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April 29, 2004
Blog flesh, blog bones. Academic superstar and newbie blogger Michael Bérubé confronts the seductive appeal of traffic statistics:
Seriously, it looks as if this site has had just over 20,000 visitors in April, which would give us three straight months at the 20,000 level. At some point this month I found myself actually getting into this site-meter thing—it’s sort of like the Arts and Humanities Citation Index on steroids (and that would be a bad thing). I even found out about that “ecosystem” over at The Truth Laid Bear and watched as I flitted back and forth between “adorable rodent” and “flappy bird,” wondering (a) whether an organism can, in fact, slide up and down the evolutionary ladder like that, and if so, what this means for the theory of punctuated equilibrium, and (b) WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING, wasting even a minute of the day checking whether I’m a flying squirrel or an emu or something?
With which words Bérubé left the dark wood. Sometimes the little voice that says “Hey, this is retarded” has our best interests at heart.

[10:27 PM : 27 comments]

April 28, 2004
The persistence of lunchmeat. Now here’s an interesting new comment on an Electrolite thread from last month:
Tastes differ. I can’t agree with you, sorry… Anyway I like your writing. I find it sad that people have sunk into such intellectual decay as to find fault with a difference of opinion.
Following the text of the comment is a URL for the homepage of an “air ambulance” company.

As you can see, the comment itself looks for all the world like a typical entry in an ongoing online argument, complete with familiar elements such as the Defensively Self-Justifying Tone and the Pissy Parting Shot. What’s interesting is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the discussion into which it was posted—nor has the poster ever been seen in Electrolite before.

What a surprise: the IP address from which the comment was posted turns out to be in Belarus.

All in all, a pretty artful piece of work. I wonder how many such comments this operation will manage to parachute into less suspiciously-minded weblogs. I wonder if as time goes on we’ll see even greater sophistication, as spammers devise ways to simulate entire typical online personalities, using elaborate algorithms designed to emulate not just random weblog trolls but entire ongoing interactive personae. All in pursuit of that ever-desirable bloggy Googlejuice.

Indeed, are we sure it isn’t already happening right now? I mean, I know I’m real, but where did all you zombies come from—?

[10:39 AM : 48 comments]

April 27, 2004
Cyprus redux. Well, so much for that.

[08:04 AM : 9 comments]

April 26, 2004
Respectability at last. The Bush Administration mobilizes against impending climate-change disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow:
“Urgent: HQ Direction,” began a message e-mailed on April 1 to dozens of scientists and officials at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

It was not an alert about an incoming asteroid, a problem with the space station or a solar storm. It was a warning about a movie. […]

“No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with” the film, said the April 1 message, which was sent by Goddard’s top press officer. “Any news media wanting to discuss science fiction vs. science fact about climate change will need to seek comment from individuals or organizations not associated with NASA.”

Now, official recognition of the importance of science fiction to public debate has been long in coming, and of course my branch of the media welcomes the Administration’s new interest in the issue of “science fiction vs. science fact.” Presumably in the coming months we can expect Administration initiatives regarding public discussion of the Vingean Singularity, the relationship of “hard SF” to epic fantasy, the increasing role of women in science fiction (note to Karl: demographic opportunity? Discuss w. Karen soonest), and other important controversies inside our field.

Grateful though we are for the attention implicit in a gag order of our very own, though, we have to wonder just how far it extends. Specifically, which of our authors who work for NASA, or who have served on various NASA boards and commissions, will no longer be able to discuss climate change with us? To say nothing of the several astronauts whose books we’ve published over the years. We trust clarification will shortly follow. Thanks again for the attention!

[09:39 AM : 21 comments]

Your Monday morning dialogue. Andrew Sullivan quotes a letter from “a military chaplain in Fallujah”:
This country became a welfare state under Saddam. If you cared about your well-fare, you towed the line or died. The state did your thinking and your bidding. Want a job? Pledge allegiance to the Ba’ath party. Want an apartment, a car, etc? Show loyalty. […]

So, we come along and lock up sugar daddy and give these people the toughest challenge in the world, FREEDOM. You want a job? Earn it! A house? Buy it or build it! Security? Build a police force, army and militia and give it to yourself. Risk your lives and earn freedom. […] We don’t want to be plantation owners. We make it clear we are here to help, not own or stay. They get mad about that, sometimes.

Now let’s hear from one of our leading foreign policy intellectuals. Giblets, of Fafblog:
Damn straight! Giblets for one is sick of these pampered Iraqi welfare moms and their “ohhh feed my family” and their “ohhh rebuild the infrastructure you blew up.” Learn some gratitude, Iraqis! We come halfway around the world and take the time to give weapons to your dictator, start a war with him, crush your economy with sanctions, start another war, blow up your power plants and your cities and disband your police, and we did it all for you, so you could grow up to be as mature and developed a nation as we have become. And this is the thanks we get!

Freedom is not free, Iraqis! It has a price. And that price is being invaded crippled and occupied by a foreign military. If you cannot handle freedom we’ll just have to hand you over to a “democracy-minded strongman.” And this one might not be the sugar daddy that Saddam was.

Can there be any doubt that Fafblog is increasingly the crucial public-affairs website of our day? It is the best blog. It is the Fafblog.

[08:59 AM : 17 comments]

April 24, 2004
Things I don’t believe. Lots of discussion of religion in the left blogosphere, some of it here in Electrolite’s comment section. I seem to have had my brain in backward for some of these conversations, and as a result I’ve been more snappish than I would prefer and I also appear to have given the impression that I think a bunch of things that I pretty emphatically don’t.

For instance, contrary to what this guy seems to think, I’m not even remotely interested in avoiding “offending the right”. Quite the contrary, I’m entirely opposed to the kind of hand-wringing calls for cultural and political “civility” that always seem to presuppose that if the rest of us were just nicer to the wingers and fundamentalists, they’d be nice to us right back. No they wouldn’t. We’re clear on that.

My observations were about dysfunctional interactions between secular and religious people along the left end of the political spectrum. (For the sake of this discussion we will park the many libertarians we love and appreciate over here as well—simple-minded, unitary, and flawed, flawed, flawed! though such a model is.) I have never meant to suggest that (for instance) Air America shouldn’t broadcast snarky comments about religion, or that, should they cease doing so, right-wingers would suddenly start listening to Air America and agreeing with Jeanne Garofalo. Nor am I even remotely, by any stretch of the imagination, interested in living in a culture that doesn’t contain wild works of brilliant anti-religious sentiment like The Life of Brian or the monologues of Lenny Bruce.

My own views about the metaphysical and ontological claims of “religion,” and specifically of the denomination in which I was intermittently raised, are a vexed subject I’m not going to get into, partly because I am vexed by these issues and feel distinctly unequal to to the task of writing about them. I mention this because a certain number of readers seem to have jumped to distinctly mistaken conclusions about what I think in this regard. I’m much surer in my opinions about the recent public and political behavior of that particular denomination’s institutional hierarchy. I think the behavior in question sucks. I think many of those folks are in serious moral and ethical trouble, and should they happen to ask my opinion, I would be happy to provide them with a Things To Do list on which several Action Items would be ranked more highly than lecturing presidential candidates, campaigning against civil rights for gay people, and terrorizing pregnant women.

On another point, when I set out to talk about the way that liberal-slash-progressive people sometimes drive away religious people who would otherwise be their political allies, I should have acknowledged that nominal “Christianity” does indeed dominate mainstream American culture, so much so that non-Christians often feel pretty beaten down by it. In fact, hard though it may seem for some folks to believe, the kinds of Christians I was thinking about tend to themselves feel alienated from the increasingly right-wing tenor of much modern American “Christian” culture. At any rate, I really, really never wanted to cast religious liberals as a class of victims with a claim to some kind of open-ended guilt trip. Obviously, tolerance has to run both ways.

Really, I just think people ought to be more or less decent to one another, or failing that, entertaining about it. I am by temperament a promoter of coalitions and alliances, and in that persona I wince when I see potential allies grinding their heels into one another’s toes. I am also a professional aesthete, and in that capacity I love great flights of anticlerical brilliance while at the same time I wince at the kind of dreary “village atheist” who writes off Dorothy Day and Martin Buber as suckers who weren’t smart like us clever wised-up moderns. But I think this guy pretty much nailed that point. And now I’ve said everything I wanted to say, so I’m going to stop.

[09:52 PM : 196 comments]

April 22, 2004
Winning hearts and minds the world over. Did weepy myrmidon Bill O’Reilly really refer, on the air, to “the far-left Toronto Globe and Mail”? Evidently so. Who says there are no sentences left to be spoken for the first time? Next on Fox News: the far-left Bank of Montreal; the bomb-throwing, radical Royal Canadian Mounted Police; and the communist hell that is Canadian Tire.

A Globe and Mail columnist responds. (Via HogBlog.)

[07:41 AM : 37 comments]

April 21, 2004
Self-inflicted wounds. Allen Brill and Kevin Drum discuss one of the biggest political problems facing those of us opposed to the modern right wing—a problem largely of our own making.

If you don’t believe that, try reading the comments following Kevin’s post—starting with the very first one.

[11:44 AM : 181 comments]

Up which creek, and exactly how far. This post from Billmon is, to my mind, the best weblog analysis yet of the damage done, and of what it’s going to take to ameliorate it.

[11:16 AM : 7 comments]

Red State World. Discussing George W. Bush’s startling claim that some people have “no soul,” Mark Kleiman opines that “it’s obvious from context that ‘no soul’ was a slip of the tongue for ‘no conscience’”. Having just seen Whopundit’s overview of Bush’s evident history of remarks to this effect, I’m not so sure about that.

However, Kleiman goes on from there to make some very good points:

There certainly are Iagos in the world: people without much in the way of conscience, who can do things they know are wrong and feel no remorse. Psychiatry calls them “sociopaths,” and Christianity, as far as I know, has never denied their existence.

But it’s a dangerous mistake to imagine that most terrorists fall into that category, for precisely the same reason it’s a dangerous mistake for “progressives” to think that about the right wing.

“Doing objectively rotten things” and “having no conscience” simply aren’t the same thing.

Lincoln saw that with respect to slavery. It was clear to him that slavery was wrong, but he never denied that its defenders thought they were fighting for the right. He said, of the Union and the Confederacy:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

President Bush, with his own religious commitment, ought to be able to understand that other people have religious (or politico-religious) commitments that lead them to commit awful crimes. Do the abortion clinic bombers of Operation Rescue have “no conscience”? Not at all. They’re extremely conscientious. It’s just that their consciences are warped by their fanaticism.

It’s also notable that Bush is now well advanced into rhetorically conflating people who fly airliners into skyscrapers with people who take up arms against a military occupation of their country. Or, as Jim Henley has recently observed:
This country’s conservatives of old were smarter about this kind of thing: they didn’t think they were the only conservatives in the world.
And even more recently:
One of my regular correspondents today was complaining about the war being supported by “Red Staters.” The irony is that most of the world consists of “Red States.” They just don’t happen to have Americans in them.
Back to Kleiman:
The first “suicide bomber” in world literature was Samson, and there is not a hint anywhere in the text, or in subsequent theological or popular opinion, that his death (and the thousands of people he took with him—more, if the text is to be taken literally, than died on 9-11) ought to be thought of as anything but redemptive and heroic.
If we’re really going to get into the habit of thinking of those who fight foreign occupation of their own country as monsters on the order of the 9/11 perpetrators (“soulless” or otherwise), then what we’re declaring war on is world conservatism: the attachment of people everywhere to their land, their family, their established way of life. The cognitive dissonance of thinking this makes us “safer” is so intense as to suck all the oxygen out of the room and make nearby animals dig themselves into holes.

[08:27 AM : 22 comments]

April 20, 2004
George W. Bush, theologian.
“We will never show weakness in the face of these people who have no soul”
A question for Electrolite’s commenters. Is there actually any strain or denomination of Christianity in which some people are considered to “have no soul”? No, I didn’t think so either.

(Via Atrios and Whopundit, both of whom leave open the possibility that Bush is referring to our adversaries’ lack of James Brown and Aretha Franklin albums.)

Let’s all hold our breaths waiting for the people who’ve been slamming pro-choice John Kerry for being a “bad Catholic” to spend just as much energy on this particular point of doctrine. Oh, wait. Let’s not.

[11:58 AM : 53 comments]

April 19, 2004
Make you lose your mind. Upcoming Whisperado gig, now with added “advance notice”: this Thursday, April 22, 2004, 9:30 PM at Freddy’s, 485 Dean Street (Dean & Sixth Ave), Brooklyn, NY. This will be our special All Blues set, part of Freddy’s monthly “Soul of the Blues” series. To be followed by a blues jam until midnight, probably featuring the incomparable Halley DeVestern.

Admit it, you were just now saying to yourself, “I want to get my ya-yas out to the sounds of two forty-something system administrators and a middle-aged book editor. On a work night!” You’re in such luck.

[02:05 PM : 7 comments]

Read these. Great posts from today’s blogosphere. Collect the set.
  • Belle Waring discusses her ancestor, robber baron Jay Gould.
  • Ken MacLeod examines the “peculiar and contorted” history of Scotland, and the ironies that are its residue.
  • Billmon reopens the Whiskey Bar with one of his magisterial (and dismaying) assemblages of quotes.
  • And Jim Henley puts forth his own plan for Iraq, terrorism, and America in the world.

[01:49 PM : 2 comments]

I think that’s what you call a negative review. The New York Times Book Review contemplates Bergdorf Blondes by someone called Plum Sykes:
In all seriousness: we must build a tiny apocalypse-proof time capsule. If we can resist the temptation to burn Plum Sykes’s book, we can smuggle it into the future. Perhaps the next breed of humanoids can learn from the holocaust of culture and commerce that destroyed our icky civilization.

[12:08 PM : 20 comments]

April 17, 2004
Recent history. One of the several things I like about Matthew Yglesias is that, unlike many moderates, he consistently remembers that the opinions we choose to hold about questions of public policy actually have real-world correlatives. Indeed, as it turns out, opinions aren’t just exercises in which the object is to get ourselves into whatever position we find most emotionally and socially comfortable. Even more startlingly, it appears that if our supreme goal is to be the “grown-up,” or to position ourself exactly halfway between whatever goalposts the designated “extremists” happen to be currently putting up, we’ll wind up in some pretty bad places. Who knew?


David Brooks offers the first of what I think will be many retrospective I was wrong but I was right anyway articles. The implication here is that though Bush may botch everything in Iraq, Brooks was nevertheless correct to have supported the war because he, after all, was not in favor of botching things.

One anticipates that other people—Thomas F., or shall we call him T. Friedman—will be offering similar theories soon. The trouble, however, is this. When George W. Bush is president and is advocating a war and you, too, are advocating for war, then the fact of the matter is that you are advocating that the war be conducted by George W. Bush. That Bush would botch things was a perfectly predictable consequence of said support, based on—among other things—the fact that he’d botched everything else he’d ever done.

The striking thing is that many people—Friedman works here, too—saw this very clearly, and yet didn’t see it. Kenneth Pollack is the crucial case. Well before the war began, he released The Gathering Storm. Since that was a book and not a newspaper op-ed, it did not advocate “invading Iraq” but rather advocated an entire Iraq policy, complete with loads of details. It was obvious by the time war broke out, that while Bush was invading Iraq, and while the Pollack policy involved an invasion of Iraq, that Bush was not implementing the Pollack policy. I know this is true because, among other things, Pollack said so at the time. Pollack nevertheless did not jump off the bandwagon and join the anti-war team. This is, shall we say with some understatement, a political strategy that is open to criticism.

In the interests of full candor, let it be said that I did something very similar. The difference here being that, as I will now admit, I was wrong. Neither the policies being advocated by Bush nor the policies being advocated by the anti-war movement (even at its most mainstream) were the correct ones. What I wanted to see happen wasn’t going to happen. I had to throw in with one side or another. I threw in with the wrong side. The bad consequences of the bad policy I got behind are significantly worse than the consequences of the bad policy advocated by the other side would have been. I blame, frankly, vanity. “Bush is right to say we should invade Iraq, but he’s going about it the wrong way, here is my nuanced wonderfulness” sounds much more intelligent than some kind of chant at an anti-war rally. In fact, however, it was less intelligent. I got off the bandwagon right before the shooting started, but by then it was far too late—this was more a case of CYA than a case of efficacious political dissent.

Now I am not an important person, and at the time I was even less important. Nevertheless, the block of opinion of which I was a part included some very influential people. In the aggregate, we were never a very large block of public opinion. We were, however, the all-important swing group. Some of us (represented in the blogosphere by me, Kevin, Josh, etc.) swung too late. Some of us never swung at all. If we had swung earlier (not just the bloggers and the journalists and hawkish Clinton administration veterans, but also the regular folks who had similar opinions) there probably would have been no war. We should have swung earlier.

(Apologies to hard-core blog readers who’ve seen this long quote already, but as I keep having to be reminded, hundreds of Electrolite’s readers read only one or two other weblogs. To those, I would say that if you decide to read five or ten other weblogs, Matthew’s should definitely be one of them.)

[09:42 PM : 42 comments]

April 15, 2004
Well said. Mark Kleiman, meet Josh Marshall.

I was thinking of inquiring, myself, on exactly what moral authority we ought to be lecturing Spaniards about how to comport themselves. But Marshall gets more to the point.

[02:35 PM : 55 comments]

Getting tough. Rivka has had it with pussyfooting around.
Yet another member of a Certain Ethnic Group has been arrested on charges of being armed and ready to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil. This guy had ricin, the same stuff that shut down the Capitol when it was sent to Bill Frist, the same stuff that can kill a person in half-milligram quantities. And this comes less than four months after another member of the same Ethnic Group was caught planning to bomb U.S. churches and other civilian targets. It comes less than two years after federal agents uncovered an enormous network of terrorist activity, including fake federal IDs and caches of weapons, even a sodium cyanide bomb capable of killing hundreds—all, you guessed it, organized by members of this same Ethnic Group.

It must be taking truly heroic effort on the part of the interests who control our media, to willfully avoid connecting the dots here. We’re supposed to believe that all these crimes are isolated incidents. We’re supposed to piously mouth assurances that these repeated terrorist plots don’t reflect on the “vast majority of Certain Ethnic Group members, who are peace-loving, law-abiding, loyal citizens,” and ignore the evidence that these so-called law-abiding Ethnic Group members covertly support the terrorists among them. No doubt, we’ll be expected to ignore the links between the latest suspect and radical religious movements, just as we weren’t allowed to ask hard questions about the religion that supported the last guy - because (of course) “theirs is a religion of peace.”

Well, I’ve had enough. I don’t care how “politically incorrect” it is—I want to do whatever it takes to keep America safe from terrorism. If that means a crackdown on the civil rights of members of Certain Ethnic Group, well, so be it.

[12:22 AM : 25 comments]

April 14, 2004
And eagles on their buttons. From Frederick Douglass via Cosma Shalizi, a shatteringly effective argument for the good over the ideal.

[11:48 PM : 3 comments]

“More extrajudicial killings, that’s the ticket.” It’s Death Squads Day at

[02:30 PM : 0 comments]

Ladies and gentlemen, the most powerful man on Earth. Thank you, thank you, we’re here all week. George W. Bush, at last night’s press conference, answers the question “After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?”
I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.

John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could’ve done it better this way or that way. You know, I just—I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn’t yet.

As Dave Pell observed, this fantastically challenging question is “right out of every job interview in American history.” Oh, that’s right, he’s probably never had to do one of those.

Eric Rauchway, today’s Eric Alterman fill-in, describes his own reaction to that jawdropper:

Has ever a President uttered more demoralizing words in the course of seeking to reassure Americans and the world? (“I am not a crook,” maybe.) I wish the President to stand by our troops now in peril on foreign shores. I wish the President to protect us from terrorist attacks at home. I wish the President to preside wisely over a vigorous and free economy and society. I wish the President were able to stand up to the pressures of those jobs. But the President cannot even come up with an answer to a question he said, mere seconds before, he has “oftentimes [thought] about” over the last couple of years: “You’ve looked back before 9-11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?” The President replied, “I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.” And then he then explained about the pressure of press conferences.

Honestly, I was truly astonished to feel so saddened at that moment. I hadn’t supposed any appreciable confidence in the President’s ability remained in me. But it turns out I am enough of a Pollyanna to have held out some secret hope, at least till then.

Via Billmon, here’s the shorter version of the press conference.

[01:36 PM : 29 comments]

By now, you gotta figure Tehran’s on their speed-dial. Hesiod waxes wroth:
Let me get this straight. The Bush administration is too proud to admit mistakes, and seek the help of traditional ALLIES like France and Germany to stabilize Iraq, but it WILL go begging the IRANIANS to use their influence to quell the situation?!?
Hm, yes, that is a surprise. Secretive Republicans publically denounce Iran, while covertly soliciting Iranian help. Yeah, never seen that before.

[01:07 PM : 2 comments]

April 06, 2004
And speaking of Nathan Newman— as we were in our update to the post below—the man himself, welcoming the new visitors his site’s recent travails have netted, writes a remarkable political memoir of the last several years, with hard words both for the war-besotted right and for activists who value “peace” but not justice. Tough-minded pragmatic American leftism on wry. If you haven’t been reading Newman all along you’ve been missing one of the more original voices in blogdom. Time to start.

[11:27 PM : 8 comments]

Your hard-eyed blog observation of the week. Andrew Northrup:
I implicitly trust anything written by someone in a leopard-skin taffeta sack posing in front of the American flag.
Well, who doesn’t?

[10:14 PM : 5 comments]

The real point of the exercise. Rivka, of Respectful of Otters, pretty much covers everything I might have said about recent boilings in the blogosphere, only Rivka says it better.
I wasn’t initially planning to comment on l’affair Kos, but it doesn’t seem to be going away. (If you’ve been hiding under a rock, Julia has a good summary here. Here’s Kos’s full explanation of what he was thinking. Here’s Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s post, the comments section of which I commend to your very close attention.)

I think what Kos said was ugly, but in the thirteen years that I’ve been online I’ve seen a lot worse. And, unlike many of the ugly things I’ve seen people say in blogs, Kos’s comments appear to have arisen from genuine pain. If you’ve always lived safely in the U.S., you’re not really in a position to judge him for having insufficiently warm feelings towards U.S.-funded “security forces” who are not subject to the UCMJ or sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

There’s been a lot of sanctimonious criticism, to which I will not link, about the inadequacy of Kos’s apology. Does anyone really think that if he had apologized and withdrawn his statement, all would be forgiven? Ask Kathryn Cramer. She went too far in her coverage of the Fallujah killings, and posted some unwarranted speculation. In response, she got vile pornography and death threats posted to her comments section. She took the errant post down and apologized profusely, and the hostile comments increased—because, apparently, taking the post down meant that she was trying to hide. She’s continuing to receive violent threats, some of them directed at her children.

The hard right aren’t interested in apologies or corrections. If this were really about promoting civility of discourse, they’d have plenty to attack on their own side without hunting down people on ours. They want us to shut up, and that’s pretty much all that will satisfy them. Whether or not you agree with Kos, or Kathryn, it’s important that we not let them be drowned in a sea of right-wing viciousness. They have a right to be free of harrassment. Both of them have my full support.

Remember: you don’t have any way of knowing that it won’t be you next. Purity campaigns, by their very nature, tend to spread.

UPDATE: Nathan Newman, another recent target of right-wing spew, notes that “after sending his rightwing hounds to post obscenities on my site, Little Green Footballs has disabled links from my site to his.”

And indeed, if you click on any links to LGF from Nathan’s site, LGF redirects you to a “404 Not Found” page on the web site of the Israeli Defense Forces. As Newman observes, “talk about being able to dish it out, but not being able to take it!”

These people aren’t frightening because they’re strong. They’re frightening because they’re cowardly and weak.

[09:51 PM : 74 comments]