October 17, 2004

Overheard At the Coffeeshop

Yesterday I went to a coffeeshop in my neighborhood to do a little homework in Totalitarian Studies. I’ve traveled to unfree countries before, but never to a full-bore totalitarian police state. And since I’ll be doing just that in five weeks I’m reading about the experiences of other writers in these kinds of places to get an idea of what I should expect and how I ought to behave.

I ordered my coffee and sat in a chair at a small row of outdoor tables. There were four of us sitting there, all strangers. An older black man sat next to me reading a book about the Buddha. Another guy, about my age with long hair and a goatee, stared at nothing in particular while chain-smoking Camels. A rumpled-looking third fellow, a few years younger than me, quietly read the paper.

I brought with me The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux, a travel book I’ve been reading on-and-off for a couple of months. I opened to the chapter on Syria. He’s at the Turkey/Syria border and chatting with a young Turk named Yusof who had been sitting next to him on the bus.
“Best thing, mister, is be very careful,” he said. And he pointed cautiously and became conspiratorial. “Over there is Syria. That is another country. You hear what I’m saying? Another country.”
The young man reading the paper decided to share the news. He mumbled something about the election. I ignored him because I was reading.
A small number of people jostled for attention at a desk, where a bored and rather indifferent soldier ignored them. I thrust my passport over their heads and, as though amused by my insolence, he snatched it and said, “American!” and laughed. I did not see my passport again for over an hour.
The chain-smoker piped up. Something about the Patriot Act. I kept reading.
In the meantime, I found Yusof lurking. He said he wanted to buy me a drink. We had coffee, while he held a chattering conversation with some Syrians. I noticed that there were large portraits of President Assad all over the frontier. He was a man with an odd profile – beaky nose, big chin, surmounted by the squarest head I had ever seen. His portrait at its most accurate was like a cartoon parody: misshapen and villainous, his combed-over hairdo varied from portrait to portrait. His suit was too tight, his neck too thin, his tie ridiculous, his smile insipid. As for his politics (to quote 1 Kings 11), “He was an adversary to Israel…and he abhorred Israel, and reigned over Syria.”
I took a sip of my coffee, which was beginning to cool down. So far this was the most interesting part of the book. I’ve already been to Spain, France, and Italy, so reading about those places is less educational. I won’t be going to Syria soon - at least not in the immediate future - but I’ll be going someplace a lot like it.
But there was another portrait – a younger man, with a slim stubbly face and sunglasses and army fatigues.

“Who’s that, Yusof?”

“No,” he said, meaning, Don’t ask. He paddled with one hand in a cautioning gesture.

The delay at the border today was caused by a group of Syrians smuggling shirts and pants in large suitcases. The absurdity of it was that while these smugglers opened their cases, revealing stacks of shirts in plastic bags, huge trucks rumbled past. They were German, and they were loaded with crates of German machinery, from a firm called Mannesmann. The crates were stamped For the Ministry of Technology, Baghdad, Iraq. Six of these vast flatbed trucks. They were headed toward Iraq, though Syria – and they were waved through by Syrian soldiers. It seemed to make little difference to anyone that Iraq was subject to U.N. sanctions and such a shipment of German machine parts was illegal. In the meantime the shirt smugglers were bullied and denounced.

Yusof took me aside. He put his hand over his mouth and muttered, “That is Assad’s son. He died. Don’t talk.”

We were summoned to the office and handed our passports. And then we were on our way. Those men wearing dark glasses and sipping tea, Yusof said. They were not travelers. They were members of the mukhabarat – Syria’s secret police. All this in a whisper, Yusof’s hand over his mouth.

“Here I like,” Yusof said. We were in a rocky landscape, with wide strips of green. “Aleppo is good. I drink. I eat. I disco. I fuck. But - ” He leaned over. “I don’t talk.”
“It’s a police state,” the young man with the newspaper said. He had my attention now. And he had the attention of others. “Ashcroft and Bush have turned it into a police state.”

“Man, this is a real scary time,” said the old Buddhist.

“Hey,” said the chain-smoker. (None of these guys seemed to know each other.) “Do you think America has too many freedoms? Think the government should take all our rights away? Then vote for George W. Bush!”

I sighed and considered telling them who I am voting for and what I am reading. Why not? I wouldn’t be intruding on a private conversation. This one was public, among strangers who assumed everyone in the neighborhood agreed with them. And why wouldn’t they? There are no Bush/Cheney lawn signs around. Right across the street was the local Impeach Bush headquarters. A poster hung in the window that showed a portrait of the president. Underneath his photo, in big blocky letters, the word “Terrorist.”

But I didn’t want to get into it. I would rather read about Syria than argue with people who know nothing of places like Syria, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. They wouldn’t listen to me anyway.
I had been anxious about my trip to the coast until I walked to the railway station – a funny little Frenchified station with the usual Assad hagiography in any number of ridiculous murals – and saw that there were three trains a day to Latakia. At the station I engaged three young men – medical students – in a conversation about the murals. They immediately clammed up and made eye signals and hand gestures and all sorts of nonverbal suggestions to change the subject. This was what Albania had been like under “Friend” Hoxha. It was not fidgeting caution but real fear – of, I supposed, the mukhabarat.
“Criticize the government and you get silenced,” said the kid with the newspaper as he folded it in disgust. And he said it quite loudly. “It’s only gonna get worse.”

You guys are lucky, I thought. You’re so lucky this isn’t Syria. You’re lucky there is no Portland mukhabarat. Because I could be a member for all you would know.

I leave for Libya in five weeks. I doubt I’ll have this experience there.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 17, 2004 10:48 PM

Nicely written. It is amazing the opinions people will have on things like foreign policy where they put zero research on.

Michael, I have a suspicion about the extreme Left (and perhaps the extreme Right). The suspicion is that they view the world through a filter of movie scripts. With John Kerry, they do not see policies or his record, they see "Seabiscuit". With regards to the Patriot Act, the script goes: US gets attacked on 9/11. Evil Bush, who stole the election, uses that to create a totalitarian state in America and invade other countries for his rich oil buddies. And one lone senator shall oppose him. This Evil President does everything possible to deny people to vote, spreads lies and falsifications, but the people unite and bring the Good Senator to a victory, ending the Evil.

I don't watch movies anymore. Why? Because they are all so 'formulaic'. They follow the same formula. But with the Extreme Left, they seem to follow a formula as well. (These people are saying the same things they did 40 years ago. "Tax cuts" are always for the 'rich'. America is always a nation of soup lines. Etc.) When what they believe doesn't happen, they retort, "Well... it SHOULD have!" They fashion themselves martyrs by protesting on the streets of New York. But that isn't heroic. Protesting on the streets of Iran or China is, but in America?

This explains to me why the Extreme Left would so embrace a movie from Michael Moore (because it follows their 'script'). It also explains to me why actors often end up being the most vocal (and annoying) heralds of this script.

The Extreme Right has their scripts too (big evil government spreading tentacles, must form militia, New Revolutionary War, etc.). But as for the extreme Left, this is my only explanation as to how they can consistently believe what they do.

Posted by: Jonathan at October 17, 2004 11:54 PM

Fantastic article, Michael -- so clearly skewering the PC speech bullies of America.

But actually, they DO have a point. If terrorists DO get and use a nuke on Miami, or any American city, the crackdown could be horrifically more than the Patriot Act. [I don't know that it will be.]

The race is still on -- democracy in the Middle East first, or irresponsible use of a nuke. With
Leftists protesting democracy in Afghanistan, and against democracy in Iraq (but dishonestly, because they say they favor democracy, just not Bush's imposition of it), the Left makes it more likely that terrorists get and use nukes first.

The Kid could also be right "it's only gonna get worse." I think a landslide Bush victory is the main way it can start getting better. Good Iraq elections in January help.

You still seem to think that "Bush is incompetent". I'm wondering what evidence you believe justifies this. I think Bush IS a weak communicator, but with the press nearly controlled by Dem Party supporters, accepting Bush as being weak there isn't hard for me.

I mean, two ex-dictatorships in foreign policy.
Low inflation, low unemployment, low mortgage rates. The facts indicate great competence.

Unless the unspoken standard is Unreal Perfection.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at October 18, 2004 12:14 AM

Tiny typo "The immediately" should be They immediately -- in final med students quote.

(VDH had a typo in his article too, implying 80 was a Dukakis run.)

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at October 18, 2004 12:16 AM

Now there's a terrific slogan: America - Freer than Syria!

Posted by: Mork at October 18, 2004 02:34 AM

More evidence ( as if we needed any ) of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Left.

They can talk all they want about the Patriot Act and Ashcroft, Halliburton and Cheney, call Bush as "terrorist", etc. It is all name-calling and conspiracy theories without substantiation. These people are in denial, or they are merely stupid, or - I suspect - they know the game is up, and they are angry.

The bottom line is that intelligent people on the Left - to the extent they exist - now know there is no practical alternative to capitalism, but they still hate capitalism. So they are angry. Marxism has failed as a motivating ideology, so the Left turned to "deconstructionism", which is merely a nihilistic fantasy world destined to collapse on itself.

Maybe when the Left totally deflates, and the tenured 60s academics finally retire or die off, things will improve. Until then, it is quite entertaining to watch these people make total fools of themselves, which the rest of the world marches on past them.

Posted by: freeguy at October 18, 2004 02:40 AM


I love the way you speak of the local "Impeach Bush Headquarters". I take this to be a mere rhetorical device, but I know perfectly well of what you speak. And, no, Freeguy, this is NOT indicitive of the Left. It's the absolute irrational fringe of it, not the mainstream. The "deconstructionists" probably only make up 1 to 2% of the total population. It just so happens they're vastly overrepresented where Michael lives.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at October 18, 2004 02:46 AM


the absolute irrational fringe of it, not the mainstream.

Please provide some evidence to support this assertion. When I look at the Democrats, I see a party taken over by left-wing extremists. Their positions are increasingly becoming indistinguishable from the extreme left.

You see a fringe. I see a vanguard.

Posted by: HA at October 18, 2004 04:06 AM

America is a good wife people like to beat upon because they can. Makes them feel majestic and powerful.

Posted by: syn at October 18, 2004 05:02 AM

To paraphrase Jon Stewart:

You mean to tell me that we should take our cues for democracy from Syria?

Of course we're in a free country. Of course the Bush administration is nothing compared to Assad (Sr or Jr). Of course this sort of lefty talk would get them killed or tortured in a real totalitarian state.

But is that any reason not to oppose the erosions of freedoms that is in fact taking place? Doesn't the freedom that we do have include the right to express displeasure with the government? Isn't that in itself a fundamental protection against tyranny?

I agree that many lefties (and righties, let's face it) often tow the party line unthinkingly. But you seem to suggest that it's wrong to complain that your roomate finished the food in the refrigerator because people are starving in Africa. Or to ask your boss for a raise when there are homeless people on the streets.

Posted by: Tamouz at October 18, 2004 05:46 AM


Believe me, buddy. The post-modern deconstructionists are, by and in large, NOT DEMOCRATS. They loathe the Democrats, in fact, and don't consider themselves to be "liberal" (that is to say they reject contemporary liberalism from the left). I know this because I'm surrounded by them day in and day out in academia. That's where they reside: In academia. Their sway is pretty limited in the real world and they're actually not even that solid a majority in ivory-tower-land. I'd say maybe 60% at most (and increasingly counter-balanced by the rise of free-market-radical economists).

The question you might pose in response to this is, "well, do academics influence public policy makers," to which I would wholeheartedly agree they do. And I'd even go as far as to say that there is a wing of the Democratic Party somewhat influenced by their relativism. Allan Bloom makes this point pretty well, I believe, but exagerates the case to levels of absurdity. My point is, Tom Daschle is not Noam Chomsky. No mainstream Democrat has the same policy position on Israel as do the leftist deconstructionists. To say that they do is ridiculous and, I say again as I've said many times before, you probably need to get out and talk to more average folk once in a while. Democrats get their ideology from the Brookings Institute, not the ANSWER crowd.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at October 18, 2004 05:52 AM

Michael, this is an excellent piece. Thanks.

Here in the People's Republic of Brooklyn, I always feel intimidated any time I say anything in support of the Bush Administration. But all the people who would shout me down are convinced we live in an immanent police state.

Distinct lack of imagination, there.

Posted by: Mark Poling at October 18, 2004 06:04 AM

Discretion, it is said, is the better part of valor. I would say you made the right call.

Posted by: Ghost of Bruno at October 18, 2004 08:13 AM


Your post presents a good opportunity to comment on Matthew Yglesias' recent entry, "Threats," where he addresses a Hitchens piece and talks about the Putinization of America.

Would love to read a dialogue between you two on the matter.


Posted by: SoCalJustice at October 18, 2004 08:16 AM

this is NOT indicitive of the Left. It's the absolute irrational fringe of it, not the mainstream.

Maybe you should check Drum's blog and then report back. He's billed as a moderate lefty.

Posted by: Ron at October 18, 2004 08:18 AM

Superb. I've felt the exact same way since coming back from Uzbekistan.

I always felt myself kind of watching my back there, wondering if the next cop I encountered would try to shake me down. I also had to learn to read between the lines for subtle threats and intimidation and how to have eyes in the back of my head. I also became wary of trusting strangers who may have legitimately wanted to just be my friend or speaking freely with certain people.

I don't know that all of my fellow volunteers developed these skills or if I'm just well-suited to life in that type of environment, but it's tiring and it severely atomizes society. I'm sure glad that our government is nothing like political dramatists claim it is.

Posted by: Nathan Hamm at October 18, 2004 08:48 AM

I think some folks here (Mork, Tamouz) are missing the point, at least in part. Michael is not trying to say 'These people are lucky to live in a free society, they should be happy this isn't Syria! They should appreciate the freedoms they have!' The point is that the folks at the coffee shop probably wouldn't be able to draw any distinctions between the complaints they have about government power vis-a-vis the patriot act, and the type of things that occur regularly in Syria. It is equally likely they would be unable to even speak in anything but generalities if they where asked about their concerns about government power since 9/11. This is also why it would be pointless for Michael to engage them in conversation.

Let me know if you think I'm way off-base here.

Posted by: Semm at October 18, 2004 09:09 AM

Wonderful piece of writing, Michael!

I am always in favor of individual liberty over the government's need for control in the name of creatign an "orderly" society, HOWEVER, where we draw that line must shift from time to time - one could certainly make that argument that 9/11 was such a time.

The Bush-haters and committed leftists see the shift in the direction of the Patriot Act as a threat while ignoring the far more intrusive and totalitiarian government a Kerry-Soros-Edwards presidency would create.

Posted by: Nostrildogmas at October 18, 2004 09:17 AM

The Putinization of America feels like another instance of the tin-foil brigade going off the deep end.

To argue that we are anywhere near the level of free-speech repression as Russia is currently experiencing is (at best) demagoguery. Putin has taken control of virtually all television news outlets in the country for the sake of security.

Between MoveOn.org, the New York Times, PBS, Michael Moore one can hardly argue that this is a repressed state.

Posted by: bob at October 18, 2004 10:01 AM

I am always in favor of individual liberty over the government's need for control in the name of creatign an "orderly" society,

I agree.

HOWEVER, where we draw that line must shift from time to time - one could certainly make that argument that 9/11 was such a time.

Interesting, what brings youto that conclusion? What personal liberties can we give up that will stop such attacks in the future, and by who's authority shall we give up those rights?

I still have a devil of a time, figuring out why people think that the world changed on 9/11. Its the same world that it was before, there are exactly the same threats that there were before 9/11. In fact, all that I've seen 9/11 do, was create a huge emotional response, which politicans are still abusing to their own ends.

Al-Queda has been attacking us for years, 9/11 was just one more attack, it just happened to complete more successfully than the ones before.

I've been concerned about terrorism for quite a number of years, its nothing new or different. Hell, the exact method of attack that was used in 9/11 had been predicted by terror specialists long before it was successfully utilized by Bin Laden and Friends.

Did 9/11 change anything, other than the false sense of security that the less informed Americans had?

The government knew of the threat. Law enforcement knew of the threat, most people in the field of security knew that Terrorism was the next big threat (in fact, I had an argument a month before 9/11 with an Active Duty Marine who supported the Missle defense project, I argued that the threat was terrorism, not ICBM's). I sat in a meeting in 2000 with members of the FBI and major Corporate Security people. Ira Winkler gave the keynote address and focused on terrorism and corporate espinoge as the next major threats to America.

What did 9/11 change, except to break the rose-tinted glasses which Americans sported for decades?


Posted by: tosk at October 18, 2004 10:05 AM

Semm: The point is that the folks at the coffee shop probably wouldn't be able to draw any distinctions between the complaints they have about government power vis-a-vis the patriot act, and the type of things that occur regularly in Syria.

That is correct. They talk as if they did live in Syria. But if they were right they would be dead. They're idiots. Idiots who know little of their own country and even less of the world.

Mork doesn't miss the point. He knows exactly what I'm talking about. He's just bitter because he can't argue with me about it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 18, 2004 10:13 AM

I'm the first to admit that we've got it closer to right in America than anywhere else. But, I'll also readily admit that we have a long way to go, and the PATRIOTACT (in its current form) is the wrong way to head.

I've seen, firsthand, the PATRIOTACT used in situations that had nothing to o with terrorism or a terrorist threat. There are serious problems with its current form.

We do not now live in a Putinesque country, but that doesn't mean we may not, at some point in the future. I don't think GWB is planning to destroy American freedoms or anything like that. However, the possibility is always that we can lose our freedoms, our position must always be to maintain and gain freedom. To lose freedoms (even some small ones) is, in my opinion, a valid cause for concern.

Posted by: Ratatosk at October 18, 2004 10:29 AM


I agree. And hysterically crying Wolf! is the worst possible way to play freedom's watchdog. You know what happened to the boy who cried wolf, don't you? He was eaten. And it was his fault.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 18, 2004 10:36 AM
Here in the People's Republic of Brooklyn, I always feel intimidated any time I say anything in support of the Bush Administration. But all the people who would shout me down are convinced we live in an immanent police state.

I have the same trouble here. But, I have been able to hold off the knives by showing that I've done my homework while many (indeed most) of the BDS sufferers are running off dogma (few here saw the debates or have read the platforms or recent "No-WMD" report -- not even the executive summariess). Indeed, one person in my clique implied that I was intimidating since I could counter the fashionable bigotry with documented facts. I've also been branded a closet GOPper since only Republicans would not vote for Kerry.

Eyup... The feverswamp's gettin' pretty ripe. November's gonna be interesting.

Posted by: Bill at October 18, 2004 11:07 AM

'People's Republic of Brooklyn'

I live in the same city as MJT - a favorite local radio talk host of mine calls this city 'Moscow on the Willamette' - and after reading Michael's posting, you now know why.

Posted by: mike from oregon at October 18, 2004 11:16 AM


I agree (and I don't think that I'm crying Wolf).

There is a large difference between saying

"There is a real threat with some aspects of the PATRIOTACT. "


"There is reason for concern when an American citizen is unable to attend a Presidential speech without signing a loyalty oath."

and saying,

"Bush is Hitler, our world is gonna end"

The first statements, I think, are based on valid concerns and examination of the issues. The second statement is based on individuals who parrot instead of think. They hear "The PATRIOTACT is wrong..." and miss the "... in this subsection."

The parrotheads exist on both sides of all issues, because, I think, humans as a rules tend to follow instead of lead. Its easier to say "The Sky Is Falling", instead of going out to investigate Chicken Little's farm.

I personally think that we are headed for troubled times. No matter who is president, no matter what their stand is on the issues, America seems to be fast reaching a point in its growth that will demand a rennassince or revolution. I think that a large number of citizens are feeling that pressure, but misinterpting it as pressure from the evil government or pressure from the evil terrorists or pressure from the evil MSM.

As always, these are the ramblings of a squirrel and not necessarily any reflection of Truth, if such a thing exists.

Posted by: Ratatosk at October 18, 2004 12:05 PM

Tosk, I don't much like the PATRIOT act, but I think that it's a lot less of a threat to our society than the possiblity of a catastrophic terrorist attack. If the United States gets hit by a terrorist-delivered nuke, all bets are off on what the following ten years would look like. PATRIOT can be rolled back. Technology rolls on, and if we don't smother the culture of terroism now we will get burned later.

So I'm voting Democrat for the House and Senate (like that will make a difference in New York) and Republican for President (ditto). I trust the Democrats more to take care of my civil liberties at home, and the Republicans to protect me from threats from abroad. And if Kerry wins I'll hope to God you were the one with your priorities right.

Posted by: Mark Poling at October 18, 2004 01:54 PM

What did 9/11 change, except to break the rose-tinted glasses which Americans sported for decades?

If "break[ing] the rose-tinted glasses" isn't significant, what is?

Posted by: Jeff Licquia at October 18, 2004 02:02 PM

Mork doesn't miss the point. He knows exactly what I'm talking about. He's just bitter because he can't argue with me about it.

I'm bitter because I can't argue that the United States is less repressive that Syria? Or I'm bitter because I can't dispute your ability to intuit that two strangers in a coffee shop weren't just engaging in a little conversational hyperbole to pass the time but really believe that BushisHitler!

Give me a break.

This is post typical MJT - create a straw man on the fringe, and then insinuate that you're battling to reclaim the middle ground from it.

And meanwhile, continue to believe that all of the big questions of the day are to be solved simply through the application of the correct ideology, as if facts did not actually exist.

Posted by: Mork at October 18, 2004 03:45 PM

For someone who prattles on about big questions, Mork's posts are remarkably content-free. I mean, his first contribution to the conversation was "Now there's a terrific slogan: America - Freer than Syria!"

A distinct whiff of straw there...

Posted by: Mark Poling at October 18, 2004 04:18 PM

For someone who prattles on about big questions, Mork's posts are remarkably content-free.

Hey, Mark, I work with what I'm given!

Posted by: Mork at October 18, 2004 04:27 PM

I sense from the left a hysteria which defies reality but which needs its boogymen to rally around and incite each other on to glory. The Patriot act and Ashcroft's denial of freedoms are one of the big boogymen. There have been a few news articles with interesting uses of this phenomon in the recent months.

Their candidate's campaign threatens the TV media with lawsuits over running the Swift Boat Vets ads, yet they scream that free speech being repressed. Their candidate's campaign petitions the FCC to prohibit a for-TV documentary concerning Kerry's Viet Nam antics, yet they scream that free speech being repressed.

The drift seems to be do what you want to accuse your opposition of doing, and then accuse them of doing it. Is it that the left fears some evil strategy could catch them by surprise, and so they preemtively act it out themselves, and then must accuse the opposition less they lose the high ground? It certainly seems to be unfolding that way.

One last thing, I continuously hear about the repressive actions of the Patriot act, but never the mention of even one article of the act with which they are upset and would alter. Hmmm.

Posted by: sammy small at October 18, 2004 04:28 PM

Mork: This is post typical MJT - create a straw man on the fringe

Typical Mork response. I didn't create those straw men. I sat next to them over the weekend. I hear the same bufoonery every day where I live.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 18, 2004 04:30 PM

Michael, aliens like Mork are Gawdz way of telling us we're not so dumb after all.

And when you gonna write that first book?

(Oh, and good luck, etc. in Libya.)

Posted by: Jim F. at October 18, 2004 04:47 PM


Eloquent and succinct. You sum up the reality of the world in a few short sentences and expose the fools of the left for what they are. I wish everyone who rails about Bush's "police state" could experience actual repression for just a day or so.

Posted by: Doug at October 18, 2004 07:28 PM

Great post, Michael. As somebody said earlier, discretion is the better part of valor and getting involved with that particular conversation would likely be pointless.

As one of those evil academics, let me just say that I, for one, make every attempt to give my students the tools to think and make their own decisions rather than making those decisions for them. For this I get a lot of resistance from students who find it easier to automatically resist any argument that runs counter to what they already know to be "true" rather than actually think things through. Sigh. I got about 12 or so weeks left to work on them.

Posted by: BeckyJ at October 18, 2004 08:14 PM

I didn't create those straw men. I sat next to them over the weekend. I hear the same bufoonery every day where I live.

The point, Michael, is that you only see straw men. You tend overwhelmingly to engage with the most extreme, ideological, opposing views in preference to those of moderate, rational and empirical thinkers.

Posted by: Mork at October 18, 2004 08:28 PM


I argue with John Kerry as often as I argue with the wing-nuts. Is it okay if I argue with John Kerry, isn't it? Or is he a strawman, too?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 18, 2004 09:36 PM

I argue with John Kerry as often as I argue with the wing-nuts. Is it okay if I argue with John Kerry, isn't it? Or is he a strawman, too?

Well, John Kerry is a politician in the middle of a campaign. It's not like he is trying to be fair or objective in his criticisms of Bush, or, for that matter, present the most candid and unadorned perspective possible of what will happen if he is elected President. So, in that sense, the way you "argue" with decontextualized quotes from Kerry speeches as if they were the sum total of available information on a likely Kerry Administration, you are frequently arguing with a straw-man.

You don't, for example, treat Bush in the same way: you let his more intelligent surrogates and supporters do the talking for him.

To summarize, your links generally fall into one of two categories: arguments opposed to your views that are either extreme or self-evidently flawed, and pieces in support of your views that you think are particularly cogent or persuasive.

What you don't ever (or at least very rarely - I'm sure you can come up with an example or two) do is tackle a well-argued piece that argues an opposing viewpoint and explain where and why you agree and disagree with it.

Which is fine. It's your blog, and maybe you see your mission as creating a club for the already-persuaded, like Glenn Reynolds or Atrios. However, you're never going to persuade anyone that way, and it seems to me that it's a big reason why your comment threads have dwindled into a head butting exercise between the choir and those few of us perverse souls who enjoy pointing out the disconnect between your ideology and reality.

Posted by: Mork at October 18, 2004 09:55 PM

There is something you could say to those strangers at the coffeeshop that might get them to think:

"Excuse me, gentlemen. I'm with the secret police. Show me your IDs, please."

Of course they wouldn't believe you -- and when they say so, follow up with:

"And how do you know I'm not a secret policeman?"

Posted by: Michael Brazier at October 19, 2004 01:18 AM

Michael B, maybe a great line -- certainly an anti-police state macho flash. Worthy of a try when you're leaving, anyway. Have YOU ever tried it?

Mork (without Mindy is ork), I'd guess MJT is far, far more persuasive than you've ever been. When do YOU ever use fully contextualized quotes from Kerry to promote any of his policies? I admit to often skipping your comments (too often content lite), so I might have missed some.

You seem to epitomize the Unreal Perfection standard I am contemptuous of -- Bush is bad with too much here (bad result), too little of the same here (bad result) -- and these bad results are self evident since they're not perfect.

Or MJT fails your unspecified critique. Where is the sample alternative, which can be used as a sample standard from which a comparison can be drawn?

See volokh for a good link on why small gov't libertarian types should vote Kerry. I'm one of those kind, except this year the need to push out Arab dictators is more important. It would be fine with me if the Dems, in total opposition, see the dangers of a big gov't -- when the other side is in control.

But you offer so little except throw-away snarkiness, it's barely worth my own time to respond. (Of course, you're far better able to get a rise out of MJT than I am; maybe I'm jealous?)

What's your guess about the chances of Iran getting nukes in the next 4 years?
Under Pres. Kerry, under Pres. Bush?

[for me, 50% Kerry, 10% Bush]
This is the most content FULL question I can think of, yet the fierce opposition to quantifying a belief about the future is just a part of human nature that I live with.

What's the chance of a balanced budget?
60% under Kerry, 1% under Bush -- Reps in power will USE their power to spend to help their friends get rich. I don't like it. I wish the Dems accepted booting Saddam as really good, but now they can do a better job AND they won't suck up to amoral big (wealth creating) business. Too late for that message in 2004.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at October 19, 2004 03:13 AM


The post-modern deconstructionists are, by and in large, NOT DEMOCRATS. They loathe the Democrats, in fact, and don't consider themselves to be "liberal"

Well who are they voting for? If they vote at all, it will be for Kerry. These people are cynics who loathe everything. They will vote for what they loathe least. And they loathe GWB most of all because they see him as a simpleton. That is his real crime. They are voting for Kerry because they think Bush is an idiot. Bush doesn't share their worship of sophistry above all else. They don't give a shit about either candidate's policies beyond what is necessary to rationalize their vote.

You are like a fish who can't see the water. John Kerry is the very model of a post-modern man and he is running a model post-modern campaign. All of his campaign rhetoric deconstructionist demagoguery.

I've said many times before, you probably need to get out and talk to more average folk once in a while. Democrats get their ideology from the Brookings Institute, not the ANSWER crowd.

That was a joke right? I've got news for you. Most average folk have have never even heard of the Brookings Institute. And I'm the one who needs to talk to more average folk? Get real. Look, most average folk vote for Democrats because FDR and JFK still give them a warm and fuzzy feeling, or because their union bosses tell them to. And it is NOT average folk who are setting the agenda for the Democratic party. The tenured trust-fund socialists are.

Don't tell me I need to talk to regular folk. I AM regular folk. I grew up in Greenbelt Maryland in a two-bedroom townhouse which was built during the Roosevelt Administration in 1937 as the first planned community in the nation. I attended Eleanor Roosevelt Senior High School. Where I grew up, FDR was no mere President. He was almighty God himself. Greenbelt is a blue-collar Berkeley.


Take a look the Leninesque sculptures on my Elementary school:


Posted by: HA at October 19, 2004 04:38 AM

The naivete of many on the left makes their arguments fundamentally unserious. No one who demonstrates an ahistorical and badly skewed perspective of what happens under dictatorships and repressive regimes deserves to have their arguments taken seriously. Nor do these people have any sense of the relative weight of various realities--thus, Cheney's ties with Halliburton are of equal importance with the existence of a brutal fascist dictatorship that flourished for 35 years under Saddam, with the shameful complicity of the West, the Arab world, the U.N., and yes, the U.S.

It is the failure to acknowledge the fundamental corruption and unsustainability of the status quo ante--give the world your oil and do what you will with your own people--that fatally undermines the peace in our time crowd opposed to the war. However imperfectly, Bush has changed that dynamic, hopefully for good. Supporting democratic governments in the repressive middle East is exactly where the U.S. should be. Bush's speech last year mentioned this transformation explicitly, and I support Bush not because I think it's wonderful to occupy Iraq, but because the old paradigm must be smashed definitively if anything more promising is to grow in its midst. If you look hard, unmistakable signs of real progress are emerging from the chaos: Libya, protests in Syria and Saudi Arabia, Iran under pressure, the U.N. growing a spine on Syrian sanctions, voices of discontent at the fundamental corruption of Palestinian leadership, elements in Pakistan reconsidering thier short-sighted support for the madrassah jihadis, free elections in Afghanistan, and gradually growing resolve and distaste in the West as a whole for lame explanations regarding the acceptability of terrorism as a menas to political ends.

One need not travel to Syria or North Korea to get a sense, at least imaginatively, about how degrading it is to live under a totalitarian regime, and to get an equally vivid sense of how lucky we are to be able to exercise our freedoms. Those guys in the coffeeshop, if they were serious, could read "Aquariums of Pyongyang" or the Iraqi blogs, or read Jasper Becker's "Hungry Ghosts" about the catastrophic manmande famine in China from 1958-1962, and on and on. Anyone with any sense of intellectual curiousity should have the werewithal to learn about what they do not know. If they're not readers, they could easily befriend someone who lived through the Cultural Revolution, or emigrated from Eastern Europe, or a student who has lived through the chaos of Nigeria, of the repression of apartheid South Africa, or Burma, or... I'm sure there are plenty of people in Portland who fit this description, as there are in NYC. This gets back to Michael's theseis that many liberal elemnets int he U.S. are fundamentally uninterested inthe rest of the world, and the people who live in it. This, in turn, is the mark of a movement that has ruyn out of intellectual steam and is resting on past glories--the civil rights movement, the opposition to Vietnam, etc. I hope the Dems can wrench themselves out of the 1960's and into the 21st century, because I don't want to cede all the developments in the country to the Republicans and their dangerous right-wing elements--but a complete overhaul is certainly required. After all, if Kerry wasn't such a miserable candidate, I think Bush would be far behind in the polls at this point.

Posted by: Daniel Calto at October 19, 2004 06:14 AM

Daniel Calto

Please explain this 'dangerous right-wing elements' of which you speak.

Far as I can tell, John Kerry, the Democrat Party candidate is the only one who is CAMPAIGNING IN CHURCH!

Fer crying out loud this Orwellian crap spewed by the Democrat Party is getting on my nerves.

By the way, tell the Democrat Party to stop spreading their fearmongering lies about the draft.

Posted by: syn at October 19, 2004 08:08 AM

Uh.. I gotta take Grant on this one, HA.

I've said many times before, you probably need to get out and talk to more average folk once in a while. Democrats get their ideology from the Brookings Institute, not the ANSWER crowd.

That was a joke right? I've got news for you. Most average folk have have never even heard of the Brookings Institute.

I'd bet you could say the same about Cato and Hoover. But the above is correct. I know a lot of Democrats would read The New Republic and even the saner parts of The Nation, who once defended Martha Stewart as businesswoman, while not wanting to line their bird cages with Z-Mag (once they've flipped through it - few have read that one compared to TNR or Nation). The only reason the current batch of Democrat has the stench of ANSWER on them is because they got too close to the skunk while in the heat of Bush Derangement Syndrome. (However, they should still be held accountable for their lack of good judgement.)

But today's Democrat isn't as deep into Feverswamp as the Noamistas, it's just got a bad case of cooties. However, if they keep wallowing in BDS they may find themselves with more than just an embarassing itch.

Posted by: Bill at October 19, 2004 09:14 AM

Semm: Your point is well taken.

Michael: If this is what you were trying to say, then I did in fact miss your point. Your eyeball roll has been registered and appreciated.

Of course: free speech includes stupid speech. From all sides (and as my credibility is shot, I won't bother with examples).

Posted by: Tamouz at October 19, 2004 10:42 AM

it seems to me that it's a big reason why your comment threads have dwindled

Is this the new put down meme? Seriously, this is perhaps the third time in as many days I've seen commenters sink to discussing comment thread length/quality as a measure of a blog's quality (although that's not exactly the word I'm seeking).

Adorn me with a Karnak if you must MJT, but I'd guess that the comments dying down to enough kudos to keep you positive about your writing and enough polite challengers to keep it interesting politically is just where you were hoping this blog might get to in time.

Posted by: crionna at October 19, 2004 01:05 PM

I leave for Libya in five weeks. I doubt I'll have this experience there.

Hey, if your preferred candidate wins, we can all not have this experience anymore. Won't that be fun?

Posted by: Kimmitt at October 24, 2004 02:54 AM


Please clarify. Are you saying that you expect that Bush's coming second term will mark the beginning of a truly oppressive police state in the United States? I thought you were smarter than that.

Posted by: triticale at October 25, 2004 05:29 PM

Hey, I'd never say anything like that. I took the Bush Pledge at the mass rally.

Posted by: Kimmitt at October 29, 2004 11:32 PM

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