Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, September 10, 2009

  We need less deference to US presidents, not more

Politicians and pundits are all atwitter today because a Republican member of Congress shouted out “You lie!” during the President’s speech, when Obama declared that health care benefits would not be extended to illegal immigrants. Their outrage is directed not so much at the accusation, which was false, as at the fact he displayed disrespect for the country’s chief executive.

Yet as the last eight years have made clear again and again, we need to show less respect to the president…much less. It’s our political class in particular that needs to learn how to be boldly and loudly confrontational whenever the president is behaving outlandishly.

To take but one example of an occasion when confrontation and, yes, bold disrespect was desperately needed for the welfare of the country, and yet totally lacking, there was George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2003.

It was a speech that nearly made my blood run cold. Bush strongly hinted at a secret and very ugly covert program to torture, assassinate, or ‘disappear’ terrorist suspects around the globe. The audience in Congress reacted not in shock or horror or disgust. They didn’t revile the President or demand an explanation for what he was bragging about. They didn’t shout “You un-American scum!” No, they just applauded enthusiastically.

All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries.

And many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.


For whatever it’s worth, we now know that the great majority of terrorist suspects detained by the US were eventually released without charge – setting aside those who were killed in custody, of course. We still have not learned who these “many others” were or what their “different fate” turned out to be.

In the same speech Bush told his famous lies about Iraq, asserting falsely that Saddam Hussein had continued active nuclear and biological weapons programs in the 12 years since the Gulf War. Bush stated, falsely, that “we know” that Hussein had mobile biological weapons factories. The President repeated the canard, already exposed as nonsense, that aluminum tube imports into Iraq were intended for nuclear weapons centerfuges. Bush even cited a claim disproven by the CIA, based upon a forged document, that Hussein was seeking to import more nuclear material. Bush mischaracterized the UN resolution as an ultimatum to disarm, when in fact Iraq had no such weapons. Bush also described Hussein, falsely, as failing to cooperate with inspectors’ demands to destroy the non-existent weapons. Bush even went on to assert, falsely, that Hussein was sponsoring Al Qaeda. He concluded by announcing that even without UN authorization, he intended to invade Iraq to depose Hussein. No member of Congress had the decency, however, to shout out “You lie”. Instead, this farrago of transparent lies and proud war-mongering was greeted with applause, repeatedly.

Twelve years ago, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost. To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction.

For the next 12 years, he systematically violated that agreement. He pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons even while inspectors were in his country.

Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons: not economic sanctions, not isolation from the civilized world, not even cruise missile strikes on his military facilities.

Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead utter contempt for the United Nations and for the opinion of the world.

The 108 U.N. inspectors were sent to conduct--were not sent to conduct a scavenger hunt for hidden materials across a country the size of California. The job of the inspectors is to verify that Iraq's regime is disarming.

It is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons, lay those weapons out for the world to see and destroy them as directed. Nothing like this has happened.


From three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb.

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.

Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.

The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving.


And this Congress and the American people must recognize another threat. Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.

Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained.

Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.

We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.



The United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on February the 5th to consider the facts of Iraq's ongoing defiance of the world. Secretary of State Powell will present information and intelligence about Iraqi's--Iraq's illegal weapons programs, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its links to terrorist groups.

We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.


In the same speech, by the way, Bush stated that America had a crisis in health care and he was making reform a priority.

Our second goal is high quality, affordable health for all Americans.


The American system of medicine is a model of skill and innovation, with a pace of discovery that is adding good years to our lives. Yet for many people, medical care costs too much, and many have no coverage at all.

These problems will not be solved with a nationalized health care system that dictates coverage and rations care.


Instead, we must work toward a system in which all Americans have a good insurance policy, choose their own doctors, and seniors and low-income Americans receive the help they need.


Instead of bureaucrats and trial lawyers and HMOs, we must put doctors and nurses and patients back in charge of American medicine.


So far so good. But Bush’s proposals, when they finally emerge, do nothing to address bureaucracy, give health care to the poor, improve its quality, or bring costs down. It turns out that he’s advocating nothing more than tort reform for medical malpractice lawsuits, and a Medicare drug plan (for those who already had good medical coverage at low cost).

Instead of applauding deferentially, why didn’t any member of Congress demand to know “Where does that leave the poor and uninsured?”

As a country we’re practically addicted to deference toward our presidents. We even reflexively call him “The Commander in Chief” – as if that presidential role applied to anybody not currently serving in the military. We really need to unlearn those habits of deference that the nation picked up during the Cold War, and recognize anew that presidents gain or lose respect primarily by their actions.

I’m not advocating rudeness for the sake of rudeness, much less the anger and incivility that has coarsened our public discourse during the last generation. I’m certainly not excusing the shameless slanders that Obama’s Republican opponents have made their forte.

But I do think we need to welcome and encourage thoughtful, honest, and frank confrontation of the most powerful and least accountable members of our political class.

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Friday, September 04, 2009

  Republicans demand equal time to harangue students

Next Tuesday President Obama plans to talk to high school students in Virginia and make the speech available simultaneously to schools around the country as a White House video feed. His focus will be encouraging students to do well in school and to take their studies seriously.

As might be expected, when news of the plan became public it immediately caused a furor among conservatives, who are used to having only Republican presidents talk to students. Schools are being inundated with complaints about the attempt by that man in the White House to indoctrinate children with his 'socialist agenda' and to create a 'cult of personality' such as exist in Cuba and North Korea. Initially Republican critics sought to prevent schools from letting students see that man in the White House speak, or keep their children home from school to teach them a kind of civics lesson.

Today, however, GOP leaders settled on a more aggressive strategy. Congressional Republican leaders demanded that the television networks grant them equal time to respond to the President's message on September 8.

Schools in several states quickly agreed to show students the GOP rebuttal, and in Texas one school system near Dallas that already announced it will not allow Obama's address to be seen decided to make the Republican rejoinder mandatory.

The Republicans have selected Bill O'Reilly to deliver their rebuttal. His spokesman announced that O'Reilly will focus on the danger of personality-driven politics. He'll also stress that students should cease from studying foreign languages, which he'll describe as 'unAmerican', and disrespect their teachers, who are unionized. O'Reilly will especially encourage students to engage in bullying and harrassment. In the long term, he'll say, they should try to drop out of school before they can be confused by too much information.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

  Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory: Obama plans to oppress you via Facebook

This nutter at the right-wing National Legal and Policy Center is advancing the latest conspiracy theory about a "secret plan" by that man in the White House to destroy our freedoms: Barack Obama will be tracking what we say about him on Facebook and, you know, taking names and stuff. Very reminiscent of the fake controversy whipped up by right-wingers when the White House asked people to forward information about any crazy rumors they heard being spread by the anti-health-care reform crowd.

The truth, as usual, is rather mundane.

Here's the breathless introduction to a post intended to stoke fear among the clueless:

NLPC has uncovered a plan by the White House New Media operation to hire a technology vendor to conduct a massive, secret effort to harvest personal information on millions of Americans from social networking websites.

Later we're told that this is "an ambitious plan to harvest huge amounts of information from the web":

Given the White House’s recent abuse of its New Media operations, this huge, new secretive program is yet another sign that this Administration is at best indifferent to privacy rights and at worst prepared to violate civil liberties for political purposes.

Obama, our nutter declares, is doing this "out of an over-abundance of power".

The truth is immediately discernible from the document in question, a White House bid-solicitation (PDF), which presumably the author expects few of his readers to bother to, you know, read. Since the solicitation was actually published by White House order, it's hard to discern what makes it a "secret plan".

Anyway, the WH is merely hiring somebody to make permanent records of whatever the Executive Office of the President puts up on public sites like Facebook, and the comments made by the public in response, and transfer those records to the National Archives. All of this is pursuant to the President's obligations under the Presidential Records Act. That's all. No plan to destroy our liberties via Facebook. No over-abundance of power. Just a President following the law.

So how long will it take for the whole right wing in America to become convulsed with paroxysms of terror at this latest menace to civilization from the Democrats?

crossposted at

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  Making liars pay a price

This article by Edward Wasserman is generating some discussion about what the traditional media should do when influential people spread misinformation to the public. Propaganda works essentially by means of repetition, so reporting the lies only to correct them typically assists in disseminating them. No wonder that so many Americans believe the nonsense being spread by opponents of health care reform, given that the US media, without bothering to explain the details of the proposed reforms, has played those myths up even when reporters did point out that the complaints are imaginary.

Wasserman is of course right that merely debunking persistent lies doesn't work to deflate them. But his proposed solution won't work either.

Wasserman, taking his cue from Greg Marx's post at the Columbia Journalism Review, argues that the trad media should somehow train itself to just ignore the liars and thus deprive their lies of oxygen. But that takes no account of Fox News, viral emails, televised blab fests, and all the modern means of disseminating politically convenient lies.

As tristero points out, that solution would have done nothing to halt the disastrous rush to war against Iraq with all the misinformation being spread by the Bush administration and its busy little helpers. But tristero's solution, for the media to learn to mock the liars, is unlikely to happen. And though it would be a good start, it's insufficient because rebuttals are necessary as well. It's hard to harness ridicule to serious fact-checking.

A better solution is for the media to make sure that the liars pay a steep price for every lie they try to disseminate. Here for example is a scenario offered by Wasserman:

Suppose some headline-loving political eminence announces that the reason the health system is in crisis is illegal immigration. Now, you could refute that with experts, with numbers, with facts. And it wouldn't matter a bit -- not if you lead your newscast with him, if you let that week's debate revolve around his claims. You'd still whip up rage, you'd still give him a soapbox, you'd still bleed off attention from the issues lawmakers need to tackle to fix healthcare, you'd still create a population that believes something that isn't so.

The real solution seems pretty self-intuitive: Make the story about a liar spreading lies. Put your politician on the defensive by making him the focus of the story. Describe how he is making things up, call them 'lies', show the extent to which he's doing it deliberately, and let him try to defend himself. If he weasels out or backtracks, ask him when he's going to set the record straight publicly and if he'll be apologizing to the people he misled. If necessary, target the liar repeatedly and remind your audience of other lies the politician has foisted on the public.

In other words, confront the sons of bitches who are screwing up political discourse by spreading lies. Make it clear that there's a heavy price to pay for lying, and lies will become less attractive.

Didn't any reporters in America ever learn how to deal with schoolyard bullies? Punch the political bullies hard in the nose and they'll leave us in peace. Maybe literally.

crossposted at

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