Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The aging of the conservative population

"The dirty little secret of conservative talk radio is that the average age of listeners is 67 and rising... What's more, it's the Internet that is the fast-growing and arguably more powerful political medium -- and it is the province of the young and liberal. The only sensible market view of conservative talk is that it will contract and be reduced, in the coming years, to a much more rarefied format." -- Michael Wolff
This reminds me of the British Conservatives a few years back, when they discovered that the average age for a Tory donor was 65. Tory leaders were worried that their party could, quite literally, die off. Considering that the next generation is more liberal than its predecessors, the GOP will have little choice to move more to the center, at least rhetorically, on some issues.

Now, obviously, events can change things. The Boomers were, of course, rather liberal and then wound up rather conservative as a result of Watergate, the Carter years, and the Reagan Revolution. However, I find it rather unlikely that the Repubs will be able to take advantage of a similar confluence this time around, for the simple reason that Democrats speak on issues that bother people today and try to fix them, while Republicans speak on issues from 1981 and don't try to fix them. I don't really think that the conservative movement at this point is really possessed of much political talent--just check out how much more unpopular Congressional Republicans have become since deciding to blindly oppose the Obama agenda. The game done changed on them.

I don't think that conservatism as a political philosophy is dead, and that's probably a good thing since it has good insights that deserve to be heard. But I wouldn't be sad at all if the current iteration of the conservative movement found itself consigned to the ashheap of history. Somehow I doubt it will, though. The GOP is awfully good at dropping issues once they become untenable or outmoded, as one no longer hears about the plight of Southern whites who just want to attend schools without any blacks, or the plight of Vietnam veterans, or how women should just get back in the kitchen. I suspect this particular movement will survive for some time.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Containment vs. Rollback

During the Cold War, there were roughly two ideas on how to stop the spread of Communism. The first was the containment model, as developed by President Harry Truman, George Kennan, George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson. The basic insight of the plan was that Communism was an unstable political system and political economy whose internal tensions guaranteed its collapse, and that all that was needed was to restrict the spread of Communism over the globe. While this policy led to some bad decisions--the war in Korea to a certain extent, Vietnam for sure--it was ultimately quite successful, and was upheld by both Democratic and Republican presidents until the end of the Cold War. The other major theory on how to stop communism was called rollback. It was primarily a product of the right, championed by people like William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and John Foster Dulles, though it found support among some of the more conservative quarters of the Democratic Party, such as Scoop Jackson. Basically, people who believed in this philosophy were people who felt that Communism was an outright evil (hence Reagan's evil empire remark), and that tolerating any subjugation of Eastern Europe was completely immoral, and that we should try to roll back Communist influence to this end. This was the context under which Lyndon Johnson ran his infamous "Daisy" ad, which stated that Goldwater would start a war with the Soviets. Johnson has had his ass run through the wringer quite a bit over any number of things, including that ad, but I think he was right and I suspect a Goldwater foreign policy in the mid-1960s would likely have culminated in war over Eastern Europe, which would certainly have ended with a nuclear attack on the part of the loser. This is because Goldwater's policy was fundamentally unsound. It might well have been immoral for the Soviets to subjugate Eastern Europe but military action would have gone hot, and aside from military action nothing else was going to work. The Hungarian popular uprising during 1956--and its ultimate failure--showed just how unwilling the Warsaw Pact was to lose a member. Rollback was championed by the right and by their ultimate hero, Ronald Reagan, though he thankfully stuck more or less with the containment option once he actually gained power.

This is all a long-winded prelude to Daniel Larison's post on the "long war" with Islam. It's worth reading in full, but he posits the following:
There is a split in the country that is very much like the difference between supporters of rollback and containment during the Cold War, but unlike in the Cold War the advocates of containment seem to be a small minority. Even though containment was the wiser, superior policy during the Cold War, it has somehow lost its appeal. During the first two decades of the Cold War advocates of rollback considered it insufficiently “robust” (to use a word that ideological fantasists like to throw around a lot) and not nearly aggressive enough, and current partisans of the Long War concept seem intent on not making the “mistake” of opting for containment, which is to say that they are intent on embarking on fool’s errands.
This leads me to ask, why is containment such an unappealing option these days? It's not as though Islamism is inherently more stable than Communism--if anything, the opposite is true. And Islamism is much less popular in general, it's much more regional, it's much less powerful and it has virtually no defenders in the United States, while Communism had a significant minority of sympathizers at various times (the '30s, the '70s). What's more, Communism had defenders who perhaps loathed the surveillance state and the poverty (1 of 7 East Germans worked for the secret police, the Stasi) but remembered how things had been worse under whatever earlier despot or tyrant had been running things. Outside of the organizations themselves, groups like al-Qaeda seem to be universally reviled among actual Muslims.

I suspect all of this has to do with the superficial moralism of rollback. You saw this in the Iraq War, in which you became an opponent of human rights if you opposed the war, because it's not like war leads to countless deaths, injuries, diseases, property damage, and atrocities. War never happens without all of these things. But military intervention was our moral obligation because, well, we could? Except not in places like Darfur, where there might actually have been some positive results. I'm not a Saddam sympathizer by any means, but when your Saddam "liberation" project has killed way more Iraqis than the man himself ever did one can only wonder if the cure is worse than the disease. Rollback always sounds good. Sounds noble. We're big, we're powerful, we should protect people being bullied. Fine. But nothing is that clear-cut when war enters the picture. It seems to me that rollback has a few fundamental problems:
  1. It overrelies on utilitarian moral reasoning.
  2. It requires as a prerequisite information that is fundamentally unknowable. How can one know that military power will work and won't cause a backlash? How can one know if military power can handle such a mission? What about the fifty million other random things that can happen? War brings a lot of uncertainty into the equation.
  3. It has no real track record of success.
  4. It is too tied to assuaging guilt and military triumphalism--in other words, it's emotionalism in the guise of self-interest--it's self-esteem policy.
  5. It seems difficult to put into practice in any sort of logical way. Why Iraq instead of Iran? Why not North Korea or the Sudan? No one knows.
In the end, it smacks too much of playing God for me, along with the little matter of it being difficult to put into practice. It seems to me to be the product of people who see everything as a binary choice, as black and white. I don't like resorting to cliches about how the world is really gray, but these sorts of ideologies can't help but break down when put into even the most cursory evaluation. It's difficult to argue with the, "People are suffering, we have to do something!" mode of discourse, aside from just saying that, while we know people are suffering, it's difficult to determine whether inserting ourselves into the mix will actually help, and that absent some sort of sign that we can actually impact things positively it is not a good idea to intervene in conflicts that don't explicitly involve our interests.

But to return to the original question: why is rollback so popular these days? I suspect it has a lot of causes--Reagan is perceived as having both "stood up" to Communism and been successful, so the right doesn't buy into the containment consensus any more; complacency about our military might while refusing to acknowledge that, as Andrew Bacevich tells us, power does have its limits; a post-9/11 consensus on the hawkishness of the "Bush Doctrine" as the proper way to exterminate al-Qaeda; and a lack of seriousness among our political elite to plan policy, as well as among our media elite as well for being unable to call a spade a spade. Containment is a harder sell than rollback, especially to a society accustomed to swift military victories without any seeming cost, because it requires restraint, a grasp of history, and a long strategic view. Do these traits sound like what you find in today's Americans?

I suppose we can rest easy in the fact that the threat posed by al-Qaeda is, in every substantive way, much milder than that posed by Communism, so at worst we probably won't destroy the entire world, but merely our national prosperity. As President Obama seems like a smart guy and a strategic thinker who knows how to exercise restraint I hope that he puts us on this trail. Unfortunately, we have become a nation of superficial moralists so I guess we'll just have to see.

What a polemic play has to do with the Israel crisis

I saw this interesting post over at The Plank, which describes a new play in London:
Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza caused much controversy last month when it ran at the Royal Court Theater in London. [snip] Whereas, at the start, Jews are portrayed as victims of the Nazis, by the end they've evolved into the oppressors who righteously take pride in killing Arab children.
Being as it is a TNR blog, the author pushes back against these notions, which strikes me as fair. But the play as it is described (unsurprisingly I haven't seen it) doesn't seem to suggest that Jews are enthusiastic proponents of Arab pedicide. From what I read, the purpose of the play seems quite obvious: it is agitprop designed to get people like Oren Safdie to think about prevailing political attitudes in Israel and their logical endpoint. I'm not defending the play--I really cannot, as I haven't seen it and therefore don't know the nuance or the slant of the production--but it seems far from an open-and-shut case of anti-Semitism. For what it's worth, Safdie unsurprisingly misses the point:
The participants and presenters of this play can hide behind their lofty principles of freedom of expression and the need for further dialogue, but their support of this project says more about their own relationship to Israel than anything Churchill's play has to offer.
It never occurs to Safdie that there might be a point to all this aside from anti-Semitism. And, indeed, there is anti-Semitism in the world, as there always has been and probably always will be. Where adherents of the pro-Israel ideology (and it is an ideology) go wrong is that they assume that criticism of Israel--anything said that undermines the Jewish State, basically--is something that philo-Semites can't do because Israel can't withstand criticism. What the Safdies and Peretzes and Kirchicks of the world don't seem to get is that Israel has survived endless wars and conflicts during its brief existence, and that policing the culture for anything that might be perceived as not completely complimentary doesn't help Israel so much as weaken the discussion about Israel, and therefore hurt Israel much, much more. Peretz and his acolytes might fancy themselves friends to Israel, but their model of friendship is an odd one: what kind of friend lets another friend put their keys in the ignition when they're completely plastered? Terrible analogy, perhaps, but for all their "liberalism" these folks seem to have deeply internalized Rovian concepts of loyalty and the value of dissent.

Indeed, the notion that Israel is fallible seems to be gaining more and more currency even among center-right folks like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, who are longtime staunch defenders of Israel, and famously so in Hitch's case. Hitchens' recent note of caution (to put it mildly) is a frightening one: that a movement is underway among the Israeli Army to refuse to evacuate the West Bank settlements, should it ever be decided to do so, one that will be enforced by blood if necessary. Couple this with the fact that Israel's new government will be led by a man who rejects a two-state solution and is rumored to be interested in expanding settlements, and its second most senior officer will be a man who supports loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs--even ones not suspected of any wrongdoing. This would be disturbing were it not for the fact that such oaths seem to be within the mainstream of Israeli public opinion these days, in which 41% of Israelis support segregation in public places. To be fair, a majority of Israelis oppose this particular action. Couple this with the recent Gaza "war" in which Israel wildly overreacted to minor provocation and, in a campaign that produced hundreds of civilian casualties, tried to take down Hamas and wound up making them even stronger, only to lose support among its few relative allies in the region, notably Turkey. More to the point, stories like this about soldiers choosing to be safe rather than sorry in shooting civilians, coupled with effusive praise from nominally center-left, dovish Israeli politicians like Shimon Peres about how this was a wonderful little war--something almost inconceivable in America, even on such Bush ego trips like the Iraq misadventure. All of this doesn't quite add up to delight at killing Arab children, and that was probably an exaggeration on the part of this playwright, but "dovish" politicians glowing about urban bombing and civilian killing isn't exactly out of the ballpark, and the very real possibility over war with Palestinians over the West Bank seems even more real as a possibility than it used to.

I direct everyone to this post by Dr. Larison on the danger of ideology:
If a person approaches the world with an ideological frame of mind, whatever events dominate the historical memory of his fellow ideologues are perceived as constantly recurring again and again as part of a progressive narrative of successive triumphs, each one more important than the last. The simple framing, the certainty of victory and the quick and easy interchangeability of extremely different groups as different faces of the same enemy are all very useful for purposes of propaganda and the acquisition and exercise of power.
I think this fits the pro-Israel ideology of the Peretz gang quite nicely. For them, it's always 1948. Israel is always on the brink, Arabs cannot be trusted, and Israeli history since then has been spent defending against successive dangerous foes with the capability to destroy Israel. It doesn't matter that, in the real world, Israel is at peace with its neighbors to the West (Egypt), to the East (Jordan), and was in negotiations (probably doomed now) for peace with one of its neighbors to the North (Syria). In the real world, Hamas is a nasty but not particularly potent terror organization whose offensive capabilities, as the Gaza War showed, were not really much greater than firing off rockets into unpopulated parts of Israel. Not only that but, aside from thawing relations with its allies, the Gaza War's unpopularity among Arab nations nevertheless led none of them to declare war on Israel. Why, it's almost as if they're nations who pursue their own interests, which don't necessarily include unprovoked attacks on Israel! Imagine that!

Anyway, I feel like I've addressed the crux of this. I am definitely pro-Israel and I want it to continue to exist, but I feel that their present course makes that either (a) unlikely or (b) likely only as a pale shadow of the people they are attacking. The impending Netanyahu Nightmare is almost punk rock in its nihilism. They have literally no plan for dealing with Palestine, none. On one hand, they don't want an independent Palestinian state. On the other, they want more of the West Bank to be under Israel's control and they want Israeli Arabs to leave. They just want them to leave? This isn't a solution, and it represents either a delusional detachment from reality or a deliberate one. The reason Palestinians haven't just moved on is because they feel that Palestine is their rightful home, not to mention a holy place, and for these reasons they are willing to spend generations as refugees or second-class citizens. The Netanyahu-Lieberman plan seems to be to push Arabs out of Greater Israel, but since they won't want to go I sense a disaster in the making. Of course, it would be smart for Palestinians to react to this news by adopting nonviolent resistance and trying to get equal civil rights as Israelis, hoping for a binational state. In the absence of true, strong leadership this is unlikely to happen and, of course, that would destroy Israel's unique character as a Jewish State, which I believe is worth keeping. This means that the resistance will be violent, and perhaps this is what Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping for, so that they can use the military to force the Arabs out. Such a spectacle will be bloody, ugly, and no doubt fully supported by Marty Peretz and Oren Safdie as a necessary step for Israeli security. American politicians will not want to expend the massive amount of political capital necessary to point out the butchery--with millions of vocal fundamentalist Christians on the right hand and very vocal media types on the left, anyone who opposes Israeli policy is immediately doomed to become a pariah, and any attempt to explain the fragile politics of the region are going to be drowned out by these folks with cries of anti-Semitism, just as surely as they were with the killed nomination of Charles Freeman as National Intelligence Director. America will have the unique distinction of validating both Israel's Jim Crow experiment and its Trail of Tears redux, our two darkest chapters of national history. And it will all only serve to alienate Israel and America from the rest of the world diplomatically, which will not be helped when Israel bombs Iran's nuclear enrichment sites.

I suppose I could be wrong about what's going to happen to Israel. In fact, I'm sure I won't get all the details right. But I don't think I'm wrong about the big things. At best, Israel is intending to ignore the Palestine problem. In the grand scheme of things this might just be a speed bump in the road to progress that will be left behind and forgotten later, like I hope happens to the Bush years in America. Or maybe not. I wonder if the folks over at The New Republic have anything to say about all this.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Taking Michelle Bachmann down

An amusing diss of the Minnesota Moron.

Sci-fi catchup

Cause that's what I want to write about. I'm finally caught up on the sci-fi shows I follow (almost) and I am happy with most of them.

I think last week's episode of Dollhouse was pivotal. Like Bill Simmon, I did see the twist that Helo's neighbor was a doll--she seemed just a bit too curious, too perky, too forward, and a little too oblivious that he wasn't too interested at the beginning. Something was just off. But it was still pretty cool. I do worry that the show will devolve into "who's a doll" mania, like Battlestar Galactica devolved into "who's a cylon" for an entire season. Still, though, this was the first episode that really clicked on all cylinders, and having Patton Oswalt on was killer. For the first five episodes I figured that it had the potential to be a great show, but this is the first time that I saw that it had the makings of one. It might well touch a nerve as well--anxieties about sex, about whether our bodies are our own, about easy victimization--these are things present in our society that the show seems to have some interest in exploring, hopefully at more than a glancing level (a la BSG, which I'll get to soon).

And I find myself continually impressed with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It's really strong, and to look at how the show has improved this season is really staggering. The character development, particularly in the most recent episode, was really strong: John Connor is going to be the leader of the human resistance, and in this episode he started to feel it. Plus, between the two robots (John Henry and Cameron) and the two "future" characters (Derek and Jessie), there's quite a bit of interesting business going on, and I really get the feeling that the show isn't just jerking us around rather than starting longrunning plots that pay off. Anyway, it's likely to get cancelled, because that always happens right when shows start to blossom. Pretty much the only thing the show needs to improve is the titular character--Sarah as played by Lena Headey is intense and charismatic but often two-dimensional and predictable. Maybe making her pregnant with a mechanical baby--a la BSG--is the answer. (Just kidding--it's the answer only if the question is how do you make this show jump the shark.) And now, on to where angels fear to tread...

I have not yet watched the finale to BSG, largely because everyone seems to agree that it wasn't that great. I've read enough to know the broad contours, however. It seems as though the show played up the technophobia in the finale, which was something I didn't expect and has some logic if you look at the beginning of the show, though it is a mighty act of retconning to suggest that it was the primary focus on the show, as opposed to the religious nonsense that dominated the later seasons and wasn't really paid off. I guess it reminded me a bit of the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only TNG's finale (which is a true classic of sci-fi), only the retconning there made sense: the show started with Q judging humanity, so there was symmetry to having it end that way, and the way it was presented--that Q had been watching along with us for the entire show--was pretty cool. TNG handled this particularly tightrope act elegantly, while BSG bungled it. No surprise for anyone who watched either show.

I think I'm going to be done with BSG complaining for a while, but I suppose I should say that I do it a lot because the show turned out to be a real disappointment. I suppose one shouldn't get too invested in such things, but I guess I can't help it. That is the point of art. I don't understand how this show can still have defenders at this point. For starters, there was no plan, and it's obvious now. The religion obsession was a dead end, and it became clear this past season that Ron Moore had done very little thinking through the fundamental aspects of his universe. Of what relationship were the humanoid cylons to the mechanical ones, let alone to the other humans? This clearly changed over the series. How are humans and cylons different? It is unclear to what extent they ever differed, aside from occasionally having super strength. What was Earth? It changed from originally being conceived as a clearly human world (remember those Cylon virus buoys of human origin? Moore clearly doesn't) to being the Cylon birthplace. Or something. At its best, the show wasn't exactly an intellectual powerhouse, and stuck inanely to "asking questions" about issues parallel to our own instead of making sustained and powerful arguments, likely out of fear of alienating the audience with the answers. The major exception was the "Pegasus" trilogy, which definitely stated that torture is bad, not only for the torturee but for the torturer as well. This isn't nothing. But considering that the show trumpeted its critical acclaim after every episode one ought to expect more than hedging, bloodless "examinations" of situations at best orthogonal to what's going on in the real world, and "haunting" unresolved questions. I'm not asking for a Star Trek: The Original Series level of allegory, but for God's sake, if you want to be taken seriously just say something!

I've listened to a few Ron Moore podcasts in my day, and I'm always amused by his desire to at once be taken seriously as an artist and creative talent while dismissing criticism by saying, "It's just a show." Well, yes, it is, but I'm guessing Moore wants more attention than the usual "watching Two and a Half Men while talking on the phone and yelling at the dog" level given to television. I guess it's the usual human reaction to try to dismiss criticism as illegitimate, but I just kinda feel betrayed by the whole thing. In later seasons the show decided to junk the little genuine humanity it possessed, in exchange for a mirthless, dour, and deliberately unpleasant vision that seemed to think that these qualities alone make the show artistic. It was perhaps "arty" but it just shows how little Moore understands people, that he wasn't able to offer an affirmation or even present a single reason for why his people should have kept going and why they didn't Dee themselves. It reminded me of the post-9/11 West Wing where it seemed like every episode of the show felt the need to show the burden of fighting the g-damn war on terror to get more gravitas. They're all probably right. That's what's really depressing. I'd rather go to the barricades for Annie Hall than for Battlestar Galactica. Human life isn't just strife.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"The speech rather quickly dovetailed into an attack on earmarks"

Yeah, pretty much any speech by John McCain will these days. Was there ever a time when the man was a serious politician and statesman, or am I just mentally fabricating it?

There's also this gem: "[McCain] ruled out any attempt to to use the budget reconciliation process to pass health care, education, or environmental reform. Doing that would debase “the normal 60 vote requirement that makes the Senate the unique environment that it is.”

This is a major problem with Congress these days: its members are not people who are interested in changing American life or doing what's best for America, but rather in maintaining and preserving its power. In general it's an attitude you see in every sector of American life these days. It's the sickening combination of Boomer self-regard and Randian hyperindividualism (which sadly became a part of movement conservatism) that has changed American culture from "we're all in this together" to "I've got mine, you get yours". I have some hope that the culture will change once the Boomers start dying off, and hopefully this is somewhere Obama can have an impact in the long term.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Real arrogance

A few weeks ago on 30 Rock, uber-Republican Jack Donaghy made a joke about how Nancy Pelosi started the recession. Rep. Jeb Hensarling doesn't think it's a joke. From what I've read, Hensarling is a classic backlash/angry conservative, which makes sense considering that even his last name sounds angry--it almost sounds like "he's snarling", which I suspect he often is during congressional debates.

What has struck me most about this whole economic debate is the utter depths of arrogance that Republicans still display. It seems to have never occurred to them that they might need to rethink their assumptions on anything, and political dogma has taken on something of a religious tone. Par for the course when the religious right is your largest bloc of support, but I tend to think that, until Republicans honestly own up to their failures, they won't be trusted with any real power.

Obamanomics, explained

I really think that Scott Payne has some great insight into Obamanomics. Read these two posts for yourself. The upshot is that Obama's view is a synthesis between the large-scale public investment views of a Robert Reich and a free-market outlook of a Robert Rubin. I think this is largely right, and that Obama's approach might well function as an example of how a 21st century liberalism can and should work. Unlike, say, Bill Clinton's "Third Way" that didn't really have much meat on it--much like Tony Blair, Clinton didn't really have an answer for what the federal government is supposed to do, aside from "helping people"--Obama's approach is much more sophisticated and intellectually complete.

The GOP's suicide spiral continues unabated

Sen. Arlen Specter loses to Pat Toomey in a Republican primary, according to a new poll. His loyalty to a party that hates him and gives him zero influence is admirable but misplaced. If he loses he has nobody but himself to blame.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius"

Man, John Hinderaker should get out of the blogging business. They're going to make him eat that quote every time he posts something dumb. Plus, he backed Palin!

The fixation continues.

Rod Dreher discusses why he opposes same-sex marriage. Check out my comment at his site, if you're interested.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Whither global warming denialism?

I suspect that it has to do with the economy, and folks thinking that fixing global warming will irrepairably harm the economy. So people decide the "evidence" against global warming--none of it scientific--might be more compelling than you originally thought. It is interesting that almost all the uptick is among people over 30, and especially among people 65 and over. Why should the boomers start to care about anyone other than themselves now?

To me, it comes down to this: do you trust virtually every scientist studying the problem of climate change, or a bunch of GOP politicians in hock to the oil companies? The poll is here.

Good on Bill Richardson

The New Mexico governor signs a bill to end the death penalty in his state. As a long-time opponent of the death penalty--even during my wingnuttier days (Jr. High and the first year or two of high school) I'm always happy to see states end this practice.

As a matter of fact, it seems like the death penalty abolition movement has been gaining strength in the United States for the past few years. A few years ago the Supreme Court decreed the execution of minors--a horrific practice where only a handful of Middle Eastern countries followed us--was unConstitutional. States like New Jersey and Wisconsin have ended the punishment within their states. Here in California, it's virtually gone--due to an extensive, expensive, mandatory appeals process designed to avoid executing innocent people it rarely ever happens here. One wonders if the budget crunch will lead my state to finally get rid of it on expense grounds, and apply the restriction retroactively. That would be change I can believe in.

Basically, my opposition to the death penalty is based upon several things. First, from a faith perspective. As a Christian I believe that not only is it in violation of the teachings of my religion, but that it violates the spirit of Christianity, which is that nobody is beyond redemption. The death penalty effectively says that. It's final. And it's too easy. As I am not a theocrat this isn't sufficient in and of itself, but it is a major reason for my opposition. Additionally, I think that taking a life is an inherently immoral act. There are mitigating circumstances--in self-defense, in a just war--but it does not seem to me that there is a necessity to take the life of a murderer as in those cases. Self-preservation isn't at stake if you just throw the person in jail forever. There are alternatives to having killers walking the streets. Of course, there is little evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent, but supporters don't argue the matter logically: they put it in starkly emotional terms, i.e. "What if your wife was murdered? Wouldn't you want that person to die." I probably would. But I often find that I make poor decisions when I'm angry or hurt. That's why you need cooler heads to prevail in these sorts of situations. And the appeal to pathos is usually an indication that your appeal to logos isn't very strong, as indeed it isn't in this case. If it's not a deterrent, and there are other ways of keeping the public safe, what is there left to argue about? Justice? I personally don't find immoral punishments that seem to fit the crime particularly just. "An eye for an eye" has a certain logic to it, but I find it absolutely ironic that this was the very principle that Jesus condemned in the Beatitudes, and all that talk of turning the other cheek just doesn't pass muster in what we're constantly reminded is an overwhelmingly Christian nation.

And that's the truly radical thing about Christianity: it is, at its core, very simple and, if you read what Jesus actually says, not terribly moralistic. The guy even said not to judge other people. What is he, some sort of hippie liberal relativist? Kidding aside, the overriding message of the religion is to love one another. There are other things too--some of which have just been added on and aren't really a part of the religion at all--but the message is pretty simple: love other people. Forgive and turn the other cheek. Live to serve others. These are the simplest stated but hardest to live. Hating gay people is, by comparison, pretty easy, especially if you've never met one.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The next McGovern? It ain't Obama.

So the Blue Dog thing sucks. The good news: Sarah Palin looks indeed to be headed toward a McGovern-like defeat if she's the GOP's 2012 nominee. It's 55-35 at this point, and Obama has substantial GOP support.

During the campaign I predicted the basic political contours of America until 2016. You can find the original post if you like, but it went a little something like this:

  1. In 2008, Barack Obama wins thanks to the ineptness of the Bush Administration and the McCain campaign, and Democrats gain a bunch more Senate and House seats.
  2. Republicans mobilize around defeating Obama but aren't successful. Obama makes great strides on health care, climate change, etc. The economy improves
  3. In 2010, Republicans' move to the right gains them a few House seats, mostly from conservative districts like that of retiring Rep. Jim Marshall and Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick. They spin it as a huge victory, even though they don't take enough seats to dent the Dems' advantage and the Republicans drop a few more Senate seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Missouri.
  4. The 2010 "victory" leads conservatives into a greater sense of confidence. Sarah Palin wins the 2012 GOP nomination, and picks Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina as her VP nominee (not entirely sure about that, but it will be a DeMint-like conservative). She gets defeated by Obama in a landslide that sees vast swaths of the center-right establishment uniting behind Obama.
  5. Conservatives become less powerful in the GOP, reformers rise to the top, and the Republicans' business community begins pressing for some more moderate positions because they're tired of Democrats.
  6. The 2016 election is between a Democrat (likely a woman, perhaps freshman Sen. Kay Hagan) and a Republican who is derided by the base as "Democrat-lite" because of his/her moderate economic positions.

I suspect that Evan Bayh's new Blue Dog Senate caucus will make (2) more difficult, though FDR had conservatives in his party too, so I don't think it's impossible. And it does appear that, contra the worries of progressives during the campaign that he'd be too incremental, Obama is very interested in accomplishing great things. But if there's one thing I know for sure it's that Barack Obama is a much, much better politician than Evan Bayh, so I'm not concerned. And this Palin item makes item (4) much more likely.

Blue doggery

Evan Bayh's new Blue Dog Senate caucus would be more impressive to me if any of the members we know about were actually good at anything other than winning reelection. I mean, seriously, if moderates could articulate an actual vision for the country I'd applaud some sort of organization to reach out to them, but we're talking mostly about backbenchers whose only interest in policy seems to be in watering it down. If anyone could name a major policy initiative headed by Ben Nelson, for example, I'd rest my case. But there is no such thing, because all these Blue Dogs (i.e. Clinton Democrats) want to be members of the ruling party but don't have much interest in enacting the ruling party's agenda. There's a word for that: opportunism. I'm not saying to kick them out, but I do think that Obama should try to extract an opposition to the filibuster in exchange for smoothing over intramural conflicts. Look, I don't have a problem with moderation or moderates, I have a problem with opportunists who don't care enough about policy to even bother to articulate anything. And this will complicate Obama's efforts to paint himself as moderate and pragmatic, which therefore makes his agenda "liberal" and thus less likely to pass with Democratic opposition. Ugh.

Responses to this news ranges from apoplectic to angry to disappointed on the left, while conservatives seem happy with the development. Of course they are. What strikes me is how bizarre this whole thing is. They're doing it now? I guess they need to get it on the record that they're moderate and opposed to Obama's liberal agenda before it comes time to vote on said agenda. Barack Obama likes to talk about how we're all in this together, but already we have Democrats seeking to seal themselves off from Obama's potential unpopularity in their states. It's not even about whether Obama's agenda really is toxic: he won Indiana, Bayh's home state, so one would figure that Obama's ideas are at least somewhat popular in Indiana. It really is hard to disagree with Matt Yglesias that this is about "sending a message" and letting moderates sieze more power and authority, and it also functions as a declaration that the special interest buck stops there. No way this sort of thing would ever have happened under Republicans.

Barack Obama wanted to change the ways of Washington. Well, it looks like he's got more work to do. It strikes me that these sorts of things are why people get turned off to politics--that is, politicians deciding that they need more power and influence rather than fixing problems--though that sort of thing doesn't hurt the racket of "moderates" like Bayh. In fact, the less people pay attention, the more they can get away with, so sewing cynicism is actually a plus for them. If everyone believes that Washington is irrevocably broken then it never gets fixed. Since Bayh's declaration of principles seems to be nonexistent aside from being "pragmatic"at this point, "cynicism" seems like the proper term for this whole enterprise.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Change vs. more of the same

Andrew Sullivan looks at two right-wing critiques of Obama's national security policy, and shoots down both of them. The post is worth reading, but I think the problem with the right's view on foreign policy and national security at this time is that the right has no idea what it believes anymore on those areas (let alone about Bush himself and his legacy), though they likely still believe in spreading "freedom" abroad while restricting it at home. Outsourcing freedom? Seems like the sort of pithy, demagogic but nonetheless largely right description of what these folks are up to.

But the right is paralyzed right now, which is probably why you're not hearing much on these subjects. As Andrew shows, Republicans can't agree on whether or not Obama is different than Bush. They can't agree whether he's a dangerous change or just more of the same. Ultimately, however, both critiques are fundamentally the same: Republicans are arguing that their policies were absolutely, positively necessary to keep the country safe, regardless of the moral implications. It's just that the path you take to get there is different: if you are arguing that Obama = Bush, then you're arguing that even Obama admits that Bush's policies were necessary. If you're arguing that he's a dangerous change, you're arguing that Obama is deviating from Bush's necessary policies. At this point, it seems like only Cheney is taking the latter position, as nobody seems much interested in defending Bush. In fact, I suspect that you'll hear lots more of "more of the same" from Republicans in the future because it accomplishes everything they need to accomplish--it's not a swipe at Bush since the base still loves him, it doesn't require a defense of Bush's policies, it allows conservatives to allege liberal hypocrisy--and if there's something they enjoy doing more than that, I don't know what it is. What it won't do is allow political space to blame a potential terror attack upon the United States on Barack Obama, though I suspect that they wouldn't try to do that anyway. People rally to their leaders after national disasters, and anyone who remembers the rapidity with which Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were drummed from the conversation after their comments about 9/11 will remember that pinning the blame on individuals and groups during a crisis doesn't really look too good, PR-wise.

And I have no objection to Republicans trotting out the "more of the same" line when Obama does something like use the state secrets privilege to throw out lawsuits, though. Keeps the right sort of pressure on the man. But I wonder when (if?) Republicans will decide to get back on the human rights bandwagon and if there will be a thorough accounting of what went wrong intramurally. Somehow, I doubt it.

Frozen River

I watched it last night from Netflix. As with most indies, there were good things and bad things. The good, obviously, has to include Melissa Leo's lead performance. There isn't a false note to the performance, and, as is usual for her, she just disappears into her role. It's also pretty bold, as it looks as though she didn't use makeup or really anything to look better--if anything it's probably the other way around. She looks weathered and unappealing--distinctly unHollywood--and it definitely pays off.

The movie also does a good job on its visuals and evoking the details of its characters' lives. But the story is very predictable, and virtually every third act development is forseeable to such an extent as to seem telegraphed. The movie is also pretty heavy-handed, though not so much to be oppressive, and it actually works out pretty well for the movie. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't really show us too much that is new. Honestly, you can get about the same level of working class angst by listening to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" or Springsteen's "Atlantic City" (I guess New Jersey is better than Upstate New York for working class angst?), though the movie does a better job than I expected of personalizing her struggles. I found the scene with Leo and her boss to be pretty infuriating, in exactly the right way. You really can't count on people outside of your family, and at times even within your family. And the relationship between Leo and the Native American woman who involves her in smuggling works out pretty well--it could have been a mere schematic, but it does work out as a relationship driven by mutual, escalating trust and need. Good stuff.

I generally don't like indie films like this one--they often feel like well-intentioned but failed efforts to "understand" that today's sophists watch and then pat themselves on the back for watching--but this one is an exception. I'd even go so far as to recommend it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Synonym for apparition

Evidently there is talk today about Democrats trying to get Arlen Specter to switch parties. I think that is not likely to happen yet. Right now, Specter is one of a handful of the most influential members of the Senate. As one of the very few gettable Republican votes he is in a position to put his imprint all over President Obama's legislation--most likely to water it down, in accordance with the philosophy of "centrists" like Ben Nelson and Sue Collins. Still, he's one of the most crucial members of the Senate right now, and he's going to enjoy it. Why shouldn't he stay on this team?

Well, the answer is that it can't last. Specter is riding high right now, but he's going to be sweating once Pat Toomey decides to enter the 2010 race. Specter shouldn't be under any illusions--Toomey will absolutely crush him in a GOP primary, and once we see polls of Specter vs. Toomey vs. whoever else gets in, we'll see how impossible it is for Specter to hang onto his seat. At this point, Democrats looking to take on a far-right extremist like Toomey will get in line--someone like Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired Navy Admiral, would make for a compelling candidate against Toomey, who is not exactly a good fit for a state that gave Barack Obama an 11 point win in November. At this point, Arlen will either retire, run anyway and lose, or switch parties. Even if he wins he'll be bloodied up, and he will be unlikely to reunite Pennsylvania's GOP behind him in 2010.

So the logical course for Specter, if he wants to continue in office, is to switch parties right before it comes out that he's totally screwed. I doubt there's much the Democrats could do to induce him now, as he'd be giving up quite a bit of power to become a Democrat. I mean, you could offer to reinstall him as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (though I wonder whether Pat Leahy would be happy about that) but that power pales in comparison to effectively having veto power over Barack Obama's judges. I really don't think they could give Specter enough to make him come over now. But, eventually, he'll either crawl over or die on the Republican vine.

Oh, and by the way, it would be really stupid if Specter actually remained a Republican and lost brutally. I've heard that he's loyal to his party, and that he doesn't want to leave it. That is all very well and admirable, so long as his party has been loyal to him and trusted him in return. That the exact opposite is true suggests that Specter is either standing on some arcane point of principle or is just delusional. I mean, seriously, after getting excoriated by the right for giving in on the stimulus bill, after having the RNC's dunce-in-chief casually talk about financing a primary opponent, and after (presumably) not getting support from the establishment when the time comes, what reason would he have to remain loyal to traitors? He's going to just sit there and take all this from the Republican establishment and not fight back? If that's the case, then why should Democrats even bother to try to recruit him? Just poke him in the eye and say John Boehner told you to do it.

The emperor strikes back

I've kept meaning to write a post about Dick Cheney's remarks and, now, Robert Gibbs's response (oh, how I love Robert Gibbs!), but I'm not really sure what I would say. At this point it seems obvious that Cheney, regardless of what you can say about him, really is a believer in all this rendition/"enhanced interrogation" garbage. It has been wondered why Cheney was such a bastard in office when his record prior to 9/11 did not suggest it, and my theory is that we are all imbued with basic humanity. We all know right and wrong. Aside from sociopaths (and I don't think Cheney is one), doing bad things weighs heavily upon us, and the only way to make it better is by owning up and asking forgiveness. Otherwise, you just get a chip on your shoulder.

Dick Cheney ordered an unnecessary war. He championed torture. He backed spying on Americans, holding Americans indefinitely without trial, and extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to terror-supporting dictatorships. He was responsible for tossing aside centuries of treasured progress on human rights issues. One imagines that these things weigh heavily on him, and rather than facing up to his shameful performance in office, it appears he'd rather try to keep stoking the fires of fear so that all of this will seem reasonable to others. Ultimately, though, that he'd bother to go on an interview on television in a country where nearly everyone hates his guts bespeaks a great deal either of bravado or delusion, and not even the end of his term in office would dissuade him from his self-appointed role of the nation's Chief Torture Evangelist. One senses, though, that this is more about Cheney seeking vindication than anything else, only he lacks the PR savvy to pull it off. One suspects that he's also trying to convince himself, and what could be more convincing than a terror attack? This is largely speculative, going off of what I've heard the man say and what I've read of him in The Dark Side among other places, but he (and Bush) strike me as being far less rock-solid and secure than they put on.

When digging a hole...

This AIG bonus story interests me. It's pretty enraging that people who helped cause this whole financial collapse are going to get taxpayer funded bonuses for their ineptness, but what is more interesting to me is that these people don't have the sense to save themselves. No doubt they feel entitled to these bonuses, and they're angry that anyone would suggest that they shouldn't have them. But what I find most interesting is that they don't seem to realize that stories like this just put Americans in an even more anti-business mood. It certainly does that to me. I mean, seriously, could there be a better backdrop for the Employee Free Choice Act? Just show a couple of pictures of Citibank, talk about needing to curb the power of businesses and get more money to the middle class, and I think that should be good enough.

And it looks like the leaderless Republicans are still playing the part of outraged defenders of the overclass. I won't lie to you, this stuff makes me really angry. The Rovian "let's help our friends and screw our enemies" mindset still plagues the GOP, rather than the "let's do the right thing and consider the politics afterwards" alternative. It's not clear to me what the right thing is all the time, but for these assholes to screw things up so much that they need to take our money to bail them out should be humbling--they should be on their knees every day, making YouTube podcasts thanking us for saving them, and promising voluntary pay cuts until everything is resolved. Their attitude instead seems to be, "Well, you liked it when we were making money for you all with your 401k, so why are you complaining when you have to bail us out? Them's the rules, broseph!" Before this is over, we should regulate the financial sector so harshly that Canadian banking laws look like a joke in comparison.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Give the man some time

I tend to agree with this, and I'd go even further. I'd like to think I'm a fairly smart guy, and I have a good education, though I am neither an economist nor a finance guy. I got a 97% in my Econ 1A class back in college, so here goes. From what I understand, there are few options for Obama to explore, and all of them are bad. He could do another round of TARP, which probably wouldn't work, would require taxpayers to take another hit, and which would probably be dead on arrival with the public, which has steadily been becoming more anticorporate over the past few months. I know I have.

Obama could do something along the lines of what Paul Krugman wants to do: nationalize the worst banks, wipe out the shareholders, strip out the bad assets, sell off the banks and create an aggregator bank that will handle the toxic assets. This makes sense to me, but I see two problems with it: one, it is illegal and two, even talking about this would send bank stocks even lower. Maybe Obama's considering this, but I know my history: Harry Truman tried to nationalize coal plants during the Korean War, and it got struck down in the courts. If government seizing private business was illegal then, it's probably illegal now. I guess Obama could eliminate all doubt and ask Congress for a law allowing him to nationalize, but the very act of asking would be an indication that he's considering it, which would crash bank stocks as people would be worried they'd lose their money. Or maybe he could roll the dice and hope that the Roberts Court is more left-leaning than the New Deal Court. Err...yeah, that seems likely. And he could just do it on the notion that he would be able to administer a coup de grace before the judicial system could react, but after eight years of a president who played by his own rules I am not enthusiastic about the prospect of more of the same.

This is not to say that nationalization is the wrong strategy--indeed, it's probably the least bad one. It's clear that there are many thorny issues to iron out, and that Obama's team is being cautious because they're only likely to have one chance to do things right, and whatever it is, it's going to be costly and chancy. I also don't think it's a coincidence that the people, like Megan McArdle and Will Wilkinson (and most Republicans), who are making the "He's not doing anything!!!!1!!" argument, are more likely to either have not backed Obama in the first place of to have done so reluctantly, because they already have a negative view of him and don't think he knows what he's talking about. Strangely enough, I'm beginning to think that the Republicans might inadvertently have had a point about banking during the stimulus debate. Tax cuts for the purpose of stimulus are not very useful because people tend to save or pay down debt with them, especially with one-time tax cuts. In most cases this is why tax cuts aren't useful to grow the economy, but at this moment I think that this predictable feature makes them more useful than stimulus spending since money spent or used to pay down debt would go to the banks that need it. What's more, it's not a giveaway to the banks and it doesn't subsidize bad choices, as people who lived prudently will just get some more money to spend, which helps the economy. I wonder whether Obama is going to wait to see if his tax cuts helped the banking system, and then take action. Now, the Republicans just mindlessly support tax cuts no matter the conditions, based on a half-baked scheme of supply-side economics that has never been as effective at creating growth than traditional economics (aside from creating a growth in millionaires and billionaires at our expense). Tax cuts, contra the GOP, are not the solution to every economic problem. I'm beginning to wonder whether they might not have helped with this one.

A thought I just had

In the past two months (minus a week), President Obama has taken palpable steps toward negotiating with Iran and softening US policy toward Cuba. He has ended the practice of torture by US troops and is taking steps to close the prison at Guantanamo. He has announced a plan to end the Iraq War, a plan to put more troops into Afghanistan, among others. Yet hardly any of this is being attacked by Republicans at this time, despite most of this being opposed by their most recent presidential candidate, and despite the GOP having been primarily oriented toward foreign policy/national security since Eisenhower.

In the past two months, we've also seen the president lift the Global Gag Rule on overseas family planning, has overturned federal restrictions on stem cell research funding, has begun laying the groundwork for an end to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and has appointed a HHS Secretary whose record came under some fire from pro-life activists. And yet the establishment GOP has hardly made a peep about any of these things, and about the closest it came was decrying a half billion dollars to reimburse state governments for contraception, something that seemed more motivated by a desire to object to "pork" than the notion of contraception, an assertion seemingly borne out of later--and equally spirited--objections to phony mag-lev trains and Mormon crickets, and unless you think John McCain's obsession with beaver management in North Carolina has some sort of innuendo to it I think it's safe to say that social policy, at least at the elite level, has not been on the Republican radar screen.

In the meanwhile, virtually every step that Barack Obama has taken on domestic policy has been the subject of virulent GOP criticism, which I don't object to in principle (there are certainly valid things to criticize) except for the fact that it is incredibly misguided and stupid, and done in a way that doesn't hide that they don't care too much for anyone outside the CEO set. Since the beginning of the year the Republicans have tried to get auto workers to be paid less (not under Obama's watch, but close enough), argued against a stimulus package, stuck firmly to the core principles of Hoovernomics, and told a national audience through one of its rising stars that government is structurally unable to even do things like respond to disasters, and that you're pretty much on your own. Republicans staged unanimous votes in the House against the stimulus package in the House and did near that in the Senate, a decision whose fallout is uncertain but that appears to be unpopular in real America, where a Democrat is surging in the NY-20 special election by banging the Republican candidate over the head with the stimulus. Republicans then engaged in grandstanding over a normal bill to fund the functions of government, decrying earmarks while greedily inserting their own. Since then, they have taken up the tired canard of talking about Obama's largely incremental health care proposals as the road to Francification, the Employee Free Choice Act as a sort of demonic job-killer, mild and inevitable tax hikes as "socialism" (as opposed to socialism, a largely defunct philosophy centering on abolishing capital and public ownership) and have continually asserted that Obama shouldn't tackle so many things domestically at once, which is their way of saying that he shouldn't tackle them ever. This isn't to mention things like the "Tea Party" phenomenon as started by Rick Santelli, a man whose rant against "losers" who bought homes they couldn't afford (it couldn't have anything to do with banks doing a bad job of evaluating risk and credit, or with regulations allowing banks to give more marginal loans, could it?) was a virtual declaration of class warfare that was sponsored by wealthy conservative interests. This is not to mention Congressional Republicans' recently found affection for "Going Galt", which evidently means that creative class types will go on strike if we masses place too many restraints on them (nobody tell Republicans about Ayn Rand's vicious hatred of religion!). Some of these points are debatable, but one cannot say the right has been silent on domestic policy.

So, to recap: we've heard literally nothing from Republicans on foreign policy and national security, though it's been the party's bread and butter for fifty years. We've heard next to nothing from Republicans on social policy which, by the way, is the reason why most Republicans are Republicans, according to every poll of Republicans ever. But we've heard volumes from Republicans on economic policy, almost all of it from a libertarian perspective when it wasn't from an overt overclass protection rationale. This despite the fact that John McCain campaigned unsuccessfully for president on similar rhetoric last year.

Is there, at this point, any space left to argue that the Republican Party isn't the party of the wealthy and special interests? At this pivotal moment it's all they're talking about, despite palpable steps taken against the conservative agenda (such as it is and has been for the past decade) in the other areas of policy, and despite the fact that actual Republicans are far more populist than one might think?* So while we can dispense with the notion that the GOP isn't bought at great price by the Mellon Scaifes of the world, it is surprising that Republicans are more interested in keeping rich peoples' money safe than, you know, trying to appeal to folks, doing what's right and winning an election here and there, you know?

*Granted, the post is old and the poll Ross cites is an old one before the 2008 presidental election, and many of the more moderate Republicans might now be Democrats. But a majority of Republicans against free trade? Almost a third in favor of tax hikes? And most Americans voted for a president promising tax hikes for the wealthy, which was an issue in the past election.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Huck you, Steele!

I hadn't really intended to wade into Michael Steele's latest flap, at least until I read this idiocy from Mike Huckabee:
In a statement, Mike Huckabee says the recent comments RNC Chairman Michael Steele made about abortion "are very troubling and despite his clarification today the party stands to lose many of its members and a great deal of its support in the trenches of grassroots politics."
Steele's comments didn't make much sense to me--it seemed like he didn't know what he was talking about. It sorta sounded like Sarah Palin, redux. But I have to believe that the notion that the Republicans would lose members because of statements like Steele's is silly--Steele isn't an elected official, he's not the head of the party, he's basically an administrator and spokesperson and the GOP has has had plenty of those in recent times who have been pro-choice, such as Rudy Giuliani and Condi Rice. What he said might enrage some activists, and it no doubt will, but if only Republicans worried less about keeping their activists charged up at all times and more on crafting sound policies and pitches that would appeal to the political center, both they and America would be in better shape.

I suppose the most generous reading of Steele's statements was that he supports banning abortion, but for now it's legal and it's a choice that people can make, and that even if it were banned people would still be able to procure it, but that they should not do so and should choose to give birth and then give the child up for adoption. Perhaps he even supports the Republicans' potemkin "let's send it back to the states" solution, which I don't believe for a second, because if pro-lifers ever make up a majority of the Supreme Court they will ban abortion as absolutely as it is legal now. There's a reason they support the Human Life Amendment, folks, and any conservative commitment to "federalism" ended with the massive statism of George W. Bush, who evidently thought that it would be okay to raid medical marijuana centers in states that legalized medicinal pot--no problem from a states' rights perspective for anyone. But if the generous interpreation of Steele's comments I just wrote is correct I really don't see what the fuss is about, and even if one believes he supports a return of the decision to the states I do not trust that people who have been equating abortion to the Holocaust for decades would be just fine with banning it in the Bible Belt and the Mormon Belt. So pro-lifers have little to worry about there.

It's just sad to see Mike Huckabee turn from being the last's campaign's reasonable conservative into the next campaign's most unhinged. My hopes of a Huck-led insurrection against the neocons and moneycons are evidently to go unfulfilled. Too bad. This is what the movement does to people, though: check out the number they did on Mitt Romney.

The Coleman "hacking" job

As I am a tech guy, I figured I'd weigh in on the Norm Coleman digital data issue. Coleman would like us to believe that this was a hack job, but I find this hard to believe. To prove this, I will offer an example. Let's say that this was the 1950s and that you were a thief trying to steal a list of wealthy donors and their financial information from a campaign office. Let's say that you get in, crack the safe, get the list, etc. Would you a) then leave, keeping the list or b) tape the list to the campaign office's door to allow anyone to see them, perhaps taking down the information yourself. Coleman's argument at this point is that (b) occurred, which is unlikely unless the thief had some sort of ulterior motives, which I suppose is possible but Occam's Razor tells us that it is more likely that a staffer accidentally put the donor list in the wrong folder.

Still, even if there were a hack, there are still issues. Including the CVV code--the three-digit code on the back of the card--is evidently illegal and indefensible, as with that information you could just use the card. In fact, having the credit card numbers there as unencrypted data is even less defensible, as it is really easy to encrypt data on a d-base--even a simple hashcode, or random sequence unique to a given value, requires only one line of code--so that it is not human readable. So there are actually a number of issues here, and I suspect some folks are going to join the swelled ranks of the unemployed soon. A setup this shoddy deserves nothing less.

Read more on this here. More broadly, I guess I don't understand the GOP's jiu jitsu. Coleman isn't going to win, and I understand that Republicans are desperate to keep Democrats from getting any more seats. But if Coleman somehow pulls it out there's the little matter of his getting investigated by the FBI. If he gets nabbed by them, whoever the GOP puts up to replace him is toast in the 2010 special election. Minnesota is pretty liberal, but Franken is probably polarizing enough to make races there more competitive in the future. I don't suppose that Republicans are thinking ahead of the next year or so anyway, and I guess they figure money spent to defend a likely crook is worth it to stop Obama's agenda, democracy be damned.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Douthat to the Times

Here's some unambiguously good news: Ross Douthat is moving over to the New York Times to become Bill Kristol's successor as a columnist. I always enjoy reading his writing (even though he ought to stay out of recruiting GOP rising stars: as I recall, he touted both Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal before they flamed out), and he usually brings interesting insights to the table.

It occurs to me that, with David Brooks and Ross Douthat, the very, super, ultra-liberal New York Times is probably going to be the place to read new conservative opinions going forward. Imagine that.

Religion is collapsing! First thoughts.

Evidence of a decline in religious affiliation has dropped. Andrew looks at the decline of Catholicism in the Northeast, Ross wonders if this will mean an attenuation of the culture wars, Rod Dreher elaborates on the impending evangelical collapse. How ironic that this should come out after a mother in Brazil is excommunicated for procuring an abortion for a 9 year old incest survivor whose pregnancy was life-threatening? If ever there was a case where abortion was warranted, it would have to be this one.

One of Sullivan's readers asks, if abortion is just considered murder, does the church regularly excommunicate for murder? Indeed, I would be very surprised if it did, and if that were the case then I guess that you could just shut down prison ministries right now. Hmm, see I was under this impression that God forgave all sins. This is what I was taught in Sunday School. Perhaps he does, except for the whole being gay and having abortions sins, which are so heinous that even a celibate gay man cannot be a priest. Let's be frank: religious authorities are ultraconservative these days, while the West is not moving in that direction. The obsession with abortion and gays seem to me to be largely about the subversion of ancient gender roles of the sort that continue to ensure that only men are ordained priests and can move up the Vatican hierarchy. The Vatican is unlikely to give it up, and are consigned to running a shrinking group of stalwarts while most everyone else moves on. The picture is looking very similar for evangelicals.

Of course, my take on Christianity is highly eclectic, and there's quite a bit of fusionism of various sorts in there. I don't, for example, believe that God is responsible for everything that happens in the world, we are. If God were responsible I would have to submit that, with all due respect, He could do a better job. And I tend to take liberal social positions, some of which I have little trouble squaring with Christianity (show me the verse where abortion is condemned) and others which require a bit more squaring, but that I don't feel are incompatible. But all this is largely because I've thought about things quite a bit. My experience with Christians has been that many of them are fine people (though quite a few aren't) but that the problem with them is the larger problem of a cultural inability to accept complexity and difficulty. Things like loving your enemies, simple as they sound, are actually incredibly difficult. Things like opposing abortion are actually pretty easy--for most people, you just have to say it and maybe vote for like-minded people, and revel in your righteousness. Doing something like dedicating your life to others is really, really hard and cuts against human nature. Doing something like opposing gay marriage is actually very simple. You can just say it, and maybe vote for like-minded people. Is it any wonder why religious people take those avenues, which aren't that hard, rather than focusing on the real substance which is much tougher? And while it is laudable to go to church every week it's simply not enough, and in the case of most churches that I went to as a child it was actually pretty worthless. Between the 30-45 mins. of singing banal Christian pop songs, the 15 or so minutes of announcements, and the 30 or so minutes of self-help pablum dressed up with a little bit of Christ, it's a case study in avoiding difficulty, of an MBA culture run amok where the goal is to get as many asses in the seats instead of nurturing souls. And it's not worthless--lots of people do it, and get something out of it--but the amount of challenging messages I've heard in megachurches can be counted on one hand.

So, I guess it's not surprising that many Christians tend to focus on ephemeral cultural issues, like gay marriage. It's easy to take a few verses, ignore the context, and deliver an unambiguous condemnation of such things. That Jesus Christ--he of Christianity fame--was never known to comment on the issue matters not to these folks. Most of them haven't even read the Bible anyway, or at least looked into what the Bible actually says about the issue. The past few decades have seen mainstream Christianity turn into a feel-good parade of cheesy cultural artifacts and contentless messaging. In the meanwhile, figures like Jim Dobson and Pat Robertson have managed to concoct an alternate version of Christianity that is almost 180 degrees opposite of the simple message of loving and serving others. Those dudes seem to hate everyone who is different from them. I don't know their hearts, obviously, but their words have got to count for something.

My own solipsistic response is to encourage more variety on the matter of interpreting scriptures. The notion that there's a "right way" and a "wrong way" to understand these things that anyone other than God knows is a notion that I find absolutely infuriating. This is not to say that there aren't some non-negotiables in there: the Bible says quite a bit about morals and right and wrong, of course, but Jesus's message isn't really a list of thou shalt nots, and the emphasis has to be in living according to the stuff he actually said, rather than scratching a belief system out of Old Testament and Revelation arcana. Judaism doesn't subscribe to this notion of "one correct reading of the scriptures, as determined by man"--in other words, hubris--but rather embraces debate and alternate interpretations, to the extent that one of their holy books is basically a collection of theological arguments. The one "acceptable" Christianity strikes me as being too political, too divorced from modernity, too stolid and monolithic, and too narrow to permit variety. One cannot but laugh at the irony of a religion that emphasizes how, unlike other religions, Christians have an unique relationship with their god, and then go out of their way to insist that everyone's relationship with God must be the same. The irony goes even further still when Protestantism, a denomination formed by questioning the orthodoxies of another large, monolithic strain of Christianity. Or maybe not: Luther wanted his own monolith, not a diaspora from Catholicism.

Ultimately, I can see a rockier patch for religion in America on the horizon, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. A rise in skepticism will perhaps lead to an abandonment of some of the sillier notions among religious extremists, just like cleansing fires actually help forests grow.
The special election for New York's 20th Congressional District is getting closer, evidence that the GOP's intent to grandstand against things like the stimulus package isn't too popular in swing districts. If I were Michael Steele, I might start updating that resume.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why the right-wing challenge against Specter is crazy

Aside from the fact that a weakened but triumphant Specter is much more likely to lose the general election, and that a victorious Toomey is almost certainly doomed, that is...

It's that party-line voting just makes sense as far as congress is concerned. Congressmen are one out of 435 and Senators are one out of 100 (theoretically). Their individual actions aren't likely to change things too much, unless they're really talented. So, picking someone who shares your party label makes sense, especially in the Senate where procedural votes are the big deal, and those votes are almost always party-line. Hence the strange spectacle last session of Chuck Hagel voting to filibuster his own Iraq bill. It's tradition, I suppose.

So, it really doesn't make too much sense, and that the GOP can't afford to shed too many more high-ranking officials evidently factors into this calculus. Specter opponents will no doubt insist that he's little better than a liberal Democrat, which is not really true, as that would mean that he'd vote with the Democrats on procedural notions with almost uniform frequency.

Update: Wouldn't Specter's relative moderation be a huge asset for him? He's one of few "gettable" Republicans and therefore has vast influence over what actually gets passed. Seems that would be a compelling pitch to me, if he survives. It makes little sense for the guy to stay in the GOP, since it isn't going to help him and will, in fact, do what it can to run him out. But I don't suppose he's the sort to switch parties.

A (mild) Obama criticism

Because I need my centrist cred! Yeah, right. Anyway, I think the extent to which everything that Obama is promoting is interconnected is overstated (gods, what an awful sentence!). I'm willing to buy that healthcare should be considered as interconnected with the economy--the rise in health care costs is dragging on the budget, and getting healthcare done is important because hey, if you're not working, you're not getting health insurance. I think it's quite a stretch to say that global warming is conmingled with the economic downturn, or education either. This doesn't mean that he's wrong, just that the connection isn't apparent.

Which is why this is much stronger. Obama should say he's moving quickly because he wants to accomplish as much as possible as soon as possible, and he needs to keep reminding people that he's working on the bank situation, that he's on top of it. He can say that he campaigned on everything that he's doing, and that he has a mandate for change. I tend to think that Obama being seen as ambitious for change can only be a good thing.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bring on the neo-Hooverites

Jon Chait has a compelling takedown of neo-Hooverism, which he disguises as a book review. Here's his take on Amity Schlaes, hero of this nascent movement:
The experience of reading The Forgotten Man is more like talking to an old person who lived through the Depression than it is like reading an actual history of the Depression.
Look, I'm not completely positive that all of Obama's policies will fix the economy. I think that the stimulus will help greatly, I think that getting healthcare done will help greatly, and I think Obama's budget sets some good long-term priorities and will help greatly. I suppose we'll find out soon enough. But it takes a certain level of detachment from reality to just assume that, coming off a disastrous war and economic crisis under your watch that nothing is wrong with your philosophy. It's even crazier to assume that the answer lies in an unpopular and discredited line of reasoning from a century ago. And it would be one thing if there had been vigorous, open, honest debate among conservatives about what went wrong and then they decided they weren't to blame. But instead Rush Limbaugh just cuts off debate and the zombified GOP moves in place.

Really, today's GOP is looking more and more like an odd piece of performance art rather than a viable political institution.

Larison predicts

Daniel Larison writes that the Republicans' 2010 isn't likely to be like 1994--and that, at best, it will look like the GOP's 1978. It's worth reading his analysis, as Larison's thoughts are always worth reading. I largely agree, though I suspect that Democrats won't be too displeased with the ultimate results of 2010 when it happens. For one thing, I think that new, conservative Dems like Walt Minnick and Travis Childers are not likely to hold onto their seats. Even though the GOP's self-touted "success" in 2006 (it's a victory for conservatism because conservative Democrats won!) was fraudulent it is not without a kernel of truth, and Minnick, Childers, Bobby Bright, etc. are not going to last because they are extremely conservative and were largely elected out of revulsion at the GOP leadership. Since W is gone and Rush is going ballistic at the Dems, their constituents will return to their old voting habits, and while the GOP will lose even more swing and Dem-trending districts (Jim Gerlach and Dave Reichert are looking to move up into bigger offices, Joe Cao's bound to be a one-term wonder), I suspect that the GOP will knock a few conservative Democrats out of office as Dubya recedes from view (though I doubt the Dems will let him recede too much).

The end result will be likely be a pickup of 5-10 House seats for Republicans. The Republican PR machine will start cranking after that, but as all the seats will have been Republican seats regained (and the odd loss here or there, like John Murtha, who will not likely be returning after this term) it will require a bit more bravado than usual to spin this into a conservative breakthrough (though I suspect Republican flacks will prove up to the task). I think the GOP will actually drop a few more Senate seats. FiveThirtyEight has its top six Senate pickup opportunities as Republican seats. Even if the Dems only manage to pick up three of them--and this is perhaps overly conservative--they will have over sixty votes in the Senate, and therefore get the ability to rewrite Senate rules to curtail or end the filibuster. Then the number 60 doesn't really matter anymore. If this happens, Evan Bayh will need a hug.

I think the result I have sketched is likely, and I think its results are just as likely. Republicans will go totally ballistic about the House results, talk about how Senate elections are quirky and don't correspond to trends (which is true) and that this shows that America is waking up and starting to oppose Obama's agenda (time will tell, but it won't be true if the Republicans can't articulate a compelling alternative). This will further embolden conservatives to select someone like Sarah Palin to run against Obama in 2012, despite her being unpalatable to the country at large. This will result, inevitably, in a landslide victory for Obama (providing he doesn't turn out a total disaster) similar to the Nixon-McGovern race in which chunks of the center-right aparatus defect to Obama's side. The only thing I wonder about is whether the 2012 GOP winds up being like the 1972 Dems and runs a moderate, Carter-like candidate in four years, or if it becomes the 1983 UK Labour Party and more or less stays on course (though Kinnock did moderate Labour quite a bit, eventually). Moderation is anathema within conservative circles these days, at least at the elite and activist levels. I wonder, though, about whether the base would feel the same way. People who supported George W. Bush for eight years are not likely to be people overly invested in policy outcomes so much as a few pet issues upon which Bush hewed true, and might actually be more willing to back a "Democrat-lite" candidate on some issues if it gets them back into power to focus on the issues they care about. This is why I have historically thought Mike Huckabee would be a great Republican presidential nominee, as he would be able to pivot aggressively on supply-siderism and neoconnery while retaining the confidence of the Republican base, most of whom care exclusively about social issues. After his "United Soviet States of America" rant at CPAC, however, I admit to being reluctant to believe that anymore. And I'm not much more confident that Jon Huntsman can do it, though it depends on a lot of things, doesn't it?

BSG's fatal flaw

I just realized it while watching the last episode. The self-conscious "darkness" had annoyed me for some time until I realized what was wrong with this show: it's a show that is interested only in the darker side of human experience. Joy, happiness, satisfaction, contentment--these things go unexplored and unmentioned. I realize that this is an intentional decision, as Ron Moore and his merry gang are interested in what people do under pressure, when all seems lost, when the game seems over, etc. But I think this is a problem with the show that few seem interested in exploring, but that makes the show substantially less watchable and also of quite a bit less interest as an artistic achievement. One of the things that makes, say, The Godfather such a good movie is that, at the end of it, the viewer has experienced so many waves of different emotions. There are things that are funny, sad, happy, and so forth. And so much is explored in so much depth that one cannot help but feel fulfilled, on an emotional level, at the scope of what has been accomplished.

Galactica, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in only the "dark" emotions. Which is fair enough--Ron Moore has his vision and it is fairly uncompromising. That it is entirely wrong, and rings false to anyone with some form of life experience, is incidental. That it has been promoted by many critics is unfortunate. As someone who was quite bullish on early BSG and thought that it would be better off if it were funnier I have been disappointed by how the vision has been fulfilled--in fact, the rare flashes of humor in the early seasons have actually been diminished. People living under dire circumstances don't just sit around and cry about it. Far from it, in fact. If you have read Elie Weisel, for example, you would know that concentration camp inmates would often make jokes that someone like myself would often find appalling, like jokes about people's heads being blown apart. Such a thing would likely confound the writing staff of BSG but it is true, and there is a very specific reason why people do things like this--because humor is a protective device. Joking about something makes it less real, less immediate, and living in such awful misery will just drive someone insane, which is why one needs to protect one's sanity with jokes. Now, if BSG wanted to have Admiral Adama race through the Galactica stark naked, shouting Dylan lyrics while balancing a clicking metronome on his head on the last episode I'd grant their point, but for a show whose creators often talk about "hope" I find little of it on their show, and rather a perverse tendency to try to defuse it to the maximum extent possible.

Battlestar had two very strong opening seasons, and the show could have evolved along the lines of The Wire, which also depicted stark human misery but liberally included humor to make the misery go down more easily. The Wire, of course, is not disputed as a masterful exploration on humanity. BSG could have done that, and it probably would have made the show more watchable. They could have occasionally given us some victories along the way, and the show would have been more satisfying. In other words, they could have tried to present a complex and complete portrait of humanity rather than the emo stylings of people trying to make a point, but they chose not to. The first two seasons had hints of those things, but rather than grow up the show burnt out, and this last half season has been full of pretensions to high drama and meaningful tragedy while never understanding that the loss of something cannot be tragic unless it is valued to begin with. BSG eventually wound up being the second act of a tragedy, when everything is falling apart, but the staff never seemed to realize that the losses have to be contextualized in order to be hard-hitting. This past season has asked us to ponder the tragedy of humans perishing, unable to find a place in the universe for themselves. The show has reached a point where that has ceased to seem tragic.

So, basically, the show falls down in depicting humans realistically, as all the humans would have killed themselves long ago if actually confronted with a voyage like Galactica's. It is unsurprising that Galactica would have wound up with a totally incoherent worldview, as I've come to terms with the fact that, despite some fascinating and worthwhile early episodes, the show is basically high-toned pulp and always has been, and that it's all been made up as we went. It's actually pretty disappointing from a show that gave indications of being something more, but one must accept that there's much less there that meets the eye. I have.

Friday, March 6, 2009


Speaking of conservative decency, what the hell is going on with Republicans thinking aloud about specific Democrats dying? Rush Limbaugh is obviously a sad and petty man--good people don't wish suffering on other people--but this thing about Ted Kennedy seems classless even for him. Ladies and gentlemen, your leader of the opposition!

Seriously, I wonder if Limbaugh realizes that Ted Kennedy is, in addition to a human being with feelings and anxieties of his own, a man whose family and friends love him and are undoubtedly upset at the though of losing him. Saying shit like this drives me absolutely bonkers because it isn't helpful and it isn't necessary--it's just mean. I don't know everything about Limbaugh, but I would hope that he has people that care for him, and I wonder if someone close to them were dying if he'd just blurt something out like that. And if not, why is he doing it to someone else?

What. An. Asshole.

About "hoping he fails"

Rush Limbaugh's declaration that he hopes Obama fails--and the ensuing controversy, denials, apologies, and acceptances of said declaration--provokes an interesting question: what about all those liberals who wanted Bush to fail? Isn't this just normal partisan bickering? I suspect it isn't. After all, mainstream Democrats--public figures, anyway--weren't saying those words during any point during the Bush Administration. Many Dems felt it, but this isn't the same thing. I guess I should talk about my own experiences, as that is what I am most qualified to do. As I spent the early twenty-aughts as a Repub-leaning indy I was obviously not hoping that Bush would screw up, as I supported him. I was conflicted about the Iraq War--I signed a petition against it early on, but as it drew more imminent I decided I'd support it, largely because the only opposition seemed to be among Berkeley types vomiting in the streets because the thought of the war made them sick.

I turned against the war pretty quickly--I mostly voted Republican in 2002, but by 2004 it was the other way around. After Abu Gharaib and the worsening of Iraq I decided that these people didn't really know what they were doing, and that we ought to switch leadership. I was a full-fledged Dem a year later, and I haven't voted for a Republican in some time and doubt I will for national office soon (though I might in a local or statewide race--it would depend, as local issues are different from national issues). For a while I was quite a bit further to the left than I am now, but I'm more or less a mainstream Democrat.

As the years passed I became more and more enraged with George W. Bush. I don't suppose I have to summarize why Bush was bad--we all know that now. But there were times when I thought to myself that the economy going under or Iraq getting much much worse would be good because they would show just how awful Bush was--I wanted people to see what I saw, to feel the revulsion at the abomination of this man's reign. I would think these things at times, but I would push them out of my mind very quickly, because I would then think of all the people who would die in Iraq if things got worse, or all the people who would suffer from an economic collapse, and I would realize that wishing for these things revealed how small and petty I was for thinking them. Honestly, if I had a choice between this and an alternate reality where Bush was still at 9/11-era popularity but Iraq had never happened and the economy was at Clinton-era heights I'd choose it in a heartbeat.

So it is with some wisdom that I can say that wishing that a leader fails is the sign of a petty and sad person, a person who would gladly have suffering inflicted on many people out of some sort of desire to be proven right. Many Democrats probably felt these things too, but few with any sort of microphone said so openly, because of this very reason. Also because it isn't terribly patriotic. I know, I'm wary to throw around the p-word after a decade of Republican messaging that not supporting the president is unpatriotic. I'm aware of the irony. But it's one thing to oppose a leader's values and vision while still hoping that he'll do a good job, or at least hoping that he doesn't make things worse. It was a difficult line to define with Bush, an unworthy man who should never have been president and whose failures make him, in my opinion, the second worst president in history after James Buchanan. It was a difficult thing to live as we heard about secret prisons, for example. But I can honestly say that I never for a moment allowed myself to think that it would be constructive to wish pain on others simply to justify my own moral indignation.

And, as you see, wishing wasn't necessary. Bush's corruption, stupidity and ignorance did him in, and now it's the Republicans who are in the same position. I rejected hoping that Bush would fail, ultimately, because I decided that I was better than that, that such thoughts were unworthy of a right-thinking person. Time will tell if Republicans are able to come to the same conclusion.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Caveat: some of my best friends are moderates...

Here's why the American center is useless, courtesy of Tim Fernholtz:
[T]he liberal president is taking some action, but to remain in the center Cohen must warn him not to become too European, despite lacking evidence that this is happening or even objecting to what the president does. If there's a chance to refer to his time living in France, so much the better.
It is worth noting that liberalism of Obama's stripe is actually a centrist philosophy in the grand scheme of things. There's right-wingery, there's liberalism and there's leftism, i.e. socialism or communism. Right-wingery in America seeks to maximize private ownership, leftism seeks to achieve public ownership of the means of production. Liberalism is a principled middle ground, which largely grants the right's case on free-market capitalism while allowing that the state needs to assume some duties to make sure an even playing field since capitalism's core premises frequently do not hold, and the free market as the right-wingers conceive it doesn't actually exist. Much of my thinking on this issue comes from my readings of Herb Simon, a Nobel laureate who actually proved that the free market, the rational economic actor, etc., are all based on flawed assumptions but that what we have functions anyway.

So that's where I'm coming from. And it's where Obama's coming from. Obviously, there are other ideologies and theories of economics, and some of those, like neoliberalism, are more to the right of Obama and myself. But Nelson, Bayh, et al. aren't really bound by any particular theory of economics. Their philosophy seems less like a coherent way of viewing the world and more like a way to avoid taking hard stances on anything, so that way nobody in their states will be angry at them so that they can keep winning. And so be it--public servants ought to want to win their seats again, it's a good accountability measure. But this country--including quite a few people in Indiana and Nebraska--voted for Obama last fall. In fact, Obama carried Indiana outright and won one of Nebraska's electoral votes. And during the campaign, he promised to raise taxes on the top 2% of the population to pay for cutting taxes on most everyone else. Republicans vociferously attacked these policies, so much so that the last several weeks of the campaign included frequent attacks on "spreading the wealth around" and "socialism". Americans proved more than comfortable with redistributivism and voted Obama in, not finding the conservative case compelling. Obama won the conversation, and he won quite a few Republican states making it. I suppose Nelson, Bayh and the rest are still under the impression that it's 1996 and that you just can't articulate progressive economic principles and win. That's exactly what Obama did, though, and he won in part because of it. These dudes really need to either get on the train or get off the tracks.

Update: In fact, it seems to me that right now is perhaps the worst time to fight against raising taxes on bankers, speculators and the like. I wonder if Obama will summon that sort of populist outrage--i.e. it was rich people that caused this damn mess, and they should pay to fix it! My sense is that there is so much anger at the moneyed classes right now that a much more ambitious redistribution scheme could plausibly pass on grassroots anger right about now.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.