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The White House Correspondents' Dinner is tonight. It's an incestuous, ethically grotesque event that serves as an annual reminder that mainstream political journalists in the U.S. do not even pretend to take their jobs seriously. Political journalism, in theory, is about challenging power, exposing lies and corruption, digging for the truth at all costs, and so on. It's supposed to be fundamentally confrontational. Most mainstream political journalists in the U.S. disagree with this traditional notion of how journalism is supposed to work and think, perversely, that the profession is actually about serving the powerful, which allows for greater access and notoriety. Journalists are celebrities now. The scrappy, intrepid journalist, relentlessly skeptical of powerful interests, is a notion that has almost become quaint. There are, of course, exceptions to this, like Matt Taibbi, Michael Hastings, and Jeremy Scahill, but they do their work on the periphery of the mainstream and will never be regulars on the Georgetown cocktail circuit.

Ron Fournier of National Journal is a paradigmatic example of the modern political journalist. He reveres the politicians he covers and openly cheers for them to succeed. A 2008 email exchange between him and Karl Rove about how great members of the U.S. military are, released as part of a congressional report, revealed that Fournier encouraged Rove to "keep up the good fight," whatever that means. One recent column of Fournier's was titled "Pray for Our President." He can regularly be found on Twitter yearning for "leadership" from "my leaders." Fournier appears to lack even a shred of self-awareness about how this instinctive deference to power runs directly counter to his mandate as a journalist.

In Fournier's column on George W. Bush, though, published last week and titled "Go Ahead, Admit It: George W. Bush Is a Good Man," he takes the reverence he so fervently feels for his leaders to entirely new levels.

It begins with what is supposed to be a touching story about how sincerely appreciative President Bush was when, at a May 2002 news conference in Germany, Fournier and other members of the traveling press corps rose out of their seats when Bush walked into their room - "when the president entered our presence," as Fournier puts it without any embarrassment - in contrast to the "snickering" German press corps, who had the nerve to remain seated in the presence of the Dear Leader. Bush subsequently wrote a thank-you note, which Fourier proudly kept; he "dug it out" this week "while contemplating" the opening of the Bush presidential library.

Having established his premise - George W. Bush is a Good Man - Fournier quickly gets the messy stuff, like Hurricane Katrina and lies about weapons of mass destruction, out of the way, announcing that his only intention here is to "take a few paragraphs to discuss something that gets less attention from the White House press corps – the essential humanity and decency of our presidents."

Those members of the White House press corps, such ingrates, never taking the time to properly appreciate the moral greatness of their leaders. Sure, Bush's war of aggression in Iraq might have killed more than 100,000 civilians and caused levels of infant mortality, cancer, and leukemia in Iraq that exceed those reported in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped, but those arguments are so 2005, and now it's time to celebrate "the essential humanity and decency" of Bush, indeed of all our great leaders.

Fournier goes on to praise Bush for such colossal acts of goodness as arriving to meetings on time and requiring his staff to wear jackets in the Oval Office. Bush also, Fournier reminds us, visited troops who were wounded in the wars he launched, as did Obama and Clinton, "in private and for hours at a time." Do you feel sufficient awe?

Fournier teases us with "many stories about the basic decency" of all our recent presidents; limitations of space, sadly, preclude sharing all of them in one column. He then regretfully accepts that he is "the worst offender" of this reprehensible practice of "demonizing presidents," before lamenting the fact that the "small acts of kindness" that presidents do "every day" receive "little or no public notice." He concedes that our presidents are "not perfect," decrees that it's perfectly okay to disagree with them on the issues, and closes by recalling the time Bill Clinton told him that presidents "don't check their humanity at the Oval Office door." QED.

This is truly a case study in sycophantic vapidity. It should be taught in journalism school as the exact antithesis of how to write about the powerful people one covers. Fournier completely ignores the victims of Bush's catastrophic policies, instead focusing on "small acts of kindness" that are so trivial that most people do them without even thinking. One would have to read Pravda's archives from the Stalinist era to encounter this kind of obsequiousness. Fournier, and others like him, though, are not  living in a totalitarian state. They don't have to fear for their lives. They are willing servants of power. That's much worse.

Discuss

I read Matt Yglesias' Slate blog regularly, despite my vast ideological differences with him, because his work is generally lucid and informative. But his post on the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh, for which he has received a fair amount of criticism, was shockingly cold and ignorant. It seems obvious that Yglesias cobbled it together quickly, without much thought or consideration. The result is something that reads like a brutally terse parody of detached neoliberal thought.

First of all, Yglesias' post originally referred to what happened at the factory as a "fire," rather than a building collapse. This has since been corrected. Writers make mistakes, and I'm not condemning him for this one, but it does seem indicative of Yglesias' hasty and careless approach to this. It's difficult to believe that he spent any time digesting the story, reading about it from different sources, and trying to understand what happened. In his defense, though, Yglesias is a notoriously prolific blogger, and he obviously can't delve too deeply into every single issue on which he opines.

But, in this case, Yglesias flagrantly misunderstood what actually happened in Bangladesh. The point of his piece is to argue that it's "OK" for Bangladesh to have weaker safety standards than the United States, on the grounds that poor countries are naturally willing to accept greater risk in the name of economic development than rich countries. That's prima facie plausible. Yglesias, though, seems to think that accepting weak standards was some sort of conscious, collective decision on the part of the people of Bangladesh and that this disaster is, unfortunately, the price of that decision:

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That's true whether you're talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh.
This is pure folly. What happened in Bangladesh was the result of the safety standards that are currently in place not being enforced. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told Democracy Now!, Bangladesh "already has some rules and regulations for safety," with which some politically powerful owners are not complying. Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir, Bangladesh's Home Minister, said flatly that "the building was not built in compliance with (safety) rules and regulations."

How is this any different than the owner of the Texas fertilizer plant that just exploded failing to disclose to regulators that it was storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that is supposed to trigger oversight? Ravenous capitalists plus ineffectual regulators will equal human disasters anywhere.

The disaster, then, had nothing to do with the alleged "collective calculus" of the people of Bangladesh to live under a regime of lax safety standards so as not to deter their economic development. They made this calculus only in Yglesias' imagination. In real life, the people of Bangladesh are furious about the failure to enforce safety standards, and are currently protesting by the hundreds of thousands. Does Yglesias think these people are protesting their own conscious policy choices? That would be odd. It's offensive to implicate the "Bangladeshi people" in the corruption and exploitation of a small number of factory owners. They are the victims of this exploitation. Bangladesh's democratically elected government is responding, too: the prime minister is demanding justice for the factory owners, and the nation's highest court has ordered them to appear in court.

Yglesias is evidently unaware of, or uninterested in, the most salient facts of the story. Workers noticed cracks in the building, and protested, but were bullied and threatened into working anyway. Factory owners ignored a police order to evacuate the building due to safety concerns. This is about illegal economic exploitation and regulators that are either unwilling or unable to enforce the law. Using these corpses to make an argument that this disaster and others like it should be as viewed as mere speed bumps on Bangladesh's road to Neoliberal Paradise is disturbing. Nowhere in Yglesias' piece is there even a hint of humanity or sympathy for the victims. I hope he regrets writing it.

I should note that the death toll has now hit 200; it was "only" 87 when Yglesias wrote his piece. Whether this increased body count would have altered his analysis or affected his moral calculus in any way, I cannot say, but it seems doubtful.

Discuss

Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald, two thinkers I admire, have recently become entangled in a debate over Islam. Basically, for those who haven't been following this, a slew of articles have been published recently attacking Harris and his fellow "New Atheists" on the grounds that they are "Islamophobic," i.e., irrationally fixated on Islam as opposed to other religions, possibly revealing their racism and bigotry. Greenwald retweeted one such article, which set off an email exchange between him and Harris that did not go so well. Greenwald then wrote a column on the whole episode (siding strongly with those who accuse the New Atheists of "anti-Muslim animus"), Harris wrote an exasperated response, and people on Twitter have been choosing sides ever since, creating an especially bitter proxy war between fans of Greenwald and Harris.

Substantively, this is just the latest chapter in a debate that has been raging since 9/11, centered on the question of whether or not Islam is, at present, a uniquely barbaric and dangerous religion, and, furthermore, whether or not those who answer this question in the affirmative are, by definition, bigoted, racist, or irrational. Harris has spent the last decade arguing that Islam is simply not comparable to any other religion in the world, that no other religion is producing the kind of mayhem that is being carried out under the banner of Islam, and that the reason for all this is because Muslims really do take ideas like jihad, martyrdom, and war against infidels seriously. Greenwald and his allies typically reject the religious explanation and argue that modern Islamic terrorism and violence, particularly that which targets the U.S., is properly understood as retaliation against U.S. militarism in the Muslim world that stretches back decades. I'm obviously simplifying a complex debate, and I hope neither side would accuse me of misrepresenting their position, but I think that's a fairly accurate, if brief, explanation of the fundamental divide.

I confess that I've been puzzled by this recent episode and by the broader debate that has raged for years. It has always seemed rather obvious to me that a) Harris is correct that Islam is, at present, fundamentally different than all other faiths, and that Islamists really do take religious doctrines seriously, and that b) Greenwaldians are correct that the wave of Islamic terrorism can only be viewed in the context of decades of U.S. militarism, bombing, sanctions, and bullying. For the life of me, I cannot see why any person has to choose between these two views, but Harris and Greenwald, both extraordinarily intelligent people, appear to be incapable of acknowledging that they don't have a monopoly on the truth here. Why is it so hard to state the following?

The U.S. is a militaristic state that has bullied the Muslim world for decades - overthrowing governments, supporting dictators, dropping bombs, occupying sovereign countries, implementing genocidal sanctions -  creating a wildfire of resentment and hatred that has engulfed generations of Muslims. At the same time, Islam has failed to modernize in the way that other religions have and, with its religiously inspired stonings, subjugation of women, intolerance of homosexuals, honor killings, suicidal terrorism, and other depravities, is, in its present form, simply irreconcilable with any concept of a progressive civil society. Combine these two realities and the result is the absolute mayhem that we see today in the Muslim world. U.S. militarism and the doctrine of martyrdom were both necessary for 9/11 to happen - though it's likely that neither would have been sufficient by itself.
That is it. Now, I loathe - loathe - reflexive "the truth is in the middle" analysis, but in this case, it's the only conclusion I can reach. I've been genuinely mystified that, throughout this debate that has endured for years, I have yet to come across a single book, or even a single column, that argues the position that the Chomskyites and the New Atheists are both right.

Christofer Pierson, in a blog post retweeted by Greenwald, has come pretty close to doing this. It's a cogent and thoughtful piece that grants validity to some criticisms of Harris, rejects others, and ultimately sides with Greenwald. While I sympathize with a lot of it, it takes a sedulously timid approach to the subject of Islam, which is, of course, what Harris finds so maddening. Let's pick it up where Pierson discusses his thoughts, as an atheist, on Islam:

As an atheist, I certainly have my own issues with Islam, as I do with any faith. Of course I agree with Harris that radical Islam is an unhealthy belief system for females, non-heterosexuals, and freethinkers. So is right-wing Christianity  and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. What most bothers me about Islam in particular is the insistence of so many Muslims  that alternative thinking about or mocking of the religion be taboo, even among those who aren’t Muslim.  Which isn’t to say I think mocking Islam is a reasonable or wise (let alone intelligent) thing to do. I just think responding to hostility toward one’s beliefs with demands for punishment (often of people who have nothing to do with the “crime” in the first place) is pathetic–there’s no more polite way of phrasing it. And certain Muslims do frequently respond that way, as witness the spontaneous reactions to the Mohammad cartoon controversy in Europe, Koran desecration in Afghanistan and the Innocence of Muslims movie last fall.
Given what he is actually talking about here, this strikes me as inappropriately tepid. As Harris wrote in his response, "the year is 2013, and the penalty for apostasy, everywhere under Islam, is death." Death. Is "pathetic" really the appropriate term for sentencing someone to death for criticizing a set of ideas? It reeks of the cautious language so many atheists and liberals use when discussing the savagery of Islamic fundamentalism.

Pierson also cautions that mocking Islam is not "reasonable or wise." But why is that? Satirists, comedians, and cartoonists mock for a living. Is he saying that mocking Islam is unwise ethically, on its merits, or that it is unwise because doing so might get one killed? If it's the latter, that it's a pretty dramatic indictment of Islam, and I'm inclined to agree. But if it's the former, he's proving Harris's point that secularists have abdicated their responsibility to defend, staunchly and unequivocally, the right of people everywhere to freely mock Islam, or any other religion, without worrying about potentially being murdered. Continuing:

But I don’t believe, as Harris seems to believe, that there’s something “wronger” with Islam than with any other religion. It seems crystal clear to me that much of what makes Muslims seem so irrational, hostile and uncivil toward the West has more to do with the centuries-old global politics of East v. West and North v. South than with Islam v.  Judeo-Christianity. I’m not sure Harris gets that. In fact, Theodore Sayeed has suggested that Harris’s bias against Muslims is possibly the consequence of his being a Zionist, i.e., a staunch supporter of Israel, right or wrong. “For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their ‘reflexive solidarity’ with Arab suffering,” Sayeed writes, “Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work.”
It's not as though Harris simply "believes" this as a matter of faith. He has spent years explaining exactly why he has come to believe this. As Harris has pointed out, there is no other religion on Earth whose most fervent adherents are carrying out violence, in the name of faith, on an a comparable scale. It's impossible to be any more opposed to U.S. militarism and empire than I am. But some of the barbarism - treatment of women and gays, stonings and beheadings, murderous pursuits of apostates - simply cannot be explained by U.S. militarism. Islamists explicitly state that they are doing these things in the name of Islam and I think we should take them at their word. Anyone who attempts to conjure up alternative explanations will surely find themselves sliced up by Occam's Razor. As Harris pointed out in his debate on profiling with Bruce Schneier, German surveillance of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers from the months leading up to the attacks revealed that Islam was "all these men seemed to care about." At a certain point, by denying the religious inspiration, one is simply calling these people liars, which I'm not prepared to do. I take what they say seriously.

What seems "crystal clear" to Pierson - namely, that the "irrational, hostile, and uncivil" behavior we see from Islamists is fundamentally political, not religious - is not self-evidently true. It's something that has to be demonstrated, with evidence, which he does not do (not because he fails, but because he simply doesn't try).

(As for Harris's alleged tribal allegiance with the State of Israel, that is not something I'm interested in delving into at the moment. Having read virtually everything he's written, I haven't personally gotten that impression, and I know he has sharply criticized the Jewish settlers who have stolen land in the West Bank, but even if that criticism is accurate, it has little to do with this debate about Islam and "Islamophobia.")

In short, my view on all of this is that one can be an unrelenting critic of U.S. foreign policy, and also acknowledge that Islam is uniquely reactionary, having failed to modernize in the way that other religions have. Harris is far too dismissive of the role of U.S. foreign policy in creating this wave of Islamic terrorism: there is a reason that Islamists are not targeting Sweden, or Venezuela, or New Zealand. I also differ sharply with Harris on torture, guns, profiling, and several other issues, so it is not my aim to reflexively defend him. But he is also right to point out that "Islamophobia" is a rather fatuous term that serves to protect Islam from rational criticism. Atheists are not obliged to view all religions as equally odious. As Harris pointed out in his exchange with Greenwald, Mormons responded to "The Book of Mormon" by placing an ad in Playbill. Do we have to wonder how Muslims would react to a highly visible and successful Broadway show mocking their religion unmercifully? Surely, Jainists, whose religion is literally premised on non-violence, would react to someone mocking their faith, or even to a foreign occupation of their country, in a qualitatively different way than Muslims. We atheists have to be honest with ourselves about these distinctions among religions. It's okay to say out loud that Jainism is a more peaceful religion than Islam. It's a simple truism.

There is no doubt, as Greenwald pointed out, that, in terms of scale, the violence carried out by Bush and Cheney dwarfs anything done by bin Laden and Co. And, yes, Bush and Cheney are both Christians. But there is a profound difference between a religious person committing a violent act and a religious person committing a violent act in the name of religion. This is a point that the New Atheists have been trying to hammer home for a decade now. It is not appropriate to blame Islam every time a Muslim commits a violent act. But it is appropriate to blame Islam when a Muslim commits a violent act and states explicitly that he was doing so because he wanted to please Allah or reach Paradise. It's impossible to seriously argue that the Iraq War was launched for reasons relating to Christian fundamentalism. People like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, the true architects of that war, are secular actors. Lunatics, war criminals, yes, but secular.

Just to be perfectly clear about where I'm coming from: I'm an atheist with contempt for all religions, but some more than others. I think Islam is clearly the most dangerous and pernicious religion in the world. My politics are radically left, probably identical to Greenwald's. I think the U.S. is a criminally violent state.

I just think it's baffling that I have never come across anyone else who holds these views simultaneously, because none of them are in conflict (or at least they shouldn't be). In any event, I hope more people will approach this argument in the kind of constructive way that Pierson did, even though I don't necessarily agree with everything he had to say.

Discuss

The United States is refusing to recognize the outcome of the recent presidential election in Venezuela, which Chavez ally Nicholas Maduro won with 50.7% of the vote. Washington, virtually alone in the world in its refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of this election, is demanding a recount. On entirely selfless grounds, of course: White House spokesman Jay Carney lamented that this "rush to a decision" would be "inconsistent with the expectations of Venezuelans for a clear and democratic outcome." This despite Maduro's victory being acknowledged by the secretary general of the Organization of American States and by all non-left governments in the region. The opposition representative on the national electoral council has said that he has "no doubt" that the count was accurate. David Rosnick of The Guardian estimates that the probability of a recount changing the outcome is roughly 1 in 25 trillion. The U.S. will not be deterred by facts, though, in its altruistic campaign on behalf of the democratic rights of the good people of Venezuela.

This is high comedy.

First of all, it's common knowledge that the United States enthusiastically supports many dictators around the world who rule without even a pretense of democracy. Isn't it odd that Washington can simultaneously support absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia while expressing deep concern over precise electoral nuances in Venezuela? It's almost as if all the glowing advocacy for democracy is just a front for what Washington is really concerned about, namely, conformity to U.S. corporate interests.

Second of all, can anyone argue with a straight face that the U.S. would hold the same position if Maduro had lost and a government more accommodating to Washington had been implemented?

I realize that it's almost platitudinous to highlight U.S. government hypocrisy at this point. But to stop calling it out is to invite even more of it. This "contempt" for democracy in Venezuela, indeed in all of Latin America, is, of course, nothing new. The U.S. has, for centuries, viewed Latin Americans as nothing more than "naughty children" who require a "stiff hand, an authoritative hand." It has been official U.S. policy, from the Monroe Doctrine (and its straightforwardly imperialist Roosevelt Corollary) to the present, to intervene at will in the domestic affairs of any Latin American country that it perceives to be misbehaving. Even just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry condescendingly and contemptuously referred to Latin America as the U.S.'s "backyard." One wonders how Americans would react if some Latin American leader referred to the United States as his or her country's "backyard."

It's vitally important for American citizens to understand the simple truth that the U.S. government, like any other government, is not a moral actor in foreign affairs. The U.S. government pursues what it perceives to be U.S. interests. That is it. Democracy, peace, human rights, these ideas are all incidental. A dictatorship that supports U.S. policy is preferable to an elected government that does not. Repression is welcomed if the victims are seen as some sort of potential threat to U.S. interests.

In a functioning democratic culture with an adversarial press, when a White House spokesman proclaims with a straight face that the U.S. has suddenly become irrationally scrupulous about the integrity of a particular foreign election (in which, coincidentally, its preferred candidate happened to lose), the reporters in the room would fall out of their chairs laughing. It's a claim that would be summarily dismissed and mocked by anyone with even a cursory knowledge of U.S. history and foreign policy. The U.S. cares not one iota about Venezuelan democracy and has, in fact, repeatedly demonized it and tried to undermine it. The U.S. cares about itself, as Secretary of State Robert Lansing helpfully explained in 1915, when discussing U.S. intervention in Latin America:

In its advocacy of the Monroe Doctrine the United States considers its own interests. The integrity of other American nations is an incident, not an end. While this may seem based on selfishness alone, the author of the Doctrine had no higher or more generous motive in its declaration. To assert for it a nobler purpose is to proclaim a new doctrine.
Then, as now, U.S. foreign policy was sold to the masses as being purely selfless and benevolent. By this point, though, we should know better.
Discuss
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