Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The party of the status quo

Chait is saying something I've been saying for some time now:
"One of the political benefits to Democrats of passing the Affordable Care Act, rather than following the crawl into a hole and die strategy urged upon them in all sincerity by Republicans, is that it shifted the debate to favorable terrain. Now Democrats are favoring the status quo, and Republicans are trying to pass a radical change. Indeed, now that the issue is repeal, it's Democrats who are united and Republicans who are divided, rather than the reverse."
For all the talk about the Overton Window, hardly anyone seems to know how to actually shift it. This is how you shift it. Not by slamming the people trying to do good. Instead, you move it by actually racking up accomplishments that change the country.

Admittedly, it's much less satisfying to some people. I think we all know who I'm talking about.

I would never have guessed

M. Night Shyamalan's new movie is awful. I'll probably catch it on DVD when the Rifftrax comes out for it, as at this point there's no other way to actually watch a Shyamalan film.

What's been interesting about Shyamalan is that his career has been a slow slide toward oblivion. Each movie of his is slightly worse than his last, and each movie relies progressively more on contrived scenarios and plots, and each one shows a growing estrangement from how actual people live, act, and talk. The Sixth Sense wasn't what I would call grittily realistic, but it was believable enough. By The Happening, though, the guy had completely lost any sense of what people are like. Perhaps it was because he was saddled with a not-so-impressive cast, but I don't think you can blame Mark Wahlberg alone for this.

I find it rather ironic that George Lucas is one of his big influences (though Spielberg is the biggest one, clearly) because his career is eerily beginning to parallel Lucas's. The Happening features lousy writing, bad acting, a story that makes no sense and muddled messaging, all of which are hallmarks of late-period Lucas, but the weirdest thing is how completely Shyamalan was unable to set a tone, create a mood, or even string together an impressive visual sequence. Those used to be M. Night's strengths, by the way, and Lucas's too. Remember the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc? That was all Lucas. And both the Star Wars films and the Indiana Jones movies (1-3, anyway) all displayed a good command of how to tell a rousing adventure story. But these talents have seemingly withered away from both men, leaving pretty much nothing left there, except a desire to replicate what will probably never come again, with increasingly desperate applications of effort that try to hard to reproduce something that had earlier been instinctive. I feel some sympathy for these guys, despite Shamylan's legendarily prickly persona. How can you not? They've peaked. At least Lucas seems to have accepted it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The neocon project, now in focus

I thought that the whole thing about how when neocons say pro-America they mean pro-Israel was something of a cliche, but then Matt Yglesias goes ahead and finds a WaPo columnist unconsciously arguing just that about a Malaysian politician. Malaysia, of course, has unparalleled influence in the Knesset and the Palestinian Authority, so the Leader of the Opposition in that nation clearly deserves scrutiny for its stance on Israel.

Now, look, I'd say that I'm extremely pro-Israel, in terms of its right to exist. I'm also extremely pro-Palestinian, in terms of its right to actually have a state. These positions are not in tension because there is an excellent win-win idea out there, which goes by the name of the two-state solution. As someone who generally falls on the left on political issues, I'm well aware that my views on Israel, while common, are not universal. There are many on the left (and on the right as well) who would not be very sad at all if Israel were to just disappear. This sentiment bothers me, but I usually don't think about it because these people are irrelevant to the situation. Much like Malaysia is to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. I could spend all my time agonizing over the extremist positions of nonentities, but trying to get everyone to agree with you on an issue such as Israel (as Jackson Diehl seems to value) instead of just getting the important stakeholders on board is absolutely insane and almost certainly bound to fail. The absolute certainty of the failure of the neocon project is heartening, I suppose, though there's the nagging problem that they seem happy to keep trying until they take us all out.

Which site has the wingnuttiest commenters on the internet?

I am not sure myself, but I'm always shocked at how wingnutty Yahoo! News's commenters are. And this pro forma piece on Obama pursuing immigration reform is tops as far as entertaining wingnuttery goes (though the ability to form complete sentences or, you know, thoughts is a bit deficient from what you might find on, I don't know, RedState).

My front-page favorites (unedited, of course):
Coming from a Blackman-Just remember to vote , these elected officials out at all cost, Corporations are backing this stuff for the cheap laborer, some of these businesses are HP,Boeing,McDonalds to name a few.
With unemployment among citizens at 10% ,families losing their homes, unable to educate their own kids these clowns are considering amnesty for 25 million criminals ,what happen to taking care of your own (Americans)? and stepping up and paying a fair wage . Every corp. , laborer organization ,elected official needs to identified and boycotted for the selling out of America.
My fellow americans we need to march, call,e mail,write these elected officials and let them know we mean business.
Brothers,sisters, don't vote color , but vote common sense this bill will further put unemployment among us at even a higher rate don't get caught up in the hype at the white house.
I'm sure some of his best friends are black, but apparently none are economists.
all of u are crazy! y dnt u go follow hitler, is excactly the samething u all are doing right now, your pointing us out because of our skin whats next an arm band like hitler did the jews. your saying we dont pay taxes which we do and why dont yall mention we cant claim them at the end of the year,most of us do come to work. yea theres immigrant criminals just like theres american criminals theres good and bad people in every race! i agree with deporting criminals which are giving a bad image to all of us, who are here to work for a better living.
Yes, as we all know, Hitler's top priority as Reichsfuhrer was promoting the immigration of vastly larger numbers of foreign ethnics into Germany!

Okay, so I don't really have a larger point here. Just a little entertainment.

Robert C. Byrd

I don't have much to say about the man, but his passing is noteworthy to me because I actually got to see him and Phil Gramm haggling over some sort of procedural disagreement on the floor of the Senate in person when I was visiting D.C. ages ago. I have no idea what it was about, but it was pretty cool.

Palin and the double-dip

Jon Chait's view of the future is quite rosy:

If economic conditions remain terrible, it's likely that the Republican Party will regain power. 9% unemployment would give even a radioactive figure like Sarah Palin a decent chance to win the presidency, and a double-dip recession would give her a very strong chance of success. This means there's a significant chance that by 2013 the country will be governed by a Republican Party that makes the Bush-era version appear benign by comparison.

This is not implausible, but the tendency of actually quite a few liberal writers to assume that Sarah Palin will win if the economic situation doesn't change is simply weird to me. For that to happen, Palin is going to have to, you know, actually become popular at some point. Her favorable/unfavorable rating (not even approval ratings, though admittedly she doesn't hold any office at this point so it's irrelevant) is 29/43, which makes her substantially less popular than Rush Limbaugh. The idea that she would be able to mount a real challenge to Obama doesn't really seem to be rooted in the fact that she's been mounting one for some time now, to increasingly diminishing returns. Perhaps she will find her groove at some point, but making the sorts of adjustments necessary to win independent support would require her to do actual work to try to understand what the electorate outside the activist right thinks and what they want, which is not really something she seems inclined to work at. Indeed, Palin's lax work ethic most likely points to a Giuliani '08-like campaign where she simply expects the hordes to show up and vote for her, while nimbler opponents lock up turnout machinery from governors, congressmen and the like. I do believe that anything's possible, but my guess is that this is residual Bush '04 sentiment among liberals, i.e. that if the country will elect someone like that, they'll elect anyone. As someone who assuredly didn't vote for George W. Bush but could understand why he won (weak opposition, mostly, that didn't really define Bush in the way that he should have been defined), I can't really see why a nation weakened by economic turmoil would cast a longing eye on Sarah Palin, who seems to be mostly viewed as unpleasant, incompetent, and flaky. In fact, I think she's quite a bit weaker than John Kerry ever was as a presidential candidate because, unlike Kerry, she comes essentially predefined and polarizing, and seemingly uninterested in making the public like her.

It's definitely true that the state of the economy is central to political success. But it's not the only determining factor. If it were, Ronald Reagan would have been trounced by Walter Mondale in 1984. Perhaps this isn't the right analogy (then again, I don't really think that there are very many good historical analogies), but this strain of pessimism has always baffled me with respect to many liberals. I wonder if Chait is reacting to Paul Krugman's column predicting another imminent recession, which is a column that he seemingly publishes twice a year and has gotten correct one time, so far as I can tell, and that one time wasn't the most recent one I recall, when he insisted that we didn't nationalize our banks at our own peril. They're not nationalized and we're doing okay. I actually quite like Krugman when he explains the substance of economic issues, but at some point liberals need to face the fact that he's not an especially good prognosticator and is not immune from excessively emotional analysis, which is why I only pop in on his column/blog intermittently. Case in point: Krugman thought that Obama's health plan as a candidate in '08 not having an individual mandate was evidence that Obama didn't care about the issue, which kind of exposes both problems, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The difference between the right and the left

There is, to my knowledge, no precedent of a right-wing senator not signing onto a tax cut bill--and in so doing severely weakening the bill--because the tax cut in question is too small.

There are, though, liberals who will essentially do something basically equivalent on financial reform. Don't get me wrong, I usually like Russ Feingold, but his occasional Nader-ish tendencies drive me bonkers, as do all liberals who would rather give up meaningful progress in exchange for gratifying their own moral vanity at not having "compromised".

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Oil Spill

I watched Obama's speech on the oil spill tonight and thought it was fine. Not the greatest he's been, but it seemed to me to mostly be a way of keeping the public in the loop with a bit of a pep talk on moving away from oil. A lot of lefty bloggers seem really angry that Obama didn't explicitly push for cap-and-trade in the speech, which I do get, but I can see why he kept the throughline simple. The speech was primarily about the spill, with energy policy as the final goal.

As for the oil spill in general, I think that the Administration has done probably as much as it can in terms of action but not nearly enough PR-wise. In other words, the same old story for Team Obama. I don't understand why Obama doesn't hire more effective advocates for his agenda. It's not like there aren't people out there who can do it.

But what's consistently annoyed me about this crisis is the reaction among Washington Elites. I commented on a particularly dumb piece by David Ignatius that was brought to my attention by DougJ at Balloon Juice, but it bears repeating why Washington Elites are so screwed up.

Basically, we're talking about mostly liberal elites who, for any number of reasons, don't want to be identified with either notation. Whether out of a desire to be "balanced" or out of a sense that America truly is a center-right nation, your Washington Media Elites simply don't want anything to do with what they really are. Instead, they all seem to want to be the peoples' tribunes. Frankly, I see little value in this. Ed Murrow was an outspoken liberal during his day. The guy went up against Joe freakin' McCarthy and was largely responsible for turning back the ugly trend that shared his name. And he had a bit of a popular following, too. Of course, McCarthy today would likely get sympathetic interviews with Larry King, Stephanopoulos, and all the rest of these people.

That's what I think, anyway. Of course, the odds of a smart, informed person like David Ignatius really being so insecure that he needs the assurance that a powerful political figure feels sad are astronomical. The media elites are managing their image, just like politicians. What I find interesting is what they choose to emphasize. In the past two decades, we saw a full-on Village frenzy over Bill Clinton's sexual escapades when the public mostly seemed indifferent about them. We saw the media largely invisible during the Bush years, when it wasn't actively trying to whip up support for things like the Iraq War. And now the oil spill, where the chief complaint seems to be how much Obama feels. From these three examples, one must conclude that media elites think average Americans are dumb, prudish, neurotic reactionaries. Which hasn't been my experience, but probably provides something close to a working definition of Washington culture.

Neoconservatism is a movement of failed men

Andrew Sullivan has rendered the most articulate explication of the undeniable Marxist/neocon synergy I have ever read. Check it out if you haven't read it.

The post has gotten me thinking orthogonally. One can learn a lot about a movement by what it sees as its enemies. The neocons' greatest enemy is probably Neville Chamberlain, who (to them) personifies the liberal weakness of coddling evil and refusing to see that great and looming threat, all in the name of preserving "peace." It occurs to me that this is mostly wrong. Don't get me wrong, Chamberlain was a failure as a statesman. He misread Hitler completely and allowed him to get away with breaking commitment after commitment. It's true that Chamberlain didn't have the capability to fight Hitler in 1936, and that between then and 1939 it was Chamberlain who began rebuilding the strength of the British military, but it was Chamberlain who legitimized Hitler's conquests with worthless paper, and Chamberlain who refused to listen to wiser voices both at home and abroad about Hitler's evil. Churchill famously had Hitler pegged from the beginning, but so did Franklin Roosevelt. Chamberlain's desire to avoid another awful war led him to ignore contrary opinions and push forward with his peace process. Chamberlain's attempt to finally rein in Hitler--by offering Poland a unilateral security guarantee--was not taken seriously by Hitler because of Chamberlain's earlier weakness, and he invaded Poland anyway. Chamberlain's reign was pretty much a disaster when it came to the most important issue out there, and he will continue to pay a price for that in the history books.

I have no quibble with any of this conventional wisdom. What I have a problem with is where it stops. Most popular estimations of Chamberlain just stop once WWII was declared. But his career didn't end then! His premiership didn't even end for another few months, once his declining health forced him to give up the reins. He could have named his close ally (and appeaser-in-chief) Lord Halifax his successor, but he picked Churchill instead. This was an admission that Churchill had been right and that he (Chamberlain) had been wrong. Chamberlain continued as an MP for a few more years and supported Churchill's government completely, and John Keegan's bio notes that angrily rejected any diplomatic overtures from Germany after his premiership ended. He had come full circle.

Now, I don't think that Chamberlain's post-PM conduct makes up for his mistakes as PM. He bungled the situation badly, and while some of his mistakes can be excused his record as a statesman cannot be salvaged. But as a man? I think you can make the case that the humility and moral courage shown by Chamberlain in passing power to his greatest critic showed that while he was a failure in office, he gained some measure of redemption as a man for his conduct afterward. He certainly didn't have to do what he did. He could have refused to admit he was wrong, forced a No Confidence vote and probably a general election, named Lord Halifax as his successor, and then done everything possible to destabilize Churchill's government from without. But Chamberlain didn't do it. This is more than can be said for someone like Dick Cheney, who ostensibly hates everything Chamberlain ever stood for, and ironically enough is pretty much right to do so, though not in the way he probably figured.

This is a thought I've had for some time. I might have mentioned it on this blog before. But it was recalled to my mind by this passage by Sullivan:
As you watch Iraq today veer between a reprise of brutal sectarian warfare and a political class utterly uninterested in actual democracy, only a blind man or a fool can still believe what Kristol and others (including me) said before the war. [...] Only ideologues or cynics can sustain this kind of insanity against this mountain of empirical evidence.
Sullivan leaves out the category of the prideful, which I think is mostly the problem here. But it is simply impossible to debate the point. Neoconservatism is a movement of failed men, of angry and arrogant people who hate to have their failures pointed out to them. These guys have a similar record of poor judgment to Chamberlain's (albeit in the opposite direction), but they entirely lack the grace notes of NC's post-PM phase. I don't doubt that most of these men are ignorant and simply don't know much more about Chamberlain's career than the most obvious facts, but the irony here is that in trying so hard not to be like him, they are undoubtedly going to be remembered more harshly than the great appeaser himself. How can they not be?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An underground electric fence?

The Rand Paul clusterf*ck continues. Is this man not familiar with the concept of grounding? Now, I'm no electrical engineer, but I've taken a few courses in physics, and I think there's a reason why this idea hasn't been explored as yet. At least a couple.

I don't think he's a bad guy, really, but he is so clearly not ready for prime time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I agree with Chait's largely negative assessment of Helen Thomas, but it serves if nothing else as a reminder of the supremacy of emotion to reason when it comes to politics. On paper, Thomas's record is underwhelming. But she gave voice to the anger that a lot of liberals felt during the Bush years, so some elements of the left identified with her. On the other hand, a lot of conservatives identified her as the tip of the liberal media's crusade against Bush. Thomas's work was not terribly influential, but she was important to a lot of people because of what she represented--and, really, how she chose to present herself. And, ultimately, when you look at the polarizing political figures of the past decade--Newsom, Bush, and Dean for starters--this is largely the case for them as well, despite all of them having records that otherwise would not have endeared them to their followers.

Friday, June 4, 2010

McCartney's joke

Totally unsurprising to me that the right is going ape over this. Bush is still "on the team" regardless of his failures, and in a party that worships cultural identity over all else there is no greater sin that disrespecting that identity, or those who embody it. As the former head of the GOP, Bush really is untouchable for these people, no matter how ridiculous defending him might be.

This just makes me think, though, of how screwed the right really is. Not for 2010 per se, but further down the line. In 2010, the GOP will face an election leaderless and will be able to play to local issues (or not) in that election without having to be held accountable for what their leadership is saying. In 2012, though, the GOP is going to choose someone to lead them into the election. This person is going to be asked questions about the Iraq War and Bush, among other things, and these answers will be binding in elections across the land. That is when Republicans will be screwed. The electorate and the Republican Party are at such cross-messages here that I suspect any Republican nominee will wind up not being able to talk about this stuff to the electorate's satisfaction, and will wind up going the way of McCain. The idea of Romney in particular trying desperately to double-talk his way out of his health care record in MA, or defending Bush's record, strikes me as inevitable poetic justice for a man who seems to think he can talk his way out of anything.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rock 'n Roll 'n politics

I found this amusing: "I long for the days when rock'n'roll was properly identified (in broad and loose terms) with the political left, before people like George Pataki started saying what a big Stones fan he was. If that guy was a Stones fan, he wasn't listening closely enough to what they were advocating."

I think this trend jumped the shark when Chris Christie talked about what a big Springsteen fan he is. Seriously. I don't recall any Bruce Springsteen songs about closing hospitals and cutting help to poor people--at least, none that treated the people causing that stuff favorably. Perhaps Christie meant Rick Springfield, and not the personification of bleeding-heart liberalism? And I am hardly using that as a pejorative.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A sci-fi interlude throughout the Area

TNC prefers Firefly to Battlestar Galactica.

I think this is probably about right. I don't really have anything left to say about BSG, which had a generally brilliant two seasons before it started to believe the hype and went off on its own, uninteresting tangents. I'll easily stand up for the Pegasus episodes, which were the real climax of the show, and which acted as the fulfillment of the show's major ideas and themes and which convincingly drew out the logical conclusion of Cheneyism, and the show should have wrapped up the search for Earth after that and finished a tight, two-season run. Firefly never really got the time to get bloated and self-indulgent, and who knows how the show would have turned out had it gotten more than the one abbreviated season it got. It's historically regrettable that it didn't get more time, of course. I tend to think that the stuff in Serenity would have made for a better season of Firefly than the did as a movie.

But I'm not in agreement with Coates that Firefly doesn't try to do anything aside from entertain. It does that, but I think there are frequent parts that go deeper than mere entertainment, to pathos and occasionally profundity. With Mal in particular, you have a very complicated character whose religious faith is frustrated by injustice prevailing, but who maintains an essential decency that frequently conflicts with the adopted cynicism he has taken up to stay alive. That's about as interesting as anything you can get on BSG, but without the relentless gloom that Ron Moore felt the need to wallow in so often, especially in the series' back half. But I do think that BSG is one of the few television shows that tried to grasp with the complexity of difficult and real issues that argued from a specific point of view. That counts for a lot, for me.

All in all, I think that the emergence of television as a legitimate vehicle for art brings about the difficult question of how to evaluate it. Does Firefly's short run count against it? Is there a degree of difficulty handicap for shows that tackle difficult subject matter? How can one even evaluate a show like BSG, whose bifurcated run divided neatly in the middle between virtuosic television and weak religio-mythological metaphor? After all, most shows wear out their welcome because they are forced to keep going until the ratings peter out. It is all subjective, of course, but this is uncharted critical territory when compared to, say, evaluating a film. In the end, the question really is: what makes a television show good? I'm not really sure myself. I'm sure that the next few decades will see standards begin to develop for these things, as innovation has been pretty intense with respect to television in the past few years, and most people probably haven't readjusted their criteria for TV goodness just yet.

Whose infraction is worse: Dick Blumenthal's or Mark Kirk's?

No sooner do the Democrats wrap up their problems with a candidate who embellishes their military records than do the Republicans get one too.
Kirk, a U.S. Naval Reserve officer, really has served honorably, but he's also made several claims about his service record that proved to be false. First, Kirk claimed to be "the only member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom." That turned out to be untrue -- Kirk served during the conflict, not in it. Second, Kirk claimed to "command the war room in the Pentagon," which also turned out to be untrue. Over the weekend we learned that Kirk repeatedly claimed to have received the U.S. Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year award, which was also wildly misleading.

Some of the errors appeared in official bios and related printed materials, but there are also instances in which Kirk personally and publicly exaggerated his record. As of this morning, there are now two videos of Kirk misleading the public.
So, the initial infractions were the same for both men: Blumenthal said he served in Vietnam a few times, Kirk said he served in the Iraq War, and both of them were wrong. But it sure looks like Kirk went further than Blumenthal did. I'm not sure I really believe Blumenthal's errors were just innocent mistakes, but he is an older man who only made his mistake less than a handful of times. It is, I suppose, plausible that he's right about it, though it simply makes too much sense that he willfully exaggerated because voters like veterans. But, then again, Blumenthal didn't talk about getting the Silver Star or the Distinguished Service Cross while in Vietnam, and didn't talk about leading patrols against the VC, either.

So, I think it's hard to see how Kirk's embellishments aren't worse than Blumenthal's, and Kirk doesn't even have the excuse that decades have passed since then. Frankly, I'm not too crazy about either of them. I never served in the military, but I have respect for those who did, and while I realize that these sorts of competitive situations naturally encourage some padding of records, I cannot help but agree with Steve Benen in wondering why either of these guys felt the need to exaggerate at all.

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.