Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Daily Commentary

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Friday, March 9, 2007 -

Political Entropy - Things Resolving to Their Most Random State and Lowest Energy Level

Everyone knows that the concept of entropy in thermodynamics is central to the second law of thermodynamics, the one that deals with physical processes and whether they occur spontaneously. Spontaneous changes are said to occur with an increase in what is called entropy - that's what just naturally happens to smooth out differences in temperature, pressure, density, and chemical potential that may exist in a system.  Entropy is then the measure of how far this smoothing-out process has progressed. It's a useful concept. Forget that first law of thermodynamics which also deals with the concept of energy - that one describes how energy is conserved. Entropy describes the other business we all see, and feel. Things fall apart, unless you work at fighting that, adding energy, or design for the fact things do tend to disintegrate by adding structure, holding off the inevitable as best you can.

There are many kinds of entropy, metaphorically speaking.  Some work with the concept of economic entropy - the quantitative measure of the irrevocable dissipation and degradation of natural materials and available energy with respect to economic activity.  There are books on such things. And there's social entropy - a measure of social system's structure, measured in terms of how the individual functions in society and related to social equilibrium. You could look it up.  And there had to be corporate entropy - energy waste as red tape and business team inefficiency - energy lost to inevitable waste and things turning random on you. Many of us have lived that in the work world.

Nathanael West made a literary career out of dealing with the sadness of entropy - the inevitability of all things we care about ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.  Maybe all of literature, and all the arts, are about that, actually - about losing the fight against random meaninglessness but doing your best, like Orpheus charming the gods of the underworld and bringing Eurydice back from the dead with the power of his music, only to lose her forever when he turned back just to look at her.  All the art in the world - the most wonderful music in that case - cannot cheat death, the final and inevitable random ultimate. It doesn't even work in Rio (and a note, the actress who played Eurydice in that film was not actually from Brazil, but rather from Pittsburgh). Bummer.

Unless you add energy or structure, the change will get all mixed up in your pocket and your sleeve unravel and all the rest.  But even if you do add energy or structure, or both, that's a just a stopgap. Things do eventually settle out to their most random state and lowest energy level.

So, is there such a thing as political entropy?  There sure seems to be. Any "lame duck" president knows that.  Chuck in all the energy you can, add structure until everyone knows the new rules for what to do, and the random laughs at you.  Nothing seems to work out.

In early March the president makes his first trip to Latin America - more democracies than ever down there, and they almost all elected leftists who don't think much of us. So things could spin out of control, and the answer is to go down there and add energy or structure, or both. It's just that it may be too late.

One of the elected leaders down there is being a real pain - Chavez Leads Rally Against Bush Visit -

    BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched another verbal assault on President Bush Friday as he led some 20,000 supporters in an anti-American rally, calling the U.S. leader a "political cadaver" and blasting his policies as "imperialist."

    "Gringo go Home!" Chavez shouted to raucous applause in a crowded soccer stadium, speaking even as Bush was arriving in neighboring Uruguay as part of a Latin America tour.

    Chavez said he didn't come to Buenos Aires to "sabotage" Bush's visit and called the timing a coincidence.

    "The U.S. president today is a true political cadaver," Chavez said, alluding to Bush's waning years in office. "What the little gentleman from the north now exudes is the smell of political death and in a very short time he will be converted into cosmic dust and disappear from the stage."

    In Uruguay, a group of anti-American demonstrators scuffled with bystanders and shattered windows at an American fast-food restaurant in an incident underscoring tensions there as Bush arrived Friday night from Brazil and was driven to his hotel in a bulletproof limousine.

Now that is very curious.  Hugo Chavez is paraphrasing the second law of thermodynamics regarding entropy - randomness in his comment on coincidence, and things just settling out on the molecular level with that business about the inevitable conversion, of Bush, to "cosmic dust" and the subsequent disappearance of recognizable structure.  Maybe the man isn't the buffoon he seems, or the comments are just a coincidence themselves.

Then there's this -

    Police put down violent protests in Colombia in advance of Bush's visit there, and in Guatemala, Mayan leaders announced that Indian priests will purify the sacred archaeological site of Iximche to eliminate "bad spirits" after Bush visits there Monday.

    "That a person like (Bush), with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked, is going to walk in our sacred lands, is an offense for the Mayan people," Guatemalan activist Juan Tiney said.

Oh yeah - superstition, and most religion perhaps, is the natural response to the way nature works, constantly stabilizing things that seem to move towards the most diffuse and chaotic state of existential meaninglessness and all that.

It's not, however, that these folks don't have a gripe or two. In the Wonkette collection of photos from the protests - South Americans Welcome George W. Bush ... With Style! - we get this -

    This isn't the usual Yanquee Go Home stuff - they really hate the guy's guts. Why the rude welcome? For six years, the administration has ignored Latin America except for "punishing in some way those who disagreed with Washington, and decreasing funding for developmental assistance, child survival and health programs." Starting wars everywhere, launching a failed coup against Hugo Chavez, congratulating the White House choice in a Mexican presidential election that was still in dispute, putting right-wing zealots in charge of U.S.-Latin American affairs … not since the Reagan-Contra days has Latin America had so many reasons to hate Washington. The 45-year-long U.S. embargo against Cuba doesn't help, either.

So, sometimes things don't just fall apart.  You can screw them up, actively.

At the same time, back in the north, there was another matter of things falling apart - this time as the structure to order matters fell apart.

The Attorney General and head of the FBI found out neat and clean structures don't always head off chaos.  In fact, Gonzales and Mueller admitted that the FBI broke the law -

    The nation's top two law enforcement officials acknowledged Friday the FBI broke the law to secretly pry out personal information about Americans. They apologized and vowed to prevent further illegal intrusions.

    Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left open the possibility of pursuing criminal charges against FBI agents or lawyers who improperly used the USA Patriot Act in pursuit of suspected terrorists and spies.

    The FBI's transgressions were spelled out in a damning 126-page audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. He found that agents sometimes demanded personal data on people without official authorization, and in other cases improperly obtained telephone records in non-emergency circumstances.

    The audit also concluded that the FBI for three years underreported to Congress how often it used national security letters to ask businesses to turn over customer data. The letters are administrative subpoenas that do not require a judge's approval.

    "People have to believe in what we say," Gonzales said. "And so I think this was very upsetting to me. And it's frustrating."

There was a structure. It failed. That's life.

The tool against chaos was those National Security Letters.  Under the Patriot Act those letters give the FBI authority to demand that telephone companies, internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses produce personal records about their customers or subscribers.  No warrant would be necessary.  And those who received them, and had to turn over the information, were, by law, required to say nothing to anyone.  No one would ever know what the governments was up to, and who the government was watching. It was a model of efficiency - until it seems hundreds of thousands of them were issued, and a good number of them on matters that had nothing to do with terrorism. It was just a cool new thing - you could use it for anything, really.

And they did -

    Shoddy record-keeping and human error were to blame for the bulk of the problems, said Justice auditors, who were careful to note they found no indication of criminal misconduct.

    Still, "we believe the improper or illegal uses we found involve serious misuses of national security letter authorities," the audit concluded.

    FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said many of the problems were being fixed, including by building a better internal data collection system and training employees on the limits of their authority. The FBI has also scrapped the use of "exigent letters," which were used to gather information without the signed permission of an authorized official.

Some ideas to counter random chaos just don't work out.

FBI director Mueller - "But the question should and must be asked: How could this happen? Who is accountable? And the answer to that is, I am to be held accountable."

Yes, but he's not to blame.  Things happen.  "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," as the man, Yeats, said.

Mueller said he had not been asked to resign - he had not discussed doing so with any other officials. He knows - but he said some FBI employees would probably face disciplinary actions, just not criminal charges.

Stuff happens.

Nevertheless people were upset.  Senator Kennedy - "The Patriot Act was never intended to allow the Bush administration to violate fundamental constitutional rights."  On the other side, Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee - the audit shows "a major failure by Justice to uphold the law. If the Justice Department is going to enforce the law, it must follow it as well."

But what are you going to do?  They said they'd fix it.

The American Civil Liberties Union of course said the audit proves Congress must amend the Patriot Act to require judicial approval anytime the FBI wants access to sensitive personal information.  Their executive director, Anthony D. Romero was clear - "The attorney general and the FBI are part of the problem, and they cannot be trusted to be part of the solution."

But then both Gonzales and Mueller called these national security letters "vital tools in pursuing terrorists and spies in the United States." In fact, Mueller said - "They are the bread and butter of our investigations."

Now what? 

As a note, the annual review that uncovered this all is required by Congress, and was produced over the objections of the Bush administration. They tried to stop it. They didn't want anyone to know.

And there's more - Report Details FBI Errors In Collection of Data - "Intimate facts on roughly 52,000 people stored on widely accessible database without proper oversight, Justice Department's tracking tool reveals" -

    Over a three-year period ending in 2005, the FBI collected intimate information about the lives of a population roughly the size of Bethesda's - 52,000 - and stored it in an intelligence database accessible to about 12,000 federal, state and local law enforcement authorities and to certain foreign governments.

    The FBI did so without systematically retaining evidence that its data collection was legal, without ensuring that all the data it obtained matched its needs or requests, without correctly tallying and reporting its efforts to Congress, and without ferreting out all of its abuses and reporting them to an intelligence oversight board.

    These are the conclusions of the Justice Department's uncontested examination of one of the most sensitive and widely used intelligence-gathering tools of the post-Sept. 11 era - the national security letter (NSL). A report released yesterday by the department's Office of the Inspector General offers the first official glimpse into the use of that impressive tool, and the results, according to the report, are not pretty.

Well, nothing is pretty these days -

    For example, the FBI on 739 occasions used secret contracts with three telephone companies to obtain records related to 3,000 phone numbers after asserting - in most instances - that the records were needed because of "exigent circumstances" and promising that requests for subpoenas had already been sent to U.S. attorney's offices.

    In fact, many of these claims were false, according to the report: The letters were mostly used in "non-emergency circumstances"; no documentation existed of a connection to "pending national security investigations"; and "subpoenas requesting the information had not been provided to the U.S. Attorney's Office before the letters were sent."

    In a second abuse, the headquarters staff sent 300 requests for data "in connection with a classified special project" without tying the requests to specific investigations, a violation of internal FBI rules, the inspector general's report said.

Did someone mention chaos theory?  The behavior of chaotic systems appears to be random, because of an exponential growth of errors in the initial conditions - the idea held the seeds of its own disintegration from the start. This happens even if the system is "deterministic" and the future dynamics are well defined by the initial conditions, and there really seem to be no random elements involved, as far as you can tell. But there always are. It was a bad idea.

So the Justice Department's inspector general has released a report saying the FBI has played fast and loose with protocol for issuing national security letters. The "authorization slips" for obtaining private information of American citizens without judicial review didn't work out as planned.

George Washington University law professor Daniel Solove at "Concurring Opinions" explains the concept - "A NSL is a demand letter issued to a particular entity or organization to turn over various record and data pertaining to individuals. They do not require probable cause, a warrant, or even judicial oversight. They also come with a gag order, preventing the recipient of the letter from disclosing that the letter was ever issued. Compliance is mandatory."

And they thought this would work out well?

John Amato over at "Crooks and Liars" points out the obvious - "President Bush issued one of those infamous signing statements back in February 2006 when he signed the Patriot Act reauthorization, effectively nullifying the provisions Congress agreed upon so that these kinds of abuses wouldn't occur." The future dynamics were well defined by the initial conditions.

Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald piles on -

    The Bush administration has created vast and permanent data bases to collect and store evidence revealing the private activities of millions of American citizens. When the FBI obtains information essentially in secret - with no judicial oversight - that information is stored in those data bases. This is all being done by the executive branch with no safeguards and no oversight, and the little oversight that Congress has required has been defiantly and publicly brushed aside by the President, who sees legal requirements as nothing more than suggestions or options which he will recognize only if he chooses to. That is the constitutional crisis that we have endured under virtually the entire Bush presidency - the crisis which, for the most part, our mainstream political and media elite have collectively decided not to acknowledge.

    The story here is not merely that the FBI is breaking the law and abusing these powers. That has long been predicted and, to some degree, even documented. The story is that the FBI is ignoring the very legal obligations which George Bush vowed were not obligations at all, but mere suggestions to be accepted only if he willed it. It is yet another vivid example proving that the President's ideology of lawlessness exists not merely in theory, but as the governing doctrine under which the executive branch has acted, time and again and as deliberately as possible, in violation of whatever laws it deems inconvenient.

In short, you reap what you sow.

On the other hand, Dennis Lormel at "Counterterrorism Blog" really does think entropy and randomness are the issue - "civil liberties are not at risk" because the infractions indicated in the Justice Department report were filing screw-ups, not constitutional violations of any kind - "The IG found no deliberate or intentional misuse of authority, meaning there were no infringements on privacy rights or civil liberties. Even though recordkeeping and reporting was inadequate, actual use of information was appropriate."

Things just happen, and you fix them.  You fight the chaos.

Sometimes that is hard.  Political entropy is a drag, as some of those who would like their party's nomination for the next presidential run are finding out -

    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich acknowledged he was having an extramarital affair even as he led the charge against President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, he acknowledged in an interview with a conservative Christian group.

    "The honest answer is yes," Gingrich, a potential 2008 Republican presidential candidate, said in an interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson to be aired Friday, according to a transcript provided to The Associated Press. "There are times that I have fallen short of my own standards. There's certainly times when I've fallen short of God's standards."

    Gingrich argued in the interview, however, that he should not be viewed as a hypocrite for pursuing Clinton's infidelity.

    "The president of the United States got in trouble for committing a felony in front of a sitting federal judge," the former Georgia congressman said of Clinton's 1998 House impeachment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. "I drew a line in my mind that said, 'Even though I run the risk of being deeply embarrassed, and even though at a purely personal level I am not rendering judgment on another human being, as a leader of the government trying to uphold the rule of law, I have no choice except to move forward and say that you cannot accept … perjury in your highest officials."

But Scooter Libby should be pardoned, of course. Dealing with chaos is tricky.

The there's that other guy, the hero-mayor, Giuliani.  The firefighters union in New York is on his case - they wanted to carefully search the rubble at Ground Zero for the bodies of the firefighters who had died on 9/11 and all that.  But the developer was in a hurry to start the redevelopment process. Once the Bank of Nova Scotia's gold bars had been recovered, Giuliani ordered that the remaining rubble - including whatever bodies were still there - hauled off and taken to a landfill across the river.  When firefighters held a protest, he ordered them arrested. They didn't much care for that.

Of course the Giuliani folks need to fight the chaos in that - they managed to invent a group called "Firefighters for Rudy." The "Executive Director" is a Giuliani campaign staffer. Cool.  That works.

The man knows how to fight the randomness of the universe, as one New Yorker explains.  Would you want this man as your next president?

Maybe not -

    The first serious problem is structural and political: A man who fought the inherent limits of his mayoral office as fanatically as Giuliani would construe presidential prerogatives so broadly he'd make George Bush's notions of 'unitary' executive power seem soft.

    Even in the 1980s, as an assistant attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department and U.S. Attorney in New York, Giuliani was imperious and overreaching, He made the troubled daughter of a state judge, Hortense Gabel, testify against her mother and former Miss America Bess Meyerson in a failed prosecution charging, among other things, that Meyerson had hired the judge's daughter to bribe help 'expedite' a messy divorce case. The jury was so put off by Giuliani's tactics that it acquitted all concerned, as the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus recalled ten years later in assessing Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's subpoena of Monica Lewinsky's mother to testify against her daughter.

    At least, as U.S. Attorney, Giuliani served at the pleasure of the President and had to defer to federal judges. Were he the President, U.S. Attorneys would serve at his pleasure - a dangerous arrangement in the wrong hands, we've learned - and he'd pick the judges to whom prosecutors defer.

He does fight chaos, doesn't he? Andrew Sullivan doesn't much value that -

    There are many reasons to like Giuliani, but his personal intolerance of any hint of disloyalty, his contempt for dissent, his corner-cutting executive excesses and long history of cronyism must and surely will be weighed in the equation. Jim Sleeper is no lefty. His concerns are serious ones in a period when the constitution has already been strained to near-breaking point.

Ah, maybe so.  A little chaos is a good thing, perhaps.

And things do happen, like the bad stuff in the war, as William F. Buckley explains - "Bush took the blame for Abu Ghraib, but who believes that he desired torture and obscene handling of the enemy?"

Sullivan has a problem with that -

    Where to start? First, I don't recall Bush personally taking the blame for Abu Ghraib at all. He even refused to let his defense secretary take the blame and resign. I remember him insisting that "this is not America" and denying that he had any role in it, despite signing a memo that allowed all such abuse if "military necessity" demanded it.

    Bush's signature is on the memo. Period. He is in charge of his mental faculties and he is commander-in-chief. Period. His own defense secretary sent Geoffrey Miller to Abu Ghraib to replicate the torture Bush had already ordered at Gitmo. Torture continued long after Abu Ghraib was exposed under Bush as commander-in-chief. Given a chance to ban it entirely last year, Bush did all he could to keep torture alive as a program, succeeded, and then planned on running a campaign boasting of his aggressive treatment of military detainees. He has done everything to push the actual blame for torture on military grunts, rather than on the civilians who authorized and directed them. In fact, he got the GOP to pass a law retroactively immunizing him from legal culpability for torture in the last days of the last Congress. If he is prepared to do all this, then, sorry, Mr. Buckley, but you need to wake up.

    If Bush is willing to take responsibility for toppling Saddam - and to dress up in military uniform and land on an aircraft carrier for good measure - then he must take full responsibility for torture and for the appalling treatment of injured vets at home. He cannot have it both ways. Either he is commander-in-chief or he isn't. You don't get to be commander-in-chief for all the good times; and have someone else take the responsibility for the bad ones. Your daddy isn't going to let you off the hook, any more Dubya. Get that?

But theirs is more.  And it's the casual embrace of chaos -

    But Buckley asks a deeper, more interesting question. Bush authorized and endorsed torture. That much is indisputable. But did he actually fully realize what he was doing? He is certainly shallow enough to authorize torture and not fully grapple with what that means. The man is a master in denial. And he is deeply, deeply morally lazy. This is a guy who could laugh and mock a woman he was about to execute. Remember that? He makes his cut-throat mother look compassionate.

    Did he wrestle long and hard with the question and decide that allowing torture was a terrible thing but he had no choice to protect American lives? Or did he just say "fine," do what you have to do, and move on? I suspect the latter. Occasionally his glib callowness still has the capacity to shock, even after all these years. His dry-drunk capacity for utter denial of reality - especially about his own moral complicity in torture and the deaths of thousands of innocents in Iraq - renders him immune from taking moral responsibility. For anything.

    That's what fundamentalism can do to a person: it can so convince you that you are on the side of absolute good that you do not even stop to imagine that you are also capable of absolute evil. But Bush has been capable of absolute evil. His glib, lazy hands are covered in the blood of others, and he has tainted the honor of his office and the military more deeply than any president in modern times. But he is saved, isn't he? And the saved cannot do evil, can they?

Yep, superstition, and most religion perhaps, is the natural response to the way nature works, constantly stabilizing things that seem to move towards the most diffuse and chaotic state of existential meaninglessness and all that.

As for the war itself, Jacob Weisberg has a widely-read column on "four unspeakable truths about Iraq" - and it is an eye-opener, especially as he gets to his last point -

    … fourth and final near-certainty, which is in some ways the hardest for politicians to admit, is that America is losing or has already lost the Iraq war. The United States is the strongest nation in the history of the world and does not think of itself as coming in second in two-way contests. When it does so, it is slow to accept that it has been beaten.

You cannot fight entropy and all that.

Matthew Yglesias thinks it's all in how you look at it -

    I really think this is wrong. We won the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein and his regime were deposed. We installed a new regime. The Sunni Arab insurgency remains active and will continue to remain active for some time, but shows no realistic capability of defeating the regime we installed. We won the war. This is not Vietnam where the VC and PRVN drove US forces from the country, toppled the US-backed regime in Saigon, and unified the country under control of the Communist Party.

    The problem in Iraq is that, we won a hollow victory. Defeating Saddam and replacing him with a new regime based around exiled Shiite political parties has a negative impact on America's strategic position in the world. Even were Iraq to grow substantially less chaotic over the next 2-5 years this would continue to be the case. The win-lose frame, while factually wrong, is also politically counterproductive. As Weisberg indicates, voters are reluctant to declare defeat for understandable psychological reasons. But there's no need to do that here. It's the fact of American victory that makes further involvement so untenable - this is what winning looks like and, frankly, it looks like shit; there's no earthly reason to keep doing this; becoming "more successful" at backing the Maliki government wouldn't accomplish anything.

Even were Iraq to grow substantially less chaotic… sometimes chaos is just inherent. See the second law of thermodynamics.

Then there is the conservative of the day, Dinesh D'Souza in his new book -

    Why Iraq? One reason is that after 9/11, a number of leading figures in the Bush administration came to the conclusion that, in the face of a catastrophe of this magnitude, it would not be sufficient to go to Afghanistan and shoot some people on the monkey bars. Rather, America needed to take action in the heart of the Middle East. Remember the old Western movies where John Wayne is called into town as the new sheriff to apprehend a bunch of cattle-stealers? He goes into the bar, where the bad guys are shouting and jeering at him. He doesn't know who the culprits are, but he finds a couple of obstreperous hoodlums and slams their heads together, or pistol-whips them, and then he walks out of the bar. The message is that there is a new sheriff in town. After 9/11, I believe, the Bush administration wanted to convey this message to the Islamic radicals. In Saddam Hussein, Bush located an especially egregious hoodlum who would become the demonstration project for America's seriousness and resolve.

So this was a "demonstration project" on how to face chaos.  Sullivan, again, is amazed - "Suddenly, the otherwise mystifyingly troop-free war-plan makes more sense, doesn't it?"

Things fall apart, unless you work at fighting that, adding energy, or design for the fact things do tend to disintegrate by adding structure, holding off the inevitable as best you can.  The trouble is you always lose the battle.

The question is really how to manage to salvage something useful.  Entropy is a bitch.

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