January 16, 2017

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Shattered Dreams and Unfulfilled Hopes

As has become my tradition on our national day to remember Martin Luther King, Junior, I went through The King Center Archive for some bit of text that I was previously unfamiliar with. I came across some notes for a sermon on Shattered Dreams and Unfulfilled Hopes.

Dr. King writes about the apostle Paul, writes quite movingly about Paul’s desire to go to Spain, “the edge of the then known world” and to visit, on his way, the Christian community in Rome, “the capital city of the world”. Paul will be martyred in Rome. He will not live to see belief in the Divinity and Grace of Jesus spread throughout Europe and the whole world. “He spent his days in that ancient city in a little prison cell, held captive because of his daring faith in Jesus Christ. And Paul was never able to walk the dusty roads of Spain…”

These are notes that were eventually written into a full sermon that Dr. King delivered in 1959, in the strong youth of his movement. It’s an excellent sermon, as you might expect. Here, a quote from that finished sermon:

We come to the point of seeing that no matter how long we pray for them sometimes, and no matter how long we cry out for a solution to our problems, no matter how much we desire it, we don’t get the answer. The only answer that we get is a fading echo of our desperate cry, of our lonely cry. So we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that the cup would be removed from him. But he has to drink it with all of its bitterness and all of its pain. We find Paul praying that the thorn would be removed from his flesh, but it is never removed, and he is forced to go all the way to the grave with it. And so in this text, we find Paul wanting to go to Spain with a, for a noble purpose, to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to Spain. Paul never gets to Spain. He ends up in Rome, not as a free man but as a man in prison. This is the story of life. In so many instances, it becomes the arena of unrealized dreams and unfulfilled hopes, frustration with no immediate solution in the environment.

I’m just saying, the man could preach.

He returned to the theme near the end of his life, in another powerful sermon in 1968, starting from the text 1 Kings 8:18, “And the LORD said unto David my father, Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart.” That sermon is very different in tone; Dr. King sounds surprisingly old for a man who is not yet forty. At that time, he is telling people that the important thing is to be on the right road, even if they will not arrive at their destination. But in this earlier sermon he is asking: what do you do when the road is closed?

He lays out three paths. The first is to become bitter and mean, to blame the world and the circumstances that kept you from going to Spain, that kept you locked in a cell in Rome. To respond to the shattering of a dream by hating the thing that shattered it, and by hating everything else, too—to carry the grudge to the whole world. The second path is to withdraw from the world, to seal yourself off by indifference from the pain of a shattered dream. Not to hate the world but to deny it.

In the notes where I first came across this sermon, Dr. King has got almost to the end of the page. He had lettered the first two alternatives a and b and then almost at the bottom of the page, he writes:

c. The final alternative is creative. It involves the exercise of a great and creative will.

c. The final alternative is creative. It involves the exercise of a great and creative will.

The last eight words are squeezed in at the bottom of the paper, their ascending ts touching the line above. There is no more room on the paper.

In still another version of this sermon, this one written for the collection Strength to Love, he writes of the ability to transform life’s thorns into a crown. “How familiar is the experience of longing for Spain and settling for a Roman prison, and how less familiar the transforming of the broken remains of a disappointed expectation into opportunities to serve Gd’s purpose!” He writes that we think of peace as what happens when we reach the Spain of our dreams, but that the true peace, the peace that passeth all understanding, is the peace that we feel even when our dreams are shattered, the inner calm in the middle of a reality of destruction and disappointment. But while that sermon is a wonderful sermon, a finished and powerful inspiration, I happen to like the one I first saw, with those last few words squeezed in to the bottom edge of the paper. In the published and recorded sermons, he tries to show us the way, but in this one he only can say, before he runs out of space and time, that the way exists.

Today, January Sixteenth, 2017, today there are a lot of us who felt, perhaps, that we were going to get to Spain; that we were going to reach some great national or international or total human goal. There are a lot of us who have spent two months wanting to know what to do with our shattered dreams and unfulfilled hopes. It is an altogether good thing to turn to Martin Luther King, Jr to ask: what does one do under such circumstances? And to be told: the way of hatred and bitterness is not the way. The way of indifference and denial is not the way. But the way of love, his way, that way requires a great and creative will. And it is the nature of a creative alternative that he cannot tell us what it is. He cannot give it to us. It was not there yet for him to describe in 1959 or 1968; it is not there yet for me to describe it to you, if I had that gift. It must be created. It must always be created. The answer is in the act of creating a new path, new dreams to be newly shattered and ourselves to be forced, again, to choose to create a new path, a path of love and acceptance and hope.

Let that unfinished draft be our inspiration this year. Let his unfinished life, the unfinished movement that he has come to personify, and the entire unfinished business of America be in our own unfinished hearts. Affirm, with me, that there can be alternatives, and let us dedicate ourselves to creating them.

…and cramming them into that last bit of paper we have left.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 8, 2016

Election Day, November 2016

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 19, 2016

RNC 2016 Day One Evening

So. I didn’t watch much of the RNC show last night; I was in rehearsal (about which perhaps more later) and only got home in time for the Network Hour. I stayed up later than I intended to, listening to speeches, and I can’t say it was a good idea. Still and all, I find myself with a few Things to Say about the evening.

First of all, before talking about any of it, I want to reiterate that I don’t think that a good convention or a bad convention makes a whole hell of a lot of difference in the outcome of the election in November. I’m not sure having a good or bad summer does. Most of us who will vote have already made up our minds (even if we aren’t yet willing to admit it in polls and surveys); most of the rest aren’t paying attention. Political scientists haven’t really been able to describe accurately the mental processes of people who make up their minds late in a Presidential election and vote, but I imagine that person dislikes politics, doesn’t enjoy reading or listening to political news, doesn’t enjoy thinking about politics, and yet feels a sort of responsibility to engage in the system at least as far as voting. I suspect that person listens to or watches a news broadcast a couple of times a week, largely because they feel they should, and then feels depressed about it all. They may watch the acceptance speeches of the two candidates, or more likely clips of them on those news broadcasts, but they won’t watch a week’s worth (much less two weeks’ worth) of political speeches, even the hour a night the networks carry. The conventions are important for a few reasons that have nothing really to do with this November’s election, and for some that do, but only the candidates’ own speeches are persuasive at all. So if I say that someone gave a good or a bad speech, or that an evening (much less an afternoon) went well or poorly, I don’t mean that it will sway the course of the election. Or even nudge it. I care about these things, and I judge them, and I could probably come up with some good arguments why, but I don’t imagine that this or that thing will lose the election for the Party. OK? All of which, I know, makes the point that you shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this note (or indeed any of the rest of the Tohu Bohu at all) but still, if you do read it, I want you to know what I mean.

Second, I thought the afternoon went quite well. Yes, there was a floor demonstration, and yes, they probably could have handled it better, but it was brief and there wasn’t even any photogenic scuffling. All of the articles describing chaos and insurrection were overblown and probably largely written beforehand. One good example is Noah Rothman’s The Foolishness of the RNC, which mixes good reporting and accurate analysis (imao) with overblown hype. It was barely a thing. In the meantime, there were twenty speeches, all of them saying all the things they were supposed to. It went well.

The other thing I want to say about the afternoon is that I quite enjoyed it. I don’t agree with their Party about what policies they want to put in place—to some extent, I don’t agree with some of their goals, and when I do share their goals I generally think their policies are not the right ones to get there. Still and all, I love that they are working to improve the country and I love that they care so much. I love political speeches, and I love political crowds. I love the way they are spotlighting women and nonwhite people in their Party. I watched the afternoon session and what I largely felt was a sort of affectionate hope. And exasperation, yes, and a certain defensive snarkiness, too. But at the end of the session, I felt pretty good about the idea of watching the next afternoon’s session.

Not so much the evening.

I got into the car to go home and turned on the radio in time to catch most of David Clarke’s speech. It wasn’t fun. Sherriff Clarke talked about how unsafe we all feel, every day, in our homes and on our streets…but I don’t! Crime is down, my town is safe, when I go into crime-ridden Hartford I feel safe because I am conspicuously unlikely to be assaulted. The fact—and it is a fact—that many black men in this country are terrified of being assaulted or killed by law enforcement officers has nothing to do with rising crime rates or anyone’s likelihood of being assaulted or killed by anyone else. And in fact, law enforcement officers don’t have, statistically, a hugely dangerous job, and are less rather than more likely to be killed in the course of their duties than they were a generation ago. As are we all, in the course of our lives, actually. And to accuse the Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements of being the cause of a collapse of the social order, of being anarchists was outrageous. And the emphasis on not just the importance but the primacy of the rule of law, in that context, felt threatening to me. I did not feel, listening to Sherriff Clarke, as if he was part of the same immense political project as My Party, just advocating different goals and policies. I felt threatened.

Then, and this probably counts as a Digression, the NPR/PBS guys didn’t carry the next two speeches, but blathered on and on with analysis (or “analysis— as it was utterly devoid of any attempt to analyse anything) and nonsense for twenty minutes. So I didn’t catch the next couple of speeches. When I watch the conventions, I always do so from the Party’s website itself; no interruptions, no commercials, no interviews, no analysis, just the camera on the podium and occasional shots of the crowd in goofy hats. The RNC has an app for that, unsurprisingly, but also a YouTube channel. Use it. C-Span is also your friend, I imagine. End Digression.

So after missing a bit, the next thing that I really caught was Rudy Giuliani’s speech. Which was horrific to listen to. He began with thanking law enforcement officers, which of course I don’t object to, but in a triumphalist way by denying outright that there was any race-related problems with law enforcement officers at all. “When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white, they just come to save you!” Is there another way to read this than outright denial that policemen have killed people? Well, perhaps, as he then said: “We reach out our arms with understanding and compassion, to those who have lost loved ones because of police shootings, some justified, some unjustified. Those that are unjustified must be punished; those that are justified, we must apologize to.” For what? For ascertaining whether there was justification? And then: “What happened to ‘there’s no black America, no white America, there is just America? What happened to it? Where did it go? How has it blown away?’” Here’s your answer: it has never been. Never. There has never been one America. Yet. That is our hope, yes, but there was no time in American history when law-abiding black men were not afraid of the police; there was no time in American history when the experience of growing up white was anything like the experience of growing up black. It didn’t go anywhere; it’s just a little harder these days to ignore that it has always been a lie. And when Rudy Giuliani repeated that lie, the crowd roared as loud as they did at anything all night.

And it went on from there. He is good at this sort of thing, I admit. He gets his audience cheering. His audience, I should say—I can’t imagine anyone outside the Conservative noetic field responding to his spittle-flecked demands for unconditional victory over Islamic extremist terrorism and his rictus-grinned warning that “There is no next election; this is it!” with anything other than perplexed disgust and a determination to avoid ever seeing him or hearing his voice again. Ugh. If I felt threatened by Sherriff Clarke’s speech, I was absolutely repulsed by Rudy Giuliani’s.

Then we went to a complete change of tone. The candidate himself walked in (with an over-the-top theatrical flourish that was miles less ridiculous than Bill Clinton’s 2000 corridor walk) to introduce his wife, which he did with a single sentence: “It is my great honor to present the next First Lady of the United States, my wife, an amazing mother and an incredible woman, Melania Trump.” That was it. There was no video biography with images of the two of them together, there was no biographical introduction, just that single sentence. Very odd. And then the speech itself was entirely devoid of the sort of cute anecdote or personal story that makes a speech from the candidate’s spouse or child memorable. I don’t know what it is about this candidate—Rudy Giuliani said that he was going to violate his promise of confidentiality to tell us about some of the things that Donald Trump had done for the city of New York, but then didn’t actually tell us any specifics at all. Melania Trump didn’t talk about how she met her husband, or what initially attracted her to the millionaire, or what the real man is like when the cameras are off. She talked very briefly about her parents and her sister, but didn’t tell any anecdotes about them, either. She mentioned the candidate’s parents, siblings and children, and said “ There is a great deal of love in the Trump family. That is our bond and that is our strength.” Which is lovely, but not really memorable. She talked about how persistent her husband was, willing to keep working for years just to get a project started, but she didn’t name any actual project. I’m sure there are such projects as she alluded to, or there are projects that could be described that way, anyway, and presumably she knows their names, but we don’t.

That said, other than the anodyne lack of specifics and a certain wide-eyed facial expression that read to me as stage fright, I thought it was a pretty good speech. Pleasant, dull, inoffensive, human. Nothing about it appeared liable to make anyone think ill of the candidate, and if many of us thought uncharitably that she was a vacuous bit of fluff chosen to look good on his arm, I don’t think that would turn a whole lot of people off. And I should clarify that I know nothing about her, and expect that she is both cleverer and harder-working than I am. I know nothing about the job of fashion model but it can’t be easy to rise in that field. Still, even holding to a stereotype of dimwittery, it pretty much went well. The crowd in the hall liked it, the immediate response on twitter and social media was largely appreciative. Success.

And then the mood changed back entirely, with Michael Flynn’s speech. This was another angry, hectoring speech not unlike Rudy Giuliani’s, only delivered with less skill. Of course, he had to contend with the delegates heading back to the hotel for the night, as the showpiece was over, but still, his broken-rhythm awkwardness was noticeable. I disliked his emphasis on crushing our enemies: “America does not back down from anyone or anything.” It’s the kind of resolve-based thinking that I associate with the neocons and their disastrous adventuring under Our Previous President. The chants of “Lock Her Up! Lock Her Up!” were ugly as well, as was his admonition “Crooked Hillary Clinton, leave this race now!” The rest of the stuff was a greatest hits of talk-radio nonsense (exceptionalism, bowing, apologies, political correctness, bathrooms, Benghazi of course and the email server, red lines, refusal to name our enemies, etcetera etcetera) combined with a withering contempt for Our Only President and everyone connected with him. It was exhausting to listen to… although it was also very late at that point, which may have influenced my mood as well.

And then I shut it off and went to bed. I kinda wanted to hear Senator Ernst, who started off promisingly, but I was tired and cranky and all done.

We’re a few minutes away from the opening of Day Two, and I will probably listen to at least a portion of the afternoon session, but I have to say I’m feeling a lot less expansively patriotic than I was at five o’clock yesterday.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 26, 2014

Outside the Room

So. I imagine those of y’all that enjoy being outraged by outrageous things politicians say have heard that Mike Huckabee—former future President—said that, well, according to the Washington Post headline, Huckabee: Dems think women can’t control their libido. I’ll post the full quote, from a speech to the Republican National Committee:

Our party stands for the recognition of the equality of women and the capacity of women. That’s not a war on them; it’s a war for them. And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it, let’s have that discussion all across America, because women are far more than Democrats have made them to be.

As David Weigel pointed out in his report in Slate, this is the sort of thing that rattles reporters, but is not going to sound unusual to anyone who has been watching Huckabee. And as Jonathan Bernstein points out over at Bloomberg View (Mike Huckabee Falls in the Female Libido Trap), politicians love applause lines, and an applause line in one context sounds bizarre and offensive to people outside the room.

It’s the outside the room thing I found interesting. My initial reaction to the line was that it’s silly to say that Democrats insult women—most Democrats are women. The whole rhetoric is predicated on women being them, and positing a discussion across America between Republicans and Democrats about this third group. It was, in a fundamental way, mansplaining. My Party’s national committee—with Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in the chair—is not insulated in that way on that topic; the applause lines about women at a DNC winter meeting would not seem bizarrely out of touch to women who don’t follow politics.

Digression: When I say that most Democrats are women, I mean slightly more than half; according to Pew in 2012, it comes out to something like a 58/42 split among people who identify with My Party. However, keep in mind that while most Democrats are women is true, most Republicans are men isn’t. The Other Party is just about evenly split, with very nearly as many women as men—it’s the men who are sullenly refusing to identify with any political community that are throwing off the balance. On the other hand, there is a tremendous disparity in the officeholders—in the U.S. Senate, for instance, there are 16 Democratic women and 4 Republican women. There are four Republican women currently serving as Governor of a state, to only one Democratic woman, but still that’s a total of seventeen to eight in those high profile Senator-or-Governor positions. In the U.S. House, the disparity is even greater, there are 62 Democratic women and only 20 Republican women. And the disparity persists among nominees, as well, to the extent that a nominee for statewide office is high-visibility even when the odds of victory are long. Anyway, my point (I have one!) is that while it’s not true that most Republicans are men it is true that most high-profile Republicans are men, if not quite that Republican women are invisible. End Digression.

The thing, though, about the applause line is that the men (and the women) in the room are clearly thinking of ‘women’ as being outside the room. It’s possible to think of ‘women’ as being in the room when they are in fact not in the room, as we have I think all seen examples of tight-knit communities who fail at actual inclusion of actual people with all the will in the world. This kind of thing, though, comes from a perspective that can’t really imagine women in the room, and that’s why it sounds so jarring to the women and the men outside the room.

It’s a problem for politics, I would think. I mean, from an electoral point of view, you don’t want applause lines in the room to be the subject of widespread mockery outside it. It’s too easy for the other guys to raise money on lines like that, or use them in ads, or get them on the Comedy Channel News. Inciting widespread mockery is kind of obviously a flawed electoral strategy.

It’s more than that, though. What Gov. Huckabee is really saying, to the applause of the crowd, is that the people in the room don’t need to change their policy platform, and don’t need to change their emphasis or priorities, and certainly don’t need to change the makeup of people in the room. Those things, the former Governor is saying, are all fine. It’s just that his Party is losing the fight with my Party over this other group. It’s not unlike the What’s the Matter with Kansas problem—not the actual book but the discussion afterward, which largely went down the blind alley of if those stupid people were smart, they would be more like us. It wasn’t very persuasive to the people in question. And it didn’t lead to bring them even notionally into the room. It did eventually result in many Republicans wearing tricorne hats, but that didn’t help Our Party as much as you might think.

So while part of me is smugly amused by the trap that Jonathan Bernstein describes, part of me takes it more as warning than anything else.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 4, 2013

Five More Years! Five More Years!

From this morning’s Guardian, an analysis by David Edgar of political rhetoric in our fair nation, cued by the fact that Five Years Ago Today in front of a quarter of a million people in Grant Park in the city of Chicago, a skinny black kid with big ears said that change had come to America.

Has it been five years? Yes, it has.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can.

Mr. Edgar makes an interesting claim, looking at two of my favorite figures: contrasts and triples. The choice to emphasize rhetorical contrasts reveals a mind that thinks in binaries, conflicts, choices. Good and bad. Right and wrong. Us and them. Triples and lists, on the other hand, reject the duality of the contrast, the purity of the chosen, the rejection of the other. For the triple-speaker, differences are not to be heightened but to be overcome.

Contrasts and triples express different views of the world. Contrasts reveal binaries and present choices, multiples accrete evidence for a single case. Which you choose betrays not just your subject but your attitude.

The contrasts in this rhetoric—reveal and present, contrasts and triples, subjects and attitudes—make sense in light of David Edgar’s uncompromising leftism.

Er… sort of. I am mocking the idea because, you know, it’s mockable. But it’s also true that the persona of the writer/speaker is created through these choices. It’s a nebulous process, but there are, in the end, actual texts to look at, and it does make a difference. It’s not as simple as counting 30 examples of contrast but only nine lists in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural. A contrast can be used to deride false choices; a triple can serve to hammer home to perfidy of the enemy. Looking at Your Humble Blogger’s own post from five years ago yesterday should make that clear. But in a general way, subject to the better analysis of close reading, the choices of tropes will go alongside the choices of ethos and persona.

And yet, of course, close study of this speech and of the last five years of our politics shows how little any one speech, or even any one campaign’s worth of speeches, really can do to change our political culture. If it’s true that Our Only President spoke in triples as an expression of his hope for the future to hold new norms of cooperation and communication and compromise, his disdain for the false choices of partisan politics, his own unwillingness to place himself outside the restrictions of dialectic, then the contrast is between his speech and his administration. What we heard and what we experienced. Words and events.

The study of rhetoric is fascinating (to YHB, anyway) and important. A good speech is better than a bad one. A speech is persuasive or inspiring or memorable because of its rhetoric. But a speech is just a speech, after all. There is so much more to do.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 29, 2013

Step by Step, the Longest March

It’s been a while, hasn’t it, since Your Humble Blogger wrote about political rhetoric? I didn’t write about the last set of conventions, or about the inauguration, I don’t think. I still watch and listen and read, you know. I just haven’t felt I had much to actually say. Y’all should probably read Paul Waldman over at the Prospect—do any Gentle Readers remember him from college? Because I… don’t. Anyway.

I did want to talk about Our Only President’s speech yesterday marking on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the March for Jobs and Justice. The event, of course, has gone down in history as the I Have a Dream moment; Martin Luther King. Jr. gave what is certainly in the top five American speeches. We forget that he was perhaps the most unpopular man in America on that day, and for years afterward as well. It’s very much worth reading Jamelle Bouie over at the Daily Beast on this history, and the future of the history, as is were. One of my complaints about the history of that history is—well, I’ll just quote myself, shall I?

The story we tell ourselves about the Civil Rights movement is that Rosa Parks just suddenly refused to move to the back of the bus, and then Martin Luther King had a dream, and then suddenly everybody realized that segregation was wrong. What’s wrong with that story has nothing to do with the greatness of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. It has to do with erasing everybody else, and all the work that a whole movement put in for decades. It has to do with erasing our own history—our history as white people, as black people, as Hispanics, as Jews, as Northerners or Southerners or Midwesterners, what we were doing at the time, and for years and years before and after.

So that’s the context in which we came to the 28th of August, 2013. A lot of people had done good work in trying to broaden our memory of the March—newspapers and bloggers and radio people, too—but they were all fighting against the established Story of What Happened, which is that MLK, Jr. had a Dream and told us what to do, and then the civil rights movement was over. That, in fact, is the context in which Our Only President ran for the office he now holds and won it. The context of the Single Great Man, the ceiling-breaker, the One. And he pretty much called bullshit on all of that.

He reminded us that … that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV. The men and women who stood up and sat in, who lived through boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches far from the spotlight. He talked about the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement as the accomplishments of all the people who marched.

And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.

Because they marched, America became more free and more fair—not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid.

And then, again, he talks who it was that marched: those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries… men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame. Just people. Anybody.

Our Only President uses we or us or our or ourselves 64 times in the speech. I and me only ten times. He only mentions Dr. King eight times. It's a speech about us, about everybody and anybody who wants to be part of that us. But of course we can't be part of the people who were there 50 years ago. That was a small group, really, when you look at it, a happy few, even at the time. And now, here we are, in the millions, watching over the internet. How can we be part of that us?

That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge—she’s marching.

That successful businessman who doesn't have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck—he’s marching.

The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same door as anybody’s son—she’s marching.

The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn't have a father—especially if he didn't have a father at home—he’s marching.

The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again, and walk again, and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home—they are marching.

Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day—that change does not come from Washington, but to Washington; that change has always been built on our willingness, We The People, to take on the mantle of citizenship—you are marching.

I have said that anyone who wants to take up Dr. King's mantle needs to find a way to tie us all together in a single garment of destiny, to speak to us all in ways that we can hear and respond to, that include us and embrace us both as individuals and as groups and as a people. To make his speaking about us, not about him—to make, somehow, it about us through him and about him through us. Barack Obama at his best—here and here, for instance—places his audience as the center of his rhetorical mission, and himself at their head. Yesterday, at that moment, standing in history's footsteps, he was able to put his audience—and all of us, when we are willing—at the center of his rhetorical mission without putting himself at the head of it, using his position (and what a position!) to bring all the force of that rhetoric to bear without making it about himself at all. No Great Man, not Barack Obama, not Martin Luther King, Jr., but all of us together.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 23, 2013

llama, llama, apple, hussyfscap

I happened to read a couple of interesting and well-written essays about Women in Fiction recently. I suspect many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu have read them already: ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative by Kameron Hurley and Toward a More Expansive Definition of ‘Princess’ by Noah Berlatsky. Ms. Hurley is (I believe) specifically writing about how the actual history of women warriors has been erased by the more prevalent cultural trope of femininity. Mr. Berlatsky is writing about the narrow rejection of femininity that seems to be replacing that dominant frame. They are both worth reading, and they are worth reading together. And yet.

Ms. Hurley begins her article with a wonderful and arresting image:

I’m going to tell you a story about llamas. It will be like every other story you’ve ever heard about llamas: how they are covered in fine scales; how they eat their young if not raised properly; and how, at the end of their lives, they hurl themselves—lemming-like—over cliffs to drown in the surging sea. They are, at heart, sea creatures, birthed from the sea, married to it like the fishing people who make their livelihood there.

She then goes on to talk about how difficult it would be, if all the books and movies and television shows had scaly, cannibalistic lemming-like llamas, to accurately observe llamas and to tell (or listen to) stories about real llamas, even you had accurately observed them. The point being that when we hear that women are timid domestic souls more naturally inclined to be the angel in the house than the fearsome foe, it’s like hearing that llamas have scales: you hear it enough, and you start to think that the fuzzy llamas you have seen are anomalies.

It’s a powerful image and a terrific way of telling the story. Of course, it’s not exactly accurate—analogies are not about accuracy. And the thing is that some women are, I think, inclined to the domestic virtues rather than the martial ones. Some men are as well. It’s not that we are told that llamas are scaly, it’s that we’re told that all apples are red.

And we are, aren’t we? We practically define apples as red fruit, and red as the color of apples. A is for apple, and there’s the apple, and it’s red. There’s one green leaf hanging off the stem, and the apple is red. It’s in the ABC books, it’s in the coloring books, it’s a plush toy, it’s on the bib or the onesie. Apples are red. And, here’s the thing: lots of apples are red! And lots are green! And some are yellow! And some are red in places and green in places! We can have all the experience we like with actual apples—galas and fujis and macs and granny smiths and honeycrunches and macouns and braeburns and baldwins and bountifuls and, yes, Pink Ladies—and we will still think of apples as red. A kindergartener may have a big old green apple for snack and then grab the red crayon to color the apple, because apples are red. Red apples are red.

And I think that’s important to add to (not, I want to be clear, take away from or deprecate) the experience of reading Ms. Hurley’s article. The knowledge that while we culturally have been erasing women’s experience systematically for centuries should be tempered as well with the knowledge that some women are great cooks, too.

This is where Mr. Berlatsky is attempting to go in his article, I think:

Merida is a different kind of princess in part because she doesn’t want much to do with traditional femininity—and her story is exhilarating for that. But still, it seems like it maybe leaves out a fair number of girls who like princesses because of the femininity, not despite it.

and later:

The point isn’t to create a single perfect role model, be it Merida or Wonder Woman or Cimorene or Cinderella. The point is to give girls, and for that matter boys, the chance to see femininity not solely as a prison to inhabit or escape, but as a story that can be told in lots of ways. As Cimorene’s friend Princess Arabella tells her at the end of the novel [Dealing With Dragons], “I wouldn’t like being princess for the King of the Dragons, but it will suit you down to the ground.”

I’m going to edge out a bit ahead of what Mr. Belatsky actually writes, here, because I think it’s the logical extension he doesn’t quite get to. He talks about Cimorene liking adventure and swordplay and cooking; her rejection of the Princess Lifestyle (if you will) is not a rejection of all domestic virtues. In fact, Cimorene becomes more or less a traditional domestic wife and homemaker for the dragon. And that’s a fine choice. For her. For a while. It changes in the later books, although I don’t think that the domestic virtues are ever actually denigrated. Similarly, in Dragon Slippers, our heroine is brave and clever and really good at sewing and weaving.

And what he doesn’t get to, and maybe I’m getting too far ahead of him here, is that—look, it’s great to be heroic, it’s great to be strong and brave, resourceful and resolute, combative and fierce. And then do the laundry. Because after the villain is vanquished, there will still be laundry to be washed.

What we don’t want is a bunch of kids who believe that if they get any satisfaction from cleaning the house, washing the dishes or dressing the baby they are falling into the Disney Princess stereotype that is Keeping Women Down by enforcing femininity. Girls or Boys—it’s a greater risk for boys, of course, because for generations we were told that cleaning and cooking and nurturing is essentially feminine, and thus beneath us. That’s a despicable lie, and we were all hurt by it. It will be a despicable lie if we tell it to girls, too.

Because of course women have always fought—and there was always laundry to be done after the fighting was over. Women went to sea, and there were babies to be changed. Women were doctors and lawyers and governors, and there were still dirty dishes, too. Just like when men were sailors and generals and Great Men, and there was still mending and cleaning and cooking to do. When we break out of the conceptual trap of the scaly llama—and that’s really important, breaking out of the trap, because it really is hurting people—there will still be mending and cleaning and cooking and nurturing and weaving and all. The domestic virtues will still be virtues. Whether they are feminine or masculine or human or just, just, well, just necessary, they will still be virtues.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 22, 2013

A Great Time to Be Alive

Yesterday, as I was browsing through the The King Center Archive, as I hope will be one of my MLK Day traditions, I came across an odd little note by Martin Luther King, Jr. called How My Theology Has Changed. It’s undated, but it begins “Ten years ago I was a senior in theological seminary”, which places it in 1960. It’s a lovely concept—It appears to be notes for an article—there’s a thirty-page handwritten draft called How My Mind Has Changed in the Last Decade, which I think is more or less the essay published as Pilgrimage to Nonviolence. The end of the short note that I began with, though, isn’t in the longer draft at all. Here’s my own transcription of the last item on the list:

I am happy to be alive during this period of history. With all of its tensions and uncertainties something profoundly meaningful is happening. Valleys of despair are gradually being exalted and mountains of injustice being made low. Yes, the glory of the Lord is being revealed. May we dare to believe that all flesh will see it together.

The beginning of the list, when he talks about the ten years since he left Crozer, is also absent from that longer piece draft:

Since that time many worldshaking developments have taken place—the emergence of many new nations as a result of the independence struggle, the momentous decisions of the US Supreme Court outlawing segregation, man dramatic exploration of outer space, the creation of more powerful nuclear weapons.

And here’s the closing of the published article, which is also new from the handwritten draft:

The past decade has been a most exciting one. In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of our age something profoundly meaningful has begun. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born. In a real sense ours is a great time in which to be alive. Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that we face a world crisis which often leaves us standing amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. Each can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark, confused world the spirit of God may yet reign supreme.

So. In 1960 or so, at any rate, when he was thirty, Dr. King thought it was a great time to be alive. The thought that sparked in me was—do I think it’s a great time to be alive? Do I think that something profoundly meaningful is happening?

And the answer is, no. I don’t.

That may be an artifact of age: I’m a long way past thirty. In fact, I was startled yesterday to suddenly realize that I am a good deal older now than Dr. King was at the time of his death; he was so, so, so young. Also, despite his more wide-ranging description in the notes, Dr. King’s focus on the situation of black Americans has something to do with it—many white Americans don’t, at this remove, think of the 1950s as a time of worldshaking developments and profound changes. My Best Reader pointed out that a leader for LGBT rights, born in 1982 and ruminating on the events of the last ten years, might well describe this as a great and lucky time to be alive. That’s possible.

And, of course, there’s this: Martin Luther King, Jr. was shaping his world. I am not. By 1961 he was head of the SCLC, and was important enough to be asked to contribute to a collection of essays by significant thinkers. If he was not yet the marble hero he became, he was already—at thirty!—nationally prominent and hugely influential. I suspect that such a man is always going to find himself in times of worldshaking developments, if only because he is a worldshaker himself. So the difference is not in the world but in the people.

Still. I think it’s a great time to be alive (and to be a fairly affluent American) just because of the creature comforts. I have air conditioning and sinus medicine; I have shoe inserts and mp3s; I have meat at the grocery store and water at the tap. I would not trade these decades of my life for those decades without penicillin and pinterest. But profound changes and worldshaking developments? I’m afraid my outlook there is grim.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 25, 2012

I'm for Roosevelt

Your Humble Blogger happened across a copy of I’m for Roosevelt, a campaign book by Joseph P. Kennedy from 1936. The Kennedy patriarch was the head of President Roosevelt’s Security and Exchange Commission, I believe, and was writing specifically about why he felt that Big Business should support the incumbent. He acknowledges that His Only President was decried everywhere as a socialist, except, he says, by the actual socialists of his acquaintance, who were outraged that the blue-blood of Hyde Park was actually rescuing capitalism from its so eagerly anticipated ashes.

I leave it to your imagination, Gentle Reader, to count up the Reds of Mr. Kennedy’s acquaintance. This was not a man noted for hobnobbing with artists and poets, you know.

At any rate, Mr. Kennedy posits that the choice in 1936 is between Roosevelt and Ruin. The mob is on the prowl; the wolf is at the door; the peasants have pitchforks. The nation cannot withstand another depression. It will take regulation, central planning and the New Deal to prevent mass unemployment—and mass unemployment is the greatest conceivable danger not only to Free Enterprise but to Democracy.

Again: Mass unemployment is the greatest conceivable danger to democracy.

It turns out, not quite four score years later, that the peasants have paper pitchforks. We did re-elect the President in 1936, and we did hold off the next depression (tho’ it was close). We instituted a safety net: unemployment insurance, social security, workmen’s compensation, Medicare and Medicaid. We insured the money in the banks, and of course we electrified the countryside, so that the poor would have electricity and eventually be on the information grid. And now, when we talk about mass unemployment, it’s as a problem among other problems, not as a sleeping giant of immense and indiscriminate destructive power.

So, Gentle Readers. Two questions come to mind immediately: first, is it still true (even if we don’t believe it or act like we believe it) that mass unemployment is the greatest conceivable danger to democracy? And second, if in fact it is no longer true that mass unemployment poses a serious not to say existential threat to democracy, is that a Good Thing?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 12, 2012

The New Suit and the Old Hand

On the vice-presidential debate—if Your Humble Blogger was one of those surrogates of my party that is asked to go on television and radio and blogs and such and describe an incredibly biased view of the event, here’s what the message would be:

Congressman Ryan reminded me of one of those management consultant types who comes into a business with his nice suit and his expensive haircut and his fresh MBA and tells everybody how they can increase stakeholder profits if they leverage dynamic incentives by managing impactful quality prioritization, investing in the performance of new models of competency, and flipping globalized innovation to achieve peak synergy. And Joe Biden was like the guy who has actually been running the shop floor for the last forty years, who’s just going that’s a bunch of stuff!

I have thought since the winter that Governor Romney appears to embody all the negative stereotypes of management consultants, and that since I think a lot of people hold those stereotypes, my Party should be exploiting that for all we’re worth. I hadn’t realized that Representative Ryan could be seen to embody those stereotypes as well, despite never having actually been a management consultant. Still, there he was, explaining to Joe Biden how legislation works, talking about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to a guy who was in the room with them when they were negotiating. The idea of the guy who knows nothing about the business coming in and telling the boss how to improve profits by laying off anybody who knows anything—that’s a powerful image, and I don’t think it’s unfair to paint the Other Party’s candidates that way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 21, 2012

Passed along without further comment

Your Humble Blogger randomly opened a book of the letters of William Allen White to a letter dated December 27, 1916, addressed to Mr. White’s political buddy, the erstwhile President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. It begins like this:

My Dear Colonel:

Man! You are clean, plumb crazy; wild as a bedbug about the West.
It goes on for a bit, and concludes:

You must not assume that because I think you are a fit companion for the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, politically, that we do not both love you to death and would not go along wherever you would lead. But we are entitled to our opinion, and at the moment a conservative statement of our opinion is that your letter indicates that you should be in the madhouse; in the padded cell of the madhouse; chained in the padded cell of the madhouse; where we should send you our affectionate seasonal greetings.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 18, 2012

A survey, I suppose

I’m curious about something. Maybe Gentle Readers will be willing to answer a few questions. You know YHB is interested in rhetoric and public persuasion, and in public opinion and so on. So I’m wondering:

  1. Do you currently think that the US is in an economic crisis?
  2. If you do, how will you know when the crisis is over?
  3. Do you currently think that most/many/lots of people in the US currently think that the US is in an economic crisis?
  4. How do you think most/many/lots of people who do think that will know when the crisis is over?

To clarify a trifle, or perhaps to muddy it up… By economic crisis I mean whatever you mean by it. I’m just asking if you would use the term to describe the current state, and whether you think other people would use it, not whether it is correct or accurate or meaningful or comparative or anything. And by when it’s over, I just mean when you imagine you would change from answering the first question yes to answering no. I’m not necessarily looking for a specific set of conditions, although if that’s your answer terrific, but something perhaps more general and personal. When Paul Krugman says so, or when I don’t know anyone who is looking for work, or when my employer starts hiring again as well as when unemployment minus annualized GDP stays under five for three consecutive months or whatever. You don’t need to look anything up, unless you are in the habit of looking up some statistic daily or weekly and basing your sense of the world on that.

I’m not planning to argue with your answers, by the way. You don’t need to defend them from me; I am interested in what y’all’s answers are, not in whether they match my answers or some objectively correct answers.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 13, 2012

I Call Bullshit

OK, while Your Humble Blogger is on about the ACA and bullshit—you know how I’ve said that the phrase judicial activism is the ne plus ultra of bullshit? I think that may be wrong. I think the phrase small business may be the ne plus ultra of bullshit.

I don’t know if y’all have heard the story. It’s being presented as a gaffe, I guess, and maybe it is one, and I suspect if you follow political blogs, you will have heard it. A reporter at a local ABC-TV affiliate in Iowa asked Our Only President about a small business that “ had to close, and move 111 jobs to Wisconsin, because of health care reform you put forward”, and Our Only President was all, like, hunh? Because there isn’t any part of the legislation in the actual Affordable Care Act that placed any obligations on small businesses yet, other than, I suppose, reporting on some stuff to qualify for the new tax credits. Well, and there are some other reporting issues, I believe, but (a) some of those are not really part of Obamacare, even if they are part of the actual ACA legislation, and (2) some of them aren’t actually part of ACA at all, but went into effect at the time ACA was in the news. But it’s seriously unlikely that anybody was put out of business because of new obligations in the ACA.

And, in fact, the business that the reporter names in his story, Nemschoff chairs, in Sioux Center, did not “close”. It did consolidate factories, which resulted in fewer jobs in Iowa (and more in Wisconsin), and if you are in Iowa, that’s a bad thing, but there’s a difference between a business closing and a factory closing—and since part of the point of the ACA is that there won’t be so much difference in state regulations, it really seems unclear why that would happen “because of health care reform [Our Only President] put forward”.

Except, well… did you click through to the Nemschoff site? Because it’s actually Nemschoff Healthcare Furniture, and while the spokesman denies that the factory closing is related to health care reform, he did say that one issue with the decreased demand for his chairs may be that instead of just implementing the damn’ reform already, the Other Party is throwing a shitfit, so nobody knows what the fuck is up. That last bit is a paraphrase. But I’m guessing a close paraphrase.

Anyway. Left Blogovia has been on about all of that, how when Willard “Mitte” Romney says that this episode shows that Out Only President is “out of touch” in fact Our Only President was completely correct, and more, that when a reporter asked him a question that contained an incorrect premise, he spotted it and responded correctly. So there.

But what got me all riled up was that the reporter said small businesses like it was a magic incantation, and even while being correctly skeptical, Our Only President said “it’s tough running a small business no matter what.” And you know? I’m sure it is. But the small business we’re talking about—Nemschoff—have you clicked through yet? Because down in the bottom right corner, you may notice that Nemschoff is A HermanMiller Healthcare Company. Yes, Herman Miller, the worldwide furniture corporation with more than a billion dollars a year in net sales. That’s your small business.

Any time you hear anyone say that small businesses drive employment in this country, or that small businesses are the backbone of the economy, or even that we need to provide more tax breaks to make small businesses more competitive, remember that Nemschoff Chairs, the small business who had to close their Iowa plant and move to Wisconsin, which wasn’t because of the ACA anyway, is A HermanMiller Healthcare Company. And a small business, too boot. And, here’s another thing: they’re one of the good guys. At least, as far as I can tell, they are reasonably good corporate citizens, making actual products and selling them, and so on and so forth. And even there, the idea that we need to make them more competitive as a small business is just utter, utter bullshit.

Do you know what else is a small business? Every McDonald’s franchise in the country is a small business. Well, probably not every one, as I guess a guy who owns ten of them is probably no longer a small business under the law. Unless, I suppose, he owns two small businesses that each own five, because I can’t imagine it would be hard to do that and still qualify for small business loans and small business tax credits and small business salt-of-the-earth stuff. And fine, whatever—a lot of those guys are great people, treat their employees as well as they can as McDonald’s owners, donate a lot of money, fund scholarships, sponsor teams, all that stuff. Good on them. But I’m not going to go all teary-eyed about them as the backbone of the great American rugged individualism, and they sure as hell don’t need government support to be competitive against—who? Other McDonald’s owners? Other small-businessmen running pizza joints and taquerias?

What I’m saying is that while the whole premise of the question was a lie, the whole fucking premise of the whole fucking conversation is the biggest pile of bullshit you ever laid eyes on. And the it’s bullshit when Our Only President talks about investment in small businesses, too—that investment in all those franchises is getting sucked right up to the corporation, and the investment into Nemschoff is getting sucked right up to corporation, and that’s not even starting in on the hedge fund managers who are their own corporations. And it’s all, all, all bullshit. It’s not the backbone of the economy. It’s bullshit. It’s not the driving force of employment. It’s bullshit. It’s not the Real America. Do you know what it is? It’s bullshit, is what. Bullshit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Words, words, words.

I can’t remember what set me off this time, so I don’t have a link, but about ACA/Obamacare… it’s the mandate that’s unpopular, right? Most of the other provisions are popular, and why wouldn’t they be, and the mandate is what pays for them, more or less the bribe we give to the insurance companies to make it all work. I know, it’s not even close to a bribe, but I’m just saying: the rest of it is the stuff everybody wants, and the mandate is the stuff we have to have to get the rest of it. Right?

But what polls badly, I assume, is the word mandate. We have some negative connotations with it. Even funded mandates don’t seem like a good thing, and of course we assume now that the word before mandate is supposed to be unfunded, which is actively a bad thing (and probably is a bad thing) so mandates are bad. Even more than that: if it’s mandated that you must have health insurance, and you have negative connotations with health insurance companies (and who doesn’t), it sure seems like the law is forcing you to spend hours filling out paperwork, sharing embarrassing personal details, and waiting on hold to talk with intransigents jobsworths in customer so-called service. That’s not going to be popular at all.

The thing is, though, that as far as I can tell, the law does not actually force you to have health insurance at all. You can choose not to. You just pay a sort of premium to stay outside the system. It’s called a fine, in most of the things I have read about it, and that’s not the sort of word that tests well, but essentially, you pay a certain amount of money and you can exempt yourself from the mandatory health insurance. Which means it isn’t exactly mandatory. It’s opt-out, with an opt-out fee.

Which means that in essence, unless I am vastly misunderstanding this, we are just raising the taxes on uninsured people. And helping people become insured, and making sure that they are really choosing to be uninsured, and insisting that insurance companies are willing to insure them, and having all the other good stuff, and also: raising taxes on uninsured people. Would that be more popular than a mandate?

If you still don’t like it, how about this: since any time you have two different levels, you can arbitrarily decide which of them is the benchmark, what we are doing is giving a tax break for people who have health insurance. You can call it a mandate, or you can say that people who have health insurance will pay less in taxes than people who choose not to have health insurance.

That doesn’t seem to me like a lie. And it doesn’t seem to me like it would be horrifically unpopular. It would be unpopular with the people who don’t want to pay for health insurance, sure, but that’s because the entire policy is designed to eliminate the free rider problem, and the free riders aren’t going to like the policy no matter what it’s called. And people who don’t like the actual policy, that is, the people who know what the policy is and don’t like it, well, people have actual policy preference that are different one to another, which is what makes governing interesting and fun. But for most people who only have the vaguest notion what ACA actually is, and are really only half-listening to the pollster anyway, I suspect that you could change the poll answers pretty easily. You could just announce: instead of a mandate, the new Obamacare plan has a higher tax rate for people who choose not to enroll in a health care plan and a tax break for everyone who has health insurance.

Some Gentle Readers (who haven’t disagreed with me about it from the beginning of this note) are now asking themselves or their nearest and dearest, why don’t they do that? Why don’t they artificially inflate the poll numbers of their signature legislative achievement? Here’s another question, though: why should they bother? The policy is what it is; when it finally gets implemented people will have real feelings about it. In the meantime, it doesn’t actually make much difference whether people like part of it but not the other part. And, I suspect, even if they liked all the parts individually, it might well not move the numbers on the whole thing together. In the meantime, I’m sure somebody would screw up the new language, because people always do screw up the new language, and it would be a hassle. While people writing speeches should craft their words carefully, and it’s generally worth paying attention to the connotations of words as much as their meanings, the real point is that the policy—people who choose not to pay for health insurance will pay a higher tax than those who choose to pay for health insurance—is not going to be unpopular just because it’s called a mandate. Rhetoric matters, but that doesn’t mean that the polls accurate reflect the way it matters.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 26, 2012

culture and values

I know this is late and all, but I can’t let it go. Here’s a quote from Willard “Mitte” Romney’s speech to Liberty University on May twelfth:

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.

The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Sen. Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.

OK, first of all, saying people with no education, job or spouse are often poor is not altogether a shocker. But what he is really saying—I should say, what I infer that he is saying—is that poor people are poor because they had sex without first having obtained job, education or a spouse. This is not so. Had they remained unemployed, uneducated single virgins, they would have been poor. Childless and poor. There are childless poor, you know, and many of them don’t have full-time jobs. Some of them do, which is another issue, but many of them don’t.

And, in point of fact, many of the people (such as Your Humble Blogger) who had all the middle-class advantages also had sex when we were teenagers. Some of us were prepared, and used contraceptives of one kind or another, which is also part of American culture (I’ll get to that), but frankly some of us were idiots and got away with it, or were idiots and got pregnant and didn’t carry to term, or, perhaps, were in the quarter of unwed unemployed teenage parents who are not poor. Because we had those middle-class advantages. Because the sex didn’t cause the poverty. Because the sex isn’t even a symptom of the poverty.

I haven’t let go of this almost two weeks after the speech because it seems to me a terribly mean-spirited, blind and arrogant thing to say. The college graduates listening were able to congratulate themselves that they had not done The Thing that makes people poor. If they were listening (it was, after all, a commencement speech) and took it to heart, what it taught them was to treat the poor with contempt and hostility: they are poor because they were irresponsible; they were irresponsible because they lacked American values. The poor are always with us, but they aren’t really with us. They aren’t even really American.

And that’s what gets my goat—it’s not a surprise to hear someone from the Other Party slagging the poor. It makes me angry, but it doesn’t surprise me. It seems to be an article of faith, in the Other Party, that the poor deserve no better than poverty (with the possible exception of infants and very young children, and maybe virgins in their early teens) and the rich deserve no less than riches. It’s wrong, and it’s despicably wrong, and it happens all the time, and I wish My Party would express more outrage more openly about it. But this context—that the poor have rejected American culture in making themselves poor—is really loathesome.

Willard ”Mitte” Romney doesn’t get to decide what American Culture is or is not. He is no longer—and never ought to have been—the haircut monitor who protected the straights from the hippies. The hippies were American culture, which promoted love, community and terrible smells. American culture promotes shallow celebrity worship and prideful ignorance; American culture promotes sexual redefinition and radical inclusion. American culture promotes arrogance, greed and war; American culture promotes humility, liberality and peace. American culture is a big thing. Culture matters, yes. But the Other Party doesn’t get to draw a line around some fabricated, abridged, narrow subset and say that it owns American culture and that everything else is foreign.

Because the thing that the nominee is on about, to the extent that it exists—the culture of poverty, promiscuity and crime, the inner city infantilism that he may have experienced in the occasional film and thinks he recognizes when driving through Jamaica Plain—to the extent that it exists, that is American culture, too. What else is it? Where did it come from? Where was it created? If you think there is such a culture of poverty, then it is surely as American as apple pie.

There will be a lot of rhetoric, this summer and autumn, that will hint at who is really American and who is not. Some of it will hint; some will be far beyond hinting. Not all of it will be racist, either, although it will be hard not to see race in it, too. Some of Left Blogovia will call it out; I hope some of our elected officials and surrogates will call it out. I hope to call it out, too. I hope you will call it out, too, Gentle Reader.

Because ultimately, American culture is what we all say it is. If we want a radically inclusive American culture, a Walt Whitman culture, a democratic culture, if we want an American culture, we have to be it ourselves.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 25, 2012

Funny/Not Funny

So, here’s something I thought of today whilst watching this bit from Late Night:

Ready for my point? I thought so.

I think that a few years ago, when Our Previous President was in office, the audience for this sort of thing would have preferred to see Will Farrell portraying the President than to see the President himself. Now, the funny part is that it actually is Our Only President on the show. Part of that is the times, I’m sure, but part of it is that, well, Our Only President is that cool.

Also, for those who missed it, here’s Our Only President with the White House Blues All-Stars:

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 22, 2012

Mock the Budget

Your Humble Blogger has been reading Ed Miliband’s response to the Tory Budget, which he delivered in the House of Commons yesterday. It’s a lot of fun—I should probably find the video somewhere, just to see what he actually said, to compare to the as-prepared version. Successful British politicians tend to be quite good at that on-the-fly rewording that I find so fascinating… Anyway, the Conservatives presented a budget in the UK at more or less the same time that our own Conservatives presented a budget, the main difference being that their Conservatives (a) have full control over their government, and (2) are somewhat Conservative, at least some of the time. The main points are the same, though: Millions will be paying more so that millionaires can pay less. Also, An unfair Budget built on economic failure.

My initial reaction, as often happens when a Brit makes a powerfully oppositional speech, is to wonder why we don’t have anybody who can make speeches like that. Of course, we do—if I want to listen to Barney Frank or Bernie Sanders or Maxine Waters or any of a number of fiery speakers. Even Nancy Pelosi, who generally tries to adopt a moderate tone, has been known to catch fire on occasion. Even Our Only President can bring it to the Other Party, if the occasion is right. They do happen.

Of course, it’s also easier to make fiery speeches denouncing the Other Party when you they are the government and responsible for all their policy failures; we can denounce Rep. Ryan’s intentions, but when we denounce his failures, it takes some explaining about exactly what parts of his plan have been tried, and how they failed, and which parts haven’t been tried but are like other things that have been tried, and now they failed, and rhetorically it just isn’t as impressive as blaming the Government for GDP growth under 1%, or for a Business Growth fund that opened six offices and funding a total of six businesses. You know? I remember this stuff from when we were the out Party, and it was full-throated stuff, too.

And there’s the other thing, which is that the British politicians are simply working in a different rhetorical field. There are different ways to phrase things, different sounds, and of course in a parliamentary system, differences of status and class. But just on a wording level, the quote above would have to be Millions of people will be paying more so that millionaires can pay less, which still isn’t bad, but isn’t quite as good.

On the other hand, the recurring rhetoric trope of the speech that claims to define a test for the budget in the Chancelor’s own terms, and then describes how the budget fails that test—that trope would be very successful, I think, in discussing Rep. Ryan’s budget, and the plans that Mitt Romney has. Although, of course, neither of those plans have any details, so it’s harder to make specific claims about their failures. Still, their budgets, to paraphrase Mr. Miliband, destroy the claim they made about who they are and what they believe.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 29, 2012

Just My Imagination

So. I was reading and article about voter information and voter mapping (Do You Know What Your Voter Wants to Hear?, by Abby Rapoport over at the American Prospect) and I started wondering about tailoring the political message to the amazing amount of available information.

That is—y’all know that (unless you act to prevent it) Google knows your life in incredible detail: your telephone number, your street address, your workplace, what roads you drive on, what movies you like, what books you read, what sports team you root for, and so on and so forth, as well as all that information about your friends and family, too. Right? And they are scarcely the only ones with much of that information. It’s out there.

So. If a political campaign wants to have that information about voters (and other people), it can get it. Our Only President’s committee to re-elect knows plenty about me just from what I have told it, enough I’m sure to put me into a quite specific category of male forty-ish web-savvy political junkie and father of two, owner of a house in a heavily Democratic suburb, and should be able to guess our household income to within twenty percent, at worst. It might get some of that wrong, but probably not wildly wrong: I imagine an algorithm that shakes down the millions of us into a couple of hundred categories and I’m a P7 or something, and maybe I should really be a P6 or a Q7, but I’m within one or two. And maybe it knows that I share the household with a C8. Why wouldn’t it? A lot of that is just taking my name and address (from when I asked them to send me a free bumper sticker) and correlating it with some public information about me; they wouldn’t even have to dig through my internet history for most of it.

Now, presumably they are going to send me the P7 emails, and they will send my Best reader the C8 emails, and some of you will get H6 emails, and some of you will get D3 emails, and so on and so forth. Why not? So if Eric Cantor says something terrible, the campaign may send me an email to try to raise money off the idea that Eric Cantor must be stopped, because I know who Eric Cantor is. But it may not bother sending me the email that it would send to a current AFSCME member based on something that the head of AFSCME said, or something about women’s rights, or something about the decline of our urban centers, or something about being in a swing state or an open congressional district. And all of this makes perfect sense, right? Does it make you uncomfortable at all?

What if—and I am sure that the committee to re-elect is not doing this at this time—they send out an email that is mostly the same, but perhaps my email says We will never waver from the vision that unites us and yours says We will never retreat from the vision that unites us and my Best Reader gets one that says We will hold firm to the vision that unites us. Because they have found that P7s really like that term, while C8s are very sensitive to things phrased in the negatives, and D3s respond well to subtle references to the military. Does that make you uncomfortable at all? Remember, the software exists to do all this stuff, and lots of people think that kind of word-level stuff is important in persuasion.

OK, now—what if they tailor the web page? They could put a cookie on my browser that tells them I’m a P7, and when I go to the web page, the banner picture that randomly comes up happens to be of a father and kids in a suburb, and the three issue boxes on the top happen to be about Net Neutrality, the intransigent House caucus of the Other Party, and the Mortgage Exemption. When my Best Reader goes to the site, though, the banner picture that randomly comes up happens to be of a group of professional women meeting with Our Only President, and the issue boxes are about the ACA’s coverage of contraception, and the Mortgage Exemption, and the plan to make college affordable. And it’s not random, of course, it’s that P7s see different things than C8s. Does that make you uncomfortable? Or is that just smart campaigning?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 27, 2012

What Makes Him Sick

I keep saying that my Party tends to nominate people for the Presidency who really know how to connect with the populace on religion, people like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—and the Other Party tends to nominate people who simply aren't comfortable with religious language, people like George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain.

Of course, this is preposterously false, but it's every bit as true as the opposite, the conventional wisdom that the Other Party has some monopoly on faith talk, or that my Party just isn't very good at it. Of course the victors will have connected better with the American People on religion, as they will on most other topics, and the causality is probably backwards. People connect with the winning candidate because the candidate is winning, and that's terrific for making an audience receptive. It's also true that (f'r'ex) Bill Clinton used to read Scripture in his bedroom, Jimmy Carter is I think still teaching Sunday School, and of course Barack Obama got in a lot of trouble for going to church on Sunday. On the other hand, John Kerry simply would not stop going to Mass, even when every communion would provoke a news story about the protesters and bishops who wanted to deny the man, and his churchgoing didn't mean that he communicated well with people about religion or anything else#8212;tho' I think we would remember much better communication skills had he won Ohio.

I bring this up because The 1960 Houston Speech is back in the news. That's the speech where John F. Kennedy said that (a) Catholics and Jews should be eligible for the Presidency, and (2) that should he be elected president, he would not request or accept instruction on public policy from the Pope. And further, that he believes in an America “where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source”.

Rick Santorum read the speech, he said, and it made him want to throw up. He reiterated that nausea on ABC's This Week yesterday, and I'll quote:

I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. Go on and read the speech. I will have nothing to do with faith. I won't consult with people of faith. It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent (ph) at the time of 1960. And I went down to Houston, Texas 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. People of faith, people of no faith, and be able to bring their ideas, to bring their passions into the public square and have it out. James Madison—

I really wish George Stephanopoulos had not interrupted him there. I don't think he was going to tell my favorite anecdote about James Madison and the separation of church and state, and I am pulling the quote from The Founders Constitution, where he argued that we should not let people put on their Census forms that their profession is 'minister' because the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who, and who are not, ministers of the gospel. Still, I think we have enough, here, to go on with: Mr. Santorum believes that the speech President Kennedy gave articulated a vision where faith was not allowed in the public square. And he did so, calling himself a Catholic and going to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to do it.

Now, it turns out that Rick Santorum is participating in a tradition of interpreting this speech as denying that a pluralist society includes people discussing their faith in the public square. It's worth looking at Romney v. Kennedy by Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, which lays out the Conservative interpretation:

Kennedy speaks in absolutes. For him, religion is purely one’s own “private affair” and has nothing to say to the great political issues of the day—the spread of Communism, poverty, health care, education, patriotism. These are “real issues,” Kennedy says, and “they are not religious issues.”

This isn't crazy. It's a misinterpretation, I think, bearing in mind that the speech was given in 1960, and that was before Engel and Abington ruled (correctly) that public schools could not include Bible-reading and liturgical prayers in their curricula. The furthest I could go with interpretation is that President Kennedy may have felt that faith was too large a part of the public policy sphere at that time, a time when the public school day regularly began with Scripture, and when no Catholic had ever been elected to the Presidency, and many people argued, in the public sphere, that only Protestants should be President. Personally, I think that the speech is saying that religion is, as he says, a private matter, and that one's policy positions will of course be informed by one's religious teachings, but that when it comes to making workable policy, you need actual policy arguments. The spread of Communism may be a religious issue, in the sense that it will affect religious practice and so on, but that doesn't mean that the policies to be implemented to halt the spread of Communism are matters of religious dicta. If you can't convince people of other faith traditions or none that your policy is a good policy, regardless of its religious influences, then you are doing it wrong.

Which is fundamental to our concept of pluralism. Mr. Santorum seems to want a kind of Marketplace of Ideas for religion—some Gentle Readers of this blog have gently mocked YHB for believing at all in a Marketplace of Ideas, but I certainly don't believe in a Marketplace of Ideas for religion. I certainly don't think that there is One True Religion, and I don't think that everybody getting together to argue out their religions is likely to lead to anything good. I don't thinking people of different religions coming to the public square and making their case on religious grounds is at all in keeping with the pluralist idea. I mean, it seems obvious to me that what happens then is that the people with minority beliefs lose, and policies are imposed by the religious majority, based on that religious majority, rather than being based on policy preference. If, instead, people of faith come to their policy conclusions, and then leave their Scripture behind and come into the public square to argue policy cases on policy grounds, then we meet more equally, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Sikh and Hindu, atheist and pantheist and monotheist, to discuss how to live together without adopting one another's religions.

This is what Rick Santorum meant, I can only infer, in his own Houston speech (which alas was given to a friendly audience of co-religionists rather than (as the 1960 speech) to a skeptical if not hostile group outside his faith tradition, a very telling change, in YHB's opinion) made on the fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy's, when he said “All of us have an obligation to justify our positions based upon something that is accessible to everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs.” Or: “A vibrant, fully clothed public square; a marketplace of believers and non-believers where truth could be proffered and reasoned, and differences civilly tolerated.” This vision, then, is not different from John Kennedy's. Where it differs from what I understand John Kennedy to be saying is that Rick Santorum's vision is of “a mutually strengthening interface of church and state”; John Kennedy does not seem to say it is the job of the state to strengthen the church. Any church. Nor do I.

I do think it's worth talking about all this—that's what I want to have hauled in to the public sphere. I want to make it clear whether we, as a country, want to keep that public sphere free of religious argument—not that there is no place for religious argument, but that the discussion of policy for us all is discussion for us all, “where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials”, and “where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

That, it seems, make Rick Santorum want to throw up. Which is why, I think, Rick Santorum is one of those Republicans who just don't seem to connect to Americans with religious talk.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 13, 2012

The Bitch Is Back

So. There was Your Humble Blogger, reading the OBO of the ODI, as you do, and there was this sentence typed by the redoubtable Rob Smyth: England have 99 problems in one-day cricket, but I don’t think [Alastair] Cook’s batting is one.

Gentle Readers may remember that YHB dislikes the word bitch, considering it more akin to a slur than to simple profanity. The repeated use of bitch and whore (pronounced ho, of course) in the original Ice-T song (by the way, many of those lyrics are clearly wrong at the moment—he likes to fuck them all and leave them at the curve? I think not) turns it from a moderately clever brag in line with a history of similar hokum songs about sexual prowess into a bit of vicious misogyny. I suppose it could be argued; there’s nothing about violence in the song, for instance. The character does claim to love the ladies, and furthermore claims that the ladies love him. It’s implied that he satisfies his conquests sexually—it’s difficult for me to tell, from tone, whether it’s the kind of double-joke that Woody Allen used to do in his stand-up, where his sexual bragging was funny because of the underlying joke of his actually being sexually unsuccessful. I would guess that Ice-T is more straightforwardly bragging, and making a (humorous) claim to lothariosity. That’s fairly important, I think, because the claims of misogynist objectification are born out more clearly if the brag is straight-up. Either way, the terms of it sound horrible to me, and sounded horrible to me at the time, when I was young enough and went out enough that I’m pretty sure I heard the song in someone’s house or car.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I have never heard the Jay-Z song that uses the same chorus, with its insistence that a bitch ain’t one of the titular problems. It’s a much more serious song than Ice-T’s, judging from the lyrics. Despite the title and chorus, the Ice-T song is not about his problems; the speaker is glorifying his own (fictional) life, and whatever the ninety-nine problems are, they are less important than the one, the thing that ain’t a problem, his sex life. The Jay-Z song is (from the lyrics, anyway) about his actual problems—his legal problems, his critics, his maladjustment to sudden wealth, his untrustworthy hangers-on. It’s also taking himself as the Black Man in America, with both the general problems of race and the specific intersection of race and celebrity. He feels, justifiably, that there are people out to drag him down and drag down his image; when he gets into the criminal justice system, he does not expect fair treatment. His brag, such as it is, concerns his ability to insist on his minimal civil rights to avoid an unreasonable search.

Is it a misogynist song? Well, y’all will have to come to your own conclusions. I’m inclined to say that yes, it stinks of the whiff of misogyny, mostly because of the language. But it would be possible, I suppose, to argue that it is subverting the original Gangsta idea where one’s credit comes from sexually degrading nameless women—where Ice-T dismisses his ninety-nine problems to talk about the one, Jay-Z is dismissing the theoretical problem he might have with a woman (or with women generally) to talk about the more important societal issues. Or you could argue that its dismissal of women is contemptuous. Or whatever. On the whole, if the lyrics contain the words whore, pussy and bitch, you have to do some serious arguing to convince me it’s not bad for women, but there it is.

I do think that the adoption into the popular culture of the chorus is bad for women, and is a symptom of the deeper problems we have with sexual equality. And it certainly is a meme, as you can see on know-your-meme. It seems to have hit that cultural chord at the right moment. And, of course, our political blogosphere is hip-deep in the zeitgeist. Mitt Romney? Check. Newt Gingrich? Check. Herman Cain? Check. Rick Santorum? Check. Stephen Colbert? Checkerooski (in a pdf, yet). And just trust me on Our Only President, OK?

Now, as we see, the trick of it is to say that [x] has ninety-nine problems but [y] ain’t one, so that the phrase makes it into use without the slur. If it is a slur, of course, which I take it as being. Certainly, when the speaker uses the word bitch in the reference, it always comes off as misogynist to me, and is often deliberately, explicitly and nastily so. As a joke, of course, ha ha. Let’s leave those aside, though—while the prevalence of nasty anti-woman jokes are clearly bad for us all, the small subset of obviously misogynist 99-problems ones are, I think, lost in the miasma. No, what bothers me are the references like the one I started with. There’s nothing nasty in there, nothing vicious, no reason why someone would take offense. Particularly when the meme is so widespread that a person like YHB could perfectly plausibly have soaked it up from Left Blogovia without ever knowing that the original word was a bad one. Right?

Only… I’m still uncomfortable with it. There’s no question that the adoption of the meme amounts to a sort of endorsement of the song, unwittingly perhaps. If I were not just uncomfortable but truly offended, I would be offended all over again by every new reference to it (at least, those that didn’t explicitly reject the original), even if I knew that the moment’s speaker doesn’t intend the insult. Much communication of insult to women is done with a wink and a nudge and a seemingly innocuous reference; there’s too much of it to let ignorance be an excuse. If you think that misogyny is widespread and deep-seated, and if you are determined to be part of the proverbial and not part of the problem, then you owe it to your readers to find out about the meme, and to decide if it’s worthy of you.

Understand, I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t listen to Jay-Z, or Ice-T for that matter. I listen to blues singers; I am accustomed to some violent misogyny in my music. I have thought for twenty years or more that the pearl-clutching about rap lyrics is overdone; the problem people seem to have with them is the crudeness, as there are plenty of genres (including opera, of course) that glorify sex, violence and drugs. The over-reaction to rap’s language is class-rooted, I think, as well as race-rooted. It’s not wrong because of that, but it is less persuasive to me.

Still, I’m not sure I can think of another situation where a substitution-phrase like this has become so popular amongst seemingly proper and mainstream writers, where one of the substituted words is a slur. Unless it’s not a slur, of course, but just a cuss. I hear it as a slur, but that’s not a discussion that’s finished yet by a long chalk.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 3, 2012

It's the phantom second syllable that does it.

So. Do y’all know about the OED Word of the Day? It’s a free sign-up thing, and while it’s perhaps not as amusing as A.W.A.D., it does have the full OED etymology and corpus. Today, for instance, I got to read a quote from 1656, in which a three-headed orc (or Orke) is thrice decapitated in one mighty blow. Score for the OED, yes?

Anyway, yesterday’s word was pabulum, which it turns out has a very interesting history. It’s from the Latin, and at one point simply meant food or more metaphorically fuel. It appears to have a connotation of food for animals, rather than for people, and is used also to denote plant food, as in a 1733 quote about the roots needing to search out all the pabulum to fetch back to the body of the plant. It is used metaphorically as food for thought or the kernel from which an idea might grow, and then in the fabulous nineteenth century it becomes a scientific term for anything that provides sustenance to another thing, whether that thing is a plant, an animal, an idea, blood, fire, combustion, or what. I wouldn’t claim it has a positive connotation, but rather than a negative connotation, I would say (from the quotes I am seeing) that it has a strenuously neutral connotation, as well as a metaphoric connection to Science! by the turn of the twentieth century.

Which, presumably, is why the baby-food people in the early thirties chose to call their mush Pablum, as science-osity was a selling point in baby-rearing (it alternates with down-home-commen-sense-osity, which has been clinically proven to improve the immune system by 17%, just like Mom used to), and this two-syllable brand name became the generic term for baby mush. Which, then, became a byword for anything that was metaphorically without taste or texture, and which was a metaphorical food of last resort for those without metaphorical teeth or a working metaphoric digestive system. Pablum was something that worked and was unobjectionable, but wasn’t interesting. A baby could grow strong on a diet of Pablum—that was, in point of fact, the entire selling point of Pablum brand baby food—but once you can choke down a burger, you ain’t going back.

Alas, the metaphor took over, as metaphors tend to do. If a school was teaching pablum, the curriculum was not only without taste or texture but without any mental pabulum, that is, without anything for the mind to grow strong on. Come to think on it, it’s probably the contrast between pablum and red meat: whether it is clinically proven or not, people in this country just feel that a beefsteak has damn’ well got to make a fellow stronger than gruel. So there it is: pablum (as opposed to Pablum Brand Baby Mush) is empty food, devoid not only of taste and texture but of nutritive value. Which has to account for Heinz not bothering to use the name on their boxes, despite (according to Wikipedia) Heinz ownership of the Pablum brand.

Your Humble Blogger is going on about this because (a) I am out of practice blogging, and (2) it’s an interesting combination of the fairly rare case of a brand name becoming a general pejoritive (Off the top of my head there’s the Edsel and perhaps New Coke) and a word becoming its opposite. Because of course in the absence of Pablum brand, the non-word pablum reverted back to the word pabulum. Most uses of the word pabulum now (according to COCA) specifically refer to something without (metaphoric) nutritive value, as a reference to jury speeches, full of legal pabulum but containing little hard reasoning in the Atlantic Monthly.

COCA also came up with the following, which I absolutely love: Brand-name recognition is the pabulum of the electronic age, feeding the culture of perpetual adolescents as if they were perpetual infants. Of course pabulum isn’t baby food, Pablum is—only Steve Gennaro doesn’t achieve that brand-name recognition. And he shouldn’t, because the word really had switched. In 1805, if you were to say that X is the pabulum of Y, you would mean that X is good for Y. In 1905, if you were to say that X is the pabulum of Y, you would mean that X is good for Y. In 2005, when Steve Gennaro says that X is the pabulum of Y, he means that X is terrible for Y. And he is using the word correctly, that is, he is communicating to his readers exactly what he intends to.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 2, 2011

Regarding snobbery

Your Humble Blogger is concerned about the word snob. Because, one supposes, as a Very Pretentious Person, it behooves YHB to use the word in some sense that is technically correct but uncommon, and to both eschew and deprecate the common use of the word. But really, is John Scalzi even Regarding Snobbery at all?

Snobbery, as I understand it, is rooted in aristocracy: a snob is someone who would rather dine with the Earl’s idiot cad of a son than with the brightest commoner in the world. Snobbery is fundamentally in opposition to merit of any kind (unless you count blood as merit, in which case, snob). Also, while snobbery expresses itself in scorn for the lower middle classes, it equally expresses itself in obsequious sycophancy among those lower middle classes to the upper classes. Snobs and nobs. Mr. Meagles from Little Dorrit is the great example of a snob; Mr. Dickens treats it as an unfortunate affliction.

Of course, the idea of snobbery spreads beyond the nobility. In the United States, where there were no nobles, there was still hereditary snobbery, with the descendants of the Mayflower families taking precedence along with some others of the Best People. There was still good breeding, and if American snobs weren’t quite up to their British cousins, they still drew the line at dining with riffraff like artists and Irishmen. This kind of class-based snobbery is still surprisingly relevant among the families that care about it, although it’s broadened out to be closer to common or garden classism, rather than snobbery as such.

Then there are intellectual snobs. As with real snobs, an intellectual snob would rather dine with a vicious, dishonest and foul-smelling graduate of Bryn Mawr than an kind, elegant and well-groomed drop-out of Enormous State University. Or Harvard, for that matter. Intellectual snobbery is also classism, for the most part, but has at least the advantage of being relatively egalitarian#&8212;when an intellectual snob discovers that her plumber went to Bowdoin, the snob is willing to treat that plumber like an almost-equal (depending on the snob’s own alma mater).

Mr. Scalzi, though, is using snob to mean something else entirely, as far as I can tell. His description of the snob’s attitude as This stuff is awesome because I like it; this stuff sucks because I don’t; those who like the things I do not are stupid seems to me to describe the fan rather than the snob. I don’t think you can be a Doctor Who snob, for instance—there are obsessive types who know all the episodes by title, author, script editor and original air date snobs if they look down on the rest of us and assume that we have nothing interesting or useful to say about the show, but I don’t think I would call them snobs. Nor would I call foodies food snobs, because they are properly called foodies. Theater snobs? Chocolate snobs? Footwear snobs? Do people use those terms? Do those of us who prefer better quality tea leaves call ourselves tea snobs?

This is what I’m asking: do people call themselves snobs? If they do, is it a joke? I mean, I call myself an intellectual snob fairly frequently, but it’s a joke on myself and my own weakness rather than a badge of honor. For Mr. Scalzi’s kind of snob, well, I have strong opinions about what I like and dislike, and I suppose denigrate the riffraff who like rubbish as much as the next blogger, but I wouldn’t proclaim myself a snob because of it. I think I use the term as an insult to other people (I’m not sure, as I often tune myself out) who have unreasoning prejudices, as someone who might refuse to enjoy bowling or bluegrass or bratwurst, but if I do, I’m using it as a sloppily insulting version of classist. If a Lipton-drinker called me a tea snob, I would understand what such a person was getting at, but then, I know lots of very wonderful people who drink Red Rose or even Bigelow; I wouldn’t refuse to dine with such people tho’ I might well attempt to convert them…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 19, 2011

Ethos, Porthos and wait a minute, that's not right.

YHB read a couple of things recently that seemed to fit together, although I haven’t been entirely sure how. One of them is Charles Pierce’s note called The Carterization of Barack Obama, which made (among other points) the connection between Our Only President and James Earl Carter as what he calls redemptive candidates, candidates who promise to improve things by the very fact of their election. This is terrific for election, but terrible for re-election, as it turns out. It turns out that four years later we still have to deal with race issues, or corruption in government, or the residue of misbegotten wars. The redemptive president is boxed in by their claims of redemption, making it difficult to make the rhetorical shift to a new story.

I put that with Greg Sargent’s note on The Centrist Dodge, in which he points out that Tom Friedman, among other celebrants of bipartisanism of course, is confined in his own rhetorical box, when policy positions he supports are taken up by one party and not the other. He is stuck either supporting a partisan position, or rejecting his own policy proposals because they are insufficiently bipartisan.

So connection that struck me was the connection between the rhetorical boxes, the identification of the person speaking (the ethos for us rhetoric nerds) with the argument, and the ways in which that identification constricts the public speaker when it is no longer useful. It isn’t restricted to presidents and pundits, of course. It’s a problem of rhetoric in general, and in particular in political rhetoric. On the other hand, it’s a strength of rhetoric, or rather, of the way we deal with rhetoric as consumers. I’ve hocked here about the argument ad hominem and the way in which we have allowed our justifiable distaste for personal abuse to confuse us concerning the connections between the argument and the arguer.

Digression: That bit about our distaste for personal abuse is a joke. End Digression.

While Your Humble Blogger obviously wants Our Only President to be re-elected, I can only consider it a strength that speakers in general can’t just don and doff personae like domino masks, being an outsider or an insider, an expert or a regular joe, a righteous battler or a serene compromiser, for their moment-to-moment persuasive desires. It’s certainly not impossible to change your ethos, but it takes hard rhetorical work, and more than that, it often takes actual change in the world. If Our Only President had presided over a return to full employment, it would be easy for him to change to a competent achiever, and he would have earned it. Without having earned it, Our Only President will have to find some other ethos. Similarly, Paul Krugman has largely shifted from an identity as a disinterested social scientist to a partisan political commentator by engaging in partisan political commentary; his arguments are more persuasive to some and less to others because of it.

To retreat from that a little bit, though, I should acknowledge the tautological nature of the thing—we will know (f’r’ex) whether Our Only President is considered to have earned the identity of a defender of the little guy if people seem to be persuaded by his arguments given with that ethos. Nor can the ethos be disconnected entirely from the rest of the argument—the policies themselves carry some weight, and the ways in which they are put, and so on. We won’t know, after the election, exactly why it turned out why it did, any more than we know exactly why 2004’s election turned out how it did and not the other way. We will know some of the parts of it, not all, and we won’t know which bits were redundant and which amplified each other and which cancelled each other out. Jon Bernstein (over at the plain blog) likes to say that lots of stuff matters at the margins, but that in a close election, the margins matter. That’s true of persuasion generally—people aren’t going to be persuaded by Tom Friedman’s nonsense just because he has a history of bipartisan moderation (vaddevah dat means), and in fact it’s more likely that they will give credence to his bipartisan ethos if they already find his arguments persuasive, but if it’s close, the margins matter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 8, 2011

Election Day 2011

Tohu Bohu's annual tradition always seems a trifle awkward in the odd-numbered years. I voted for my town council, town clerk and town board of education, which is scarcely the powerfulest scene and show of the Western World. Nor is there a final ballot-shower, where we are counted together as a nation. Still, it's good to celebrate this hemisphere's teeming humanity, the still small voice vibrating, the choosing not the chosen.

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 10, 2011

Father, daughter and lolly

The excellent Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote On Adverbs the other day. There is, you know, a Rule of Writing that is given more or less as don’t use adverbs; this is not entirely Strunk and White’s fault, but it comes from what you might call Strunkian thinking. I loathe that rule.

But something occurred to me, when I was reading Mr. Rosenbaum’s note. Mr. Rosenbaum, by the way, was neither defending the rule nor attacking it, but was sensibly pointing out that adverbs, as tools, have good uses and bad, and thoughtful placement of adverbs was part of some good writing. That is, he rejected the extreme form of the rule, which one would think would be a straw man if one hadn’t had conversations with people who believe that adverbs are the sign of Bad Writing—also the passive voice, the split infinitive, the sentence modifier, and beginning a sentence with and. But I am speaking here of adverbs, as was Mr. Rosenbaum, and he interrupts himself in an offhand way, the way he does, with this parenthesis: Adverbs (of the kind you mean; "now" is after all also an adverb, but you don’t mean that).

Wait, what? In one sweep, Mr. Rosenbaum sweeps away the bulk of my rejection of the Bad Adverb Rule. He simply acknowledges that the word adverb in the Bad Adverb Rule doesn’t mean the same thing as the word adverb in a grammatical study. He doesn’t mock the idea, and he doesn’t even explain what an adverb really is, to show the stupidity of the rule. I have used the opening sentence of The Stranger to highlight the absurdity of the rule, and would in fact challenge any strict defender to improve the opening; Mr. Rosenbaum just (wearily? Or is that my imagination) moves on to the adverbs of the kind you mean. I stand amazed by this. It would never have occurred to me, not in a million years. Just of the kind you mean and move on. Wow.

So, I’m starting to wonder if the rule does in fact have some use when restricted to adverbs of the kind you mean. The problem is that having, to my earliest recollection of knowing how I wanted to write, what kinds of writing I wanted to imitate, rejected Strunkian thinking entirely and certainly rejected the Bad Adverb rule, I honestly have no idea what adverbs are of the kind you mean. That is—yes, I can quickly rule out a bunch that are not of the kind you mean, like Mr. Camus’ famous one. Or in sentences like She lives downstairs from me or He arrived early; perhaps the Bad Adverb people do not want us to rewrite those sentences to use adjectives instead. Which leaves things in the she drove slowly, slowly through the woods and The flash was blindingly bright; are those the ones they mean?

Part of my problem is that I don’t believe in adverbs at all anymore. I blame the Language Log for this. There just doesn’t seem to be any definition of adverb that satisfies me, even with the syndrome-based concept of definition that grammar seems to require. Nouns? Nouns are complicated, but they do seem to exist. Verbs? Sure, verbs. Adjectives? I suppose that the category of modifiers-that-only-apply-to-nouns is well-defined enough to accept. But adverbs? What the hell are adverbs? Or, rather, what the hell isn’t an adverb?

If you give me a piece of writing, I think I can identify the adverbs in it, but if the writing is at all complicated, I’m going to identify everything else, and then just double-check what is left to make sure they don’t fit another category, and then call ’em adverbs, and that’s how I identify adverbs these days. Which is, perhaps, why I hate the rule so much.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

That’s the opening paragraph of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Take a moment and identify the adverbs. There are, I think, three in the first sentence and one in the second, not counting adverbial phrases and clauses, of which there are at least a dozen. I also have no idea if the rule is generally considered to apply to adverbial phrases—it would make no logical sense to claim that adverbs weaken prose and distance the reader from the narrative (or whatever the argument is ) but that adverbial phrases are good strong vibrant immediate writing, but then it would make no logical sense to send people scouring their writing for adverbs if you mean adverbial phrases as well, which are trickier to spot. Anyway, there’s a paragraph, and there are the adverbs.

Now, many Gentle Readers will, YHB imagines, find that paragraph to be Bad Writing. I love it. I adore this book, and I adore the way that Mrs. Gaskell writes, and I like (it turns out) quite a bit of this nineteenth-century style of storytelling. Is it distant? Perhaps it is, I am not altogether sure. Certainly the writer is present, and stands between the reader and the story. Some people find that boring, and if you don’t like the writer, you can’t forget about her, and that will inhibit your enjoyment of the story. Which is why I accept that many people will never enjoy reading the works of Charles Dickens; if you aren’t fond of his voice, you can’t enjoy his stories. It does not follow that the stories are Bad Writing.

I’m not denying the existence of Bad Writing, mind you. I’m just saying that there’s more than one kind of writing that isn’t Bad, and some of the writing that isn’t Bad has adverbs.

Now, I’m talking about storytelling and fiction writing, but Gentle Readers will have already noted that YHB applies this to blog writing as well; my stylistic attempts, whether successful or not, adhere to my own sensibility and taste, and not to Strunkian thinking or any other theory of writing. This is not because I am a Good Writer—I’m not even a careful writer—but then I don’t know why I would approach the thing any different if I were to think myself a Good Writer. And when I advise My Perfect Non-Reader in her writing, which she has begun to do, I do not tell her to avoid doing those things that a Good Writer can do, and stick to those things that a Beginning Writer can do—or worse, simply avoid doing the things that a Bad Writer does. I tell her to write the way the writing calls for, whether that is the dreaded and dreadful Five Paragraph Essay or a play for her and her friends to put on. I suspect that this means she will run up against an assignment where she will limit her use of adverbs (or at any rate adverbs of the kind you mean) in order to get a good grade, and I will encourage her to do it, while explaining why I think it’s a terrible rule.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 29, 2011

They still have to pass their finals, though

So, the word alumni.

It’s getting on for commencement season at my employer, and the bookstore is filled with hats and shirts and mugs and camisoles and shot glasses and license plate frames and mugs bearing that word. So it’s right there at the front of my attention. And y’all know, Gentle Readers, that I am by nature a usage stickler, while by intellectual principle a descriptivist. So I am finding it difficult to acquiesce to the increasingly frequent use of alumni in the singular.

I do, fairly often, have a conversation with a graduate of the university that employs me where I explain that alumni have alumni privileges, but they need to have an alumni card, which can be obtained from the alumni office. While the use of alumni as a modifier still strikes me as somewhat awkward, I have accepted it as the Way Things Are, and the fact that the usage is not parallel to the other categories (students must have student cards, not students cards; faculty members have faculty cards for whatever that’s worth, and employees have staff cards, so there’s not really a passion for parallelism here) only means that the English Language is a screwy thing, which we all knew. Right?

But I find it difficult to use the correct singular in conversation addressing a female graduate. You are entitled to borrowing privileges as an alumumble, I say, feeling that my workplace is not the place to indulge my pretentiousness. Also—is it possible that someone will be offended at being called an alumna for some reason, the way certain females who act detest being called actresses? I have never actually experience that with alumna, but it makes me feel somehow uncomfortable anyway. I can countenance the use of alum as an all-purpose singular, but then there is already something called alum, not that it comes up very often or is likely to cause confusion. And I can use alumnae in reference to a woman’s college (the Bryn Mawr Alumnae, as far as I’m concerned, include my male co-worker who got his graduate degree there, except that I really think of the term as focusing on undergraduates) but would have difficulty, I think, using it otherwise: at the alumni-faculty softball game, the outfield of Sally, Sydney and Soon-Yi were slick fielding alumumble. I know the stickler usage of course, I just find it awkward to actually use.

For all my mumbling, however, I cannot be comfortable with the use of alumni in the singular. I am an alumni, people say, and I stick my tongue into my cheek to keep from blurting out all of you? It just seems wrong, so terribly wrong, it cannot be right. Better the mumbling, or the pretentiousness of correct usage (or, for a man, the simple and comfortable correctness of alumnus; we also get to wear comfortable shoes and have pockets in our trousers—win! Oh, and be Presidents and priests and that) than an alumni.

All of which is just to ramble, but here’s the question: on those hats and shirts and whatnots, sometimes the print is like this:


which seems perfectly reasonable to me, but sometimes the print is like this:


which seems utterly and completely terrible and bad. Am I wrong? Is this just me? Am I not right? Or am I right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 15, 2011

No Lean Land

Our Only President gave a pretty good speech this week—oddly enough, without very many good sound-bite quotables—laying out in some measure our Party’s priorities for the upcoming budget battle. I’ve just got around to reading the thing, and I was struck by one metaphor:

Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works—by making government smarter, and leaner and more effective.

Being in Our Only President’s Party, I’m going to respond to this, or to one part of it: the idea that the government should be lean. Because it seems strange to me that lean is now a good thing.

Of course, for much of the development of our language, leanness was considered a bad thing because it indicated scarcity. It is, in fact, the seven fat cows that indicate plenty and the seven lean that indicate famine. Shakespeare is as happy to mock a skinny man as a fat one, with the added hint that the lean-faced men, the lean raw-boned rascals, the wrinkled, lean old men are not to be trusted. However, while when applied to people leanness is at one end of a spectrum that is bad at both ends and good only in the middle, when applied to land, leanness is the outright opposite of good. Lean land is famine; Famine personified is described as lean. Wadsworth says that civil war leaves a land lean, poor and dismantled of all its fruits and wealth. Lands are lean where rivers do not run, says the proverb. As time goes on, the term is applied to weak and feeble fuel: lean coal doesn’t burn well, lean ore has little yield, lean fuel won’t give much oomph. Lean times, lean seasons, lean souls, lean wits. Leanness is not a good thing.

And, of course, lean meat is tough and tasteless. Yes, it’s better for you than the fatty stuff, and by the early nineteenth century there were people arguing in favor of a diet of lean meat, but even there they acknowledged that the diet was one of ascetic self-restraint. Toward the middle of the twentieth century the idea that lean meat was an unmitigated good thing started to spread. And then, in the eighties, came the idea that a business should be lean. That worked out well.

Look—I don’t want to live in a lean and feeble land, and I don’t want to eat lean and feeble meals, and I don’t want a lean and feeble government. I want to live in a fertile and growing land, I want to eat rich and tasty food, and I want a government that is muscular, healthy, and above all liberal. I don’t want a diet government. I don’t want skim-milk protections and rights. I don’t want a forlorn and ragged safety net. I don’t want an education system that has to be pounded flat before it can be swallowed. I don’t want a transportation system that doesn’t have enough to hold it together.

So I say to the leader of my Party, who happens to be the leader of the free world, that I reject his suggestion that we measure the works of the government by the thinness of our generosity. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we can measure that difference in excess, in larding the plates of the poor with richness, in filling the begging bowl until it runs over, in making commitments not because we can afford them but because we must afford them or we cannot live with our lean and hungry selves—and because our generosity of spirit flows out into our fellow men unchecked, the milk of human kindness like fresh cream, the staff of life smeared with schmaltz. I do not want the governing metaphor for my governing body to be that of small-souled, mean-spirited, gaunt-cheeked, hollow-eyed, rake-thin, calorie-counting, watery-souped, withered, wrinkled, and wretched leanness. I want a government with a belly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 9, 2011

A point of agreement?

Here’s the thing: estimate the odds, Gentle Reader, that Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or Sharron Angle or Michael Savage or even Jan Brewer will react to the news by taking responsibility, in their minds, for the violence?

No, they will think that this guy was a raving lunatic, no follower of theirs, inspired not by the voices on the airwaves as by his own breakdown.

And they will be correct.

Well, about the rhetoric, they will be correct. Not so much their support for flooding the country with weapons, but that is a different (and much more important) story. Well, and their lack of support for subsidising mental health programs for adolescents. Also true. But the rhetoric? There are millions upon millions of people who hear and use the metaphors of violence and war applied to politics who don’t shoot their federal judges and Representatives, or little girls for that matter. This guy was not a Tea Party fanatic, he was a nut.

Having said that…surely, surely there must in their minds be something saying that continuing to use the metaphors of hunting and rebellion applied to electoral politics—the sights, the "taking out" talk, the references to tyranny and the Second Amendment—would be in very poor taste?

I know they are metaphors. I know that they are talking of arming themselves with knowledge to fight elections. Sure. But the metaphors are terrible, terrible metaphors, and while anyone can certainly them at their discretion, choosing them has always been vulgar, crass and unworthy. This, by the way, applies to everyone; I joked in bad taste about the death of Dick Cheney, but I knew it was in bad taste. Had I been running for office, or standing in front of a microphone, or working at the library counter, I would not have done so. Come to think of it, I wasn’t entirely comfortable when a boss told me the one about Dan Quayle. Hm, was it a boss? It would have been in 1989; might have been a summer job. Anyway, the point is that the rhetoric is bad rhetoric whether it bears responsibility for the bloodshed or not. Which is a difficult question, and not one that I think prominent conservative and Tea Party figures will solve to their own guilt.

But it doesn’t require that to resolve not to do it anymore. Is Sarah Palin clean of the blood? Fine, but she still shouldn’t do that gunsight stuff any more. Surely, surely that we can all agree on.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 3, 2010

Eight-track tapes in your stocking

Your Humble Blogger was reading a rant about Western Materialism—well, actually, it was about the tension between the anticipation appropriate to Advent and the anticipation engendered by the Holiday Season, and it wasn’t actually a terrible rant. But the ranter made a comment about kids waiting for a new bike or flat-screen TV. And I thought, This guy is completely out-of-touch!

I bring this up because Your Humble Blogger did get a flat-screen TV this week. My old cathode-ray tube machine was getting very washed-out contrasts, particularly in the lighter colors, and it turns out that can interfere with my enjoyment of watching people in uniforms the color of french vanilla engage in sporting events. We had been meaning to replace the thing for a while and finally did—and the new machine has a built-in DVD-player, too! So that’s all right.

At any rate, YHB shopped, at least vaguely and windowly, for a new television during the late summer and autumn, and I must say that anybody who is waiting for a new television is waiting for a flat screen. If you really, really want a cathode-ray tube, I suspect you have to go to a specialty store, or perhaps an odd lots place will have a bunch left over, or of course you can have our old one. And lots of people probably still have old CRT sets that still work fine. But in the stores? The TVs are all flat.

And if you are imagining a household like our own, where perhaps the kids are waiting for their parentals to finally get up to the twenty-first proverbial and get rid of that old square screen, well, that’s probably not the household that Mr. Ranty was talking about, is it? I mean, maybe it is—surely I don’t consider myself and my children absolutely exempt from the curse of Western Materialism. And the fact that we had our old TV for only, let me think, it must have been, hm. Was it the one my mother-in-law gave us in 2004? I think that must be right. And she had only had it for a couple of years at that point, so it was probably a 2002 machine. You know what? It probably says on the back of it, and it’s still sitting on the floor, because it weighs a zillion pounds. Let me look. Yep, 2002. That’s only eight years—not quite nine—out of a three-hundred-dollar piece of home entertainment. So yes, Western Materialism and creature comforts and all.

But even in my house, nobody was really waiting for a new flat-screen TV. We were waiting for a set that worked, yes. There was some anticipation that was not very Adventy. But the flat-screenness was not really part of that anticipation; flat screen was a given. It came with a remote control, too!

I don’t know what I would put in the place of that phrase, though. If I were to talk about kids and their parents anticipating the material aspects of X-mas, I wouldn’t have any immediate idea of a new-fangled thing to write. An iPad? A Wii? A smartphone? Those seem a bit six-months-ago, but still better than a flat-screen TV. I suppose I would go to one of the big on-line shopping sites and look at what the big item was this week, if I wanted to look totally au courant’n’stuff. But then, I would probably take half-an-hour trying to come up with the perfect thing for the sentence, and then give up and delete the whole note. So, probably better to just do the rant and have people like me go this guy is out of touch than to have less-obnoxious people go is he ever going to post again?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 30, 2010

A Point of Personal Privilege, I suppose

I don’t want to comment about the TSA foofaraw. I haven’t anything new or insightful to say. But I do, finally, feel compelled to say one thing that I have yet not heard as a comment on the discussion of this whole matter. And it is this: I do not refer to my privates as junk.

I have a penis. I have testicles. I have a scrotum.

They ain’t junk.

Sometimes I will refer to phlegm and mucous as junk. That’s because it is unwanted and when I have it anyway, I am trying to get rid of it. In other words, junk. A fair amount of that stuff ends up in the wastebasket, where it eventually gets thrown in the big garbage can, picked up and dumped in the dump. Unlike my genitalia, which I prefer to keep.

Even my asshole isn’t junk. It isn’t really useless trash; it performs a service reasonably well, under the circumstances, and although it ain’t my favorite bit of me, it ain’t junk neither.

My privates certainly are not junk. I hope yours aren’t junk, either, but if they are, well, I pity you. But mine? Not junk. My cock, my naughty bits, my maleness, my organ (it’s organ, organ, organ all day long with you) of progeniture, my little head, my john thomas, my schlong, my johnson, my tom dick and harry, my nuts, my cojones or my juevos, my short and curlies, even my place where the sun does not shine, all of those, truth be told, are so far from being junk that I consider them, not to put to fine a point on it, my family jewels.

Not junk.


Honestly, people.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 16, 2010

Marking Ears

I note that everybody is suddenly talking about The Earmark Game; the Other Party claims to be agin them, although of course only the bad ones.

Since it makes no sense whatsoever for Congress to give up the ability to allocate certain sums of money for certain projects (presumably ceding that authority to the Executive), the question is not whether but how the Other Party will walk back from that promise.

My thinking? Make a new term for those allocations. The important thing is that we avoid connection with ears, with marking, and with pork. And with barrels, I suppose. Ideally, it would be something dull and technical sounding (like earmark used to be).

So now, Congressmen can no longer insert earmarks for pork barrel projects like the Bridge to Nowhere, but must direct funds to important projects by introducing a preset. Or, if the project is more than ten million dollars, it will require a antemonetized expenditure rider. Or perhaps a scheduled pro-reserve.

The great thing about this is that while it is certainly worthy of mockery, they could abolish earmarks, which as they are currently applied have lots of problems with opacity and corruption, and then institute presets and scheduled pro-reserves that are transparent and have some ethical guidelines and oversight. In fact, it may be that the only way to institute an open system for the legislature to allocate funds for local projects is to abolish earmarks—and then create antemonetized expenditure riders.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 19, 2010

Down, down in the spam locker

This Tohu Bohu gets a lot of comment spam. Well, a lot—I don’t really know how much constitutes a lot, relative to other blogs of its circulation. But it seems like a lot to me.

The bulk of the spam falls into three categories. First are the comments that are obviously and upfront about directing people to some web site where they can consume pornography or pharmaceuticals or fancy watches that cannot be distinguished from other fancy watches by people who know nothing about fancy watches. Those are irritating and annoying, but straightforwardly so. I delete them and forget about them. There isn’t anything to think about, other than the small amount of time wasted keeping them off the blog.

The second and much larger category are the comments that appear to be from people who have happened on this Tohu Bohu and are impressed by it. Upon closer inspection, they are linking to some other site, presumably to optimize themselves to the top of search results. This is very dispiriting to YHB—My Gracious Host finds the flattering comment spam makes him feel good, but I get very depressed about all those false compliments. And even more depressed about the fact that I have trained myself to assume that any comment similar to I like your blog! is spam, and delete them all without checking. What if sometime, somebody somewhere actually does like my blog, and tries to say so, and I delete the thing without looking at it? My poor ego!

The last category are comments that appear to be comments about current events. This only started quite recently, but since I have become quite mechanical in deleting the other ones, most of my spam-killing time is spent on these. Generally, some of these refer to some Big News of the last few days—a celebrity scandal, often—and while they may be misspelled or grammatically nonstandard, they have the appearance of actual comments. I can tell that they are spam by (a) the fact that they are in response to notes that have no connection to the content of the comment, (2) the fact that they are (usually) on notes written years ago, and (3) the fact that the identical comment is submitted to different notes with different names attached. Not actually all that clever.

By the way, one of the things about having two email addresses is that often some piece of email spam that manages to come up with a sufficiently apropos subject line, so that I might be inclined to believe its disguise and open it, comes to both addies simultaneously with different sender names. That’s a bit of a giveaway, isn’t it? Actually, fairly often a bit of spam comes to the same email addy five or six times with different sender names but the same subject line. I might possibly fall for one, but I’m not going to get five emails about leaving something at my desk or cancelling lunch plans, am I? Less is definitely more, here, spammers.

Anyway. The reason I’m bothering telling you so is that in the last three or four days, this Tohu Bohu got spammed with dozens of notes about the Cordoba House, AKA the Ground Zero Mosque. As it happens, YHB, like so many fools, wrote something on the Ludicrous Kerfuffle a few weeks ago, so it wouldn’t altogether shock me to have some stranger drop by and try to set me straight about a few aspects I got wrong. However, these notes were spam; they were not written in response to my blog, were not an attempt to communicate, and were not going to be published if I could help it. Whoever put out the spam, though, did so by attempting to imitate what one might call a real blog-commenter, which meant that more than a third of the notes that came in were full of vicious and hateful bigotry. Insults directed not only at Our Only President (who is in some sense fair game, being a public figure) but at Moslems and at their religion.

Now, here’s the thing. I know that this is spam. I know that whoever typed in the note, or cut and pasted it, or caused it to be randomly chosen out of recent blog comments elsewhere by some randomizing software, I know that the spammer does not mean the insults or believe that they are true. Or care, probably. They sent notes on both sides of the issue, presumably making it look as if people were engaging each other on a topic of interest, and that the one thing that these various folk agreed on was the importance of linking to a purveyor of pornography. And, you know, I support pornography. I’m a big believer in it. I’m not offended by that part of it.

But my emotional reaction to these comments was severe. I found it deeply distasteful even to look at them enough to delete them. I can’t really justify having such a powerful negative reaction to the spam; it’s only spam, after all. And I am aware that there are—oh, shall we say ten million Americans who foolishly think that Moslems are evil, that mosques are Bad Things, and that We (vaddevah dat means) are and should be at war with Islam (vaddevah dat means, too). It’s distressing whenever I come across such people in Real Life or on the Internet, but I am not, in fact, coming across dozens of such people when I log in to this Tohu Bohu, I am just coming across comment spam. And yet, it feels as if my Tohu Bohu has been invaded by jerks and bigots.

Of course, if there’s something worse than a spammer pretending to be a bigot for the pathetic pecuniary advantage that he thinks spamming this blog will give him, it would be a politician pretending to be a bigot for the electoral advantage he thinks that will give him. Or the ratings advantage. Or book sales. But somehow I expect that, and it feels safely far away, despite the fact that these people have actual political power to make laws and change people’s lives, and potentially to result in Americans and other humans being deprived of their civil rights, their liberty, or their lives. I do get outraged by that, I really do, and I should take advantage of this Tohu Bohu to say it again. But that’s a kind of outrage that I can feel good about and even enjoy, to be perfectly frank about it. This comment spam just makes me sad and angry, and I don’t enjoy that at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 12, 2010

The good ships

Your Humble Blogger just shelved half a hundred books about Leadership. It was one of those oddball library things, where we suddenly (and correctly) decided to take all the books out of the special collection on Leadership and shelve them in the stacks with the others. Perfectly ordinary, except that it’s an awful lot of bullshit for one day.

It did remind me, however, of my cranky objection to the emphasis on Leadership in our culture over the last twenty years or so. I don’t mean that Leadership is a Bad Thing—it’s a Good Thing, clearly, and there should be people studying it and writing about it and doing it. But it isn’t the only Good Thing, and its GoodThingness has (in my arrogant opinion) got itself too high up in the cultural chain of being.

I got particularly cranky about this when a recent effort was made to inculcate Leadership into the incoming class at the University that employs me. There was a short list of such values: Leadership, Community, possibly something like Integrity or Honesty. Anyway, my immediate reaction was that this was a foolish and mistaken choice. I mean. It is true that anybody can be a Leader but is not the case that everybody can be a Leader, not unless we want to define Leadership down past all meaning (which many of the books do). And while it would be good for everybody to know something about Leadership, as most people will have some opportunities to exercise that knowledge at some point in their lives, it is also true that it would be good for everybody to know something about pretty much any conceivable topic; it doesn’t follow that Leadership should be one of the three or four things chosen out to emphasize to the incoming class.

My suggestion, made idly in conversation long after the Leadership plank got into our platform, was that students would be better off being inculcated with Stewardship. Most people will have the opportunity to exercise knowledge about Leadership at some point in their lives, I admit, but most people will pass up their opportunity to act as Leaders, and that’s all right. That is, in fact, in the nature of Leadership. But not only can anybody exercise Stewardship, everybody can exercise Stewardship, all at the same time, and it only gets better.

What is Stewardship? Essentially, Stewardship is taking responsibility for something without claiming ownership of it. Taking care of stuff—of communities, of people, of the environment, of buildings, of knowledge, of capabilities, of life. It’s a tremendously important thing for a college kid to know about—most kids come to college having been taken care of most of their lives, and having consciously extended their responsibility to perhaps a car or a computer, but little else. They have acted as Stewards, sure—they have taken care of their sports teams or their gangs or their wardrobes, probably, but they haven’t known what they were doing, or how, or why. Some clear thought and argument on Stewardship is bound to help them, and can’t really hurt those people who have been doing a good job of it beforehand.

Now, it is true that Stewardship has become a buzzword for socially reactionary religious groups to cover environmental activism. I don’t want to endorse those groups (although given that they exist, I would rather they put some effort into environmental Stewardship rather than spending that effort in persecuting minorities and supporting the Other Party), but I don’t think it’s a problem to subsume their buzzword into a new buzzword. There’s the possibility of a positive effect on those organizations, and even if, as I admit could happen, some people take the use of the term as a kind of dog-whistle rhetoric that indicates tacit approval of their other policies, that could work to my advantage as those people might then be more open to the greater fields of Stewardship that might lead them away from the more mean-spirited policies of those groups.

That’s all in my imaginary world, though, where the shift in emphasis from Leadership to Stewardship is something that would be seriously considered by my University or others like it. All I do about it is gripe on this blog; I don’t have the reach to change the actual mission statement. And—just to say it again, I don’t think it’s a Bad Thing to teach college frosh about Leadership. But in our catalogue, Stewardship as a keyword search turns up only 21 items; Leadership turns up over a thousand. That seems like the wrong ratio.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 25, 2010

Who will pay?

If YHB were a better blogger, you know, this post would be full of links. First of all, I would link to the radio show I was listening to (a week ago, perhaps? If I were a better blogger, I would have written this that day), and then to the fellow who was on it, and then to other people making similar statements, so that it was clear that there was something to be on about. But I can’t remember who was interviewing who, on what show, and frankly I can’t be bothered to search for other people saying similar things. So you should take this with a grain of salt—perhaps I imagined the whole thing.

But I’m pretty sure that a legislator from my Party, a member of the U.S. House, I think, was asked about raising the liability of oil companies when they poison the world. And this person, this legislator, said that we do want to raise that limit, so that any company that was proposing to do offshore deep drilling would have to set aside an enormous sum of money to clean up any damage they caused. And the interviewer, who I am pretty sure was a NPR or APM anchor at one of their top news shows, asked this legislator whether that was worth the rise in gas prices at the pump, because of course the costs would eventually be passed on to the consumer.

And the fellow just muffed it. Just utterly muffed it. Said that he hoped the added safety incentive would mean that there wouldn’t be more spills, so that would be all right. And it seems to me that is a terrible, terrible answer.

But I’m not sure if my immediate answer was the right one. That is, I know it’s logically right, but I don’t know if it’s persuasive. Mine went something like this:

The clean-up is going to happen. We aren’t just going to wade in crude. So the money is going to be spent. What I’m asking is who is going to spend it. Now, you are right that if the oil companies spend the money, then that is ultimately going to come out of the price of gas. But if they don’t spend the money, and we spend it ourselves, through the government, then that money is going to come out of your taxes. The money isn’t going to be magically created, just because we want to spend it; it is going to come from somewhere. You will pay at the pump, or you will pay in your withholding, or if the money isn’t spent and we don’t clean it up, then we are really going to pay.

I mean, the basic truth of the matter is that if you can’t pay for it, you shouldn’t do it, and that is true about drilling as well as everything else. And if that means nobody can afford to do it, then nobody can afford to do it, and it shouldn’t be done. I’m always amazed by the feeling that companies have a right to do business even if they cannot possibly pay for themselves, and that when the government demands that a company pays for its own debts, it is the government that is running the company out of business.

But what struck me about the whole thing was that the interviewer seemed to be working under the assumption that either the public would pay at the pump or they wouldn’t pay at all, and the legislator seemed to let that go. And that’s a problem for my Party, not just for this piece of legislation, but for the ongoing purpose of the Party. And in this case, it was my Party, acting in accordance with its principles, that was against paying for a solution through taxation, and for private industry taking care of it. And the fellow just let that opportunity pass. Gr.

Unless, of course, I’m misremembering the whole thing. But I’m still cranky about it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 20, 2010

Richard Blumenthal, Al Gore, and Your Humble Blogger

Your Humble Blogger has been both busy and unproductive lately, which is never a winning combination. As a result, I have got very far behind my intentions for this Tohu Bohu, not just on the Book Reports (which is really getting out of hand) but on notes of more topical or wide-ranging interest that I mean to talk about. With the Book Report, although I may have forgotten what I intended to say by the time I get around to logging them, they aren’t really topical notes, and can wait. With news items and political commentary, if I don’t get around to noting them within a week or so, I may as well not bother, as y’all will have moved on. Ah, well.

And, of course, sometimes the story has moved on. I might have written a note just after reading the NYT article about Richard Blumenthal and his military service, and that note would have been very different from the note I would write today. Am writing. Hope to finish. Anyway.

Any of y’all Gentle Readers in the Nutmeg State, that is, those who will have to make up their minds to support Mr. Blumenthal or not in his Senatorial campaign, should probably be reading Colin McEnroe’s blog (even if y’all don’t like his radio show, which I don’t much either, alas). Mr. McEnroe appears to be very well-connected within the state government and what remains of the crew who report on it; he also is a bit crazy, which gives him the opportunity to call things as he sees them. It’s a great combination for a blogger.

Anyway, for those who haven’t been paying attention, Richard Blumenthal has been Attorney General of our State for twenty years, during which time it was quite difficult to get a photograph of state leaders without Mr. Blumenthal in it. You know? A terrific AG, and terrific at getting in the news, and all. So, when Chris Dodd moved to Iowa, and we needed a new Senator, Mr. Blumenthal decided to be that Senator, and the deal was pretty much over at that point. Only the other day, the Times reported that Mr. Blumenthal had been claiming that he served in Vietnam, when in fact he did not.

It turns out that it’s more complicated than that. What seems to have been happening, over a period of years, is that Mr. Blumenthal found a formula for saying things that were not false but which gave a false impression. He was in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1970-1975, stateside and part-time, and only joined after his deferments ran out; this not a dishonorable record, but it is not serving in Vietnam. However, it is, technically, serving during Vietnam, it is being in uniform when the soldiers were coming back from Vietnam, and saying those two things are accurate but without the context misleading. Of course, it depends on who you are speaking to. If your audience knows your actual record, and you say you wore the uniform when ‘we’ returned from Vietnam, they will know that you are referring to the attitudes that civilians had toward all veterans at that time, or at least the attitudes that many veterans seem to have been convinced that civilians had (the actual story is much much much more complicated than that)(of course). But if you don’t know the actual record, the audience may well draw a different conclusion.

This is fairly common. It’s not lying, but it can certainly be deceiving, and the speaker should be on the hook for it. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for me in a Senatorial candidate, but it needs to be taken into consideration. The habit of saying things that are true in the sense that they are not false, but that lead listeners to believe things that are false—well, that’s not a good thing. And the thing is—if you are running for elective office, you are going to have to say a lot of the things you say not just once but many, many times, and unless you have tremendous discipline, you are going to wind up straying from your usual formulation. If you do have that discipline, of course, the press will call you robotic, so that doesn’t necessarily help. But if you stray from your careful choice of words and say we instead of they or even in some cases just switch the order of your clauses, you can wind up saying something that is outright false. And get caught doing it.

All of this reminds me very strongly of Al Gore. You all probably know both the first and second versions of Al Gore and the internet. The first was that Al Gore laughably claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre lies. The second was that the media made up the story that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre stories they made up about Al Gore’s ‘lies’, none of which were true. The second version is not true either, of course; it was more complicated than that. Mr. Gore certainly never claimed to have invented the internet, true. What he did was take credit for the creation of the internet. While you could argue that he deserves some small portion of credit (he supported federal funding for the project at an early stage), the phrasing was designed to be technically not false while giving the impression that he deserved much more credit than he actually did. And, in fact, there were a string of such phrasings; he was in the habit of using language in that way (including some recent examples that I can’t bring to mind). This is not uncommon among politicians—not just seekers of elective office, but corporate politicians, academic politicians and jockeys of all heirarchies. One difference, though, is that most people don’t have to keep making their claims in speeches, town halls and interviews over a period of months or years, many of which are recorded and searchable.

I hope that Mr. Blumenthal learns something from this experience more than that the New York Times is out to get him. I hope that he understands that he is responsible not only for the technical truth or verifiability of his statements, but for their connotations. That as a Senator, he will carry responsibility not only for what he implies but for what people infer. No, he can’t control it. Neither is he free of responsibility for it, and he should watch what he says accordingly.

I should, when I have time and energy, connect this to the fad for so-called fact-checking, which I hope y’all are taking with a grain of salt. But that will have to wait. For now, really, I’m just observing that when Left Blogovia first condemned Mr. Blumenthal for dishonesty and is now condemning the Times for, well, dishonesty, the truth is it’s more complicated than that. But in interest ways, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 26, 2010

What this note is about

So. A couple of weeks ago, elsewhere on this internet thing, a Gentle Reader happened to point out that if somebody passes you on the right, then you are doing it wrong. The left lane is the passing lane, and if some asshole is passing you on the right, you are clearly not passing and need to get back over.

I just want to state right here, nearly at the beginning, that this note, here in this Tohu Bohu, is not about passing on the right, nor about being passed on the right.

I mention that as soon as I can, because my immediate reaction to that G.R.’s comment was to disagree with it, based on all the situations in which a person may be passed on the right without doing it wrong. In fact, I did respond with a note about my Nutmeg Left Exits, the which have been particularly annoying me lately as I have been taking one on my route home from the theater. I don’t like getting into the left exit in lots of traffic, but I really don’t like that left exit in the dead of night, when there are the occasional 80mph cars that come out of freaking nowhere, and I want to be going not much more than the speed limit of 50mph, not only because of my aversion to speeding tickets but because I am coming up on an exit ramp. When there is more traffic, we are mostly all confined to a range around sixtyish, and, well, we all deal with it. Late at night, less predictability.

But I wasn’t going to write about passing on the right. Because the point, my point, is that (as I was saying, when I so rudely interrupted myself) I instantly came up with half-a-dozen situations in which I could be passed on the right without doing anything wrong myself. My immediate reaction was to disagree, that’s my point. Or, more accurately, to except and exempt myself—oh, I agree with it as a general principle (was my reaction) but now let’s focus on where and when it doesn’t apply to me.

I often have that reaction. On the internet, I think, more than in conversation, but I do have that habit in conversation as well. Somebody makes a perfectly valid point, and I feel compelled to come up with circumstances where it does not hold. I think that’s a useful analytical skill, actually, and it can make for good conversations, so long as everybody is careful not to give off that hostile vibe. That part is much harder on-line, in my experience, which is one reason why I so rarely take part in on-line discussions.

Anyway, I noticed myself doing that thing I do, and I noticed myself noticing that, and then, you know, I clicked the next button and went on to something else. You know?

And then, over the last couple of weeks, I have been driving on limited-access highways, and have found myself taking more care to stay out of the left lane unless I am passing. I did get passed on the right, once, and found myself mentally defending my situation, and then ruled against it: I had missed an opportunity to safely get back into the right lane because I didn’t want to be bothered with a merge, and by the time the road was clear again the guy behind me had pulled to the right and passed me. He was an asshole, clearly, but I shouldn’t have been in the left. And the next time, I wasn’t.

Is this something y’all notice happening to you? I rarely notice it. A two-liner thrown out on the internet, an initial reaction to argue with it, and then later action, actual behavioral difference, as persuasion had taken place?

Because if that happens a lot, and we become culturally aware that it happens a lot, that we are open to persuasion by good points made even when we disagree with them when they are presented, then we could move toward a healthier and more productive understanding of opinion, persuasion, and discussion. Eventually. If we talk about it enough.

Which is what this note is actually about.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 23, 2010

Bee Eff Dee

My first response will not surprise Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu: Joe Biden was right. This is a big fucking deal.

Nor will my second response surprise GRs, I think: it’s more complicated than that. I mean, yes, it is a big fucking deal, but it’s not like it is done, particularly. There’s an awful lot of work left to be done with it, not just with the Senate patch but successively, from year to year. The main thing is that there will now be a perennial battle about how we fulfill with the national responsibility to ensure (or insure) access to health care, or how well we fulfill it, rather than if we fulfill it, or if that responsibility exists at all. But, like early childhood education, the perennial battle may be answered with cheaply and shoddily, which ain’t much of a legacy. So, yes, a big fucking deal, but the deal ain’t done.

I don’t know if y’all will have predicted my third response, although it is pretty predictable: Where Theodore Roosevelt promised a Square Deal, and Franklin Roosevelt promised a New Deal, and Harry Truman promised a Fair Deal, the new social contract is the Big Fucking Deal. I am totally liking that, and totally using it. I am hoping that it fulfills its promise: a sequence of programs aimed at fundamentally changing the protections that the federal government can offer individuals against the vagaries of illness, unemployment, homelessness, and natural disaster. That would be a Big Fucking Deal indeed.

And fourth—does it seem odd to have anyone use the phrase big fucking deal in a positive sense? I mean, yes, Joe Biden is a dialect unto himself, really, but in my experience, the phrase is always, always, always used negatively. When you say that something is a Big Fucking Deal, you are saying that it is not important. Even more so, of course, with the initialism version, which I have used more frequently, but still: if we are going to use the phrase to describe things that are important, I’m going to need to recalibrate my profanity meter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 12, 2010

Three things without links

Just a few quick points pertaining to recent political discussion and language:

I got a call from Rasmussen recently, and told the automated pollster that I thought Our Only President was doing a great job, and that I felt strongly about that. Now, that is not exactly descriptive of my feeling—I am not exactly disappointed, but he hasn’t made me chuckle every day, either. But (1) I don’t mind misleading Rasmussen, who has no intrinsic right to know my precise opinion, and (b) I am aware that the results of these polls will be used for political purposes, and for my political purposes, it is better if the results are presented as Our Only President having high approval ratings. Similarly, I said good things about every proposal, action or inaction of my Party in the Legislature (hah!) and bad things about every proposal, action or inaction of the other Party (well, sure). When you read the report of this or any other poll, keep in mind that the citizen respondents in a democracy are political actors with agendas of their own that may just possibly outweigh their responsibility to give pollsters correct information.

On another topic, can we just be clear that Mirandizing someone does not grant them any rights at all? Any person has exactly the same rights whether they are Mirandized or not. Mirandizing them just informs them of their rights. If, for instance, it were later found that a Mirandized suspect was not entitled to legal representation, the erroneous statement on the Miranda card would not be held legally binding. And if a suspect were not informed of a right to counsel, and were in fact deprived of a right to counsel, the courts could (and do) hold that they still have that right. I should correct the above statement, though: we have held that one of the rights people (not citizens, people) have in this country is to be informed of their rights, so while Mirandizing them doesn’t grant them any new rights, it concretizes a right they are held to have.

I do wish news writers would not refer to people as missionaries unless there is some evidence of actual missionary work. Actually, I’m not sure that I like the idea of the press referring to the people in as missionaries at all, unless they are entitled to it by some formal authorization from an established institution. In the case of the Haitian baby-snatchers, it seems obvious that referring to them as missionaries is taking their side in a case where facts are very much in dispute. Alleged kidnappers sounds harsh, but would be nearer objectivity. American citizens arrested for kidnapping might work for me. Dunno. I’m not absolutely convinced that it would be accurate to describe the orphanage business as missionary work even if there was, you know, an actual orphanage, but in the absence of an orphanage, I’d certainly try to avoid the loaded term.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 23, 2009

Bastards fuck up your shit, you gotta do something, right?

My Gracious Host, through his Neology Blog, has alerted YHB to the CurseBird, a realtime feed of people swearing on Twitter. It’s kind of hypnotic. Plus I’ve learned a bunch of new abbreviations.

But in all seriousness, I have never come closer to actually starting to posting on Twitter. Bastard is only at 0.67%? Fuck the heck? I would totally just post Bastards! Bastards! Bastards! until I got it up over 1%, anyway, and then make sure to post something with the word bastard in it at least twice a day, if I had to talk about eleventh century English history to do it. And I’d retweet every bastard who used the word bastard, just to double the score.

I mean, that is just a travesty. Why can’t people swear properly any more?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

A Retort Contest!

So. There’s this Health Care Finance Reform Bill. Y’all have heard about it? And it’s immensely complicated, largely because—You know how the Big Dig attempted to take a major highway that ran on an elevated road over Boston and put it instead through an underground tunnel, and do it without ever shutting off traffic on that highway? The plan here is to take a way of paying for health care in this country that (a) leaves ten percent of the population without any way of paying for needed care, (2) taints an enormous chunk of medical decisions with bizarre structural incentives, both financial and procedural, that result in diminishing actual health for more millions of people, and (iii) diverts lots and lots of money from business and households that are more productive than the insurance industry into that industry, to take that way of paying for health care and alleviate the excesses of it without shutting off traffic to the insurance companies. It’s doable. But it’s very expensive, complicated, time-consuming, and chunks of hospitals will probably crush people’s cars for years to come difficult to oversee.

So the bill is two thousand pages long. It’s a big stack of law. I mean, it’s not all that big a stack of law, when compared to other law, but if you have a basic contempt for legislation (as most Republican legislators seem to have), the big old lump of law is bad in itself. But Paul Waldman (in asking Please, Enough With the Length of [the] Bill) has covered the substance of that already. I’m just hear to talk about the rhetoric.

This was a quote cleverly designed to make the news: “This [stack of paper], twenty pounds is the size of many people’s turkey next week. That’s what most people in North Carolina think about the bill, too.” That’s Senator Burr of NC (video), in a press conference thingy that did not allow any supporter of the Bill to immediately respond. So I’m opening it up as a Retort Contest for Gentle Readers!

My Best Reader actually started it off with

And most people in North Carolina would be thankful for health care, too, if they could get it.

My entry is

I guess the Senator hasn’t been to a food pantry lately. There are a lot of people in his state who won’t be able to afford a twenty-pound turkey, much less health care. But we can do something about it.

Let’s have yours. Rules: You do not have to actually support the Bill to enter the contest, but the Retort should be from the point of view of a supporter. The Retort can be crude, profane or obscene, but it should be to the point. Dick jokes are OK, as are jokes involving the name, background and colleagues of the Senator from North Carolina, but should be connected somehow to the Bill. Let’s keep it to, oh, fifty words or shorter, ideally. And entries will be taken (via comments on this note of course) until the end of the day on Wednesday, so feel free to pace up and down coming up with just the right mot.

The judging will be by a panel of Undead Zombie Celebrities (Zombie Cicero! Zombie Barbara Jordan! Zombie Williams Jennings Bryan!) who will give points for brevity, wit, savvy, viciousness, unanswerability and sweet, sweet brains. The prize will be—should YHB come up with an actual prize? I’m in a good mood, I just might.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 20, 2009

Threescore and seven years ago.

Your Humble Blogger, for reasons that are not terribly interesting, happened to read FDR’s 21st Fireside Chat yesterday. It was broadcast on April 28, 1942; it begins “It is nearly five months since we were attacked at Pearl Harbor.” The war in the Pacific is not going well, and of course we have not yet invaded Europe. I read it in the Modern History Sourcebook version, but the Miller Center at UVA has the actual audio, for those who prefer it that way.

Digression: I know that Winston Churchill, after speaking to Parliament, had an actor read the speeches over the radio, rather than wasting time reading them all over again. So the voice that won the war, the voice that kept the English from surrender, was not actually Mr. Churchill’s voice. Although of course it was an imitation of his voice, a dramatization, of sorts, of the voice that did give those speeches a few hours previously. But as far as I understand, Franklin Roosevelt recorded those fireside chats himself. I’m not sure, but that’s what I think. I’m not looking into it too deeply. End Digression.

The speech has three major parts: the first is an update on the state of the war overseas, and the last is a trio of individual war stories. The middle is an announcement of a remarkable economic program. Prize ceilings, wage freezes, rent control, tax increases, rationing. The wordcraft of the speech is a combination of formality and bluntness that seems very, very old, from the 2009 perspective. He addresses people directly, saying that everyone will be affected. About sixteen minutes in:

Are you a business man, or do you own stock in a business corporation? Well, your profits are going to be cut down to a reasonably low level by taxation. Your income will be subject to higher taxes. Indeed in these days, when every available dollar should go to the war effort, I do not think that any American citizen should have a net income in excess of $25,000 per year after payment of taxes.

Are you a retailer or a wholesaler or a manufacturer or a farmer or a landlord? Ceilings are being placed on the prices at which you can sell your goods or rent your property.

Do you work for wages? You will have to forego higher wages for your particular job for the duration of the war.

That salary cap, by the way, is more or less $350,000 in 2009 money, according to a couple of inflation calculator sites. And the Dow Jones Index was at 92.92; it had fallen pretty sharply over the last few months, and was about to start climbing again. Because of this chat? In spite of it?

As a coincidence, of sorts, because this kind of info does come up fairly frequently on my left-socialist aggregator, yesterday’s Flowing Data note featured representations of CEO Compensation as the results of GOOD’s contest. And, you know, twenty or thirty times that cap. Or a hundred times. You know. Different times. After all, FDR was dealing with both a war and a financial crisis.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 24, 2009

Avarice, Anger, Sloth, Gluttony, Secrecy, Mink and Palmer

So Your Humble Blogger was washing dishes, as happens not infrequently, and as a not infrequent mental accompaniment to the dishwashing, was composing a possible note for this Tohu Bohu. It was a Days of Awe note, full of that combination of insight and whimsy—well, anyway. I had come to that part of the bit where I list the Seven Deadly sins, and I was preparing to slip in a reference to the great Woody Allen Vodka Ad bit and sneak in the Seven Dwarfs instead.

Or, rather, do that other bit I do, where I start out with the Disney Canonical Seven Dwarfs and end up off track a bit. It’s surprising how often I get a chance to do it, although of course the ability and willingness to rattle off the names of the Seven Dwarves does tend to skew conversations into paths that give one the opportunity to show off such an ability, just as, I imagine, people who do not know the first ten digits of pi rarely find themselves in conversations where one might be able to slip those numerals in to great effect.

Anyway, as I say, what I actually do is not name the Seven Dwarfs but (and this is a tone of voice thing, so you have to imagine YHB doing it deadpan and with total confidence) instead list off Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Sleazy, Jumpy and Mike. It’s the Mike that amuses me so. I mean, the rhythm of the actual last three (Sneezy, Bashful and Doc) is so great, and Mike is (to my ears) just the right distance from Doc—not so close that you think it’s correct, and not so far off that it makes no sense. And I love the idea that everybody gets a descriptive name and one guy is just named Mike. Or that somebody (notionally YHB) really believes that one of them is called Mike.

Actually, the whole thing started when I lived in Ess Eff and I had a good friend who worked for a law firm (cum lobbying firm) I referred to as Thelen, Marrin, Johnson, Bridges, Sleazy, Jumpy and Mike. All those trochees. They are now just Thelen LLP, presumably because after all the mergers they blew the trochee thing, being at that point Thelen, Marrin, Johnson, Bridges, Reid, Priest, Berlack, Israels, Liberman, Pinsent and Masons. Which is a trifle unwieldy, and you can see why they went with the short version. The short, unfunny version. Not that law firms really need to think about maximizing the hilarity potential of their corporate identity.

But the hilarity potential of misnaming the Seven Dwarfs is clearly something that does require serious thought here in this Tohu Bohu. Because, frankly, I am not altogether satisfied. For one thing, I have long thought that substituting sleazy for sneezy is a bit obvious, a bit adolescent. Not unfunny, and I think it is important for the first not-quite-correct name to be very close, which that does accomplish. But better can be achieved, I think. Perhaps with incongruity: something like Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Jumpy, Lefty and Mike. Or going further afield: Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Lefty, One-Eye and Mike. I do like the idea of one of the dwarfs being called One-Eye, as a reference to an obscure David Edgar play called Ball Boys I am very fond of, and the combination of Lefty and One-Eye to me sounds very English-thug, which is a good combination with Disney Dwarfs, but then Mike is no longer funny, being neither a Dwarf of a Goon. Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Lefty, One-Eye and Spike? Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Lefty, One-Eye and Jock? Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Lefty, One-Eye and Brick? Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Duffy, Solly and MacClanahan?

Yes, this is the sort of thing Your Humble Blogger spends a lot of time thinking about.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 16, 2009

Rhymes with 'Spies Cantina'

Your Humble Blogger would just like to make it clear: I know nothing about constitutional law, or law of any kind, so there's that. But I do think that, in many cases, a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences will reach a better conclusion than a white male.

Can I break it down just a bit, for a rhetorical flourish?

  • I believe that there exist wise Latina women. I have met two or three that I can think of off the top of my head, which may not sound like a whole lot, but is probably right in line, percentage-wise, with other groupings of ethnicity and sex.
  • While I agree with Judge Sotomayor that there can never be a universal definition of wise (that line was actually a reference to Martha Minnow, is intended as a critique of the wise old men and wise old woman line, and is the sentence before the famous one in the speech), a decent working definition of wisdom would probably be “agreeing with YHB on the substance of issues”. Given the demographics, the polling data, and my own policy preferences, it seems likely that wisdom would be fairly common among Latinas.
  • It's not clear to me that, in the context of judicial whatnot, a better conclusion necessarily means the overturning or upholding of the lower court decision. It might well mean that the decisions a wise Latina puts her name to will be better written than those of the white men. The Latina judge will (very likely) have a wider range of experiences writing to a wider range of audiences, and will therefore be less likely to trap herself in legalese. No, not really. I'm just kidding on this one.
  • I believe that there exist white males. Further, I think that white males who grow up in this country largely share certain overlapping experiences of whiteness and maleness. Not all the aspects of those experiences will be the same. If there are, say, a thousand typical aspects of whiteness and maleness, very few white males will have experienced all thousand of them, but very few white males will have experienced fewer than, say, three hundred of them. As a result, any two given white males will likely have quite a few of those experiences in common, but it is possible that the two will not have any in common, while still having plenty of whiteness and maleness. Therefore, the category does make sense.
  • Many of the common experiences of whiteness and maleness of which I speak are negative ones, that is, the experience of not experiencing some aspect of nonwhiteness and nonmaleness. In my personal experience as a white male, there have been many of those. Also, my experience is that it is much easier to recognize those after they have happened than while they are happening, whilst the correlating positive cases of nonwhiteness and nonmaleness are easier to recognize while they are happening. And, in fact, it is fairly easy to ignore them altogether. Two people who have shared experiences that neither of them has ever thought about for a moment still share those experiences, however (this speaks further to the existence of the category).
  • Further on the existence of the category: If I (a white male) were presented with the hypothetical list of a thousand experiences of whiteness and maleness, I might very likely focus on the hundreds of those experiences I have not had. However, as I understand it, most people who do not belong in those categories are more liable to focus on those experiences on their own hypothetical lists that they have had. I have much the same instincts as a member of a religious minority. Thus, while whiteness and maleness are in some sense categories like nonwhiteness and nonmaleness, they are in another sense entirely different.
  • As those categories do exist, and, in fact, roughly correspond to actual things in an actual world with actual history, the sentence A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences will reach a better conclusion than a white male is significantly different than the sentence A wise white male with the richness of his experiences will reach a better conclusion than a Latina woman. The logical correspondence between them does not make them similar in content. It is possible that either statement could be uttered by a racist, but the utterance would mean something very different in either case.
  • The categories exist, and there are people in them. The statement is comparing the categories, not the people. This is problematic. However, the problematic nature of such a comparison does not mean it can't have more of a positive nature than a negative one. So there.
  • Within the context she originally was discussing, and within its context, we need to look at the overlaps of groups and categories. The question of the day is not whether a wise Latina woman will come to better conclusions than a white man, but whether a group of nine Justices that includes a wise Latina woman will come to better conclusions than a group of nine white male Justices. This seems to be obviously true, even if we assume the wisdom of the white male Justices in question. While there are limits to the practical possibility of racial and gender representation in a small group, and there are limits to its value even to the extent that it is practicable, there is a value in a diversity of experiences.
  • The general truth or applicability of this version of the statement should not be held to automatically mean that any specific Latina would bring greater marginal value to the Supreme Court than another specific white man, or than a white woman, or a South-Asian man, or any other combination of race and gender. The specifics of the individual are very important. However, the specifics of the individual would need to be argued as specifics. This does not invalidate the general statement in any way.

One of the things that I have experienced that is (as I understand it) common amongst minorities is the pressure to speak as a representative of a group, in addition to as an individual. I grew up with that experience without really understanding it: as a Jew, when I did something, it reflected on Jews everywhere, bringing shame or pride, or providing explanation or bafflement. I thought of it as a Jewish thing, to the extent I thought about it at all. It wasn't until I was an adult of sorts, in college, that I experienced pressure to represent the group of males or white people or even white males. I was baffled and angry about it, when it happened. Surely it was not only unfair but utterly preposterous to be tasked with that stuff. And it is, of course, although the unfairness and preposterousness felt very different than the (logically similar) unfairness and preposterousness of the previous experience. A bunch of Senators and commentators seem to be feeling baffled and angry by Judge Sotomayor, and her very interesting speech. Which, by the way, I would like to quote from a bit more to bring this note to a better conclusion:

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

I accept that, too, and I welcome it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 25, 2009



Do away with medals
Poppies and remembrance parades
Those boys were brave, we know
But look where it got them

Reduced to line after perfect line
Of white stones
Immobile, but glorious, exciting
To kids who haven’t yet learned
That bullets don’t make little red holes

They rip and smash and gouge
And drag the world’s dirt behind them
Remember lads, you won’t get laid
No matter how good your war stories

If you’re dead
So melt down the medals
Fuel the fire with paper poppies, war books and Arnie films
Stop playing the pipes, stop banging the drums
And stop writing fucking poems about it.

Danny Martin

(courtesy of The War Poetry Website.)

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 21, 2009

The biggest cup of tea in history

Your Humble Blogger has surprised himself by having something to say about the Tea Parties. I haven’t been writing about politics much lately, largely because after reading the political blogs that I read, I generally don’t feel I have anything to left to add. Oh, I disagree, now and then, but for some reason Left Blogovia hasn’t been provoking me to write my own shit lately. Probably a good thing, in general.

I do feel, though, that a lot of Left Blogovia has got hold of the wrong end of the Tea Party stick. It seems to me that the general feeling has been amused contempt, along with a certain glee that the Right (if that’s what they are) is no better at holding protest rallies than the Left (if that’s what they were), with perhaps a dash of resentment that the protests came off a lot better on TV than they ought to have.

Oh, right, and the dick jokes. I liked the dick jokes. Well, technically I suppose they were scrotum jokes, but I think they fall into the same category, right?

Anyway, much of Left Blogovia has portrayed these protests, scheduled for April Fifteenth, the day taxes are due, as tax protests, and then mocked the protesters for protesting tax hikes when most of them are presumably getting tax cuts this year. I mean, statistically, it seems likely. The other aspect that has been repeated endlessly is that Boston Tea Party was protesting Taxation without Representation, while these Tea Parties were protesting Taxation with Representation. Before I begin griping, let me acknowledge that from a political or persuasive point of view, that is a good response. It emphasizes two important points: (1) The Democratic Congress and President have cut taxes on almost all taxpayers, and (b) the Republicans are so unpopular (because of all their failures) that they lost the elections, and now the Democratic Congress and President are substantially more popular, because of their successes. So that’s fine. The portions of Left Blogovia that consider themselves to be rhetorical support for the Party, in much the same way as Talk Radio considers itself to be rhetorical support for the Other Party, are pushing that frame, and that’s a good thing.

Since this Tohu Bohu is a nice boutique blog, meaning that YHB has no wider political influence, I can go back and forth between pushing the frames I think are politically useful and actual rhetorical analysis. And it seems to me that if Left Blogovia really thinks that the Tea Partiers are, well, like their caricatures of them, then they don’t really get America and American politics.

Back, oh, a long time ago, when the trope in the public media was all about how the crazy fringe who opposed the invasion of Iraq were proved wrong by how easy and quick it had gone, YHB wrote a post about the various reasons various people opposed the war. And I put myself in the category that I thought was probably the largest, the Bush-haters. This was the group who felt that whatever else was going on, simply the fact that the invasion would be headed by that group of crooks and incompetents was enough to be against it. I felt at the time, and still feel, that it was a perfectly reasonable position.

So a lot of the anti-war rallies and protests wound up muddling their messages, largely (looking back) because a fair amount of the Bush-haters felt that it was perfectly reasonable to bring up the fact that the administration were a bunch of crooks and incompetents, along with various other historical grievances. And the people who didn’t share those grievances were, unsurprisingly, not persuaded by giant puppets of Uncle Sam blowing the House of Saud. Just as tying a bunch of teabags to a tricorne hat didn’t strike Left Blogovia as particularly persuasive.

I’m getting to a point, now. In case you were wondering.

Here it is: A temporary and moderate tax cut or tax raise is irrelevant to people who think that the Federal Government as grown far outside its proper bounds. In fact, by fulfilling his campaign promise to cut taxes on 95% of the people who pay taxes while increasing the scope of the Federal Government to deal with our economic problems, Our Only President has set up enormous pressure to raise taxes (or at least revenues) when the immediate economic crisis is over in a few years (touch wood). If you feel very strongly that America pays too much in taxes and that our Federal Government is far too active in our economic life, now would be an excellent time to protest. And if your examples of why the Federal Government intrudes too much in our economic life are restrictions on firearms and a lack of restrictions on abortion, showing that They Cannot Be Trusted, then those would make excellent topics for signs.

Not persuasive signs, I’ll admit. But I can see why somebody would think they ought to be persuasive, just as I can see why somebody thinks the giant Uncle Sam puppet ought to be persuasive. And some of the stuff (like the NAFTA Superhighway and the re-education camps and the gummint going into people’s houses to take their guns and the one-world-currency and weather control) really isn’t happening, which, you know, makes the people at the protest look bad. There’s some of that, too, at the protests on the Left, although I have to say not as much. Or, rather, I would say not as much based on incredibly biased and limited reports of the protests, which isn’t fair, either.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 19, 2009

Martin, Barack and Josiah

To celebrate the combination of Martin Luther King day and the Day Before, here's a quote from the Reverend Doctor M.L.K., Jr., from a speech on April 10, 1957 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Oh, this is a period for leaders. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.
Oh, Gd give us leaders. A time like this demands
great leaders.
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy
Leaders who possess opinions and will
Leaders who will not lie
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue
and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking.
Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
in public duty and in private thinking.

And this is the need, my friends, of the hour. This is the need all over the nation. In every community there is a dire need for leaders who will lead the people, who stand today amid the wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice. God grant that ministers, and lay leaders, and civic leaders, and businessmen, and professional people all over the nation will rise up and use the talent and the finances that God has given them, and lead the people on toward the promised land of freedom with rational, calm, nonviolent means. This is the great challenge of the hour.

And if we will do this, my friends, we will be able to speed up the coming of this new order, which is destined to come. This new world in which men will be able to live together as brothers. This new world in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. This new world, which men will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Yes, this new world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. This new world in which men will learn the old principle of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They will hear once more the voice of Jesus crying out through the generations saying, “Love everybody.” This is that world. Then right here in America we will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the Pilgrims pride,
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring.

The quoted poem is Josiah Gilbert Holland's “Wanted”; fairly freely paraphrased. I suspect that Mr. Holland would be somewhat surprised to have found his words in Rev. King's mouth, and in my mind not only today, but tomorrow, when another tall man, sun-crowned, answers our desperate need for leaders, and tells us again that this is that world.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 4, 2008

Election Day

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Download the mp3

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 27, 2008

A speech for one week out

Your Humble Blogger is trying very hard not to become too focused on the election next week. It is the country’s powerfulest scene and show. But it’s only an election.
And besides, it’s not like I’m obsessing in some useful way, heading up to New Hampshire to give people a ride to their polling places, or even making telephone calls. No, I’m just refreshing 538 and TPM and running over possible scenarios in my head. And trying to figure out whether to lay in a stock of munchies for next week or a stock of liquor.
So I decided to take a look at today’s speech by Sen. Obama, mostly to try to take myself out of the urgent moment (and it is urgent) and try to take a longer view. I am hoping to be taking a look at Barack Obama’s speeches for years, and enjoying it, too, but if I’m not, well, let’s take a quick look at this one.
The thing that strikes YHB right off the bat is the sequence where Sen. Obama positions himself—not as a Third Way candidate, but as a third alternative to false choices. “We don’t have to choose between allowing our financial system to collapse and spending billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street banks.” We also don’t have to choose between tax cuts and no tax cuts, between “putting up a wall around America or allowing every job to disappear overseas”, “between a government-run health care system and the unaffordable one we have now”, “between more money [for education] and more reform“, and “between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end in Iraq.”
As I say, rhetorically this sounds a bit like Third Way stuff, but when you look at it, it’s very different. Instead of talking about a choice between the Old Way and the Wrong Way, Sen. Obama is saying that many of the choices presented to us are phony to begin with. And it’s implied, I think, that there are people deliberately giving us those phony choices in order to deceive us, but it isn’t phrased to draw attention to that oppositional aspect. He could have said They say you have to choose between… or My opponents say the choice is between… but he chose to emphasize something else. He chose to emphasize we rather then they, and his alternative rather than the false choice.

That’s a bedrock, of course, of his rhetorical style. If I’ve counted right, he used the word we 91 times in the speech (he said I only 56 times). In the culminating minutes of the speech, he subsumes his own election almost entirely to the crowd’s:

Don’t believe for a second this election is over. Don’t think for a minute that power concedes. We have to work like our future depends on it in this last week, because it does.

In one week, we can choose an economy that rewards work and creates new jobs and fuels prosperity from the bottom-up.

In one week, we can choose to invest in health care for our families, and education for our kids, and renewable energy for our future.

In one week, we can choose hope over fear, unity over division, the promise of change over the power of the status quo.

In one week, we can come together as one nation, and one people, and once more choose our better history.

That’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if in this last week, you will knock on some doors for me, and make some calls for me, and talk to your neighbors, and convince your friends; if you will stand with me, and fight with me, and give me your vote, then I promise you this—we will not just win Ohio, we will not just win this election, but together, we will change this country and we will change the world. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless America.

Notice that he doesn’t entirely disappear. He is there, but as a recipient of the crowd’s largesse, rather than them as his. Sen. Obama is me, not I.

Now, none of this is anything new to him, nor is it true only of him. In Sen. McCain’s speech today, he used we 39 times to 18, a slightly higher we rate (since his speech was much shorter and used fewer words). But I think the use is central to Sen. Obama’s campaign, and possibly to his presidency.

Distraction: The following are frequently-used-words from the two candidates, that is, words used more than 0.4% of the full text (unless I’ve screwed it up), with words that appear in both lists removed for comparison’s sake:

  • you, one, are, us, can, or, from, when, change, they, week, if
  • fight, he, country, Senator, going, Obama, spending, up, create, get

Is this fair? Certainly not. For instance, if Sen. Obama had used the word country one more time, that would have been on his list also and therefore wouldn’t havfe appeared. Or if Sen. McCain had used the word President one more time, it would have shown up on his list, and the list would have looked quite different. Also, keep in mind I may have screwed the whole thing up. Still. And all this really tells us anyway is that one candidate chose to repeat the phrase one week and the other told his supporters to fight. End Distraction.

Anyway, my point, such as it is. I think I identify three things Sen. Obama chose to hock about in this speech: the week remaining before the election, the idea of his candidacy being the focus of a larger movement, and the false choice idea, which connotes both his new politics (vaddevah dat means) and the dishonesty of his opponents. They aren’t bad things (although I would love to see an emphasis on the continuing movement after next Tuesday, however presumptuous that may seem to pundits), and you know, he’s not a bad speaker, at that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 16, 2008

Ooh, it burns me up

Well, and since watching that last debate (which was not a pleasant experience, although occasionally opening the laptop and checking the baseball score improved it a lot), I have been ruminating about persona and Presidential politics.

People (including YHB) have roundly mocked the idea of voting for the candidate you would like to have a beer with. And that’s a Good Thing; once the idea got out into the big old marketplace of ideas, it deserved to be mocked. But after watching the debate last night, it occurred to me that if a pollster asked me which candidate I would rather have a beer with, I might well take that as a sort of shorthand or signifier, or perhaps more accurately as a euphemism for which candidate I find least annoying.

I was thinking, again, about this idea I’ve been hocking about all summer, that there are a variety of audiences for political television, debates and conventions and speeches and such. There’s a sense in which the key audience for a debate is the undecided voter; most truly undecided voters will not watch the whole debate, but will catch bits and pieces of it through broadcast news and entertainment shows over the next few days. I should add this time the possibility that an undecided voter will catch bits of it on YouTube or other on-line sources; I think the number of people who (a) are undecided as of three weeks before the election, (2) are going to bother to watch YouTube clips, and (iii) will bother to vote is pretty small, but anyway. But we’ll include them in with those undecided voters who may be swayed by the debates.

I was trying to imagine what it’s like to be part of that group. They don’t find politics entertaining; if they found it entertaining, they would almost certainly have decided by now, and if not, they would have found so much other information that the debates would be the least of it. They do find it important, because they do vote. So I’m guessing that they find all discussion of politics unpleasant, in a range from annoying to disgusting. They watch the evening news or the Today Show, and when something comes up about politics, they grimace and shrug and roll their eyes. Now, that’s going to be at its worst during the campaign season, when there are going to be lots of clips and sound bites and whatnot, but throughout the next four years, one of these guys is going to be President, and that means that one of those guys is going to be on the TV every few days with a sound bite or photo op.

So on one level, if that was who I was, I would be inclined to vote for the guy I found the least annoying. The guy I wouldn’t mind (as much) seeing on the TV two or three times a week. The guy I wouldn’t mind (as much) having a beer with, if it came to that.

Now, as I say, I think that it’s important to mock that idea, because I think that it’s important that people do feel a little guilty that they don’t put a little mental elbow grease into their own governance. And to some extent, the guy who is the most annoying is likely to be annoying because he’s short, or he has a funny accent, or his face is annoyingly expressive, or he repeats himself a lot, or he’s from a different ethnicity, or he’s a woman. And that’s bad for democracy and bad for the government. But often the guy who is the most annoying is annoying because he is stubborn, or he seems indecisive, or he doesn’t listen to the moderator, or he keeps blathering on about stupid things, or he is contemptuous of women, or he dismisses as unimportant the things that really make a difference in the life of the undecided fellow. And those things can be a reasonable heuristic for the same things that high-information voters (such as YHB) base their highly informed judgements on. I mean, not to be all Blinky, but people really do have remarkable capacity for making snap judgments, at least to the point that those snap judgments are often the same as the highly-informed judgments that they come to after getting all that information.

On the other hand, Al Gore really was annoying. So was Our Only President, of course, but I could very easily imagine somebody just dreading the idea of having Al Gore on the television three or four times a week, totally unrelated to any policies or capabilities. And John McCain is annoying, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 14, 2008

Bringing a long spoon

David S. Bernstein invites his readers to Write Obama's Ayers Response, that is, to help Barack Obama prepare for the moment in tomorrow night’s debate when John McCain accuses him of dishonestly hiding his connection with Bill Ayers.

Here’s my bad advice, timed to the best of my imitation at ninety seconds (I can’t remember what their time blocks are in this round):

Idiotic and fictional Obama counterpart who takes advice from random bloggers: You are upset that I’ve somehow hid my connection with William Ayers. I haven’t. I was on a couple of non-profit boards with him. Mr. Ayers and I have worked together on educational issues. We have both taught at Universities in Chicago, where we live in the same neighborhood. I used to see him now and then on his bike, John, before I got so busy with this campaign. Is that honest enough for you? Can we move on, now, to perhaps discuss people who really do influence my thinking, and maybe people who influence yours?

But I do want to say one more thing about William Ayers. I do. Before we move on. I want to say that I condemn, utterly condemn, his acts of violence. I have said that to his face, John, and I say it to yours, now. But twenty years later, long after he turned himself in for the crimes he committed when I was a child, now and in the nineties he is doing a lot of work on educating children in the inner cities. And I do not regret working with him on those issues. I am willing to work with him, despite—I’ll say it again—despite condemning the acts of violence.

You see, I wanted to get something done for our children and for our schools. And I was willing to sit down with the people who were working on that issue, including Mr. Ayers, who was widely recognized as a leader in that field in my city. I was willing to do that. I was willing to sit down with him because I recognize that sometimes you have to work with people, even with people you don’t like, even with people who have done things you don’t like, because the work is more important. You’ve given me a lot of grief, John, about your interpretation of my willingness to work with foreign leaders that I don’t like. It’s not naïveté. I know that sometimes bad things happen. But I do think it’s naïve to believe you can get the important things done without ever sitting down at a table with someone who has done something bad.

But if you want to know what I really think, if you want to know who I listen to, if you want to know my actual policies, well, I hope, now we’ve got that out of the way, we can talk about that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 8, 2008

There are the known knows, the known unknowns, the unknown unknowns, and the shit you just make up

Last night’s debate was very dull, which seems to be good for my candidate. Before the thing started, I remarked to my Best Reader that it was a new feeling, going into a presidential debate knowing that the Story of What Happened was almost certain to be good for my side. I figured that if John McCain attempted something dramatic to shake things up, the Story would be that people found him cranky and erratic, and if he failed to attempt something dramatic, the Story would be that he should have done something dramatic to shake things up. It’s odd; I don’t think that it’s been so clear that the master narrative is on the side of the Democrat during my political lifetime. A whole new world. A temporary one, but that’s probably for the best, too.

Anyway, the thing that really stood out for me was John McCain’s hectoring insistence that he knows everything.

And we’ve got to give some trust and confidence back to America. I know how to do that, my friends. And it’s my proposal, it’s not Senator Obama’s proposal, it’s not President Bush’s proposal. But I know how to get America working again, restore our economy and take care of working Americans. Thank you.

Twice there.

You’re going to be examining our proposals tonight and in the future, and energy independence is a way to do that, is one of them. And drilling offshore and nuclear power are two vital elements of that. And I’ve been supporting those and I know how to fix this economy, and eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, and stop sending $700 billion a year overseas.

That’s three.

We’re going to have to sit down across the table, Republican and Democrat, as we did in 1983 between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. I know how to do that.


Look, I—I was on Navy ships that had nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is safe, and it’s clean, and it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs. And—and I know that we can reprocess the spent nuclear fuel.


By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth.

I’m not going to count that one, although I probably should; it isn’t a claim of special knowledge like the others, but it does convey the omniscience that was getting up my nose.

So you have to temper your decisions with the ability to beneficially affect the situation and realize you’re sending America’s most precious asset, American blood, into harm’s way. And, again, I know those situations. I’ve been in them all my life.


But the point is that I know how to handle these crises. And Senator Obama, by saying that he would attack Pakistan, look at the context of his words. I’ll get Osama bin Laden, my friends. I’ll get him. I know how to get him. I’ll get him no matter what and I know how to do it.

Three more. That’s nine, all before the pseudo-zen question of what he doesn’t know, which of course brings out all the stuff he does know, like, everything.

I know what it’s like in dark times. I know what it’s like to have to fight to keep one’s hope going through difficult times. I know what it’s like to rely on others for support and courage and love in tough times. I know what it’s like to have your comrades reach out to you and your neighbors and your fellow citizens and pick you up and put you back in the fight.

This might be rhetorically convincing if, in fact, Senator McCain actually knew some stuff. The idea that he knows how to fix the economy is preposterous. The idea that he knows how to ‘get’ Osaba bin Laden is not only preposterous but, coupled with his obvious refusal to share that knowledge with Our Only President, offensive. The idea that he knows anything at all about the technical aspects of nuclear power is beyond preposterous, and the idea that he knows it because he has been on nuclear powered submarines is like claiming you know something about international relations because you live near an international border. Or, I suppose, claiming you know how to win wars because you were once taken prisoner in one.

But the connection I made in my own imagination, actually, was with the middle-aged middle manager who strides to the copy machine, shouldering the secretary out of the way, saying “I know how to make copies!” In my office experience, that ends with a paper jam, and sometimes with a call to the service guy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 3, 2008

back in the day, when men and women were free, but you had to pay shipping and handling.

The best one-line pundittery I’ve seen about last night’s Vice-Presidential debate is that Sarah Palin beat Tina Fey, but Joe Biden beat John McCain. I think even that is a bit tricky, as Ms. Fey gets her rebuttal tomorrow. But Sen. Biden showed remarkable discipline, I thought, in refraining from attempting to debate Gov. Palin. In the end, very few people are going to be casting votes because of these two people; this is a chance to talk about the fellows at the head of the ticket when people have been suckered in to watch by, well, by Tina Fey. I think Ian Gillingham over at Willamette Week’s blog makes a good point comparing the visualizations of the word frequencies of the two.

With the warning that I have no idea if these are even remotely accurate, here’s Sarah Palin’s:

First thing you spot, I hope, is John McCain. Then there’s the idiosyncrasies of her speech patterns: also, going, just, know. The stuff she wanted to get across: America/American/Americans, energy, can, will. Then it gets muddy.

Now, here’s Joe Biden’s side:

What jumps out? John McCain. And then Barack Obama. Then going and said, which I assume is his own speech pattern coming into play, and then what do you see? one, people, get, change, policy, know, voted, Afghanistan, billion. I can’t think either Sen. Obama or Sen. Biden would be at all disappointed in that picture.

Mostly, though, I’m impressed by his restraint. He was quite right to be restrained, partially because he doesn’t want to be perceived as picking on his opponent, but mostly because his side is winning and that’s the winning side’s strategy. Still, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. When Gov. Palin said

Up there in Alaska, what we have done is, with bipartisan efforts, is work together and, again, not caring who gets the credit for what, as we accomplish things up there. And that’s been just a part of the operation that I wanted to participate in. And that’s what we’re going to do in Washington, D.C., also, bring in both sides together. John McCain is known for doing that, also, in order to get the work done for the American people.

YHB would have said something like Really? Does anybody in Alaska think you worked well with bipartisan efforts? ’Cos that’s not what I’m hearing.

And when Gov. Palin said

Well, the nice thing about running with John McCain is I can assure you he doesn’t tell one thing to one group and then turns around and tells something else to another group…

YHB wouldn’t have been able to help saying something like You mean, except David Letterman, right?

And it would not have helped Sen. Obama at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 29, 2008

That's a wrap

Well, and that’s the end of the convention. I have to say, it was a tremendous convention, the sort of convention people in the business will be talking about for some time. Barack Obama seems to know how to hire the right people, which isn’t a bad qualification in itself. I’m not talking about the speakers, of course, although I like them, but the event staff; there are now enough events in the country that there’s no excuse for trying to hold a national political convention on the cheap with amateurs. Lots of Dems complained, over Our Only President’s first term, about how rigidly he controlled his image—all those backdrops, the careful placement of the podium to make sure that the lights and the background were just right. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no great virtue in being incompetent at that sort of thing. It would be good for a President to have some time outside the bubble, to incorporate a certain amount of improvisation in the carefully controlled image factory, but it also would be good to have a President who knows that a bad image is a bad thing, and makes a difference in the end.

And the key thing is this: The Republican party has to work really hard not to look like pishers next week. They don’t have a lot of star power, and there is no way they can get eighty-thousand people into the tent. Unless I miss my guess (which happens a lot), any mistakes or glitches in the running of the show will be harped on by the sort of puerile pundits that are looking for easy insights. It’s easy enough to make comparisons between the music and lights, between the security lines, between the Tele-Prompt-R handling and the cheers of the crowds of the two conventions. Comparing the two policy platforms is takes work, intelligence and knowledge, and comparing the abilities, priorities and temperaments of the two candidates takes wisdom, experience and insight. Comparing the confetti just takes a mouth and a hindbrain. It’s nice, for once, to come out on the good side of the easy comparisons.

I will, however, say that if the rumors turn out to be true, and John McCain will pick Sarah Palin to run with him, it’s a startlingly good pick, on the theater of it. On first glance, I don’t dislike her any more than I would dislike any Republican with enough experience to be chosen. And there is just the slightest possibility that such a choice will convince people that John McCain does after all “get it”, that the times they are a-changin’.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 28, 2008

The nomination itself

The convention was wonderful last night, with several moments of real drama (or at least theater) and emotional highs. It was as good as I could imagine. I watched almost the whole thing, staying up later than I had intended, but I didn’t take very many notes. I did, however, exchange a lot of text with Dr. Cline over at Rhetorica; you can read the whole night’s liveblogging at the rhetorica site; I don’t think I’ll bother getting my sparse notes into shape for this Tohu Bohu. I will try to write a note about Bill Clinton’s speech, and another about Joe Biden’s, and I have the kitchen table note still to write, not to mention I still haven’t actually watched Michelle Obama’s speech, Clare McCaskill’s speech or Hillary Clinton’s speech, much lest written about them. And they’re doing it again tonight, although I will almost certainly miss the whole evening, what with brush-up rehearsal and all.

Anyway. I do want to write about the actual nomination. If you weren’t watching at that point, you probably missed it, and I don’t think the newspapers are conveying how well it was done. It was aimed mostly at the conventioneers, and to a lesser extent to hard-core convention watchers like Your Humble Blogger. You need a little background to enjoy the show, for this one, so even if you were watching last night, if you hadn’t watched a bunch of roll-call votes, you might have missed the drama. So, here’s a little description of what the roll-call is usually like, and then I’ll get to yesterday afternoon’s version.

Before 1968, in the days when it wasn’t absolutely sure who would win the roll call, this was the center of the convention. The whole reason for it, in fact. Speeches were made to persuade the conventioneers, who were free agents, near enough. They would call out each state, and each state’s delegation would cast its votes, and there would be a tally, and when nobody had more than half, they would do it all again. There weren’t as many states, then, of course.

After the McGovern Commission (and its refining) took away the purpose of the roll call, it became a ritual. I think I remember the 1976 one, and I certainly remember 1980; everybody knew who was going to win, but they went through the states anyway. The Great State of Blurvidia, home of the national champion high school bridge team (go Bashers!), birthplace of the cigar-store Indian, and proud neighbor to the home state of the next vice-president of the United States, casts one vote for its native one Emil Grabecky! (wild cheers), and twenty-glob votes for the next President of the United States, whats-his-name!! And the Secretary of the Convention repeating it, and the tally of the votes. The states go in alphabetical order, but the rules allow for a state to pass and come back, or for a state to yield to a different state, to change the order. The tradition was for the candidate’s home state to cast the votes that gave the candidate a majority, so that the candidate’s home delegation got to put him over the top. It was a nice tradition, a bit quaint and formal, but with people wearing lobster hats and a billion buttons. I believe that last cycle they simply nominated by acclamation, that is, instead of going through the roll call at all, they just have everybody shout “Aye!”, nobody shout “Nay”, and declare that the man was nominated. Faster, but not as much fun.

This year, as usual, all of the losing candidates have released their delegates and indicated that they are voting for winner. There are no more delegates “pledged” to vote for anyone but Sen. Obama, although many delegates have said they will be voting for Hillary Clinton anyway (as is their right, under the rules). Off they go on the roll call, then. American Samoa spoke in Samoan (I think referencing Daniel Inouye, but I don’t, you know, understand spoken Samoan) and then in English. I tried to figure out whether the fellow who spoke for Arizona was a Goddard; it looked a bit like one, but bald and thickset, where Terry is slim and has hair. I don’t know if the other Goddards are involved in politics. Arkansas, one of Hillary Clinton’s home states, cast all its votes for Barack Obama, despite Sen. Clinton winning the primary by a landslide. That seemed like a big deal, a signal that whatever CNN imagined, there was not going to be contention or protest.

And so it went, with California passing (California has umpty-’leven gazillion delegates, so it made some sense for them to pass if there was going to be a chance for a lot of other states to cast votes before there were two thousand for Barack Obama) and Illinois passing (so that it could be yielded back to them for the votes to put him over the top), and on until New Mexico. Barack Obama was still six or seven hundred votes shy of the total at that point, so when the great state of New Mexico (Land of Enchantment, Tierra Nuevo Mejico!) yielded back to Illinois, it didn’t make any sense to me. But then Illinois yielded to New York, just as both its Senators, its governor and its Charlie Rangel (shouldn’t every state have a Charlie Rangel?) walked onto the floor.

Wow, I thought. They’ve planned it so that Hillary Clinton will announce that New York casts all its votes for Barack Obama, and then they will yield back to Illinois, and that will put him over and end it, and it will be Hillary Clinton doing it. Which, I have to say, would have been cool. But what actually happened was cooler than that.

Sen. Clinton asked, after a very brief but quite moving speech, in the name of unity and in support of Barack Obama, the next president of the United States, for the convention to suspend the roll call (by a two-thirds voice vote) and to nominate Barack Obama by acclamation. Which they did.

So, after a magnificent and mostly fictional drama about supposed disunity between the Clintons and their associates and Barack Obama and his associates, Hillary Clinton took the floor and personally introduced the adoption of consensus in support of our candidate. Which was carried, with cheering and applause and dancing and everything but the confetti.

I’m not sure if I’ve given an idea of how what a surprise this was (to me—some people evidently had advance notice) and how moving it was (again, to me). I don’t think there could have been any better way for the party to signify unity. And I don’t think it could possibly have been clearer that these two people, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are the leaders of our Party. I have my disagreements with each of them. But they are fascinating, intelligent, charismatic people, and (what with, if you haven’t heard, neither of them being a white man) it makes me proud that my party did not exclude them or belittle them. It makes me proud that my country is a country where the leaders of its majority party (in both houses of the legislature, as well as the largest party by registration or by self-identification) are a woman and a black man. I like the fact that in my party, Barack Obama did not feel that he had to crush his rival or hide her from view. I like the idea that the Next President of the United States, please the Divine, will be someone who is capable of that kind of diplomacy, not just of saving face for people he needs to beat but of honoring them.

I sure hope Barack Obama gives a magnificent, powerful and inspiring speech tonight. But I doubt I will be as moved tonight as I was last night. I mean, leaving aside the whole bit where I won’t actually get to watch it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 27, 2008

Four audiences, one show

So. National Political Party Conventions are strange things at this point in their evolution. As you watch them (or don’t, but if you don’t, then you can probably skip this note), one of the things that keeps coming up is the tension between the various audiences, and the various things that the Party wants from those various audiences. I would identify four different audiences with very little overlap, and with very little overlap in what the Party wants from them.

Let’s start with the two small audiences. One of those is the crowd in the hall itself, the conventioneers. They are largely there as props for the television audience. Yes, there are also some big donors there, and this crowd has a lot to do in GOTV and other local parts of the campaign, but most of these people would do most of that stuff anyway. They are activists. They do politics either for a living or as a hobby. The Party does need them, but the Party generally has them, and as long as they don’t screw it up, it’ll be fine. On the other hand, when the speakers make their speeches, the crowd is vitally important. Not only does an enthusiastic and attentive crowd look and sound good on television, they give back energy to the speaker. When you watch the thing in your living room, you may not feel part of the connection between the speaker and the live audience, but you can (whether consciously as a critic or not) tell whether that connection is there. The conventioneers most important task is to cheer, to chant and to, er, something else that begins with a ch. Not choose, though.

The other important small audience is the press, mostly the people there at the hall. They have to be persuaded to tell a particular story of the convention. This time, for my party, it’s a particularly compelling story—will the Clinton and Obama wings of the party work together? Will Bill Clinton flip out and call Sen. Obama a ******* on live television? Will Sen. Obama pull a knife? Or will they all join hands and pledge to a cause that is bigger than any of them, the cause of America?

I’m being snarky, but actually, what the Party wants out of the press is not just to be a perfectly transparent window into the convention (which is not going to happen) but to frame and tint things in a way that is to the advantage of the Party. The press are largely sophisticated, educated and informed people, so if you are going to manipulate them, you usually need something shiny, or some barbecue. Tragically, they are as likely to eat the shiny thing and put the barbecue in their pockets as the other way around. But you have to try.

Then there’s the big audience that I’m in, the people who are going to vote for the Party’s nominee no matter what, and who are tuning in to be entertained and consoled. We’re looking to get a peek at next cycle’s candidates for one thing and another, and to get a peek at the campaign’s themes and signs and all, and we like to be told we’re right about our policies and prejudices. But it’s not going to affect our votes, because our votes are in the right place. This year, Sen. Obama’s campaign would like us all to donate twenty bucks or so, where because of an oddity in the law, that wasn’t very important in previous cycles. And it’s always nice if the Party can get us off our asses so we can make a few calls, too, but most of us aren’t going to do that, and it’s pretty unlikely that we are going to be persuaded to do it over the television, anyway. Really, the most important thing that the Party wants me to do, after watching the thing, is to talk to my co-workers and neighbors and friends about how wonderful it was, and how I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. I was going to vote for him anyway, but perhaps I wouldn’t have brought him up in conversation, or perhaps somebody else in the fourth audience will bring it up and I can say that it was a great speech and a great convention, and all.

That fourth audience is the group of people who have not yet made up their minds who to vote for, or whether to vote. In some ways, this is the most important audience, since the candidate that gets most of those voters will almost certainly win the election. On the other hand, very few of those voters are sitting down to watch the convention. Maybe they will sit down to pay attention to the Big Speech, or to two or even three Nearly Big Speeches by the vice-presidential nominee or the previous President. More likely, they will see a report on an evening newscast, or hear about it on the radio, or see a headline on an on-line portal page or even on a good old-fashioned newspaper. Or, with luck, they’ll talk about it with a coworker or neighbor or relative.

So. The Party, and each of the people within the Party (each of whom likely has his or her own separate sub-goal, an appointment or nomination or meeting or whatnot), have to work all four of those audiences simultaneously, largely all from the same podium, and their success with each group affects their success with some of the other groups. Any individual moment may be for one group or another; any individual moment may be attempting to work in different ways for different groups. When the action on the podium stops and the music starts blasting for the crowd to dance, that’s getting the crowd ready to cheer for the next speaker, and it’s also letting the networks cut to a commercial or chat with a pundit. Some of the scheduling is aimed at me, and some isn’t.

So when you are watching, and I’m guessing almost all of my Gentle Readers are in the third audience, those that have already made up their minds (unless any of y’all are still seriously considering voting for a third Party), it’s interesting to look at the things that are aimed at the other groups. The moments that are for the crowd, the ones that are for the press, the ones that are for the swing voters. In a way, ours is the least important audience. Unless I do my job and start some conversations.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Democratic Convention, Tuesday

On Tuesday I missed the first three hours or so, alas. Here are the notes from the couple of hours I watched.

Janet Napolitano. Magenta Nehru jacket, black pants. Nehru jackets must be the thing. She’s giving the business about the AZ politicians who lose presidential races. "I wanted to say something positive tonight about Senator McCain." "He doesn’t understand the policies he has supported." "can’t afford more of the same" use of specific name, which doesn’t thrill me, but is one of the Accepted Political Speech bits. "Green-collar jobs" is a nice phrase though, and I think we’ll get it into the public discussion.

Town hall. Gov. Jennifer Granholm hosting. Better hair than Brown or whatever his name was. This panel is just as dopey as the other one, though. No back-and-forth, no discussion, just a prepared question and prepared speech. If you’re going to do that, just have them give speeches, and give up the stools and hand mikes. A. Cline over and rhetorica and I have been amusing ourselves coming up with the ground rules for the debate. Rule one: panelists may not speak to each other or look at each other. Rule two: panelists will be given the question in advance, and may give only the prepared and approved answer. Rule three: the Moderator will lead, or rather feed. With a great big spoon. Rule four: the debate will go on as long as the networks need to run ads or have their pundits blather about other things.

Jim Whitaker, Mayor of Fairbanks. Republican. Endorsing Barack Obama. "realistic and resulting wisdom"? I like his fifties necktie and brown suit. Suits him. Shifts and whims of the marketplace which are subject to shifts and whims of dictators.

Gloria Craven, described in the on-line schedule as "Laid-off North Carolina textile worker with huge medical bills" I was kinda figuring this would be bad, but it’s actually great: plain-talking woman, very matter-of-factly talking about how awful the Republicans are, and how the Democrats actually have different ideas and priorities. With a nice class hostility (although not hostile enough for me).

Nancy Floyd, energy tech money. Wasn’t paying much attention, I’m afraid.

Kathleen Sebelius, Gov. Kansas. Starts with Barack Obama’s Kansas roots. Ad astra per aspera, which is nice and the Kansas motto. Best Reader points out that she’s a good speaker, but she’s not having much fun. My Best Reader misses Ann Richards. Gov. Sebelius is very dull.

Federico Peña, former Mayor of Denver, former Sect’y of Energy. More energy coming in. Crowd still wandering around chatting. "America is on a liquid leash" Back to man on the moon.

Nydia Velazquez: Now, that’s a jacket. And emerald necklace? Jet? Jade? Awesome, whatever. She’s going after Sen. McCain. I’m glad tonight has shown a lot more willingness to go after McCain. It hasn’t coalesced into a clear caricature, though, which is what we need.

Robert Casey, Jr. Gov PA. A slight reference to his father’s refusal to endorse Bill Clinton in 1992, and the refusal to let him speak at the convention about his anti-abortion position. Just a slight reference, though, and no reference (yet) to his own anti-abortion stance. Pushing how comfortable Sen. Obama really is with working-class Pennsylvania voters. "He’s one of us." "Native son Joe Biden!" Now talking about Hillary Rodham Clinton in glowing terms. "When she endorsed Barack, she called on all of us to do whatever we can to get Barack Obama elected President of the United States." Another Abraham Lincoln reference. Now an explicit reference to his anti-abortion opinion, and saying outright that his present tonight shows blah blah blah. I suppose it’s a good thing for Sen. Obama, and he can scarcely get up there and say his dad was a prick.

Four more months! Four more months!

Lilly Ledbetter: Very serious looking. Jaw locked. She’s the one in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, where the Supreme Court shut down the rights of more people to use the courts for redress. She’s a good prop for pointing out that the Supreme Court, and thus the Presidency, is important. Bad delivery, though, and bad gesturing. The audience is good to her, though, and I don’t grudge her the time. I wonder if CNN or the others showed her at all.

Musical interlude: "I’m So Excited". There are many men in the crowd who know the words. To the verses. I’m just saying. And there were two bull-dykes who didn’t know the words even to the chorus but who waved their rainbow flags.

Mark Warner with the keynote: I took some separate notes so that I can write this up as an entry of its own. Maybe later today, or events may pass me.

Ted Strickland: Applause for Stephanie Tubbs-Jones. Then going into a speech of his own. kitchen table reference again. I like the kitchen table stuff. "more likely to lose a neighbor to foreclosure than to gain a neighbor with a mortgage" "John McCain is sleeping better than ever" Stuck in the past. I like stuck in the past. Particularly used as a modifying phrase: a stuck-in-the-past energy policy, etc. Started on third, stole second. Instead of some starting on third, giving everybody a chance at bat.

Deval Patrick: That is who we are. That is also what we stand for as Democrats. The poor are in terrible shape, but the middle class are one paycheck away, one serious illness away from being poor. The generation did all of that. I don’t get the focus on that. "A well-educated America will make things again." John McCain is one of those say one thing do something else guys. The same folks. "Democrats don’t deserve to win just because Republicans deserve to lose" This is not working. Lots of greatest generation stuff. "Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together". Lost the crowd, I think.

Gov. Schweitzer comes on in a bola tie and has lots of energy. I shut down the computer at that point, and was ready to head off to bed, but he grabbed me and didn’t let go. That was a fun speech. Clearly the highlight of the night. So far.

I’ll add Hillary Clinton to the list of Big Speeches that I need to go back and watch when I get the chance.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 26, 2008

Democratic Convention, Monday

I did wind up watching quite a bit of the first day of the convention, and I took some very sparse notes. Here they are, for what they are worth. I'll try to write a couple of more coherent essays (brief essays, I hope) about some of the bigger issues, like the sense of powerful women in the Party and some contradictory and conflicting images around that, the tensions between the convention for the Party and the convention for the swing voters, and the color scheme that makes pale blue shirts for men look so atrocious.

Rev. Leah Daughtry, the CEO of the convention. Angry black woman in bright blue. And pearls. “The least, the last and the lost”. That’s good.

Video about The West. Governors and Senators from NV, WY, AZ, MT, WY, NM, CO. That’s pretty impressive, actually. Video is too long. Interestingly, includes a plea to get together and work on the campaign; that can’t be aimed at the conventioneers, but who else is watching at this point? Not that there’s anyone in the hall yet. Ends with AZ Gov. saying we have never elected a president from Arizona, and at least for this cycle, she’d like to continue that precedent. Hee hee.

The Credentials Committee: Eliseo Roques-Arroyo, Puerto Rico. Si se Puede. A good speaker. Then Jim Roosevelt. Unity talk. Stiff and squinty. Announces that MI and FL delegates get votes, and gets a big round of applause for it. Alexis Herman (former Secretary of Labor) on Hope and Determination. Then Dr. Dean adopts the report on voice vote.

The Rules Committee: Sunita Leeds. Pearls. Nervous-looking. Announces a new committee to look at superdelegates and caucuses. Mary Rose Oakar from the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League, looks very Jewish to me. Ohioan. Nominates Nancy Pelosi as convention chair, other women as officials of the convention. Gov. Walker, then, who I missed, appears to nominate other officers, men this time. Then Dr. Dean gets the aye, and then he adds some other officers.

Note: Dr. Dean, in identifying the people who will be, I think Sergeants at Arms, some purely nominal post anyway, says that one of them is an “LGBT activist”. Amazing to think that (a) only four cycles ago, having an openly gay speaker was a Very Big Deal, and (2) the head of the DNC can now casually refer to LGBT without explaining or identifying further. This is the first of the moments where I find myself shocked, not by how progressive and egalitarian and diverse my Party is, but by how recently those changes have happened. More on this later, I hope.

Anyway, here I skipped a bit.

From the platform committee, Patricia Madrid, AG of NM. Patriotism is working to improve the country. Examples of patriots are are Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta. Then Judith McHale, who talks about letting America be America again. Shout-out to Hillary. Dull, boilerplate speech. Tiny mouth, very serious. Nancy Pelosi gavels it aye.

Skipped some more.

The Hispanic Caucus. Missed the first bit. Silvestre Reyes, not a very likeable man. Jose Serrano, US Rep. from the Bronx, starts with “Hello, New York! Helllloooooooh, Puerrrrrto Rrrrricoooooooooo!” Speaks Spanish with a Bronx accent. Little moustache. I like him.

Nancy Keenan, from NARAL. “My Party, the Democratic Party.” Right to choose contraception. Stand with women who choose adoption. “How is it moral, John McCain…”

Amanda Kubik, speaking for young delegates. Making our change visible. “Yes we can! Or as we say up in Fargo, Yah sure, ya betcha!”

Emil Jones, Jr. IL State Senate (minority leader? Former minority leader?) South Side. Very tough looking. Nice suit. “We were not a likely pair.” Says that Sen. Obama told him “You know I like to work hard”, so sent him to work with Republicans on ethics reform. His nose is wider than his mouth!

Reg Weaver from the NEA. Black pinstriped suit. Big fellow, black, bald, with a big white walrus moustache.

Best Reader asks “what’s with the disco?”

IL AG Lisa Madigan. Wearing purple, no pearls. Very likeable. Underscoring Sen. Obama good for women. Pushing the IL state senate stuff, which of course is all he’s got, really. Important, though. Perhaps they should have saved some of this for later?

Dan Hynes. Illinois State Comptroller. Lost to Sen. Obama in the primary for Senate. “No-one likes to lose, but it’s a lot easier when you respect and admire the person who wins.”Pale blue shirt, pale blue tie, looks odd against the blue DNC background.

Alexi Giannoulis, IL State treasurer. Appears to be eighteen years old. "basketball buddy" Blue tie with a HUGE knot, very loose around a thick neck. Actually 32.

Randi Weingarten, AFT. Very angry. Good with the audience. Teachers must be partners, not pawns. Join us in this quest.

John Legend, singing. Not very interesting R&B. If you are out there? Tomorrow is starting now? Yawn. Clearly my break isn’t over.

Panel discussion on the economy. This is dumb. It’s like a parody of a Sunday morning politics show. It turns out that Barack Obama would be good for the economy! And John McCain bad! With no specifics! But lots of chatting. But I kinda like Sherrod Brown with his goofy hair and cheap-looking gray suit.

Nancy Pelosi video. It’s OK. A bit eulogy-ish, if you know what I mean.

Nancy in white. A disco pantsuit, or Nehru jacket thingie. Also, my Best Reader hates the podium. Awkward gavel business.

Margie Perez, N’awlins musician. She’s hot! Katrina, of course. Can’t afford to let John McCain drown our hopes in the same failed policies. Musician’s Village, Habitat for Humanity. A nice, if odd, bit when she grabbed the fleur-de-lis she wears around her neck, as if it were an amulet.

Video about Katrina. Which appears to be also the Jimmy Carter video. Pres. Carter gets to make the Louisiana is the third-world thing out of personal experience (with both), without making it sound insulting.

Hey! Jimmy Carter is there! With Roz, I guess. It doesn’t look like he’ll speak. They’re playing “Georgia on my Mind”. …aaand, he’s gone. Hmph. And now we’re back to a video, evidently about Barack Obama in law school.

Maya Soetoro-Ng. Comes out and hangs five (later looks this up, Wikipedia calls it the shaka sign). She doesn’t look polished (in the negative connotations), and seems strangely comfortable up there. Now she’s settled in to read from the teleprompter, seeming less comfortable, stiffer, more prepared. “Bounteous opportunity. It is a gift he has already given us in this campaign.” I don’t really like that already-historic meme that seems to be popping up.

The hall has filled up, now, at last.

Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. “first political convention in history to take place within sight of a mountaintop.” Again, already-historic. Not the right tone. More of his IL legislative history, which is nice. “party establishment was skeptical”. He’s not his father. He is good, though, within the normal parameters of good. Sets up the party establishment, and then says that the election wasn’t decided by them, but by the voters, the people of IL, and IL is America. An odd then about the He and the We and the She. “The well being of the ‘we’ depends on the well being of the ‘he’ and the ‘she’.“ Very awkward sounding. “The Selma generation, my father’s generation”; I like that, point out the generational thing, and that it’s effectively John McCain’s generation, as he was old enough (by 1964 at any rate) to have helped with the movement, and didn't. “I know Barack Obama, I have seen his leadership at work.” In Denver, a mile high, “Freedom has never rung from a higher mountaintop than it does today.” The music isn’t as bad as four years ago. That’s something. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just saying it doesn’t make me want to hurt the musical director. Yet, anyway. Where’s Will.I.Am?

It’s been five minutes now of music and panning over the Big Tent. I love the Big Tent, but it does seem like a programming problem.

Homes for our Troops? Each convention site-meaning here and in Minneapolis? Didn’t get this.

Mike and Cheryl Fisher, talking about lunch with B.O. before the IN primary. Kinda cute. Very much an aw, shucks.

Tom Balanoff, SEIU Chicago. This guy isn’t much of a speaker. OK. His tie works on TV better than it ought to. Why did they give him a prime-time slot? Is anybody other than C-SPAN going to show it?

Caroline Kennedy (Schlossberg) enters to the tune of “Sweet Caroline”, which I think means that the Sox won. “Barack Obama and Edward M. Kennedy. Their stories are very different…“ Ya think? “Barack Obama is making them feel hopeful, the way they did when my father was President.” “I’ve never had someone inspire me the way people tell me my father inspired them. But I do now, with Barack Obama.” Uncle Teddy. “If you… Teddy is your Senator, too.” wonderful.

Video tribute opens with water. A. Cline points out that Teddy and water are not necessarily the right combination. Wish that chap would quit it, if you know what I mean. The tribute thing has a touch of noblesse oblige, what with the yachts and all. Comment about Joe dying in war, a bit awkward but nice.

They are going to let him talk! Oh, wow. I am a little worried that this undermines the message, particularly the generational message. But wow. I’m teared up, a little. “we are all called to a better country and a newer world.” “For me, this is a season of hope.” Moon stuff. Not a great image, since we left it and didn’t go back. “not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation. And this November, the torch will be passed again…” “The work begins anew! The hope rises again! And the dream lives on.”

They’re playing “Still the One”. Ah, well. Time for a break, again. Last time, I came to loathe the musical director with the hate of a hundred … er … hatey things. Maybe I should go to bed.

Tom Harkin comes on and gives a brief two or three sentences in American Sign Language, with an interpreter to speak for him. Lovely. Now he’s introducing Jim Leach, a Republican Rep from Iowa.

Jim Leach is giving a dull speech. I’m knocking off for the night. I’ll watch the last two big speeches, sooner or later, right?

August 25, 2008

Things to Do in Denver when You're Not in Denver

Your Humble Blogger watched almost all of last cycle’s Democratic Convention, and blogged a lot of it, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I particularly enjoyed blogging the not-ready-for-prime-time stuff. And I would enjoy watching and blogging again this year: this evening will be a dozen or so Representatives with whom I am mostly unfamiliar, the Attorney General of Illinois, Sen. Klobuchar, some union folk, eventually Sens. Harkin and McCaskill, and of course Michelle Obama. And I will watch some of it, I hope. But not much.

Part of that is simply the time zone thing. Today’s action starts at three in the afternoon, Mountain Time, which is five in Connecticut, not a good hour for focusing on the live stream . The two or three hours that follow are also bad; I could have the stream on, but I will be eating dinner with my family (a very important thing, which I have missed far too often this summer), and then playing with my children and getting them to bed. I can’t say I know for sure when Ms. Obama will speak, but the schedule calls for her to be the last speech, likely at around ten o’clock our time. I may watch, or I may turn in early; I am still catching up on lost sleep from being in a show.

Anyway, I will probably make the odd comment or two, but I’m afraid that for full convention blogging you will have to look elsewhere. Or do it yourself! I’ll open this Tohu Bohu to guest posts on the convention, or you can comment on these posts. Help a brother out, Gentle Readers.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 22, 2008

What to do, what to do

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t been blogging much about the presidential campaign lately. I have been following the news, believe me. I just don’t have much to say about it. I remain moderately confident that Barack Obama will win the election, although I suspect it will be fairly close. I remain amazed at how lousy a candidate John McCain is, but don’t think that will matter very much. I remain concerned more about the congressional elections than the White House, and very happy about what’s going on there, particularly how well Sen. Obama’s campaign seems to be integrating with local campaigns.

I suppose the thing I find most interesting, from a rhetorical standpoint, is the decision to hold Sen. Obama’s acceptance speech outside the convention hall. Really, it’s a terrific thing. I am fond of the FDR precedent of speaking directly to the convention, but now that it has been the common practice for a generation, it has lost its power. It’s far more powerful, as a story, to walk out of the smoke-filled room and speak to the rank and file directly. And, of course, with fifty thousand or so people in Mile High Stadium, all of whom are eager to provide him with great television, I suspect the moment will be a triumph.

John McCain can’t do the same thing, of course, partially because it would look bad to copy the innovation (yes, I know, not really an innovation) of the Democratic Nominee, and partially because he is not good at big speeches in front of big crowds, and even with 50,000 Republicans rooting for him, it would be too likely to fail. Also, while both candidates have reputations as being independent from the Party Line, John McCain’s is (a) slightly more grounded in actual hostility between him and much of the Party, and (2) in the public mind, more based on his maverick rejection of the Party Line than on an outreach across it. Where Sen. Obama can walk out of the convention and take the Party with him, if Sen. McCain walked out of the convention, he would be viewed as leaving it behind.

So what can John McCain do that would get lots of publicity, help with the narrative of his campaign and play to his strengths? Realistically, just keep expectations low, give a boring speech at a boring convention, like everyone expects, and hope nobody notices it or remembers it. Which they won’t, probably. And then we move on to the debates, where Sen. McCain should do very well. But what if he didn’t give a speech at all?

Just an idea, and probably a bad one, but what if he simply didn’t give an acceptance speech? If he stood on the floor with the delegation from Arizona, let himself be nominated, and waved his thanks from the floor? Then he lets himself be interviewed by the news programs, one after another, on the floor of the convention, while the crowd celebrates and chants (and bands play) and various popular Republicans come by, interrupt the interviews and slap him on the back. Gently. You know. It would have to be very well organized, and the Senator would have to fully commit to the choreography (as would the Republican officeholders and celebrities), and still it might not work. But it might?

And perhaps in addition, either before counting the votes or the next night, how about some sort of panel discussion about policy with Sen. McCain, Newt Gingrich perhaps, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or someone from the primaries, and somebody from the administration (that isn’t under indictment), to set up all those ad lib bon mots that John McCain does very well. It’s his strength as a speaker, such as it is.

My Best Reader suggested that, since realistically my idea has no chance of being even considered, the wild news-making idea might be for the candidate and his vice-presidential ticket-mate could give a combined speech, passing the ball back and forth in a conversational but still formal manner. That has the chance of putting the Senator at ease and giving him some opportunity for repartee, while still mostly giving people what they expect, the candidate at the podium in prime time. I see that, although then he really must pick someone he can banter with, which leaves out almost everyone who can help him win the election, right?

Or, of course, he could go Old School, not go to the convention at all, and have some surrogate read his acceptance from the telegram.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 6, 2008

From Dependence to Independence: a citizenship story

Your Humble Blogger has picked up a book by Noelle McAfee, who blogs over at gonepublic. She seems to be a very interesting thinker, and a few pages provoked a great deal of thinking on my part, as well as a sense that YHB will very frequently be using slightly modified versions of her metaphors and framing devices to discuss political matters. So don’t read her book, dammit! It’ll ruin the whole thing.

Anyway, the one thing I thought I’d throw out there for Gentle Readers to kick around is her idea that instead of looking at political maturity as a progress from dependence to independence, we should look at it as a progress … wait, before I get to that point, let’s look at her rejected paradigm to see if (a) it’s a straw man that nobody sensible would actually argue, or (2) it’s a very solid idea that we reject only at great cost.

The idea, and I’m going to try to articulate it myself, without resorting to her language, is that traditional views of democratic participation and citizenship have, as their ideal, the citizen as an independent rational actor. Given two policies, the ideal citizen will use abstract reason to determine the preferable one. This citizen will not be swayed by the individuals proposing their ideas, nor the rhetoric with which the ideas are communicated. You will know the ideal citizen, in fact, by his (or her) ability to strip away the inflammatory rhetoric, the appeals to passion, fear and ambition, the partisan jockeying that poisons our political discourse. No, the ideal citizen will vote for the man, not the party, and for the policy, not the man. It’s all about issues. Not to be distracted by flag pins or swift boats or a comparison of spouses styles, but to keep eyes on prize, that prize being, of course, policy.

There are two problems with that ideal that come to YHB’s mind after dipping into Ms. McAfee’s book. One is, of course, that it’s preposterous bullshit. Nobody does that. We might as well have an ideal citizen who is impervious to cold or heat, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, or who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. People may attempt to vote or deliberate without being tainted by emotional appeals, but they will succeed mostly in deceiving themselves about their supposed rationality.

On the other hand, the preposterous bullshit may serve a useful purpose. If we hold to our ideal citizen as described above, we gain merit by learning not to be deceived by rhetorical tricks. The more we try to achieve that ideal, the less we are swayed by fear and hate, and the more our ultimate decisions will be good ones. For all that everybody’s perception of the universe is incomplete and inaccurate, yet the universe does exist. I can apply my skills to it and improve my perception without the hope of some attainable perfection. We will, you see, make better decisions if we fool ourselves into acting as if this ideal were attainable. So that first problem is not necessarily a disaster, although it should be pointed out that perhaps basing self-governance on self-deception is not altogether a pleasant thing.

The other problem that comes to mind is that on a deep level, the emphasis on individual reasoned decision-making makes it difficult for people to reconcile their differing views. That is, if I come to a rational decision, based on all the facts and not tempered by my emotional or tribal attachments, and you come to a different decision, then you are wrong. Oh, yes, it’s possible to agree to disagree, to weigh different kinds of costs differently and to interpret evidence differently, but the way it actually works is that you are wrong. I have done the ideal citizen thing, and you have been duped by demagogues. This is a serious danger: George Santayana felt that democracy was inherently flawed because the minority could never really accept the legitimacy of the majority when the majority was wrong, and of course the minority would always think the majority was wrong or else they would join it. This is exacerbated by our ideal of the independent citizen; if I pride myself on coming to my political conclusions independently, rather than being influenced by my community, then it is easier for me to reject the individuals who have come to different (and inferior) decisions, who are independently and individually responsible for those decisions.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for sticking to that individual, minority view. As long as we accept the process, we can grant the legitimacy of a government with which we disagree. And for all the trouble we’ve had in the last two decades (or more) of the Parties questioning the legitimacy of each other’s electoral victories, would it have been any better if the groups were any less assured of the rightness or independence or rationality of their decisions? Surely our ideal citizen would, in his rationality, his independence and his relentless focus on The Issues, be less susceptible to the pettiest aspects of those decades of partisan bickering. Instead, the ideal citizen would focus on those areas where such disagreements affect governance, which would make it all the harder for politicians of either Party to achieve dubious goals by distraction and division. If the problem is, to some extent, factionalism, then having the ideal citizen who disdains to aggregate himself with any faction is a brake. Although, here, too, it may not be a good thing for a community to eschew communitarianism outright.

So. Gentle Readers. We start with this idea, that the ideal citizen is the product of a growth from dependence to independence. First, we have no political ideas at all, nor any way to express them. Then as children, we learn a little about politics, but are incapable of formulating independent ideas or of rationally analyzing platforms and candidacies, and our entire worldview is dominated by our family and school to the point where even if we had the skills to analyze or formulate, we would be either imitating or rebelling against those other views rather than being independent. Then, as we get more sophisticated, we learn to set aside our biases, to disagree or agree with our parents, teachers and friends based on the facts at hand, rather than our relationships. We learn, as well, to view the statements of politicians skeptically, and to brush aside empty rhetoric and misleading appeals. Ideally, now, we arm ourselves against demagoguery and deception. We don’t just accept the advice of our parents or our pastors or our union bosses; we view their advice, also, with a skeptical and rational eye. We spot logical fallacies and reject fallacious conclusions. We judge, based not on our emotions and attachments, but on reason and evidence, and we do so as individuals, independently, each going in to a voting booth, pulling the curtain closed (perhaps metaphorically), and registering one single vote, to be tallied with all the other individual votes, each aspiring to the rationality and unbiased impartiality of the ideal citizen, cumulatively guiding a state aspiring to rationality and impartiality itself.

Does that seem like a fair description of our cultural ideals, and the assumptive ideals of John Rawls and Immanuel Kant and Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill and John Dewey and Robert Nozick and G. A. Cohen and Milton Friedman, as well as of James Madison himself? Of course not, that would be preposterous bullshit to claim. But the point, I think, is that there is a fundamental mindset that binds up ideas of individual autonomy with democracy and liberty, that makes this development—from dependence to independence—a fundamental story we tell ourselves about ourselves as citizens, and that we set up our democratic states in accordance with that story. Which leads to two questions: is it a true story, and is it a good story?

And another: what would be a better story?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 29, 2008

One goes up, the other comes down

One recent bit of nutmeggy goodness in my home state is a push in the legislature to again allow gas stations to offer a cash discount. I’m annoyed by the rhetoric of this, so I thought I’d bring my venting here.

Why call it a cash discount? Why not call it a credit surcharge? That’s what’s going on, isn’t it? The gas is one price, and if you pay that price, fine, but if you put it on a card, it incurs an extra cost for the station, and they want to pass that cost (or some portion of it) back to you. That seems reasonable to me; allowing them to discount for cash seems less so.

Of course, I don’t really see why they should be allowed to pass the surcharge for gas on to you, and not be allowed to pass on the surcharge for, f’r’ex, a gallon of milk purchased in the little convenience store attached to the station. Or, for that matter, why gas stations should be allowed to add that surcharge, but grocery stores and clothiers and restaurants should not. I would be OK with allowing everybody to do that, if they wanted. I can see arguments against it, and if I had to vote on such a bill, I don’t really know which way I’d lean. But only allowing such a surcharge at gas stations doesn’t make much sense to me. Why is gas different from milk? I mean, other than the obvious, which has nothing to do with credit charges?

I also wouldn’t mind some better regulation on the credit card industry on how much they are allowed to charge vendors, and how much they are allowed to squeeze. That would be swell, and would probably do more to ease inflationary pressure than allowing a credit surcharge.

Which is where the rhetoric comes in. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, exactly, to call it a cash discount. It’s not as if there is some normative price, below which is a discount and above which is a surcharge, and we can tell which is which and apply the appropriate name. It’s that calling it a cash discount puts the focus on the discount, where calling it a credit surcharge puts the focus on the credit, and from a public policy point of view (and the legislature is presumably taking it up as public policy, not as a deputy sales force for the gas stations), the focus should be on the credit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 24, 2008

The Big Story

Once in a while, a politician will say something dumb. Are you with me so far? Once in a while, the dumb thing will become news and take over the airwaves and column-inches to a really horrifying extent. We’ve got an example of it this morning, and I think it’s worth us all taking a look at it and talking about the phenomenon.

Let’s start with the dumb thing. Here’s Hillary Clinton, in response to a question about whether she should drop out of the race now, rather than waiting until the primaries are over in June:

Between my opponent and his camp, and some in the media, there has been this urgency to end this. And, you know, historically that makes no sense. So I find it a bit of a mystery. [interviewer: you don’t buy the party unity argument?] I don’t, because, again, I’ve been around long enough. My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I just, I don’t understand it. There’s lots of speculation about why it is, but [interviewer: what’s your speculation?] You know, I don’t know. I find it curious.

…and just so you have a good sense of the inflection, go and watch the video and then come back. Oh, hell, let me try to embed the bastard thing.

This made the front page of the Hartford Courant, made the above-the-fold part of the New York Times on the web (and I think made the front page of the print below the fold, but I’m not sure about that), made the Guardian, and of course made all the blogs and web sites, too. Sam Boyd, over at TAPped, in a note called Oh No She Didn’t says “Hillary Clinton suggests, elliptically at the very least, that she’s staying the presidential race in case Barack Obama is assassinated.” Hunh? But yes, that’s how it seems to be playing. Katharine Q. Seelye, in the New York Times article, says that “the comments touched on one of the most sensitive aspects of the current presidential campaign—concern for Mr. Obama’s safety.”

I’ll try to be brief here with my analysis of the actual statement, since I don’t think the actual statement is terribly important. It’s obvious to me that Senator Clinton was invoking a historical argument to say that it is perfectly fine to have a nomination contested until June, because it has been so contested in the past without problems. And we remember about June, because it was June when Robert Kennedy was killed, which we remember. This is unpersuasive as an argument because (a) the calendar, news media, and cultural context is very different than it was in 1992 and even more different than it was in 1968, (2) 1968 was a disastrous year for the Party, even before the assassination, and (iii) the nomination fight in 1992 was essentially over after New Hampshire, when the Comeback Kid took second and was assumed to romp on Super Tuesday in his home South, which he did, and that took care of Paul Tsongas. You could make an argument that, independent of anything else, June is plenty of time to pick a nominee for an August convention, much less a November election, but the historical stuff is irrelevant to that. Or you could make the opposite sort of argument, from uniqueness, that there has never been an election so close, where two candidates had so many pledged delegates, and where both were still winning primaries so far into the calendar, and that for that reason we should savor it and see it through, rather than rushing to stop it. But nobody who wants the Senator to withdraw now, or who wanted her to withdraw after the Texas primary, will be convinced by a historical argument, nor should they be.

OK. Fine, it was a bad argument, and like the arguments about which states count and which methods for counting the total number of votes cast count, and most of the other arguments about how she could realio trulio be the nominee, is both unpersuasive and a trifle embarrassing. In my opinion, the stuff that implies that pale-skinned voters should be the deciding factor in our Party’s nomination is more offensive than the reference to a historical event, but evidently that’s just me. This one is the big news. Why?

I think it’s because the dominant narrative—the story of what happens, rather than what happens—has become Senator Clinton’s desperate struggle to stay afloat. In this story, she is lashing out, trying anything, no longer caring who gets hurt, grasping at the lowest-probability straws. The thing about this story is that it ends with her utter destruction. Not just her losing the nomination, mind you, but abandonment by all her political friends and allies, and the total loss of power over others and control over herself. I’m not saying that will actually happen, mind you, just that it’s the way the story goes, and that if that’s the story that we are telling ourselves nationally, that’s the story we will see. Fortunately, there is always the chance that in a couple of years we will be telling ourselves an entirely different story. A couple of months, even. We’re easy that way.

The other narrative that I think is making this whole thing click is the Camelot story. Handsome young man goes to Washington, bringing fresh energy, new hope and a generational change, and They kill him. That story, combined with the deeper but vaguer fear of racial violence, leads us to be very sensitive to the idea that Barack Obama is peculiarly vulnerable to assassination. Honestly, I think there’s something to that, in that I know there are a lot of violent racists in this country, but then I think that there are a lot of violent misogynists in this country, and Hillary Clinton has been vilified for more than fifteen years. A disturbed young fellow in his early twenties may not remember a world without people saying on the radio that Hillary Clinton was a murderess. Of course, I am astonished that there haven’t been close calls with Our Only President himself. He is mildly disliked by a lot of people, but he is actively hated by quite a few as well, some of whom have never accepted his legitimacy in office, and some of whom fear that, having disregarded many provisions of the Constitution, he will not leave office in January 2009. I am pleased that nobody, domestic or foreign, has made serious attempts to murder the man, but I am surprised. Particularly since there were two or three attempts on the life of Our Previous President, some sort of foreign conspiracy to take the life of the President Before That, the One Before That was actually shot, and in fact most of the Presidents of my lifetime have had attempts on their life, from Squeaky Fromme to the guy who tried to hijack an airplane.

Anyway, I think a lot of us have a real and only somewhat irrational fear that Barack Obama will be assassinated. And, of course, a Kennedy has been in the news recently; that’s presumably part of why Senator Clinton had it in mind and repeated the comment (which she has evidently made more than once). I think it’s not altogether shocking that our pattern-matching brains put the two together.

The problem is that I want my journalism to be smarter than that. I want my newspaper editors and yes, even my bloggers to be aware of the temptation to go along with the narratives, and to resist it as much as they can. It’ll still happen, of course, but maybe it’ll be less annoying in between times. At least for me. What do you think, Gentle Readers? Are you seeing a different set of narratives? In what context does the placement of this story on the front page make sense to you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 22, 2008

Mamet vs. Edgar

Did any of y’all actually read David Mamet’s now-famous essay in the Village Voice called Why I Am No Longer a ’Brain-Dead Liberal’: An election-season essay? If so, I am sorry. I know you are stupider now for having read it, but there’s an antidote: David Edgar’s essay in the Guarniad called With friends like these . . .

Aside from the fact that Mr. Edgar is, on the whole, on the same side of the political spectrum as YHB, which makes my recommendation suspect, it should be obvious on a moment’s scanning of the two articles that Mr. Edgar knows his political and cultural history, and that Mr. Mamet doesn’t. Furthermore, Mr. Edgar knows that conservative and liberal are not just nice little labels but are alliances with political goals and political effects. Mr. Mamet, despite writing for an election season, doesn't talk about actual politicians and actual policies. He simply makes the argument that “tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.” Mr. Edgar responds, “Whether they like it or not, the current defectors are seeking to provide a vocabulary for the progressive intelligentsia to abandon the poor.”

Well, and Mr. Edgar is placing Mr. Mamet’s defection into a cultural and historical context of which Mr. Mamet appears to be unaware. Mr. Mamet may, however, by faking that ignorance. It’s hard to tell. A thing I find particularly disingenuous about Mr. Mamet’s essay is that although he mentions his rabbi and congregation (and jokes about calling NPR ‘National Palestinian Radio), he doesn’t connect his new conservatism with the support for conservative politicians and positions among other Orthodox Jews. Considering that much of Mr. Mamet’s time and energy over the last decade has gone into writing about Judaism, I think it’s misleading for him to say that he hasn’t thought about politics until starting to write November. Perhaps he is, himself, misled. It seems likely.

Mr. Edgar seems to understand something that I think should have been brought ought more clearly: a person’s opinions are not simply his own, self-built and independent. That’s crap. Your opinions, my opinions, are inventions of the community. You have volition, sure, in choosing what opinions to have, but that is in no way a separate matter from choosing your community. It’s part of the same business. Mr. Mamet may think that his narrow view of acceptable Judaism has nothing to do with his new-found appreciation for market-based solutions for the ills of the nation, but I doubt it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 15, 2008


So. Barack Obama said something that was awkward, and although it wasn’t substantially false, or substantially different from things he has said over the years, or from things that other people have said over the years, he’s getting shit over it.


That’s part of the process. We find out who is good at campaigning by watching them campaign. Chris Dodd is a good candidate on paper, but the proof of that pudding was in the eating, and they spit him out like a toddler spits out the foodstuff that he liked just fine yesterday, for crying out loud, and now what the hell is he going to eat?

Er, where was I? Oh, yes. Fine, I have no problem with people giving him shit about this stuff, and I think he’s getting over it pretty well, which to me is the last bit of showing that he’s capable of running a decent general election campaign. But made me think about gaffes and mistakes, and campaigns and all.

My diagnosis is that (like Harold Dean’s confederate-flag-decal moment last go-round) this particular mistake was the result of having a well-thought out idea and then repeating it in slightly different form over and over again for months and months and months. Eventually, you will hit on a way of expressing it that connotes something terrible and unintended. Instead of saying that a lot of voters have (bitterly) given up on the ability of politics to make an actual difference in their economic lives and therefore vote on non-economic issues (bye-the-bye what Dr. Dean was on about as well), he says that voters non-economic preferences are themselves the result of their economic bitterness. And, you know, it’s not like that’s false. It’s just that it wasn’t what he meant to say. Which you can tell from the hundred other times he said it.

The safe thing, of course, is to always say the same thing the exact same way, but (a) that’s a bit boring over the years, particularly for an intelligent man who likes rhetoric and words, and (2) you risk a reputation for robotically repeating the same things over and over, which won’t necessarily be better than having to deal with the occasional gaffes.

I don’t believe that mistakes of this kind reveal the inner thinking of the candidate. I don’t necessarily believe in the inner thinking of the candidate, and to the extent that the candidate has inner thinking, I don’t know that it makes any difference. But combine natural political haymaking with the desire to be in on something, and such moments are analyzed in detail for what they reveal. I don’t think they reveal much.

I don’t think that Stephen Hadley really doesn’t know the difference between Tibet and Nepal. That’s a mental block moment, not fundamental ignorance (although it’s possible that George Stephanopoulos is fundamentally ignorant, either of the world or his job). The HuffPo calls it a "horrendous gaffe", and it is, in the sense that it’s a very public error, but I don’t see any reason to take it at all seriously.

But, you ask, what about John McCain’s errors, particularly his frequent statements that Iran is training and supplying Al Qaeda in Iraq? Well, in all honesty, I don’t think that the specific errors in Q&A pressers are very important. I think it’s possible to go to his actual prepared statements for things that are either similar or worse; basing a vote or a persuasion campaign on the accidental stuff seems silly to me. But yes, my gut tells me that those errors are revealing, that his mistakes lift the veil on a vast sea of ignorance and metaphor mixing. But I don’t trust my gut. My gut knows I don’t like the man. If my gut thought I didn’t like Barack Obama, my gut would tell me that the bitter thing proved that he couldn’t be trusted as the nominee. My gut is loyal, but my gut’s perception of the universe is not the universe.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 13, 2008

Or, as we used to say, schvartze

I surprise myself by having something to say about the Geraldine Ferraro business. Not a lot to say, although I expect to say it in a lot of words, as Gentle Readers would imagine. So settle in.

Ms. Ferraro said “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

Now, I want to be clear: rhetorically, this connotes racism. The connotations are clearly those of the white person who doesn’t get the job that goes to the underqualified black person. This is a trope that’s been repeated many times, in various places in the culture, and it reminds us (and should remind us) of those other uses. It doesn’t matter, rhetorically, if Ms. Ferraro is a racist, or meant it in a derogatory manner (she clarified that she meant to compare the situation to her own nomination to the Vice-Presidency: “In 1984 if my name had been Gerald Ferraro, not Geraldine, I would never have gotten nominated. Was I qualified? Absolutely.”). It still rings the bells that it rings. You don’t get a pass for good intentions.

I do want to examine the trope a little further, though. Usually, when I hear it in Real Life, it’s some white person (usually a man, in personal sample, but I don’t mean to suggest that men use it more frequently than women other than in conversation with me) saying that he has applied for a job, but that he wouldn’t get it, because he put on the voluntary form that he was white. Often this comes with a ‘joke’ about how he should put down that he’s one-thirty-second Cherokee, or that he’s from Betelgeuse, or something equally hilarious.

I try, sometimes, to point out the context. It may be true that the particular employer is giving a break to our dusky-hued brethren, but it often isn’t. There are other factors at work, and one of the factors is that the person making the hiring decision may be a person like our jokester, who likes to work with people like him, and hey! Our jokester is more like him than that other guy, the one with, you know, the different racial heritage. This happens a lot. A lot. Still. No kidding. Even when the hiring process is rigged to privilege the less-privileged.

But even if in this particular instance there is a benefit to being in a racial minority, how can anybody think that it’s even the slightest bit funny to sign on for that benefit without anything else? He’s not signing on for getting stopped by traffic cops. He’s not signing on for being followed around in clothes stores. He’s not signing on for being treated differently by mortgage brokers. No, he just wants to be a minority when he thinks it works for him. Even further—when he jokes about signing on as Cherokee, he’s not signing on for growing up on the reservation, with lousy schools and 50% unemployment, for having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (or having cousins or neighbors with it), or for being tracked out of the possibility of getting prepared for the job that he just applied for. No, grow up white and then whine about it later.

As a digression, I should add that fellows like this aren’t always racist in the sense of believing that people of other races are genetically inferior. Many of them think it’s a matter of culture, that kids are taught such-and-such bad habits and given such-and-such bad role models. For some reason, that doesn’t bring out the pity in them. Surely, even if I can’t imagine that I might have been born with dark skin, I can imagine what it’s like to grow up being taught those bad habits. Surely that would be just as vicious a result of racism as if we taught Cherokees that two plus two is five! I would think that such people would be forced to support affirmative action to remedy the deprivation, even more strongly that people like me who don’t, on the whole, believe that Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and other racial minorities in America can be assumed to have any inferiority at all, cultural or genetic. Anyway.

Ms. Ferraro does, I should point out, know all this. A trifle over a year ago, in The Pattern May Change, Adam Nagourney quotes her: “I think [winning the presidency]’s more realistic for a woman than it is for an African-American. There is a certain amount of racism that exists in the United States—whether it’s conscious or not it’s true.”

Now, Gentle Reader, come one step further with me, please. For any aspect of life that is, on the whole, detrimental, there will be certain extraordinary people who are able to turn it to their advantage. This is a wonderful thing about us. And, on occasion, it’s an annoying thing about us. So Ms. Ferraro, facing the patriarchal structure in politics, was able to turn her sex into an asset. She had the disadvantages. Those didn’t disappear. But she was able to add onto those a new set of advantages. So, too, has Barack Obama turned the disadvantage that Ms. Ferraro saw a year ago into the advantage she sees today. This is entirely to his credit. It’s a remarkable thing, and I feel lucky to be witnessing it. Not only because it’s being done in this arena, but because Sen. Obama is doing it in a way that is good for the whole society.

Lincoln Perry turned the disadvantage of pervasive, vicious racism into the advantage of being Stepin Fetchit. The result could be argued back and forth, but I’d say that on the whole, it was not an advantage to other people. Barack Obama is not only turning his disadvantage to an advantage for his own candidacy, but an advantage for other African-Americans, and ultimately an advantage for everybody in this country. Whether he becomes President, or becomes the nominee of my Party for the Presidency, that’s a great thing.

I’ll retreat with another little point specific to Ms. Ferraro and the two Senators. It seems to me, and in fact it seems obvious to me, that if there had not been a black candidate who had been proved to be seen as a viable candidate by white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, then Sen. Clinton would have got more than half the black vote in South Carolina and other of the early primaries, and the whole thing would have been over before Super-Duper-Ooper-Toosday. But then, if there had been a Jewish candidate that was proved to be seen as viable in Iowa and New Hampshire, perhaps Sen. Clinton wouldn’t have won California and New York. It’s cheating to take only the counterfactuals that make your side win. There is a viable black candidate, so of course things are different than they ever were. I understand why some of Sen. Clinton’s supporters, who along with Ms. Ferraro assumed that there was no fucking way that there would be a black candidate that anybody thought could win, feel that the reason their candidate is losing is because Barack Obama is black. I understand that, and I understand that it seems so obvious to them that they are frustrated that nobody is saying it. But if you are saying it, and you don’t also say that Barack Obama’s ability to turn the natural disadvantages under which he has lived into positives is admirable and remarkable, then you have lost the right to complain when people call you racist. Too bad. Swallow it. If the worst thing that happens to you today is that somebody calls you a racist, then you win the day.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 12, 2008

John McCain: more complicated than that

It’s been a commonplace truth of politics for some time now that the press is Senator McCain’s base. He gets tremendously favorable coverage. He works hard to get it, and makes good use of it. Trying to look at it fresh, it’s actually remarkable that they like him so much, since he has little in common with them. He’s a cranky old man from a military family. He doesn’t come from a background in journalism; lots of politicians do, and they don’t always get breaks from the press (see Gore, Albert, Junior).

The answer seems to be that Senator McCain makes their jobs easier. He gives lots of access, and lots of quotes. The quotes are often newsworthy, and they are generally very simple. Paul Waldman over at The American Prospect says that John McCain may be More Bellicose than Bush?

Ask, say, Joe Biden a question about foreign affairs, and he’ll blabber on for hours about all the different forces at work affecting a particular region of the world. You may nod off midway through, but there’s little doubt the guy knows what he’s talking about. Ask McCain, on the other hand, and he’ll do little more than repeat some shopworn clichés. If he has a wealth of knowledge and understanding, he’s certainly doing a good job keeping it hidden.

The thing is, I can imagine the reporter’s frustration in listening to the hypothetical answer from Senator Biden. How am I going to turn this into a story? he would ask himself, and he probably wouldn’t bother to try too hard to do it. In fact, he might not even try too hard to understand the complicated, hours-long answer. He might not have the background to understand it. Journalists can’t be expected to have a good background in everything, and those assigned to the political beat generally have a good background in electoral politics and in writing journalism, and (I suspect) not much else. A detailed answer about macro-economics or geopolitics or climate change or even tax policy could be beyond their ken, and that isn’t assuming that they’re dim.

And you know some of them are dim. And some of them don’t like being made to feel dim by some policy wonk.

So Senator McCain gives them short, wacky quotes that they can understand, and that they know they can easily present to their readers and viewers and listeners, and that they know that their readers and viewers and listeners will understand, and that’s a good guy to have around.

I don’t happen to think that Sen. McCain is doing it on purpose. That is to say, I suspect he’s got a natural tendency to talk that way, and that he has, over the years, responded to the support of the press by becoming more like himself. If he comes out of a bull session on the campaign bus thinking the SOBs ate that up with spoons, I suspect it is with pride, rather than contempt. Or self-contempt. I don’t know, of course. The man could be simple like a fox. But I doubt it.

All that said, is there a good lesson for us Democratic students of applied rhetoric in the way John McCain has garnered the support of the press? I believe (on the whole) that our Party understands that it’s more complicated than that is always a correct answer to any question; I wonder sometimes if we understand that it’s not the only correct answer, and is rarely the best or most helpful answer. On the other hand, we can’t give up on that answer in order to win elections, or we lose the more important contest for the future of the country. I do think that we need to understand the dynamic, and if we can’t use it to our own advantage (and I suspect we can’t), we can at least try to play a better defense against it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 6, 2008

She's my country, I think I'll keep her

Travis Daub over at the Foreign Policy Passport notes that John McCain loves Lady Liberty. He makes a terrific point about the candidate’s rhetorical reference to our nation in the feminine:

First, using "her" shows McCain as a traditionalist. He talks about great causes the way a founding father might have spoken. And second, McCain establishes himself as a paternal figure: a man who has the power to protect, honor and provide for a woman—when that woman just happens to be the USA. It's a subtle way to imply that a woman would not be able to do the same job as president as a man. Certainly, it would sound strange for Hillary Clinton to refer to America as "her." In this way, McCain can covertly raise the gender issue without ever sounding overtly sexist.

I often claim that we should teach rhetoric at the high school level. This is one example of a case where it’s fairly difficult to explain what’s going on to people who don’t know anything at all about rhetoric. After all, why shouldn’t Senator McCain refer to America as she. It really is the traditional way. And it is. And if it comes off as sexist in some indirect way, surely that’s just the inevitable baggage of the tradition, and besides, isn’t a big deal anyway.

There’s nothing necessarily nefarious about his choice. After all, he is the Conservative candidate (at least he is the more Conservative candidate), and if his language indicates Conservatism, he will be indicating Conservatism in a variety of other ways as well, including the name of his Party. It’s not dishonest. It’s not a dog whistle.

But it does have connotations that aren’t necessarily obvious to the hearer, and that contribute to the vague impressions that are, after all, what most of us take away from political speeches. The more people who know something about rhetoric and how it works, the more people who understand that there are deliberate choices to connote those things, the less vague those impressions will be.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 7, 2008

words, words, words

Eric Alterman in The Nation mentions a speech by John F. Kennedy accepting the nomination of New York’s Liberal Party in 1960. It’s an interesting speech. Mr. Alterman (and others, including the audience) picked out the bit at the beginning, where then-Senator Kennedy suggests that he (and by extention each Liberal in the audience) is “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I’m proud to say I’m a "Liberal."”

There’s a bit of fuss, to which Mr. Alterman is responding, about whether the Democratic Party in this country should keep or reject the adjective liberal. I am ambivalent, myself. Mr. Kennedy’s speech notwithstanding, I’m not terribly comfortable with definitions of political liberalism that are connected to the word and its traditions. In fact, and I think I’ve said this before, I think there the two parties in this country broadly represent on our side the idea that the federal government should use a bit more of its power to protect those with less power (money, education, connection, resources, etc) from those with more, and those who think that such is not an appropriate role for the federal government. There are a variety of reasons and motivations for those, but that’s the essential split and the politics of it. There isn’t much that’s liberal about our side, except I suppose a sense of great-spiritedness, or at least a sense of that the other side is unacceptably stingy. In terms of liberty, well, we’re for it in general, but as I said, I don’t think there’s a liberty-related definition that makes a lot of sense for the Party or its agenda.

I do tend to think of myself as progressive, not in the sense of the Progressive Party, but in the sense that I tend to describe my mindset in opposition to the Conservative attitude toward our inherited institutions, values, symbols and rituals. The Conservative mindset (on the whole) is that our IVSRs are in danger and must be protected. I feel that we can have better ones, and that our job is essentially to progress to better ones.

Still, if I describe myself as politically progressive, I don’t get to decide what that means or what it connotes. Same with liberal. The truth is that (as with conservative) the words have connotations and meanings, and that in practice the Democratic Party is the liberal Party and its candidate will be seen as a liberal, perhaps as too liberal. Vaddevah dat means.

You know, Your Humble Blogger is a jerk. But I really want somebody high up enough in Democratic politics that the Sunday morning pundit-wallahs have to talk to them now and then to take up the rhetorical strategy of playing dumb when people use certain words. What do you mean? When you use the word liberal, what do you mean by that? How do you know if a policy or a candidate is liberal, or how liberal it is? and just keep at it until the host either gives up or says something. Not just with that word, of course, but with lots of stuff. Because I really don’t know what Mr. Lehrer or Ms. Clift or Mr. Russert or the buffoon Chris Matthews mean, most of the time. More important, though, I think it would help my party, electorally, to have somebody give them shit about the words they use and how they use them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2008

Yes, we can, but not all of us did

Y’all have had the opportunity to watch the Obama video that has been turning up all over the place. I think it’s a terrific video, but I thought I’d just set down for Gentle Readers my experience of it.

I came to it through the link from Eschaton, to a site called dipdive, which at the time had essentially no text, simply the video with no explanation. And, here’s the thing: I’m old. I stopped acquiring new music (as opposed to old music) at least ten years ago. I stopped watching broadcast television around that time, too. I still watch the occasional movie, but of the umpty-’leven movies that come out in a year, I generally see fewer than a dozen, including watching at home the next year or the year after. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been on a bit of a movie-watching binge, what with being sick and all; I watched Topper, King Solomon’s Mines (the 1937 one), Torn Curtain, Shall We Dance, Pride and Prejudice (the 1940 one) and My Fair Lady.

So. I do know know what looks like. I more or less know who he is, and I can’t swear that I haven’t ever listened to his music, although, again, the last ten artists on the shuffle I’m currently listening to are Carmen McRae, the Hi-Fives, Duke Ellington, Kate Bush, the Kingston Trio, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Mabel Mercer, Paul Simon, The Who, Eurythmics and Lena Horne. Or is that eleven? Anyway, I’m (a) old, and (2) not interested in keeping up with music. And white, which plays a part in it, too. But what I’m saying is that my first thought the beginning was not That’s but That’s some black dude with a great look. And then as the thing progressed, I was in the frame of thinking that whoever had put this together had got a bunch of people with great looks together to do this thing, making a sort of Mosaic of America kind of thing. That framework prevented me from, for instance, recognizing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar other than as a guy that looked kinda like Kareem. Nor did I recognize Scarlett Johansson, other than as a conventionally pretty young thing. I did notice that many of the people were unusually good-looking, but that seemed like a normal sort of thing. Here’s the point: Your Humble Blogger totally failed to recognize any of the celebrities in the video. Zero. On the first time through. None. At all.

And I loved it. I thought is was wonderful on half-a-dozen levels, a magnificent thing, really moving, and I hoped that with people like Atrios pushing it, the video would get a lot of play and go (as they somewhat disgustingly say) viral. Then I found out who the dude at the front was, and that it had debuted on Good Morning America (or whatever), and that they had essentially infinite resources to make the thing, and I watched it again and recognized half-a-dozen of the people (although I must admit that most of the celebrities I did not recognize, and still don’t know what they look like, nor particularly care), and I was disappointed. Really profoundly disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a lovely piece. It’s not only moving rhetorically, but it’s interesting artistically, using sampling and riffing in a way I find inspired. It’s certainly not a bad thing for celebrities (whether YHB celebrates them or not) to use their various talents or even just their celebrity to improve the country and its politics. And I love the way that the video lauds rhetoric itself, makes the act of speechmaking not only respectable but essential, transformative in itself. All great. No complaints about the video. But my experience of it was a trifle depressing.

Also, there’s this: I have been meaning to write about the way that YouTube (and to a lesser extent, other video sharing on the web) may be very interesting in this political cycle. I had seen a parody ad “for” Mitt Romney which I thought was absolutely hilarious, and it occurred to me that this is something new. In the last few cycles, say two generations or so, almost everything we saw came from the campaigns, filtered somewhat through the news media, with some added stuff from the late-night television comics (which I wanted to write about as well). I think this year, though, it’s likely (not certain, but likely) that some campaign-related video put together by some goofy kids will go all bacteriological or whatever, and that the Al Gore invented the internet catchphrase of this time around will come from nowhere. And the campaigns have this total loose cannon stuff out there, exploitable but not controllable, and they are in a fascinating bind because of course any particular hilarious video has very likely been put together by some loser with a criminal record who also has been editing together anime porn to the Buzzcocks, so the they can’t link directly to the video, but once it catches on, can the candidate refer to it in a stump speech? In response to a reporter’s question, can she admit to having seen it? Can he admit to not having seen it? Lots of fun to be had. But it turns out that this video has nothing to do with that; it’s a good old-fashioned (if brilliant) campaign song.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 21, 2008

National Day of Remembrance

I find I have little to add, this Martin Luther King Day to what I said three years ago. If you, Gentle Reader, have a thought to share about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his remembrance, please feel free to share it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Edited to add: as usual, a browse through the words of the Reverend King yields new (to me) food for thought.

Every true Christian is a fighting pacifist.

In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, "Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword." Certainly, He is not saying that he comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: "I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency." Then He says, "I come to bring a sword" not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force--war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force--justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.

29 March 1956

He returns to the theme in A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations:
For you see, true peace is not merely the absence of some negative force, but it is a presence of some positive force. I think that is what Jesus meant when one day his disciples stood before him with their glittering eyes, wanting to hear something good, and Jesus looked at them and said, in no uncertain terms, "Brethren, I come not to bring peace, but a sword." He didn’t mean, "I come to bring a physical sword." He didn’t mean, "I come not to bring positive peace." What Jesus is saying, "I come not to bring this old negative peace which makes for deadening passivity and stagnant complacently. And whenever I come a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new. Whenever I come, there is a lashing out between justice and injustice. Whenever I come, there is a division between the forces of light and the forces of darkness." Peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice.

10 April 1957

January 15, 2008

A Short Quiz about Fascism

There’s been a lot of loose talk lately about fascism, and evidently Your Humble Blogger does not feel that there has been enough loose talk about fascism, because here I am, you know, talking loosely.

Here. A short quiz. Give yourself 10 points for every A, five points for every 2, and zero points for every iii. Complete the sentence:

People are different one to another, and that

  • must be dealt with harshly to prevent the degradation of the State
  • confuses me and frightens me a little, although I suppose it takes all kinds
  • makes the world interesting and fun

This has been a short quiz about fascism.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 6, 2008

More about Senator Obama

So, Your Humble Blogger has been trying to clarify some of the things I have been feeling about Barack Obama and his campaign. And I think this might help.

One of the tricks of advertising is that, instead of selling your product, you can get people to want to be the type of person who buys your product. Coke, you see, adds life; the ad company associates Coke drinking with a variety of behaviors, conditions and attitudes, and hopes that people who want to be associated with those attitudes will buy Coke. The problem with this is that it doesn’t particularly work. If you don’t like the taste of Coke, you aren’t going to buy it and drink it just because the ads show beautiful people enjoying it.

This doesn’t just come from advertisements, and it doesn’t just work positively. I’ve mentioned before that Toyota has trouble convincing people that buying the Prius doesn’t make them into Prius-people, which would entail carrying a bulk lentils in a hemp bag. On the other side, buying an SUV doesn’t automatically make you vote Republican, or does it? The kind of person who buys books at an independent bookstore—you know that type of person, right? Is that you? Are you the kind of person that watches The Wire or the kind of person that doesn’t know what everybody is talking about? Are you the kind of person that buys recycled paper? Clothes, nightclubs, careers. Residential neighborhoods. Are you the kind of person who lives where you live, who eats what you eat, who lives your lifestyle? Do you want to be?

In politics, I’ve experienced the negative side of this more often. You know the kind of person who voted for John Kerry. Volvo, latte, blah, blah, blah. Nobody wanted to be like that. Particularly the people who voted for Senator Kerry, of course, but there it is, people who drink Coca-Cola aren’t happy and beautiful athletes. And my idea of a person who voted for Our Only President doesn’t have much to do with any actual voters I know.

Now, what I think the Barack Obama campaign has done, and done very well, is to create in my mind and I think in a lot of people’s minds a positive idea of the Barack Obama voter. The Barack Obama voter, part of the Barack Obama movement, is young, smart, good-hearted, hopeful, not overly partisan, and (importantly) not racist. Or sexist, either.

My idea of a John Edwards voter is that he or she is a Democratic leftist, pro-union, angry, maybe a trifle bitter, well-informed, with fairly specific policy desires. Or maybe that’s just me. And my idea of a Hillary Clinton voter is someone older, closer to the Establishment, more cynical, and somewhat inclined to settle.

Please understand: I am not saying that these ideas are accurate. They are not. They are stories I have absorbed about the election. What I am saying is that those stories about the election do have an effect on how people vote. And they have an effect on more than just how we vote. I think they have an effect on how we live.

One thing that a great president can do with the bully pulpit (and wouldn’t it be great if some more recent president had come up with some description of the persuasive power of the office, now that bully is no longer used in any positive sense at all? In fact, from now on, I’m no longer using bully pulpit. From now on, the persuasive power of the presidency will be referred to as the bitchin’ pulpit. Oh, wait, er, no, it won’t.) is to call us to our better selves, to give us an idea of the Americans we want to be, and ask us to be those Americans. I think it’s possible that Barack Obama could do that. I think that he could, possibly, if he is elected, change our ideas of what we are, and what politics is, in a way that would have real effects on how we carry out our daily lives.

Because if he makes us want to be smart, young (at heart), good-hearted, and all that, and we actually make ourselves like that, then, well, that’s an improvement, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 5, 2008

Barack Obama: This was the moment

I had heard wonderful things about Barack Obama’s victory speech in Iowa, and when I watched it, I was moved. It’s a good speech, and a moving speech. But an odd speech. First, the things that aren’t odd. Nobody likes a candidate who puffs himself up and takes credit for a victory. Furthermore, Sen. Obama has positioned himself—no, he has told a story about his candidacy that is about a groundswell of individual and organizational support that has coalesced around him due to his inspirational charisma and history. That is, in this story, the campaign is not about him, but neither does it exist apart from him. He is the spark, the catalyst, the inspiration and the incentive combined. A victory for Sen. Obama is not only the accomplishment of the movement (which is certainly true) but the reward for the movement. And that’s how he begins. Watch Your Humble Blogger’s emphasis added to the text, here.

You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night - at this defining moment in history - you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this New Year, 2008. In lines that stretched around schools and churches; in small towns and big cities; you came together as Democrats, Republicans and Independents to stand up and say that we are one nation; we are one people; and our time for change has come.

Not too obvious? Well, a little. But it works. In all, out of 1,327 words, 58 are either you or we (I’m not counting the two directed solely at his wife. To his credit, there are only four instances of they, three of which are in the above excerpt. It’s a pretty inclusive we.

I also like his use of repetition: the time has come three times after three introductory uses of this day would never come, too disillusioned to ever come, and our time for change has come. Four uses of I’ll be a President who (I’ll come back to those). Eight uses of moment in a broader theme that comes back to his Our Moment is Now stump speech. Eleven hopes, of course. Three repetitions of I know, which I am a little skeptical about, but he’s talking about shared experience, or trying to. Repetition is always tricky, but if you can use it properly, it’s just about the most powerful trick there is.

Also, pay attention (if you listen to it) to his tone and pitch, it’s remarkable. He has wonderful control. I know I have not been effusive in my praise for the Senator’s speeches in the past, but he really does have a tremendous talent.

Now, the bad part. What exactly is the movement for? In the tiny portion of his address where he flirts with policy and governance he hits four issues that don’t seem to have any connection or any greater purpose. I mean, yes health care and fair taxes and Iraq and especially ending “the tyranny of oil”, but I get no sense that those things are what you have done. This isn’t a movement to get health care, or to bring our boys home and it’s certainly not a movement for a middle-class tax cut. I don’t just say that because Senator Obama’s policies on those things are just a trifle less impressive than John Edward’s policies. I say that because for all that he throws in a health care line into the beautiful (and probably victorious) vision of “years from now”—you know what, let’s just print that bit.

…years from now, when we've made the changes we believe in; when more families can afford to see a doctor; when our children-when Malia and Sasha and your children-inherit a planet that's a little cleaner and safer; when the world sees America differently, and America sees itself as a nation less divided and more united; you'll be able to look back with pride and say that this was the moment when it all began.

This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable.

This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long - when we rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause; when we finally gave Americans who'd never participated in politics a reason to stand up and to do so.

This was the moment when we finally beat back the politics of fear, and doubt, and cynicism; the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up. This was the moment.

Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment - this was the place—where America remembered what it means to hope.

You see? When we look back at the accomplishments of a Barack Obama administration, the signal accomplishment is getting Barack Obama elected.

That’s the bigger movement that has coalesced around the candidate. And that’s not so bad. Because that movement, the movement that will get Barack Obama elected to the presidency of the United States, is a transformative movement. It’s an inspirational movement. And if, with his leadership, we transform ourselves into a people that will elect Barack Obama to the presidency…

Well, maybe that’s enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 3, 2008

Very well, I shall only decimate them

When I was one-and-twenty, I probably would have found the Lake Superior State University Banished Words List wonderful. Well, certainly when I was seventeen. I would have crowed triumphantly over the banishing of Let’s do lunch and infotainment, not to mention like I said and basically. I was a stickler.

No longer. My reaction to the discovery that they have banished give back and under the bus is that they are a bunch of out-of-touch cranks, and my reaction to the banishment of decimate to mean exactly what it has been used to mean for more than a hundred years is contempt. Ben Zimmer over at the OUPBlog details the fact that nobody uses decimate to mean reduce by one-tenth, and (other than to discuss ancient Roman slaughter and to bestickle) nobody has used it that way since Hector was a pup.

I love sticklers. But I’m happier now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 19, 2007

electability, excellence, Edwards?

So, Your Humble Blogger was listening to John Edwards on NPR, and James Hattori asked flat out whether he was the most electable candidate. Then, after he said he was, he was essentially asked if electable was a code meaning white man. The Senator remained unperturbed, and stated (reasonably well) that he felt that his life and his history were what made him the most electable: small town, rural, son and grandson of mill workers, elected by a red state, etc, etc. And it bugged me, and I kept thinking (in the spirit of the stairs) what he might have said, and might say the next umpty-’leven times he is asked the same thing. I came up with this:

First of all, let’s take care of that right now. A few years ago, people were saying that there was no way, no way on Gd’s green earth that a black man could be elected president. And now, well, if Barack Obama is the candidate, I do think it’s possible that he will win in November. And if he did win, I think he would make a fine President. And a few years ago, people were saying that there was no way, no way at all, that a woman could be elected president—heck, it’s not that long since people were saying that a woman couldn’t do the job! And if Hilary Clinton is the candidate, I do think that it’s possible for her to win in November. And if she did win, I think she would make a fine president. So let’s let that be the end of that, nobody should say anymore that there’s anybody who can’t become president because they’re the wrong color or the wrong gender or the wrong religion. Not in America. Not anymore.

Now, that’s all true. But it’s also true that you asked who was the most electable. The most. And there’s only one most. And I think it’s me. The polls will tell you it’s me. But don’t look at the polls. My history will tell you it’s me. My life will tell you it’s me. And most important, the people will tell you it’s me. You walk around Iowa, you walk around New Hampshire, and you ask them who is the best Democrat to fight the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies who are holding our health care system hostage, who’s the best to fight for a fair and honest tax system that doesn’t penalize the middle class to benefit the wealthy, who’s the best to fight for our future and the future of working men and women, so that we can give our children a better life, just like our parents did for us—you ask them and they will tell you John Edwards is the best fighter we’ve got.

That’s why I’m going to win in November. That’s why I’m the best candidate.

It’s not a great answer, but it (I think) acknowledges that there are issues there, insinuates (I think correctly) that although either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton could win, that he will have a bit of an easier time than they will, and turns the question back to his rhetorical strength. It also should gently wrongfoot the reporter for bringing the issue up in the first place, although of course the candidate may not want to do that at all. And I know that Mr. Edwards does not (this cycle) like to say that the other candidates are fine candidates, but I think he’s now at the point where he can reach back to the positive vibes he had last time around.

The thing that I dislike about my answer is that it repeats the word electable, which I think is a word John Kerry’s running mate should try to avoid. But I wanted to point out that he was asked the question directly—maybe he should just say You asked me who is the best candidate, and there’s only one best, completely (misleadingly?) paraphrasing the question. I don’t know. I do know that if I were John Edwards, I would not want people to be talking about my electability, but I would want people talking about what a good candidate I am. There may not be a difference in meaning, but there’s a huge one in connotation.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 16, 2007

If being a shepherd was easy, then everybody would do it

Like Chris, I had high hopes for Crazy Archbishop Rowan. He seems like a nice guy. His heart is in the right place. And I know I’m not an Anglican (I’m not a Christian, for that matter), but many of my closest friends attend Episcopal services, are active in their churches, and are being affected by the Schism. And I want them to be in communion with their fellow worshippers; that communion is important to them, and kind of mysterious and moving to me.

It seems to me that the Beardy Primate (to give him his full title) is all about communion. There are different things that appeal to different Archbishops at different times, but it happens that Crazy Archbishop Rowan, at this moment of Schism, is focused on keeping things together. That’s the highest priority, that’s both the ends and the means, that’s what is in the magic touch with which he will lay his hands on the next Archbishop of Canterbury. A Worldwide Anglican Communion.

Now, I think all Anglicans probably agree that the Worldwide Anglican Communion is a Good Thing, and that on the whole, they would prefer to be in communion with their fellows in Lagos, Los Angeles, Lima, Lahore and Lambeth. But that’s not everybody’s number one. Some people would rather have schism than deny equal rights and equal rites and equal access to all people. Some people would rather have schism than condone immorality (or what they consider immorality). Some would rather have schism than deny a word of Scripture (or at least their reading of Scripture). Some would rather have schism than give up their old favorite prayerbook. Some would rather have schism than lose their own power and authority. It’s not that these people want schism; they just want other things that will come with schism, and if schism is part of the price, then it is.

But not Beardy Primate. And I know, he’s the Archbishop of Fucking Canterbury, he’s the C of E Pope; he’s got more to lose from Schism than anybody. But I think it’s more than that; I think he became the Archbishop in large part because he believes so profoundly in the communion, and that he sees himself, largely correctly, as Horatius at the bridge. Except that’s wrong, because he’s not standing still and defending. He’s a moving target.

Which is why I so frequently find his writings moving and frustrating. Yesterday’s Advent Letter is yet another remarkable example. He regretfully but sincerely deplores the ECUSA’s actions, not (and this is very carefully written) because he disagrees with their stance, but because they diminish communion. “Insofar as there is currently any consensus in the Communion about [the episcopal ordination of a person in a same-sex union or a claim to the freedom to make liturgical declarations about the character of same-sex unions], it is not in favour of change in our discipline or our interpretation of the Bible.” A nice phrasing. “And because what one local church says is naturally taken as representative of what others might say, we have the painful situation of some communities being associated with views and actions which they deplore or which they simply have not considered.” What is problematic is that ECUSA has placed other churches in a painful situation.

As for the other side, Beardy Primate’s language is almost plain. Intervention, which is what they have been up to, is a Bad Thing. “On the ground, it creates rivalry and confusion. It opens the door to complex and unedifying legal wrangles in civil courts.” It is “not to be sanctioned.” Notice, please, because the letter is written very carefully indeed, that whereas the consequences “on the ground” of the ECUSA’s actions are alluded to only vaguely, the consequences of their rival’s actions are described in detail. I don’t think that any close reading of this letter, or of last February’s Report of the Communion Subgroup, can leave any doubt that whereas Crazy Archbishop Rowan is troubled by the actions of ECUSA, he is outraged by the actions of the so-called Conservatives who are intervening. Which is not to say that he won’t go along with them, ultimately. And, in part, that’s because the American way, which for all its acknowledgement of his Primacy and of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, is largely willing to let the congregants lead their Church in their direction, rather than stubbornly insisting that the bishops should hold out the Keys to the Kingdom like a mechanical rabbit in front of a greyhound. That’s a dangerous matter, probably in the long run more dangerous to the communion than a few gay bishops and marriage ceremonies. There’s a reason a Bishop carries a stick with a hook on one end and a point on the other. I mean, except the Eastern Bishops, who carry a totally different kind of crozier, three weeks later.

Anyway. One of the things I find fascinating about the rhetoric of all this (other than that the whole matter has been laid out in a series of incredibly formal papers, which is interesting in itself and provides lots of grounds for fun close reading) is that neither side wants to be responsible for the schism when (and if) it happens. So there are the Americans, doing what they do and claiming that it doesn’t constitute Schism, and saying your turn. There are the Nigerians (who I have been trying to avoid using as schenectady for the ... well, you know who I mean) saying that the Americans are violating communion, and have to stop and recant, your turn. And then the Americans say that they are very sorry, but they don’t think that what they are doing consistutes Schism, your turn. And the Nigerians say that they are going to steal away some of the churches from those American Schismatics, your turn. And the Americans ask them politely not to do that anymore, your turn. And in with all of this, there’s Beardy Primate, like a man playing twister on a bongo board on a ship in a storm, trying to keep everything in balance by making sure that everyone moves v e r y s l o w l y indeed.

Which may be in the end the wrong way to go about it. I mean, I know that communion is both the means and the end, but I have a sneaking suspicion that like with Bishop Barbara in 1989, telling the Nigerians to just shut up and walk with her may be the best way to achieve communion, even if it means that they take their sticks (with the pointy end and the hook end) and go home for a few years. They came back, and they will come back. Or so I think. Easy for me to encourage other people to take risks with their communion.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 11, 2007

Tears for fears

It may come as a surprise to many Gentle Readers, but Your Humble Blogger is, at heart, nothing but a big softie, weeping at the slightest provocation. Well, not the slightest. For some reason, I don’t weep at movies, generally, although it has been known to happen. I do weep (quietly) at theater performances, often without regard to the performance being good or bad. I just weep, like a big softie. There are a handful of songs that make me weep pretty nearly every time I hear them, and some of those songs aren’t even particularly heartbreaking. Oh, what the hell:

  • Richard Thompson, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”: a somewhat goofy song about a young hoodlum and his Red Molly, ending with And he gave her one last kiss and died/And he gave her his Vincent to ride
  • Warren Zevon, “The Hockey Song”: an extremely goofy song about a hockey player who wants to be Rocket Richard but has a career as an enforcer, never scoring but becoming the king of the goons with a box for a throne. In his last game, before retirement, he finally scores a goal, just as he is cold-cocked from behind; the last thing he sees is the red light on top of the net.
  • Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”: a song without goofiness at all, about a young woman who uses a young fellows fast car to get away from a terrible situation at home, but finds her new life no better. Her determination to leave tonight or live and die this way is fatalistic, rather than optimistic.
  • Dar Williams, “The Christians and the Pagans”: This is a goofy and sweet song about a young lesbian, mostly estranged from her family, who brings her girlfriend to her uncle’s house, where everybody finds solace in the awkwardness. The conservative family are portrayed with sympathy, as they find in their religion strength to see the commonality and overcome the strangeness; when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning

So you can see that it’s not an infallible sign of great artistic achievement to make YHB cry. I make this admission because I can perhaps, then, explain to y’all what I found it difficult to explain to my Perfect Non-Reader yesterday. I was driving and listening to NPR, as I do, and they played a short excerpt of Al Gore’s Nobel Lecture.

The distinguished scientists with whom it is the greatest honor of my life to share this award have laid before us a choice between two different futures—a choice that to my ears echoes the words of an ancient prophet: “Life or death, blessings or curses. Therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

And I bust out weeping. I went and looked at the whole speech and bust out weeping again. I tried to read it to my Best Reader this morning, and I bust out weeping again.

Read the whole thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 8, 2007

Persecution, not as complex as it might be

Your Humble Blogger reads with dismay the story of some maniac in Cornwall who is threatening and attacking his curate because she is a woman. Riazut Butt (and here I refrain from joking about the name of the writer), in an article called Woman curate on temporary leave after hate campaign puts the series of attacks in the context (as I think it should be) of the Church of England’s path to sexual equality for priests. I was disappointed in this quote from a spokesman for the Church: “The church's attitude to women priests is that priests are priests, whichever sex they are. However, the church also respects the integrity of those who find it difficult, or even impossible, to accept the priestly ministry of women.” I don’t have any problem with the Church sympathizing with those who find it difficult or even impossible to accept the priestly ministry of women. But respecting them? Respecting their integrity? Why? And in the context of unhinged attacks on a woman, on a priest, on anyone, why would you go out of your way to make that point? I only hope that the statement was made in some other context.

Now, Your Humble Blogger connected that, in his mind (where there is lots of room to make such connections) with Mitt Romney’s speech on Faith in America the other day.

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers - I will be true to them and to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it.

Governor Romney is presenting himself as the victim of intolerance. People are demanding (or at least preferring) that he give up his religion. Those people are unnamed, largely because they don’t exist. Oh, some of them do, I suppose, but naming them would just expose their lack of power or authority. So he doesn’t. He places himself in a line of Americans persecuted for their faith: Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Brigham Young. And then he talks about the twin dangers of atheism and Jihad (the latter “infinitely worse”, it’s true). “In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day.”

The evils and dangers of the day.

We on the Left have often pointed out that there is a dangerous strain in the conservative movement, a tendency to see themselves under attack, persecuted, endangered. It seems preposterous to us that the institutions, rituals, symbols and values of white, Protestant Christian, suburban capitalist America are in some sort of jeopardy. They are not. Like Christmas, they are doing fine, and need no defending. Or so it seems to us. Mitt Romney, I think, is tapping into (or trying to tap into) that feeling of persecution, that feeling that the old ways are under attack.

I feel fairly certain that the crazy Cornishman thinks that it is him (or her) that is under attack, fighting only a rearguard action, defending himself against the onslaught. And, I must say, I have some sympathy with that. His way of life is disappearing. He does not have a male priest in his hometown parish, and if he can’t accept the Bread from a female, he loses communion (or community, by leaving for a parish with a male priest). I don’t share that point of view at all, but I can, dimly at least, sense that something valued is lost. But let’s be clear. It was the vicar’s car that was set on fire.

We have killed far more “violent Jihadists” than they have killed Americans. We have most of the money, most of the guns, most of the movies. We’ve caused most of the climate change, and will very likely escape the brunt of the damage. Yes, they are threatening us, but mostly they are ineffectually threatening us, while we are actually destroying them, their way of life, and their world. You cannot set the vicar’s car on fire from anonymous safety and claim to be a victim of persecution. You cannot make a gazillion dollars, spout vicious, racist, ignorant, nasty rhetoric and lead in the polls for President of the United States and claim to be a victim of persecution.

Or, at least, when you do make such a claim, I will deny it. And I’ll try to make sure that everybody else denies it, too. Because it’s a lie.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 30, 2007

B-, surrounded by her bastards, innit?

Gentle Readers will be aware that Your Humble Blogger has an interest in and an affection for the profanity of our English Language. Ah, profanity. It’s the turmeric in the grammatical spice rack. Adverbs are the garlic powder, presumably, as there amongst the Best People a bizarre proscription against using more than the slightest amount, which led to a startling lack of tastiness in the resulting recipe. Prepositional phrases would be the cinnamon. No reason, I just like cinnamon. And the subjunctive mood would have to be the saffron, rarer and more valuable than gold. The passive voice would be … um, something that you don’t really notice, but it’s there anyway. OK, Your Humble Blogger isn’t a good cook. And I wasn’t talking about spices, anyway! I don’t even know what you’re on about. Spices.

What I was talking about was profanity.

Digression: The FCC says that “Profane language” includes those words that are so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a “nuisance.” This is no help at all. I mean, I understand that the FCC can’t give a full and comprehensive list of all words and contexts. Still. And of course they won’t view things in advance to give a prior judgment, which would very likely be found unconstitutional. Stations are on their own. An excellent way to harass any station found to be unfriendly to the powers that be, right? End digression.

So, the word bitch. I hate it. I almost never use it. As a noun, I mean. I occasionally use it as a verb, and I sometimes describe a tone of voice or anecdote or story as bitchy. But I don’t describe people as bitches. Part of this is a general reluctance; I would rather describe an action profanely than a person. On the other hand, I do occasionally describe a person as a dick or an asshole or a fuckhead or more rarely a fuck. I think that’s a small amount of the profanity I use (I am far more likely to use intensifiers), but I do it. So that can’t be the whole reason I dislike the usage, although I do think it contributes.

Mostly, it was brought to my attention that the word was misogynist. Or, more accurately, that it has been largely used in a context of misogyny. I’ve grown to think of it as a slur, more like sheenie or sheygetz than shithead. And although I love the English language in all its fecund outrageousness, I don’t actually use slurs, nor anyone should. In my opinion. These days. There was a time when I leant toward the Lenny Bruce angle that if we used all the words all the time in public, they would lose their slurrishness. I’m less optimistic these days. On the other hand, I do think that the (public) use of an outrageous slur can be a positive thing, if it’s done just right. The song “Colored Spade” from Hair, for instance, or the Word Association skit. I don’t think I would try it, myself, and I think if anybody had asked me whether it was a good idea, I probably would have advised against it even in those cases. I’m risk-averse, when it comes to slurs.

But back to bitch. It’s become more and more common (it seems to me) in the last ten years. I overhear the word in conversation between men, between women, and in mixed groups, used in its generic sense as well as referring to a particular person. So here’s what I want to know: is it a slur? Is it a cuss? What’s going on with it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 20, 2007

Sloganeering: It's not just a good idea, it's a bucket of crap!

Your Humble Blogger recently had the enjoyable experience of being on hold whilst attempting to reach a company to whose business, I am told, I am important. Oh, so important. I was also vouchsafed a motto that struck me as interesting and profound. I took down the exact phrase. Sadly, not expecting to the telephone call to take quite so long, I simply carved the note into a nearby granite mountain, which was subsequently worn to dust by time and tide while I was still on hold. Next time, engraved sheets of titanium.

Anyway, the phrase, as near as I can remember, was this: Courtesy: it’s not just a service, it’s a commitment! I am unsure how to interpret this. The motto seems to be modeled after the Selective Service ads that told us that registering for the draft is not just a good idea, it’s the law. The ad was clear. Registering is a good idea (because in case of emergency, we want the machinery of conscription to work smoothly), and it is also the law (violation of which could lead to trouble), and therefore registering is doubly indicated. The latter reason was considered to be the more compelling, and I think that’s clear both in the motto and in the world at large, but the former reason was considered to be fully valid as well.

Digression: The day Your Humble Blogger registered for the draft was the day after the USS Stark was hit. Or so I remember. It seems unlikely, now, given the timing. It may have been some other incident that I feared would lead to US involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. There were several provocations between our forces and Iranian forces that made the march to war seem very plausible. It was assumed, of course, that we would be allied with Saddam Hussein. I did not really expect to be drafted (for one thing, I was in college, and expected to be classified 2-S), but I remember coming back on campus from the post office in town (where one registered), picking up my newspaper and thinking oh, shit. End Digression.

It makes some sense to me that courtesy is a service. Or, rather, a training motto could well read “it isn’t service unless it’s courteous service”. Service, or at least good service, necessarily involves courtesy. Furthermore, you could argue that courtesy is in itself a service of a kind. A courteous word definitely improves YHB’s mood (particularly if I’ve been on hold), and improving my mood is a service, so there you are. It’s not the service I was calling them to provide, but it is a service. So we’ve accomplished the first half of the form it’s not just X, it’s Y!. To complete the form, we need a Y that is is greater than X, but also is different from X is some way other than size or quantity. And so we have commitment.


First of all, it’s not clear to me at all that a commitment is bigger than a service. If I am calling a business, I want that business to provide me with a service; I may or may not want them to provide me with a commitment. Except insofar as they commit to fulfilling the service, I suppose. Although even then, if I am calling to purchase a box of widgets, I may want them to commit to mailing me the widgets, but mostly I want them to mail me the widgets. If they are only half-hearted in their commitment, but when it comes down to it, the widgets are in the box and the box is in the mail, then I’m fine. And a greater commitment, say to sell me more widgets at a later time, or to refund me for the widgets I don’t use, is something I may want or may not want. So they’ve screwed that up.

More important, though, is that courtesy is not a commitment. The company may well be committed to courtesy, but that commitment is not the courtesy. The courtesy is the courtesy. As with the service, I don’t really care if the company is committed to doing it as long as they do it in my specific case. If they have no broader commitment to courtesy, but I just happen to be connected with the one courteous employee, I’m fine. And if they could be courteous without making a big fuss over their courteousness, that would be even more courteous.

What they are getting at (I surmise) is that they perceive courtesy not as something they occasionally provide (as they do their services), but something they always provide (because of their commitment). Therefore, the not just X, it’s Y form. But that form doesn’t work when (a) X is subsumed in Y, and (2) X and Y are describing different things, or the wrong thing altogether. And, of course, if I (the customer whose business is important to them) want something to be consistent, it’s the service.

I keep going around and around. It seems to me that the attitude behind this is that the company, in order to make certain that all employees are courteous, has made some sort of commitment. I have no idea what that commitment might be. Training? Support? Sacking anyone who doesn’t measure up? Anyway, they perceive themselves as having made some sort of commitment. And they are telling me about it. Why? Because I will assume that in the absence of such a commitment I will be treated discourteously. I can now translate the motto: I should believe that I will receive courtesy because not only does the company treat courtesy as a service (that is, a revenue producer for them) but they have committed to it. Hunh? But they committed to it because it’s a service, right? Do they not commit to fulfill their other services?

And around again. Why choose the form? Why not just say We are committed to courteous service? Or is that too easily understood? I was about to say that it was falsifiable, that unlike what they actually said, it has enough meaning to be proven false. And yet, it can’t really, because any specific instance of discourtesy would not disprove a commitment to courtesy, just an incomplete execution of that commitment. Which bring me back to where I was before: I don’t care if they are committed to being courteous, I care if they actually are courteous.

Hello? Hello?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 2, 2007

I weep for you, YHB said, I deeply sympathize. Oh, wait, no, I don't.

Another bit of unsolicited advice for politicians, this bit specifically for ambitious young white men of my Party. When you start running for higher office, you may be in the position that some of our current Presidential candidates find themselves in, where the race has several men and one woman. For a variety of reasons, none of them originating with you, this will look bad for you. It’s possible that the woman will unfairly exploit that, but lots of things happen in politics, and that won’t be the worst one. People exploit their edges.

Now, for a variety of reasons, many of them unfair, it won’t look anywhere near as bad if there are two women running for that office against you. Therefore—are you following this? —my advice is to help as many women as possible to get the experience and support needed to make serious runs for higher office. At the City Council level, particularly, in the State Legislature, in the State House, in the Congress, in the Presidency. It’s defense.

And if you haven’t done that, and you do wind up one of several guys running against one woman for nomination, then screw you, Jack. Cry me a river, baby.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 31, 2007

responsibility without antecedent

You know, if the broadcast media, particularly the news services, were genuinely economic liberals, some debate moderator or Sunday show panelist would start saying things like this:

What does fiscal responsibility mean? I keep hearing you say it, and the other candidates, it comes up a lot, but I don’t actually know what it means. Do you just mean debt reduction, and avoiding deficit spending? Is there somebody else the government is fiscally responsible for, or responsible to? Does having a weak dollar have something to do with fiscal responsibility? Does unemployment? There are an incredible number of foreclosures and bankruptcies; is it fiscally responsible to help those people, or to help the creditors, or neither? I’m asking, Senator (Mayor, Congressman, Governor, Mr. President), because I really have no idea what you or anybody else means by fiscal responsibility, and I’m hoping you can tell me.

And whoever that would be, Bizarro Mr. Russert, or Bizarro Mr. Lehrer, or Bizarro Ms. Clift, or Bizarro Ms. Roberts, would ask it again and again, until we either knew what people meant when they said it, or they stopped giving fiscal responsibility as an excuse to pass only the stuff they wanted to pass.

I’m not, by the way, completely against the idea that we should keep deficit spending down, particularly in good economic times, and I certainly think we should have some long-term economic plans (or, rather, long-sighted economic thinking, since plans are not useful long-term unless they have enough flexibility in them to no longer be plans), and I think the government should be responsible, fiscally and morally and bureaucratically and ethically and pragmatically and rhetorically. But it’s become far too easy to say that a candidate, a policy or a program is or is not fiscally responsible, without that phrase meaning anything at all. Education bonds, for instance, are fiscally responsible because of the long-term benefits that outweigh the costs. Or they aren’t, because bonds mean debt, and debt isn’t responsible.

Oh, there are plenty of words and phrases like that (security, diplomacy, leadership, terrorism, sacrifice, special interest, reform), but even in my fantasy world with socialist news anchors, there are limits.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 23, 2007

All together now, on five

From Jon Carroll’s inimitable column this morning: “I think everything should have a chorus. Wouldn't the presidential debates be better with a chorus? ”

Yes, yes they would. He’s speaking specifically of an opera-style chorus. I was thinking more operetta style chorus, like a Gilbert-and-Sullivan thing:

Rudy Giuliani: I brought down crime more than anyone in this country—maybe in the history of this country—while I was mayor of New York City.
CHORUS: When he was mayor of New York City, when he was mayor of New York City, when he was mayor, when he was mayor, when he was mayor … of New York City!

On the other hand, maybe a Greek Tragedy Chorus would be more appropriate:

CHORUS: O voice of Gd sweet-toned, with what intent
Cam’st thou from Arkansas, where the razorbacks grunt,
To this District, of high estate?
Fainting for fear, we quiver in suspense
(Hear us, O healer! Paul of Texas, hear!),
In brooding dread, what doom, of present growth,
Or as the months roll on, thy hand will work;
Tell me, O Voice divine, thou child of golden Hope!

It’s true, you know, everything is better with a chorus.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 11, 2007

Again with the exceptionalism

There’s a bit of a fuss, today, in Left Blogovia about Ann Coulter saying what seem to me to be perfectly straightforward things about her theological beliefs. She is a religious exceptionalist; she believes that things would be much better if everyone were Christian. Furthermore, she believes that the New Testament “perfects” the Old Testament, which, again, is a common and mainstream form of Christian Exceptionalism. To quote from a transcript over at E&P:

We believe the Old Testament. As you know from the Old Testament, God was constantly getting fed up with humans for not being able to, you know, live up to all the laws. What Christians believe -- this is just a statement of what the New Testament is -- is that that's why Christ came and died for our sins. Christians believe the Old Testament. You don't believe our testament.

Now, not all Christians are essentialists. There are those who believe that there is no way to the Father but through the Son, and there are those who believe that the Lord’s house has many mansions. And there are those who believe both, and work to reconcile them. So, please, Gentle Reader, do not assume that Christians are essentialists, nor assume that pluralist Christians are any less sincere and devout in their devotion to Scripture and the Divine than the essentialist ones. Matt Yglesias makes this mistake. There is deep theology involved on either side of the question.

A couple of years ago, on the 10th of January 2005, in fact, I wrote a note called Spitting on Madison, wherein I wrote: “The essential dividing line in American culture at the moment is the answer to this question: do you believe that all those outside of your church tradition are damned?” I still think this is true. I think that this divide is deep, and it’s fundamental, and it has a lot to do with our reactions to, just to pick a few, the invasion of Iraq, health care, climate change and the application of the rule of law to the Executive Branch. Again, I’m not claiming that every one of the people on my side of one is on my side of the others, or that all the people opposed to me on one are opposed to me on all. I am, however, claiming that there are a few millions of people who are opposed to me on all of those issues, and who are exceptionalists, and whose exceptionalism is deeply connected to their positions on those issues.

I keep wanting us to talk about these issues, as a society. How do we accommodate exceptionalism? Can we trust exceptionalists? We can’t trust Ann Coulter, obviously, in a variety of ways, but one of the essentials of democracy is that she gets to vote, and that’s a good thing. But ... without arguing the theology with her, can I argue policy with her?

And ... given that I am not a Christian, is it appropriate for me to argue theology with Christians at all? I mean, I think her interpretation of Paul’s attitudes (which is the line through which her quote travels) is wrong, and that the whole tradition she is drawing from is wrong. Wrong, I mean, not because she’s wrong to be a Christian, but wrong because it leans on a misunderstanding of Paul and of the Gospels. On the other hand, I don’t think of either Paul or the Gospels as Scripture. I can assume the Christian attitude, and attempt to argue it from that, but why would that pretense be appropriate? Why would any Christian exceptionalist allow herself to be persuaded by a non-Christian that one form of Christianity is better than another?

Well, and that’s all navel-gazing, in some ways. But I continue to think that it would be a good idea to ask the question of all our public figures: do you believe that all those outside of your church tradition are damned? And I’d like to have a survey of the general populace as well. And a breakdown by voting record, and by political party. Just for curiosity’s sake, and to get a map of the sea we’re navigating through. Ms. Coulter is far from alone.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 16, 2007

Red Meat

Here’s the thing. When they (you know, “they”) talk about throwing a bit of red meat to the base, in YHB’s case the Democratic base, generally it seems to be a very small bit of meat indeed, and has a texture suspiciously like tofu. So. For anyone who wants to know, here’s what I call a steak:

The Democratic Party for more than half a century has stood for a simple idea: that the federal government must use its power to protect people who need protection. The Republican Party has stood for a simple idea as well: that nobody really needs the protection of the federal government.

Democrats, you see, believe that there really are mine owners who will squeeze the last dollar out of a mine, even if safety standards are neglected, even if mine workers die. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe that there are mortgage brokers and bankers who will squeeze the last dollar out of a mortgage market, even if it brings the economy onto the verge of collapse, even if it throws people out on the street and into bankruptcy court. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe that there are agribusiness executives who will squeeze the last dollar out of their spinach fields, even if it means that they are cutting with contaminated blades, even if it means that they sell us poisonous food. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe that there are toymakers—toymakers!—who will squeeze the last dollar out of your children, even if it means that there’s no control over the safety of their products, even if it means that children will get sick and die. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe that there are energy company executives who will squeeze the last dollar out of their oil wells and coal plants, even if it means the oceans rise by twenty feet, even if it means that hundreds of millions of people become refugees. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe that there are people who will try to squeeze a stone rather than let taxes be raised by a penny, even if it means that there’s no money to repair bridges, even if it means that people will die when those bridges collapse. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe there are people even in our law enforcement agencies, even in the White House, who if there’s no oversight and no accountability, will wiretap their political enemies, arrest peaceful protesters and let innocent people languish in prisons. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe that there are politicians who will try to steal elections, intimidate voters, and refuse to count your vote. Republicans evidently do not think that sort of thing happens, or perhaps they don’t care.

Democrats believe that George W. Bush lied to the American people, put thousands of our young men and women at risk, squandered hundreds of billions out of our national treasury, and directly sparked the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Republicans evidently do not think that happened, or perhaps they don’t care.

That’s why I am a Democrat. I believe that those things happened, that they are happening, and that unless Democrats act like Democrats, they will be allowed to happen again and again and again. I am running for office to be a Democrat and if you want to prevent people from being killed in our mines, in our wars—by our toys!—then you should be a Democrat, too.

I’m not saying that it would make sense for a candidate (for President, for Senator, for anything) to actually give that speech. I’m saying that you like “social security, education and the environment” isn’t red meat. It’s a fucking salad. And I like salad, and all. But I can tell which is which.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 11, 2007

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again

Your Humble Blogger was surprised to read in the Hartford Courant this morning that General Petraeus had been Changing The Debate:

WASHINGTON - The report and proposed troop drawdown Gen. David H. Petraeus offered Monday opened a new phase in the fractious Washington debate over the future of the U.S. venture in Iraq.

From now on, the argument will no longer be about whether to withdraw U.S. troops, but about how many to pull out and how quickly. And the change could cause Republicans and Democrats in Washington to recalibrate their positions.

-from a combined wire services report.

That’s not the impression I had from what I had been reading. In the New York Times, for instance, Michael Gordon wrote Petraeus Sees Bigger Role in Protecting Iraqi Civilians: “ his testimony on Monday, General Petraeus ... proposed an American presence that would not only be longer and larger than many Democrats have advocated but would also provide for a greater American combat role in protecting the Iraqi population.”

It seems to me that the public argument has not been about whether to withdraw US troops. Our Only President has been adamant that the troops will return. The question continues to be under what conditions will they come home. Our Only President has said that they will come home when the job is done, that is, when Iraq is secure and democratic, an ally in the Globar War on Terror, and a friend to US interests in Persia. Note: this is not sarcasm, this is actual United States foreign policy. Bill Richardson, on the other hand, wants the troops to come home as soon as they safely can.

Again, the question is what conditions need to be fulfilled before the troops leave Iraq. Both Governor Richardson (as one f’r’ex, there are many others who agree with him) and Our Only President have been pretty clear what those conditions are, even if the details are murky and would have to be judged on the fly. I don’t think Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or even John Edwards have been so clear. A question that comes to mind is what events would change the proposed timetable? For OOP, it would be (and has been) events on the ground in Iraq pertaining to the secure-democratic-ally-friend stuff. For Gov. Richardson, it would be events pertaining to the safe evacuation of our military men and women. For Hillary Clinton, it would be ... what? An attack on our bases? Some sort of political breakthrough? I don’t really know.

I acknowledge that the easy positions to work with are (a) leave ASAP and (2) stay until pigs fly. Policy ideas with more factors are more difficult to explain and more difficult to implement, but are not (sorry Occam) necessarily less likely to be correct. But I’d like to know what they are, at least.

I know that General Petreaus is not—absolutely not, certainly not, fundamentally not—supposed to set conditions for withdrawing. His job is to assess whether particular sets of conditions have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, or are capable of being fulfilled. How expensive they would be to fulfill, in blood and time and treasure. He’s essentially told us that OOP’s conditions will not be fulfilled by a hundred thousand troops working for another year. That’s all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 10, 2007

The limitations of persuasion

So, every now and then, I get very cranky about political argument. I think the particular thing I get cranky about is a fairly common source of crank among people who like rhetoric and argument. It’s the lack of persuasiveness.

Look, I understand that most of the legislators who have the opportunity to spar with General Petreaus and Ambassador Crocker have no particular interest in persuading anybody of anything. Or, rather, of persuading anybody that a particular policy position is good or bad. A Democratic Representative in a safe Democratic district may want to persuade his anti-war constituents that he is pursuing their agenda, and a Republican Representative in a safe Republican district may want to persuade his anti-withdrawal constituents that he is pursuing their agenda. Neither, though, is likely to spend a great deal of effort attempting to persuade constituents to change their position. It’s possible that some are, but I didn’t hear any of that.

And, further, I understand that most of the people who still oppose withdrawal of US forces are going to be very difficult to persuade. On the other hand, the only way to precipitate withdrawal is through persuading a handful of Senators and a few dozen Representatives to legislatively mandate it.

Digression: Even then, it seems very unlikely to YHB that we will begin anything like an actual withdrawal while Our Only President remains in office. The Congress can cut off funding, or withdraw its authorization of force, or whatnot, but if the Executive orders a company of soldiers to go to Iraq, it will go to Iraq, and it will stay there until the Executive orders it home. The Supreme Court may back up legislation (or it may not), but it will not issue orders to soldiers. If an Executive (particularly one like that headed by Our Only President that has stated its belief that it has sole and unique authority under the Constitution to act to protect the national security) simply ignores the Congress and the Supreme Court, it would be up to the Congress to remove that Executive from office. None of this has any chance of happening before the 20th January, 2008. On the other hand, a clear legislative mandate will help Our Next President, whoever that may be, begin a full and swift withdrawal.End Digression.

Which is why it’s such an interesting question. How do you persuade people that do not currently support withdrawal from Iraq (or do not currently support a legislative mandate for such withdrawal) to do so? I have some ideas, but I don’t think they are very good.

One way to go about it is to try to understand why thirty percent of the populace and a somewhat larger percentage of the legislature still want our troops in Iraq. There will be different and overlapping reasons, but let’s try and look at them.

  • We need to have a permanent base in the Persian Gulf to protect the oil flow. Note that very few people (at least public personages) admit to this as a driving motivation, but then they wouldn’t, would they? At any rate, I don’t think that there’s any really good way to persuade these people, unless they fall for the argument that the current situation is hopeless, politically and militarily, and the best thing is to let it lie for a few years and then try again.
  • If we leave Iraq before [xxx], there will be a disaster within Iraq, a high likelihood of regional instability, and increased danger to US citizens from international terrorism. The counter-argument here is that there is no [xxx] that will prevent those things from happening. Or at least that [xxx] is so unlikely and so expensive (in treasure and blood) that we may as well accept the disaster, instability and danger.
  • Leaving is failing. American can’t be seen to fail. It seems to me (and I think it was Rob Farley over at LGM that put it this way) that being the biggest, richest and most powerful country means that we can engage in overseas adventures like this and lose and still be big, rich and powerful. And, in fact, if we lose this was, we will have shown only that we can’t do a thing that we don’t need to threaten to do. I mean, if we decide to invade Zimbabwe , the fact that we can’t build a paradise when Robert Mugabe’s gone won’t affect how he sees the threat. We’ve certainly shown that we’re capable of getting rid of tyrants, and I can’t imagine that any tyrants will particularly care that we will leave their country in a shambles afterward—and if they do, even better!
  • We’re just about to win! Excellent. A perfect time to leave.

Seriously, none of this is going to be remotely convincing to anybody who isn’t already convinced. Nor is any of this going to be convincing to a Senator who thinks that leaving is the right thing to do but lacks the political will to do it. He can’t use any of that to save his job. The limitations of persuasion. Frustrating to watch. And, you know, I’m unlikely to be killed or maimed because of it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 1, 2007

And the best part is, nobody pays taxes! At least, nobody important.

OK, Laurence J. Kotlikoff in the Boston Globe tells me that We are all uninsured now. Well, OK, that’s not true, only some of us are actually uninsured but

the rest of us with health coverage are also uninsured. We too face terrible, albeit more remote, healthcare risks—the risk that our employer will drop our plan, that Medicare will go bust, that our plan won't cover our needs, that premiums will eat us alive, that our doctor will stop taking our insurance, that long-term care will wipe us out, and that our uninsured friends and family members will need major financial help.

So what do we need? Isn’t it obvious? We need insurance insurance. I think Gerber is the obvious vendor, but it doesn’t really matter. Here’s how it works: When your baby is born, you can get security for his or her future at an affordable price. At a very reasonable premium, which can be paid electronically—saving you stamp money!—you can rest in the comfort that if your child should at some point be denied health insurance, your insurer will pay the full cost* of entering him or her into a full-service, multiple-point of service health care plan, which you can choose from our family of providers.

Do you worry about losing your family’s coverage? Do you worry that your employer will someday be bought out by ToTalBasTardInc**? Do you worry that your benefits are being managed by people who answer only to stockholders? Sure, you could join a union and use the power of collective bargaining to shore you up against the uncertainties of corporate capitalism, but we both know that’s not going to happen—unions are for lazy, low-class, corrupt losers. No, you can get peace of mind the free market way: with insurance insurance!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


* full cost includes only the full cost of inclusion into group health care, not the full cost of insurance. Premiums excluded.


**ToTalBasTardInc is a fictional entity. Any similarity between ToTalBasTardInc and any real corporations, say, for instance, Nestlé is entirely coincidental. Mmmmmm, shared value.

August 27, 2007

Hitting him in the ass on the way out

Just as a one-liner, Your Humble Blogger is fond of this press release from Rahm Emanuel (D-IL):

Alberto Gonzales is the first Attorney General who thought the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth were three different things. The President should nominate a new Attorney General whose loyalty to the Constitution is greater than his loyalty to the Republican Party.

I’ll add on my own that Attorney General Gonzales is a prime example of a Cabinet appointee who clearly intended to carry out the President’s agenda, and for whom the actual job as usually understood was irrelevant. We discussed this here in regards to Condoleezza Rice and the position of Secretary of State, where it was for the most part agreed that although she appeared to be without qualifications for the job as America’s top diplomat, she was qualified for the job she would actually be carrying out for this Administration.

I try to remember, now and then, to say that Our Only President and his cabal of crooks and incompetents have both indicated their willingness to violate the laws of the legislature and indicated their eagerness to violate the unwritten (and formerly largely reciprocal) norms of political behavior. Nothing the Alberto Gonzalez did in the Cabinet so became him as the leaving of it, which is true even though he left it in disgrace, petulantly, dishonestly, selfishly and with no concern for our country.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 13, 2007

Also, it's a teaching moment for the Perfect Non-Reader, if I could figure out how

As a public service to any Gentle Readers who are unfortunate enough to be in a position of responding to people who want to shift attention from what Don Imus said to what Al Sharpton once said, what Chris Rock once said, what 50-Cent once said, etc, etc, here are some suggestions of rejoinders.

  • You are quite correct. I think CBS and NBC should fire them from their daily radio shows, as well.
  • Fuck you, asshole. See, it’s a joke! Plus, your cousin Joe once called your sister a bitch, so you can’t get upset when I call you an asshole. Right? Asshole.
  • What the hell are you talking about? I was talking about Don Imus. What the hell are you talking about?
  • You know, you are the first person I’ve ever heard criticize any rappers for vicious misogynist lyrics. Other than these, of course [pulling out a sheaf of printouts of speeches, interviews and op-eds by Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Carol Mosely Braun, John Conyers, Bill Cosby, Marian Wright Edelman, Mike Espy, Louis Farrakhan, Chaka Fattah, Harold Ford Jr., Jendayi Frazer, Dick Gregory, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Gwen Ifill, Jesse Jackson, Robert E. Johnson, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Vernon Jordan, Alan Keyes, Carolyn Kilpatrick, Mel King, Barbara Lee, Spike Lee, Walter E. Massey, Kendrick Brett Meek, Kweisi Mfume, Juanita Millender-McDonald, Gwen Moore, Toni Morrison, Ray Nagin, Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Charlie Rangel, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, Anna Deavere Smith, H. Patrick Swygert, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Alice Walker, Maxine Waters, Diane Edith Watson, J.C. Watts, Montel Williams, and Andrew Young]. [Caution: do not attempt to strike your conversational partner with the sheaf of printouts, as injury may result].
  • Considering that Don Imus has had disproportionate success by virtue of being a straight white guy making fun of dark-skinned people, women, homosexuals, latinos, Irishmen and cripples, perhaps it’s reasonable that he be disproportionately punished for being a straight white guy. I mean, if he is taking the heat, it’s because he set up his microphone in the kitchen, yes?
  • Fuck you, asshole. No, it’s not a joke. You’re an asshole.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 27, 2006

Deval Patrick: Just Words

It’s been a while since Your Humble Blogger featured a political speech, here in this Tohu Bohu. In fact, I’ve made it almost all the way through this political season without paying much attention to speeches. I’ve paid attention to some of the ads, since for whatever reason three out of four ads during Jeopardy! are political ads and have been for a month, but I haven’t gone out of my way to hear or read a stump speech of any kind. I’m grateful, though, to The American Prospect’s Jason Sokol, who alerted me to Deval Patrick’s wonderful speech of October 15th, on the Boston Common. For those Gentle Readers who are not resident in the Commonwealth (no, not that one, Matt) (no, nor Kentucky, not that I think there are any Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu resident in Kentucky at present), Deval Patrick is a name from nowhere who crushed the favorite (and the second favorite) in the Democratic Primary for the nomination for Governor, and is one his way to crushing the Republican candidate. The Republican candidate was a name from nowhere who was plucked from deserved obscurity to be a trophy running mate for Mitt Romney, and has spent her time as lieutenant governor as a punching bag for the Phoenix. Still, there’s been a Republican in the corner office up on Beacon Hill for donkey’s years, and it wasn’t obvious (to me, anyway) that Mr. Patrick was the one to break that streak.

Shatter it.

Seriously, read his October 15 speech. It’s masterful. You can watch and listen, too, by clicking through the link, and finding the full speech under the speeches tab. It’s a half-hour speech, and it’s worth the time. I don’t know if they make audio available for download, to stick in your player and listen to whilst driving or walking the treadmill, but somehow, make time for it. Or, if you’d prefer, read it aloud to yourself, or to your spouse. If you can’t make the whole half-hour, my advice is to start around 12:30 in, more or less at “The point is this”, but even in the duller opening part, there’s good stuff.

Mr. Patrick has three themes that I pick out as organizing the speech and his message. There’s the theme that the campaign is part of a larger movement, and that he himself is only part of that movement, that the credit for its success goes to his supporters. I might call that a grassroots theme, or an us theme. There’s the theme of work, as opposed to voting. “Hope for a better tomorrow and a willingness to work for it” is how he phrases it. There’s a sense in which this is part of the grassroots theme, placing the election in the context of a larger task, but there’s also a sense in which this is emphasizing the work that needs to be done just to win the election. At any rate, he starts the speech by asking “Are you ready for a change? Are you ready to work for it?” and finishes it by asking the audience to “Go out and work for that.”

The third theme is the utter unsuitability of Kerry Healey (the sitting Lt. Governor) for the corner office. Is that negative? Yes, I think it is. And a good thing, too. People whinge about negative campaigning, and I should probably rant separately and in greater detail, but for here let me say that it is an essential part of representative democracy to say why the other guy is a bad choice. I’m agin lying about the other candidate, and I’m agin irrelevant attacks on personal attributes or history, but I’m also agin ignoring the other candidate. The voter has a choice between A or B, and if one is better, then the other is worse. I’ll be voting for Ned Lamont, but not because I think Ned Lamont “deserves” my vote, or because I think he’ll be a particularly good Senator. No, I think he’d be a better Senator than Joe Lieberman—not because he’s terrific, but because Senator Lieberman is awful. That’s a legitimate criterion for decision-making, and I’m happy to see Deval Patrick tell people that Kerry Healey is awful.

So. Let’s look at how those three themes play out. The first, introductory stretch is mostly devoted to the movement language—“They underestimated you”, “Yes we can”. “We built from the grassroots up. And that is not just a strategy for winning. It’s a strategy for governing.” Then there’s a series of repetitions of “No business person tells me ...” No one from biotech tells me...” “Seniors don’t tell me...” “Students don’t tell me...” “Police and prosecutors don’t tell me...” “Crime victims aren’t asking...” “Working people want...” These allow Mr. Patrick to combine the movement image, where he is a conduit for the masses, with some policy stuff and the anti-incumbent message. Notice, too, that in the policy stuff he rarely says ‘I will do this’ but ‘We will do this.

Then there’s the magnificent attack on Ms. Healey’s record, with the recurring comment that “If I had that record on [the economy/public higher education/health care/the Big Dig/leadership/crime], I would change the subject, too.” I love this figure. Why don’t more people write like this? My only complaint is that in the delivery, he doesn’t slow down enough to let people chant it. People love being included like that. Notice, too, that he at least appears to be fair in his complaints. I don’t mean that everything he complains about is actually Ms. Healey’s fault, or that he doesn’t distort her record a bit; I have no idea. But there isn’t anything in there that smacks of the cheap shot. There isn’t anything that sounds nasty. Well, he puts finger quotes around “criminologist”, which is a dig at the ... exaggeration of Ms. Healey’s criminology credentials during her election to her current post. Not a vicious dig, though, and it seems to me like fair game.

There some deeply weird stuff about his sister and an attack ad, which I don’t understand or want to, but it seems like he wound up on his feet afterwards. And he comes back, crucially, to the movement talk—“let me worry about the attacks and the slanders. You do what you need to do.” He takes an attack on himself as the candidate and turns it into an attack on his supporters, and on the voters. Again, I love this, and I think people should use it far more often. In a nearby Congressional race, Rep. Nancy Johnson is running an ad that suggests her opponent’s supporters are drug-dealers or morons. The candidate should be able to use that, but I don’t think he will. Mr. Patrick does.

Finally, there’s some stuff you really should read in its entirety:

Meanwhile, I will not engage in the politics of fear. Because fear is poisonous. All through history it has been used to hold back progress and limit fairness. Only hope defeats fear. It always has.

At a candidates forum last week, the moderator asked each of us to say something nice about the other candidates. Kerry Healey rather grudgingly said, “Well, he can give a good speech.” She would know this not because she has ever attended a speech of mine but because she has them filmed by this fine fellow here. But her dismissive point, and I hear it from her staff, is that all I have to offer is words. Just words.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Just words.

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Just words.

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Just words.

“I have a dream.” Just words.

Let me say it before you do: I am no Dr. King, no President Kennedy, no FDR, no Thomas Jefferson. But I do know that the right words, spoken from the heart with conviction, with a vision of a better place and a faith in the unseen, are a call to action. So when you hear my words, or speak your own to your neighbors, hear them and speak them as a call to action.

Because the victory is not just what we did on primary night. It’s not just what we will do on November 7. It’s not even when—with your help and Gd Almighty’s—I take the oath of office next January. The victory comes when every man, woman and child in the Commonwealth has a reason to hope.

Go out and work for that. God bless us all. Thank you.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

August 28, 2006

For poofs

I don’t know if the Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu have heard the latest Ann Coulter mishegas, or even if it is the latest, as by now Ms. Coulter could well have said a hundred more things even wackier. But it caught my eye that Ms. Coulter evidently thinks that the Our Previous President’s “rampant promiscuity does show some level of latent homosexuality”. That is, I suppose, Bill Clinton supposed penchant for anonymous sex with women was connected with a deep misogyny that is, itself, connected with suppressed desire for sex with men.

Which does, actually, make a kind of sense, if you kinda squint at it. I mean, I grant that some sex addicts are acting out a hostility toward the sex they are, um, relating with. Or going backward, I certainly see how misogyny could well contribute to such behavior. And, of course, I admit that some homosexuals are misogynists, although of course, most misogynists are heterosexuals (simply because most people are heterosexuals) (at least within the context of this discussion). And I could imagine a man who is (in some sense) attracted to sex with men but told that such sex was immoral and unlawful and disgusting, told that he ought to desire women, developing what used to be called a complex, and attempting to seduce lots of women simply from a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy, and as a rebellion against the imposed sex role in a more socially acceptable direction.

None of this has anything to do with President Clinton, as far as I know. It’s not even a good set-up for a naughty story. But it’s possible.

But it has nothing to do with what Ms. Coulter is saying. She’s not attempting to find out what President Clinton really thinks, nor is she saying that he’s a homosexual because she thinks he really wants to have sex with guys. No, she is saying he’s gay because she doesn’t like him, and she doesn’t want anybody else to like him, either. Homosexuality isn’t about sex, it’s about power. Or in the words of Crazy Larry (from Layer Cake), “Fucking females is for poofs”. Or, more accurately, in the words of Roy Cohn from Angels in America, “Now to someone who does not understand this, a homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men, but really this is wrong. A homosexual is somebody who, in 15 years of trying cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through the city council. A homosexual is somebody who knows nobody and who nobody knows. Who has zero clout.”

And it occurred to me, as I read about it, that surely everybody knows, everybody knows, that Ms. Coulter is trying to unman President Clinton by calling him a fag, with no connection whatsoever to who he fucks or who he wants to fuck. And then it occurred to me that just in case somebody does not know that, it’s probably a good idea to say it. Again.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 10, 2004

Happy Mothers' Day - Arise!

Having spent Mother’s Day doing that whole Mother’s Day thing (well, except without the Hallmark card, the flowers, the candy, and the gift, and with Visigothic fibulae, crozier heads and incunabula), I missed the nice new tradition being started by ampersand and others:

Mother’s Day Proclamation:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!

Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says "Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Julia Ward Howe, 1870

Not that I agree with Ms. Howe entirely—ain’t Condy a woman?—but it does provide a balance to the Hallmark holiday business.


March 5, 2003

Puff Piece: PMQ

Your Humble Blogger has been terribly cranky over the last week or so. On principle, I try to write a puff piece for every hatchet job, but I expect it will run more like two to one on the bad side. Still, there are things I like, and enjoy, and I'll try to remember to write about them. Here's one.

Any US-citizen with access to C-SPAN and an interest in politics and the political process would be well-served to watch the Prime Minister's Questions, run every Sunday while the Parliament sits, at 9:00pm eastern time. The actual event is Wednesday at something like 7am Eastern; you can see it live on Parliament Live TV, if your connection is good enough. The transcripts are in Hansard as well, but I don't advise them as a substitute (though I do use them if I miss the video, as the House doesn't appear to have video archives available).

What's so good about them? Mostly, they are a magnificent example of the benefits of a parliamentary system. The main difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential one (such as we have in the US) is that the executive is a legislator, and responsible to the legislature. That means that debate is held, regularly, between the executive and the legislature; in the US it simply is not. In the UK system, with its love of talk, that means that the Prime Minister must take questions in the House, every week, for half an hour.

Now, not much is actually done in that time. I doubt any opinions change, no compromises get hammered out, and any subject that gets brought up is touched on in the shallowest manner possible. There's a lot of party squabbling, a good deal of point-scoring, some grandstanding, some petty beefing, and above all, muttering, nodding, coughing, and foot-shuffling. It's not the finest hour for the Mother of Parliaments, but scarcely the worst; it seems to mostly be a diversion, almost an entertainment.

And it is entertaining. Blair is masterful, moving from comic to stern, to thoughtful, to snide. Ian Duncan Smith is terrible, which pleases me as a Blair fan, but also provides a marked contrast. Charles Kennedy, of the Lib Dems, has a posture and manner that speaks volumes about third-party idealism and defeatism. The Conservatives are delightfully Tory, with stereotypical suits, haircuts, and faces. The Labour MPs are marvelously themselves as well, big fellows in ill-fitting suits and bad haircuts, huge bellies thrust indignantly before them as they make their obvious points. The member from Sherwood talks about the need for lots of police in Nottinghamshire. If you watch, pay attention to the people who aren't speaking, as well, to those whispering gleefully to each other, nodding seriously, shouting, or squatting on the aisle steps.

The House of Commons was burnt out in the Battle of Britain, as I understand it (you don't hear as much about the Fire Watch there, but it was, like the one at St. Paul's, brave, disciplined, harrowing, and boring); in rebuilding, they decided not to have a room like the US has, with desks for everyone or even chairs for everyone. The members sit on benches, and if by some chance everyone shows up for a debate (the House is usually mostly empty, as is our own), they squeeze, stand, and squat.

Anyway, the real eye-opener is the conflict. When, do you suppose, was the last time someone told George W. Bush to his face that the politically oriented spin machine he set up is responsible for the lack of trust in him personally and in his plans for war? Sure, people say it, and write it, and if the president cares to find out, he certainly knows that people disagree with him, and strongly, too. That's different, though, from being in the room with somebody saying it. The US President speaks to Congress once a year, and maybe twice, but never sits and listens when they respond. Barring a challenge from within the party, an incumbent only does one string of maybe three or four debates, over a month's time, four years into his presidency.

I don't think a parliamentary system would work in the US without major changes in whole federal system, which I don't endorse at present. I know the British system has troubles of its own. I am aware that Blair is particularly good at this, and that John Major was not; I never saw Thatcher at it but I suspect she was tremendous. I know that it didn't teach humility to any of those. I know that nobody watches it in England.

I do find it breathtaking. Imagine, imagine, if W. had to sit through half an hour of this a week. Imagine Clinton, every week. My goodness.

Thank you,

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