietzsche in the 20th century, it’s clearly not a sufficient one.
It’s also crucial to remember that Nietzsche was not the only 19th century thinker who challenged the leveling tendencies of democracy and socialism. On the contrary, this concern is among the major themes of Tocqueville, Carlyle, Mill, Kierkegaard, Burkhardt, Freud, Dostoyevksy, and Pareto, to name only a few. Robin knows too much to ignore these names, some of which occur in the piece. But Robin’s focus suggests that they served, at most, as adjuncts or supplements to Nietzsche.
Robin’s central error, in other words, is an uncritical acceptance of Nietzsche’s evaluation of himself as a “fate” rather than an articulator, however brilliant, of ideas that were very much in the air of the 19th century. In this respect, Robin shows an odd affinity for Leo Strauss, who tended to reduce intellectual history to a decontextualized dialogue among great thinkers.