Kevin Drum

Even in the Hands of an Expert, Mockery Is Tough to Control

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 3:55 PM EST

I sort of promised myself that I wasn't going to comment again on the whole mockery thing, but President Obama's remarks yesterday are a pretty interesting case study of both the strength and weakness of mockery as a political tool. First, here's what he said about refugees at a press conference in the Philippines. I have a reason for including a very long excerpt, but feel free to skim it since the details aren't that important:

Because you have this vibrant, modern, open, diverse, tolerant Western city that reminds us of home, that reminds us of our own cafes and our own parks and our own stadiums, I understand why the American people have been particularly affected by the gruesome images that have happened there.

And it is important for us to be reminded that we have to be vigilant, that rooting out these terrorist networks and protecting the homeland is hard work, and we can't be complacent or lulled into thinking somehow that we are immune from these kinds of attacks. That's why we built an entire infrastructure over the last decade-plus to make it much harder for terrorists to attack us; to go after terrorists where they live and plan these attacks; to coordinate with our partners and our allies; to improve our intelligence. All the work that we've been doing in our intelligence communities and our military over the last decade is in recognition of the fact that this is something we should be concerned about and we've got to work hard to prevent it.

But we are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. I think the refugee debate is an example of us not being well-served by some of the commentary that’s been taking place by officials back home and in the media.

Understand, under current law, it takes anywhere from, on average, 18 to 24 months to clear a refugee to come into the United States. They are subjected to the most rigorous process conceivable. The intelligence community vets fully who they are. Biometrics are applied to determine whether they are, in fact, somebody who might threaten the United States. There is an entire apparatus of all of our law enforcement agencies and the center that we use for countering terrorism to check and ensure that a refugee is not admitted that might cause us harm.

And, if anything, over the last several years that the refugee crisis has emerged in Europe, we’ve been criticized that it is so cumbersome that it’s very difficult for us to show the kind of compassion that we need to for these folks who are suffering under the bombings of Assad and the attacks of ISIL. They’re victims of this terrorism.

And so if there are concrete, actual suggestions to enhance this extraordinary screening process that’s already in place, we’re welcome — we’re open to hearing actual ideas. But that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say, we wouldn't admit three-year-old orphans  that’s political posturing. When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians — proven Christians  should be admitted  that’s offensive and contrary to American values.
I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there is a war between Islam and the West. And when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility, suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop.

OK. Got that? That was the first two minutes of Obama's remarks. He acknowledged the problem. He also acknowledged that a renewed fear of terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks was understandable. He explained that our screening process for Syrian refugees is extremely stringent. He said he didn't want to play into the hands of ISIS by stoking fear of Islam, and he criticized politicians who did so. No mockery. Just plenty of education and some tough words for partisan fearmongers.

Then he said this:

And I would add, by the way, these are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First, they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.

That's mockery. And here's the problem. Obama started off by speaking for a full two minutes calmly and rationally—exactly what I think he should have done. Then he briefly offered up a bit of mockery. I actually think that's OK too because it was prefaced with a deep and sustained acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

But can you guess how much of that first two minutes has been quoted? Can you guess how much of the mockery has been quoted? That's right: barely any of the former and mountains of the latter.

This is hardly surprising. The explanatory stuff is boring. How many of you read it all the way through? The mockery, on the other hand, is short and it makes great copy. Of course that's what everyone is going to focus on.

On the bright side, this means Obama got some press and the liberal base got stoked. On the downside, it means that your average reader got the impression that Obama tossed out a few jibes at Chris Christie and Ted Cruz and that was it. You don't even have to quote him out of context to make it look like he doesn't really care much about fears of refugees.

That's the risk of using mockery. Used on its own, it makes ordinary people feel like you're clueless and condescending. But even if you do it right, as Obama did, the way it's reported can end up having the same effect. And that effect is exactly the opposite of what liberals would like to accomplish. So if you care about the real world, and you care about public opinion, keep the mockery to a minimum. That doesn't mean you can't fight back, and it doesn't mean you have to go easy on the fearmongers. You can do both. Just do it in a way that doesn't immediately turn off the very people you'd like to persuade.

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The SALt Lamp Explained

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 2:36 PM EST

You might have seen this in the New York Times today:

The president hosted a discussion of climate change at the chief executives’ forum along with Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Aisa Mijeno, a Filipino entrepreneur who invented a lamp that runs on saltwater.

In response to a question about her lamp from Mr. Obama, Ms. Mijeno said that it provided about eight hours of light, as well as power to a USB port for charging a phone. “And all you need to do is you just have to replenish the saltwater solution,” she said, “and then you have another eight hours of lighting.”

Just saltwater? Doesn't that seem like it violates some kind of energy conservation law?

Yes and no. The SALt lamp uses a fairly ordinary galvanic battery that consists of two electrodes and an electrolyte solution of salty water. Replenishing the saltwater will indeed get the lamp going again, but you also need to replace the anode every six months or so. There's no magic here, but there is a substantial engineering challenge. "It is made of tediously experimented and improved chemical compounds, catalysts, and metal alloys that when submerged in electrolytes will generate electricity," Mijeno explained earlier this year.

The other challenge is being able to manufacture the lamp so that it's reliable, cheap, and easy to maintain. If Mijeno's lamp works as advertised, it will produce about 90 lumens of light at a cost of $20, plus $3 every six months for a replacement anode. It's designed for areas with no electricity grid, and should be safer than kerosene lamps. She hopes to have it on the market in 2016.

Health Update

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 1:20 PM EST

I'm afraid the news can't always be good on the health front. I got my latest lab work yesterday and it wasn't encouraging. My immune system, after stabilizing last month, weakened again. My neutrophil count is down to 1500, which isn't quite in the danger zone but is mighty close. At the same time, my M-protein marker, which measures the level of cancerous cells in my bone marrow, went up from 0.55 to 0.61. It looks like 0.55 might be as good as it gets, and that's nowhere close to zero. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that I can try a higher dose of my current chemo med with my immune system already so compromised.

Any single month can be an outlier, so there's no need to panic yet. I'll have another set of lab work in December, and I'll see my oncologist shortly after that. If the numbers haven't improved, I'll try a little harder than usual to drag some actual information out of her.

Medicaid Provides Pretty Good Health Coverage for Children

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 12:30 PM EST

Via Harold Pollack, here's an interesting study of children's health care. The researchers investigated how good Medicaid coverage was, and the results were surprisingly positive. I have painstakingly modified the chart so that higher numbers are always better, and as you can see, reported satisfaction with Medicaid was equal to or better than private insurance on most measures, and very close on the others.

Now, this is only for children, and the results might be different for adults. Still, a lot of people—including me—generally think of Medicaid as fairly lousy coverage. If this study is correct, we need to rethink this.

Could Obama Have Prevented the Rise of ISIS in 2012?

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 11:44 AM EST

Back in 2012, Fred Hof was President Obama's advisor for Syria. Today, Zack Beauchamp asks him if there was anything we could have done back then to prevent the rise of ISIS:

In mid-2012, President Obama's key national security officials — Clinton, Panetta, Petraeus, and Dempsey — all recommended a robust training and equipping effort designed to unite and strengthen nationalist anti-Assad rebels. One of the justifications for the recommendation was that they were beginning to see the rise of al-Qaeda-related elements in Syria.

Had that recommendation been accepted and then implemented properly, the ISIS presence in Syria would not be what it is today. Had the US been able to offer Syrian civilians a modicum of protection from Assad regime collective punishment — barrel bombs and all the rest — a major ISIS recruiting tool around the world and inside Syria could have been diluted and even neutralized.

That bolded phrase is doing a helluva lot of heavy lifting here. I wish Beauchamp had followed up and asked Hof if he thinks the US intelligence and military communities could, in fact, have implemented this policy effectively. Their recent efforts, which produced something like five trained rebels, don't inspire a ton of confidence. My guess is that Obama listened to their recommendations but concluded that in the real world, it wouldn't have worked. I suspect he was right.

We'll never know, of course, which means this can be a subject of debate pretty much forever. But there's sure nothing in the recent historical record to inspire a lot of faith in our ability to carry out a plan like this.

Here's Yet More Posturing From Republicans on National Security

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 1:10 AM EST

Here's the latest from congressional Republicans:

Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday his panel will launch a review of encryption use. Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) introduced a bill to extend a sweeping telephone data-collection program due to expire at month’s end.

“It is likely that end-to-end encryption was used to communicate in Belgium and France and Syria,” Mr. Burr said. He said encryption was likely because no direct communication among the terrorists was detected....Mr. Cotton’s bill would pause the expiration of a broad phone data-collection program run by the National Security Agency, which is set to end Nov. 29, until the president certifies that a planned replacement is equally effective.

This is crazy. Anyone smart enough to use end-to-end encryption isn't going to use a package from Microsoft or Google. They'll find an open-source app instead. There are plenty of them around, and there's nothing the US Congress can do to stop people from using them. As for the NSA's metadata program, it's always had the authority to collect surveillance on overseas users. Nothing about that has changed.

Neither of these proposals seems to be related in any serious way to the Paris attacks. Instead, the attacks are just being used as a handy excuse to push legislation these guys have wanted all along.

Someday we're going to get Republicans to take national security seriously. I don't know when. Hopefully it won't take as long as it does to get them to admit that climate change is real.

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How Should Fear of Syrian Refugees Be Fought?

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 12:38 AM EST

My blog posts don't usually provoke a lot of outrage on social media. I'm just not that kind of writer. But today was an exception, when I suggested that lefties should tone down their mockery of calls to limit the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the country. That spurred hundreds of tweets from fellow lefties—some in support, but most of it hostile. Here's a sampling—and I promise I'm not cherry picking:

Mockery is a reasonable response to the ridiculous.

"Low information voters" == bad citizens.

It's the equivalent of the Japanese internment hysteria, it deserves ridicule.

"Syrian terrorists" may be an existential threat, but gun waving rednecks are more likely to shoot me. Mock them? Gimme a break.

This @kdrum article is exactly why people don't like mealy–mouthed Liberals. This is a moral issue, not a compromised tactic.

Same objections against Vietnamese, Jews, Irish... same ol' catering to nativism, again & again. No more, thank you.

If voters are too racist stupid or sheeple to support progressives Dems Sanders that's their fault not ours

Oh, their fears are understandable all right. Xenophobia is widely understood. So is naked racism and Islamophobia.

@kdrum wants us to treat these concerns as if they are good faith security concerns, not racism.

Many "ordinary" voters are racists & know-nothings who do not want to be educated *or* calmed. Listen to callers on talk radio.

Let's remember that it's politicians we are mocking.

Sure, this is just Twitter, not exactly famous for reasoned and thoughtful debate. Still, what's disheartening about this is that I don't think there's any disagreement on substance here. We all agree that we should accept Syrian refugees. We all agree that screening ought to be rigorous.1 We all agree that Republican fearmongering should be fought.

There are really only two disagreements. The first is whether fear of Syrian refugees is even understandable. Here's Charlie Pierce: "It is completely practical to believe that [ISIS] would try to infiltrate their fighters into this country under the cover of being refugees. They would have to be stupid not to try. Charlie Baker is not a bigot. Neither is Maggie Hassan. Their concerns are not posturing. They are not for show....They should be taken seriously and addressed seriously." I agree—and I'd suggest that anyone who thinks these concerns are just ridiculous bedwetting is pretty far out of touch with ordinary folks.

Second, how should this fear be addressed? Here's the problem: people won't even listen to you unless they think you take their concerns seriously. That's why, for example, liberals mostly dismiss conservative posturing about race: we don't believe they even take the problem of racism seriously in the first place. And probably the best way to convince people that you don't take a problem seriously is to mock it.

Maybe it's true that we're only mocking some of the most egregious politicians. And maybe it's true that they deserve it. But who cares? Ordinary voters won't make the distinction—they'll just hear the mockery—and it doesn't matter what anyone deserves. What matters is what works. On issues of interest only to wingnuts, go ahead and mock. We're not going to persuade them of anything no matter what. But on issues like this, where a quite understandable fear is shared by a broad slice of the electorate, mockery is death. We can persuade these folks, and the way to do it is to acknowledge the problem and then fight the fear with facts.

Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. But it's got a way better chance than mockery does. For a good example of how to do it, check out President Obama's comments tonight. There were a couple of sentences of ridicule in there, but nearly all of it was a firm, fact-based pushback against fear of letting in refugees. Obama didn't give in to bigotry or xenophobia, and he was plenty tough on Republicans. But he took the fears seriously and wasn't guilty of mockery.2 That's how it's done.

1Which it already is. Refugee screening in America is an extremely long and arduous process.

2Not much, anyway. For some reason, conservatives get revved up by outrage while liberals get revved up by mockery. I'm not really sure why. And in small doses on the right occasions, it's fine. If you're a comedian, it's fine. If you're in private among friends, it's fine. But if it becomes your default public response even to the ordinary fears of ordinary people, you've lost the argument before it even begins.

Sorry, But Ben Carson Just Doesn't Care About Foreign Policy

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 5:56 PM EST

Who would ever have guessed that someday we'd have a serious presidential candidate who makes Donald Trump look sober and grounded? And yet, that's what Ben Carson has done. Here's one of his foreign policy advisors, perhaps under the misapprehension that he was speaking off the record:

“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview....After Mr. Carson struggled on “Fox News Sunday” to say whom he would call first to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Mr. Clarridge called [Armstrong] Williams, the candidate’s top adviser, in frustration. “We need to have a conference call once a week where his guys roll out the subjects they think will be out there, and we can make him smart,” Mr. Clarridge said he told Mr. Williams.

Mr. Williams, one of Mr. Carson’s closest friends, who does not have an official role in the campaign, also lamented the Fox News interview. “He’s been briefed on it so many times,” he said. “I guess he just froze.”

"He just froze." Maybe. But there's another possibility. A friend of mine recently had a conversation with a guy who once sat on a board with Carson: "He told how, at that time, Carson advocated that the way to reduce CO2 emissions was to build hydrogen-powered cars. Once he had embraced that policy solution, according to his fellow board member, Carson showed no interest in alternate policies."

This seems to be Carson's MO. One way or another, he decides what he believes. Glyconutrients are a miracle. Hitler took away people's guns. The Chinese are in Syria. Hydrogen cars will fix global warming. And once he's fixated on something, that's it. He just isn't interested in learning any more. You can brief him until you're blue in the face, but it's water off a duck. He's already made up his mind.

I wonder what happened to make him this way? It seems clear that he wasn't always like this. Did this change occur slowly? Or was there some dramatic event that changed his worldview? We'll probably never know. But it leaves him wide open to every weird idea and kooky conspiracy theory out there if it happens to press one of his buttons. Usually characters like this are relegated to post-midnight talk radio or sending out chain emails about Obama getting ready to declare martial law. But this one is running for president. And winning.

UPDATE: This is great. The Carson campaign recommended Clarridge as a source and provided the Times with his phone number. But now they're throwing him under the bus. "Mr. Clarridge has incomplete knowledge of the daily, not weekly briefings, that Dr. Carson receives on important national security matters," the campaign said in a statement. "For The New York Times to take advantage of an elderly gentleman and use him as their foil in this story is an affront to good journalistic practices."

Very classy.

Here's a Plan to Defeat ISIS. It Might Even Work.

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 3:01 PM EST

Here is Fred Kaplan's 8-point plan for fighting ISIS:

First, NATO should invoke Article 5.... Second...ISIS could come under much fiercer bombardment.... Third, this air power should be directed to support all ground forces engaged in fighting ISIS, no matter how unpalatable they might otherwise be—including Iranian-backed militias.... Fourth...everything should be done to raise up, supply, and if necessary train Sunni militias and command groups, too.... Fifth, all of the above requires intense shuttle diplomacy.... Sixth...Obama is right to quell talk of throwing thousands of American (or other Western) combat troops into this fight.... Seventh, this reticence in sending combat troops shouldn’t preclude a doubling or tripling of special operations forces to advise, coordinate airstrikes, and occasionally support counter-terrorist raids.... Finally, none of these efforts will amount to much in the long run without a political settlement in Syria.

In short: a bigger air campaign; cooperation with both Shiite Iranian forces and Sunni militias; and more special ops. On the non-military side, we need plenty of shuttle diplomacy to secure a political settlement in Syria. I'd add to that the development of a tolerably multi-sectarian government in Iraq, and I'm a little unsure why Kaplan left that off his list.

I think everyone should understand that even a plan like this, which is grounded in reality, is uncertain to work and will require a lot of time even if it does. In the end, groups like ISIS will continue to pop up until the Middle East's civil wars start to resolve themselves. It's unclear whether American influence can do much to speed that up.

The Disgrace of Lamar Smith and the House Science Committee

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 1:37 PM EST

The Washington Post writes today about a long-running feud between die-hard climate-denier Lamar Smith and pretty much anyone who says that climate change is real:

The flash point in the feud between House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a congressional subpoena. The congressman, a prominent global warming skeptic, is demanding that the government turn over its scientists’ internal exchanges and communications with NOAA’s top political appointees.

Smith believes this information, showing the researchers deliberative process, will prove that they altered data to fit President Obama’s climate agenda when they refuted claims in a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science that global warming had “paused” or slowed over the last decade.

“These are government employees who changed data to show more climate change,” the chairman said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Americans deserve to understand why this decision was made. Despite what some critics claim, the subpoena is not only about scientists. Political operatives and other NOAA employees likely played a large role in approving NOAA’s decision to adjust data that allegedly refutes the hiatus in warming.

Over the last few years, harassment of climate scientists via subpoenas and FOIA requests for every email they've ever written has become the go-to tactic of climate skeptics and deniers. The purpose is twofold. First, it intimidates scientists from performing climate research. Who needs the grief? Second, it provides a chance to find something juicy and potentially embarrassing in the trove of emails.

In the case of Lamar Smith vs. NOAA, the key fact is this: Smith has no reason to think the scientists in question have done anything wrong. None. He doesn't even pretend otherwise. He has simply asserted that it's "likely" that politics played a role in "adjusting" the climate data. But at no time has he presented any evidence at all to back this up.

This is a pretty plain abuse of congressional subpoena power, and so far NOAA is refusing to comply. In the case of private critics using FOIA, it's a pretty clear abuse of FOIA—and one of the reasons that I have some reservations about FOIA that might seem odd coming from a journalist. It's one thing to demand private communications when there's some question of wrongdoing. It's quite another when it's just a fishing expedition undertaken in the hope of finding something titillating.

In any case, Smith is a disgrace, and it's a disgrace that Republicans allow him to chair a committee on science. Smith's view of science is simple: if it backs up his beliefs, it's fine. If it doesn't, it's obviously fraudulent. This is the attitude that leads to defunding of climate research or banning research on guns. After all, there's always the possibility that the results will be inconvenient, and in the world of Smith and his acolytes, that can't be allowed to stand. Full speed ahead and science be damned.