James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
I have been offline for a while because of (a) the long process of traveling to Greater China, plus (b) events once I got here, of which more soon. Starting later this month, my wife and I will be in the position of doing virtually no travel except across our homeland on the American Futures beat. But these past few weeks, several long-planned other journeys, including a valuable one earlier this month for the "Public Knowledge Forum" in Australia and one right now in Hong Kong and Beijing, have occurred.
For the moment three notes very late on a Sunday night from Beijing:
1) Radio: Just before leaving on this trip, I had a chance to talk with Kai Ryssdal, on Marketplace, on what we're learning from our cross-country journeys so far. The audio and web features are here.
2) Software: In between travels these few days, I've been doing fact-check followups and copy-edit duties on an upcoming magazine article centered on the little town of Eastport, Maine. I mention this because I felt a kindred spirit when I coming across this very nice essay by Mark Bernstein, designer of the "artisanal software" Tinderbox, on the art, science, and emotion of creating a program that meets his own standards of being elegant, and right.
What Bernstein describes, and what I've been trying to work out for this article (and all articles we print), are not quite the same as the very familiar Steve Jobs story of insisting that the inside of a computer look nice even though no customer would ever see it. The difference is that people will notice if a program has bugs and crashes, or if an article gets facts wrong. Still, there is a craftsman pride on working details no customer / reader / civilian will ever notice, just because you enjoy the steps and standards involved in trying to get them right. Bernstein's essay captures this well.
3) Bloomberg and China. I have meant to write about this in the past week, and will try to do so after talking with people I know here in Beijing. But at face value, this story is developing in a way that reflects badly on the Bloomberg organization -- and, of course, on the pro-censorship factions within the Chinese government.
If you've missed the background, some of the main installments are here, here, and here. It's possible that the impression of initial coverage is unfair. But:
A) The response out of Bloomberg has not been what you would normally expect from an organization that feels it's been unjustly accused. The "this is all wrong!" denials have been notable in their vagueness. Matthew Winkler, the Bloomberg editor-in-chief who is described as having ordered the soft-line approach on Chinese stories, has strangely kept up a Twitter feed on varied items in the news with no mention of this topic.
B) Journalism has of course always involved conflicts of interest and tradeoffs. Because most of what we consider "serious" journalism -- foreign reportage, investigative coverage, local or statehouse beat reporting -- has never paid its own way, it has traditionally survived by being bundled into some larger and more profitable organization. This in turn has often involved snarls about humoring or offending advertisers, advancing the publisher's pet causes, remembering how your business stays afloat. You don't have to trust me: you can go to the movies for proof! Citizen Kane, Chinatown, Absence of Malice,Good Night and Good Luck, and many others are all on this theme.
The concern in the Bloomberg case -- and frankly, the appearance so far -- is that these age-old pressures are recurring in a large and awkward way. The New York Times and Washington Post face similar worries and tradeoffs: how cavalier can you afford to be about irritating your business base? The Atlantic faces them too. But for these organizations and many others, the journalistic-credibility part of their business is a very major part of the business as a whole. Without that, their/our entire business operation is jeopardized. So for your own survival, when in doubt you lean toward publishing a controversial story. In Bloomberg's case, the non-journalistic part of the business is vastly larger than the (nonetheless large) journalistic side. Until now, that's mainly seemed good, in providing a reliable bankroll for first-rate journalism, when "normal" journalistic organizations are in such straits. The question now is whether we're seeing the bad side of the bargain.
A few days ago, I wrote a piece here as part of the American Futures series, taking a look at the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), a college I had heard good things about. Wanting to learn more about it, I traveled to Castine, Maine, did a day of interviews and touring, and came away impressed by what I saw. (Photo above is of MMA student center.)
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Within several hours of when the piece went up on the Atlantic’s website, with the subhead “How a school you’ve (probably) never heard of is preparing students for good jobs,” someone unknown to me, a dean of students (and politics professor) at a west-coast liberal-arts college (okay, let’s just say it: Pomona College) opined on Twitter, acknowledging the piece and dismissing MMA as providing “vocational not broad-based education.”
Taking umbrage at her view, which struck me as narrow and uninformed, I tweeted back: “Not vocational. Just specialized, which far more colleges should try to be.”
Soon her reply came back through the Twittersphere, offering her view of a broad-based education and, I presume, distinguishing that from what she assumes students do not get at institutions that are not liberal-arts colleges: “Discovery, empathy, adaptability is goal of broad-based education, prepares students for life, learning & jobs known & unknown.”
Holy cow. Now my blood pressure was rising, and I didn’t even have a dog in this fight. I didn’t go to MMA; I just wrote about it. But I resented – on behalf of Maine Maritime Academy and its students and faculty, past and present – the smug, arrogant condescension of her reply.
I tweeted back: “And what would make you think those things are foreign to MMA?”
Apparently the good dean had had enough of me, because the tweet-stream went silent and I heard from her nevermore.
But the next day, I received an email from a 1994 graduate of Maine Maritime, complimenting me on the piece about his alma mater (that’s MMA’s Dismuskes Hall, pictured above), but also gently taking me to task:
I recently read your article in The Atlantic about MMA and I felt compelled to reply. I am a 1994 alumnus of the academy and enjoyed my 4 years there in the Nautical Science major ("Deck") and benefitted greatly from the experience. I was also in the school's Navy ROTC unit and received a commission as an Ensign and served two tours in the active duty Navy aboard a destroyer and an aircraft carrier, both homeported in Norfolk, VA. I also worked aboard several merchant vessels before coming ashore to get an MBA and work in Finance at Raytheon. So I would say MMA was a great deal for my career development as well.. . .
I feel I must take issue with a certain tone I detected in your article. While countless Maine residents have benefitted greatly from the college, going on to pursue incredibly lucrative careers, MMA exists as more than just a vocational training facility. This is a four-year accredited college, with programs for all levels of academic degrees, as well as an extensive research facility. . . . MMA is more than just a vo-tech [school] for impoverished Mainers, it's an industry-leading bastion of academia for the world-encompassing maritime industry. The institution may be new to you and most of mainstream America, but, since 1941, MMA has been well recognized by Navy and Merchant Marine officers, oceanographers, scientists, and other professionals connected to the sea and all its facets.
So, now I had reactions of two different kinds, both with vocational education as their point of reference. The dean/prof was dismissive of MMA, slotting it into some kind of voc-ed category in her head. The MMA-grad-former-mariner-now-finance-guy was apparently worried that my piece gave the world the wrong impression of MMA: people might think it’s a voc-ed institution!
All this led me to two lines of thought. First, I should correct any impression I unintentionally gave that Maine Maritime is a vocational school. It is not. As my email correspondent notes, it is a fully accredited, four-year college that offers associates, bachelors, and masters degrees in a variety of disciplines and fields. Faculty teach standard liberal-arts courses (writing, art, history, literature, physical and natural sciences, foreign languages, psychology, political science, etc.). Students in various majors have different liberal-arts distributional requirements, but everyone takes a healthy complement of such courses – in addition, of course, to their demanding array of courses required of their major. When I studied the course catalog, it boggled my mind how much these students have on their plates. The quarter-system calendar that MMA uses helps a bit with that.
Let’s look, for example, at some of the non-business & logistics courses that students going for the Bachelor of Science in International Business & Logistics must take. First year: Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, Composition (Writing), Finite Math, World Geography, Humanities, Calculus for Business. Second year: Contemporary World Politics, Foreign Language (Spanish, French, or German), and one of these: Ocean Science, Physics, or Chemistry. Third year: World Geography II, Humanities II, Contemporary World Politics I. Fourth year: One of each of these: Economics elective, general-education elective, Humanities elective.
Or consider those doing marine engineering. (That’s probably a marine-engineering major working on that diesel engine in the photo above.) In addition to the many required courses in their major – courses like Ship Structure & Stability, Diesel Power I & II, and Power Control Electronics – these students have the following arts-and-sciences requirements as well. First year: Composition, Math, Humanities I (interdisciplinary course looking at “cultural roots of modern global society” through the middle Renaissance), and Technical Physics. Second year: Humanities II (late Renaissance to the present), Technical Physics II, Thermodynamics I. Third year: Chemical Principles and electives in each of these: economics, humanities (which includes foreign languages), history, and psychology. Fourth year: Intro to Environmental Regulations and Ethical Industrial Compliance, and electives in each of these: economics, humanities, history, and psychology.
Students in many of these majors at MMA also have all the additional courses and exams required to meet the Coast Guard’s licensure requirements.
I can't speak for the dean at Pomona, who (like me) has a PhD in political science, but I know that I would have found those MMA courses more challenging than the ones I had to take en route to my doctorate, which for the record was at Harvard. And when I got my BA at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s, the distributional requirements there were nowhere near as broad as those at MMA.
That brings me to my second line of thought: what is it about professors and administrators in many liberal-arts colleges that leads them to believe the kind of education their institutions provide is somehow superior to, more formative of a good life, than education that is more career-oriented? Even if my Twitter-spondent, had been correct in her view about what MMA is all about, what would make her think that people graduating from places like Pomona are somehow more empathetic and adaptable, more open to discovery, more prepared for “life, learning & jobs known & unknown” than people who graduate from other kinds of institutions?
Do empathy, adaptability, and other desirable characteristics emerge only from being a student at places like Pomona, Macalester, Williams, or (to name some of MMA’s competitors in Maine) Colby, Bowdoin, and Bates? Of course not. (Those are a couple of empathetic, adaptable MMA students in the photo above.)
Should we assume that people who go to the Coast Guard Academy, the Colorado School of Mines, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Fashion Institute of Technology (or scores upon scores of other places) are somehow more narrow-minded people? Less adaptable? Less open to discovery? Less prepared for “jobs unknown” than a your standard small-liberal-arts school graduates? Oh, please.
This is a big topic that I want to think about and write about some more. I’d appreciate your views. Write to me at the address below. I’m laying down a marker here, planning to come back to this later.
Thinking about this yesterday, I wrote to a friend I’ve known for over forty years, a professor at Connecticut College, a liberal-arts bastion if there ever was one. Telling him about my Twitter-spondent, I wrote: “I wonder what makes some people at liberal-arts colleges so dismissive of, and condescending toward, institutions that actually train people for careers.”
He responded with this:
Our faculty is now going through one of those reconsiderations of the "general education" scheme. In the committee's draft of the "guiding principles" was something about "Intellectual and creative skills." A bunch of people objected to the word "skills." We're a liberal arts college, they reasoned, we don't teach skills. One person argued that teaching "skills" would implicate us in the depredations of capitalism. Skills is now out. The new word is "competencies." No one is happy with it.
Good lord. Give me the Maine Maritime Academy any day.
John Tierney. Write me at TierneyJT at Gmail-dot-com. Twitter: @_JohnTierney_
How not to do it: home page of the NYT just now. [And see intriguing update below.]
Careful students can follow along as we review what's wrong here:
1) "Necessary 60-vote threshold" implies some regular constitutional requirement, like the supermajorities necessary for impeachment trials or treaty approval. In fact incessant use of the filibuster is a recent, shift-of-norms phenomenon—and one of the goals of its practitioners is "defining obstructionism down" precisely so that its abuse will be treated as "necessary" and routine.
2) "Fell short" and "stalled" are intransitive verbs suggesting a weakness, failure, or insufficiency. In fact the nomination received a clear majority of 56 Senators, who as it happens probably represent about two-thirds of the population, but it was actively blocked rather than petering out on its own. To be fair, the headline uses the word "reject."
Courtesy of the WaPo, here is a how-to illustration of the way a lead story can note these realities:
On point #1, we've got the plain word "filibuster." On point #2, we've got the transitive verbs "blocked" and "denied."
What's really going on here? Below you see the current lineup of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, usually considered to be the most important appeals court not simply because of its jurisdiction over many federal regulatory cases but also because so many Supreme Court nominees come from there.
You'll see that the twice-elected Bill Clinton has three appointees on the court, as does the twice-elected George W. Bush. The single-term George H.W. Bush has one appointee, as does the current, twice-elected Barack Obama. The Republican filibuster strategy is an attempt to stall as long as possible before allowing Obama to fill those vacant seats. It's a kind of reverse court-packing, as Garrett Epps has explained; by extension, it's an attempt to spread abuse of the minority-blocking power in the Senate to another branch of government. Agree with the policy or disagree, but call it what it is. Please.
I take it back! Or something. Two minutes after posting, as I check the NYT story again to add its URL link, I see this quite hearteningly different first paragraph:
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s latest choice to fill one of the vacancies on a powerful appeals court went down in a filibuster on Tuesday as Senate Republicans blocked another White House nominee — the third in two weeks — and deepened a growing conflict with Democrats over presidential appointments.
On the one hand, the previous version was up there for quite a while. Its posting time said 8:06 p.m.; I did a screen grab three-plus hours later. On the other hand, it's different now. However this came about, thanks.
Of course natural disasters do not operate with deliberate cruelty. But it is hard not to imagine that they do, considering how often the countries and communities already hardest-pressed are the ones that bear the brunt of earthquakes, typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, floods.
That is the case now with the central Philippines, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. Anyone who has spent time in the country understands its distinctive mixture of uplift and heartbreak. Uplift from the effort and idealism of so many people there -- a huge proportion of whom leave home for jobs around the world as nurses, mariners, construction workers, domestics, oil-field laborers, doctors, and any other role in which they can earn money to send back to the Philippines as "remittances." A few years ago my friend Jason DeParle did a memorable NYT Magazine story about the bravery and sacrifice that fuels the Filipino remittance economy (and he is now doing a book on migration economics). Sample from the story:
With about one Filipino worker in seven abroad at any given time, migration is to the Philippines what cars once were to Detroit: its civil religion. A million Overseas Filipino Workers — O.F.W.’s — left last year, enough to fill six 747s a day. Nearly half the country’s 10-to-12-year-olds say they have thought about whether to go. Television novellas plumb the migrants’ loneliness. Politicians court their votes. Real estate salesmen bury them in condominium brochures. Drive by the Central Bank during the holiday season, and you will find a high-rise graph of the year’s remittances strung up in Christmas lights.
The heartbreak of the Philippines is not simply that so many of its people have to leave to support their families but also that the country's long succession of leaders have repeatedly raised and then crushed (and often betrayed) the public's hopes. The novels of the wonderful Philippine / Ilocano writer F. Sionil Jose depict the origins and long effects of this pattern. Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an article on the subject, called "A Damaged Culture," which for a long time was extremely controversial there.
For the moment: please consider helping the people of the central Philippines through any organization you trust. Here are two whose operations around the world I know and respect, and to which I've contributed over the years and will again for their special typhoon appeals:
Eastport, Maine, which Deb and Jim Fallows have been profiling recently in their American Futures posts – and which Jim is writing an article about for the January issue of the magazine (subscribe here!) – is a tiny town of 1300 people in Washington county, which wraps around Maine’s farthest “down East” stretches.
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Washington County calls itself the “Sunrise County” because it’s the easternmost county in the U.S, where the sun first rises on the 48 contiguous states. But it doesn’t boast about being the poorest county in Maine, which it is. Many of the small seaside communities dotting the county’s eastern border survive on small-scale fishing operations, while much of the rest of the county’s economy depends on wild blueberries. This is hardscrabble-life territory. That’s why towns like Eastport are working so strenuously to innovate and find paths to a more prosperous future.
It’s also why a college education leading to a solid career is perhaps even more prized here than in much of the rest of the U.S – why families celebrate when their kids get admitted to their chosen college.
There’s nothing unusual about celebrating your kid’s admission to a preferred college with a party. But for many families in Maine, that party has a name – a “lottery party,” as in “our kid just won the lottery.” I’m told this is what lots of folks in Maine call such a celebration that follows admission to the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), graduation from which, they believe, virtually guarantees lifetime earnings equal to a big lottery win.
Deb and Jim Fallows told me they heard people in Eastport sing the praises of MMA, which is several hours southwest of Eastport, in Castine. Not knowing anything about MMA, I decided to look into it. One of the people in Eastport who championed the MMA as attention-worthy is Captain Bob Peacock (USNR-Ret.), the Eastport harbor pilot Deb mentions here. Peacock is a 1971 graduate of MMA and, it turns out, chairman of its board of trustees. When he heard I was going to Castine to check out MMA, he said he’d meet me there, arrange for me to meet with the president, Bill Brennan, as well as faculty and students – and also give me a personal tour.
What a revelation.
Not least, the place is beautiful. Castine (population 1,366) is one of the oldest towns in Maine. White clapboard houses surround an appealing campus that sits on a hill near Penobscot Bay, overlooking Castine Harbor. (Town and campus in photo above.) Much of the town doesn’t look too different from how it must have looked in 1779, when Paul Revere and other Americans on the Penobscot Expedition were routed by the British here.
But it’s not the charm of the place that is the principal attraction to students who apply here; the career preparation is. And the waterside, small-town tranquility that envelops MMA belies the institution’s high-tech underpinnings, which I’ll touch on below.
This is a college whose student body is largely self-selected. As one professor told me, “dabblers don’t come here.” Highly directed students who know what they want to do are the kind of people who matriculate at MMA. Application numbers are at all-time highs for admission to this public four-year college. This year’s tuition ranges from $9,080 for in-state students to $19,900 for out-of-state students, with students from some other New England states paying $13,620. Financial aid is, of course, available. And as an indicator of the success MMA's students typically enjoy, Bill Brennan told me, "The default rate on the loans we issue is around 1.5 percent -- as opposed to 12 or 13 percent at most institutions." Undergraduate enrollment has climbed to nearly 1,000. According to President Brennan, the place is “bursting at the seams” with students eager for the education obtainable here. "Enrollment is slipping in lots of colleges around the country, but we're beyond capacity here."
They come to study to be navigation officers (ultimately, captains and pilots) of huge ocean-going vessels as well as smaller ships. (Did you see Captain Phillips? If so, then you’ve seen the kinds of jobs some of these students train for.) Some come to major in engineering – learning to design, install and operate power-generation, hydraulic, electrical, and other systems on vessels and in shore-based utilities. Still others come to the business school to study global logistics and business operations in international trade.
Increasing numbers of MMA students come to study marine science and marine biology, many doing a dual-degree option in small-vessel operations, which prepares them to work in various fields of ocean science where they may also need the capability to operate small research craft (“small” here means vessels not over 200 gross tons). That particular combination is very popular and, one professor told me, “golden” in its career prospects.
And that’s the point. Whatever their course of study, young people enroll here because they know their education will prepare them for a career, typically a quite lucrative one. MMA understandably boasts that each year it places more than 90 percent of its graduating class in professional employment or graduate studies within 90 days of graduation, many of those with starting salaries over $100,000. At a recent career fair on campus, 80 companies showed up to recruit MMA students, many of whom already have firm job offers well before they’re seniors.
When you walk around the MMA campus, you see many students in the khaki or blue uniforms of midshipmen. Approximately 60 percent of MMA students are in the “regiment of midshipmen,” mostly those seeking an unlimited license in the U.S. Merchant Marine. But regimental training – with its uniforms, leadership training, discipline, and additional duties (though no military obligation after graduation) – is open to all students. The regimented and “traditional” students attend the same classes, participate in the same clubs, Division-III athletic teams, and other activities.
What struck me at MMA was how much hands-on experience these students get. (Video here.) Everybody gets cooperative-learning experience, appropriate to their educational and career goals, either aboard vessels or with companies involved in industrial manufacturing, logistics, engineering, oceanographic research, or marine biology.
And the on-campus training is enriched by impressive high-tech facilities, as I mentioned above. For example, I was awed by the state-of-the-art, computerized navigation simulator (seen in photo below), used to train deck officers. It’s in the campus Center for Advanced Technology, in a large room set up like a ship’s bridge. A semicircle of 55-inch flat-screen monitors provides students with real-life simulations of port approaches and harbors anywhere in the world. The day I was there, the harbor on the simulator’s screens was New York. It was so authentic that I might as well have been looking from the Staten Island Ferry – and so realistic that people have gotten seasick in the room.
The instructor can call up simulations of full darkness, heavy fog, and various untoward incidents (approaching vessel, collision, man overboard, etc.) to challenge student navigators in all sorts of situations. This simulator also includes controls for Dynamic Positioning (DP) systems, a technology that enables precise maneuverability for offshore oil rigs, tugs, and large passenger ships, thus allowing students to get training necessary to handle the newest, most advanced marine vessels out there.
Students in certain programs are required to take two training cruises of at least 60 days – one each at the end of their first and third years. These cruises, aboard the State of Maine (large ship pictured below) orient students to a ship’s deck and engineering areas, and provide specific hands-on experience in the students’ areas of major. And in the summer after the sophomore year, students in some majors are assigned to merchant vessels for several months of additional shipboard experience. Others, like students studying business and logistics, must get a co-operative work experience with a company, lasting a minimum of twelve 40-hour work weeks, at the end of the third year.
So, a large part of the extraordinary success MMA graduates have in getting good jobs right after graduation has to do with the experiential training they get at the academy. As Bob Peacock put it, “these students learn how todo things. We teach how to make it happen.”
The other part of MMA graduates’ success comes from the fact that they’ve been training for careers where there’s extraordinary demand for employees. The international cargo shipping industry is growing so fast that it’s hard for American flagships to find qualified navigators and engineers. International businesses need people skilled in the kind of sophisticated logistics contemporary world trade demands. And as people around the world look to the oceans as a growing source of food and natural resources, those trained in marine biology and marine science are in high demand.
Here’s what’s important and interesting about all this. The kind of education provided at MMA and America’s six other maritime academies is not familiar to most Americans. Most of us, I would wager, have only the slightest idea what goes on at these institutions. That’s too bad, because what’s going on is some of the most compelling education to be found anywhere.
And in an era when angst about whether the benefits of a college education are outweighed by the staggering costs – and when many critics of American higher education bemoan the banality and uselessness of what happens on college campuses – the Maine Maritime Academy provides an arresting antidote to those negative narratives and to the notion that we’re headed downhill. This is the kind of place that makes America work. And succeed.
To contact the author, write: TierneyJT at gmail.com Twitter: @_JohnTierney_ First photo in this post by John Tierney; the rest are from the Maine Maritime Academy.
I've written many times over the years, and still believe, that the news out of China is more good than bad. (For details: here, here, and here by me, plus this nice photo feature yesterday from Matt Schiavenza.) But the bad news is real, and needs to be reported -- and shakiness on this point is what has gotten the Bloomberg organization into what appears to be big trouble.
If the front page story today in the NYT is right, Bloomberg has made a craven decision that calls its larger credibility into question. According to the Times article, Bloomberg managers in New York decided to squash stories by their (aggressive) China-based reporters for fear of angering the Chinese government. The less-damaging rationale for this decision is Bloomberg's concern that its reporters might be kicked out of China. The more-damaging suspicion is that the company was worried that it would lose subscribers in China for its cash-cow Bloomberg financial terminals. You can see the whole thing dramatized by our friends from NMA in Taiwan, above.
Maybe this NYT story is off -- though in the 24 hours since it's appeared there has been no substantive response from Bloomberg (other than "it's not so"), and the NYT account from Beijing is by the reputable Edward Wong (whom I know and trust). But at face value this is a really depressing illustration of a "news" organization knuckling under in the face of economic pressure. That's how Bloomberg's China reporters must feel as well: otherwise how would this case ever have gotten out? A nice way for Bloomberg to counter these suspicions would be to run the controversial stories in question -- as it has done in the past with strong China stories.
Meanwhile, let's not lose sight of the larger point: Bloomberg is (apparently) wrong for acquiescing, but the real problem is obviously with the parts of the Chinese government that are afraid of what domestic and international reporters would say. Which brings us to the day's second bit of downbeat news: the Chinese government's refusal to renew a visa for Paul Mooney, a well-respected reporter who has spent his career covering Asia. Apparently the government didn't like his tone about Tibet. This is part of a much more widespread pattern of making it hard for international journalists to get into China.
This is not the way a confident, big-time government behaves. *
The irony -- and foolishness -- of this policy is that the best possible PR campaign Chinese officials could undertake would be to let reporters roam freely in their country, and report the more-good-than-bad general outlook. It is a much more appealing place, on balance, than you would assume based on its defensive governmental-agitprop crouch.
The main ongoing discussion about China, on which I made my best case in China Airborne, concerns when and whether the system as a whole will catch up with the amazing industrial / infrastructure / anti-poverty achievements of the past 30 years. Catching up would involve a more open and less corrupt higher education system; a more transparent and accountable government at all levels; a freer press; a less-censored Internet; much more protection for the environment and public health; and the related civil-society attributes that today's rich societies, despite their differences, share.
The discussion will continue, with steps forward and back. The hope for the Xi Jinping era, now nearing the end of its first year, has been that he and his colleagues understood the need for big, clear steps in the liberalizing direction. I still hope that can be so, but the latest news is discouraging.
* Before you ask: the surveillance-state excesses of modern America are also not the way a confident or big-time government behaves.
America is a great but imperfect country, always struggling against its shortcomings. I recommend more struggle on this front.
On the other hand, one of my sons says that I should keep my focus on the real problem: the ownership of the local Washington NFL club. Leaf blowers, he reminds me, make you miserable on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. But for nearly 15 years now, the team and its leadership have disheartened an entire metro region.
The report below comes from Glenna Hall -- a former judge in Washington state, a current pilot, and a one-time Guest Blogger on this site. She writes about an episode this week in which she and her community lost virtually all contact with the outside world -- by cellphone, landline, and Internet. Because they were on an island, they couldn't just drive someplace else.
Her account is long, but I think the details are interesting and illuminating, especially about technological dependence on the individual and the collective level. She also makes an important point about the balance between public and private wealth* -- and explains why so many people in the community are now relying on the resource shown above, the public library. In our recent travels we've frequently seen that in small-town America, Internet coverage remains surprisingly spotty, leaving libraries as a mainstay source of higher-speed connections. More on than later; for now, the report from San Juan County.
By Glenna Hall.
This past Tuesday morning, a large portion of an entire United States county woke up to find itself without cell phone service or access to the internet, and nobody in the county had long distance phone service. This is not an alternate-history fantasy; this county is totally dependent for virtually all its telecommunications on one private phone company, Centurylink.
Not everybody in Washington's San Juan Islands realized something was wrong right away: mostly it was people who check their email first thing, or maybe needed to call another island, or who tried to call the phone company to report their phone out of order. As the day wore on, though, the breadth of the problem began to dawn on county residents. Most of the banks in the county seat were closed--no way to do electronic transactions. Ditto the credit-card portion of businesses. No way for air charter services to get calls from outside the county to reserve their services. No way to check the status of public transportation (i.e., the ferries). No way for pilots to check weather outside the immediate area until they were airborne. For those parts of the county without internet, no streaming video. No social media. No making airline reservations or buying theater tickets online. Communications for air ambulance services were disrupted. Most worrisome of all, no 911 service on any of the islands.
And no way to find out what was going on or how long it would last. Rumors abounded. The most widespread was that some guy on another island had been digging a post hole at four o’clock in the morning and had severed a fiber cable. (That we believed this says something about us islanders, though I'm not sure what.)
But also as the day wore on, county residents began to realize that some communications resources still worked: those in the libraries, the schools, the offices of the local electric coop, a few businesses and coffee shops. The libraries had lines of people waiting to get in the next morning, and, in the evening hours, cars were parked in their parking lots, the eerie glow of mobile-device screens illuminating the occupants.
Information began to trickle in as people connected to the phone company, newspapers, or the electric coop (Orcas Power and Light Cooperative--OPALCO) reported on what they had heard. This was not just a damaged underground cable, it was a severed submarine cable, with the break possibly halfway between two of the larger and more populous islands. The cable serves what is basically the sole source of landline telephone and internet, and Centurylinks's resource presence in the county is small. The estimates of the duration of the outage are all over the place, but could be grim--voice service might be restored in a week, the internet in three or more weeks.
I had occasion to interact with a relatively large number of people in the first day or so. Our communications disruption was the chief topic of conversation. Folks felt discombobulated. Even late adopters of the technology had become used to email and other forms of web-based interaction, not to mention just surfing the web. We talked about what we had done in place of those activities: reading, taking walks, sorting magazines, seeing people face to face.
I spent much of today, the third day of the communications disruption, in places where there was both internet and a fair sampling of people, including some with actual knowledge (for full disclosure, I am on the board of the electric co-op). I learned that local businesses were, indeed, suffering. One local professional told me he was keeping track of his losses, and they were significant. On the other hand, many of the electronic haves, most of whom have access to the power co-op's fiber, are sharing with the have-nots: the alternate ISP in Friday Harbor is opening its usually subscriber-only hotspots to the public; some coffee shops are allowing noncustomers access to their service; I saw a sign on the hardware store advertising free wi-fi. The parking lots of the power co-op and the library are full. There are no free seats at the library. OPALCO, which is a national expert in underwater cable technology, immediately offered to help Centurylink with repair work.
In my personal view, the real heroes so far are the San Juan Island Library and OPALCO. The library staff has been patiently and cheerfully helping folks with their computers and programs, after having set up extra work spaces in the main areas.
I don't know yet how businesses are going to work around a lack of internet access that might conceivably last till Thanksgiving. I know the two choruses I sing in are going to have to figure out more corporeal ways to publicize their winter concerts; I can only imagine the headaches facing telecommuters. It would be easy to say “Yeah, this is great, we'll all cure our internet addictions!” But I think we'll find that there is no easy way to disentangle our enmeshment with modern communications technology. Whether we know it or not, we all use the internet.
I'll keep you posted, from the library (if I can squeeze in).
* On the interaction between public and private prosperity, you can never go wrong with this famous passage from J.K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society:
"The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground... They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reﬂect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings."
Shead High School, home of the Tigers, sits on a hill in Eastport, Maine, just a short walk from everything else in town. I went to visit, curious about what a small public school in very rural, maritime Maine, with a total of 110 students, would be like.
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Shead is built-for-winter, but bright and efficient. Its big front doors open into a large entry area, which doubles as a lunchroom, which then opens onto an elegant high-raftered gym. At lunchtime, tables were set up and the space was bustling in anticipation of sports events and Halloween.
Despite its small size, Shead fields teams in soccer, basketball, cross country, a host of other sports, and has its own radio station. One advantage of being such small school, people say, is that kids can play every sport they would like to. The gym is festooned with banners of championships, hanging next to a big flag from the Passamaquoddy tribe.
Shead is a regional school; only about 20 of the students are actually residents of Eastport, and the rest are bussed in from about a half dozen neighboring communities that don’t have high schools themselves. About 1/3 of the students are Native Americans from the nearby Passamaquoddy reservation, called Pleasant Point. These nonresident students bring critical revenue to Eastport, which supports not only the school’s livelihood but also enough for extras, like teachers for P.E. and music. About 60% of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch (a proxy for poverty level in the US).
The town itself worries about a shrinking and aging population. The census of 2010 shows 1331 people in Eastport, with a median age of 54 years, a 19% drop in population and 9 year rise in median age from 2000. Shead reflects those numbers. Twenty years ago, there were 181 students enrolled at Shead; ten years ago there were 157; versus today's 110. The photos of the Shead graduating classes, which hang along one wall of the school, tell the vivid story: the class of 1988 had 46 students; 1998 had 35; the class of 2014 has 25 students, 3 of whom are from Eastport.
Right across the street from Shead is the even tinier Eastport elementary school, which enrolls about 90 students in K through 8, all Eastport residents. The principal of the elementary school told me that several families had moved into town recently, two of them with five kids apiece, which is considered promising news.
(Elementary school playground, with art project.)
I heard repeatedly about ways that Shead’s smallness can turn to advantage. Teachers and counselors can pay attention to each individual student. No one gets “lost in the sauce”, as they described it. Small numbers also means small class size, as few as 4 or as many as 15. I saw plenty of signs that no one could fly under the radar at Shead, even if he or she wanted to. While I was reporting in to the office for my visit, a number of kids passed through; they seemed to be casually checking in or out. An assistant would nod something affirmative, suggesting they knew exactly who each student was and what his business was there.
Also keeping track, in an understated way, was Principal Paul Theriault. Later in the morning, I found him sitting in the middle of the school hallway, right outside his office. He was wedged into a student- size desk, working on his laptop. If you were a student going from one class to the next, chances are you would pass Mr. Theriault along the way.
Paul Theriault, who grew up in Eastport, hasn't always worked in education. He was a meat cutter for 21 years, a solid pay-the-bills profession. He had also coached Eastport basketball at various times since 1985, and then eased into Shead as an educational technician in the Alternative/Special Education program in 1999. By 2003, he had a degree in education, by luck the same year that Shead was hiring a social studies teacher. Theriault got the job, and the part-time vice principal’s job to boot! Four years later, he became principal.
Empathy would be the right word to describe Mr. Theriault’s intense connection to the school, the students, and the old soul of his hometown of Eastport. “I grew up poor,” he said. “there were not a lot of bright colors in your life.” His understanding translates into very specific examples of how he leads the school. Theriault describes an example of how each student needs-- and deserves-- special handling, sometimes granting dispensation outside the usual norms. Once, he discovered a student was being docked for not handing in his homework. “Homework?" he said. “For crying out loud, some kids have no place to DO homework.” The guidance counselor, Leah McLean, backs up these sentiments and actions. She knows her students and their family lives, which are sometimes complicated. “There are “couch surfers” in this school,” she says.
Understanding the student population means more than tending to the smaller stuff – like massaging the rules about homework. It also means imparting a vision for the school and for each student who goes there. Principal Theriault uses the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle. The big picture—the cover of the box that you put in front of you -- represents the image of where you are aiming-- your hopes and aspirations. It is an image to keep in mind as you try to put the small pieces together.
A recent small piece that was a big victory for Shead was winning a 4-year grant from the MELMAC Education Foundation in 2007, and again in 2011. An aside: I heard these word “grant” used many times in talk of development plans for Eastport. In my hometown of Washington DC, grant is not always a strong, positive word; it easily carries connotations of earmarks or handouts or somehow easy money.
But here in Eastport, I thought, the definition of grant sounded honorable, and even lifesaving. It was exactly – exactly – what grants are meant for and how they should be distributed. The MELMAC grant provided 40,000 dollars to promote a post-secondary plan for Eastport students. That means, among other things, that they could put a bunch of kids on a bus, drive them to Boston, stay overnight, and attend a nationwide college fair. For many students, this would be the beginning of how you imagine what your life could be and how you might begin to get there.
Last year’s seniors went in a variety of directions, including the ever-popular University of Maine in nearby Machias, Washington County Community College in nearby Calais, and into the military. One student matriculated at a college in Massachusetts.
So, how do you teach the kids of Shead every day? Damon Weston, the social studies teacher, has thought about this a lot. He grew up in nearby Trescott, graduated from Oberlin College, and returned to Maine to rake blueberries in 2002. He has a lot of family now in Eastport, all pillars of the town. Damon talked about striking a balance in teaching the solid core of his subjects while keeping them relevant to the here and now, and the futures of his students. He is on the front lines of one of the town’s most serious worries: how to prepare and convince its young people to stay, work, and live in Eastport. His students are the generation that will carry forward the economic and spiritual rebuilding of the town, which is moving with such gusto now.
We soon got sidetracked into talking about the course that Weston developed on the history of Eastport. What could be better! He has old maps, old photos, old illustrations of where the train tracks used to run from inland to the water’s edge, old stories about how the Roosevelts came with their brood by train to Eastport en route to their summers across the channel in Campobello. On the streets of Eastport, I had heard stories of how Eleanor used to come shopping and stop to chat with the shopkeeper and the ladies. His course sounded perfect to me—history right in the backyard of where his students live. (Above, from History Map.)
Damon Weston found a way to connect his students to the history of the town. English teacher Ben Brigham has found a way to connect his students to the current events of the town. They are reading The Glass Menagerie, which was currently being performed at Eastport Arts Center, in a restored building just down the street (at right). Students could attend the play for free.
The teachers, administrators, parents in Eastport schools, as well as the others in the town who lead, perform, volunteer, serve, and build, (and many simultaneously; how else could a town of 1300 people work?) all work to embed the schools into the connective tissue of Eastport. Successful artists from the thriving local community volunteer at the schools; gardeners, farmers and activists in the local food movements help build raised beds to grow produce at the school grounds; others teach the kids how to professionally care for their bicycles; the announcer of The Glass Menagerie applauds the audience for their presence, and then challenges them to buy tickets for their friends; students and parents play in the town orchestra together; the editors of the newspaper take tickets at the theater. All this creative, aggressive activity defines the spirit and goals of Eastport right now.
To contact the author, write DebFallows at gmail.com.
Don't worry -- it's not what you're thinking. The Alchemist brewing company, maker of the famed Heady Topper beer, is not closing closing.
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But it is calling an end to the experience I described a few weeks ago: driving out to the brewery, in Waterbury some 20 miles from Burlington, where you can watch the beer being made, taste it fresh from the tap, and trudge to the parking lot with your maximum allowable per-customer haul of one 24-can case. It was fairly calm when I was there on a weekday afternoon (above), but apparently too many customers were trudging, drinking, carousing, and generally crowding up the village, and the end has come.
Co-owner John Kimmich says, "we have gotten busier and busier and busier as these two years have gone on, and we are busier than we'd ever dreamed we'd be here." [JF: I interviewed his wife and co-owner, Jen, to similar effect.]
The sheer number of people visiting the Alchemist is the biggest problem. The parking lot spills over on holidays, and neighbors, as you can tell from signs reading "keep out", aren't happy about it...
Despite the closure the owners want to reassure fans that production of the beer will not change. In fact they hope to open a new, separate retail space in Waterbury going forward.
"We have come out of horrible situations in the right direction many times, and this is going to be another one of those," Kimmich says.
Sic transit gloria breweri. Assuming -- as I do -- that the quality of the beer itself remains high, this step could if anything enhance Heady Topper's magical unicorn image, as an elusive ideal that many people have dreamed of but few have actually seen.
For the archives, the type of scene that previous pilgrims have witnessed, soon to be shielded from general public view.
#1: Ingot-like stacks of Heady Topper, resembling Walter White's barrels full of money in Breaking Bad.
#2: American manufacturing at its best.
#3: Reflecting on a job well done.
To end on a positive note, the brewery is actually open until November 15.
In a recent post, I mentioned that the term “Down East” in Maine has origins in sailing terms, when prevailing winds sent ships from Boston sailing downwind (hence down) to head north along the coast of Maine.
Well, thanks to readers, I’ve learned that there is another Down East; it is down south in Carteret County, along the Atlantic coast around the middle of North Carolina! Just look at the similarities of the coastline in Down East Maine and Down East North Carolina. Here is Maine:
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In both cases, the prevailing west winds mean ships sailing downwind are sailing east, or Down East.
Not to be outdone, a sailor on Long Island writes in about a similar usage. My reader described sailing “up island” when sailing west, or up into the prevailing winds. I’m presuming the opposite also holds true and the prevailing westerly winds sends you sailing downwind, or “down island” out to the east. Sailors out there: is this true?
I suppose we should scour the Atlantic seaboard to see if there are others areas where you would sail downwind to travel east.
I’m writing this from Down Under, watching the sailboats out in Sydney Harbor. There are stiff winds today, probably about 40 knots, and the flags at the Royal Botanical Gardens indicate southeasterly winds, at least right here.
Any sailing talk about Sydney Harbor becomes complicated very quickly; there are hills and valleys all around the harbor, and many inlets along the main waterway, which lead to the headlands and out into the ocean. The wind must be finicky and shifty, to say the least. It is too much of a brain teaser to imagine what sailing Down East means here Down Under. Anyone?
The device above, shown in a company video from the Ocean Renewable Power Company, or ORPC, shows the installation of a gigantic piece of equipment that I saw while visiting the small town of Eastport, Maine. Eastport, as we've suggested before, has been harder-hit than most other places we have visited, and is now in the process of placing its bets on a variety of prospects for economic revival, rather than being able to look back with satisfaction on big strategic choices that have already paid off.
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One of those bets that is most astonishing, in its scale and in the long-term nature of its commitment, is ORPC's attempt to create workable turbines to draw on the vast tidal energy of the adjoining waters. I am (alas! everything about being a writer is great, except for the having-to-write part) in the middle of writing an actual article about Eastport for our next issue, which will say more about ORPC and some of the other things we have learned from this little town. But as a place holder, before too much more time passes, I wanted to invite your attention to a project that would seem ambitious for Seattle or Los Angeles but happens to be based in a struggling town of 1300 people.
You can see a video from Solid Works, a 3D-CAD design company that has been using its computerized models to simulate the stresses on the turbine—and its generating potential:
And a raft of other explanatory videos at an ORPC site here. For now I'll mention one comment that stayed with us, from ORPC's Bob Lewis, an Eastport local who has been with the company since nearly its start.
As my wife and I walked through the company's office in downtown Eastport, he showed us the series of more-and-more refined-looking helical turbines, with elegantly curving blades made of composites or wood.
As we saw the succession, I couldn't help thinking of a similar display I had seen a week earlier in the otherwise completely dissimilar Qualcomm company in San Diego. Qualcomm is an international tech powerhouse with more than 25,000 employees; ORPC is just trying to get going; but there was the same pride in the Qualcomm "museum" in showing the progression from the earliest footlocker-sized mobile communication systems to today's tiny, ubiquitous mobile devices. I thought of the comparison when Bob Lewis said this:
"One of the good things about this area," he said, "is that the resource is so robust"—which he meant that the tides were so enormously powerful. "If our kits can hold together here and, even in their crude form, generate electricity, they can stimulate the development of the industry everywhere.
"We like to think that we are the Kitty Hawk of hydrokinetic power. Like the Wright Brothers team—I don’t know that they could envision today’s Boeing and Airbus and composite aircraft and whatnot. We are taking this innovation and trying to stimulate the imagination of people around this area, and elsewhere, to realize this potential.
"I am hoping for someone in their garage right now is tinkering with a better model. What I am hoping is that if I am so fortunate as to come back in 20 years, people will look at these models and say, That really worked? That's our goal."
Now, back to article-writing. Below, the way the turbine support looked last week when it was hauled out of the ocean for a scheduled inspection, and below that, a company drawing of how it looks underwater.
1) Long-anticipated note of sanity from the FAA: Passengers will shortly be able to use tablets, iPads, music players, and similar non-transmitting devices even during those perilous moments when "the cabin door has now been closed." These are the same devices that pilots increasingly rely on throughout the flight for their navigational info.
Better news still: The ban on in-flight use of cell phones remains.
Just when you fear that the government is so hamstrung and contested it can't do anything right, it does. Well done all around.
2) Long-brewing struggle over basic mechanics of self-government reaches a climax, as the GOP minority in the Senate filibusters a court nominee whose qualifications they don't even pretend to question. Their objection is to a twice-elected president getting to fill vacancies on an important court. That may sound like a stretch, but please check out Andrew Cohen's detailed account. Also, I note with admiration that most stories are calling this what it is, a filibuster. For instance, the exemplary lead paragraph in today's NYT story:*
Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked the confirmation of two of President Obama’s nominees, one to a powerful appeals court and another to a housing lending oversight post, setting up a confrontation with Democrats that could escalate into a larger fight over limiting the filibuster and restricting how far the minority party can go to thwart a president’s agenda.
From the beginning, the American federal experiment has involved a balance between majority power and minority rights. But the essence of a democracy is that in the end, after all views have been heard and all interests considered, the majority will prevail.
As I argued here, the nullification crisis of the 1840s was essentially a defiance of the majority's ability to impose its decisions on parts of the country that disagreed with them. As a famous Republican put it at the time: "Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events." He would recognize today's dynamics.
3) Who cares if the government can't function? The views of two other long-time, now-disaffected Republicans, Bruce Bartlett and Mike Lofgren, are worth checking out. First, from Lofgren, who worked for years on Capitol Hill:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard."
Bartlett moves from this to
... what I will henceforth call the Lofgren Corollary to the definition of chutzpah. Chutzpah, of course, is a wonderful Yiddish word for someone with massive nerve, the classic example being the child who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy on the grounds of being an orphan. The Lofgren Corollary refers to Republicans who intentionally sabotage government programs by denying them adequate resources and then complain that the programs don’t work, thus justifying further reductions in resources leading to more problems. The goal is to ultimately abolish the program on the grounds of being ineffective.
Of course it always helps if you can also deny the government agency administering a program a permanent leader... Another tactic is to make sure that an agency never knows exactly what its budget is. In the last three years, virtually every agency of government has had to deal with wildly fluctuating estimates of how much money it will have to spend...
Once one understands the Lofgren Corollary, it is very easy to implement in a variety of situations—as long as one cares nothing about the proper functioning of government.
* Ooops! From a reader just now:
I'm watching the PBS NewsHour, and the news summary for the Thursday covered the Republican filibusters of Patricia Millett to the DC Court do Appeals and Mel Watt to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Judy Woodruff concluded the piece by saying that the votes on the Senate today left both nominations "short of the 60 votes required for confirmation."
As Cary Grant was widely claimed to have said, "Judy, Judy, Judy......"
In response to the Snowden-generated news yesterday about warrantless NSA penetration of Google and Yahoo data services—as opposed to getting information from those companies via subpoena and FISA court order:
1. From a reader whose background I know and who asks to be identified as a "national-security professional."
I obviously can't be quoted by name on this ... and indeed, since this email is being read (Hi guys!), I can probably get fired just for sending it, but let me just stress how shocking these NSA revelations are.
Look, I'm not a shrinking violet. I work for DoD. I support much of the war on terror. Some of these assholes out there just need killing. And gathering info on them that allows us to schwhack them is okay with me.
But there is law. And my view is that you have two choices. Either you change the law openly, publicly, or if that is impossible and you consider violating the law imperative, then you make a claim of "exceptional illegality." The later is a tough case, but the best example is torture. I support the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. I do not support the claim that such torture is lawful. But if I had been the responsible official, I would have ordered it and thrown myself on the mercy of the court.
But the thing about the NSA revelations is that this isn't exceptional illegality. It is routine, somehow justified by legal opinions written by John Yoo-style hacks.
And worse, it is so routine that 29 y/o contractors have access to it.
The issue isn't so much that we've expanded the national security in response to perceived threats, but rather than doing so has become so unexceptional that it is routine, widely known, and the information widely (though not publicly) available.
At the risk of Godwining the email, this is the essence of the "banality of evil" in the precise Arendtian sense of the term.
2. From our friend Mike Lofgren, long-time Republican congressional aide and author of The Party Is Over.
There are probably three major alternative explanations to Obama’s actions with respect to the NSA. I list them in ascending order of plausibility:
1. As you say, Obama’s behavior could “suggest that he doesn’t grasp [the gravity of the situation] as clearly as he should. Or recognize the lasting stain it threatens to leave on his record.” This despite his having taught constitutional law, having campaigned against such NSA abuses, and despite his own recent statements regarding the need for the war on terrorism to end.
2. The Intelligence-Industrial Complex has grown so powerful and pervasive that it constitutes a state within a state. This would be consistent with Obama’s supposedly not having been briefed for nearly five years about intelligence operations against allied leaders. The implications of this alternative are substantial, to say the least.
3. Consistent with unitary executive theory as well as the formal chain of command, Obama really is in charge and knows exactly what he is doing. Accordingly, his not having been briefed on potentially embarrassing details of ongoing operations is consistent with the need for “plausible deniability,” a policy which has been more-or-less observed by presidents since the Eisenhower administration. His statements on civil liberties are conscious political signals to keep his base on board, and are common with sitting presidents.
At some point it is wise to ascribe adult levels of understanding to the principal actors in this drama, no matter how impenetrable their deeper motives.
3. From a reader in Texas, on the ratchet of security as it affects presidents, citizens, the press, and the military-security-industrial complex.
President Eisenhower—himself a former general—once gave a prescient speech warning about the dangers our military-industrial complex poses to democratic governance. While the Cold War and the "War on Terror" are different in many ways, they are similar in some important respects. And there are others in which our current situation—and President Obama's in particular—is arguably much worse than in the Cold War.
First the similarities:
1. In both the Cold War and the War on Terror, those charged with assessing the risk we face are the same ones—institutionally and personally—who will be blamed for underestimating it. They are also the ones who benefit - both institutionally and personally—by overstating the dangers. Over many years, well-meaning national-security planners can become so steeped in their own Kool-Aid that the discrepancies between actual risks and those they warn about can become quite large. After the Cold War ended, for example, we were genuinely surprised by how weak the Soviet Union had become. [2...]
3. There is little upside—and great downside—for a politician who can be plausibly cast as "weak" or a comfort to the enemy. While the War on Terror is not like other wars, no reasonable person argues that the group who brought down the World Trade Center is not an enemy in every sense of the word.
Now consider these ways in which our current "national-security complex" is more dangerous to democratic survival, and more difficult for President Obama to roll back, than in times past:
1. The national-security complex was charged after 9-11 with this credo: "Never Again." This is a mission so absolute that it permits no cost-benefit analysis of any kind.
2. Throughout the Cold War we understood that the enemy was roughly as afraid of being wiped out by nuclear weapons as we were—hence the "mutually assured destruction" doctrine ... Deterrence does not work well against terrorists.
3. The War on Terror can have no logical ending because there can be no Gorbachev who can credibly surrender. We can never be sure that any leader speaks for all terrorists. And it only takes one determined terrorist to do immense damage.
4. The surveillance-state apparatus—which as you point out is the greater danger to democratic survival than the direct casualties from any act of terrorist violence—creates a chilling effect on the very sort of democratic activity that is prerequisite to its dismantling.
Someone who writes an email similar to mine to you, for example, would not need to be diagnosably paranoid to give at least passing consideration to questions like these: "Do I want the NSA to put an asterisk beside my name?" "What repercussions might that have for my life?"
And Obama's Justice Department has used the anti-espionage statutes to treat investigative journalism in the national-security field as akin to treason. The things the Founders put in place to allow us to self-correct are caught up in the trap.
5. President Obama—even assuming he were personally inclined to lead the charge to rein in the overreach of our national-security apparatus—is uniquely disadvantaged in doing so. He has been called a "liar" by a GOP Congressman on national television. I actually know Republicans who believe he is, if not an actual comforter of terrorists, at least a Muslim.
While the President must surely realize that History will judge him more harshly rather than less for letting concerns of this sort color his supervision of the national-security apparatus, from a human standpoint, it's easy to understand why he might feel that he "is not the right president" to take this on. Can you imagine what Lindsay Graham would say if the President took the position that the "Never Again' mission should be ratcheted down a notch?
I will close with one final note on the strange politics of this. I am a liberal Democrat who has supported this President in two elections. The only issue on the horizon that might cause me to vote Republican in 2016—the only conceivable one—is the need to rein in the national surveillance apparatus. What it would take for me to take such a previously inconceivable vote would be for a credible libertarian—a Rand Paul for example—to convince me that putting the NSA back in its box is his priority one. While I would grieve for the damage to Medicare and Social Security that this would surely entail, it's more important to me that we remain free, that it remain easier for citizens to keep watch over those who work for us in government than it is for the government to keep watch over us.
It's an established and obvious point, a corollary to the famous post-Watergate principle that "it's always the cover-up, never the crime." The "crime" might initially seem serious, or at least embarrassing: sending the Watergate burglars to spy on Richard Nixon's Democratic opponents, whatever happened between Bill Clinton and Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky. But of course what came after is what did the real damage.
So too in the world of terrorism. Attacks can be terribly destructive, as we saw in hideous form 12 years ago. But the long-term threat to national interests and values comes from the response they evoke. In the case of 9/11: The attack was disastrous, but in every measurable way the rash, foolish, and unjustified decision to retaliate by invading Iraq hurt America in more lasting ways. I make that case here, here, here.
Barack Obama seemed to recognize that as early as 2002, in arguing against the invasion of Iraq; and through his 2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton based on her misjudgment in supporting the Iraq war; and in 2013 in saying that it was at last time to conclude the otherwise open-ended "Global War on Terror."
But the revelations that come out every day of programs that began under Bush and have continued under Obama suggest that he doesn't grasp this as clearly as he should. Or recognize the lasting stain it threatens to leave on his record.*
This latest NSA news from Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani in the Washington Post (working with Edward Snowden) about NSA hacking right into Google's and Yahoo's "clouds" rather than presenting the companies with subpoenas, really is appalling. How are these companies supposed to view a government that is actively working to infiltrate them? How are any of the global customers they are trying to hard to attract supposed to feel about leaving info in their hands? To say nothing of U.S. customers. Warrants from secret courts—that's bad enough, and at least pays lip service to the idea of laws and rule. There is no excuse for the intrusions these documents appear to show.
I have good friends who work or have worked at NSA, and I know that they have the enlightened best interests of the country always in mind. But over-reach by their agency and the security establishment—starting under Bush, ongoing under Obama—is badly harming American interests, ideals, and institutions. The president is the only person in a position to signal a change in course, and he had better do it fast.
Here is one of the images from the latest Post story, in which the NSA is happy-facing its success in cracking Google's internals.
* Yes, such Democratic idealists as Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and such a Republican/American hero as Abraham Lincoln, encroached on civil liberties during their respective wars. But those were temporary, and the wars ended. Obama needs to take actions that match his words about the risks of a permanent-warfare state.