Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The other meltdown

The ongoing financial crisis may be causing some distress, but it's reallyt nothing -- a bunch of financial fictions suddenly being exposed as worthless, what a surprise -- compared to the melting of permafrost, leading perhaps to a runaway release of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent that CO2.


The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats...

Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.


And moreL:


Yesterday, researchers on board the British research ship the James Clark Ross said they had counted about 250 methane plumes bubbling from the seabed in an area of about 30 square miles in water less than 400 metres (1,300 feet) deep off the west coast of Svalbard. They have also discovered a set of deeper plumes at depths of about 1,200 metres at a second site near by. Analysis of sediments and seawater has confirmed the rising gas is methane, said Professor Graham Westbrook of Birmingham University, the study's principal investigator.
http://cquestor.blogspot.com/2008/09/hundreds-of-methane-plumes-discovered.html


Even more scary take, with proposed solutions:

Oy, a methane clathrate melt is surmised to have caused the biggest mass extinction event in Earth's history.

Some (mild) skepticism.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Could it really be this simple?

Mark Chu-Carroll has an explanation of what went wrong in the financial institution's risk assessment procedures, which I find a bit hard to believe, but only a bit. If true, it means that these highly-paid technical portfolio analysts were making the kind of mistake you drill out of undergraduates in the second week of an introductory probability course, namely, assuming the independence of evevents (mortgage defaults) that are in fact highly correlated. This seems way too simple an explanation, but maybe it really is as stupid as that.

The slightly more complex version of this is that they knew this calculation was bogus, but were under incentives that promoted the collections of short-term gains at the expense of long-term risks, and somehow shoved this knowledge under the rug.

Also caught a bit of this weekends This American Life episode, which talked to some Wall Street types about what was going on. Sounded interesting but I didn't catch the whole thing and it isn't on the web yet.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is getting a boost in his reputation from all this, but I'm not sure exactly why. This particular meltdown was not a "black swan", in that it was entirely predictable. But perhaps his distinction between Mediocristan and Extremistan is a key to the theory above. Normally, mortgage defaults are uncorrelated, but in extreme cases they suddenly become highly correlated.

More Taleb here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

All for the lack of tuppence, patiently, cautiously invested...

And you'll achieve the sense of stature
As your influence expands
To the high financial strata
That established credit now commands!



Foreclosures! Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares! Bankruptcies! Debtor sales! Opportunities!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The blame game

The latest meme on the financial crisis from the right: it's all the fault of Carter, Clinton, and "socialists", who forced the banks to make all these subprime loans via the Community Reinvestment Act in 1975. I actually listed to this piece of right-wing hate radio from Mark Levin where this theory is expounded.

For someone who rarely listens to this stuff like me, the tone is downright scary. Levin has a voice like a dentist's drill. I have a hard time imagining the audience for this stuff -- I imagine bitter, hate-filled members of the downwardly mobile white sub-working class -- Joe Pesci, minus any charm or charisma. I hesitate once again to throw out the f-word but I can't help but think of Hitler's speeches and the Two Minute Hate from 1984.

The thing is, there may even be some truth in what he's saying. No doubt Democrats have had a hand in this crisis; they are just as much in bed with Wall Street as the Republican party (not sure how that squares with them being "socialists"). But how can you take someone seriously who not only sounds like that but writes things like this:
I want to congratulate the attorneys who work with me at Landmark Legal Foundation for tenaciously pursuing the untold story of the systematic abuse of American MPs by the al-Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
Here's a counterattack to this sort of theory; the most commonsensical refutation is that most of the bad subprime loans were made in the last five years; so if a bill passed in 1975 is responsible why was there a 25-year lag time?

And also this report (via) which says:
CRA Banks were substantially less likely than other lenders to make the kinds of risky home purchase loans that helped fuel the foreclosure crisis.
Oh well, so much for alternative points of view. The facts don't matter too much, what matters is whether Levin et al are going to succeed get this notion into the minds of the populace.

If things get really ugly economically, I mean ugly in people's real lives, not just the financial markets, don't be surprised if this sort of hate boils out of the backwoods of AM radio and into the mainstream, wherever the hell that is. People are going to be looking for someone to blame, and the right has been honing their eliminationist rhetoric on progressives and Democrats for many years now. Fuck, I feel like stringing someone up myself, and while I'd start on the other side of the political divide there is plenty of blame to go around.

Oh, the humanity!

Won't somebody think of the investment bankers?
It'™s going to be very hard psychologically for these people, Frank said. œI talked to one guy who had to give up his private jet recently. And he said of all the trials in his life, giving that up was the hardest thing he'™s ever done.
...
The chairman of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld, still has his mansion in Greenwich, CT, his oceanfront estate on Jupiter Island in FL, and his Park Avenue co-op in Manhattan. Many at Lehman blame Fuld for dallying while his investment bank went bust, taking risks with other people's money while he cleared over $40 million in salary and stock in the last year alone.
...
Former Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz collected more than $38 million in salary and bonuses in the last three years for which figures are available, though he and Lehman executives also saw their net worths drastically plummet as stock values crashed.
via. Some of his commenters suggest some rather, ah, extreme measures that should be taken by ordinary people who have to work hard and will now be pushed further into poverty and financial stress by the incompetencies and thievery of the moneyed class. Like I said last post, I have some sympathy for this but it ain't going to happen. It made me recall this earlier post. There's no defending the murderous excesses of communism, but I am sympathetic to the underlying rage. In the words of Principal Skinner, "There's no justice like angry mob justice."

Friday, September 19, 2008

A trillion here, a trillion there, soon you're talking real money.


  • Long-term cost of the Iraq war: $3 trillion.
  • Long-term cost of the government's bailout of the financial industry: $2 trillion. (today's figure is 1T, doubling that is probably being conservative).
  • A president you can have a beer with: priceless

That's about 2 years total federal spending. Pissed down the toilet, and you and me are saddled with the bill, or about $25,000 for every adult in the US. Those numbers don't quite convey the enormous opportunity cost these liabilities represent. That is $5 trillion dollars not being spent on repairing infrastructure, fixing our health and education systems, funding alternative energy research, or even protecting us against terrorist threats.

Somebody somewhere pointed out that what we have now, clearly, is a system that could be described as "vacuum up" rather than trickle-down. Wealth is sucked out of the pockets of the working strat into the coffers of the extremely wealthy. Now the Wall Street types can go enjoy their bonuses while the ordinary taxpayer is on the hook for the downside of their fun and games.

If ever a situation called for angry mobs, this is it. Citizens should be stringing up the bankers and politicians from the lampposts. Not likey to happen in this spread-out and obese country.

Addendum: there must be a great disturbance in the force when people like Tyler Cowan are saying things like this:
You can blame lots of the crisis on government -- more than most people think -- but at the end of the day it is hard to escape the conclusion that markets simply have performed horribly in a number of important regards.
Also, one of his commenters identifies an important point that I haven't seen elsewhere:
The Secretarys authority to purchase mortgage-related assets under this Act shall be limited to $700,000,000,000 outstanding at any one time
This is clever and nobody in the mainstream media has figured it out.

If you think the cost of this bill is $700 billion, you're wrong. The cost is actually infinite and the entire bill constitutes a giant money-laundering scheme.

Paulson can (and presumably will) buy up to $700 billion of these "assets", then sell them. Let's say he decides to buy them at 60 cents on the dollar and sell them for 10. You, the taxpayer, will eat the fifty cents, for an immediate cost of $350 billion dollars.

Having done so, he is then authorized to do so again, since the $700 billion is no longer on the government's balance sheet.

In fact, he can do this without limit, other than possibly due to the federal debt ceiling, which of course Congress will raise any time we get close to it. Oh yeah, this bill does that right up front too. No need to bother with it the first time around.

Folks, $700 billion isn't even close to the total cost of this monster.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

History and Justification of Torture

Here's a report I made for my synagogue's social action committee, which has decided to focus on torture and human rights issues. It's a big long and formless for a blog post, but here for the historical record and so all my readers can help me improve it by telling me how wrong I am.

Introduction

Torture is the use of extreme physical or psychological violence on captives by political actors (governments, militarise, or paramilitary groups) in pursuit of political and military ends. I take it as axiomatic that this practice should be curtailed. To fight this practice, we must understand its psychological motivations, legal justification, and its systems of institutional support.

I think it's worthwhile trying to honestly understand the arguments and rationales used by people who advocate or even practice torture, difficult or impossible though this may be. Torture may be the ultimate form of dehumanization, but it is our duty to acknowledge that the practitioners of dehumanization are themselves human beings. We know that quite normal human beings are capable of evil and despicable acts when placed in an environment that encourages and supports them. Our enemy should be the institutional structures that support torture, not the torturers themselves.

Some of the questions that the issue of torture raises:

  • What is the history of torture in the Western world?
  • What is torture's relationship to government and the law?
  • Who advocates for and against torture?
  • What are the stated and real purposes of torture? Does it ever work?
  • What are the arguments for and against it?
  • What is the psychology that leads people to practice torture?
  • What is the effect of torture on the institutions that practice it?

Obviously, this document can only begin to scratch the surface of these issues.

History


Torture has its origins in the ancient world, and was in common use in imperial Rome and before (but even there its limitations and hazards were known). Christian Europe initially banned torture as antithetical to Christ's teachings, then reintroduced it as Christian theology changed its focus from the life of Jesus to his death by judicial torture. Around the 12 century the Inquisition and European state courts revived torture as a tool to force confession and as a punishment.

Torture practices may also be found in the Bible, ie in 2 Samuel 12:31
And David gathered all the people together, and went to Rabbah, and fought against it, and took it...And he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon. So David and all the people returned unto Jerusalem.

And Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky remarked that:
Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.
Torture was used on and off during the rise of the modern period, gradually coming into disfavor in the modern state as a relic of monarchy. There's an interesting passage from William Blackstone, one of the most influential of English jurists:
The rack is an engine of the state, not of law.

-- William Blackstone, 1769
What Blackstone meant in the context of his times was that torture had no place in the system of common law that he was in the process ofcodifying, but was still available to the state (the monarch) as a tool for wielding power. This distinction remains with us today, as torture exists as a generally extra-legal practice of governments, wielded by the executive and military arms of government regardless of what the law says.

During the 18th and 19th century the state apparatus of torture was gradually replaced with a more rationalized system of criminology that included police, courts, and prisons. The rise of totalitarian states in the 20th century reversed this trend rather dramatically, as torture practices were employed by Nazi Germany and the USSR. These practices were also adopted by the opponents of these regimes, including the US (see below).

The era of colonialism allowed all sorts of practices that were unacceptable domestically to be employed on colonial subjects, who rarely had the legal or psychological status of full human beings. The United States ushered in the 20th century by deploying torture in its occupation of the Philippines, where it waged a savage war against indigenous political forces. ....Philippine water torture, 1901, practices that were later adopted by the Japanese and used on their POWs and occupied territories during WWII.

In the post-WW II era US, torture was driven underground as the revelations of Nazi and Japanese war crimes had soured peoples tastes for brutality. Eleanor Roosevelt led the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions were also enacted and signed around this time. However, by the mid 1950s Cold War paranoia had reduced the US's commitment to internationalism and to human rights. It was around this time that the CIA was quietly researching psychological manipulation techniques that included torturous practices such as sensory deprivation. As in physics, Nazi torture psychologists were quietly imported and encouraged to continue their research, an effort known as Operation Paperclip. Nazi interrogation techniques including "drugs, electro-shock, hypnosis, and psycho-surgery" were reviewed and tested. The newly discovered LSD was tested as an interrogation technique. These projects eventually were combined under the name MK-Ultra, under Dr. Sidney Gottlieb. This effort continued for the next 20 years.

The next phase of CIA sponsored torture was the Phoenix program, which created a large network of interrogation centers in South Vietnam, which practiced assassination and brutal interrogation of suspected Viet Cong. The number of people tortured reached into the hundreds of thousands, according to Douglas Valentine [ref] -- providing an endless supply of subjects to experiment on. The Phoenix program was investigated by Congress in 1970 and found to have been in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and shut down. However, the techniques and ideology that underlied it lived on and were used in later government operations in South and Central America.

US military trainers at Guantanmo Bay were equipped with a training chart copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist interrogation techniques. This was the SERE Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, used by both the CIA nad the military.

The chart also listed other techniques used by the Chinese, including “Semi-Starvation, “Exploitation of Wounds,” and Filthy, Infested Surroundings, and with their effects: “Makes Victim Dependent on Interrogator, “Weakens Mental and Physical Ability to Resist, and “Reduces Prisoner to Animal Level’ Concerns.”

The only change made in the chart presented at Guantanamo was to drop its original title: Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.

Psychology

Although we tend to think of torture as a form of dehumanization, accounts of coercive interrogation often take on a shockingly intimate tone. Torturers understand all too well the workings of the mind of their victims, as they force them to act in a "perverse theater in which he is compelled to play the lead in a drama of his own humiliation" (QoT, p80).
Torture plumbs the recesses of human consciousness, unleashing an unfathomable capacity for cruelty as well as seductive illusions of omnipotence...Once torture begins, its perpetrators...are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of potency, mastery, and control. Just as interrogators are often drawn in by an empowering sense of dominance, so their superiors, even at the highest level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon.

-- Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture p13
Outside of the torture chamber itself, political support for torture is generally an expression of the authoritarian mindset, which constructs an enemy that is alien, subhuman and yet posing an existential threat. As Bob Altemeyer described it in his book The Authoritarians:
Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I'm going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.
One point to take away from Altemeyer is that authoritarians are largely driven by fear. They are by nature fearful, and project their fears and worries on external enemies, real and imagined. The fear justifies the dehumanization:
Chronically frightened authoritarian followers, looking for someone to attack because fighting is one of the things people do when they are afraid, are particularly likely to do so when they can find a moral justification for their hostility. Despite all the things in scriptures about loving others, forgiving others, leaving punishment to God, and so on, authoritarian followers feel empowered to isolate and segregate, to humiliate, to persecute, to beat, and to kill in the middle of the night, ...if you know how highly people scored on the Dangerous World scale, and if you know how self-righteous they are, you can explain rather well the homophobia of authoritarian followers, their heavy- handedness in sentencing criminals, their prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities, why they are so mean-spirited toward those who have erred and suffered, and their readiness to join posses to ride down Communists, radicals, or whomever.
When the authoritarian mindset is allowed to fester it can lead to genocide of alien groups (Jews, Bosnian Serbs, Tutsis). In the US in the present day, the rhetoric of right-wing hate radio approaches this level of exterminationism, and sets the tone in which torture practices can be justified.

The justification of torture


We can't just close our eyes and pretend we live in a pure world.

-- Alan Dershowitz
It is extremely common to hear utilitarian or cost-benefit justifications for torture -- surely it's worth doing something horrible to a probably guilty person if by doing so it would save the lives of hundreds of innocent citizens. The reductio of this is the ticking-bomb scenario, in which a suspected terrorist is captured at the exact right time in which a bomb has been plnted but before it goes off, and only by torturing the terrorist can the explosion and loss of life be stopped. The extreme unliklihood of this scenario has not stopped it from becoming the basis of both popular entertainment and proposed law.
The Geneva Conventions are so outdated and are written so broadly that they have become a sword used by terrorists to kill civilians, rather than a shield to protect civilians from terrorists. These international laws have become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

-- Alan Dershowitz
More fundamentally, the infliction of violence is at the heart of what the state is. The perverse drama of torture is enacting the fundamental role of the state vs the individual. This bleak view was articulated by the ultraconservative poltical theorist Joseph de Maistre in his defense of the Spanish Inquisition, citing:
...one of the most incontestable of political axioms," i.e., "Never could great political evils, never especially could violent attacks against the body of the state, be prevented or repelled, except by means equally violent.

This is the exact argument used by conservatives today to justify torture by authoritarian regimes:
Both did tolerate limited apposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties, but both were also confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution. Both rulers, therefore, sometimes invoked martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, and occasionally, it was alleged, torture their opponents.

-- Jeanne Kirkpatrick, defending the Shah of Iran and Somoza:
Some critics of torture emphasize the point that the information and confessions it produces is extremely unreliable. People in unbearable pain will say anything to make it stop; their false confessions become part of the police information store and thus lead to further false arrests and confessions. But it's likely that this is no barrier to the use of torture; the point of torture and the security structure around it is often not to obtain true information and disrupt terrorists, but to enhance the power of the security appartus.

Why would the government want to do this, consciously or unconsciously? War is the health of the state and the war on terror is the health, such as it is, of the Bush/Cheney administration. Wars and states want to perpetuate themselves; inflating the strength of your enemies is an important technique for accomplishing this.

And for the cogs, big or little, who are the participants in a government torture machine, surely you must feel a need to excuse your appalling acts. Every confession elicited by torture lets you pretend that the torture was justified all along, and on into the future. And once this dynamic is in motion, the truth or falsity of confessions hardly matters at all.

Does torture work?

Does torture work? That is, does it accomplish its stated goals of protecting society against national security threats? A great many people from the military and intelligence communities say no:

The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the US Government. Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.


-- Army Field Manual

Legality


No democracy, other than Israel, has ever employed torture within the law.

-- Alan Dershowitz
Torture is clearly illegal under the US Constitution and international law, but that has not interfered with its practice on massive scale by the US government since at least the Philippine colonization. However, it has never before been attempted to be legitimized until the Bush administration. In our urge to excoriate them, let's stop and give thanks to them for stripping away the rhetoric of human rights talk and exposing practices that have been ongoing for more than a century. What has gone on in the shadows now goes on under color of law and with the blessings of the people's representatives. We are now officially a torture state.

Is torture legitimized and practiced openly worse than torture practiced in a strictly underground, black-ops fashion, or better? I think I tend to prefer the earlier hypocrisy -- a sense of guilt is better than outright, flagrant immorality. Torture as a dirty secret is one thing, torture as something openly practiced and defended at the highest levels of government is something else. It moves the Overton window by making the unthinkable thinkable -- if torture is a recognized and acknowledged instrument of government, what even worse things will sprout up in the shadows?

Alan Dershowitz has proposed the idea of practicing torture under the color of law by means of torture warrants, while at the same time acknowledging that torture has been practiced extra-judicially.
Under my proposal, no torture would be permitted without a "torture warrant" being issued by a judge. An application for a torture warrant would have to be based on the absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it. The suspect would be given immunity from prosecution based on information elicited by the torture. The warrant would limit the torture to nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life.
Torture warrants purport to make torture a tightly controlled activity under the authority of law, but past historical experience (ie, see the Bukovsky quote above) indicates that this is an illusory goal. Torture is a fatal temptation, promising security while in fact serving to undermine the discipline, authority, and legitimacy of the police and military organizations that practice it, and eventually, the entire structure of government.

Corruption of institution


McCoy describes how the torture program in the Phillipines undermined military discipline and laid the foundations for a miltiary revolt;
Through their years of torturing priests and senior officers for Marcos, the officers slowly gained the daring to arttack marcos himself...In retrospect, psychological torture played a catlyting role in the rupture of military socialization, investing the RAM leaders with a self-image as protean cresator/destroyers.


--QoT p 
A similar process happend in France after its massive program of torture in Algeria. Military officials disappointedwith the restraints put on them by the French government attempted a military overthrow of the Algerian and French governments in 1961.

What to do?

It's a hard truth to face, but there is a substantial proportion of the electorate that is pro-torture, pro-war, pro-dehumanization. These people make up the base of the authoritarian right. The battle is over the people in the middle, the vague and formless undecideds, who need to be informed of torture practices and convinced that they are both morally wrong and ineffective. At present, up to 2/3 of the electorate say that torture is justified.

Aside from the obvious strategies of pressuring officals to conform to the established rules of law, it is possible to make a number of cases against torture to convince people who are not instinctively opposed to torture:
  • The utilitarian arguments that torture actually damages national security; and that information obtained by torture is unreliable.
  • The libertarian argument that governments are not to be trusted with such powers.
  • The moral argument that torture violates human dignity.
Given that this is a largely Christian nation, the most effective strategy might be to lend our strength to ecumenical progressive efforts such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
The Christian in me knows this is wrong, but the corrections officer in me can't help but love to make a grown man piss himself.

-- Cpl. Charles Graner (guard at Abu Ghraib, convicted of abuse)
As liberal, middle-class or above Jews in America we are generally very far removed from the apparatus of state security. The situation in Israel is obviously different, and there Jews have proved themselves as capable of becoming torturers as anyone else. The Israeli security apparatus has had a practice of routine, legal, institutionalized torture, but has gradually changed its methods:


This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand.


-- Aaron Barak, Israeli Supreme Court President, in a unanimous 1999 decision banning abuse of Palestinian prisoners



If Israel, under much more serious threats of terrorism than the US, can reform its practices, than so can the US.


References













Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A whiff of fascism

I hesitate to toss around the f-word, but the rhetoric of this passage from Victor Davis Hanson is striking (h/t LGM):

If she can beat off the frothing Newsweek/MSNBC/New York Times inbred rabid wolves, and do it with the grace she has shown so far, she will fill a deep yearning among Americans for someone like her... who reminds us with pride that a muscular world of action, not community organizing, creates the bounty that others use and take for granted but so often sneer at the methods of its acquisition.

The "inbred rabid wolves" is nice, but "vermin" would have been more traditional. "Muscular" seals the deal. Anyone who can't hear where this sort of talk is pointing isn't paying attention.

And then there was George Bush last night comparing "the far left" (ie, people who criticize John McCain) with the Viet Cong.

And just now Rudy Giulani dropped "cosmpolitan" as a slur on Obama, shortly followed by "flashy". Nice signalling going on there.

I'm in the midst of reading Yury Slezine's The Jewish Century and it is probably coloring my perspective, but this election seems unusually striking in how much it is highlighting the cultural differences between the party of urban cosmopolitans and the ersatz blood-and-soilers. The candidates are not especially radical, but somehow they exemplify the images of their respective parties, and the polarization of values they represent, than any past election I can remember.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The party of fecundity

I've been browsing Sarah Palin stories all weekend, not sure why -- some political soap operas just grab my attention for reasons that are not always clear to me. Moldbug has put up a special post analyzing the class issues in play. As usual, his approach is incredibly reductive, but he's probably onto somsthing nevertheless. Palin seems like an incredibly weak play from the Democratic (aka "Eloi/Brahmin") perspective. But the right is crowing about how wonderful she is, how she's going to show all those tofu-eating elitists what real Americans are like, etc. Who is right?

The real red/blue split in this country is not betweeen economic classes so much as it is between urban and rural values ("rural" is a misnomer, since the locus for these values has long ceased being actual farm country and is more like exurban sprawl). The former are cosmoplitian, multicultural, worldly, intellectual, and transnational. The latter are traditionalist, nationalistic, religious, and jingoistic. They are based on entirely different value systems, and even though the platforms of the two parties are not all that different, when compared to the range of possible political opinion, their emotional and values appeals seem to be poles apart and getting more polarized over time.

From this standpoint, Palin is an inspired choice. She is lively, and adds a spark of vitality to the McCain image which otherwise seems to have one foot in a rest home if not the grave. She makes rural values seem dynamic and attractive, rather than old and fusty. Her inexperience and fecklessness is no handicap to getting Republicans elected, as demonstrated by the last two cycles. Weird stuff about Palin has been breaking all weekend, culminating with the recent revelation that her 17-year old daughter is pregnant and unmarried. But I don't think that's going to hurt her, nor are the fact that she herself has a young child. Contrast it with the carefully controlled reproduction of the Clintons, or Obamas. These rugged Alaskans rut and reproduce in the all natural way. If a Down's baby or teenage mother is the result, well, la-di-da, that's part of the circle of life.

So all these baby eruptions are going to help her image and appeal, I predict. It's going to interfere with Obama's somewhat ethereal charisma by presenting a much more primal variety. Obama was poised to be a unifier, and might have pulled it off, but this brilliant play has boxed him into his native urban elitist demographic. His appeal ultimately is to the head, Palin's is rooted somewhere south of that, in the lower chakras.

This feeds into another idea which I don't have time to treat, which is that the religion of the Christian right is not particularly Christian from my perspective. The Jewish and universalist aspects of Christianity (which are the only ones that resonate with me) have been largely discarded, and replaced with a variety of authoritarian, militaristic paganism. Blue Christians seem to have largely disappeared from the political scene. The "pro-life" movement has little basis in historical Christianity but makes a lot of sense as part of a nationalistic fertility rite.

[Update: ah, here we go.][and here][Oh, yuck, Steve Sailer is on to the same idea. I feel dirty.][I wish I had come up with this post title.]