As of press time, civilians control the military

Peter Beinart, I think, has the best analysis on the McChrystal affair, at least in this first sentence:

The press is turning a story about policy into a story about penises. What matters isn’t what McChrystal said about Obama—it’s what he believes about Afghanistan.

I think this is partially true, but I think Beinart identifies reasons that are not precisely correct.  Later on, Beinart compares the issue with Truman’s handling of the firing of Douglas MacArthur.  And while he makes a fair point, namely that MacArthur believed in unlimited war in order to achieve total military victory, while Truman (correctly) discerned that such a victory would come at an unacceptable cost to real American power.  I don’t disagree with him, but I think there is another element to the whole affair that needs to be constantly repeated.

The civilian leadership sets military policy.

The “correctness” of a civilian decision regarding military is so immaterial that to even reference it in a praiseworthy fashion is to suggest that, had Truman’s decision been bad, he would have been at fault in firing MacArthur.  This is not true.  That “Truman kept the pursuit of military victory from destroying American power” is true, but even had it been reversed–had Truman been pursuing American victory at the expense of American power, where MacArthur was the one wanting to draw back and wage a limited campaign–Truman still would have been both justified in firing MacArthur and obliged to fire him.

Americans must realize that the central potential threat to freedom in any situation, no matter where you are, is force, weapons, armaments–it is hard to claim your rights in the face of those who have guns.  Whether or not the Athenian response to the Melians–that the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must–is true as an ethical precept is immaterial.  It is true as a practical reality.  I worry about this a lot, because American military power is, quite frankly, overwhelming.  Not invincible–witness Vietnam–but overwhelming.  There is, essentially, nothing the civilian leadership could do if the military actually decided to pursue the policy it wished.  The military could, in fact, overthrow the civilian leadership and pursue the policy it wished; I’m sure the Tea Party would approve.  And so working on maintaining a political, social, and ethical climate in which it is understood that civilians–i.e., the representatives of the people of a democracy–make policy decisions for the military is paramount.

Truman fired MacArthur because his actions were consistent with an arrogant military perspective that assumed it had the right to set policy.  It had to be reminded that civilian leadership sets policy.  And now Obama must fire McChrystal.  It’s as simple as that; it has nothing to do with respect.  McChrystal’s preferred policy has nothing to do with it: whether he’s right or wrong, his error is in assuming that he has the right to pursue his policy preferences independent of civilian control.  That’s the issue here, and I’m just waiting for the news that McChrystal has joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Culture Goes All The Way Down

I read on Andrew Sullivan’s blog today this story by Paul Bloom.  Sullivan quotes the following snippet:

[O]ur initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.


The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

This presents a few problems, however, that the author doesn’t seem to dwell on nearly enough.

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Will You Just Leave Obama Alone Sheesh

A friend alerted me to a post over at Ephphatha Poetry on the politics of the Tea Party — and what might be the response if the protesters were black.  It’s a nice thought experiment, for sure, but even more valuable than that, I thought, was the documentation of several recent actions and statements by Tea Partiers and their supporters that I had missed.

And if you haven’t heard yet, this just happened:

[An armed man] was arrested Sunday near the runway around the time President Barack Obama’s flight was leaving Asheville Regional Airport.

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A thing I thought

This video went around the interwebs a while back:

It makes a valuable point, so watch it.

But I was thinking about another way, not always so obviously racially coded, that doesn’t get as much media play and yet still gives a good example of the problems associated with idealized notions of what humans are and the way they look and act and communicate.

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The Mikado: A Most Amusing…Minstrel-Show?

So I went to see The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan, tonight.  I was of mixed feelings about the whole affair.  It was amusing enough and the singing was alright (although certain roles left something to be desired — I had the distinct feeling one of the actors was trying to do his best interpretation of Scooby-Doo as an opera singer).  Others were quite good, especially the unscrupulous character whose “shtick” was being an official who held a number of positions — attorney general, prime solicitor, chief justice, home secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, and so forth — and who often used these positions to a…synergy…not often found in government.

At the same time, the choreography left much to be desired, and the articulation of the chorus made much of the singing a mash of undistinguished words.  I laughed not a few times when a particularly inept chorus member bumped into someone or handled a set piece badly in between scenes.  But hey, it was a university production at a university not known for its opera programs or music department.  I’m not going to be too picky.

But there was something I didn’t like…below the jump.

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Today in racism

Last weekend, a fourth-year student in the College at the University of Chicago was being loud in the A-level of the Regenstein University Library.

A little bit about the A-level: it’s loud. Almost always. I have seen drunk people hollering there. I have been here less than a year, and already I have seen people put up tents in the A-level. That’s right. TENTS. WITH POLES. PLUS FABRIC. The A-level is basically an ongoing party, plus books.

So this library attendant tells some students to quiet down or she’ll call the cops. Doesn’t tell them she’s a library attendant, oh no. If was talking to friends in the A-level of the Regenstein and some random person told me to be quiet or she was calling the cops, I would introduce her to a great tradition in my favorite webcomic, the “fuck-you friday.” And so would most people.

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