Following up on the recent revelations that, for decades, the nuclear launch code was actually 000000: In the New Yorker and fifty years after the film’s release, Eric Schlosser discovers that pretty much everything in Dr. Strangelove was correct, right down to the secret Doomsday device. “Fifty years later…’Strangelove’ seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.”
“If there were any doubts that Sarah Palin is a total idiot, she settled them with that single statement….Tip to Sarah Palin: Obama may have some vulnerabilities, and you may have some strengths, but command of the issues doesn’t fall in either category.” As the up traffic here in DC, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan beats back some of the dumber GOP attacks on Obama’s nuclear policy, while Joe Conason tries to explain what Ronald Reagan really thought about nukes.
Sigh…Pick any issue these days, and for far too many of the GOP opposition, the question seems to come down to whether they’re out-and-out venal or just incompetent. Sadly, the answer seems to be yes.
As many readers here well know, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the past decade studying US history. (In fact, over the past few years, I’ve occasionally helped my advisor keep a textbook up to date that recently drew the ire of right-wing blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Apparently, those damn pesky facts were somehow mitigating O’Reilly’s ability to spew forth the usual idiotic blather.)
Anyway, over that period of time, I believe I have in fact learned me a few things. So, as a public service of sorts, and because, after this morning’s revelations, I’ve reached the limit of craven and/or patently stupid falsehoods that I can feasibly ingest over so short a time, some “U.S. History for Dummies.” I expect most everyone who comes by this site with any frequency knows all this, but ya never know. Apologies for the didacticism in advance — if this were this a Coors Light commercial, this would be where i vent. (And thanks to Lia for the timely visual tax lesson, above.)
At any rate, as most people remember from high school, the original 1773 Tea Party was not a protest against high taxes or high prices at all. (In fact, legally imported tea — i.e. that of the East India Company, which was both suffering serious setbacks over in India and losing market share to smuggled Dutch tea at the time — was actually cheaper in the colonies after the Tea Act, since it was now exempt from the usual obligations.)
In small part a reaction of the East India’s commercial rivals to this sweetheart deal, the Boston Tea Party was mainly held to uphold the principle of No taxation without representation. Which I don’t think I need to explain. So, with the minor exception of DC-area conservatives who attended the tea gathering in Washington (without crossing over from Virginia or Maryland), the, uh, “teabaggers” don’t really have a leg to stand on here. This is particularly true after you consider that both ruthless gerrymandering and the vagaries of the Electoral College (I’m looking at you, Wyoming) actually tend to lead to over-representation of conservative Republicans in our halls of governance, even despite heavy losses for the “Grand Old Party” in 2006 and 2008.
Well, in fact, no state in the Union has any legal right to secede. (Not even Texas.) The existence of such a right was posited and debated quite often in the early years of the republic: by Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, by the members of the Hartford Convention, by South Carolina’s philosopher-politician John C. Calhoun, and countless others.
But the illegality of secession was eventually confirmed — in blood — when eleven states attempted to pull out of the Union in 1861, due mainly to differing opinions on the institution of slavery and its expansion into the western territories. As a result of this insurrection by the southern states, a violent conflict broke out, which we call the Civil War. It lasted four years, and it was kind of a big deal.
Prior to the war, the states of the Confederacy believed secession to be their natural right, while those remaining in the Union believed it to be tantamount to an act of treason. With the Union victory in that conflict, and the subsequent readmittance of southern states in such a manner that reaffirmed that no right of secession exists, the question was settled. So it remains to this day.
Another argument we’ve heard lately — today Sen. McCain made it with his usual comrades-in-arms, Sens. Lieberman and Graham, while trying to protect Dubya’s lawyers — is that the CIA officials who actually conducted these recent acts of torture should be exempt from prosecution, because they were following the legal dictates of those higher-up in the administration. (To follow the reasoning around the circle, the torturers should be exempt because they were listening to the lawyers, and the lawyers should be exempt because they didn’t do the actual torturing. Cute.)
Anyway, whatever you think of the merits of this argument, this is usually referred to as the Nuremberg defense, and it is in fact no defense at all. Argues Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles, devised by the Allies after WWII to determine what constituted a war crime: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Insert “CIA interrogator” for person in that last sentence and you can pretty much see the problem.
America is not a Christian nation. This will be patently obvious to anyone who’s ever heard the phrase “separation of church and state.” Unlike, say, England, America does not have and has never had an official, established church. This is very much by design. For proof of this not-very-radical claim, see the very first clause of the very first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
If that doesn’t do it for you, see George Washington’s famous 1790 letter to the Jewish residents of Newport, Rhode Island. “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.“
Or consider that Thomas Jefferson skipped his presidency on his tombstone to make room for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” (We could also make mention of the Jefferson Bible, but let’s start slow.)
Is the reasoning here too circuitous for Rove, Gingrich, et al to follow? Ok, then, here’s the cheat sheet: the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, passed by a Congress of our Founders without declaim and signed into law by President John Adams. It begins: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Did y’all catch it this time? Good, let’s move on.
After the picture was taken, conservatives went predictably livid, with Matt Drudge headlining the offending photograph with the usual red text, Dick Cheney deeming Obama “a weak president” on FOX News, and Gingrich arguing that it made Obama look “weak like Carter.” “We didn’t rush over, smile and greet Russian dictators,” said Newt, and he wasn’t the only potential 2012’er aghast at Obama’s behavior. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada called the president “irresponsible” and the consistently shameless Mitt Romney painted Obama a “timid advocate for freedom”.
Um, ok. Well, let’s see here…
I could go on. With regards to that last one — Reagan yukking it up with Mikhail Gorbachev, then of “the evil Empire” — it didn’t take long before (surprise) Newt was caught in a contradiction. Apparently, Gingrich had previously argued on his website that Ronald Reagan’s good humor with Gorby was a sign of strength, not weakness.
Speaking of which, as Lawrence O’Donnell noted on MSNBC the other day, saintly old Ronald Reagan didn’t just smile and shake hands with America’s enemies. His administration sold them weapons under the table. So, please, assorted puddin’-heads of the GOP talkocracy, spare me your warmed-over tripe about poor diplomacy and weak leadership. As with everything else above, I’ve swallowed enough of your swill over the past few weeks to last me a lifetime.
“‘The use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the Republic,’ Obama said. ‘Still, what is striking about today’s patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s — in arguments that go back 40 years or more. In the early years of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic.’“
From Unity (NH) to Independence (MO), Sen. Obama — pushing back against the current GOP strategy — delivers a long and eloquent speech on the issue of patriotism. [Transcript.] “His speech put the issue in a sweeping historical perspective, speaking of charges that Thomas Jefferson had sold the nation out to the French and that John Adams was in cahoots with the British. He also questioned policies enacted in the name of patriotism, from Adams’ Alien and Sedition Act, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans…’I give him credit. He is taking this very seriously,’ said presidential historian Robert Dallek.”
“‘The world is a tough place,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘You’re never going to get out of it alive.‘” A damn dirty ape no longer, Charlton Heston, 1923-2008. (Between this and Buckley, it’s been a bad year so far for the patriarchs of conservatism.)
Update: Hmmm. After reading up on him further, it seems Heston (nee John Carter!) was a late-comer to the conservative movement, and even to the NRA philosophy: “In his earlier years, Heston was a liberal Democrat, campaigning for Presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. A civil rights activist, he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights march held in Washington, D.C. in 1963…In 1968, following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Heston…called for public support for President Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968…He was also an opponent of McCarthyism and racial segregation, which he saw as only helping the cause of Communism worldwide. He opposed the Vietnam War and considered Richard Nixon a disaster for America. He turned down John Wayne’s offer of a role in The Alamo, because the film was a right-wing allegory for the Cold War.“
When we first meet intelligence analyst Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), the bespectacled Everyman and titular shepherd of the film, it’s the spring of 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion has just gone FUBAR, and America’s new president is looking for a few heads to roll over at Langley. In this middle of this spate of job anxiety, Wilson is mysteriously sent a photo and audioreel of a couple in the throes of passion, seemingly somewhere in the Third World. As he sets to work on deciphering this arcane message, Wilson’s thoughts wander all the way back to 1939, when he — a young, idealistic student of poetry at Yale — was recruited first by the infamous Order of Skull and Bones (a.k.a. preppy fratboys gone wild) and then, after war breaks out in Europe, by the OSS. Along the way, he takes on a number of varied mentors, ranging from a Nazi-sympathizing poetry professor with then-shocking proclivities (Michael Gambon) to a congenial if hobbled general and spymaster (De Niro, playing a variation on Wild Bill Donovan) to a gaggle of fellow scions of the WASP Old Boy Network (representing the Eli’s, William Hurt and Lee Pace; representing the Oxford-Cambridge crowd, Billy Crudup with a slipping accent.) He also falls in love, with a (note the symbolism!) kindly, open-hearted deaf co-ed (Tammy Blanchard), and falls, in lust, with a needy, easy, and borderline-psycho socialite (Angelina Jolie, verging on typecasting in a terribly written role, but still quite good.) As the years drag on and the world freezes into Cold War, Wilson finds himself not only engaged in high-stakes cloak-and-dagger gamesmanship against his Soviet counterpart, codenamed Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), but inexorably ceding more of his dreams, his morality, his family, and his very soul to that hungering bastion of the Eastern Establishment mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency. And every time he tries to get out, they keep pulling him back in…
Comparisons to The Godfather are probably as unfair as they are inescapable. Still, for all the striving and sweating on display here, Edward Wilson is ultimately no Michael Corleone. In fact, Damon, while trying admirably, can’t plausibly sustain the second “middle-aged” half of the film, and portrays Wilson as too much of a blank (clearly De Niro’s decision) to garner much in the way of sympathy or empathy. More resonant in The Good Shepherd are many of the supporting turns, particularly Gambon, John Turturro as Wilson’s tough-talking (non-WASP) #2, and Alec Baldwin in a minor role as a hard-living G-man. But they’re not enough to put Shepherd over the top, and for every vignette in the film that contains real emotional power — most notably the interrogation of defector “Valentin Mironov” (Mark Ivanir) — there are two that, through a combination of directorial straining and an overly intrusive score, spill over into overcooked blandness. (See for example, the plane and letter-burning sequences at the end of the film, both of which are carried for several beats too long and which suffer from paint-by-numbers swelling strings on the soundtrack.) The Good Shepherd is by no means a bad film, but, alas, it’s not particularly a good one either. Like a veteran CIA hand, it fades effortlessly into the background, and offers little that might be considered truly memorable.
The buck stops here? Not hardly. Grasping for historical validation wherever he can find it, Dubya has apparently begun to fancy himself a modern-day Truman. “James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman’s roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. ‘Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years’.”
“The CIA based its decisions about using former SS men or unreconstructed Nazis solely on operational considerations…Hiring these tainted individuals brought little other than operational problems and moral confusion to our government’s intelligence community.” New documents unearthed by UVa historian Timothy Naftali make clear the Cold War-era CIA had no qualms about using former Nazi assets, and even neglected to flush out infamous war criminal Adolf Eichmann from his hiding place in Argentina after being tipped off about his location. For shame.
As seen on Medley’s Furl, Columbia PhD, Rutgers professor, and Slate “History Lesson” columnist David Greenberg reexamines the current divide between liberal internationalists and anti-imperialists among the Dems — and seems to think more of Peter Beinart’s recent “Cold War Liberal” argument and the protective camouflage DLC-types than I do — in the Boston Globe.
“[F]or all their practical failures, conservatives have at least told a coherent political story, with deep historical roots, about what keeps America safe and what makes it great. Liberals, by contrast, have offered adjectives drawn from focus groups and policy proposals linked by no larger theme.” In keeping with the intellectual territory he staked out after the 2004 election, former TNR editor Peter Beinart makes the case for a return to Cold War liberalism in a NYT excerpt of his new book, The Good Fight (also discussed in the recent Atlantic Monthly.)
I couldn’t agree more with Beinart’s paragraph above, but I don’t think the lack of a sufficiently robust national security emphasis is really the defining element missing among today’s Dems. Are there really Democrats out there who don’t agree with Beinart’s three main assessments here, that (a) America faces a real enemy in Al Qaeda and other fundamentalist terror networks, (b) our foreign policy should be less hubristic and more attuned to both local contingency and international institutions, and (c) our national sense of self should emphasize our own fallibility at times? Beinart would probably target the MoveOn crowd, but as Eric Alterman noted in the last round of this back-and-forth, that’s just a DLC straw man, roughly akin to Joe Klein’s cadre of phantom lefty consultants in the last update.
Plus, I think there are two significant historical problems with the Cold War liberalism Beinart unreservedly espouses, which he fails to discuss here. For one, Cold War liberals could very easily be seen as best inattentive to and — at worst complicit in — the excesses of McCarthyism. If the enemy abroad becomes the central defining focus of your national narrative, then the enemy within is undoubtedly going to start eating at you as well. For another, (and as John Gaddis, among others, has pointed out) — for all its early sense of diplomatic complexity and limited, realistic goals — the Cold War liberalism Beinart promotes all too readily (d)evolved into the guiding rationale for wildly wrongheaded foreign policy interventions, most notably in Vietnam. (You’d think Beinart would pay more lip service to this issue, particularly as he himself made much the same mistake in shilling for the Iraq war in The New Republic.)
In short, I agree with Beinart’s assessment that the Dems lack a sense of usable past, but the problems with his argument can be encapsulated by his ideal of a what a good, hawkish, Cold War liberal Democrat should look like these days: That, if Beinart’s tenure at TNR is any indication, would be Joe Lieberman, a politician who’s not only been flagrantly cheerleading for the administration during the current war, but has exhibited little interest in today’s wartime civil liberties issues. Simply put, Joe Lieberman would hardly be my choice of template for the Democratic party. (Who would? That’s easy: Russ Feingold, who’s displayed a strong commitment to preserving both national security and civil liberties at home, while arguing for a more level-headed, less-in-your-face American foreign policy.)