Saturday, March 29, 2008

Silvanellia Plath

I didn't quite get my Villanelle Expirans right. Here's another go.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Rev. Wright's Letter To NYT About Obama

March 11, 2007

Jodi Kantor
The New York Times
9 West 43rd Street
New York,
New York 10036-3959

Dear Jodi:

Thank you for engaging in one of the biggest misrepresentations of the truth I have ever seen in sixty-five years. You sat and shared with me for two hours. You told me you were doing a "Spiritual Biography" of Senator Barack Obama. For two hours, I shared with you how I thought he was the most principled individual in public service that I have ever met.

For two hours, I talked with you about how idealistic he was. For two hours I shared with you what a genuine human being he was. I told you how incredible he was as a man who was an African American in public service, and as a man who refused to announce his candidacy for President until Carol Moseley Braun indicated one way or the other whether or not she was going to run.

I told you what a dreamer he was. I told you how idealistic he was. We talked about how refreshing it would be for someone who knew about Islam to be in the Oval Office. Your own question to me was, Didn't I think it would be incredible to have somebody in the Oval Office who not only knew about Muslims, but had living and breathing Muslims in his own family? I told you how important it would be to have a man who not only knew the difference between Shiites and Sunnis prior to 9/11/01 in the Oval Office, but also how important it would be to have a man who knew what Sufism was; a man who understood that there were different branches of Judaism; a man who knew the difference between Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reformed Jews; and a man who was a devout Christian, but who did not prejudge others because they believed something other than what he believed.

I talked about how rare it was to meet a man whose Christianity was not just "in word only." I talked about Barack being a person who lived his faith and did not argue his faith. I talked about Barack as a person who did not draw doctrinal lines in the sand nor consign other people to hell if they did not believe what he believed.

Out of a two-hour conversation with you about Barack's spiritual journey and my protesting to you that I had not shaped him nor formed him, that I had not mentored him or made him the man he was, even though I would love to take that credit, you did not print any of that. When I told you, using one of your own Jewish stories from the Hebrew Bible as to how God asked Moses, "What is that in your hand?," that Barack was like that when I met him. Barack had it "in his hand." Barack had in his grasp a uniqueness in terms of his spiritual development that one is hard put to find in the 21st century, and you did not print that.

As I was just starting to say a moment ago, Jodi, out of two hours of conversation I spent approximately five to seven minutes on Barack's taking advice from one of his trusted campaign people and deeming it unwise to make me the media spotlight on the day of his announcing his candidacy for the Presidency and what do you print? You and your editor proceeded to present to the general public a snippet, a printed "sound byte" and a titillating and tantalizing article about his disinviting me to the Invocation on the day of his announcing his candidacy.

I have never been exposed to that kind of duplicitous behavior before, and I want to write you publicly to let you know that I do not approve of it and will not be party to any further smearing of the name, the reputation, the integrity or the character of perhaps this nation's first (and maybe even only) honest candidate offering himself for public service as the person to occupy the Oval Office.

Your editor is a sensationalist. For you to even mention that makes me doubt your credibility, and I am looking forward to see how you are going to butcher what else I had to say concerning Senator Obama's "Spiritual Biography." Our Conference Minister, the Reverend Jane Fisler Hoffman, a white woman who belongs to a Black church that Hannity of "Hannity and Colmes" is trying to trash, set the record straight for you in terms of who I am and in terms of who we are as the church to which Barack has belonged for over twenty years.

The president of our denomination, the Reverend John Thomas, has offered to try to help you clarify in your confused head what Trinity Church is even though you spent the entire weekend with us setting me up to interview me for what turned out to be a smear of the Senator; and yet The New York Times continues to roll on making the truth what it wants to be the truth. I do not remember reading in your article that Barack had apologized for listening to that bad information and bad advice. Did I miss it? Or did your editor cut it out? Either way, you do not have to worry about hearing anything else from me for you to edit or "spin" because you are more interested in journalism than in truth.

Forgive me for having a momentary lapse. I forgot that The New York Times was leading the bandwagon in trumpeting why it is we should have gone into an illegal war. The New York Times became George Bush and the Republican Party's national "blog." The New York Times played a role in the outing of Valerie Plame. I do not know why I thought The New York Times had actually repented and was going to exhibit a different kind of behavior.

Maybe it was my faith in the Jewish Holy Day of Roshashana. Maybe it was my being caught up in the euphoria of the Season of Lent; but whatever it is or was, I was sadly mistaken. There is no repentance on the part of The New York Times. There is no integrity when it comes to The Times. You should do well with that paper, Jodi. You looked me straight in my face and told me a lie!

Sincerely and respectfully yours,

Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Senior Pastor
Trinity United Church of Christ

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Poetry Friday: The Villanelle

Here's an interesting exercise: write a 19 line poem with just two rhyming sounds, and in which about a third of the lines are refrains. The first stanza haunts every other -- its first and third lines alternating as conclusions to the stanzas that follow, until they come together to end the poem as a couplet. Do that and you will have created something called a "villanelle."

See the rest of my post on The Well Read Child.

An Open Dear Jane Letter to Hillary Clinton

Please Sign the Petition

Dear Hillary,

I remember when I first saw you across the bar. You seduced me those experienced eyes and that raucous, sarcastic laugh. One thing led to another — too many cosmopolitans, a long conversation about solutions for America, then the uneven walk, arm-in-arm, back to my place. I vetted your credentials all night long. Good times.

I don't know how it got so nasty. I tried to make it as clear as possible: I've chose someone else. There's no chance -- none -- that we'll be starting something up again.

But now I seem to see you everywhere. You say you have the experience. That I'm being seduced by mere words. You call me at 3am to tell me to "get real." When that doesn't work you cry, you beg, you tell me how hard it's been, how it's all unfair. In a flash you're wiping away the tears and ridiculing me for being so deluded by hope. You say it's all a lie.

And lately you're telling all our friends how it's not over yet, how it's still possible for me to change my mind. You say it's a "Myth" that I can't come back to you. You say I'm going to get cold feet.

I don't how to make it more clear that that's not going to happen.

So please stop. This is hurting both of us: you're tearing our family apart.

In Memoriam,

Most Democrats

P.S.: Next step: restraining order.

Clinton 2.0

Clinton and the Death Throes of Identity Politics

"I'm human," Clinton tells us, and it's "news to some people." We're not told why this is so, but apparently its common knowledge that more is expected of her. What exactly the double standard here is we are not told. But if we connect all of the dots in her campaign's narrative of victim-hood, we're meant to interpret it in the following way: She is a woman, and Obama is black; but she is where she is because of experience, and he is where he is "because he is black"; while Obama's blackness is working for him, her womanhood is working against her. And that's unfair.

Because one bit of identity politics has been pitted against another, it is especially petty and nasty, as competing victim-hoods always are. That's why we see such a willingness to embrace right-wing talking points in the enforcement of that privileged victim-hood: Clinton surrogates have jumped on Rev. Wright's supposed anti-Americanism in a way that they -- and most progressives -- never would otherwise. This is not to say that the legacy of post-9/11 Democratic cowardice hasn't helped incubate such mindless nationalism in all quarters.

But who would have guessed that some weird political chemistry would bind pro-Hillary gender consciousness and right-wing nationalism into a single molecule?

Here's the glue: in Rev. Wright, we have a nexus of the volatile issues of race and patriotism. He is, so to speak, the catalyst that allows a progression from a manufactured opposition of race and gender (as competing presidential identities) to an implied correlation between race and patriotism. Woman or Black Man; if Black Man, then Black Anti-Americanism; therefore, Woman.

Let's look at how this catalyst works in more detail.

The Clinton campaign seems to believe not only that her current predicament is unfair, but this unfairness is compounded by the contrast between Obama's supposed post-racial, unifying campaign style, and her unabashed appeal to women and the "historic" opportunity to have a female president. The strategic consequence of this sentiment is the seizing on any opportunity to show that Obama's campaign is not post-racial at all: that he is not only relying on white guilt and black identification, but also "playing the race card" when he sees fit. Of course, you can go further, and with Rev. Wright Clinton supporters found an opporunity to do just this: not only is Obama not post-racial willing to manipulate race to his advantage, but he secretly embodies the worst excesses of the black community -- paranoia, anger, anti-white racism, and a corresponding anti-Americanism. These excesses then become the substance of her current predicament -- her glass ceiling: the only way to turn voters back to her special status as a woman is to undo white guilt by connecting Obama to a particular kind of blackness that most Americans can be counted on to fear. That these associations are more common on the right is excused by the fact it is merely a tool to making Americans see a stark contrast between her legitimate identity-claim and Obama's bogus claim to transcend identity politics.

There is a lesson to be learned from the failure of these tactics: to live by identity politics is to die by it. It can be used indiscriminately by the left, the right, or any political actor in order to vie for power. At bottom it relies on an emphasis on divisions (by race, gender, or other qualities) that can be used for good or ill.

And so this little chemistry experiment can also blow up in your face.

Clinton's campaign was not helped by her emphasis on her sex or her victim-hood. So the nasty spectacle of her campaign's prolonged death throws may be just another sign of the times -- of this election season's transcendence of identity politics.

Here's How you Lay Someone Off

Classy. Hat-tip ACopperWire.

McCain and the Political Mainstream: Substance is "Rhetoric," Policies are just "Speeches"

Obama gives an extremely detailed (as well as elqouent) economic policy speech (see below) that should put McCain to shame. That doesn't prevent the McCain campaign from engaging in the following chutzpah:
“No amount of rhetoric can hide Senator Obama’s clear record of embracing the liberal tax and spend, big government policies that hit hardworking American families at a time when they’re most vulnerable, and are certain to move America backward.”

This is one of those Orwellian reversals we've gotten used to with Bush (the "Clean Air" act): detailed policy prescriptions are just "rhetoric," because accusations of "rhetoric" are the stale and failed campaign strategy McCain inherited from Clinton. Meanwhile, the response itself includes no substantive rebuttals, and (like McCain's policy speech) is entirely rhetorical: "liberal tax and spend, big government." What's so offensive about such political word-games (which are de rigeur for typical Democrats and Republicans) is not just the particular positions they cloak (in this case, tax-cuts for the rich) but their intellectual dishonesty. Here's a new principle for post-Obama politicians: thou shalt give an intellectual honest characterization of your opponent's position, even in disagreement.

How pathetic that when a politician comes along whose hallmark is honesty, speaking to people as adults, attempting to focus on issues rather than personal attacks and identity politics, all of this should be summed up by the political mainstream as "rhetoric"; while the typical modus operandi, vague labels like "ready on day one" or "liberal tax and spend" are treated as the staples of experience.

But there are several core principles for reform that I will pursue as President.

First, if you can borrow from the government, you should be subject to government oversight and supervision. Secretary Paulson admitted this in his remarks yesterday. The Federal Reserve should have basic supervisory authority over any institution to which it may make credit available as a lender of last resort. When the Fed steps in, it is providing lenders an insurance policy underwritten by the American taxpayer. In return, taxpayers have every right to expect that these institutions are not taking excessive risks. The nature of regulation should depend on the degree and extent of the Fed’s exposure. But at the very least, these new regulations should include liquidity and capital requirements.

Second, there needs to be general reform of the requirements to which all regulated financial institutions are subjected. Capital requirements should be strengthened, particularly for complex financial instruments like some of the mortgage securities that led to our current crisis. We must develop and rigorously manage liquidity risk. We must investigate rating agencies and potential conflicts of interest with the people they are rating. And transparency requirements must demand full disclosure by financial institutions to shareholders and counterparties.

As we reform our regulatory system at home, we must work with international arrangements like the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, the International Accounting Standards Board, and the Financial Stability Forum to address the same problems abroad. The goal must be ensuring that financial institutions around the world are subject to similar rules of the road – both to make the system stable, and to keep our financial institutions competitive.

Third, we need to streamline a framework of overlapping and competing regulatory agencies. Reshuffling bureaucracies should not be an end in itself. But the large, complex institutions that dominate the financial landscape do not fit into categories created decades ago. Different institutions compete in multiple markets – our regulatory system should not pretend otherwise. A streamlined system will provide better oversight, and be less costly for regulated institutions.

Fourth, we need to regulate institutions for what they do, not what they are. Over the last few years, commercial banks and thrift institutions were subject to guidelines on subprime mortgages that did not apply to mortgage brokers and companies. It makes no sense for the Fed to tighten mortgage guidelines for banks when two-thirds of subprime mortgages don’t originate from banks. This regulatory framework has failed to protect homeowners, and it is now clear that it made no sense for our financial system. When it comes to protecting the American people, it should make no difference what kind of institution they are dealing with.

Fifth, we must remain vigilant and crack down on trading activity that crosses the line to market manipulation. Reports have circulated in recent days that some traders may have intentionally spread rumors that Bear Stearns was in financial distress while making market bets against the company. The SEC should investigate and punish this kind of market manipulation, and report its conclusions to Congress.

Sixth, we need a process that identifies systemic risks to the financial system. Too often, we deal with threats to the financial system that weren’t anticipated by regulators. That’s why we should create a financial market oversight commission, which would meet regularly and provide advice to the President, Congress, and regulators on the state of our financial markets and the risks that face them. These expert views could help anticipate risks before they erupt into a crisis.

These six principles should guide the legal reforms needed to establish a 21st century regulatory system. But the change we need goes beyond laws and regulation – we need a shift in the cultures of our financial institutions and our regulatory agencies.

Pain Trickled Up (Obama's Cooper Union Speech)

How many people can create a refrain like "pain trickled up" (a nice crystallization of its substance) as part of a detailed economic policy speech? In his Cooper Union speech today Obama made a call for regulation and transparency and acknowledged of the role of widespread fraud (and its facilitation by Republican policies) in the current financial crisis.
In the more than two centuries since then, we have struggled to balance the same forces that confronted Hamilton and Jefferson – self-interest and community; markets and democracy; the concentration of wealth and power, and the necessity of transparency and opportunity for each and every citizen.

A subtle tribute hear to Lincoln's Cooper Union speech on slavery, which also appealed to the views of the founding fathers.

The difference between McCain's policy free speech and Obama's is simply embarrassing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On Truth and Lie in the Extra-American Sense (Obama's Race Speech)

On CNN's Anderson Cooper, Candy Crowley leads off on Obama's speech today with the caveat "whether or not you agree with what Barack Obama said," and then launches into the staple of political discussion on American TV: whether or not the speech "worked." And this is the theme of every show on television: Obama had a strategy, he "had to do this" to address concerns about Reverend Wright; the coping strategy either was brilliant or it was not; it will go over with working class Pennsylvania whites or not (as if the Obama campaign is dumb enough to think it can budge polls, in a state with solid Clinton demographics, with a speech about race; or desperate and cynical enough to pander in a race where he holds a delegate lead that will not budge substantially either way, no matter what the results in the remaining states). There is little about the substance of the speech: whether Obama is right about race, whether or not Americans can move beyond it. There is little about Obama's obvious sincerity. There is little about the greatness of the moment -- a greatness rarely exhibited in American politics -- in which a politician is courageous enough to give the frankest speech on race yet given by a modern presidential candidate, despite the fact that it is highly risky to his campaign. And there is none of the sense that commentariat might share his passion: the question is whether Joe Schmoe, especially white Joe Schmoe, has been manipulated by a crafty and self-serving politician.

I've been told I expect too much of TV pundits, but these pundits are the sum of public discourse for many Americans. "Whether or not you agree" is the opening bell of every political discussion on the airwaves, as it waves off questions of substance. These questions are bracketed to avoid a peculiarly American instinct in public discourse. And it is the instinct to do the following: to lie, and to lie about everything in public life -- to lie about everything that if said truthfully might offend the various sensitivities of the manifold consumer-citizenship being purchased by advertising dollars. To be fair, this lying has roots in a kind of salesman's optimism with a long history in the United States--old enough to be noted by Tocqueville. Americans are bullshit artists of the highest order; it's not that other societies aren't subject to such conformities, it's just in the United States there are so many taboos as to make authentic public discourse virtually impossible. (Naturally, communications technologies such as television have only amplified these tendencies).

Try and describe the problems of the black community -- their roots in slavery and segregation notwithstanding -- and you are a racist. Point out that American foreign policy is murderous and cynical in the extreme -- something so well-documented as to require leafing through a rudimentary American history book -- and you "hate America." Point out the connection between these policies and 9/11 and you are saying "America deserved 9/11." Criticize the Iraq war and point out war's inevitable atrocities as they occur, and you have not lived up to the "support our troops" mantra. Point out that blacks have reasons for their resentment and anger, and you have engaged in reverse racism.

This is to say that despite the unhelpful tone of Rev. Wright's remarks, what is really offensive to American ears is that someone would say anything that doesn't flatter every narcissistic fault-line in their brittle identities, whether that identification is racial, sexual, or national. Every statement of substance in American public discourse is simply scandalous: and so such statements are avoided. The fact that nauseating, pandering bullshit artists dominate public office scarcely registers with most Americans, who say they want something different but punish truth at every turn. Truth is the enemy of the people.

To their credit, now that someone like Barack Obama has come along many Americans identify with his sincerity more than their own identity politics. On the other hand, many pundits are tin-eared to it: the riveting, sincere, and highly unusual bluntness of Obama's speech "works," but otherwise it is not so impressive. That someone who is uniquely not a bullshit artist has come along hardly registers. Registering it might mean noticing, for instance, that Obama has merely reaffirmed many of Wright's observations with a different tone: more conciliatory than divisive, mournful than angry, nuanced and forgiving than generalizing and condemnatory. It is simply honesty--offensive to American ears, somehow palatable in a man of decency, and at this point in American history it really is our only hope: that Americans develop the habit of being willing to scream at each other from pulpits before they degrade themselves by skulking in the pews, paying self-conscious homage to every American false idol.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Google Searches that Lead to this Blog

Currently in the Google top ten results for:

  • ketchup defense (result #1)

  • dick sickness

  • oceania is at war with eastasia

  • the rhetorical arguments of hillary clinton

  • cicero rhetoric clinton obama

  • malt liquor fried chicken

  • essay of ketchup

  • gundon

  • the secret of my endurance

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  • trite save the day

  • pious fuzziness

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  • spitzer white slavery act

Favorite: malt liquor fried chicken

The Only Maternal Presence in the Campaign

The only maternal presence in the campaign:

And what it produced:


Stanley Fish: Dis-disinterested after all

After 341 comments on Stanley Fish's last column, he felt he had to intervene with the following:
Just two points in response to readers’ questions. I do read all the comments. And I do not use words like “objective” or “impartial” or “neutral” or “disinterested” to describe what I try to do in these columns. All I’m saying is that analyzing arguments is a different project than taking positions on ethical, moral or political issues. Neither is objective; both involve opinions; the opinions are, however, about different things, in one case about the best thing to do or think; in the other, about whether the case made for thinking or doing something hangs together. It would be quite possible for me, or anyone else, to fault the arguments made in behalf of a policy or agenda and still support it. I am insisting on the distinction, but no claim to objectivity is involved

That's right, it's the idea that he might be making a claim to "objectivity" that really gets to him. My response:
First, whether an argument "hangs together" has nothing to do with "objectivity" -- it's entirely a matter of logical coherence. The content of propositions isn't relevant to the discussion.

Which leads me to a second point: since the content is irrelevant, why talk about political issues at all, unless your goal is to stir up the passions of readers? Why not choose subject matter that is entirely benign, and won't distract readers from the critical thinking lesson at hand?

Finally, when you feel like you have to disclaim "objectivity" about arguments about arguments, I suspect that you don't have a very advanced understanding of the difference between logical and factual truth. Certainly you could claim to have truth as to whether something hangs together without claiming objectivity. The former is a matter of a set of logical axioms, or in its older form the "law of contradiction," and the latter is a matter of some relationship to the world (of empirical objects).

If I'm wrong about your understanding of that distinction, then I can imagine a response to this point that denies it, and perhaps invokes Quine or Rorty. These are sophisticated (and I think failed) attempts at relativism under another name (and it's unfortunate that the chosen name is "pragmatism"), but I think readers would be interested in knowing that that's really what your project is about -- that you're really recusing yourself not just from "objective" discussion but from any commitment whatsoever: not because you're a skeptic who thinks that truth is elusive, but because you reject the concept of truth entirely (unless it is redefined as something benign, such as coherence).

On the other hand, wouldn't it be refreshing just to come out and take a stand on something -- just for the hell of it? You might feel reborn, like a Hobbit who has spent his youth in a hole, only to be called to far away adventures, the ruggedness of the outdoors -- dragons, wars, the feel of cold steel in the palm .... Anyway, call that column "Credo"; it might turn into a New York Times headline, "Stanley Fish Takes a Stand!"

Otherwise, you're just left writing a column where you try to flatter yourself as someone who is willing to let his mind travel into the forbidden realms of the politically incorrect, because the rules of "hangs together" don't forbid it; who is more than a typical unreflective academic liberal; who challenges his politically passionate readers to challenge themselves, to take this journey with him ....

Really thin stuff.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Toughness Revisited (A Calm Attempt to Alleviate NYCweboy's Frustration)

I suppose I should have made it clear that I was impressed by the sober and conciliatory tone of NYCweboy's comment on this post, despite the fact that I disagree. (And as for my own vanity -- being disagreed with is far more flattering than being ignored!) A bare assertion that other people are wrong is less impressive. And I'm unsure how my response was a rejection of civility and dialog -- which doesn't imply getting beyond disagreement. That disagreement includes real disappointment by people like me in the way Clinton has run her campaign and its implications for her character. It's clear that view of Clinton's character may simply be unfounded, and as I mentioned, "caused by mere partisanship, the fact that I’ve taken a side and will tend to minimize the sins of my candidate and exaggerate those of the other." On the other hand, they may well be founded. The point here is that a commitment to civility is not a commitment to giving up strong negative views about Clinton's character.

In my case for example, certainly those negative views are motivated certain powerful emotions about all the characters who have influenced my own character -- a "transference", to use a psychoanalytic term. A political reaction to Clinton is more than a reaction to her public persona -- it's a reaction to Clinton as a symbol, and it's a low level emotional foundation upon which reasons are built. But that doesn't mean that the foundation isn't good and the reasons are bad. Clinton-haters might be right that Clinton is dishonest, for instance, and they might well be wrong. I just haven't seen any reasons that have changed the direction of my passions, and I'd like to give one example, to get back to "toughen up," where the analytical shovel reaches bedrock and goes no further:
High toned notions of "respectable" campaigning aside, political arguments are not ice cream socials: things are bound to get rough, a little ugly, more than a little mean. My own suggestion: toughen up. If you're prepared to get into it with people you disagree with, great; but if you plan to complain that such-and-so is unfair or mean or beyond the pale, don't expect much sympathy. Neither side is innocent here, and things will get worse before they get better ....

This seems like a call to inure ourselves to the extremely low level of public discourse in the United States. Are we meant to accept dishonest games of gotcha -- Rezko and Whitewater to take two examples -- as just a necessary part of rough and tough politics? Tolerance of those games doesn't really seem consistent with "calm" debate. NYCweboy might object that he's thinking of lesser examples of roughness-- for instance, the claim that Obama praised "Republican ideas" when he talked about Reagan. I think he'd probably agree that this claim is false, with the caveat that it's part and parcel of rough politics, and we should tolerate it as such.

I have a few problems with tolerating that kind of public discourse. First, it's actually a distraction from the substance of the calm (and I'm supposing more rational) debate that NYCweboy desires. And far from getting us to the "details" that are supposed to be Clinton's strong suit, attacks like these are necessarily vague because they require trimming off all the context. Even claims that may have a reasonable grounding -- like "only I'm ready on day one" -- are rhetorical inanities unless we here about exactly what that readiness entails. The problem is that actually focusing on the details (what bills did you work on? what are your views on the intricacies of policy x?) is that they quickly derail a candidate from repeatedly hammering home the vague slogan that's supposed to get them elected -- "I'm the candidate of details!" Toughness, like a bludgeon, does not allow for surgical strikes.

But I think it's a reasonable political aspiration to ask of politicians that they put away a desire for the rough and tumble methods of winning to engage in a genuine debate. That debate simply isn't possible if candidates can't engage in an intellectually honest characterization of their opponent's positions. And I think that making that demand, rather than inuring ourselves to the tough political reality, is a more plausible path to "calm." We might disagree about which candidate better meets that demand, but I don't think we should abandon it.

I have to say that the "toughen up" idea seems to me to have its source in a quintessentially American misology. The priority here is winning rather than reasoning. I'm going to cite an argument I've made elsewhere on this blog that I think is especially relevant:
We know that there are broad consequences to such values [misology] when coupled with power. We see one consequence in American policy, and its, intermittent isolationism and machophilia. We see another in the tone of American public discourse, which is rhetorically inept and hard-selling. Misology and love of war have reached a peak with the Bush administration’s disdain for diplomacy and compromise, its use of torture and rendition, suspension of habeas corpus, and many other illegal and anti-constitutional measures.

Nominalism begets nihilism. It is because we are concerned with the “real world” to the exclusion of inner life that we can leave our principles and humanity behind. We ought to remember that an attack on “words” has serious implications if we take “word” in its larger sense (as in Ancient Greek logos): the persuasion of an electorate, diplomacy with an enemy, public discourse, legal proceedings, due process, constitutional provisions, and so on.

The use of words in these examples is supposed to provide some structure to an otherwise violent and chaotic world. They’re meant to be a middle ground between idea and action, defenselessness and violence, contemplative detachment and brutish immediacy. That rhetoric can be used for ill does not imply that it is always “empty.” As potentiality, as a middle ground between thought and deed, rhetoric is a receptacle for retaining and storing power instead of discharging it upon every impulse. As we have seen, the alternative to persuasion, in the world of political action, is force.

That is fine with those who embrace Machiavellian realpolitik—of late, our neoconservatives. The world is a tough, scary place, we are told, and only force will do. Words are for the weak. There is a relevant similarity between the Clinton campaign’s implication that Obama isn’t tough and cynical enough—whether for the campaign or the presidency—and the idea that Constitutional principles are too fragile for the real world, the world full of threats and enemies. Early in the campaign there were suggestions that Obama’s nuanced responses could easily be exploited in a national campaign—that the lifting of the level of intelligence in politics was positively dangerous. The same might be said of diplomacy.

I am reminded of the long literary and philosophical tradition that ruminates on the question of the experience versus innocence. At its best, it defies the conventional wisdom that cynicism and paranoia is superior to openness. Plato’s Socrates advances the idea that being the victim of injustice—and harm—is better than being the perpetrator, because of the internal deformity of character surrounding the latter role. The events of the last seven years show that we can say the same for a nation: if terrorism has a method, it is certainly not the direct destruction of lives infrastructure, but rather the induction of institutional self-destruction from within. Cynicism and toughness may not be so durable after all. Realpolitik can be self-immolating. This may sound like a dangerous form of pacifism (today “anti-war” is practically an epithet). But one need not be opposed to defense—psychological and national—to take a realistic measure of its costs, in order to use it wisely—and in the case of war, very rarely.

The Roman orator Quintillian noted that where rhetoric is in decline, a society has opened up a perilous gap between word and deed, emotion and thought, the academic and the practical. The lame and passive jargon of our academics, bureaucrats, and politicians is testimony to this division. These are the “irrelevancies” that Twain rails against—irrelevant because to stray from the point is to conceal the fact that even when they aim at the truth, words are motivated by feelings. So is the electorate. The non-pejorative sense of rhetoric is important because it is not just about inducing admiration and hope, but about preserving the dialectical component of speeches—the sense in which persuasion is a public dialog with an audience, and not just a monologue of reasons. That dialog is important not just to fostering national cooperation, but to a genuine and peaceable engagement with the “real” world. That is how people are moved, and that is how things get done.

Obama and Clinton -- Real Differences in Tone and Honesty?

 NYC weboy writes (in reponse to this):
There’s an awful lot going on here, and a lot of conclusions about what I might mean, at least by implication, in saying “toughen up” (I can’t speak for Wolcott, nor would I try). Just to be clear, I think you can find people on both sides to complain that the treatment their candidate gets is “intellectually dishonest” and done by “petty liars”. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another. I think we’ve had some low shots all around, some less than stellar commentary, and some things, on both sides, that probably were regrettable. I don’t see a need to give chapter and/or verse.

What I do mean, and what I did say, is that if we want politics to be more than that, and better, then what we need to do is do it. Be more civil. Argue the issues. Take the high road. My problem with Barack Obama has to do with a lack of specifics from him on the issues, not some litany of ugly charges that some people think are floating out there about him. I think he’d make a fine candidate for President (and have said as much, repeatedly). I simply support the other person in the primaries. And I think we can have a primary process, even one that gets rough, and still come together at the end. That’s because I’m a Democrat, and the most important thing, it seems to me, is electing one. Because, despite what you suggest, all of those issues you mention matter to me. And I know the person who will make them worst, most, is John McCain. Let’s not lose sight of that. And let’s all work to elect a Democrat. Whoever he or she may be.

I disagree on a) the comparative level of the honesty and tone of the Clinton campaigns respectively b) the question of whether or not Obama is offering specifics. (a) could be caused by mere partisanship, the fact that I've taken a side and will tend to minimize the sins of my candidate and exaggerate those of the other. On the other hand, I was a long time Clinton supporter, and leaned towards Clinton at the beginning of the primaries. And I think there's plenty of evidence to show that there is a clear difference. With regard to (b), I've tried to do some analysis of speeches and debates and I think that it shows this is clearly a myth (for one instance see the end of this). Clinton consistently veers towards vagueness and petty cheap shots (which by their nature are not only vague and misleading, but lead the conversation away from specifics); and Obama is consistently more detailed. If I had the time I'd try to do a more comprehensive analysis. Both candidates have large staffs and policy wonks who have created detailed policy papers; so I think the "details" charge is often without substance (as is another standard political riff, the "flip-flopper" charge).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ferraro, Part II

One more word about Geraldine Ferraro: her bluntness and tenacity are admirable. And that Obama's campaign benefits from a guilty white constituency because he is African American is probably right (as I have argued before). And certainly she is not racist, and really she's not a representative of the Clinton campaign.

Yet Ferraro is just wrong.

First, while it is true that Obama's campaign is made viable by white guilt, insofar as it balances white racism, it certainly isn't helped overall or occasioned by it. And there is no parallel here to her being picked as a vice-presidential nominee, as she claims: no one has picked Obama. There is no affirmative action here.

Second, her comment seems to be a variation on the idea that Obama has been given a free ride by the press and that Clinton is a victim of reverse discrimination--another myth we can reject.

Finally, and this is really the error: the Obama campaign did not call Ferraro a racist, as she has claimed. She was accused of introducing race into the campaign in a way that heightens racial tensions. Whether intentional or not (and I think it was unintentional), she has put the finishing touches on a Clinton strategic trope, which is to race-bait by a) bringing up race and then b) falsely accuse Obama of introducing charges of racism. The introduction of the idea of reverse discrimination is in this case an unforgivable theme only comprehensible to an older generation that is out of touch--not with some politically correct stricture, but with the fundamental reality of the Obama campaign's meticulous avoidance of the subject of race. If there is racism here it is racism by grandfather clause, the paranoid expectation that the racial sensitivities of yesteryear must be at the bottom of any political objection by a black candidate.

The Right Approach

The right approach:
"Part of what I think Geraldine Ferraro is doing, and I respect the fact that she was a trailblazer, is to participate in the kind of slice and dice politics that's about race and about gender and about this and that, and that's what Americans are tired of because they recognize that when we divide ourselves in that way we can't solve problems," Obama said on NBC's "Today" show.

Don't hit back with more identity politics: just condescend to it as the weakness it is.

The Banality of Mamet

Mamet's "Why I am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'": A long, boring, unedited piece, and what do we get at the end?
at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler

(A great way to brand the Rwandan or any other genocide, e.g.: "Hutus: the same folks we Tutsis met at the well")

But the title of this piece should really be, "that's funny, as I age and acquire wealth and become more cranky, I become more conservative."

I'd rather read Stanley Fish on Starbucks.

A Conspiracy of Old Women: Geraldine Ferraro and Identity Envy

We know that old women are Clinton's demographic.

The question is whether we want them ruling the country.

I think that's the deeper subtext of the recent stupidity of Geraldine Ferraro: it's not so much racism and as competing identity politics: victim-status-envy. Old women who are so close to vindication they can taste it, flush with scorned entitlement as they feel their chances slipping away. It's no accident that Clinton's campaign has also exploited tensions between blacks and Latinos.

The real meaning of Ferraro's comment: why isn't Clinton going to win because she's a woman? The significance of age here is their direct acquaintance with the past and the compromised place of both women and blacks, the coming of age in a period of transition for both groups. One revolution gets pitted against the other, as if envious siblings were competing for the attention of neglectful parents. Perhaps that envy has undergone an atavistic decomposition into the prevalent racism of those times.

Obama is where he is because he's tapping into a desire for decency. Clinton is where she is because in the entitlement of her and her followers, they are simply unaware of their own haggery: fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Poor Graymalkins!

What I'm really trying to say is that Geraldine Ferraro would not be in the trouble she's in if she weren't an old woman.

Humanizing Spitzer

Cramer breaks up.

As always, we're shocked--shocked!--that someone's sexual impulses run deeper than their public persona.

The Third Variable Problem, the Red Phone, and the Sham Science of Polling

We get more speculation on the effectiveness of the red phone ad.

Did it work, the way pundits assume it worked in Texas and Ohio?
There's no way to know. Ever. There are too many other variables. That's a classic problem of causal explanation -- and at the very least "analysis," even political analysis, should try to rule out other possible causes.

It can't, because even a poll that's positive for Obama about who would make a better commander in chief doesn't rule out the effectiveness of the ad. It could have been a significant factor in Obama's meager support among whites, for instance. And race or candidate likability could have been the predominant factors, and the red phone ad entirely irrelevant in all states. Pre-established voter loyalty or their choice of candidate based on other factors will skew any answers about readiness to be commander in chief or even specific questions about the ad itself. Even if the red phone had been asked about explicitly, are respondents really good evaluators of whether they were affected by this or other factors? Nope. Again, they would be likely to claim the ad was effective or even "changed their mind" simply because they already leaned toward Hillary or had preconceived doubts about Obama as commander in chief anyway. It's a foregone conclusion that he will win that poll in any state that he wins, and lose it in any state that he loses. If there is a disparity between the margin of victory and the commander in chief percentage, can we assign a cause to that? No.
There's no way to control other variables barring running and not running the ad in separate Texas's, Ohios, and Mississippi's in alternate universes respectively. (Even then we can't be completely sure, because it's possible that other factors derived from elements of pure chance (chaos theory) have screwed up the control). Whatever the case, there's no way to establish causality via statistical methods.

Not only does polling about the ad produce meaningless results, but it assumes that voters are dumb sheep, marketing victims, easily manipulated. That may be true, but if it is we ought to spend our energy on elevating public discourse rather than cynically reinforcing its stupidity.

The sham science of polling should be put out of its misery. It won't only because charlatans make money off it, because it gives politicians something a little better than astrology with which to soothe their anxieties, and because it gives pundits something to make meaningless pronouncements about.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Monitor Thyselves

If you're one of those people who waits for tragic self-destruction and then cozies up to it in self-righteous revulsion, then ....

Obama Trades Nomination for Malt Liquor and Fried Chicken

I have the sense that Clinton thinks she can take the nomination from Obama the way Manhattan was taken from the Indians. He is a black man after all.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spitzer Violates the White Slave Traffic Act

The only part of this that interests me, from Scott Horton:
The prosecution is opened under the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. You read that correctly. The statute itself is highly disreputable, and most of the high-profile cases brought under it were politically motivated and grossly abusive. Here are a few:

  • Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was the first man prosecuted under the act — for having an affair with Lucille Cameron, whom he later married. The prosecution was manifestly an effort “to get” Johnson, who at the time was the most famous African-American. (All of this is developed well in Ken Burns’s film “Unforgiveable Blackness”).

  • University of Chicago sociologist William I. Thomas was prosecuted for having an affair with an officer’s wife in France. Thomas was targeted because of his Bohemian social and his radical political views.

  • In 1944 Charles Chaplin was prosecuted for having an affair with actress Joan Barry. The prosecution again provided cover for a politically motivated effort to drive Chaplin out of the country.

  • Canadian author Elizabeth Smart was arrested and charged in 1940 while crossing the border with the British poet George Barker.

Stanley Fish, The Unmoved Blogger

Sigh, yawn. I'm Stanley Fish, the academic, and having an opinion would require about 75 footnotes.

What I'm here to do is help you regular folk -- those unsophisticated enough not to have qualified your feelings with a hundred indecisions -- to reason properly. I don't have arguments about the world -- that would be gauche, and naively suppose there is a world. I have arguments about arguments.

So my opinions transcend ideology. Godlike, I opine that I opine and nothing else. I'm not interested in actual issues, just the way they "play out in our present cultural moment." And you, dear ignorant readers, are part of that play. You are subjects in a demi-God's anthropological experiment, and when you think you disagree with me I am quietly recording your symptoms on my chart.

And now you have my dispassionate diagnosis -- not about your disgusting untouchable beliefs, my dear filthy peasants, but how your stench casts its shadows on my pure white cerebrum.

Another way to put this argument, as I did in a comment to Fish's article:

It's true that when readers believe that you have intentionally taken a stand on some substantive political issue, they have missed the point. And these readers are easy to refute.

But there are other readers (like me) who find your column to be based on a conceit that reeks of academic condescension. If you really want to teach people about arguments (rather than pontificate on the substance of those arguments), why write about hot-button political issues? If the content is just a placeholder, why not choose subject matter that is relatively benign?

One possibility is that you're trying to test your audience--that you're inviting them to rise above their passions to your heights of "analytical judgment." A more likely possibility is that you enjoy stirring things up and then sitting back to
watch your readers sputter with rage. The pretense of dispassion makes this all the more effective. And when the accusations fly, you get to throw up your hands and lawyer your case--"what did I say?" There's a name for all of this: passive aggression.

That all of this is just a thin conceit is illustrated by how quickly it falls apart under pressure. The Obama/Surge argument is not, for instance, an "argument about arguments." It may not be an evaluation of the Surge's success, but it certainly is a misguided assessment of the implications that public sentiment about perceived success has for the general election. That's a political argument, and it's based on a lack of comprehension of the political climate. There's lots of data to show that voters overwhelming resent the war and are disaffected with the Republican party, whatever they think about the Surge.

So not only is your view on Obama not an argument about arguments, it's an example of the inane horce-race punditry that dominates public discourse. Worse, it's just bad inane punditry.

That inanity is the result of your view that political argument cannot be suitably "analytical"--that they necessarily devolve into "pious fuzziness." That's precisely the kind of cynical view that motivates TV pundits like Chris Mathews, who must also maintain the conceit of being above the fray by talking about strategy. It's not the issues they're concerned with, but the techniques that power uses to preserve itself. And so by implication it esteems the possession of power over policy, in the same way you elevate the coherence of arguments over discourse about what is right (at least for the purposes of your column). What readers sense and respond to is the tired nihilism behind all of this.

These points are only reinforced by all the adoring admirers who wish that everyone had the same gratitude for your lofty dispensations, and even wish to protect you from the sea of passions that threatens to overturn your serene, transcendent bark!

Toughen Up?

James Wolcott and NYCweboy tell the Hillary haters to "toughen up"--politics is a rough game. The corollary here is that Clinton and Obama aren't really different; they "both" played rough. It's all the same.

Nonsense. Calling for decency and intellectual honesty in politics is not a matter of lack of toughness. If you don't make that stand, then you get what you ask for--inane public discourse, a nasty political climate, and the kinds of panderers who can't vote against war if there is the slightest breeze in the opposite direction.

It matters whether politicians are petty liars in the way they run their campaigns; it matters whether they are fear-mongers; it matters whether they can characterize their opponent's position in an intellectually honest way; it matters whether they're shrill, angry, sarcastic, and frankly hysterical.

If you can't tell the difference between Clinton and Obama here, then you're simply a bad judge of character.

The toughen up position is just the political version of "get over it." We are supposed to remember that we sophisticated liberals are at bottom nihilists, and have no beliefs more profound than the valorization of society's oppressed victims and the denigration of power in all its forms. Power is bad per se, so why should we expect that it can be fought for fairly? We are utilitarians; so why should we care whether politicians are essentially power-hungry and dishonest in the way they run their campaigns, as long as we get what we want?

That's just politics. That's just being tough. Don't be a pussy, get on board. And if warrantless surveillance is a fact, get over it. That's just legislation. And war? Get over it. That's just foreign policy. And crimes by the Bush administration? Get over it. They're all criminals. That's just the way the world works. Shitty politicians, bad policies, infringement on civil liberties, un-checked and criminal abuse of power, and lots of dead people.

From the supporters of Clinton and politics as usual we here the same tired arguments of appeasement that got us war and waterboarding, and a Democratic congress that has done nothing to check Bush's abuses of power.

Toughen up we are told. That's life.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Obama and the Art of Political Self-Defense

Dick Morris has a new bit about the need for Obama to attack Hillary via surrogates. I don't entirely agree, although I made a similar call in this post.

Here's the difference: if the Obama campaign were to bring up Norman Hsu (or Whitewater for that matter), it should only do so to compare Rezko-attacks on him with Republican Hsu-attacks on her. Obama's message shouldn't be that he buys into these attacks, but that she should know better about Rezko from experience. This need not sound whiny: just say that one is as flimsy as the other: "Don't Hsu me, don't Whitewater me." This isn't a correlate of Clinton's "don't Ken Starr me" tactic because it a) rejects Republican attacks on one's opponent as a means to rejecting hers against you and b) focuses on the opponent's history of vulnerability to Republicans, not one's own. That vulnerability has large implications in the general election.

The Obama campaign accomplishes a few things here: it allows Obama to continue to maintain his integrity, which is more important than winning elections and what fuels his movement anway; avoids alienating the many Democrats who were disgusted by the anti-Clinton pogrom; highlights Clinton's vulnerability in the general election and even post-election if she were to win; doesn't broach the inconsistency of having to argue that Rezko style attacks don't have merit while Hsu or Whitewater attacks do; and yet ... it still reminds everyone of the ethical lapses of the Clintons.

Defending your opponent's character can be the best way to create doubt about it.

The Deaning of Obama (Almost)

What's happening to Obama in the press, incidentally, is remarkably similar to what happened to Howard Dean (with the exception that Obama is less vulnerable to negative coverage). Dean, like Obama, initially received positive press--not directly, but as a by-product of being acknowledged as a phenomenon. After this coverage peaked, there was a serious attempt to paint Dean as a kind of angry clown--most notably by Jodi Wilgoren of the New York Times. There were probably a few factors at work in this coverage, including the fact that the Democratic establishment opposed Dean and reporters are naturally in bed with their establishment contacts--even if unconsciously.

And then there's the natural tendency to de-mythologize what seems to be too good to be true, and to take down whatever challenges the status quo and its underlying cynicism (its "realism"). Dean and Obama are at first merely phenomena. They garner the respect of the press because the press respects big stories, and that's what populists who come from nowhere are. At first. When that story gets old, we are left merely with a flawed human protagonist. He must be punished not just for being unable to sustain the sacred Story, but for challenging the cynical narrative that the Story must tell. The respect for the initial drama of the phenomena must not be mistaken for the elevation of its protagonist, the transcendence of the narrative itself. That would undermine a self-conception that the average reporter and pundit must protect: the identity of the muckraking truth-teller, the leveler, the one who reveals that nothing really stands up to "investigative journalism." If the main character escapes the story, the storyteller is undermined.

This protection of this neutral-because-adversarial identity is ironically a way of preserving the adversary, and so preserving the status quo. While exploding myths may seem to reporters like an inevitable challenge to the establishment, it is merely a way of reinforcing it if everything dissolves, under the same indiscriminate scrutiny, into a homologous muck. That muck consists of "nothing really changes" and "everyone is motivated by power rather than good intentions." If nothing really changes and power is primary, then all that is left for the pundits--the sifters of dirt--to do is stand in awe of power and dissect the strategies of its self-preservation. This is what press "neutrality" comes to mean: a failure to distinguish between good arguments and bad arguments, because everything must be given equal time as "spin"; and a failure to distinguish between sincerity and manipulation, because every character is just "spin" as well.

So the press must turn on Obama because not to do so undermines the entire premise of their approach to the world and especially politics; to the irrational and pseudo-analytical dime-novel drama that they seem to believe makes their chatter interesting (or "sells papers").

I'm not claiming that there is a conscious anti-Obama conspiracy per se, just that there are a few natural impulses in the press, which are just extensions of human nature when left unchecked by a little thoughtfulness. Here are the commandments:

  • Be the mechanism of entrenched power, the status quo, conventional wisdom, and cynical "realism"

  • Create imaginary drama that titillates and flatters audiences by reaffirming this cynicism

  • Take down the one you have sanctified (Obama is first a phenomenon and then the object of sacrifice, a la Frazier's Golden Bough--the ritual sacrifice of the king or god, or anything that is anxiety-producing because its power is unconventional)

Hillary Clinton, incidentally, initially received bad press only insofar as her bizarre outbursts received airtime; that they didn't work and seemed ridiculous to all made things "unfair").

How they're Preparing us for NObama (is it time for a third-party threat?)

The tenor of current political discussion suggests that the masters our preparing us for the possibility of undoing Obama's win:

  1. The superdelegate freeze (why not decide this now and spare us the pain?); claims by Gov Rendell and others that party officials need not respect the pledged delegate count; superdelegate claims in a New York Times article to the same effect; despite the fact that Clinton will need 65 percent of superdelegates to overturn the popular vote; the bizarre talk of "buyer's remorse" and "electability," as if elections can be undone and despite the fact that all the data shows that Obama is a far better candidate in the general election

  2. The "dream ticket" line--where Obama gets to be VP as prize for winning the superdelegate count, state count, and popular vote

  3. Talk of seating Michigan and Florida as-is because re-dos are too expensive or may lead to lawsuits, despite the fact that Obama was not on the ballot in one state and the candidates didn't campaign in the others

  4. The overwhelmingly negative Obama press coverage in the last two weeks: the hysterically positive coverage of Clinton's marginal Texas and Ohio wins according to the lame "change of momentum" narrative; the attempt to Dean and Whitewater (Rezko) Obama, pretending an issue in which there is not even a theory of wrongdoing, much less a question, is a scandal; the bogus NAFTA story; hit-jobs in the New York Times parroting the Clinton experience argument; the gleeful (and delusional) anticipation of Obama lowering himself to Clinton's level; the scant acknowledgment of Obama's caucus and delegate victory in Texas; the downplaying of Obama's 11 wins, the significance of Mississippi, and then the Wyoming victory (Clinton "almost split" the delegates in Wyoming is a line worth pushing, in contrast the silence on Obama's delegate victory in Texas); the press' parroting of the Clinton line on the election as a whole--"it's essentially a tie," "superdelegates will decide the nominee either way"

It's time to float this threat: if they take it away from Obama, he makes a third-party run in the national election.

Bill! It's for you!

As much as I loathe Dick Morris, this is a really succinct dose of reality and it ends with a great suggestion:
The next time Hillary uses the recycled red phone ad, counter with one of your own. When the phone rings in the middle of the night, have a woman’s voice, with a flat Midwestern accent, answer it and say, “Hold on” into the receiver. Then she should shout, “Bill! It’s for you!”

Friday, March 7, 2008

Hillary Must Reads

I rest my case (for now):

Poetry Friday: The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket

My weekly guest post on The Well Read Child:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, I wear a tourist's shirt with "Nantucket" printed on the front. A nurse who had already done several embarrassing things to me saw the shirt and asked me if I had been there, and I told her I hadn't, there once was a girl had given it to me. I like the shirt because "Nantucket" seems simply exclamatory, and universal enough that you don't have to have been there. That's not just because of many honorary limericks, but because the island once ruled the sea, and deprived it of the world's largest animals. As Melville put it, "Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires."


Thursday, March 6, 2008

Obama Campaign Strategy Suggestions (it's time to take off the gloves)

manyfacesofhil.jpgThe Obama campaign has avoided negativity and gratuitous attacks. That's a matter of integrity, and it's nice that someone has finally proved that it works.

On the other hand, it's time to put Hillary out of her misery. It's important that these attacks be fair, not be made directly by Obama himself, and that they stem from the nature of her own campaign--i.e., that they point out the implications of her own nastiness.

Some things I'd like to see:

  1. Hang McCain around Clinton's neck the way Bush will be hung around McCain's. If she thinks that after her, McCain is the next best commander-in-chief, then she ought to bear the burden of that view. Run ads showing her and McCain together. Point out similarities in their voting records and views--especially on Iraq, Iran, and NAFTA. Call her McCain Light. Show her with Liebermann as well, just for texture.

  2. Because Clinton is a whiny victim, ask voters whether they really want someone with a victim-mentality as commander in chief--someone who is thin-skinned and so brittle that she can't fight a fair campaign; highlight her instability, her bizarre range of moods--from condescending scold to tearful victim, from bitter complainer to euphoric winner, from pandering flatterer to angry fear-monger, from solemn admonisher to sarcastic fool. All that takes is editing together a few clips in a way that shows her to be the bi-polar (multi-polar!) candidate that she is

  3. If Clinton counts being next to Bill Clinton at 3am when he picks up the phone as commander-in-chief experience, ask voters to compare this absurd notion to a husband having experience in law because he's around when his lawyer wife picks up phone calls in front of him or discusses his day with him. Ask voters if we want someone who dramatically overestimates her own experience and seems unaware of her own shortcomings. Dissect her "35 years"--again, a series of images and clips are all that's required. Her she is in law school; as a corporate lawyer; on the board of wal-mart; contrast this to Obama's career in public service--again, visually.

  4. Clinton as an experienced manager: simply highlight the way she's run her campaign--the short-sighted strategies that damage the party; the financial mismanagement; the internal discord

  5. Claim that Clinton cares more about herself and her power than about the party [this a very borderline strategy that if it can be done at all would have to be done well--important for Obama not to appear to be complaining or implying that he's already won and that future primaries aren't important]

  6. Create an ad that alternates between Clinton's attacks and her complaints about Obama's attacks and media coverage. One attack clip, one complaint clip. No voice-over. Just a quick line as summation at the end, something like "whether she's on the attack or thinks she's a victim, is Hillary Clinton in touch with reality?" It's important that these attacks merely highlight all the inconsistencies and contradictions internal to her own logic

Update: (1) is already being rolled out:
"For seven years she aligned herself with Sen. McCain in putting all our eggs in General Musharaf's basked," Craig said. "And she aligned herself with Sen. McCain when they both criticized Barack Obama for taking action against al Qaeda leadership, which has taken safe havens in Pakistan. She aligned herself with Sen. McCain in supporting the Kyl-Lieberman resolution"

They need to keep this up in earnest--in public statements and in ads. There needs to be a concerted take-down of her character and emotional stability. My suggestions aren't very nice, but a knock-out punch is required to keep her from damaging the party and Obama any further.

Update II: Larry David's hilarious version of (2) here:
How is it that she became the one who's perceived as more equipped to answer that 3 a.m. call than the unflappable Obama? He, with the ice in his veins, who doesn't panic when he's losing or get too giddy when he's winning, who's as comfortable in his own skin as she's uncomfortable in hers. There have been times in this campaign when she seemed so unhinged that I worried she'd actually kill herself if she lost.

Once a Young Republican, Always ... (Hillary Clinton Endorses McCain)

The latest from the Clinton campaign:

  •  McCain and she are read to be commander in chief, Obama isn't

  • "I won't accept a caucus" in Florida (Hillary)--meaning, she would be comfortable seating delegates in a state where there was no campaigning (not to mention Michigan, where Obama was not on the ballot)

  • The Obama campaign's request for Clinton to release her tax returns means he is like Ken Starr

We know that Clinton is a hawkish and pro-business establishment politician, so it should be surprise that Obama is so threatening that she prefers McCain. But saying that either she must be the Democratic nominee or she would prefer a Republican is a remarkably destructive to her own party. In light of the fact that she can't possibly win pledged delegates or the popular vote, it is all the more wanton.

A  few conclusions:

  1. Clinton either is a conservative Democrat, Liebermann style, or she thinks pretending to be one will help win against Obama

  2. Clinton believes she is a victim

  3. Clinton is essentially unethical

These are a dangerous combination - (3) the most dangerous of all.

(Incidentally, it turns out that it was the Clinton campaign that reassured Canada over NAFTA).

Why Math will not be undone by Momentum Ex Machina

From Jonathan Alter, one of the few journalists who hasn't tucked tail as a response to Hillary's victim gambit: even do-overs in Michigan and Florida will not catch her up in the popular vote or pledged delegate count, and superdelegates will not overturn both.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Intellectually Vacuity of New York Times Political Analyses

Here's the New York Times, an "analysis":
After Tuesday’s primary victories for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, her focus is momentum; for her Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, it is math.

Math vs. Momentum: it's a simple opposition, and it alliterates. That's why it's been the conventional wisdom of the TV and the Web for more than 24 hours. And so the New York Times jumps on this idea like it's an analysis. It's an article that fails to mention that it is virtually impossible for Clinton to catch up on pledged delegates. Rather, it regurgitates the Clinton spin that neither candidate can win without superdelegates--a truth that misses the point.

More conventional wisdom from the New York Times: Obama is a "chastened candidate in search of a lost moment." Despite the fact that Obama closed huge gaps in the expected vote and never expected to win these states. After 12 victories to 3 (not to mention his Texas caucus win), and a 150 pledged delegate lead which is impossible to catch, Obama is "chastened." More:
Mr. Obama once again failed to administer an electoral coup de grâce, and so allowed a tenacious rival to elude his grasp. Now, after appearing nearly invincible just last week, he faces questions about his toughness and vulnerabilities

Never mind that if Obama had won all four states, it would not have been an "electoral coup de grace"--that this is impossible for either candidate at this point. Despite the fact that polls never showed Obama winning these states--"appearing nearly invincible." Now he "faces questions"--but we don't learn from whom; the classic journalist's passive formulation to express and disavow opinions at the same time.

The final idea of this article is this: that Obama must conform. That he must finally play by the rules of the game. He must "absorb the lessons" and "counterpunch forcefully." Despite the fact that Clinton can only win by having party officials overturn the decision of the pledged delegates. There is a palpable hope that he will go negative, that he will reveal his flaws in all their fullness, that he is just as conniving and unprincipled as Clinton--one of the fundamental arguments of her campaign.

I'm not claiming that the press is motivated by a pro-Clinton bias: they are motivated, as I've mentioned before, by the dramatic turn. But they are also motivated by the more fundamental instinct to worship and then sacrifice: to kill the God. Obama's positivity transcended us, they once claimed; but now he has been brought down to earth. It's not just dramatic reversal, it's the ultimate reversal. Where there was the thrill of elevation and submission, there is now the thrill of incorporation and destruction.

And so it's an allegiance to superstition over thoughtfulness. It's a pathetic failure on the part of the press--an insult to the notion of "analysis." It's nonsense that flatters the importance of the narrative--and so the importance of the narrators; self-important to the end, and so basically stupid.

Hillary Contra Obama – In Five Acts (unabridged version)

Hillary Contra Obama – In Five Acts
victoria_coronation_1.jpgAct I, Scene I: Enter Clinton, stage right, wearing coronation robes—grand, radiant, inevitable. In the beginning the thought of not winning no more occurs to her than the thought of being a peasant occurs to a queen. The audience knows as soon as she walks onto stage how brittle these great expectations can be—that she’s set up for a fall, that the tragic seed of the unraveling exists in the rigidity of the expectations. When there is just the slightest hint of resistance to these expectations, things do indeed begin to unravel.

joanofarc2.jpgAct I, Scene II: Clinton, early morning on the misty battlefield—she has turned in her robes for armor. After the near-coronation, Clinton will show us that she can fight for what is rightfully hers. And so she lets loose the dogs of war.

Obama is variously a drug dealer, ambitious kindergartener, pro-lifer, naïf, Reaganite, fairytale, niche candidate for African Americans, entertaining rhetorician incapable of real work, assistant slumlord, turban-wearing foreigner, and plagiarist. Minor policy differences on healthcare are turned into bitter feuds. She sets up a “fact hub” website that is largely a series of shrill, petty, and often questionable accusations—“Only the Obama Campaign is Encouraging Out-of-Staters to Caucus in Iowa”; “Sen. Obama Rewrites History, Claims He Hasn’t Been Planning White House Run”; “Sen. Obama Falsely Claims Hillary Called For A ‘Reality Check’ On What the Nation Could Accomplish.”

Finally, there is the campaign’s primary theme: Obama is without substance. The election is about “talk versus action” and “actions speak louder than words.”

antigone6.jpgAct II: Clinton, soothsayer and scold, Tiresias to our Oedipus. The fundamental premise of her campaign narrative has now undergone a natural decomposition from inevitability into deflationary righteousness. As the more “experienced” candidate, it is obvious that she is the best candidate, and everyone knows it. Even Obama enthusiasts acknowledge this in their heart of hearts—they just have to be reminded of it. She must ward us off our instincts the way bourgeois parents discourage their children from becoming artists, to protect them from themselves. She is the cautionary realist to the idealists, asking us in an aside, a rare moment of comic relief, “can we just have a sort of a reality break for a minute?” We are reminded of the stakes, the “stark choice.” We need to “get real”; “we don’t need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered.” The world is a dangerous place after 9/11, and terrorists could be emboldened by the softer candidate— we need someone who is “ready to be commander in chief” “on day one.”

Because de facto inevitability has degenerated into doomsday prophecy, the campaign’s narrative never advances beyond its initial reversal—positivity has become its glaring lacuna. Clinton fails to advance arguments in her favor beyond the claim that the election is an obvious choice between experience and charisma, action and words.

nun_henriette_browne.jpgAct III: Hillary, dawn, in nun’s garb, exhausted and beleaguered. Here the focus is on the delusion of Obama’s supporters. It begins with linguistic passivity—a way of indicating objective detachment, as if Clinton had no stake in the election beyond her fear for our safety. “So I think we have to be very, very clear,” “this is about a decision”; “I think it’s fair to say that really the most important decision is who would be the best president on day one.”

And here the campaign narrative really becomes a meta-narrative: it’s not about differences between her and Obama, because that question is a settled component of the theme of inevitability. The meta-narrative is about why voters are being swayed by words rather than deeds, why they are not making their decision in the manner of a human resources department, why they are deluded. A preference for Obama can be interpreted only as voter ignorance or as a failure to appreciate her substance: “I know there are comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between us, and I think it’s important that voters receive that information”; “we won’t achieve unity or fulfill our dreams by running away from honest discussion and debate.”

But above all the interruption of her inevitability is result of unfairness—not everyone is being “held to the same standards,” “held accountable.” The appeal to unfairness becomes a plea: “we’re asking [you] to compare our years of service,” “that is all we’re asking.” Her plea comes apparently only from a sense of what is good for us, as bitter a pill as it might seem to swallow: “Because it’s not just about my opponent and myself, this election is about you.” The communication of self-pity and martyrdom reaches its peak: “maybe because I understand how difficult this job will be and how lonely it is in the Oval Office”; “some of us are right and some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready and some of us are not. Some us know what we will do on day one and some of us haven’t thought it through enough.”

wecandoitposter1-thumb.jpgAct IV: Clinton, the day after, in the garb of a mechanic. Now the attack on rhetoric is enhanced: words are opposed to work: “Others might be joining a movement. I’m joining you on the night shift, on the day shift and I’m asking you to join me to shift America into high gear again.” The election is about “picking a president who relies not just on words but on work, on hard work.” Clinton is “in the solutions business.”

Here are the ideas behind this rhetorical disaster (night shift, gear shift, etc.): first, that because Obama is achieving his victory rhetorically, he is achieving it effortlessly, and so undeservedly. The second is that Obama’s entire career must reflect this effortlessness: he hasn’t gotten where he is with hard work. The third is that his presidency will be the same: Obama won’t be a hard worker.

c_l995_45_m.jpgAct V, Scene I: Enter Lady Clinton, sleepwalking with a taper, unhinged. After all these tactics fail, there is a final meltdown, in which a schizophrenic collage of all these themes is yawped ever louder. First there is the incongruent juxtaposition of conciliation and attack—she is “honored” to be on the same stage as Obama and yet his campaign is about “change you can xerox.”

Then there is a reversion to self-pity and martyrdom—the “hits” she’s taken are nothing to the travails of ordinary people, and by implication to the hits that they will take if she is not elected president. Obama’s campaign uses “tactics that are right out of Karl Rove’s playbook.” The scolding reaches a shrill crescendo: “shame on you Barack Obama.”

Finally, the condescension to Obama supporters over their delusion becomes anger and outright mockery: “let’s have a real campaign; enough with the speeches and big rallies”; “maybe I’ve just lived a little long … you are not just going to wave a magic wand … I could stand up here and say, let’s get everybody together, let’s get unified; the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect.”

resurrection.jpgAct V, Scene II: A cave. A boulder has been moved to reveal its mouth. It is empty.

Cut To: a temple. Confettie and balloons rain down. Maiden Hillary has been resurrected. There is momentum. The shamans burn thighbones in fat.


Act V, Scene III:Howard Dean on his throne in the Golden Hall: weary and stalemated, like the Democratic Party. Can they be revived?

The Momentum Fetish -- taking entirely predictable results and pretending they're shocking

Momentum: the idea is that if a candidate wins in one state, he or she will win in others. It is premised on the idea that voters are lemmings.

It is a really dumb idea, and one that the press keeps resurrecting after rumors of its death: Obama had momentum after Iowa; it went away in New Hampshire; he had it in his 11 straight win; last night it went away. No matter that each turn of events is more proof that the concept of momentum is empty.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign put out a memo before the primaries began, predicting every state he'd win or lose except for Maine (they thought he'd lose there). It's all entirely predictable. And it was Obama campaign people looking at practical exigencies who predicted it; not pundits caught up in their own hysterics, pretending that the campaign is an unknowable flux when it is a known quantity.

Strategic campaign analysis is really irrelevant. But while the press pretends to be devoted to it, what they are really devoted to is taking an entirely predictable process and inserting a Apotreptic moment into it--the dramatic reversal of classical poetics. The news must be shocking and titillating--and where there is nothing salacious the political pornography must be manufactured, so that an entire class of mal-educated politicos can beat off in unison to their own political fantasies.

Pundit Shamanism

One small not on the press and pundits: part of their pseudoscience of political strategy is to assign causes to events. They do this with a disregard for analysis that amounts to superstition. Hillary won last night because of her 3-am ad, because of Obama's negative press coverage, and so on. They quickly forget that Obama eliminated large Clinton leads in Ohio and Texas to make these states closer than they were supposed to be. We are meant to interpret a shrinking of Clinton support as a strategic victory. Even barring these inconvenient facts, there is simply no way to know how effective certain strategies are. The assignment of causes is merely free association that flatters the notions of "strategy" and the role of the press in determining elections. It's the same sort of free association that underlies the art of prophecy in less intellectualized societies--the reading of birds or entrails. These superstitions have merely been cloaked in enlightenment trappings--polling, "strategy", and other pseudosciences. Finally, the machinery that drives all of this is the distinctly American value of nihilistic Machievellianism: nothing is good or bad, but power makes it so. And so the pundits read their tea-leaves in the service of the mysterious art of power-acquisition; deep down even the pundits know that what they do has no predictive power, that is really an excited ritual dance around the idol of the deity Power, who requires that intellect be sacrificed at her altar.

Rescuing Maiden Hillary

This will sound like sour grapes, but here goes.

It's a measure of the delusion of the press that they treat Clinton's comeback as a resurgence. That's largely a function of a taste for drama, no matter what the realities--the desire to tell a story of ups and downs, wins and comebacks. It's also a function of a post-SNL guilt over Hillary's "negative" press coverage, despite the fact that that coverage was caused by eleven straight losses and her extremely negative campaign. But worst, it's a function of of a form of politically correct sexism which demands we treat a campaign that is dead in the water as if it were alive--that we extend our chivalry to a forlorn maiden whose entitlement masquerades as distress. She went through so much. The first dragons were alternately Bill Clinton and the Republican attack machine. Now it's simply Obama; or, more fundamentally, the brute reality of what it means to lose. Ultimately, we're being asked to make an exception for Clinton based on her sex, by a press that suddenly became worried that it had been making an exception for Obama based on his race, charisma, high-mindedness, or all three.

The reality is this: barring an assassination, scandal, or the overturning of the popular vote/pledged delegate count by party officials and activists ("super-delegates") , Clinton cannot win. Her campaign is simply delusional, and can only result in ripping apart the Democratic party before Obama goes on to the general election.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Obama "Screamed" at Him

Here's some unedited blather premised more on the vanity of knowing Obama (and his flaws) than on newsworthiness; just to summarize: a local reporter does a fluff piece on Obama, feels some remorse, writes something less flattering based on other lawmakers envious of Obama's success, in a piece that starts out talking about how painful it is listening to Obama try to talk like a black man; Obama yells at him; he still "admires" Obama, and now we are supposed to be impressed by his brush with greatness--even its irascibility; or should I say, "The Irascibility of Hope."

Stanley Fish Tries to arouse us from our Obagmatic slumber

"Hey, I'm Stanley Fish! The enemy of the conventional wisdom is my friend, regardless of the facts." [Incidentally, this is the way that the sequence of counterintuitive fads that is humanities academia functions.] "So Obama's political machine has proven itself to be much more well-organized and formidable than McCain's? So what. So Obama will raise far more money than McCain? So what. So Obama's and outstanding and charismatic campaigner? So what."

The idea that Obama will not be able to saddle McCain with the fiasco that is Bush is simply laughable. And Fish doesn't seem to be aware that McCain in the end succumbed on torture--which really just sums up Fish's ignorance of the political landscape he's pontificating about.