Archive for October, 2007

“Befuddling, not Convincing”

October 21, 2007

The SLC mayoral race is a bit cathartic for me. It is the one election here in Utah where I feel I can be on the winning side, where the best possible candidate might actually win. This year, I’ve been a fan of Becker from the get go. He has a background in urban planning, a good foundation for making decisions regarding the city, and was by far the most progressive candidate within a reasonably progressive pool.

Buhler, on the other hand, was my least favorite candidate. I don’t like the idea of a major who seems interested in pandering to the whim of any given private entity—even if that entity is the Church to which I belong. He is more interested in running against the current mayor than any candidate actually in the race (much as Lavar Christensen was more interested in running against Nancy Pelosi than the congressman whose seat he was seeking). And he was far and away the most conservative of the mayoral pool. Luckily, this is SLC, and Becker has a substantial lead over the conservative Buhler.

Unless I’m missing something big, I don’t see how Buhler’s marketing will help him. His primary message is to promote his career efficiency. “A Doer, not a Dreamer.” Call me a cynic, but I am not impressed that a legislator solidly within the overwhelming majority of the legislature was able to accomplish things. If he wants that to mean something to me, he needs to provide specific examples where he did something which wasn’t handed to him on a silver platter by the rest of the dittoheads in The Leg. Did he ever do anything which wasn’t blessed by the Republican majority, which involved some diplomacy and negotiation with significant opposition. So far, I haven’t heard of any. And what is wrong with being a dreamer? Once again, the conservative tries to shaft the liberal for being idealistic and thinking big.

The day we came home from our trip to Boston, we passed a billboard for Dave Buhler for SLC Mayor. After seeing that ad and its two taglines, we were even more perplexed. The taglines? “A Doer, not a Crusader.” Dave, Rocky isn’t running. Your opponent is Ralph Becker. if you can’t distinguish between Ralph and Rocky, how in the world do you expect me to believe you will be able to see the distinctions in the issues and challenges you’ll face in the office? You can’t just solve things by wailing “Crusader! Rocky! Pelosi! Gay Marriage”—especially when many of your constituents (including yours truly) like Rocky.

And the other catchphrase? “An Underdog, not a Blueprint Man.” Okay, now he’s contradicting himself, or at least his previous favorite slogan. Isn’t an undog by definition a dreamer? Regarding the second part, what in the world is wrong with an executive officer who is comfortable using blueprints? A blueprint is, after all, simply a plan; a vision which has been thought out, realistically considered, and prepared for implementation. Sounds like a good thing in an executive to me. And how in the world is being an underdog related to blueprints for the purpose of comparison and contrast?

I smell desperation in the air.

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Back from Boston

October 20, 2007

Hello again, blog world! My wife and I returned several days ago from a week long trip to Boston (and have spent the subsequent days catching up on life). What a fantastic time we had! At the risk of exposing myself as a rube, it was a dizzying opportunity for me. This was, in all honesty, my first real expedition outside Utah—or at least, outside the Mormon Culture Zone. Oh, I’d gone on my mission to the exotic local of Anaheim California. And when I was considering grad school, my wife and I took a few days to visit Eugene Oregon (which we loved). But my family wasn’t much for vacations or traveling, and I’ve never had much in the way of excess funds since leaving the nest, so I’d never in my life really gone anywhere new. The East Coast, New England, home of all sorts of academic/intellectual/cultural fermentation and important history; that was a place I’d long wanted to see. We finally decided that we could spend some of our meager resources (since my wife is writing a paper on Boston’s urban development for a class in her architecture grad program, we figured we could justify it as research).

It didn’t disappoint one bit. The Freedom Trail, The Minuteman National Park, Quincy (home to the two Presidents of whom I’m perhaps most fond), the various monuments of Plymouth and the Plimouth Plantation, Salem—The history geek in me was in nirvana. We had a blast exploring the varied architecture, both historic and modern (from Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church to the bizarre MIT Stata Center and the brilliantly “green” Genzyme Center). The density of the city was energetic and dynamic. Most from Utah might find the winding and narrow (compared to Utah’s obscenely gargantuan streets) roads cramped and chaotic, but we felt they created a social energy and dynamicism we don’t see in Utah. And people were actually on those streets and sidewalks! Rather than relying on automotive transport anytime they need to go more than one-hundred yards, Boston is filled with people walking! We in Utah can learn a lot from the area of how effective public transportation and feet can be.

We barely had time to scratch the surface of Boston on our trip, let alone the surrounding communities and the rest of New England (I sure wish we’d been able to see some of New England’s historic lighthouses, and we were apparently just a tad early to see the colors turn in all their autumnal splendor). I could probably have spent a couple of hours at each location on the Freedom Trail alone! While I’ve read a great deal on revolutionary history and New England’s part in that history, nothing can quite compare with actually being there at the locations. For a geek like me, its positively breathtaking.

We’re determined to go back—either on another vacation, or to live. I’d always been intrigued by the idea of living in urban New England; now I’m sure it would be a good fit. We stayed for a few days with a grade-school friend of mine who has been living there not too far short of a decade. It isn’t perfect of course, but he couldn’t think of a single thing he disliked about living there that isn’t an issue anywhere you live. I’m pretty certain I’d feel the same way. Wonder what sort of library and architecture might be available out there in about a year?

Plotting my Politics

October 5, 2007

A little less than a decade ago, shortly after the time when I’d come to question virtually all of the ideological assumptions common within the U.S. (and in the Utah conservative Mormon community in which I’d been raised in particular), I came upon a fascinating website, PoliticalCompass.com this site provided a fairly extensive quiz to plot your ideology on the political grid (one axis being the liberal-conservative spectrum, the other being the authoritarian-libertarian axis). I took the quiz and found myself right here.

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I realized that my challenge to conventional Utah politics wasn’t just an example of my contrarian streak, but the result of a fundamentally different ideology from that of most of my Utah Mormon peers. Indeed, it was different from most U.S. politics, period.I had been baffled by the outcry among conservative champions about the liberal descent of the U.S. at the hands at the Democratic party. After all, the Democratic party’s positions were little different from that of the Republicans. The mainstream DLC Democrat was (and is) just as likely to pander to corporate interests, promote corporate globalism with institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and NAFTA, encourage government intervention in social issues like marriage, and (a few years later) fall all over themselves to get tough on terrorism with the Patriot Act and the vote to authorize the president’s invasion of Iraq. They are the examples of the extreme liberalism which is such a threat to the “American values” of the conservatives? I just didn’t see it. Few of the Democrats (Paul Wellstone and Dennis Kucinich were the only ones of which I was aware) took stands even remotely resembling those of Ralph Nader, whose agenda greatly appealed to me, let alone radicals such as Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn.

The Political Compass helped confirm my doubts. As it evaluated the candidates at the time, it listed virtually all high-profile Democrats in the conservative/authoritarian quadrant, only slightly less conservative and authoritarian than the high-profile Republicans. The 2000 primary field is no longer shown on their website, but those for the 2008 election are.

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As it shows here, almost all the Democratic candidates are once again listed on the conservative/authoritarian spectrum. That bane of Republicans, Hillary Clinton, is listed as the most conservative of the Democratic field (with ample cause, as any liberal Democrat or Green party member will tell you). For the most part, we in the U.S. don’t even know what liberalism is on the scale of most of the rest of the world. The spectrum of thought here is generally speaking so narrow, its frightening.
I’m comfortable with the ideological company I keep here in the liberal/libertarian quadrant (Kucinich, Nader, Chomsky, Mandela, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama). This is why I am confident I am a “true” liberal.

(The other great resource for understanding my place in the liberal camp? Moral Politics, by George Lakoff. This book put liberal thought into a coherent perspective, one which I share, and one which I found to be most consistent with the perspective taught in the Gospel. When I read it a few years later, it only confirmed my comfort in the Liberal label.)

Go ahead, take the quiz. Where do you fall on the grid?

Torture is Neither Moral nor Practical

October 5, 2007

Amazing. After being a dormant issue for the last year, the issue of torture has raised its ugly head again. Not only did we have the ignominious news that James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen joined Jay Bybee as LDS members who contributed to the policy of torture and shamed our faith. We now have a report from The New York Times that at the very same time that Congress was writing a law banning such practices, the Justice Department under newly confirmed Alberto Gonzalez surreptitiously issued a statement endorsing the use of torture in CIA interrogations.

While contemptible, the news is hardly surprising. As I outlined in my original post on torture, the administration’s disavowals of torture following the news of Abu Ghraib were insincere—and it was then White House counsel Gonzalez who had rationalized away the Geneva Conventions on behalf of the administration. When Congress passed the (anti)torture bill, the President brazenly added a signing statement virtually announcing his intention to continue to utilize torture.

While I’ve discussed the fact that there is absolutely no justification for the use of torture from a LDS or Christian perspective, there are plenty of people around the nation who have defended the practice on theoretical pragmatic grounds. If it will save lives, what’s a few broken fingers on an (possible) terrorist? Idealist ethics are meaningless while the cliche time bomb is ticking—or so they claim. They find it acceptable to compromise principle for expediency.

Very well: lets examine the practicality of torture. Can we foil terrorist plots by torturing suspected terrorists, eliminate their cells by coercing confessions of suspected terrorists through “enhanced” interrogation? Most evidence suggests not—Jack Bauer’s astounding success excepted.

It has become widely accepted in the criminal justice field that harsh interrogation techniques are more likely to result in false confessions than meaningful information, as in the case of Michael Crowe, and of dozens of wrongfully convicted suspects in Chicago under police commander Jon Burge. When faced with physical or mental torture, the victim typically provides what he feels his interrogators want to hear, rather than truth. It seems foolish to believe that torture could be more effective in a military setting than in criminal investigations.

Experts commissioned by the Intelligence Science Board seem to have seconded that conclusion. They determined that the “enhanced” interrogation techniques used in the administration’s so-called War on Terror are “outmoded, amateurish, and unreliable.” West Point dean and Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan and FBI interrogation expert Navarro both insist that torture is simply not effective, especially when dealing with radical Muslims.

In other words, to excuse torture techniques on practical security grounds is ignorant and misguided. This administration has, consistent with their usual M.O, chosen a course of action which is not only ineffective, but counterproductive. They are willing to sell the nation’s virtue for fool’s gold. Torture is less likely to result in valuable data, has eroded world opinion, and provides yet another point of contention for terrorist recruiters to use against our nation. Hardly pragmatic.

The only practical aspect of the administration’s de facto acceptance of torture is the political aspect. It appeals to their neoconservative political base: that segment of our population which prefers to see this conflict as an existential threat, a showdown against evil in which we must pull no punches to triumph. This constituency is drawn to the tough talk of this president and the strong stand against terrorists which the “enhanced” interrogation represents.

That sort of pragmatism is one which our nation can do without.

This does not mean that there interrogation itself is futile. Hanns Joachim Scharff interrogated quite effectively in WWII. The most successful of the German army’s interrogators, Scharff was so highly respected for his skill that he was invited speak to U.S. military officials after the war. His tools? Patience, respect, and dignity. By creating an environment in which his “victims” felt safe and relaxed, and by engaging in long, friendly conversations, he was able to accumulate a great deal of operable information. The rapport-building techniques he modeled and discussed provide the framework for F.B.I. interrogation methods to this day.

And just think, we wouldn’t have to betray our principles in support of those proven tactics. Too bad this administration and their enablers (especially the LDS ones) didn’t consider that.

My Library(Thing)

October 1, 2007

Ever since I first decided to put together my blog, I’ve mulled over the idea of creating a page on which I would list the books which I’ve found particularly enlightening, inspiring, and influential on my perspective; an annotated bibliography, if you will, of my ideology.

I’ve since realized I don’t need to completely create that book list page. There are plenty of resources on the web to help me. So I’ve started a LibraryThing page. I’ve only entered a handful of books for now. Over time, I’ll continue to add new books as I read them and old books that have influenced me or that I feel are particularly historically relevant (as time permits, anyway). I’ve added a link for it on my sidebar.