2011 - %3, January

Bowdlerizing Huck

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 3:25 PM EST

NewSouth Books plans to release an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which Mark Twain's 219 repetitions of the word "nigger" are replaced by "slave." Doug Mataconis is unhappy about this. Minor offensive scenes can be removed from movies that are aired on TV "without taking away from the central themes of the story," he says, but:

This is not the case with either Sawyer or Finn, both books are set in a time period when racial tensions were a central part of life and are based, to a large degree, on the racially prejudices that Twain himself encountered as a child growing up in Missouri. This is especially true of Huckleberry Finn where, despite the fact that “the n-word” appears 219 times, it’s fairly obvious that Twain is condemning racial prejudice and that one of the central themes of the book is the process by which Huck discovers that the things he’d been taught by society by blacks were wrong, and that his companion him was, in fact, an heroic figure. Twain’s use of a word that, even in his time, was meant to be insulting and demeaning, was deliberate and removing it because of “sensitivities” seems to me to detract significantly from the overall power of the novel.

I think I'd agree with Doug in nearly every other case. But the problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don't teach it at all. It's simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I'd bowdlerize. After all, the original text will remain available, and teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to. (Though even that's probably difficult.) And frankly, I doubt that the power of the novel is compromised all that much for 17-year-olds by doing this. In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it's entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don't think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader's emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that's exactly what it does.

In any case, the only realistic alternative is that Huckleberry Finn vanishes from high schools and becomes a book taught solely at the university level. Maybe that's better. But I doubt it.

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Guantanamo and Indefinite Detention

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 2:13 PM EST

Dafna Linzer at ProPublica reported yesterday that President Obama may be planning to challenge a provision in a military spending bill that makes it harder for him to shut down Guantanamo and transfer its prisoners elsewhere. This will be an interesting confrontation, but it's also a bit of a sideshow: the prisoners themselves, after all, have no real reason to care whether they're held forever in Cuba or Michigan. But that's pretty much what Obama intends to do. Amos Guiora and Laurie Blank take him to task for this in the LA Times today:

The Obama administration now intends to issue an executive order establishing indefinite detention without trial for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. This decision will formalize this violation of basic rights. Denying individual accountability will now be official U.S. policy and law.

....Those who argue that indefinite detention accords with the treatment of prisoners of war gloss over two key distinctions: POWs are held in protective custody and released at the end of hostilities, whereas post-9/11 detainees are held in de facto punitive detention and terrorism has no end to trigger release. Those who want to argue that we are at war with Al Qaeda and other terrorists fail to consider that the law of war and principles of morality in armed conflict do not countenance such an approach, where detainees face the prospect of generational, even lifetime, detention without charge or trial.

Indefinite detention completely undermines the basic notion of individual accountability, thus constituting a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The United States, uncertain whether the detainees are criminals or more akin to fighters in an armed conflict, must still grant them the basic right to a day in court. Without that, individual accountability is simply eliminated, effectively saying that the adjudication of individual liability is burdensome, perhaps even irrelevant.

A few days ago Adam Serwer wrote a pretty balanced explanation of Obama's plan, which you should read if you want to understand the details. But I sometimes wonder how much any of this matters in practice. After all, what happens to these detainees if they get a trial and are found not guilty? It would be political suicide to release them within the United States, and no president would ever try. But what other country would take them? For the vast majority of these detainees, my guess is: none of them. So even if they got a full and fair trial, and some of them failed to be convicted, they'd end up staying in prison anyway. It would be called something else, and possibly they'd be allowed more privileges than other detainees, but the odds are that they'd be locked up nonetheless.

I'm not making an argument for indefinite detention here. I'm just wondering what, in practice, happens if we eliminate it and give everyone trials. Would anything really change?

Do We Really Want Better Intelligence?

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 1:29 PM EST

Foreign Policy magazine is running a package called "Unconventional Wisdom," and Stephen Sestanovich's contribution is to tell us that conventional wisdom debunking isn't what it used to be. Anne Applebaum then proves his point with a piece about the ongoing idiocy of TSA and the Department of Homeland Security:

Terrorists have been stopped since 2001 and plots prevented, but always by other means. After the Nigerian "underwear bomber" of Christmas Day 2009 was foiled, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed "the system worked" — but the bomber was caught by a passenger, not the feds. Richard Reid, the 2001 shoe bomber, was undone by an alert stewardess who smelled something funny. The 2006 Heathrow Airport plot was uncovered by an intelligence tip. Al Qaeda's recent attempt to explode cargo planes was caught by a human intelligence source, not an X-ray machine. Yet the TSA responds to these events by placing restrictions on shoes, liquids, and now perhaps printer cartridges.

Given this reality — and given that 9/11 was, above all, a massive intelligence failure — wouldn't we be safer if the vast budgets of TSA and its partners around the world were diverted away from confiscating nail scissors and toward creating better information systems and better intelligence? Imagine if security officers in Amsterdam had been made aware of the warnings the underwear bomber's father gave to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja. Or, for that matter, if consular officers had prevented him from receiving a visa in the first place.

This is conventional wisdom these days, as near as I can tell, so no points for originality. But it raises a question: we all hate TSA's physical security procedures, but the fact is that we don't much like the idea of tightening up TSA's non-physical operations either. Several years ago, Congress told TSA to screen passengers more tightly, and the result was expanded watch lists, expanded no-fly lists, and the proposed CAPPS system, which was designed to identify all passengers and cross reference them with government records and commercial databases to produce a "risk score" that indicated the appropriate screening level for each traveler. Needless to say, everyone screamed about this, so it was scrapped and replaced by a more modest system called Secure Flight.

But if physical security is mostly eliminated, it seems inevitable that it will be replaced with beefed up intelligence and surveillance operations, as well as beefed up tracking of individuals a la CAPPS. But if that's what we get, I wonder if we're going to like it any better?

Bank of America's WikiLeaks Defense Fail

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 1:02 PM EST

On Sunday, the New York Times reported on Bank of America's master plan for blunting the damage from an anticipated WikiLeaks release of top executives' emails. The bank's strategy includes outside consultants, massive document reviews, and what the Huffington Post characterized as a "counterespionage" team. What the Times doesn't mention (although it was reported last month) is that Bank of America's defense also includes an effort to make sure no one on the internet makes fun of the bank's head honchos. How is Bank of America going to inure itself to the cutting jabs of internet flamethrowers? Well, just read:

According to Domain Name Wire, the US bank has been aggressively registering domain names including its board of Directors' and senior executives' names followed by "sucks" and "blows".

For example, the company registered a number of domains for CEO Brian Moynihan: BrianMoynihanBlows.com, BrianMoynihanSucks.com, BrianTMoynihanBlows.com, and BrianTMoynihanSucks.com.

The wire report counted hundreds of such domain name registrations on 17 December alone. They were acquired through an intermediary that frequently registers domain names on behalf of large companies, says the report.

I'm surprised this story hasn't received more attention outside of the financial media. Even Bank of America, a company that regularly gets hustled by the smarter, cooler kids on Wall Street, shouldn't be dumb enough to waste its money like this. Are they serious right now? Does BofA really think the internet isn't going to be able to come up with a way to flame them? All you need for a meme-y attack webpage is a scurrilous allegation and a prominent person's name. You could, for example, register brianmoynihankillspuppies.com for just $11.99/year.

It is almost certainly impossible to use a domain-name acquisition strategy to prevent criticism of your company or its employees. Yet the Wall Street Journal counts at least 439 BrianMoynihanSucks-style registrations in December alone. If I owned stock in Bank of America, this would not give me confidence that the bank is prepared for whatever Julian Assange is planning to throw at it. Seriously, folks?

Boehner and Healthcare Reform

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 12:54 PM EST

Austin Frakt on the scheduling of a vote to repeal healthcare reform in the House:

I think the January 12 scheduling is telling. It significantly ahead of the State of the Union address (Jan. 25 or so, I believe). That means that it’ll be old news by the time Obama gets to reset the message. What’s likely going on is that Boehner, knowing that repeal won’t go anywhere, that it is a symbolic vote, wants to send a signal to the GOP base without really getting in the way of more important business. In a sense, the schedule suggests to me that Boehner knows that the repeal vote is not itself very serious. If he wanted to make a bigger show of it, why not schedule it for a day or two before the State of the Union? Why not do it the day of the speech itself? That would be very confrontational.

This seems pretty obviously true to me. Boehner knows two things: (a) he has to schedule a repeal vote because the tea partiers will go into open revolt if he doesn't, and (b) it's a dead letter with nothing more than symbolic value. So he's scheduling a quick vote with no hearings and no CBO scoring just so he can say he's done it, after which he can move on to other business he actually cares about.

The only thing that puzzles me is why he's being so obvious about it. Is this a genuine signal to Obama that he's kinda sorta willing to work with him on future legislation? Is it a signal that Boehner is tired of the tea partiers already? Or what? It really does seem like he's giving tea partiers the back of his hand a little too obviously here.

Fate of Gulf Oil Still Largely Unknown

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 12:20 PM EST

In the months since the Deepwater Horizon blew up and unleashed 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, the whereabouts of the oil has been a major subject of research and debate. Some reports suggests the oil has accumulated in large, undersea plumes. Others have found it accumulating on the Gulf floor. But a report compiled by the Congressional Research Service concludes that the actual fate of the oil that remained in the Gulf after clean-up efforts is anyone's guess.

The Federation of American Scientists posted the report on its website on Monday, though it's dated December 16 (h/t to Andrew Restuccia for flagging it over at E2 Wire). "Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: The Fate of the Oil" surveys a variety of studies released since the well was finally capped in late July. The author notes that while a "substantial portion" of the oil has been removed, "a greater portion remained, in some form."

As the report notes, even if one assumes that about half of the oil has been removed from the Gulf, as the government does, that means the other half—more than 2 million barrels—remains in the Gulf.

The report concludes:

It is debatable whether the fate of the remaining oil will ever be established conclusively. Multiple challenges hinder this objective: the complexity of the Gulf system; resources required to collect data; and varied interpretations over the results and observations. Moreover, as time progresses, determining the fate of the oil will likely become more difficult. Regardless, the question of oil fate will likely be addressed through an incremental process. Researchers are continuing to study various components of the Gulf, specifically damages to natural resources. Some of these efforts may provide clues to the oil's fate.

There was quite a bit of controversy when the Obama adminstration released its report on the fate of the oil in early August, because the was no supporting data to accompany the figures at the time and because administration officials falsely claimed that the oil budget had been peer reviewed. The National Oil Spill Commission report blasted the administration's handling of that report. But the administration later issued a peer-reviewed version of that oil budget, concluding that its earlier estimates were in fact correct. The CRS report accepts those figures as accurate while highlighting that uncertainties remain about how precise the estimates are. Moreover, the August estimate is now five months old and not necessarily relevant to where the oil is today.

But the fate of all that oil is still a crucial question. Its lasting impact will (or at least, should) affect decisions about the damages assessed for the spill and policy choices going forward. And, as the report notes, it also affects perceptions about Gulf industries like fishing and tourism.

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How Much Would It Cost to Repeal Health Care Reform?

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 11:40 AM EST

Republicans have released their health-care repeal bill—snappily titled "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act"—which the party has now scheduled for a vote on January 12. The bill would repeal every part of the Affordable Care Act except for an overhaul of the student loan industry.

One thing the bill won't include, however, is a price tag. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that health care reform would save an estimated $143 billion over the next 10 years. According to that figure, repealing the law would add the same amount to the deficit. Republicans, however, have dismissed the CBO's estimates, arguing that Democrats have gamed the number by front-loading the legislation with savings in the first decade and that the law would cost taxpayers in the long run. As a result, they've refused to let the CBO score their repeal bill.

Democrats, in the meantime, have backed off their line that health care reform will save the country money—not because of the substance of their argument, but  because it hasn't proven politically popular with voters, according to Politico. So Democrats have basically conceded that Republicans have won the message war when it comes to the price tag of health reform, and taxpayers have little way of confirming exactly how much the GOP repeal effort could end up costing them.

Fred Upton Cools to Global Warming

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 10:56 AM EST

Does Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have something to hide when it comes to his position on climate change?

In the past, Upton—the incoming chair of the House energy and commerce committee—has advocated taking action on global warming. "I strongly believe that everything must be on the table as we seek to reduce carbon emissions," he once stated on his website. But that statement recently vanished from his site—along with, it seems, his concern about global warming. Following a tea party-aided Republican takeover of the House and a heated fight for the chairmanship of the powerful committee, Upton's position on climate change has veered closer to those of his global-warming-denying caucus-mates. And he's now vowing to use his new role to thwart efforts to cut emissions. 

Read the rest of this post over on Blue Marble.

Fred Upton's Climate Changeup

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Does Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have something to hide when it comes to his position on climate change?

In the past, Upton—the incoming chair of the House energy and commerce committee—has advocated taking action on global warming. "I strongly believe that everything must be on the table as we seek to reduce carbon emissions," he once stated on his website. But that statement recently vanished from his site—along with, it seems, his concern about global warming. Following a tea party-aided Republican takeover of the House and a heated fight for the chairmanship of the powerful committee, Upton's position on climate change has veered closer to those of his global-warming-denying caucus-mates. And he's now vowing to use his new role to thwart efforts to cut emissions. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 4, 2011

Tue Jan. 4, 2011 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Soldiers attached to Alpha Company, 1st Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team (1st Advise and Assist Task Force), 1st Infantry Division, prepares to shoot at targets at a range in Kirkuk, Iraq, Dec. 1, 2010. Lt. Col. Evans shoots at the targets to maintain familiarization with his weapon in Kirkuk, Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. Photo via U.S. Army.