Politics: April 2009 Archives

Torture Investigations

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Maybe I haven't been following the calls for torture investigations closely enough, but it seems to me that there need to be two things that I'm not seeing for me to be convinced that the people issuing such calls are sincere about the issue and not just pursuing a politically-motivated witch hunt.

1. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a number of other congressional Democrats were involved in discussions with President Bush and other administration officials when all this was actually going on, and they seem to have given their approval of whatever actually took place with official sanction. Or at least they voiced no objections. That's what I keep hearing. But I have heard very little about anyone seriously suggesting that they be investigated. The only reason I can think of for that is that they're Democrats. Someone with more information than I have should feel free to correct me on this if I've got the facts wrong, but it's very hard to see this as a movement to correct for mistaken policies and hold those responsible accountable unless all who were responsible are going to be investigated.

2. As far as I've been able to discern, the U.S. military has long used techniques like waterboarding in training their special forces to be able to withstand harsh interrogation techniques. My understanding is that they train them in techniques that are uncontroversially torture. Yet President Obama continues President Bush's claim that the U.S. doesn't torture. Those who accept it from Obama but didn't from Bush need to account for this, and if they think these procedures are immoral in principle then they ought to be consistent and issue a call to hold accountable those responsible for torturing our own troops, including any at high levels who knew about this and allowed it. (I suspect that would be all the presidents for at least as far back as Jimmy Carter, the earliest president still alive.) Again, it's possible that I don't have all the facts on this, and I'd be happy to receive corrections on this, particularly if you can back it up with sources I'd be likely to trust. But what I read of the very memos that everyone's getting all excited about now (even though they say almost nothing that we didn't already know) seems to confirm that this has been going on with our own troops.

I don't think this shows us one way or the other whether these policies are legal, morally justifiable, or worth pursuing an investigation about (and I see those as three somewhat independent issues). I actually think those issues are more complex and difficult to navigate than either side wants to acknowledge. See my 2004 post and then my 2007 pair on the moral and linguistic issues. (I can't say that I'd agree with everything in those posts now, though.)

But it doesn't seem to me that most of the people who are actually raising a big stink about this are doing so for consistent, principled reasons unless they're willing to apply it to the above two cases. (That doesn't mean they're all hypocrites, because they might not see the inconsistency and might be willing to adjust their behavior if they did see it, or perhaps they have arguments for differential treatment of the different cases, although I'm not sure what those would be.)

Tea Parties

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Yesterday I watched the Fox News coverage of some of the tea parties for a little bit. I know they have to compensate for the other networks barely touching on a major nationwide event. I know CNN gave it a little attention yesterday morning but only to dismiss a large-scale grass-roots internet-generated movement as if it had somehow instead been a GOP-initiated pretense. [Update: I just saw one clip of a reporter interviewing a protester but then challenging all of his arguments as if she were an opinion columnist before proceeding to walk away with a dismissal of everything he said because Fox News is somehow behind all this (not true), making everyone there anti-CNN justifying a claim that opposition to taxes is automatically right-wing extremism. CNN has apparently defended this reporter for simply doing her job.] But isn't it a bit excessive for Fox to spend almost their entire airtime on it for the whole day? They were treating it the way they cable news networks covered the Obama inauguration, which got record levels of coverage from the media.

I guess it's not a lot more excessive than what cable news channels tend to give to a lot of things, but there are other news stories that deserve some coverage, and sometimes I like to tune in to see some various headlines in a short period of time. For instance, Washington's legislature passed a same-sex civil union law yesterday, and I didn't find out about it until this morning, the Obama Administration is in the middle of deciding how much to reveal from CIA memos during the Bush Administration and how much to reveal about current interrogation practices, there's an ongoing investigation of the Justice Department into violations of the new laws on eavesdropping, and there's a furor rising over Obama's latest lobbyist nominee. [Update: And I notice that Fox News is just getting to the Susan Boyle story today. I've been getting Facebook updates about her since yesterday morning, and it took place five days ago.] I didn't hear about any of these stories when I had Fox News on. The only news not related to tea parties that I got any glimpse of had to do with pirates.

But I am glad at least someone covered these gatherings, so it won't be treated as a non-entity the way the red envelope campaign was. CNN has one link today way down their front page to a story on only one of the gatherings. MSNBC and the New York Times have single stories almost halfway down that at least cover the fact that many of these events took place. The Washington Post only has two links on their main page, and even though they're higher up (but it's a smaller front page), they're both opinion columns that are highly critical of the events. Even the National Review wasn't saying very much about the tea parties yesterday, just a few comments on their blog but no news stories or opinion columns, and today their only mention is a link to a Rush Limbaugh transcript from yesterday. The Wall Street Journal has no reference anywhere on their front page. (Presumably it's too populist for die-hard supply-siders for them to get as much behind it as Fox seems to have done.)

I saw a creative sign at one of these that just made the screen long enough for me to read it, so I may have gotten the last part only mostly right:

Pelosi
Obama
Reid
Killing Our Economy

But then there were the posters addressing Obama as if he's not a U.S. citizen, and one protester in Texas advocated secession from the union.

It was weird seeing one of these rallies (at the Alamo) led by right-leaning but populist entertainer and would-be commentator Glenn Beck, libertarian rock musician entertainer Ted Nugent (with guitar present and making continued bursts of noise), and conservative entertainer from the world of acting Janine Turner. Then they topped it all off by phoning in a video of entertainer Penn Jillette of the stage magician pair Penn and Teller. I was waiting to see how long it might take for them to involve someone who wasn't just an entertainer who might actually give intelligent commentary, but it was not to be, at least not in that location. (They did have some when they showed the Atlanta tea party when I tuned in a few hours later.)

The Syracuse gathering was right during my classes today, but I'm not sure I would really have enjoyed being at something like this. What I was seeing on TV was too reminiscent of when we went to Manhattan for New Years Eve shortly after we got married. There's nothing fun about standing outside in the middle of a large crowd when everyone else there thinks it's lots of fun to make a lot of noise screaming and clapping, but you can't actually see (and maybe can't even hear) anything that's going on that you're supposed to be watching. It's like going to a concert to listening to the music and finding that the crowd just wants to stand up and cheer and prevent you from paying attention to what you're there to see and hear.

Most tests I find to determine how closely one might align with which Supreme Court justices are fairly superficial and don't base their calculation on very many issues. They also usually focus on general issues that don't always line up well with the actual cases that we have justices' votes on. I've found one that's a lot better, although it does have a few problems still. This one is mainly focused on actual cases, although its reliance on mostly hot-button political issues, while providing some familiarity for those who aren't heavy court-watchers, probably skews the results, whereas one that included more mundane issues might lead some to side with justices whose views they disagree with on hot-button political issues.

I have a few comments on the test before I get to my results and question-by-question analysis and explanations. This quiz gets most of the issues right and in some places makes finer distinctions between views than most. As far as I can tell, almost all of the questions (with one exception I can detect) are based on actual votes of justices rather than expected views or general tendencies. I do see two problems, though, and they are substantial.

One is that it does still oversimplify in a few places. It seems to ask questions about the result, which fails to capture the various reasons justices might go for that result. Thus an originalist who supports originalist reasons for a certain result might be on the same side as a non-originalist who picks the same side for living constitutionalist reasons. Someone indicating that choice then gets both names associated with them, and that's unfortunate. I found a lot of these cases put me on the same side as justices whose reasoning I don't support. Most people aren't going to read the cases or even summaries of them, either, and thus they will be going fully on policy preferences. Some justices do that anyway unashamedly, and sometimes the ones who seek not to do that will smuggle policy preferences in without admitting it. But if I want to see if I'm like a certain justice, I should see if I agree with the justice's reasoning, not whether the outcome is the one I'd prefer if I were in a legislative body. Making this quiz result-based masks the real differences between the justices, treats policy outcomes as the only issue of dispute, and thus skews the results.

Some of the questions themselves are not framed correctly at all. For instance, on #10 it asks if suspected terrorists who aren't U.S. citizens have any constitutional rights, and everyone on the Supreme Court would say yes to that. But that issue has never been before the Court. So what's it doing here? What they probably meant to ask is whether they have some specified set of rights (e.g. habeas corpus and related rights to use U.S. courts to challenge their imprisonment, which the Supreme Court did disagree on). On several questions, I thought the question asked about a more minor matter of disagreement than what the main dispute in the case was about. In a few cases, I thought the opinions were so splintered that it wasn't really a good case to ask such a broad question about, as if your view on the issue of the question would tell you much about how much your reasoning or preferences are like those of any particular justices.

But, all that being said, this is still one of the better tests matching your answers to legal questions with justices who voted on those cases, so I thought it was worth spending some time seeing where I really come out, and I decided to look at some of these cases I was less familiar with in more detail to try to overcome some of the problems in how the questionnaire is conducted. Now on to my results and analysis.

Rey's Bailout Package

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It's getting to be a while since he posted this, but it's too hard to resist putting a link up to Rey's Insane Bailout Package. He tries to avoid sounding too serious about these, but in many ways they're a good bit better than much of what's in the bill we've actually gotten in terms of actually stimulating individual people to start spending some of their money more.

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