Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Matthew Yglesias, the sole American (as far as I know) who actually pays attention to Canadian politics, notes that a movement is afoot there to introduce proportional representation (PR) into the Canadian electoral system. This development is a source of some amusement to me, for reasons of personal experience. I spent a little time in Israel in 1990--a year that does not exactly stand out as a high point in the annals of Israeli politics. The electorate at the time was very nearly equally divided between the two major party coalitions, and both began resorting to a series of increasingly dubious maneuvers in an effort to establish a bare majority in the country's parliament.

During my stay, I heard numerous friends explain to me that the underlying cause of the problem was Israel's system of proportional representation. PR, they explained, removes all accountability from individual members of parliament, who win their seats based on their positions on their party's list, rather than on any direct support from voters. It thus rewards craven party hacks over politicians of broad stature whom the party leader might consider a threat. It also gives considerable power to small, unaffiliated parties, who can then sell their loyalty to one or the other major coalition at an arbitrarily large and unseemly price. What was needed, my friends argued, was a system of parliamentary districts--like the Canadian one.

Of course, I was familiar with the Canadian reality, and I patiently explained to my friends that in fact Canadian members of parliament are about as likely to be craven party hacks as their Israeli counterparts. Because party leaders determine who will fill the executive, cabinet and top civil service posts should their party form a government, they completely control the levers of power, and voters thus almost always vote based on party leadership rather than the identity of the local back-bench candidate. Backbenchers thus owe their election prospects--and their hopes of rising in the party leadership--entirely to their status in the party.

As for the mercenary aspect of PR, it's simply replaced by the old-fashioned pork barrel. Many ridings have a tradition of loyalty to one party or another--or even to whichever party appears about to win--and milk that loyalty for lucrative government handouts. The only difference between this form of bribery and the kind experienced in Israel is that the constituencies being bribed in Canada are geographical rather than broadly political.

Finally, district-based voting--at least with a "first past the post" voting system--has the drawback of tending to exaggerate the mandate of the most popular party, often giving an absolute majority in parliament to a party with perhaps a third or so of the popular vote. Of course, this setup has its advantages as well: with majority governments more likely, horse-trading to form coalitions is much less common. But those majority governments also have much greater political power than their popular vote would suggest they deserve, and thoughtful Canadians have thus long believed that PR would be a fairer, more democratic system.

In fact, it seems to be a popular conceit in just about every democracy that problems such as pork-barrel politics, cynical political horse-trading, and party hackery represent subtle flaws in the system's plumbing, and that a few careful adjustments to its gaskets and stopcocks can simply make the ugliness go away. In reality, just about any reasonable system will soon bring the voting public the government they implicitly want (and richly deserve), through the straightforward process of politicians being punished for displeasing the electorate. If Israelis--or Canadians--really didn't want politicians haggling for goodies for their constituents, then they could refuse to vote for politicians that did so. If Canadians--or Israelis--really didn't want to be represented in parliament by party hacks, then they could refuse to vote for parties that nominated them to stand for parliament.

Somebody, though, is voting for these people--enough, in fact, that they're still getting elected. 'Nuff said.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Journalists have been on a bit of a thumbsucking tear since Stephen Glass, author of numerous wholly fabricated stories at the New Republic, recently appeared at a panel on journalistic ethics, following the opening of the film "Shattered Glass", based on his "career". Reaction to his return to the public eye has been, to say the least, less than effusive. Andrew Sullivan excoriated Glass' self-serving new pseudo-apologetic public demeanor. Jack Shafer spent a couple of articles pondering just what kind of brutal tortures might be fitting punishments for his crimes. Jonathan Chait, ever the intellectual, worried that his case might distract people from the real problem with journalism: that not enough writers see the world exactly the way Jonathan Chait does. Other scribes speculated on the nature of Glass' psychopathology, or applauded the film's brisk pacing and sharp characterizations.

None of these recent commentaries, however, address the main journalistic theme of the film: that Glass' perfidy succeeded because his colorful, zany, almost comic-novelistic stories seduced readers, colleagues and editors alike--and that all of them should have been paying more attention to the articles' intellectual content (let alone their basic accuracy) than to their flashiness. Glass' hilarious touches--the orgy at the Young Republicans' convention, the workoholic stockbroker who relieved himself into a medical contraption to avoid having to leave his desk, the teenaged computer hacker with his own agent for job contract negotiations--were (as Shafer pointed out five years ago) "too good to check", not because they confirmed strong real-life suspicions--or even because they catered to wishful expectations or simplistic prejudices--but rather because their energy and vividness, their perfect balance on the edge between plausibility and wild absurdity, made them fascinating to read whether they were true or not.

Perhaps the reason why this point hasn't been adequately addressed in all the journalistic commentary on the Glass story is that journalists themselves, far from recognizing this problem, continue to admire brilliant Glass-style scene-painting, even as they condemn the fabrications it made possible. Modern journalists worship the craftsman who can evoke settings and characters with a few deft sentences, turning an otherwise unremarkable story into irresistible reader-bait. Witness New York Times journalist Rick Bragg, who made a career out of such stories, gently (if somewhat condescendingly) sketching the rural American South and its honest, simple, hardworking folk--until he was fired, in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, for letting stringers do his legwork for him, and applying his magic pen to places he'd in fact barely seen. Some commentators certainly criticized his exploitation of uncredited apprentices. But none denied his writing skill, or questioned its value to his newspaper. All that was asked of him was that he 'fess up and give at least partial credit to the people who did his actual reporting for him.

Of course, in these days of wire-service and cable-channel commoditization of hard news, and (if I may say so myself) bloggers providing high-quality thought-provoking commentary and analysis for free, about the only thing journalists can market themselves with anymore--apart from their deeply ambiguous, mutually compromising relationships with leakers--is their polished writing. And so they milk their skills for all they're worth, celebrating their most accomplished storytellers--until one of them turns out to be, well, just a bit too much of a storyteller.

When Michael Kelly died while reporting from Iraq during the recent war there, he was lionized by his former colleagues--not for his legendary devotion to the truth, or his deep insight into the topics he covered, but rather (understandably) for his personal warmth and kindness and (more worryingly) for his "incandescent" writing and "unparalleled gift for editing prose". It was also mentioned in passing that Kelly's editorship at the New Republic was less than entirely successful--tactfully eliding the point that its legacy included Stephen Glass' blossoming career as a writer of powerfully compelling falsehoods. Perhaps now, when the Stephen Glass story has returned to public attention, it's time to consider the possibility that Kelly's great strength and his great failure may not have been entirely unrelated.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof is bemoaning the foaming-at-the-mouth hatred that dominates partisan debate in today's America. "I'm afraid that America is now transforming into.....the political moonscape that I remember when I was a student in England in the 1980's," he writes. "Left and right came from different social classes, lived in different areas, attended different schools and despised each other." Andrew Sullivan has similar thoughts.

Kristof and Sullivan should stop worrying so much. The bitter rancor that typifies the current left-right divide in the US is a cyclical phenomenon, riding on the confluence of a trio of polarizing factors that will inevitably dissipate:

  • Political change. The decade of the 1980's in Britain was the Margaret Thatcher era, when the dominance of welfare state politics was being challenged by the rise of a new free enterprise-oriented middle class. Like all momentous changes, that one brought the conflicting interests of rival political coalitions into stark contrast, as old compromises became irrelevant and new ones had yet to be stricken. The sharp rightward shift in American politics in the post-Clinton era has shaken things up here in similar fashion, and the scrambling over suddenly up-for-grabs assets (the fealty of the judiciary, for instance) is bound to get somewhat testy.

  • Momentous issues It would be nice if partisan debate over the war on terror could be polite and genteel. Unfortunately, the issue is of such obviously enormous importance that disagreements about it seem petty unless they are themselves claimed to be of deep and monumental importance. There's no point whatsoever in carping about the details of homeland security or the war in Iraq--if there's any disagreement at all, it must be asserted that it is the nation's very safety--perhaps even survival--that is at stake. Such circumstances don't exactly encourage restrained rhetoric.

  • A polarizing leader. it's hard to imagine a more polarizing figure than Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" who ruled her party absolutely and came to embody everything her party, faction and constituency stood for. Likewise, Bill Clinton, a president facing (after 1994) a House and Senate united against him, became, in effect, the sole major national political figure to represent his half of the electorate. And George W. Bush, because of the dominance of the presidency in the suddenly-crucial foreign policy arena (and partly because of a leadership vaccuum in Congress these days, especially on the Republican side) has found himself with an almost Clintonian level of pre-eminence when compared with any of his political allies. Needless to say, all three of these politicians were passionately adored and embraced by their "own" side--and intensely hated and excoriated by their opponents.

    Of course, these three factors tend to decline with time, as political waves of change peter out, as the intensity of major crises dissipates, and as dominant leaders eventually lose their aura of invincibility and are shunted aside. As Kristof notes, "Europe has matured and become much less polarized" since his time there. There's no reason not to expect a similar outcome here, in due time.
  • Thursday, November 06, 2003

    Naomi Wolf apparently believes that the easy availability of Internet pornography has soured America's male youth on the idea of real, live sex with real, live women. "The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women," she writes. Matthew Yglesias, an instance of the demographic in question, ridicules the idea. Daniel Drezner, a former instance of same, concedes that Wolf's hypothesis may apply to some men, although not most. In fact, the statistics completely vindicate Yglesias' skepticism: sexual activity among young men has been fairly steady over the last decade--declining very slightly, but still quite high, by the standards of previous decades. If the Internet has been suppressing male libidos, the effect has yet to turn up in the data.

    And that's hardly surprising. To put it bluntly, men were deriving titillation from the available imagery--or from their own imaginations--long before Naomi Wolf arrived on the scene, and without ever losing their taste for actual sexual experience. The pornography available today may be more vivid and explicit than in the past, but that doesn't mean that a modern-day Jud Fry is any more likely to be satisfied with it than with the naughty postcards of years past.

    But what Wolf really objects to, it turns out, is not that boys aren't interested in sex--indeed, all the signs suggest that they still are--but rather that they don't value it as much as they used to:
    When I came of age in the seventies, it was still pretty cool to be able to offer a young man the actual presence of a naked, willing young woman. There were more young men who wanted to be with naked women than there were naked women on the market. If there was nothing actively alarming about you, you could get a pretty enthusiastic response by just showing up. Now....[b]eing naked is not enough; you have to be buff, be tan with no tan lines, have the surgically hoisted breasts and the Brazilian bikini wax—just like porn stars.
    Wolf should trust her own economic reasoning a little more: if "being naked is not enough" these days, perhaps it's simply because there are no longer "more young men who wanted to be with naked women than....naked women on the market."

    Of course, Wolf has always been a strident third-wave feminist advocate of female sexual "empowerment"--i.e., women enjoying casual, recreational sex every bit as enthusiastically and uninhibitedly as men traditionally have. What she apparently never realized, until now, was that much of the fun of it for her--that is, the wonderful feeling of being valued, and appreciated, that she apparently used to be able to win with her sexual favors--depended on her being relatively unusual, among women, in her approach to sex.

    But now that women like her are, in effect, a dime a dozen--and are unfortunately often treated that way, as well--she's suddenly forced to consider, to her horror, the possibility that her sisterhood's successful campaign to turn women on to "hooking up" may have destroyed the very source of the pleasure they sought to promote. No wonder she prefers instead simply to blame it all on Internet pornography....

    Wednesday, November 05, 2003

    Although Thomas Friedman's ideas are usually shallow and foolish, they often expose, in instructive ways, the vicissitudes of the "conventional wisdom" in American foreign policy circles. An example is his column about the differences between the Iraqi resistance to American occupation and the Vietcong's resistance to American troops during the Vietnam war. Says Friedman:
    The people who mounted the attacks on the Red Cross are not the Iraqi Vietcong. They are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge — a murderous band of Saddam loyalists and Al Qaeda nihilists, who are not killing us so Iraqis can rule themselves. They are killing us so they can rule Iraqis.....A vast majority of Iraqis would reject them, because these bombers either want to restore Baathism or install bin Ladenism.
    Now perhaps in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam war, when information sources were conflicting and difficult to assess, such a reading of history might have been excusable as a preliminary assessment. But in 2003, it is simply embarrassing to read Friedman implying that the Vietcong--a fully controlled arm of the North Vietnamese army--were somehow polar opposites to their Khmer Rouge allies, or particularly popular in the South, or fighting so that Vietnamese could "rule themselves".

    Of course, Friedman isn't really interested in the truth about the Vietcong--to him, the Vietcong are more important as characters in an abstract morality play than as a real, live historical guerrilla/terrorist organization. The storyline of the play is always the same: a ragtag collection of rebels fighting for freedom against an evil oppressor ultimately win by rallying popular support to their side, winning the people's "hearts and minds". What Friedman is saying about Iraq is not that this plot doesn't apply, but merely that the plucky rebels are the Americans and their allies, not the remaining opposition.

    The problem with this script is that it's based on three false assumptions:

  • That the "hearts and minds" of a national population are ever united in supporting a particular political faction. I've already dealt with this fallacy.

  • That "hearts and minds" are won through displays of kindness, fairness and generosity. As I've mentioned before, even the nicest group of soldiers in the world quickly wears out its welcome in a foreign land, simply by being foreign and military. Political support is based on much more than just individual or group conduct.

  • That winning "hearts and minds" is the (only) route to victory. How long would Saddam Hussein--or any of the current governments in the Middle East, for that matter--have lasted if that premise were correct? In practice, political factions win power through a combination of public acceptance, loyalty from a core segment of supporters, and physical intimidation.

  • These three misconceptions, taken together, lead to a long-established pattern of Western misunderstanding of foreign civil conflicts: a faction of power-hungry fanatics gains control of some area through sheer ruthlessness, then claims to have won the "hearts and minds" of the area's cowed populace. Western observers either take this claim at face value, or else attempt to challenge it by being kinder and gentler than the fanatics--in which case, the tactic fails, and the observers conclude that the ruthless fanatics must, indeed, have won the "hearts and minds" battle. The entire West then abandons the region to suffer under the pitiless reign of the fanatics.

    We can only hope that the same dynamic doesn't once again play itself out in Iraq.