Category Archives: Richard Cohen

Montage sequence

A while ago I added a category called "narrativism."  This involves pushing narratives about people or events as authentic accounts while knowing such narratives are genre-drive stories, driven by ideology, laziness, or aesthetics, and therefore likely misleading when taken as biography and therefore not worthy of a discourse such as ours ought to be.  There was an example of this yesterday, today another:

Obama's lack of a bonded — as opposed to an associative — constituency is costing him. The political left is carping because it cannot be sure he is one of them. The right carps also, but it alone knows that Obama is not one of them. He doesn't go way back with the unions — he doesn't go way back with anything — and the Jews are having second thoughts.

In a conventional movie, the hero has to change. Something has to happen — the moment when character is revealed. Maybe he loses the girl and has to get her back. In politics, something similar is supposed to happen. You've got to have your PT-109, your Sunrise at Campobello, your walk on the beach with Billy Graham, your combat epiphany in Vietnam, your impoverished childhood, your peanut-farming family, your mission work abroad, your haberdashery that goes bankrupt.

Obama has those moments — abandoned by his father, biracial in a world that prefers things neat, raised in Indonesia — but they are not cited as life-changing events. None of them, at any rate, are given much importance in the documentary. Even the bitter primary fight with Hillary Clinton — all that ugly stuff about race and Bill Clinton, of all people, being accused of playing the race card — could have been happening to someone else. Obama observes his own life. He's not a participant. He calls Hillary to congratulate her on some insignificant win. "Bye bye," he says without bitterness as he snaps his phone shut. He could have been talking to anyone.

Does any of this matter, or is it merely interesting — themes for a columnist ducking Afghanistan for yet another week? I am not sure. If Obama ends the deepest recession since the Great Depression, if he enacts health-care reform, if he succeeds in Afghanistan, then his presidency will have been remarkable, maybe even great — the triumph of intellect. The man will be his own movement.

But if he fails in all or most of that, it will be because it is not enough to be the smartest person in the room. Warmth and commitment matter, too — a driving sense of conviction, the fulsome embrace of causes and not just issues. That is not something Obama has yet shown. See the movie.

That's Richard Cohen.  He's talking about a movie about Obama, not Obama the person, but it's not clear to him, or to us, that he's aware that he's aware of the difference.

Those Hollywood Liberals

Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, complains today that maybe the conservative culture warrior types have a point about those Hollywood liberals.  Some them, so it seems, seems to have come to the defense of Roman Polanski, the Polish director (of the Pianist, among other films) whose his wife (Sharon Tate) was murdered by the Manson gang and who some years later pleaded guilty to sex with a drugged and drunken 13-year old.  Prior to sentencing, Polanski fled the country, and has since been living in Europe (pretty well, by all accounts).  Unfortunately for him, this week he was picked up by the Swiss Police.

Robinson, I think, ought to look closer to home for people with lax morals.  Here is his own colleague Richard Cohen, on the Polanski case:

It ought not to matter that Polanski is a Holocaust survivor. (His mother died at Auschwitz.) After all, countless others survived the Holocaust without committing crimes of any sort, especially ones involving moral depravity.

It ought not to matter, either, that in 1969 Polanski’s wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was horrifically murdered by the Manson family when she was eight months pregnant. This, too, does not excuse moral depravity, although it gives one pause. It ought to give one pause. (Polanski underwent a 42-day psychiatric examination following his 1977 arrest.)

And it ought not to matter that Polanski is a gifted artist. In fact, it ought to be held against him. He seduced — if that can possibly be the word — the 13-year-old Samantha Geimer with all the power and authority of a 44-year-old movie director who could make her famous. If this did not impress the girl, it must have impressed her mother. She permitted what was supposed to be a photo shoot.

There are two extenuating circumstances in Polanski’s case. The first is time. It has, after all, been over 30 years and Polanski, now 76, has been clean all that time — no crimes alleged, no crimes convicted. More importantly, his victim pleads his case. Geimer says, more or less, enough is enough. She does not excuse what Polanski did and does not forgive what he has done, but it is time for us all to move on. “He made a terrible mistake, but he’s paid for it,” she said some years back.

Time does not minimize the crime, which in its details is creepy, but jail would no longer serve a purpose. The victim and the victimizer are united — they both want clemency. The girl is now a woman, and the man is old, spending his dotage making fools of his champions, who cannot distinguish between sexual freedom and sexual assault. Let Polanski go — but first let me at him.

He forgot to mention the "booze" and the "drugs."  And here's another Post columnist Anne Applebaum:

Here are some of the facts: Polanski's crime — statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl — was committed in 1977. The girl, now 45, has said more than once that she forgives him, that she can live with the memory, that she does not want him to be put back in court or in jail, and that a new trial will hurt her husband and children. There is evidence of judicial misconduct in the original trial. There is evidence that Polanski did not know her real age. Polanski, who panicked and fled the U.S. during that trial, has been pursued by this case for 30 years, during which time he has never returned to America, has never returned to the United Kingdom., has avoided many other countries, and has never been convicted of anything else. He did commit a crime, but he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers' fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film.

"Professional stigma" is but a few short words away from "Oscar."  My question at this point is whether there is some kind of prohibition keeping one Post writer from criticizing another.  One would expect, after all, that friends and colleagues (Hollywood liberals!) would rally around Polanski; they run in the same circles, have worked with him and known him.  Their defense of him ought to be seen through that lens.  Justifying such behavior, however, as a newspaper columnist seems rather more worthy of condemnation.

Vengeance is Richard Cohen’s

Few places lend themselves to blood lust like the pages of our nations op-ed pages.  Want to know why so many have been thrust asunder in Iraq?  Go back to the winter of 2003, and read the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.  You'll find Thomas Friedman, noted Middle East expert, advancing the notion that the Middle East needs to be slapped around a bit with a war or that they need to see the mocking genitalia of American servicemen and women

Richard Cohen, on the other hand, is a kind of poor-man's Tom Friedman:

And yet revenge also suggests a proper concern for the dead. The people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, cannot simply be dismissed, erased — as if they had not been killed in a huge crime. It's not just that bin Laden is still at large. So are the Taliban members who sheltered him and stayed with him after Sept. 11. This should not be complicated: The killers of Americans ought to pay for what they've done. It is good foreign policy.

Perhaps I could rephrase a bit: the killers of Americans, and people near the killers of Americans, and future Americans who die in future revenge attacks for our very general notion of revenge, ought to pay for what they've done.   

The ____r is now the ____d

Richard Cohen watches too many movies.  For the basis of his op-ed on torture is the ticking time bomb scenario:

Call him Ishmael.

Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing — no, anxious — to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives — that they will be killed or sexually abused.

He knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line — that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.

This is really beginning to sound like a joke: the uber terrorist (played, believably, by Maori actor, Cliff Curtis), who knows our legal system and its "rights" so that his sneering makes Cohen's blood run cold.  What about that guy, he wonders, what about that guy?  

Well, I'll tell you what about that guy.  He is the basis of Cohen's "hard case" moral lesson.  A "hard case" should you wonder is a notion used by philosophers of law to think about the limits of general rules and such.  But it also sounds like the title of a legal-themed adult movie, which is closer to Cohen's point anyway.  Here's the moral lesson:

This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?

Deep thinking.  What if blowing up a planet deep in space with creatures uniquely able to suffer pain infinitely saved your child?  Would you do it?  Well, would you?

In case you weren't shocked by your own willingness to torture people to save "many lives" or "your baby," maybe you'll be impressed by a little bit of absurd moral equivalence:

Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to see whether any of the CIA's interrogators broke the law. Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators — they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail — a wee bit of torture right there. No CIA interrogator can feel safe. The interrogators are about to be interrogated. 

No seriously, I didn't alter that at all.  He really wrote that.  We have reached new levels of badness here.  Skipping to the end:

The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions — torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.  

First you get a little bit of the "who's to say. . . in this complex modern world of ours" argument–call it the self-serving pseudo skeptical argument.  Then Cohen converts it into a full-tilt "both sides" are wrong, there must be some middle ground.  Top this off with an almost full tilt ever since 9/11 I've been enraged by Chappaquiddick

Slippery McCoy

The very idea of hate crimes laws drives some people deeply into the forest of confusion, where they forget that speech and belief is punished all of the time, and that doing so is not some kind of violation of one's constitutional rights.  One's constitutional rights have some common sense limits: I cannot shout "fire" in a crowded theater, I cannot say (as someone once said to me–seriously) "I'm going to put a cap in your ass."  Unable to countenance such distinctions, Richard Cohen, some kind of liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes an extremely confused op-ed wherein he rejects the entire idea of hate crimes legislation.  The whole piece hinges on the following snippet in the Senate discussion of hate crimes laws:

 "A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected."

Let's do some googling before we read Cohen.  And when we do, we find that the passage he cites is not the definition of a hate crime, but rather a "finding."  Here is the definition:

the term “hate crime” has the meaning given such term in section 280003(a) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (28 U.S.C. 994 note).

Ok, so now more googling:

(a) DEFINITION- In this section, `hate crime' means a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.

Cohen ignores that–but refers instead to the "findings" of the new 2009 bill, and attacks that as if it were the very definition and sole motivation for their being hate crimes legislation.  That makes the rest of the argument a hollow man–in that he attacks an argument no actually makes.  He writes,

He [James von Brunn] also proves the stupidity of hate-crime laws. A prime justification for such laws is that some crimes really affect a class of people. The hate-crimes bill recently passed by the Senate puts it this way: "A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected." No doubt. But how is this crime different from most other crimes? 

How is "pre-meditated murder" different from "unpremeditated murder"?  How is killing a police officer in the line of duty different from killing a rival mafioso?  Why is it especially heinous to commit offenses against children and the elderly?  Not all murders are the same, sometimes they have special conditions (premeditation), sometimes they have special victims (police, children, politicians).  None of this is unusual or strange.  

Cohen's argument stinks in other ways.  He alleges a slippery slope without attempting to establish it.

The real purpose of hate-crime laws is to reassure politically significant groups — blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays, etc. — that someone cares about them and takes their fears seriously. That's nice. It does not change the fact, though, that what's being punished is thought or speech. Johns is dead no matter what von Brunn believes. The penalty for murder is severe, so it's not as if the crime is not being punished. The added "late hit" of a hate crime is without any real consequence, except as a precedent for the punishment of belief or speech. Slippery slopes are supposedly all around us, I know, but this one is the real McCoy. 

Criminal acts of speech, thought, expression (and even religion) get punished all of the time.  It's not that hard to draw relevant distinctions (there will certainly be hard cases, but that's what the judiciary is for).

This op-ed is too full of confusion for one post, so I'll stop with the following:

I doubt that any group of drunken toughs is going to hesitate in their pummeling of a gay individual or an African American or a Jew on account of it being a hate crime.

Um–I really doubt this, but it also seems irrelevant.  

 

Iron Justice

Today the Washington Post features a column by the "liberal" Richard Cohen.  He writes:

In the meantime, Sotomayor will do, and will do very nicely, as a personification of what ails the American left. She is, as everyone has pointed out, in the mainstream of American liberalism, a stream both intellectually shallow and preoccupied with the past. We have a neat summary of it in the recent remarks of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who said he wanted a Supreme Court justice "who will continue to move the court forward in protecting . . . important civil rights." He cited the shooting of a gay youth, the gang rape of a lesbian and the murder of a black man — in other words, violence based on homophobia and racism. Yes. But who nowadays disagrees? 

No really.  His problem, so it seems, is that Sotomayor may be boring (unlike Scalia):

From Sotomayor, though, came not one whimper of regret about the current legality of capital punishment. Innocent men may die, the cause of humanism may stall, but she will follow the jot and tittle of the law, with which she has no quarrel anyway. Little wonder moderate conservative senators are enamored.

Contrast her approach to this and other problems with what Antonin Scalia has done with issues close to his own heart. Where in all of Sotomayor's opinions, speeches and now testimony is there anything approaching Scalia's dissent in Morrison v. Olson, in which, alone, he not only found fault with the law creating special prosecutors but warned about how it would someday be abused? "Frequently an issue of this sort will come before the court clad, so to speak, in sheep's clothing," he wrote. "But this wolf comes as a wolf."

My admiration for Scalia is constrained by the fact that I frequently believe him to be wrong. But his thinking is often fresh, his writing is often bracing; and, more to my point, he has no counterpart on the left. His liberal and moderate brethren wallow in bromides; they can sometimes outvote him, but they cannot outthink him.

It's not Iron Chef, it's the Supreme Court of the United States: boring yet principled predictability and meticulous correctness matter.

The average person must think

Richard Cohen, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, has struggled with some very basic logical notions.  Today is no exception.  Today again he puts on his contrarian hat and accuses a lot of unnamed people–admirers of Sonia Sotomayor (Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court) of elitism and racism.  He writes:

With the nose of a trained columnist, I detect the whiff of elitism-cum-racism emanating from the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The whiff does not come — Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich notwithstanding — from Sotomayor's own statements; nor does it come from her controversial decision upholding race-based affirmative action. It comes, instead, from the general expression of wow about her background. Imagine, someone from the projects is a success!

"Nobody expects you to be chosen someday for the Supreme Court when your father was a welder with a third-grade education," wrote Richard Lacayo in Time magazine. He is right — the expectations are all otherwise. You can see them on display in many of the reports about Sotomayor's background. She was raised in public housing projects. She grew up in the Bronx, which the average person must think of as a particularly nasty part of Mumbai, and she is, finally and incriminatingly, Puerto Rican. This is all, apparently, very hard to imagine.

With the nose of a trained nonsequitarian, I detect a whiff of it-does-not-follow here.  Cohen's only evidence of a "general expression of wow" is some guy writing in Time and his own "the average person must think."  He then goes on to debunk this not-established-to-exist general expression by running through a list of unnusually successful (and therefore completely unrepresentative) people (for any background) who come from public housing projects (Mike Tyson, Jay-Z, Ken Auletta, etc.).  No one can plausibly deny the empirical possibility of being a success in any endeavor despite having been born in the projects.  But what wows people are the probabilities.  As Cohen ought to know, the expectations for people in the projects are indeed very different, not out of racisim, but out of a realistic sense of how one is successful in America.  I doubt it is really elitism to think that.

White whine

White men can't catch a break these days.  First, the white guy lost the Presidential election, now the winner gets to appoint someone to the Supreme Court.  Though Obama has so far said nothing, this hasn't stopped speculation of the weirdest variety:

 

That's a stock image of an average white guy in a tie (from istockphoto.com), not, as one might have imagined, some shunned potential Supreme Court nominee.  Now Richard Cohen–liberal columnist in the Washington Post–expresses his deep concern over the fate of white men under the impossible burden of affirmative action.  He writes:

As the time approaches for President Obama to choose a successor to Justice David Souter, the term "litmus test" will be heard throughout the land. The White House will deny applying any such thing, but the nominee will undoubtedly be chosen according to where she stands on abortion, unions and other issues beloved by liberals. This is fine with me, but what I want to know is where she stands on Frank Ricci. He's a firefighter.  

What follows is a detailed description of Ricci's case (recently argued before the Supreme Court)–how he's been discriminated against on account of his being white, and so forth.  That may be, and by Cohen's very sorry description of the case, it looks absurd.  But as a general rule absurd arguments do not make it all the way to the Supreme Court, so one might wonder.  But that's not the point anyway.  Cohen seems to take this particularly absurd case as representative for how affirmative action needs to end, since, of course, racism is over and so forth (because "For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this.").

It's worse than this, however, because affirmative action (as demonstrated by Cohen's extreme example) is profoundly unfair in principle (like trying to "square a circle."):

Liberalism, a movement in which I hold a conditional membership, would be wise to get wise to what has happened. Blatant affirmative action always entailed a disturbing and ex post facto changing of the rules — oops, you're white. Sorry, not what we wanted. As a consequence, it was not racists who were punished but all whites. There is no need to cling to such a remedy anymore. There is, though, every need to retain and strengthen anti-discrimination laws, especially in areas such as fire departments, where racial discrimination was once endemic. Sufficient progress has been made to revert to treating individuals as individuals. After all, it is not some amorphous entity called "whites" who will suffer: It is un-lieutenant Ricci.

Bill Clinton tried to square the circle of affirmative action in his "Mend It, Don't End It" speech of 1995. It was a moving and eloquent address in which he recounted his region's history, reminding us of the depth and ferocity of racism in the South and elsewhere. Trouble is, the New Haven case proves that affirmative action was not mended at all. It remains noble in its ends and atrocious in its means, and it now provides Obama the chance to use his own family's history — indeed his own history — to show why it ought to conclude.

Affirmative action was never meant to "punish" racists by excluding them from employment.  This underscores Cohen's failure to grasp both the concept of affirmative and the facts of the case he discusses (his only reference is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by two conservative think-tankers).  One can found more background on the relevant legal questions here.  Without the necessary and obvious context, Cohen's ranting sounds a bit like this.