Booze: Been There. Done That.

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank alcohol. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up booze. It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers; that drinking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I drank one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

David Brooks

JOSH HANER / THE NEW YORK TIMES

We gave it up, second, I think, because one member of our clique became a full-on drunk. He may have been the smartest of us, but something sad happened to him as he sunk deeper into alcoholic life.

Third, most of us developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. Most of us figured out early on that drinking alcohol doesn’t really make you funnier or more creative (academic studies more or less confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

One close friend devoted himself to track. Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature.

Finally, I think we had a vague sense that drinking was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire. We were in the stage, which I guess all of us are still in, of trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This process usually involves using the powers of reason, temperance and self-control — not qualities one associates with being drunk.

I think we had a sense, which all people have, or should have, that the actions you take change you inside, making you a little more or a little less coherent. Not drinking, or only drinking sporadically, gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it.

So, like the vast majority of people who try alcohol, we aged out. We left booze behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets drunk from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being drunk is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

We now have 50 states that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making alcohol legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. All the states, in other words, are producing more users.

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drinking because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being drunk.

In legalizing alcohol, citizens of all the states are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Paul Krugman is off today.

"A vote for this thing is a vote to go to war with Iran."

Rachel Maddow tonight did a 10-minute segment on the new sanctions being proposed in the Senate, which I wrote about last night at Foreign Policy, and which she dubbed the “war with Iran bill.” (To watch, skip to about halfway through this video.) Maddow gets a few details of nuclear diplomacy with Iran wrong early on, but then she heats up. “A vote for this thing is a vote to go to war with Iran,” she said about the bill in conclusion.

The exchange with her guest, the foreign policy maven Steve Clemons (a personal friend), is worth paying special attention to. Again, watch the whole segment, but this discussion with Clemons was quite remarkable:

STEVE CLEMONS: There’s enormous pressure, and it’s primarily from domestic political sources in the United States, that see a zero-sum game in the Middle East and are putting extraordinary pressure on Senators. Many Republican Senators but, y’know, of course, on the Democratic side, as you said, is leading are people like Senator Chuck Schumer but particularly Robert Menendez. And they want to kill the deal.

I’ve been told tonight that the President of the United State Barack Obama has communicated to these Senators that he will veto this if it were to pass, which is new news and I think very important.

I’ve heard from another very senior administration official who is arguing that Bob Menendez, if he gets the way he wants to go, is going to trip us into a war.

So the stakes as you’ve defined them are very, very high. And this is not just another crank at the wheel on the sanctions. This is a very important historic moment in U.S. diplomatic history to systemically change the relationship of the United States with another key nation that has been problematic with us for three decades. This is a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. And it would be like the U.S. Senate handicapping and kind of cutting the legs out from under Richard Nixon in normalizing China. That’s how big this is.

RACHEL MADDOW: Because of the domestic political pressures — and it’s groups like AIPAC, I think, leading the way on this. They’ve sort of been seen as the lead push on this in terms of an outside group, but it’s other groups as well. In terms of that domestic political pressure and the way that Democratic Senators as well as Republicans are susceptible to it, if Bob Menendez could get Harry Reid to allow a vote on this, and if the Senate could vote on it, do you think that there’s a chance that it could pass with a veto-proof majority? Could the White House get their bluff called on vetoing it?

CLEMONS: I think that’s a possibility. But I think the White House is demonstrating that it will go to all measures that it can, and the personal involvement of the President at many levels to prevent that from happening, and to communicate to people how serious that will be. Because that will lock us into a track that will lead us to a hard conflict with Iran.

E-mail to TNR about Nov. 25 Robert Satloff piece..

I’m writing because I’ve just read Robert Satloff’s TNR piece, “Iran’s Nuclear Program Is Still Growing, and America’s Fist Is Shrinking.” The piece has some notable errors.
Satloff writes:
Under the agreement, thousands of centrifuges—including many of the advanced IR-2 version—will continue to spin and produce enriched uranium, though within defined limits.

But according to the IAEA’s latest report, some IR-2m centrifuges have been installed at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, but “none of the IR-2m centrifuges already installed there have been fed with UF6”—or Uranium Fuel-6, the nuclear material which is enriched in centrifuges. That’s the first error: none of the IR-2 centrifuges are enriching uranium at all! What’s more, putting nuclear fuel into those centrifuges installed but not yet enriching would violate the Geneva “Joint Plan of Action.” The document plainly states: “…during the 6 months, Iran will not feed UF6 into the centrifuges installed but not enriching uranium.”

Satloff went on to write (in the same paragraph):
Among the many moving parts of Iran’s complex, multifaceted program, the term “freeze” applies to two components—the accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium (which will be converted into another form) and the nuclear-related progress of the Arak heavy-water reactor project.
This is an incomplete account of the deal; the claim that these are the only two facets of the program that are ‘frozen’ is wrong. It seems an omission to not mention that not only will the stockpile of twenty percent enriched uranium be converted to another form, but enrichment to that level will also “halt” (to use on of Satloff’s buzzwords). Furthermore, if the term “freeze” applies to the “accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium (which will be converted into another form),” then surely it also applies to the accumulation of five (or below) percent enriched uranium, the stockpile of which will also be converted to another form. (The agreement reads: “Iran has decided to convert to oxide UF6 newly enriched up to 5% during the 6 month period.”) This detail is particularly important because it means that there is either a ‘freeze’ or a ‘halt’ in each of the three means — ‘moving parts,’ if you will — by which Iran can produce the fuel that could eventually be used for a nuclear weapon, and this missing piece undercuts to a large degree the notion that Iran’s program is ‘growing’ under the Geneva deal.
Lastly, Satloff writes: 
To their credit, both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry never made such extravagant claims. Instead, in their separate remarks announcing the deal, they characterized the main achievement of Geneva as “limiting progress” or “impeding progress” of Iran’s nuclear program. From the outset, they admitted that even with this deal, Iran’s nuclear program will continue to grow and develop, just more slowly and under much more intrusive inspections than before.

The “extravagant claims” here clearly refers to “[j]ournalists and headline writers who characterized Geneva as a ‘freeze’ or ‘halt.’” But it is false that Obama never referred to the Geneva deal as a “halt.” In his address to the nation after the deal was struck, Obama said, “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back,” with my emphasis.

I’m a subscriber to TNR and I very much enjoy the publication both in print and on the web. I hope the errors in this piece can be corrected in a timely manner so that other readers will not be misinformed about the contours of the historic deal struck between world powers and Iran in Geneva last weekend.

Two unacknowledged corrections in Robert Satloff’s TNR piece…

Comparisons between the original version of Robert Satloff’s Nov. 25, 2013, New Republic story, “Iran’s Nuclear Program Is Still Growing, and America’s Fist Is Shrinking,” with the updated version of the story. I’ve highlighted the new text in each case in bold. NB: TNR did not note either of these changes as a correction, though both appear to have originally been false assertions and errors by omission, and in the first case the meaning of the original statement was changed.

Original:

Among the many moving parts of Iran’s complex, multifaceted program, the term “freeze” applies to two components—the accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium (which will be converted into another form) and the nuclear-related progress of the Arak heavy-water reactor project. Both achievements are substantial and important but the program itself is not, by any stretch, frozen.

Updated:

Among the many moving parts of Iran’s complex, multifaceted program, the term “freeze” applies to several components—the accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium (which will be converted into another form), the enrichment of uranium over 5 percent (Iran will also convert uranium newly enriched up to 5 percent), and the nuclear-related progress of the Arak heavy-water reactor project. All achievements are substantial and important but the program itself is not, by any stretch, frozen.

Original:

To their credit, both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry never made such extravagant claims. Instead, in their separate remarks announcing the deal, they characterized the main achievement of Geneva as “limiting progress” or “impeding progress” of Iran’s nuclear program. From the outset, they admitted that even with this deal, Iran’s nuclear program will continue to grow and develop, just more slowly and under much more intrusive inspections than before.

Updated:

To their credit, both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry never made such extravagant claims. Instead, in their separate remarks announcing the deal, they characterized the main achievement of Geneva as “limiting progress” or “impeding progress” of Iran’s nuclear program. (Obama said, “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.” He did not say the program itself had been halted.) From the outset, they admitted that even with this deal, Iran’s nuclear program will continue to grow and develop, just more slowly and under much more intrusive inspections than before.

Why Didn’t Goldberg Tell Us What the Saudi Prince Wants?

Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest column—compared to some of his latest writing and Twitter postings on the Iran nuclear deal—is a measured accounting of some after-effects of the interim agreement signed in Geneva this weekend. One notable parenthetical phrase, however, jumped out at me:

The Arab states, which want a military solution very much, have never shown the desire to actually carry it out.

That would have been a useful observation for Goldberg to pass along in his last column, where he spilled credulous ink all over a Saudi Prince who hated on Iran diplomacy and Obama. The anti-Obama rhetoric makes a lot more sense when you consider that the speaker really, really, really wants to bomb Iran, but wants someone else to do it for him.

I pointed out earlier how Goldberg’s Saudi Prince column included none of the context of Saudi’s awful human rights and foreign police records, whereas his May column on a powerful Qatari royal included a meaty fourth paragraph (rightly) outlining some of Qatar’s major sins. 

But the absence of Saudi’s noxious, retrograde policies in the column pales in comparison to not raising the very salient observation that Saudi just wants to bomb Iran. In journalism school, we called this kind of information ‘critical context,’ and omitting it should be considered tantamount to dishonest reporting.

'Some Experts…'

Rosa Brooks has an excellent piece up at Foreign Policy on the realities of the Iran nuclear crisis, and what to do about it. I have a small quibble with it, but by no means am I challenging its thrust. So go read it, I’ll wait here.

Okay, done? My issue stems from one sentence. Well, not even one sentence, but the hyperlinks therein. Check this out (my emphasis):

If Iran is absolutely determined to build a nuclear weapon, it already has the ability to do so. The only real question is how long the process would take: Some experts believe it would be a matter of weeks, while others think it might be closer to a year.

Go ahead and click on those links, and be mystified, as I was.

The first link, on “some experts,” goes to a USA Today article about a report by David Albright talking about how Iran, should they choose to (which they apparently haven’t), could produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material in a matter of weeks. All’s well and good there: Albright’s a well-known expert on these matters.

The second link, on “weeks,” goes to an article rounding up the talk Israel’s far-right government minister Naftali Bennett gave to a bunch of lawyers in New York. His are literally the only views put forward in the article. Is Bennett an expert in matters nuclear? No. Why’s he being presented as one?

The last link, on “a year,” takes you to a segment from PBS’s Newshour. The nuclear expert guest on that program is… David Albright. Huh? Well, on the program, Albright says that the breakout to having weapons grade uranium could take week, but building a bomb is a different story. “It would take them longer to build the bomb itself,” he says. “Estimates vary. It’s a murky area to make assessments in. It can vary from a couple of months to a year.”

So, among the three items hyperlinked, there’s only one nuclear expert, and he holds down both sides of the debate. The other link to a far-right Israeli politician. “Some experts…” indeed. 

"Somebody has got to put a stop to this whole “Persian bazaar” rhetorical fixation. It’s ridiculous, it’s ethnically offensive, and its entire purpose is to serve as a smokescreen for disastrously violent policies backed by militarists in Israel and in neo-conservative American circles, by making American voters worry that they are being taken for chumps by those devilishly clever double-dealers from the souks of Tehran."

Democracy in America, the Economist

Michael Rubin turns on Ryan Crocker over Iran diplomacy…

And now we’re attacking experienced diplomats for wanting to do… diplomacy. That’s the reaction, at least, from neocon scholar Michael Rubin in Commentary today. He’s responding to a Times op-ed by Amb. Ryan Crocker in favor of diplomacy with Iran. 

But first some clips.

Rubin’s Commentary colleague Max Boot, on Sept. 14, 2011:

Two of the best diplomats to emerge out of the cauldron are Ryan Crocker and Robert Ford—two veteran Arabists who served very capably in Iraq. …Kudos to both men. If only the State Department could figure out how to clone them–or at least inspire more of their colleagues to imitate their sterling example.

Then Rubin on Sept. 15, 2011, also in Commentary:

I certainly share Max Boot’s praise of Ryan Crocker and Robert Ford for the professionalism with which they distinguish themselves in a crisis. However, what really distinguishes how honorable is Crocker’s character—as opposed to so many of his Foreign Service colleagues—is how he distinguished himself outside the halls of the Foreign Service.

…When Ryan Crocker retired …(h)e did not seek to cash in on his foreign contacts, nor did he shill for the Middle Eastern governments in which he served. The true test of one’s honor is after they leave service, and it is here that Crocker stood in such sharp juxtaposition to his peers.

Rubin, today, again in Commentary:

Crocker is an honorable man who has served well under the most difficult circumstances. But his policy judgment does not always match his reputation for wisdom. He has a long history of somewhat misguided faith in diplomacy. He has, after all, after retiring, testified in Congress in favor of talking to Hezbollah–a policy which would be counterproductive on any number of levels. Contrary to Crocker in the New York Times, talking does not always work. But for a diplomat to admit that would be to acknowledge that diplomacy is not the panacea so many diplomats which it to be.

Yes, Ryan Crocker’s hard-earned “reputation for wisdom,” bestowed on him by writers like Michael Rubin, who want it back now that Crocker’s speaking forcefully in favor of serious talks with Iran.

Why Keller is wrong on opinions in journalism…

I find this perplexing. Today, Bill Keller followed up on his Times column debating Glenn Greenwald on whether or not reporters should publicly state their opinions in an appearance on CNN

Here’s the most important part of the exchange on that topic (with my emphasis):

The shortcoming of the activist or adversarial journalism is really two-fold. One of ‘em is, if you go into a story with a conviction that you know what’s right, you’re not going listen to the opposing points of view with, give them quite the same respect. And I think, y’know, you should go into news coverage with some sense of humility. We, a lot of time, the stuff that we really think we know is wrong and we should be prepared to have that stuff proven [wrong] in the course of investigation.

This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As with Keller’s second “shortcoming” of advocacy journalism — “pride" — the idea that an advocacy reporter might not give an opposing view its proper respect has nothing to do with whether that reporter’s opinions are public or private. In other words: Why would a journalist whose opinions are private be any more or less likely to give an opposing viewpoint a fair shake?

The question takes on particular importance because even Keller admits that journalists can’t be asked to not have opinions (Greenwald rightly points out that, as humans, they all do), just that they remain private ones. “I don’t think of it as reporters pretending they have no opinions,” he wrote in the Times exchange. ”I think of it as reporters, as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself.”

This would be comforting if we did not have so many examples of self-proclaimed impartial journalists who, like Judy Miller, turned out to marshall “evidence” that spoke lies to the public. The real issue boils down to the difference between having an opinion and being an ideologue: all humans have opinions, while ideologues’ view of reality is subservient to theirs.

What really matters, then, isn’t public or private opinions, but intellectual honesty. Unfortunately for us, the audience, this can only be judged reasonably on a case by case basis. That’s exactly why it’s so valuable to have journalists wear their opinions and ideologies on their shirt sleeves. Their intellectual honesty can only be bolstered when they do.

"That’s pride fucking with you."

The back and forth between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller is well worth checking out. One thing that stuck out at me was Keller’s defense of the (recently) traditional mold of journalism, whereby reporters are expected to not reveal their opinions (as opposed to not having them).

Here’re the relevant bits of the exchange, which I’ve quoted at length. First, basically, Glenn says this frame is bullshit, since everyone has opinion. Keller responds:

I don’t think of it as reporters pretending they have no opinions. I think of it as reporters, as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself. And it matters that this is not just an individual exercise, but an institutional discipline, with editors who are tasked to challenge writers if they have given short shrift to contrary facts or arguments readers might want to know.  

The thing is, once you have publicly declared your “subjective assumptions and political values,” it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint. And some readers, knowing that you write from the left or right, will view your reporting with justified suspicion.

Glenn then makes the obvious retort:

Why would reporters who hide their opinions be less tempted by human nature to manipulate their reporting than those who are honest about their opinions? If anything, hiding one’s views gives a reporter more latitude to manipulate their reporting because the reader is unaware of those hidden views and thus unable to take them into account.

Glenn cites the reporter John Burns’s pro-Iraq war views, which we only learned about some half dozen years after the invasion. “I really wish I would have known his hidden views at the time he was reporting on the war so that I could have taken them into account,” Glenn writes.

Keller’s response doesn’t come until near the end of his last salvo. It goes like this (with my emphasis):

I believe that impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly achieved. I believe that in most cases it gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced. (Exhibit A: Fox News.) And yes, writers are more likely to manipulate the evidence to support a declared point of view than one that is privately held, because pride is on the line.

That’s foolish. Pride is pride. Hubris is hubris. It has nothing to do with whether one’s opinions are public or private. The best example of this isn’t Burns, but another Times reporter with an iraq history: Judy Miller. 

Okay, okay, Miller was canned, the paper apologized, etc. etc. All that, however, doesn’t change the fact that it was precisely an appeal to Miller’s pride by Times editors that helped get us into the Iraq mess. Here’s a key passage from an old L.A. Times story on just what happened in l’affaire Miller:

…then-Executive Editor Howell Raines (later forced out by the scandal over fabrications by reporter Jayson Blair) reportedly urged Miller to “go win [another] Pulitzer.”

That directive made her even bolder, colleagues said.

Douglas Frantz, then Miller’s boss as investigative editor — and more recently a Los Angeles Times reporter who this month was named an L.A. Times managing editor — said he and then-Foreign Editor Roger Cohen were undercut when their doubts led them to delay publishing several of Miller’s stories on weapons of mass destruction.

After Miller complained, the New York Times’ then-Managing Editor Gerald Boyd instructed the lower-ranking editors to get out of the star reporter’s way, according to Frantz.

"Judy Miller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter," Frantz recalled Boyd telling him, "and your job is to get her stories into the paper."

This was the hubris of a “star reporter” and some editors who lived by Keller’s paradigm of keeping one’s opinions to themselves. It contributed, in no small part, to the deaths of thousands of Americans and countless thousands of Iraqis.

As I said, pride isn’t a function of covert or overt opinion. Wouldn’t we all have been better off knowing that Miller leaned heavily neoconservative when she was writing these stories?