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Note: The book titles that don't yet have links to the reviews are still pending. Sorry, but I write slowly, and my Web pages are only a low-priority spare time hobby.

This page is for book reviews that are related to Dubya, though I'm pretty sure they aren't the kind of books he'd be reading. Definitely not the only relevant stuff I've read, but mostly kind of belated off-the-Web reading specifically related to the election. Penance for not caring enough in advance? Naw. In obvious stark contrast to Dubya, I really do like to read and learn new things.

The reviews are arranged in reverse order, with the newest ones at the top of the list, and I've now divided them up into roughly chronological divisions.

Advertising Disclaimer: The ads in the box below (or often enough, no ad at all) were selected by Google's system, and sometimes should be taken as comic relief. This is obviously an anti-Dubya Web site, but sometimes there are ads from the other side, and I obviously do not endorse such products or Web sites--and Google would do better to fix their system to select the ads more intelligently. (On the other hand, what does "intelligence" have do do with Busheviks? Most of them seem rather mindless.)

Not exactly a word from our sponsor, but remember that Dick Cheney is an insane liar. Did you hear it here first? Yeah, it's supposed to be a Google bomb, but no sign that it's detonating...
Onward to the neighborhood of the 2006 campaign: Books related to the 2004 campaign (though its a shame that the best ones appeared afterwards): Books on the (s)election of 2000:

The other category:

Relevant Older Books (to be) Reviewed in Brief (at some point in time...):
  • The Clothes Have No Emperor and My Bad by Paul Slansky
  • The Glass Teat by Harlan Ellison
  • Is Anyone Responsible? by Shanto Iyengar
  • Recent Changes in American Constitutional Theory by John W. Burgess

2006/12/17

Review of Jack Seward's The Japanese: The Often Misunderstood, Sometimes Surprising, and Always Fascinating Culture and Lifestyles of Japan

Another serendipitous collision of reality with politics? Or perhaps another aspect of the collapse of my own perceptions? Or have I become too fixated? Anyway, I certainly had no expectation of current political relevance when I borrowed the book from a Belgian colleague. I have read several books with the same title, and several other books from the same author, and I expected it to be another rather bland and somewhat dated survey of Japan, and mostly that's what it was.

The question of the date actually turns out to be crucial in interpreting the book. Unfortunately, the book is unclear on the topic, even though I was looking closely for anything that would link sections of the book to when they were written. I was already searching for such data because the copyright dates seemed confusing, and there was no explanation of the publication history at the beginning. My hypothesis is that the book was mostly older material published in 1971, and somewhat revised in 1992.

This is linked to the surprising political relevance of the book, because the date basically eliminates direct linkages to Dubya's neo-GOP politics of hypocrisy. The political relevance actually popped up in a way that quite surprised me, in a chapter called "Crime and Punishment in Two Countries". Up to that point, the book had been pretty much the typical collection of anecdotes. In the first part of this chapter he had a number of interesting stories about famous Japanese crimes, then some of the usual praise of the Japanese legal system and noting how well it works, and then he suddenly fell through the looking glass and landed in America as seen by little Alice. Suddenly the structure and clarity just disintegrated, but he couldn't even figure out how to say why everything that went before was suddenly irrelevant. This passage on page 97 may have been when I realized that something weird was going on: "Apparently there exists in the United States a very sizable amount of knee-jerk opposition to handguns. The mere mention of the word is enough to drive these opponents in a form of hysteria, during which they utterly lose their powers of ratiocination." Whereupon, he suddenly becomes totally hysterical and utterly loses his own "powers of ratiocination". He starts throwing out comments pretty much at random. The only clear thing appears to be that he is hysterically afraid of gun control. The logical disconnect was extraordinary, but it suddenly reminded me of neo-GOP hypocrisy. There certainly is room for a rational discussion of why gun control works so well in Japan and why it would not work in America, but to do it rationally you'd have to make some kind of rational comparison of the differences between the two cultures. In contrast, most of this part of the book is like random shotgun blasts that sounded like they'd been cut-and-pasted from NRA testimonials. It was really weird, and it started me doubting the author's credibility. Senility setting in?

With my now jaundiced eye, I started looking for evidence of other flaws. The cover proclaims him to be "America's Foremost Authority", presumably on Japan, and he certainly toots his own horn loudly in the book. However, when I started I regarded him as 'yet another old Japan hand', basically just another American serviceman who stayed on after the war, and by this point in the book I suspected he was losing his marbles... I don't want to spend too much time on a relatively unimportant book, but I'll note what I regarded as the two largest flaws in the later parts of the book. In one chapter he is discussing religious tolerance, and he mentions the arrival of Christianity as an example--but he doesn't mention the violent negative reaction that followed. This can only be described as intellectual dishonesty, because he was well aware of the history of strong intolerance of Christianity because he describes it in some detail in a later chapter. He just didn't want to mention it where it would 'confuse' his point about religious toleration. In his chapter about the Japanese language, he discusses Chinese at some length. This is highly relevant, but he doesn't mention that the root of the homonym problem here is that Chinese is a tonal language and Japanese is not. He spent lots of time with less important aspects, so I had to conclude he was simply ignorant of this fundamental characteristic of Chinese.

In conclusion, I'd rate it as an average book for surveying Japan, but much more interesting as a kind of harbinger of the coming hypocritical craziness in American politics. It was weird the way he criticizes behavior that he admits he engaged in. He even closes with a short chapter advocating special treatment for mixed-heritage fatherless children after confessing that he might have fathered some of them.

Detailed Notes:

Page 160
Arguing that the Japanese media has a terrible (liberal) bias against America. He didn't actually mention "liberal" in this passage, though he does accuse them of not being "logical", though he's the one who's sound crazy here.
Page 167
This part of his explanation of the development of Japanese was really silly, basically convincing me that he's done very little reading in linguistics. This whole section was really slipshod.
Page 175
More really weird stuff about counting the strokes in English words and comparing those numbers to the stroke counts of Japanese. I couldn't even figure out where he was getting the numbers for the English words, but he mostly gave me the impression that he doesn't actually know much about kanji.

2006/12/10

Review of Maureen Dowd's Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk

This one can easily be summarized with an pseudo-equation: (good·data) + (lazy·author) = (bad·book). Even though I bought it used, I still feel like I was basically ripped off and didn't get much value for the money. The cover art by Pat Oliphant was probably the high point, but I should have been suspicious of the "Includes New Material" in a red star that appeared on that cover. I knew the book was a collection of columns, and it should have gone without saying that it would include a LOT of new material--the glue to hold it together and contextualize material that had appeared scattered over the course of several years.

It's not actually the case that she writes poorly. She writes well enough, if not brilliantly. The problem is that a bunch of columns do not a good book make, and apparently no one was really concerned about making a good book out of it. It ran over 500 pages, but would have been much better cut in half to focus on the good stuff, and it desperately needed some additional explanatory text to provide context and fill in apparent gaps. There were a lot of comments that were probably very stinging criticisms of BushCo when they first appeared, but which seemed like wilted flowers at this late date. There were many examples showing she had access to interesting data, but there's been enough time since it was collected to figure out why it was interesting and what parts of it were actually important--but she didn't bother. Perhaps most significantly, some of her columns might have been the first reports of important information, but there are no clues here. My theory is that they just listed up all of her columns over a period of time and sorted them sort of arbitrarily into categories. Print. Whoopee. Not.

A conclusion? I suppose it's more evidence of the increasing fluffiness and irrelevance of the MSM (MainStream Media). Basically a very light read, and just rehashing a lot of old stuff. It could have been so much better.


2006/11/05

Review of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (translated by W.K. Marriott)

My motivation for reading this short classic was actually an email discussion with an old friend who has become a neo-GOP supporter. Perhaps I should say former friend? Turned out that he was secretly into class-based eugenics, but meanwhile he had taken umbrage at some of my non-flattering descriptions of Dubya, which led to the ultra-Machiavellian Leo Strauss, which led to Machiavelli himself.

My main reaction after reading the book is "What was all the fuss about?" Compared to Strauss, he comes off as incredibly naive, but I guess Machiavelli gets the extra credit for being first. What I actually found most interesting about the book was the historical context of its creation. Machiavelli had recently been arrested, tortured, and then released by the Medicis, a family he actually supported fairly actively. A Medici had just become the new Pope, and he was ramping up the sale of indulgences--and within a decade Luther would denounce the practice and be excommunicated. The Praise of Folly by Erasmus was published only two years before this book was written, though The Prince wasn't actually published until some years later, after Machiavelli had died.

As I read the book, I was focusing on finding evidence of Machiavellian behavior by Machiavelli himself, since some people have suggested he was deliberately including some bad advice as a form of secret revenge. I didn't really see any likely candidates. It's mostly a collection of stories about recent historical events in Italy that are intended to illustrate a loose political ontology. He had been involved in many of these events as a kind of minor envoy in the years before his arrest (and he was effectively retired after that).

The highlight was probably Chapter 23, which made me think most strongly about Dubya. The title is "How flatterers should be avoided", and it reminded of Dubya's very small bubble of a few advisors and very closely screened audiences. It includes "...a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice, unless by chance he has yielded his affairs entirely to one person who happens to be a very prudent man." Iraq? Dick Cheney? 'Nuff said.

It's an interesting and light read, but I can't give it a strong recommendation.

Detailed Notes:

Page 65, Line 4
The word "tkat" should be "that".
Page 81, Line 27
The "every one" should be "everyone".

2006/10/15

Review of Bill Maher's New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer

Basically a disappointment. He's actually a pretty funny comedian, though slightly obscene, but this book was a significant disappointment. I think the editor is to blame because the alphabetic organization was basically an awful idea. Stripped of their context, most of the jokes just weren't as funny, and the copious pictures mostly felt like padding to flesh it out to book length. There were a few longer passages that put some of the humor into context, but overall I feel like the main reason to review it is because it gives me an excuse to compare the book's humor to an example of Bill Maher's superior humor that was sadly not included in the book.

One of the best jokes in the book was this item under M:

Don't pick a German pope the day before Hitler's birthday. I'm not saying it's anything but a coincidence, but you've just given every conspiracy nut in the world a raging hard-on.

Now compare to this original piece, not included in the book, but from same show that includes these "new rules":

September 13, 2005 Bill Maher's Remarks to Mr. Bush:

"Mr. President, this job can't be fun for you any more. There's no more money to spend--you used up all of that. You can't start another war because you used up the army. And now, darn the luck, the rest of your term has become the Bush family nightmare: helping poor people. Listen to your Mom. The cupboard's bare, the credit card's maxed out. No one's speaking to you. Mission accomplished.

"Now it's time to do what you've always done best: lose interest and walk away. Like you did with your military service and the oil company and the baseball team. It's time. Time to move on and try the next fantasy job. How about cowboy or spaceman?

"Now I know what you're saying: there's so many other things that you as President could involve yourself in. Please don't. I know, I know. There's a lot left to do. There's a war with Venezuela. Eliminating the sales tax on yachts. Turning the space program over to the church, and Social Security to Fannie Mae. Giving embryos the vote.

"But, Sir, none of that is going to happen now. Why? Because you govern like Billy Joel drives. You've performed so poorly I'm surprised that you haven't given yourself a medal. You're a catastrophe that walks like a man. Herbert Hoover was a shitty president, but even he never conceded an entire city to rising water and snakes.

"On your watch, we've lost almost all of our allies, the surplus, four airliners, two trade centers, a piece of the Pentagon, and the City of New Orleans. Maybe you're just not lucky. I'm not saying you don't love this country. I'm just wondering how much worse it could be if you were on the other side.

"So, yes, God does speak to you. What He is saying is: 'Take a hint.' "


2006/10/04 to 10/10

Review of Niall Ferguson's Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire

I might as well get it over with. Awful. I tried to approach it with an open mind, but it's really a very poorly written piece of right-wing propaganda. I'm not sure if the author is intellectually dishonest or just completely out of his depth here. Actually I'm pretty sure both apply. There is some valid (but highly filtered and fragmentary) historical data, but it mostly reminds me of reading Marxist histories of the French Revolution (for Professor Stoke's pro-seminar on nationalism many years ago). Well, actually my recollection is that the Marxists were better at including the actual historical facts, though you still had to treat all of their conclusions and reasoning with great caution. In this case, my basic conclusion is that poor as his scholarship is, he's still one of the best academics the right wing can buy, so they support him very generously. For example, in his acknowledgments he mentions that a couple of his new American friends just happened to be rich enough to create an endowed chair for him. Writing as a chaired professor makes him sound so much more credible, you know. All that gravitas. However, this is a historian who not only fails to learn any lessons from history, but is advocating that Americans repeat the same obvious mistakes.

The author's expertise is apparently supposed to be the history of the British Empire, and he certainly strives mightily to make it look good. His creative spin on what went wrong in India was especially impressive to me. Apparently the British just weren't imperialistic enough for the Indians' own good. Obviously the final partition had nothing to do with the sad outcome, since he doesn't bother to mention that trivial little tragedy. Somehow he missed Gandhi, too. Must have been one of those historical commas in the glorious British Empire. He doesn't want to come off as racist, but he still slips from time to time with clever little descriptions of the superior performances of colonies that just coincidentally happened to be populated by white immigrants.

The section on Egypt struck me as especially offensive, even though he was working so hard to spin it as an example of beneficial hypocrisy. That's HIS term, not mine. The chapter was actually entitled "Going Home or Organizing Hypocrisy". The main point was that the British were there for a long time, and continuously promising to leave. The main omission is the result, which is that in spite of all of that lengthy British benevolence, Egypt has become yet another hotbed of terrorism. Whoops. Must be another comma.

Several parts of the book would best be described as advice for the American empire builders based on the British experience. These parts frequently emphasized the advantages of indirect rule though local puppets, while the real power remained in British hands. However, the main thing that struck me on this topic was how untrustworthy the mercenary rulers were in so many of the examples he considered. Then again, it only seemed natural that such people who were so strongly motivated by money (selling their souls came to mind) would naturally be greedy and corrupt and untrustworthy. Of course he was also trying to downplay these problems since he was actively advocating empire, but I often felt like his own examples were hurting his case.

A lot of the book can't be described as history, but more like a kind of projective political science or economics--and in these areas he seems seriously lost. It actually made me think of the contrast to Chomsky who manages to effectively focus on the meaning of words in his works on history and political science. The contrast was pretty stark. I think this passage in the conclusion (page 292) may be the best example of his essential surrealism:

"... and the American prison population exceeds 2 million--1 in every 142 American residents. If one adds together the illegal immigrants, the jobless and the convicts, there is surely ample raw material for a larger American army. One of the keys to the expansion of the Roman Empire was, after all, the opportunity offered to non-Romans to earn citizenship through military service. One of the mainsprings of British colonization was the policy of transportation that emptied the prison hulks of eighteenth-century England into ships bound for Australia. Reviving the draft would not necessarily be unpopular, so long as it was appropriately targeted."

So America should create a new conscript army of non-American unskilled criminals? Bizarre. Why the racist focus on the "illegal immigrants"? And why doesn't he know that the American army is already offering to facilitate citizenship as an inducement for non-Americans to enlist? He claims that the book was extensively checked by other people listed in his lengthy acknowledgements, but none of them commented on this absurd passage? Soon after this he explains why Americans are no good as peacekeepers. He doesn't suggest adjusting their training, but rather using European soldiers as peacekeepers in a way that makes them sound like conviently portable targets. Amazing and amazinger. Then he concluded the book with a peculiar paean to Arnold's Terminator character. (Well, actually the last bit was a "See, I was right" note about an earlier book, and then the closing matter.) My conclusion to his conclusion is that he watches too many silly movies.

Detailed Notes:

The notes are kind of backwards this time. Normally, as I read the book, I flag some of the interesting parts related to aspects I want to mention when I review it. Then I write the review and go through those parts, adding them to these notes and making sure that the topics were adequately covered in the body of the review. This time that approach seemed likely to be overwhelmed, so I actually wrote up the notes before the body of the review. This seemed to be a case where there were so many logs getting into my eyes that I needed to clear some of them away to have any chance of seeing the forest.

Page ix
Two long quotes from Dubya treated with great sympathy, making me start to wonder about the author's sympathies, though he's already been trying to establish his neutrality.
Page xi
With reference to a critical review and his defensive response, I concluded that this was basically a paperback edition that was somehow required or specified by the contract for the original hardback edition. The original edition seems to have had little impact.
Page xiii
Very sweeping generalizations in defense of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I nearly stopped reading at this point. His comments struck me as extremely non-historical or even anti-historical, but the author's expertise is supposed to be as a historian. At this point, neither of the outcomes is as clearly favorable as he thinks, but I only have a few months of additional historical perspective. In both Afghanistan and Iraq the situations seem to be deteriorating--but he's already hinted that his so-called 'American empire' may lack the will to clean up such messes. Not sure if this was the first place he started attacking the French, but it certainly wasn't the last. (Eventually I concluded the author basically just hates France, which isn't too surprising for an extremely conservative Englishman. Many of his criticisms of the French seem downright silly now. He's also very anti-UN.)
Page xviii
Sloppy editing here, with two typos on the same page. The non-word "commandes" should be "commanders", and there's a sentence fragment beginning with "For" that should be joined to the previous sentence as a conditional clause.
Page xxvi
Refers to the "Cluniacs" as a significant religious force, but I'd never heard of them. Turns out to be the Benedictines, but he's using the term to distinguish the organization after a restructuring that centralized their authority structure and led them to greater influence.
Page xxvii
I think this was the first place where he made a very peculiar sweeping generalization that seemed to be fundamentally counterfactual. He wants to argue that non-state actors are suddenly able to break the monopoly on violence and communications, and for this reason they have somehow become vastly more threatening. However, the state monopolies have never been absolute, and looking at the numbers, they scarcely seem threatened now. Most of the killing is still done by national armies, same as it ever was, and civil wars seem firm in their #2 spot. Information censorship seems alive and quite well, though partly based on somewhat innovative corporate mechanisms.
Page 2
He is arguing for a "liberal empire" from a British perspective, but for the Americans. In America the term "liberal" has been almost fully divested of any meaning, which made me wonder who he's writing for.
Page 3
He refers to the "reassertion of American military power under Ronald Reagan" as though it was a given, but I couldn't figure out what he was referring to. Surely not the invasion of Grenada nor the covert operations in Central America. Did I somehow miss an actual war?
Page 26
This was a frankly absurd defense of the British treatment of India. Basically it overlooks how hard the Indians had to fight for their independence and especially the poison pill of Partition that was deliberately intended to artificially divide and weaken the country--in contrast to how the equally artificial unification of the subcontinent had been used to maximize the convenience of the colonial administrators.
Page 27
Interesting attack on the United Nations. Doesn't seem to be justified except insofar as the UN apparently won't qualify as an empire, and he's basically in favor of empires.
Page 28
He seems to be working himself into a self-contradiction here, calling for imperial nation building by the Americans while explaining why they won't do it.
Page 29
He concludes his introduction with the peculiar sweeping generalization that the threat to America is a lack of the "will to power", which made me think he's never heard of Dick Cheney.
Page 41
A very shallow treatment of the motivations of the American Civil War. It's possible that he was actually making some reference to States' rights, but in that case it's also sloppy writing.
Page 81, Line 5
Probably a typo induced by the complicated syntax, but the grammar can be repaired by changing "reconstituted" to "reconstituting".
Page 82
His explanation of a graph is confusing and hard to follow, and even seems strained with reference to the graph itself, which actually reminded me of his confusing graph and explanation from Page 66.
Page 86
He is apparently adding Grenada and Panama to Afghanistan and Iraq to make a total of four American interventions that he regards as successful. Again, highly debatable, especially since he is trying to discount large numbers of interventions he regards as having unsuccessful outcomes. On the same page, he just cited 168 armed interventions from 1946 to 1965.
Page 103
This was a kind of surreal intrusion. He was making the substantive point that America's wars have generally not been profitable investments. He had mentioned $100 billion in relation to Vietnam, and Iraq is already several times higher with no end in sight. Then he notes that movies about Vietnam have been profitable, and even includes a table of movies and their box office receipts to prove his point. What first caught my eye was that he missed The Boys in Company C, which is the only such movie I can recall having seen. However, the topic is basically irrelevant and trivial. The total gross for his Vietnam movies is less than $1 billion, though he spends some time explaining why he can include Star Wars, which grossed almost $2 billion. I'd link Star Wars to Star Trek, but even if we grant him the point and assume the gross was pure profit it's around 3% of the war cost. If I wanted to be surreal, I'd suggest the government could confiscate the profits, since they are only profiting because of the investments in the war. I tried to think of some corresponding evidence cited by Chomsky, but couldn't think of anything this surreal.
Page 105
Quoting from speeches by UBL and Dubya, but what struck me was UBL's sincerity versus Dubya's saying whatever his speechwriter told him to say. In Dubya's case, it's only when he's incoherent that you have an impression of accessing his real thoughts.
Page 107 Line 23
Typo of "African" for "Africa"
Page 113
From this point the note-taking seemed to get out of control, with almost every page having something strange, doubtful, counterfactual, or even ridiculous on it. Here, he describes America as an "honest broker" where Israel is involved.
Page 115
He mentions a brief period over which Saudi arms purchases suddenly increased 20-fold, but says nothing about why.
Page 118
A ridiculous generalization that "all revolutionary regimes" are "soon embroiled in a war", which is especially amusing in that the specific war in this example was started by Iraq with America's encouragement.
Page 119
He gives Reagan sole credit for the mujihadeen strategy in Afghanistan, and near the bottom changes the number of 9/11 hijackers from 19 to 21.
...
Just too many to continue with, especially considering that the review is already pretty well determined to be quite negative and dismissive.
Page 125
Well, one more. He cites a claim that terrorism is declining as illustrated by a graph on this page. However, I strongly suspect that this was the fudged report on terrorism that the State Department later retracted--but his URL is not valid, so I'm not sure. Actually, it wasn't really clear what his point was in discussing it, but whatever the reason, he still comes off sounding like a dittohead repeating BushCo talking points, not like the independent scholar he claimed to be when he started the book. (This is just one of many examples I noticed, but an especially glaring one.)
...
Enough already, though I'm skipping over some beauties. He might be an expert about some arcane branch of ancient history, but he basically loses it the closer he gets to the current time--and most of this book is about recent events.
Page 163
I have to include this one. "So who won?" He is asking with regards to the anti-Saddam "war" in Iraq, but he doesn't mention the obvious winner, Iran. This entire section already looks really silly now, but he's not supposed to be writing humor.
...
Even into the into the notes it got stranger and stranger. Only mention of Chomsky was apparently a dismissive comment on page 311 of the notes, and no mention in the bibliography. This struck me because I frequently noticed that he was talking about the same events Chomsky reports, though his interpretations were starkly different. I searched through his long bibliography for related history books that I'd also read, but found almost none. Two that I had read were on page 364, The Price of Loyalty (reviewed below) and Slaughterhouse 5 (which I read in 1973). Considering that I've read over 400 history books since 1971, I was rather negatively impressed by his ability to avoid ones that I'd read. In particular, how did he miss Bernard Porter's The Lion's Share? It's still in print, though I read it many years ago.

2006/11/05 and 12/10

Not to give it its own review (because the book was in Japanese), but I do want to comment about a contrasting historical perspective. This was from a survey of world history, probably targeted at junior high school students. This is a highly illustrated (comic-book style) series, and this particular volume was focused on European colonialism in Asia. (In Romaji, the title is Sekai no Rekishi 12: Yo-roppa no Ajia Shinshutsu.) Following so soon after Colossus, I was very much struck by the various important background events that Ferguson had decided to ignore, especially in India and China. The Sepoy Rebellion and the wholesale slaughter of Indians in revenge somehow weren't worth noting. The book claims 20 million Indians starved to death because of economic policies imposed to benefit England. China and Sun Yat-Sen had somehow mostly escaped Ferguson's notice. This children's book includes a lot of juicy and unpleasant details about the Opium Wars and the partition of China (including Japan's involvement). A later volume in the same series included a long section on Gandhi and his struggles for self-rule and independence against the British.


2006/09/17

Review of Noam Chomsky's 9-11

Not a deliberate commemoration of the tragedy, but I serendipitously ran across this small book exactly 5 years after it was written. The categorical reference to the campaign of 2004 is that 9-11 has become Dubya's quintessential election pseudo-issue. Not just limited to 2004, of course, but BushCo also exploited the tragedy of 9-11 in the campaign of 2002 and is currently struggling to exploit it for this 2006 campaign. (Terrorism is only a pseudo-issue because a real issue has to have at least two sides, and there simply is no pro-terrorism side, no matter how many times Dick Cheney lies by implication.) This book is actually more like a small pamphlet that was compiled from some of Professor Chomsky's email written in the first month after the attack.

What most struck me about this slim book was the cool accuracy of the descriptions and how well it has stood the test of time. Very little was known about the details of the 9-11 attack, and Chomsky simply refuses to speculate about those details when asked to do so. What he says about the perverse motivations of the terrorists seems just as valid now as it was when the towers were still smoking. His comments about UBL's aspirations for a violent American response are especially prescient, since America hadn't even attacked Afghanistan when this book was written. The contrast to the verbal gyrations of Dubya is quite striking. Instead, Chomsky was focused on the historical context of terrorism and the wars against terrorism. His older data remains valid and can still be used today, and his precise analysis of the implications of that data continues to lead to the same conclusions as five years ago.

As I read this book I was especially focused on finding mistakes or the supposed lies that Chomsky's critics accuse him of. Perhaps I'm too historical and literal minded, but I couldn't find anything of the sort. Chomsky is quite careful about the historical data, and is also careful to make it clear when he is providing his own analysis and stating his own conclusions. (The contrast of Chomsky's measured responses to the contemporary formulation of Cheney's fundamentally crazy 'one percent doctrine' is quite striking.)

Since I haven't seen any recent statements by Chomsky that by any stretch of the imagination or by any twisted analysis could be interpreted as 'lies', I have to conclude that any such accusations must be based on older statements, and most plausibly cases where Chomsky has said something different from what he had said previously. That's what happens when you're reality-based the way Chomsky is (and I hope me, too). No one has a perfect and complete understanding of reality, and when I learn new data, then I have to accept that extension of reality and incorporate it into my conclusions. Yes, it's embarrassing to make a mistake, but that's reality. I can easily think of one of the most embarrassing examples in my case. In 2000, my conclusion, based upon the data which I had at that time, was that Dubya was a harmless buffoon. In retrospect, I was obviously very wrong. A buffoon yes, but certainly not harmless.

Detailed Notes:

Page 53
This was a very interesting criticism of pre-Dubya foreign policy towards Sudan. The specific example involved rejecting Sudan's information about UBL collected during the period when he'd been living there. Though Chomsky was basically emphasizing the consistency of Clinton's foreign policies relative to those of the Bushes before and after, I wondered if this specific example was included in the recent twisted propaganda 'docudrama' about pre-9-11 history. However, it still begs the question as to whether or not it would have actually averted 9-11 if Clinton had succeeded in eliminating UBL. Given the reality that UBL's lieutenants would have simply taken over Al Qaeda and that Dubya would have still ignored terrorism until 9-11 took place, it seems doubtful that it mattered.
Page 71
The question mentions the anti-terrorism rights-restricting legislation that BushCo was preparing at the time. I thought Chomsky was too quick to disregard the threats, especially for widespread surveillance.

2006/09/04 to 05

Review of Paul Slansky's The Clothes Have No Emperor and Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin's My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior that Inspired Them

These books have enough similarities to justify reviewing them together. Both of them are collections of public events described in short snippets, so they are primarily editorial works rather than creative writing. The differences are the kinds of events collected and the organizational structure.

As a disclaimer, I have to note that my copy of The Clothes Have No Emperor was borrowed and never returned many years ago, so this review is based on my rather old memories of the book. I actually liked this book so much that I considered buying another copy, only to discover that the historically highly relevant book was already out of print. Perhaps it was merely regarded as too trivial? However, I actually felt it was both insightful and humorous, and was most likely suppressed. There are various ways such controversial books can be quietly encouraged to go away, especially when a small publisher lacks resources. Publicity is expensive, the distribution channels are narrow and controllable, and often the mere threat of a legal challenge will utterly intimidate such a publisher. Obviously, I can only speculate, but this kind of book is already living on the line between fair use and copyright violations, and fair use has been losing the struggle...

The organizing principle of The Clothes Have No Emperor was simple chronology. It covered the eight years of the Reagan presidency and the first part of the Bush/Quayle period. Various news items were selected, often ones that I vaguely remembered from when they had happened, and usually related to the White House. Many days were skipped, but over the time covered it seemed like every day was mentioned for some year. Listing bits of data doesn't sound like much of an organizing principle, but somehow the overall effect was very powerful. It created a strong impression of the evolution of American politics to the ever-more trivial. It also left an impression of Reagan's essential detachment from the process, and more so after he was shot. It wasn't as though Slansky was trying to hammer any particular point home, but there was a strong impression created.

In contrast, My Bad is organized around paired events. In most cases, there is an apology and then the causal event. In most cases the event is just a public statement rather than an action, but something that called for the apology. Ultimate consequences might be mentioned, as when someone resigned even after apologizing. Sometimes there were several apologies for the same event, but the general pattern is a pair. There are thematic chapters, but the themes don't seem very compelling or meaningful. In the (quite frequent) case of politicians, the political party was usually mentioned, and I received the general impression that most of the apologizers were Republican. The dates jumped around at random most of the time, except for the serial apologizers. Because the apology appears before the event, I found that I usually had to go back and reread the apology after reading the context. There needed to be some stronger organizing principle or structure here. For example, it could have included some statistical summaries. I was most struck by some of the people who were missing from the index, but I suspect that's because some of the worst people never apologize for anything. On that aspect, I suppose the book should have had a section for missing apologies. However, the main point is that overall there just wasn't much impact to it. The book did end with a pair of apologies from Bill Clinton, and I got the impression that those apologies were the proximate motivation for the rest of the book--but I found the motivation inadequate.

Detailed Notes:

Subtitle
In the subtitle of My Bad, I didn't like the mix of the collective "behavior" with countable apologies and the following "them". I think it would have been better to say "actions" or "misbehaviors".
Page 39
An interesting example of the collision of Japanese manners with American liability laws. The Japanese philosophy is that everyone should apologize as sincerely as possibly, including the highest officials of the company--but American lawyers try to use such apologetic statements as proofs of guilt.
Page 79
A notably weak apology for an amazingly vicious attack on Chelsea Clinton. Gee, why do you think anyone would be offended by someone revealing where that person lives in the context of that person's "bloodied carcass"? Aren't people just too sensitive these days? Just remember that these youngsters are America's future--and try not to cry.

2006/09/03

Review of Robert Scheer's Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton--and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush

This is a rather hard book to classify. It's basically a collection of reprints wrapped with personal anecdotes and opinions. The author has been a journalist for a long time, focusing on politics from a progressive perspective, which has obviously resulted in a lot of focus on presidents. I wound up rating it as mostly history and political science, but also biography. (IH = Individual History in my book database coding.) My overall impression is that Scheer is a kind of predatory contrarian who has specialized in hunting with presidential-caliber ammunition--until the presidents got too wary of him. However, that's not the sense of unpreparedness that really applies to Dubya. Of course Dubya's handlers would never allow him to be interviewed directly by anyone as dangerous as Scheer. I felt as though the real difference in Dubya's case is that there would be no thrill of the chase. Dubya would be too easily bagged by each and every question fired at him. At least that's how it seemed to me as I was reading the summary of Scheer's view of President Carter in the current context of Dubya.

After some brief introductory material, the book deals briefly with Nixon (30 pages in all), but in a retrospective post-presidential vein. His contacts with Nixon were actually well after he interviewed Carter, which is why the book skips over Ford.

Then it goes into the long story of what is probably Scheer's most famous article, his pre-election interview of Jimmy Carter (84 pp.) for Playboy. This is probably the single story that did the most to establish Scheer's reputation, and even people (like me) who've never bought a copy of the magazine have heard that Carter admitted to lusting in his heart. Scheer says it almost cost Carter the election, though that comes off sounding boastful. I thought Scheer's hindsight-based analysis was rather more revealing of why he is not a historian. I'm not sure why he is trying to construct a framework of failure around Carter, and to a lesser degree around Clinton, but he doesn't do a very good job of it. Perhaps he feels it's necessary to demonstrate his balance? (That would also explain his mostly favorable treatment of Nixon--unless it's just his contrary nature.) However, his analysis of the long-term consequences of Carter's response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is quite imbalanced and weak. Even allowing for the advantages of supposedly 20-20 hindsight, his analysis comes off as seeming short-sighted and weak. He freely criticizes Carter for supporting religiously oriented opponents of the Soviets, but it would have taken a really amazing crystal ball to imagine the eventual blowback. More seriously, he basically ignores Carter's simultaneous opposition to the religious fanatics of Iran, which certainly seemed to be a more serious religion-based threat at the time. That was followed by the long interview.

The next section dealt with Reagan (40 pp.), but without providing much insight, even though Scheer had a lot of contact with Reagan over the years. He claims Reagan had some depth, but to me it comes of as mere personal charm around an empty kernel.

The section about Bush I (24 pp.) was actually much more insightful, though it was basically just a single brief interview. The surly and pompous attitudes revealed there did much to explain both why Bush I was such a mediocre president and how his son could be so much worse. Scheer tries to rationalize it as a bored laziness resulting in a failure to do his 'homework'.

The rather critical treatment of Clinton (36 pp.) introduced reprinted newspaper columns in addition to an interview, but ends on a favorable note. Overall, I felt Scheer did not make sufficient allowance for the political environment within which Clinton was struggling. It was not just the personal attacks, but the entire collapse of the moderate center. In essence, Clinton was sincere about seeking compromises in the middle, but his right-wing opponents were not. In practical terms, that meant Clinton's opponents could almost always count on peeling off enough Democratic votes to block his legislation, but Clinton could rarely peel off any Republican votes for his moderate proposals, no matter how reasonable the legislation in question.

The last section on Dubya (74 pp.) consisted entirely (except for a brief introduction) of commentary in the form of newspaper columns. I've already noted why Scheer will never obtain more direct access to Dubya for an actual interview--it would utterly devastate Dubya. I would say that Scheer's treatment of Dubya was also on the less insightful side, except that his main insight is that there is basically no depth within Dubya to which insight can be applied. Since I agree with that position, I can't actually criticize it. Insight into the puppet Dubya's time in the White House is going to come from looking at other people, mostly at Cheney and Rove. Dubya's involvement is just in terms of being manipulated and handled.

My overall conclusion about this book is that it shows the problems of deification of the American presidency. It mostly humanizes the presidents (except for the superficial treatment of Reagan), and shows why the now-broken system of checks and balances is such a good one. I've commented elsewhere on the roots of this problem--people who extend the personal power advantage of the president over themselves to the point of absurdity. They imagine that all of their personal problems could be solved if only the 'right' president is in the White House. An especially hilarious misconception in the context of Dubya's preaching about personal responsibility (which of course means everyone else is allowed to fail, except for himself and his minions).

Detailed Notes:

Page 54
Major criticism of Carter for lacking a crystal ball for the future of Afghanistan.
Page 65
Carter's insight into the lack of issues in modern political campaigns. He comments about how the reporters only interest in issues is in tricking the candidates into a "crazy statement", which seems somewhat prescient considering how the interview ended with the comment about lust.
Page 167, Line 11
The "wooed" should almost certainly be "wowed".
Page 184
Bush I accuses Carter of faith-based foreign policy, and criticizes him for it (with poorly presented examples), which is certainly a hilarious accusation considering his son's actions.
Page 186
Bush I defending the CIA, again quite amusing considering his son's track record. At the bottom of his page is an example of his surly refusal to answer questions. There were several of these in the interview, which is also how it ends.
Pages 188-9
Bush I attacks Scheer personally for asking unusual questions. Comes off sounding pompous and immature and surly--making me think again of Dubya. The interview goes into the CIA and Iran, and he starts sounding very shallow, too--again reminding me of Dubya.
Page 192
Bush I says "one of my more brilliant moments", but the pompous Dubya-like arse probably meant "many" rather than "more". See where Dubya got it?
Page 194
Bush I tries to use the First Amendment backwards in some bizarre way that reminds me of Dubya's twisted reasoning.
Page 196
The rude finish. It would have been classier if he'd closed with "Go away, son, ya' bother me."
Page 199
Criticizing Clinton for 1996 welfare reform legislation when he was already in a increasingly hostile and Republican-controlled situation.
Page 208
Criticizing Clinton for not going after the Taliban to weaken UBL. Where was that crystal ball when Clinton needed it? Elsewhere he does mention that Clinton approved killing UBL and that Clinton's staff warned Dubya's staff (but were ignored) when that didn't succeed, but that was apparently insufficient to satisfy Scheer? I guess only results count, eh? (Actually, I think it reasonable to doubt that killing UBL would have been sufficient to stop 9/11.)
Page 222
Clinton praising the virtues of hard work and experience.
Page 230
A column of late-term praise of Clinton in 2000 including the example of not needing to learn Japanese. Amusing in retrospect as it appears Chinese may be the language of the post-Dubya future. He also mentions not needing to ban immigration, which is again a hot topic, and not sacrificing labor standards, which were then vigorously sacrificed by Dubya. Looks like Scheer is the fellow who needed a crystal ball.
Page 232
The end of this favorable column got pretty back-handed. Clinton himself complained about the comparison to Eisenhower here.
Page 233, Line 13
The "super" should not be a floating prefix. I'd favor "super-rich" here, because it looks too odd without the hyphen.
Page 233
The "What, me worry?" quote was well used as a summary of Dubya's attitude.
Page 242
Scheer mentions the trivialness of the governor's job in Texas, but I felt he could have gone farther with it. Not just "cutting ribbons, casually signing execution orders, and playing golf", but in Dubya's specific case, spending lots of time campaigning and pre-campaigning for the White House. Minor point, but I don't think the governor of Texas actually signs the execution orders. I think he just has a negative authority to intervene, but otherwise does nothing, and the execution proceeds. Of course, doing nothing is clearly Dubya's greatest talent.

2006/08/11 to 20

Review of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies since 9/11

What an amazing book. A whole lot of important new information here. From a computer science perspective, it shows the fundamental flaws of 'security by obscurity' to the point where I'm rather surprised the book was ever published. There is a whole lot of information here about anti-terrorism tactics and strategies, including lots of information that it would be rather nice if the terrorists didn't know. So why didn't Dubya's minions lock it up with 14 kinds of lawsuits? Because all of this surprising information must already be known to the terrorists. That in itself is bad enough, but it points at the fundamental problem of security by obscurity. There is no way to know what additional information the terrorists already have. Even if the terrorists act in ways that seem to indicate that they don't know our newest and most secret counter-terrorism strategies, that might be a feint, using their actual knowledge to mislead us.

The book covers so many important aspects in so much detail that it's quite difficult to know where to start. The book itself is basically historical, but there are many important higher-level themes addressed and illustrated at various points throughout the book.

Of course the title theme is a very important notion, and something that I hadn't known anything about before this book was published. This insane rationale is apparently Dick Cheney's main pseudo-contribution to the long war, or the war on terror, or whatever new label they're marketing by the time you read this. The key notion was that a 1% possibility is enough to justify a 100% response. According to Suskind, Cheney originally introduced the notion in the context of possible nuclear terrorism, and it grew and evolved from there. Sure, nuclear threats call for extreme measures, but there is no limit on this principle. If we can act without proving anything, with only a 1% suspicion of a possibility, then there is effectively no limit on our action. Cheney dismisses such nuisances as analysis or "preponderance of evidence" and jumps right to the response.

You might think it doesn't matter to you personally, but it does, and it fits perfectly with the rest of BushCo's behaviors over the years. For example, if there is a 1% chance that something 'useful' might be discovered by monitoring all phone calls, then the 1% doctrine justifies doing it--and they probably have done so. The Fourth Amendment's "probable cause" and "Warrants" and the rest of the Constitution are simply not relevant to the 100% response based on 1% suspicion. You, personally, should reasonably assume that all of your phone calls and credit card transactions and medical information and what-had-you are being monitored, no matter how innocent you are. As long as Cheney can be persuaded that there's a 1% chance it will lead to something, that's okay. Sorry, but that's not okay. That's insane.

During the course of the book, the question of "1% of what?" had become basically a silly question. As the principle was gradually extended and revealed in public policies (or in secret policies that affected the public), it doesn't really matter. A serious attack? Events that will create the possibility of an attack? Vague planning and daydreaming that is 99% certain to lead to nothing? Evidence is not the issue--the response is intended to be total and devastating even if there's nothing there to be devastated. Many of the responses wind up as merely ridiculous, which is what happens when you're always half-cocked. You're chasing wisps, and the book is full of examples of these mistakes. We apparently have another example from last week in the liquid bomb panic--unless the timing was purely political manipulation (and that's what the actual evidence increasingly strongly suggests).

Another important theme of the book is the lack of a 'policy apparatus' in Dubya's White House. Dubya just isn't concerned about carefully considered policies and policy alternatives. He already 'knows' what he wants to do, and he has no interest in considering the options, even when events happen that prove the current policy is completely broken. No wonder Dubya ignores reality so often. Obviously the anti-Saddam war and resulting fiasco is the largest and most blatant example of this. Dubya's 'policy' is that shite happens, and he'll just deal with it like a cowboy. It makes me think of a barefoot and horseless cowboy trying to stop a stampede.

The lack of a policy apparatus is combined with sustaining 'plausible deniability' (another important theme in the book), to illustrate how Cheney manages Dubya. It's not just that Dubya doesn't know what the options are. It's that he aggressively does NOT want to know, and aggressively rejects contradictory evidence from 'untrustworthy' sources--like the rest of the world except for a few people he actually trusts. In Dubya's context, 'trust' means that he trusts them to tell him what he wants to hear. The plausible deniability thing was actually developed for Reagan as a response to Nixon's self-destruction, but it works much better with Dubya. Cheney simply gives Dubya the option he wants to hear, perhaps along with a ridiculous alternative just so Dubya feels like he has a choice and is making an actual decision, and Dubya is perfectly happy to "lead" by agreeing to whatever Cheney wants. (I'm pretty sure that Karl Rove handles Dubya in the same way, though the book doesn't say much about Rove.) The rather weak CIA response was to try to persuade Dubya by carefully selecting briefers with personalities that Dubya would 'respond' favorably to, thus getting him to agree to the CIA recommendation--as long as Cheney hadn't already vetoed it.

The book has a very interesting example of a major case where Cheney was having trouble getting his way. Secretary of State Powell had finally gotten Dubya to agree to mention seeking a UN resolution against Iraq, but Cheney didn't want to be hampered. As Dubya was reading his speech, he actually realized that the UN resolution had been deleted--and he tried to reinstate it from memory. That's produced the bungled vague threat about the UN making itself irrelevant, while the reality was that Cheney already regarded the UN as totally irrelevant (like Secretary of State Who).

Kind of a minor theme involved the fundamental philosophic differences between the FBI and the two wings of the CIA. Suskind didn't describe it in these terms, but I regard it as the policeman mentality of the FBI versus the bankrobber mentality of the CIA. The FBI is supposed to follow the rules and the laws and produce courtroom-ready proof. The entire notion of preventing crimes is a strain for them. Suskind didn't really say much about the CIA's actions to change the reality of the world, but he emphasized the CIA's desire to describe the world accurately, even when the reality does not support Cheney's desired policies. Basically moot, however. How much support do you need to get to 1%?

Not sure if it should be called a theme of the book, but as should already be clear, Dubya's personality is addressed in some depth. The story about Dubya's win-at-all-costs and to-heck-with-the-rules basketball experience was very revealing because it meshes so perfectly with his political behaviors, especially in the post-election escapades of 2000. However, I think the more significant personality aspect was the portrayal of Dubya as a not-so-bright trainee intern who is ostensibly controlling the show. It's not just that Dubya has been inserted into the loop, but that's he's supposedly right at the top of the loop. The stark reality is that Dubya is clearly totally overwhelmed--but doesn't even care. The decisions are made elsewhere, mostly by Cheney (and Rove). Those decisions include considerations of 'protecting' Dubya from responsibility by not telling him what's going on, even though he remains theoretically responsible for the entire mess.

In spite of being a large and interesting book, I did feel like it skirted around a number of significant issues that were related to covered themes. For example, there was a lot of talk about investigations of how 9/11 happened, but he left out the evacuation of the prominent Saudis after 9/11, which included siblings of UBL himself. If understanding your enemy helps (and I certainly think so), then that was a horrible mistake due to political expediency. As noted, there was very little mention of Rove's partisan shenanigans, though it's quite clear that many of the 'anti-terrorist' actions are politically influenced, especially for the timing of terrorist alerts and the allocations of anti-terror funding. The post-9/11 anthrax attacks and the Valerie Plame outing were essentially ignored.

There are two other important topical areas that I felt the book didn't address strongly enough, though I can't accuse it of actually skirting them: torture (my #1 issue) and warrantless searches targeting American citizens. They were mentioned frequently, and Suskind seems to agree that they are important issues, and yet I was still left with the impression that he was treading lightly. In these areas, I feel he cold easily have said much more. Abu Ghraib is perhaps a good example. I regard this as one of the most important and deliberate abuses of what America supposedly stands for, but he barely mentioned it. The index has only two references. I don't remember his making any direct reference to prisoners who died under torture. He was similarly 'diplomatic' around such topics as telephone records made accessible to the government without warrants, even though he included several pages about the Fourth Amendment.

Overall I was left with three major impressions. First, Dick Cheney is much more crazy and much more dangerous than I though he was. My already low opinion has been greatly lowered. In the absence of any reasonable explanation for his behaviors, I feel driven to speculation. Pure megalomania in a super-authoritarian personality? Is it some kind of overcompensation for his feeling of guilt for ignoring terrorists prior to 9/11? In particular, Richard Clarke had been trying to increase the focus on terrorism, and perhaps Cheney was the main obstacle, and knows it? I even find myself wondering if the incident of shooting his 'friend' in the face could have been a 'localized' application of the 1% doctrine and some sort of insane preemptive self-defense. When you're dealing with so much craziness, anything begins to seem possible. (My opinion of Rumsfeld as an increasingly incompetent henchman was little changed.)

A second impression was that Dubya's war on terror is failing--but that's fine with Rove as long as the voters continue to see terrorist threats as a reason to vote for his candidates. One of the big problems is that we can't even trust our own allies in the war on terror as BushCo is fighting it. The lack of trust cuts both ways, and actually reminds me some of Bush I's few sage words of advice. He said you make someone trustworthy by trusting them--but Dubya can't and doesn't, and everyone winds up doubting everyone else.

My third major impression is linked to the old joke about the fellow looking under the streetlight even though he lost his wallet elsewhere. "But the light is better here." An awful lot of our war on terror seems to be like that. We're focusing on high-tech computer stuff and money flows because those are the places where we have lots of light--but it's not where we 'dropped' the terrorists. The essence of asymmetric warfare is that it is NOT symmetric, and if we expect the terrorists to come to rely on OUR favored tools and motivations, then we're the ones who are being stupid. Hint: A suicide bomber is not doing it for the money.

Detailed Notes:

Page 62
Introduction of Cheney's 1% doctrine in the context of a meeting of UBL with Pakistani scientists.
Page 144
This discussion of the funding was where I concluded that chasing the money was getting crazy. We're focusing on large money flows and spending billions for countermeasures and reconstruction while the terrorists are estimated to have spent only about half a million dollars for 9/11--but they were sincere enough to die for it.
Page 171
This is where Dubya realized the line about the UN resolution had disappeared. Suskind doesn't speculate, but I'm confident it was Cheney's work.
Page 174
Excellent discussion of plausible deniability leading into how Dubya is manipulated.
Page 188
This is George Tenet's version of the infamous 'slam dunk' meeting. Suskind reports that the CIA side doesn't remember it, but stops short of saying that the other side deliberately decided that's what he said.
Page 211
Here is a place where George Tenet actually used "slam dunk", but with regards to tracing financial transactions and with no direct relation to Iraq.
Page 226
This section talks about controlling the information Dubya receives and preserving the secrecy regarding what he's actually heard.
Page 232, Line 1
Typographic error of "the Israel" for "Israelis".
Page 259
Follows the official Israeli version on the Osirak reactor incident, which is basically dismissing the notion of peaceful nuclear technology. (Not a big thing, since everyone agrees that Saddam did have a nuclear weapons program after that.)
Page 331
Mention of the start of the disastrous Cheney-directed politically-motivated purge of the CIA. The book could have said more, but that was probably moving too close to material we still hope the terrorists are ignorant of.
Page 363
In the Valerie Plame entry in the index, it says there was some mention of her on page 243, but I couldn't find any related text. Just a random and accidental check of the index, but more annoying than a regular typo.

2006/08/06
2006/10/08 (mostly the supergerm stuff)

Review of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance

Professor Chomsky bracketed the election of 2004 with two major books. This one was published before the election, but remains quite relevant now. However, the tone of this one seemed somewhat more upbeat and optimistic than Failed States, the post-election book. The content is pretty much the same as it ever is in Chomsky's books, drawing pretty much on the same historical examples in slightly different analytic frameworks, and unfortunately the conclusions come out about the same no matter how you look at the evidence.

Chapter 8 on useful truisms was especially interesting to me, though he could have been more clear in the introduction. He was basically focused on two essential philosophic principles of ethical behavior, and it was quite easy to show that they were historically irrelevant--though frequently proclaimed. Actually, he several times cited examples where the truisms were explicitly rejected. Giving Henry Kissinger credit for brutal honesty?

My main dissatisfaction with the book is that it doesn't really spend much time on the theme of the title. Chomsky basically takes it for granted that we can exterminate ourselves, and that continuing on the usual course of ever-increasing violence can only lead to that outcome. He does address this aspect (in terms of the mechanisms) more clearly early in Failed States, but I was hoping to see more on the topic here, and perhaps even some consideration of the alternatives. While he's usually pretty clear about his assumptions, this was something he glossed over in this book. We, even the Americans among us, can actually apply our intelligence for better purposes than ever greater violence and creating an ever more vicious jungle. However, Chomsky is just assuming that the dominant motivations and behaviors will continue to be as short-sighted as they always have been. Unfortunately, his lists of examples are rather overwhelming, but I want to remain more optimistic. Perhaps we actually can learn from our mistakes before we exterminate ourselves?

As clarification, Chomsky apparently believes that high-tech animals must exterminate themselves if they pursue unlimited power (hegemony). While I think this is possible, I basically disagree with Chomsky regarding the two main extinction mechanisms he discusses here. In particular, even though nuclear war would be devastating to society as we now know it, I do not believe it could exterminate all human beings. I think there would probably be some survivors--even though they most likely would be wishing they were dead. I do think there are two high-tech paths to making the human species extinct, but Chomsky doesn't address them. I think a genetically modified supergerm (or supervirus or superfungus) could wipe us out, possibly even by accident. Alternately, a revolt of the robots could do it, especially if we have succeeded in teaching them to obey the law of the jungle. The supergerm may already be possible with today's genetic engineering technology. If Chomsky wanted to restrict "survival" to the society rather than the species, he should have said so.

In terms of the production, I think this book was quite well prepared. I only noticed one typographic error, on page 182, where it refers (in quotes) to the destruction of dams that furnished most of the "controlled rice supply" for North Korea. Obviously that was supposed to be "controlled water supply". It's possible the mistake came from the specific source he quoted, but in that case he should have used a different one. The incident is fairly well known.


2006/07/30

Review of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation

This book deserves a more substantive review, but it has to go back to the library, so... Basically the same reason I never wrote any review of Morgan Spurlock's Don't Eat this Book. That book was more focused on McDonald's and more aggressive, but both books are revolving around the same questions. I think the higher level perspectives would involve considering the focus on instant gratification and propagandistic advertising techniques used by the rich and powerful to increase their wealth and power, but even Fast Food Nation only touches relatively lightly on those topics. The connection to quick-fried candidates like Dubya is too direct.

The approach of the book is fundamentally historical, reporting on the history of many fast food companies (but especially McDonald's) and of the related companies and industries. The coverage spans from potato farming to cattle ranching to slaughterhouse management to flavor development to obesity to international business and to various other aspects. Advertising targeted at naive children was an especially interesting aspect. However, the book kind of lacks an overall focus--which is actually an accurate reflection of the unplanned growth of the fast food industry itself. Cancerous growth might be the better adjective...

Detailed Notes:

Page 49
It seems odd that the agreement between McDonald's and Disney would specify that Disney characters could never be depicted with McDonald's food or in their restaurants.
Page 136 and page 14
He mentions inheritance taxes as a concern for small family farmers and ranchers, though I thought they were almost never affected, since the existing exemptions for family farms and ranches were already above the value of such small businesses.
Page 139, Line 16
In that context, I think "chickens" would be better than "chicken", which sounds strained.
Page 149, Line 13
Basically the same comment regarding "steers" versus "steer".
Page 246, Line 3
The "last" should be "least".
Page 279, Page 8 notes
The number "1,860,520" at the end seems to conflict with the earlier 1.3 million. Perhaps the jail population is left out of the earlier one?
Page 323, Page 233 notes
The distance is unclear here, but the European rental car must have been metric and reporting in kilometers?

2006/07/23

Review of Al Franken's The Truth (with jokes)

This is one I'd bought a while ago, but only got around to finishing about a month ago. The main reason for the delay is basically that it wasn't nearly as amusing as another Al Franken book that I'd read back in 2003, Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them. I thought that book had been reviewed here, but I see that I never did, so I guess it was a rushed loan from someone. The earlier book also benefitted from having funnier targets and straight men. Actually, I still remember that it featured Bill O'Reilly, and he's so twisted it's hard to keep a straight face even while calling him a straight man. O'Reilly has practically become the linchpin of anti-BushCo humor.

I suppose the fundamental problem with this more recent book is that it's hard to be funny about large-scale disappointment. This book is mostly an attempt to understand how Dubya more or less won the election of 2004. It does focus on some of the key tactics and how they were used to effect, but overall I feel like it's just looking at some of the larger trees and ignoring the forest. For example, he tries to make it funny with rhyming word play in the chapter titles involving fears, smears, and queers, but it mostly just comes off as out of focus and ineffectual. He tries to close on an optimistic note with an imaginary letter to his grandchildren, but it comes off sounding like escapist fantasy. It just doesn't come to terms with the underlying problems. However, I admit that I already considered America's future to be hopeless when the first cheap facade President, Ronald Reagan, was reelected back in 1984.

Mechanically, it was well prepared, and the only typographic mistake I noticed was on page 185, where the word "be" is missing after "There would" and before "more money going out...." No substantive mistakes--but also nothing that was especially interesting. No jokes I took around to my friends.


2006/07/04 to 09

Review of Noam Chomsky's Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

Another recently published book, and especially interesting to read in proximity to Palast's Armed Madhouse. Much of the content and many of the conclusions are similar, but the styles are so diametrically opposed that it's pretty amazing there could be so much overlap. Succinctly, Palast is infuriating and annoying and you feel like someone needs to be punched or strangled, while Chomsky is just reciting an endless litany of tedious facts, droning on and on, and ultimately boring you to sleep and beyond. Palast wants to make you feel, but Chomsky is just thinking out loud (if on paper), almost to himself.

Another difference is hard to describe except as a matter of depth of focus of their differing perspectives. Palast likes to focus on the money, and he wants to link under-the-table decisions to specific documents that he's obtained, quite often illicitly, that show where the money is moving as a result of those decisions. Palast seeks the devil in the details of the crimes. Chomsky has a much more historical perspective that focuses on the flow of political power and the abuses of that power. Chomsky is focused on the higher level patterns and repetitions, and most of his data is just dry old historical stuff. Compared to Palast, Chomsky hardly mentions money. He does talk about it once in a while, and he clearly appreciates the scale of BushCo's corruption, but he's mostly concerned about people's lives and deaths, not simple theft or even grand larceny.

In comparing the two authors I'm reminded of a Johnny Cash song where two guys are having a big fight and wind up rolling around in the "mud and the blood and the beer", but I feel like it's Palast who is doing the rolling--and enjoying it. Chomsky is like the quiet guy sitting at the corner table--making notes. Maybe snapping an occasional photo.

In contrast to most of Chomsky's writing that I've read, I did not feel there was any underlying thread of strong optimism this time. I felt a kind of quiet acceptance of what is happening to America. His love of such traditional American values as freedom and democracy is still clear, but they've become too detached from what America is now? Maybe it's his age catching up with him? Or perhaps it was the government-sanctioned torture that finally broke his spirit? (Or perhaps I'm projecting my own age and priorities?) I still feel like the general historical trend is in favor of progress, but Chomsky's discussion of that notion is much less optimistic than mine. I'm basically doubtful that we can exterminate ourselves completely, but Chomsky apparently sees racial suicide as an increasing risk.

The structure of the Chomsky's book is typically difficult to describe. It's thematic, but the themes are very high level constructs, and it's quite difficult to review them succinctly. His first chapter considers the great threats we actually face (and terrorism isn't one of them), and shows how BushCo has increased those dangers. The second chapter is called "Outlaw States", but I think it would be better described in terms of 'rebranding' the enemy of the day. Chomsky emphasizes that the policies and the expressions of benign intent remain pretty much constant, but the labeling of the enemies does change fairly steadily. He doesn't say it this way, but I think that the negative labels lose their efficacy as too many parallels with the 'good guys' are discovered. The third chapter is more about word games by the powerful. The title of "Illegal but Legitimate" comes from a description of NATO actions under Clinton. The fourth and sixth chapters are about 'democracy' abroad and at home, and the interleaved fifth chapter is mostly a case study focusing on Israel. (The more I learn about that mess, the more clear it is that two wrongs don't make a right. Unfortunately, the Arabs mostly see it as another old historical pattern that started with the Crusades.)

General conclusions? As is always the case with Chomsky's writings, I'm surprised by the clarity he brings to complicated topics. In another place, I remember Chomsky criticizing himself for a lack of concision, but it is reality that lacks concision, and (wearing my historian's hat) I think he does an excellent job of extracting out relevant facts and focusing on how they contribute to the larger meanings within the tangled reality. There are large patterns to be seen, but usually they are obscured within layers of trivial detail, and yet Chomsky has an unusually keen eye for spotting and staying focused on the underlying patterns--which was also the essence of much of his work in linguistics. The facts that Chomsky cites are almost never surprising, but rather representative, and quite often I even remember hearing about the events at the times when they were actually taking place. However, I did not mark their significance, while Chomsky is able to observe how the various bits of evidence fit into the larger historical patterns.

Another conclusion is that Chomsky always makes me do some heavy thinking. One of the main topics of the book concerned protectionist economic policies in relation to non-democratic governments. I certainly didn't feel like he was defending the Chinese quasi-Communists, but he presented those economic facts in a way that makes you wonder if that's such a bad economic system after all--at least by the growth-based criteria BushCo worships. The Chinese don't have much of what we'd recognize as freedom and democracy--with my attitudes, if I were a Chinese I'd spend all my time in political prisons. However, they are producing the economic results, both in their own economy and in the leverage they are gaining in the world's economic system, especially government-bond-based leverage over the United States. I was strongly reminded of the long-term perspective of the Chinese. From their perspective, the normal state of the world is for China to be the most powerful, wealthiest, and most civilized nation. They see China as the natural leader, but the country has merely had a couple of bad centuries. It happens once in a while, and they think it's time for things to get back to normal--and I'm sure they sincerely appreciate the great help they are getting from Dubya.

Looping back a bit, but another conclusion regarding concision. Not Chomsky's lack thereof, but the artificial concision of BushCo talking points. Actually, I had come to this conclusion before starting this book, but the book strongly reinforced it. What propagandists like Karl Rove and Goebbels do is focus on concise themes, repeated vigorously and loudly. It doesn't matter whether or not they are true. The only concern is that many people accept them without thinking about such details. Reality is more like Chomsky: boring, but patient and very persistent.

Detailed Notes:

Page 13
The name MccGwire seemed very odd, but appears fairly widely on the Web.
Page 33, Line 14: "Sentor" should be "Senator".
Page 40
This section about American-government-sponsored torture mentions that Alberto Gonzales "passed on to Bush a memorandum on torture", but I felt the relevant question here was whether or not Dubya read or even looked at the memo, let alone understood it. The slicing of legal hairs is scarcely one of Dubya's skills.
Pages 70-1
The key quotation about the NPT as "a convenient instrument of US foreign policy" is repeated. I think that's a typo rather than for emphasis, though it was actually quite far-sighted of them to anticipate the 'asymmetric threat' of nuclear weapons under the control of 'small targets'. Amusing that Rumsfeld created or at least publicized the label while greatly increasing the asymmetric threats the world faces. However, the point here is that the NPT was supposed to be a treaty with two sides, and now it's just a one-sided instrument of one nuclear power. Except for the US, the other nuclear powers were at least willing to pretend they could live up to their side of the treaty.
Page 82
The ironic use of "sometimes mislabeled" was hard to follow here as he equated "anticipatory self-defense" with the out-of-fashion "preemptive war".
Page 88, Line 1: The "demand" should be "demands".
Page 143, Lines 4-5
This usage of "condominium" was new to me, but might be British. It requires collaboration of several foreign countries in controlling the 'condominium'.
Page 158
The usage "sometimes every week" is a case where the parallel structure needed to be disrupted. Perhaps "sometimes in one week" would work.
Page 165
The conclusion that "the scale of the catastrophe could hardly have been anticipated" seems debatable to me. The outcome in Iraq to date is only near the limit of the worst case scenarios, but it hasn't yet gotten to the conditions of the worst of them. Also, the statement sounds like a description of the possibilities, and it certainly was possible to anticipate a catastrophe of this scale, or worse.
Page 234
Here he says that the people surveyed favored a specific value of "$24 billion" for increased research and development of renewable energy, but I don't see any solid basis for "the public" deciding on such a number. All I can imagine is that the survey listed certain programs with probable expenses and asked them which ones they supported.
Page 245
Here is a case where the poll numbers of 71% and 46% go over 100%, and Chomsky's description is unclear. The wording could mean that the 46% is a subset of the 71%, or that they are referring to different questions.
Page 263
I just liked the sentence: "Another conservative suggestion is that facts, logic, and elementary moral principles should matter." That seems to sum up most of what is wrong with BushCo.

2006/06/22

Review of Greg Palast's Armed Madhouse

Hot off the presses, this book has already received a lot of coverage--but not in the MSM (MainStream Media). Amazon even shows it as #40 in today's book sales, though that's a shaky metric. They say this one was #63 only yesterday, which is suspicious volatility. Should we expect it to hit #1 on the 8th? Amazon even claimed that demon Ann's latest drivel was briefly #1, which is pretty hard to believe with a fan base of such proud illiterates. Maybe each of her fans is buying several copies to put under table legs? Whoops, I've already gone off on one of my tangents, but that's kind of like this book. Palast does jump around quite a lot, but I'll try to be more focused and thematic now.

So the first theme here is the general overview: Annoying, saddening, and often infuriatingly frustrating. The annoyance is mostly due to the way he writes, but I guess that his aggressive and hostile attitude is part of the package that made him an investigative reporter in the first place. Kind of a dying breed. Even hunted to extinction in some locales--such as most of America. (He tangentially says quite a bit about the necklacing of Dan Rather as a highly effective threat to keep the MSM in line.)

Saddening has to do with the information he presents. I certainly want to consider myself well informed on most of these topics, but a great deal of the information in this book was new to me--and unusually depressing. Mostly of it was not completely new, but I'd only seen vague outlines or even rumors before this. In other places I was quite surprised--but in the worst ways. I don't recall any pleasant information in this book. However, all of it was presented very forcefully, and there were too many links to previously verified evidence to dismiss it. All in all, he makes a very strong case that the situation in America is distinctly worse than I thought it was--and I've already become quite pessimistic about the future of America.

That leads naturally to the angry frustration. There really doesn't seem to be much that can be done about it at this point. Most of the problems he describes seem to be unbounded. We've gone into the realms of negative dynamic stability, and once you're in that condition, there are only two possible outcomes. Disastrous collapse when the system breaks down completely, or the application of large amounts of counteracting force. In America, the only plausible source of balancing corrective force would appear to be the Democratic Party--but that's hopelessly dominated by little leaguers who are just trying to stretch their own political lives past one more election. (That's related to some of his tangential but very sharp criticism of Al Gore.)

The structure of the book is hard to describe. There are three main themes, the war on terror (and its mismanagement extending into Iraq), class war (including general economic incompetence that is harming America), and electoral shenanigans and fraud (focusing on 2004). These area don't map precisely to the book's five chapters, but I think that reflects the way reality works. I'm mostly reminded of Chomsky saying he lacked "concision" as a form of self-criticism. Lots of important topics (such as education) don't fit concisely into any convenient framework.

That actually led me to thinking about the propagandistic approach Rove and his henchmen use for BushCo. They call them "talking points". They decide on specific and CONCISE things to focus on, and that's the message they all recite for the MSM. Being concise and focused is much more important than being true or accurate. In certain narrow cases (mostly the "reality" of public opinion), such propagandists can actually influence things, but reality normally persists in it's stubborn lack of concision. This isn't so tangential, since I'm sure it will be part of the BushCo response to this book, though right now they're still on their first line of defense: Trying to ignore it.

The most interesting area of new information for me involved the dynamics of the internal struggles between the neocons and the IOCs (International Oil Companies) within BushCo. They were in agreement about removing Saddam, and they firmly shepherded Dubya in that direction, but their long-term goals diverged radically. The neocon vision was to use Iraq's oil to break OPEC and drive oil price down, but the IOCs preferred stability and high prices--and it is clear that they ultimately won that battle. The leading neocons were kicked upstairs to symbolic and useless positions, and the price of oil is now fluttering over $70/barrel, with record profits for the IOCs now and for the foreseeable future. Palast's interesting conclusion here is that the fundamental reason for removing Saddam was because he had enough residual influence to play games with oil prices.

In spite of the abrasiveness of the writing style, the quality of the book is pretty good. Some of the graphics were not especially clear, and I don't like the emphatic pasteover technique he used with some of the cited documents. I'd guess these are supposed to ad market appeal. I'm listing the typographic errors or layout problems I noticed mostly to show that I read it closely--but that's the way I normally read.

  1. Page 80: Line 12 should be "... killed thousands of Shias."
  2. Page 89: The graph is misleading, but it would have been much stronger if the rightmost bar just extended up the page.
  3. Page 90: First line says "a quarter" when the graph shows "a third [of a]".
  4. Page 144: Line 3 says "college", but "collage" would make much more sense. Google shows both, though "college seems to be favored.
  5. Page 161: Palast claims Mundell invented the Euro, though I'm pretty sure the idea was much older. Possibly a fellow named Warner. I can't confirm these details, but I'm pretty sure the "father of the Euro" was actually half-Japanese, and his mother was named Mitsuko.
  6. Page 167: This document is especially poorly reproduced.
  7. Page 252: Palast describes President Carter as "witless", which I think is quite unreasonable (but a good example of Palast's aggressive obnoxiousness).
  8. Page 342: Line 17 has "web" when it should be "Web".
  9. Page 344: He thanks someone for making him remove a rather weak punning joke which was not removed.

I've already mentioned two examples of criticisms of prominent Democrats. Palast is certainly not blind to their faults. However, the critical focus of the book is very much on BushCo. Somewhat surprisingly, it isn't much focused on Dubya, and it's clear that Palast does not regard Dubya as a particularly important player in the games. Dubya's minimal significance is apparently mostly symbolic, and Palast just explains why Dubya is so bogus in reality.

The key decision-making figure is clearly Dick Cheney, though in many places Palast simply describes the damage done without pointing any fingers at any one in particular. There are two likely reasons for that. One is that BushCo has succeeded in disguising the responsibility for their crimes--and BushCo is certainly trying very hard to be as secretive as they can be. Hint: Karl Rove, who is barely mentioned in this book. However, since Palast clearly has a lot of inside information, I lean the other way, to the theory that Palast may actually be protecting his friendly sources while they are still in exposed positions within the government. (Another aspect of his aggressive attitude was snide or rude comments about non-friendly sources.)

It's possible that I'll feel better about it after thinking over the book's data for a while--but I doubt it. Palast does try to end on an optimistic note, and I really appreciate how much he loves America and how saddened and disillusioned he feels by the recent changes. However, right now I feel pretty discouraged by the seriousness of the problems and the brazenness of the criminals.


2005/12/16

Review of Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis

Perhaps this is the first time I was actually motivated to go out and buy a book based on promotional interviews with the author. I saw at least two of them. The Daily Show interview was the most recent before buying the book. Watching Jimmy Carter reminds you what a sincere and honest man of integrity is really like. What a stark contrast to Dubya, most recently featured as the bubble boy.

Since I'm not a religious person in any Christian sense, I'm sometimes offended by people who loudly proclaim their Christianity. President Carter talks a lot about his religious beliefs in this short book, but there's nothing preachy or offensive there. It's just that religion is naturally important to him, and he's able to deal with it. Reality in general, and scientific reality in particular, are not threatening to his strong faith, and he makes that clear.

The primary non-religious theme of the book is the breakdown of the American political system. He blames this not just on religious fundamentalists who demand political power, but also on political fundamentalists who are eager to exploit any group that can deliver votes. Though there is some overlap, the main focus of political fundamentalism is the neocons, and he makes it clear that they are acting on dangerous non-religious ideologies with little or no regard for unpleasant realities.

This is actually a simple little book, so I'm going to leave this as a simple little review. I do want to include a paragraph from his conclusion to give you an idea of how clearly he write and how profound his words are:

"It is good to know that our nation's defenses against a conventional attack are impregnable, and imperative that America remain vigilant against threats from terrorists. But as is the case with a human being, admirable characteristics of a nation are not defined by size and physical prowess. What are some of the other attributes of a superpower? Once again, they might very well mirror those of a person. These would include a demonstrable commitment to truth, justice, peace, freedom, humility, human rights, generosity, and the upholding of other moral values."

This is a book I strongly recommend. It's not long, and it's easy to read, but it gives you hope for the future of America.


2005/08/27

Review of Ian Buruma's Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan by Ian Buruma

When I saw this book in the library, I didn't have any expectation of relevance to this webpage, but it appealed to my interests in history and Japan. The book was published around the time Dubya reentered Texas politics, but many of the passages struck me a extremely relevant to the current situation, either now or as seen from a few years in the future.

First, a bit of general background. The author is Dutch and fluent in English and German, and probably in Japanese, too. He certainly discusses points that involve linguistic subtleties of Japanese, and if he's not fluent, he certainly had expert advice in some of the nuances. He spent some years compiling the information that appears in the book, and I only noted one factual mistake: The dog Hachiko (mentioned on page 282) was female, not male. [Or that might be my mistake--some Japanese people tell me that the name could be used for a male dog.] Overall it's a kind of psychological treatment with heavy historical support. Lots of interesting trivia, too, such as Sunshine 60 standing on the site of Sugamo Prison, where the convicted war criminals were executed. Following are some of the passages that struck me as I was reading the book.

On page 166 he is talking about the side effects of the Tokyo war crimes trial: "[The trial] received wide coverage in the Japanese press and revealed for the first time to millions of Japanese the scheming, duplicity,and insatiable desire for power of her entrenched militaristic leaders..." Exactly what most Americans currently don't know (and don't want to know) about BushCo.

Later on the same page, quoting from the Nippon Times: "the Japanese people must ponder over why it is that there has been such a discrepancy between what they thought and what the rest of the world accepted as common knowledge. This is at the root of the tragedy which Japan brought upon herself." In Dubya's America, even scientific knowledge is under attack in many areas. Climatology (global warming) and biology (evolution) are especially prominent examples.

On page 168, quoting Frank Tavenner, one of the prosecutors: "These men were supposed to be the elite of the nation, the honest and trusted leaders to whom the fate of the nation had been confidently entrusted..." Again, the gap between the reality of BushCo and their facade.

On page 267, he is quoting from a letter written by a German soldier who is trying to defend the actions of most Germans as the Nazis consolidated their power: "...one thing had to be made clear: you were either with us or against us..." Shades of Dubya in many of his speeches.

The final quote I'd like to include appears on page 207 with reference to neo-Nazi violence: "People are dangerous everywhere, when leaders acquire unlimited power and followers are given license to bully others weaker than themselves."

The resonance with current events in America is extremely saddening. Far too easy to imagine replacing those foreign references with American ones... Mostly reconfirms my belief in the wisdom of America's Founders when they tried to divide and conquer the powers of their own government.


2005/05/22 to 7/31

Review of Michael Scheurer's Imperial Hubris

You should read this book with a grain of salt. A grain of salt THIS big. I'm pretty sure it was not the author's intention, but my main reaction to the book is to conclude you can't trust anyone from the CIA. Perhaps it's an inevitable result of their confused mission? Good guys using bad methods? Bad guys, but supposed to be working for good guys? More on that below, but for now, my main point is that this book is like a clinic on lying. Therefore, we need to start with a bit of epistemology before we can even begin to evaluate this one, so the overall summary appears later on.

There are various dimensions you can use in classifying lies, and the nature of lies is quite a complicated topic in epistemology. For example, lying requires volition, so you could consider the motivating factors for the lies. Easy enough when someone is lying for personal advantage or profit, but what about someone who is lying because he is just a fanatic believing what he wants to believe? Did he have any obligation to be aware of the truth? What if the truth is clearly visible (but the fanatic is fully accustomed to ignoring it)? That's just a minor taste of the complexities. You can assess lies by the damage they do to someone, which is also the key to their effectiveness as lies. However, my analytic focus is going to be along a dimension of technique, using a typology derived from a passage written by the science fiction author R.A. Heinlein. For each category I'll select a couple of the most notable candidates from this book, and explain why I believe they are lies. This review will then continue with a section of reactions and attempts to separate out some of the truths that are mixed in here, and then I'll close with some residual detailed (but admittedly tedious) notes.

The lowest category of lies is Class 0, self-contradictions. The ease of identifying them depends partly on the proximity of the two statements that are in conflict, and partly on the clarity of the statements. Next there is Class 1, the counterfactual statements. As part of his appeal for credibility, the author actually spends a lot of time discussing the opposite of Class 1 lies, the factual statements that he calls "the checkables". Moving upwards, the Class 2 lies involve partial truths that lead to false conclusions. Many skilled liars overtly recommend Class 2 approaches. Finally, we come to the masterful technique of the Class 3 lie, which is how I feel about most of this book. For a Class 3 lie, the liar has to tell the truth--but do it in a way that causes the truth itself to be rejected as a lie.

Most people naturally avoid Class 0 lies because they are so obvious and therefore ineffective. They can even be taken as a kind of stupidity, since most of us almost instinctively reject the idea of "A and not A." They most commonly appear in the form of inconsistencies that are separated by time, and the usual explanations or excuses are "I forgot" or "I changed my mind." Such excuses are not very acceptable in the context of a non-fiction book, where the author (and editors) should resolve these problems before publication.

The most glaring primary example of a Class 0 lie here involves equating the nebulous war on terror with a "necessary" war against the Moslem world which is also equated with defending the American way of life, which is apparently equated with a particular opulent life style. He even attempts to use President Lincoln to support his confusing position, which is something of a giveaway insofar as the lifestyle in question did not exist in Lincoln's day. Near the end of the book he actually argues for reducing America's dependence on foreign sources of energy (in connection with some Class 1 lies about domestic energy resources). Meanwhile, he also frequently emphasizes that the Moslems do not hate our way of life or our freedom, but rather are angered by specific policies. Meanwhile, he argues that the policies cannot be changed because that would destroy Lincoln's vision of the American way of life, only to turn around and argue that the policies should be subjected to public discussion and evaluation and possible affirmation. (This is really moving into the area of Class 2 lies, but there is no considerations of possible changes of the policies.)

Another group of Class 0 lies involves blanket criticisms of political and military leaders for moral failings, and then turning around and praising certain ones that the author clearly approves of. The main case in point here is Reagan, who the author repeatedly praises even while criticizing counterproductive policies that Reagan maintained right along with those other morally bankrupt politicians he attacks. So why does he like Reagan so much? Not sure, but it's interesting to note that the Reagan period was one when the CIA was operating with very little constraint, since Reagan didn't know much about what was going on, and the vice-presidential Bush was a staunch friend of the CIA (which he had headed in earlier years).

Onward and upward. The Class 1 lies are usually regarded as trivial to identify, since "any clod can have the facts" (as Charles McCabe said). However, this category includes most lies by exaggeration, which can be much more difficult to assess. "I am wearing a red shirt" is easy to check, but "I am wearing an ugly shirt" may be false in your opinion, simply because our tastes differ, and "This is the ugliest shirt in the world" is almost surely a lie or said for some rhetorical or humorous purpose.

Given the author's emphasis on "the checkables", his extensive academic background in history, and the fact-checking resources applied to the publication approval process required by the CIA, one would expect the book should be free from Class 1 lies. Surprisingly, there are quite a number of places where he does say things that seem likely to be Class 1 counterfactual statements, but my current feeling is that these are probably red herrings. There is only one place where I am quite convinced he is lying outright, and even there he manages to confuse the issue. That involves the pre-9/11 plans to deal with Al Qaeda. In Richard Clarke's book there are many details about the comprehensive plans to destroy Al Qaeda that were prepared in response to the Cole attack. Unfortunately, Clinton decided against starting a quasi-war of that kind at the end of his term, and decided it was best to leave that decision to Dubya--who ignored Al Qaeda until 9/11--at which time the plan was suddenly revived and used. All checkable stuff, but now we get to the confusing wrinkle. Richard Clarke appears on the back cover giving an endorsement this book? Did he really say that? Or is the "endorsement" taken out of context?

So let's move upward again... There are several factors involved in assessing a Class 2 lie, and this can be quite complicated. For example, when caught in a Class 2 lie, the liar will often claim ignorance of the omitted information, or say that it had to be left out because of some other constraint, such as time or space. Also, an effective Class 2 lie has to cause the person who is the target of the lie to believe something false, but this complicates the liar's task, since it can be quite difficult to predict exactly which false conclusion the target will reach. Fortunately, these lies tend to unravel over time, as more information is revealed and collected, but unfortunately that is often too late and the damage has already been done by that time. For that reason, these lies are most effective and probably used most frequently for time-dependent deceptions. That's a big advantage for the liar, since he knows what is coming and will try to escape before the truth comes out.

Though it's more difficult to recognize Class 2 lies because you have to look for what isn't there, the outing of Valerie Plame is dazzling in its omission, and there is no timing-related defense. The book was first published in mid-2004, and Plame was exposed in July of 2003, so ignoring it must be a Class 2 lie. Even if it was not known to the author at the time the book was originally written, this was clearly worth mentioning in the new epilogue that was added to this 2005 edition. He actually has a long section beginning on page 192 where he focuses on leaks of classified information, but none of the examples he cites is nearly as significant or damaging as the politically-motivated exposure of Valerie Plame, which he ignores. However, I admit that I'm stuck at this point, since I don't understand what false or misleading impression this omission could have been intended to create, especially since this episode is so widely known. However, there is a difference from the examples that he cited, since he focuses on leaks that are motivated for more positive reasons, while this particular one is spectacular mostly for its short-sighted vindictiveness.

However, on reflection, I suspect the most important Class 2 lie here involves the author's language abilities--or actually his lack thereof. This is especially significant since the author emphasizes that we should begin by taking Bin Ladin at his word--but his word is not English. If the author does not actually understand Bin Ladin's words, then everything he says on that topic moves into the categories of hearsay and secondhand interpretations. There are two things that make me doubt the author actually knows Arabic. The first is that he talks a lot about his own qualifications and experience and why his ideas should be taken seriously, but he does not say anything about his personal knowledge of other languages. Second, the various translations that do appear in the book are annotated in confusing ways, and if he were fluent in the original languages, I would have expected him to resolve those confusions by referring to the originals. Actually, some of the (sic) annotations actually seem to be designed to cast aspersions on Bin Ladin, which is in direct opposition to the author's point about Bin Ladin's rhetorical skill.

Now we come to the dramatic and confusing Class 3 lies. This is where the lie can become almost a form of art, and where I think much of this book belongs. By their very nature, these lies are extremely difficult to recognize and evaluate, and much more so when they are mixed in with a complex blend of lies and undisputed truths. To identify this kind of lie, you have to first figure out who the targets are, and that's already difficult for a book that reaches many readers--a "national bestseller" in this case. Then you need to demonstrate that the truth appeared in the book, and that the targets mostly rejected the truth. Even better if they then acted based upon that rejection of the truth, and "best" (from the liar's perspective) if they acted in the manner intended by the liar. It's essentially impossible to get so deeply into anyone's head, so it's impossible to make any absolute statements about this kind of lie, though I wish I could make some probabilistic assessments.

Okay, so it's time for examples of Class 3 lies from the book, but I feel like I've painted myself into a corner here. His mixture of ingredients is quite impressive, even dazzling, and I'm not sure which things he says are true, which are misleading, which are outright false, which are partly true, etc. A lot of what he says is in sympathy, even deep sympathy, with things that I want to believe, which is the most powerful belief motivator of all, and yet... The way he mixes his conclusions and policy recommendations into the mix leaves me with LESS certainty, as though his thinking so makes me doubt things for which I was confident I already had plenty of evidence. Just my chronic state of devil's advocacy? Or am I one of the targets whom this book is intended to deceive and confuse? Or is it more likely that I can't clearly identify the Class 3 lies (even though I "feel" them) because I am not one of the targets?

The Overall Summary

So what is the big picture here? He repeatedly states that America needs to use much more force and use it more ruthlessly until the entire Moslem world is totally defeated and capitulates unconditionally. He is arguing that there is no room for negotiation or compromise, and no other alternatives (though of course he thinks the CIA should be given more support, too). He admits that there are reasonable Moslems, but denies we have any way to reason with them, but must concede their loyalties to Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, he also advocates impartial public debate about the policies, but that such debate is unrelated to being reasonable towards other peoples and nations? His general conclusion is apparently that we can only defend our freedom by destroying theirs--and that killing lots of Moslems is the best way to do it. Reminds me of the history department joke: "The only lesson you learn from history is that no one learns any lessons from history." Even the historian, in this case. (It seems he would agree when Paul Harvey recently worded it as not leaving our best weapons in their silos--indirectly advocating nuclear war.)

At the beginning of this review I said that my main conclusion is that you can't trust the CIA, and it's time to clarify that statement. The problem is that the CIA has a fundamentally twisted and distorted perspective. It's easiest to approach that by way of contrast to other organizations. Most visible in the book as a target of criticism is the FBI, but the FBI's perspective of their mission is not difficult to understand. The FBI is basically a police organization, and their job is to detect and investigate crimes and arrest the perpetrators. Their basic philosophy is to "serve and protect" the citizens of America. The NSA is never mentioned in the book, which is probably another kind of Class 2 lie. The author is quite eager to direct blame for 9/11 at failures within the FBI, but the NSA probably had equal or better opportunities to avert the tragedy, and yet he finds that organization completely unworthy of mention. (It's probably yet another Class 2 lie to skip so lightly over the CIA's own culpability, which is probably greater than anyone else's.) However, the mission of the NSA is also clear and relatively easy to understand. Their job is to find and analyze information about America's adversaries. He probably ignores them because they do it better and less expensively than the CIA. The author actually emphasizes that aspect of the CIA's own work, but very much downplays the complex and open-ended "operational" aspects of the CIA. He does emphasize that he thinks the CIA is good and effective and should be less hindered in doing its job, but what he doesn't say (Class 2 lie) is that the CIA's main job is to be bad guys working for the right side--if you're standing in the "right" position. Actually, this ties back to the only organization that he expresses admiration for, the USMC, but what he reminds me of is the mutant version of the psalm that we learned in boot camp: "Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the baddest mother in the valley!"

The CIA wants to have that "baddest mother" title among all of the world's spy agencies, and that's where the problems arise. There are some pretty bad boys out there, and if our boys are actually going to be badder, then what's to keep them in line? For example, there are spy agencies that aggressively meddle in the internal affairs of their own national government, so is the CIA supposed to ignore that particular "challenge" and just accept that such a spy agency is "badder"? How is the CIA to understand and defeat such "bad boys" if they don't understand the techniques and strategies they use, and how can they learn about those techniques unless they experiment with them? "Just trust us," says the CIA, "and we'll be sure to only do those nasty experiments in places that deserve it!" Where? Spain, perhaps? That's not a random guess, since he does mention the Madrid attack several times, and presumably thinks it would have been a good thing if the CIA had managed to intervene to prevent Al Qaeda from meddling in Spanish politics. But where's the line to be drawn? For example, if the CIA had been able to respond quickly enough to help frame the Basques for that attack, America might still have Spain as an ally in Iraq... "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive", but the CIA perspective would probably have been limited to getting past the "crisis" of a democratic election that was going the "wrong" way. However, even this example is complicated by the fact that Al Qaeda was meddling in someone else's national politics and that Al Qaeda isn't even a spy agency (though that is how BushCo wanted to treat Al Qaeda, as long as it helped justify the anti-Saddam "war").

My final conclusion is that this book does not contribute to constructive debate on the real issues, because it mostly muddies the water and confuses more than it enlightens. You need to get the same information from several other perspectives to have any chance of understanding much about the topic. Someone who relies heavily on this book is only sure to be confused.

Detailed Notes:

These notes are basically my linear thoughts as I read the book. They're here for completeness, though I hope I've managed to include all the important aspects above. Far more reactions near the end of the book, which in retrospect makes me think he was preparing a foundation in the first part.

Page 4:
Excellent point about Moslems thinking their politicians are supposed to be speaking the truth and how they therefore assume that non-Moslem politicians are also speaking the truth, even when the politician in question is speaking from the lunatic fringe. The contrast is against our secular expectations that politicians lie long, hard, and often. However, elsewhere he argues that many Moslems regard their politicians as irreligious hypocrites, too, though that's in the context of some politicians that America supports.
Page 24:
Brief mention of the post-9/11 exodus of UBL's relatives with FBI and NSC facilitation.
Page 28: 'Change the word "less" to "not"...'
Here he is claiming Al Qaeda is no longer susceptible to counterterrorism measures, which is a Class 1 counterfactual lie. This is an absolute claim beyond exaggeration, and non-grammatical, to boot. Without the grammar mistake, it could be a rhetorical flourish, though still false.
Page 69:
Perhaps the first appearance of his repeated claim that terrorism should not be regarded as criminal, but as a form of warfare. He never makes the case very strongly, but perhaps that's because of a Class 2 lie of ignoring politically motivated crime.
Page 72:
He's arguing for UBL's strength based on popular support as fuzzily indicated by polls--which are too easily manipulated or contradicted. Probably should count as a Class 1 lie, depending on whether or not conflicting results are available.
Pages 81-2:
Basically attacking the Internet as a tool for Al Qaeda propaganda and information, but overall a Class 2 lie, since he ignores competing news and propaganda positions. He also talks about recruiting and ignores the ease of planting bogus information and stool pigeons. This topic is especially relevant in light of the latest rounds of squabbling about Koran abuse, where the real problem is not in the details of the torture and Geneva Convention violations, but in America's increasing lack of credibility to refute any accusations. At this point even the most ridiculous accusations will find some believers...
Page 89:
Typo of "threee" for "three. However, it's worth noting as regards these lists that he's quite subjective about what he classifies as a success or failure in many cases.
Page 103:
Here he labels UBL a "great man", which is a strained claim even with his attempt to evade the controversy with a "Viewed from any angle" distractor. Even if you accept the "great man" theory of history, this seems to be part of a Class 0 lie insofar as he elsewhere argues that Al Qaeda's strategy of insurrection is to have no single point of total destruction--and it's obvious that Al Qaeda must have contingency plans even for UBL's death or capture. (However, I basically reject the great-man theory, except insofar as the men with the best timing do get to put their own names on things and events.)
Pages 106-107:
Extraordinary and peculiar hyperbole here. His reaction is "In all bin Laden literature there is not a more interesting sentence." The reaction seems much more interesting than the rather mundane sentence it refers to: "Totalitarian Islamist revivalism has become the ideology of the dystopian new world order." Perhaps projection of the same mindset revealed on page 166?
Page 119:
This is probably the introduction of his theme of UBL's appeal to moderate Moslems. He argues it is a mistake to think that UBL is only a darling of the lunatic fringe, but I was ready to dismiss the idea--until I remembered my initial reaction to Dubya, which was to dismiss him as a lunatic fringe candidate.
Page 122:
Minor Class 1 lie here, saying that UBL killed more than 3,000 Americans on 9/11, when the actual number is a little less than that, and not all of them were Americans. Doesn't reduce the seriousness of UBL's crime, but the author is claiming to be a careful historian.
Page 128: "In this blizzard of blather..."
He's describing the meta-analysis of UBL's speeches (that almost entirely overlooks the actual content), but it mostly reminded me of the right-wing blather you see in lots of other places, from Wall Street Journal editorials down to the newsgroups.
Page 166: "...Muslims will be eager to keep God in the same kind of narrow locker in which the West is slowly asphyxiating Him."
From this point on, the density of strange and noteworthy items increases drastically. This particular snippet is potentially noteworthy for perhaps being a kind of Freudian slip from an author who is himself a religious fanatic of a Reconstructionist stripe. Insufficient evidence to be sure, but the Reconstructionists are generally quite careful about concealing their beliefs in awkward public places.
Silly mistake near the bottom of this page where he calls the American president "... the chief magistrate of the American republic." Chief executive, not any kind of judge, and much less so in Dubya's case.
Page 168: "...or our way of life will be unrecognizably changed."
Confusing defense of the status quo here. Anyway, the future is coming, and it's going to involve changes.
Page 177: 'The acerbic Mr. Peters also assigns a superb moniker to advocates of instant overseas democracies--they are "the ass end of imperialism."'
Perhaps part of a Class 3 lie, but I still found it quite amusing.
Page 185:
Several criticisms of the rule of law here, especially in the post-WW-II period, but my primary reaction was that he's criticizing something which has never actually been tried in international relations. The only law has been the Law of the Jungle, but it works less and less effectively these years.
Pages 187-8:
He's criticizing legal approaches to fighting terrorism and arguing that international cooperation is impossible, and concluding that the only way to get some semblance of forced cooperation is through the CIA. Basically this is a Class 1 lie, though it is true that the situation that currently exists makes such cooperation difficult. However, that situation has been created, including plenty of negative contributions from the CIA.
Page 189-90:
This is one of the sloppy translations of UBL's statements. The word "accused" is almost surely supposed to be "accursed", and there's a questionable "sic" on a fairly important pronoun question. This is an obvious case where the author should have resolved the issues--but only if he is fluent in Arabic. As noted above, this kind of thing is evidence of a Class 2 lie about the author's own language abilities.
Page 190-191:
Starting at the bottom of page 190 is another one of his tirades against "moral cowardice" and legalistic solutions based on international cooperation, leading into sharp criticism of the FBI, though he singles out a single unnamed FBI agent for praise--almost surely John O'Neill. I think this has to be regarded as a compound lie dancing between Classes 1 and 2. The historical fact here is that the terrorists were relatively less dangerous during the period he is talking about, and it was only *AFTER* international cooperation started breaking down that that Al Qaeda succeeded in its terrible attack on 9/11. Assuming you believe that 9/11 could actually have been stopped, then the existing evidence is that more international cooperation might have been what was needed. The sharpest point of evidence here is the example of John O'Neill himself, assuming that is the FBI agent he was referring to. BushCo's new policies had already forced O'Neill out of the FBI before 2001/9/11, the day he died as the new head of security at the WTC.
Page 192:
Some praise of Reagan as a "great and good man" and the beginning of the leaks section, where he ignores Valerie Plame.
Page 192:
Near the bottom is a kind of backhanded Class 2 lie defending the CIA. He's apparently appealing for pity because the CIA can't boast in public, but the decisions about CIA funding and guidance have never involved public participation.
Page 199:
Interesting diatribe and Class 0 lie. He argues that motives relate to whether or not leakers are "worth reforming" or should be prosecuted for treason, but then turns around and says the definition of treason "is a checkable". Huh? In this context it is the motives that need to be checked, and that is not possible.
Page 204:
He's citing Joshua Mitchell, including a passage criticizing the "winner-take-all mentality" of Afghan warlords that mostly reminded me of how BushCo is running the US these days.
Page 206:
Interesting criticism of President Wilson as a "bloody-handed fantasist". This is a kind of Class 2 lie, since he is criticizing Wilson for advocating the same things the neo-cons are currently saying. My impression is that he finds Wilson a straw man of convenience.
Page 215:
Extremely glaring Class 2 lie, mentioning (and praising) Reagan and CIA Directory Casey in the context of responding to terrorism, but not mentioning the attack in Lebanon. Reagan's non-responsive responses to that terrible terrorist attack were to invade Grenada and quietly withdraw from Lebanon. At that time the CIA had especially free reign, so apparently he thinks all should be forgiven.
Pages 220-1:
He very tangentially mentions the Lebanon attack here--but evades Reagan's failure to respond, so this is the other side of the previous Class 2 lie.
Page 221:
Again criticizing the criminal law perspective of terrorism, but a major combined Class 0 and Class 2 lie. He says that perspective was dominant for a period of six years, which actually includes five years when it was dominant and when there were no major terrorist attacks. That contradicts his claim of its failure. In fact, it was only in the sixth and final year, when that perspective was effectively abandoned and after terrorism was regarded as something to be ignored that the terrorists actually achieved one of their most terrible attacks. (Also a couple of minor typos.)
Page 222:
Aggressively attacking international cooperation to fight terrorism.
Page 224:
Class 1 lie, claiming we had an opportunity to blast Al Qaeda and the Taliban back to the Stone Age.
Page 225:
Interesting Class 1 lie as part of an apparent dehumanization of the enemy, claiming they'd "never heard of the Geneva Convention[s]." If not, it would seem to be the case that we forgot to include that in their training when they were working for us? Next part is a Class 0 lie, since he's arguing we should have destroyed larger numbers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, whereas elsewhere in the book he had argued that would have made little difference, given his description of the Afghan national character.
Page 227:
Probably a Class 0 lie of some sort. Aggressively criticizing Israel, but apparently for doing what he says we should be doing?
Page 234:
Apparently praising the torture in Camp Delta (in Cuba) and in Iraq. Given his earlier mentions of the Geneva Conventions, I guess this is just another Class 0 lie, though his wording is so open-ended and fuzzy that it might be better regarded as a Class 2 dance around the torture.
Page 241:
Praise of large-scale killing and rationalizing civilian casualties.
Page 242:
Interesting defense of America's righteous use of force in the past, conspicuously ignoring the failures and the moral damage, with Vietnam as the most glaring omission in both categories.
Farther down is an appeal to Lincoln to preserve "our way of life", which has no material relationship to the American way of life that Lincoln was talking about. Lincoln was talking about government of the people, not our right to import oil.
Pages 242-3:
This section on "Professional Soldiers Are Paid to Die" is an extraordinary passel of lies, right from the git go. For example, no mercenary is taking money to die, but only to risk death, and they all expect to survive and get their money. Patton said it best, about making the other guy die for his country. Next a glaring Class 1 lie to say "No soldier's life can be wasted" when it happens all the time. Then a Class 0 lie about "eager draftees", in the same sentence with a Class 1 lie about a "national emergency" that does not currently exist. Next a Class 0 lie about reasons for enlisting, when several of his cited reasons contradict his own claim of being "soldiers by choice". Next another repetition of the previous Class 1 lie in the "war zone" form. Basically, arguing that we shouldn't get all emotional about killing or being killed.
Page 243:
The next section directly contradicts the previous section, when he was basically arguing we should rely on mercenaries, so that's a Class 0 lie. The presentation is confusing, but apparently he's mostly saying it's much cheaper if we use our own mercenaries.
Page 245:
Stars with a typo, with "secu" missing from "secular". Then there's a Class 0 lie that I regard as basically a personal sour grapes story. His own "expertise and experience" were held in low esteem, but he's never managed to present compelling evidence that the outcomes would have been substantially better if he had gotten his way. The following section is based on Bush at War, but I mostly reacted to the context where O'Neill was forced out of the FBI for annoying the Bin Ladin family and other prominent Saudi Arabian friends of BushCo too much.
Page 246:
A bit of blame-Clinton Class 1 lying, followed by Class 1 lies about how easy it is to find the terrorists, basically part of attacking the legalistic criminal focus approach.
Page 247:
Class 3 lie, arguing for energy self-sufficiency on politically convenient terms, and mixed with a bit of Class 1 lying about the minor oil reserves in Alaska. Interesting punt over the "economic" qualifier, which of course makes the entire thing impossible.
Page 248:
Probably a Class 3 lie about blocking the revolving door between industry and government, but mostly it reminded me about Cheney.
Page 249:
Class 1 lie "Islam is at War with America", though he is advocating America should be at war with Islam. There are elements within Islam who are against America, but he has never made such a monolithic case for all of Islam. Also, there are some interesting typographic problems in a UBL quote here. Again, if he was actually fluent in Arabic, he could have resolved these problems by working from the original.
Page 250:
Fascinating Class 0 criticism of discrimination and racism as preventing rational debate. He's the one who's been arguing in favor of war against all things Islamic.
The next section is truly amazing: "As a sovereign state, the United States is free to decide and implement its policies and actions in the Muslim world." The Class 0 lies continue with defense of America's democratic government and rejection of any other government's rights or sovereignty. He concludes that the American way of life must not be reduced to a "crabbed, fearful, and barely recognizable form." Over their dead bodies as necessary, of course. Just astounding.
Page 251:
The Class 0 counterpoint of how we can "perfect our democracy" (on their dead bodies) after some weak and mindlessly vague criticisms of Thomas Jefferson. This is some of the strongest evidence of his own religious fanaticism, since Jefferson has become a symbolic arch-villain from the perspective of some religious sects.
Page 252:
Class 0 lie of "let our efforts to perfect self-government and ensure equality for all at home" over their dead bodies.
Not quite sure how to classify these lies in the Part II section, but he's basically trying to exonerate the CIA by claiming that 9/11 could not have been prevented, but the bad thing was we weren't prepared to properly destroy the evildoers, whoever they turned out to be. The fundamental problem is that either we could have prevented 9/11, and someone should be held accountable for failing to do so, or we could not have prevented 9/11, and we can therefore have no assurances against future attacks of similar seriousness. Probably a Class 0 lie because of the intrinsic paradox.
Page 253:
Probably a Class 3 lie on the growth of the war, though not on the lack of options.
Page 256:
Class 1 lie, projecting UBL as the spokesmen for all Moslems, mixed with the Class 0 lie of equating oil consumption with America's "security and way of life."
Page 257:
Class 3 lie on America's relationship with Israel, again rejecting the idea that complicated things can be modified. However, this general position is consistent with some of the religious sects that want Israel as the focal point for the conflict of Armageddon.
Page 258:
More on energy self-sufficiency (Classes 3 and 1) and nation building (Class 1).
Page 259:
Preposterous Class 1 on tundra over human beings, then Class 2 on the "majority must rule" in a American situation where 70% of the voters are not represented at all (except for the most shallow pretense).
Page 261:
Attacks conspiracy theorists in a Class 3 way, with plenty of Class 2 mixed in.
Page 264:
Attacking CIA Director Tenet in a backhanded sour-grapes way, but probably Class 2 or 3 lies.
Page 267:
Class 1 lie of Al Qaeda as a threat to America's survival.
Page 310:
I didn't check the entire index, but I did notice that the entry for Reagan doesn't include his appearance on page 192. That makes me wonder about various other topics that do not appear in the book. I'm not sure if some of them were Class 2 lies, or just left out of a poorly-prepared index. However, if I had noticed them in the first place, I wouldn't have been doublechecking for them in the index.

2005/04/30

Review of An Autobiography OR The Story of my experiments with truth by M.K. Gandhi (translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai)

This should be subtitled "And now, for something completely different" (ghostly shades of Monty Python). Of course the largest difference would be trying to compare Gandhi to Dubya, and that will be the indirect thrust of this review, but this is also different in being a book that was not directly related to the election campaign of 2004. Actually, I only read it recently, but I was so struck by it's relevance and the contrasts that I decided it was worth including here. It definitely meets the essential criteria of being a book that Dubya has not and never will read.

The essential difference of the book is of course how Gandhi's life was dedicated to public service from an early time. It simply seemed natural for him to wander into that path as the opportunities appeared, and his philosophy was naturally sympathetic and in accord with helping other people without regard for his personal advantage. I've often felt the attractions of the ascetic life, and Gandhi felt them much more strongly, and presented them very clearly. One of the interesting and unexpected effects is that I understand why I will not voluntarily go much farther down that path, in spite of Gandhi's strong and effective advocacy. Actually, my conclusion is that almost no one possesses the strength of will to pursue that virtuous path in the deliberate and voluntary way that Gandhi did. Yes, there are many people who do travel such ascetic paths to higher virtue, but my observations are that most of them were in some ways forced to take that awkward route to wisdom. Gandhi manages to make it sound natural--but natural for him. There are many examples of this throughout the book, though his vow of brahmacharya was the most powerful one. I basically regard celibacy as the most extreme form of deviation, but he regarded it as the natural transition for that phase of his life. He spends rather more pages on food-related examples, but those strike me as less persuasive. Even though he argues that his vegetarianism was a rational decision, I felt it was a rationalization applied to what he already wanted to justify.

Most of my concrete notes about the book related to other books that he recommended, mostly on religious topics. He starts on page 28 by describing "the Ramayana of Tulasidas as the greatest book in all devotional literature." Later, on page 57 he strongly recommends The Song Celestial (the Gita as translated by Sir Edwin Arnold), page 75 has Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You and Ruskin's Unto this Last, and on page 115 he mentions the Panchikaran, Maniratnamala, and Mumukshu Prakaran of Yogavasishtha, and the Shaddarshana Samuchchaya by Haribhara Suri. Pages 132 and 133 include many books he was reading at that time, including several on Christian topics and several of the authors already mentioned. On page 220 he mentions the theosophists again, several versions of Rajayoga, and several other Indian books. Page 249 actually clarifies his introduction to Ruskin's work.

Though the book is divided into five parts, I would consider it in three phases. The first part relates to his youth, which was basically oriented around his education as focused on the contribution he would make to his family's fortunes. This eventually led to his legal studies in England, which he treats very lightly, almost like a parody, though I believe he was just giving his sincere impression of the legal studies of that time. This phase continues until his unsuccessful lobbying effort on behalf of his brother. That event was so awkward that it naturally set the stage for his departure to South Africa. It was in South Africa that the next phase began, as he smoothly transitioned into public service. In this transition period he gradually developed from a very shy and awkward junior lawyer into something else, someone with the moral power and force to oppose the British Empire. The last phase begins with his return to India during WW I. At that point he has become an established leader, and though the book feels as though he is trying to downplay it, by this time Gandhi has become a powerful force. Reflecting on it, I think this increasing strain between his essentially humble nature and his related desire to downplay his own role and the reality of his increasing political power explains why the book ends abruptly around 1921, though he was writing it around 1926. He basically dismisses his later accomplishments by saying that he had become a public figure and his actions had become part of the public record. Nor did he update his autobiography in the remaining years of his life (around 20 more years). He had no personal trumpet to blow. He was busy helping India grow to independence.

One minor gloss to help you in reading the book (and I think you should consider it, because it's quite an inspirational story, and it's also widely available via the Internet). He uses the abbreviation Sjt. frequently, meaning Sergeant, but the deeper meaning is still unclear to me. It seems to be used as an honorific title that does not always reflect any military status, but definitely reflects substantial leadership experience.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Dubya to create something like this. That's far beyond the capabilities of the greatest ghost writers. Gandhi was a truly great man, not a facade.


2005/03/06

Review of The I Hate George W. Bush READER edited by Clint Willis

Actually, I don't really feel personal hatred for Dubya, though he is at least technically responsible for plenty of hateful things. "Hate the sin, not the sinner," as the old saying goes. My recollection is that the editor himself made a similar point in the introduction, but I guess he explained it away as marketing hyperbole. So why did I buy and read this one? Well, the flashy cover caught my eye, and the price was relatively attractive, and when I looked at the table of contents I recognized the names of some of the contributors, so I figured "What the hey?"

This is another one that hasn't really stood the test of time, and I don't really remember much from this book after only a few months. However, that's kind of a natural problem with this kind of collection. The pieces were never intended to appear together, and the editor has to try to impose thematic coherence. Here, the chapter themes are basically negative classifiers, with the related articles offered as evidence. I think it actually works better here than in the thematically similar The Lies of George W. Bush by David Corn. Even though in that book all of the ideas were coming from a single author, it effectively weakened the book in comparison to this one, where the editor naturally sought out relatively stronger examples in each category. Actually, Corn didn't even make the grade for the "He's a Liar" chapter, though he does appear in "He Gets Away with It". The overriding theme is Dubya's hypocrisy in terms of doing the opposite of what he says, so in this book the themes mostly mirror Dubya's own campaign slogans, but from the negative side: honor and integrity versus the reality of lies and meanness and corruption, patriotism versus anti-American and incompetent actions, educational rhetoric versus sabotaging public education and rupturing the walls between church and state, ad so on ad infinitum. Or should that be ad nauseam?

One of the recurring themes is how Dubya's black jokes are often exposing the even blacker realities. That's probably the "ideological" justification for the inclusion of so many political cartoons, some of which are quite amusing. Unfortunately, the overall theme is so bleak that humor is not much of a defense.

Mechanically, the book was quite well done, though that suggests to me that the editor is more on the copy editor side of the fence. The only typo I annotated was a missing small "L" on page 7.

An overall reaction? I guess it's just "Same song, 17th verse." As soon as you notice Dubya, you dismiss his credibility for anything, and then you notice he's sitting in the White House, and you have to wonder.


2005/02/12 to 13

Review of Cruel and Unusual

Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media studies at New York University and one of Dubya's most vigorous critics. He wrote the well known Bush Dyslexicon several years ago, and I should have reviewed it here (but apparently only had a borrowed copy for a short time). That was a rather substantive work focusing on the thesis of how Dubya plays the media folks as suckers, and made a convincing case that Dubya is not nearly as stupid as he wants people to think he is. That was probably the book that led me to realize how cunning can be so widely separated from intelligence.

Unfortunately, this newer book was rather disappointing to me. His writing has become too strident and unpersuasive. Still fairly substantive, but measured on the scale of "Bush hatred and spleen venting" rather than "dispassionate analysis of propaganda techniques". The shift from the earlier book is so extreme that I feel like I have to consider possible reasons for that before looking in more detail in the book itself. For example, I know that some of the people cited in the acknowledgments are extreme opponents of Dubya, because they hang out in a migratory Web-based forum where I also visit sometimes. I'm there more often than Professor Miller, but less often than the cited regulars. I don't want to offend anyone by naming names, but some of the comments have been pretty far into outer space... Another possibility is some kind of side effect from the theater presentations that he's been doing. My understanding is that it's a kind of one-man show mixing comedy with political criticism. There are weirder possibilities, too, but the bottom line is that his earlier book made me regard him as an important heavyweight critic of American politics in general and of Dubya in particular, but this book left me tending to dismiss him as a lightweight--and also not very funny, though somewhat entertaining. (I've also come to regard him as rather thin-skinned lately...)

The net effect was that I didn't feel strongly motivated to write about the book, and it's already been several months since I read it. In this situation, reviewing my notes is mostly to refresh my own memory, though these comments also reflect what struck me as most significant at that time.

On page 12 he is already mentioning Hitler, in the context of Rumsfeld's high regard for "Hitler's Blitzkrieg as a paradigm for U.S. military strategy." This is also related to the "shock and awe" compound buzzword that is used so frequently in recent years. (There's also a grammatical error on this page regarding the atomic bombings, which may have been my primary focus at the time.) Then there's a long gap until page 211, where I have a few notations in his historical discussion of the peculiar hate propaganda attacks of Alexander Hamilton against Thomas Jefferson. The theme of this section was the projection of Hamilton's own traits against his enemies, which is also a common characteristic of much of the current rightwing propaganda. On page 275 he is discussing the increasing religious intrusions into government business, leading into Ann Colter's amazing anti-environmental quote that she attributes to her God: "Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it! It's yours." That one still amazes me each time I see it. On page 277 I commented on a really extreme comment by a religious extremist defending the death penalty. Her claim was that capital punishment was fine and dandy as long as it required two witnesses (which is apparently a Biblical criteria)--and I noted that all her criteria really required was two enemies.

Unfortunately, that rapid review didn't really bring much of the book back into my mind, which is another sign that the book wasn't very strong. There were just too many polemics, and though the citations are quite comprehensive, they're still in the polemical spirit of "know your enemy" rather than in the neutral spirit of "here's the evidence" (which is often pretty amazing, however). It's probably significant that the book has no index. Though lots of issues are mentioned, and even though it's mechanically trivial for modern computers to construct various kinds of indexes, and even though it's a non-fiction book that ought to have one, the publisher evidently didn't feel like an index was worth the pages. Yes, there was a table of contents, but even the title names were not helpful. For example, what does "The Wrong Man: II" tell you? Not much, since we already know the author is opposed to Dubya.

Maybe this book should just be taken as symptomatic of how the opposition to Dubya-style negative politics fails when it tries to "go negative" in response? That kind of fighting-fire-with-fire obviously does not work, and it didn't work well in this book. The progressive opposition is often fragmented and lacks focus, even suffering from "paralysis by analysis", while BushCo just decides on the appropriate message of the day and stands with it--until tomorrow, when a fresh audience calls for some other message. Reminds me of the frivolous and flippant television audience, actually, and television propaganda is probably the area where Professor Miller should remain focused. I would like to say that polemics avail naught, but they obviously do gather a lot of votes from the BushCo side...


2005/02/11

Review of Will They Ever Trust Us Again?

In reviewing this book, I feel like I have to start out by saying that I basically reject the premises, starting right with the title. Speaking as a military veteran and historian, I don't feel like "trust" should be the key word here, and even if it has become a crucial issue now, the "ever" implies a long-term "trust relationship" that is not historically justified. Especially in the case of conscript armies (and most of America's major conflicts have been fought primarily by draftees), there is no question of trust there. The soldiers have gone to war because they had to, and that they loved their country and felt the cause they were fighting for was just (in most cases) is not particularly germane.

The books consists mostly of dissent from the ranks (with a few similar letters from family members and other people). Nothing new there, and something that's always existed to some degree. Now it's time to put on my historical sociologist hat, and ask about the relative significance of the current dissent and whether or not morale is lower now than during previous conflicts. Unfortunately, that's the kind of information that is very difficult to obtain, and this book itself is a good example of why. Military conflicts do not exist in isolation, and the polarization extends to the reporting and descriptions of what is going on. Especially at the time of the conflict you can't expect anyone to provide a balanced accounting. Since Michael Moore feels the conflict is unjustified, then of course he's going to select for publication the letters that agree with that perspective and ignore the others.

At the same time Moore finds himself caught up in the propaganda games that surround all modern wars. Actually, I was rather surprised he didn't mentioned the orchestrated letter-writing campaigns from the other side, where almost identical letters from soldiers were published in various newspapers and turned out to have been coordinated by the military to create a stronger impression that things were going well in Iraq. There's no evidence that Michael Moore resorted to similar tactics, and no similarities in the letters, but simply by being a highly visible opponent of the anti-Saddam war and by having a Web site with his email address, he's going to receive a lot of aligned email. It would have been interesting if he had included the full spectrum, or at least some statistics about the pro-war email he must have received, but he's not particularly interested in telling the same story that the large majority of the rest of the media sources are telling--especially when so many parts of that story are so clearly distorted. The real story of this manufactured war was how the perpetrators focused on the non-existent weapons of mass destruction to the point where WMD became the buzzword to end all buzzwords--along with ending many thousands of lives. The real reason why? Well, the various constituencies of BushCo had different motives, and most were not suitable for public "consumption", but there was room for everyone on the WMD bandwagon.

However, it's no real surprise that most of the dissent-filled letters that Michael Moore collected in this book came from the soldiers who do feel that their trust had been betrayed--which mostly means the military reservists. They are actually the Americans who've suffered most because of the unrealistic invasion of Iraq. The neocon fantasy was that they would not be needed, and that we'd be welcomed with flowers as conquering heroes, but when that fantasy collided with the reality principle, then more troops were needed, and the reservists got called up, and many of them feel like their lives are being disrupted, their careers broken or even ruined, for no good reason, and they are the ones who are most bitter and willing to say so. Many of them were trusting in the "tradition" that the reserves would not be sent into combat--but that is only an old wives' tale that started during the period of the Vietnam conflict, when the reserves were a safe enough refuge even for rightwing shirkers like Dubya himself. I can't judge from these letters, but I wonder how many of them were believing the same kind of scenario I had in mind when I was in the reserves (though that was already after our troops had left Vietnam). I thought being in the reserves would actually give me a higher degree of freedom, with a priority status to volunteer for active duty, even combat duty, but only if my country really needed me... Certainly can't see any match to the situation in Iraq. No threat to America there. (At least not before the invasion, though Iraq is now the world's main recruiting and training ground for terrorists.)

Still, it's very significant and not addressed by Michael Moore that in general the morale of the American troops is (apparently) still quite high, even so long after failing to "finish winning" the anti-Saddam war. This is actually where I most directly reject the essential premise of the merit of an all-volunteer army. However, that premise is held not just by Michael Moore, but by most of the Busheviks, too. In fact, I think that the volunteer army becomes imbalanced in the worst way, and many problems naturally result. One specific example is the presence of various kinds of fanatics among the soldiers, especially the religiously motivated ones. Fanatics always regard themselves as morally superior to the nonbelievers, and one of the common outcomes is war crimes like the systematic torture that occurred in Iraq since the invasion. An awkward place to end, and not even addressed in the book, but if this anti-Saddam war had been a "real war", a war that involved a real threat to America and large numbers of drafted soldiers, there would certainly have been much more of a public outcry as it became clear the entire thing was just a sick joke. Are the Busheviks hoping there's a statute of limitations on reality?

Peripheral issues that were ignored are the questions of motivations and authenticity of the letter writers. There was actually one letter that made me wonder if it was a rightwing supporter of the war playing some kind of game, and quite a number of letters that made me wonder if the authors were really hoping to be discharged for writing them. Comes back to the usual problem of not being able to read anyone's mind, but the bottom line is clearly that there are many soldiers who are not happy to be there in Iraq.


2005/01/09 to 10

Review of The Great Unravelling

Expecting tedious and boring? You'd think so, from a book that is basically a collection of old newspaper columns from an specialist in international economics. But wrongo! The two things that most surprised me about this book was how quickly it flew past and how relevant it still seemed. The bite-sized pieces helped the readability, which wasn't a major surprise, but the strong structure of the book supported the approach surprisingly well. However, that these issues remained so relevant shows both their significance and stability. Evidence of the stubborn persistence of reality in the face of faith-based attacks? Or just Krugman's clear vision starting from outside of the box?

The columns are organized thematically into six parts with some chronological structuring, too. The structure is so good that I'm just going to include here the top two levels of the table of contents (and summarizing the columns of each chapter (leaf)):

  1. Bubble Trouble
    1. Irrational Exuberance—about the stock market craze and the dot.com boom
    2. Portents Abroad—comparing the U.S. to Japan and elsewhere
    3. Greenspanomics—where Greenspan sells out
    4. Crony Capitalism, U.S.A.—on corporate greed and funny accounting
  2. Fuzzy Math
    1. The Bait...—the tax cut with the "surplus"
    2. ...And the Switch—the tax cut with the deficit and the sick trifecta
    3. 2-1=4—BushCo's use of funny math, focusing on social security
  3. Victors and Spoils
    1. Things Pull Apart—increasing partisanship, with BushCo flying off to the far right extremes
    2. The Private Interest—how privatization has weakened legitimate public interests, such as national security
    3. Exploiting September 11—and how
    4. A Vast Conspiracy?—not the neocon Straussians, but the "conventional" right-wing extremists
  4. When Markets Go Bad
    1. California Screaming—how the California situation was created and exploited (though stopping short of the ultimate political hat trick of blaming the Democrats for the Republicans' corruption)
    2. Smog and Mirrors—about BushCo propaganda to blame conservation for energy problems
    3. Foreign Disasters—insider trading outside borders
  5. The Wider View
    1. Global Schmobel—America's stinginess and defending the WTO, etc.
    2. Economics and Economists—virtues of consumer-oriented economics and the interesting piece about the two Larrys
  6. One Year Later (added to the paperback edition)
    1. War and Terror—failures in Iraq and Afghanistan
    2. Dollars and Cents—tax cut chicanery, deficits, and public services on the ropes
    3. Abuses of Power—undeclared and unjustified war, propaganda, one-party rule, vote rigging, etc.

On reflection, trying to think what to say in order to summarize this book, my conclusion is that I can't say much that would add anything to the author's ideas. It's a very good read and will provide you with plenty of food for thought. I certainly can't outdo him. He has a clear vision of how BushCo is attempting to wind the clock backwards, and his presentation of the evidence is quite good. Right now I'm at a loss to say more.


2005/01/03

Review of The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader

We should start with a big drum roll and the official announcement "And now, for the big event you've all been waiting for...." Actually not such a big event in spite of all the hoopla from the Busheviks about the movie. Still, much of the criticism of the movie was supposed to be about the facts or reputed lies in the movie, so pointing out the two most questionable statements in the movie ought to be a big event. Of course, the real reason for the criticism was that Fahrenheit 9/11 attacks Dubya's "divinity", so the facts are just the window dressing. They say that people believe what they want to believe, and some people believe that Dubya is qualified for his job, and to heck with the kind of awkward facts Michael Moore collects.

Since the suspense must be killing you, I'll go ahead and say that there are two statements in the movie that I regard as questionable and debatable. This is based on seeing the movie once in a theater, and reading this book carefully. This book includes the complete screenplay of the movie, so I'll use that as the concrete frame of reference. The two statements are "They [the Taliban] mostly got away, as did Osama bin Laden and most of al Qaeda" on page 49, and the descriptive fragment "A nation [Iraq] that had never murdered a single American citizen" on page 72. The rest of it is solid, even boringly solid, at least for anyone who has been paying attention to what's going on, but these two statements are worth more consideration.

The crucial problem with the page 49 statement (with support beginning on page 141 in the second part of the book) is that we don't really know enough details about the inner workings of al Qaeda to know whether or not most of them escaped. We do have enough evidence about the numbers to say that most of the Taliban members did escape, though we can still raise questions about most of the Taliban's leaders. We aren't even sure about the leadership positions and who was killed, so it is possible that most of the Taliban leaders were killed or captured, even though the bulk of the Taliban did escape and continue to be a nuisance. The evidence is also quite strong that UBL himself did get away, and latest reports are that "the trail is cold." However, the question remains about "most of al Qaeda", both as regards the majority of the membership and the majority of the leadership. Yes, it certainly is true that al Qaeda had a major concentration of members in Afghanistan, and that concentration has been broken up, but did most of them get away? Were they killed? Captured? I'm not even sure if UBL knows for sure. What about the members outside of Afghanistan? How many were there? Some of the al Qaeda leaders were killed, and a few captured, but again, I doubt we know enough about the organization to say for certain whether or not most escaped. As is also the case with evaluating effectiveness against the Taliban leadership, we really should consider a weighted average, not the raw numbers, with senior and more valuable leaders counting for more as part of the leadership. But at what point could we say "Most of them got away"? Therefore, I regard this statement as an assertion of Michael Moore's opinion about what happened to most of al Qaeda. Though it is worded somewhat rhetorically, and even though many terrorism experts agree with it, I'm still doubtful it can be taken as a simple statement of fact.

The statement on page 72 is different. As a string of defined words arranged according to the grammatical rules of English, it is not false, and yet I have to feel like it is basically wrong. However, to argue that it is wrong requires working with tricky problems of definition regarding "murdered" and "a nation". My basic belief is that this statement is wrong because I hold Iraq in some sense collectively responsible for the American casualties during the war in Kuwait. The first problem is that military casualties in combat situations are not usually considered as murder victims. However, even during a just war, I think it is reasonable to regard as unjust the deaths of soldiers on the side of justice (as well as the deaths of innocent civilians). Those deaths can then be shoehorned into a "murder" sort of category, and some of those soldiers were American citizens. (Unlike the recent anti-Saddam war, there was (and is) strong consensus that the first Gulf War was a just war, which includes justifying some deaths.) The part about Iraq's responsibility is also strained. In a way that's blaming the Iraqi people for failing to get rid of Saddam, and it's also ignoring the question of America's responsibility for helping Saddam. Still, the bottom line is that some American citizens did die unjustly because of Iraq's actions, and it wasn't Saddam acting all by himself, no matter how he came to power. However, in the larger context of the movie, the question was whether or not there was a justification for the anti-Saddam "war", and as a justification for war it still falls short. Sorry, but simple revenge is not on the list of just causes.

That's not to say the rest of the book should be taken as gospel, though it's clearly supported with more substantive material evidence than the Bible. There are lots of careful citations in the 55 pages of Part II on the sources. I feel there are a couple of places where the screenplay actually includes things I regard as questionable, but those are just cases where Michael Moore's comments about his interpretations of the events he is showing disagree with my interpretations, and since the events are shown as they are, and without his interpretations, they don't lose their status as recorded facts. One example is on page 167 (in the notes), where he is basically speculating on the lead contractor's share of the profits from a contract.

There are also a few cases of material in the book that I would have liked to have seen included in the movie, though of course there's always more and Michael Moore had to draw the line somewhere. An interesting example is the note on page 171 about Prince Bandar's special personal security from the State Department, but I guess he felt this aspect was adequately covered by the Secret Service encounter in the film. Starting on page 182 he has some more material about cutting military pay and benefits that I felt wasn't covered adequately in the film.

So far I've basically covered the first two parts, the screenplay itself and the notes. The next two parts and the sixth part were basically reactions to the movie from the public, the critics, and the political cartoonists. In between, in Part V, there's a section of essays that had some interesting pieces in it. This is the section where the New York Times refused reprint permission for the article where they criticized their own news coverage of Iraq for being too trusting of the BushCo party line.

In general, the production of the book seems very careful and error free, which is appropriate in a book about a movie that was made carefully to avoid errors. I did manage to find a couple of trivial mistakes, but it took some effort. For example on page 61, he says "students" in a context that must mean "followers". Yes, they were students, too, but that introductory sentence is in relation to al Qaeda, not to their status as students in the flight schools. On pages 147 and 173 he writes that Sugarland is 22 miles from Houston, but if I remember correctly, it is about that far from downtown, but actually touches the city—Houston is really large.

In summary, the book does its job as a "guide" to the movie. If you were already up on the facts covered in the movie, you didn't actually need the guidance, but for many people it would be quite helpful and informative. However, most of the people I've met who had trouble understanding the movie were actually people from other countries, and a lot of what they couldn't understand was the American political context, things like the operation of the Electoral College in presidential elections, and the book doesn't really offer enough support to address their questions.


2004/12/31

Review of The Price of Loyalty

Former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill did not actually write this book about Dubya's White House. It's actually kind of hard to describe the writing process. The author, Ron Suskind, wanted to do a book about it, and O'Neill was willing to help and provided lots of crucial material, but it was essentially hands-off as regards the actual writing, so you can't say it was ghost-written for O'Neill. The author is very much a political reporter and professional author, and knows what makes a book interesting, but there isn't much obvious slant here. Actually, from watching some of O'Neill's post-publication interviews I have the impression his view of Dubya is much more negative than portrayed in the book, even though the book is already quite negative.

Describing what the book actually is is also difficult. The Busheviks were quick—very quick—to attack it as kiss-and-tell journalism of the worst sort. All that shows is that they were again attacking something without even reading it. They were mostly fixated on the soon-famous description of Dubya's highly orchestrated cabinet meetings as "the President is like a blind man in a room full of deaf people." (Cf. page 149) The actual point of that description was the decision process BushCo uses in contrast to what O'Neill regards as good decision-making processes. The book is closest to a personal history of O'Neill's 23 months working for Dubya, but with a lot of higher level observations mixed in to the point where I want to regard it as a book of political science and philosophy. It's not just a string of facts, which was the impression I got from most of Against All Enemies (the other significant insider account that has come out to date), but rather the kind of book that gets you to start wondering about your basic assumptions.

The overall impression I got was that O'Neill is basically a straight-shooting honest fellow, and as such he had absolutely no place among the vicious political piranhas surrounding Dubya. This book really helped me understand the distinction between faith-based reasoning and the scientific reality-based approach. O'Neill is a rational sort of fellow with a long and extremely impressive track record of accomplishments, and his process-oriented focus is basically scientific. He believes in looking at all of the real facts and seriously considering all of the possible actions and their ramifications, and that there really is a best solution waiting to be found if you look hard enough.

The approach of Dubya and the key people surrounding Dubya is completely different. They act on faith. They already KNOW what they want to do, and simply believe that what they want to do is absolutely correct, and any facts that don't support what they want to do are to be ignored or even attacked. (And if not the "troublesome" facts, then attack the messengers, just as O'Neill and Clarke were attacked.) The problem is that reality is very persistent and keeps refusing to be ignored. Well, it isn't actually a problem for O'Neill, but that's why Dubya punted him so quickly.

The other main focus of the book was the shallowness of the "advertising" process Dubya's administration uses. The example on page 8 caught my attention because of being bracketed between a description of Dubya as "holding court" and Dubya's old dictator joke. The pitch line for that day was actually "heal whatever wounds may exist", part of the "uniter, not divider" spin that looks pretty laughable now that we've seen several years of Dubya's divisiveness. However, a frequently recurring theme of the book is the "party line" of the day, and how O'Neill kept missing the line and sending the "wrong message".

Of course 9/11 will figure in any book about Dubya's reign, but it doesn't figure very prominently in this book since most of the international security issues are out of the scope of the Treasury Department. One interesting passage was on page 197, where he mentioned how he wanted to get help from the Saudis to stop the flow of funds to the terrorists, but that they were not willing to provide much. He doesn't go as far as House of Bush, House of Saud in this area, but he definitely creates the impression that he agrees with Against All Enemies regarding the focal issues of Dubya's White House, including the focus on Saddam Hussein in Iraq over UBL.

A thread that winds throughout the book is how Dubya's information is filtered through a very small number of people, even apart from the focus on faith-based reasoning. In theory, the Secretary of the Treasury should be one of the most important human sources, but one of the main impressions of the book was that O'Neill did not feel that way. Rather the impression conveyed was that his meetings with Dubya were basically outside of the real policy loop. Though he acknowledged the highly political nature of the decision-making process during that time, he still seems to feel the dominant player is Dick Cheney rather than Karl Rove.

There was a typo on page 168, in the second paragraph from the bottom, where it says "Now, as O'Neill jotted notes about [how] to add fiber to...", but in general the production quality of the book was very good.

Conclusions? Well, earlier I mentioned "wondering about your basic assumptions" in connection with this book. As I was writing this review, and in consideration of the outcome of the American election last month, the main assumption I now find myself wondering about is whether or not representative and democratic government is such a great idea after all. My assumption has always been that people want to be free, but I'm also one of those guys who really enjoys my own freedoms. Or perhaps more importantly, my true heroes are those people who freely choose to do good things. However, I also know that freedom is a kind of burden, and to truly act freely actually requires a good deal of effort. Collecting all those facts, considering all those ramifications, then actually acting and following through, etc. The bottom line revealed in this election is that most Americans apparently don't want to bother with all that freedom stuff—and maybe this is just the natural fate of any nation "conceived in liberty" when the citizens are too lazy and indifferent to be free.

Here's one way to think about the election that that new assumption: Start with 40% of the people who were too lazy even to vote. Next consider the actual voters, 30% for Dubya and 29% for Kerry. Let's ignore the 1% lunatic fringe voters and any questions about minor vote tampering. Assuming there was a best choice to be made in this election, then either 30% or 29% of the voters made the wrong choice. Both sides were agreed that this was a crucial election for the sake of "freedom". Does it really matter to the state of the system if the failure to vote for "freedom" only involved 69% or 70% of the voters? Or should I just conclude that it's a shame more of them didn't read this book?


2004/09/20

Review of The President of Good & Evil

This book is much better than The Lies of George W. Bush, though it basically handles the same material from a somewhat different perspective. The approach is very simple. It assumes that Dubya is telling the truth (as he understands it) in his public statements, and it then considers whether or not those various statements can be reconciled with each other and with his actions in any way that is consistent with any philosophic framework. On the face of it, this might seem to be a peculiar approach, since no one pretends that Dubya is any sort of philosopher, but many ethical systems are recognized by philosophy, and since Dubya's actions have ethical consequences, there ought to be some sort of fit somewhere. Actually, since Dubya speaks so frequently about ethical topics such as good and evil, there is all the more reason to believe there should be some matches. The author is a well-known and knowledgeable philosopher, and he is familiar with all of the major schools of philosophic thought. There is no presumption that Dubya is trying to make deep philosophic statements, but simply that there should be some consistency.

Most observers of Dubya's administration will not be surprised that a philosopher is unable to find any consistent philosophic basis, though it seems that the author makes a sincere and good faith effort. Utilitarianism and religious philosophies come up frequently, but the philosophic bases always wind up in conflict, and eventually it always seems easier to appeal to pragmatic politics to explain what actually happened. The book is divided into two parts, one focused within America, and the other considering the world, and here I'll consider one example from each part.

A central theme of the first part is respect for human life, with the issue centered around Dubya's opposition to abortion in any form, but especially as it has been extended to cover stem cell research. This was actually "billed" as a major ethical challenge that Dubya was wrestling with just before 9/11 eclipsed everything else. Dubya's peculiar solution was to say that no federal funding could be used for research involving any stem cell line which had not already been created as of the time of his speech. The pseudo-Solomonic rationale was that the harm of destroying an innocent "human life" had already taken place in these cases, so it was sort of okay for other people to benefit from that harm, but no future harm could be permitted or encouraged, so to remove any incentive for such harm, the federal government would not support any research on new lines. The reality turned out to be that Dubya had effectively cancelled all federally funded stem cell research in America, but that's not crucial to the ethical problem the author focused on. Instead, he mostly focused on other cases, for example involving surplus fetuses in fertility clinics. These fetuses are destined to be destroyed, but could be used for new stem cell lines, except that Dubya forbids such usage. The various rationales for this distinction were evaluated and came up lacking. There was also some consideration of the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where actions that Dubya approved of definitely did cause the destruction of innocent human lives. None of the candidate philosophic rationales could be twisted sufficiently to make a consistent interpretation of Dubya's words and actions.

The main theme of the second part was the question of "just war". I felt it was kind of unreasonable that the author simply accepted a particular set of conditions for just war without considering alternatives. However, it was quite easy to demonstrate how these conditions applied to the wars Dubya has fought, and especially to show the large ethical differences between the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

There were a lot of other topics covered in the book. For example, equal opportunity and various economic themes have appeared frequently in Dubya's public speeches, especially around the "compassionate conservatism" campaign theme. They were then related to the reality of the increasing gap between rich and poor as a result of Dubya's actual policies... And on and on. In the end, I felt the author had made an excellent case that Dubya has no real ethics, and I quite liked this passage from his conclusion (on page 225):

"I have started with the opposite, more generous assumption: that Bush is sincere, and we should take his ethic seriously, assessing it on its own terms, and asking how well he has done by his own standards. Even if that assumption should be false, the task has been worth undertaking, for we now know that, sincerely held or not, Bush's ethic is woefully inadequate. He now trails behind him a string of broken promises and reversed policies.... If what's needed in a president is, as Bush himself said in November 2000, a consistent message, then George W. Bush is a conspicuous failure."

Still, my bottom line conclusion on this book is that it won't affect many voters. Marketing it as a philosophy book is just not going to appeal to many people, and though the cover says it's a bestseller, that must be in the niche of philosophy books.


2004/09/20

Review of The Lies of George W. Bush

Overall, I didn't find this book very persuasive or powerful. Yes, there are lots of lies here, and they are well documented, but it just seems like a kind of tedious list, and there were too many times I felt like he was stretching to maximize the effect. I guess it's mostly a testimony to the author lacking the skill for more powerful writing, even though the heavy material ought to make up for it. Or perhaps he was deliberately trying to make it sound balanced? If so, he didn't really succeed in that goal. There were only a couple of bits that even caught my attention, as on page 292 where he rightfully criticizes Ari Fleischer for saying administration critics have to prove a negative (which is impossible) by showing where the WMDs are, when those critics are saying there aren't any to be found (which also turned out to be the reality). Mechanically, there were only a couple of very minor grammar errors, so that aspect was handled quite well, but the overall effect was just kind of weak. Maybe the problem is that the author is a political commentator and he's seen too many increasingly amazing political lies over the years, but if I had to pick one word to sum up the book, it would probably be "jaded".


2004/08/28 to 29

Review of Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush

The young John Dean was Nixon's attorney, so early in his career he started with extensive experience of presidential corruption. Once again I find myself reviewing when the book is no longer fresh in my mind, so I can jump directly to the main lasting impressions: Secrecy and atomic bombs.

The overriding theme of the book is how secretively BushCo runs the government, and the extreme lengths they are going to in order to hide the foundations of their "public" service. BushCo's defense of most of the secrecy is that they need "honest" advice, and they claim that secrecy and hiding who gave the advice is the only way to get it. I'm not sure if Dean worded it this way, or if I saw it elsewhere, but the obvious reaction is that if the advice is sincerely in the public interest, then there is no reason to hide it. Secrecy only makes sense if there is some reason to fear the truth because the truth is that the advice is NOT in the public interest. They really are trying to operate the government like it was a business—and businesses often act AGAINST the public interest. Well, the REAL reason for the secrecy seems to be pretty obvious, eh?

The nuclear bomb thing was that Dean believes the rumors that some of the Soviet nuclear bombs escaped control and were stolen during the transitional chaos, and that a small number, perhaps 10 might be floating. The great threat is that some terrorist might get them, but I actually wonder more about the CIA or other government agencies with fundamentally criminal mind-sets. Not a good thought in this week of the GOP convention in NYC, but if a nuclear bomb were to go off, it's not like there would be much evidence of who really did it...

Looking at some of the flagged pages I'll just span the topics to give a feel for whither the book wandered. There was a section around page 44 about Cheney's dealings in Iraq—no surprise that BushCo would like to keep that stuff under wraps. Page 72 has an interesting discussion of Poppy Bush's attitude towards polls as part of his general weakness as a political campaigner. This is being contrasted to Rove's never-ending campaign mentality. Page 75 is starting on the BushCo political exploitation of the disaster of 9/11, which is also the true theme of the GOP convention just mentioned. There was a minor typo on page 112, among the considerations of BushCo damage control for and limitation of the 9/11 investigations. Around page 149 he is discussing how Dubya spun the authorization for the anti-Saddam war as he ordered the invasion. Page 186 is part of the discussion of the harms of secrecy, but I'm not sure what part of this discussion originally caught my eye. The first subtitle there is "Secrecy Precludes Public Accountability", but all of this stuff seems pretty obvious and just shows how anti-democratic BushCo is. Spiro Agnew puts in a guest appearance with Cheney on page 190. The second appendix has some stuff about concerned scientists on page 208

My residual general impression of the book is that it was an interesting read, and well done, but most of what it said was pretty obvious. No historian is going to regard this period as a peak of democracy in America—and it might well be taken as the end.


2004/08/08 to 09

Review of House of Bush, House of Saud

This book probably received most of its notoriety from being featured and discussed in Michael Moore's political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The author's basic thesis is that BushCo is too closely involved with the Saudi royal family, and one scene in the movie accidentally helps to prove the thesis. Michael Moore is interviewing the author on camera, using the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC, as the background, when some security people come out to see what's going on. Turns out they are secret service agents. What, you thought the secret service was supposed to protect American politicians? Well, either you should think again, or the book is too close to the mark.

Even apart from the movie, the book is interesting on its own merits and covers a lot of material. However, I didn't feel like it went deeply enough into the history on the BushCo side, though the history and scope on the Saudi side was pretty good. On the BushCo side, it basically focused on Dubya Bush and his father, tossing in a couple of family friends, but the blood ties are more important than friendship ties in these cases, and I think there are lots of other blood-tied Bush family members with Saudi Arabian links, and though they are less influential, the cumulative effect is crucial. Plus, you can never tell which weak link will be the opening for problems—little stuff like blackmail and so forth.

Having finished the book a while ago, I can say that there are three sections that contained information that was new to me and which I've discussed with people since then. The lesser item, but surprising, was to learn that Saddam actually started working for the CIA in 1959, when we hired him to help assassinate the Iraqi prime minister. He didn't quite succeed, though he killed the chauffeur. It made me wonder if that was Saddam's first real taste of murder, or whether the 22-year-old Saddam already had a track record. Later we were sending him lists of targets to kill—but everyone already knows we helped create that monster. (The book did say a lot about the blowback problem of Osama Bin Ladin, but not much about other CIA hirelings. For example, Noreiga is only mentioned briefly.)

The most significant incident in the book involved high-level Saudi support for Al Qaeda—resulting in the sudden deaths of three high-ranking Saudi princes. A top Al Qaeda leader was arrested and turned over to the Americans for interrogation. The strategy they decided on was a good-cop/bad-cop game. All of the interrogators were actually Americans, but one group of Arab-American interrogators was pretending to be Saudi Arabian. The idea was the Americans would be the good guys and he would decide to cooperate with them out of fear of being turned over to the Saudis who would then torture him in their cruel prison system. However, the prisoner reacted quite differently than was expected. He saw the fake Saudis as his friends, and gave them a phone number to call for instructions. After nothing happened for a few days, he gave them two more phone numbers. Then he realized he was being set up, and he tried to kill himself. The three phone numbers turned out to belong to Saudi princes—who suddenly died within a week of each other. Heart attack, car accident, and something else I can't recall. The claim here was that Al Qaeda had indirectly but effectively recruited these guys (and possibly others) by giving them advance notice of the 9/11 attack, but without giving them any concrete details. Essentially they had become minor accessories subject to blackmail because they knew in advance—and apparently this also explains the mysterious rise in shorts against airline stocks at the time of the attack. Certain people had been tipped off, and though they didn't know exactly what it was, they knew it involved American airplanes.

The third one might not be so large, but it was very surprising to me to learn that apparently 90% of the Arab-Americans voted for Dubya in 2000. Not a big voting bloc, but more than enough votes in Florida to cover Dubya's tiny claim of victory. So the Arab-Americans can claim they are yet another one of the groups that helped Dubya stagger into the White House. The basis for this strong support was apparently one of Dubya's answers during the second debate with Al Gore. He actually mangled it quite a bit, but he was apparently trying to address racial profiling and the use of secret evidence, which for Arab-Americans were hot topics at that time. Actually, Dubya was saying he opposed them, though now that he's in power they are firmly established as standard operating procedures. Just another example of people not getting quite what they expected from the Dubya package.

Overall the book was kind of a dry presentation of interesting historical information. It can be recommended on that basis, but overall it's just background and kind of boring. It presents strong evidence, but much of it is basically circumstantial. While most of BushCo's crimes will eventually be addressed, this information is only a starting place in addressing the motives.


2004/07/10 to 11

Review of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

Greg Palast deserves tremendous respect and support—but I still wouldn't want to get on an airplane with him. Talk about enemies in high places! His critics call it muckraking, but it's just a matter of perspective. It's actually direct exposure of stuff that very powerful people do NOT want exposed. Of course, if they were really acting in the public interest, they wouldn't be trying to hide these things from the public in the first place, now would they?

First, though I usually don't include my notes of this sort, just to demonstrate my routine attention for details, I'll report on a few that caught my eye as I read the book.

Page 43: "Governor Jeb Bush's resistance to court rulings, conducted at whisper level with high-tech assistance, has been far more effective at blocking voters of color from the polling station door."
This was in contrast to the Jim Crow era, and it has to be taken as an exaggeration, unless you interpret it in some special and narrow sense of "effective". Segregation was a full-scale targeting of blacks, but Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris were much more selective, and to argue for being "more effective" you would have to consider other factors like avoiding bad publicity or the incredibly narrow margin of the actual election.
Page 85: "...sulfurous combination of pollution, payola and political power unique to the Lone Star State."
I felt "unique" was an excessive claim here.
Page 90: Censorship of gold mining story
The way he handled this seemed clumsy to me, and the single citation was inadequate. He should have included some citations to the previously published accounts. Then again, this was probably a last-minute cut.
Page 128: "$39 million"
This number didn't match another reference to the same referendum.
Page 161: "..., rather IMF policies."
Should be "..., but rather IMF policies."
Page 288: About the "lobbyist's rectitude"
His argument about hurting their business was unpersuasive to me, and at a minimum, I think he should have asked them if they wanted to be mentioned by name as an honest and ethical organization, in contrast to the other professional lobbyists he described.
Page 318: "dead east"
From NYC, that would be in the Atlantic. Must have meant "dead west".
Page 362: "that we"
Grammar seems to constrain to something like "to".
Page 373: "funding and fondling"
Must be "funded and fondled".

Overall, the editing seems to be quite good, but that may reflect that it's a revised printing and the errata have been taken care of by now. Nothing significant from this perspective.

After reading the book, my overall impression was mostly sort of "nothing to see here" in the worst sense of the expression. Actually, there's lots to see here, but mostly no one cares or wants to see it. Yes, these are real and serious crimes, but the root cause is the usual boring story of the corruption of power, and it's just one example after another of the same depressing old story. It's not a collection of trivia, but it might as well be for all the effect it has on the "real" world. Reflecting on the book, I felt like he's proving that crime does pay, even though that is obviously the opposite of his intention. Most of that effect may be because the book is too egocentric, focusing on his difficulties he's faced, resulting in a focus on the cases without happy endings. Also, there's the fact that the real world is very slow. For example, he mentions Enron in many places, but it's only a few days ago that Ken Lay was finally arrested. However, even in that case of a bad guy seeming to finally get his just desserts, a lot of smart money says it's being stage-managed now as a kind of campaign stunt, and Lay will eventually be pardoned. With the election dangling over them, BushCo just wants to pretend they are going to do something about corporate corruption.

The last part of the book is so upbeat and optimistic that it feels unrelated to the rest of the book, except that the earlier part managed to convey a feeling that he does like what he's doing, in spite of the lack of significant results in most of the cases he describes.

Hard to offer a substantive conclusion here... Overall I feel it's a reflection of the sad state of journalism these years. Real investigative reporters like Greg Palast and Seymour Hersh seem to be a dying breed, and this book is NOT going to encourage hordes of youngsters to enter the field. Most "journalists" are content to be stenographers working for propagandists, as long as their paychecks arrive on time.


2004/04/18 to 28

Review of Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror

This one is SO pointed at the heart of the BushCo beast that it's even possible Dubya read a few pages of it. The thesis is simple and chilling: BushCo deliberately ignored terrorism until the tragic attack of 9/11, and then deliberately used the attack for political advantage to support their political agenda.

Since it's been a few days since I finished the book, this review is mostly reflecting the deeper impressions the book created. First, Mr. Clarke established his qualifications to write this kind of book, both in terms of his long record of government service, and then with the concrete example of his handling of the response to the actual 9/11 attack. He was the man on the spot, coordinating the responses to the attack, remaining in the primary conference room in the White House after almost everyone else was evacuated. No one left except for him and a couple of people on his staff (and a couple of secret service people). That morning he considered it to be very likely that he was about to die, that the White House where he was working would be the next target, but he had a job to do and he continued performing it. He clearly succeeds in establishing that he was a consummate professional, with extensive experience in preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. He then reviews the historical origins of the modern terrorists, and covers the recent history of their activities and the American responses. Probably the most important aspect of this is the change in priorities from the Clinton administration to the Dubya White House. The threat of terrorism simply dropped off the radar screen as far as BushCo was concerned. They had other priorities, such as tax cuts, government secrecy, and energy policies.

The most troublesome aspect that sticks in my mind is that Mr. Clarke had seen how terrorism had grown and developed as a threat, and in the first week of the new administration, he requested an urgent meeting of the "principles", the crucial top people who could make decisions and guide government policies. This was not an idle request, but based on the need to implement a program to counterattack Al Qaeda in response to their latest attacks. His request was ignored, and though he pursued it "through channels", the meeting did not actually take place until one week before the 9/11 attack.

The comparison between the handling of the millennial threat from Al Qaeda was also very painful to read, but less convincing. The problem there is the degree of evidence. Mr. Clarke was always ready to go to a high alert status—that was his job. However, there was a couple of very concrete events in the pre-millennial period that triggered the high alert, and it does not seem that there was any concrete event of that nature as a focus before 9/11. However, it seems very likely that a high alert being in effect before 9/11 might have stopped the attack at an earlier stage, and possibly even have prevented it. Though it has not yet been proven, it seems very likely that the 20th hijacker was the same person who had been arrested for an immigration violation a while before the attack. A higher state of alert might well have connected the dots in time. At least that's what happened in time to stop the planned millennial attacks.

Perhaps the most important evidence of the significance of the book is the vigorous, even violent, response from BushCo. The book was released to coincide with Mr. Clarke's testimony to the commission that is finally investigating the 9/11 attack. The delays and problems faced by that commission should be the subject of a separate investigation themselves, but that's getting off the topic here. The BushCo response was to say it was grandstanding in search of profit, which certainly describes their own performance in government. However, it is quite clear that Mr. Clarke's objective was grandstanding to boost the work of the commission, and the proximate result was to force Dubya's national security advisor Rice to testify under oath, something that BushCo had been vigorously trying to avoid. I don't really know if they are afraid of perjury charges, but she certainly approached and handled her testimony with concern. Even before that, there were major publicity efforts to discredit Mr. Clarke, with various BushCo people making lots of public appearances and speeches to denounce various aspects of Mr. Clarke, while saying very little about the actual book itself.

This book does have a lot of recommendations and even some conclusions, but presenting them is not it's primary purpose. Mostly Mr. Clarke just wanted to go on the record regarding how national security works—and sometimes fails. This is the primary source, and every real historian of this period is going to study and cite this work. Dubya's relevant comment was that he doesn't care about the judgment of history because we're all going to be dead.


2003/11/09

Review of Dude, Where's My Country?

Recently there has been a flood of anti-Bush books, and I finally broke down and bought three of them. I think this book is best of the recent crop because it is constructive and optimistic, even wildly optimistic. On top of that, it DID sell a LOT of copies, and fast, so maybe there really is a groundswell forming against the scam that is Dubya. This book is so powerful and potentially effective that its own publication and success counts as strong evidence against conspiracy theories. (Of course, the problem with a conspiracy theory is that you can always twist it one level deeper: "The conspirators are leaving him alone so they can say 'See? Nothing's happened to Michael Moore. No conspiracy here!'")

First to demonstrate my usual care in reading, I'll point out the mistake. On page 53, in the third line, "account" should obviously be "accounts". Actually, it's quite remarkable to find a book with so few errors, and even this one is grammatically correct, but only a semantic-level error. There are many companies supporting the Bushies, and they have lots and lots of bank accounts. The previous pages had just listed many examples, so this must be plural. However, this mechanical-level report shows that the production of the book was done very carefully, even though many parts of it deliberately give a feeling of haste and urgency and of being very up-to-date. One other minor concern is on page 17, where he uses the phrase "jumbo jets" with reference to the 9/11 suicide hijackers. I'm not sure those specific planes qualify in the "jumbo jet" category. Originally, I'm almost sure it was limited to the Boeing 747, at least for popular usage, but the term is fuzzy and has gotten fuzzier. I found one source that called the DC-8 the first jumbo jet. Some sources seem to call any wide-body jet a jumbo, while others list specific models from various manufacturers.

In reviewing the book, I'm not going to go into a lot of specific details for three reasons. First, I really think you should read this book for yourself, and not rely on anyone's digested report. It's that entertaining and that important. Second, because I've read so much (too much?) in this area, I'm concerned that I might attribute something incorrectly. However, on that aspect Michael Moore is very far removed from the conspiracy theorists. He basically stays with very solid facts and provides extensive notes and citations. (The minor exception is the clearly speculative questions on pages 17-19.) The third reason is that it would be very hard to select any details that really capture the spirit of the book. The book covers a lot of material, and explores it from many perspectives, but there is no disorientation or feeling of a lack of cohesion. At each stage it feels like everything is properly oriented and related to all of the relevant context. Each section begins clearly and ends with a feeling of completion. These are the marks of good writing, or strong inspiration, or both. However, trying to simplify and prioritize the themes of a very clearly written book that still manages to range widely, I feel there are four major themes here:

  1. Probable negligence in preventing the 9/11 attacks
  2. Exploitation of 9/11 for Dubya's political (= financial) goals
  3. BushCo lies and more lies
  4. How to fix the problem by eliminating Dubya

The first theme mostly centers around Dubya's long-term relationships with the Saudis, especially the Bin Ladin family and the Saudi royal family. He basically seems to be treating this as an effective conflict of interest that may have clouded Dubya's judgment, such as it is. However, the most crucial aspect is that it may have contributed to the failure to prevent the attack while also explaining Dubya's resistance to investigations of how it happened. For example, the book extensively considers the emergency evacuation of 20+ Bin Ladin family members in the week after 9/11. The BushCo spin on this is that Osama Bin Ladin was just a black sheep and outcast, but that doesn't mesh with the Bin Ladin family gathering at the wedding of Osama's son, only a few months before 9/11. Even if the relationship was strained, family members know each other very well, and it is very likely that some of them could have provided some useful information about Osama. Given the urgent and primary goal of catching him and punishing him for 9/11, using every possible information source was called for. Instead, the Bin Ladins were whisked out of the country. So far no one has confessed to being the wielder of the big whisk broom. (Not mentioned in this book in this closely related area is the tragic story of John O'Neill, the top anti-terrorism expert at the FBI, who apparently resigned from the FBI because BushCo was interfering with his investigations of Osama's relatives. As the new head of security for the WTC, he died on 9/11. However, this is obviously only more reason as to why the Bin Ladins should not have been allowed to leave the United States so quickly and conveniently.)

In terms of the exploitation of 9/11 within the second theme, the main point is the creation of a climate of perpetual fear. The book talks about how that fear is being exploited to crush political opposition and advance political agendas that have no relationship to terrorism. He also talks about how the fear is inflated, so that a statistically relatively insignificant risk is blown up out of all normal proportion to increase its leverage. There should have been some duct tape jokes in that section, but I guess he thinks they're too passe or non-constructive. However, an excellent example would have been the special liability release for a drug company that was sneakily attached to an anti-terrorism bill, and yes, the company is a big donor for Dubya. However, in terms of keeping the book light and accessible, he chose to focus rather narrowly on the late-night shenanigans around the main PATRIOT Act itself.

The third theme of BushCo lies winds through everything and everywhere. However, Chapter 2, the largest in the book, is focused on the big cluster bomb of BushCo lies used to "justify" the Iraq "war". Moore's more humorous perspective is to compare these whoppers with Burger King's Whopper menus. Perhaps the reason for the strong focus in Chapter 2 is simply that these Saddam-related lies have caused lots of people to die for no solid and publicly discussable reasons. This is wrong and ought to be an impeachable offense, especially in comparison to the supposed impeachable offense of President Clinton. Well, actually there is a reason for this war. Lots of money has already been channeled to companies that can be counted on to donate to Dubya's next campaign, though the book doesn't harp on that as much as it could. There are lots of other examples of lies from Dubya and his friends throughout the book

The constructive response theme focuses partly on the fact that solid majorities of Americans oppose Dubya's real policies (no matter how the pie is sliced or spun), and partly on how to leverage the true popular perspectives against Dubya for next year's election. These parts of the book are a kind of odd mix of realism and humor. Part of it is analyzing the voting blocs Dubya targets and strategically focusing on the RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) that he regards as the weakest link. There's solid tactical recommendations about how to talk with them, and later on there's more about tactics to get out the vote. On the humorous side, he argues strongly for Oprah Winfrey as the best candidate to defeat Dubya. Or maybe it isn't a joke? However, apparently disappointed in his ambition of drafting Oprah, he talks about some of the others, giving the strongest focus to General Clark. I'm not sure if it's a constructive response, but I made a no-risk offer to a possible RINO that I know, encouraging him to buy and read a copy of the book. Why "no-risk"? Well, because if he is so sure that Michael Moore's opinions are fatally flawed, then he should be completely confident he will be able to find a factual mistake in the book, and I'll buy the book from him in that case. (I can always donate it to a library.) However, I rather doubt he'll take me up on it, and I told him that Chapter 6 is off limits for this warranty—the whole thing is a joke, including the note on sources.

Not sure what to say in summary... I definitely felt like it was a good investment and I was properly "entertained and enraged" for a few hours. However, the real test of this kind of polemic is whether it achieves its goals in terms of changing opinions and moving people to action, and I can't tell there. The book is obviously getting its message out, but to what effect? The election of 2004 will tell the tale.


2003/01/26

Review of Stupid White Men

Did a stupid white man write it? Nope.

My general keywords for this review are "frivolous" and "obscene", and overall this is going to be a kind of critical review for several reasons. One is just to prove how carefully I read the book. Another is that there are a number of flaws at various levels. However, the big reason for negativism is the fantasy of actually doing some good. Maybe someone will be attracted by the criticism, read the review, decide to read the book, and somehow be positively influenced by the experience. Admittedly seems like a rather forlorn hope these days, but it's just so fashionable to have an optimistic note somewhere. The general trend will be from minor items to more substantial problems.

The first minor items are typographic errors that should have been cleaned out of a best-seller that has been through so many printings and which has already moved to a second publisher. For example, on page 36 the book says "nuclear" where it probably intends "nuclear power plants". The word can't stand by itself, but the current syntax would suggest a "nuclear dam", which is an interesting idea. On page 186, the math is incorrect. It says 8% of the Protestants would need to convert, but he means 8% of the total population. Since the Protestants are just over half of the total population, the figure would be about twice that. Even in the context of a moderately elaborate joke, if the numbers are included, they should be the correct ones. At the top of page 242 the word "in" was left out of the sentence "I guess I saw it [in] a movie..."

One section that confused me was on page 202 where it talks about the Kerry Sanders case. The question there is "Why was Robert Sanders arrested?" If "the system" had incorrectly switched the identities, then no one should have been looking for Robert Sanders, since the system thought he was back in prison. Guessing, but Robert Sanders was probably picked up for some other reason or for some new crime, or maybe the system was still confused about his status and still looking for him. Whatever the case, it's kind of an important aspect of the sort of not completely unhappy ending here, and it should have been explained.

Chapter 5 is criticizing the American education system and the educational qualifications of the leaders, but though the criticisms are fundamentally valid, his examples are just trivial points. His suggested quizzes are almost entirely for the kind of information that can be dug up easily and mechanically, and much of it is subject to frequent change. A political leader who spent much time tracking that sort of stuff would actually be misusing the time.

Near the beginning of Chapter 10 there is an extended criticism of President Clinton. His point is that Clinton wasn't a perfect defender of Mr. Moore's liberal faith. Apart from being non-constructive and moot (in both senses), it completely ignores the larger political context. Clinton did not have the Congressional support to act perfectly freely, and had to compromise with his opponents. The actual outcomes pretty clear demonstrate that the system was quite delicately balanced, and it was obviously quite a difficult balancing act to accomplish as much as he did. Mr. Moore was able to pick on a number of specific issues where the outcomes were bad, but there were lots of other areas where the outcomes were good, and the unbalanced presentation is not very helpful or informative. Later this idealistic criticism is extended to the entire Democratic Party. Mr. Moore was especially critical of Clinton's last minute executive orders, but again ignores the context. Anything that Clinton could do with an executive order could just as easily be undone by the next occupant of the White House. Sure, Clinton could have used more of his political capital to push a more liberal agenda during his last four years, but that most probably would have resulted in a reaction that would have pushed the country farther to the right. In the actual case, Al Gore wound up just over the edge, but also just within the range where the Florida coup was still possible.

Now for the biggest criticism, which is for Chapter 12 on the election debacle in Florida and speculating about what the Greens should have done. Though the humor (which comes and goes throughout the book) fudges the issue a bit here, there seems to be a substantive claim that the Greens could have and should have decided the election in favor of Gore. However, I think that claim is badly flawed and the reasoning is quite inconsistent for several reasons. Not just the hindsight thing, but mostly because of the unknown response of the large group in the middle to a Green maneuver with that objective. The Greens already threw almost all the weight they had behind Gore, and they only had a tiny big of extra umpth left. However, if they had announced that they were giving it all to Gore, it would have only required a tiny negative response from the large group of "moderate" voters to completely negate their efforts. [Look what happened to Mondale after Wellstone was removed.] Anyway, and as Mr. Moore has already explained at the beginning of the book, Gore did win the actual election without the Greens. It certainly wasn't an easy thing, because the GOP knew exactly what they were up against and put up the big resources. Reminds me of the old joke about "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet." In this case, the bulk of the money is in the place of "the swift" and "the strong", and the Bushies certainly had the money.

In his conclusion, Mr. Moore tries to argue for optimism on the theory that there are "more of us than there are of them". Too bad it doesn't actually work that way, as he's already shown through his own discussions of election shenanigans. The actual dynamics of the American (presidential) political system are open and visible contests with winner-take-all outcomes. As I've written elsewhere, the winner-take-all aspect guarantees that there are only a few stable equilibrium points, and third parties are not part of any of them. Given any rough equilibrium of two parties, the open aspect guarantees that the two parties will copy each other and wind up fighting for the middle, which is exactly what we see. There was only one exception in American history, and it proves the rule. The GOP began as a third party, and a very progressive one. Given a sufficiently abnormal situation, they were actually able to win it all, which only began their evolution to the extremely non-progressive party they've become today. The same thing would happen to the Greens if they somehow succeeded in destroying the Democratic Party.

So for MY conclusion, I'll argue that apart from the problems I've addressed above, the book is mostly quite good, and the mix of humor is certainly very entertaining, if sometimes a bit confusing. It certainly will cause you to think a lot, and the substantive evidence presented here is mostly very well founded and deserving of being widely known by the voting public. However, as a basis for optimism for liberal democracy, the arguments are rather lacking. Going back to the joke about races and battles, a strong argument would need to demonstrate the superior "speed" or "strength" of active democratic voters. What the actual outcomes seem to show is that American elections are for sale. It's just a matter of careful targeting of the special interest groups of voters you can afford. Dubya's sick joke was something like 'You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones we concentrate on.' Truth in jest.


2001/11/18 (with minor corrections on 2004/08/28)

Review of Supreme Injustice

In spite of the strong subtitle, "How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000", my overall reaction to this book was 'With friends like these, Gore doesn't need any enemies.' It's not that there are any flaws in his argument, and he's certainly quite critical of the majority justices—but he says it so wimpily. If this was one of the guards, it's obvious how Dubya's minions were able to pull off the heist.

Perhaps the problem is that the book falls through the cracks. It isn't written for lawyers, but it does a poor job for the layman. Or maybe it's some kind of legal evasion. Perhaps everything has been run through an anti-libel filter to make sure he doesn't say anything that could actually get him sued. Another possibility is that he just tried much too hard to make the book sound balanced, but in that case he only did a so-so job, since there is no doubt he feels the decision was a travesty of justice. There's also no question that my overall impression was disappointment. This book could have been written by any principled conservative with some knowledge of the law, but Dershowitz is supposed to be one of Gore's stronger supporters and one of the greatest experts on these things. I expected to see sparks and flames, but... Yes, there are some strong words, but the overall impression is calm and collected, and if Dershowitz cares so little, why should anyone get all upset? Though I've already criticized Bugliosi's book for having too much flame without enough fuel, this one errs on the other side.

As a constructive suggestion for some other author, I think a much stronger case could be built here. Rather than hunt and skip around, I think someone who is very familiar with these judges should just go down the list of ALL of their decisions and keep score. Each decision should be rated on the basis of whether it supported or contradicted the verdict of Bush v. Gore. Actually, it should probably be a five-point scale by independent raters, with an extra judging panel for cases of disagreement. Can't guess for sure, but if you come up with a score like 271 decisions that are in conflict with Bush v. Gore, 92 that strongly conflict, some large number of irrelevant decisions, and only 4 that slightly support and none that strongly support it, then I think that would make an overwhelming case that the judge in question was cheating, to put it in Dershowitz's mild terms.

One interesting aspect of this is that it does reveal that most of the GOPpy critics of the book have never even read it. They've seen a few juicy bits—almost surely called to their attention by reviewers of various stripes, and then they sort of foam at the book. If they had actually read it, I'm sure some of them would realize how lukewarm it is. It is not the case that the arguments are weak or invalid or anything like that. However, the most vigorous criticisms only show their ignorance of the entire context.


2001/10/13 to 10/27

Review of Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow

The most interesting aspect of this book is that he does manage to sound quite even-handed about it. I would have thought only an enlightened Zen Buddhist detached from all political interests could have managed such a feat, but he is very interested, working as a professional political reporter. An even larger accomplishment given that he went to law school with Joe Lieberman and did a lot of political work in the past. The book is kind of loosely organized, without even a table of contents, but covers quite a lot of turf, from the election night itself to the protracted recount battle and back to the campaign.

This next section will focus on some of the highlights. Given the lose organization of the book, I'm not going to try to construct a tighter organization...

On page 106 he discusses how the call was made for Bush, though he doesn't say anything about the involvement of Bush's cousin. He does use an interesting analogy of "straight for the iceberg again," though I suppose it should have been a different iceberg. His version is that a couple of errors resulted in the wrong numbers, but they newscasters still trusted the system even though it had already failed badly just a few hours before, when Florida was given to Gore and then retracted. Kind of weird that a lot of this was centered in the no-longer-existing World Trade Center in NYC. That weirdness is going to hang around in these post-9/11 days.

Page 112 has one of the interesting human touches that shows his essential detachment. The author's main concern at this critical juncture is whether he will be able to get done in time to catch his usual lunch in NYC.

Those seem to be the only specific pages that caught my attention. The main thing I recall was that he said a number of relatively positive things about Dubya's communication skills for small groups and meeting people, and negative things about Gore. Still, he managed to give the impression that he regarded Gore as the superior candidate and was basically surprised by the outcome. There was a lot of filler stuff about the primaries and conventions, but his perspective was that they mostly don't matter anymore.

Perhaps his main conclusion, though not really presented in such direct terms as a conclusion, was that he thinks Dubya was sure to win the Florida contest. Not because of the will of the voters, which he accepts to have been in Gore's favor, but mostly because the key hills were held by the GOP. In Florida, all the key institutions were controlled by Jeb Bush and company, with the sole exception of the Florida Supreme Court. In the federal courts, we know what alegally happened, and even if it had gotten to the Congress, the GOP had a narrow majority—which is all it would have taken. The secondary factor was that the Bushies REALLY wanted to win, even refused to consider the possibility that they had lost, regardless of the will of the voters. I tend to see that as a kind of projection. If you know you lost according to the thing that is supposed to count, the will of the voters, then you have to cover your theft by screaming that the other side is the thief.

Kind of a secondary conclusion is that Gore ran a poor campaign, but that strikes me as mostly another example of 20-20 hindsight. He does feel that Clinton dominated the campaign for both sides, but that Gore should have tried to use Clinton more to his advantage. Impossible to be sure what would have happened, though it is obvious that Dubya felt the 'Clinton issue' was in his favor, and Gore felt Clinton's visibility needed to be minimized... Hindsight is always 20-20, right?

So now I have to conclude by saying that the book must not have been so substantial, because I don't seem to remember too much else. Not 9/11 shock, since I read it after that. However, perhaps there is something of an eclipse effect. No matter how we got here, now we're stuck with Dubya, and it's sort of hard to keep caring about about how it happened. At the time I read the book, I remember feeling that there was some evidence that he is fundamentally a non-conservative fellow and that he felt that the system did not work very well in this election, but he smooths things over in his very gentle treatment of the inauguration, which I still regard as closer to a coronation.

The book ranks a solid 4 stars for the clarity of the reporting and the scope of the presentation. However, I'm not sure if anyone in either camp would really like it. I want to include a constructive suggestion about how it could have earned the fifth star, but can't really think of anything. I suppose it would have to be a kind of transcendental presentation, but we're much too close to the events to hope for that.


2001/08/25 to 09/22

Review of Censored 2001

An extremely rich book with a large variety of spices and flavorings. Fundamentally hard to review, because it is such an odd mix. There are sections written like newspaper articles, other parts written as though for news magazines, various essays, comics, and even some stuff like rule books, explaining the mechanics of preparing the book itself. Some of it is current, much is retrospective, and where does the interview with Walter Cronkite fit in?

The introduction by Noam Chomsky practically deserves treatment as a separate work in itself. As usual, he wanders freely over several topics, frequently calling on those boring old facts. One of the major topics here was the mass media and how it works, and it was like a light going on. Not any light, but like the big bulb in a major lighthouse with the 10 foot Fresnel lens, leading me to fly to new conclusions and thoughts quite beyond his words. Dr. Chomsky was basically fairly narrowly focusing on why the media works the way it does and why so many important stories are de facto censored. This is a bad thing, even evil, but...

The root of the evil is the search for the free lunch, because there isn't any such thing. Reducing it to the essentials, most people accept mindless tripe, especially on television, because it seems to be free, though of course it is NOT free. The advertisers who foot the bills for those commercials are not charitable, but throwing cash on the barrelhead because they expect us to respond to the 'free lunch' by buying their garbage, whatever they're peddling. The obvious answer is for the people to take over the means of production of the mass media, but unfortunately most people aren't even asking the questions. The inevitable conservative bias of a system funded on this basis is so obvious that you have to ask: "How could it be otherwise? 'Free' media has to be ultra-conservative reputation!" The most free media like broadcast TV and radio are obviously going to be the worst of all, and I can rest my case there. The advertisers are going to compete to buy the eyeballs and eardrums, and the biggest advertisers selling for the biggest and most established companies are going to buy the most. And of course their highest priority will be to conservatively defend their own bigness. From Number 1, the only place to go is down.

The obvious conclusion is that the Internet now faces its ultimate crisis. Will it become a vast wasteland like TV? Or will it somehow live up to its potential as a locus and access point of our collective human knowledge? The current signs are mixed. There is still a wide range of data on the Web, though it's increasingly difficult to distinguish between tripe and treasure. Advertising-supported dotcom businesses have been collapsing with great vigor, but various forms of advertising are still the only economic models being widely discussed. Broadcast television is certainly no model of what we want the Internet to be, but it isn't clear we will be allowed to have any other choices.

Well, back to Censored 2001. There are many other sections in the book even apart from the introduction! ;-) Actually, there's about 36 pages of preliminaries around the introduction. Lots of acknowledgments and procedural stuff, mostly. Next are the top 25 stories for 2000, and later is a review on update on many of the top stories from previous years. In between, there is some stuff which is kind of hard to categorize except as 'editorial' prerogatives. Basically a few extra thoughts from some of the judges, brief summaries of some runner up stories, and a late-breaking item related to the almost-Election of 2000. This has covered three official chapters, but after that it gets messy and hard to categorize again. Fifty pages of history of the censored news project itself, various feature stories by special contributors, and even an interview with Walter Cronkite. The appendices cover the non-mainstream media sources and organizations interested in the general problems of biased media coverage. Just short of 400 pages in all.

Everyone will find something of interest here. The main course of the book is the top 25 censored stories of 2000. Some of the stories that made an especially strong impression on me include #3 about the PsyOps propaganda experts working at CNN, #7 about the risks of genetically altered foods, and #8 about the cozy relationships between drug companies and doctors. All a matter of opinion, but I felt there were some misses, too, like #18 about protests about patenting existing organisms and #22 about marijuana research. The H1-B story (#10) was one that I've already seen quite a bit of, so I'm not sure they could claim it was censored. However, I'll admit that I saw it mostly in very nichey computer magazines like CACM, and the perspective reported here was much stronger and more negative than any I recall seeing.

Though the cartoons are scattered throughout the book, the one I found most interesting was in this same section, on page 72. It was a summary of the Elian Gonzalez story, presented from the two opposing viewpoints. The cartoons are all under the pen name of Tom Tomorrow, and mostly emphasize the other side of things, the stuff that isn't in the official news and propaganda.

Nothing struck me as noteworthy in the next few sections, though I did mark one of the typos, this one on page 163, where a URL was cited incorrectly. So that's my cue to comment that I wasn't too impressed with the technical quality of the book. Mostly it was just minor glitches like this one, but they seem to have enough participants to have doublechecked things before going to press. However, for this kind of controversial material it especially behooves them to make sure there aren't any obvious glitches and errors.

The more important problems concerned the generally complicated organization and editorial redundancies, as between Chapter 3, following up on some of the most important stories, and Chapter 4, which more briefly reviewed all of the stories. For Chapter 4 there was no good reason to repeat the same story if it had appeared in Chapter 3, especially since the Chapter 3 versions were always longer. Page references would have been sufficient there.

Chapter 5 was about junk food news, a topic that I felt should have gotten even more treatment and much more statistical support, especially in comparison with the non-junk food news, which there must be some of. The list on page 255 of the top junk for 2000 was interesting, and I am rather pleased to report I had no idea what several of the stories were about until they were explained here. I feel like my news filtering policies must be working at least a little bit. Then again, I can't claim awareness of the important censored stories, either...

The later part of the books mostly seemed less interesting to me, except for the interview with Walter Cronkite. I marked page 288, apparently as especially bad, since that parody section had dragged on much too long. Or maybe I was just struck by the notion of FedEx Field, which I'd never heard of. The very last sections had lots of references, including to various Web pages. The Web sites I checked seemed active and up-to-date.

Time for a grand conclusion, but I can't really offer anything better than in the earlier response to Dr. Chomsky's introduction. There's a lot of confusion about what the "free" in "free press" means, and this book will get you to thinking about certain aspects of it. Sure wouldn't cost the TV channels anything to offer a double your money back guarantee. Too bad they can't refund double the time they've wasted.

Truth will out? Or will it just be manufactured? I keep remembering all the money 'invested' in finding 'the truth' about Clinton. I think my concerns are mostly at higher levels, but this book was mostly low level examples. However, when you come back to the idea of almost all of the media outlets in America being owned by six large conglomerates, you can't expect to see a very wide range of positions represented. The Internet is very different. For now.


2001/08/20 to 22

Review of It Looks Like a President Only Smaller

This is a light book and can't get a heavy review. It does manage to earn four stars, but basically for one reason: It made me chuckle out loud a couple of times. That last star is always tough to earn. For a humor book, it would have needed to provoke some big belly laughs and provide some really interesting new perspectives, but at least for me it didn't go that far. In fact, if I didn't basically like the perspective, it could have dropped a star.

The book is organized in four sections covering the primaries, the conventions, the actual campaign, and the rather bizarre recount. My capsule impressions are:

  1. Primaries: many serious elements, light humor
  2. Conventions: heavy sarcasm, but a little funnier
  3. Campaign: trying to be sarcastic, but mostly failing and relatively more unfunny stuff
  4. Recount: kind of wild and crazy, matching the reality, with a mix of serious and funny elements

Of course that's a very subjective evaluation. What I find funny might offend some other people, and vice versa. I felt there was a bit of evidence that the author personally preferred Gore, but it's actually possible that a Dubya-supporter would have felt the opposite. I probably laughed hardest at the jokes about Bush, but there were plenty targeted on Gore, too. And you can't be at all sure in a case like this. He may just like the politicians who provide the most amusing fodder for his humor columns.

Except for a few interstitial comments, the articles which were collected to make this book were written as brief columns expected to have very short lives, and he frequently comments how he his morning's work could be obsolete and unfunny by the time it was published on the Web in the early afternoon. Also, he didn't include all of the columns he wrote, so these are presumably filtered as funnier or more interesting than average. As far as I can recall, the only column I'm pretty sure I had read before was the one he wrote as the editor of the imaginary chad research magazine.

Given my usual verbosity, I'm sure you should be surprised to hear that's about all I can say on this book. Because of the mix of reality and jokes, I can't really guess which is which. I think that some comics do have deep insights, and there might have been a few flashes here, but not a whole lot. You might find the book amusing, as I did, and maybe not. I did feel that it accomplished it's primary goal of being funny, but humor is a funny thing.


2001/08/12 to 19

Review of Propaganda and the Public Mind

Quite difficult to review such a meaty book, though I can easily cheat by putting the bottom line conclusion first: Very thought-provoking and interesting, and well worth a read. Considering the heaviness of the content, it reads very quickly and easily. Can't quite give it the fifth star, though it isn't easy to concisely say why... There is an enormous amount of valuable and interesting information here, presented quite thoughtfully, but the overall structure as a book is too weak to justify that last star.

Thematic coherence is obviously going to be a fundamental problem in a book which is a collection of basically off-the-cuff interviews, but that's where the coauthor and editors should have worked harder. For example, the title of the book seems ill-considered. None of the interviews directly addresses the title, and insofar as the title influenced my decision to buy the book, I even felt a bit misled.Popup Note All of the interviews do include examples of propaganda and of the use of propaganda techniques, but I was expecting that at least one of the conversations would directly address the notion of the 'public mind' itself, how it is defined and how it 'works', and most importantly how it is influenced and controlled with propaganda techniques. Though the book is filled with examples of propaganda, it doesn't really address the meta-issue of what propaganda itself is. Yes, the examples are useful, but I hoped for a bit more from Dr. Chomsky. Without such a clarifying framework, critics of the book may feel free to simply dismiss most of his facts as more examples of propaganda, but from what they will eagerly label as a "loser's" or "outsider's" perspective.

So how about from the other side? Does the book have any clear overriding message? Again, it seems to be hard to single anything out. There are definitely some recurring themes, but I have to struggle even to make a ranked list:

  1. People tend to believe their own behavior is proper and even good.
  2. Rich and powerful people often act to defend and increase their riches and powers.
  3. Because of the first two points, rich and powerful people often injure other people and then say things like "It was REALLY self-defense."
  4. Poor and weak people can say things like "My children were really hungry and I really needed to take that food" but most of the time no one listens.
  5. Words matter. Look at the different uses of "really" above.
  6. We (basically speaking for the US) are hypocritical when we criticize other governments for doing the same things we do when it suits us.
  7. The winners think it is fine to rewrite the rules and the histories.
  8. Dr. Chomsky thinks we should consider all sides of the 'truth'.

Actually, even to try to reduce his arguments to simple lists is kind of absurd, but I have to try to start somewhere. Or maybe that's the point? There's nothing flashy in the data. Nothing flashy in his presentation. I believe that his statements were in fact unrehearsed and direct responses to the questions that Mr. Barsamian put to him. And yet Dr. Chomsky sees things differently from—and seemingly more clearly than—the way they are usually presented in the regular media outlets. He frequently notes that this is only natural since those outlets are controlled by those same rich and powerful people who favor confusion over clarity. Mindless sheep are more convenient as customers. And it keeps coming around to the same points...

Let me work through the book and briefly summarize each of the seven interviews. Besides giving the description, my intent is to give a little of the flavor of this wide-ranging material. Then I'll be ready to again struggle with the idea of making sense of it all...

The first chapter is titled "Activist Victories", mostly focusing on grassroots opposition to multinational manipulations. A lot of it involves attempts to secretly railroad through the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), describing how activists kept derailing the approval. Having read the material, I'm still not sure what were the grounds for opposition to the MAI itself. Dr. Chomsky mostly focused on the closed, secretive nature of the process that created the MAI and the processes that were being used to adopt it. Searching on the Web eventually clarified some of the bases for opposition but not the current status of the MAI. Was it really defeated in an activist victory? Has it really disappeared? Or did its proponents just change the name and go on?

While reading, I marked pages 8 and 13 as worth further consideration. Now I can't even find what interested me on page 8, though perhaps it was the part about how anti-conservative intellectualsPopup Note are assassinated and then their work is consigned to oblivion. Page 13 has a very interesting point about how social spending for things like education and taking care of the elderly is unprofitable, so when companies are completely free to do so, they gladly move their investments to those countries which aren't 'wasting' so much money on such things. Lesser points on that page involve how the value of stock is detached from the reality of the companies and how mergers and acquisitions are non-productive activities that often lower economic growth. You can see how quickly the topics shift, which is actually one of the discourse-level characteristics of social conversations.

The next chapter is "U.S. to World: Get Out of the Way" (even before Dubya went to Washington). This is one of the largest chapters, and the clear focus is hypocrisy. Not just American, though mostly. There is basically a focus on the rhetoric and the actions, which when you look at them are pretty much the same on all sides. Basically everyone says their principles are just, their enemies are evil, and all military actions are self-defense. The actions are that people get killed and the eventual winners get to insist that the losers really were the evil ones and really did deserve what they got. Dr. Chomsky just keeps listing the corresponding events and corresponding rhetoric, and things keep pairing up. Winners and losers say and do pretty much the same things, and the dead people don't say or do anything. The obvious conclusion is that the winners don't look that different from the losers. The winners are in the position to be more hypocritical, and America has been on the winning end for a long time now.

On page 27 he is discussing the Iraqi use of poison gas on the Kurds. The part about past American support for Hussein is strong, but I felt he didn't offer strong or direct evidence about when the Americans knew about the use of poison gas. Actually, this is significant in that it is one of the few places were the documentation seemed inadequate. I'm a fairly critical reader, and even professionally paid to read critically as an editor, and I'm continuously trying to look for weaknesses in what I read, and this may have been the most glaring weakness I spotted. For almost everything Dr. Chomsky says, there are supporting footnotes pointing to the sources, or I've read supporting information in other sources. That lack made this page noteworthy.

The part on page 37 about ignoring the U.N. Security Council was very much to the point, though of course the U.S. rejects his proposed label of "rogue state" no matter how well it seems to fit. Page 49 mentions how the U.S. traditionally supports nations that violate human rights. Page 50 was one of the most memorable parts of the book, about Dr. Chomsky being a Neptunian lacking concision, and this review is pretty good evidence of the lack of concision part... Page 54 has the obvious truth about "If you can't do anything about some problem, it doesn't help a lot to make big statements about it." Actually, an awful lot of what Dr. Chomsky says is pretty obvious, but it's still hard to figure out what it means or what to do about it. Page 57 is where he discusses the Vietnam war as an American victory, though it fell short of achieving its highest aims.

"For Reasons of State" starts with Dostoyevsky's discussion of the manufacture of consent, which is the key of effective propaganda. The most interesting discussion here involved social security, though at first it didn't seem to come close to the title. Dr. Chomsky's strong presentation is that the crisis, both label and reality, is being manufactured for the benefit of private individuals and being wrapped in the 'reasons of state' for the sake of their rather sordid profits. This is one of the topics that's easier to summarize. Basically, propaganda and number games have been successfully used to create the impression that social security is going to collapse, and the obvious reason is to justify converting some of the funds into the stock market. There's also some mismanagement to make it weak and in need of salvation. Very obvious that there is no certainty of better financial security in the stock market, but there is a certainty that the brokerage companies that handle those transactions will make a lot of money skimming off the top. He doesn't put it in quite these terms, but obviously putting money in the stock market is just gambling, and only the house is sure to win, in this case the brokerage houses.

Next is a very short interview about "East Timor on the Brink". The main points are that the U.S. could have helped here at relatively minor cost, but the Clinton administration did nothing. Perhaps the crucial point is on page 114, where the example of the Suharto resignation shows how much influence the U.S. wields. The U.S. suddenly encouraged him to leave, and he suddenly left. One of the most inspiring and depressing parts of the book is on page 116, where he summarizes how the Timorese dared to vote for independence, and what happened to them before and after—with no constructive reaction from the States, though eventually Australia stepped in.

"The Meaning of Seattle" didn't make much of an impression, but that may mostly be due to the success of the propaganda intended to downplay it as a crazy outburst. Basically the part related Seattle didn't manage to clarify the real issues very well. Near the end is a very interesting section about Nader and effective voting strategies. On page 136 he notes that he regards Nixon as the "last liberal president", apparently in the sense of a president who implemented some liberal concepts. I'd have liked to read more on this topic, but Mr. Barsamian basically dismisses it as an old one, and steered the interview to briefly address Internet-related issues as it ended.

The sixth interview, "Liberating the Mind from Othodoxies", is one of the longest. It starts with a section of personal information about Dr. Chomsky's youth, a bit about linguistics, and then back to the main theme, focusing on the evasive nature of "humanitarian intervention" as predictably defined by winners. He wanders the world seeking examples, and ultimately I'd say he dismisses the concept as bogus. This interview actually wanders even more than the others. India got quite a bit of coverage. Perhaps the most interesting focus was on an Indian Nobel Prize winner whose rather complicated work was described in the conventional press in a rather distorted fashion.

The final "Solidarity" interview is relatively brief and probably has the largest quantity of linguistics references in the book, though there's also a lot on political topics. Dr. Chomsky moves back and forth very easily, which is probably a significant aspect in itself. Looking it over, I can't really imagine the basis for the interview title.

Well, that's the tour. So what does it all mean? Funny I should ask that question? Seriously, I don't know how an answer should be approached, and I feel like I've mostly failed to capture the spirit of the book. I certainly don't feel like Dr. Chomsky is trying to practice any kind of obscure propaganda techniques. He is not trying to be obscure in any sense. To the contrary, as I read, I had the feeling of seeing very clearly into certain aspects of reality that are normally ignored. And yet, they really are complicated issues and topics, and in retrospect, the end result is a kind of confusion. Perhaps it is enough that some of the orthodoxies have been challenged?

In the end I'm left with a kind of sadness, a feeling that there are real problems that should be directly addressed, and that I can effectively do nothing. And not just me, but all of us. Creating that feeling is perhaps the most important goal of the spinmeisters... Dr. Chomsky's apparent optimism is the main dissonance. But backing up a few levels, perhaps this feeling of futility is the natural result of the fairly complete failure of the ostensibly democratic electoral processes last year. As Dr. Chomsky points out, the system has always been strained. He is trying to sound a few positive notes, but the overall symphony of American politics is ugly and discordant. It's not just that the bastards are winning again, but the refs are crooked, too, and at this point they're just running up the score.


2001/7/30 to 8/11

The Tiger in Winter—Review ofThe Betrayal of America by Vincent Bugliosi

This is a recent best seller (now 39th at Amazon) about the Bush v. Gore decision. The winter tigerPopup Note of my title is Mr. Bugliosi, because the conclusion of this review is that though the book has some great strengths and addresses many important issues, it also has significant flaws. Without intending any disrespect to Mr. Bugliosi, I conclude the weaknesses of the book most likely reflect the mortality of the author. There is strong evidence that he is a tiger, but now he's a tiger in his 80s, and the years must be taking their toll. Or in horse racing terms, the book "starts strong, but fades in the stretch."

However, my primary criteria for a non-fiction book are that it provide me with interesting and hopefully new data, and that it make me think. As far as new data goes, the book is pretty good, though some of the data is rather trivial and even ad hominem. The thought-provocation aspect is much stronger, and for that reason I can ultimately give the book four stars out of five.

Since this is a long and hopefully substantial review, here's an outline of its structure. There's already been a capsule summary. The next section involves considerations of authorship, who writes and does not write this sort of thing and why. Then I'm going to consider the book itself in some detail, following its structure and summarizing his main points, including some fairly mechanical considerations (from my twisted perspective as a professional editor and recovering analytic philosopher). Unfortunately, the analytic part is where I'm going to have to do a bit of gigging. The final section will involve the thought-provoking stuff, considering some of the new (and hopefully interesting) ideas that have come to my mind as a proximate reaction to reading this book. And of course there has to be a final summary for the jury.

Who Writes (and does not Write) a Criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court?

It's worth noting that most of the public critics of the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) decision in Bush v. Gore are naturally going to be legally marginal in one way or another, and the reason is very simple. The cunning young tigers and lions know they mustn't write anything like this book, at least not if they intend to remain in the active practice of law. It's kind of a paradoxical situation. Western legal systems strongly presume that the judge must be respected and disrespect of the judge is grounds for contempt, and the judges can slam you for disrespect, and hard. It's called contempt of court.

But what do you do when judges actually do something really contemptible? If you describe it in the appropriate and naturally disrespectful terms, what's to stop the judge in question from finding you in contempt? Nothing at all. A tenured law professor can say something, and several hundred of them did put their names to a published criticism of the Bush v. Gore decision, and their tenure protects them [See page 94].Popup Note A retired lawyer like Mr. Bugliosi can say something without worrying about the impact on his legal career, since it's finished. But the active young legal lions in the courtroom? Well, they really aren't likely to say much.Popup Note The current situation is that any active lawyer who thinks he has even a remote chance of being involved in a case that could be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court is not going to say anything strongly critical of Bush v. Gore—and the best lawyers always have such hopes. If an attorney actually believes that decision was completely outside the law, then his own belief would rightfully require him to fear retribution, possibly vicious retribution, regardless of the law. It's not simply that many people believe the decision was political and not legal. The decision itself, in the famous "limited to the present circumstances" clausePopup Note, abstracts itself from normal rules of precedent. Having established this new precedent of no precedent, why shouldn't the court do it again?

These questions of 'marginalized' authorship and fear of 'legal' retribution are still directly relevant to why Mr. Bugliosi can write this book, but going a bit farther afield, one of the worst aspects of this act is that it could perpetuate itself for many years. As mentioned in the book, control of their own successors was apparently a major part of the rationale for the majority's political intervention. Several of them apparently want to retire with the assurance of politically suitable replacements. That means that their success in determining the resident of the White House may also insure their success in propagating their own political perspective of proper judicial behavior, behavior that many people regard as blatantly hypocritical and even outright illegal in the Bush v. Gore case. Though Dubya's nominees may face a battle, if Dubya succeeds in nominating a 35-year-old to the Court, the present ideological tilt could benefit from that nominee's support for 30 years, even if the nominee chose to retire at the tender young age of 65.

There's another important aspect of authorship for such a book. Mr. Bugliosi actually addresses this topic at the end of the introduction [page 28] where he says that he isn't "gifted enough as a writer" to adequately address his topic. He says "...it would take a Tolstoy, a Shakespeare, a Hemingway, to give people an illuminating glimpse into the interior of the soul and marrow of these five Justices." From that passage it seems he is promising to focus mostly on dry analysis. However, the reality is that some parts are dry and analytical, but other parts are just vitriolic polemic. To me it seems we do not need hysteria and hyperbole, we need strong, clear focus on the facts. We don't need to be inflamed unless we are going to riot in the streets, and even Mr. Bugliosi at his most energetic stops short of recommending that.

In order to write a really strong book on Bush v. Gore, this second aspect of authorship is going to be crucial. However, it's easier to put it in terms of requirements for the author. Because the original basis of the story is in law, the author must know a great deal about the law, and because of the way lawyers control America, no non-lawyer is likely to be given credit for this aspect. However, we have a deep human story here, the one that Mr. Bugliosi hints it, and telling such a story powerfully does require great writing skills. Yet another aspect calls for investigative and deductive skills. There are important truths to be revealed here.

Again wandering away from the central topic, but... In general the workings of the courts are secretive, and in this extreme situation the majority is going to be extremely protective of any evidence of how this decision was really made. The courts are supposed to rule based on true facts, but now their concern is hiding the true facts. Perhaps all of the truth will never be revealed, even in deathbed confessions. Some of the young clerks probably know a lot, but I really believe that most of them will remain silent at least until they retire many years from now. I'm already middle-aged, and I just don't expect to live long enough to know much of the sordid truth, curiosity notwithstanding. I want to congratulate that author of that book, whoever he is and whenever he writes.

The Structure of the Book

Easy enough to describe: First there are some preliminaries and an introduction. After a few pages of notes for the introduction, the next large section consists of a reprint of "None Dare Call it Treason", his famous article first published on the Web about two months after the decision, followed by amplifications reflecting his thoughts since then. These amplifications are actually the largest part of the book. Then there is a summary reviewing some of the legal proceedings, followed by yet another section of notes, closing with a brief biography of the author.

My capsule summary of this book is that the introduction is very strong, which mostly means I agree with the reasoning and even with the opinions. The main article itself is quite strong and reflects the emotions of the day, but the following parts of the book are weaker, though sufficient time has passed for them to have been made much stronger.

Now for detailed coverage:

The preface focuses on the strong reaction to the original article published on the Internet, calling it the strongest reaction in 136 years of publication by the magazine. Actually, I think that mostly reflects the new dynamics of the Internet for spreading word-of-mouth information, but there is no question but that Mr. Bugliosi touched a sensitive nerve at a very sensitive time. I certainly first encountered the article as a link from somewhere else. The first foreword is from a political journalist mostly focusing on the recount period. Not sure of the perspective of the author of the second foreword, but it isn't very substantive, anyway. Actually, most forewords are just fancy signed endorsements. A bit much, but they actually call this Part 1 of the book.

Part 2 starts with Mr. Bugliosi's substantive introduction, which might have been better placed in Part 1 to give it a bit more substance. However, I felt these 15 pages were actually the strongest part of the book, and I would have liked more of the book to have been written in this calm and measured tone.

What is probably the most important point discussed here is that it in a crucial sense it does not matter what the actual ballots would have shown. The crucial criminal act by the U.S. Supreme Court was to prevent examination of the evidence, willfully committing the crime of trying to hide the truth. It doesn't really matter that at the time of the ruling no one could possibly know the truth because many of the ballots had never been examined by any human—the only thing known was that a machine had rejected those ballots for some reason. In fact, months later and after extensive examinations of the ballots, it is still unclear exactly what they showed. But the normal course of law is to examine ALL of the evidence as carefully as possible, in normal courts of law the evidence is important. The SCOTUS didn't actually deny the validity of the evidence, they didn't rule that the evidence was inadmissible, they simply refused to allow it to be examined in the first place. Legal votes that possibly might have changed the outcome of the election were arbitrarily ignored—because the five of them were personally happy with the current outcome. This is wrong and violates all precedent.

Another significant point somewhat complicating the situation is that there is no doubt that Gore won the election if the will of the voters is the only criteria.Popup Note Though I feel this deserves more consideration, Mr. Bugliosi doesn't really spend too much time on this point, only mentioning the Palm Beach problems here. Later in the book he also writes about the larger analysis of all errors that concluded Gore would have gained a net of about 20,000 votes from invalidated ballots statewide, but his focus remains more on the intervention itself as a criminal act. At the time of writing, he says the evidence was still being examined, but he basically regards this point as moot.

What Mr. Bugliosi probably regards as the main theme of the introduction is that most people "do not have sufficient character to rice above their own self-interest" [p. 17]. He spends quite a bit of time on the various aspects of hypocrisy. While it is an important and valid point, I don't think it is so crucial. More like it just goes without saying, and probably applies to him, too, if we look deeply enough into the matter.

Here is also where I first noticed some editorial problems that made me wonder about how much care was taken in the preparation of this manuscript. My basic feeling is that there had been sufficient time for this one to be checked more carefully, and given that it was basically certain to be a best seller, it should have been checked very carefully indeed. Mostly it is written well, but something like this has to stick a thumb in my editorial eye [page 18]:

"Their hatred for the Democratic Party (even though it had just delivered, or at least contributed to the deliverance of eight years of unprecedented prosperity and peace, and their candidate, Bush, had no national or international experience, had no intellectual curiosity and seemed to be proud of it, and looked as presidential as the guy who walks on stage when the magician asks for volunteers) was such that as long as they got those dreaded Democrats out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it was immaterial how they did it or who their candidate was."

Yes, that's ONE sentence. A really awkward and run-on sentence that I would certainly ask one of my authors to revise. Yes, the meaning is there, but it is NOT clearly presented, and the internal structure is not properly done, to boot. "Deliverance" would be better as "delivery". It needs "who" in two places, and some kind of transition marker when Bush appears, at a minimum. Much better to simply pull the entire parenthetical remark, which is actually one of the few polemical intrusions into this relatively calm and measured introduction. On page 27, "popular" is used for "populous", and on page 28 there is another confusing sentence that makes as much sense in its negative form as in the form in which it is written. However, I mostly fault his editors for these flaws.

The book is heavily footnoted, and the first copious example is the nine pages of notes for the introduction. The footnotes go in several directions at once, which is hard to approve of. Some of them are directly relevant to the main topic. For example, he considers and rejects the theory that voting should be some kind of intelligence test. But in other places he goes off on tangents, as with some of the details about the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Report, which to me seem not sufficiently strongly related to his main points. Usually interesting, but still... Definitely not in the dry citation style of normal legal documents.

Next comes the 20-page heart of the book, the article "None Dare Call It Treason" as it was published by The Nation. I'm only going to say a little about it, and just recommend that you have to read it. He argues that it is not legally a crime only because no one could have imagined the need for a law to outlaw such an act, but that in a very real sense it is a natural crime, a violation of strong and prevalent democratic principles such that the act must be condemned by any person who authentically believes in those principles. He organizes his presentation under the following six points:

  1. SCOTUS could grant the final stay only knowing that they were going to reject the recount. The actual case had not been presented, but the SCOTUS Five had already decided that Bush could be irreparably injured, and they were going to rule in his favor, and that there was no possibility that they would decide that the majority of the voters or Gore were being irreparably harmed.
  2. Unsigned "per curiam" decisions are normally issued only for unanimous, uncontroversial, and unimportant decisions, which this most obviously was not.
  3. The Court had already dismissed the equal protection argument, without even giving a hint that it might have deeper merit.
  4. To strongly finalize their decision, SCOTUS chose to define a minor and non-binding deadline as absolute and firm.
  5. The SCOTUS intervention was strongly contrary to the majorities' own federalist philosophy.
  6. The ruling denies its own legal legitimacy in the famous "limited to the present circumstances" clause. This single phrase gets about three pages of consideration at this point, though it is the aspect that most bothers me and many others.

There is a great deal that could be said on each of these points, but again I urge you to read the original. That will also give you more of the flavor of the fiery emotions of that time.

The original "None Dare Call It Treason" is followed by about 50 pages of amplifications that mostly go beyond the scope of normal footnotes. Some of the main topics covered are conflicts of interest and personal motivations, considerations of Bush's lack of legal standing, non-use of precedent, considerations of motive, digressions attacking Ken Starr and indirectly defending Clinton, and the flexibility of legal deadlines. There is actually a fair bit of new information here, but I feel like it is weakened by being presented in this kind of interleaved and supplemental fashion. My feeling is that it would have been better to basically write a fresh and expanded version of the original essay, rather than append these considerations. That would have also made it harder for some of the less relevant material to sneak in. Also, the tone of the amplifications is very strident, perhaps the most polemical part of the book. Yes, there are plenty of rich facts here, but I prefer mine served cold.Popup Note

For the most part, I only have minor comments on this material. For example, on page 68 Mr. Bugliosi criticizes Bush's lawyers because they "cited no case to support what they had just said", when the point of his OWN argument is that no such case existed. If his own argument was valid, then he needed to consider their presentation on that basis, as an attempt to create new law not found in precedent, and he can't criticize them directly for that, though he could probably make the argument that lawyers aren't supposed to do that, and especially not lawyers who are allegedly opposed to judicial activism. Of course that would again emphasize the hypocrisy of Bush's position, philosophically opposing judicial activism while gladly using it when it suits his own purposes. On page 105 there is a long digression about whether Clinton should have been allowed to defer civil litigation. Mr. Bugliosi regards this as relevant mostly because he felt SCOTUS ruled against Clinton primarily for short-term political reasons. At one point in the argument he wants to say that the distinction between unofficial conduct and official conduct should not matter, but it seems obvious to me that it should matter, and it is quite reasonable to argue this in either direction, but not to merely dismiss it as Mr. Bugliosi does here.

However, in Amplification Seven, beginning on page 80 is a rather more substantial and interesting ad hominem attack on Rehnquist. Basically it involves a racist memo that Rehnquist wrote in opposition to the (1954?) Brown v. Board of Education decision. Rehnquist later disavowed this memo and testified that it reflected Justice Jackson's views, not his own, and Mr. Bugliosi regards this as the worst kind of perjury. Mr. Bugliosi did a good job of convincing me that Justice Jackson did not hold the views reflected in the memo, and I therefore feel that Rehnquist has foully dishonored the memory of a far better jurist than himself. However, Mr. Bugliosi failed in his larger goal, which was to claim that Rehnquist's perjury was in some sense worse than what Clinton did in denying the Lewinsky affair. Basically both Clinton and Rehnquist were acting to conceal their personal flaws. While Mr. Bugliosi might be correct to argue that there are more and less serious forms of perjury, I think he was basically straining his argumentation skills beyond their limits here. It would make more sense to focus on the hypocritical aspects, but there is so much evidence of hypocrisy surrounding Rehnquist that it scarcely seems worth the trouble to search for more.

Part 3 starts with 30 pages of history of the court proceedings and another 10 pages of notes. Basically this is pretty cut-and-dried stuff straight out of the public record. If I really have to fish for criticism, I can say that I don't feel like he covered all aspects evenly, instead giving more coverage to the spicier parts of it.

The main new material I recall from this section was again ad hominem, this time focusing on Katherine Harris. For example, on page 137 he includes some personal information about her background, though she was actually introduced on page 121. However, all of the information throughout this section is intended to show that she acted in bad faith, basically in violation of her oath of office to impartially enforce the laws of the State of Florida. Jeb Bush was too clever to stay involved at this point, and quickly recused himself, but Harris stayed right with it, acting in her official capacity and at every point doing everything she could to support the candidacy of Dubya, having been one of his campaign managers throughout the process. Frankly, I think Mr. Bugliosi's language is too strong here, and there is nothing to persuade anyone of, and no one in their right mind could possibly accept any claims of her acting in an impartial way. If she had cared to defend such a claim, and given her public position working for Dubya's election, she had to recuse herself immediately. She obviously was not worried about her reputation or anything else because she was born with a whole lot of money, but page 137 was where I first discovered that she was born a multimillionaire, just like the Bushes.

These final notes don't really raise many new issues, and the book closes with a brief biography of Mr. Bugliosi. Overall a rather quick read.

In this section of my review I've tried to focus on the new information I found in the book, and on its weaknesses. The new information criteria is a tough one, because I have been interested in this decision and have Internet access, so finding data is easy. There was some new information in the book, but I felt most of it was relatively unimportant personal information, and more to the point, I think a lot of that information was presented to support what is basically ad hominem argumentation, which I basically oppose. My general feeling is that ad hominem attacks are used when the actual issues at hand are too strong to be attacked. However, that is obviously not the case here, and Bush v. Gore is certainly subject to attack for it's own sake.

It's hard to guess what Mr. Bugliosi would say in response to that accusation of excessive ad hominem argumentation, but my best guess is something like "It's relevant precisely because we are talking about the U.S. Supreme Court here. It is important to show that each of these persons IS 'hominem', not a high priest acting in defense of pure law." However, I'm not sure because there is one place in the book (which I again can't locate) where he argues that motivations are nice, but not crucial, and admits to having successfully prosecuted murderers without having any real understanding of their motives.

With regards to the weaknesses of the book, I think it is a fair summary to say that those were relatively trivial, and mostly editorialPopup Note, and they don't really weaken the overall impact of the book. On the other hand, as I wrote a long ways back I feel "we do not need hysteria and hyperbole" and I felt this book had too many passages tending along those lines. In spite of the strong emotional loading of the issues under consideration, what I really wanted was a rather drier wine.

Twisted Extensions?

As I mentioned at the beginning, I have two primary criteria for evaluating a non-fiction book, new data and new ideas. The last section hopefully the new data criterion, and now it's time to consider the new ideas criterion: Did this book make me think? How much, and how hard? Did it lead to new insights? Do I have new ideas and thoughts as a result of reading it? And the answers to those questions are mostly very favorable to the book

For now, the main thing I want to comment on is Point 6 of the above list. That "limited to the present circumstances" clause is really extraordinary. It basically makes a mockery of the rule of law. You can't argue that this is a non-legal ruling, because it obviously has strong legal effects, and technically you can't really say it is illegal, because even Mr. Bugliosi concedes that there was no law against such a thing, so there can be no legal violation there. Now I put forward the suggestion that we must call this decision "alegal" in the sense of completely transcending the legal system as it existed to date.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made decisions that were wrong, in both of the senses considered by Mr. Bugliosi. In the first legal sense, that is to say that some of the decisions violated legal precedent or were based on faulty reasoning, while Mr. Bugliosi's second sense of the violation of natural moral law would apply to such cases as the Dred Scott decision. Nothing new there. The SCOTUS has also made decisions that were politically expedient. But what we have here is an alegal decision, one that is outside of normal law, outside of normal precedent, outside of normal legal reasoning, and is not even supposed to be considered in relation to future situations which may occur. This is not a matter of external analysis from outside critics. The alegal decision says it right there in black and white. The paragraph near the end of the unsigned opinion ends "Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities."

There are two aspects of this clause that especially fascinate me. Who? And why? Was the author somehow unaware that this constituted a confession of the illegitimacy of the entire ruling? Was it a not-so-silly mistake? Or was this some kind of deliberate and considered attempt to minimize the damage to the victim, the normal rule of law itself which surely suffered from this raw abuse of judicial power? Or was it intended to create a new escape clause for future and even worse alegal rulings? Who wrote it? And what was going through their mind?

Sadly, as already mentioned I doubt that I'll live long enough to see my questions answered. The most important evidence would be to know what the other members of the Court said as they were reviewing the decision before joining or dissenting. If someone had only bugged that room! It would be truly fascinating to hear what they said about that specific clause.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury

Yeah, I'm talking to you. All of you. I don't really like to wax melodramatic, but America is having a little crisis here. What happens next is up to you, me, and everybody in between. Maybe we can do something about it. Maybe not.

In the beginning of this review I made a few comments about the mortality of the author. Socrates is a man, and so is Mr. Bugliosi, and all men are mortal. They get old and die. Socrates did it a while back, and Mr. Bugliosi isn't a spring chicken, either. Lots of men have come and gone over the years, and it's going to keep happening. The United States is not a man, but all governments, too, are mortal, and governments, too, come and go over the years.

The only thing that doesn't change is change itself. At least not while we're alive. The process of selecting this resident of the White House is certainly a procedural change that wasn't anticipated in advance. Some changes are good, and others aren't. One continuing change over recorded history has been increasing democratic participation in government. Ancient Greece is regarded as the birthplace of democratic ideals, but the historical reality is that only a tiny fraction of the population had any involvement in political or philosophic matters. However, these days it is clear that in most parts of the world more and more people want to be involved in controlling their own futures and take democratic ideals seriously. In America only about half the voters even bother, and in this particular election, it looks like most of the ones who bothered to vote couldn't even make up their minds. Hard for me to see that as evidence of a healthy democratic system.

Conservatives normally claim they are only opposed to bad changes and are defending good principles. Yet we come back to the notion of a pro-conservative final decision made not by 100,000,000 voters, but by five unelected and effectively unpunishable political appointees—acting against their OWN alleged principles. Mr. Bugliosi has strengthened my belief that this alegal decision represents a change for the worse. Much worse.


By way of introduction, here are a few words on my qualifications as a reviewer. Main one is just that I read a lot. Normally over 50 books a year going way back. I even started keeping records when I was about 16, and that now exists as a little pseudo-database for public amusement. [Tripod's free CGI/PERL support is not very reliable, but you can let me know if it's quit working again.] As you can see from those records, I'm pretty much a random reader. These days I've started all over again, doing a lot of my random reading in Japanese.

My next qualification is that I'm a professional editor, but I think that was mostly a matter of wild and blind luck, since I skipped over the hard step of being a professional writer. I've always written a bit, but the editing gig just sort of popped up and I was the best candidate at the time. Now I sit around all day and read stuff, make a few comments, and they pay me for the pleasure. Well, actually I usually have quite a lot of comments, but it's pretty hard to write so well that I can't see some improvements. And now I can say that on the basis of having actually worked with a lot of authors, probably hundreds.

Just a bit more on the links between professional editing and professional writing. Obviously my employer must feel there is an economic rationale for paying me, but it is indirect, in that my job is to improve the work of others. It's the professional writers who really feel the pressure of writing what someone will pay to read. My belief is that it is becoming more and more difficult these days to actually make a living as a writer. Not sure about the number of professional writers, but the percentage of all the writers is surely declining. No doubt in my mind that it would have affected my own writing style of I'd had to keep bread on the table—but I just get to write what I like, including these reviews. Most professional writers are NOT so lucky.

Hmm... Now I'm feeling almost obscenely fortunate. Nevertheless, I hope some of you are informed or interested or maybe even entertained by these reviews.

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