Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Saving the American Economy AND the Literary Novel. Really.

So, courtesy of our fragile and increasingly unreliable airline industry, I'm blogging from an airport again, during yet another delay: indeed, from the very same airport from which I blogged during the first leg of my trip. And since my Junot Diaz novel is long since finished, I'm reading blogs.

So, courtesy of James Fallows, I discovered a post by David Brin, arguing that the quest for "efficiency," and especially the "just-in-time" inventory model, has created the vulnerable, inflexible Victorian invalid that our national economy has become, escalating a bad case of the economic flu into life-threatening contagion. Brin writes:
For decades, we’ve been told -- by the same fellows who brought us “efficient finance” -- that manufacturing and commerce should be fine-tuned to squeeze every penny of profit, by trimming away all “fat.” Industries that hew close to the teachings of W. Edwards Deming and Toyota’s Taichi Ohno require that their suppliers deliver parts and raw materials at the precise moment when they are needed. Under this principle, any reserves that are kept on-premises will only encourage sloppy management and incur unnecessary storage costs -- a calculation that has long been exacerbated by shortsighted tax policies that punish warehousing and inventory-keeping.

This approach, called “Just-In-Time,” is based upon the very same postulate that led the business-major types to bet our economic farm on arcane financial instruments, leading to catastrophic failure, in 2007 and 2008. A wholly unjustified wager that the economy and its supporting systems will always remain stable and never experience disruption.


Our ancestors’ age-old wisdom of putting a little aside for just-in-case robustness has been replaced by a delusion of just-in-time efficiency, based on a belief in perfectly reliable global interdependence.

But, in real life, animals - even efficient ones - carry fat reserves. Surprises and disruptions happen. And when they do, we worry less about tweaking widgets-per second, and more about survival.

This speaks to me, of course, because it's the "efficiency" of the beleaguered airlines that has made it impossible for them to adjust even to predictable "surprises" this travel season, so that every flight delayed by completely-unforeseeable winter weather in Chicago leads to a backup of canceled flights and stuck travelers from coast to coast. (And sticks me in Philadelphia again, blogging.) When your plan depends on everything going just right, without even the smallest glitch, none of the glitches will be small. I'm a big fan of robustness at the moment, and not just for airline travel.

The policies that Brin points to as damaging the general economy long ago wrecked American publishing, which I suspect is why this insight comes so swiftly to Brin. The near-extinction of the American mid-list writer, and of the model whereby literary writers could gradually build followings, was caused by those "shortsighted tax policies that punish warehousing and inventory keeping," and Brin, as a science fiction writer knows it.

If you read, say, Poets & Writers you will occasionally be treated to an essay about the plight of the mid-list writer, which typically gestures vaguely to the pernicious influence of corporate ownership before going on to bemoan the lack of great literary editors and ask, essentially, "Where has Max Perkins gone?" If you read science-fiction trade journals such as Locus, you'll learn the practical answer: the American publishing inventory and the mid-list writers whose books constituted that inventory have been decimated by U.S. vs. Thor Power Tools, a Supreme Court opinion about tax law.

The "just-in-time" model excludes any time for readers to gradually discover a writer. Mid-list writers don't flourish because their books are remaindered as soon as possible. (It is more profitable, from a tax standpoint, to remainder all of the unsold books at a quick loss than to keep them and sell some more slowly.) "Just in time," for publishers, means selling the books that they can sell immediately, which means the books that customers have already decided they want. There is no leisure, in this model, including no leisure for the customer. They must decide what they want right away, or they can never have it. Least of all is there leisure for any growth or complication of readerly desire.

A new emphasis on robustness, on inventory, would be great for America's economy, and perhaps best of all for American writers and readers. It's important to put things aside for a rainy day, and what could be better on rainy days than an interesting book?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Traveling Cities

I'm flying across the country today, to the annual MLA conference. It's in San Francisco this year, one of my favorite cities, but the MLA itself, an overwhelming and enormous meeting of literary scholars from across the country, is a roving metropolis in its own right.

Like any great city it's a place to go to pursue ambitions, to meet people you've heard of but never seen, and to make friends who share the obsessions that everyone in your home town found odd. People dress up and ride elevators. The hours are brutally long. There are fabulous booksellers. It's exhilarating and Dickensian and anxious, like any great city, and even the people who prefer the suburbs couldn't do entirely without it.

As a tribute to the Metropolis of Literary Arguments, and to the pleasures of San Francisco in December, here is an excerpt from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

Cities and Desire 2

At the end of three days, moving southward, you come upon Anastasia, a city with concentric canals watering it and kites flying over it. I should now list the wares that can be profitably bought here: agate, onyx, chrysoprase, and other varieties of chalecedony; I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant cooked here over fires of seasoned cherry wood and sprinkled with much sweet marjoram; and tell of the women I have seen bathing in the pool of a garden and who sometimes - it is said - invite the stranger to disrobe with them and chase them in the water. But with all this, I would not be telling you the city's true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Le Citta Invisibili), 1972
English translation by William Weaver, 1974

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Consolations of Literature (Holiday Travel Edition)

There's nothing quite as good, on a long winter's night featuring multiple flight delays and eerily quiet airline terminals, as having a truly wonderful novel to read.

Fortunately, tonight I have Junot Diaz'sThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is as good a travel companion as any becalmed traveler could ask. Original, engaging, and utterly fascinating. Even winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, an ominous portent many years, cannot diminish its charms.

The consolations of getting your rental car between two and three in the morning and of driving through the bleak cold night are, by necessity, less about literature than about kickass rock and roll. WBCN, te amo. No one will be listening anyway, so just play me a little Iggy and get me through my miles. That's what three AM is for.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hilzoy on Teaching

The always-brilliant Hilzoy responds to a Jill Tubman post about Jill's experiences as a student at Sidwell Friends, with a brief editorial on teaching ethics that's worth framing.

Jill describes a charismatic teacher, "Mr. E." who led his students through an extended unit on the evils of apartheid, and a school outing to protest apartheid, despite the fact (indeed because of the fact) that the daughter of the Reagan State Department official in charge of making nice with South Africa was in the class. It was Mr. E's way, Jill divines in retrospect, of pressuring the father through the daughter's personal unhappiness.

Hilzoy comments

First things first: the way Jill writes about Mr. E, both in the post and in comments, suggests that Mr. E was a very, very gifted teacher. He clearly inspired her, and to inspire a student is a rare and wonderful thing. I don't want to deny that for an instant. Nor do I want to get too hung up on the question whether it's OK to take a class to demonstrate (I think not, for the same reasons that make me oppose making kids say prayers.) What really bothers me is the idea of using a thirteen year old to get to her father. And not just any thirteen year old: one whom it is your job to teach and to nurture. I think that is just wrong.


At this point, someone might be thinking: but changing American policy towards South Africa is much more important than the feelings of one (very privileged) American kid. She might have become "increasingly moody and withdrawn", but kids in South Africa were getting shot, or losing their parents, or growing up in squalor and deprivation. And of course this is true.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this is just to say: that might be relevant if we knew, somehow, that our only two options were (a) to use Rennie in this way and have a chance to save the children of Soweto, or (b) to do nothing in the face of the massive injustice of apartheid. But that's almost never the kind of choice we face, and the idea that it is is similar to the idea that Bush and Cheney had a choice between (a) torturing people and (b) letting Osama bin Laden blow up Manhattan.

The whole post is well worth reading.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Throwing Shoes: A Very Brief History

I'm going to avoid blogging about partisan politics today, and write a bit about theater history (which is what I'm often doing when not blogging).

The gentleman above is the great clown William Kempe, acting partner of William Shakespeare. We can confirm that he played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter, the foolish servant, in Romeo and Juliet. He was the company's primary clown until around 1599. And he was an enormous star: much bigger, in the early days, than Shakespeare was. (The picture above is from his ill-conceived solo career after he broke up with Shakespeare, Burbage, and the boys. If that seems like a huge mistake, remember that no one had an agent to talk sense to them.)

Kemp was a master of physical comedy and dance. His extended comic jigs after the ends of plays were famous. And for one reason or another, one of his signature bits was throwing his shoe at people onstage. People could not get enough of this; throwing the shoe evidently slayed the crowd every time. It operated something like the pie in the face did later.

Of course, a lot of Elizabethan comedy seems impenetrable from the distance of four hundred years. Why anyone would laugh at someone throwing his shoes at someone else is a mystery that I can only leave you, Dear Reader, to resolve on your own.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Some Things Are Not Political

During the last month of the election, I used this blog to urge John McCain and Sarah Palin to dail back their rhetoric before someone was hurt. Last night, someone set fire to Palin's church in Wasilla, Alaska. According to the AP, people were inside when the fire began, including two children.

Whoever did this should be found and punished. I hope to see the people responsible convicted on multiple counts of attempted murder, and imprisoned for the rest of their lives.

Nothing more than that need be said, but some are already saying it. Bloggers, both on the left and the right, are already speculating confidently about the motives of the nefarious unknown parties responsible. This is unseemly and wrong. No one knows who did this, and therefore no one knows why. If you do know why this was done, please deliver the guilty parties to the police. If not, kindly hold your tongue.

John Cole's response, at Balloon Juice, should be a model to the rest of us. Really, one should be even quicker to decry violence against political adversaries than against political allies. Ultimately it's our refusal to accept violence against our political opponents that ensures a peaceful democracy.

I can imagine no good reason for doing such a thing, and of course, I don't expect that anyone who shares my politics did it. But if this did turn out to be lunatics from my end of the political spectrum, I would be unhappy and ashamed. But I certainly would not make excuses for them. No excuse is possible.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Poem for a Friday in December

The Haw Lantern

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaring shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking just one man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Seamus Heaney
The Haw Lantern, 1987

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day

Please vote on November 4!

Monday, October 20, 2008

McCain's John Lewis Problem

When someone you admire, a civil rights leader whom you yourself call "an American hero," compares you to George Wallace and calls on you to change your campaign tactics in the name of public safety:

1) You can take umbrage, and try to make an issue of how terribly unfair it is to compare you to a vicious segregationist like George Wallace, and while you're on the topic try to make your political opponent into the villain for not "repudiating" the Wallace comparison.


2) You can stop acting like George Wallace.

McCain's response to Lewis is revealing, not simply for the dishonesty and political opportunism that McCain now reveals on a daily basis, but for what it reveals about McCain's value system. He takes offense, or purports to, at being compared to a racist. He utterly ignores the point of Lewis's comparison, which is that his rhetoric, like Wallace's, is stirring up passions that may end in civil violence or even bloodshed. The slur against his character stings McCain. The call to civic duty, and the warning of public danger, does not even register. McCain is deaf to it.

This is the essence of John McCain: a confusion of private virtue, or "character," with public virtue. It is more important to him to establish that he is not, personally, a racist, than it is to protect the common good. McCain's candidacy, and his political career, is premised on the idea that a politician's sense of individual honor will benefit the nation at large. The conduct of his campaign puts the lie to that idea.

McCain's campaign tactics haven't been terribly consonant with personal honor, either, but personal failings can always be rationalized or repented. Once a politician does public harm, the consequences are out of his control. No repentance will help the victims if McCain's reckless and inflammatory tactics bring his fellow Americans to harm. John McCain will have to look at himself in the mirror after this campaign, but I couldn't care less what he finds there. He will only have to live with himself; the rest of us will have to live with what he's wrought.

Friday, October 17, 2008

ACORN has to deal with threats and vandalism

So, the Republicans' ugly stories are beginning to bear predictably ugly fruit.
According to Greg Gordon at McClatchy:

An ACORN community organizer received a death threat and the liberal activist group's Boston and Seattle offices were vandalized Thursday, reflecting mounting tensions over its role in registering 1.3 million mostly poor and minority Americans to vote next month.

Attorneys for ACORN — short for the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now — were notifying the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division of the incidents, said Brian Kettenring, a Florida-based spokesman for the group.

Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, have attacked the group repeatedly in recent days, alleging a widespread vote-fraud scheme, although they have provided little proof. It was disclosed Thursday that the FBI is examining whether thousands of fraudulent voter registration applications submitted by some ACORN workers were part of a systematic effort or were merely isolated incidents.

Kettenring said that a senior ACORN staffer in Cleveland, after appearing on television this week, got an email stating that she "is going to have her life ended."

A woman staffer in Providence, R.I., also got a threatening call from someone who said words to the effect that "we know you get off work at nine," and then made racial epithets, he said.

McClatchy is withholding both of the women's names because of the threats.

Separately, vandals broke into the group's Boston and Seattle offices and stole the group's computers, Kettenring said.

The incidents came the day after McCain warned in the final presidential debate that ACORN's voter registration drive "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history" and may be "destroying the fabric of democracy."

Senator McCain is not responsible for the crimes of every lunatic. But he owes a responsibility to public safety. If he persists in this dangerous scapegoating, he will establish himself unfit for public office: not simply for the Presidency, but public trust of any kind.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Poem for a Friday in October

The Seven Sorrows
by Ted Hughes

The first sorrow of autumn
Is the slow goodbye
Of the garden who stands so long in the evening -
A brown poppy head,
The stalk of a lily,
And still cannot go.

The second sorrow
Is the empty feet
Of a pheasant who hangs from a hook with his brothers.
The woodland of gold
Is folded in feathers
With its head in a bag.

And the third sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the sun who has gathered the birds and who gathers
The minutes of evening,
The golden and holy
Ground of the picture.

The fourth sorrow
Is the pond gone black
Ruined and sunken the city of water -
The beetle's palace,
The catacombs
Of the dragonfly.

And the fifth sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the woodland that quietly breaks up its camp.
One day it's gone.
It has left only litter -
Firewood, tentpoles.

And the sixth sorrow
Is the fox's sorrow
The joy of the huntsman, the joy of the hounds,
The hooves that pound
Till earth closes her ear
To the fox's prayer.

And the seventh sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the face with its wrinkles that looks through the window
As the year packs up
Like a tatty fairground
That came for the children.

Season Songs, 1975

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Anything but Substance

"It has been striking to me this year that the public seems far more serious about this election--far less tolerant of diversions--than some of my colleagues in the media." - Joe Klein, Swampland, 10/15/08

Meanwhile, the Times is running a surprised poll analysis that personal attacks haven't worked with the voters. Who knew, that in an election with this much at stake, voters would want to hear about actual policy.

But nonetheless, the Politico home page fronts a large picture of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who has been mentioned by no one lately, with Mike Allen's lead story about why the McCain campaign isn't running attacks on Wright.

Yes, that is correct. A lead story about why something irrelevant isn't being brought up. This is what the political media has come to: covering the sideshows that never came to town.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Preview of November 5

It's good, as far as it goes, that John McCain is attempting to contain some of the paranoid ugliness that he's been responsible for. I'm happy to live in a country where politicians' self-interest restrains them from fomenting civil unrest.

But what matters is not the kind of man John McCain is or isn't. What matters is the kind of country we live in.

McCain will be a rapidly-receding footnote to history by Thanksgiving, taking his place among the Bob Doles and James Blaines and Charles Pickerings. He still has the power to make this campaign very dangerous for a lot of innocent Americans, but on November 5th he won't be able to get the matches near the gunpowder any more.

What worries me are the people who are stocking up their own gunpowder for Guy Fawkes Day. It's bad enough that hateful, paranoid lies are being spread in an attempt to defeat Obama. What's much, much worse is that defeating Obama is no longer the hatemongers' goal

The shape of the narrative is already forming, in preparation for a McCain loss. The right-wing media is laying the groundwork to claim voter fraud, perpetrated by ACORN, as the primary cause of McCain's defeat, even if November 4 is a landslide. In fact, a landslide will make the hard-liners' cognitive dissonance greater, because they won't be able to process how badly they have lost mainstream America, and lead them toward paranoid explanations.

The plan is to deny the legitimacy of Obama's election, and to continue portraying him as a dangerous outsider. No claim is too outlandish. We will hear how Obama personally engineered the financial crisis and how he is in league with various foreign bogeymen.

This is extremely dangerous. It gives the most dangerous people on the right an excuse for violence, because Obama is not "really" President and because he's "dangerous." So violence can be rationalized as necessary, for the greater good. And it builds in an excuse for ignoring the rule of law, since government itself is "illegitimate."

That isn't about one election. That's about the kind of country we live it, about whether we keep civil peace and respect the rule of law.

Starting November 5, we need to push back, hard, on media outlets that peddle dangerous fantasies.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Before Anyone Gets Hurt

McCain and Palin have turned a dark corner in their election rhetoric, and as many others have said, they are creating real danger.

They are actively encouraging the notion that Barack Obama may secretly be a danger to America, a friend to terrorists, a terrorist himself. This goes beyond political slurs. It is the language that the violent use to justify their violence. Obama is being presented as someone who poses a danger, someone whom the violent need to harm in "self-defense." And it only takes a few weak minds to accept the paranoid fantasy and act on it.

McCain has already gone beyond the acceptable bounds of American political discourse. And he has done it at a moment of national unrest, as the economic crisis creates fear and anxiety. A historical moment like this would be dangerous enough without McCain. The risk of mob violence would be with us now even if McCain were not actively increasing it. During times of uncertainty, mobs look for scapegoats to turn on. McCain has chosen to offer the public identifiable scapegoats.

I am afraid, not only for Obama but for his Secret Service detail, for Obama's volunteers in the field, for the staff at ACORN (who are being demonized every day), for Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank, whom McCain has now explicitly accused of crimes (as "willing co-conspirators" in the failure of our banking sector). I hope no harm comes to anyone. But I dread what may happen if some angry hooligans pass an Obama field office twenty minutes after Palin has told them that Obama wants to destroy the country.

If the fire McCain that is playing with actually catches, if people are burned, there will be enormous grief and enormous rage. And if something terrible happens, few of us will be able to think clearly about those responsible. So it's time to think the worst-case scenario through now.

If McCain's campaign actually incites the violence it is so close to inciting, his political career needs to end. That day. Not simply his lost campaign, but his Senate career, his speaking engagements, his public life. He needs to resign in disgrace, and he needs to be made to see that necessity.

There cannot be violent retribution for the merchants of violence, if we want to keep our America America. And laws regulating campaign speech will go horribly wrong. But the political retribution must be swift, complete and unrelenting.

No politician who undermines public safety for personal gain has any place in our national life. Every politician should fear an outbreak of civil violence against his or her fellow Americans; who can speak of loving our country but not dread that? If mere patriotism, mere responsibility, mere human decency are not enough, politicians must fear for themselves and their careers. Every American politician should live in holy dread of inciting a mob, and every politician should know that raising a mob and losing control of it means exile from American politics forever.

God forbid that any of my fears come to pass. I hope McCain will think better of what he is doing, and stop. I hope that we will get through the coming month in peace. But if the worst happens, McCain must leave public office, Palin must leave public office, and Steve Schmidt, their campaign strategist, must never be employed in politics or government again. And steps need to be taken, calmly and rationally, to ensure those outcomes: a new public organization, including a political action committee and a fund-raising arm, aimed at removing those malefactors from office, and at deterring any future politician from taking such depraved risks with the public safety.

Words have consequences, and John McCain has a public trust. A politician who becomes an enemy of the civil peace needs to be punished, not by more violence and not by the law, but by the patriotism of his fellow Americans.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain Camp Denounces Arithemetic as "Partisan," "Elitist"

John McCain's presidential campaign denounced a recent poll by ABC and the Washington Post as biased by "partisan and elitist arithmetic."

"The transparently liberal claim that 52 is larger than 43 is just another example of bias by The New York Times, which is now a pro-Obama advocacy organization," said Steve Schmidt, a key McCain staffer. When reminded that the Washington Post, and not the Times, had commissioned the poll, Schmidt responded, "You are in the tank, sir! The tank! Just like Dukakis!"

A press release from McCain/Palin '08 claimed that
"No matter how Obama and the his fans in the press try to fool the American people, 43 is still more than 52, just the way it always has been. It may not be the math that liberal elitists like to peddle in their exclusive colleges, but 43 is almost three hundred and seven points more than 52 is. We welcome a continuing debate."
"In the end, this election comes down to character," said a McCain spokesman who asked not to be named. "Do the American people relate better to a genuine hero like John McCain, or to some aloof, intellectual grade-school teacher who taught them to add and subtract? If an East-coast liberal ever made you ask permission to go to the bathroom, I think the choice is pretty clear."

In related stories, the McCain camp pointed out that Rick Davis's business relationship with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ended in August of 2008, "which was more than fifteen years ago," and that John McCain's 72 years make him forty-one years younger than Barack Obama.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

McCain and Spain

Not to be rude, but ...

does McCain actually remember The Maine?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Fox and Obama

So, according to the Washington Post, Murdoch and Roger Ailes have personally lobbied Senator Obama to appear on Fox, making the argument that he would get better coverage (or less criminally hostile coverage) if he had some working relationship with them.

What's really interesting is that it suggests that Murdoch and Ailes (if not their underlings who program Fox News day-to-day) have decided that they need a working relationship with Obama, and can't afford to be completely frozen out of an Obama administration.

I've been wondering for some time what would happen to Fox News as the relationship between its editorial slant and the observed world became untenable. It looks like Murdoch and Ailes have been thinking about this, too, and are planning to keep their network viable in a changed political environment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Unreplaceable Palin

Here's the thing: McCain is stuck with Palin.

If he throws her under the bus, his campaign is over anyway. The evangelical base would turn on him, and could not be placated without alienating nearly every other voter in the country. More importantly, McCain would have publicly admitted that his judgment had been unsound. It's bad enough that he's displayed poor judgment; he can't confirm that it was poor. The chief rationale for his candidacy would be gone.

And anyway, who in her or his right mind would step in to replace Palin? Who wants to go down in a losing campaign, and get tied to whatever debacle might be coming? The only people willing to take such a gamble wouldn't be an asset to the ticket. No one with a bright future wants to tie their reputation to a campaign that's self-destructing. As it is, I suspect that some people have already proved unwilling to run with McCain.

Add to that the problem that anybody who replaces Palin, except perhaps an actual Evangelical clergyman, will earn the undying enmity of her admirers in the Republican base. If she's thrown off the ticket, she will become St. Joan of the Mooseburgers, a martyr in the eyes of the cultural conservatives, and while McCain will be painted as Judas whoever he picks as a replacement will be seen as Barabbas. There's no future in that.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Abstinence-only Does Work! (Just Not as Advertised)

So, now that the McCain-Palin people have announced that Palin's daughter is five months pregnant (on the first scheduled day of the Republican convention), and will shortly be marrying the father, lots of liberals are drawing the obvious conclusion: that abstinence-only sex-ed, of the kind that Governor Palin promotes, does not work.

This is a misunderstanding. Abstinence-only does exactly what it is intended to do, and does it superbly. It doesn't do what it is advertised as doing, but this is merely advertising. The public would never support a program dedicated to abstinence-only's real goals, and so it is presented as doing just the opposite of what it actually does.

Abstinence-only has never, ever been about preventing teen pregnancies. The people who back abstinence-only are not interested in reducing the number of teen pregnancies.

The goal of abstinence-only is, and has always been, to maximize teen pregnancy. This is what its backers really want. They believe that a woman's proper place is bearing and caring for children. They are interested in women becoming pregnant early and often, like Mayor Curley's voters.

They are not especially interested in women spending their prime childbearing years pursuing higher education, beginning careers, or competing on a level playing field with men. Those life choices strike them as unhealthy or unnatural, while a seventeen-year-old at home with a baby seems to them a sign that all is right and well with the world. That youthful pregnancies delay and defer and deny women's entrance to college and the workplace is actually viewed as a positive good by cultural conservatives. Eighteen-year-olds should have babies, as many babies as possible. If this keeps those women from going to law school, that's considered a bonus.

The governor of Alaska's teenaged daughter is having a baby. She has apparently been kept out of school for months. Another success for abstinence-only sex-ed.

Friday, August 29, 2008


A veteran to cut your veteran's benefits.

And a woman to end your right to choose.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hillary Clinton Can't Win in 2012

From time to time there's chatter that Senator Clinton is planning a future run, perhaps in 2012 if Obama loses this year. It may be, but if it is, it's deeply unrealistic.

The Clinton-in-2012 speculation relies on the assumption that the political environment in four years will be basically unchanged from the one we inhabit at the moment. That's always a doubtful proposition, but this year it's a complete fantasy.

Our country faces major challenges on many different fronts. John McCain has no serious policies for addressing our current crises, and some fervently-held policies that would exacerbate them. He has no real proposals for our banking crisis, our energy crisis, our economic difficulties or our worsening environment. What proposals he floats are profoundly unrealistic. His ideas of military and foreign policy are almost criminally foolish. Our military is extended beyond its breaking point, and he wants to extend it further. With our international influence in tatters, he wants to abandon internationalism and impose our power solely through military power that we do not, at the moment, possess.

Four years of McCain's leadership will leave this country in such distress that a successful presidential candidate will need to offer either a radical or else a reactionary program, far more extreme than anything Hillary Clinton will ever propose. The swing from Bush to Obama will be enormous; the swing from McCain to a liberal successor would be far larger. The winner of a post-McCain presidency would need either to promise an enormous leftward shift, a renunciation of the status quo at least as profound as 1932's and indeed probably deeper, or else to traffic in a militaristic fearmonging well beyond HRC's capacities. After four years of McCain, the voters will either have accepted the logic of perpetual war, leaving space only for strong man figures, or have rejected the status quo so thoroughly that Obama would be too centrist. In short, four years of McCain will be polarizing, and Clinton cannot occupy either pole effectively.

Indeed, if there was ever a chance to win a campaign for a Clinton Restoration, it may have been 2004. True, HRC had only spent four years in the Senate, but one of the central rationales for her campaign was her experience in her husband's administration. If there was ever a moment when voters would be open to turning back the page and picking up where Bill Clinton left off, it would be in 2004. Now too many events have intervened to make going back to 1999 seem plausible. And in 2012, the Clinton Administration will only seem less relevant, and further away.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Michelle Obama!

Wow. Just wow. Michelle Obama is a better speaker than Hillary Clinton. By a country mile.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Timing Edwards's Repentance

Okay, since apparently not discussing Edwards isn't in the cards ...

I'm interested in Edwards's choice to come clean (or as clean as he thought he had to) on the Friday that the Olympics began. That looks like the classic strategy to minimize coverage, and maybe that's what it is. But it's not quite the classic execution: rather than a 4 pm Friday press release, he actually did the TV interview himself, allowing the networks and the net to run clips all weekend, giving the MSM time to gear up for coverage, and giving the Sunday talking heads time to sharpen their knives. Edwards is in some ways maximizing his coverage right now, rather than minimizing it. So why confess now?

Because Barack Obama is going on vacation.

I'm sure Obama didn't personally direct Edwards to do anything. But it's fairly clear from the press coverage that some combination of the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party told Edwards that he couldn't speak at the convention unless he took steps to deal with the scandal. It's unthinkable that Senator Obama didn't sign off, somehow, on that decision, and even more unthinkable that he couldn't overturn it if he chose. Edwards confessed not because the American mainstream media forced him; they were clearly refusing to cover the story. Edwards confessed because that's how Senator Obama wanted it, and Senator Obama is the boss.

(Parenthetically: Is this confession bad for Obama? Of course it is. That's why he ordered it.)

Now, Obama's vacation has fairly obviously been timed to coincide with the Olympics as well, because the coming week will make it harder for Obama to attract coverage on the trail and harder for McCain to take advantage of the break. (McCain, playing catch-up, has to campaign through the headwind of Olympics coverage.) But the management of the Edwards scandal fits into Obama's schedule, perfectly.

If Edwards was inevitably going to generate a week of scandal coverage, it's best for that week to happen while Obama is off the trail. Obama doesn't have to answer reporter's questions about some other Deomcrat's marriage at every campaign event, and more importantly, Obama doesn't have to put in a full week of barnstorming effort without being able to get the media's attention. Meanwhile, McCain has to plug away in an environment where he can't get any oxygen at all, and can't land effective attacks on Obama because everyone is busy hating on that other Democrat (who isn't running).

Edwards is also, helpfully, attracting the full gossipy attention of media clowns such as Maureen Dowd, who has already filed her first ad hominem thumbsucker about the former senator. Since pundits gravitate toward groundless takedowns of the "Is Obama Too Thin?" variety when they can't see anything substantive to write about, a week off the campaign trail is an invitation for idle mischief by the pundit set. (I'm sure that Dowd was more than ready to free-associate on Hawaiian beaches and fitness to serve.) But now those idlers have a "big" story to keep them occupied. I can't say I'm entirely unhappy about that.

The boss has gone to Hawaii for the week. He wants this whole mess sorted out before he gets back. You don't want him having to deal with this nonsense when he gets back to Chicago.

Friday, August 08, 2008

On Not Discussing John Edwards

Since John Edwards and his antsy pants are being treated, God help us as a news story to rival the war that the Russians started today, let me just point out one of the great things about living in a democracy.

Living in a democracy means not having to care who your political leaders sleep with.

This is one of the chief pleasures of democratic republics, as far as I am concerned. Seriously, would you want to picture George III in bed? If you natter and blatter about former senators tomcatting on their wives, then you refuse to take advantage of one America's greatest public luxuries. It's like living next to the Grand Canyon and staying in your basement all day, or having a lifetime subscription to the Met but deliberately listening to Muzak instead. A little appreciation, please.

It is one of our system's great achievements is to make it entirely irrelevant that our leaders are sexual nitwits. God forbid it be otherwise. Think about the monarchies in which the king or queen's erotic lives have had real political consequences. Think about changing England's national religion (and its foreign alliances) because of who got Henry VIII hot and bothered. Think about worrying if those things would change back because of, say, George IV's taste in women. Think about worrying about who the King of France took as his official mistress, and his unofficial mistress, and what that meant for government policies. And thank the Founders we never have to worry about that. Political happiness is not having to worry about whether the king can perform in bed, or about who coaches his the best performances. Amen.

But of course, we all know Edwards's sex life is supremely unimportant. We know it's not important because we can talk about it so freely.

In systems where the leaders sex lives' actually matter, no one is allowed to discuss their sex lives. This has always been true.

Let's just say there was no public polling about who Henry VIII married next, or who Louis XIV moved to better rooms at Versailles. If you had a complaint about who the king or queen was shtupping or trying to shtup or holding involved negotiations about the possibility of shtupping, your choices were either to keep your tongue in your mouth or have it permanently removed. An English subject named John Stubbs once wrote a pamphlet about how the Queen, Elizabeth I, should absolutely positively not not not marry a foreigner, and above all not that perfumed Frenchman who was courting her. Her Majesty's government listened to his feedback, reflected upon his views, and decided to cut off his right hand.

In a representative democracy, of course, we are free to talk about our leaders' sexual misadventures and follies all we like. But it absolutely pointless, and not a hell of a lot of fun.

Everything They Learned About Patriotism They Learned in Grammar School

So, the other day John Quinn from Parma, Ohio tried to show up Barack Obama by interrupting a policy speech with the Pledge of Allegiance. (h/t Andrew Sullivan and the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Photographer insists on Pledge of Allegiance before Obama rally

Obama's aplomb is remarkable, and it occurs to me that being able to handle irrational and overwrought people is an important presidential skill. But what's interesting is that the heckler, who identified himself as "John Q. Public," feels that he has scored a major triumph, and continues to admonish the reporters taking his statement afterward:

You all learned the Pledge of Allegiance in first grade ... all right? Your Senator ... your Governor ... nobody started this town hall meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America (sic)? You gotta be serious! Somebody shoulda did that. Don't disrespect that flag!
Making fun of this poor man would be easy, useless, and cruel. I'm sure cable news has already been doing it for hours. And obviously there's a difference between the the leadership of the Republican party and a guy who disrupts public meetings. But this is the difference:

The Republican party only makes the talking points up. Poor Quinn takes them seriously.

What clearly upsets Quinn is a lack of patriotic ritual, which he identifies as patriotism. The flag itself deserves respect. But one can honor a flag with words and dishonor everything that flag stands for. That might be the epitome of Bush conservatism: shred the Bill of Rights but honor the flag.

It reminds me of certain ritualistic or pietistic approaches to religion, where ceremonies and verbal formulas take the place of the actual ethical belief system. It's far, far harder to live a life of Christian kindness, forgiveness, and humility than it is to, say, recite a whole lot of prayers and have a good attendance record at services. (The distance between the two efforts is something like the difference between winning the Olympic Marathon and watching the Olympic Marathon on TV; the latter might or might not be tedious, but you won't strain anything.) There's nothing wrong with these ceremonies and formulas themselves (although Jesus himself vigorously disagreed); every faith has them. The problem lies in treating them as important in themselves rather than as mere reminders. Saying the rosary after looting a charitable foundation is grotesque; singing "The Star Spangled Banner" while the separation of powers erodes is no achievement.

The conservative political strategies of recent years have shamelessly peddled the reduction of both faith and patriotism to a series of effortless gestures. Anyone can wear a flag pin; anyone can stand for the national anthem. It's appealing, because it allows people to feel like patriots without sacrifice. Everything John Quinn Public needs to do to feel like a patriot, he quite literally learned in grade school. No more effort is required to be "patriotic" in this way than was required when you were six. No more will be asked of you, except perhaps to scold and shame people who don't participate in the simple rituals. (Complaining about who does and doesn't wear a flag pin is like complaining about whether the nurses in the charity hospital wear personal crucifixes or not.)

The conservatives, to their shame, have been selling "patriotism" as a fashion choice, although the best of them know better. And they have set the bar for patriotism at a child's height. The questions of how we honor America, and how we commit to the American experiment, are far more difficult and complicated. It's time to make this election about what patriotism really is.

Monday, June 30, 2008

William Logan Doesn't Like Frank O'Hara. He Thought You Should Know.

So, the cover of Sunday's New York Times Book Review is a review of Frank O'Hara's new Selected Poems (replacing the old selection from the seventies) by William Logan. Here's the short version:

Logan doesn't like O'Hara's poetry much, and that should be good enough for the rest of us. The end.

The review is puzzlingly bad, and pretty depressing as a lead review on Sunday morning. It condescends to O'Hara without persuasively establishing that the reviewer knows much about how these poems work, and then near the end it becomes strangely dishonest about questions of fact. I found myself having the urge, and now find myself repressing the urge, to become catty about Logan, the reviewer, whose name didn't mean much to me when I saw the byline. I'm going to choke back the ad hominems here, because (of course, of course) the critic's ideas should stand or fall on their merits alone. Yet perhaps it's something about Logan's approach that provokes those ad hominem rebuttals, precisely because he bases his assertions on his own personal literary authority. (Everyone has the right to critique a poet, no matter how exalted, but damned few are entitled to talk down to one.) Logan doesn't persuade. He doesn't explain. He Pronounces from On High. This is not persuasive or edifying, but it is a drag.

Logan's essay is a kind of throwback to an earlier era, lamented by some but certainly not by me, during which the purpose of "literary criticism" was to establish a strict hierarchy of literary greatness through critical fiat. Enormous amounts of energy once went into working out fine shades of distinction between canonical figures, sorting them between "major" and "minor," endlessly working out the imagined pecking order of the great, the nearly great, the intermittently and would-be and not-quite great and so forth down to the hacks, sniveling mediocrities, and footnotes to The Dunciad. I'm talking about the period when an anthology could be titled Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century and when that anthology could include Philip Sidney (because, evidently, only Shakespeare, Spenser, and Marlowe made the "Golden" cut). This scholarly enterprise is now unfashionable and politically suspect, which is just as well since it is also intellectually bankrupt. This is not criticism, in that it explains how literature actually works, but literary appreciation, which at its worst merely tells its audience what they are supposed to like. The underlying premise here is that people should like some poems more, other poems less, and the rest not at all, and that their tastes need to be instructed so that they will be sure like and dislike the appropriate things. The role of the critic or teacher in this educational project is to provide the Voice of Authority and the Exquisite Taste. (Each is founded upon the other, tautologically.)

Now, I'm as much a part of upholding the famous-dead-white-male canon as just about anybody in my area code. I teach Big Old Dead White Guy survey courses. I give the Golden Poets and their Golden Poems more time, on the average, than the Silver, Copper, Bronze Alloy and Industrial Zinc Poets get. I've dedicated my academic career to the most canonical writer in that canon. I'm not complaining that some poets are more famous or more respected than others. What I object to is the notion that this canon of famous works and famous writers is the actual goal of literary study, rather than an approximate and necessary practical tool for that study. And what seems indefensible is building such a canon simply upon the personal aesthetic judgment of Herr Doktor Professor, whoever Herr Doktor Professor might be. Telling people what to think, rather than teaching them new ways to think, is not a legitimate intellectual enterprise. Telling people what to enjoy, or worse yet what not to enjoy, is not an intellectual enterprise at all.

William Logan, evidently, longs for the role of Herr Doktor Professor, and sets out to sort O'Hara into the appropriate less-than-entirely-great subcategory. In the second paragraph (the first paragraph is too absorbed in broad generalities to mention O'Hara's name), Logan complains that "it has been difficult to reach a just estimate of his wayward, influential talent." That the goal should be "to reach a just estimate" of O'Hara's talent is taken for granted; Logan is committed to evaluation, rather than comprehension, as the primary goal. The point is not to learn how O'Hara writes, but to conclude how important a writer he is. Logan devotes all but the final two paragraphs, which finally and grudgingly treat the actual book being reviewed, to the question of O'Hara's proximate distance from greatness. The paired modifiers "wayward" and "influential" suggest Logan's conclusion, and indeed might have served for it: O'Hara will be damned with faint praise, influential but "wayward" and "intermittent," the latter word a time-honored classic for demoting "geniuses" to minor status.

The traditional evaluative approach Logan follows leans heavily on the elegant variation of modifiers. Since it seldom breaks down the poems themselves, it must rely upon the laudatory and pejorative colors of its adverbs and adjectives. Indeed, this style of criticism is essentially Judgment by Modifier. If you list the modifiers that Logan uses for O'Hara and his work, you have his whole agenda:

"intermittently, wildly, unevenly, wayward, influential, jazzy, elated, giddily, vivid, outlandish, trivial, headlong, curiously impoverished, anti-Romantic, easy, off-course, heady, helter-skelter, compulsively, hilarious, vain young, homosexual, cheerful, comic, sometimes insufferable, effervescent, flat and stale, lunatic, influential, dull, lucky, very lucky, rambling, insouciantly unserious, oafish, grindingly self-conscious, campy, irritating, foolish, self-parodic, fresh, frantic, petty."

The list suggests Logan's hostility. It's also clear that his concerns are O'Hara's youthfulness, O'Hara's lack of seriousness, and O'Hara's lack of heterosexuality. (The traditional vocabulary for implying one lack is the essentially the vocabulary used to imply the other.) Logan complains that O'Hara wrote too much (except later in his career, when he writes less, which Logan points to as a failure of creativity), that O'Hara is indiscriminate in the subject matter of his poems and lacks a serious attitude (Logan notes a lack of guilt over sex), and that O'Hara's poems about the quotidian life are banal. If it seems illogical to complain about the youthful immaturity of a poet who died at forty, or the lack of seriousness in poems dedicated to deflating pomposity, that's because logic has nothing to do with it. The important point here is that William Logan, arbiter of taste, doesn't like these poems. If you had already formed opinions of Frank O'Hara's work, well, you'll just have to change.

Logan does not seriously engage with the poetic technique, not even to note basic things like the love of enjambment. (Logan is not even up to the New Criticism in his methods here. He judges without examining.) He makes no serious attempt to place O'Hara's oeuvre in the context of his untimely death. (O'Hara's career reads very differently when it is considered as the beginning of an interrupted career, and when his late thirties, for example, are treated as a period of maturation rather than the beginning of his dotage.) And there is no serious attempt to engage with the values behind O'Hara's technique as actual, coherent aesthetic values. O'Hara will be judged instead against Logan's own values.

Here's a sentence that should be a parody, but probably isn't:

"O'Hara loathed academic hauteur, though he needn't have sounded so oafish about it."

This sentence beautifully demonstrates the critic's deep and abiding love for academic hauteur, using diction that no one still uses when speaking ("needn't?"), and haughtily sniffing at O'Hara's "oafishly" informal deportment. It also demonstrates the reviewer's utter lack of sympathy with the poet's intellectual and artistic ambitions. The Harvard-educated museum curator O'Hara, who palled around with John Ashbery and Jackson Pollack, chose to wear his erudition lightly. Logan sews curtain weights in his erudition's pockets, looking for some extra gravitas. In fact, O'Hara clearly viewed intellectual self-importance, the cultivation of gravitas, as one of the enemies of genuine art (and genuine feeling and genuine thought). Logan is from the enemy party, and sets out to prove it, however oafishly. (There is something hilarious and asinine about attacking a deliberately demotic poet as lacking polish.)

His poems present a world in which love of art (of Mayakovsky and Billie Holliday and Seurat alike) are inseparable from one's other appetites for life. For Logan, this gusto is suspect. Any poet who's suspicious of energy and appetite, as far as I'm concerned, is suspect himself.

Logan makes a particularly suspicious claim late in the essay, when he cites "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!) as "arguably [O'Hara's] most famous poem."

This is evidently some new use of the word "arguably." Usually that word means a reasonable position that reasonable people might dispute. Logan uses it to mean a position that virtually all reasonable people would dispute, because it is obviously not true, but which Logan means to argue nonetheless.

"Lana Turner has collapsed!" is not, by any means, O'Hara's most famous poem. That honor probably belongs to the widely anthologized "The Day Lady Died" or else to one of the poet's five or ten other frequently anthologized lyrics ("To the Harbormaster," "Ave Maria," "Poem ("At Night the Chinamen jump"), "Why I Am Not a Painter," and so on). The odd claim about the Lana Turner poem is explicated by the contributor's note, in which Logan (having already admitted his longstanding aesthetic hostility to O'Hara's work) writes of hearing Richard Howard read that specific poem. So "arguably his most famous poem," means "most famous O'Hara poem in William Logan's private interior life." That's a strange and solipsistic standard of evidence. (Setting solipsistic benchmarks for measuring fame is especially paradoxical.)

More to the point, the poem Logan singles out as "most famous" does not appear in the previous edition of O'Hara's Selected Poems, which the new edition Logan is reviewing replaces. Surely, that fact is relevant to the review, even if not relevant to Logan.

Logan is most comfortable imagining a readership of naifs, like an auditorium full of unread freshmen, who have never heard of the poet being discussed and are willing to accept whatever Herr Doktor Professor tells them. The most famous poem by O'Hara is the one Logan believes should be most famous. Everything else is just a lapse of taste. If you've actually heard of Frank O'Hara, and read him, what Logan says might not match your own experiences. But Logan would contend that the fault lies with you.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How to Negotiate with Enemies: Lieberman Edition

Sometimes, Barack Obama says, you have to negotiate with your enemies.

President Bush, being a genius, disagrees. He knows that negotiating with enemies is a sign of weakness, which is why he wouldn't negotiate with North Korea while they were only trying to build nuclear weapons but waited until they had actually built them. That way Bush would have no leverage and could negotiate from a position of sufficient weakness.

This is also, of course, John McCain's model of tough diplomacy, and Joe Lieberman's. They too view Obama's willingness to actually talk to our enemies as a symptom not only of weakness, but of naivete. The fact that Obama is willing to talk to enemies, rather than simply threaten them, is taken as a sign that he's some simple-minded kid who will lose his lunch money to the Iranians before he even gets to the bus stop.

McCain and Lieberman's preferred method for dealing with international enemies, like Bush's, is to make bellicose public threats that they may or may not find themselves able to back up. It's very important that these threats not be made directly to the party being threatened, but to large domestic political audiences in front of international media. The goal is to humiliate one's opponents and make them lose face, while looking more impressive to one's own local admirers; essentially, this is the Gangster Rap School of Diplomacy. McCain or Bush or Lieberman let it be known around the neighborhood that they will give that other kid a beating, as soon as they see him. The plan is to undermine their opponent's standing, and intimidate him through third parties. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in fact uses the same technique all the time, ranting about how he will humble America, and Fidel Castro used to be a past master of it. You see how successful it has been, what with Iran and Cuba bringing us to our knees. And you can see how effectively our stump-speech threats have curbed their behavior.

The main purpose of these public threats is their main weakness: any leader who gives in to them will be humiliated in front of his own power base, and weakened. And because they were made in front of the whole world, the threatened party can't comply without admitting weakness. (If you hide when the neighborhood bully threatens you, you basically have to accept his bullying thereafter.) What American leader can give any concessions to Ahmadinejad, until he changes his tune? Threats like these give the opponent a powerful motivation to defy you, but punishes them for cooperating with you.

The other problem of course, is that when you threaten someone indirectly, they often doubt that you mean it. How often have you lost sleep over Castro's vows to bring us down? How often have you worried that those parade-stand threats were connected to anything concrete he was planning to do? Everybody knows that the neighborhood bully who goes around talking about how he will beat you up when he finds is not the same as the bully who actually finds you and then threatens to beat you up.

Sometimes, and I hope even our most hawkish compatriots would agree, you have to threaten your enemies in person.

That principle of tough diplomacy was seemingly on display in the Senate chamber today, when the naive and dewy pushover from Chicago, Obama, approached the hardened street tough from Connecticut, Lieberman. Roll Call, via the Huffington Post, has the story:

Furthermore, during a Senate vote Wednesday, Obama dragged Lieberman by the hand to a far corner of the Senate chamber and engaged in what appeared to reporters in the gallery as an intense, three-minute conversation.

While it was unclear what the two were discussing, the body language suggested that Obama was trying to convince Lieberman of something and his stance appeared slightly intimidating.

Using forceful, but not angry, hand gestures, Obama literally backed up Lieberman against the wall, leaned in very close at times, and appeared to be trying to dominate the conversation, as the two talked over each other in a few instances.

Still, Obama and Lieberman seemed to be trying to keep the back-and-forth congenial as they both patted each other on the back during and after the exchange.

Afterwards, Obama smiled and pointed up at reporters peering over the edge of the press gallery for a better glimpse of their interaction.

Was Obama threatening Lieberman? I can't say, and neither can you, and we're not meant to. Perhaps the new leader of the Democratic Party was simply giving Lieberman, who now caucuses with the Democrats but campaigns with the Republicans, an enthusiastic restaurant recommendation. Lieberman can certainly deny that any threats were made, which means he can cave in without losing too much face. This, of course, is the point.

Of course, the fact conversation wasn't supposed to be entirely private, although its substance was. The press in the galleries, and the other senators in the chamber, were supposed to notice that Obama was giving Lieberman some personal time, and that Lieberman wasn't enjoying it. It was important to establish that the new boss is, in fact, the new boss. Lieberman got a small taste of public humiliation, as payback for publicly dissing the leader of the party that gives him his committee assignments. But he also knows, and was intended to know, that the small taste could have been a full meal, and that Obama has the power to humiliate him much more publicly and thoroughly. Lieberman was also allowed the dignity of having the substance of the threat (if it was a threat) and the substance of the demand kept private so that he can comply with a minimal loss of position. And the "friendly" body language allows both parties to put the best possible face on things, and to stay in the negotiation. The move gives Lieberman the maximum reasons to cooperate, and the maximum penalty for not cooperating. It is, dare I say it, nuanced.

And that is the man whom Lieberman was calling soft.

The Richard Nixon Charm School

"And I want to say that one of the great features of America is that we
have political contests, that they are very hard fought, as this one
was hard fought, and once the decision is made we unite behind the man
who is elected. I want all of you to know, I want all of you to know
... I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know that,
certainly, if this trend does continue, and he does become our next President, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours too."

-Richard Milhous Nixon, election night, 1960

It's a sad day when Richard Nixon outclasses you. But here it is ... Nixon's supporters are shouting "No!" and "Boo!" to the news that Kennedy has won, there are official results still to come in, and yet the most resentful and grudging American politician of his generation manages to do the right thing, giving this important civics lesson to his backers and being graceful to his Democratic rival.

It would be nice if Senator Clinton could meet at least the Nixon standard for a fellow Democrat.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Clinton's Gift

The most important question to ask tonight is:

Can a woman be elected President of the United States?

I think the answer, at the end of Hillary Clinton's campaign, has to be a resounding "Yes."

No, she didn't win. No, she is not going to be the next President. But it's no longer possible to say that a woman couldn't do it. It is now undeniable that a woman can be a powerful contender for the White House, and that if a few things had gone differently (her campaign strategy; her vote on Iraq) Senator Clinton would have had the nomination.

There's no longer a question that a woman can be elected President. The only questions remaining are who, and when. That is Senator Clinton's greatest achievement, and it cannot be taken from her. Some of Hillary Clinton's personal ambitions came to an end tonight, but part of her campaign was always bigger than one politician's personal career, and that larger role on a larger stage, that place in the history of women and the history of this country, does not end tonight and will never end.

It's time to put aside the tactical posturing and small-bore politicking of the last few weeks. Clinton is a fiercely competitive and tenacious campaigner, as capable of hardball politics as any of the great American barnstormers have been, and she did not give up the field easily. But she should not be defined by the last-stand expediencies of the primary season. Least of all should her achievement be diminished by claims that the nomination was wrongly denied her, or that it was stolen. It wrongs Senator Clinton, and ill serves the women who will come after her, to imagine her not as the pioneer, the power broker, the master politician that she has become but instead as a victim.

The perverse triumph of Senator Clinton's campaign is that she lost, by and large, for the reasons other politicians lose. She was tied to an important vote that became a political disadvantage as circumstances changed; that vote alienated a serious chunk of the party base, who energetically supported her main rival; she faced an unusually gifted opponent in Barack Obama, backed by anti-war elements in the party; and her campaign strategy initially underestimated that opponent, leaving her with no contingency plan for the string of contests following Super Tuesday (when she expected to clinch the nomination herself).

There was sexism, as there always is when a woman opens doors that have been marked "Gentlemen Only," but Clinton proved far too serious and too powerful to be dismissed with any sexist labeling. There was never a question that she was qualified, and never a way to doubt her qualification for the job without exposing oneself as a fool. It's a mark how far she and we have come that she began this contest the prohibitive front-runner, rather than the long-shot, and part of Clinton's achievement that she could lose like a front runner, like any other established party chief in a political season running against the establishment. Clinton never had to prove that she could compete with the men; they has to establish their bona fides to stay in the race against her. She faced sexism, as every female candidate must, but she largely beat it. She lost instead to a combination of a powerful anti-war movement and Barack Obama. There's no shame in that.

Don't tell your daughters that the nomination was taken from Hillary Clinton. Don't tell them that the door to the Oval Office will always be closed, that no matter how well they do they will never get a fair accounting. Don't tell them that even the best candidate, with the best message and best campaign, will always be cheated by sexism, that a woman's best will never be good enough, or that even great women end up as victims. Tell them the truth: that there is a chance for them no matter what they do, that sexism will always have to be confronted and defeated but that it can be, and that while they will have to work harder and fight longer that in the end they will have the chance both to fail and to succeed, to take upon themselves the responsibility for their own defeats and their victories. Do Senator Clinton justice as a woman who made her own decisions, as a historic figure who held much of her political destiny in her own hands.

Tell your daughters that Hillary Clinton ran a great campaign, but not a perfect campaign. Tell them that she was a great woman, but not the last great woman. There was a better campaign to run, and there will be another woman, on another day, to run it.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

McCain Gets Tense

So McCain claimed that we have drawn American troops down to pre-surge levels. This is not true, nor will it be true soon.

When confronted with the error, McCain's campaign said that any criticism was simply quibbling over "verb tenses."

Verb tenses. Riiight.

Verb tenses of course are only grammatical details, and not really important. For example, the difference between the past tense (or in this case, the present perfect) and the future tense is really extremely pedantic.

What is the difference, for example, "I have paid you," and "I will pay you?" None that I can see. Only a schoolmarm, or a linguist like Noam Chomsky, could tell the difference.

What is the difference between "We have eaten," and "We will eat?" Between "I have left her for you," and "I will leave her for you?" Between "We have found a cure," and "We will find a cure?" It's really just a grammar thing, after all.

The difference between things that you have done and things that you will do, or might do, or would do, is ultimately only a grammatical detail. What do quibbles like that matter? (And while we're at it, what about the mathematical cavil in the complaint, with its third-grade, New-Math obsession with academic concepts like "more" and "less?")

If you want to say you have accomplished the mission, or won the war, is it really so different from saying that you will accomplish the mission, or that you will win the war, someday, if everything goes the way you plan?

What's catching McCain isn't just verb tense, of course. It's also something that pedants call grammatical mood: the difference between verbs used in the indicative mood (to describe the world as it is and is not), and the subjunctive mood (to describe the world as it is not, but might be, other under circumstances). But that's just academic trivia, really. English seldom makes the subjunctive distinction grammatically anymore, and we can all just go along using the indicative verbs for everything: things we have done, things we will do, things we would do if we had remembered our wallet, things we hope to do, things we actually did do except it was in a dream.

The election should not be about hairsplitting grammatical points such as the difference between what we have achieved and what we hope to achieve, or the difference between strategies that have succeeded and strategies that might, or the difference between people who have been killed and people who will be killed. It's time to leave schoolroom distinctions behind, and return our focus to the real world.

Friday, May 30, 2008

No, Virginia, I Was Lying

White House Family Room (AP)-

This weekend, Scott "Daddy" McClellan announced to stunned members of the press that there is no Santa Claus.

Reaction varied. Many skeptics pointed out that as Daddy had previously claimed that there was, in fact, a Santa Claus, and even appeared to provide corroboration on the questions of Rudolph and the North Pole, he was in no position to deny Santa's existence now. "All this proves is that Daddy is a fibber," one critic said. "How can we be sure there's not a Santa if Daddy keeps changing his story?"

Others noted the suspicious similarities between Daddy's new position and the views previously expressed by various mean kids during recess. Billy expressed his disappointment that Daddy had "accepted the caricature" promulgated by these mean kids, even including extremist claims about taking deliberately misleading bites from Santa's fireside cookies. Other pundits wondered why Daddy would suddenly talk like one of the mean kids, and if that meant that he was mean himself.

Other sources
theorized that Daddy was merely grumpy, did not mean it, or was not really Daddy but only pretending.

However, there was widespread agreement that Daddy's charge about big boys and girls not believing in Santa was inflammatory and ill-founded. All sources remarked that they had accepted the Santa narrative as a result of their mature and professional judgment as big kids, and were certainly not babies.

Babies, according to most authorities, are those too young to properly understand about the Easter Bunny.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Actually, We Do Remember That

So, Hillary Clinton said a silly thing. Not so much funny as peculiar.

Obviously, she was not wishing harm would come to Senator Obama, or implying that it might. The significance of what she said seems to have surprised her.

She was trying to make an entirely different and innocent, if not entirely honest point, that the Democratic primary campaign has not gone on unusually long. And she made a gaffe, because actually the Democratic primary campaign has gone on unusually long and she's tired. She was clearly focused on spinning her main point of the day, which required her to marshal genuine facts into a wildly misleading conclusion without explicitly lying. (She denies that this primary campaign has gone on longer than others because some of the others went on into June, neglecting to mention that those campaigns started in mid-March, rather than the first week of January). And while she focused on not accidentally stating a falsehood or revealing the truth, she said something horribly and shockingly careless.

That said, I don't have much sympathy. Because the gist of Senator Clinton's spin was that something was terribly suspicious about calls for the campaign to end and that we should look for sinister meanings in those calls. The sentence after the "assassination" sentence is, "I don't understand it." What the Senator claims not to understand is why people call for her to end her campaign. The specious claims about June are meant to distort away the basic (and completely truthful) objection that the campaign has gone on a long time and might hurt party unity, leaving the Senator to imply that there can be no reason except ... unless ... do you think that it might be ...?

Here's the lesson: while you're trying to prime voters to hear sinister and conspiratorial undertones in everything your critics say and everything they leave suspiciously unsaid, it would help not to use any words with sinister connotations yourself. It's very hard to encourage people to supply an unsavory context for everyone else's words and then protest that your own words have been misunderstood. It's even harder to do those two things in the other order. Senator Clinton has to protest that she has been misconstrued and that we should not blow her comments out of proportion. But it's going to be very hard, next week and the week after, to urge us to construe her critics' words more suspiciously or to blow them out of proportion.

This gaffe, while surely not malicious or homicidal, pretty much puts a stake in the heart of Clinton's chief rationales for her campaign at this point.

1) Her chief emotional appeal to the voting public is that she's gotten a raw deal, and that people have gotten a free pass for bashing her in subtly and not-so-subtly sexist ways. Whatever the truth of that claim, it's much harder to keep making after Clinton needs to ask for an enormous pass herself. Some of HRC's hard-core supporters will simply consider the reaction to her gaffe more slanted mistreatment from the press, of course, and harden their support, but she could always count on the loyalty of the supporters who believe she can do no wrong, and the rest of her voters will have a harder time arguing for her mistreatment. Senator Clinton just shrank her core of support.

2) Her chief strategic appeal, aimed primarily at the superdelegates, is that she will simply be a more effective candidate than Barack Obama and that she should be nominated because she'll be stronger against McCain in the fall. It's pretty hard to make the case that she's a terrific candidate this morning. You may not take the nomination from a front-runner for a slip of the tongue, but you surely don't take it away from the front-runner for someone who's making those slips of the tongue. The superdelegates are professional activists and politicians. They're going to judge her on her political skills, not her intentions, and she didn't look terribly skillful yesterday.

3) Her claim to first refusal of the running-mate slot, which some of her supporters were pressing yesterday, is now basically doomed. The argument, reported by CNN yesterday is basically that not giving Clinton the Vice-Presidency would so anger her backers that they would wage "open civil war" in the Democratic party. That blackmail ploy relies upon the perception of Clinton as unjustly aggrieved, more sinned-against than sinning. But her ill-chosen words have just handed the Obama campaign the only thing that could get them out of the trap, which is their own grievance. It's very hard to make Obama out to be the villain for not wanting a running mate who throws around "assassination" references while he's dealing with an extra helping of death threats. Obama never needs to mention that. People will supply the explanation. If anyone does need to be reminded, a few leaked stories about Michelle Obama's anxieties will do the trick admirably.

Even if you put the most positive construction on Senator Clinton's remark, they're sufficient excuse not to put her on the ticket. She's made a huge mistake on the trail, which is not a preferred qualification in a running mate, and she's been wildly insensitive about the other candidate and his family. It's difficult to press that person on a nominee.

But in any case, the most outrageous and immoral thing said on Friday was said, of course, by John McCain. About the G.I. Bill.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hillary Clinton, Enemy of Women in the Workplace

When I listen to Hillary Clinton talk about the election these days, I am powerfully reminded of my own mother's career in a traditionally male profession, and how her career was ultimately derailed by what seemed to me fairly glaring gender discrimination. (As a legal caveat, I am asserting nothing about the facts of my mother's case, but only describing my personal impression of it: that is, my overwhelming and inescapable personal impression of it.)

My mother is about Hillary's age. I grew up watching her go to college, enter a profession that is overwhelmingly and traditionally male, and do brilliantly, despite the many, many knee-jerk objections she faced, from both women and men, to a woman daring to enter her field at all. Even entering the workplace late, she would (and should) have reached the apex of her profession before she turned forty years old, had she not been denied one final, moderately historic, promotion. Had her application been decided strictly on her professional qualifications, she would have been the only woman in her state to hold a top position in her field, and one of the first handful of women in the state to ever hold such a position. But her gender mattered more than her qualifications, more than any qualifications, and she was passed over for a palpably less qualified candidate. The men who passed her over got instead a disastrous incompetent, from what I could see, but at least they got a disastrous incompetent with a penis.

Hillary Clinton, trying to become the first women President, should remind me of Mom. But she does not.

When Clinton speaks about the election, she reminds me of the men who discriminated against my mother. I can't tell you how strange a feeling that is.

You see, the first sign of trouble in my mother's promotion case was when the people in charge of it began to change the rules in the middle of the process. There was an established job-search procedure, announced and agreed upon beforehand. But when my mother began to emerge as the top candidate, when all of the objective metrics and all of the third-party evaluations ranked her as the best candidate by a fairly large margin, the rules and procedures suddenly changed. Eventually, the men in charge of the decision passed Mom over for someone who, under the original procedure, would have been eliminated early in the hiring search.

When I hear Clinton and her surrogates talking about changing the rules: seating delegates whose disqualification Clinton herself originally agreed to, retroactively discounting certain states as irrelevant after Clinton has lost them, talking about the popular vote instead of the delegate count (and even inventing her own way of counting the popular vote), she reminds me overwhelmingly of that hiring board, changing the rules to make sure my mother's qualifications for the job would not actually win it for her. Those men never imagined, I'm sure, that a woman actually could emerge as the front-runner for the job in question; I suspect they were convinced, as good sexists, that my mother couldn't really be more qualified than any of the male candidates. But she was. That's when they showed their priorities: gender mattered more than qualifications. Hillary Clinton surely never imagined that she would be losing to Barack Obama. But she is. And suddenly delegates don't matter. Now we see Clinton's priorities. Becoming the nominee herself is more important to her than what the voters actually want.

I understand the urge to cheer for the first woman to ever have a real chance at the nomination. Believe me, I understand. But process matters, even more than gender, because it's by bending process that most gender discrimination actually happens. Discrimination in the workplace doesn't usually present itself as gender discrimination anymore; every sexist boss understands, or should understand, that he can be sued for saying that a woman can't do a job because she's a woman. What happens instead is that a woman with a masters degree is passed over for a man without one, or a woman with the required years of experience is passed over for a man with less experience than the job ad asks for, or a woman with a track record of success managing difficult projects loses out to a less accomplished man, on the basis of some nebulous or "holistic" evaluation standards. The process is changed or set aside, in order to favor a male (or white, or straight) candidate. That looseness and irregularity, the freedom to work the gray areas, will always work in favor of the already-privileged. If you can't have an explicit rule against women, or minorities, or gays, the next best thing is to be able to make up the rules as you go, and to change them when the results don't please you. Before anyone lobbies for the rules to change in Hillary's favor, they should ask how often such improvisatory favoritism has helped women get ahead in the workplace, and how often it has held them back.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Politics of Repudiation

One thing the Jeremiah Wright affair has established is how central calling people names has become in our political culture. And calling people names, oddly, is a sign that one is Important, Serious, and Wise. The ability to scold has become, strangely, an indispensable qualification.

The political media all know this. They are astonished that anyone does not know this. It is self-evident to them that a person in public life, such as a candidate for the Presidency, should be judged fit or unfit based on their skills in publicly upbraiding people. Someone who does not scold swiftly, and firmly, and loudly, is considered green, naive, and insufficiently serious. Because, as is immediately obvious from the world around us, the ability to scold without hesitating for thought is a universal sign of maturity and wisdom. Go to any diner and look for the guy telling off the waitress. You know that's a guy you can trust.

When sound bites of Jeremiah Wright began to circulate on cable news, where the serious issues are pondered, the situation was clear to every pundit in the land: Barack Obama had to scold that elderly minister, as soon and as publicly as possible. And he had to make it sharp, too. It was the only way to establish that Obama really Had What It Takes. That he would hesitate or qualify was a sign that he was just a kid, really, and not serious like the adults, who know how to deliver a good scolding. Then they tut-tutted over his abilities as a scold. He hadn't done it soon enough! He hadn't done it hard enough! He was too gentle, too nuanced! Only when Obama had to deliver a second scolding, harder, were some of them satisfied, although others (such as the genius Dick Morris) feel that Obama needs to keep scolding, in much more detail, and probably do at least a little scolding every remaining day of his natural life:

Of course, Hillary Clinton has known about the importance of scolding all along. She is very happy to prove her qualifications for the Oval Office by telling everyone how much she disapproves of Jeremiah Wright, and many weeks ago she offered a Obama a tutorial in the importance of telling everyone what a very, very bad man Louis Farrakhan is. It is not sufficiently serious, or Presidential, merely to say that Farrakhan is a bad man. One must be like Senator Clinton, and tell everybody, loudly and clearly, that Louis Farrakhan is not only a very, very bad man but also, and this is the important part, a very, very, very bad man. That is how the serious people do it.

This is a strange qualification for chief executive. Denouncing people takes no particular skill, or at least no particularly rare or unusual skill. If it were all about denouncing people, that guy in the diner harping at the waitress would be Secretary of State, and your Great-Aunt Mabel who's been holding certain grudges since V-E Day would be running the Fed. It isn't correlated with other abilities that a candidate, or an officeholder, needs. And, perhaps most importantly, denouncing people doesn't achieve anything productive.

You heard me. Nothing productive. Not a damned thing. We can call Louis Farrakhan a very very very bad man, with a very very bad plan, all day every day, and it will not help anything or anyone in the slightest.

Are Jeremiah Wright's most extreme beliefs, such as the canard about the government creating AIDS, bad and harmful things? Sure. I denounce them. I reject them. Notice how much better the world got just now as I was doing that?

Pundits talk reverently about the so-called "Sistah Souljah moment," which only pundits remember, but which has become a mandatory step on the road to the Oval Office. "Is this Obama's Sistah Souljah moment?" "When will he have his Sistah Souljah moment?" This "Sistah Souljah moment" which has become a fundamental prerequisite to control of the Executive Branch, commemorates the moment in 1992 when Bill Clinton valiantly denounced and rejected a B- or C-list rapper, a black woman no less, and thereby solved all of America's problems with race.

Although Clinton's bold stance ensured racial harmony forever, it must evidently be repeated every generation or so, if by "generation" we mean "every four years, at the latest." So it's incumbent upon Obama, if he's serious about our national destiny, to seek out some African-American who qualifies as a "public figure" for newspaper purposes, but who has no actual power and can do the candidate no conceivable harm, such as a rapper who doesn't sell too many records or a pastor who has recently retired from his ministry. Then, as an example of public virtue, the Presidential candidate must publicly castigate said irrelevant African-American borderline celebrity as an example of all that is wrong with the nation and the world. And that will prove both Seriousness and Moral Leadership.

What better qualifications could Obama show? What else would we look for in a leader?