Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Primal Curse?

Every month or so, the blogosphere/online-traditional-media-complex decides to acknowledge the existence of some fundamental social problem people have been debating for centuries, and always with the air of fresh discovery.  Liberals, conservatives, and socialists then fall into the roles assigned to them by intellectual tradition and reenact old battles over again as if unconsciously.  As Borges once put it: "the 'burning reality,' which exasperates or exalts us [...] is nothing but an imperfect reverberation of former discussions [.... R]eality is always anachronous."

Friday, June 28, 2013

Two Arguments about Gay Marriage

It appears the talking point of the day in the National Review/Weekly Standard archipelago is that the majority decision of the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor-- the one which struck down DOMA-- unfairly characterizes opponents of gay marriage as bigots and that, regardless of the merits of the gay marriage question generally, the issue should have been decided by the democratic process rather than judicial "fiat."  Both points might deserve a hearing, but coming from certain quarters they reflect a shameless selective amnesia.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Re: Richwine, Millman, et al.

I’ve been on the road the last week and haven’t had much time for blogging, but I have been clued in enough to notice the friendly challenge in Ajay’s recent post and will do my best to respond.  Some preliminaries though: first, let me say I am flattered by Ajay’s faith in my historical literacy on these subjects, which may be misplaced.  In the absence of any further research, I’m not sure I really know much more than he does about the legitimating ideologies of traditional elites, but I can at least try.  Second, I thank him for the eloquent restatement of my position in our debate, which I can assure you sounds better in his post than it did coming out of my mouth.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Are We War Masters? A Review of "Dirty Wars"

I recently got the chance to watch the new documentary Dirty Wars and thought I'd review it here, especially since it bears on many of the issues we've been talking about recently. The film, directed by Richard Rowley, follows Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation, as he (with mounting horror) attempts to understand the role of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secretive branch of the U.S. military that reports directly to the White House, in the Obama administration's anti-terrorism strategy. The focus is on the administration's by now exhaustively covered policy of killing suspected terrorists outside of countries in which the U.S. is officially at war, using drones and other methods (including so-called "signature strikes," in which individuals whose identities may not be known are targeted not on the basis of specific allegations against them but rather because they've displayed "suspicious" patterns of behavior), which JSOC is central to.
We tag along as Scahill interviews a variety of figures within the U.S. and travels to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to observe the effects of our actions directly and see him narrate and re-enact his gradual piecing together of the shadow war's scope and intensity. Scahill has long been a forceful left-wing critic of the counter-terrorism policies of Presidents Bush and Obama and makes no secret of his politics in the film, but it largely consists of reporting and raw footage rather than polemic. Dirty Wars is obviously not a pleasant movie but it is, I think, essential viewing for any American citizen or person concerned about how the most powerful nation on earth uses violence in pursuit of its goals.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Richwine, Millman, and Meritocracy

In the interest of starting a new trend of posts about recent-ish pieces by conservative-ish bloggers, I'd like to say a few things about a post on the Jason Richwine affair by Noah Millman of The American Conservative. For those who have much better things to do than follow political blogs (other than this one, of course), Richwine was until recently an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The release of a report he co-authored on the fiscal costs of a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants led reporters to discover that he had argued in his dissertation that the U.S. should try to reduce its intake of Hispanic immigrants in part because they were genetically predisposed to have lower IQs, and he resigned amid the ensuing uproar.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Immediate Pessimism and Ultimate Optimism

And now that our blog has entered its second week of life, let the navel-gazing begin!

It occurred to me upon rereading my last post that I had articulated a critique of the interventionist position on Syria which had a decidedly Burkean and conservative cast to it.  More distressing still to someone who is currently blogging from the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, it occurred to me that my argument displayed a sense of the limitations of human agency in the world which is difficult to reconcile with the heritage of liberal theology.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Limits of the Reform Conservative Project: A Case Study

To start making good on our promise to feature a wide array of topics, I want to shift gears a bit and comment on a (sort of) recent post by New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat on how American conservatives should respond to the Republican Party's declining political prospects. This will require a bit of background: Douthat is a prominent figure in a group of writers he refers to as reform conservatives, who join a number of other right-leaning commentators in thinking that the GOP needs to change its economic platform in the wake of the 2008 and 2012 elections but have a particular view of what should happen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

More on Syria: Do Non-Interventionists Take the Atrocities Seriously?

Earlier this month, Richard Cohen wrote a column for the Washington Post offering a familiar charge against non-interventionists: they are “cold-hearted,” Cohen argues, and have no compassion for the victims of any human rights abuses other than those perpetrated by America and her allies.  Cohen cites a recent article in the New York Review of Books by David Bromwich as evidence of a "total lack of concern for the misery of Syrians."  He goes on: "Rarely do any of these anti-intervention pieces cry bloody murder at the killing that continues apace in Syria. Liberals, once characterized as bleeding hearts, seem now to have none at all."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Remember Neo-Conservatism?

In preparing for this post, I've spent some time digging through the recent columns of Charles Krauthammer to try to re-familiarize myself with an ideology which, even as intellectual fads go, had a brief and ignominious shelf-life, but which seems to still exercise a curious hold over the minds of our policy elite: Neo-Conservatism.  It has made for a surreal reading experience.  I've grown so accustomed lately to reading criticisms of Obama's recent speech on the War on Terror from leftists, liberals, and libertarians that I had almost forgotten the broad swath of the political spectrum which attacked it from precisely the opposite direction: insisting that Obama had basically given away the family jewels by promising action on Gitmo and disavowing, at least rhetorically, the framework of "perpetual war." Congratulations, Charles Krauthammer, you have made me more sympathetic to Obama's speech than Obama did himself.  I guess there's always a bigger fish.

Some More Idle Speculation on Syria

So, as I suggested in my Syria post yesterday, I want to speculate a little about why the Obama administration decided to start directly arming the more "moderate" Syrian rebels. One obvious possibility is pure face-saving or "doing something for the sake of doing something"; I think this probably captures a large chunk of their motivations but I want to spend most of this post exploring other possibilities because (a) this one's not terribly interesting to write about and (b) I have enough respect for the intellectual and moral worth of the Obama foreign policy team that I think they have more substantive reasons for intervening as well. I think it's most likely that some combination of two related explanations is closest to the truth.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Flawed Logic of the Obama Administration's Public Case for Intervention in Syria

I'm very far from being a Syria expert, but as a philosophy major I know a thing or two about evidence and argument, and it seems to me that the logic of the Obama administration's publicly and semi-publicly (anonymous/"on background"/leaked) stated rationales for arming the Syrian rebels is deeply flawed. What follows may be overkill, but it seems to me that one important way of improving policymakers' thinking and political discourse is to systematically work through bad arguments, and I hope to make a small contribution here. Based on most of the reporting I've read, the administration seems to have four main reasons for taking this step:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gently Begging to Differ with Glenn Greenwald

Ok, so-- I plan to eventually take the hint of my colleague that the much-heralded diversity of subject matter on this blog has yet to materialize, three days in, but since the internet is still all a-twitter (no pun intended) over the NSA leaks I would hate not to get our two cents in before the whole business is consigned to the memory hole of government misconduct.

I'm generally in complete sympathy with Glenn Greenwald's criticisms of the moral flabbiness of liberal commentators on civil liberties issues and in this blog's brief existence I've already contributed to that self-flagellating genre myself.  Nevertheless I must respectfully disagree with him today, or at least ask for clarification, when he writes that:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Destroying the Forest In Order to Save It, Civil Liberties Edition

Josh has made a valiant effort to inaugurate our blog the first and only one devoted solely to the recent NSA spying revelations, and I'll keep up the trend a bit longer. Like Josh, I'm quite strongly opposed to the various civil liberties and human rights violating counter-terrorism polices implemented by the Bush and Obama administrations, from general surveillance warrants to torture and drone warfare, but some recent commentary on this latest scandal has also featured  one of my pet peeves in American political writing. This is the extremely widespread tendency among opinion writers to argue against policies that they have no reason to think would be wrong or harmful (and sometimes even concede would be highly beneficial if implemented) by invoking either Americans' or politicians' current views. We can't withdraw from Afghanistan because the memory of 9/11 is too raw for most people to agree, we can't impose significant restrictions on abortion because "our increasingly libertarian culture [won't] allow [] the government power over women’s bodies", and we can't constrain counter-terrorism policy with robust civil liberties and human rights protections because ... given our fear of terrorism, doing so will eventually lead to more terrorism which we'll overreact to with more civil liberties and human rights violations.

The Mainstream Conservative's Guide to Selective Civil Libertarianism

In my last post I tried to give the reader a sense of the agonies of the civil libertarian who finds herself in the awkward position of going after the president on the very same issues that have generally made him seem preferable to his alternatives.  These ironies, however, are predictable enough in the light of experience.  Anyone who believes the Democratic Party or establishment liberalism in the United States will consistently uphold civil liberties or human rights absent unstinting public vigilance should crack a history book.  All it really teaches us is that there are grave dangers in identifying oneself with any public authority-- especially one which presides over the dominant military and economic power on the globe.

So What is a Six Foot Turkey Anyways?: An Exercise in Historical Empathy

Try to imagine yourself in the late Cretaceous period.  You see this 'six foot turkey' as you enter a clearing...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Foolish Consistency

On the back bumper of my car are two stickers—cemented there forever with all the mysterious power of whatever glue they use on those things.  One sticker, the sentiment of which I still whole-heartedly endorse, reads: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” (which, contrary to the impression of some people who’ve seen it, is not a pro-war statement). And the other one reads: “Obama/Biden ’08.”  This one I endorse now with somewhat less conviction, but it is there to stay.  To get it off now would require an ice pick and a chisel, so I guess it will simply have to remain there as a warning to future generations.  Bumper stickers are like tattoos—you better really mean it, because they’re not going anywhere.


Hello!  My name is Josh Leach-- a recent college graduate and current student of Divinity in grad school, where I am hoping to prepare for a career in the ministry.  I second what my esteemed co-blogger has said about our lack of experience, but I do think we'll be able to get a good blog going here once we work up a little momentum.  Between us we have a diverse set of interests and opinions as well as a willingness to tweak each other over long-running arguments in a spirit of good fun.  My particular interests relate to history, literature, religion, and the various agonies of the critical liberal/despairing socialist in the digital age.  I hope to contribute musings on everything from political news of the day to books I'm reading, to pop culture, to poetry, etc.  Rather than promise you the moon here though, why don't I just do my best to give it to you ASAP.


I imagine no one will read this, but it seems inappropriate somehow to start keeping a blog without some sort of introductory post, so here goes. I’m Ajay Ravichandran, and I’m a recent college graduate who’ll be starting law school in the fall; my co-blogger, Josh, who’ll hopefully introduce himself shortly, is a good friend from college. We decided to start this blog because we both realized that we spend a remarkably large amount of time reading political blogs and other commentary, and it seemed kind of silly to devote so much attention to politics without having some sort of public platform to comment from.
My posts will cover a range of topics related to American politics and current events broadly defined, but some areas of particular interest for me are civil liberties/counter-terrorism/national security issues, economic policy, and various questions related to the relationship between individualism and community. I majored in philosophy in college and have some interest in pursuing a philosophy PhD eventually, so I’ll probably delve into the philosophical implications of these matters somewhat more than is common. I may also post on more purely philosophical issues in moral and political philosophy and religious matters, and plan to occasionally write book or movie reviews as well.
I think I’ve spent enough space navel-gazing for now, so rather than try to explain why you should care what two twenty-somethings with very little relevant experience or credentials think about anything, I’ll let future posts speak for themselves. I hope you stick around!