Disclosure, Part 1: Sexual Harassment

Subtitle: It’s All Down Hill From Here

In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to state that, like most bloggers, I am merely skimming the surface of a vast sea of information, fact and opinion. In particular, I understand very little about my ultimate topic, which has to do with the recent Citizens United case and the subsequent DISCLOSE Act. These are some shots in the dark. Maybe you will know enough to shed some light, or at least get interested enough to do some shooting of your own. I promise that, like the stormtroopers on Tantive IV, I have set to stun, not kill.

I do know that “Full Disclosure” is now the title of a song in The Addams Family musical, currently playing Broadway. In a plot pretty much ripped from The Birdcage (or La Cage Aux Folles), the Addams clan hosts a dinner party for a straight-laced nuclear fam (little Wednesday’s in love), and eventually they all play this party game where you tell everyone the truth (sort of like a Festivus airing of grievances), and all kinds of crazy stuff comes out (like, you know, soccer moms like respect, too) to be resolved in Act II.

The relevance is that I have seen this show, with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, and while it’s not as bad as the critics may want you to find it, it IS part of the cultural black hole which we seem to be spinning into. How many more TV shows and movies are there to make into musicals (and then into new TV shows and movies of the musicals, and so on) or update in an increasingly ironic fashion (a la The A-Team)? What will we do in 2020 after The Facts of Life musical (with Elaine Stritch as Mrs. Garrett) finishes its National Tour? It’s all down hill.

“Full Disclosure” is also the title of an episode of The West Wing which I’ve not seen (this will be a theme), in which the former VP is writing a book, Full Disclosure, which is believed to be a smear against the current Prez. This episode, due to an unrelated reference to a New York state military base, is “notable” (thank you, Wikipedigods) for having elicited a letter from Hillary Clinton to the fictional Josh Lyman. Hillary and smearing will also be themes. Oh yum.

And for something else I haven’t seen, how about the 1994 Barry Levinson film Disclosure, based on a Michael Crichton novel of the same name. Maybe no one has seen this movie, but it stars Michael Douglas as a guy whose life comes dangerously close to ruin thanks to a twisted ex-flame (Demi Moore, still in her first wave of sexiness) who brings false sexual harassment charges against him. Actually, as you can clearly see from the photo, she harassed him.

The movie preys on the fears of the 90s, post-feminist male at the water cooler, who is worried that that bitch in the typing pool could at the drop of a hat make things really difficult for him. It’s not unlike how Fatal Attraction, Douglas again, is about how that bitch with the perm you slept with one time might try to kill your wife in a bath tub. It may even be related to Basic Instinct, in which Douglas tries to protect his junk from the leg-crossing bitch with the ice pick.

Basic Instinct came out in 1992, a year dubbed “The Year of the Woman” by some, because “24 new women” were elected to the House of Reps, and five to the Senate (including my dream girl, Dianne Feinstein).

Pop culture, as Michael Douglas demonstrates, was already responding: early 90s culture was pregnant with the spectre of reverse sexism. In 1992 (see?), David Mamet sounded a pretty shrill alarm in Oleanna, which is about a college professor who has everything crash down around him because that bitch with the big glasses has decided to take all of his pedantic comments really personally. That play, productions of which still manage to get our blood boiling (for one reason or another), may be a thoughtful examination of the line between sexual harassment and the tyranny of politcal correctness. It may also be a 90-minute exercise for David Mamet to justifiably use the word “cunt.” This is up for debate.

And just the year before we were given an overboiling pot of sex and harassment, with a dash of race thrown in for seasoning, in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. During the hearings it was leaked that Anita Hill (all down hill, get it?), a former colleague of Thomas (up for SCOTUS, remember), had described behavior of his which seemed to be TANTAMOUNT to sexual harassment. These are her words:

He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.

It seems too bad that Thomas was not around for the heyday of SCOTUS “Redrupping,” watching the pornos in the basement with the brethren. But what do I know? Former Senator John Danforth (referred to in previous post for Faith and Politics, his level-headed response to the Christian Right) believes Thomas was smeared. But it’s hard to leave out this:

One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, “Who has pubic hair on my Coke?” On other occasions, he referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal, and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex.

Right. Sexual harassment videos and such are still commonplace, though many of us make fun of them (at least we did the last time I watched one, in public education…). Do you remember that there was a push to pronounce the word HARassment instead of haRASSment? Am I making this up? Was it to make the word sound less prurient?

Have I mentioned the IRONY that this happened when Hill was employed by Thomas at the EEOC? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? Their job is to protect employees from discrimination, like sexual discrimination.

Thomas, when he testified on his own behalf, coined a term for the political lexicon, calling the proceedings “a high-tech lynching” – there it is – “for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.” Take note, he warned his brethren (racial, not judicial): “unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. — U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”

Backlash. Some polls indicate that a majority of Americans believed Thomas and not Hill. These issues, however, are not ones which breed quiet disagreement. One generally does not leave Oleanna quietly contemplating. Sexism and reverse sexism, like racism and reverse racism, put many of us on the defensive-offensive. David Mamet, by the way, pulls an Oleanna stunt in his new play Race, in which he gives the (black) woman the short end of the rhetorical stick, throwing her to the mercy of the audience as she ends the play hollering at her “white man” employer. It’s not a fair fight, but his point may be that it never will be. This stuff makes us angry.

After all, what happened in 1994? What one pollster called “the Year of the Angry White Male.” Newt Gingrich and company swept in and took over Congress. Backlash. We’re living in another “Year of the Woman,” some journalists will argue, as female candidates are dominating in various primaries and races throughout the country. Or maybe it’s like Amanda Fortini says in the New York Magazine: 2008 was the “Year of the Woman,” and it was not a pretty thing for womankind. In reinforcing the ditz/bitch dichotomy, Hillary and Sarah may have set us back. Backlash. More on Hillary later. “Bitch” really deserves it’s own entry, no?

Certainly Anita Hill has shouldered that epithet. For her part, Hill made clear that she was not “raising a legal claim” of sexual harassment. She simply wanted to state the facts and let people come to their own conclusions.

What is sexual harassment, legally? Not coincidentally, 1993 brought a major Supreme Court decision on sexual harassment, Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. To an extent, SCOTUS was reaffirming a standard which it had already established in the 80s, in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. From Harris:

The applicable standard, here reaffirmed, is stated in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 : Title VII is violated when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory behavior that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a discriminatorily hostile or abusive working environment, id., at 64, 67. This standard requires an objectively hostile or abusive environment – one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive – as well as the victim’s subjective perception that the environment is abusive.

So here we see the idea that the objective outsider’s opinion is important, as it is in defining obscenity, but that the subjective perception is  required “as well.” From this I think we infer that it could be harassment if Jane the Temp sees it that way though I do not, and it is really not harassment if Jane doesn’t see it as such. What distinguishes Harris from its precedent is that the Court made special note that “conduct need not ‘seriously affect [an employee’s] psychological wellbeing’ or lead the plaintiff to ‘suffe[r] injury’ in order to be considered harassment. They were casting the net a little wider.

Need a concrete example? This is from the opinion written by Justice O’Conner (did they give her the opinion because she’s a woman?):

Teresa Harris worked as a manager at Forklift Systems, Inc., an equipment rental company, from April, 1985, until October, 1987. Charles Hardy was Forklift’s president.

The Magistrate found that, throughout Harris’ time at Forklift, Hardy often insulted her because of her gender and often made her the target of unwanted sexual innuendos. Hardy told Harris on several occasions, in the presence of other employees, “You’re a woman, what do you know” and “We need a man as the rental manager”; at least once, he told her she was “a dumb ass woman.” Again in front of others, he suggested that the two of them “go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate [Harris’] raise.” Hardy occasionally asked Harris and other female employees to get coins from his front pants pocket. He threw objects on the ground in front of Harris and other women, and asked them to pick the objects up. He made sexual innuendos about Harris’ and other women’s clothing.

How I wish O’Connor had included a quotation here and not the vague “sexual innuendos.” There was a janitor at one of my schools who would make comments about the clothing of people which some of us questioned. He did occasionally comment on mine, too, but I did not often merit distinction. When is too much, and is there a double standard for men and women commenting on each other’s clothing? Surely there is. 

In mid-August, 1987, Harris complained to Hardy about his conduct. Hardy said he was surprised that Harris was offended, claimed he was only joking, and apologized. He also promised he would stop, and, based on this assurance Harris stayed on the job. But in early September, Hardy began anew: While Harris was arranging a deal with one of Forklift’s customers, he asked her, again in front of other employees, “What did you do, promise the guy . . . some [sex] Saturday night?” On October 1, Harris collected her paycheck and quit.

There is no doubt that you cannot and should not restrict any and all sexual speech in the workplace. There is also no doubt that sexual harassment exists. One is tempted to pull a Potter Stewart: do we only know it when we see it?

An even more difficult question is, when does it matter? Does it matter, when evaluating him as a potential Supreme Court Justice, if Clarence Thomas likes porn and talks about sex with his employees?

When does sex matter, in general? Does it matter if Bill Clinton received a blow job in the Oval Office? Does it matter that Jimmy Carter told Playboy he’s “looked on a lot of women with lust”? Does it matter if Elena Kagan or Janet Reno is a lesbian? When is disclosure politically relevant and when is it not? And when it’s not relevant, what is it about disclosure which tickles our fancy?

Is there anyone who’s been more often at the intersection of sex and politics than Hillary Clinton? First she dealt with her husband asking what the definition of is is. Then, as the New York article pointed out, her rise to solo power led her to be seen by Tucker Carlson as “castrating, overbearing, and scary…Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.” You remember Tucker. He’s the bowtie bastard whom Jon Stewart embarrassed on his own show a few years ago. If his opinion is stupid, he is not alone in it. You can’t even put up a picture of her without making a conscious, political decision about what kind of picture you’re going to use – which Hillary you will enshrine.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Hillary Clinton was at the center of the controversy that sent Citizens United to the Supreme Court.

To be continued…

Shakespalin and Co.

Perhaps you’ve heard.

Sarah Palin was on Fox News defending the Tea Party movement when she used the non-word “refudiate.” Then she tweeted it, in a completely different context. Then she defended her tweet, likening herself to William Shakespeare.

Some context, borrowed from a Yahoo blog, The Upshot: last week, the NAACP approved a resolution which accused the Tea Party movement of tolerating “racist elements” in its membership. They based this in part on accusations made by Congressional Representatives John Lewis, Andre Carson and Emanuel Cleaver, who “said some tea party demonstrators yelled racial slurs at them as they walked to the Capitol [in March] for the final vote approving the controversial health-care-reform legislation. Cleaver said he was spat on.”

John Lewis, of course, is a legendary figure in civil rights, a pioneer of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and the chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) “at the height of the movement.” You can, and should, read more about his remarkable life here.

The Tea Party, however, was not having this. First of all they dispute the claim that slurs were uttered. Fox News reports that the n-word was the main slur in question, although Rep. Barney Frank, of Massachusetts, was also apparently called a faggot, but that the TPers themselves believe these things either were not said, or were said by people outside the movement, or were provoked, or what have you. Personally I’ll take Lewis’s word over random TP member, but that’s me.

If you check the (not uncontested) entry on the TP in Wikipedia, you find that the movement has several factions, all of them have slightly different names, like the Tea Party Express and the National Tea Party Federation and the Double Secret Tea Party and stuff like that. The entry also lists the ten “Contract From America” agenda items which TP political candidates (who are stirring things up in recent primaries) should champion.

“Contract From America” is itself an exhibit of the power of one word. You may remember the “Contract With America” from 1994, when Newt Gingrich and his Pips took over Congress and waited for Bill Clinton to have sex with the right person. But a TP leader told the New York Times that the ’94 movement was an “intellectual” one, but that this comes from the “bottom up,” since people voted on the agenda items through a website.

I have been to the website, my people, and I just want to say one thing. Mostly what you will experience is a bunch of headshots of white guys looking at you with Mona Lisa smiles – and they’ve been separated into “signed” and “not signed” based on whether or not they explicitly endorse the Contract. But my favorite is that the top banner features a randomized one of these candidates, with the title: “This Candidate Wants Your Support. But does he support your Main Street values?”

First let’s try not to choke on the folksy Main Street reference. We all know this term became very popular in the last election cycle in terms of contrasting good, salt-of-the-earth Americans with evil Wall Street investment bankers. We also know that members of the Tea Party, according to every poll taken, is composed mostly of rich, white, male, Republican, college-educated, late-middle-aged folks. These people do not live on Main Street. They live in clotted subdivisions with names that either evoke some faux English past (Kensington, Gramercy, Chelsea), or describe what used to comprise the landscape before it was bulldozed for McMansions (Farms, Falls, Cascades), or which descend completely into the bullshit and proclaim themselves (my local favorite) Champions Run. The Stepfordesque website invites you to come “inside the enclave” where “you and your family can enjoy life to the fullest every day.” Damn.

But the real thing is this:

Do you see the problem here? We are being asked if “he,” Carly Fiorina, shares our values. Oh pish, you say, and yet perhaps an organization which fails to correct its default language in one case (assuming all politicians are male) could do so in another, glossing “American” with “white.”

Let’s not forget that the original Boston Tea Partiers wear in redface, putting on a kind of Native American minstrel show. A blog called Newspaper Rock found some echoes to today:

If you can’t read the text, the slogans say:

“On Warpath Against More Taxes!”
“Paleface Taxes Too High”
“Let Little Brave Keep Wampum”

I am hoping you just whispered to yourself, “you have got to be shitting me.” Let’s not forget, either, that TP members are calling on the masses to “teabag” their legislators. It’s so great to see politicians in tune with slang. Wait, you didn’t mean to equate your political action with…no, I don’t even want to type it. My mother might read this. Let’s just say I saw an adults-only version of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee once, and Mo Rocca asked one of the “kids” to spell auto-teabagged. When asked to use the word in a sentence, he just made a choking/clucking noise.

Maybe I’m wrong, and conservatives are winking at us on this one. But I kinda think there should have been some hip kinky staffer to send around a polite etymological email before this term was championed. Was John McCain’s daughter unavailable?

I like her. For completely objectifying reasons.

And speaking of staffers who should have shielded the old folks from embarrassment, let’s come back to Sarah Palin.

Palin asked President Obama and his wife to “refudiate” the NAACP claim that the Tea Party has racist elements. Ironically (!), her comments were all about the power of words. She sounded like a Fuzzy English champion: “[the Obamas] have power in their words,” she reminded us. They should stand up and “refudiate” this “unfortunate” accusation.

Ah. There it goes. The blog Language Log has a great entry on this whole thing, and why it isn’t (“politics is not a vocabulary contest”) and yet is important. The importance is that she used it again later. Discussing the potential Muslim mosque and community center to be constructed near Ground Zero, she tweeted the following: 

Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.

My first problem is that I’m not quite sure what she means – is there a difference between the mosque supporters and “peaceful Muslims”? But more troubling is that as Language Log points out, after the Fox News incident, either nobody thought to tell Palin she was dealing with fake words, or everyone was afraid to.

Palin later retweeted, substituting “refute” (she probably was looking for “repudiate”), and dropping the Muslim bit altogether: Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real. This is not a correct use of refute, BTW. The word means to disprove. Repudiate would be better, as it means to disown.

But then she abandoned the retreat and wrote this: “Refudiate,” “misunderestimate,” “wee-wee’d up.” English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!

We’ve already discussed Shakespeare and his hash. Misunderestimate belongs to George W., while “wee-wee’d up” is an Obama-ism. He used it last year to describe a phenomenon that happens to people in Washington around August into September. Apparently in context it means riled up, although no one else in the world seems to have ever heard of it before.

Obama’s seems distinct from Palin’s and Bush’s, if only because Obama is using a slang word, albeit one he may have made up. The other two most certainly were creating words because they did not know, or have on hand, the correct ones, the proper ones. However, the Christian Science Monitor, along with many other people no doubt, says this:

Palin is completely right…Throughout its history it has been a living, breathing, changing entity, enriched by words from other languages and slang phrases. It is not formal and unchanging, like, say French. English is like America – dynamic. So why not “refudiate”? Was not Palin’s meaning clear? We bet everybody who read that sentence knew what she meant. And isn’t that the point?

But is that the point? Does she get off because the word was only one-letter off, or because it sounded so much like the one she wanted? Do we need to list words which vary only by one letter, or which are homophones, but have completely different meanings? Do we not already have enough trouble holding politicians accountable for the things they say without letting them create their own language when they see fit?

And the fact that this comes up in relation to the Tea Party is fitting. Remember those Contract From America agenda items? Number one, the one voted for most frequently, is “Identify constitutionality of every new law: Require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does.”

I am no constitutional scholar, as my last post surely proved, but I know that it’s a lot more complicated than just highlighting the phrase that applies to your bill. I’m currently reading Professor Laurence Tribe’s The Invisible Constitution, in which he argues that many of the most basic principles and axioms of our government, the things we take to be essentially American, are not in the text of the Constitution, and only belong to a kind of “dark matter” that surrounds it. This man wrote the book on ConLaw, and here he counsels that there are things which we know to be unfair and unjust, and yet would pass a test of constitutionality.

For instance he imagines “a city ordinance making it a crime for someone to purchase or rent a house or apartment in the city, or to stay overnight as an owner’s or renter’s guest in such a house or apartment, without first obtaining the written approval of at least two-thirds of those living within 500 feet” (82). We all would agree that this is not un-American (what a great word) ordinance, and yet the visible text of the Constitution will not give us a reason to think so.

Following this logic, there must also be just and legal American ideals which can be incorporated into bills but not explicitly referenced in the Constitution. This is not to mention how vague much of the wording of the document is, and how there are centuries of debate behind it.

Regardless, if the TP folks are going to be Constitution word Nazis, they should live out this idea that words have power, that specific political speech is critically important, and they should fess up to their own verbal misdemeanors. And if Sarah Palin accepted $100,000 to speak at a Tea Party event, she counts as one of them. She may be donating it to charity, guys. Maybe.

Speaking of verbal crimes, I want to leave you with another political gaffe that’s almost too good to be true. Accused of racism, some Tea Party leaders accused the NAACP right back. I’m not racist; you are! The most fun accusation came from Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams, who posted on his blog a mock letter to Abraham Lincoln, written from the perspective of NAACP President Ben Jealous:

Dear Mr. Lincoln

We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!

In fact we held a big meeting and took a vote in Kansas City this week. We voted to condemn a political revival of that old abolitionist spirit called the ‘tea party movement’.

The tea party position to “end the bailouts” for example is just silly. Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bail outs directly to us coloreds! Of course, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the only responsible party that should be granted the right to disperse the funds.

And the ridiculous idea of “reduce[ing] the size and intrusiveness of government.” What kind of massa would ever not want to control my life? As Coloreds we must have somebody care for us otherwise we would be on our own, have to think for ourselves and make decisions!

The racist tea parties also demand that the government “stop the out of control spending.” Again, they directly target coloreds. That means we Coloreds would have to compete for jobs like everybody else and that is just not right.

Perhaps the most racist point of all in the tea parties is their demand that government “stop raising our taxes.” That is outrageous! How will we coloreds ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn? Totally racist! The tea party expects coloreds to be productive members of society?

Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house. Please repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let us get back to where we belong.

Precious Ben Jealous, Tom’s Nephew NAACP Head Colored Person 

Oh, yes. Yes he did. He, too, started backtracking, first editing, then removing the letter completely. But surely we all knew what he meant by this modest proposal. We all understand the “joke” (his term) in calling slavery a “great gig,” and that’s what matters, right?

Apparently Williams has since been booted from the National Tea Party Federation. I don’t know what the hell that means, if he’ll still be able to go to the mother ship when the time comes or not, but I do know that that’s all the NAACP was asking for in the first place – not to end the Tea Party, but to get rid of anyone who blends its values with racism.

But to end on an actually funny note, and not an, oh, that’s so not funny I groan kind of thing, I encourage you to check out the latest shakespalin tweets – people rewriting Bardisms in a Palin way:

“To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous liberals, or to quit halfterm, and by opposing, rake in speaking fees.” 

“Alas poor Putin, I knew him well Couric. He didst rear his head oft into mine airspace.”

“I am that merry wanderer of the right.”

AND “We few, we happy few, we band of Mama Grizzlies.” Which reminds us that Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “exit, pursued by a bear,” already fits our new Bard of Wasilla.

Let’s hope it’s a big one. 

Constructionist/Activist, or Uncommon Silliness

You have to read at least half way through to get to the gay sex.

Justice Potter Stewart knew how to turn a phrase.

You’ll remember he’s the wit who offered “I know it when I see it” as legal doctrine. Not long after that, in 1965, Stewart filed a dissent in the case Griswold v. Connecticut (no, it wasn’t about the way to Wally World), in which he defended a state law even though he found it be an “uncommonly silly” one.

This, of course, implies that there are commonly silly ones.

Estelle Griswold opened a birth control clinic in Connecticut in order to test a law banning contraception there. The law was passed in 1879 – did you know that abortion and contraception were not made illegal until the late 19th century in this country? – but rarely enforced. Yet it was still on the books, until SCOTUS voted 7-2 to declare it unconstitutional.

William O. Douglas, a liberal legend on the Court, delivered the opinion. The law “violates the right of marital privacy,” he wrote. Now, if you’re like me, you may not be able to rattle off all the amendments, but you have a suspicion that “the right to privacy” is not on there, which is good, since your sister was not able to sue for damages when you read her diary. But Douglas tells us this right is “within the penumbra of specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights.”

Oh, the penumbra. Why didn’t you say so? Let me just get my pocket Webster’s.

The penumbra is pretty literally shades of gray. It is the region that’s not shadow and not full light, usually related to an eclipse. Its non-scientific connotations boil down to “fringe.” No, the founding dads didn’t specifically write privacy, but it’s covered by other words.

Which ones? Well, the Justices couldn’t decide. One believed it could be traced to the Ninth Amendment:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This looks a lot like an escape hatch, and that’s what it is. Back in the day some folks felt that we shouldn’t have a BoR because it might suggest that any right not specifically listed would belong to the Feds and not to the folks. So they stuck that in there.

But other Justices believed this was a Fourteenth Amendment issue (excerpted):

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

“Due process” and “equal protection” are the operative phrases here. They have been used for decades to elasticize the Constitution. Roots of this go back to a 1961 dissent in which Justice Harlan explained to us that the Fourteenth is special: the “full scope of the liberty guaranteed” cannot be found in the “precise terms” that exist elsewhere in the Constitution. Freedom of press, religion, these are pretty neatly “pricked out” (why not spelled out? Who knows?). Rather, the Fourteenth is a “rational continuum which, broadly speaking, includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints.”


So JDougs can peer into the Fourteenth Amendment and, voila, condoms are constitutional! Neat trick, right?

Consider the alternative, though. You could be Potter Stewart, fully aware that the law you are voting to uphold is “uncommonly silly,” and yet, since you are what we call a “strict constructionist,” you basically hit “file search,” type in, “condom,” and when nothing comes up, you vote that the silly law is constitutional. Strictly speaking, it is the role of the judicial branch to uphold the laws made by the legislatures, not to create new ones. Yet the Constitution provides a kind of “get out of silly free” card; it is your chance to hand the paper back and say, “nice try; bring it to me with corrections for partial credit.”

This right to privacy, invisible to some, became incredibly important in 1973, when it was one of the pillars (though not the only) holding up Roe v. Wade, and it would be important again in 1986, when a man named Michael Hardwick tried to see if privacy extended to homosexuals.

I promised you gay sex. Hardwick was having it, specifically “mutual oral sex,” when a cop walked into his bedroom, stared for about thirty seconds, and then declared Hardwicke and friend were both under arrest. If you read Hardwick’s story, which can be found in Peter Irons’ The Courage of Their Convictions (from which I quoted above), you will be almost amused at such a ridiculous (and unjust) series of events leading up to that moment, the awkward cop in the doorway, when Hardwick said, to his credit, “What are you doing in my bedroom?” 


Hardwick was asked by the ACLU to make a test case of himself, and they made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Then they lost.

They had argued, foolishly, that the extension of marital privacy, of the “rights to relations of ‘family, marriage, or procreation,'” extended to gay people. This did not measure up to the arguments against, which warned of creating a “constitutional right” to “self-gratification and indulgence” (the only things gay sex is good for), which envisioned the case as a “Pandora’s box” opening the American public up to legal “polygamy; homosexual, same-sex marriage; consensual incest; prostitution; fornication; adultery” and drug use. And yes, the specter of AIDS cast a shadow on the courtroom.

Chief Justice Warren Burger, retiring soon, wrote a concurring opinion in which he traced the “ancient roots” of homosexual persecution. He did so proudly, you see. The Romans killed people for it, he said. Sir William Blackstone, legal granddad of England’s common law, declared “the infamous crime against nature” as one “not fit to be named,” and worse than rape. 

It must be nice to leave a legacy.

[Oh, and this case was a Georgia case, so as I sit here and type this in my room, I have the deadbolt on.]

This particular story, however, has a happy ending. In Lawrence v. Texas, 2003, the Rehnquist court (can you believe it?) overturned Bowers, finding that the Fourteenth had been interpreted too narrowly, and that the right to homosexual privacy did exist. Throwing infallibility out the window, the opinion declared “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today.”

Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were not happy. Thomas borrowed Stewart’s phrase, saying that the Texas law was “uncommonly silly,” and that were he in the Texas legislature, he would vote against it. Sadly, he argued, since he was a mere Supreme Court Justice interpreting the Constitution, there was nothing he could do.

You may scoff at this cop out, but Scalia was more sinister. While he has “nothing against homosexuals,” he believed the rationale for overturning Bowers (including its unpopularity) could be used to overturn Roe v. Wade, among other cases.

This is the game the Justices play. They may say, or the pundits may say, that the division is between constructionism and activism, between the letter of the law and the spirit of it, but this is not so. Really it boils down to each man or woman’s morality, or “silly detector,” if you’d rather, and how that guides their reading of the law.

How else could you explain that, five years after Lawrence comes District of Columbia v. Heller, in which Scalia, writing for a 5-4 majority, reads the “ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms,” into the Second Amendment, which says nothing about individuals, and everything about state militias.

There it was John Paul Stevens’ turn to dissent. He, who just retired, was noted for being one of the most scholarly of the Justices, and his lengthy dissent traces the formation of and history of the Second, demonstrating that “the drafting history of the Amendment demonstrates that its Framers rejected proposals that would have broadened its coverage” to individuals.

Stevens then quotes former Justice Benjamin Cardozo: “The labor of judges would be increased almost to the breaking point if every past decision could be reopened in every case, and one could not lay down one’s own course of bricks on the secure foundation of the courses laid by others who had gone before him.”

Stevens must have known that such a quotation, indeed such a belief, is a double-edged sword. After all, he was in the majority to reopen Lawrence and knock down its bricks.

But here we have Stevens as strict and Scalia as “loosey you’ve got some splainin to do.”

Former Senator John Danforth, in his book Faith and Politics, has a chapter titled “Abortion and Judicial Restraint,” in which he examines Griswold and Roe, and other things, and demonstrates how the moral interest shapes the legal argument to its purpose: “When judicial activism produced the right to an abortion, pro-lifers were judicial conservatives. As judicial conservatism appears increasingly unlike to overturn Roe v. Wade, they are becoming increasingly activist” (87-8).

The common factor in these decisions is not some ideology about interpreting the Constitution, but the humanness of the men interpreting it. Men may change their minds (Justice Blackmun famously did so on the death penalty, declaring late in his career, “From this day forward I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death”), but they do not make such changes because of past cases. Supporters of gay rights did not look at Bowers and say, well, that’s that; better luck next country.

This gets to the heart of how the law works. It’s all about framing. I say this case is about the Eighth Amendment. You say, no way, it’s about due process. I say, Alien is better than Aliens because it is scarier. You say, you’re right, but the real issue is that Aliens made much more money, and so it’s better.

We’re both right, and one of us is more right (it’s me). But even if I lose, my less right lives on, waiting for the day when the right frame will come along, and it will be stuck on the wall with all the other winners.

Again, I can’t help but think of CJ Earl Warren’s “evolving standards of decency.” What other hope do we have than to see our rights as not fully “pricked out” (no pun intended)? How can we expect those men, and this compromised document, to have foreseen the conflicts and crises of a nuclear, flattening world?

Even beyond technological changes, surely we’ve made advances as a society – we are less prejudiced than our forefathers, great as they may have been. We cannot be imprisoned by their lack of our hindsight. If this means increasing the workload of judges “almost to the breaking point,” well, justice is worth it.

Michael Hardwick became a spokesman for gay rights, and also became interested in the law, doing his own research and earning an honorary degree from the City University of New York Law School. “People have no idea about these nine justices who sit up here and make decisions that affect their daily life in millions of ways,” he wrote. He had no regrets about trying his case: “I gave it my best shot. I will continue to give it my best shot.” He died of AIDS complications in 1991. Sometimes decency does not evolve quickly enough.

We don’t like to lose and we don’t like to admit we weren’t born with all the answers. We must get avoid putting a stigma on changing one’s mind. Walt Whitman was famously fine with being a flip-flopper. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.  (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” I’ve always felt Whitman should have written “vast.” But similarly, Justice Robert Jackson, also the chief US prosecutor at Nuremburg, was realistic about the Court’s errors: “Reversal by a higher court is not proof that justice is thereby better done. There is no doubt that if there were a super-Supreme Court, a substantial proportion of our reversals of state courts would also be reversed. We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final” (Brown v. Allen, 1953).

See the difference? And when he changed his mind about something, he humbly admitted it: “I see no reason why I should be consciously wrong today because I was unconsciously wrong yesterday”  (Massachusetts v. United States, 1948, dissent). Now why John Kerry couldn’t have said something like that, I don’t know.

Oh, and what the hell are you doing in my bedroom?

A welcome diversion

Dear Candy,

May I call you Candy? I hear your friends do.

Recently I mentioned you in a post and I spelled your name Candace instead of Candice. I apologize. The language is fuzzy enough without misspellings. I hope this will not dampen things between us. I see from this picture that you know how to smoulder and this both frightens and excites me.

I mean look at that. It’s like the thinking man’s Ann Coulter.

In other news, apparently Ms. Bergen is a sometime blogger, for a website known as wowOwow.com, the women of the web. She may not do it often, but recently she chimed in to give us her summer reading advice. She is reading David Mitchell’s new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which proves she has good taste. His first, Cloud Atlas, I would bet has never disappointed a reader.

This noteworthy sentence from Zoet comes from a fellow instructor down here who is reading it: “A beaten coolie is an affront to all Japan.”

That may not mean much to you now, but let it sink in. Soon you’ll be repeating it to yourself in the shower, on your evening jog; it will be a mantra, a warning, a siren, a laugh.

Don’t know what coolie means? Boy, you were born recently, weren’t you?

Graham’s crackers (now with updates!)

In case you think the Petraeus Lombardi episode is one isolated incident, I bring to your attention the comments of Senator Lindsey Graham.

File:Lindsey Graham, official Senate photo portrait, 2006.jpgI include the Senator’s photo because for some reason the androgyny of it along with his name is pleasing to me. I can’t explain it. I feel like he’s the nice lady up the street who pays well for housesitting her cats.

Graham went on Face the Nation this past Sunday in order to rip into Republican National Committee chair, Michael Steele. According to Think Progress, a political blog, Steele made some comments at a fundraiser about the war in Afghanistan, which were part “inaccurate,” and part “reasonable, debate-worthy arguments that engaging in a prolonged land war in Afghanistan is unwise.”

The Republicans began squawking like a Greek chorus. Graham was among them, saying he was “dismayed, angry, upset.” I wonder how carefully he could distinguish among those feelings.

Since he was speaking from the ‘Stan itself, Graham was able to make a rabble-rouser: “Michael Steele is backtracking so fast he’s gonna be here fighting in Kabul soon.”

Ho ho! Because that’ll show him, right? Stick him here in the middle of this shitty war! Because that’s what we do to people who mess up!

Steele’s comments were “unwise” and “untimely” according to Graham, the senior Senator from South Carolina. Now, you have to wonder about the timeliness of critiquing a war. What, pray tell, is the timeliness in doing so after the fact, when the blood is already irrevocably spilt? It would be nice if Steele had had enough foresight and omniscience to demonstrate, before we ever started killing people over there, that this was going to be an intractable mess, but that is holding him to an awfully high standard.

I am still, for the next three weeks, being paid to teach the youth of this country. If I give an assignment, and notice that the students a) don’t get it or b) haven’t followed the directions, I do not wait for them to turn in a piece of shit and then grade it. If I do not wave red flags and send up flares at every step along the way, I will have the wrath of overcaffeinated parents on my hands.

It is my job to say, hey, kid, you’re not doing it right.

But the best is saved for last. Graham on national television assured us all, “We can win this war, we must win this war.”

Or what, exactly?

Or…how? Or, in what sense win? Or who is this we?

He also stated that Steele “should not be talking about Afghanistan in such uninformed terms.”

Uninformed, no. Uncertain, why the hell not? Graham won reelection handily in 08; the man knows what works. Talking about winning is easy, and it works.

Fuzzy English charges are brought against Senator Graham for “untimely” and “win.”

P.S. It’s in vogue now to say that Afghanistan has surpassed Vietnam as our longest war, since we hit 104 months in June. This is somewhat misleading. While combat troops may not have been deployed to Vietnam until 1965, military advisors (there’s a term for you) were there starting in 1950! Escalation continued during the Kennedy administration, and of course we did not leave Saigon fully (with no room in the helicopters for our Vietnamese employees) until 1975.

**You know, I had a restless night last night. Lindsey Graham’s smile just kept beaming my eyelids open.

I read the transcript of his remarks on Face the Nation to see if maybe I had lifted him too much out of context. In fact, he did a whole “win/lose” tango:

JOHN DICKERSON: Good morning and welcome to FACE THE NATION. Senator Lindsey Graham is with us from Kabul, Afghanistan. Good morning, Senator Graham. I want to start in a very broad way and just ask you, is the United States winning the war in Afghanistan?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-South Carolina/Armed Services Committee; Kabul, Afghanistan): Well, I think we’ve got the best chance to win. I don’t– I don’t think we can afford to lose the war. General Petraeus, when I asked that question, said counterinsurgency is not so much about winning each day as about making progress. And he thinks we are making progress. I can tell you this, John, this country, our nation, can’t afford to lose in Afghanistan. And this is our last best chance to win.

JOHN DICKERSON: That so in your mind, not– not quoting General Petraeus. But in your mind are we winning?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think we’ve got the– the formula of winning. I– I– I don’t want to say that we’ve won or we– you know, that’s a very good question. I asked General Petraeus the same thing. I see progress and I see great areas of concern. I think we’ve got the right strategy now. And with the right team we can win and we are making progress. And that’s about the best I can say.

I can now rest comfortable knowing he wouldn’t make such a big deal over the word if he didn’t know that 1) it’s a really important word to people and 2) you can’t give an answer when you don’t know what winning means

Although he tries later:

…This is the place we were attacked from 9/11. I’m glad more Afghan girls are going to school. I’m glad that the quality of life is improving. But the reason we came here was to secure America, and it is imperative that we show to our enemies and friends alike that we’re not going to leave this country until we’re more secure as a nation.

While rejecting potential markers for “winning,” Graham exits the discussion without coming up with a better one. What makes us more secure? Killing every last Afghan? We all know that terrorism can breed terrorism.

Later, Graham waves the flag a bit.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is July the 4th. There are a lot of young men and women here spending July the 4th in Afghanistan for the second or third time. We all owe it to them to stand behind them and not turn this war into a political debate like Iraq was. I don’t want to do to the Obama administration what happened to the Bush administration during Iraq.

This is a wolf in bipartisan clothing. Iraq was (and IS, Senator) a political debate because it is a political conflict – it was a political gesture, not in our national security interests.

I do have to say. I have watched a youtube clip of Steele’s comments. He does not seem to be aware that he is being recorded, which is fun. And he also may not be as “reasonable” as AlterNet led me to believe. The main sticking point is he calls this a war of Obama’s choosing.

You may be scratching your head at that, knowing Obama was an Illinois State Senator back when we got involved, but Rush Limbaugh has sorted it out for you. He tells us that, at worst, Steele is “half wrong.” Lucky for Rush, there’s a caller to help with the fuzzy logic:

CALLER: Your opening comments on Michael Steele got me to think a little bit, and I have to say, I have to agree with him, this is a war of Obama’s choosing. Obama has chose how the rules of engagement will work over there, he’s chose how the military’s gonna operate, and he’s also chosen a date when we’re going to extract ourselves out of there. So what we are getting over there is exactly what Obama is choosing for us.

Right. Obama has chose. The chosing is done. It’s people like this who make you feel like you should keep blogging even if nobody reads it.

Oh, and if were to let the PEOPLE do the chosing, we might note that the 58% of the PEOPLE seem to favor that July 2011 withdrawal deadline.

Just Win, Baby

That command is attributed to Al Davis, former coach and current owner of the Oakland Raiders.

There’s also “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” which Wikipedia scholars believe belongs not to Vince Lombardi (although he repeated it – even if he claimed what he said/meant was “the will to win is the only thing”), but to Henry Russell “Red” Sanders, UCLA Bruins football coach back in 1950.

It’s an appropriate, red-blooded-red-meat American ideology – I mean would John Wayne have used it in a movie if it weren’t? It beats the hell out of that Freedom-Fries-eating Modern Olympic Founder Pierre de Whatever, who claimed, like so many well-meaning Europeans, that “the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Lombardi, not to be a bridesmaid, has plenty of noteworthy 1st-or-nothings chalked up to him, whether or not he actually said them: “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?” and “If you can accept losing, you can’t win.”

When first I read the latter, I thought it was, “If you can’t accept losing, you can’t win.” And I thought, how very Eastern, how very Phil Jackson. But no. It’s a lot more simpleminded.

Everybody loves a winner. We know this. Lance Armstrong knows this. The Patriots, the Yankees, even Kander and Ebb knew this, the writers of Chicago and Cabaret and 70, Girls, 70 (the little-known GEM). In the film version of Cabaret, Liza sings “Maybe This Time,” which includes the lines, “Everybody loves a winner / So nobody loved me.” Sad, Liza, sad.

Why all of this? Because General David Petraeus, the wunderkind (wonder boy) who brought us the surge in Iraq, and all of its success, has just taken over US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and promised a gathering of Afghan officials and others, on a bright shining Fourth of July moment, that “we are in this to win.”

1) Why has Petraeus taken over? Because General Stanley McChrystal got himself relieved (or fired?) from command after being a bit mouthy in Rolling Stone. McChrystal and/or his aides were a bit too fresh in their discussion of Joe Biden (aka Joe “Bite Me,” which sadly isn’t even very funny; if you’re going to get burned for sass, make it worth it), in their disdain for “photo-op” treatment by President Obama (he’s too civilian for them), and perhaps in their disdain for having to put up with “gay” dinner parties with our French allies (although this last was probably the least mortal sin; who doesn’t love a good French-bashing?).

So enter Petraeus. He was the guy who said, if a war’s not working and nobody wants to be there anymore, what you should do is throw a lot more soldiers into the mix. This was right at Bush’s last days, and the press had a fun time mocking this strategy. Now that it has “worked,” (we’re so much closer to being…there forever) the press is having a field day adoring the strategy and Petraeus.

McChrystal called for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan, and he and Obama had a short pissing contest before the Prez pledged 30,000 more. However, as Stone notes, the w-word was avoided. Obama did not use it or “victory” in his West Point speech pledging the troops, and even McChrystal’s chief of ops said that the end result is “not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win…This is going to end in an argument.”

Thank goodness the boy wonder is here to show us all the light. Petraeus’s bread and butter is a theory known as COIN, short for counterinsurgency. The Rolling Stone article described it as an intent to live “among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve.”

Decline in violence in Iraq during the surge (which makes sense) is heralded as success of COIN, though there are plenty of detractors. AlterNet, an online news site that champions “original journalism” and “independent media,” has an article exploding the myth of Petraeus’s success in Iraq, and explaining why it will not (and already does not) work in Afghanistan.

Again, this has not deterred Petraeus from using the w-word in his speech. Who could resist on this day when we celebrate the time when our enemies were white and reasonable and incredibly low-tech? Who could resist pulling a Bill Pullman from Independence Day and whipping up a little patriotic fervor?

The Associated Press, reporting on his speech (the full text of the speech is here – and why is it the BBC is the primary source for this American document?), sniffs out how Petraeus may be paving the way to “refinements” of McChrystal’s policies that would be even less civilian-friendly. Apparently, McC had “curbs on the use of airpower and heavy weapons if civilians are at risk,” the pinko. Even Vince Lombardi knew if you wanted the shiny trophy you had to run over a few nine-year-olds.

This, of course, is plenty easy for us to do sitting at computers in the comfort of the home front. Winning against an enemy who will stop at nothing almost certainly requires breaking some eggs (a nice euphemism for running over nine-year-olds, don’t you think?). But that’s the point. Why the obsession with winning?

–You may want to take an intermission at this point. I will hum something from the overture for you.– 

Walter Cronkite, the teddy bear of news, the one even the “silenty majority” put their faith in, gave a report on Vietnam in 1968 in which he predicted the future was neither “victory” nor “defeat” but a future “mired in stalemate.” He urged us to go to the negotiating table (or really, to the helicopters home), “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” That was good enough for Cronkite.

It ended up being good enough for Richard Nixon, too, who ran for President promising an end to Vietnam (they all did once LBJ quit), and then went ahead expanding the war into Cambodia and doing all other kinds of illegal things. But by 1973, he was finally delivering “peace with honor.”

What does that mean? We were not honored by our enemies, or by the rest of the world. Many veterans found little honor when they came home, and may have found it hard to find themselves honorable as well. Perhaps we were simply clinging to a few scraps of pride in order to still find ourselves honorable. A country addicted to sports dynasties and pinstripe perfection can’t often bring itself to acknowledge “we blew that one.”

We know that blowing it is natural – we do it all the time in our own small lives. We just seem to want the country to be better than a reflection of our imperfect selves – just as we want our churches, our courts, and all of our lofty (human) institutions to be. We want gestalt to kick in – the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

But it cannot be. And since war is the sum of parts which are forever lost, it makes little sense to believe that it can ever really be won.

How will we win? Have we forgotten that only a few years ago the situation was reversed? We felt we had won in Afghanistan and Iraq was getting more and more hopeless. We’ve kicked the Taliban out. They come back. We kill eight different Al Qaeda number 2’s. There’s always a next one. The UN isn’t ever going to throw us some kind of ticker tape parade. This is what happens when you declare war on a concept, like terror. 

Put the focus on concrete objectives, spell them out for us, and justify them, so we can better judge the good or ill we are doing. Until you have that, don’t try and placate or rouse us with locker room rhetoric.

I guess my disclaimer is that I like losers. I like winners, too, but the loser has a different kind of appeal. This won’t mean anything to most of you, but I was Team LC, not Team Kristin, back in the Laguna Beach days (I have the DVDs for you to borrow). I was rooting for the quiet, vapid brunette, instead of the flashy, vapid blonde.

I liked how the Red Sox always used to bite it. I loved that Susan Lucci never made it to the stage. And yeah I like a smiling Gene Hackman, but I think Friday Night Lights is profound while Hoosiers is merely happy.

M-Webs tells us that win is probably Old English/Germanic in origin, from winnan, to struggle. It would be nice if that were the end of it – if we saw the struggle as winning, but the dictionary also tells us that the word probably is akin to the Latin venus, for sexual desire, and Sanskrit vanus for desire. The win is the conquest, the thrill of virgin territory. It’s planting your flag on the moon. Similarly, it is no surprise that my thesaurus lists kill and killing for synonyms of the noun win.

A Time to Kill, that 90s legal potboiler I hate to love so much, has a classy Brenda Fricker telling off the hotshot attorney: “Now, you may win,” she says, “but I think we’ve all lost here.” The victory in that movie, by the way, is that a vigilante murderer is acquitted. The killer wins. The win is the killing.

Losing may not be everything, but it’s the only thing that we really all have in common. We don’t all know how it feels to be winners, but we’ve all gone home early. Take it from someone who’s thrown a Sorry! board across the living room in rage: learning to lose is one of the great victories in life.

Word Extinction: Win, in conjunction with any war or armed conflict

As a coda, this is from Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar acceptance speech for Kramer v. Kramer. The 70s were a good time to beat up on the Oscars, and Hoffman had for years established his disdain for competitive acting. This is how he put it that night:

I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon, that I beat Al Pacino, that I beat Peter Sellers. I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost. We are a part of an artistic family. There are 60,000 actors in this Academy, pardon me, in the Screen Actors Guild, and probably 100,000 in Equity. And most actors don’t work, and a few of us are so lucky to have a chance to work with writing and to work with directing. Because when you’re a broke actor, you can’t write, you can’t paint … you have to practice accents while you’re driving a taxi cab. And to that artistic family that strives for excellence, none of you have ever lost. And I am proud to share this with you, and I thank you.

Is it easier for the winner to be this gracious? Sure. But this is a non-combat, stability mindset (see last post, stability operations). He also, at a recent Oscars, led a round of applause for the nominees who had not won. You did good work too, he reminded.

And one last note on Oscar semantics: in recent years all presenters were required to say “and the Oscar goes to” instead of “and the winner is.” For whatever reason, 2010 brought “and the winner is” back.



Remember The A-Team and its optimistic subtitle (the American withdrawal from Iraq)? The NYTimes weighed in again today:

The August deadline might be seen back home as a milestone in the fulfillment of President Obama’s promise to end the war in Iraq, but here it is more complex. American soldiers still find and kill enemy fighters, on their own and in partnership with Iraqi security forces, and will continue to do so after the official end of combat operations. More Americans are certain to die, if significantly fewer than in the height of fighting here.

While conceding that reducing 112,000 troops (early 2010) to 50,000 will be “a feat of logistics,” the author, Tim Arango, also believes it to be “an exercise in semantics.”

Semantics itself can be a bit fuzzy, as a word. On the one hand, M-W tells us it is “the study of meanings,” or the “study and the classification of changes in the signification of words.” So semantics could be an objective, more or less, examination of how words have changed in connotation over time. Yet another definition reads “the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings.”

Semantics can be a kind of doubletalk, according to this. The word is often paired with quibble, as in, “let’s not quibble over semantics.” Quibble itself means “to evade the point of an argument by caviling [raising trivial and frivolous objection] about words.” And yet, as tantamount has shown, politicians love to quibble; quibbling gives them wiggle room. If they quibble with us, we ought to quibble back, when necessary – if the semantics involved are not harmless, but are, according to that last definition, products of intentional deceit or equivocation (the art of avoiding commitment, but not in the fun George Clooney way – there he is with the one that got away).

Is deceit what we have here? 112,000 to 50,000 makes a big difference to thousands of American families, no doubt. Yet the “top military spokesman in Iraq,” says, “In practical terms, nothing will change.”

This sounds less than promising.

“Combat operations,” as previously mentioned, are being redubbed “stability operations.” The absurdity of this is even more clear if you drop the “operations”: we are being asked to believe that combat is the same as stability. Only in an Orwellian world should these two be equated.

Stability operations include “hunting insurgents, joint raids between Iraqi security forces and United States Special Forces to kill or arrest militants.” These operations are still killing American soldiers, albeit in lower numbers than we’ve become accustomed to – 14 dead from combat, 27 from noncombat this year (suicide is listed as a noncombat cause; this is something I think we hear very little about, and perhaps ought to).

But are these semantics worth quibbling? Even if this is not called a withdrawal, it seems to be heralded as an end to combat. And yet we’ll still have Americans going out and killing Iraqis, and getting killed. My son was killed after the combat in Iraq ended, you can hear a mother saying. Was he sick? you ask. No, he got exploded. Oh right.

And what if these soldiers simply get shunted over to Afghanistan, where, as we keep being told, it’s getting worse? Hardly time for celebration. We’re scheduled to “start” withdrawal from Afghanistan next summer (how long can the process take, one wonders, before it ceases to be withdrawal?). And we’ve also been promised to be completely out of Iraq at the end of 2011. But “few,” says the Times, believe that “military involvement” will end then.

What’s involvement? Is it just a few casual dinner dates? Or are we still killing and dying?

The article continues to describe a recent trend, wherein American troops will kill insurgents but quietly deny any credit, or try to give that credit to Iraqi forces. Aww, that’s cute, isn’t it? We’re trying to make the Iraqis feel like the big boys.

But doesn’t this logically extend to us continuing to be in combat in Iraq while completely denying the fact? And how is it much different from denying culpability in the death of civilians? Shouldn’t we always own up to our military actions?

We need to pay attention to how Obama and others discuss “withdrawal” and “combat” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we need to check how these words measure up to the numbers. Much as the liberals mocked Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” bravado, it makes similarly no sense to claim the end of a war (though we can’t call it a war) when we’ve got tens of thousands of people still there killing and dying. Worse than senseless, it’s misleading, and should be criminally so. And we need to be wary of any trend toward making American actions “invisible” in foreign countries.

The article ends with a Major Logan watching soldiers pack up a camp, saying, a la Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, “Someday this war is going to end.”

Kilgore, of course, said the line with a tone of wistful disappointment. Arango wrote nothing of Logan’s tone.