Unspeakable Acts

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

— George Orwell “The Principles of Newspeak” (1949)

This week’s featured post is “Newspeaking About Torture“.

Thursday, the Sift had its one millionth page view since I redesigned it and moved it to WordPress in June, 2011. (I have no way of figuring out who the millionth viewer was. If you looked at the blog on Thursday, maybe it was you. Thanks.) More than 400K of those views were this year. More about the numbers next week when I do the retrospective Yearly Sift.

This week everybody was talking about Cuba

After the midterm elections, President Obama entered what I’ve started calling the Aw-Fukkit Phase of his presidency, where he’s going to do things that make sense without worrying about polls or politics: first immigration, then smog.

That trend continued Wednesday, when he went as far to normalize relations with Cuba as he can without an act of Congress. He announced restoration of diplomatic relations, which will lead to the opening of a U.S. embassy in Cuba. Removing Cuba from the official State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism should follow soon. Talks leading to this agreement apparently were brokered by Pope Francis, who seems to have decided to take “blessed are the peacemakers” seriously.

The economic embargo against Cuba is a law that Congress probably won’t repeal. (But administrative decisions might hollow it out a little.) So no Miami/Havana flights and no Cuban cigars in the Mall of America any time soon. Personally, I’d like to see Major League Baseball create a Latin Division with teams in Havana, San Juan, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami, but I’m a dreamer.

Embargoes like this can sometimes make sense as an attempt to push a shaky new regime off a cliff. But if that’s going to work at all, it usually works in six months or so, not after half a century.

We have normal relations with nearly all our other Cold War adversaries: Russia, China, Vietnam … basically everybody but North Korea, which (see below) is in a league of its own. The only thing special about Cuba is that a Cuban-refuge lobby has extraordinary political influence. The Cuban embargo is to Florida’s presidential politics what ethanol is to Iowa’s.

A few other things make Cuba special, but they push the other way: Cuba used to be an American colony. It’s only 90 miles away. A lot of Americans have relatives they’d like to visit in Cuba, or would vacation on its sunny beaches if they had the chance.

The arguments against Obama’s move all revolve around what I think is a misguided notion: that the U.S. is the world’s Heather #1, so we’re doing less-cool countries a favor when we talk to them. That view is implicit in Ted Cruz’ characterization of the new relationship as “a very, very bad deal”. We agreed to talk to Cuba and didn’t get enough in return for that “concession”.

In view of the fact that the 1962 Missile Crisis threat never came to fruition, Cuba has never actually done anything to us, except in fantasy movies like Red Dawn. They have more reason to be angry at us than vice versa — not just because of other ancient history like the Bay of Pigs invasion, colonialism, and mucking about in their pre-Castro politics, but the present-day fact that we keep a military base on their territory, where we do dirty work that we don’t want to happen on the mainland.

The Castro government is harsh, but its dismal Freedom House score (6.5 out of 7) is the same as China’s, and still better than ten other countries, including U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and several other places where we have embassies.

If they’re willing to talk to us and trade with us, we should be willing to talk to them and trade with them — unless you think the 55th year of an embargo is likely to accomplish something the previous 54 didn’t.

and Sony/North Korea

Sony’s decision not to release “The Interview”, a Seth Rogan comedy about an attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is still a mystery to me. Reportedly this costs Sony $100 million, and the threats to attack U.S. theaters that show the movie are the kind of impotent bluster North Korea is famous for.

Officially, the North Korean government is not behind this — the threats come from a hacker group calling itself “Guardians of Peace” — but the FBI says they are. (Other experts disagree.)

If this is a North Korean operation, it’s hard to know how to respond. The country is already subject to so many sanctions that it’s virtually cut off from the rest of the world, and its repressive government might be happy about that. It is plagued by famines, but its hungry people seem unable to revolt. The government constantly raises fear about a U.S. invasion — only the cosmic power of the Great Leader keeps the evil Yankees at bay — so an actual attack on something might also play right into the government’s hands.

A Hollywood insider’s view of this story and how it unfolded comes from George Clooney, who circulated a petition supporting Sony and got little support.

This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this.

No one in Hollywood would stand with Sony, Deadline Hollywood says, because they were “fearful to place themselves in the cross hairs of hackers”. And by releasing embarrassing emails before threatening terrorism, the hackers gave an excuse to those who wanted to chicken out rather than make a united front. Clooney says:

Here’s the brilliant thing they did. You embarrass them first, so that no one gets on [their] side. After the Obama joke, no one was going to get on the side of [Sony Pictures executive] Amy [Pascal], and so suddenly, everyone ran for the hills.

and murdered policemen

Saturday, two Brooklyn policemen were murdered in their patrol car, apparently by an African-American man who came to New York from Baltimore specifically to take revenge on the NYPD for the killing of Eric Garner. The man reportedly had a history of mental illness, and killed himself after killing the officers.

There are two opposite ways to react to horrible events like this. If you identify with the victims, you may react tribally: People like you are threatened by people like him, and your tribe needs to protect itself by lashing out at the other tribe. That was the response of NYPD union chief Patrick Lynch, who blamed the attack not on a lone lunatic, but on the anti-police-brutality demonstrations that started after Garner was choked to death by police while saying “I can’t breathe.”

There’s blood on many hands tonight. Those that incited violence on this street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did everyday. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.

A memo that appeared to come from Lynch (but was later denied) said that NYPD had become a “wartime police department”, and “will act accordingly”.

But it’s also possible to have a universalist response: Having experienced how bad it feels when people like you are killed for no good reason, you want to prevent this experience from happening to anyone else. The murdered cops’ friends and family, Eric Garner’s friends and family, Michael Brown’s friends and family … you don’t have to pick a side. None of them should be going through what they’re going through.

You know how these killings are different that Garner and Brown? So far, the media has shown no interest in combing through the lives of the murdered cops to see whether they “had it coming”. I doubt it would be hard; surely somebody sometime had an unpleasant interaction with one of the cops and would be willing to help the media make a headline out of it. But so far nobody is going for that cheap shot.

Wouldn’t it be great if all victims got this kind of respect?

Before the attack on the policemen, these clueless guys wore “I Can Breathe” shirts, thinking they were making a pro-police statement.

In fact they’re just underlining the point made by the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt (worn here by Lebron James): Of course you can breathe, because you’re white and so police treat you with courtesy. That’s what white privilege means.

You know what would be a powerful demonstration against racism? Pair up white people wearing “I Can Breathe” shirts and black people wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Let them march together two-by-two.

and still torture

The neocon line from Bill Kristol and others is that what the CIA did wasn’t “real torture” because “you recover” with “no lasting effects at all”.  This sounds remarkably similar to the way some men minimize rape.

There’s good reason why, in interrogator slang, getting a prisoner to talk is called “breaking” him. A decade after he was seized and tortured by mistake, German citizen Khalid al Masri is still described as “a broken man”.

He’s abandoned his home. He no longer is part of the lives of his wife or children. Friends can’t find him. His attorneys can’t find him. German foreign intelligence will say only that he’s “somewhere in a western-leaning Arab nation.” When his Ulm attorney and confidant Manfred Gnjidic last saw him, he was broke, unkempt, paranoid and completely alone. He’d been arrested twice and sent once to a psychiatric ward, once to jail.

Al-Masri has not even gotten an apology from the CIA, and his lawsuit for damages was thrown out of court because a judge ruled that a trial would necessarily reveal state secrets.

But that’s all no skin off Bill Kristol’s nose. All the trauma in his privileged existence has healed without a scar, so he thinks that’s how life works.

I discussed the larger conservative reaction to the torture report in “Newspeaking About Torture“.

and Jeb Bush

Tuesday, the former Florida governor tweeted:

I am excited to announce I will actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States

He followed up by saying that in January he would establish a leadership PAC to “help me facilitate conversations with citizens across America to discuss the most critical challenges facing our exceptional nation.”

One of my friends is a self-described “ink-stained wretch” from the Newspaper Era, which happened sometime after the Jurassic. One of his early editors refused to publish articles about press conferences where somebody merely announced he was going to do something, like file a lawsuit, because announcements aren’t news. When the lawsuit actually got filed, that would be news.

Would that politics and political journalism still worked that way. These days, Bush’s announcement that he was going to do something next month to help him actively explore a possible presidential run … he might as well have gone to Concord and filed papers to put his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot. He’s running.

Together with Chris Christie, Jeb is the best hope of the establishment wing of the Republican Party (which still fantasizes about Mitt Romney, because that worked so well last time) to keep the nomination away from the Tea Party. Over the last few cycles, I’ve done better predicting Republican presidential politics than Democratic (maybe because I have more perspective). So I’ll venture this: It won’t work.

Bush will annoy the base more than he’ll inspire the establishment. He’s not anti-Hispanic enough. He’s not distant enough from his brother, who the base worshiped at the time, but now blame for deficits and bail-outs and all the other bad 2008 stuff they don’t want to think about. He supported the common core curriculum reform, one of those black-helicopter issues the base goes crazy over. He’s in no-man’s-land regarding the theocrats: He’s not really one of them like Santorum or Huckabee, but to anti-theocratic libertarians he’s stained by the Terry Schiavo case; don’t think you’ve heard the last of that. And purely on a surface level, he looks too wonkish. He’s the expert who knows what’s good for you, not the voice rising up from the soul of Real America. Nobody would ever look at Jeb Bush and repeat Barry Goldwater’s slogan: “In your heart, you know he’s right.”

Ultimately, I predict, the Tea Party will unite around Ted Cruz — after a Ben Carson boom-and-bust similar to those of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain in the 2012 cycle — and he’ll just barely lose to a stop-Ted-Cruz candidate not specifically identified with either wing. I’m not sure who that will be, but it won’t be Bush, Romney, or Christie.

The eventual nominee will embody contradictions, the way “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush did in 2000. He’ll be a tough-love candidate — firm but not mean, unbending but not brittle, devout but not a crusader, a man of both the past and future. Like Ronald Reagan, he’ll put a charming face on heartless policies. A folksier Paul Ryan, a sharper Rick Perry, a less belligerent Scott Walker … several contenders could fill that role if they successfully recast their images, like the “New Nixon” of 1968.

and you also might be interested in …

During the invasion of Crimea, the Republican party line was that Putin had completely outmaneuvered Obama. Putin was the kind of swaggering leader conservatives admire. Rudy Giuliani laid it out:

[Putin] makes a decision and he executes it quickly. Then everybody reacts. That is what you call a leader. President Obama, got to think about it, he’s got to go over it again, he’s got to talk to more people about it.

Well, as the ruble collapses and the Russian central bank raises interest rates from 10.5% to 17% in one day, President Putin may wish he had talked to more people before executing his decisions. Paul Krugman outlines exactly what kind of hole Russia has dug for itself, and Rachel Maddow enjoys replaying clips of the Republican man-crush on “what you call a leader”.

Gordon Klingenschmitt is a Colorado state representative who used to be a Navy chaplain. He knows what we should replace ObamaCare with: prayer.

Father in Heaven, we turn away from the idolatry that so many have in their hearts, that they think government is a better healer than Jesus.

Because no true Christian ever gets sick. Everybody knows that.

So police conduct a no-knock nighttime raid on somebody’s house looking for drugs. The people inside only know that someone is breaking in — and there are no drugs in the house, so they have no reason to suspect why — so they shoot and kill one of the officers. What happens?

Well, if you’re white you can take advantage of the Castle Doctrine, which says you have a right to defend your home against what a reasonable person would interpret as an attack. But if you’re black, that may not work.

and let’s close with some Christmas music … sort of

On Black Friday afternoon I was wandering through the central square of Santa Fe. Musicians were scattered about, warming up for performances connected to that evening’s tree lighting. A lone guitarist played a familiar Christmas tune, but not until I got closer could I make out the lyrics he was singing:

Police got my car.
Police got my car.

I suspect that’s not what he sang in the evening, but a YouTube search traced his song back to Cheech and Chong.

Now, whenever the ambient Christmas music starts to become overwhelming, I sing “Police Got My Car” to myself, and I feel better. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always “I Found the Brains of Santa Claus” or Grist’s climate-apocalypse carols.

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  • kevnjacobs (@kevynjacobs)  On December 22, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Cheech & Chong’s “Police Got My Car” used as a prophylactic musical earworm antidote to excessive Christmas music for the day. Brilliant.

  • Gina  On December 22, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    > a stop-Ted-Cruz candidate not specifically identified with either wing.

    Saw this and thought of Rand Paul. Then you went on to describe exactly what I think Rand Paul sees himself as. I can’t say whether it’s accurate since I’m not a right wing voter, and I see him as a superficial pandering idiot.

    If Rand Paul were to get the nomination, how do you think he’d handle the Kentucky ballot problem? I was thinking, why couldn’t he keep his name on the KY ballot for the Senate and put a straw Republican on the ballot for president. Then the electors who pledged to vote for the straw candidate would just cast their final votes for Rand Paul instead, as per prior agreement? Then Kentucky voters could elect the glory boy as both their Senator and their President on the same ballot!

    • weeklysift  On December 22, 2014 at 10:10 pm

      Personally, I haven’t been impressed with Paul as a candidate. I think when he gets on a debate stage with Cruz and Christie, he will look like he’s in the wrong league.

  • Philippe Saner  On December 22, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    Please don’t forget that the man who killed those cops shot his ex-girlfriend first. If you leave out that fact, it gives a false impression of what actually happened.

  • Don Clemens  On December 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking posts. They help me to focus on the questions that I OUGHT to be asking.

  • Cameron  On December 23, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    “A folksier Paul Ryan, a sharper Rick Perry, a less belligerent Scott Walker …”

    Hmm, the guy that comes to mind is Rick Santorum…

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