Friday, January 20, 2012

Gingrich and "Protecting Barack Obama"

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, Newt Gingrich is getting all kinds of media love after blasting the media in Thursday's debate, and saying that he's "tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans," for example by reporting on things that Republicans running for President have actually said and done. I mean, the "elite media" hasn't fact-checked anything Barack Obama has said in a Presidential debate
since before he was elected! How can that be fair?

And the elite media has been attacking Mitt Romney, too, just as Gingrich said. For example, the media keep running those anti-Romney attack ads from Newt's SuperPAC. That's how far they're willing to go to protect Barack Obama.

But it isn't just the media protecting Barack Obama. Think of all the women who are protecting Obama from a damaging sex scandal right now by not having sex with him! Is it fair that Gingrich has to take heat for cheating on his first two wives, while Barack Obama doesn't have to take heat for cheating on his wife at all? He's obviously being protected by a conspiracy of radical feminists who have decided to tilt the so-called "character issue" in Obama's favor by not offering him sexual favors. Thuggery, plain and simple. Sure, you can try to make it look like Obama's somehow responsible, because he's more "faithful to his marriage" or something like that, but why should we presume that a man should be able to control his own sexual impulses around attractive women? Is that presumption fair to Herman Cain?  Obviously, Obama is being protected by an elitist cabal of non-mistresses.

Then think of all the people who've protected Barack Obama from embarrassment by not paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby on Capitol Hill. Newt Gingrich is unfairly handicapped by having to come up with awkward misleading explanations for all the lobbying money he's paid, like his claim he got paid $300,000 to be "a historian." Can Obama come up with a better cover story than that? We don't know; he keeps evading the questions by not having fat stacks of lobbyist money to explain. Dirty Chicago politics, plain and simple.

As if that isn't bad enough, think of the way Obama is being unfairly protected by his tax forms, which get ruthlessly disclosed every single year. Is it right that a Democrat doesn't get picked on about his tax forms because he annually releases them and lets everyone see how much he makes and how much he gives to charity and what tax rate he pays, while a Republican like Mitt Romney gets hammered for not revealing those things? Is it fair that Obama's dirty tax-form-release trick gets backed up by every single major Presidential candidate for the last forty years, all doing it so it looks like something you're "supposed to" do? That's an elitist conspiracy if I've ever heard of one. And even liberal Republicans like George Romney are in on it! What a low blow!

Then think of all the people who are protecting Barack Obama, who have been protecting him for decades now, by inviting him to come and make speeches where he doesn't say anything silly, racist, or flagrantly untrue. Why is it fair that Obama never has to explain talking about man-on-dog sex, or trafficking in crude racial stereotypes, or flat-out lying? Why should he get away with not making racist appeals or forgetting what Syria is? Who are these people who keep letting him make speeches without saying anything crass or shameful? I'll tell you who they are: a conspiracy.

And don't just blame the elites. Some of the blame goes to humble, ordinary multimillionaire office-holders like the current Republican candidates. They're clearly attempting to protect Obama. Every Republican debate is an obvious attempt to undermine the eventual Republican nominee's viability in the general election. And now that they're down to only one candidate, Mitt Romney, who stands a fighting chance against Obama, they're all doing their damnedest to protect Barack Obama by making Mitt Romney look bad. That includes Mitt Romney.

And worst of all, Newt Gingrich is trying to protect Barack Obama by nominating a Republican with only a 27% approval rating to run against him. Clearly, Gingrich is terrified by the prospect of Obama facing a serious and plausible Republican opponent, and he's bending heaven and earth to make sure that doesn't happen.

Stop protecting Barack Obama, Newt. And remember what the conservative movement is about: personal responsibility.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why Tenure Exists, Part 1

cross-posted from Dagblog

Zandar, at Balloon Juice, points out that Missouri's new Creationism-in-the-schools bill, HB 1227, applies not only to K-12 schools but to the state's public colleges and universities as well. According to the bill,
Notwithstanding any other law, any introductory science course taught at any public institution of higher education in this state, including material concerning physics, chemistry, biology, health, physiology, genetics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, paleontology, anthropology, ecology, climatology, or other science topics,
will be regulated by the requirements of the law, which means equal time for the "intelligent design" theory.

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. ... If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a textbook, the textbook shall give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design.

Now, this bill will probably never become law. But I find it simultaneously disgusting and amusing that only "introductory" classes are regulated, meaning that University of Missouri faculty would still be free to teach actual science to their majors (who would only be misled in Biology/Geology/Physics 101 but hipped to what's really what in the next class) while all the non-majors filling distribution requirements would get a set of deliberately dishonest courses designed to insulate them from any scientific knowledge that would challenge their faith-based misconceptions.

That pretty much sums up the religious right approach to science. They want a small group of actual scientists and engineers who know how things really work, and a much larger class of scientific illiterates who are left free to believe anything that makes them feel good about themselves. Scientists are meant to be a special caste, given the privilege of pursuing knowledge at the price of keeping it to themselves.

What's merely disgusting, and not amusing, is that the proposed law applies not just to biology but to physics, astrophysics, and geology, and outlaws anything but "empirical fact," meaning in practice that which conservative Missouri lawmakers consider to be an empirical fact. Millions of years of fossil records are clearly not "empirical" enough. The Big Bang Theory, and with it the rest of the Standard Model in physics, surely does not make the cut; the Big Bang is just someone's interpretation of some radio hiss, right? String theory, likewise, cannot yet be confirmed. Nor, if we come down to it, would Special Relativity or Hubble's constant make the lawmaker's cut, since like so much of science these ideas are largely demonstrated through mathematics. If you take out the parts of contemporary science that rest on abstruse mathematical proof, you leave pretty large holes in our understanding of the world.

The only saving grace, of course, is that tenured science professors, even at state universities, could not be forced to to do this, and more importantly could not be fired for teaching their students real science. This is the first and most important reason for academic tenure: to insulate the pursuit and transmission of knowledge from the worst outside pressures. Tenure is the reason that "intelligent design" is NOT taught in public colleges and universities, even in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Tenured college teachers are free from political pressure in a way that high school teachers have never been. Without tenure, the facts about science, about history, about the world we live in, became subject to the whims of the State Legislature, or the Board of Trustees, or the college's biggest donor, rather than being subject to the actual facts.

Tenure is often imagined as a personal job perk, and it's true that there have been occasions when tenure has been abused at this college or that. But it's not just part of an employment package, like a dental plan or a 401(k), because it is not designed as a reward for an individual but as a privilege for an activity. Tenure is designed to enable and to protect the pursuit of knowledge. It keeps scientists who study climate change from being fired for studying climate change, or for finding out things that some influential person doesn't want to be true. Tenure operates, in effect, as one of the academy's quality control guarantees. It offers a base-line reassurance that the information produced by academic research is on the level, and has not been cooked up in some bigwig's office.

In order to do this, tenure does offer individual scholars real and valuable privileges. But the core of the privilege is the freedom to do your job right. It does not protect anyone's right to do their job poorly, although that is how it is frequently portrayed. Tenure has sometimes been turned into a cover for shoddy work habits, but that's not in keeping with even the letter, let alone the spirit, of the law; no one's university bylaws allow the tenured to skip their duties. If I decided never to show up for the classes I teach, tenure should not and would not protect me. If, on the other hand, two-thirds of my Board of Trustees became enthusiastic converts to the idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of William Shakespeare, and ordered me to give "Oxfordian thinking" equal time in my classroom, tenure would allow me to politely tell them no and go back to teaching reality-based literary history. They couldn't do a thing about it. That's what tenure is for. It keeps the job of spreading knowledge in the hands of people who actually know what they're teaching.

Of course, if a bill like Missouri's ever became law, the problem would be that many introductory classes, the ones that the Missouri legislature feels free to meddle with, are largely taught by untenured and untenurable "part-time" instructors, who are employed at will. The advanced classes are taught by the tenured faculty, who cannot be punished for teaching actual science, but most of the lower-level classes are given to poorly-paid adjunct teachers who can be fired without even giving a reason. Under HB 1227, those people would have to give equal time to "intelligent design," or to global cooling, or to astrology, as the Missouri State Legislature saw fit, or else be replaced by someone who would. Lots of people who call themselves educational "reformers" talk about the need to have fewer tenured faculty members; this is what they're talking about.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Meh" Is for Mitt

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary last night with 39% of the vote. The media is counting it as a big win, which is fair enough. 39% is a perfectly good win in New Hampshire, and very much in line with what many past winners have received. But there are two things that should worry the Mittster.

1) Voter turnout was basically flat from 2008, even though there wasn't a contested Deomcratic primary this time.

That's significant because in New Hampshire, Independents can vote in either primary. In 2008, the Democrats had a barn-burner of a contest with a record voter turnout. This year they had a perfunctory vote for an unopposed incumbent President, which dropped their turnout by about two hundred thousand. That should have freed up many tens of thousands of Independent voters to participate in this year's Republican race, but participation on the Republican side didn't really budge. That suggests either a problem with Republican enthusiasm, a lack of appeal to swing voters, or both.

2) 39% in New Hampshire isn't really that good for a politician from Massachusetts. I'm not saying that it shouldn't count as a win. But it does suggest that Romney's not really breaking through to the voters.

For someone who's held statewide office in Massachusetts, New Hampshire in basically a home game. Almost everyone in New Hampshire gets their TV, and their TV news, from Boston. Most of the state's population lives near the Massachusetts border, many voters are originally from Massachusetts, and a large number go to Massachusetts every day for work. (I used to wake up in New Hampshire and go to high school in Massachusetts. This isn't unusual.) So anyone who's held major office in Massachusetts is someone that New Hampshire voters already know pretty well.

Let me put this in perspective:

- Massachusetts candidates have now won New Hampshire in four of the last seven primaries (1988, 1992, 2004 and now 2012).

-Only two Massachusetts candidates have ever lost New Hampshire: Ted Kennedy in 1980, who was challenging an incumbent President of his own party, and, well, Mitt Romney last time around.

-Every one of those Massachusetts candidates over the last thirty years, winners and losers, have polled somewhere in the 30s on election night. Mitt Romney now has the distinction of having the highest and lowest vote percentage from that group, 39% last night and 31% four years ago. But he's not much ahead of previous high-score holder John Kerry at 38%. Even Ted Kennedy got 37% when he lost.

Last night's win puts Mitt in the august company of John Kerry, Mike Dukakis, and Paul Tsongas. You'll notice something about these men: none of them became President of the United States. They were perfectly plausible nominees. On the other hand, they were not great campaigners. Dukakis and Kerry, who actually won the nomination in years when they had a very legitimate shot, managed to fall short in part because they were not terribly effective on the trail. You couldn't call either of them electrifying.

By contrast, the last Massachusetts politician to win the Presidency, John F. Kennedy, won New Hampshire with an eye-popping 85% of the vote. That win isn't directly comparable to results from the last thirty years. The primary system as we know it was still evolving in 1960, and New Hampshire was not contested in anything like the way it is now. Still, 85% is a long way from 39%.

Romney should feel pleased by his victory. But he was Governor of Massachusetts for four years, he has quite literally moved to New Hampshire, and even with that state's voters knowing him as well as they know their own elected officials, he couldn't break 40% of the vote in his own party. That isn't exactly an overwhelming rush of love. 39% is great, but John Kerry could get 38% and Mike Dukakis could get between 36 and 37%. Paul Tsongas, who was like Dukakis's more sedate cousin, could break 33%. Ted Kennedy could get 37% of the vote in that state after Chappaquiddick. 39% is nobody's landslide.

Mitt Romney has an increasingly secure hold on the nomination. Mitt Romney also has a problem on the campaign trail. And it's probably him.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

No Love in Iowa, No Hope in Iowa

cross-posted from Dagblog

The obvious stories from the Iowa caucuses are that 1) Mitt Romney ended up tied with the long-long-long-shot Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul hot on their heels and 2) Romney still has exactly the same crappy vote totals he had four years ago. But there's an even more important story: the Republican turnout was pretty much exactly what it was four years ago, when the Republican electorate was depressed and demoralized. In fact, when you factor out the independents and caucus-night party-switchers, fewer Republicans showed up to vote last night than in 2008, when their enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb.

All the drama and mayhem of the GOP campaign didn't bring more people to the polls. And the closeness of the race isn't helping. When Clinton and Obama went neck-and-neck for months in 2008, it hurt a lot of feelings in the blogosphere but it ended up helping the party, not only because the winning candidate had to build a serious ground organization during the primaries, but because it brought a lot of people to the polls. But Clinton and Obama were in a tight race because they were two strong candidates, with passionate followers. It was like a Celtics-Lakers championship match. The 2012 Republican candidates are a bunch of folks who can't get to 30% against each other's weak opposition. That doesn't help anything.

The Republicans have been counting on an enthusiasm gap to beat Obama. But you don't enthusiasm-gap your opponent without any enthusiasm. Not only are the Republicans saddled with Romney's curiously damp anti-charisma and the off-putting antics of his rivals, but they're on the verge of running the most purely negative primary campaign in modern history. The main rationale for every contender's candidacy is that he's not one of the other guys. It's Not Romney vs. Not Romney vs. Admittedly Romney for the chance to run as Not Obama. No one's got a strong positive case to make. At least, no one's making it.

Two bonus factors will make the negativity worse. One is Newt Gingrich, who is one of the great spite-driven mudslingers of our day and who, wait for it, feels he has been hit too hard by Mitt Romney and wants revenge. That's a recipe for trouble right there. An even bigger factor is that this is the first primary to come after Citizens United opened the door for unlimited outside money, and that money is primarily going to come in carpet-bombing waves of attack ads. An unprecedented amount of money is about to be poured into knocking the Republican candidates down, in a scorched-earth, last-creep-standing electoral scenario. The winner gets the scorched earth, a bunch of voters who've had their enthusiasm relentlessly squeezed out of them, and the lead of a party that's never liked him. Welcome to the enthusiasm gap.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Your New Year Public Domain Report: 2012

cross-posted from Dagblog

Happy New Year, all. My spouse and I spent part of yesterday evening at our local revival house, watching a classic New Year's Eve double-feature of The Thin Man and After the Thin Man. Then we adjourned to a favorite bar for midnight; after all, that's what Nick and Nora would do.

By coincidence, midnight last night was the moment when After the Thin Man was once set to enter the public domain. But of course, it didn't. For the 34rd year in a row, nothing new entered the public domain, which has been basically frozen in place since 1978. Under the original copyright laws in force when it was made, After The Thin Man should have entered public domain 19 New Year's Eves ago, during the first second of 1993. (Obviously, the earlier Thin Man movie would have become public domain even earlier.) A major copyright extension act in 1976 pushed that particular date back until the wee hours of this morning. And then, of course, another copyright extension law in 1998 (the Millennium Copyright Act or Sonny Bono Act), pushed that back for another twenty years. So After the Thin Man will cease to be private property on New Year's Day, 2032, 96 years after its theatrical release, under the current schedule. Look for that date to be pushed back again in five or six years, when Congress comes under pressure from the big media companies to extend the copyright term another 20 or 25 years.

So there's nothing new under the public domain's tree this year, but I'd like to list some of the movies, books, and recordings that would have become public today, under earlier versions of the law:

If not for the Millennium Copyright Act:

Porky Pig would enter the public domain today, as would Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times would enter in the public domain today, as would Mae West's Go West, Young Man, Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and a host of others: My Man Godfrey, Tarzan Escapes, Ballots or Bullets, Swing Time, Intermezzo, Charlie Chan at the Opera, Reefer Madness, Hitchcock's original Secret Agent and the original Anything Goes.

Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was set to exit copyright today, as was Double Indemnity, Dos Passos's The Big Money, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes!, Ayn Rand's We, the Living and of course Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.

The songs "Good Night, Irene" and "Pennies from Heaven" should have entered public domain today, as should a bunch of other classics from the American songbook: "A Fine Romance," "The Way You Look Tonight,"  "It's De-Lovely," "Easy to Love" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." (The last three by Cole Porter, who was on an especially hot streak.) The public domain should also include classical music by Bartok, Barber, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, whose ballet Romeo and Juliet appeared in the same year as his Peter and the Wolf.

According to the Sony Bono Act, all of these works are too new to enter the public domain until 2032. People need a chance to make a little money off them before that happens.

If not for the Copyright Act of 1976:

Under the copyright laws in force when they were made, Rebel Without a Cause, Marty, The Seven-Year Itch, The Blackboard Jungle, Lady and the Tramp, and To Catch a Thief would all have entered public domain today. So would Davy Crockett, Guys and Dolls (with Brando and Sinatra), Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Deadly, The Man with the Golden Arm, East of Eden, Godzilla Raids Again and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

Also entering public domain today would be The Lord of the Rings (whose final volume would be leaving copyright), Moonraker, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Waiting for Godot, Notes of a Native Son, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, William Golding's The Inheritors and Nabokov's Lolita. (The last book was not published in an English-speaking country until three years after the others on this list, but was published in France, in English, in 1955.)

The musical public domain would be enriched today by "Rock Around the Clock," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Unchained Melody," "Blue Suede Shoes,""Charlie Brown," "Tutti Frutti" and "Maybelline." If early rock and roll isn't your speed, they'd be joined by a batch of Sinatra classics: "Love and Marriage," "The Tender Trap," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," and an old Doctor Cleveland favorite, "Learning the Blues."

However, federal law has subsequently determined that none of these works count as oldies yet. Under the current schedule, they are all slated to enter the public domain in 2051. And of course, it might take much, much longer. All that's certain is that next New Year's Day there will again be nothing else in the public domain, the same way it's been since January 1, 1979. And as we approach January 1, 2019, there will be a major campaign to keep anything from entering public domain ever again.