Saturday, March 23, 2013

The power of an apology

Those who falsely accused President Obama of leading an "apology tour" during his early foreign trips might claim some vindication from this week's presidential visit to Israel, which culminated in a spectacular apology that took place in a trailer at the airport as the president was about to depart for Jordan. But it wasn't President Obama who was apologizing. The president instead brokered a restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey. In order for that to occur, it was necessary for Israel to apologize to Turkey for mistakes that occurred during the 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish ship trying to run the blockade of Gaza. Clearly, both Israel and Turkey will greatly benefit from the restoration of normal relations. Improved relations will bolster the security of both countries in the face of violence in Syria and elsewhere. Israel also gains some international respect, as Turkey has already tempered some harsh criticism of Zionism, which may have laid the groundwork for this week's action. But some  Israeli hard-liners are already criticizing the apology. Are there any costs to Netanyahu and Israel in expressing regret and sorrow for the Israeli military action in 2010?

Those who resist making apologies rely on a couple of arguments. One is that the party being asked to apologize has nothing to apologize for. This view is often expressed by American conservatives, who seem to argue for a doctrine of American infallibility. Thus, no matter how much other countries might perceive us as a bully, no matter if we sometimes make strategic military mistakes, we should never apologize because we are always in the right and always a force for good in the world. That is an argument based on pure arrogance. Countries that do not acknowledge their mistakes only lend further support to negative perceptions. Israeli hard liners can argue that their country had every right to enforce a naval blockade, an action that every sovereign nation has the right to engage in when permitted under international law. But these same defenders of Israeli prerogatives should also take enough pride in the Israeli military to be able to claim that Israel tries to use force sparingly and to minimize unnecessary casualties. And no matter how precise and well-planned a military operation may be, it probably could have been even more well-planned and precise. That means there is almost always something to apologize for.

Another argument is that apologies make nations appear weak. That means that even if leaders recognize that they made some mistakes, they should still never acknowledge those mistakes, because that will cost them respect. Those who make this argument should have the burden of proving it. They must demonstrate that if Israel covers up or refuses to acknowledge any operational errors in its military missions, that will cause the country's enemies to respect it more. Even if they could make that case, which seems doubtful, it would be an odd position to take for a country that prides itself on democratic institutions, an independent judicial system, and the freedom of Israeli citizens to criticize their own government. That means that no matter how much leaders may wish to refuse to acknowledge their mistakes, other institutions are going to ferret them out anyway.

These arguments against making apologies seem remarkably weak. They are mostly based on pride and a miscalculation of the party's real interests. When weighed against the remarkable gains that can come from openly acknowledging a mistake to a party that feels wronged by one's actions, the costs of apologizing seem trivial in comparison. Prime Minister Netanyahu acted wisely in recognizing that the benefits of restoring good relations with Turkey far outweighed any risks in making an apology for Israel's attack on a Turkish ship.

The person who is able to induce both parties in a dispute to recognize their underlying interests and do what is necessary to restore good relations is called the mediator. Once again, President Obama played that role remarkably well.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Bible

I scored a coup by snagging an interview with Satan, who was kind enough to sit down with me for a few minutes to discuss the controversy over the new mini-series The Bible, on the History Channel.

not Obama
Me: What do you think of the actor who plays you in this new TV version of the Bible?

Satan: I haven't seen it, actually. Only read about it on Twitter. 

Me: Me neither, but what I specifically wanted to ask you about was the claimed resemblance of the actor who plays you to President Obama.

Satan: Well, first of all, can we try to remember that this is just a TV movie? I don't think the people who made the movie have ever seen the real me, so let's not criticize them for the artistic license they took in portraying me. And believe me, there have been a lot worse. Look at that South Park movie for example. They made me look like a real clown. Those guys will pay for that when the time comes, you can be sure of that! On the other hand, I thought Al Pacino looked good portraying me in The Devil's Advocate. And if I were a woman, I only wish I could be as sexy as Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled.

Me: I get that it's only a movie, but do you think the filmmakers had some political point to make by choosing an actor to play Satan who has such a strong resemblance to the president? 

Satan: I certainly didn't put them up to it, if that's what you're trying to suggest. Anyway, look at me. Do I look anything like President Obama? 

Me: Not at all. As a matter of fact, if you don't mind my saying so, you look a lot like Dick Cheney. 

Satan: heh heh

Monday, March 11, 2013

Partisan media

Jana Birchum/Austin Chronicle
Rachel Maddow was in Austin yesterday mostly talking about her book Drift, which explains how the U.S. military has become so divorced from the rest of society that most of us no longer feel the consequences of wars. I wouldn't say this topic quite captured the spirit of the techie crowd here, most of whom would probably have been curious to hear more about Rachel Maddow's views on the use of social media, or on the future of cable news vs. radio vs. the web, but this was also mainly an audience of fans, so they were happy to listen to a history lesson.

Maddow is a true policy wonk. In addition to a summary of her book's thesis, she offered some interesting political analysis, especially about the current state of the Republican Party, and whether it will be able to reconcile its internal conflicts and emerge as a strong alternative to the Democrats. That was all ok with me, since I'm more of a policy wonk than a techie myself. I was interested to hear that Maddow wishes that more Republicans would come on her show, and that she would like to see Republicans make more cogent arguments than most of the ones we are used to hearing, since I agree with her that improving the quality of political debate is likely to lead to better policy decisions.

And speaking of partisan media, of which most people consider Rachel Maddow and MSNBC to be an example, I attended another panel today of journalists and political science professors who argued that partisan media is probably not as bad a thing as we have been led to believe. For one reason, the people who are fans of the most partisan outlets comprise a fairly small share of the public. Most Americans, surprisingly enough given that we are portrayed as bitterly divided politically, are not as far apart as conventional wisdom suggests. Most agree, for example, on moderate positions on issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage, to immigration.

Moreover, it may not be that partisan news sources cause people to become more narrow-minded, as much as it is that people who watch openly partisan sources probably gravitate toward those sources because they confirm what those people already believe. The morals here are that we all ought to expose ourselves to a spectrum of opinions; and that journalists should probably worry more about being accurate than about being partisan. Complete objectivity in news reporting is probably not possible, but if reporters are aware of their own biases, and check the stories that confirm their biases as carefully as they check the stories that run counter to their biases, we'll be all right.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing, a unique documentary I saw this weekend at South by Southwest, exposes the gangsters and paramilitary organizations used by the Indonesian government to kill perhaps a million supposed opponents of the regime after the country's military coup in 1965. There has been some democratization in Indonesia since that time, but the people who carried out these actions are still protected by the government, and brag about these actions with impunity. The film gives these killers the opportunity to do just that, a point of view the filmmakers were almost forced to adopt when they discovered that the victims' families for the most part are still afraid to tell their stories. Somebody suggested that they instead tell the story from the killers' point of view, and were somewhat surprised to find that they were quite willing to cooperate.

One thing that makes the documentary unique is that its "stars," in addition to talking about their actions, were asked to re-enact them for the camera, as if they were making a movie depicting their methods of killing and torture. Some of these scenes are almost comical; others are harrowing. For the most part, the perpetrators  are not embarrassed to give matter-of-fact descriptions of torture and killing they committed.

What makes the film even more unique is that it does not allow the audience the easy escape of simply condemning the killers as evil. Instead it treats them with empathy. The film's point of view moves beyond typical depictions of such events as battles between good and evil, and instead forces us to recognize the essential humanity even of people who carried out despicable and horrible crimes. We need to understand that these crimes were committed by people, not by some sort of demons.

The film focuses in particular on one character, a gangster named Anwar Congo. Like others, Congo at first expresses no remorse for his actions. Since the killings were sanctioned by the government, and no one is being punished for them, he can make the argument that he has done nothing wrong. As the movie goes on, however, it becomes clear that at a deeper level, he realizes that what he has done is wrong, and becomes revolted by his own actions.

Taking the point of view of people who committed horrific crimes in no way justifies these actions. Allowing these criminals to tell their own story, as well as re-enacting scenes that helped the killers empathize with their victims, instead causes at least some of them to condemn themselves. A powerful film, that deserves to be widely seen.

Hope and Change in Egypt

Yesterday I had a chance to hear a talk by Dr. Bassem Youssef, a YouTube and television star in Egypt. Youssef, who was a doctor with no background in politics, started a satirical video program after the revolution, modeled on the Jon Stewart show. His videos almost immediately started getting millions of views. Then he moved his program to tv, with phenomenal ratings. This success demonstrates that Egyptians are starved for this kind of content. Political satire apparently did not exist, or was not allowed, before the revolution, and people are evidently enjoying the freedom to criticize the government, especially when it is done in an entertaining and humorous way.

Youssef was repeatedly asked whether he is concerned about being silenced by the new government, or whether he feels the need to temper his criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and religious parties. His response was that free speech can only take root in Egypt if people see that he is able to speak so freely and in such a visible way. His best protection from government repression is popular support. In other words, the government seems a little afraid of the people right now. They have a better chance of staying in power if they allow this content than if they suppress it. In a similar way, allowing the Brotherhood to take power rather than suppressing it has put them in a position where they have to deliver, and exposes them to ridicule if they espouse unpopular ideas.

Things may get worse in Egypt before they get better, but ultimately any hope for freedom and democracy in this country and region depends on the people's ability to express themselves and participate in the political process. Political satire seems an essential step to get there.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

What's new

What with the sequestration debacle, continued threats to shut down the government, and even another possible crisis over increasing the debt ceiling, it's no wonder the public still has the impression of continuing gridlock in Congress.  Is it possible, however, that all that noise doesn't capture what is really going on right now in Washington? Ignore the noise, and you might notice that Congress is actually making some real progress in putting together the kinds of coalitions needed to move forward.

In the House, Speaker Boehner has three times already this year violated the so-called Hastert rule to allow legislation that a majority of his caucus does not support to come to the floor--the "fiscal cliff" deal, Hurricane Sandy relief, and the Violence Against Women Act. That has allowed enough moderate Republican support for these measures to win passage. There are enough Republicans now in the House who either do not support the more radical elements in their party, or are fearful of their own re-election in swing districts to comprise a working majority with Democrats to support a lot of legislation. Even the failure to reach an agreement to avert the sequester cuts, which makes Congress as a whole look bad, could open the door to a more sensible agreement.

In the Senate, President Obama treated a dozen Republican Senators to dinner out last night, a gesture they said was much appreciated. That's another indication of a willingness to engage in dialogue, and opens the door to enough Republican Senators to allow votes to take place on important legislation. Even Rand Paul's marathon old-fashioned filibuster yesterday can be seen as a hopeful sign. Senator Paul demonstrated how filibusters should be done--by taking the floor for as long as humanly possible to make a stand over a matter of principle. A far cry from the invisible filibusters the Republicans have been practicing the last few years, where they require a 60 vote majority to allow nearly every piece of legislation, and many presidential appointments, to come to the floor. Paul's stunt could help shame the Republican minority into using the invisible sort of filibuster more sparingly.

The lessons for Republicans: Stand up and make noise when you feel strongly about an issue. Propose alternatives and amendments that are likely to have a lot of support. And bide your time until the public grows tired of the majority party and gives you a chance to govern. But stop obstructing and delaying in a way that prevents anything from getting done. That strategy only made sense to try to prevent President Obama from obtaining a second term. But now that it has failed, it is time for the Republican party to start acting more like a traditional minority.

These lessons will not be heeded by the majority of Republican members of Congress, because it's not in their political interest to do so. But fewer than 20 Republican votes are needed in the House, and only about 5 in the Senate, to allow Congress to move forward and do its job. Ignore the noise, and start counting the increasing number of times that those votes will be there.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Friday, March 1, 2013

3/1 press conference

Those who think President Obama has not acted forcefully enough to force feuding politicians in Congress to make an agreement, as well as those who think the president has already acted in too heavy-handed a way, both got a lesson here. This problem has to be fixed by Congress, and the pressure has to come from the American people. All the president can do is propose a reasonable plan, which he has, and use his bully pulpit to put pressure on Congress to act, which he does a good job of here.