State of the Union

The Controversial Chris Kyle

photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment
photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment

“[I]t may be said that the weary melancholy underlying Lawrence of Arabia stems from the stupefying apprehension that, whereas England may have been doomed to civilize the world, no power under heaven can civilize England.” —James Baldwin

“I don’t really care what people think of me.” —Chris Kyle

The New York Times review of “Lawrence of Arabia” from 1962 complains that we don’t really get to know the titular character, a fault Bosley Crowther blames on “the concept of telling the story of this self-tortured man against a background of action that has the characteristic of a mammoth Western film.”

“American Sniper” feels the same way, both in character and background. For most people, consideration of the similarities between Western expansion and America’s permanent presence in the Middle East starts and ends with how one feels about “cowboy president” jokes. But in less self-conscious times, no less than the venerable Robert Kaplan once referred to Little Bighorn as “the 9/11 of its day.” In a 2004 Wall Street Journal article titled “Indian Country,” he referred to a new kind of small-scale independent warfare:

An overlooked truth about the war on terrorism, and the war in Iraq in particular, is that they both arrived too soon for the American military: before it had adequately transformed itself from a dinosauric, Industrial Age beast to a light and lethal instrument skilled in guerrilla warfare, attuned to the local environment in the way of the 19th-century Apaches. My mention of the Apaches is deliberate. For in a world where mass infantry invasions are becoming politically and diplomatically prohibitive … the American military is back to the days of fighting the Indians.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) represents something like this aspiration. He’s learned the Apache ways, you might say. Snipers operate in a fairly independent way, which fits his personality. Nicknamed “The Legend,” the deadliest sniper in American history, Kyle was on his first of four tours when President George W. Bush declared Iraq a free country, which, if you’re feeling cheeky, makes this a kind of cop movie.

In his comments on “Lawrence of Arabia” in The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin describes how the movie makes barbaric acts comprehensible. The famous “No prisoners!” moment of mass slaughter, he says, makes sense in the context of Lawrence being raped at the hands of the Turks.

But there is no analogous moment in “American Sniper.” Chris Kyle’s humiliations are all vicarious—he joined up after the 1998 embassy bombings. The “No prisoners!” moment—the moment the audience is supposed to understand the rules are different—is the very first scene. It’s the one depicted in the trailer which (it isn’t giving too much away to say) ends in him shooting a child, then a woman, who threaten a convoy Kyle is protecting.

But the fact remains that T.E. Lawrence probably wasn’t raped, Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons, Chris Kyle probably lied about a lot of stuff, and he doesn’t actually shoot a kid in the semi-autobiography on which the movie is based.

Towards the end of the movie, Kyle returns home and visits a psychiatrist, who says “the Navy has credited you with over 160 kills.” Actually, the Navy has credited him with 160 kills, with 255 claimed. “The thing that haunts me is all the guys I couldn’t save,” Cooper’s Kyle tells the doctor. Real Kyle, in the book, replies, “I only wish I had killed more.” It’s hard not to notice that these are opposites.

Does this sort of thing matter? Be careful what you answer, because one’s opinion on “American Sniper” can be controversial. The usual suspects have dusted off a word they only use for things they don’t like, “glorify,” to describe how the film treats violence. The other usual suspects, happy to have Hollywood in their corner for once, have been celebrating the record-breaking opening weekend take of $90 million and six Oscar nominations.

The savagery of the Iraqis is mostly taken for granted to have happened off-screen—we see what looks like a captured soldier, clearly tortured, hanging from the ceiling—except for a cartoonishly sadistic villain who tortures a child to death with a power drill. Understand, the terrorists do worse than waterboarding.

Some reactions to “American Sniper” have cut across expected political loyalties. Jane Fonda, for example, seemed to sympathize with the movie’s portrayal of PTSD sufferers. And to be sure, the impacts of war on the warriors are not something the movie shies away from—another late scene shows Kyle taking disabled veterans shooting, which, if you know what happened to him, is somewhat tense. More interestingly, Bradley Cooper was listed as one of Politico’s “50 Politicos to Watch” in 2013. He’s appeared at a Center for American Progress event and seems to be quite close with the vice president. This is the star of a movie whose detractors our vigilant right-wing press has been keeping a running tally on. How about that?

But the same incuriosity about causes and alternatives its critics condemn is what saves this film from a heavy-handed pro- or anti-war message. Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post wrote that the movie is an object lesson in how the “fear of being seen as political can deaden a story.”

There is an inevitability to Chris Kyle. It’s similar to other Clint Eastwood characters who are motivated by revenge, and on whom violence ends up taking a personal toll. “The woman was already dead,” Kyle writes of the encounter depicted in the first scene. “I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.” We were already in Iraq, I was just making sure we won.

This makes for good, heroic—and unifying, if we can take box office numbers as proof of that—filmmaking. “American Sniper” is the first War on Terror film I can think of with a larger-than-life hero at the center of it. It’s much more fun to watch than, say, “Lone Survivor” or “The Hurt Locker.” The climactic fight takes place as a massive sandstorm rolls in; Kyle takes an impossibly long shot, killing his nemesis, a fellow sniper with Olympic shooting credentials, then his squad has to fight off baddies until the timed relief arrives. He calls his wife from the roof of the besieged building, in one of the movie’s less believable moments, to tell her he’s ready to go home. Kyle leaves his rifle in the dirt as he tries to catch a speeding MRAP, bringing a line at the beginning where his father tells him not to leave his rifle in the dirt full-circle.

A timer, a villain, family-related moments of realization for the hero—in case you haven’t noticed, these are superhero boss battle tropes.

Dramatizations and strategic editing are par for the course in filmmaking; it’s hard to blame Eastwood or screenwriter Jason Hall for these things. They chose to “print the legend,” or The Legend, as many writers have put it.

Judgment calls were clearly necessary, because Chris Kyle himself was guilty of spinning some tall tales about how he employed his skills back home. He claimed to have picked off looters during Hurricane Katrina, as reported by the New Yorker, and to have shot two men in Texas who tried to carjack him. Neither of these stories has ever been substantiated. More definitively, a court found that a scene in the book where he punches out a man named “Scruff Face”—who he claimed later in an interview was Jesse Ventura, didn’t happen and constituted defamation.

It’s easy to understand why a person would lie about having killed someone. It’s harder to understand why someone would claim to have killed more people than they actually did.

To give Kyle the benefit of the doubt, the first two tales read like gung-ho one-upmanship taken too far, but the Ventura story is more complicated. Using a nickname in the book, only then to name the guy he claims to have punched in a televised interview suggests an ill-considered PR move to goose book sales.

At the very least, Kyle’s fibs paint a less humble and more media-savvy picture than the one shown in the movie. Do they make him any less of a hero? Probably not. Should we fault “American Sniper” for not dealing with them? Perhaps, but the movie’s boosters would probably say that would have “politicized” it.

Unfortunately, humans are political animals, and that’s inevitable:

[American Sniper] may inadvertently be the best argument most Americans will see for the premise of the Iraq war, because it has one small scene where a guy prepping Chris Kyle for his first mission points out … you’re facing basically the A list of the jihadists. … You go, ‘oh my gosh,’ this is fantastic, we’re sending the best of the best Americans to wipe out these bad guys who would, a la Paris today, be somewhere else …  I remember watching the movie thinking, ‘if only the Bush administration had made this case as well as Clint Eastwood just made it on the movie screen.’” —Michael Graham, Weekly Standard podcast, January 19, 2015 [emphasis added]

Graham’s substantive point is complete horse-pucky. The years-long insurgency is proof that ordinary Iraqis were a lot more resistant to occupation than we expected them to be. Moreover, nobody who uses “American Sniper” to regurgitate decade-old Bush administration talking points should be allowed to complain about people who “politicize” stuff.

To Graham’s editor Bill Kristol, Kyle’s widow is useful only as a prop to beat the administration over the head with. Maybe he thinks more reverent movies about Navy SEALs will give us the gumption to finally put “an end to evil.” But thrusting Taya Kyle onto the national stage to score cheap political points is small consolation for a dead husband, lost to the aftershocks of a war he never stopped defending.

Whether or not you see this endless cowboys-and-Indians game as fated—Kaplan calls it “thankless”—there’s a certain self-fulfilling logic to it. To quote Kaplan from 2004:

Indian Country has been expanding in recent years because of the security vacuum created by the collapse of traditional dictatorships and the emergence of new democracies—whose short-term institutional weaknesses provide whole new oxygen systems for terrorists.

This is exactly the process American foreign policy has been speeding along, in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Then stories come along to help make the things we do comprehensible, and in that sense “American Sniper” is a successful movie. The Crockett Almanacs helped us conquer the frontier, never mind that Davy Crockett didn’t do most of that stuff. Little Bighorn convinced us Indians were savages. It’s pretty clear what role “American Sniper” is playing for some.

J. Arthur Bloom is opinion editor at the Daily Caller and managing editor at Front Porch Republic.

Civil War Comes Home

Ciarán Macgillivray, Josh Cruddas, and Francios Arnaud in “Copperhead”   © 2012 Cooperhead the Movie Ltd.

Loss became commonplace; death was no longer encountered individually; death’s threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences. … for those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death.

— Drew Gilpin Faust

 

In the living room of his house in Rappahannock, Virginia, filmmaker Ron Maxwell brings up the 2008 book from which that quote is drawn: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. We’re talking about the costs of the war Maxwell—director of “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg”—has made a career of interpreting. “All of the numbers are being revised upwards” since Faust’s book came out five years ago, he says—by 20 percent in 2012 alone.

His new movie concerns those Northern Democrats who adjudged the costs too high and called for a settlement with the South. They were dubbed “Copperheads” by their opponents and likened to the venomous snake. It was a name they accepted, and now it’s the name of the new film. Produced and directed by Maxwell and written by antiwar populist historian (and TAC columnist) Bill Kauffman, “Copperhead” is about a small town in upstate New York where divided opinions about the war threaten to tear the community asunder. Based on an 1893 novella by Harold Frederic of Utica—whom Maxwell calls the “Charles Dickens of upstate New York”—it focuses on two families, one Copperhead and one abolitionist.

It is a film about the Northern home front: there is not a single battle scene or slave, though characters returning from the South talk of both. “The whole point is that the war intrudes on the people where they are,” Maxwell says.

“Copperhead” opens in 1862 to six boys traipsing across a field and talking about a distant war. In time two will be killed in battle, two will be maimed, and two will survive unscathed, albeit only in the sense that they’re unwounded. The movie is narrated by one who stayed behind, an orphan named Jimmy (Josh Cruddas), who lives with the Copperhead Beeches. The father of the family, Abner Beech, is according to Kauffman “neither a doughface nor a congenital contrarian: he is, rather, a Jefferson-Jackson agrarian in the Upstate New York Democratic tradition.”

Abner’s son, Jeff (Casey Brown), named after his political icon Thomas Jefferson, is in love with Esther (Lucy Boynton) the daughter of the town’s most fervent abolitionist, Jee Hagadorn, played powerfully by Angus McFayden. In an early scene Esther renames her suitor Tom since his other name evokes the traitorous president of the Confederacy.

As Jeff and Esther grow closer, the rest of the town, led by her father, turns against the Beech family. First it was just Jee. Then, to quote Harold Frederic, “there came to be a number of them—and then, all at once, lo! everybody was an Abolitionist—that is to say, everybody but Abner Beech.” The once peaceful town falls sick with war fever and Abner is accused of everything from disloyalty to watering down the milk he sells. In one memorable scene the pastor of the town’s one church lists notable Democrats as the seven heads of the Beast from Revelation. Abner, not normally one for needless provocation—the boys in the beginning of the film only remember him resorting to violence once in their lives—walks out quoting the Beatitudes: “blessed are the peacemakers.”

In the midst of it all Jeff joins the Union army—rebelling by enlisting—to impress his future wife. So as not to spoil the movie, suffice it to say that things get worse before they get better, though on the last page of the novella Esther comes around to calling him Jeff again.

“Copperhead” is the first sympathetic take on the Northern dissenters from the Civil War in recent popular culture. We are all abolitionists in retrospect, and you need only look as far as the New York Times’ sesquicentennial remembrances to get a feel for the Copperheads’ tarnished reputation—they are “peevish and bordering on paranoid,” prone to “mystical thinking.”

Needless to say, the film’s writer and director disagree. In one of his books Kauffman describes the opposition as “honorable and deep-set in the old American grain.” Some Copperheads were indeed guilty of plotting to overthrow or withdraw from the Union, but that was not characteristic of the movement as a whole—in the film, the Beeches’ only formal expression of any political opposition is in voting for Democrats. (An act that, to be sure, almost causes a riot.)

After Maxwell’s expensive, logistically intense earlier work—which involved many historians, the consent of national parks, and thousands of reenactors—his next project after 2003’s “Gods and Generals” had to meet three strict criteria, he says. It had to “absolutely motivate me as a filmmaker,” it had to have a novel angle on the war, and it had to be economical to produce. The planned sequel to “Gettysburg” featuring the conclusion of the war is often discussed but, being another costly war epic, only meets one of Maxwell’s preconditions. “Copperhead” meets all three.

“I find it obscene that we have to, for the twentieth time in a motion picture, see the prolonged, agonizing death of Abraham Lincoln,” says Maxwell. “Spielberg does it again in his beautiful style, he’s the filmmaker of our age. But how many times do we have to be dragged through that hagiography? … The untimely death of any man is to be deplored, but what about the other seven hundred thousand?”

For Kauffman the affinity with the subject matter is even deeper. “Over the years I’ve written about anti-expansionists and loco-focos and populists and people who wanted to save the small rural schools, people who opposed the Interstate Highway System and all sorts of stuff like that,” he says, quoting William Appleman Williams’s injunction to “let us think about the people who lost.” Abner Beech is a man who lost. Moreover, Kauffman’s first novel, Every Man a King, was consciously working in the regionalist tradition of which the author of “Copperhead” is a part, and the screenwriter admits that “as an upstate New York patriot, it’s really exciting to me that we have Harold Frederic, who I think is a great American novelist, reintroduced to a lot of people who haven’t heard of him.”

Kauffman’s favorite scene in the film has the same charming admixture of localist anarchism and literary worldliness that makes his own books so entertaining. It’s an exchange between Abner and Avery, a minor character who might be called the town’s spokesman for the Union, played by Peter Fonda (an eclectic reactionary himself), recalling his father in “Young Mister Lincoln.” After Abner goes on about Lincoln’s tyrannies—imprisoning dissidents, shuttering newspapers, conscripting young men—Avery asks him, “Doesn’t the Union mean anything to you?” Avery replies: “It means something. It means more than something. But it doesn’t mean everything. My family means more to me, my farm, the corners means more. York State means more to me. Though we disagree Avery, you mean more to me than any Union.”

“That to me is the most poignant scene in the movie,” says Kauffman. “Maybe that’s just because I guess there’s a little bit of me in that particular disquisition.”

When talking about the story of “Copperhead,” both Kauffman and Maxwell are quick to invoke political ideas, so it’s a dimension that’s hard to ignore. “Obviously in one sense it’s an antiwar movie,” Kauffman says, “but if there’s a political point to the film, it’s a defense of dissent, which sounds sort of innocuous. ‘Well that’s really brave.’ But in fact films, books, theater, pieces of art, when they treat the subject they’re almost always cheating. They stack the deck, and the author flatters himself and the audience because the dissenter is always someone with whom all right-thinking people of our age agree. It’s this ‘Inherit the Wind’ bullshit, you know? It’s a cheat.”

We don’t automatically identify with Abner because he dissents from “what’s probably the sacredest cow in American history,” says Kauffman. “In that sense it’s provocative, and it’s meant to be provocative.”

“Our proclivity is to identify with the dissenter, except here the dissenter has been essentially discredited by our history,” Maxwell says. “Our official history and our received wisdom, right or wrong, is the reality. There’s a big monument on the Mall to Abraham Lincoln, he’s seated there like Zeus in a temple. So to anyone who was in the North, the Southerners were just the enemy; but anybody in the North who was against Lincoln’s war had to be either misguided or a traitor.”

The question is whether filmgoers are willing to be provoked in this way, and much of that depends on their impression of how fair the film is being to both sides. “They’re only willing to be challenged by it if the challenge is emotional and personal,” says Maxwell. “As soon as you get into any kind of didactic, manipulative scenario, an audience will reject it. I would reject it.”

The Harold Frederic novella takes itself a good deal less seriously than this movie does—it’s downright funny in parts—though the filmmakers’ circumspection makes sense in light of the sensitive subject matter, and they’re at pains to be evenhanded toward both sides. Jee, as he’s written, is a “real caricature,” says Kauffman. “We humanized him, or Angus McFayden did, who’s tremendous in that role. Jee is absolutely right about the central moral question of the age: slavery, its immorality, the need to abolish it decades ago. But he has subordinated all that’s nearest and closest to him to an abstraction.

“Abner too, to a lesser extent, suffers from Jee Hagadorn-ism, depicted most harshly in the scene when he’s getting on his soapbox again, talking about ‘tearin’ up the Constitution, making every house a house of mourning,’ and it doesn’t occur to him that his wife is sitting in the same room and thinking about her own son who’s gone, quite possibly dead. At that moment, he’s an all-forest, no-trees guy.”

 

Now at the tail end of a long career, Maxwell has decamped from the hubs of the film industry to the heart of Civil War country in the northern Shenandoah, on top of a mountain. He tells me about his childhood in Clifton-Passaic, New Jersey, and the “profound sense of loss” brought about by accelerated technological and cultural change.

The places that formed him as younger man are now unrecognizable. The people have moved and the landmarks are gone—the Zeta Psi frat house where he lived as a student at NYU’s old Bronx campus, gone. The Jewish community center where he used to direct plays, gone. “Garret Mountain, where we used to have picnics. Half of the mountain has been sheared away as a quarry.”

The old Metropolitan Opera House, where he first saw Wagner’s “Ring” cycle: a “jewel, a world jewel! It had the best acoustics of any room on earth, it was renowned for its acoustics, Caruso sang there, Zinka Milanov sang there. Great conductors performed there. Razed to the ground and an ugly skyscraper put up!”

July/August 2013The appeal of “Copperhead” very much stems from this sense of loss, and just as Kauffman and Maxwell’s life experiences and artistic pursuits drew them to the story, the average American movie-goer is primed to… not really get it. Roger Ebert wrote in his rather unkind review of “Gods and Generals” that it was a movie for people who do things other than watching movies, like reenact Civil War battles. That’s true enough; but then, who is this one for if it doesn’t even have any battles?

If nothing else, the film is a reminder that the Civil War began a process of centralization and upheaval that continues today, and to resist it is neither futile nor racist. If Lincoln’s modern critics often downplay the racial animosity his opponents tapped into, Kauffman writes, “the eulogists of Father Abraham … gloss over the extent to which the Civil War enshrined industrial capitalism, the subordination of the states to the federal behemoth, and such odiously statist innovations as conscription, the jailing of war critics, and the income tax.”

“The meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost”—to cite Faust again—even in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which presumed to weigh the “blood drawn with the lash” against the “blood drawn by the sword” on the scales of divine justice. To question whether anyone has the authority to commit human lives to such a calculation is to know Abner Beech.

His kind of patriotism begins at home; it’s built of stronger stuff than a “Mission Accomplished” banner and can’t be embodied in a jobs bill. To the extent that those local affinities still hold power, the message of the film’s ending is hopeful. It takes a tragedy—and I won’t tell you what it is—but the fever in the Corners breaks. The community comes back. And to the extent that they don’t, we might nonetheless remember that to love thy neighbor is still a subversive act.

National Service Programs Have Nothing To Do With Patriotism

Nothing like a “boot camp” or forced labor to bring back that good ol’-fashioned patriotism, says Joe Klein:

We have drifted a long way from civic rigor in this country. We’ve had a period of intense prosperity and intense immigration and intense growth of government programs for those in need, followed by an economic crash. We don’t know each other very well anymore, and it’s hard to trust people you don’t know. Throughout history, civilizations have built a common cause through coming-of-age rituals. But we don’t do that anymore. Maybe we should think about that. It could be something as simple as kids’ cleaning up their schools together, as Bob Quinn did–yes, Newt Gingrich was right about that–or it could be full-blown national service, including boot camp. But unless we start getting to know each other better, our chances of coming to a consensus about the important things we have to do together as a nation are going to be pretty slim.

The co-chairs of the Aspen Institute’s project to expand national service have an op-ed in Politico today calling for the same thing, though they say it wouldn’t have to be compulsory:

What we truly value, we institutionalize. To educate, we build universities. To cure, we build hospitals. To make citizens, we must facilitate the shared experiences that cultivate civic pride and responsibility.

This should mean a period of full-time national service as a rite of passage for every young American, ages 18 to 28. Such service could be military or civilian. Young adults could choose the Army or Peace Corps, Marine Corps or AmeriCorps, the Navy or VISTA. National service would be optional, but expected. Every college admissions officer or employer must start to ask, “Where did you serve?”

Hear that, young people? The Aspen Institute doesn’t think you’re patriotic enough, so they’d like you to lend your labor toward a great patriotic revitalization of nation and soul. And if you don’t want to, you should be relentlessly shamed and denied educational opportunities.

This idea crops up from time to time, and is occasionally endorsed in the pages of our biggest newspapers, mostly because it’s slightly less controversial than drafting young people into the military. John McCain had a memorable story in the Washington Monthly a month after 9/11—never waste a crisis, as they say—in which he more or less said he’d draft you if he could:

The decline of the citizen-soldier is not healthy for a democracy. While it is not currently politically practical to revive the draft, it is important to find better incentives and opportunities for more young Americans to choose service in the military, if not for a career, then at least for a limited period of time.

Most people don’t take reviving the draft or compulsory national service seriously because they’re terrible ideas, and the latter would almost certainly be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Their defenders all share a weak, shallow understanding of patriotism that is better described as something more idealistic, like nationalism. They would have a hard time making sense of Henry James’ great aphorism that “patriotism is like charity—it begins at home.” Our betters at the Aspen Institute and other defenders of national service say the public suffers from a sort of civic ennui. But contra David Brooks, this has less to do with a nation fragmenting along economic or cultural lines a la Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and more with the fact that the civic institutions where meaningful participation is actually possible have been stripped of much of their significance. And not just in the sense that state and local governments have abrogated many of their roles upward, but also because the more mobile a society gets, the less those local affinities matter. As the pluralistic state declines, we’re left with a unitary one, forever in a state of becoming, toward which destiny the labor of young people is demanded.

In the absence of James-ian patriotism, having been replaced by the crude jingo type prone to starting wars, libertarianism may be the idea best equipped to push back. Consider a hypothetical debate between a progressive, a conservative, and a libertarian about reinstating the draft. The conservative is perhaps slightly reluctant about the idea but embraces it because he sees a means toward restoring patriotism and, after all, the price of freedom is compulsory military service. The liberal enthusiastically supports it because it will correct racial disparities in the ranks (as per Rep. Rangel’s nauseating obsession). The libertarian says the draft is slavery.

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‘Starbursts’ from Harry Jaffa: On Rich Lowry’s Embarrassing Lincoln Screed

National Review editor Rich Lowry’s two most notably unwise statements are defending the idea of nuking Mecca, and his odd reaction to a Sarah Palin speech. But his red-blooded sort of militarist nationalism has a pretty long paper trail. After cheering the war in Iraq, he said more troops wouldn’t make much of a difference, then changed his mind and called for escalation, even after the surgecriticized Obama for not being tough enough in Libya, and has been calling for Syrian intervention since 2003. And yet fisticuffs with Al Franken were a bridge too far.

Bear in mind Lowry’s—and there’s no other way to say this—callous disregard for American lives and unintended consequences as he defends the president in large part responsible for the war that took the most American lives. He’s written a new book about Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Unbound, and has been conducting promotional interviews this week in which he repeatedly refers to him as an “apostle of opportunity.

Now that Lowry’s written the book, he’s a mind-reader:

“He certainly would have loved the constitutionalism of the Tea Party.” (with Ed Driscoll)

“I believe he would consider having a car company named after him a high honor.” (with Jamie Weinstein)

In contrast to today’s “debt-obsessed” GOP, Lincoln was “solutions-focused.” (on Morning Joe)

Being one of the most studied figures in history—there are literally dozens of new books on Lincoln every year—one might wonder what the purpose of writing this book was. He has a helpful explanation in this cover story in the National Review; it’s to claim him for the respectable conservatives like himself—”he is much more one of us than one of them”—and to exonerate Honest Abe from his critics on the right. And so the brave editor rides to the sound of the guns Schlesinger polls.

Read More…

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Michael Lind Takes on the Cartoon Libertarians

For the last week or so Michael Lind has been sticking his thumbs in his ears and trolling libertarians with the challenge, “show me your laissez-faire utopia, nerds!”

Lind is an arch-Hamiltonian at the aggressively centrist New America Foundation, so this isn’t really surprising. But it being something of a libertarian moment with the administration’s various scandals, his columns have provided fodder for other guardians of the Washington consensus, such as E.J. “Your Community, The State” Dionne.

I’m not sure it’s useful to delve into the divergent historical views of everybody involved—Lind is basically right that 19th-century America hardly qualifies as a libertarian nation. These historiographies are mostly just proxies for contemporary debates: To Lind, his inability to find a good example of a libertarian state is evidence the philosophy doesn’t work, and Dionne saying early-20th Century America was “largely handcuffed by this anti-government ideology until Franklin D. Roosevelt came along” is just a historically ignorant way of condemning Scourge Tea Party.

Lind is absolutely right that the premium libertarians put on ideological purity often leads them to shoot themselves in the foot—evidence their eagerness to dismiss Rand Paul, the most prominent champion of libertarian ideas today, over things that end up not being true. The problem is he seems completely uninterested in engaging any of the more substantive responses from his interlocutors, such as Will Wilkinson, Ron Bailey, Max Borders, and Walt Thiessen. He’s arguing against a “cartoon libertarian” straw man.

If anything, libertarianism is skeptical of utopias of the sort that Lind’s social-engineering fellow travelers often fantasize about. It’s an attempt to solve the problem of power, as opposed to architecting and channeling it. That libertarians think they can is perhaps evidence of naive assumptions about human nature, but it’s still a worthy project.

Update: In today’s Transom, Ben Domenech points out Liechtenstein as a pretty good contender as a libertarian monarchy, rebuts Lind’s smear about Coolidge’s racism, who was fairly progressive on racial issues, and digs up this hilarious poem Lind wrote about former Klan member Woodrow Wilson.

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E.W. Jackson Hits Aneesh Chopra for Alleged PRISM Connection

Here’s a press release from Virginia Republican Lieutenant Governor nominee E.W. Jackson yesterday:

CHESAPEAKE, VA - E.W. Jackson for Lieutenant Governor campaign manager Greg Aldridge today released the following statement on Aneesh Chopra’s role as Barack Obama’s Chief Technology Officer:

“When Barack Obama announced Aneesh Chopra as his technology czar in 2009, President Obama said the position would include promoting technological innovation to help ‘keep our nation secure,’” said Jackson for Lieutenant Governor campaign manager Greg Aldridge. “As more information becomes public concerning the government’s efforts to monitor its own citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Virginians have a right to know: What did Aneesh Chopra know about the PRISM program and other federal government efforts to archive our telephone conversations, e-mail and internet activity? If Aneesh Chopra can not stand up to his boss in the White House for the privacy of American citizens, how can Virginians trust him as Lieutenant Governor?”The news regarding the PRISM program and Verizon turning over customer data has spotlighted the issue of the federal government’s spying on the phone records, email communications, and internet activity of the American people.

Lest you think this is just coming from one side, Dems on Ben Tribbett’s Facebook have been implying similar things. The main one, Gail Gordon Donegan, was a DPV delegate and is a “community leader” for Women for Northam, Chopra’s primary opponent.

Bearing Drift has more on this developing story.

Chopra is running in today’s Democratic primary for the LG nomination.

Jackson is widely thought to be a drag on the Republican ticket for his history of outlandish statements—be sure to read Betsy Woodruff’s great profile. But if Chopra wins today, it could be a race between two candidates with significant flaws.

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Snowden and Outsourcing

Now that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has outed himself as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor which receives 99 percent of its revenue from the federal government (23 percent from intelligence work), the company’s stock has predictably begun to fall.

The company has released a statement condemning Snowden’s actions as a “grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”

To put it politely, their homepage at the moment lacks a certain self-awareness:

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It’s been pointed out that the bigger issue illustrated by Snowden’s disclosures is the degree to which we’ve outsourced important intelligence-gathering functions to private contractors. From today’s Post:

Snowden was among tens of thousands of private intelligence contractors hired in the unprecedented push to “connect the dots” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They work side by side with civil servants as analysts, technical support specialists and mission managers. An unknown number have access to secret and top-secret material. Several years ago, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimated that almost one in four intelligence workers were employed by contractors.

The growing reliance on contractors reflects a massive shift toward outsourcing over the past 15 years, in part because of cutbacks in the government agencies. It has dramatically increased the risk of waste and contracting abuses, government auditors have found, in part because the government has repeatedly acknowledged that it does not have a sufficient workforce to oversee the contractors.

The Times’ story along the same lines points out Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s—who has blasted the disclosures as “reckless” and dangerous to national security—connection to the firm:

As evidence of the company’s close relationship with government, the Obama administration’s chief intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., is a former Booz Allen executive. The official who held that post in the Bush administration, John M. McConnell, now works for Booz Allen.

“The national security apparatus has been more and more privatized and turned over to contractors,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that studies federal government contracting. “This is something the public is largely unaware of, how more than a million private contractors are cleared to handle highly sensitive matters.”

Indeed, one of the strangest things about this disclosure is how a 29 year-old high school dropout working in IT had access to some of the NSA’s most sensitive intelligence information. But the thing is, as Farhad Manjoo points out, any effort to discredit Snowden reflects poorly on the government, which cleared him to handle this stuff, and the company that hired him.

Look, I despise the explosion of contractors and new agency headquarters that’s shielded the DC region’s real estate market from economic downturn and destroyed Virginia’s electoral politics as much as the next patriotic American, but here are two things worth keeping in mind:

1. There are many problems with the contracting system, but anyone claiming Snowden’s disclosures argue for enlarging the federal workforce is missing something important.

2. As Matt Frost points out on Twitter, whatever Snowden was doing was at the government’s explicit request, and being on the outside possibly made him more likely to leak. And as we’ve learned from Lois Lerner, government employees can be very difficult to fire.

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President Obama Embraces the False Choice

For those of you just joining us, there have been two big revelations about the NSA’s data-mining efforts since Wednesday, both reported by the Guardian.

The first:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largesttelecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

And the second:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

A few things to keep in mind: Technically the latter only applies to foreign nationals living outside the U.S.—keeping tabs on which is the NSA’s job description—but it seems impossible to separate one from the other. There are good reasons to be skeptical of the tech companies’ denials that they cooperated. As for the collection of phone records, it’s probably safe to assume that this is going on with most major providers.

In a press conference today, during which he took one question from the press–”because  I don’t want the whole day to just be a bleeding press conference”–the president tried to reassure Americans that the NSA is full of really good people who would never in a million years think about violating your Fourth Amendment rights, and that ”You can’t have 100% security and then 100% privacy.” From the AP report:

In his first comments since the programs were publicly revealed this week, Obama says safeguards are in place. He says nobody is listening to the content of phone calls. And he says the internet targeting is aimed at foreign nationals, not American citizens.

Obama says he increased some of the “safeguards” on the programs after taking office. And he believes they help his administration stop terrorist attacks.

From a political standpoint, these massive data collection efforts the administration’s stated commitment to ending the war on terror pretty hard to believe. They also contradict the president’s former views—he sponsored the SAFE Act, which would have banned them, and talked frequently about the “false choice” of liberty or security during campaigns.

Read More…

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Does Bob Goodlatte’s Cell Phone-Unlocking Bill Go Far Enough?

This morning the House Judiciary subcommittee covering intellectual property is holding a hearing on cell phone unlocking, specifically a legislative proposal to restore the exemption under the DMCA that the librarian of Congress decided not to include last year.

That Congress is acting so quickly to fix the problem is encouraging, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that, but keep in mind that it’s very narrowly-tailored—the legislative exemption expires, leaving future determinations in the hands of the librarian—and it doesn’t address the DMCA itself at all. Sina Khanifar, one of the two people responsible for the public-relations campaign that brought us to this point, has said it doesn’t go far enough in an op-ed for USA today. Derek Khanna, the other one, was asked to prepare a written statement (embedded below) but he also criticized the lack of any IP critics testifying:

On Thursday, Chairman Goodlatte’s legislation will be before the House Judiciary IP Subcommittee. Unfortunately, while the wireless industry and others who have been against unlocking will be represented, there will be no witnesses at the hearing who have been part of our campaign for unlocking (however, Consumers Advocacy may be an advocate for the consumer on this issue). This is very disappointing news.

Ryan Radia has a pretty evenhanded take on the legislation:

By restoring the broad DMCA exemption for phone unlocking in force from 2006 to 2012, S.517 [the Senate analogue to the House bill] addresses the problem at hand without going too far. It neither forces carriers to help users unlock their phones, nor limits carriers’ ability to recover damages from subscribers who breach their contracts. Rather, the bill would simply shield users who unlock their cell phones from the DMCA’s harsh penalties. In striking this balance, S.517 deserves credit for aiming to solve a discrete problem with a narrowly-tailored solution.

But would S.517′s fix last? Given that “[n]othing in [the] Act alters . . . the authority of the Librarian of Congress under [the DMCA],” S.517 would presumably leave unchanged the substantial deferenceenjoyed by the Librarian regarding his decisions about which circumvention tools to exempt—including cell phone unlocking tools. If, three years from now, the Librarian boldly decides that his2012 decision to curtail the phone unlocking exemption was correct, and thus restores the language currently in force, Congress will be back at square one.

Also be sure to check out FCC commissioner Ajit Pai’s op-ed on the hearing in today’s New York Times.

Khanna’s full statement after the jump. Read More…

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Millennials in the Mist

After all the reporting trumpeting the College Republicans’ stock-taking of Millennial voters as “scathing[!!!],” I was a little underwhelmed when I finally read it.

Some parts have the humorously anthropological feel of someone who’s marinaded in beltway groupthink for too long and ventures out to find that Real People share hardly any of the same assumptions, or even language:

… whether or not the government was “too big” was a perplexing question for them. Few had a clear picture of what “big government” meant.

No way!

Some things were legitimately troubling. Only 27 percent considered lowering healthcare costs a top priority, which is odd for the group that’s being screwed most of all by the ACA. It’s awfully magnanimous, for a generation often accused of being self-obsessed.

On the whole, nearly all the Millennial criticisms of the current GOP are the same as those being made by “libertarian populist” reformers—the party is more friendly to big business than small, too focused on cutting and not enough on fixing. Marginal tax rates don’t turn them on, and they question whether deregulation would actually result in better outcomes for them, at least directly.

Here’s what their survey said about what winnable voters thought about the causes of the recession:

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A big point it’s missing is something that Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry says in his reform conservatism “manifesto“:

In other words, the reform conservative story about how government grows goes something like this: Americans increase their demand for big government when they feel enough economic and social insecurity that they see bigger government as the only resort left.

 Obamacare is a case in point, here. Americans have always been, and remain, deeply skeptical of socialized medicine, and for extremely good reason. But the cost of health insurance, and the insecurity associated with it, and the dysfunction of the system have become so bad that, in the face of a lack of conservative reform and credible conservative alternatives, they reluctantly accepted it.

The same applies to many Millennial priorities. Most accept at least in theory the idea that higher education subsidies increase the cost of college, but they’re not willing to eliminate them and accept the uncertainty and lack of support that would go along with a return to realistic pricing.

The most concerning long-term threat to small government as far as Millennials are concerned is that they’re likely to be the first generation less economically successful than their parents. It’s certainly possible, some might even say likely, that they’d turn to government to fill that gap. It would have been nice to see the College Republicans reckon with that.

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In Praise of (Legalistically) Splitting the Baby

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is being criticized from all sides for deciding to hold a special election to replace Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died on Monday at the age of 89, three weeks before a general election in which the governor is running for reelection.

He could have just appointed someone to serve out the rest of Lautenberg’s term, but it could be damaging for Christie to be tied to the voting record of the GOP’s senate minority. Not to mention New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican senator since 1972. Christie also has by now a good track-record of putting New Jersey voters before the national GOP, which for most people is a good thing.

The August primary virtually ensures that Newark Mayor Cory Booker will get the Democratic nomination. Activists on both sides who benefit from drawn-out primaries, were quite upset: American Bridge characterized the decision as opportunistic while Dick Armey deemed it evidence of “debilitating stupidity.”

The Star-Ledger blasted the “self-serving stunt” in an editorial published last night:

There is no legitimate reason to hold two separate elections, and the reason he’s doing it is purely self-serving. He calculates that more Democratic voters will show up and cast ballots against him if a popular Democratic candidate like Newark Mayor Cory Booker is on the ballot as well. Given the big lead the governor has already, the greed here is striking: He apparently wants to run up his margin of victory as a credential for his 2016 presidential campaign.

Democratic former governor James Florio praised Christie’s decision, though says he would have waited until the November general election to avoid the extra cost, which is what virtually everyone from New Jersey Democrats to Drudge to Washington Republicans have said. David Freddoso helpfully points out that by New Jersey law he wasn’t allowed to wait that long:

… provided he made the proclamation of Lautenberg’s vacancy today, the latest he could have legally set the election was at the end of October. Christie made a point of mentioning that the primary is 70 days from today, and the general election is 64 days after that — the earliest possible date. Now, I can’t find anything in the statute that says Christie could not have waited a few weeks before issuing a proclamation — theoretically, this might have let him set the election for November 5. But this might also carry some legal implication I don’t know about, and it could have also complicated the appointment of a new senator.

In any case, as many others have pointed out, there are also obvious political benefits for Christie to split the baby by holding the election this year, but not on the same date as his own re-election. Republicans are highly unlikely to defeat Cory Booker in the Senate race, whether or not Christie is on the ballot. That’s just the reality. So politically speaking, the question is when you want to give Democrats a real reason come running down from the hills to vote? Certainly not on November 5, 2013.

So, he left the decision to voters, but followed the letter of the law so as not to give down-ticket Democrats a boost from Cory Booker in November. What’s not to like?

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John McCain’s Islamist Photo Op and the Problem with ‘Material Support’

Senator John McCain undermined the point of his trip to Syria—to prove that it really is possible to arm the right rebels and not the wrong ones—by posing with what the Lebanese press has claimed are Islamist kidnappers. Even the reliably hawkish Andrew McCarthy is cracking jokes. Allahpundit gets it right:

… [McCain] actually says at 4:40 that the rebels “are trying to achieve the same thing that we have shed American blood and treasure for for well over 200 years.” It’s one thing to believe that 10 years ago, before a series of exceptionally hard lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Egypt; it’s another to believe it now. It’s so surreally untrue that it eclipses McCain’s one solid realpolitik-minded argument here, that aiding the Sunni rebellion is a way to weaken Iran and, especially, Hezbollah by bleeding them in a Vietnamish quagmire of their own. We’ve spent two years watching Egypt bend towards Islamism and now here’s Maverick attempting to sell the public again on the idea that Syria’s a liberal democracy in the eventual making if we just pick the right people to empower, knowing full well that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood probably constitutes one of the milder expressions of Islamic fundamentalism among the rebel hordes.

Of course, McCain’s office pushed back hard, saying ”it would be ludicrous to suggest that the senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible.”

But that isn’t really the point. The point is that he didn’t know what sort of people they were and turned out to be wrong.

More troublingly, apart from being inappropriate meddling by the legislative branch in a tense diplomatic situation, McCain’s photo-op could possibly constitute ‘material support’ for terrorists under the PATRIOT Act, as Doug Bandow points out:

Having his photo taken with Islamic extremists could reasonably be interpreted as an endorsement, which, based on past cases, could be seen as providing “material support” for terrorism. Presumably that isn’t what Sen. McCain intended. But the law’s application is not based on intent.

To be fair to the rest of us, the Justice Department should investigate. The alternative would be for Senator McCain to launch a legislative effort to restrict the application of the law to what most people would reasonably consider to be aiding terrorists. …

A legislative rewrite obviously would be the best response. Still, as much as I oppose vague and ambiguous criminal enactments by the federal government, I would enjoy seeing Senator McCain in the dock. It would be cosmic justice for his support of the catastrophic invasion in Iraq and endless occupation of Afghanistan.

This vague, sweeping definition of ‘material support‘, defined in the 2010 case Holder v. Humanitarian Law also made the likes of John Bolton, Howard Dean, Tom Ridge, Louis Freeh, and Clarence Page terrorist supporters under the government’s own definition, for giving paid speeches on behalf of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. The Islamo-marxist cult was de-listed late last year after a coordinated lobbying campaign headed up by the agency that represented Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Al-Assad.

Count me with Bandow in thinking it would have been nice to see some law enforcement agency be consistent enough to arrest and jail any of the above supporters of terrorists, if just to prove a point about the overreach of executive power since 9/11. But why quibble over some abstract principle like equal justice under the law when there are terrorists to fight support?

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Rand Paul Talks Expanding the GOP in Simi Valley

On Friday Senator Rand Paul wrapped up a week-long visit to California, mostly spent meeting with tech company executives, with a speech at the Reagan Library about expanding the GOP’s base.

He talked about reaching out to Hispanic voters by passing immigration reform, black voters by emphasizing school choice and reforming the criminal justice system, and young people by deemphasizing social issues while prioritizing civil liberties and foreign policy restraint. He also channeled his crunchy con side:

“I am a libertarian-conservative who spends most of my free time outdoors,” Paul said during his 30-minute speech in Simi Valley, Calif. “I bike and hike and kayak. I compost. I plant trees. In fact, I have a giant Sequoia I’m trying to grow in Kentucky.

“Republicans care just as deeply about the environment as Democrats but we also care about jobs,” he added. “We want common sense regulations to be balanced with economic growth and jobs.”

To be sure, Paul also offered strong support for fracking in his speech. He said California’s economy would be in much better shape if it did not restrict the controversial practice.

“So while California languishes, economies in states like North Dakota and Texas are booming,” he said.

Finding common ground between some of these constituencies is likely to be a pretty difficult task for Paul, as Jim Antle wrote in these pages last week:

Sometimes his efforts to broaden the party’s appeal have sat uneasily alongside his quest to be the most reliable Tea Party conservative. This has led him to thread some important needles—and also occasionally sound too equivocal. Issues like marriage, abortion, immigration, and even drugs may prove difficult to straddle.

Gillespie worries that if “Paul continues to send significantly different messages to different audiences, he will end up alienating all his possible supporters.”

And it must be said that while many libertarians are more socially traditional, that generally doesn’t apply to the silicon-valley types the senator is courting, who tend to favor abortion rights and immigration.

The senator also made a crack during the Q&A about a photo taken during John McCain’s trip to Syria in which he had enough trouble telling good rebels from bad that he ended up posing with kidnappers, some of whose victims still haven’t been released.

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Libertarians, Abortion, and Natural Rights

Reason held a panel last week on libertarian perspectives on abortion featuring their own Katherine Mangu-Ward and Ronald Bailey, alongside the strongly pro-life Mollie Hemingway. The video is above.

All seem to agree that viability is a sliding scale that is difficult to use as a starting point for policy. Bailey, however, isn’t ready to reject it entirely because “that is the point at which someone else can decide to take care of the entity, the baby, the fetus, or whatever you like, as opposed to imposing the burden on the woman who’s carrying the fetus to maintain.”

Mangu-Ward throws up her hands: ”At some point we have the biological distinction of birth, which I don’t think necessarily has strong moral weight but has very very strong customary weight, and that up to that point it’s essentially an individual decision.”

Ben Domenech makes the important point in yesterday’s Transom that all prominent politicians who identify themselves as libertarians—Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie—are pro-life, and calls Bailey and Mangu-Ward’s views “fundamentally anti-libertarian”:

Bailey, who certainly considers himself libertarian, says that he believes “personhood” and the fundamental rights that come with it don’t begin until the government decides that you are “viable” and/or have “significant enough brain development to have some sense of self-awareness”. Viability is an incredibly arbitrary threshold for when life begins, particularly when you consider that medical science is moving the point of viability ever earlier. Most babies are really not mentally with it for the first several weeks, and sometimes months (As one recent father told me: “They’re like a potato – they have no real personality.”). Are they that different than they were, brain-wise, at 22 weeks? By using Bailey’s “self-awareness” standard, shouldn’t we really accept Peter Singer’s conclusion that you can kill your baby legally until around the 2-3 month mark? Also, what is viability really? What percentage of children have to survive in order for them to be viable? One child? 20 percent? 50 percent? Why is thinking the government should decide this a libertarian position?

 

Along with Domenech, I was also troubled by Mangu-Ward’s glib dismissal of natural rights as the “magical” investiture of rights at the moment of fertilization. I’m probably as skeptical about them as she is (for reasons similar to these here), but they’re an undeniably useful, perhaps indispensable concept for libertarians.

Also, Roe v Wade isn’t mentioned once during the debate, so are we to assume everyone’s starting point is that it was an unconstitutional power grab? Mangu-Ward says at some point that given the ethical complexities involved, decisions about the legality of abortion should be made at the lowest possible level. So does that mean Roe v Wade moved in the wrong direction?

Abortion is the issue that most complicates Reason‘s narrative that libertarianism, defined as social permissiveness and fiscal restraint, is on the rise, for two reasons. One, Americans are not moving towards the pro-choice position with nearly the speed they are on other issues, and there’s considerable evidence they’re moving the opposite way. For another, that definition of libertarianism assumes a neutral deference to science’s ability to define questions like viability, and government’s ability to police them, and that libertarian ideas about non-agression end at the womb.

For many libertarians this is unsatisfying, I’d suggest far more than the one-third that Nick Gillespie throws out for the number that are pro-life. And not just because they have incidental traditionalist views, but because the right to life is integral to their understanding of liberty. At P.A.U.L.Fest in Tampa last year I watched Walter Block—no natural rights slouch, him—give a speech on his theory of a woman’s right to evict a fetus but not kill it, citing competing rights to autonomy and life. This is an old debate, and Block has been trying to square the circle with his “evictionism” idea for some time, but until the invention of artificial wombs it’s entirely theoretical. In Tampa, he was booed for even explaining it. Urbane libertarians often think of the Paulista contingent as the “swivel-eyed loons” of libertarianism, but the rift over abortion is bigger than they admit.

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We Only Like Pacifists When We Agree With Them

Alyssa Rosenberg finds the “Copperhead” trailer problematic because it doesn’t mention slavery:

The trailer for the upcoming Civil War drama Copperhead conveniently doesn’t mention that the movement its titular characters were affiliated with wanted the Union to make a peace with the Confederacy that would allow for the preservation of slavery, and that it was naive enough to believe the Confederacy would come back to the Union on its own terms. But given the pop culture trope of the sympathetic or victimize Confederate, I’m not actually surprised that a Civil War setting is one of the few ways we could get a movie about people who have been dramatically marginalized in our political conversations and even in civil society: war resisters.

We’ve become very comfortable lionizing the risks soldiers take on the battlefield, in part because those celebrations feel like a way of paying back people who are willing to experience extreme danger and the trauma of killing other people on our behalf. But we’re still reluctant, apparently, to treat people who try and fail to keep us out of wars…

I have a hard time understanding the ideology that demands road signs in film trailers denoting whether or not the people depicted stood on the right or wrong side of history. Having seen the movie several times now, my impression of its portrayal of slavery, or rather of what people in a small hamlet in upstate New York thought of it, since there is neither a slave nor a battle anywhere in the film, is that it’s appropriately nuanced. The (perhaps misplaced) belief in peaceful reunification is addressed in a pretty smart way, for example. I think it’s fair on the whole—though Rosenberg will have to see the movie to judge that—but it definitely wouldn’t have fit into a two-minute trailer.

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What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid?

Chris Coyne, George Mason economics professor and author of one of the best books on why nation-building doesn’t work, has just come out with a new book extending the argument of After War into the realm of humanitarian intervention. In the above video Coyne discusses Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails with Peter Van Buren, Robert Higgs, and Peter Boettke at George Mason.

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Mumford and Retroculture

Watching the above parody, I thought about about an NPR story from about a month ago about “retro-acculturation,” in which musician Marco Polo Santiago went back to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents were born to learn “cumbia,” an Afro-Columbian hybrid music they once listened to:

Santiago, 36, was born in Los Angeles and is also a native English speaker. He grew up playing hip-hop and heavy metal. But now, he leads a band in Oakland that plays an Afro-Colombian style called “cumbia.” Santiago’s journey from hip-hop to cumbia began a couple of years ago, when he took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents were born. He came across a woman playing a quijada — that’s the skeleton of a donkey jaw.

“It was my first time witnessing that,” Santiago said. “You’ve got a piece of carcass on stage that you are using as a musical instrument, and I was just fascinated by that, you know?”

… Santiago is a textbook example of what Jackie Hernandez calls “retro-acculturation.” Puerto Rican and raised in Manhattan, Hernandez is the chief operating officer of the Spanish-language Telemundo television network, which has made it a point to reach retro-acculturated Latinos.

It turns out the term has been in use for some time now, but my only encounter with some variation of it before hearing it on the radio had been this 2007 essay from TAC, by Paul Weyrich and Bill Lind:

One of conservatism’s most fundamental impulses, and one of its most valuable in a time when history is neglected or forgotten, is to recover good things from the past. Traditional cities and towns, passenger trains and streetcars, are examples of this tendency, which we label retroculture. The next conservatism should incorporate retroculture as one of its guiding themes, a basis for its actions beyond politics. Want to fix the public schools? How about Schools 1950? We already have retro cars such as Volkswagen’s New Beetle and the Mini. Why not retro manners and retro dress? It would be nice to see men’s and ladies’ hats again instead of kids’ underwear. By making old things new, retroculture might offer a counterweight to the endless spiral downward that pop culture decrees in everything. If fire is needed to fight fire, perhaps fashion should be used to fight fashion.

So what does this have to do with Mumford and Sons? Well, for starters it seems obvious that they tap into some sort of retrocultural impulse, but they also illustrate its limits in an important way. Just as investments in trains and streetcars Lind and Weyrich cite as the embodiment of retrocultural transportation often end up as public sector boondoggles or payoffs to monopolistic companies, much modern retro-sounding music ends up as upper-middle brow emotional validation in service of big entertainment. Besides, it’s not exactly clear what they’re recovering.

That wasn’t always the case, but we’ve (arguably) lost the participatory musical culture on which particular genres–such as cumbia, or American folk music–depend. I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done about that, and that dissolution itself has given rise to interesting new forms, as I wrote in a recent essay for the Umlaut, but it ensures the permanent retro-ness of the retrocultural project.

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Rand Paul’s Puzzling Stand with Apple

What everyone agreed on during Apple CEO Tim Cook’s appearance before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Tuesday was that it wasn’t actually about Apple’s tax dodging. It could have been dozens of other companies.

Apple did nothing illegal, and they’re the largest corporate taxpayer in America. The subcommittee’s report presents Apple as a “case study” in how multinational companies game the tax code, not accusing them of anything, per se. And though Senator Rand Paul took issue with  ”the spectacle of dragging in” Cook, representing one of “America’s success stories”—an oddly combative tone to take, which seems to have everything to do with his upcoming trip to Silicon Valley—Cook voluntarily appeared, and the subcommittee report even refers to Apple as a success story too.

Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) reassured Paul that it wasn’t about Apple, but about “investigating a tax code that is not working for the American people, is not working for businesses in this country, which some business decide how many taxes they’re going to pay, how many they won’t, what they’re going to leave offshore in terms of profit, cooking up all kinds of arrangements to avoid paying taxes.”

So why did Cook choose to appear? The Guardian’s Heidi Moore suspects this is because the subtext of Cook’s appearance was to build support for a tax holiday for repatriating overseas profits.

The reason why a lot of these multinational companies are so multinational is America’s corporate tax rate is one of the highest in the world, at 35 percent, which means companies park approximately 1.7 trillion in profits offshore (often figuratively) and don’t pay taxes on it. Everyone wants to lower it, but it’s the low-hanging fruit of tax reform—Paul called it a “sweetener” in his statement—so Congress holds out for a chimerical comprehensive tax reform package.

Two proposals have been released recently to repatriate foreign earnings. Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) has proposed tax exemptions proportionate to the company investing in infrastructure bonds.

Slightly better is Senator Paul’s repatriation bill, titled the Emergency Transportation Safety Fund Act, after the much less consequential infrastructure fund it also creates. Unlike the 2004 holiday which was largely used to repurchase stock and is widely seen as a failure, Paul’s bill doesn’t expire. (Why people see it as a failure is important—it’s clear that the expiration date led to short-term decision-making, that savings from the tax holiday went mostly toward repurchasing stock is a feature, not a criticism.)

These are both short-term fixes that do nothing to solve the underlying problem of high corporate tax rates, and mostly function as another tax loophole for large corporations.

It was easy to portray the hearing as just another lesson in harassment via the tax code, just like Tea Party groups, and that’s basically what Paul did. But it’s politically daft to suggest the hearing was in any way adversarial. Cook met with President Obama this November and was a donor to his campaign in 2008. Given the cozy relationship, he probably didn’t have to be “dragged” very hard to appear before a committee controlled by Democrats.

Some sort of tax holiday would be a massive boon for Apple. Why should Congress apologize to Cook for letting him make his case for why one is necessary?

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House Democrats on Oversight Committee ‘Disappointed’ By IRS Director Taking the Fifth

Today the IRS official in charge of the exemptions unit where the targeting of conservative groups occurred went before the House Oversight committee, and refused to answer any questions.

The ranking member on the committee Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) has called for Lois Lerner’s resignation already, and said during the hearing today that he was ”disappointed” that she pled the fifth.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) referred to the IRS’s behavior to this point as “stonewalling” that “can’t continue,” and suggested a special prosecutor might be necessary. “There will be hell to pay if that’s the route we choose to go down,” he said.

“I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws,” said Lerner in a brief opening statement. “I have not violated any IRS rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee.”

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The Center for American Progress’s Crony Loan Conflict of Interest

The Nation looks into the Center for American Progress’s “dark money” and ties to First Solar:

Last year, when First Solar was taking a beating from congressional Republicans and in the press over job layoffs and alleged political cronyism, CAP’s Richard Caperton praised Antelope Valley in his testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, saying it headed up his list of “innovative projects” receiving loan guarantees. Earlier, Caperton and Steve Spinner—
a top Obama fundraiser who left his job at the Energy Department monitoring the issuance of loan guarantees and became a CAP senior fellow—had written an article cross-posted on CAP’s website and its Think Progress blog, stating that Antelope Valley represented “the cutting edge of the clean energy economy.”

Though the think tank didn’t disclose it, First Solar belonged to CAP’s Business Alliance, a secret group of corporate donors, according to internal lists obtained by The Nation. Meanwhile, José Villarreal—a consultant at the power-
house law and lobbying firm Akin Gump, who “provides strategic counseling on a range of legal and policy issues” for 
corporations—was on First Solar’s board until April 2012 while also sitting on the board of CAP, where he remains a member, according to the group’s latest tax filing.

Read the whole thing, it’s a great illustration of why the Democratic party’s version of liberalism isn’t remotely opposed to big business. First Solar is an almost perfect case study in how it’s usually not thriving upstart companies that benefit from government favors, it’s flailing, politically-connected ones seeking to preserve their place in the market.

In the fall of 2011, First Solar finalized nearly $4 billion in loan guarantees fromt he Department of Energy, as part of a program enthusiastically endorsed by ThinkProgress and CAP’s other affiliates. They also received a $455.7 million loan guarantee from the Export-Import Bank to build plants in Canada.

As all this was happening, First Solar was beset by a number of threats to its business, mainly the introduction of more efficient Chinese and Canadian solar panels and diminished demand in Europe. In 2010 they had a net income of $664 million, and in 2011, a net loss of $39 million, in part because of a $215 million “manufacturing excursion” involving solar panels that failed at high temperatures. In 2012 it was one of the worst performing members of the S&P 500, despite a major cash infusion from the Walton family—heralded friends of labor and the environment, them—on New Year’s Eve 2011.

First Solar quickly sold three of the largest solar farms for which they received loan guarantees; Antelope Valley, Desert Sunlight, and Topaz Solar. In fact, the day after a $1.46 billion loan guarantee was approved in late September 2011 for Desert Sunlight, it was sold to NextEra Energy. It was dubbed 2011′s North American Solar Deal of the Year.

A GAO audit found that the DOE’s loan guarantee program had significant oversight problems.

The DOE estimates the project CAP’s Richard Caperton praised will create 20 permanent jobs.

Bill McMorris has more on CAP’s “Business Alliance.”

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