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What Stormtroopers Do In Their Free Time

Courtesy of Wild Ammo.


Truth or Travesty? A Fallen Marine’s Last Moments

The Associated Press has sparked a controversy by publishing these graphic photos of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard’s death in Afghanistan, against the wishes of his parents and the Pentagon.

Forgetting the fact that we never seem too concerned about representations of dismembered or dying people from other countries, let’s review the two key issues in the debate:

1) Should the DoD be bullying the press into sitting on war photos that render war as ugly as it is? In reviewing the coverage on blogs, most comments I’ve seen by military personnel argue no.* But they also think it’s bunk to assume that a) the public doesn’t ‘get it’ and b) that the war is ‘senseless’ and c) that the public will turn against the war if they see ‘what it’s really like.’ On all three points, I agree (that it’s bunk).

2) Should the press respect the preferences of those it represents and their families even if it means suppressing the full truth? This is by far the more important issue in my mind, for Bernard’s family (not just the Pentagon) twice asked the AP not to publish photos of his death. I tend to come down on victims’ rights in these cases, and ironically, so do progressives most of the time. A lot of the same liberals who are supporting the AP in this case, because they believe in the political agenda behind its decision, would have criticized war journalists in Bosnia for publishing photographs of rape victims against their request, no matter how useful this would have been in bringing attention to the horrors of war. If I were in the reporter’s shoes in either case, I’d have respected such a request.

On the other hand, if the US government wished to lend support to the family’s cause, it could not have chosen a worse spokesperson than the Secretary of Defense. Now this family’s genuine wish for privacy has been associated in the public’s mind with the DoD’s agenda to maintain war’s legitimacy – and has undermined both.


*Those who identify themselves as having served are saying things like the following in comments on the Denver Post article that broke these photos:

“I am a 3rd generation combat arms soldier. I have several good friends buried at Arlington. I feel for this young amn’s family and honor his sacrifice and his memory. But I have no qualms about publishing photographs of my death or my friends death as death is part of war and we must be able to comprehend that every death is a horrible thing and a great sacrifice to a family and friends back home. Recall the shot of the rotting corpse of a soldier in a shell hole that is one of the “classic” images of WWI…the photo showing the washed up bodies of dead Marines on a beach in the Pacific, etc etc…yes, the images are graphic, but unfortunately they are also necessary. A photo can mobilize a nation to fight when necessary, or it can serve to start the dialogue needed to end an unjust one. Free society requires a free press. You don’t have to like it, just honor it. That is what we are/were fighting for after all people…freedom.”

“I’m glad the photos were published. As a Marine, I’m far from disgusted by them. I am appalled that such “hoopla” is being raised over it. This is war, it’s not pretty or fun. It’s not all parades and fireworks.”

“I am a Corpsman (the medics that take care of the Marines) currently deployed to Iraq. People dont fully untderstand what is going on over here and in Afghanistan. We see it everyday. If you guys want to send us to war and not come along for the fun, well you better not complain when you have to look at how ugly it really is.”

Web 2.0 and “Politics”

The Journal of Information Technology and Politics is offering free online access to its current Special Issue of Politics and Web 2.0, put together by Andrew Chadwick, just for the week of APSA. Here’s the table of contents:

“Guest Editor’s Introduction
“The Internet and Politics in Flux”
Andrew Chadwick

Research Papers
“Realizing the Social Internet? Online Social Networking Meets Offline Civic Engagement”
– Josh Pasek; eian more; Daniel Romer

“Typing Together? Clustering of Ideological Types in Online Social Networks”
– Brian J. Gaines; Jeffery J. Mondak

“Building an Architecture of Participation? Political Parties and Web 2.0 in Britain”
– Nigel A. Jackson; Darren G. Lilleker

“Norwegian Parties and Web 2.0”
– Øyvind Kalnes

“The Labors of Internet-Assisted Activism: Overcommunication, Miscommunication, and Communicative Overload”
– Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

“Developing the “Good Citizen”: Digital Artifacts, Peer Networks, and Formal Organization During the 2003–2004 Howard Dean Campaign”
– Daniel Kreiss

“Lost in Technology? Political Parties and the Online Campaigns of Constituency Candidates in Germany’s Mixed Member Electoral System”
– Thomas Zittel

“Internet Election 2.0? Culture, Institutions, and Technology in the Korean Presidential Elections of 2002 and 2007”
– Yeon-Ok Lee

“The Internet and Mobile Technologies in Election Campaigns: The GABRIELA Women’s Party During the 2007 Philippine Elections”
– Kavita Karan; Jacques D. M. Gimeno; Edson Tandoc Jr.

I notice two things about this line-up. One is that it’s great to see political scientists taking seriously the empirical study of social media. There is a dearth of articles like these in mainstream poli-sci journals.

Second the papers the ended up in the special issue represent a broad definition of Web 2.0 but a narrow definition of “politics”: looks like a lot of comparative electoral studies. That’s important of course, but I think there’s a lot of work to do examining the relationship of Web 2.0 to other aspects of politics: movements, understandings of copyright, framing processes, the law, international diplomacy. Also citizen-government interface, the boomerang effect, representation in politics, political satire and politics, to say nothing about the politics of everyday life.

Perhaps a Special Issue of Perspectives on Politics will take up some of these broader concerns down the line? Hint, hint.

APSA AutoTune Blogging

What can I say? It’s APSA Conference Week and blogging is sluggish. Therefore:

Bosnia On the Brink?

Last week’s issue of the Economist included a glowing discussion of successful nation-building in the former Yugoslavia:

Almost 20 years after political bonds were severed by war, day-to-day links between companies, professions and individuals are quietly being restored. This huge shift in the daily life of the western Balkans is happening without fanfare. Few people have even noticed it. Those within the sphere take it for granted. Those outside are blithely ignorant. Perhaps that is not surprising. Good news is no news: the preparatory meeting to set up a south-east European firefighting centre, part of the Regional Co-operation Council, is hardly worth mentioning even in Sarajevo (where it took place), let alone anywhere else.

Yet it is precisely the fact that soldiers who were fighting one another not long ago now train together, or that firemen co-operate on a routine basis or that everyone from vets to central bankers meets with almost dreary regularity which constitutes the good news. That Regional Co-operation Council in Sarajevo has been patiently ploughing through a mass of dull, necessary work. It is a process, not an event.

Patricia Mahone and Jon Western laid out a more pessimistic view recently in a Foreign Affairs article entitled The Death of Dayton, and reiterated his claims on NPR’s Sunday edition yesterday. He argues:

As successful as Dayton was at ending the violence, it also sowed the seeds of instability by creating a decentralized political system that undermined the state’s authority… In the past three years, ethnic nationalist rhetoric from leaders of the country’s three constituent ethnic groups has intensified, bringing reform to a standstill… Most worrisome is the inability of the leading political parties to agree on a basic political structure for the country. The political order established by Dayton seems to be careening dangerously off course, just as the guardrails that for 14 years prevented a descent into violence are being dismantled. As local fret about the future, international organizations have already begun to withdraw from Bosnia.”

How can these two different narratives be reconciled?

I haven’t been to Bosnia in a couple of years, but both views ring true to me based on my time in the field. That is because one narrative is about state-building and the other is about nation-building. We often use these terms interchangeably, but they describe different processeses that don’t necessarily coincide.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is extremely decentralized, making routine decisions about who is responsible for what difficult and deadlocking political reform. And ethnic divisions are literally written into its national institutions. This has many concrete policy implications. When I was in the region tracking the state’s response to vulnerable multi-ethnic children born after the war and their mothers, it was precisely these factors that prevented a coherent response to war victims’ pressing needs. So Jon Western is right about the pitfalls of state-building post-Dayton.

At the same time, most Bosnians I connected with are looking forward not backward; civil society is thriving; 20 and 30 somethings in the “Yugosphere” talk nostalgically about pre-war days when Sarajevans embraced a common identity; their younger siblings walk around with Ipods crammed full of music from other ethnic communities . These impressions are consistent with the Economist’s discussion of people’s emergent sense of common identity and common economic interests in the region. State-building may be failing in Bosnia, but nation-building (or, rebuilding) is making slow but steady gains at the societal level – at least in cosmopolitan, urban areas.

Unfortunately, if you want a prediction about stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the near future, my money is on Mahone and Western’s analysis, because ultimately it is political institutions that control the military, police and media. Politicians responding to the incentive structure of their institutions are capable of overcomng interpersonal ties – that precisely what happened in the early 1990s; and ties of commerce, as Peter Andreas has showed, are not dependent on a peacetime economy or a stable state. In that sense, Mahone and Western’s precautions that the West rethink its disengagement strategy from the region are worth reading.

President Uribe Has Swine Flu.

World leaders who recently met with him are being notified.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

I am usually a fan of Charles Blow’s work, but his latest op-ed seems to me a bit sloppy.

Blow claims that one reason Democrats, and President Obama in particular, may be having trouble convincing the country to sign on to large-scale health care reform is due to the public’s overall lack of trust in the government. This is a completely plausible hypothesis and one that I agree with, as the numbers regarding trust are incredibly low right now (~20%). What I take issue with is the way Blow points out a “peculiar quirk of recent American politics”; namely, that American’s trust in government has generally been lower following the election of a Democrat to the White House and higher after electing a Republican. Blow does not say that the Democratic administrations caused the decline in public trust numbers, but he might as well have given how the short piece is written.

Is it possible? Sure. But given the data and graphic he provides there are all sorts of reasons to doubt it is the case. At the very least, if he is going to imply such a causal relationship he should have provided a bit more discussion. Simply because low trust numbers followed the election of Democratic Presidents doesn’t imply causation.

The first problem is one of time: the data he bases his discussion on only goes back to 1976. Truncating the sample in this way gives us no perspective on whether this is an artifact of the data or whether it represents an actual pattern. To be fair, Blow no choice–the data is what it is. But the time frame distorts the possibility that the party affiliation of the President doesn’t matter.

Second, Blow gives us nothing to compare the data against in terms of control or alternative variables. Level of trust in government can be caused by numerous factors, including perceptions of Congress, bureaucracy, economic environment and trends, wars and foreign conflict, whether the country is moving in the right direction, etc.

Third, trust is built on repeated observation–people build up an image of whether someone or something is trustworthy based on past performance. That means feelings of trust take time to form and time to change. Additionally, the question asks about the government, not the President. In the United States, the term government has a broad meaning, unlike in parliamentary systems where it focuses on the ruling party. Given that, it is possible that any feeling of trust/distrust is dependent on both previous periods and the wider apparatus of government. We should be paying more attention to the general mood of the country prior to elections than on a single data point after a new President takes office.

Just to play around I collected data on the question of direction from the same poll that Blow pulls the trust data and graphed it side by side. The idea is that trust and feelings about the direction are likely related and do not move in lock step with single elections. Not surprisingly, there is a good fit between whether respondents see the government as trustworthy and whether they think the country is headed in the right direction (Correlation of Right direction and Always/Mostly trust is .8 and Wrong Direction and Some/Never trust is .83).

Moreover, if we map the elections of the last three Presidents on to the graph we notice something interesting.

Each President came to office after a long trend of either increasing or decreasing trust. For Clinton and Bush, this trend continued well into their first year in office. For Clinton, the trust and direction numbers began to turn upwards midway into his second year in office. For Bush, both sets of measures decreased after March of 2002. Obama took office after having watched the trust measure decrease from 55% to 17%. It took over 1 year to see the trust/direction numbers reverse during both the Clinton and Bush presidencies, so it is not surprising that we’ve only seen a slight up-tick in trust (+3%) during Obama’s first year in office. (Although it is interesting that the right direction measure has jumped since the recent election from 11% to 44% in only the first 8 months.)

Bottom line, Blow is right to point out that a massive change in a critical social good like health care is going to require trust on the part of the public. However, the peculiar quirk seems more a function of the timing of elections and less about the causal impact of a newly elected President.

[Cross-posted at bill | petti]

Apologies Matter

It is very, very significant that Lieutenant William Calley openly apologized for his behavior in the 1968 massacre of hundreds of civilians in a series of villages known as My Lai. Anyone who has read Joanna Bourke’s account of the event, which included not just killings and looting but also rape and sexual mutilation of women and young girls, and the subsequent denials, excuses and justifications by the culprits will grasp the importance of Calley’s about-face.

Robert Koehler disagrees.

If you steal $10 from your mother, you need to apologize. If, as you carry out orders, you lead a raid on a village that slaughters 500 or more defenseless people, something of a higher magnitude is required before you can have your life back.

But what exactly? Koehler is suggesting he “atone,” that is devote his life in some way to challenging the militarism that creates My Lais and Abu Ghraibs. But to me that would undermine an apology – which is an acceptance of individual culpability. However laudable such a crusade may be, Calley could not be an effective ambassador for a more humane military through any other means that by accepting his own responsibiltiy without finger-pointing. If all soldiers did this consistently, commanders would have no power to commit war crimes. When we remove the moral responsibility from individual actors and place it on “the system” we participate in moral disengagement. I am not saying the “system” doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be changed. I am saying that to prevent war crimes you need acceptance of responsibility at both levels, and there can be a zero-sum relationship in the way we cast blame.

Koehler’s post goes on to demonstrate as much: he dismisses Calley’s apology as meaningless and even unnecessary given the wider web of criminality in which he was admittedly embedded in Vietnam.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to waste time heaping my allotted teaspoonful of disapprobation on a scapegoat. Calley’s “responsibility” for My Lai, though personally enormous, is a minute fraction of the symbolic role — the Bad Apple in an American Uniform — he was forced to fill. He was, indeed, just following orders. And the first order of war is to suspend your humanity.

But that’s too simplistic. Hugh Thompson, the US helicopter pilot who intervened during the massacre, was embedded in the same context and chose to behave nobly. We can and must hold individuals responsible, even as we insist on holding their superiors responsible as well.

The fact is, Americans did neither in the case of My Lai – which meant they too were to blame. Unlike stealing money from your mother, Calley did not “have to” apologize to “get his life back.” Instead he chose to, and this choice is such a politically significant diversion from forty years of practice that it would be wrong to belittle its importance – precisely because it signals to Americans that that choice to support rather than condemn him itself was wrong.

Apologies for atrocities matter.
They matter psychologically in healing the rift between victimizer and victim, and their national communities by extension. But they matter even more for communicating collective norms to one’s own in-group. As long as Calley could openly pretend that My Lai wasn’t a grave breach of the warrior’s code, and get away with it, one could argue he was living in a culture that condones war crimes. Apologies by men and women like Calley – or England, or Wuterich – are data points suggesting a turn in the normative environment: toward one in which war crimes, if not entirely absent, are at least acknowledged for what they are.

The Complexities of Signaling

Adam Elkus from Rethinking Security tweets about a recent critique of the current US strategy of strategic communication in the Muslim world. The critique was penned by non other than Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen’s contention is that efforts by the US to counter propaganda from Islamic militants is doomed to fail unless more attention is paid to the outcomes of US policies on the ground:

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique, an essay to be published Friday by Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal.

“I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he wrote. “They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.”

Mullen’s critique is a great opportunity to discuss the importance and difficulties of signaling.

The quote above reflects general problems with signaling–the practice of conveying information about oneself to another party that in turn either reinforces or alters the image that party has of the sender. Signaling is not simply a topic for security studies, but has wide-ranging applications in economics, business, marketing, and social relations in general.

Mullen is correct that words alone will not matter much–they basically amount to cheap talk since there is little to no cost associated with uttering them. The problem is exacerbated by an actor making declarations of one kind while taking actions that can be seen as inconsistent with those declarations. Since talk is cheap, audiences will look to the actions of actors to see what they reveal about their true intentions, character, and/or interests. However, matching words to deeds in this way is difficult for any number of reasons. Keren Yarhi and I are actually in the process of writing an article on the difficulty and challenges of choosing an optimal signaling strategy. Here are two that come to mind after reading the Admiral’s comments:

  1. Multiple Audiences: signaling is hard enough, but the degree of difficulty is compounded when you consider that there are always multiple audiences receiving the signals you send. Sometimes these audiences have different expectations of your performance which can complicate how you choose to act. There are strategies for dealing with this situation (e.g. using back-channels or multivocal signals), but these strategies are far from optimal.
  2. Audience Perception: even if the right conditions exist for actors to select their preferred signaling strategy they still may not be able to effectively communicate their desired message. Why? Because whatever signals they send still need to be interpreted by the audience. Contra what Admiral Mullen asserts in his critique, actions do not always speak for themselves. In fact, they rarely ever do.

Consistency in messaging is crucial in any campaign, particularly when you are working against history as well as competitive interlocutors which may have the ear of your audience. However, it is easier said then done and even when it can be achieved it may not be enough to truly convince your audience that what you say is true.

Updated: Stephen Walt weighs in with his favorable reaction to Admiral Mullen’s piece. Walt acknowledges the problems of ‘cheap talk’, but largely assumes (or implies) that actions will speak for themselves.

[Cross-posted at bill | petti]

Sting Operations

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed Stung by the Perfect Sting rattled some cages in the blogosphere this week. Laura McKenna calling her a whiner, implying the post was really about her own bad blogger press. Tim Burke claiming she is dissing bloggers by failing to reference our own grand debates over anonymity. Danny being Danny Drezner accusing Dowd of comparing bloggers to muggers. The column seems widely interpreted as a slam against the new media.

I was sorry that none of these posts engaged the actual story in the article, which had almost nothing to do with the blogosphere per se. Part of this is Dowd’s fault: her argument was poorly executed and buried under asinine introspection (we bloggers would never exhibit careless narcissim.) But look past the fluff and at issue is an important and (yes, Tim) timely legal question raised by not one but two rulings just this month: Should a person’s right to anonymous speech shield him/her against defamation suits?*

Anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment. But defamation is not. So what recourse does a plaintiff have when slandered anonymously? At Digital Media Laywer, David Johnson explains the “chicken and egg” problem this way:

If trial proves that the speaker is liable for defamation, then his anonymity was not entitled to First Amendment protection and should be disclosed. If trial proves that the speaker is not liable for defamation, then his anonymity was entitled to First Amendment and should not be disclosed. However, disclosure of a speaker’s identity is generally required for a court to determine whether his words were defamatory. In other words, you have to disclose his identity to determine whether his identity should be disclosed.

One way around this is the “summary judgment standard” set out in Doe v. Cahill, a 2005 Delaware ruling on whether or not Patrick Cahill, a City Councilman, could obtain the identity of anonymous blogger John Doe for the purposes of a libel suit. Daniel Solove explained the summary judgment standard in a blog post in that year:

In this case, Cahill was a public figure, and to prevail in a defamation lawsuit, he had to prove that (1) Doe made a defamatory statement (damaging to Cahill’s reputation); (2) the statement was concerning Cahill; (3) the statement was published (disseminated to others); (4) others would understand the statement to be defamatory; (5) the statement was false; and (6) Doe made the statement with actual malice (he either knew it was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth).

Solove criticizes the New York rulingfor using a looser standard in the case referenced by Dowd. The plaintiff Liskula Cohen, arguably also a public figure, had been vilified on an anonymous blog as “skankiest in NYC” and was only required to show her case had merit to convince the court to order that Google reveal the blogger’s identity. But even if they had used the Doe v. Cahill standard it is hard to see how they would not have ruled in Cohen’s favor. The only hangup may have been the requirement that the plaintiff demonstrate a defendant’s “malice” but this would seem rather an unfair hurdle when a defendant’s identity is unknown. Hence the chicken and egg dilemma.

Did the court make the right choice? Should a person’s right to anonymous speech (generally, not just in the blogosphere) protect them against defamation suits if filing the suit essentially requires knowledge of the defendant’s identity?

Dowd’s key argument is: No. She, however, is talking not only about defamation but also about various pernicious forms of cyber-bullying and hate speech as well. (She is also not, of course, opposing anonymous or pseudononymous deliberative argument ala The Federalist Papers; it is a straw man to claim that she has “conflat[ed] and tar[red] all anonymous commentary because some act rudely on the Internet” when in fact she carefully distinguishes constructive pseudonomity from mere character assassination.)

On this, I’m with Dowd. I am an advocate of pseudononymous (and to some extent anonymous) blogging, but I am against mindless slanderous invective for its own sake. It cheapens political deliberation, distracts us from the issues, and sets a bad example for our children. As a commenter wrote over at Copyrights and Campaigns:

“Having read the Federalist Papers, I don’t recall Publius defaming as ‘skanks and hos’ those who disagreed with the adoption of the Constitution.”

My fellow political bloggers are correct to point out that this behavior is also not representative of most anonymous bloggers or commenters. But that’s precisely the reason to agree with Dowd and with the court’s decision. Ultimately, “Anonymous Blogger” Rosemary Port’s defense rested on the claim that no one takes the blogosphere seriously as a source of facts. According to the ruling:

“The Blogger argues that even if the words [‘skank’ and ‘ho’] are capable of a defamatory meaning, ‘the context here negates any impression that a verifiable factual assertion was intended,’ since blogs ‘have evolved as the modern day soapbox for one’s personal opinions,’ by ‘providing an excessively popular medium not only for conveying ideas, but also for mere venting purposes, affording the less outspoken a protected forum for voicing gripes, leveling invective and ranting about anything at all.'”

To the extent that this perception is true (that is, to the extent that bloggers get tarred in the public eye as mindless opinion-spouters) it’s not because of people like Dowd, but because of people like Port who abuse their anonymity to defame others – an act that is in fact not protected by the First Amendment – and then claim this as some kind of moral high ground.

*The case raises other interesting questions as well. For example: what is defamation? The court found that allegations of sexual promiscuity count, and I would grudgingly agree, though you could have a whole feminist debate about what that signifies. I also think you could argue, though Cohen did not, that this was not simply defamation but a kind of hate speech – in fact, had the blogger turned out to be male, I think we’d be hearing precisely such claims of misogyny – interesting double standard. Also, Rosemary Port has now sued Google for complying with the court’s order – hard to imagine that she has a case, since Google’s terms of use state it will hand over information if required to do so by the government, but as Solove points out perhaps Google was negligent in failing to go to bat for her? Worth watching to see.

The “Neda” Effect in Sri Lanka

Yesterday Channel 4 in the UK aired the above video, allegedly recorded on a mobile phone and smuggled out of the country by human rights activists, apparently of Sinhalese soldiers massacring Tamil noncombatants earlier this year. The Sri Lankan government (naturally) argues it is a fabrication. Human Rights Watch’s James Ross says “there is no way to tell if the footage is genuine,” but argues that the release of the film underscores the need for an “objective” inquiry into atrocities – by both sides – during the conflict.

I agree with Human Rights Watch in general – that whatever the validity of the film, truth-letting is politically necessary in order to move the country beyond two and half decades of armed struggle.

But I’m not so satisfied with Ross’s claim that we can’t know if the film itself is valid, since ultimately footage like this will increasingly matter, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, as post-conflict justice is pursued through courts.

Anyway, are there really no standards of evidence emerging for user-generated video such as this? Channel 4 at the UK has described the measures it took to authenticate the film before airing it, including qualitative comparisons to similar footage from the Bosnian war. It’s interesting to think about what kind of authentication could hold up in a hypothetical war crimes court.

Would it not be useful to know more, for example, about how the UK acquired the video? How it made its way from the soldier who shot it to the human rights activist who passed it along to the journalist? One can imagine a number of legitimate scenarios; one can imagine others. Answers to these questions can be found, and have a bearing on the credibility of the film. Retracing that chain to the original cell phone could lead to additional facts of the case, a skill already in use by cyber forensic researchers in domestic contexts. And relevant evidentiary standards must be under development by US law enforcement agencies, cell phone video is increasingly being used to investigate criminals and agents of the state alike.

Not being a cyber forensics expert, I don’t claim to know what these standards are or offer suggestions as to how to view this particular video artifact. But such solutions should be devised, as claiming “one can never know for certain” will ultimately be self-defeating for the human rights community, feeding into the denials of abusive governments. The “Neda effect” – the use of cell-phone video to capture and make visible acts of brutality – has the potential to shift the balance of power between governments and citizens, but also the potential for abuse and misdirection. Human rights organizations should be taking the lead in figuring out how institutions of international justice can leverage such technology while mitigating its side-effects, rather than shrugging it off altogether.

Ted Kennedy

I only met Ted Kennedy on a handful of occasions. The last time was at a party to mark the end of my father’s twenty-two year history as one of the Senator’s chief health-care policy advisers.

My overwhelming impression of Kennedy’s vicarious presence in my life was as a disembodied voice. Whenever I answered the phone to hear “this is Senator Kennedy, may I speak to your father?” it seemed as if everything in the house froze until my dad got on the line. Sometimes such calls would amount to very little. Other times my father would soon be on his way to the Senator’s house to deliver a briefing.

Those calls didn’t happen very often, but they encapsulated the degree that intersection of the Senator’s agenda and the rhythms of legislative sessions shaped my family’s home life. So I can only describe the experience as strange when I called my father today to see how he was taking his long-time boss’s death only to discover that my parent’s–temporarily in the news-resistant bubble of their lake house–didn’t yet know of Kennedy’s passing.

Still, everyone knew it was coming. We might have hoped he would hang on to see his dream of universal health-care coverage come closer to reality; but in the end even access to the best medical care available could not prevent the untimely death of a rich and powerful man who, whether despite his faults or because of them, devoted his working life to improving the lot of the poor and powerless.

Here’s what my father said, for comments that were obviously collected prior to Kennedy’s death, to the National Journal:

The senator was not someone who invoked emotion or expressed it in public. He thought it was unseemly. But he took these causes personally. There was a young boy in Washington state, the child of a single mother, nine or 10. He had childhood leukemia. He was covered by Medicaid, but it didn’t cover organ transplants. Even in those days, if you could do a bone marrow transplant there was a high cure rate. It was expensive. Neighbors were holding bake sales and stuff to raise money. They got up to $80,000 when the child died.

We started putting the story in speeches, because it was a heart-rending example. But after doing it two or three times, the senator asked us to take it out because he was choking up every time he said it. These things were personal to him.

Kennedy was pretty bold. He’d forge ahead when other people are scared. He said to me there were always a thousand reasons not to do something, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. We finally passed FDAMA (the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act) in 1997, and we started it in ’95 with the Gingrich takeover of Congress. They wanted to gut the FDA, thought it was an impediment for progress. Kennedy went to the mat on this. By delaying and arguing and blustering and negotiating and mounting a major PR campaign, and writing inflammatory letters to The New York Times, all but two provisions were compromised in a way that was satisfactory to us. And the question was whether to keep fighting or declare victory and go home. Kennedy decided he would fight. He filibustered the thing. He was on the floor for three days. The staff was in the backroom coming up with ways to keep it going.

One issue was federal preemption of state regulation of cosmetics. Kennedy kept coming up with all these examples, and dangers with cosmetics and why it shouldn’t be unregulated. It made the front page of Women’s Wear Daily. And then the Republicans backed off. The industry went to the guys in the Senate who were carrying water for them and said to back off, that Kennedy was doing more damage with the floor debates and stories than any benefit they could get.

He wouldn’t get bogged down in details, but when they were necessary to know, he really knew them. When he was in a meeting or on the floor, he wanted to know more than anyone else.

In one of the many “war on drugs” bills, there was a caucus-wide effort. Most of the people involved wanted more police on the streets. Kennedy had this view that it wouldn’t be very effective, that prevention and treatment were the most effective way to reduce illegal drugs. The formula was supposed to be 50 percent of the money on law enforcement and 50 percent on prevention and treatment. People accepted it as a fair formulation.

One meeting he went in to argue about the allocation of funds. We pull up to the Capitol building, where the meeting is, and he says, “Let’s hang on for a few minutes and explain this to me. What’s the issue I have to be focusing on?” We were saying the caucus wasn’t proposing a 50-50 split, and that his job was to make sure it was 50-50.

The argument hinged on appropriations and obligations. Sure, he didn’t know [the distinctions] before the briefing. We briefed him for four minutes and he had it down cold. He went into the meeting and spun this back to other senators at the appropriate time, and former Sen. Bob Graham was indignant because he didn’t think it worked out to 50-50. Kennedy turned to the budget expert, and said it was obligation versus appropriation versus outlay, and he laid out the details. The budget guy said he was right. If you had asked him 20 minutes later what the difference was, he might not have been able to remember.

UPDATE: And here’s some more from NPR (mostly of interest to those who care a lot about health-care reform)….. back to blogging silence ….

Better Political Forecasts through Crowdsourcing

Dan Drezner links to a recent article by Philip Tetlock on the difficult business of political forecasting. His evaluation of this troubled pastime is accomplished through the review of three recent books that all claim to provide a better way to see the future of politics. His own research (Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, a fantastic book that you really should read) offers solid reasons to be skeptical of any pronouncements by ‘experts’ that they have some kind of proprietary knowledge about the future.

While I think his critique of the three books and of political forecasting in general is quite good, I find lacking one of his suggestions for how to improve the practice; namely, crowdsourcing. My issues does not lie with the practice of crowdsourcing, but rather the way that Tetlock describes it.

After his review of the three books (and the requisite approaches to forecasting each represents), Tetlock provides a powerful suggestion for how to improve the prediction business–crowdsourcing political forecasts:

Aggregation helps. As financial journalist James Surowiecki stressed in his insightful book The Wisdom of Crowds, if you average the predictions of many pundits, that average will typically outperform the individual predictions of the pundits from whom the averages were derived. This might sound magical, but averaging works when two fairly easily satisfied conditions are met: (1) the experts are mostly wrong, but they are wrong in different ways that tend to cancel out when you average; (2) the experts are right about some things, but they are right in partly overlapping ways that are amplified by averaging. Averaging improves the signal-to-noise ratio in a very noisy world. If you doubt this, try this demonstration. Ask several dozen of your coworkers to estimate the value of a large jar of coins. When my classes do this exercise, the average guess is closer to the truth than 80 or 90 percent of the individual guesses. From this perspective, if you want to improve your odds, you are better-off betting not on George Friedman but rather on a basket of averaged-out predictions from a broad ideological portfolio of George Friedman–style pundits. Diversification helps.

As Dan points out in his post, this suggestion potentially violates two of the necessary conditions of successful outsourcing, and that is the independence of the experts and diversity of their opinion. Dan says it best:

One of the accusations levied against the foreign policy community is that because they only talk to and read each other, they all generate the same blinkered analysis. I’m not sure that’s true, but it would be worth conducting this experiment to see whether a Village of Pundits does a better job than a single pundit.

I would actually go farther than Dan here. The problem with approach isn’t simply that political scientists and pundits may conduct their analysis in an echo chamber (although that is definitely an issue), but rather that for the crowdsourcing of these issues to work properly you would want as diverse a crowd as possible–meaning, you would wan to include individuals from outside of political science and the political pundit community.

Outside of an effective aggregation mechanism, James Surowiecki points to three necessary conditions for successful crowdsourcing:

  1. Diversity of opinion
  2. Independence of those opinions
  3. Decentralization (i.e. ability to lean on local knowledge)

Political Scientists and pundits do not hold a monopoly on useful insights into the world of politics. Other actors have an interest in understanding and predicting what will happen politically, including financial analysts, corporations, journalists, and politicians and citizens around the globe. Each of these groups likely brings their own perspective and lens for analyzing political outcomes to the table, and from a crowdsourcing perspective that is precisely what one would want (diversity, independence, and decentralization). The answer isn’t simply to gather more opinion from political pundits, but rather to gather more opinion from additional actors who represent an even greater diversity of opinion.

I agree with Dan that it would be worthwhile to set up some kind of experiment to determine the optimal composition of a political forecasting crowd. I smell a side project a brewin’….

[Cross-posted at bill | petti]

The Zombie Plague Has Gone Viral

I can’t stand Keith Olbermann most of the time, but this bit last night – both a spoof of the health care debate and the proliferation of zombie references in political discourse lately – was too priceless to ignore:

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

A Giant Moves On.

Senator Kennedy is dead at 77.

If You Haven’t Seen This Movie, You Probably Should.

Eric Randolph tells us why at Complex Terrain Lab in a post entitled “A New Kind of War Movie” :

“The Hurt Locker has already garnered the epithet of ‘first great Iraq war movie’ since its US release back in June, but that might actually be an underestimation. For a start, it has an intensity that will leave your bowels twisted and your nails bleeding; and it’s made a star of a nobody in James Renner. But, more importantly, by side-stepping the question of the war’s founding morality and justification, director Kathryn Bigelow has achieved something quite new for the war genre. Her resolute focus on the daily activities of a small cog in the military machine – namely, a bomb disposal unit in 2004 Baghdad – results in a film that is neither anti-war polemic nor gung-ho propaganda piece. Rather, she simply seeks to represent the unadorned and bleak reality of daily routine, with the caveat that the daily routine in question happens to be a horrifically dangerous nightmare.

As an exercise in compulsive tension, it is obviously a great subject for a filmmaker, and one that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have expertly realised. But more than that, it is also a rare look at the process of war-fighting. Cinema has often treated soldiers as metaphors for the grand existential struggles of mankind, or as the tortured pawns of some inherent evil in the world. By contrast, the soldiers of The Hurt Locker are simply employees doing a particular bizarre job. The action is episodic, occurring in a series of fairly independent set pieces that bring home the monotony of work far more than any quest for glory. Although Bigelow tries to inject some concluding “what does it all mean?”-style remarks towards the end, these moments sit uncomfortably in a film that avoids melodrama, sweeping rationalisations or any over-arching narrative.”

I withhold judgment until after I have a chance to rent and watch, which on Randolph’s tantalizing recommendation I shall do this weekend. But based on his description I think this genre (nuts and bolts of work in and around wars, sans grand narrative) was actually pioneered earlier in the decade – with films about the First Gulf War. Jarhead and Three Kings (possibly, though maybe it was in a genre all its own) come to mind. It’s true that you haven’t seen a film of this type about the Iraq war, so that’s new. I wonder if there is some generalizable lag in films about particular wars that renders this type of movie politically acceptable a certain amount of time after the onset of hostilities.

Election Results from Afghanistan

Preliminary results show it is too close to call; the Guardian interprets this as Karzai having a narrow lead.

UPDATE: Oh, crap.

Web Architecture and Children’s and the Media in Cross-National Perspective

UPDATE: The original version of this post was “Children and the Media.” It was basically a little tirade about the absence of genuine news media for children.

What was ironic about this post is that my rant was triggered by a visit to BBC’s website (upon following a link from BBC’s homepage to their “Children’s” page, I found primarily a bunch of games rather than substantive news for children):

“What a statement of contemporary assumptions about children’s role as citizens! It’s as if BBC thinks kids have no interest in current events or need for relevant, age-appropriate journalism. Too bad, actually. As 10-year-old Damon Weaver reminded us with his recent interview of President Obama, young people everywhere can be and are engaged in the events of the day, especially those that affect them (and what doesn’t?).”

However, as was pointed out in comments, BBC is actually one of the few “global” news organizations that do in fact produce news tailored to children, and has since 1972. However, you can’t find “Newsround” easily unless you grew up with it and know where to look – the BBC homepage doesn’t link to it (not even among its “32 languages; I don’t know, kid-ese seems like another language to me half the time), or from the “Children’s” page (mostly games); you have to go to the “Children’s BBC” page from the “Children’s Page on BBC” and even that includes only the Newsround icon (see – it’s that funny N down there in the corner), but if you aren’t already familiar with the icon that won’t help much. You won’t get far, for example, by surfing around in search of something that looks like the word “News” on the children’s page; or “Children’s News” on the homepage.

What did I learn from this experience?

1) I was wrong (and delighted to be so). If I want to get my kids interested in reading current events, BBC is actually setting a great example for the US news media. (Although, see here and here.) If there’s an equivalent of Newsround here in the States, I’ve never heard of it and neither have any of the parents I know (most had also never heard of Newsround). By contrast, to hear my commenters talk, Newsround is so ingrained in British culture that kids “presumably all recognize the logo.”

2) I was right. BBC is providing children’s news, but it’s also steering them (and parents like me) away from it in exactly the way I criticized in my earlier post. While we’re waiting for global news organizations to follow this example, BBC will fill that niche a lot more easily if it rethinks its new website design to emphasize news instead of entertainment for kids. It would be a simple matter, would it not, to treat the Newsround website as the children’s homepage, with games and activities embedded in Newsround itself? Instead, currently, games dominate the Children’s page, and Newsround is relegated to a tricky-to-find external section. (I don’t know about your kids, but mine would never make it past all the tantalizing drivel even if they knew what to look for; and I doubt many kids outside of the UK will “recognize the logo.”)

Architecture is governance. The packaging of information is as important as its presence or absence. It shapes our perception of what is available as well as our access; it shapes assumptions about what it is normal to want; and thus, it communicates and reproduces social values. Though I picked on the wrong news organization, my essential argument remains: too little thought is given in our culture to the idea that kids might be interested in the world around them, whereas enormous amounts of energy are spent turning them into consumers of entertainment and goods. This should be changed.

P.S. My original and now defunct post remains below the fold to remind me never to use this blog as a space for venting everyday frustrations without doing my research. Sorry, BBC.


On BBC’s recently revamped website, I noticed this morning a link to “Children” which I assumed would be a webpage devoted to getting children interested in the news and current events through coverage of topics related to them. Instead I found this:

What a statement of contemporary assumptions about children’s role as citizens! It’s as if BBC thinks kids have no interest in current events or need for relevant, age-appropriate journalism. Too bad, actually. As 10-year-old Damon Weaver reminded us with his recent interview of President Obama, young people everywhere can be and are engaged in the events of the day, especially those that affect them (and what doesn’t?).

Here are other examples of news stories involving children that might have appeared on BBC’s “Children” page, were it structured to take children’s intelligence seriously rather than to provide cheap and low-quality entertainment:

1) Picking Tobacco is Bad For Children: “THOUSANDS OF child labourers working as pickers on Malawi’s tobacco plantations are exposed to nicotine poisoning equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day, an international children’s rights group said yesterday. Plan has called upon Malawi’s tobacco industry to vastly improve working conditions, and the government to ensure existing child labour laws are enforced in full.”

2) Study Confirms Universal Health Care for Children is Good For Society. “In June, Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy released “The Economic Impact of Uninsured Children on America,” a new report whose bottom line is that extending health insurance coverage to all children in the United States would be relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of letting children remain uninsured and would yield economic benefits that are greater than the costs.”

3) New York Should Treat Children in Prison Less Harshly, Says Justice Department. “A recently completed federal investigation has documented unsafe and, in some cases, heartbreaking conditions in several New York state detention facilities.The department describes a hellish environment where excessive force is commonplace and children risk serious injury — concussions, knocked-out teeth and fractured bones — for minor offenses like laughing too loudly, getting into fistfights or “sneaking an extra cookie” at snack time.”

4) Stressed Out Families? Too Much Work, Not Too Many Children, Is the Problem.“Families in which both partners work long hours are more stressed than others, but the addition of children doesn’t seem to have much impact on stress levels, according to a new report from Statistics Canada.”

5) African Children’s Choir on Tour in the Pacific Northwest. “The critically acclaimed choir, whose members are drawn from impoverished African communities, has performed for dignitaries such as President George W. Bush and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and strives to raise awareness of the plight of children on the African continent.”

And children are not just interested in news about children. BBC and other news outlets could take a hint from efforts by children’s websites like Pitara, which include a round-up of world news written in language kids can understand. Still, how much more accessible such news would be if it came to kids through the media machines their parents rely upon for daily reports. And how much more engaged children would be in our society if this were the case. And, perhaps, how much more responsive adults would be to children’s needs if it were taken for granted that their informed voices were a legitimate part of our national debates.

On the other hand, never mind. All this keeping up would just distract our budding electorate from more important things like Suite Life on Deck and the Honesty Box.

Extraordinary Rendition and Detainee Abuse are Two Separate Policy Problems. Let’s Treat Them As Such.

Bob Drogin at the LA Times is the latest to regurgitate the misinformed claim that Raymond Azar, whose human rights appear to have been violated as he was extradited from Afghanistan to Washington on bribery charges, is “the first target of rendition under Obama.”

The incident described yesterday by Drogin, in which Azar was arrested in his home and then allegedly hooded, photographed, subjected to a cavity search and told he would “never see his family again unless he confessed,” actually occurred on April 7th; Azar is now in detention in or around Washington DC and has also claimed that his treatment at the hands of those who arrested him amounted to torture. Claims began surfacing a few days later on blogs such as Huffintgon Post and Daily Kos that Azar was the “Obama Adminisration’s First Rendition Victim”; this claim is now being repeated on various political blogs.

If Azar’s claims are accurate, his human rights to humane treatment were violated as he was arrested. The Justice Department’s proposed investigation into CIA abuse would seem therefore to be a timely and wise choice, as detainee abuse seems to have become embedded in the culture of many US agencies (in this case, the FBI). This is something that can only be reversed with significant political and legal attention to the matter, and which should not be assumed to have ended with the presidential transition.

However ill-treatment per se doesn’t mean Azar was a victim of extraordinary rendition, and this narrative is muddying the public’s understanding of the concept itself.

“Rendition,” for one thing, is not a human rights abuse: it is simply the practice of transferring prisoners between jurisdictions, and is provided for at the domestic level in Article 4 Section 2 of the US Constitution. Internationally, rendition generally takes the form of extradition, which is a legally arranged transfer of a suspected or convicted criminal, and is governed by a range of bilateral and multilateral treaties. All this is perfectly legal.

But treaty law also constrains the practice of extradition. Among other things, signatories to the Convention on Torture are prohibited under Article 3 from extraditing suspects to states where they are likely to be tortured. “Extraordinary rendition” is a term that came to describe the practice of informally doing just that: transferring a suspect without a formal extradition agreement into the custody of a government at whose hands s/he is likely to face ar harsher interrogation for the purpose of information extraction. In other words, whereas extradition is a legal process aimed at criminal prosecutions subject to due process standards, extraordinary rendition in an extra-legal arrangement for finding loopholes for interrogations.

The practice of transferring suspects to such governments or to CIA-run “black sites” as a means of skirting international rules regarding interrogation was widely condemned during the Bush Administration – but the practice dated back at least to 1995, during the Clinton Administration. Nor has it ended with the election of a Democratic President. After Bush left office, the Obama Administration claimed it would seek diplomatic assurances from countries before transferring suspects (but this was already part of the earlier policy). He has not put an end to the extraordinary rendition policy per se, a choice I’ve criticized before; the Administration’s position was reiterated today. I have not been tracking whether or not individuals have actually suffered from it since Obama took office, but it seems clear to me that Azar did not: this is not a case of the US sending a detainee overseas for abuse.

Azar appears to have been extradited by the government of Afghanistan to the US under the normal legal procedures to face charges of corruption in a US court, as the LA Times article itself admits:

“Their case is different from the widely criticized “extraordinary renditions” carried out after the Sept. 11 attacks. In those cases, CIA teams snatched suspected Al Qaeda members and other alleged terrorists overseas and flew them, shackled and hooded, to prisons outside the United States without any arrest warrants or other judicial proceedings.

The FBI arrested Azar and Cobos with warrants signed by a federal magistrate. And the State Department, Talamona said, asked the government of Afghanistan “for its consent in advance to take these two individuals into custody and return them to the United States to stand trial. They consented to our request.”

If there is a violation of extradition law happening here, it was Afghanistan, not the US, that engaged in it (and indeed, give the recent US record of detainee abuse, perhaps governments worldwide would be in violation of Article 3 of the Torture Convention by sending any detainees to the US). But the extradition happened through normal legal channels, not secretly in an effort to circumvent those channels, and not for the purposes of extracting intelligence.

This strikes me as a case of a prisoner who was lawfully extradited receiving ill-treatment as he was relocated. Detainee abuse by US personnel in violation of legal protections is an important issue, but it is distinct from a policy of turning over suspects to governments who lack such protections altogether. Let’s treat it as such.

The Political Geography of “Risk”

I spent ten hours today playing Risk with my son. What would normally have been simply a time-killer on a rainy Sunday became, after my earlier perusal of P. Michael Phillipps’ treatise on the non-decline of the non-Westphalian-system, a day-long exercise in thinking about political geography.

By lunchtime we had grown tired of the Classic version and took a break to run down to World Apart Games and pick up the 2008 version for an “updated version of the map” (advertised online). But when we had a chance to look at the gameboard we were disappointed at the changes, which didn’t make the new map look anything like the world we live in or any empirically grounded version of it. (True the Risk rules would probably mitigate against a world of 190+ sovereign “territories”; but if you must simplify a complex globe, what about lumping countries together according to factors in particular regions that actually do cross national boundaries while distinguishing them from others: like commodities belts or cultural affinities. And instead of using the continents as a frame of reference for scoring, why not use transnational classifications and simply color code the map? The Islamic bloc, for example could be represented in green; OECD countries, dictatorships, or some equivalent of Barnett’s non-integrating gap could be other “regions.” Parts of these blocs are contiguous but parts would not be, introducing an interesting twist on the rules of claiming and holding territories for bonus points. Also, some of these overlap: many but not all OPEC countries might fall into the Islamic bloc and vice-versa, offering a diverse range of options for accumulating different scores for “blocs.”

Any such alternatives would have been more interesting and timely than what Risk 2008 actually offers, which is territorial units in which Russia, for example, looks more like an enclave in Eastern Europe than a continent-spanning empire. As a parent and educator, I was uninspired.) We were told that the most significant changes in this version were actually not the map or the concepts but rather the rules: Risk 2008 offers several different ways to play.

However we were lucky enough to acquire a demonstration copy of an earlier version of Risk, albeit one set later in history: 2210 AD. This version is much more interesting because in some respects the labels on the map make (a kind of) sense when extrapolating ahead into history. What was Brazil on the earlier version is now the Amazon Desert; New York is now the site of one of several underwater cities; central Africa has become the Zaire Military Zone; South Asia is now United Indiastan, China is Hong Kong and Alaska is the Northwest Oil Emirate.

(Also the moon bases are extremely cool.)

Why can’t we use the same kind of imagination to create a meaningful post-Westphalian alternative to map our contemporary world – one in which factions compete not simply for territorial space but to access over resources, transit routes and communications grids; in which the political economy of battle is measured not just in land army units but also on the seas, in the air and in people’s minds; and in which the political cleavages and alliance structures are often non-territorially-based?

I wonder if the predominance of a Westphalian political geography in the boardgame Risk tells us something about our still entrenched notions of the world we live in.

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