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August 17, 2006

How To Radicalize a Moderate In a Few Easy Steps

I think when Kevin and Steve and Josh and I talked about our process of gradual radicalization over the past few years, the language, which focused on our "moderate" natures, was somewhat unclear. I tried to get at this a few days ago, but what's really warped in me is not where I stand on the political spectrum, but the trust and assumption of good faith with which I can approach the news, and the Republicans, and all the rest. What I found, and what drove me to change, was that my imputation of good intentions and willingness to trust official information were creating a profound analytical deficiency where, time and again, my observations and predictions would be proven wrong because I'd chosen to believe that I wasn't being lied to. It wasn't that my rage bubbled and broiled till, with one ear-shattering roar, I became an aggressive partisan, it's that I had a metric upon which to judge myself -- the eventual accuracy of my arguments and assumptions. And by actually paying attention to those results, I found I had to repeatedly recalibrate my cynicism and partisanship.

But to show how tricky old habits are to break, I tumbled into the same fallacy this week. My mother kept insisting that the London plot was largely smoke and mirrors, an illusion meant to change the subject and scare the populace. Convinced I was cynical enough in my belief that it was being wildly politicized, I argued for the basic authenticity of the sotryline, largely on the strength of British involvement. But there too my assumptions are being proved wrong. As the WaPo writes today:

Home Secretary John Reid, Britain's chief law-and-order official, acknowledged that some of the suspects would likely not be charged with major criminal offenses, but said there was mounting evidence of a "substantial nature" to back the allegations.[...]

Two top Pakistani intelligence agents said Wednesday that the would-be bombers wanted to carry out an al-Qaida-style attack to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 strikes, but were too "inexperienced" to carry out the plot.

The two senior agents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if the terror cell members arrested in Pakistan and Britain had appropriate weapons and explosives training, they could have emulated massive attacks like those five years ago in New York and Washington as well as the July 7, 2005, London bombings.

Well that's a walkback, ain't it? Now some of the the allegations will probably hold up, while a fair number of the suspects in this massive plot to generate incalculable casualties will get off with a shoplifting charge. This was a cell that'd been widely infiltrated by British agents, had seen its leaders travel repeatedly and suspiciously to Pakistan, apparently lacked the operational knowledge or capacity to actually pull off their plot, and seem to have had evil intentions but few evil geniuses. As Kevin Drum says, "if I had an IQ of 200 and a PhD in oncology maybe I could find a cure for cancer. But since I don't, no one should stay up nights waiting for me to produce one." And nor should they rush to the television cameras and laud me for "intending mass salvation on an unimaginable scale."

I remember when I was six or seven, and won the Invent America contest. My innovation was the Ice Cream Melt Stopper-Drip Catcher because, when you're seven, the technical shortcomings of an ice cream cone are of Great Historical Import. If my Cookies and Cream cone melts, the terrorists have truly won, and modernity itself is imperiled. So I dreamed up a sort of donut-like bowl that would slide up your cone and be filled with a cooled gel, thus delaying the melting process while catching the runoff. In return, I got a $100 savings bond (wonder where that is, incidentally). A few weeks later, I was invited to audition for a the nationals, or a TV show, or something. I remember being asked by the interviewer what future inventions I was planning. Having solved the ice cream conundrum, I moved on to bigger issues: A gas that I could release into the air to end pollution. My intentions were, to be sure, laudable, but I didn't make the cut. Why? Because seven-year-olds lack the technical capacity to save the ozone layer. They should stick to ice cream cones, and folks shouldn't -- and don't -- pay attention to their delusions of grandeur.

This plot -- like the guy with a blowtorch ready to take down the Brooklyn Bridge or, for that matter, Saddam Hussein -- was good for scaring the American people, but little more than that. And once again, my cynicism proved unworthy to the task of effectively analyzing the data before me. So now I'll turn it up a notch, believe even less, become ever more skeptical, and shift ever further from the earnest, credulous type I once was. No doubt it's necessary, but it's rather sad. It is, however, a good week for it to happen, because with all the musing about the dynamics of this very evolution, it's probably instructive to have an example of exactly how it works.

Update: Steve Benen is feels me.

August 17, 2006 | Permalink


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I remember that someone asked me what was going on and I said "Bush has seen his poll numbers." The guy laughed and said "You're probably right."
I don't believe a single word coming from this misAdministration.
And where can I get one of those cone things? I have grandkids.

Posted by: merlallen | Aug 17, 2006 8:49:24 AM

"My innovation was the Ice Cream Melt Stopper-Drip Catcher"

Ali G pitched a somewhat less sophisticated version of your technology to venture capital folks on his show...


I'm of very mixed feelings on all this. Unlike you, I've never had much doubt that the current WH was playing politics on terrorism in a severely unsavory manner.

Perhaps because I was never illusioned in the first place, I'm not disillusioned now.

But I continue to see the major threat going forward that Bush will drive enough of the Democratic party crazy that the Democratic revival will get stillborn either before or after the '06 elections.

Bush-ism kills the same way that bird flu kills: it sets the immune system into overdrive, and the body's own over-response to the illness is what does the damage.

Bush plays dirty pool on terrorism and national security. Tell me something I don't know. The diffuse jihadi terrorist threat is still an actual threat to American urban dwellers. And the diffuse jihadi terrorist threat to American symbols (aka 9/11) is still an actual threat to the stability of the American political system.

And at the end of the day, Bush plays dirty pool in areas where it is very, very difficult to politically hit back at him in a profitable way. He's just exaggerating a real threat with the jihadi terrorists, and it's hard to make the case in the face of that kind of subtlety.

Accept that Bush is a sleaze, accept that the outrages will continue for the next two years, and don't lose your head. 2008 will be important, and we'll need sane people.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 17, 2006 8:59:35 AM

I guess I don't understand. The evolution I get. What I don't understand is why at this jucture you still trusted them to do right by the American people? Is there something pathological here? What I mean, with no disrespect, is whether or not you need to trust without regard to the facts that you already had before this week? When you knew they had been willing to do whatever it takes to win an election they lost in 2000, what did you think that meant? When you found out that they had done nothing to effectively stop 9/11 when intelligence reports said an attack was immient, what did you that meant? When you found at that they lie our way into a war of choise, what did you think that meant?

I could go on. But, here's the thing for me. I am a natural cynic about government and indeed big organizations. Maybe this is why the cornerstone of my sense of moderation isn't "I trust them" but rather "I don't trust them." I thought that was the way the founders wanted it. Institutions and processes were put into places because the founders didn't trust the nature of people with power. They put in ways to block the tyranny of the majority. They put in ways to make certain their were limits to an imperial presidency. When you say you trusted that your version of politics had to constantly be recalibrated, I would like to know where you were at that you simply trusted any politician- any leader to do what they say they are going to do? Isn't one of the foundational requirements of any democracy that its citizens must be informed and vigilant to the excesses of those in power?

I will say this again- I fundamentally don't understand your way of thinking. I have always been fascinated by government and politics. I remember watching the Democratic and Republican conventions when I was 13 back in 1984. I got a major in politics because I was so fascinated by it. I can't imagine anyone who is a true student of politics ever trusting anyone. Government has been doing propaganda since governments began. I suppose yours is a point of degree, but even that doesn't fully make sense to me given what preceeded this week or last. Fool you once, shame on them, fool you twice, shame on you.

Posted by: akaison | Aug 17, 2006 9:05:20 AM


As a Black guy your argument is interesting to me- I think it was MLK or Malcolm X who said- and I am going to have to paraphrase because I can't remember the wording, "when they took us into slavery, they said our day would come, when they took us into the civil war, they said, our day would come, when they took us into jim crow and lynchings they said our day will come ... well we are sick of waiting for our day to come." The point is that while its easy to ask for people to wait two years, the fact is that as the metaphor suggests there is a lot of human suffering along the way that waiting would condone. The point is also that at the end of two years, if we wait, things may (or may not improve) but the improvement may only be of a small nature and that we would have to wait years for something that if we learn to fight now can start to be made better now. The point ironically is also about waiting for a messiah- a Dem Prez or Congress that will wash over us and change everything. Part of the reason we are in this mess is because the Democrats lost their way and their character.

So, I guess my point is you keep waiting for that promised land to come- some of us who have to live through these times will start fighting now.


Anyone who can please donate to the Webb campaign so that we can take back the Senate. Thx.

Posted by: akaison | Aug 17, 2006 9:13:44 AM

"I thought that was the way the founders wanted it. Institutions and processes were put into places because the founders didn't trust the nature of people with power. They put in ways to block the tyranny of the majority."

Of course, the founders also put in ways to let the majority govern. The founders thought assembling a majority electoral coalition was a necessary step to holding the reins of power.

And the problem in trying to hold the WH's feet to the fire on the fine points of the fight against terrorism is that if not handled almost perfectly, it is likely to make it significantly harder for Democrats to build a majority electoral coalition.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 17, 2006 9:21:55 AM

I never expected them to do right by the American people. What I believed was that there was a plot, that the British foiled, and that the administration would relentlessly use to fearmonger a win in the 2006 elections. Even that, however, was insufficiently cynical.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 17, 2006 9:23:47 AM

In answer to your more specific questions, Akaison, I grew up during the Clinton era, when the two sides, whatever you thought of them, were basically honest about their intentions and committed to their visions of government. The right ran a witchhunt, to be sure, but they were honest about that too. Politics, while occasionally dirty and trivial, seemed largely above the board, the intentions of its actors transparent.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 17, 2006 9:33:44 AM

"The point is that while its easy to ask for people to wait two years, the fact is that as the metaphor suggests there is a lot of human suffering along the way that waiting would condone. "

The waiting will be done, whether we condone it or not. Bush will be CiC for another 2 1/4 years. If we speak out, Bush will still be CiC. If Democrats take back both houses of Congress, Bush will still be CiC.

Perhaps Captain Koo-Koo Bananas is planning on carpet bombing Iraqi cities after Nov '06, and following that up with tactical nukes in Iran. If so, he'll still be CiC, and nothing will be able to be done to stop him as long as he can carry 45% of the electorate or so along with him.

I fought as hard as I could in '04 for the Democratic nomination for the candidate with the best shot at beating Bush just so we wouldn't have to be here now.

But we are here now, and the question is what to do. One idea is to turn the Democratic Party into an effective opposition party that is good at clearly speaking truth to power. The other idea is to turn the Democratic Party into a larger tent enterprise that gets set up to win the power of the US government.

Neither option offers much solace in the next two years, but the second idea seems like a much better road toward the future. I'm sure I would have been a MLK man over a Malcolm man back in the day, too. To me, politics is about being effective in trying to make peoples' lives better within the constraints of building electoral majorities, not about a pure form of self-expression.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 17, 2006 9:34:32 AM

Great post. And great analysis of the problem of prioritizing "moderation" over intellectual honesty.

Posted by: Fat Doug Lover | Aug 17, 2006 9:35:31 AM

"What I believed was that there was a plot, that the British foiled, and that the administration would relentlessly use to fearmonger a win in the 2006 elections. Even that, however, was insufficiently cynical."

Meh. There was a plot. The British did foil it.

The items that will get buried into the sideshow is that the plot wasn't operational, and that it might never have gone operational.

If on the 1 to 10 threat scale, if the Miami "plot" rates a 1, the British plot should rate at least a 5 or 6. That's still a foiled plot, even if the GOP is going to politically oversell it in a very sleazy way.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 17, 2006 9:43:35 AM

"Anyone who can please donate to the Webb campaign so that we can take back the Senate. Thx."

I'll second that. Donate or volunteer. Webb is getting killed in the money race against Allen, and if he can make the playing field a bit less tilted, this is a winnable race. (And it would be a very satisfying one to win...)

Posted by: Petey | Aug 17, 2006 9:51:44 AM

My first thought was that the arrests in England were trumped up (or at least exaggerated). Then I thought no, even Bush Co. aren't dumb enough to risk it, knowing that it would eventually be found out. Now I'm thinking, yes, they are dumb enough to risk it.

So the mistake, I believe, is not insufficient cynicism, rather it's repeatedly underestimating how stupid these guys are.

Posted by: a-train | Aug 17, 2006 10:06:49 AM

"Then I thought no, even Bush Co. aren't dumb enough to risk it, knowing that it would eventually be found out."

But since there is almost no political downside for them in trumping up the terror stuff, in the purely cynical sense, what they are doing is not dumb.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 17, 2006 10:25:13 AM

You didn't become radical, you became partisan. That's unfortunate but necessary, when one party politicizes everything including the facts themselves.

Posted by: theophylact | Aug 17, 2006 10:27:09 AM

Ezra -- I completely understand how you feel, because it's pretty much the same path I have been walking.

Posted by: fiat lux | Aug 17, 2006 12:41:49 PM

But since there is almost no political downside

I think this was true for a while (maybe through 2004). But I don't think it still is. We're living in a post-post-9/11 world now. The approval ratings (and mounting criticism from the right) are a good indication of admin's eroding credibility, and this despite establishment media's reluctance to call them on this bullshit.

Posted by: a-train | Aug 17, 2006 12:54:03 PM

"establishment media's reluctance to call them on this bullshit"

For the 24/7 "news" outlets, simple headlines about war, terror, case solved - are sensationalist and easy to cover. Now all they need is for one of the "missing white girls" to turn out to be a terrorist - paging Nancy Grace!

Posted by: CParis | Aug 17, 2006 3:24:43 PM

There is more to this than turning increasingly with a jaundiced eye (or a cynical one) on the working of government under Bu$hCo.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is now a clear intent to make make our government into the big brother of 1984, where truth was not only relative to today's talking points, but wasn't even a value to uphold.

So this isn't just a holding action that needs to be mounted under BushCo rule until 2008 produces the possibility of a new direction.

There is the necessity for actually reverse the direction of the the power flow and return to a more constained national government - including an expanded bill of rights, and a much more constrained Executive Branch - by Congress, by the Constitution, and by the people.

If the media in incapable of being a force to enforce accountability, (the media no longer functions in that capacity), then the formal and informal structure of control by the people must be pursued vigorously. We the people....

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 17, 2006 3:47:07 PM

Why does anybody believe anything that comes out of the WH anymore? It's always a good idea to reserve judgment on any "event," since the TV media's default is hysterical screeching about how we're all gonna die, but if said event has anything to do, even tangentially, with Bushco, anyone with a brain should automatically say, "Let's wait to hear from the grownups before we start panicking." Bush and the Republicans are an embarrassment to the entire nation. Could we have Clinton back, saying he never had sex with that woman? That would be a huge improvement over George and his co-conspirators in the press, telling us to be afraid, be very afraid, every minute of the day and vote Republican so nothing bad will ever happen to us again.

BTW, it's "skeptical," not "cynical." We are rightfully skeptical. Bush and his cronies are the cynical ones.

Posted by: LL | Aug 17, 2006 6:02:45 PM

Since it is no longer reasonable to give this Administration any benefit of doubt, has anyone noticed this Administration making more and more pronoucements that are "without a doubt"?

Besides Cheney, I mean.

Posted by: Mimir | Aug 17, 2006 6:19:36 PM

Ezra, most of us who grew up under Nixon and post-Watergate are naturally much more cynical and skeptical of people in power. I still wonder to this day what it was that made "Reagan youth" so accepting of authority and what they say--even to this day. (i mean all you kids who were children and grew up during those years "just say no", etc, not that you were all brownshirts). Those of us in elementary school during Nixon and Ford certainly are not as accepting of it all. Like there's something in the water every 5 years or so, and it colors all kids' worldviews for ages afterwards or something.

Posted by: amberglow | Aug 17, 2006 11:50:32 PM

I think Teresa Nielsen Hayden said it best: "I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist."

(That resentment, BTW, is too often taken by Bush supporters as animosity toward Bush personally, and therefore dismissed as Bush Derangement Syndrome.)

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