Monday, January 31, 2005

Correcting the Self Correction Debate

The blogosphere definitely has the technical capacity to be a self-correcting medium. But, as Atrios shows us here, it is not automatic.

But, blogs are not "self-correcting" - you actually have to, you know, make corrections. And, especially if you operate a comment-free blog, your errors are not necessarily going to be pointed out to the rest of the world.
Kevin Drum takes this argument to the next level.

What makes this all the more mock-worthy is the longtime aversion of conservative bloggers to comment hosting, which is the only genuine self-correction mechanism in the blogosphere. Yes, my comment section might be full of trolls and their vitriol, but anyone who has a factual disagreement with what I write has a forum to point it out in the same place as the post itself.
Kevin goes on to note that only three of the top 10 conservative blogs feature comments while five of the top six liberal blogs do. He finishes with:

Tight message control has always been a key characteristic of conservative politics. It's emerged as a key characteristic of the conservative blogosphere too.
This is unquestionably true, but I'm not certain that lack of comments in and of itself demonstrates this. The reality is that heavily trafficked blogs will, if available, generate hundreds of comments for every post. If the author chooses not to moderate, legitimate comments will be lost under an avalanche of vitriol and trolling. On the other hand, moderating comments in such a scenario represents a major undertaking. To be effective, the author would have to sacrifice time that would otherwise be spent producing new content. Therefore, I understand the reluctance to enabling this feature.

However, there is another option: Trackback. If this feature is enabled, you are allowing other bloggers the ability to plant a link to their comments right on your post. At the same time, you filter out everyone who isn't invested in what they're saying (no more anonymous trolls). It's not a perfect solution. It's true that constructive comments aren't limited to those with blogs. And Trackback spam is beginning to develop here and there. But as a mechanism for error correction, it's far superior to traditional comments in a high traffic scenario.

So, let's repeat Kevin's survey, only this time we'll include those who have Trackback enabled. The right scores much better this time: Powerline, LGF, Michelle Malkin, Captain's Quarters, Volokh, and Wizbang all have either comments or Trackback. Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, Hugh Hewitt, and The Corner all still fail. Even so, this represents a 100% improvement above Kevin's results. And, more importantly, I think that it more accurately reflects the conservative bloggers reluctance to be exposed to criticism. The reluctance remains, but it is not as ubiquitous as it would appear on first glance.

However, any way you slice it, Glenn Reynolds is a coward. You can take that to the bank.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

A Moment

I've been consumed by local events this weekend and the blog is paying for it. It will probably be Monday before I can post anything of substance. However, I couldn't quite let the Iraqi elections come and go without chiming in, even if only briefly.

This isn't the moment for Iraq, but it is certainly a moment. A successful election will not signal success for our policy in Iraq, but it could forestall the civil war that sometimes seems inevitable. As I write this, polling has begun and there have been no reports of violence. If that holds, the first step out of the darkness will have been taken. Then, the election's validity and legitimacy will need to be evaluated. If that also holds, there may be a chance for peace and, in that chance, life.

Personally, I don't pray. Yet, in this moment I find myself wishing that I could. The people of Iraq have suffered so greatly over the years and this moment, regardless how it came to be, is a moment of hope. So often, as we express our rage against the folly of the Bush administration, we forget what is going on there and what this is really all about.

Beneath the sound and fury, this is about the people of Iraq and their future. Let us, at least for today, remember them.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

No sooner do I get through lamenting the lack of discussion regarding the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical that Eric Martin is on the case. His post from Wednesday rounds up discussion from several sources on the subject. I could probably just point you in his direction and let it go, but that would deprive me of an opportunity to bloviate locally. Can't have that. So go read what he had to say and then come back to see what I did with his research.

First up is Belle Waring of Crooked Timber. Last June she blew her stack regarding what she viewed as the absurdity of the hypothetical case.

I am sick and tired of hearing about that ticking nuclear bomb in Manhattan. You know the one. Why? Because, if you let me put my thumb on the utilitarian scales, I can get you to agree that you have an affirmative moral duty to torture a three-year-old child to death.
She goes on, in a rather hilarious fashion, to create just such a case. In doing so, she clearly demonstrates that moral justification can be constructed for almost any action if you are allowed to freely manipulate the parameters of the situation (and you are a moral relativist -- which we all are). But, since the real world is filled with ambiguities, a situation with such clearly defined moral imperatives could never exist. In other words, the fantasyland hypothetical doesn't provide meaningful enlightenment to those of us living in the real world.

Next up is Matthew Yglesias. He wonders whether or not, given the mentality of law enforcement, this is really a situation that we need to worry about at all.

Knowing what we know about human behavior and the sort of people who make careers in the law enforcement and intelligence communities, it's a bit absurd to think that an interrogator would ever let, say, a nuclear bomb go off and destroy Chicago when he could have stopped it with a little torture, just because the Geneva Conventions said he shouldn't torture anyone. The world just doesn't work like that.
Therefore, we don't need to institutionalize exceptions to torture prohibition (which would, in practice, ultimately be abused) to keep us safe. Moreover:

The real question is, what do you do after the disaster has been averted? Well, in a world where torture is illegal, your interrogator's probably going to have to be arrested. But he's also going to be a national hero, he'll plead his defense of necessity, and no jury in the country is going to unanimously convict him. And even if he somehow did wind up getting convicted, he could be pardoned. We have, in other words, several methods for making ad hoc, ex post facto exceptions to the rules in our common law system.
Pretty neat. The bomb is diffused, millions are saved, and our hero goes free. Sure, our detainee gets roughed up pretty good, but he deserves it. He was trying to level Chicago, after all. And here's the best part. Changes required in the current system: zero. I like that.

And so it seems as though the extreme cases are handled. On the one hand, they are fairly unlikely to unfold in a simplistic manner. On the other, if they do so unfold, there's no preparation that's required. Case closed.

But what about the not-so-extreme cases. What if, rather than millions of lives, a "mere" dozen or so are at risk. Or, what if the extent of the risk is unclear. The nuclear "ticking time bomb" (and its equivalents) is a situation that we are unlikely to ever face. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the conventional parallel. In fact, we're facing it right now.

As I noted Wednesday, the Jordanian terrorist Zarqawi has credibly threatened to violently disrupt Sunday's elections in Iraq. His primary bomb maker and close associate is now in custody. If Zarqawi makes good on his threats, the ramifications could be quite serious. Not only will many die, but the potential exists for the entire election to be thrown into chaos. This could, in turn, shatter the remaining stability in the country and possibly even ignite a civil war. So, while none of this is certain, extremely dire consequences exist as a very real possibility. Aspects of it I would even describe as likely.

Now what?

To complicate matters further, the effects of engaging in torture extend beyond the situation at hand. To address this issue, Eric Martin unearthed commenter J Thomas.

There's another issue. Whatever you do, word will get out to the enemy and also to the civilians. Possibly you can arrange that tortured prisoners get kept in solitary and nobody ever sees them before they're dead and buried, but that will get out too. What effect will torture have on the ones who haven't been caught…

People who absolutely refuse to surrender even when they can't get away are a lot more trouble than people who'll surrender. They're likely to try to sucker some of you in close so they can take you with them. So you stand back and blow it up first, and you have a big mess -- when if they thought you'd treat them right and it would just be "The war is over for you" they'd surrender and maybe you'd have a building still standing and civilians alive and so on.
Mr. Martin then picks up the baton.

In addition to the effect this has on the psyche of potential combatants, and their willingness to surrender, the use of torture will also impact the perception that the target population as a whole will have of the occupier/aggressor. In the case of Iraq and the broader Muslim world, this perception is of supreme importance. We cannot win over hearts and minds, and convince people to make radical changes in their political, religious, and societal structures if we are not held in high regard - or at least not openly reviled. The use of torture undermines our status and moral authority, especially when so many of the victims were innocent civilians released back into the population to tell their tales of horror. Therefore, torture has transactional costs in terms of democracy promotion as well, which must be included as a variable in any cost-benefit analysis of the utility of the use of torture.
And this is all before we even begin to consider the effectiveness of torture as a method for information extraction.

What a mess. I wish that I had some tight concluding remarks that would untangle the issues and provide direction, but none are forthcoming. Like so much in this world, there are no easy answers. I am personally averse to employing coercive interrogation. Yet, I can too easily imagine a situation arising where I would regret having ruled out such techniques. It is hindsight, and not foresight, that is 20/20. It is only once the crisis has passed that we will know that we acted correctly. For all our discussion, the paradox remains.

At least we're talking.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Stupid Rhetorical Tricks

Recent news reports now indicate that Abu Musab Zarqawi’s primary bomb maker has been captured. This man, known as Sami Mohammed Ali Said Jaaf, has apparently admitted under interrogation to have constructed "75% of the car bombs employed in Baghdad since the US-led invasion in March 2003." I wonder if anyone is asking him where he got his explosives.

Snark aside, Jaaf’s arrest is unequivocally a major step forward in the battle against the Iraqi insurgency. He and Zarqawi are responsible for hundreds of deaths, most of whom were innocent Iraqi civilians. Capturing this man won't end the carnage, but it will slow it down for at least a little while.

Naturally, wingnuts across the globe are flogging this story mercilessly. And since this is an event worth celebrating, I won't deny them a moment of joy.

That is, as long as they're going to be honest about it. If not, well -- I can't be held responsible for what happens.

So, I was listening to Sean Hannity yesterday (insert comment about my masochistic tendencies here) when I happened to catch him slapping around a liberal caller with a particularly disingenuous argument. This shouldn't be a shock to anyone, but since the particular rhetorical device he was using was so common, I thought it would be worthwhile to spend a little time debunking it here.

Here's the set up. Hannity notes correctly that Zarqawi has pledged to disrupt the upcoming Iraqi election by any means necessary. The violence that has been aimed at election officials and poll workers of late demonstrates that this is no idle threat. Hannity continues by concluding that Jaaf, as a close associate of Zarqawi, most likely has operational knowledge of upcoming attacks. These attacks would certainly mean the loss of many innocent lives and could potentially have the effect of derailing the legitimacy of the election itself. Hannity then asks, given the nature of the threat, what interrogation techniques should we be willing to use to extract information that might allow us to prevent them.

So far, I'm totally on board. This is a version of the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario, and a legitimate version at that. This is a very hard question to resolve and it is worthy of full and open debate. If you can demonstrate that lives are at stake (which I think you can in this case) does it still makes sense to limit your options in any way?

But then, rather than argue the merits, Hannity presents the following analogy. Suppose that your spouse/child had been kidnapped and you had been able to capture one of the conspirators. What techniques would you be willing to employ in your efforts to rescue your loved one?

Unfortunately, our hapless liberal caller was unable to avoid the trap. And let's not kid around here, a rhetorical trap is exactly what this analogy is. Either you admit your willingness to use all methods at your disposal, and concede the larger point, or you endorse restraint and come off as a naïve and impotent peacenik (à la Michael Dukakis). If you accept the premise, there are no winning responses.

But of course, the premise is bullshit. Here's why:

Hannity's analogy assumes that the interests of the individual and the interests of the larger society are indistinguishable from each other. This is absolutely false. In this situation, the individual’s bonds to the victim are so strong that he/she could not help but react in the most visceral fashion. Any cost would be borne in order to prevent harm from befalling their loved one. On the other hand, the larger society has many other interests to protect. It must consider the ramifications of its actions for other members of the society. For example, it cannot rationally respond in a fashion that would result in equivalent or greater harm to others, even if that response could guarantee the safety of the victim.

To see it clearly, let's change Hannity's analogy ever so slightly. Assume the same kidnapping scenario. But, instead of a captured co-conspirator, you have a ransom note. What would you be willing to pay to save your loved one? Everything you have, of course. Does that mean that the government should also be willing to empty its accounts on your behalf? Absolutely not, and in practice the government wouldn't even be willing to pick up part of the tab. Nor should it, lest it reward the kidnappers and encourage future abductions. The government's interests and responsibilities are different from yours and its reaction must reflect that.

(As an aside, you can see how this is another manifestation of the nature of scaling, which I first discussed here. As the size of the social unit changes -- from family to society -- the nature of the bond between individuals changes and, therefore, solutions that function at one level fail at the other.)

Like I said earlier, the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical is one worth investigating. If it is clear that lives are on the line and that time is of the essence, it is at least possible to argue that the moral imperative against coercive interrogation is no longer operative. We may indeed face exactly such a situation in the future. It sure would be nice if we had thought about it beforehand.

But not if you're going to use it to just muddy the waters. The existence of the hypothetical doesn't excuse what has already happened. Nor is it a simple question to resolve on its own. And if you're not willing to have an honest discussion about it, why should I (or anyone) be willing to engage you? The world actually is a complex place. Why should anyone believe you when you say it isn't?

This is a discussion that we should be having. Just not like this.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Accepting Prisoner Abuse

Eric Martin has a fantastic post up on Total Information Awareness that catalogs the standard prison abuse justifications employed by administration apologists. He also makes sure that you understand just exactly how ridiculous all of these excuses are. If you care about this issue at all, it is absolutely required reading.

Of course, the most puzzling thing about the apologist perspective is how little sense it makes. After all, can't we all agree that beating prisoners to death is something that is beneath us all? You'd think. But clearly a wide swath of America is willing to accept almost any rationalization before making a principled moral stand.

What does this mean?

I believe that there are two possible explanations. The first is partisanship. In an act of supreme party loyalty, many are willing to overlook the obvious sin in order to prevent gains by the opposition. To these individuals, whatever evil that takes place in a detention center is dwarfed by that which would be imposed by Democrats if they were allowed to take power.

The second explanation is less Machiavellian, but considerably more sinister. There is a form to each line of argument in defense of coercive interrogation techniques. First, the treatment of the detainees isn't all that bad. And second, we need the information that these techniques provide. Now, what's important to note here is that the first justification is completely dependent upon the second. No matter how mild the interrogation is, it's pointless if it yields no vital information.

The funny thing is, I never hear much talk about the second half of the argument. Sure, people assert the need for the information. Sometimes they speak about it as though it is a foregone conclusion that these techniques are productive. But it's never critically examined in any way. On the other hand, many have claimed that information thus obtained is of dubious value.

So, if it isn't important to conclusively demonstrate the value of coercively extracted intelligence, then it really isn't part of the justification. Either the value of the acquired information exonerates the abuse or... the abuse justifies itself.

And this is, I believe, what really makes this practice OK for most people. In this instance the detainees are mere receptacles for American vengeance. While most are factually innocent, to many they represent none other than the 9/11 hijackers themselves. Once this connection is made, any conduct would be tolerated, if not enthusiastically endorsed.

Ultimately, that's what this is about. Everything else is window dressing. If one starts from the position that "they deserve it," nothing else really matters. If we get usable information, that's great. If we don't, at least there's some payback.

As ugly as that is, it makes sense. And until there's some consciousness about this, there will never be true accountability.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Shi'ites Go Secular

According to this article from the New York Times, Shi'ite leaders are suggesting that they will attempt to put a "secular face" on the new Iraqi government. Since Shi'ites are expected to do quite well in the January 30 elections, this statement may well have predictive validity.

If true, this would be an extremely positive development. As I wrote a few days ago, it is important that democracies be exclusively governed by a constitution that cannot be overruled by interpretations of religious law.

The net and, for many, problematic effect [of a constitution so defined] is that it assumes the supremacy of human law. Secular cultures will readily accept this restriction. On the other hand, cultures with a higher component of religiosity will find this to be a much more difficult sell. The more fundamentalist the culture, the less likely citizens will be willing to submit religious teachings to earthly regulation. This is not to say that religion and democracy are incompatible. But it demonstrates that conflict will potentially arise and that the resolution of same may determine the efficacy of local democratic rule.
The article presents many caveats, including speculation that certain prominent Shi'ites would reject a subservient role for Islam. Still, the fact that now both Kurdish and Shi'ite leadership are publicly endorsing secular is extremely promising.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Bush Administration: Watchmaker or Monkey?

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of these United States:

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

And with these words President Bush has upgraded democracy promotion to the centerpiece of American foreign-policy. No longer shall it be the redheaded stepchild of invasion rationales. Forevermore it shall be our raison d'etre. Or something.

Of course, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. It's easy to stand before a fawning crowd and declare your intention to spread freedom and end tyranny across the globe. But, as we know from previous discussion (here and here), democracy is no simple thing. It is a delicate and highly complicated sociopolitical organizing structure, each component of which must operate within a fairly narrow set of parameters. It is like a fine antique watch whose cogs must operate smoothly for it to be a precision instrument. If those cogs fail, the watch ceases to be a timepiece and instead becomes a useless chunk of metal. "Democracy" without its infrastructure is worth no more.

Thus far I remain unconvinced that this administration truly understand the dimensions of the problem. They speak as though they were master watchmakers, yet they act like a bunch of monkeys with hammers. Our most recent foray into "democracy promotion" makes this completely clear.

The January 30 elections have been hailed for months as the long awaited light at the end of the tunnel. It is on this day that a free and democratic Iraq will supposedly emerge from the darkness of Saddam's tyrannical rule. But while the dark shadow of the Baathist regime has faded, is clear that what replaces it is anything but free and democratic.

Let's assume for a moment that the elections proceed and its results are accepted as legitimate. If that occurs it is true that Iraq has taken a gigantic step towards democratic government. However, a tremendous amount of work remains. At that point there will still be no permanent constitution. Without one, there are no long term guarantees for free political expression, no lasting restrictions on the government's use of force, and no enduring promise of future elections. Yes, the fact that there is no permanent constitution at this juncture is by design -- the primary task of the newly elected representatives is to compose one. But acknowledging its absence is important if we are to understand Iraq's current stage of development.

Culturally, Iraq stands even further from the goal. At present it appears that there is little support for the constitutional principles necessary for sustained democratic rule. Neither the Shi'ite majority nor the Sunni minority are interested in any sort of power-sharing arrangement. In fact, it's not clear that any of the fundamental principles of democracy are alive in Iraq. As a case in point, here is Edward Luttwak (via Erik Martin) of Foreign Affairs:
Of course, many Iraqis... [view] democracy as a simple affair that any child can understand. That is certainly the opinion of the spokesmen of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, for example. They have insistently advocated early elections in Iraq, brushing aside the need for procedural and substantive preparations as basic as the compilation of voter rolls, and seeing no need to allow time for the gathering of consensus by structured political parties. However moderate he may be, the pronouncements attributed to Sistani reveal a confusion between democracy and the dictatorial rule of the majority, for they imply that whoever wins 50.01 percent of the vote should have all of the governing power. That much became clear when Sistani's spokesmen vehemently rejected Kurdish demands for constitutional guarantees of minority rights. Shiite majority rule could thus end up being as undemocratic as the traditional Sunni-Arab ascendancy was.
And remember, this is what we get if the elections run smoothly. If they don't (something that seems more and more likely), it's hard to see how civil war is averted.

Perhaps the current situation in Iraq is a product of the path we took to get there. If our intent had been to install democracy from the start, and we had not been distracted by the "threat" of WMDs and "ties" to Al Qaeda, perhaps we would have been able to avoid the pitfalls we currently face. And so, perhaps our future efforts will not be accurately predicted by our success or failure there.

But the path we took is indicative of the delicacy of our methods. We move with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Our desire to create is dwarfed by our ability to destroy. These are not the characteristics of the master watchmaker. If we are to become an agent for the advancement of democracy, our methods must reflect the fragility of its design. Until they do, we will promote nothing but chaos.

Update: Repaired a slightly misleading assertion regarding the existence of an Iraqi constitution. Of course, a transitional constitution currently exists. However, its temporary nature prevents it from providing long-term stability to democratic infrastructures. It is only once a permanent constitution is composed and approved (one that guarantees free expression, limits on governmental power, regular elections, etc.) that the people of Iraq will be able to develop confidence in democratic government.

Friday, January 21, 2005

I Return

I'm back and will have things to say shortly. Wonderful, fantastic things chosen from the rich rhetorical tapestry that is my consciousness.

I'll bet you can't wait.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Culture of Democracy

In this post I attempted to outline a schematic of democratic government. But, as I said at the time, this merely defines the necessary components of the democratic process. Practical implementation requires much more than a rudimentary roadmap. Like any other system of government, democracy must operate within terms defined by the society it will govern. If it fails to respect the cultural values and expectations of its citizens, it simply won't last. Therefore, I thought that it would be appropriate to investigate the cultural requirements of democratic government, so that we might gain insight into its prospects in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

As you'll recall from my earlier post, free choice is inconsistent with restricted access to information. For this reason, democratic societies must be comfortable with fairly lax restrictions on expression. This is a fairly easy sell with respect to political expression. However, free expression must extend to some degree into nearly every aspect of human existence. Here things tend to get quite dicey. Taboo subjects exist in all cultures and there were always be resistance to allowing public discourse of them. But failing to allow informational exchange prevents free choice from being exercised in these arenas. Complete liberty isn't required (and is problematic in its own right), but each restriction leaves democracy weaker.

The next cultural hurdle that must be traversed is the acceptance of the requisite restrictions on government and others. Free choice can be eliminated by coercion. Ergo, laws are required to prevent agreement through coercion. Elected representatives are not able to truly reflect the will of the people if their power is challenged by nonelected institutions. Constitutional protection of democratic process and its components is necessary to prevent its undoing by unscrupulous officials. Each of these issues demonstrates the need for limiting the scope of acceptable governmental and institutional activity.

The net and, for many, problematic effect is that it assumes the supremacy of human law. Secular cultures will readily accept this restriction. On the other hand, cultures with a higher component of religiosity will find this to be a much more difficult sell. The more fundamentalist the culture, the less likely citizens will be willing to submit religious teachings to earthly regulation. This is not to say that religion and democracy are incompatible. But it demonstrates that conflict will potentially arise and that the resolution of same may determine the efficacy of local democratic rule.

Perhaps the most noble aspect of the democratic system is its egalitarianism. This notion is the bedrock of the democratic ideal. Simply put, without the notion of "one-man, one-vote", democracy does not exist. This phrase, though, reveals much. Of course, the phrase should be "one-person, one-vote." Women, racial and religious minorities, and people of all socioeconomic strata must be represented equally within the electoral process. Cultures that do not accept the parity of minorities are unlikely to allow democracy its full bloom.

Finally, members of a democratic society must be able to peacefully accept electoral defeat. Many factors determine how willing individuals will be to submit to the democratic process: the perceived legitimacy of an election, the reliability of the election schedule, the protections against majority overreaching, etc. In point of fact, this particular aspect of democratic culture strengthens with the perceived success of the process over time. But, a base of acceptance must exist at conception. Without it almost any neonatal democracy would perish before it could establish a trust quorum with its citizenry.

These issues represent some of the primary roadblocks to the cultural acceptance of democratic rule. This is not intended as a complete list, but rather an opening framework for understanding the complexity of establishing democratic government. Hopefully, its presentation has been somewhat enlightening.

I would make two final points.

First, as with process, none of the issues raised above are binary in nature. They represent the degree to which any given culture can be democratic in the ideal sense. Cultures that cannot wholly accept democratic principles are not absolutely forbidden from attempting to employ democratic systems. It merely means that their system will begin its evolution further from the absolute ideal. And, because democratic principles, once unleashed, have a tendency to expand within a society, even a foot in the door leaves open the possibility that a truly democratic society might ultimately emerge. Thus, I would argue, a little democracy is better than none at all.

And finally, lest this be seen as an ethnocentric rant against less civilized cultures, take a moment to examine our own system through the lens provided. Fundamentalist Christians frequently object to laws they perceive to be in conflict with Christian teaching. Historically egalitarianism has been more talk than action, with more than half of the population legally barred from participation until the early 20th century. In practice minority participation was heavily limited until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And looking at Florida during the 2000 election, it is clear that we still have work to do on this issue. Traditionally we accept the results of elections. But it appears that this is becoming less, rather than more, true as many are prone to questioning the legitimacy of the election process. We may be a shining example of democracy for the world to emulate, but they might learn as much from our failings as from our successes.

Click here to read Part IV

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

I'm off to the city in the morning. Time and Internet access may be somewhat scarce while I'm on the road, so things will probably be pretty slow while I'm away. I'll be back on Wednesday the 19th and the show should start up again shortly thereafter.

Play nice while I'm gone -- I'll be watching you.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Latest Disgrace

Please allow me another brief respite from the democracy series so that I may register some outrage about the following:

[O]ne Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions…

"The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," [one military source] said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."
My God. Is this what we have become? Has this administration becomes so terrified of failing to achieve their (most recent) objective in Iraq that they are literally willing to adopt the methods of the enemy?

Mark Kleiman cuts to the chase:

Death squad activity is terrorism.
When your grandchildren ask you why America is hated in Iraq and around the world, you can tell them about this day. Good luck with that.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Democracy Defined

Democratic indoctrination begins early and persists through our school years and beyond. However, as I reflect back on my younger days, I cannot recall ever engaging in a serious attempt to define democracy beyond the level of cliché and platitude. The overwhelming approval of democracy is part of what limits the analysis: if we all agree that we like something, who cares what it really is? However, if we as a nation are going to be in the business of installing democracies in societies across the globe, we'd better make sure that we know what it looks like. Doctors have to understand anatomy. Auto mechanics have to be able to identify the components of an engine. And as we export democracy far and wide, our obligation to understand its central features is no less.

In an earlier discussion, I identified two critical aspects of any democratic society: democratic process and cultural acceptance of said process’ legitimacy. For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to focus exclusively on process, as that must be completely described before any meaningful discussion of cultural acceptance can occur.

With that mind, let's explore the democratic process.

The most elemental component of democracy is the election. It is through this process that representatives are granted authority to exercise power within the society. Power acquired in this fashion has a legitimacy that is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain through any other means. The more legitimacy the government has in the eyes of the governed, the less force is required to ensure their capitulation. This inverse relationship between legitimacy and coercion is what establishes the general benevolence of democratic systems, which is ultimately democracy's most attractive characteristic.

However, for this grant of authority to be authentic, the election process must take a very specific shape. First and foremost the selection of representatives must be made freely and without coercion. Ensuring that it be so requires that certain other elements be present within the society. For example, a truly free choice cannot be made in the absence of information. Thus, restrictions on information access must be minimal. Likewise, free choice cannot be made under the threat of force. Therefore, there must be limits placed on the government and other interests within the society that prevent them from compelling agreement through force.

With free choice assured, we can itemize the remaining necessary components of a legitimate election. First, the representatives selected ultimately must wield real power. The authority granted to them must be real and unchallenged by other, more powerful institutions. Second, participation in the selection process must be enjoyed by a substantial portion of the population. Third, each vote cast must be of equal value. And finally, the outcome of elections must be governed by, at least, the plurality principle.

Once all of these factors are present, the outcome of an election will approximate the will of the people. In a sense, a theoretical democracy is established at this point. The next trick is making sure that democracy lasts.

All enduring democracies are characterized by the presence of the following two features. First, elections as described above reliably repeat. They don't necessarily have to repeat on a regular schedule, but they have to occur with a fair degree of frequency. If a regular schedule is not defined, then there must be an upper limit to the amount of time between them. Second, all of these requirements, from free choice to election schedule, must be immutable. Generally this is accomplished through the establishment of a Constitution. Without it those in power might simply dismantle the entire structure at their first opportunity.

And that is a democracy. Of course, in the real world these components can appear in varying degrees. Some democracies enfranchise more or less people. Others restrict information more than others. Therefore, the term democracy is most accurately a measure of degree rather than a binary description. But, within limits, governments so structured can fairly be characterized as democratic.

What does all this say about the "democracies" we have been attempting to install of late? A fair amount, I would contend. But, I will leave that analysis for a (near) future entry.

PostScript: In writing this entry, I came across this resource provided by Indiana University. Without it certain features of this post would have been markedly different.

Click here to read Part III

Friday, January 07, 2005

How about a Little Honesty

I'm going to briefly delay my discussions on democracy so that I can address an issue that arose in a comment thread over at The Slithery D.

Dylan's post is questioning the wisdom of pressing the torture issue against Bush. The logic is as follows: if you push the issue and lose, you potentially institutionalize torture, thus leaving the landscape in worse shape than if you had remained quiet.

Now, I suppose that that is a possible result. In fact, that is the possible outcome in any policy debate: if your side loses, things (from your perspective) get worse. So, this isn't particularly earthshaking news. The real question in this situation is why would the anti-torture position lose?

Dylan enlightens us in his comment thread:

But much of what's being complained about is no worse than the hazing I went through in college. While I don't object to that being illegal when done to 19 year olds because it can go too far, I really don't care if they do it even to innocent people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And there you go. If people like Dylan, or Glenn Reynolds, or Rush Limbaugh continue to try to minimize the detention center abuses, their listeners/readers will be led to conclude that what occurred was acceptable. Therefore, if the debate is lost, it will be lost due to this sort of dishonesty, not due to the efforts of those who would challenge the status quo.

How dishonest is it? Well, let's put aside for the moment the fact that only a fraction of the allegations could possibly be seen as equivalent to fraternity hazing. Let's say that Dylan experienced treatment during his fraternity rush that parallels some of the treatment our detainees endured. Is the similarity between the activities in each situation enough to justify the comparison?

Yes -- if Dylan's elder brothers were armed. And if they were part of an invading military force. And if Dylan had been aware that previous pledges had been severely physically reprimanded for resisting. And if Dylan had been physically prevented from terminating his involvement in the hazing ritual.

But since none of those things were true, they aren't the same thing. And saying so is incredibly dishonest. Unfortunately, it's true that people will be influenced by this sort of apologist rhetoric and that because of it we might end up with general acceptance of this reprehensible activity. But their victory will be built on a foundation of lies. You can go that route if you want, but I sleep better on my path.

Some Thoughts on Democracy

There's a lot of talk about democracy these days. Democracy in Afghanistan. Democracy in Iraq. Democracy promotion around the world. We're even talking about democracy (or lack thereof) here at home. But as I sit back and let this discussion wash over me, I'm left wondering whether or not we really understand what we're talking about anymore.

For years we Americans have been bred to worship at the altar of democracy. Our schools and our public discourse cement within us the idea that democracy is the Holy Grail of organizing structures. It has become fully equated with our concepts of "good" and "right." Conversely, undemocratic structures have become aligned with evil, considered by many to be an abomination. In short, the concept of democracy has been elevated to such a degree that no serious voices speak in opposition to it.

Of course, neither would I. I love democracy and would never willingly endure nondemocratic rule. However, I believe that when any concept reaches this level of unwavering acceptance, its meaning gradually begins to melt away. It becomes synonymous with its positive associations. People begin to speak of democratic government when they are attempting to describe good government. And while democratic government may in fact also be good government, it's important to remember that they aren't the same thing. Al Franken, speaking about love of country, differentiates between adult love and a child's love for its mother. Adult love still allows one to see flaws, while a child's love does not. Our feelings about democracy follow a similar dynamic. Democracy is good, but it is not perfect, and we should see it for what it actually is.

Anyway -- this is my way of saying that the next few posts are going to focus on the nature of democracy. Hopefully, they will leave us loving democracy as the honest and rational adults that we all are.

Click here to read Part II

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Iraq, With a Twist of Democracy

In a few short weeks the great democratic experiment in Iraq will commence. Yes, the insurgency rages on and yes, the security situation remains dubious. And let's not forget that various factions within Iraq have yet to completely embrace the electoral process as currently defined. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes you democratize the nation you conquered, not the nation that you wish you had conquered. In reality, I seriously doubt that any circumstances on the ground would derail the process; the train left the station on this issue months ago. As the last (or, at least, the latest) justification for our incursion into Iraq, the establishment of a Middle Eastern democracy must proceed. Without it people will again begin to wonder what all this was for.

Thus, elections will be held. Personally, I expect them to be largely successful. That's not to say that there won't be serious problems in execution. However, I feel that the overarching goal will be achieved: representatives will be chosen by the people and their selections will have enough credibility to begin the process of governance. Throughout history elections have been successfully held in conflict ridden environments. It's not ideal, but it does happen. Moreover, elections that are "good enough" are usually better than no elections at all. If we were to wait for the situation in Iraq to completely stabilize before proceeding, "no elections at all" might be the ultimate result. That is an outcome that I do not believe we can afford.

So -- let's have those elections. I'm glad that's settled.

But before we get too busy patting ourselves on the back, I think we should take a moment to assess what the completion of a single election cycle really means to the long-term situation in Iraq. Most importantly, we should be wondering whether or not the democracy that we have created there will stick.

When most of us think about democracy, we envision a system where the citizens collectively determine the composition and function of government. We contrast it against systems that deny the citizenry that power, reserving it for a select few. As we become more sophisticated in our discussions, we note that systemic modifications are required to prevent hazards inherent in purely democratic systems. Concepts such as federalism, constitutional limitations of power, and the like often arise as we attempt to describe democracy in action.

Does this adequately define democracy? Well, it's an excellent start. However, it remains incomplete in a very important way. The preceding paragraph focuses exclusively on democracy as a process. And while it is undeniable that process is an essential component of any democratic government, what about culture? Isn't cultural acceptance of the aforementioned process also essential to the functioning of any democratic society?

Actually, this cultural acceptance is crucial to any form of government. Even small limitations in this acceptance quickly require the application of force to keep the population in line. While that might be par for the course within dictatorial regimes, democracies are literally undone by it. Democracy compelled by force is, by definition, no democracy at all.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I pose the following question: is the Iraqi population culturally prepared to accept democratic process as legitimate?

Many would prefer to avoid discussing this issue. To keep the topic off the table, those who raise it are often tarred as racists. This is a ridiculous distraction and should not be taken seriously. The reality is that government, any government, must reflect the culture of the governed. It cannot succeed otherwise. Just imagine if we attempted to implant a foreign system of democracy here. Would the democracies of England, Germany, Holland, or India successfully transfer to our shores? What about the American democracy of 1789? If not, is it racist to suggest that cultural incongruence would explain its failure?

No. It isn't.

Democracy isn't a panacea. It isn't something that we all innately strive for. It is a system that has had a fair degree of success in justly managing the affairs of large societies. And for that reason it is wise that we promote it around the world. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It must be applied in a manner appropriate to the culture it will govern. Only then will it provide safety and stability to its citizens. Only then will it live up to the ideal.

I don't know what will happen in Iraq in the years to come. Perhaps the democracy that we establish there will be accepted by the masses. If not, perhaps it will evolve peacefully into a system that works for the Iraqi people. It could work -- and I hope it does. But, it will be years before we know for sure. The questions don't end on January 30. That's where they begin.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Another Name for This Rose

I never thought that I was the first person to identify the problem one faces when he must defend his actions through either malice or incompetence. However, I have learned (thanks to commentor Peatey) that this dilemma has a moniker -- and a truly brilliant one at that.

Reagan's Bind.

Apparently, Slacktivist coined this term way back in 2003. I guess I need to get out more.

What if, as I suggested in this post, it's a choice between malice, incompetence, or criminal negligence? Might I suggest Rumsfeld's Bind? Too derivative? Perhaps. Then again, if I keep repeating it, maybe it will catch on. One can always hope.
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