Wasn’t McCain tortured in Russia or something? by mattsteinglass
May 31, 2008, 2:59 am
Filed under: President | Tags: , ,

In the course of an irritating whine about Barack Obama’s commencement address at Wesleyan, in which Obama talked about his decision after college to work as a community organizer rather than pursue a lucrative corporate job, Jim Manzi proclaims:

I’m pretty far from being a John McCain booster, but does Obama not get that he’s running against a guy who spent the directly analogous years of his life in a fetid jungle prison being hung upside down and beaten with sticks until his bones broke?

And I said yes. Cry me a river, pal.

John McCain was 31 when he was shot down over Vietnam. In the “directly analogous years of his life” to those Obama spent as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, his early 20s, John McCain was drinking, carousing, dating exotic dancers, and enjoying himself in Florida and Europe. Here’s how he describes the “analagous years of his life” in his book Faith of My Fathers.

At flight school in Pensacola…I did not enjoy the reputation of a serious pilot or an up-and-coming junior officer. …I drove a Corvette, dated a lot, spent all my free hours at bars and beach parties, and generally misused my good health and youth.

…At some point during my time at flight school, I had begun dating a local girl whom I had met at Trader John’s. She made her living there, under the name Marie, the Flame of Florida.

…I found plenty of time to revel in the fun that European ports offered a young, single flyer; spending holidays on Capri, risking my wages in the casinos of Monte Carlo.

…When we arrived, Special Forces soldiers picked us up and took us to a lovely inn on a lake in a small German village called Unterdeisen…The inn was run by a former Luftwaffe pilot, who took us flying in glider planes. We whiled away the rest of the time drinking beer, admiring the scenery…

…While at Bad Tolz, I and the pilot I had escaped and evaded with met two college girls from the States who were spending the summer in Europe. Since the “Intrepid” wasn’t due in port for another ten days, we joined them on their drive through southern Germany to Italy…

…While I was stationed at Norfolk during my service on the “Intrepid” and “Enterprise”, a few pilots in my squadron and I lived in Virginia Beach in a beach house known far and wide in the Navy as the infamous “House on 37th Street”. We enjoyed a reputation for hosting the most raucous and longest beach parties of any squadron in the Navy.

And so on. McCain volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, he writes, because it was the best way for an officer with a low level of prior achievement and commendation to move up the ladder towards a command post. Then he was shot down. When shot down, he was not held “in a fetid jungle prison being hung upside down and beaten with sticks until his bones broke”. He was shot down over Hanoi, and taken directly to Hoa Lo (the “Hanoi Hilton”) and, soon after, to a hospital. Then he was held in the POW camp nicknamed “The Plantation”, which was the least bad of the POW camps, generally reserved for prisoners who were in some way special. He was beaten severely during one period of several weeks in the summer of 1969, and was not, according to his own account, ever hung upside down; he had his arms tied behind his back painfully, and was once forced to sit on a stool for four days straight. Other than that he was beaten very sporadically and scarcely at all after the fall of 1969; the usual punishment was not beating, but the far more disturbing punishment of solitary confinement. His bone injuries were suffered during ejection from his A-4, and were inadequately treated by the Vietnamese — hardly surprising in a third-world country in the middle of a war.

It would be nice if people presuming to comment on this issues would actually learn something about McCain’s life story, rather than just imagining it with the aid of some poorly remembered scenes from “Stalag 17″.

Like a pro at his editing suite spends two weeks stitching up some bad movie by mattsteinglass
May 31, 2008, 1:30 am
Filed under: Music | Tags:

This is just to note that Okkervil River’s song arguing that life has no intrinsic narrative thrust and no moments of true catharsis, and that our attempts to shape our lives into coherent narratives or the moments when we believe ourselves to be experiencing penetrating insight in fact resemble nothing so much as the cynical technical competence of a professional film editor throwing shards of disjointed movie clips together into a bad, obvious, cheesy third-rate movie, is not only 1. true, but 2. among the greatest rock songs ever written. It is a cathartic song about the impossibility of catharsis.

Free —> monopoly by mattsteinglass
May 30, 2008, 11:16 am
Filed under: Media | Tags:

Tim Lee writes again to defend “free” business models and claim they’re not harming the totality of the market for intellectual content. He draws from an analogy (presented by commenter Lance Linden) of a retiree who decides to produce excellent burgers at cost, thus driving down prices at for-profit burger joints to the point of nonprofitability. But the result is everyone’s getting more better burgers for cheap:

To the extent that producing high-quality content is unprofitable, it’s precisely because there’s so much high-quality content being produced that it’s pushing profits down.

But this is not in fact what “free” business models represent. The most common example of free distribution isn’t someone who sets up an at-cost burger stand (which never actually happens). It is the cheap knicknacks handed out by major corporations for advertising purposes. Just as important, the online revolution has only had a small effect on the cost of content generation. It has had huge effects on the cost of content distribution. It’s more like someone walking into your burger joint, taking the burgers off the stove and handing them out for free, while you’re still trying to sell them.

What’s actually happening in the news business is that there has been no net increase in the generation of news stories — in news gathering and reporting. That remains expensive and labor-intensive work. In fact there has probably been a large net decrease in total reporting over the past 10 years. But there has been a huge increase in the amount of commentary produced on zillions of blogs, for free, on that same small amount of reporting, which is increasingly being done by a smaller and smaller number of national or global corporations: the wire services and a couple of major national newspapers. And not even the surviving top wire services are reaping big rewards; they’re freezing hiring too.

In part this is because in fact the entire news business always already depended on a loss-leading business model: the news gathers eyeballs, while advertising generates the money. But “free” distribution models for commentary on the news, or for the news itself, have crushed those advertising revenues. What’s actually happening is that the plurality of different reporting operations is being reduced down to at most a couple of reporting monopolies. There isn’t so much “high-quality content being produced”. There’s just so little margin available between already-existing content and new high-quality content that everyone is repackaging existing content rather than make new stuff.

Damn those activist judges, legalizing gay marriage even though a majority of the public, um, also supports it by mattsteinglass
May 28, 2008, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Law, United States | Tags:

It seems that in the aftermath of the ruling by California’s State Supreme Court that the state constitution requires that people of the same sex be allowed to marry, the majority of California voters now support gay marriage. The margin is something like 51-42 or -43, for a position that was apparently opposed about 56-44 just last year.

The problem with the conservative argument that judges shouldn’t legislate morality, or should leave normative decisions up to the political sphere, or public opinion, or whatever, is that when judges make decisions about fundamental matters of constitutional rights, it affects public opinion, and hence the political sphere, and hence morality. There were surely a large number of people in 1972 who, while amenable to the idea that abortion is a matter best left up to women themselves, wouldn’t have been sure that there is a right to an abortion as part of the right to reproductive freedom which is part of your right to privacy or to control over your own body. But in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, a lot of those people decided they, like the majority of the Supreme Court, did embrace the view that the abortion issue falls under the right to reproductive freedom. Similarly, there are clearly a lot of people who are basically gay-friendly but might not have been sure they felt gays had a right to marry, but who in the aftermath of a 9-2 4-3 decision by an overwhelmingly Republican supreme court [thanks to Paul for pointing out mistake - Matt] have decided that actually they think, yeah, maybe gay people have a right to marry the person they love too.

The other problem with staying in Iraq for 100 years like we’ve been in Korea for 60 by mattsteinglass
May 27, 2008, 4:06 pm
Filed under: Asia, Foreign Policy, Iraq, President | Tags: , ,

Ezra Klein returns to the theme of McCain excusing his “100 years” line by saying he wants US troops to remain there like they’ve remained in Korea. The seldom-noticed flaw in this argument is that Korean people don’t like the US because we’ve had troops there for 60 years (and supported an unpopular and intermittently brutal dictatorship for over 30). As Julia Sweig explains in her excellent 2006 book Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century, up until the ’80s all Korean military forces were technically under the control of the US commander, meaning when military dictator Chun Doo Hwan massacred civilian protesters in 1980 the US was seen as responsible. We didn’t just own one broken vase; we owned the whole damn Pottery Barn outlet. The result:

In the 1980s, anti-American anger grew particularly fierce. In 1980, 1982, 1983, and 1985, US cultural and information centers were burned. In 1987, students protesting the death of a student in Korean police custody set fire to US government housing in Seoul; in 1989, Korean farmers and villagers stormed and looted barracks and destroyed virtually all the infrastructure at a US military base near Seoul. The Korean War generation’s reverence, “chinmi“, for the US protector was yielding to “banmi“, open hostility and resentment, and it extended from the Korean elite and military best skilled at manipulating American power to a much broader and younger array of the population.

By 2004, nearly 40 percent of Koreans polled found the US a greater security threat than North Korea or China. This isn’t a recipe for ending anti-American terrorism in Iraq; it’s a recipe for provoking it.

Finally, if you don’t understand how South Korean anti-Americanism is fueled by the US’s military presence, you must watch this movie immediately.

In a land where the content is free (yeah, Vietnam) by mattsteinglass
May 27, 2008, 3:37 pm
Filed under: Media | Tags: , ,

Mike Masnick on Techdirt responds to a post almost a week ago by David Pogue on his NYTimes blog arguing that free distribution is a crock of hooey and a lose-lose proposition for content creators. Masnick says it’s not about just giving stuff away; it’s about having a coherent strategy to give away the “infinite content” — stuff that by its nature is impossible to make scarce, like easily reproduced audio, etc. — while using that to draw in clients for for-pay limited content — like live performances for musicians, services and support for RedHat LINUX companies, etc. Then Tim Lee on Megan McArdle’s blog piles on agreeing with Masnick.

I’ve spent the past 8 years living in countries where almost all electronic content is virtually free, by virtue of the fact that copyright laws are unenforced by primitive or dilapidated legal systems. In Togo (West Africa) and Vietnam, the default option for obtaining software, music, and movies is BitTorrent or buying pirate DVDs on the street at a dollar a pop. Since Vietnam joined the WTO and world copyright regimes over the past couple of years, larger companies have begun to go legit with their installed software, for convenience’s sake; but well over 90% of all software on private computers is pirated. And the Vietnamese music industry has never known a time when you could make a significant amount of money off of recorded music; by the time communism gave way to capitalism in the mid-’90s, ripping and burning CDs were already ubiquitous. So CDs as a loss leader for performance revenues has always been the business model here.

It doesn’t work very well. Vietnam’s music and film industries are weak and derivative, preying off of the stronger industries of Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, which got started in the age when copyright actually meant something. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s movie production has fallen dramatically in this decade.

But one thing that’s seldom mentioned in discussions of copyright, digital reproduction and the future of culture industries is the role played by global inequality. Even if the US decided to try to make a serious go of prosecuting people for file-sharing and reasserting copyright regimes, it would be a quixotic quest in the face of global income disparity: people in Vietnam will never pay the prices which record labels or software companies would want to charge their American customers. On average incomes just reaching towards $1000, you’re not going to find many people who would pay even $5 for an album. Some, but not many. And those companies that are offering legit product at cut-rate prices in East Asian markets — Sony is now offering legit DVDs here for I think $3, and Microsoft also sells at lower rates in Vietnam — will have terrible problems with reimportation to the US. It’s hard enough for drug companies to price-discriminate in Canada; how is Sony going to be able to price-discriminate on the internet? It’s implausible.

Anyway. Another reason why global inequality kills capitalism. File sharers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your keys. Or something.

Obama is a Mahayana Buddhist, not a Theravada Buddhist by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2008, 9:02 am
Filed under: Buddhism, President | Tags: ,

Ezra Klein points to Obama’s magnificent commencement address yesterday at Wesleyan, where he made clear just what kind of Buddhist he is:

There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation.

So it’s clear Obama is a Mahayana Buddhist, who rather than cash in his own individual salvation and achieve Nirvana, remains behind as a teaching Bodhisattva in order to hasten the collective salvation of all mankind. From Graeme Lyall’s “The Rise of Mahayana”:

The Mahayana, on the other hand, emphasises the Bodhisattva Ideal of postponing one’s liberation so that one may bring all sentient beings with you to that state of Nirvana by becoming a fully enlightened Buddha. The Mahayanists, perhaps, wrongly claim that the Arahant Ideal of the Theravadins is selfish because it limits the release to oneself….Karuna or Compassion is considered by the Mahayana to be as important as Wisdom. They are the Supreme Combination. Compassion may be considered as feeling the sorrows of others as one’s own with the wish that one could take them on to oneself to relieve that suffering in others. Skill in Means is the ability to use the appropriate means to help each individual case.

Unfortunately in a country that still maintains a certain Hayekian insanity, where some people seem to believe that saying “Let’s do this together!” is the first step on the road to Communist dictatorship, this kind of rhetoric may elicit paradoxical reactions in some quarters. Probably safer to stick with the Theravadans. Also a shift towards Mahayana might upset the balance between US support of Theravada Thailand and Mahayana Vietnam.

In Iraq: please define “bad” by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2008, 12:07 am
Filed under: Iraq, War | Tags:

Spencer Ackerman reports himself very impressed after a blogger conference call with Col. Jon Lehr of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division, stationed in Baghdad and Diyala for the last 14 months. Col. Lehr runs down a long list of the nightmarishly complex interacting militias in his zone that makes the Vietnam War look like checkers to Iraq’s chess. I have no doubt that Col. Lehr is indeed an impressive individual, but this was the part that struck me:

Not all Sons of Iraq are created equal. There are two distinct groups: one, mainly associated with the rural areas, are more tribal [inaudible]. In my opinion, they’re easier to work with, and not tied to any political parties. The ones in the urban areas [like Baquba]… are more politically aligned. There are four major political groups in Baquba with [Sons of Iraq militias]: Saladin, the 1920s Revolution, the Mujahideen and Hamas of Iraq. They’ve confederated into, as I say, a confederate organization referred to as the People’s Committee.

To get to the heart of your question, our approach remains targeting bad individuals [with] sources, other technical means, [to determine] who the bad people are — the bad CLCs, the bad Sons of Iraq, [those] supporting crime or sectarian violence.

I would have liked for Spencer to have asked Col. Lehr to explain more clearly what he means by “bad”. The preference in the first paragraph for groups that are not “political” is troubling. If the US’s strategy is based on supporting lackadaisical traditional tribal groups against ambitious politically engaged groups that have the will and determination to build new governing structures, that seems like the classic old colonialist strategy of backing the montagnard chieftains against the revolutionary nationalists. Setting yourself in opposition to the groups that are “more political” doesn’t seem like a good long-term bet.

Heroic resistance by mattsteinglass
May 23, 2008, 5:07 pm
Filed under: Vietnam, War | Tags:

This, according to the amazing historian of Hanoi esoterica David Lempert, is one of four memorials to John McCain to be found in Hanoi. It commemorates the gunners who defended the former Yen Phu Electric Plant from air attack, and notes that on the date in question 10 American A-4s were shot down over Hanoi, with one of the pilots landing in Lake Truc Bach and being captured alive. It doesn’t name the pilot in question, but given that the date is October 26, 1967, we know it to be John McCain.

I still find it remarkable that people can get involved in wars in which they spend their time trying to kill other people for some reason which they deem merits these other people’s deaths, and can in turn watch those people try to kill them; that they can then, with the passage of time, realize that these people they were trying to kill and who were trying to kill them were just acting in defense of their own country, family, clan, religion, ideology, or what have you, and that there’s no reason to harbor any ill will towards each other; and that, despite all this, they go on to get themselves involved in more wars in which they’re once again convinced that other people are so evil that they need to be killed, without seemingly reflecting on the fact that last time they got involved in this, it turned out those other people weren’t so bad after all and it was all a huge misunderstanding.

You put the Clinton in Mugabe’s what now? by mattsteinglass
May 23, 2008, 12:52 pm
Filed under: President | Tags: , ,

In a speech in Florida yesterday, Hillary Clinton compared the situation in the Democratic primary to that in Zimbabwe, with herself as Morgan Tsvangirai. Hillary Clinton is a great American and would have made a good candidate and, if elected, a solid president, if Democratic voters had decided to nominate her. But they didn’t.

An analogy to Zimbabwe here is extremely misguided, as neither side in the Democratic primary campaign has been hiring thugs to beat its opponents to death; but in three narrow respects, one can be made. First, we have a candidate who has clearly lost an election, if by a disputed margin, but is trying to manipulate the voting procedures in order to maintain a chance at power. Second, we have a candidate who is refusing to stand down, despite rising choruses from the political class that continued resistance is pointless and is severely damaging the country. And third, and most interestingly, we have a candidate who appears to be unable to stand down because the political and sentimental interests of the candidate’s individual and institutional backers compel the continuation of the race to its bitter end.

This last point is I think extremely underappreciated as a factor in authoritarian and particularly African politics. Well, actually I take that back — it’s about politics in general but it becomes most brutally clear in authoritarian factional politics, and Africa tends to have a lot of those. Namely, politicians have what the Russians call “tails” and Hollywood calls “entourages”: long lists of supporters and backers whose welfare is intimately bound up with the candidate’s success and whom the candidate in turn relies on. Dictators like Mobutu, Mugabe, Nguyen Van Thieu and so forth tend to end their political careers in a spasm of last-ditch looting with their fingers locked on the levers of power in large measure because their entourages compel them to. Everyone from their families, cronies, entire clans and ethnicities or militias like the “revolutionaries” in Zimbabwe depends on the dictator for their meal ticket; and there’s also an irrational sense in which those who clearly identify as a member of the dictator’s faction can’t contemplate losing to the other side because it holds out the prospect of powerlessness, penury, or in the worst case actually being hacked to death by a mob. Nothing quite so bad is going to happen to Hillary Clinton’s supporters. But it’s pretty clear that there are no high-level posts available in an Obama administration for Terry McAuliffe. So in that sense it’s to some extent not Hillary Clinton’s fault that she is pushing her candidacy to the last extreme of decency: her supporters will likely accept nothing less.

But in this analogy — only a narrow one — Hillary Clinton is the Mugabe figure, not the Tsvangirai.


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