11/30/08

What Comes Next

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said, flatly, that we are not winning the war in Afghanistan.

American casualties are increasing; in the last six months, one Marine battalion in Afghanistan lost more soldiers than all of the 20,000 Marines in Iraq. The Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda--or its viral offspring--are gathering momentum. It seems likely that this week's attacks in Mumbai originated in the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is entrenched.

Pakistan's own intelligence agency is known to be supportive of the Taliban, largely because they see the Taliban as a potential counterweight to the perceived collusion between India, Afghanistan and the U.S. Recently, a redrawn map of Pakistan originating in American, neoconservative circles made its way out into the world. It showed Pakistan largely subsumed by Afghanistan, India and an autonomous Baluchistan. Obviously, this didn't help.

In October, Frontline aired a documentary about the war in Afghanistan that details the effects on the region as a whole. Of particular interest is the tension that American missteps in Afghanistan create between India and Pakistan.

In this context, it is difficult to know how to proceed in Afghanistan. Simply exiting seems irresponsible: the Taliban would almost certainly return to power and what comes next could be worse than 9/11, if not for the U.S. then for Pakistan or India. At the same time, military solutions are proving ineffective if not disastrous. Virtually no one interviewed for Frontline believes that the war is winnable within the near future. And the prospect of a grinding, twenty-year military endeavor is not enticing. Simply put, the way that we are currently fighting the war in Afghanistan is creating more problems than it is solving. The worst case scenario would be indirectly fomenting a war between two, nuclear powers, for unilateral strikes against the Taliban over the border in Pakistan may implicitly give the green light to India to do the same.

It is in this context that the President-elect's plans for Central Asia seem so intriguing.

The New York Times reports that in selecting his National Security team, President-elect Obama has chosen advisers who, although they are more hawkish than he, share his vision of a fundamentally altered foreign policy.
The shift would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.
The Obama Administration is proposing an overhaul of American foreign policy in what the Times calls "a sweeping shift of priorities and resources in the national security arena." The solution in Afghanistan will not be solely diplomatic, but with an infusion of badly needed troops coming from the draw down in Iraq, areas can be secured. Then, by focusing on rebuilding infrastructure and providing services in Afghanistan, we may be able to prevent a replay of what happened after the Soviets withdrew. If we had invested in more than just guns in Afghanistan back then, who knows what the world would look like now?

Update: Despite rampant speculation, the area that the Mumbai attacks originated from is still as yet unknown. Although the hills of Pakistan was an educated guess, it was a premature one.

11/29/08

When Shopping Becomes Unpatriotic

Yesterday Jdimytai Damour, a maintenance worker from Queens, NY, died when he was trampled to death by an onslaught of eager shoppers at Wal-Mart. Damour was working in the store when it opened early for Black Friday. Customers had been waiting in line all night with hopes of scoring big-ticket sales items, notably a limited number of plasma HDTVs. The crowd tore the doors off the store in their desperation to get inside. Damour was knocked to the ground. His coworkers struggled to get to him and were also pushed down. Later when police closed the store in order to investigate Damour's death, customers refused to leave and attempted to continue shopping.

I have often contemplated what I would do during a crisis if I were to be surrounded by a panicked crowd. On September 11th, 2001, as the second tower of the World Trade Center fell, I thought about the people in the stairwells. At the time I was a licensed Emergency Medical Technician and had to practice mass casualty incidents as part of my training. The instructors often stressed the fact that buildings could usually be evacuated safely as long as no one panicked and started shoving others aside. In the role of an EMT, a late arrival to the scene of destruction, I knew how to calm people and facilitate an orderly exit. But I worried that I wouldn't be as calm if I were one of the people trapped inside. Had anyone trying to flee the second tower, before the plane crashed into it, panicked? Had they shoved people in the stairwell, resulting in them escaping, but trapping many others in the chaos they'd created?

How many lives would I be willing to endanger to protect my own? I frequently ask this question.

I'd be curious to know how many other people contemplate what their actions would be in emergency situations. For six years I was chronically homeless and survival was foremost in my mind. The other street kids and I were confronted with ethical issues that most Americans have not had to face. If you were starving, and so was your friend, but there was only enough food to feed one of you, what would you do? I know from experience that I would volunteer to starve. But starving is different than fleeing a building that is on fire because death can be wrestled from hunger's grip over a period of time. Burning to death is a discrete experience.

I want to be able to say with conviction that I would wait patiently for those in front of me to exit the plane or room or office, in the case of something like a bomb threat. I want to be able to state was as much certitude as I can about starving that I would prioritize the good of the group ahead of my own survival. But there's an intimidating voice in my head that asks whether I'd be fine with waiting while someone who walked slowly wasted the precious seconds between me and death. I feel horrible about the fact that sometimes I think that the voice has a valid point.

Perhaps this entire thought exercise sounds alarmist and misplaced on a blog about art, culture and politics. However, people all over the world have to make these decisions every day of their lives. Most often those faced with these gruesome choices are poor. They have to decide how much food they will give their children and how much they will keep for themselves. They have to worry about fires starting in the slums where they live. They have to choose how or when to fragment their families as the adults look for work, possibly abroad, where they will be living illegally. No one who makes these decisions does so lightly. To sacrifice another person's life for your wellbeing is painful to contemplate for almost anyone in the world. The exception would be Americans who want cheap plasma HDTVs.

Whenever confronted with something that elicits a negative reaction in me, I challenge myself to delve deeper, to ask why. Since yesterday I have been asking why a crowd of consumers would kill a man for a TV. I try to put myself into the scene. I have been standing in line all night. Perhaps I want the TV because I've been laid off this year and I haven't been able to give my kids everything I want to be able to give them. This TV is my chance to show that I love them. It is also a chance to prove to myself that I can still provide for my family.

When the doors open the crowd surges. People who have just pulled into the parking lot are rushing ahead of me. I have put so much stock in this TV redeeming me in my eyes as well as my children's that I can't afford to fail. Adrenaline pumps through my muscles as I tear the door off its hinges. Three people who have been standing in line with me all night help. We fling it aside and push our bodies into the solid mass in front of us. By the time I reach the shelf I had carefully scouted the day before, all of the TV's are gone. I begin sprinting through the store, desperate to find something that will serve the same function of validating my ability to care for my family. When police officers demand that I leave the building empty handed I try to brush them aside. How dare they control me when my life feels so out of control?

Later, watching the news reports about Damour's death at home, I can't shake the memory of something spongy giving under my foot as I shoved towards the electronics section. It could have been a hat, a kid's stuffed animal. Or a human with a name and a family. Do I feel any remorse? Am I so consumed by needing to find an object to validate my humanity that I can't spare a thought for the man that I may have accidentally aided in killing?

Advertisements in the U.S. are focused on explaining how products will make us better people and give us better lives and we’ve bought into their messages. A certain perfume will make a woman more independent, living for herself instead of others. A soft drink will give basketball players the boost they need to become winners.

When the economy began its downturn after September 11th the government told us to be patriotic by shopping. As the economy continued to slide we were given rebates to keep us shopping. Yesterday retailers were so worried about their profit margins that they offered deep discounts to keep us shopping. Even if some of us die as a result, we are supposed to keep shopping.

As we are all aware, the economy continues to deteriorate. Citigroup recently announced 53,000 layoffs. Unemployment rates are going up. Resources are becoming scarce. More of us are having to make decisions about who to feed first, how far to travel for work, and what we will sacrifice for our survival. The answer to these tough questions can no longer be that we will go shopping.

When a crisis is imminent the best way to ensure the survival of the greatest number of people is to seek safer ground calmly, respecting those around you. Americans are not accustomed to conceptualizing our country in this way. But it's time that we do before we trample each other to death. The most patriotic action each of us can take at this time is to contemplate how we will react when decisions about the welfare of our families must be made. There are no clear answers. I've been agonizing over these questions for years and am not entirely sure what I would do. But at least when someone else's life stands between me and what I perceive I need, I'll understand the implications of my actions.

11/28/08

A New Front

The Los Angeles Times reports today that the U.S. military has been attacked electronically, affecting computers in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although officials are withholding many details, the attack underscores the increasing danger and potential significance of computer warfare, which defense experts say could one day be used by combatants to undermine even a militarily superior adversary.
Information is scarce and closely guarded, but the Times reports that the military suspects Russia.
An electronic attack from Russia shut down government computers in Estonia in 2007. And officials believe that a series of electronic attacks were launched against Georgia at the same time that hostilities erupted between Moscow and Tbilisi last summer. Russia has denied official involvement in the Georgia attacks.
Although there is reason to believe that we and other countries regularly engage in electronic assaults, this attack marks a major increase in hostilities. Unlike conventional war, cyber war is largely unbound by treaties and conventions, making it difficult to determine when acts of electronic aggression add up to open hostility.

This week's attacks represent the emergence of a new kind of combat that our military is currently unprepared to engage in or even defend itself from, but cyber war is sure to be a virtual front in almost every military conflict we face from now on.

11/27/08

Happy Thanksgiving

11/26/08

The Real W.

Bush's War, a Frontline documentary, is necessary viewing. Simply put, it is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

Through in-depth interviews with all but the biggest players in the exceptionally dangerous game that we now know as the global war on terror, it clearly and compellingly tells a complicated narrative. In essence, it is the opposite of Oliver Stone's W., which makes fiction out of a reality so compelling it needed no treatment. In effect, this is the film I longed for when I wrote my review of W. Some may think it unfair to compare a fiction film with a documentary one, but Bush's War is as literary as anything Stone has ever made. It's characters are compelling; it's conflicts vivid; it's ironies bitter, cruel and heartbreaking. It is a tragedy, really, with the State Department as the Greek chorus.

In Bush's War, far from learning that the President is just a figure head, we learn just how important the office is--and why this has been one of the worst ever. After 9/11, weak leadership allowed a cabal of ideologues to undermine anyone who disagreed with them. And, although it didn't happen all at once, it wasn't long before the neoconservatives took over the White House from the foreign policy realists, including State and the CIA, with disastrous consequences.

The filmmakers made many brilliant decisions that determined how this documentary would unfold, but perhaps the most daring was a choice not to proffer a thesis on the President himself. It is a detailed portrait of his administration, but not of Bush. We do not see him directly; we infer his character. We do not identify with him; we observe him. What we induce is perhaps closer to Stone's vision of Bush than anyone would like to admit, but because the narrative is not processed through his interior consciousness, it is more useful. Watching W., you learn about a man; watching Bush's War, you learn about the world.

Bush's War is required viewing not only for those who wish to understand how we got here, but for those who never want to let it happen again. It will be a long time before the mechanics of government are diagrammed this clearly again.

11/25/08

"The Biggest Single Crisis We Now Face"

Thesis. Antithesis.

Me Not Very Right Sum Tiems

Okay. It was just me. Douthat is back:
No, social conservatives aren't the problem for the GOP. But they haven't been the solution, either: Too often, on matters ranging from the Iraq War to domestic policy, they've served as enablers of Republican folly, rather than as constructive critics. And calling Catholics who voted for Obama "mindless" and "stupid" is a poor substitute for building the sort of Republican Party that can attract the votes of those millions of Americans, Catholic and otherwise, who voted for the Democrats because they thought, not without reason, that George W. Bush was a disastrous president whose party should not be rewarded with a third term in the White House.
(Lest there be any confusion, I don't link to posts like this because I want to see the Republican party attract more voters. I just find this sort of intelligent, rational discussion much more stimulating than either this or this.)

11/23/08

The Last Beat of My Heart

Siouxsie and the Banshees:



A good song for a gray morning.

11/22/08

Dead Heat

The New York Times reports today that--18 days after the election--Democrats are closer than ever to gaining a filibuster-proof, 60 seat majority in the Senate.

You may recall the odds of that much-touted number ever becoming reality seeming slim at best a few days before the election. Nate Silver broke it down like this:


Now, Al Franken is a mere 120 votes behind Norm Coleman with both sides contesting 400 or so more ballots each. Meanwhile, in Georgia--Georgia!--incumbent Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin will have a runoff election on December 2nd after both candidates failed to win a majority of the vote on November 4.

While the prospect of picking up the last two Senate seats needed for a super majority is certainly exciting (more election!), I must admit that I'm actually a little ambivalent about the idea of an unstoppable Democratic bloc. I don't think many people would accuse me of being centrist in my politics, but it seems better for the nation as a whole when policies and pieces of legislation must be worked out openly and cooperatively. With a filibuster-proof majority, the line about elephants lying down with donkeys in a new Eden of togetherness will be a much harder sell come 2010 and 2012. Voters may just blame Democrats for whatever befalls us between now and then--and the ways thing are going, much will befall us between now and then.

By clicking here, you can actually see the contested ballots that will determine the election in Minnesota and weigh in on whether you think these ballots are valid. Did a voter mean to vote for Lizard People or Al Franken? You decide. (Hat tip: Ross Douthat)

Endangered Species Act: Chrysler, Ford, GM

This week the Bush administration pushed through a number of midnight regulations, including an alteration to the Endangered Species Act. The new regulations allow agencies to determine whether their infrastructure projects, such as roads or dams, would significantly affect endangered species. Currently new projects are subject to review by independent scientists, but developers have complained that this oversight wastes time. Not surprisingly, President Bush is once again privileging short sighted capitalistic gains over long term measures to protect our national and global interests.

The Bush administration's alteration does include a provision requiring agencies that miscalculate and do harm species to pay for the damage they have caused. However, no explanation for how the costs would be calculated has been offered. In addition, it is difficult to imagine what an agency will be able to do to revive a species once they have brought about its extinction.

In 2006 the Bush administration announced that polar bears would be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Their habitat has been severely compromised by rising global temperatures. The U.S. government's acknowledgment that climate change threatened a species' survival introduced the possibility that steps would have to be taken to reduce carbon emissions in order to maintain compliance with the law.

Due to deliberate steps taken by the Bush administration as well as congress, no intervention of significance has occurred. The Environmental Protection Agency recently struck down California's attempt to regulate car emission and fuel efficiency standards in what was seen as a gift to the auto industry. Twelve states had adopted California's policies, or planned to, when the federal government denied states their right to protect their air.

Now the three American automakers that received Bush's blessings are about to go extinct. Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors have failed to adjust to the modern demands of the auto industry. They have spent their money lobbying against regulation standards and as a result Japanese cars are far more popular in the U.S. due to their fuel-efficiency. Having identified this disparity as a major stumbling block for the failing industry, last year's Energy Bill earmarked $25 billion in loans to the auto industry specifically aimed at increasing fuel-efficiency. Now there are proposals, mostly from Republicans, to use this money to fund a bailout, rather than accessing funds through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (the $700 billion pot of money meant to prevent an economic meltdown).

While the question of whether or not to provide a bailout for the industry is a complicated one, the question of where bailout money should come from is not. We are staring a grim reality in the face. Capitalism cannot flourish when it is divorced from intelligent deliberation and recognition that with only one habitable planet, our resources are finite. At some point we need to grow up and realize that investing long term is the only way to ensure our country's security. Liquidating what little money we have set aside for updating our energy infrastructure is not the answer. Destroying the habitats and species that the health of the world depends on is not the answer. Preventing states from enacting their own regulations to curb climate change is not the answer. A fundamental shift in our thinking that finally conceptualizes sustainability as capitalism's one prayer for survival is our only hope.

11/20/08

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is International Transgender Day of Remembrance.

"The Transgender Day of Remembrance was set aside to memorialize those who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. The event is held in November to honor Rita Hester, whose murder on November 28th, 1998 kicked off the “Remembering Our Dead” web project and a San Francisco candlelight vigil in 1999. Rita Hester’s murder — like most anti-transgender murder cases — has yet to be solved." -http://www.rememberingourdead.org/day/what.html

Between 2004-2008 an average of 2.0 people have been killed each month in violence specifically related to transphobia. This rate has been on the steady increase. Between 1990-2000 the average was 1.44. The years 2000-2003 saw a jump to 1.78. Over 68% of these deaths are taking place in the United States and people of color are disproportionately targeted.

Supporting passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 2015), with an inclusion of protections for gender identity is one tangible way to help reverse this trend. Currently transgender individuals have no federally protected right to work or obtain housing. This forces many into the dangerous street economy, which puts them at great risk for contracting diseases and encountering violence. Health insurance plans refuse to provide coverage for transgender individuals. Those who are able to acquire insurance through employment or government programs usually find that transgender related treatment is excluded.

It is time for this country to begin treating transgender individuals as citizens. Today we remember the devastating loss that occurs when human rights are denied.

Statistics courtesy of the Remembering Our Dead Web Project

11/19/08

Douthat On the Way Down?

Is it just me, or is Ross Douthat getting less and less reasonable now that the election has passed? This is a long way to fall for someone who recently looked like the calm, clear voice that could lead conservatives out of their dark wood.

Oh, well.

The Next Battle

The war on terror is in large part a symbolic war. It's true that all wars are waged in the realm of ideas as well on the ground, but with enemies that are both invisible and transnational, the ideological conflict is in some ways the primary conflict. I think it is safe to say that whatever gains have been made on the ground against al-Qaeda over the past seven years, we have seen steady losses in terms of moral authority. Immediately after 9/11 we had the world's sympathy; two years later we were the focus of the largest protests the world has ever seen.

In and of itself, electing Barack Obama represents a symbolic victory in the war on terror. In a statement concerning the tape that Ayman al-Zawarhiri, a high-level al-Qaeda agent, released today, Richard Clarke said:

Obama's election has taken the wind out of al Qaeda's sails in much of the Islamic world because it demonstrates America's renewed commitment to multiculturalism, human rights, and international law. It also proves to many that democracy can work and overcome ethnic, sectarian, or racial barriers.

Obama's commitment to withdraw from Iraq also takes away an al Qaeda propaganda tenet: that the U.S. seeks to occupy oil rich Arab lands. (Hat tip: Joe Klein)

But having scored this symbolic victory, there is still the larger problem of the legal apparatus created by the Bush administration's response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Any advances that Obama's election represents will be short-lived if the new administration does not fundamentally alter the course of the war on terror. This means not only deescalating the war in Iraq, but revamping the system by which terror suspects are detained and interrogated.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. By executive order alone, Obama can and should halt interrogation methods widely understood as torture, but prosecuting and then imprisoning or releasing detainees will be more complicated. The President-elect may have promised to close Guantanomo, but the Guardian reports that Obama's legal advisers "do not see how Guantanámo can be closed within the first months of his administration."

Scott Silliman, an expert on military law at Duke University, said Congress would have to empower a new court system to try the detainees, which would take time.

It would also be politically unpopular to keep the terror suspects in the US, with critics suggesting that could provoke retaliation from al-Qaida. The Pentagon concedes it has no evidence to charge the majority of the 250 detainees with terrorism.

Obama would return those prisoners to a third country, and in some cases the US would demand assurances that they would remain under surveillance. The process is further complicated by the fact that 50 or 60 of those detainees are men without a country. They are unable to return to their own country, and no other country will take them.

As Barney Frank once said of the financial crisis, "No solution to a problem can be more elegant that the problem itself." The moral and legal limbo that Dick Cheney and his cabal of legal advisers created in order to deal with terror suspects was worse than inelegant--it was both morally and strategically wrong. But the problem it was meant to solve remains: since this is not a war being waged with a sovereign state, detainees cannot simply be treated as prisoners of war. So the question is: what do we do now?

I'm not a legal or a political expert, but it seems to me that any political fallout that results from bringing these suspects to the United States and trying them in a U.S. court of law would be worth it. For in the long run, Guantanamo may prove to be an even more powerful symbol than Obama himself.

11/18/08

A Moment of Clarity... and Even Hope

Maybe all Presidential transitions are as well reported on as this. Frankly, I haven't been paying attention long enough to know. But it seems that each name that gets floated out into the world in the form of ink and pixels brings an equal and opposite wave of words wondering what that name means. Not just "Is this person a good idea for this position?" but "What does this person say about the Obama-Biden administration's view of the world?" And some of the names floating close to the surface these days have not exactly reassured me that the people are going to get the change-dot-government that they paid for.

I posted earlier about my reservations concerning Clinton, but that looks to be pretty much baked in the cake at this point. Less certain: former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who features in the deregulatory horror-story that the New York Times ran on Monday's front-page, and Eric Holder, who was winged in the hail of fire that followed Bill Clinton out of office for the one scandal that deserved to stick (Marc Rich's pardon). Is this really what change looks like?

So, while reading up on the potential Clinton cabinet seat in The Guardian, I was relieved to find this description of Obama's meeting with McCain:
Although the two clashed during the election campaign over tax policy and withdrawal from Iraq, they have more in common than they have differences. They both favour the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, an increase in US troops to Afghanistan, immigration reform, stem cell research and measures to tackle climate change, and oppose torture and the widespread use of wire-tapping.
And that is just a description of what they agree on! It's our job to stay vigilant and not simply fawn over Obama's every... well, everything, but I have to admit: things are looking up.

Clinton?

Watching Obama fill Cabinet seats is like watching a picture being hung that you can't actually control: you can just root for its placement. "A little to the right. Center... cen-ter... no, no, a little to the left! A little to the left!"

The President-elect is considering Senator Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. I was an early Obama supporter in part because I was an ardent Clinton opponent. Senator Clinton not only advocated for the war in Iraq but has been hawkish on Iran and as Secretary of State, her views on these matters would carry weight. While Clinton is certainly intelligent, experienced and capable, it is the style of her governing that I am weary of. As Guy Brookshire puts it:
there have long been behind-the-scenes murmurs that Clintonian team-building and leadership, on the organizational level, is based on creating an us-versus-them mentality which spreads to all areas of interaction with the "outside" world.
Clinton's own presidential campaign seems to have suffered from this mentality with disastrous consequences.

Could this simply be keeping one's enemies close? Presumably, Secretary of State is not a position that Clinton could run from in 2012, being too close to the president in the event of a first term catastrophe. Is it to solidify the Democratic base? Clinton does continue to have a tremendous amount of support, but State is not where her strongest supporters wanted to see her end up.

Although I know Obama is savvy, I don't have any reason to believe he would be quite that calculating in filling such an important position. Presumably, he intends to use Clinton's tremendous foreign policy experience where it will best serve him. Let's hope he knows what he's doing.

11/17/08

Intelligence Reform

There is a lot of talk flying around about bipartisan reform efforts resulting in once-unlikely names popping up in cabinet posts or otherwise filling high-level positions. With so many pundits making so many recommendations, I am surprised that one name has not appeared in what, to me, is the most obvious place. Therefore, I would like to make a proposal:

What better way to demonstrate that a new spirit is operating in Washington than to appoint one's former rival to a high office? No, I'm not speaking of Senator Clinton for Secretary of State. I'm thinking of an institution that is in urgent need of reform: intelligence.

The ways in which American intelligence is gathered--i.e. torture--has done more to tarnish our image than any other single factor over the last eight years, including the invasion of Iraq. Images and anecdotes of American soldiers and spies using techniques that reduce men to mere shadows of their former selves even when they do not destroy them will haunt this country at home and abroad for years to come. In order to not only combat this perception, but obliterate the possibility of it ever happening again, I believe that, once in office, the President-elect should form a commission whose sole purpose will be to investigate and reform the methods by which intelligence is gathered and that he should place John McCain at its head.

This would have many desirable effects, not the least of which would be to put one of the most vocal opponents of torture at the head of an effort to remove "enhanced interrogation techniques" from the toolkit of the American military, the FBI and the CIA forever. John McCain has the character, the charisma and the moral authority to accomplish this task--without risking any accusations of being "soft on terrorism." It would go a long way in proving that an Obama-Biden administration could truly "reach across the aisle," quieting many of its skeptics while at the same time reassuring the many moderates who will continue to be a vital part of any electoral strategy come 2012. Finally, it would further heal the deep divisions--divisions that Republican political strategy has exacerbated--to see the former Republican candidate placed in a position of power commensurate with his service and his personal experience.

Appointing John McCain head of a panel to study and reform intelligence and cease enhanced interrogation would rather neatly ensure real reform in intelligence gathering thereby raising our esteem in the rest of the world, demonstrate bipartisanship and create the political unification that an Obama presidency represents. Just think of all the people who voted for McCain and how they would feel about a president who would bestow upon him such an important task. How much more invested in that task would they would then be?

We are morally obligated to alter the course of the war on terror and fundamentally transform its tactics, but in doing so, we must also reassure the nation that this transformation is for the best. John McCain could be that reassurance.

11/16/08

Iraq and What the Future Will Bring

Today, Iraq's cabinet approved a security pact that
provides for the departure of US forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and gives Iraq the right to try American soldiers and defence contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base. It also prohibits the US from using Iraqi territory to attack Iraq's neighbors, like Syria and Iran. (guardian)
And the Wall Street Journal adds that "American soldiers would leave cities by the end of June 2009."

As Matthew Yglesias reminds us, this is a significant paradigmatic shift--both in the U.S. and Iraq--from just a year ago; however, it's possible that this represents an even more dramatic recasting of the (increasingly) global war on terror.

If you've been keeping an eye on our never-ending war, then you're aware that the Bush administration, under the cover of an election year, has been quietly but consistently expanding the scope and dimensions of its military reach. As The New Republic reported in October:
In July, according to three administration sources, the Bush administration formally gave the military new power to strike terrorist safe havens outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Before then, a military strike in a country like Syria or Pakistan would have required President Bush's personal approval. Now, those kinds of strikes in the region can occur at the discretion of the incoming commander of Central Command (Centcomm), General David Petraeus.
The security pact is not the law of the land just yet: it still has to pass the Iraqi legislature. But if it passes, will it affect General Petraeus' ability to strike without presidential approval? That is, if U.S. forces are not allowed to strike from Iraq, will that de facto eliminate the threat of military strikes into Iran and Syria? If so, the security pact may be even more significant in terms of scaling back the war on terror than the news clippings are currently reporting.

There is, of course, a deeper question mark underlying any discussion of the future of Iraq and the Middle East: the President-elect. We might be witnessing a timely end to the occupation of Iraq, but the question of how the Obama administration will conduct the war on terror very much remains to be seen.

Firestorm

Sylmar, California:



Video by the Los Angeles Times.

11/13/08

"We Want to Be Citizens"

In a powerful post, Andrew Sullivan explains why anything less than full equality is not an option (Hat tip: Super Collide).

Once In a Lifetime

Directed by David Byrne and Toni Basil:

"How Mad Are You At Black People?"

Colbert, holding a mirror to truthiness:



Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generall discover every body's Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind of Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended with it. But if it should happen otherwise, the Danger is not great; and, I have learned from long Experience, never to apprehend Mischief from those Understandings, I have been able to provoke; For, Anger and Fury, though they add Strength to the Sinews of the Body, yet are found to relax those of the Mind, and to render all its Efforts feeble and impotent.

There is a Brain that will endure but one Scumming: Let the Owner gather it with Discretion, and manage his little Stock with Husbandry; but of all things, let him beware of bringing it under the Lash of his Betters; because, That will make it all bubble up into Impertinence, and he will find no new Supply: Wit, without knowledge, being a sort of Cream, which gathers in a Night to the Top, and by a skilful Hand, may be soon whipt into Froth; but once scumm'd away, what appears underneath will be fit for nothing, but to be thrown to the Hogs. --Jonathon Swift

Veronica

Elvis Costello performing "Veronica," June 6, 1989:



A sharp piece of writing about the song as well as its music video can be found here (the world would be better off if it had more music video criticism such as this).

11/12/08

Well Said

Nate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight fame) puts a little perspective on the word "realignment." (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan).

Cubist Grid

Headline Are Headlines, But...

Keep an eye on this. (Hat tip: The Right Coast)

11/11/08

Moving Target

All the major news outlets and the whole blogosphere are buzzing with discussions of whether the country is center-right or center-left. Liberals like to point out that the center-right claim originates from conservative sources, while conservatives are busy burying the word "mandate" under as many columns as they can print. Left and right both hurl the phrase "govern from the center" at one another in a particularly hostile game of catch. Feeling threatened, apparently the right has decided now is the time to make threats.


Of course, it makes a mockery of language to say that the country is either center-right or center-left: the center is the center. If the country as a whole leans to the right or the left, the center moves. But the underlying question remains valid: Would it be a mistake to use the opportunities afforded by the new Democratic majority to pass decidedly liberal reforms and re-regulate the economy?

There is a crucial piece of context that this line of inquiry neglects: the reason Democrats were able to win such an impressive victory last Tuesday is that for the past eight years Republicans have not been governing from the center. Years ago, during Bush's first term, I complained to Ken Jacobs that the early 2000's reminded me of what he once described as the "nasty, overstuffed, airless, American fifties," because it felt so conservative. "Conservative?" he said. "Make no mistake: these guys are radicals."

Indeed. In fact, they were perceived to be so radical that the country elected one of the most liberal members of the Senate after having been warned repeatedly that he was a tax-loving, baby-hating, bank-crushing, terror-condoning socialist sent by God, Hugo Chavez and the Islamic Fascists to foment the end-times. (Or was it just a lack of coherent narrative that derailed McCain's campaign?)

And it isn't over. Bush is using his lame-duck period to continue to expand the war on terror and aggressively and perhaps irreversibly deregulate everything from environmental protections to labor laws. Having run fresh out of political capital, he's behaving like the proverbial teen with the credit card.

It would be nearly impossible for an Obama administration not to govern from the center. The reason? Bush and his ilk have dragged the country, kicking and screaming, so far to the right that it will take years just to get us back to the 50 yard line. That's good news for Democrats. Now all they have to do is make sure everyone knows it. However untrue, the perception that the country is moving to the left (as opposed to re-centering) could still be a problem come 2010 and 2012.

But for now, all of that is beside the point. The mandate Tuesday's vote established is not to move right or left; it's to fix this mess. If the Democrats do, it'll be a long time coming before Republicans can reclaim Washington.

Images: Presidential Election Cartograms created by Mark Newman. Top: 2004; Bottom: 2008.

Ken Jacobs' Infinite Cinema

Mark Webber has curated an online gallery of 20 works by Ken Jacobs at tank.tv. It will be available until November 30th, 2008. Here, Jacobs responds to viewers' e-mailed questions in an extended Q&A.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Ken Jacobs' contribution to film as an art form. From early, beat masterpieces such as Little Stabs at Happiness to his more recent output of consciousness expanding digital videos, Jacobs has relentlessly pursued a unique vision of cinema. His tireless explorations have led him to various media--film, video, 3-D shadow play, live performance, film performance, et al.--each one allowing him to wrestle with a different aspect of the twin enigmas that dominate his work: time and space.

In the cinema of Ken Jacobs, there is no space without a temporal dimension and no time without a spatial component. By recognizing that film transforms time into a material (24 frames per second, 40 frames a foot), he can pulverize time the way that Mark Rothko famously sought to pulverize the image. Jacobs has the ability to atomize each moment and then reconstruct it according to his own desires, which sometimes renders the original material unrecognizable. But this is rarely an aggressive gesture; it is more often a loving investigation, as in the elegiac Two Wrenching Departures.

In his Nervous System performances--where two identical strips of film in two different projectors are advanced one frame at a time, creating often contradictory illusions of stillness, motion and depth--one feels that Jacobs explores each recorded moment like a little boy lost in a mansion, going from one room to the next in wide-eyed wonderment. Once, when asked in an interview about "slowing things down" this way, he responded:
Nothing has been actually slowed down, we’re just finding more time in that time. There’s much more time in that time than we ever imagined, in two frames. 16 or 18 or 24 frames per second, that’s infinite time, and infinite motion is taking place, infinite numbers of events are taking place and this begins to explore that. I’ve never exhausted the time bounded by two frames.
While studying with possibly the greatest teacher of Abstract Expressionism, Hans Hofmann, Jacobs learned the power of what Hofmann called push and pull: the ability of a two-dimensional image to allow for simultaneous, even mutually-exclusive readings of depth. But Jacobs has gone one step further: he has extended the concept of push and pull to the illusion of movement. He has applied the cubist grid to the fourth dimension, creating intersecting temporal planes that well up, overlap, burst forth and then recede just as quickly as they came. If time can be thought of as a river, these are the rapids.

But Jacobs doesn't only use time in the abstract; he also shows us that time is always being buried under more time and that cinema can be used to excavate. With a hawk-eyed leftist's look at American history, he uses found footage and other collage techniques to offer incisive, if often humorous, critiques of capitalism. The first, greatest and longest of these is Star Spangled to Death, a Frankenstein's monster of a movie that incorporates whole other films, intercutting them with a raucous, prankish kind of street theater. Although at times wildly funny--it has a certain nihilistic whimsy--Star Spangled To Death is an existential crisis in a can that you open at your own peril. After seven, vital, love- and hate-filled hours the world seems infinitely more wonderful, more wide-open, and more terrible than you previously thought possible.

In Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, Jacobs revels in his abilities to oscillate between both the material and representational aspects of cinema. In wrenching rhythms reminiscent of Charles Mingus, he shifts from smooth spectacle to stuttering substance. Through almost every conceivable means, he makes us aware of the two-dimensionality of the picture plane and the malleability of the temporal plane. Also as in Mingus, there is a vitality that cannot be contained; it pushes at the edges of the frame, threatening to either break it open or destroy it. In fact, Tom, Tom doesn't really end, it just runs out of the projector, filling the screen with an ecstatic, white light. At the end of this film that lovingly, obsessively undresses every aspect of the illusion-making apparatus, you get the naked light of the projector bulb itself.

It is important to emphasize that Jacobs' movies are, first and foremost, human. They are beautiful, flawed, willing, breathing things that come into and go out of existence with force. But they are also humble--"life-sized" is the word he uses. They don't attempt to overpower the viewer, but to extend an invitation to experience, one person to another. Whether hand-held or mounted on a tri-pod, his camera work is embodied; you feel that there is a man attached to the camera and that, by watching, you too are attached to the camera. To see Window is not just a visual experience, it's a visceral one.

Likewise, by manipulating time in his magical-mechanical (and now, digital) ways, Jacobs takes time out of the realm of "twenty-four frames per second" and into the realm of lived time, allowing us to enter into time as we experience it as opposed to time as we measure it. This is why the "total running time" of a Jacobs film isn't actually a good indication of how long it will last. Seven hours can fly by in an instant while ninety minutes can stretch into infinity. But that is one of the great pleasures of this very demanding body of work.

11/10/08

Like You Really Mean It

David Byrne and Jeff Koons, 1975:



(Hat tip: Artforum)
Christopher Orr's insightful review of Synecdoche, New York can be found here. It's the best one I've read yet. Other film writers might note the fact that Orr actually saw the film all the way through--twice.

11/9/08

Synecdoche, New York

Despite all the bad press, Charlie Kaufman has created something incredible: the rare film that is both widely distributed and seriously heady. Even the title is a ten dollar word; most of the people in front of me in line couldn't pronounce it. Written and directed by Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York has a nervous, jagged quality that from the very start offers a rhythmic variation on the alienation effect. Unlike most movies, it has no back-beat; there aren't even really scenes per se, just shots that, despite the elaborate set design and art direction, somehow feel like they're just barely being held together with duct tape. Some critics have seen these idiosyncrasies as evidence of shoddy construction; I found them original and disarming. The jumpiness of the form describes the content. It would be hard to imagine using the graceful arc of a John Ford film to describe Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man who is unraveling before our eyes. (Hoffman makes the movie; it would be hard to overstate the brilliance of his performance).

Synecdoche, New York is not with out its problems, the greatest of which is that it introduces a kind of endlessness that then consumes it. The protagonist, inexplicably awarded a MacArthur Grant for directing Death of a Salesman, creates an eternal play that recreates a universe inside a universe, an absolute mimesis that becomes less instead of more realistic. This, of course, accounts for the title; art requires synecdoche in order to communicate at all, otherwise it would merely recreate the world without ever describing it. Cotard falls into this trap and perhaps, in trying to describe it, Kaufman does as well.

Other artists have wrestled with the endlessness problem, most notably Martin Kippenberger, Ken Jacobs and Franz Kafka. Endlessness, by definition, is a difficult thing to contain. Usually, it can only be alluded to and even then it threatens to break a work open. Jacobs' epic Star Spangled to Death begins to dissolve its own bonds by the end, but this makes it more, not less, expansive. As Kaufman's movie swells, however, it only becomes more claustrophobic. In the end, there is literally a revolution happening outside the window, but Cotard never emerges from the cocoon he has built for himself. Neither does the film.

Just as powerful as the film is the whirlwind of negative press it has generated that threatens to obscure it entirely. Rex Reed, writing in The New York Observer has loudly declared Synecdoche, New York the worst movie ever made, but if this is the worst movie Rex Reed has ever been forced to endure then he has led a charmed life indeed. Despite spewing forth such phrases as "I have hated every incomprehensible bucket of pretentious, idiot swill ever written by this cinematic drawbridge troll," and, just in case you didn't catch his drift, this tsunami of bile, "His directorial feature debut reminds me of the spiteful, neurotic brat kicked out of school for failing recess who gets even by throwing himself in front of a speeding school bus," Reed actually, if unintentionally, illuminates some of the finer points of the film.

If you can stomach it, you'll discover at the end of his review that Reed did not in fact watch the entire movie before penning one of the most withering pieces of criticism yet put to paper, a vile notice that does not stop at disemboweling the work itself but goes straight for the jugular of the man who made it. Would it be too much of an understatement to say that this seems irresponsible?

One week later, The New York Observer, perhaps hoping to atone for having published the worst movie review ever written, hit it out of the park again. Andrew Sarris begins his more even-handed review by describing the title as "
a curious play on words between Schenectady, N.Y., and synecdoche, a word never spoken aloud in formal or conversational speech." Should I be ashamed to admit that I have found recourse to the word synecdoche in many conversations, several of them about the film itself? And, although I have no real reason not to trust Andrew Sarris, I would venture that he has probably dropped an s-bomb once or twice during the course of his own eloquent speech.
In today's New York Times, Al Gore shows us what a responsible energy policy might look like (Hat tip: Open Left). Most of the article dove-tails with what we've already heard from Obama on the campaign trail, with one notable exception:
...those who spend hundreds of millions promoting “clean coal” technology consistently omit the fact that there is little investment and not a single large-scale demonstration project in the United States for capturing and safely burying all of this pollution. If the coal industry can make good on this promise, then I’m all for it. But until that day comes, we simply cannot any longer base the strategy for human survival on a cynical and self-interested illusion.
In The O-List, The New Republic speculates on the likelihood of Gore getting a cabinet seat:
Obama may have run on the greenest platform in decades, but the former veep took pains not to get too involved in the campaign--a reticence that may point to his skepticism of Obama's environmental bona fides. That means an EPA slot or climate-czar role looks unlikely. Instead, he'll be the looming conscience of the party...
How should we read Gore's op-ed in this context? Obama may run out of holes he can fill with Clinton-era wonks and still get away with calling it a "change" administration, but wouldn't it feel good to have Gore back in the Cabinet Room? Or should we be hoping instead for the situation described by The New Republic, where Gore-as-outsider can play the heavy if Obama starts to wander and stray on environmental policy?

11/8/08

The Harder They Fall

In perhaps the smartest post-election article yet, Mark Lilla concerns himself with the failure of intellectual conservatism (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan). For Lilla, Sarah Palin is not, as David Brooks has famously suggested, "a fatal cancer to the Republican party," but rather a symptom of an anti-intellectual ailment that is now in its advanced stages.
...John McCain's choice was not a fluke, or a senior moment, or an act of desperation. It was the result of a long campaign by influential conservative intellectuals to find a young, populist leader to whom they might hitch their wagons in the future.

And not just any intellectuals. It was the editors of National Review and the Weekly Standard, magazines that present themselves as heirs to the sophisticated conservatism of William F. Buckley and the bookish seriousness of the New York neoconservatives. After the campaign for Sarah Palin, those intellectual traditions may now be pronounced officially dead.

It's true: the Weekly Standard and National Review have lost credibility. After engineering one of the worst political blunders in recent memory, they jettisoned anyone who dared utter dissent and, perhaps as a result, their evaluation of the election has yet to rise above the level of "the media did it."

Other voices, however, have been much more introspective. While National Review and the Weekly Standard were busy papering over old ideas with new slogans, the internet allowed for a new crop of conservative thinkers to grow up in parallel, and some times in concert, with traditional print sources. I understand why Andrew Sullivan might say, "the reconstruction of conservatism will require a generation's work," but I think that some intellectuals--Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and Sullivan himself, just to name a few--have already done a lot of the heavy lifting.

I actually worry about the opposite problem. Every day, on-line, serious strategy is being seriously debated by a group of talented, young conservatives. I read them not because I agree with them--I don't share Ross Douthat's ideas about abortion or pornography, nor do I like Sullivan's positions on the flat tax or affirmative action--but I appreciate their seriousness, their reasoning and their writing. Where is the rigorous, intelligent discussion, played out in real time over the internet, that is closer to my politics?

When Lilla writes about his early encounters with conservatives, I empathize.
Conservative politics mattered less to me than the sober comportment of conservative intellectuals at that time; I admired their maturity and seriousness, their historical perspective, their sense of proportion. In a country susceptible to political hucksters and demagogues, they studied the passions of democratic life without succumbing to them.
To maintain not only power but the intellectual foundation from which it stems, progressives will need an equally vibrant new crop of public thinkers thinking publicly. Without it, our victory may be short-lived.
Ricky Leacock, one of the pioneers of direct cinema, is rumored to have said that still photographers make the best cameramen. The few clips I've seen of William Eggleston's video work come close to objective proof.

Fred Barnes' wishful thinking:
Republicans have a big problem. Nope, it's not figuring out how to rebuild their party after consecutive defeats in national elections (that's easy). Nor is it finding new leaders in Congress (also easy) or latching onto fresh ideas that might improve the Republican brand (easiest of all). The problem is simpler--but also more difficult--than those. It's the tricky business of dealing with President Barack Obama.
That may not pass the laugh test, but the rest of Barnes' article is actually quite good. Not that I'm rooting for a Republican comeback, but if politicians actually behaved the way he suggests--liberals don't reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives work together with the president to pass bipartisan legislation, losing camps stop publicly sniping at each other, Republicans try not to alienate moderates--we'd all be better off.

What a difference a day makes
.

11/7/08

William Eggleston:


“William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008” currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through January 25).
Obama wittily parodies his penchant for circumspect answers:



Well played, but this kind of stuff has got to go:

I was never thrilled with the Obama camp's graphic design, but I had to admit it was effective. Now, it just looks out of place. Surely these silly placards won't follow him into the White House, will they?

My Advice to the Left: Get Your Head Out of Your Ass

From lefty start-ups to high-powered, liberal think tank blogs, rumors have been flying around the internet at the speed of hyperlinks that James Dobson's Focus on the Family mailed a letter comparing Obama's victory to Nazis bombing Britain. That might make for a nice chain-letter of hyperlinks, but it is, to put it mildly, an inaccurate representation of the facts.

I've been watching this story grow all day. On second thought, it's done the opposite of grow. In this strange simulacrum of reporting, the story actually has less information with each successive generation. All it does is spread and, in spreading, become even thinner than the original mischaracterization. Eventually, it boils itself down to an ill-considered, poorly written, cut-and-pasted spasm.

I am annoyed to be put in the position of defending Focus on the Family, but this kind of crap is exactly what people stuck in the so-called right-wing echo chamber are imagining is happening in the just as useless, left-wing head-up-our-ass chamber.

So, for the record, Focus on the Family did not compare Obama to a Nazi. They sent out a fund raising letter reminding their readers of some inspiring words of Winston Churchill during the worst days of World War II.

“Do not speak of darker days,” he said. “Let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days — the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we shall all thank God that we have been allowed, each one of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable.”

There is a well-known, if inexplicable, devotion to an imaginary version of Churchill among neo-conservatives and, by extention, theocrats. I have no direct contact with Focus on the Family, but I would venture that they're probably feeling like the kingdom they recently believed they were about to inherit has somehow slipped from their grasp. If I were them, I would try to regroup, too. I might, I don't know, send a letter asking for money and throw in a moving quote and a historical analogy to help keep the troops' spirits up. Was it appropriate? Of course not; it was a bad analogy--but it was a bad analogy in a literary, not a moral sense.

Frankly, I get letters like this all the time from various and sundry progressive causes. I seem to remember getting a lot of similar sounding emails from Democrats after 2004 telling me to buck up, stay strong, we'll win this if we stick together. It's what you do when you've lost.

So join me, liberal bloggers, in being gracious winners. We have carried the day. Now let's act like it.

Discovered

Peter Kirsanow of the National Review on the Palin pick: "...a remarkable political talent has been 'discovered.'"

Really? I find it odd that anyone, at this moment, is still calling Sarah Palin a "remarkable political talent." She is certainly remarkable: not only has she significantly contributed to a losing campaign,--the word "albatross" comes to mind--but she may take more than just McCain down with her.

Rumors (or, as far as I can tell, rumors of rumors... isn't the internet wonderful?) are circulating that William Kristol, chief architect of the Palin pick, may lose his New York Times column just a year after acquiring it. The rebuke might be for attacking his host paper publicly, but it can't have helped that he used the front page of the New York Times to push Palin and his plans for her on an unsuspecting public.

Yes, Sarah Palin has been "discovered" all right. That word is particularly apt since it not only alludes to her undeniable star quality, but also, perhaps unconsciously, to the fact that she's widely seen as a fraud. As for the political talent...

Tops and Bottoms

In a circumspect post, Matthew Yglesias considers how winning campaigns differ from effective governing coalitions. His central argument is that the Republican party as currently configured cannot attract both upper class and middle class voters at the same time. Ramesh Ponnuru considers the same problems, but comes to different conclusions. (Hat tips: Douthat and Sullivan, respectively)

Here, Ross Douthat expounds on the class challenges that Republicans will continue to face in the years ahead.

It's Worse Than I Thought

An addendum to my previous post: Newsweek quotes a McCain aide characterizing the First Family of Alaska as "Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast."

Page 2 of the Newsweek article goes a long way in supporting Guy Brookshire's assertion that "we as a nation owe McCain, personally, a debt of gratitude."

It will be interesting to see if Palin ever recovers from this campaign.

This Is Not the End

As the dust from this groundbreaking election continues to settle, the Republican party's gaze is turning inward. As was to be expected, thoughtful conservatives are doing some serious soul-searching, while the less thoughtful are simply licking their wounds; all of them, however, are asking what comes next? While, for some, this means a reevaluation of tactics and for others a return to core principles, everyone is on the look-out for new leaders. As eyes cast about for fresh faces, they must be wondering what to do with the elephant in the room. It appears that a hit-squad has already been unleashed to ensure the Sarah Palin doesn't get any big ideas; McCain aides have been leaking an alarming amount of good gossip. The Los Angeles Times writes:
The miscommunication and quarrels between the two camps lasted into Tuesday night, said McCain aides familiar with the situation. Palin arrived at the Arizona Biltmore planning to deliver a speech before McCain's concession speech, they said, but was told by senior McCain aides Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter that it would not be appropriate.

Fox News reported Wednesday that Palin's lack of knowledge on some topics also strained relations. Carl Cameron reported that campaign sources told him Palin had resisted coaching before her faltering Katie Couric interviews; did not understand that Africa was a continent rather than a country; and could not name the three nations that are part of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Here is the Fox News clip the Times article refers to. (Hat tip: Super Collide)

These things don't just happen. Someone, somewhere must have determined to take Palin out. But is she just a shooting star on the way down? Not by a long shot. Palin may have lost McCain a few votes, but she struck a deep chord with the radicals that the Republican party has long been courting. Despite her lackluster performance on the national stage, certain neoconservative pundits are still enamored of her. Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, writes,
there was one special highlight of this year's race: the selection by McCain of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. From her first public appearance with McCain, Palin was a star. Only one other Republican can match her stage presence, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since he's foreign-born, he can't serve as president. She can.
The McCain camp may have created something they can't control. There's at least one way that Palin could remain in a position of real power.

Not to be outdone by the election of the first black president, Republicans may have made history on November 4th as well. Despite his seven felony convictions, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska is currently, though narrowly, leading in his re-election bid. If he wins, he would be the first felon to be elected to the Senate. It is possible that Stevens would refuse to resign--after all, he did have the audacity to run after first being indicted and then convicted of "failing to report gifts and donations," which is a polite way of saying he accepted bribes. If he does relinquish his seat, though, and he might have to, Palin would be all but a shoo-in. The New York Times reports that if Stevens steps down or is expelled, a special election would be held to replace him, adding, "Ms. Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, has called on Mr. Stevens to resign."

It isn't all that hard to imagine a scenario in which Palin takes Stevens' Senate seat and acquires the experience she was so clearly lacking in this campaign. After four-to-eight years in Washington, she returns to the national stage older and wiser. Meanwhile, a democratic congress bullies a president, still wet behind the ears, into passing a host of ill-conceived policies and bloated budgets. With a moderate in the VP slot to make her particularly hard-edged Republicanism more palatable, Palin again invigorates the base and wins back an electorate tired of "change."

This is not the only scenario in which the far-right of the Republican party remains in power, but it is perhaps the most likely. Maybe that's why moderates, mere days after the election, are trying to put Palin to bed. Let's hope our new democratic majority governs wisely so that we can all let sleeping Palins lie.

Tales from the Political Crypt: The Invisible Hand

11/6/08

Spiking the Punch

Although mixed with a somber sense of mourning over the passage of gay marriage bans in several states, yesterday was still a day of celebration. You could feel it simply walking down the street. Passing someone on the sidewalk or sitting beside a stranger on the subway, there was a tacit understanding, a shared recognition that the idea(l) that all men are created equal had come another step closer to reality. Clearly, for both women and homosexuals, there is much that has been left undone; but yesterday, even as we grieved, there were voices reminding us that, though it might be a long time coming, here too a change is going to come. Obama's victory proves that, though progress is far from inevitable and requires talent, courage and dedication, it is possible.

That was yesterday. Today, our major news outlets seem determined to throw cold water on our uplifted heads. Not without good reason: For many nations the world over, an Obama win represents a new opportunity for establishing relations with the West; Russia is having none of it. The President Elect ran a campaign based almost entirely on the economy--an economy that is still running on empty. We are currently in two wars and, eyes on the hour glass, the Bush administration is doing all that they can to ensure the permanency of their global overreach.

In response, Obama has already begun to assemble his team. NPR is feverishly covering even whispered rumors about potential cabinet picks while every major newspaper reports that Obama has tapped Rahm Emanuel to be White House chief of staff, apparently sending the blogosphere into apoplectic shock. Here, Guy Brookshire of Super Collide reveals the intellectual muscle behind Obama's foreign policy and speculates on a list of names to keep an eye out for in the coming weeks.

All that is well and good, but one major question remains unanswered: how will Obama celebrate his inauguration? The President Elect's people-first, grass- and net-roots campaign motivated the highest voter turnout in history, but can his inaugural bash beat Andrew Jackson's? Tony
This “reception” went awry from the start. When the staff opened the doors to bring out the first barrels of orange and rum punch, the exultant crowd burst in and knocked several over, soaking the floor in sticky booze and smashed glasses. The guests were, said eyewitness Margaret Bayard Smith, “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping… Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses, and such a scene of confusion as is impossible to describe.” The crowd quickly took possession of the White House: So many people were squeezed inside that the building itself creaked and shuddered dangerously. A bodyguard of loyal friends had to form a ring around the scarecrow figure of Jackson so he wouldn’t be crushed to death or asphyxiated by well-wishers. The strangers behaved if they were in a Mississippi saloon, standing in mud-caked boots on the damask chairs for a better view.
That's a lot to live up to, but do I think that we, the people, can throw the greatest party in the history of American politics the day Obama takes office?

Yes we can.

11/5/08

The Missing Link

In his obituary for the McCain campaign, Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard writes:
[McCain's] sense of decency did not allow him to countenance using Ayers as part of a broader narrative and without that narrative the attacks fell flat.

The media largely missed this. Any attack on Barack Obama was too much.

One writer for The Atlantic Monthly put it this way last week. "What I've learned from watching McCain these past two months is that there's nothing he wouldn't do if it could get him a small bump in a news cycle, polarize the electorate, and appeal to a rabid base that is now his only source of power." He added: "My view is that McCain has shown his character in this campaign: it's vicious, petty, lazy, reckless, vain and dishonorable."

That's a little hysterical, but it provides a telling look at the prism through which many in the media saw the campaign.
That "one writer for The Atlantic Monthly" is Andrew Sullivan, acclaimed author of the most popular one-person political blog in the world. Sullivan recently penned a crisp essay about blogging for The Atlantic, full of wit and generosity, in which he wrote of the sometimes petty back-and-forth that blogging, as a form, seems to engender:
Rudeness, in any case, isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a blogger. Being ignored is. Perhaps the nastiest thing one can do to a fellow blogger is to rip him apart and fail to provide a link.
Here is the link (and the context) that Hayes failed to provide.

The Case Against Propositions

Look what we, the people, have wrought.

On the face of it, it would appear that ballot initiatives are an exciting, expansively democratic reform; they allow the people, all the people, to vote directly on the issues that are most important to them or that the legisature, fearing rebuke, are simply too yellow to put on the table. Proposition 5 is an excellent example of the latter. Apparently, no one besides Governor Schwarzenegger is willing to risk their political careers to solve the greatest problem that California currently faces: prison reform. We have the most crowded prisons in the country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

But, by popular vote, Californians rejected Proposition 5, which would reduce prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders and offer rehabilitation instead of incarceration. The other hand taketh away as well: Californians also passed Proposition 9, which under the banner of "victims' rights," will "restrict early release of inmates to reduce prison or jail overcrowding."

Even more heart-breaking, however, Proposition 8--which amends the state constitution to include the words "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California"--looks like it will pass. I'm saddened that on this day that should be unmixed with sorrow and unstained by bigotry--a day that is truly one of the greatest days in American history, when the president elect of these United States is a black man named Barack Hussein Obama--that I must mix my pride with disappointment. In two, moving and personal posts, Andrew Sullivan consoles:
It's too heart-breaking to write anything before we know for absolutely sure we have been defeated. And, as I tossed and turned tonight trying to sleep, after last night's massive wave of relief, I felt sure that in the long arc of history, we shall prevail.

We must never let popular votes affect our own internal sense of our worth, our equality, our dignity as human beings. Our marriages are real; all that is at issue is whether a majority will recognize them in law. The next generation already does. We shall overcome. Do not be discouraged.
The question is: why can the state constitution be amended by a popular vote?

In the federal government there is an intricately wrought system of checks and balances to prevent what happened in California yesterday. Clearly, we can be moved by fear and demagoguery too easily to allow such vital decisions to be made by thin majorities whose minds may soon change again. Let us learn from the vision of government cast in the form of the US Constitution, a vision that trusts people to make wise choices about who should lead them and govern in their stead, empowering voters to elect and hold accountable representatives, but that does not expect nor demand each individual to make every decision with the objectivity and clarity required to govern both effectively and fairly. There is a reason that amendments to the US Constitution must pass both houses of congress by two-thirds and then be ratified by the states. In California, we just learned that the hard way.