How Jane Smiley Thinks

A recent Huffington Post article by Jane Smiley entitled "Why Human Rights are More Important than National Security" begins:

On Friday, the morning after the Democratic debate, I was stunned to read in the War Room column over in Salon that Governor Bill Richardson had said the wrong thing about national security versus human rights. Tim Grieve wrote, "We're not sure which office Richardson is seeking these days, but he came pretty close to disqualifying himself from either of them last night when he insisted that human rights are more important than America's national security." …
The link Jane provides to Grieve provides doesn't work well for me, here's a better one. And in case you'd like to see what Governor Richardson actually said that fateful night to grieve Grieve, here is CNN's debate transcript.

Jane continues:

I'm not sure what planet Tim Grieve is living on, but on our planet, it is human rights that are precious and rare and always to be preserved and "national security" that is ever and anon a cant boondoggle. I was not alone in my dismay. I read War Room almost everyday and have liked Grieve's posts in the past. When I first read what he was saying, I thought he was joking; so did other readers. The entry got 57 responses. Almost all of them were outraged, and several called on Tim to explain himself. He never did.
Shorter: Grieve stands accused of heresy. "Almost all" of 57 Salon commenters agree! Must be true!

Note Jane's sneer quotes around "national security". They'll show up again.

You wouldn't know from Jane's description that the actual debate topic concerned human rights in Pakistan, apparently involving, among other things, the weighty topic of whether President Musharraf continues to wear his spiffy army uniform. I'm sure there are good arguments to be made on all sides, tradeoffs to be made, delicate issues to consider, etc. But Wolf Blitzer insisted on making things as simplistic as possible, boiling it down to (numerous times): "What is more important, human rights or national security?" Congratulations, Wolf! You made the candidates look nuanced and thoughtful in comparison.

But (unfortunately) only in comparison. And Richardson made it pretty clear that, if you'd like a return to Carter-era foreign policy, he's your guy. (I don't think Kucinich weighed in here.)

But back to Jane:

Human rights are defined, most notably in the U.S. Bill of Rights. They are defined because the Founding Fathers realized that if they were not defined, they would be more likely to be abrogated or lost entirely. The Founding Fathers understood the temptation on the part of governments to give and remove human rights arbitrarily, because they had experienced such things before the Revolutionary War -- in the Stamp Act, in the quartering of British soldiers on American households, and in illegal searches and seizures, in no taxation without representation. They recognized that although British Law customarily acknowledged various human rights, it was essential to name, codify, and write them down to make it less likely that they could be taken away.
Plenty of room for quibbling here—the BofR was perfectly compatible with slavery for decades, wasn't it?—but let's move on.
Human rights are profoundly local -- they reside in individuals. According to humans rights theory, if someone is human, he or she has the same rights as every other human. The rights of American citizens as described in the Bill of Rights have been expanded and extrapolated around the world so that they apply not only to us but to everyone.
I'd give that maybe a B+ as a description of natural rights theory, and a D as history.
While in the U.S. this idea is a bit controversial, in other countries it is standard, accepted, and cherished.
Woops, make that a D-. What other countries take natural rights more seriously than the US? I'd say, approximately, none.
The codification of human rights, and the widespread acknowledgment of this, is one of the things that makes the modern world modern. To roll back human rights, even for some individuals, is to return to a more primitive, hierarchical, and un-American theory of human relations.
One example, of course, concerns women. Can women routinely be imprisoned, sold, mutilated, or killed by their relatives? U.S. law says they cannot; …
"Thanks for pointing that out!" As far as I know, Jane, those laws apply to men too.
in practice, many are, but no one openly promotes what many secretly do.
Fortunately, in all those other countries where BofR rights are "standard, accepted, and cherished" that kind of thing never happens at all.

But never mind, Jane's about to make the transition from "simplistic" to "deranged":

If a candidate, even a Republican, ran on a platform of reducing the legal rights of women, he wouldn't get far (ask me again in 10 years, though). Or consider lynching. The U.S. has a long tradition of lynching. It was only after the Second World War that the Federal Government and state governments began enforcing their own anti-lynching laws. This was a victory for human rights. Do you want to go back? The Republicans would like you to, in the name of: "national security."
Those fun sneer quotes again. And glad to know that the GOP is in favor of lynching. But Jane's on a roll:
Guess what? There is no such thing as "national security"; it's a concept that not only hasn't been defined, it can't be defined. It is a psychological state. The very phrase describes an impossibility. All boundaries in the U.S. and in every other country are porous. Planes come and go, as do ships, trains, trucks, autos, information superhighways, human relationships, and human emotions. In addition, the smaller any threat becomes, the less safe we are against it. We no longer live in the world of Mutually Assured Destruction, where our thousands of warheads aimed at the Russians protected us, psychologically, from their thousands of warheads aimed at us. Since the end of the Cold War, threats have gotten smaller and more invisible. Where is that suitcase of nuclear material? Where is that vial of anthrax? But as they have gotten less easily detected, they have also gotten more local. 9/11 is what we always think of when we think of a breach of national security, but in fact, the destruction was not national, or even city-wide, or even district wide -- although the World Trade Center was less than a mile from the New York Stock Exchange, the NYSE was only closed for six days after 9/11.
Only six days? Less than a mile? Gee, why did we ever think this whole 9/11 thing was a problem?

Can we make any sense out of this? I don't think so. Jane claims that national security "can't be defined"—but obviously she knows well enough what it means in order to deem it "an impossibility." She claims it's a mere subjective "psychological state", but she immediately rattles off enough threats to convince me that—gee, just maybe—there's a substantial component rooted in objective reality as well.

The phrase "national security" cannot mean anything in a nation of almost 10 million square miles. …
The area of the US is not a particularly relevant fact, but Jane manages to get it wrong; it's about 3.8 million square miles.
The Bush administration and the corporatocracy knows this perfectly well. Witness how our chemical plants have not been secured from the possibility of terrorist attack -- there are too many of them, and the likelihood of any one getting attacked is too small to make it worthwhile for either the nation or the chemical industry to fortify them. The Dubai Ports deal of a couple of years ago demonstrated the same understanding on the part of the administration, that "national security" is merely rallying cry for fear.
Yes, this is why chemical and nuclear plants have no security measures whatsoever. Because security is (either) "impossible" or it "can't mean anything."

Does anyone else find it ironic at this point that Jane wondered "what planet Tim Grieve is living on"?

The Bush administration has spent some trillions of dollars (I shrink from naming a figure, since, as big as it is, it is surely a lie) to attack a nation of a mere 437,000 square miles. In doing so, they have chosen to ignore such items of U.S. national security as public health and infrastructure maintenance.
Ah, here Jane has turned off the sneer quotes around "national security"; and—previously having deemed the concept both impossible and undefinable—now pronounces it to involve "public health and infrastructure maintenance." And completely achievable, once we stop that whole Iraq thing! Yes, it's that easy to turn on a mental dime when you are Jane Smiley.

You'll be happy to know, however, that after botching the area of the US, … she also botches the area of Iraq. It's about 170,000 square miles.

The population of the U.S. is demonstrably poorer, hungrier, less healthy, more homeless, more likely to be injured in an infrastructure failure, and more likely to suffer from a weather related loss than it was before the Bush administration came into office.
It's a grim Thanksgiving at the Smiley house this year.
A huge debt means that the economy is more likely to fail. The prospects of our children for a peaceful and prosperous future are worse. Nothing that the Bush administration or the Republicans or the Military Industrial Complex has done in the last seven years of foolish incompetence and braggadoccio [sic] has benefited the nation as a whole, though it has benefited a small class of investors and government cronies. As a result of the Iraq War and the Bush attack on the Constitution, I can be afraid of the obliteration of the entire idea of the U.S. -- I am afraid of that, thanks to the tyrannies of the Bush administration and the professions of the current crop of Republican candidates -- but not of the obliteration of the U.S. itself.
Because there's no such thing as "national security," right?
Indeed, the war in Iraq shows more than one thing about the idea of national security, because even though the Iraqis have been attacked by the largest military in the world, they have been damaged but not subdued. The same would be true of the U.S., no matter who attacked us.
In Smiley World, the Iraqis are showing true American Spirit by shooting and blowing up American soldiers—and many more of their fellow Iraqis.

"This is me," Jane says. "This is where I'm coming from."

Liberals, progressives, and Democrats recognize, at least intuitively, that "national security" is a code word for tribalism, while "human rights" is a code word for the rule of law. Governor Richardson was straightforward in acknowledging this fact, and deserves praise rather than blame, especially from a writer for Salon.
Shorter: Democrats good, Republicans bad! No tribalism there!

A couple final comments:

For all Jane's idolization of the Founders and the Bill of Rights, and her various self-inconsistent ravings against the "impossible" concept of national security, I don't think she managed to read as far as Amendment number Two:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Apparently Jane's unaware that the Founders thought enough of the concept of the "security of a free state" to write it right into the BofR. (In an article entitled "What I Think About Guns" she referred to "well-armed second amendment fanatics;" it appears her respect for the BofR is selective.)

Also, as long as I'm here, I noticed that Chris Dodd—of all people—had an interesting response to the issue:

BLITZER: What is more important, human rights or national security?

DODD: Obviously, national security, keeping the country safe. When you take the oath of office on January 20, you promise to do two things, and that is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and protect our country against enemies both foreign and domestic. The security of the country is number one, obviously.

Not bad for an off-the-cuff response! I imagine Senator Dodd has fantasized about uttering those words on January 20, which made the response easy to come up with. And I admire the sentiment.

But in fact, that "enemies foreign and domestic" phraseology is for all Federal employees, government officials, and the military, but not the President. The President's oath is mandated by the Constitution:

Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
No enemies there, foreign or domestic. Perhaps Senator Dodd should brush up on his Constitution before he tackles the big job. And then he can attempt to explain it to Jane Smiley.

The Scary Campaign! Boo!

A Reuters article by Ellen Wulfhorst (called to Pun Salad's attention by James Taranto) is headlined "Giuliani style evokes concern among critics". It contains the following paragraph:

Type the word "scary" and names of Republican candidates for president into a leading database of articles. The name of the former New York mayor will get the most hits.

Hey, that's kind of what we do for phoniness! Mainstream media reporters can be just as lazy as low-tier bloggers! Let's check the Google to see how its results match up against "a leading database of articles":

Query StringHit Count
"Hillary Clinton" scary806,000
"Ron Paul" scary686,000
"Barack Obama" scary585,000
"John Edwards" scary514,000
"John McCain" scary456,000
"Rudy Giuliani" scary371,000
"Mitt Romney" scary364,000
"Fred Thompson" scary329,000
"Dennis Kucinich" scary226,000
"Mike Huckabee" scary168,000


  • Clearly, at least according to the Google, Rudy's far from the scariest candidate. Even among Republicans, he's merely number 3. How could our results be so different from those obtained by Ellen, the intrepid Reuters reporter? To quote Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: "This means something. This is important."

    Well, maybe not that important. I'd wager that the search universe Ellen used (Nexis, probably?) is filled with people who find Rudy scarier than the Whole Wide World indexed by the Google. I'd make a further (smaller, but still non-zero) wager that Ellen tried Googling first—because, really, who wouldn't?—resorting to Nexis only to get the result she was looking for.

  • The Reuters article linked above (of course) comes in at the top of the Google hit parade for Rudy. Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to search results: writing an article about the search hits you get against a certain phrase will itself increase the hit count for that phrase.

  • There's an impressive correlation between "phony" hits and "scary" hits. Almost without exception, the scary rankings above are identical to the phony rankings we gathered last week. (The exception: Dennis Kucinich, who the Google finds to be scarier than Mike Huckabee, but less phony.)

  • Also, for a given candidate, the "scary" hits are (without exception) greater than the "phony" hits. Does this mean (generally) that candidates are scarier than they are phony? Well, that's understandable, I guess. We can call that the Wizard of Oz Principle: people find these guys scary, but they're really just phony. You should pay more attention to the men (and woman) behind the curtain.

  • Ron Paul got some collateral-damage scary hits due to a recent Jonah Goldberg column headlined: "Ron Paul isn't that scary". And Jonah's bottom line is: what Mike Huckabee represents is significantly scarier.
    I would not vote for Paul mostly because I think his foreign policy would be disastrous (and because he'd lose in a rout not seen since Bambi versus Godzilla). But there's something weird going on when Paul, the small-government constitutionalist, is considered the extremist in the Republican Party while Huckabee, the statist, is the lovable underdog. It's even weirder because it's probably true: Huckabee is much closer to the mainstream. And that's what scares me about Huckabee and the mainstream alike.

  • Of course, there are also cheap shots. Looking at the image results for our Number One Scary Candidate will cough up multiple occurrences of:

    [Scary Hill 1]


    [Scary Hill 2]

    … well, maybe they have a point there.

    Whereas for Rudy, you'll merely get this:

    [Scary Rudy]

    … scary only to people with an unusual aversion to recreational cross-dressers, I think. (More costumed Rudy pictures here, if you're into that sort of thing. Sicko.)

    And for our man Fred Thompson:

    [scary fred]

    Scary? Hmph. Maybe to terrorists and hippies.

Last Modified 2014-12-01 10:21 AM EDT