Friday, July 31, 2009

Dept. of Outrages

This really is unacceptable. Using a term for a female dog to describe one of our highest-ranking government officials really ought to be a fireable offense, but this is the media we're talking about from which nobody got fired over not getting the Iraq War right, and specifically the Washington Post that publishes George Will's climate change fabulism on a regular basis. For all the talk of the liberal media, it seems that it institutionally more resembles the Republican Party--your status is unrelated to your actual performance, and there's no accountability whatsoever.

Revised timeline

Yeah, so I proposed The Timeline some time ago, which you can find by clicking on the link below. Basically, it was how I thought the next eight years would turn out. So far, things are more or less on track, but I think I might have to revisit one aspect: Sarah Palin getting the Republican nomination. I don't think it's going to happen. I must admit that I never expected her to flame out so rapidly. Now that she has negative approval ratings in her state, I think it's going to be very difficult for her even to get the nomination. My guess is that she'll have a chat show or something similar. She has nothing to build on, nowhere to go. People with 40/53 numbers don't get elected to anything. If she can't even be counted on to carry her home state she's a goner.

At this point, my guess is that Huckabee is the prohibitive favorite, though I don't think he'll win, thanks to taking economic positions that happen to be popular with actual people instead of D.C. elites. I once thought that Huckabee could be a real reformer in the GOP--someone who could cultivate his own following, independent of the party apparatus, and kick out the Club for Growthers and the neocons, but it's become clear that Huckabee is not particularly principled, and is instead something of a suck-up who will adjust his positions if he has a reasonable expectation of power. Romney and Jindal have religious problems of different sorts with the base, and I don't think Jeb will run. I think the GOP might go uncharacteristic and pick a dark horse. Future New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seems like someone promising, but perhaps too sane. Jim DeMint, on the other hand, strikes me as a real contender for the nomination.

Good GDP news

This seems fairly clear to me:
A turn-around in the second quarter. My own suspicion is that a huge amount of Obama's numbers right now are a function of the economy. I have no idea where it's headed - and there are still rapids ahead. But this has got to encourage the administration a little.
I think the reality that Obama's numbers have declined while the GOP's have not risen not at all is further proof. The country isn't moving back toward the Republicans according to the polls--if anything, they have gotten even more repugnant in the past six months. The rise of birtherism should pose an interesting problem to Republicans, one directly borne of a lack of willingness to impose self-discipline, and it will be interesting to see the outcome.

Nullification redux

Someone could just save these folks a lot of time and just tell these people that you can't do this:
Texas, meanwhile, has one of the nation's highest rates of uninsured residents -- roughly one in four Texans go without coverage. Its Republican governor, Rick Perry, recently said he's "willing and ready" to block reform from taking shape in his state, calling it "encroachment." What's more, Republican lawmakers in Arizona have approved a ballot measure that would, if approved, allow the state to override a federal health care law that includes individual or employer mandates.
Yeah, we're back to John C. Calhoun here. What is becoming more and more clear to me is the extent to which the hard right in this country is simply uncomfortable with democracy. For them, since the 1950s it's been the barbarians are at the gates, we need to do whatever we can, blah blah blah. This is why the right celebrates criminals like Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, seeing them as bold crusaders for America instead of stupid, venal, corrupt men. But fetishizing breaking the law like Jack Bauer necessarily breeds a contempt of the law in general, which is ironic for a "law and order" party. This has led, unsurprisingly, to a contempt of the liberal democratic institutions that have sustained America for so long (but that are, admittedly, in need of some tweaking). They don't think that they should have to abide by anything the other side does when they lose. But even criticizing Bush during wartime was giving comfort to the enemy, of course. And the use of the filibuster--as nondemocratic as it is--is part and parcel of this. I always found those lists of the times Bush said he wished he was a dictator kinda annoying when posted by liberal bloggers, but I think the point is coming into greater and greater relief. Until they recover some sense of liberality (in the little-l sense) they cannot be trusted with any power at all.

I guess this isn't a hugely original insight, merely another outgrowth of the right's voluminous authoritarianism. Authoritarianism without authority. If you're a jet, you're a jet all the way, you know?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Earth to McCarthy

Larry "whitey tape" Johnson isn't exactly a reputable source. That would be like a Democrat pretending that Oliver Stone is some sort of respected political source.

Heck, McCarthy isn't even a respected public figure. He totally sucked in Less Than Zero. That was all Robert Downey Jr.

(P.S. Of course I know that it's not the same guy. But I think that National Review would probably be more respected if they fired this McCarthy and hired the ex-Brat Packer, and just hoped nobody would notice. That would solve all their problems--you're welcome, NR! Of course, I have no idea of the thespian McCarthy's politics.)

No way

There is now evidence that Karl Rove was part of the DOJ prosecutor firings scandal.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's not just Hollywood

Evidently, China is going to remake the Coen Bros' Blood Simple. Which is, by the way, one of their best movies. It's also one of their most distinctive and oddest. It's this bloody, paranoid story about a guy who hires a cut-rate hitman to murder his cheating wife, and he can't do it. Consequences ensue. In essence, it's the Coens' usual trope of the simple plan gone awry, but it's more primal and raw than anything else they've ever done. I don't think I'll ever watch it again, but it left a hell of an impression on me.

If the remake ever gets back to the states, I'll probably see it.

He's off his rocker

Yeah, Sully's pretty much lost it altogether here:
The reason for demanding it is the same reason for demanding basic medical records proving Sarah Palin is the biological mother of Trig.

Because it would make it go away and it's easily done.
I really thought Sullivan was smarter than this. Producing the birth certificate would not make the thing go away. It would just make it transmogrify into something else. The explanations for why Obama isn't a citizen are forever changing based on what's been debunked, but the conviction of these people doesn't wax or wane--it is consistent, regardless of how implausible their narrative gets, because they are convinced that Obama is a dangerous other on a level that cuts deeper than logic. Why would "proof" convince them? Do you really think Orly "Obama is like Stalin" Taitz will call everything off once Obama releases the certificate? And how easy would it be for her to say, "That's a really nice forgery you've got there?" if she sees the certificate? Sullivan seems to think that there's reason behind the madness, but there isn't. There's just madness.

And what standard of journalism is this? That one should have to answer the most deranged and ridiculous of one's critics, regardless of what proof they have or whether their questions have any merit? I suppose that if Scientologists started pondering whether Obama is, in fact, Xenu, Sullivan would have to insist according to his principles that Obama surrender himself to the nearest Scientology facility to undergo testing. And why shouldn't he? After all, that would make the rumors go away and I'm guessing it would be easily done. Because holders of public office have a responsibility to prove themselves innocent of everything Lou Dobbs insinuates, of course.

What I find even more interesting about this is that, rather than just admit that the Palin pregnancy theories were misguided, that there are simpler explanations (namely, that she had the baby in Alaska and her story was BS, which is a simpler explanation that is consistent with what we know of the woman) that he had reconsidered after the pressure of the campaign died down, Sullivan is using perhaps his least defensible preoccupation in the past few years--which even his underbloggers have admitted was deeply misguided--to indulge yet another indefensible preoccupation. It's like saying that the case for war in Iraq should be enough to go to war with Iran. If Sullivan has reason to believe that Obama is not a U.S. born citizen, let him present proof. If not, he can either try to find some, or he can keep quiet. But why the hell is the burden of proof on Obama to repudiate nutty rantings? Because no imposition is too large for a public servant. Gee, if that's the new standard, I can't imagine who would want to run for public office.

I don't know what has happened to Sully recently--perhaps Obama ran over his beagles?--but he lost a lot of respect with his Palin conspiracy theories, and he stands to lose quite a bit more if he makes common cause with the birthers.

And Eric Cantor will be our president

I tend to believe this more than the other polls on the subject recently. I seem to recall the likes of Ambinder breathlessly reporting that the Republicans were dead even on the Congressional ballot a number of times during 07-08, and we all know what came of that. So long as the GOP will not face up to the disastrous consequences of its policies--and so long as voters remember them--they will not wield any power.

For the record, my guess is that the GOP will pick up a few seats next year--somewhere between 5-10, mostly in the South, mostly from Blue Dogs. I'm predicting, though, that the Democrats will gain a few more Senate seats and a few governorships as well.

On co-ops

It sure looks like the public option is going the way of the dodo, but while my opinion on it hasn't really changed, I'm beginning to think that liberals are placing too much stress on this one part of reform. In any event, the public plan is too compromised as it is--you can only get it if you're uninsured or a small business, etc. Good idea, but politically too explosive, it would seem.

Obama seems to be taking the right tack here. If it's possible to construct a national co-op that anyone can buy into, that can use Medicare rates, etc., then that could be fine. Maybe even better than the public plan under debate. I guess we'll have to see what happens. And it's probably the right decision to compromise here. To spend all your political capital on a plan that will cover just 15 million people seems silly, considering all the other good stuff on discussion.

And speaking of the other stuff, this is long overdue:
Barack Obama is going on the road today with a retooled pitch for health-care reform. In particular, he's emphasizing how reform will help the rest of us. To dramatize this, the White House has come up with the eight guarantees that will be written into health care bill.
It's worth looking at. As for the sluggishness of Obama's press operation on this, well, I guess he's still learning. It's easy to forget that the guy's only been president for six months.

In re birfers

Weigel digs up some gold:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Womb Raiders - Orly Taitz
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTasers

What I find hilarious about this is that the wingnuts are already blaming the media for this. Well, with a birther bill that has what, 10 cosponsors, almost all of the talk radio goons, and a growing percentage of the right wing, I don't understand why it's not a legitimate story. Just because it makes Republicans look bad doesn't mean that it's not a legitimate story. But I think we're seeing the limits of Republicans' inability to impose self-discipline, as it has evolved over the past few decades. More and more this party is looking like the UK Labour Party in the 1980s--just lost, unable to govern, unable even to appeal to voters. It took Labour 18 years to get back into power.

I also liked Ta-Neheisi's observation here:
I think this is what happens when you only fulfill half of your duty as a leader. Surely part of it is to represent your folks. But another part of it is to protect them from the mob mentality. But when you actively cultivate Schiavo, "intelligent" design, Confederate Flags, and homophobia, I'm not sure what you expect.

To paraphrase Douglass, a Party is worked on by what they choose to work on. Work on stupid, expect to get stuck there. Expect to have to take meetings with a Russian-born dentist/lawyer about who's American, and who's not.
He forgot realtor/tae-kwon-do master.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sully breaks with Obama

Readers of Andrew Sullivan's blog have probably picked up on a subtle shift in the reader's attitude toward Barack Obama over the last day or so. Here are a few examples of this difficult-to-detect change:
  • On gay rights: "What is remarkable to me is how many Republicans across the country have shown more actual - rather than rhetorical - support for marriage equality than the Democrats in the Congress and the White House. On this subject, Obama reeks of fear."
  • Again: "Oh, I forgot the cocktail party. Always great to throw a cocktail party for the gays. That's what they really want, isn't it? Just give them some cocktails, ask for more money and they'll forget about their civil rights."
  • On Iraq: "As long as we get out cleanly, it won't be so bad. But we won't - Obama will see to it that we are there for as long as he is president. I mean: that's why we elected him, right?"
  • This one just needs the title: "The Obama-Bush Police State."
Gee, anyone else get the sense that Sullivan has gotten over Obama recently? Or that he's trying to?

Look, not all of these criticisms are unfair. I would like to see Obama get into gay rights more aggressively, and I would like to see Obama start to roll back the Bush era security intrusions more forcefully. (I'll just ignore the third point--the Iraq withdrawal is more or less on track, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that he'll backslide there.) But while Obama hasn't moved quickly enough for my tastes on those areas, I think it's overstating the case to say that Obama doesn't care--he's known for his long game, as Sullivan has often admired. In reality, though, the problems for progress on these areas are almost exclusively Congressional and not Presidential. Congress seems to be absolutely terrified by the terror issue in a way that Obama isn't, and Obama has been markedly more progressive on this than they have. On the two most egregious examples of Bushian terror excess, Obama has ended torture and has tried to close Gitmo. Congress has tried to block him on the second one, and did not exactly speak up in his favor on the first. The reasonable conclusion is that Obama, while not perfect on these issues, is much, much better than Congress on these issues. I would argue that Obama isn't going far enough, but the politics of the situation are impossible. Anything Obama tries to do to salvage the rule of law or national dignity is going to be assailed by Republicans who are very invested in distorting the rule of law for a very simple reason: they either ignorantly or knowingly facilitated its derailment, as did a lot of Democrats too. So anything that Obama tries to do to right the wrongs of the Bush years is going to be greeted with a cavalcade of shouts, jeers and sneers by the Fox News/WaPo apparatus that wants desperately to avoid facing up to the Bushian barbarity of which they were all complicit in advancing. I had initially hoped that the remaining Republicans would dump the Bush legacy wholesale after that clown left office, just like the Soviets did with Stalin. This has not been the case. But absent full-scale support from Democrats (which doesn't exist) or support from the media (yeah, sure), there's only so much he can do. And much of this is true of gay rights as well. Obama's support for these issue positions is largely rhetorical because, well, that's kind of the limitation of the office. In a parliamentary system, Obama himself could introduce legislation to deal with these topics, and he'd be in a much better position to pressure legislators than he can in this system. Since everyone loves to celebrate the timeless wisdom of the framers, shouldn't it be pointed out that this is the way it was intended to work out? The founders saw Congress as the government's central institution. Congress sucking has little to do with Obama, so far as I can tell. And Obama's rhetorical skills didn't exactly help Congress take his plans on Gitmo seriously.

I don't mean to offer an unqualified defense of Obama's choices, but there are very few that are incomprehensible. And he's gotten a lot right--he took on a lot of his own base on the banks issue, specifically the Krugman-Stiglitz axis--and it seems like he got that right. He's been generally quite good on foreign policy, despite an iffy stance on Honduras and Biden's unfortunate remarks on Russia. Afghanistan seems to be stabilizing, Iraq is on track. Time will tell what happens on health care and climate change--they will probably not be what I'd like, but I'm reasonably confident that progress will be made. So it's not all been bad. I think it's a cop-out just to say that Obama couldn't do the right thing because of the politics, but I do think that Obama really is in an impossible position and is trying his best to fix things. Maybe he'll be successful, maybe he won't, but it's not like he's been sitting on his hands for the past six months, James Buchanan style, hoping that everything would just fix itself.

During the campaign, a lot of people projected their own wishes onto Obama. I get the sense that Sullivan is finally being disillusioned. I, however, am still hopeful. I don't intend to let Obama off the hook, but I still believe that his heart is in the right place and that he's doing his best. At best, I think Sullivan's attitude is another example of the idea that it's generally not a good idea to act as if the President is some sort of exalted, grand figure like Lycurgus or Solon, but rather a politician trying his best to do what's right for America, given the existing political constraints.

(Oh, and by the way, that first bullet point is really asinine. If Scozzafava gets elected to Congress, she'll be the only Republican I know of at a federal level that favors gay marriage, if she even keeps that position. There are half a dozen Democratic Senators that favor it now, as well as a number of congresspeople. It was Democrats that instituted gay marriage in all the states in which it is presently legal, while the biggest profiles in cowardice on this issue have been "pro-gay" Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Douglas. Sullivan has a point that Obama should be speaking more about this issue, but this is a really head-smackingly stupid statement. Sure, Democrats need to get with the program and do more, but liberals are committed to gay rights and conservatives generally are committed in the opposite direction. Making a statement like this (along with the Iraq statement) leads me to believe that Obama has disillusioned Sullivan on a level that goes beyond public policy. But I'm not a mind-reader, so who really knows.)

The real point of healthcare reform

Ezra Klein provides a useful reality check on what's at the core of the healthcare debate:
Rather, what has kept health-care reform at the forefront of liberal politics for decades is moral outrage that 47 million of our friends and neighbors are uninsured. That medical costs are one of the leading causes of bankruptcy in the United States. That an unemployed machinist gets screwed by fly-by-night insurance schemes while a comfortably employed banker need never worry. That the working class ends up in emergency rooms with crushing chest pains because they didn't have health insurance and didn't get prescribed cheap blood pressure medications five years before.
I get the sense that a lot of liberals see this fight as being some sort of grudge match to triumph over special interests, and quite a bit of that fighting needs to be done. But the fight over the public option does leave us at risk of losing the forest for the trees. (I still support it, though, slippery slope arguments about it leading to single-payer notwithstanding.) It is worth worrying that, while the reform bills under consideration by Congress address many of the concerns Ezra names, there might not be nearly the sort of bullet-pointable advantages that could be used to sell the reform, but that doesn't mean that it's not good policy.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Yes, let's cut some government spending

The story:

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 would eliminate an entire category of student loans issued by private lenders and subsidized by the federal government, vastly expanding direct lending by the government starting next July. Democrats would use the savings to fund a $40 billion increase in federal Pell Grant scholarships over 10 years, $10 billion in community college upgrades and $8 billion in pre-kindergarten changes, among other uses.
The conservatives' response, of course, is that this is a government takeover of education loans. But I think that this is a sign of how deranged our national conversation has become. Cutting a subsidy isn't a government takeover. A government takeover of the student loan industry would be the federal government nationalizing the lenders--either by buying them, or by seizing them and wiping out the shareholders. That is some socialism for you. The current state of affairs already has a name: crony capitalism.

So, good for Obama for clearing this stuff out. I'd love to see ag subsidies and Medicare Advantage subsidies go the way of the dodo (and the F-22) soon as well. And while we're on the topic, I'd like to see a 1986-style tax reform that either keeps current rates in place or lowers them, while clearing out all the loopholes. Lower taxes, less spending--everyone's a winner!--well, except for the special interests. None of this will be easy. But it'd be worth a shot.

The birthers' lament

Chris Matthews can be entertaining:

I guess the only question I have is whether Campbell actually believes his spin. If he does, then he's just an idiot. I suspect he's doing this to gain favor with the crazies.

But if the argument from these birther bill supporters is that "it will put this to rest," I've got some prime investment opportunities for them with my pal Bernie in New York. Look, conspiracy theorists aren't rational people. They already ignore the actual evidence--that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii--in favor of some sort of prenatal conspiracy theory (cause in 1962 it was so obvious that a Black guy from Hawaii was going to be president, I suppose). This isn't reasonable. Appealing to their reason won't work, because they have already abandoned it. Put it another way, if Obama were to direct the Governor of Hawaii to make the certificate available to anyone who wants it, the wingnut response would likely be: "That's a very impressive forgery. This doesn't change anything. If anything, it proves that this conspiracy is bipartisan. Governor Lingle is in on it!"

I highly doubt that many of these birther bill congressmen are acting in good faith, but if they are, then they're just stupid. The proper way to deal with crazy conspiracy theorists is to expel them from your party. Say that the Republicans don't believe this, anyone who expresses this opinion has no future in Republican politics, etc. That probably wouldn't shut it down, but it might keep the cancer from spreading--evidently Sean Hannity is now a birther, as is Rush Limbaugh. No good will come of this.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Good times with Prager

Dennis Prager is one of my betes noire, and his new column is entitled "Americans Are Beginning to Understand the Left", which might or might not be true, though it doesn't seem that he himself does. Some parts of this are just too oblivious so as to not be funny. I'll engage a few:
Ask almost anyone on the left -- not a liberal, but a leftist like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi -- which society they consider more desirable, a society in which all its members were equally lower middle class or one in which some were poor, most were middle class, and some were rich (i.e., America today). And whatever they say, in their hearts, the further left they are the more they would prefer the egalitarian society.
Putting aside the circular argument here, I think that we're getting tripped up by terminology. Ask any liberal or any leftist, and they'd say that they prefer a prosperous, broadly middle-class society. I've never run across a poverty fetish amongst those left of center. But I don't think this sentiment separates the right and the left--indeed, I suspect that it's one of the similarities. Most of my conservative/libertarian friends make the argument that reducing government will make people self-reliant and that they will work harder, and thus will everyone's prosperity rise. There's a kernel of truth to this, though I think it's more wrong than it's right. But my sense has always been that conservatives' sentiment is that they want everybody to be rich, as John McCain said last year. Fundamentally, if there's a difference here between the left and right I do not see it.

Ultimately, the goals of liberals and conservatives aren't really that different. It's the methods that differ. I'm more of a historian than anything else, and when I look at the society created by the New Deal and the Great Society, and the society created by the libertarian haven that existed before 1932, I know which one I'd prefer to live in. But what interests me more is that Prager is so befuddled and ignorant he's defending the worst aspects of his system as though they're the best, and the ones worth saving. It would be like me saying, "Ain't liberalism great? You get this really powerful government that has all this power that's often wielded by clueless representatives with so much money they never lose, and these yokels can make all these personal decisions for you?" Admittedly, personal freedom must be maximized as much as possible, but the reason why one is a liberal is not that one wants more power for the government, so much as it's that it's far, far more scary for that power to be in the hands of unaccountable, rich robber-barons who can do whatever they want (laissez-faire, bitches!) and nobody can do anything about it. I think that the most powerful insight of social democracy is that the alternative to government power is private power, and that being ruled by imperfect though accountable representatives is generally better than being ruled by rich people you've never heard of. This doesn't mean propping the rich against a wall somewhere and having them shot, it just means being cognizant of these concentrations of power, joined with the realization of the power that self-interest and class-interest play in the public sphere, and trying to ensure that they don't become too concentrated. I think it's especially important in America because of a business culture that seems to be returning to the robber-baron mentality, at least at a corporate level. I don't favor abolishing business, but we have to be careful because they'll steal the store if we don't pay attention. Like they just did...

Here's more good stuff:
[V]irtually every totalitarian regime in the 20th century was left-wing.
That's just untrue. Nazi Germany, Franconian Spain and Mussolini's Italy were not socialist, despite a little bit of naming convention. And it was the left-wing that most fiercely opposed these folks, in those countries as well as in the rest of the West. Lots of conservatives would prefer to gush about Churchill instead of Roosevelt because Churchill was conservative, but it was the British Labour Party that was the biggest opponent of appeasement and fascism, while the Tories (save Churchill) generally dithered. Admittedly Communism happened, and it was awful, but it was socialist Old Europe that was the first line of defense against them, and let's not forget all the brutally repressive right-wing regimes that we installed around the globe, such as Suharto in Indonesia, Pinochet in Argentina, and Mobutu in the Congo, to name just a few of the most repugnant. The inevitable conclusion is that there were plenty of totalitarian regimes of different persuasions, and that has little to do with anything. But I guess the work of Jonah Goldberg is just enough to make this point stick for Prager. Shame.

But I think this is my favorite sentence:
The left imposes its values on others whenever possible and to the extent possible.
Noted without comment. Of course, the value Prager is talking about seems to be an aversion to harmful consumption, with a defense of spanking tossed in:
Therefore, the morally superior [left] have the right, indeed the duty, to impose their values on the rest of us: what light bulbs we use, what cars we drive, what we may ask a prospective employee, how we may discipline our children, and, of course, how much of our earnings we may keep.
And whether we can have lead in our damn gasoline! Oh, wait, that was the Reagan Administration, who decided that we should take it out. Sensibly, they decided that having tons of lead in the air we breathe wasn't a good idea. With respect to lightbulbs and cars--only the latter of which seem to have been regulated recently--one comes up with one of the most irritating aspects of modern conservatism, which is an almost insane hyperindividualism that seems to mainly manifest itself in denying any limits upon consumption. Of course, it doesn't matter that we import much more energy than any other country, or that our private debt is astronomical, in essence that our way of life is unsustainable. No limits! AMERICA! Of course, conservatives pay lip service to energy reform, but from Reagan onward they don't do anything about it, and tend to mock anyone who would deem to criticize the more ridiculous aspects of the American way of life. Then again, I suppose that getting oil company money has much to do with that.

Is this what the right has come to? Merely a defense of excessive consumption habits hailed as some sort of virtue? Ugh.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I'm shocked, shocked, I say

An independent investigator has found evidence that Alsaka Gov. Sarah Palin (R) "may have violated ethics laws by accepting private donations to pay her legal debts," Associated Press.

The investigator says that "there is probable cause to believe Palin used or attempted to use her official position for personal gain because she authorized the creation of a trust as the 'official' legal defense fund."
What you hear is the sound of the other shoe dropping.

The appeal of Palin never ceases to interest me. I don't think it's any one thing. I think that different groups and different people see different things in her. I think that her Down's syndrome child is largely responsible for her popularity with pro-lifers, but I also think, like Ross Douthat, that her family, with its elements of both stability and instability, reflects what a lot of downscale conservatives see around them. I think her looks are helpful to the Fox News-watching older (sexist) wingnuts who really like seeing young and attractive women on the teevee. And her disconnect from reality appeals to some of the hard-core fundies, as Andrew Sullivan has suggested. But she doesn't have much to offer to the elites, country clubbers, or moderates. In a way, McCain was savvy to pick someone who would appeal to so many aspects of the base, while McCain theoretically still had moderate support enough to keep being taken seriously. It was a cunning plan that might have worked, were it not for Palin turning out to be batshit insane. That is the risk you run by putting in power someone you met once for ten minutes.

Choosing among dystopias

Bob Wright, in a post on the Kindle:
Indeed, Orwell’s 1984, which envisioned video staying under the sort of centralized control that TV started out with, has in that sense proved way off. (Huxley’s Brave New World got more stuff right.)
Orwell was a literary genius, and much of his essay work is excellent, but we should be honest and admit that 1984 isn't worth much as a political polemic or as a human story. It is a work of literary genius, replete with so many indelible images and concepts, but it doesn't really understand power politics or individuals. Not only that, but it gets Communism wrong, not necessarily in the thrust of it but certainly in the details. The stuff pertaining to sex struck me as highly unlikely--in real life, more sex=more kids=more people working in collective farms or whatever. The Soviets were completely uninterested in curtailing sex, as were the Nazis and Ceaucescu, for that matter. A much better book on living under totalitarianism is Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler, a man who actually lived in such a society and wrote about it with far more conviction than did Eric Blair. Truth be told, Koestler's book is better in just about every way, especially in its grasp of Soviet ideology, so much so that it famously actually made some people become Communists after reading it! Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

On the other hand, while I think that Brave New World is in many ways a less successful novel, it is clearly informed by a much keener understanding of the human condition, and its susceptibility to ease, corruption, and comfort. People aren't going to stop having sex if the government tells them to--abstinence-only education is an obvious example of that. But if the authorities encourage full-on indulgence to keep people from thinking--now that's interesting territory. Orwell's futuristic society felt a little underdeveloped--clearly he was going for more of a religious cult flavor for the Big Brother worship, but I don't think he was entirely successful in that endeavour. That would explain the sex aversion, I suppose, but I guess I'm skeptical at the ability of anyone to diminish the appeal of sexuality. Many have tried, without much success.

All in all, 1984 was a book of its times, Brave New World is much more timeless, and Darkness At Noon is the best of them all.

Is a Judeo-Christian foreign policy actually possible?

The House GOP's second in command:
"Reaching out to the Muslim world may help in creating an environment for peace in the Middle East, but we must insist as Americans that our policies be firmly grounded in the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which this country was founded."
What does this mean? Obviously, there have been a lot of interpretations with respect to political Christianity in foreign policy, running the gamut from to a belligerent hegemony, a la Bush, to
complete pacifism. Which could it be? Okay, I admit was just being playfully obtuse. Jon Chait isn't on board:

Cantor is saying that the basis for America's policy in the Middle East should be the sommon religious heritage of Christians and Jews. Essentially, he wants the United States to treat Israel the way Russia treats Serbia -- an ally based on common cultural heritage. It's perfectly explicable.

It's also perfectly nuts. The basis of the U.S.-Israel alliance is, and should continue to be, Israel's democratic character and desire to live in peace, in contrast to the eliminationist intentions of its neighbors. Cantor is saying that Israel deserves America's support merely because of its Jewish quality. So if, say, Israel were to become a fascistic state bent on the destruction of its neighbors*, then the case for the U.S.-Israel alliance would be no less strong, because of a shared religious heritage. It's a rancid, illiberal, primitive way of thinking about foreign policy.

Chait is right, of course. What I generally find to be the case in discussing the intersection of religion and politics is that a lot of people who make this link are seeking to validate their policies with the authority of some of America's popular religions, rather than actually trying to find a workable, reasonable political interpretation of those religions' teachings. Based on what I know of Christian thought, and my various readings of Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, et al., I think I could probably devise a foreign policy scheme that would fit reasonably well with the "Judeo-Christian" tradition (a canard if ever there was one, because they're two completely separate though admittedly connected traditions).

I think it might look something like this:
  1. People generally try to do good, but are thwarted by the Will to Power that tends to lead people down the path of self-interest without regard for others. A foreign policy has to take into account the human propensity to want to rule the world, and its central precept must be an avoidance of global hegemony. Concentrated power will eventually be abused.
  2. Evil resides in every human heart along with good, so the goal of eliminating evil, or of seeing the world in those terms, is deeply misguided. Instead, the goal of foreign policy must be to appeal to both altruism and self-interest in terms of promoting peace.
  3. War is evil, though it is sometimes necessary. Pacifism is not possible in our world, and most pacifistic notions depend upon a lack of appreciation of human self-interest that isn't correct. However, it is very rare that a country's self-interest is advanced through warfare. Most countries who have tried this since the end of colonialism wind up in a much worse state than before--Germany in WWII, North Korea, Britain in Suez 1956, the U.S. in Vietnam, etc. Aside from self-defense or perhaps stopping a genocide, military intervention is unwise and frequently counterproductive, and should be avoided, though obviously this can't be a firm rule either. The extent to which the United States was in danger during WWII is not apparent, and yet the decision to enter the war was the correct one.
  4. When conducting a war, it is essential to preserve the rule of law and to conform to just war principles. War can bring out some good qualities in a people, but it far more often brings out bad ones. There hasn't been a war yet where the enemy hasn't been dehumanized, and while some wars are worth fighting, it is incumbent on us not to forsake democratic principle for the sake of vengeance or security or to unfairly victimize people who are, like us, formed in the image of God. These temptations are common to every war. They must be acknowledged and minimized.
  5. The rules for dealing with countries are inevitably different than the rules for dealing with individuals. A Judeo-Christian foreign policy ought to value openness, honesty and peace while realizing that these are not always achievable.
I suppose I could go a few more, but it should seem clear that these principles--which largely come either from the thinkers I mentioned or the Bible itself, or my own spin on things--raise more questions than they solve. A sustained argument along these lines would probably need to be book length, and I am hardly qualified enough to write it. But once one gets past the most basic elements of what Judaism and Christianity have to say about human nature things get really murky, really quickly.

Upon further reflection

I think I'd like to revise my remarks on the WSJ op-ed I discussed yesterday.

Yes, it's true that Obama promised to be "post-partisan", but there are a number of senses in which this could be taken. One could take this term as being indicative of some sort of left-right fusionism, but that is not what Obama meant. What Obama meant was not engaging in the usual attack politics, engaging with the opposition in good faith, and trying to lower the temperature in general in Washington. I felt like he's largely lived up to his promises--admittedly, some of the attacks on Limbaugh were out of keeping with such a promise, but even those were mild.

What the WSJ posits is that Obama should be held to a (I suspect) deliberate misinterpretation of what he said. I don't think this is fair. Obama never said that he was going to try to rule by consensus, and to the extent he's tried to, he's been met with bad faith by the GOP--who pretended to work with him on the stimulus bill while weakening it without intending to get on board--and a rapid escalation in nutty attacks. Obama has done all he can--the extent to which he can truly be postpartisan depends on how willing Republicans are to actually work on pressing issues with the President, and there is little indication that they are indeed willing to do so.

And it is true that Bush never actually talked about the "real America" but he did make the "for us or against us" quote. And he did frequently demonize Democratic states in a way that John Kerry and Barack Obama never did. Again, if Obama refers to, say, Oklahoma as a "starve 'em and kill 'em" state in the way that Bush and Rove dismissed the Northeast as a coven of wimpy, tax-and-spenders, I'll change my mind.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A facile analogy

This is an exceptionally facile piece of op-ed nonsense. Let's skip to the end:
In itself, of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with opting to forgo bipartisanship support for the sake of getting your ideas through. That, however, is not what Candidate Obama promised. And just think how the debate would change if the press were to begin describing Mr. Obama in a way that seems reserved for Republicans: a highly partisan president pursuing a narrow partisan agenda.
This is little better than gobbledygook. If there's nothing wrong with trying to pass something on party lines, what difference does it make whether the press notes it? I suppose if it makes Obama look bad...oh, wait, that would be a partisan concern, would it not? I thought that was teh bad!!!!!!!!!!!!11!1

I don't require that everyone agree with me, but I do require that everyone be honest about where they stand. McGurn doesn't like Obama's policies, fine. He has a problem with the media's coverage of them, fine. He's evidently a Wall Street Journal columnist and he's got a megaphone from which to make a critique. So why not make one? Why construct this web of words about whether the media should say he's partisan or not, which he concedes isn't a big deal?

The reason why this grates me is that there's a substantive difference between Obama's outreach to the Republicans and Bush's to the Democrats. Obama has tried to hustle for Republican votes on everything, but the Republican leadership has gone all in on mindless opposition to all of Obama's policies, and banking on his ultimate failure. Now, I should be fair and say that a lot of Republicans simply don't agree with government expansion with respect to healthcare, or to the specific provisions of Waxman-Markey. This is perfectly fine. But Obama hasn't changed since November 4. And the article compares Obama's operation to Bush's? Hardly. In fact, that's rather insulting. Obama's not saying, for example, that anyone who opposes health care reform is anti-American, or that anyone who opposes his foreign policy wants the terrorists to win, and that we should always support the president even if we disagree. He's not using the whole federal government as a spoils trough for ideological hacks. Honestly, aside from a few light attacks on right-wing radio hosts, he's been far more civil toward the opposition party than Bush ever was. Call me back when Obama starts talking about the Northeast being the Real America and I'll be willing to listen to a screed about how Bush was not as partisan as Obama.

And speaking of BSG...

I didn't link to this essay on why the Battlestar Galactica finale was the worst TV sci-fi finale ever. Surprisingly, the competition for the title is fairly fierce. I personally thought that the two middle Star Treks, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, both had really good finales that more or less summed up the major arcs and major ideas of both shows, and that were both plenty exciting while doing it. BSG clearly didn't begin to tie up all the loose threads--to do so would have been impossible after years of fruitless meandering--and it had a tortured finale that would have summed up the ideas of the show, had the ideas in the finale actually been the main ideas of the show.

Brad focuses largely on the junk science of the finale--I'm not so sure why Ron Moore was so wedded to the Hera as Mitochondrial Eve story, but his dedication to it required him to create all sorts of silly plot contortions to make it work. And all that for what was essentially a misreading of the pertinent science and history that could have been cleared up by visiting Wikipedia. It's sort of a fitting metaphor for the show in its latter years: an idea that looked cool on paper, but that ultimately was half-baked at best and that was executed terribly.

What's more interesting is the issue with having God in the story. Or a god. I largely agree that removing the religious element from the realm of mystery and into the realm of fact (relative to the show) opens a huge can of worms. If God really exists, and if he planted the Dylan song into the Cylons' brains in such a way that it translated into numbers that led to Earth, does that mean that God has been controlling everyone's actions all along? BSG was much more fun when it was about military adventures, of which Ron Moore knew a lot, instead of religion, about which he knew nothing at all. Not only was BSG illiterate when it came to religion in absolute terms, but it was also illiterate on the subject relative to other sci-fi shows. DS9, B5 and Firefly all handled religion more deftly than BSG ever did. Seriously, BSG's later years felt like what would have happened if, instead of breaking up after Let It Be, The Beatles had decided that they were only going to do avant-garde French hip-hop from then on. And paid millions to be backed by the Paris Philharmonic on all concert gigs. Why would they do that?

Harry Potter

I tend toward sci-fi more than fantasy myself, and my imagination is completely uninspired by magic and wizards and elves and the like (I prefer fiction where the rules are more or less like what they are in our world), so it should come as little surprise that I've largely ignored the Harry Potter craze. I've read none of the books--I have precious few reading hours and I'd rather spend them reading Tolstoy than Rowling--and I've seen about the last 30 minutes of the third movie, which is supposedly the best, and I was totally unimpressed. But I did see the most recent movie over the weekend, which can be attributed entirely to the fact that I am now in a relationship while, in the past, I either wasn't when the books/movies came out, or I was in one with someone that wasn't particularly interested in the phenomenon. So, I was able to avoid it until now, but I guess having some encounter with this phenomenon was inevitable.

So, having said all this, my opinion of the film was...that it wasn't bad. Actually, I thought that the filmmaking was quite good--David Yates, the director, managed to coax good performances out of all of his (mostly children) actors, the mood and tone of the film were consistent and well developed, and the movie began interestingly enough such that I was interested to learn what would happen. Unfortunately, the film was (in my opinion) not terribly well paced, and it seemed like the middle act could have been severely trimmed to get the movie down to a lean two hours instead of a bloated 2.5-plus hours. Not knowing the greater context of the films I don't know how essential the soap opera elements are to the series--perhaps they're emotionally necessary payoffs or setups to future storylines--but they weren't as compelling as they should have been. The the stoner comedy elements near the end were simply odd. Once the plot kicked back in again, I got interested again, and the death at the end of the film was handled with quite a bit of grace and earned sentiment. But it felt to me that there was a better film that could have been made, one which kept the main threads advancing consistently throughout the film, rather than shunting them aside for the interpersonal drama. At some points I was getting a very heavy later-BSG vibe. Again, I generally liked the movie, but parts of it were a long slog.

I am happy that I saw it, though, if for no other reason than that I feel that I more or less got the feel for this world and its characters, and I guess I understand what people like about it. Truth be told, it was significantly better than I thought it would be, especially in the acting department. I don't think I'll be visiting this world again, but it was solid enough that my faith in American culture isn't quite shot yet (what little is left after the success of the Transformers series, anyway).

On the new atheists

I've been following the "New Atheist" debate over at Sullivan's place with great interest. This entry in particular made me think about the whole phenomenon afresh. The truth is that I don't have a problem with other people believing there is no God. I disagree, but I can see the arguments, and having gone through a functionally atheist period myself I can honestly understand the reasoning. I don't even really have a problem with them being outspoken: this is a debate that's worth having, in my view. What I do have a problem with is that many of these people so often sink to the level of what they criticize. I mean, when I hear something like "religion poisons everything" I don't hear a difference between that and something like "only Christians can be good people", which is something that I've heard quite often, and that I feel is fundamentally unreasonable. Both are ridiculous. You can be a Jew, an Atheist, or whatever else and be a perfectly good person. And religion can be just as much a boon as a bear, unless one wants to disregard most of Western Civilization as fundamentally poisonous. I suppose the counterargument to that would be that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were a movement against the religious mores of the day and a return to the values of an earlier, classical period, which is not entirely true (certainly not of the Renaissance), but while there were certainly Atheists like Spinoza that were important parts of the Enlightenment, both of those cultural movements followed Christian reform movements--Scholasticism for the Renaissance, the Reformation for the Enlightenment--that I think cannot be separated from these cultural moments. Admittedly, both periods involved adopting certain Greek and Roman ideas anew, but those societies were, of course, highly religious and ultimately these examples don't exactly help the argument that religion somehow destroys everything.

This isn't to say that there's nothing wrong with religion, especially what you see practiced in America. Indeed, it's easy to poke holes in the enormous balloon of pomposity that is Christianity in America, at least in terms of mainstream religious figures and the whole megachurch phenomenon. I'll even agree with much of it: American Christianity is too inclined toward smug self-satisfaction rather than humility, too wedded to a materialistic conception of faith, too obsessed with hot-button issues as opposed to more pressing questions of social justice, and fundamentally bigoted toward certain classes of people (though outside of gays it is very easy to overstate this). Ultimately, though, this description could just as easily describe America! Ultimately the question of why religion can be a force against good things is a question that isn't unanswered in my tradition. Religion is, I believe, a good thing, but fundamentally good things can be used to achieve evil things--they can be confused, misdirected, used as a vehicle to facilitate bad things. What fundamentally makes this sort of potemkin scheme work is pride, which is why it's such a slippery and dangerous sin.

At the very least, though, Christianity does label pride as such, even if it's often ignored. To say that religion poisons everything, though, indicates to me a very simplistic and dogmatic worldview that is just as selective and ideological as the fundies, with separable good and evil that don't ever show up in the same package. Perhaps those labels are too tied to a religious context to be useful here. But I hear the same sort of smug, unquestioning, absolutist finality to both of the extremes in this conversation. Religion is like anything, in that it can be used for evil and good, and even good things have some evil in them. Patriotism is, I believe, a good thing, but there's some evil in it--like exclusionism--that can come to the fore if one isn't careful, and sometimes it needs to be overridden, as would have been nice in the leadup to World War I. War is fundamentally a bad thing but there are some good aspects to it--it can promote ingroup solidarity, for example, and sometimes it's a necessary evil. Fundamentalists don't understand these sorts of distinctions--every religion has them, and for them it's just black and white, things are good or they aren't, and this is why fundamentalism is something to be avoided and scorned: it's premises virtually ensure that the bad things about religion will overtake the good.

I suppose I think that Atheists have to be mindful of not becoming what they're fighting. There are thoughtful, intelligent critiques to be made about organized religion and its place in our lives, critiques that could help out us religious folks if done honestly. The New Atheists, though, don't seem much interested in actual conversation. With the likes of Chris Hitchens, one detects only the anger of the absolutist who is frustrated that humanity just won't come around to his way of thinking. Needless to say, we could use less of this sort of thing and more humility, a greater desire to understand, and more open-mindedness. And this applies to both believers and nonbelievers.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Did he miss the point of Fight Club?

Noel Murry over at The A.V. Club contends that the deranged Fight Club acolyte missed the point of the film. I'm not so sure, because it's unclear to me what the point of the film was.

Oh, sure, there was certainly an anticapitalist--or, more accurately, anticonsumerist--bent to the first two acts, and it seemed like the film tried to insinuate that "Tyler Durden" was insane for wanting to blow up the credit card companies, but doesn't Ed Norton's eventual acceptance of the bombings negate that reading? And, by the way, why were some of Norton's goons in the building where he just shot himself? Didn't they know that it was supposed to blow up? I really feel like the movie really came to pieces in the last five minutes--like they suddenly found Marla and brought her to the exact place where Norton happened to be? Did he inform them that well?

I suppose one can interpret the ending as some sort of postdeath sequence, and in that context the last few minutes can make sense as being essentially plausible because they're all implausible. Having not watched the movie recently, I'm not sure how much one can use to back up that interpretation. But I really think that, despite being frequently entertaining and occasionally profound in its first act, the movie really careens wildly after the initial formation of the fight club, to the point where I think it's difficult to identify any real themes in the film. Even the anticonsumerist stuff is weak in the final analysis--I mean, it seems more than a little contradictory for a movie to object to the surface-level charms of consumer capitalism when it is an extraordinarily efficient purveyor of those very charms. Now, if they'd made Brad Pitt look awful in the movie I might buy it. But the "condemnation" of violence is belied by the final scene, effectively conveying the message that the proper response to difficult social questions is nihilism, which is an answer but not a good one. Again, I enjoyed this movie (and still do), and while I think it can be enjoyed, it takes either quite a bit of irony to do so, or quite a bit of ignorance to not make the connection between the style and the content. That this probably goes over most of the heads of the movie's fans does make an interesting point about our society, but not an encouraging one.

And, ultimately, despite its charms, anarchy simply isn't all it's cracked up to be. I suspect that most anarchists have exceptionally rosy views of the average person invariably done in by The Man, but the reality is that all people--not just those who have money and property--are inclined toward self-interest. Of course, there's also the inclination toward altruism as well. The tension between the two is a constant in the human experience, and while a society like that of Star Trek might not be attainable, it is possible to create societies that place value on selflessness and giving and disapprobation on selfishness. The balance can be tweaked, and I would like to see our society tweak it a little more, but it seems to me that self-interest simply cannot be transmuted, and that we therefore need a society and a government to protect us from the self-interest of others. Thus is my defense of civilization to the Fight Club bomber. Then again, maybe this guy just watched Fight Club a few too many times. Who knows?

Baseball and humor

This post from Comrade John got me thinking about a few things. Okay, so McCarthy's hot and bothered because President Obama may have bounced a pitch on the plate. Very well. John brings up George W. Bush's successful pitch in 2001, which makes me think of what the reaction among the left would have been if Bush had bounced the ball on the plate? I'm guessing it would have been muted at best--maybe some snickers here and there, at best a subdued Jon Stewart bit. In other words, the reaction would have been bemusement. And the Bush thing would have been funny, because Bush's image was, in large part, based on that sort of he-man bravado--how often were we treated to anecdotes about how Bush worked out all the time, how many videos of him biking around and clearing branches were we subjected to during his term in office? To bounce a baseball would have clashed with that image, and the disconnect would have been a little funny. Obama, on the other hand, has never based his image on a Teddy Rooseveltian ethos of the strenuous life, so had the ball even bounced (I don't even care, so I didn't watch the clip) it wouldn't be absurd. I suppose one could laugh at that out of some sort of hostility that Obama doesn't fit one's standards of manhood, but just because one laughs doesn't make it funny. Indeed, Obama bouncing a baseball would be about as absurd as Bush failing the LSAT exam, which is to say, not much. Obama, however, would look a little foolish if he took, for some reason, the LSATs again and failed them, because much of his image is bound up in a lawyerly identity. So, Obama bombing the LSATs would be a little funny.

I guess it makes me wonder why Andy McCarthy doesn't naturally resort to humor for stuff like this. I mean, it's not funny but neither is most overtly conservative humor. The basic difference between the liberal humor of the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and the conservative "humor" of Rush Limbaugh and American Carol (which I never saw, but I read enough so that I "got it") is that liberal humor has tended to be rooted in a sense of irony, in observing the absurdity of the political order and in conservatives in particular. Most liberals tend to think that conservatives aren't evil, but just wrong and absurd, and pointing out those absurdities has made Stewart a very, very successful media personality. Sure, there are more overtly hostile liberal media personalities--Michael Moore comes to mind--but he has flared out as of late and never had nearly as large a following as Stewart. I don't think it's a coincidence that Colbert and Stewart--who practice a legitimately funny brand of pointing out the ridiculous in the other side's positions--are likely the left's most popular pundits. Their worldview more or less meshes with where liberalism is at this point. The leading "humorists" on the right, however, don't hold a roughly parallel viewpoint--their humor is more like "Can you believe this shit?" while looking down, shaking your head and chuckling. Right-wing humor generally tends not to be funny because it's not rooted in some sort of tension that is dissolved by the humor--indeed, if you take them at face value, most of these conservatives essentially believe that liberals are either intentionally or unintentionally destroying America, and it's strangely comforting that people who believe that, misguided as they are, don't find much humor in it. To laugh at such a thing would be nihilism. It's sort of a strange signpost that their humanity is intact.

I guess, basically, that my point is that there's still a lot of hurt out there, and that it's more on the right than the left at this point. I guess I bought into a lot of Obama's postpartisan rhetoric, and I still think he's a gracious and unassuming leader, but it's now clear to me that the country can't heal until the right manages to find some measure of fundamental respect for the left, which can then become the basis of a dialogue and, perhaps, some sort of settlement. Obama's inclinations won't work until they're met by the other side. And I don't think that's going to come anytime soon. Better to reign in hell, and all that.

On a tangential note, I rather feel sorry for Andy McCarthy. Unless he's faking it, of course. I have a great deal of sympathy for conspiracy theorists, who are always wrong (with the sole exception of Julia Roberts from The Pelican Brief, perhaps) but they fundamentally believe something in their hearts that isn't real, and that they can't shake, despite how much of a fool it makes them seem. Then again, as G.K. Chesterton tells us, such people tend not to lack reason but rather they lack everything but, like judgment and common sense. Faith can be a good thing, but like most virtues there's a roughly equivalent vice, and this is it. I guess I find the whole thing a little depressing, though clearly McCarthy could always choose to rely on factual backup for his various theories. I must remember not to become a "left-wing victimizer".

The Palestinian Question.

Mike Tomasky has an interesting post about Palestine, and he wraps it up with this observation:
However, they have very little appreciation of the fact that we invented p.r. and radio and television and mass communications, and that prowess in these kinds of venues is what Americans appreciate and respond to above all else.
It's difficult to understate how important this is. While suicide bombing is no doubt an economical way of going on the offensive it is hardly an optically appealing one. Couple this in with general Arab antipathies toward Israel, culminating in Ahmadinejad's threats, and you're halfway toward the widespread view that Israel is a tiny, overmatched nation in a sea of hostile, insane religious fanatics. Clearly, this view isn't correct--Israel has historically proven itself quite capable of defending itself against its enemies, and while much of Israel's military activity is deliberately undertaken with a view toward making it seem defensible toward the world, they are not averse to using all sorts of soft power mechanisms to undermine any sort of Palestinian sovereignty. Putting up the security fence is but one of the more harsh examples. There's a reason, to name another example, that Israel "graciously" provides electricity to West Bank Palestinians. Now, I honestly believe that Israel ultimately has little desire to permanently occupy Gaza, but they're hardly the completely innocent nation that the US seems to believe. This isn't to say that they're "bad" or that the Palestinians are "good" but rather that everything is really complicated in this struggle, and the closer you look, the less clear it seems.

But, of course, this is not stuff that can be yakked about on Scarborough. There needs to be a greater effort on the Palestinian side to win more global support through more canny politics and better self-presentation. The Israel/Palestine conflict isn't necessarily insolvable, and there's a general consensus (on both sides, that madman Bibi notwithstanding) that a two-state solution is the logical conclusion. But the Palestinians have severely damaged their cause by a) decades of suicide bombings that seem only recently to have stopped, b) electing Hamas, and c) frequently framing the conflict as being about Israeli perfidy instead of a question of moral rights. What doesn't seem to be understood is that nobody is going to take seriously the complaints of a person--regardless of their correctness--if he's going to strap a bomb to his back. This is all Arafat's legacy, and that dumb old bastard did about as much harm as possible to the Palestinian statehood movement. If Palestine really wants the world to bring pressure to bear on Israel to grant Palestine a state, they need a leader who plays on the world stage, not somebody whose only concern is keeping every single ultraradical in line (like Arafat). Palestine could use someone who could note, say, that Palestinians are the most secular-minded of any Muslim people, or that the sort of Islam practiced in Palestine looks a lot more like Christianity than it does Orthodox Islam. The hospitality of Muslims is, by all accounts, outstanding, and provides a good counterpoint to images of stone-throwing. There's certainly stuff about the Palestinians that can be sold to America, but they need a leader who gets it, and I'm sorry, but it's not Mahmoud Abbas, though he's clearly an improvement on Arafat.


Evidently, Rick Perry's hamfisted outreach to secessionists and the like has helped him gain a big lead over Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Texas primary race.

I've followed this race a bit, and I must say that I am a little surprised, as I expected Hutchison to win in a walk. For one thing, Perry isn't very popular and seems to have little future in conservative politics, while Hutchison might. Their respective approval ratings, coupled with Perry's weak showing in 2006 (he got 39% in a 4-way race, if I recall correctly), seems like a clear argument for Hutchison's candidacy. Hutchison clearly knows how to appeal to people outside the GOP tent, and could help presumably erode some recent Democratic gains in the statehouse. I find it unlikely that Perry could do any of this--if he wins another term in a noncrazy election, it will be by a small plurality or majority and there will likely be lots of split tickets, and it's hardly inconceivable that the Democrats might retake the state House of Representatives--indeed, they're nearly there already, and they've augmented their power significantly in recent years, to the extent of ousting Republican baron Tom Craddick as speaker this year.

Indeed, for years Democrats have talked about how Texas was trending blue--something borne out by the stats, such as Obama's single-digit loss there last year--and I suspect that giving Perry another nomination will give the Democrats a huge opportunity to retake the seat. The Dems haven't won anything statewide there for fifteen years, but the demographics of the state--perhaps pushed even further if there is any residing anger about Sotomayor's treatment--coupled with the unpopular Perry could make this an opportunity to try to paint Texas a little purpler. I don't know Tom Schieffer's strengths as a candidate, but if he turns out to be halfway competent (and if there isn't another circus like last time), then this thing will be anything other than assured.

Seems to me that the establishment ought to be subtlely backing Hutchison, but it's beginning to look less hopeful for Texas to have a sensible Republican governor in two years.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Books to be removed from the canon

Found this list at Sullivan's place. A few quick notes:
  • He's absolutely wrong on One Hundred Years of Solitude. The only real complaint he makes is that it's lifeless, which is so bizarre. I actually found the book to be extraordinarily vital--sure, after a while a lot gets lost amid all the births and deaths, but the book introduces some of the fiercest characters in all literature--Jose Arcadio and Ursula Buendia are truly exceptional characters, flawed but likable and resolute progenitors of the doomed town of Macondo. All in all, this is probably the second best Spanish language book ever written (although, admittedly, I haven't read Don Quixote in Spanish, only English).
  • I largely agree with his takes on On The Road and Tale of Two Cities. The former is the sort of book that effectively devastates what it is allegedly trying to support, and I generally found it a loathsome and narcissistic book that, sadly, seems to have been a major influence in crafting a generation with many of its flaws. And I picked up Two Cities after reading Great Expectations in a college class for the second time, and I totally fell in love with the latter book, so I figured I'd check out Dickens's other most famous work. I read about sixty boring pages in, put it aside, and eventually lost the book. I think that Cities ought to be regarded as a minor work, and On The Road should just disappear altogether. (I also think that Great Expectations and Sentimental Education by Flaubert would make excellent companion novels about men who largely want similar things for similar reasons, but Flaubert's protagonist is basically too lazy and too romantic to ever amount to anything, while Dickens's pursues his passion with single-minded fervor and abandons everything else to get Estella. My English class, though, being run by Francophobes as it was had us read Jane Eyre as the companion book, which was also good but Flaubert really is teh awesome.)
  • I haven't read all these books, but let's just say that The Corrections is moving a bit down on my to-read list (and this just after buying it at a Borders for two bucks).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bubba supports gay marriage

I must say, I find continued Democratic reluctance to take this stance baffling. I mean, there's probably a half dozen senators at this point that openly support gay marriage, when upwards of 40% support it nationally, most of whom are left-leaning. And it's clearly not electoral poison. It's not like pro-life politicians never get elected, and that position polls about as well as gay marriage at this point.

So, hopefully the endorsement of the ultimate triangulator will help to make the pro-equality position the default in Democratic politics, at least outside the Nelsons and Landrieus of the party. I'm not exactly the biggest Clinton admirer, though I can't deny that he's an expert at knowing which way the wind blows.

Eric Cantor/Mike Pence 2012!

I generally like the idea of people other than governors and senators running for president, but I'm not so sure about these two guys: "Congressional Quarterly is reporting that two Republican congressmen, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Mike Pence of Indiana, could be looking to make a presidential run."

When it comes to the Republicans, I'd be happy to see Charlie Crist emerge as a major player, but I think that isn't likely until 2016 at the earliest. I think that the problem at this point is that someone like Cantor or Pence is going to be too conservative for the country in general (though the right would likely be pleased with either), while someone like Romney that could conceivably compete nationally would only be able to prevail by making so many deals with various factions on the right that they would simply be unable to be an independent actor in office. Mike Huckabee strikes me as the only one with an independent following that could allow him some space to maneuver on stuff like the economy and foreign affairs, but his views on these subjects have historically been fairly heterodox, which is why the establishment hates his guts. And I don't think that the GOP has anyone who can take on Obama at this point. The man's a one-in-a-generation political talent, like Reagan or F.D.R.

In any event, Charlie Crist is the most likely next Republican president, in my opinion. He strikes me as someone who can pitch conservatism to people who don't carry around Vietnam-era culture war baggage, and when one considers that the average listening age of a talk radio consumer is something like 67, in eight years there will likely be an opportunity for a different conception of conservatism. But I suppose we'll see. It took about that long after Tony Blair got elected for a lot of the old, intransigent Tories to die off and for Dave Cameron to come to power, and there were some similar demographic bombs at play then as well.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, our next president

Via Benen:
Al Jazeera's Avi Lewis told Gingrich, "In the past, you've called for the bombing of Iran's oil refineries." Gingrich clarified, "I called for sabotage, not bombing.... Fundamental difference." Gingrich explained that the U.S. should use "covert operations" against Iran's refineries because they "have only one refinery that produces gasoline in the entire country.
Obviously the sentiment is nutty, but is there really a difference between government bombing and government-encouraged sabotage, really?

I don't really think that the Republicans are dumb or desperate enough to pick Newt for 2012. They have to know he's crazy, but if he gets people worked up, what the hey, right? I actually think he has more of a chance than people think. For one thing, he has a narrative. That narrative isn't really that impressive in context, but Gingrich could say that he beat the Democrats in 1994 and derailed Bill Clinton's agenda, and that he can do the same thing again against Obama. Gingrich certainly played a part in that saga, but it's not exactly unheard of for the opposition party to win seats in midterm elections. And whatever strengths Gingrich had as a tactician have long since gone, leaving someone suited only for the accountability-free zone of cable news.

Plus, there's Newt's recent conversion to Catholicism to consider. We all know about the legendary problems Mitt Romney had in reaching out to the party's evangelical base because of his Mormonism (among other things, admittedly), but I suspect that a Republican Catholic would have nearly as hard a rock to climb. My experience with evangelicals has been that many consider Catholicism a cult, or something very close to it, and that Catholics "don't count" as Christians. I think that Jeb Bush might be able to finesse this by being a member of an already powerful and popular (to Republicans, at least) political family. Perhaps Newt might be able to get in because of his long ties to the GOP, and notwithstanding the recent papism. But maybe not. I think that such a thing could prove absolutely fatal to someone like Bobby Jindal, who has some exposure and some supporters but about whom much simply isn't known. The exorcism story in his past will be a huge obstacle, and I would imagine that someone like Huckabee would make a big deal over the denominational issue. But I simply don't think that you can build an entire infrastructure around a fundamentally exclusive vision of Christianity and expect it to hold together when you start pushing out the walls to let more people inside, even if the other groups fundamentally agree with you on the issues and are natural coalition partners. Maybe they can be in the tent, but they can't lead it. I don't see it happening.

Cause it's stuck in my head

When I heard that there was going to be a show called "Heroes" I guess I just figured that this would be the theme song. It's a no-brainer, really, for the following reasons:
  1. It's David motherflippin' Bowie
  2. The titles are the same
  3. Reason #1 again
I suppose it's possible that the rights are too expensive--it's one of Bowie's most popular songs, of course--and it might be a little too on the nose, but like who cares? I think that giving the show that name in particular without having that theme song predicted the sort of lack of imagination that the show has really been evincing for ages (and that has been a part of making it so unwatchable that it's closer to a so-bad-it's-good mockfest than a good show now).

And, BTW, Bowie still looks good. He looks an awful lot like Jon Bon Jovi in that video, though. Don't know what that's about.

Wow. Just wow.

This Malkin Nominee must be read to be believed. Just a taste: "Sarah Palin loves God. God loves Sarah Palin. And that is why they hate her...and Him. And why she -- and He -- will be back...[I]t is evil because it is accompanied by crushing debt that will, ultimately, devour large chunks of individual income... Sarah Palin is concerned about unborn children -- another God thing. Fancy that."

Whenever wingnuts start going on this track, it reminds me of Dr. Leo Spaceman from 30 Rock, when he said that science is whatever we want it to be. For these people, God is whoever they want Him to be. Needless to say, the Bible doesn't actually proscribe economic guidelines by which Christian societies ought to be formed (then again, what guidelines do exist suggest that much of the Western economic system is unChristian--i.e. the famous prohibition against usury), not to mention that there's not actually any sort of guidelines with respect to when a pregnancy can be terminated, considering that Christ came in a prescientific age when not nearly as much was known about human development as is now. I'm not saying that these positions are indefensible, or that Christians can't hold them, but I do think that some appellation other than Christian ought to be applied to some of these wingnuts, because they really do worship another god altogether.

For me, my politics are related to my faith in the sense that my worldview follows logically from it. I tend to believe that people are generally good, but that everyone is born with a will to power that will, absent self-awareness and humility, tend to act in ways that glorify the self over others. This is why democracy makes sense, as it distributes power in ways that minimize this corruption of the will (or, at least, diffuse its effects), but I think it goes further than that. Power isn't just held by officials, but also by wealthy individuals, corporations, moneyed interests, etc., and such accumulations of power will be much more likely to lend themselves to corruption. I see this as being sort of the basic form of Christian liberalism, and a straightforward adaptation of Christian insights about human nature into the political sphere, but I'm not under the illusion that it's the only way of applying those insights. It's just one that you don't hear about too often, despite its having a long and storied tradition.

I would say that it's ironic that the religious right is arguably one of the least authentically Christian organizations in the current political sphere, but really it isn't ironic. It's expected. Nobody is incorruptible. Pride makes us think that we are, which is its danger. The whole thing is a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris, really.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Prager bait

Michelle Cottle notes the increasing popularity of men shaving parts other than their faces, and includes this quote:
"More than a decade ago, I wrote a piece for The Washignton [sic] Monthly observing--OK, gloating really--that lad mags like Men's Health were on track to make men as neurotic, insecure, and appearance-obsessed as women. But even I am occasionally surprised by how far guys seem to have been lured down the path toward fashion- and beauty-slavery. "

Prager aside, I don't see this as a piece with the "feminization" of American Men--whatever that means--so much as it's another triumph of mass media in selling images of sexuality to young people. Obviously porn has a lot to do with it. I'm not an anti-porn crusader, and I don't necessarily think it's sinful, but it can pretty clearly have negative effects on developing minds, in the sense of teaching people all sorts of bad lessons with respect to sex (the negative effects to people who can put it in context are probably minimal). I don't think that shaving more parts is necessarily something to worry about (my response has always been: over my dead body, ahem) but one wonders about the other consequences of this sort of fixation. For some decades now, sex has joined consumption as one of the presumptive cures to America's spiritual malaise, and, us being Americans, we tend to think that more is better. I guess it makes sense under that prism, and I'm honestly not too exercised over the pervasiveness of sex in mainstream culture (better than violence, I'd say), I guess because I find it so amusing.

But one can only acknowledge Cottle's irony. I guess it's not surprising: vanity isn't a gendered condition, and it's beginning to look like gendered forms of vanity are rapidly converging. Something similar has happened with attitudes about sex, in my experience, though perhaps not so fully in that department.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Slavery and God, somehow connected

Rep. Steve King is against recognizing slavery because it somehow minimizes the role of God in America's history. Seriously. This is obviously insane, but it made me wonder: why do the fundies place so much emphasis on symbolic measures of their virtue? I mean, do they even care whether anyone looks at the Ten Commandments that they put in schools, or listens to the mandatory abstinence-only material that they put in classrooms? I rarely hear religious right figures talk about what goals they want to reach, what sort of stats they want to hit, etc. Why is it always about some sort of monument? As a religious person myself, I couldn't care less if the Ten Commandments stand in front of the U.S. Congress. I'm much more concerned about whether people actually follow them, especially people who claim to be Christians.

I guess this is just a reminder that the religious right isn't really all that interested in making America a more truly Christian nation (even according to their conception), so much as making us appear to be a Christian nation. I'm tempted to make the argument that this relates to the right's valuing of symbols over all else, and a view that influencing culture is more important than influencing politics. But even if government solutions are disdained among these folks it just doesn't seem like they're all that interested in, you know, results. I'm kind of at a loss to explain this phenomenon.

The Contrarians

Yglesias tackles the MSM's contrarian tendencies:
"My strong sense is that contrarianness reached its apogee in the 1990s when a general sense took over that politics was basically silly and that punditry should be seen as basically akin to the college debate circuit wherein the idea is to construct the most clever possible argument rather than to actually hit on the truth."
I think there's clearly something to this. But I think it's also difficult to stand out in the media by offering sober, reasoned analysis. But offering crazy interpretations of things can do that. Back when Mickey Kaus was a regular journalist during the 90s he was largely unknown. And then he becomes Mr. Contrarian and suddenly he's one of the most famous bloggers there is, with a large readership within the media and the ability to push memes with ease. It doesn't matter that those memes are completely wrong. Kaus is merely reacting to incentives here. He's entertaining to read, but you actually get dumber reading strained metaphors and far-fetched arguments, supported by anemic evidence. Basically, he's the blog version of Transformers: entertaining perhaps, but he will make you dumber.

But there's obviously a lot of ego and status stuff too. I think that most MSM figures see it as important as being seen as impartial, but one can be impartial while actually observing facts and forming reasonable conclusions. One need not be partial to reject Sarah Palin, for example. As a matter of fact, going easy on her is very much a form of partiality, it seems to me. My sense is that the MSM would rather be seen as being partial to the right rather than partial to the left in order to defuse the "liberal media" tag, though this seems to lean very closely to classic cases of spousal abuse, in which the wife feels that taking enough abuse will somehow make the husband realize just how much she really loves him. It's nonsense, it's enabling, and usually it's because the husband is a master manipulator preying on someone who requires validation--sounds like the press corps, no? See also: Anonymous Liberal.

Meritocratic vs. Democratic, ctd.

Ta-Nehisi weighs in with an interesting take on Ross Douthat's idea that Barack Obama represents the meritocratic ideal and Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal. It's a good look at the racial implications of Ross's formulation.

Personally, I don't think that Douthat has a leg to stand on. Palin isn't the democratic ideal--she's the democratic nightmare. Palin might well represent the idea that anyone could become president, but I mean that not in the sense of this being something that we should be proud of, but rather in the sense that this is a bad thing. I think it was Clarence Darrow who said, "When I was growing up, people told me that anyone could get elected president. Now, I'm starting to believe it." He might have been talking about Harding, I don't remember. But the point is that one of the reasons that the Founding Fathers set up such a ridiculously cumbersome system of government was that they were deeply worried about mob rule--of the sort of whimsical, ignorant rabble of which Palin is the tribune. I think those fears are overstated (and I favor a rather extensive reworking of the federal government, which I feel inhibits good government by diffusing responsibility to too great an extent), but I do feel that Palin is exactly the sort that the framers were worried about. Palin's more extreme followers are people who, deep down, despise so much of our liberal inheritance, from the judicial system to the free press to freedom of speech. She's basically said variants of all of these things, and it's not like you have to go far to find similar sentiments among prominent movement conservatives (i.e. just visit The Corner). They'd give it all up immediately, just for the chance to adore Queen Sarah up on high, because then all the confusion of modern life would go away. We'd be back to the premodern, to royalism, to the divine right of kings. This scares the hell out of me, and I know that there are lots of conservatives who either don't agree with this vision, or haven't thought it through to its natural conclusion. Probably most of them. But, nevertheless, here we are. As Lyndon Johnson said, these are the stakes.

I don't personally think that Palin's an evil person, but rather a flawed person with some pretty deep character flaws--pride, narcissism, and an abiding will to power. Something that the neocons never get (perhaps because they avoid Niebuhr like the plague) is that good and evil aren't separable commodities. Nietzsche made this point, of course, in Beyond Good And Evil and Niebuhr expands on it. Not only can we be defeated by our flaws, but it's interesting how our flaws, despite our admirable components, can often be the channel through which evil flows. The only way out of this is some combination of deep self-knowledge and humility. Palin has the opposite, as did McCain, as did Bush. Hell, as did Clinton, for that matter. It's not like this is only a Republican thing. Only Obama and Reagan strike me as modern people who were even close to recognizing these problems, and the fact that we keep electing exceptionally arrogant and ignorant people to office suggests something really wrong about our political situation.

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.