Monday, May 31, 2004

UP FOR GRABS Stephanie Herseth faces off tomorrow against Republican Larry Diedrich in a special election to fill the congressional seat that opened up when Bill Janklow stepped down.

Herseth holds a small lead, according to polls. This would be a Democratic pick-up, and an important win in conservative South Dakota.

Tune in to CONTRAPOSITIVE for results.

UPDATE: In a bizarre pre-election near-concession, Larry Diedrich is telling The Hill that he would be happy to lose tomorrow, as long as it's by five points or fewer.


It's important to point out that Herseth and Diedrich will square off again in November. But if losing by five percentage points in an overwhelmingly Republican state is Diedrich's idea of a victory, the South Dakota GOP may want to reevalute its choice for the fall race...

Sunday, May 30, 2004

THAT CLEVER GOP Guess which website you get directed to when you key in fahrenheit911movie.com.

Talk about playing into Moore's publicity strategy...(Via Green Cine Daily.)

POP OR SODA? Kevin Drum links to a map charting county-by-county poll results.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

POTENT POTABLES The spat between Bud Light and Miller Light has seemed to escalate, in recent days, from a friendly (if mischievous) game of one-upsmanship to a genuine battle, complete with bad blood.

On Friday, a Federal judge ordered Anheuser-Busch to pull an anti-Miller ad. This after Miller brought suit against Budweiser's parent company earlier in the day, for what it described as a campaign to deface Miller Light cases with Bud Light stickers.

Silly, silly boys.

I've been following the corporate brawl, mostly because Anheuser-Busch's "All Light Beers Are Low in Carbs--Choose on Taste" campaign strikes me as being almost infuriatingly obnoxious and disingenuous.

For starters, the claim that all light beers are low in carbs, while not an outright lie, is an unusally blatant bit of commercial obfuscation.

The nugget of information the folks at Anheuser-Busch don't want you to know--and are using millions of dollars to obscure--is this: A can of Bud Light contains 6.6 grams of carbohydrates while a bottle of Miller Light has only 3.2 grams.

So, yes: While both beers may be low in carbs compared to a Big Mac (46 grams), Miller Lite is about twice as Atkins-friendly as Bud Light. Budweiser hasn't so much massaged the facts as run directly away from them.

IT GETS WORSE: Still, as distasteful and willfully deceitful as the "Choose on Taste" tag line is, it would be harder to detest if Anheuser-Busch, as a corporate entity, really bought into the thought behind it.

You wouldn't blame Coldstone Creamery, for example, for launching ads that chided people for counting calories.

But Anheuser-Busch doesn't believe its own rhetoric. Because while the company downplays the differences in carbohydrate content among beers with one side of its mouth, the other side is busy promoting Michelob Ultra--its 2.6 carb grams entry in the Atkins-friendly beer sweepstakes.

So: Choose on Taste. Or count carbs with our premium-brand. But whatever you do, steer clear of "Queen of Carbs" Miller Lite.


It's not shocking, of course, that a company that's built a multi-billion dollar business selling inferior products would market its goods in a way that's less than forthright.

But I guess I just find it a bit suprising to see a campaign for a light beer earnestly encouraging consumers to ignore just how light that light beer happens to be.

THE GOOD NEWS: The campaign isn't working. Miller Light sales grew 13.2 percent for the 26-week period ended May 8. Bud Light sales declined 0.8 percent.

ANOTHER THOUGHT:Setting aside the deviousness angle: Has anyone ever walked into a party, dug a hand deep down into a cooler and, choosing on taste, picked out a Bud Light?

FINALLY, A DISCOVERY: Budweiser is giving out free yourname@budweiser.com e-mail addresses. Check it out. "No annoying third-party advertising," the site boasts.

Now that seems like a sophisticated, sensible marketing strategy...

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

KNOCK YOURSELVES OUT Daily Kos links to a web site designed, "to coordinate the move of 50,000 or more Christians to a single conservative state in the U.S. for the express purpose of reestablishing constitutional governance."

There's more: "The success of ChristianExodus.org will lead to an independent Christian nation where people may once again worship God under the protection of a friendly government."

The candidate states are Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina.


Monday, May 24, 2004

HOUSE OF SAUD The invaluable Alexander Bolton over at The Hill has a story documenting the Bush administration's refusal to answer 9/11 Commission questions about the Saudis who flew around--and then out of--the country in the days just after September 11, 2001.

The central questions about some of the flights (specifically, those that took place during the FAA prohibition on air travel): Who organized them? Who authorized them?

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), vice chairman of the independent, bipartisan commission, disclosed the administration’s refusal to answer questions on the sensitive subject during a recent closed-door meeting with a group of Democratic senators, according to several Democratic sources.


Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she asked Hamilton and Lehman if they were able to find out who in the administration authorized the Saudi Arabian flights.
“Who did this? Why would the Saudis want to get out of the country? They said [those questions have] been part of their inquiry and they haven’t received satisfactory answers yet and they were pushing,” Boxer said.

Another Democrat in the meeting who confirmed Boxer’s account reported that Hamilton said, “We don’t know who authorized it. We’ve asked that question 50 times.”

Boxer said she obtained a commitment from Hamilton that the commission will state in its final report if the White House refused to answer questions about who authorized the Saudi flights after the 2001 attacks.

UPDATE: Richard Clarke, disavowing previous denials of involvement, has now taken sole responsibility for authorizing post-9/11 flights for Saudis.

When do you suppose the horse's head arrived in his bed?

Thursday, May 20, 2004

JEWS IN SICILY CONTRAPOSITIVE will be on hiatus for the next several days. In the meantime, here's a postcard--written in late 2002, but never before published--about a remarkable, but unheralded, piece of Jewish history in Sicily.

All photographs are by Willow Lawson.


There is no listing for Sicily in the index of A HISTORY OF THE JEWS. And Syracuse, a small city on the Sicilian east coast, isn't so much as mentioned in Paul Johnson's definitive historical survey.

So I was skeptical when, preparing for an Italian vacation, I stumbled on a scattering of internet references to a recently-discovered, Byzantine-era mikvah at Syracuse: Heralded by one web site as the best-preserved Jewish ritual bath in Europe, the mikvah was also—according to a fleeting reference at haddasah.org—perhaps the continent's oldest.

Still, Jews in Sicily? The phrase sounded more like a concept cooked up by a Hollywood producer ("think GODFATHER meets SEINFELD") or the premise of a new Zadie Smith novel than anything rooted in reality.

After searching several travel guidebooks, unsuccessfully, for references to the island’s Jewish past, I couldn’t help wondering whether reports about the mikvah were based on a misunderstanding or even a hoax.

And yet, deeper digging revealed that Jewish life had indeed touched down on Sicily for a fascinating, if little-heralded, 1500 year sojourn: Jews lived through enslavement by the Romans and second-class citizenship during Byzantine rule before enjoying a degree of commercial power under the Arab-Muslim Saracens.

Ultimately, when Sicily came under the sway of Spain’s 1492 Edict of Expulsion, the thousands of Jews on the island were given a stark choice: flee or convert. For the more than 500 years that have followed, Jewish life on Sicily has been essentially non-existent.


I arrive in Syracuse in mid-October.

A city of 125,000 and the one time home to Archimedes, Plato and Aeschylus, Syracuse boasts a slew of Greek and Roman ruins, gorgeous views of the Ionian Sea and moderate weather. There is plenty of graffiti and decay to be found in its ancient center—a gritty maze of centuries-old residences, restaurants and shops—but the place brims with a palpable, youth-driven vitality.

Scaffolding dots the landscape, restoration projects abound, and on Sunday night, fashionably dressed young Sicilians arrive on scooters, filling the waterside cafés and spilling out onto the streets. In short, you can almost smell the gentrification in the air.

Syracuse's craggy coast. A view once enjoyed by Archimedes, Plato and Aeschylus.

I head into the old Jewish Quarter, now one of the city’s less prosperous residential sections, and down a street named “Alley of the Jews #4.” By now I’ve learned about the peculiar circumstances of the mikvah's excavation: It was literally unearthed, I've been told, during the conversion of a medieval mansion into, of all things, a bed and breakfast.

Still, familiar as I am with the story, it's odd to find myself walking into the lobby of what is now a relatively plush hotel, approaching the front desk and announcing, "I'm here to see the Jewish bath."

The young woman behind the desk is unfazed, however. I pay my five euros and she guides me and two other visitors toward the rear of the hotel, then down fifty-six stone steps to a scene straight out of INDIANA JONES: We’ve entered a dark, cool, chamber carved entirely from rock.

The classroom-sized space, which has the feel of a cavern or crypt, features a low, vaulted ceiling, benches cut into the walls on three sides, and four large, square support columns. At the center of the room are three bullet-shaped, water-filled baths.

The guide, Daniela Zanghi, tells us that the site dates to the sixth or seventh century, and then moves quickly through accounts of the decade-long excavation, the spiritual cleansing role of the mikvah in Jewish life and the sad fate of Sicilian Jewry. Her well-meaning presentation is vague and speculative—she is short on dates and facts.

(She doesn't know to mention, for example that the sixth century dating of the mikvah is tentative and, according to Dr. David Cassuto, an Israeli scholar of Jewish ritual architecture, based on the bath’s structural features. Nor does she tell me, as does Dr. Anders Runesson of Lund University in Sweden—an expert on Diaspora mikvaot—that if dated correctly, the mikvah represents an early and important example of the emergence of rabbinic Judaism in the Diaspora.)

Syracuse's former Jewish quarter. (Literally, "Alley of the Jews #1).

Still, Zanghi does point out two private baths, in alcoves off the main chamber. She also notes that the baths are fed by a natural spring, that water is spread among them via low channels, and that the long benches, large enough to seat a few dozen at a time, speak to the size of Syracuse's Jewish community.

Zanghi grows flustered when I ask if the mikvah is available for use by visitors (it isn’t) and whether the site is landmarked (not currently). A similar thing happens when the subject of ownership comes up.

"The mikvah belongs to the Jewish community of Siracusa," she explains in halting English, elaborating that, because no such community exists, control reverts to the owners of the hotel upstairs. When I ask where the five euro entry fee goes (publicly maintained sites in Sicily charge $4.50) her answer is terse: “upkeep.”

The tour is over in less than twenty minutes, and soon Zanghi is ushering me toward the door. I thank her for her time, and she returns to what seems to be her primary occupation—running the front desk of the hotel.

On my way out, I'm energized by the thought of having walked around inside a piece of Jewish history that may be 1500 years old.

And yet there's something vaguely disheartening about what I've seen: Open for more than two years, the mikvah still doesn’t offer visitors any contextualizing literature; it charges $.50 more than the island’s government-run Greek temples and Roman ruins; it isn’t landmarked; the publicity campaign appears to be non-existent; the tour guide doubles as the hotel concierge; and the site is open for viewing a mere nine hours a week.

Standing outside, gazing at a modest, gelatto-spattered sign that is the site's only prominent marker, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the mikvah—the only significant remnant of Jewish life in Sicily—is seen by those who operate it as something less than a cherished connection to the past.

The mikvah's only prominent marker.

And it seems more or less scandalous that what Cassuto calls the largest, most beautiful and perhaps oldest Jewish bath on the continent is in private, non-Jewish hands.


It's warm and sunny as I make my way along quaint, cobblestone streets back toward the center of town. Pausing to read a real estate flier, I remember Zanghi's remark about the absence of a Jewish presence in Siracusa.

Converting euros to dollars, I have visions, if only for a moment, of starting one.

--Dan Aibel

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

THE HANDOFF From Joshua Marshall:
But just step back and look at how crazy this is: we've run Iraq for more than a year, spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the whole effort, lost many of our own sons and daughters as well as many Iraqis. And here you have what is arguably the big issue: who you hand the place off to and how you hand it off to them. And it's left to the last minute, with the powers that be having to ditch almost everything that has come up until this point and start from scratch.

The market in examples for how badly the Bush team has bungled this situation is admittedly glutted. But even if they're now going for a dime a dozen this is really one to marvel at. (Emphasis in original.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

BEYOND BUMPERSTICKERS From war-supporter Andrew Sullivan:
What Bush doesn't seem to understand is that in any war, people need to be reminded constantly of what is going on, what is at stake, what our immediate, medium-term and ultimate objectives are.

The president has said nothing cogent about Karbala; nothing apposite about al Sadr; nothing specific about what our strategy is in Falluja. Events transpire and are interpreted by critics and the anti-war media and by everyone on the planet but the president.

All the president says is a broad and crude reiteration of valid but superfluous boilerplate. This is not war-leadership; it's the abdication of war-leadership.

GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD The Village Voice has a story by Rick Perlstein detailing a meeting between high-level National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams and the leaders of the Apostolic Congress--a group that opposes the idea of a Palestinian state on the biblical grounds.

From the article:

Abrams attempted to assuage their concerns by stating that "the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph's tomb or Rachel's tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace."

Do the Bushies really think it's acceptable to make these kinds of arguments?

THE THIRD COAST Daniel Drezner writes:
I'll concede that New York City may be the most easily recognized city in the world.
But claiming that Chicago doesn't have any "worldwide recognition" smacks of provincialism.

Now, I'm as big a Chicago fan as the next guy.

But doesn't the claim that claiming that Chicago doesn't have any "worldwide recognition" smacks of provincialism itself smack of provincialism?

Monday, May 17, 2004

MILITARY NECESSITY Brad DeLong links to this Road to Surfdom post comparing and contrasting White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales' statements on the Geneva Convention:
"At the same time, President Bush recognized that our nation will continue to be a strong supporter of the Geneva treaties. The president also reaffirmed our policy in the United States armed forces to treat Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in keeping with the principles of the Third Geneva Convention."--Alberto Gonzales, 5/15/04 (NYT Op-Ed)


"The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians...In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."--Alberto Gonzales, 1/25/02 (Memorandum to the President, as reported in Newsweek 5/16/04)

Notice that while the two statements cut in opposite directions, they don't directly contradict one another. So what we've got is more Clintonesque, "legally accurate" flimflam.

If only the stakes were still as low as they were during the Monica Lewinsky mess.

Friday, May 14, 2004

When Nicholas Berg took an Oklahoma bus to a remote college campus a few years ago, the American recently beheaded by terrorists allowed a man with terrorist connections to use his laptop computer, according to his father.

Michael Berg said the FBI investigated the matter more than a year ago. He stressed that his son was in no way connected to the terrorists who captured and killed him.

Government sources told CNN that the encounter involved an acquaintance of Zacarias Moussaoui -- the only person publicly charged in the United States in connection with the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

According to Berg, his son was taking a course a few years ago at a remote campus of the University of Oklahoma near an airport. He described how on one particular day, his son met "some terrorist people -- who no one knew were terrorists at the time."

At one point during the bus ride, Berg said, the man sitting next to his son asked if he could use Nick's laptop computer.

"It turned out this guy was a terrorist and that he, you know, used my son's e-mail, amongst many other people's e-mail who he did the same thing to," Berg said.

Government sources said Berg gave the man his password, which was later used by Moussaoui, the sources said.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

RED TURNING BLUE Daily Kos links to a just-released American Research Group poll that puts Kerry ahead of Bush by seven points among likely Ohio voters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

SECOND THOUGHTS Tucker Carlson has left the building:
"I think [the Iraq war is] a total nightmare and disaster, and I’m ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it."

(Via Atrios.)

STEWART IN A CAN? Anyone catch Wednesday night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart?

Watching--and listening--to the show, CONTRAPOSITIVE was just about certain that a phony, sitcom-style laugh track had been layered into the audio--which usually carries the sounds of an authentic-seeming audience.

What's that about?

One strking thing about the shift to canned laughter--at least to my ear--was the degree to which the fake crowd responses undermined the impact of Stewart's barbs. Reminds you how important an audience's reaction can be to the success of a joke.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Abell has a master's from Columbus University, a diploma mill Louisiana shut down. Deputy Assistant Secretary Patricia Walker lists among her degrees, a bachelor's from Pacific Western, a diploma mill banned in Oregon and under investigation in Hawaii.

CBS News requested interviews with both officials. The Pentagon turned us down, saying, "We don't consider it an issue."

Here's the link.

RETRO-SPECTIVE Remember Flooz?

Given all the tumult in the world (last night on The Daily Show, Sen. John McCain called the period we're living through "a very very terrible time for America"), in the coming weeks CONTRAPOSITIVE will be retreating, at least periodically, into the past.

The turn of the century seems like a particularly appropriate time to be revisiting--a kinder, gentler, more innocent period. Recent, but distant-seeming. An era that some of us look back on fondly, and which others (many of them with their stock options still under water) have almost completely blocked out.

For an inaugural effort at turning back the block, here's a postcard from the dotcom heyday--specifically, in this case, a quick jaunt through the rise and fall of that late-great e-commerce giant Flooz.com.

Think of it as a five minute vacation from the year 2004.


January 25, 1999: Flooz goes online.

February 19, 1999: The word is supposedly an ancient Persian slang term for money, but, more importantly, it's short, catchy, unique, and "hip" -- characteristics Levitan and his co-founders, Spencer Waxman and Dermot McCormack, hope will raise the brand to the exalted level of a Yahoo! or an Amazon.

"We wanted to be a brand that sticks out above the noise. Flooz does that for us," said Levitan. "We want to make Flooz the next big Web brand."--Internet News.com

June 7, 1999: At Flooz.com, users buy any amount of Flooz using a credit card; one Flooz equals one dollar. The certificate is then e-mailed, along with an e-greeting card, to the recipient, who can redeem the Flooz at one of the growing list of Flooz-enabled online merchants, such as Books.com, Caesar's Palate, and Nirvana Chocolates...Launched in February, Flooz.com has already handled several thousand transactions, said Levitan, and the average Flooz purchase is about $50.--Internet World

September 13, 1999: Things are afoot at.Flooz.com, where last week the site unveiled a new look, went into production for its first TV campaign and tapped James Glicker to the high-falooting title of brand guru...Flooz.com also enjoyed a first round of financing of $16.5 million led by Oak Investment Partners.--Brandweek

January 20, 2000: NBC and its Internet arm, NBCi, this week struck a deal swapping advertising on its TV network and promotion on Snap.com for equity in Flooz.com, an online gift currency site.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.--Clickz News

July 27, 2000: While CEO Robert Levitan says he's happy with the initial campaign's results, he also learned that it was time to turn his company's energy...from brand awareness to more emphasis on the quality of the customers.

Flooz.com now has about 770,000 accounts, or people who have either sent or received Flooz.--Clickz News

December 20, 2000: Q: What is it about your business model that differs from other B2C plays that are struggling?

A: [Robert Levitan, CEO, Flooz.com, Inc.] Fundamental to our business mode: we don't own any inventory. We don't pick, pack and ship anything. Our product is completely scalable. We like to compare it to eBay -- we sit between buyers and sellers and provide a transaction platform. That's a great business model.

Somebody wrote in The New York Times recently that a success formula for e commerce companies is hidden in the physical weight compared to the price point of your product. The lower the weight, the higher the price point, the more successful your e-commerce business will be (a low weight-to-price ratio).--Internet News.com

August 10, 2001: Internet message boards have been humming with speculation over the past few days that online currency company Flooz.com is going out of business.
As of Friday, Flooz itself had left no clear signal of its status and has made itself unavailable for response to any inquiry.

The company took its Web site offline Wednesday and posted a message reading: "We are currently unable to process your transaction. Check back for further updates. We apologize for this inconvenience."

Adding fuel to the speculation that Flooz has gone under without notifying shoppers is the fact that sites around the Web -- including Ashford.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Outpost.com and Tower Records -- have stopped accepting Flooz as a payment method.

Calls to Flooz' toll-free number by the E-Commerce Times were greeted with a message that the number was invalid, and Flooz responded to an e-mail request for information with an auto-response reply suggesting the use of the site's "Live Chat" feature to chat with a customer service representative.

However, the "Live Chat" feature, along with the rest of the Flooz site, was still disabled as of Friday morning.

"We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience you may have experienced with Flooz," the company told customers who e-mailed the company Thursday requesting more information. "Please note that, since we are presently updating our site, you will not be able to access our website. We suggest that you visit our website www.flooz.com later for further updates."--E-Commerce Times

August 29, 2001: We regret to inform you that Flooz.com has ceased operations. The offices are closed and the company will file for bankruptcy protection.--Flooz.com

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? CEO Robert Levitan appears to be chief marketing officer of Point Roll--a successful-seeming internet advertising platform designer.

(Nirvana Chocolates, you'll be glad to know, is still up and running.)

THE LANDSCAPE TODAY: Paypal, which was ultimately absorbed by eBay, has continued to thrive. And Bitpass and a few others have gone after the micropayment market. But no seems to have quite figured out the business formula for internet-wide, merchant-friendly quasi-cash.

Unless you count Visa and Mastercard.

Monday, May 10, 2004

PADILLA WATCH Daily Kos reprints a Washington Post letter to the editor noting that there were hidden stakes involved when the Pentagon requested that CBS delay its original Abu Ghraib story.

And those stakes were higher than just stalling the report's broadcast until the next news cycle.

Specifically, the delay had the effect of pushing the explosion of the abuse controversy until after the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Padilla v. Rumsfeld oral arguments.

Eight hours after.

Why does that matter?

Consider Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement's contention, in response to a question about checks on executive power, that:

"You have to recognize that . . . where the government is on a war footing, you have to trust the executive ..."

Today, that's a lot harder thing to say with a straight face.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

OLD FRIENDS "Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of Defense the United States has ever had."--Vice President Dick Cheney (through spokesman Kevin Kellems) in May 9, 2004 editions of the New York Times.

UPDATE: Pentagon employees have been officially warned against reading the Taguba report. (Link courtesy of Mark A. R. Kleiman.)

SUMMING UP Iraq war-supporter David Brooks in his 5/8 New York Times column:
A year ago, we were the dominant nation in a unipolar world. Today, we're a shellshocked hegemon.

Friday, May 07, 2004

HARSH WORDS The New York Times on the war in Iraq:
We now know that no one with any power in the Defense Department had a clue about what the administration was getting the coalition forces into.


Thursday, May 06, 2004

JDATE IT AIN'T Bulletin to online dating service subscribers: Hope is within reach. (Link courtesy of Noam Scheiber.)

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

ON THE CASE Billmon--who has led on the Abu Ghraib story since the beginning--has read the Taguba report. He makes a few interesting points that haven't gotten much play in the mainstream press.

AN OPEN LETTER Dear New York Area NetFlix Subscribers:

So a whole bunch of you wanted to see LOST IN TRANSLATION. It's understandable. I'm not sure I should've had to wait three months to get my copy. But that's something I should probably take up with the Powers That Be.

Still, my experience with that DVD got me thinking. And with backlogs still cropping up for discs like STONE READER and LA STRADA, I've started to get suspicious.

So let me just ask: Have you been loading highbrow, artsy flicks onto your queue and then, once the DVDs arrive, letting them sit for weeks on your shelf?

Admit it--you have.

I know, I know. You're hip. You're culturally literate. You're a "student of the cinema." And yet when it comes time to curl up with Jean Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME, you procrastinate like a college sophomore the week before finals.

You'll get to it this weekend. Sure you will.

But maybe it's time to face up to the fact that you're just not up to staring down two hours of subtitles. Level with yourself and give the rest of us a break.

You're never going to watch it. So just send it back in already.

UPDATE: More commentary on the "Very Long Wait" phenomenon and other NetFlix queue hazards can be found here.

And if you're obsessive enough to want to know how NetFlix decides who gets what when, take a look at the eerily comprehensive-seeming experiment performed by this guy.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

SULLIVAN AGREES The idea of some sort of presidential statement is gaining traction. Here's Andrew Sullivan:
It seems to me that some kind of reckoning has to be made by the president himself. No one below him can have the impact of a presidential statement of apology to the Iraqi and American people. Bush should give one. He should show true responsibility and remorse, which I have no doubt he feels...But frankly there is something tawdry about a president at a time like this campaigning in the Midwest in a bus. His entire war's rationale has been called into question. The integrity of the United States has been indelibly harmed on his watch. He must account for it. Soon.

UPDATE: And here's Mickey Kaus:
Does President Bush--as opposed to his State Department--understand the extent to which the photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse have made America palpably less safe by encouraging some non-trivial number angry Muslims (and others) to become anti-U.S. terrorists? The real events themselves are bad enough; magnified by the highly efficient Arab anti-American propaganda machine they become a huge defeat in the war on terror. It won't be much of an answer, when another attack kills thousands of Americans, to protest "But there were only a handful of bad apples in Iraq." The President's job isn't just to be able to defend the U.S. position. It's to prevent the attacks.

How? The abuse scandal isn't the sort of bad publicity that will be countered by a sound bite here or there...It's not a responsibility President Bush should delegate--to distance himself from the bad news...Some grand gesture would seem to be required. Why doesn't President Bush ask for three minutes on the U.S. networks, plus CNN and Al Jazeera and the other international satellite channels. He could look directly into the camera; and a) condemn and apologize; b) explain why this isn't what America is about; c) give his personal pledge to punish the perpetrators, describing those Americans already punished; and d) ask to be judged on the results. Keep the righteousness and self-congratulation about how Saddam wouldn't have taken corrective action to a minimum, and he might begin to turn this defeat around. (Emphasis in original.)

NIP AND TUCK Regular readers may notice that CONTRAPOSITIVE received a bit of a makeover this weekend.

The extent to which the changes are visible will depend on the platform you're using--CONTRAPOSITIVE on a Mac running Netscape, for example, has a different look from what you'll see on a PC running Internet Explorer.

But in any event, the main changes are a switch to a more readable font, and the addition of Google Ads.

I'll have more to say about Google and its AdSense program soon. But for now, I'll just mention that, in the coming months, readers can look forward to extensive commentary on diamond rings, flat-panel TVs and Aspen ski vacations.

I'm kidding. Mostly.

The redesign is still a work-in-progress. Please feel free to comment.

FOG OF WAR Is the Coalition Provisional Authority--you know, the one run by L. Paul Bremer--an arm of the White House? Is it an independent agency within the federal government? Is it an international organization?

Digby points us to this Slate article noting that the Congressional Research Service (which is a federal agency) isn't sure.

From the CRS report:

It is unclear whether CPA is a federal agency...The lack of an authoritative and unambiguous statement about how this organization was established, by whom, and under what authority leaves open many questions, particularly in the areas of oversight and accountability. Some executive branch documents support the notion that it was created by the President, possibly as the result of a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD). (This document, if it exists, has not been made available to the public.) The other possibility is that the authority was created by, or pursuant to, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483 (2003).

The first line of the CPA's homepage embraces the latter interpretation:
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is the name of the temporary governing body which has been designated by the United Nations as the lawful government of Iraq until such time as Iraq is politically and socially stable enough to assume its sovereignty.

Does any of this matter? Eric Umansky at Slate notes:
The General Accounting Office, the government's auditor, usually has the power to investigate bidding processes by a federal agency when the losing contractors suspect something fishy has happened.

At least two companies have requested that the GAO investigate specific CPA contracts; they were denied. After all, a federal procurement office insisted, whatever Congress may have said in the $87 billion Iraq bill, the "CPA is not an entity of the United States Government."

But to me, contract disputes are the least of it. The CPA is more than just a giant general contractor--right now it's the de facto government of Iraq.

And as the last several days have made clear, absence of oversight and murkiness in the chain-of-accountability invite problems far more serious than faulty bidding processes.

SECOND THOUGHTS George Will has left the building.

MOVIE OF THE WEEK RATCATCHER may not have been the best film released in 2000, but already, it's one of the few movies from that year that endures. (Anyone remember THE BEACH?)

Lynne Ramsey's debut plunks us down in a seedy part of 1970s Glasgow, homing in on the story of James, a troubled twelve-year-old.

Telling her story through stunning images, Ramsey paints a picture that is as bleak as it is visually arresting. It's the kind of fresh, unorthodox filmmaking that reminds you of the medium's infinite flexibility.

The Criterion DVD also features three earlier, short works that give the viewer a great opportunity to watch Ramsey develop the visual style that makes RATCATCHER so memorable.

Monday, May 03, 2004

INCOMING "More to come, Charlie. Stay tuned."--Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, author of the definitive piece on the abuse at Abu Ghraib, on Monday, closing out a discussion of his article with Charlie Rose.

And he oughta know.

GOING PUBLIC Doesn't seem like it's going to happen, but I'd sure like to see the President take three or four minutes tonight on network TV to talk about Abu Ghraib prison.

Specifically, it'd be nice to hear him say (and in a solemn, set speech): a) that he's repulsed by the photos that have surfaced; b) that he believes the abuses they document violate American and international standards; and c) that he is committed to seeing to it that those responsible are punished.

I'm not asking for an apology, or any hand-wringing. Just a demonstration to the world that he takes these kinds of abuses seriously.

Would there be any real downside--political or otherwise--to making that kind of speech?

UPDATE: Scott McClellan has now told the White House press corps that President Bush discussed Abu Ghraib with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld this morning, and that Bush supports "appropriate actions" in response to the mistreatment of prisoners.

Nothing like a call for "appropriate actions" to let the world know you're serious...

Sunday, May 02, 2004

OUTSOURCING Billmon has a run-down--and some informed, evidence-driven speculation--about the story behind the Abu Ghraib abuse story.

It's probably proof of my ignorance about how these things work, but I'm still having trouble getting my head around a facet of the story that Billmon deals with almost in passing--the idea that our military is contracting out prisoner interrogations to private companies.

What's the argument in favor of this?

It's an especially galling state of affairs given the constitutional weight Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement attached to the role of interrogators during Wednesday's Hamdi v. Rumsfeld oral argument.

Taking issue with the notion that an enemy combatants denied access to lawyers have no way to contest their detentions, Clement maintained:

It may not seem what you think of as traditional due process...but the interrogation process itself provides an opportunity for an individual to explain that this has all been a mistake.

According to the Bush administration, in other words, the only inviolable legal check standing between any one of us and a lifetime in solitary confinement is...an evaluation of our culpability by a privately-employed contractor.

Don't know about anyone else, but I favor the "jury of your peers" concept myself.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

IN YOUR NAME The thing I find surprising about the photos coming out of Iraq isn't the fact that such incidents--ugly though they may be--are occurring.

And I can't say I'm shocked that at least a few soldiers think humiliating Iraqi prisoners is a blast.

What's startling is that American troops might feel comfortable having themselves photographed taking part in such brutality--and, indeed, mugging for the camera.

If these kinds of acts can be perpetrated openly, during the metaphorical light of day, then what kinds of conclusions should we draw about the things that go on during the dark of night?

UPDATE: Kevin Drum links to more photos. (Note: They are graphic and disturbing.) I have no reason to believe they are fakes, but I have not been able to corroborated their authenticity.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.