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Democracy As An Exploit

Adam Greenfield, from his expat-home in Helsinki, calling a lie a lie and identifying a core weakness of liberal democracy:

And beyond that, there’s my sense of despair at the impotence with which the American body politic (and especially the “progressive” sector thereof, right up to and including President Obama) reacts to outside context problems or – might as well call ‘em what they are – exploits.

Consider “death panels.” This is clearly Big Lie territory, and of course the filthy little truth of the Big Lie is that it works and works consistently. But just what work does it do in the present context?

In trying to answer this question, it’s worth bearing this in mind: it’s not that the opponents of national health are playing the same game by a different set of rules. They’re playing a different game entirely. That is, a plurality of the folks who oppose some kind of public-sector involvement in health insurance almost certainly are not interested in helping to articulate a best-fit, balanced solution that would be minimally acceptable to everyone. Their all-but-stated aim is to deny, attrit, isolate, suppress and, ultimately, shatter their opponents.

The collectivites arrayed against the “Obamacare” bogeyman construct the body politic as a zero- or even a negative-sum game. They’ve identified a loophole, a vulnerability in the operating system of American democracy for which as yet there’s no patch. And because their victory conditions don’t require the affirmative production of a workable solution, the challenge before them is much (infinitely!) easier: all they have to do is drive a wedge through that vulnerability and they’ve won. The foreshortened, truncated, mutilated human lives that will result are collateral damage, an acceptable side effect. And the damage to the health and functioning of the republic? That’s a feature, baby.

Now, to tell the truth, I’m not all that surprised that there are people who would rather tear their country apart than articulate an honest ideological opposition and advance meaningful alternatives to the policies they dislike. But it’s not simply cynicism that teaches me this. It’s history.

Sometimes I just want to do what Barney Frank did, and ask "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

But if Adam is right, I'll be missing the point: Pre-existing reality is not what's important, here. The Big Lie is all about creating a new reality that's more congenial to the real goals of the people promulgating it.

To A Bully, Everything Looks Like A Nerd: Bushite Neocons and Posse Comitatus

If there were still any doubt that Neocons have a utilitarian contempt for any part of the Constitution that is momentarily inconvenient, it should evaporate with knowledge that (according to the NYT) Cheney strenuously advocated sending in the Army to arrest the Lackawanna Six.

Always with the military: Everything looks like a nail to these chickenhawk bozos. We already know they wanted to use the military for disaster relief*, and we've seen them push for more and more military involvement in border control.** The irony of a bunch of guys who actively avoided either combat or military service looking to the military to perform police duties on American soil is positively numbing.

*Gotta wonder what happened with that. D'ya think they might have, you know, talked to an actual military person about it? Nah....
**This one kills me. How does it not become clear from this kind of talk that border control is irretrievably tied up with fear of taint?

So the conservative view is that the Federal Government is infallible?

Surprisingly, Alito, Roberts and Scalia have thrown in with big government in yesterday's Wyeth ruling:

"The FDA has long known about the risks associated with [injected use of Phenergan]," Justice Alito wrote. "Whether wisely or not, the FDA has concluded – over the course of extensive 54-year-long regulatory proceedings – that the drug is 'safe' and 'effective' when used in accordance with its FDA-mandated labeling."

And we all know that the standard conservative view is that big government is infallible, right?

(Since the position that the FDA is infallible -- which is basically what Alito's arguing -- is inconsistent with the story that Conservatism has traditionally told about itself, I have to wonder if it's not just a stalking horse for the total annihilation of government oversight. "See? It didn't work in an absolutely perfect way! It required correction!!! That means it's useless!" Of course, if you take their view to be that the purpose of government is to reward players who are able to pay "market rate" for determinations in their interest (a.k.a. "buying regulation"), then you get the consistency back. Is that too cynical?)

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Bruce Fein: Snobby Conservative Elitists Like Me Are The Only True Judges Of Exceptionality

Bruce Fein is getting his ducks in order to say "I-told-you-so":

None of the presidential or vice presidential candidates would have been worthy of the constitutional convention of 1787 or the Federalist Papers, the high-water mark of political erudition and profundity in more than a thousand years. Among other things, they all subscribe to the delusions that the government can outfox the efficiencies of free markets; that the United States can be made safer and freer by sacrificing the lives and limbs of tens of thousands of American soldiers abroad and squandering hundreds of billions of dollars in quixotic adventures to transform incorrigibly tribal or feudal societies into friendly secular democracies; and, that international terrorism justifies a permanent global war crowning the president with perpetual war powers, including the authority to detain American citizens as "enemy combatants" for life without accusation or charge; to spy on Americans without warrants in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; and, to employ waterboarding against detainees with impunity.

Translation #1: "Those Founding Father guys were, like, total gods, dude. Like, I read that their shit didn't even smell bad!"

Alternate Translation: "Don't blame me -- I voted for Kodos!"

Anyway, those are all strong statements Fein's making. Mostly false, and obviously so, and where not false, off the point:

  • The people who were there at the constitutional Convention of 1787 weren't "worthy" of it; and in any case, would certainly not be "worthy" to face the challenges we face now. We face our challenges with what we have, not with what we wish we had. (Don Rumsfeld got that much right.)
  • The Free Market is not a god, and it's not a law of nature, Fein and the Marketistas contentions to the contrary notwithstanding. We make choices about how our society is to be structured, and right now, the dominant choices are favoring Marketism. That was not always the case and there is no reason to suppose it will always continue to be in the future.
  • At least Obama, and arguably also Biden, have been quite clear in their belief that sacrificing the lives and limbs of Americans overseas does not make us safer, and if Fein were being honest he'd admit that he knows that.
  • Similarly, it's not at all clear that Obama and Biden support the continuation of Presidential war powers. But I'll just argue that Fein is too strong on this point, since neither Obama nor Biden has explicitly said they'll roll them back.
  • Both Obama and Biden have, though, been clear that the FISA must be honored by the next President, and ought to be honored by the current one.
  • Finally, Obama for his part has been quite clear (and I actually believe McCain would probably backtrack to his older, more ethically-grounded position on this once he was in office) that torture is simply not acceptable.

Moreover, this is all stuff that Fein should know if he's been paying attention, and if he's not been paying attention, there's absolutely no reason anybody should listen to his opinon on anything of consequence. So, what's the point of this exercise in late-term sour grapes?

It has to be so that Fein claim blamelessness and moral high-ground. He's pretending this is really about "mediocrity", it's really about America not turning to its elites anymore. There may actually be some wisdom in such a view -- but Fein's got no ground to stand on, since he doesn't actually know what the real capabilities of the candidates actually are. He hasn't allowed himself to see them. Other discerning people have looked at Obama, for example, and seen a confident, capable politician -- as qualified to lead America as, say, John Adams or Abraham Lincoln at the time of their ascension. What had they "run"? What could we look at in their records to say that they had the "experience" required?

The answers are all questions of either the good fortunate to participate in momentous decisions (in Adams' case), or in a judgement of character based on reputation and rhetoric (in the case of Lincoln). Neither had "executive experience" of any kind prior to assuming office. But in Fein's worldview, they're unassailable giants. What he's blind to is the fact that their stature is a matter of hindsight (and what I like about these examples is that either one would readily admit as much -- well, maybe not Adams, since his stature is really only now being so elevated). 

What this is really all about is that Fein's not getting to specify who's "exceptional." (Which is a damn good thing, since he's clearly got some problems with seeing what's actually going on in the world.) What this is really all about is that Fein's opinion isn't coinciding with the direction the electorate wants to go.

What's really going on is that there are these kids playing on (what Fein thinks is) his lawn, and he wants them to pull up their pants and show him some deference, dammit.

Which they might be willing do, if it wasn't clear that he isn't interested in actually listening to anyone else's opinions.

Before Bruce Fein expects anyone to take him seriously as a credible arbiter of who's exceptional and who's not, he should first demonstrate that we ought to listen to him (by showing he's been paying attention), and that he's got some  awareness of actual history (by recognizing that people were often as small, petty and unprepared in the past as they are now). Until then, he's just a snobby, snooty conservative elitist.

The Nordlinger Effect

Those wacky NRO guys -- Jay Nordlinger has spent a weekend in Vermont, and now he Understands The Noble Working Man:

.... here’s how I understand it: Modestly off people — “real Vermonters,” as some people say — are voting for McCain and Palin. Comfortably off people, such as those who own ski chalets, are voting for Obama and Biden. And the following has been frequently noted about the city of my residence, New York: The rich are voting Democratic. And those who work for them — driving cars, cleaning rooms, and so on — are voting Republican.

(I guess we know what "the math" is, now.)

Commenter Landon at Matthew Yglesias's blog describes this as the Nordlinger Effect:

The Nordlinger Effect is when non-rich people respond they’re voting like the rich jerk asking them who they’re voting for just so he’ll shut up and leave them alone.

For his part, Yglesias himself has pointed (unnecessarily) to the work of Andrew Gelman to demonstrate that rich folks in poor states (like Vermont) do in fact tend to vote for Republicans, while poor folks in poor states (like Vermont) do in fact tend to vote Democratic. Others in Yglesias's comment thread take the trouble to note (among other things) that you're not a real Vermonter unless you're born there (at least), all the ski chalets are owned by "flatlanders" from Connecticut, Massachusetts and NY (who won't be voting in Vermont, anyway), and that all the actual data demonstrates amply that "Vermonters of modest means" will be voting overwhelmingly for Obama. (As for housekeeping staff voting Republican: If he believes that, I've got this bridge I'd love to sell him...)

And how the hell Jay Nordlinger can use the phrase "of modest means" without blushing, I don't know. Maybe it's an internal manifestation of the Nordlinger Effect: Jay telling Jay what Jay wants to hear, so his brain will leave him alone.

, nordlinger effect

"But I might wake up king someday, and if I do...."

Deep in the middle of a surreal attempt at social analysis that reads more like a bad acid-trip, Mark Levin at the NRO stumbles upon one true thing: "Obama's appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the "the proletariat," as an infamous philosopher once described it...."

Congratulations, Mr. Levin: You've defined Populism. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin's great fake-president, the problem with an America where anyone can become rich is that everyone thinks they will, and makes their electoral choices accordingly. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean making a workable plan to become rich, or even necessarily working especially hard: It most typically means a lot of day-dreaming, lotto-buying, and planning to make sure that THE GOVERNMENT doesn't get a chance to take away any of your wondrous, hypothetical, chance-gotten gains.

Put another way: We act in the interest of the person we fantasize about becoming, instead of the person we actually are.

Of course there are a lot of people who work hard for what they get. But it's more or less never been true that wealth or status has a direct relationship with how hard you work -- or, for that matter, how smart you are. In fact, even some conservatives take great pains to make it clear just how much of it is down to the opportunities you have.

Cleverness, though -- now that's very important. You have to know how to work the angles, to work people. You have to have social intelligence, at a minimum, but that's not usually enough. No, to really become wealthy or important, you most often have to have a willingness to hurt other people to get what you want.

'Soviet' Is The New 'Hitler'

"It's sort of like when you imagined the Soviet invasion, it would take over the airwaves." Right. Because invaders always pay for their air-time and have the courtesy to get off and let you keep watching baseball when they're done telling you resistance is futile.

The conversation about just how Soviet Barack Obama really is, is...

...another example of how comparisons to totalitarian Russia have become as meaningless as allusions to the Nazis -- people basically use both as rhetorical crutches for arguments that limp along without them. This election season, such inane comparisons have multiplied like breeding rabbits, in part because the right has descended into absolute hysteria over Obama's chances of winning the election, and because you can only ride that Hitler hobby-horse so long before it starts to chafe. (Remember when the right used to complain that the left was making inappropriate comparisons between Bush and the Nazis?) Clearly, the media has started to internalize this nonsense, at least partially because people like Geist and Hazlett apparently have no idea what communism and socialism really are.

Adam Serwer, "GODWIN'S LAW NEEDS AN UPDATE", on American Prospect

I try to be charitable, I really do, but anyone who thinks Obama is a Stalinist, Marxist, or even a Socialist really needs some serious history lessons, some serious counseling, or both.

It's just a stepwise progression, of course. 'Liberal' has been tantamount to 'Nazi' in large segments of the right for at least 20 years. It's just that in the pre-Internet days, they didn't have a place to air out their skid-marked psyches.

Joe Wurzelbacher is kind of not such an honest guy, it turns out...

Ohio's voter registration deadline has passed Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher by, and he's not actually registered to vote. So you have to wonder how sincere his question was. Fortunately, he's given us something to go on in that regard:

JOE WURZELBACHER: Initially, I started off asking him if he believed in the American Dream and he said yes, he does — and then I proceeded to ask him then why he’s penalizing me for trying to fulfill it. He asked, “what do you mean,” and I explained to him that I’m planning on purchasing this company — it’s not something I’m gonna purchase outright, it’s something I’m going to have to make payments on for years — but essentially I’m going to buy this company, and the profits generated by that could possibly put me in that tax bracket he’s talking about and that bothers me. It’s not like I would be rich; I would still just be a working plumber. I work hard for my money, and the fact that he thinks I make a little too much that he just wants to redistribute it to other people. Some of them might need it, but at the same time, it’s not their discretion to do it — it’s mine.


PM: Now did Obama tell you that you would receive some sort of tax cut?

JW: He talked about suspending capital gains to a certain amount… To be honest with you, I don’t want to say I tuned him out — because as he started, he pretty much regurgitated what he said in his debate, first one, second one, and a lot of his rallies. What he said to me was pretty much word for word what he’s been saying for the last couple months. So when he started down that path, it’s like, ”Okay, I’ve already heard this, Obama, give me something different.”

PM: There was nothing new in his answer?

JW: No, there was nothing new. You know, I didn’t appreciate that, actually.


PM: Do you think your question surprised Obama, caught him off guard at all?

JW: Well that was actually my intent. Most people, you ask them “do you believe in the American Dream?” Nine times out of ten they’ll sit there and go, “Yeah, of course!” That’s where he messed up, because as soon as I asked him that, his answer shows that he doesn’t believe in the American Dream. You know, like the question you asked before — he pretty much contradicted himself. “I don’t want to punish you but — “ Well, you’re going to anyways.

So, Joe, the point of the question was to give yourself a platform for making a statement about your own beliefs, not to inform your choice as a voter by actually finding out what Obama's were -- you already knew that, so when he told you, you tuned it out. Fair enough. We live in a culture where attention-whoring is regarded as not just a valid lifestyle choice, but everyone's god-given duty. (It's one of the ways that Americans tell if they're members of the elect. And like the good neo-Calvinist you seem to be, what's most important to you is that everyone see that you are among that elect.)

But at least pretend to be honest about it, OK?

But hey -- he sounds just like a pundit, so I guess he's doing something right.

ADDENDUM: He might be registered, after all, as a Republican. But there's so much more to this story it deserves a new lead....

Yes, They Really Are That Crazy, Redux (Or: Intellectual Penis Envy)

If any doubt remained that the giants of intellectual conservatism who staff National Review Online were a bunch of raving lunatics severely handicapped by intellectual equivalent of penis envy, Andy McCarthy is now making a non-endorsement endorsement of the deeply paranoid and strange notion that Dreams from my Father was ghost-written by Bill Ayers:

There has been speculation about this which I've ignored, no doubt because there are enough policy reasons to oppose Barack Obama and I don't want to feed into what sounds, at first blush, like Vince Fosteresque paranoia.  But I've finally read Jack Cashill's lengthy analysis in The American Thinker.  It is thorough, thoughtful, and alarming — particularly his deconstruction of the text in Obama's memoir and comparison to the themes, sophistication and signature phraseology of Bill Ayers' memoir.

There is nothing in Obama's scant paper trail prior to 1995 that would suggest something as stylish and penetrating as, at times, Dreams from My Father is.  And when Obama speaks extemporaneously, one doesn't hear the same voice one encounters in the book.  Now maybe Obama has a backlog of writing fom Columbia or Harvard that signal great literary promise, but he not only hasn't shared it, he's assiduously hidden traces of it.  And, to be sure, writing is different from speaking — in fairness, some of Obama's off-the-cuff bumbling when he speaks is certainly due to the rigors of the campaign which would cause even the most gifted communicator to faulter from time to time.  But it's not unreasonable to expect more similarity between Obama the writer and Obama the orator.

It really shouldn't be necessary to debunk this, and in fact, it won't do any good for anyone to bother, it's just so god damned loony of an idea. But dammit, it offends me as a writer. And I find it obscene, frankly, that someone who makes a pretense to intellectualism can put such crap out there and try to pass it off as reasoning.

Here's how Jack Cashill starts out his "thorough, thoughful" "analysis":

Prior [strange broken link preserved as a slap at Jack Cashill and American "Thinker"] to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing.  Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called -- with a straight face -- "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant.  I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all.  Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf.  To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour.  It doesn't happen.

Right from the outset is remarkably sloppy thinking, and it's really kind of comical that it's the lede for a story in a publication called "American Thinker." My wife, who teaches composition to college freshmen, would have sent back the draft that included this with a note that indicating it would seriously hurt the grade of the final paper. I really shouldn't have to point out the amazingly obvious logical errors (and there are two howlers, either of which renders the lede worthy of ridicule by any reasonably intelligent junior high school student), but the ostensibly intellectual Jack Cashill didn't spot 'em so I guess I should assume NRO-clique conservative intellectualoids are just not sharp enough to get them.

  1. The fact that Cashill isn't aware of Obama's writing during that time period doesn't mean there wasn't any. There was probably a lot. He was a law student for much of that time, a community organizer giving frequent talks and speeches for much of it as well. And he was talking day after day with black preachers, who train in narrative reasoning at the feet of their family and neighbors from a very young age. This is stuff Cashill should be bright and educated enough to know. That he's not accounting for it strikes me as willful ignorance.

  2. As importantly, writing (something Cashill's clearly not that good at, since he seems unable to form coherent arguments) is actually not even remotely like golf in one very important regard: Golf is comprised of a set of specific cognitive and motor activities that aren't really very mappable to real life, whereas writing (and particularly in African-American communities) corresponds to cognitive and social-interaction activities that an intelligent and conversant person uses all the time in his/her daily life. If you're a thoughtful person, you're always "writing", and always learning about language. So if someone writes a crappy essay that's published when he's 14, and the next thing he publishes is a masterful novel that hits the shelves when he's 30, it's actually not very surprising.

So, what's going on here? It's obviously not that Cashill actually has objectively creditable reasons for believing that Bill Ayers (or anybody else) ghost-wrote Obama's memoirs and speeches (and no, he doesn't stop at the memoirs). There's got to be more to it. I actually don't believe it's purely race, either. I think David Brooks (whose name is probably less than mud at NRO) is onto something with his critique of the (lack of) intellectual foundations of the modern American Right. Now, I don't think David Brooks is an intellectual giant, but dammit, he actually makes a credible effort and he's willing to deal with reality. I don't necessarily agree with his ideas about demographics, for example, but he's done the work of thinking through the problems and I can actually believe he knows more about the details than me.

So is it the standard white male's fear of a black man? Or is it the more profound standard conservative male's fear of an intelligent "leftist"?

So, let's be fair: There are some "leftists" intellectuals who are as frightened to the point of irrationality of intelligent conservatives as Cashill clearly is of Obama. And there are some conservatives -- even some occasionally hot-headed ones, like Andrew Sullivan* -- who are capable of having intellectually honest discussions with people who don't agree with them on doctrinaire matters. Cashill, though, is clearly an intellectual fraud. So's McCarthy. They're so terrified of the idea that someone they don't agree with might be better than them at the one thing that makes them special, that they have to expend this much effort rationalizing away that person's success. 

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*Sullivan's at least intelllectually honest, though, inasmuch as when he does get carried away -- as he sometimes does -- he's generally able to recognize it and willing to call himself out. Buckleyites, in my experience, are rarely willing to do that, and never in deference to anyone they've identified as "leftist."

Is Obama more of a Maoist, or more of a Stalinist? You decide!

@ National Review Online, they're busily debating whether Obama is more of a Maoist or a Stalinist. (Andrew Sullivan: "Yes, they're that crazy.")

Second, and relatedly, Obama's radicalism, beginning with his Alinski/ACORN/community organizer period, is a bottom-up socialism.  This, I'd suggest, is why he fits comfortably with Ayers, who (especially now) is more Maoist than Stalinist.  What Obama is about is infiltrating (and training others to infiltrate) bourgeois institutions in order to change them from within — in essence, using the system to supplant the system.  A key requirement of this stealthy approach (very consistent with talking vaporously about "change" but never getting more specific than absolutely necessary) is electability.  With an enormous assist from the media, which does not press him for specifics, Obama has walked this line brilliantly.  Absent convincing retractions of his prior radical positions, though, we should construe shrewd moves like the ostensibly reasonable Second Amendment position as efforts make him electable. [sic]

This is why Ayers is so important:  it is a peek behind the curtain of Obama's rhetoric.  When he talks about "education reform," that sounds admirable and, given the state of the schools, entirely reasonable.  But when you look at what the Obama/Ayers program really tried to do to the schools (see, e.g., Stanley's work on this), it is radical.  With a guy who speaks in euphemisms — "change," "social justice," "due process," etc. — it is vital to have concrete examples of how these concepts are put into action.

What's interesting to me is how simply and cleanly this translates to "any change from within that we don't like is socialism." Because you know damn well that if they were talking about infiltrating government with radical conservatives, as was done during the Bush and Reagan years, it would be regarded as righteous.

Even though, in socialist terms, it would still be an infiltration of bourgeois institutions. Most of these radical conservatives have never really understood that they, too, were struggling against the bourgeoisie.

Of course, this totally leaves aside the fact that he hasn't actually established either a) an ideological or policy connection between Ayers and Obama, or b) provided any of the "concrete examples" he thinks would be helpful (despite citing Stanley Kurtz's content-free "work").

Sullivan's right: These guys are crazy.

Schizoid Conservative Moralism

I've always found it both ironic and unsurprising that American Conservatives are simultaneously raunchier and more puritanical than liberals. Cases in point? Sarah Palin sells herself on sex and motherhood, combining a tailored suit with fuck-me boots and winking like a Hooters hostess at all the horny little conservative boys out in TV land. Meanwhile, Fox news appeals to the Supreme Court for the right to use obscenity and consistently pushes out the most violent and sexually suggestive shows on broadcast TV, while simultaneously bankrolling harradins of culture war like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

If you were raised in a moderately conservative church, there's a good chance that you encountered some variation of the Preacher's Kid. On the face, they're perfect Christian sons and daughters, in the pew with straight back and perfect grooming and butter wouldn't melt in their mouth -- it's all "yes, ma'am," and "no, sir," and "what would Jesus do?"

But once the adults are out of sight, they're grabbing the bottle and giving out a big fat wink before they take a long, hard pull and beckon for a hit off the joint. Then it's off to deflower a virgin or get nasty with that smoker-boy in the leather jacket.

Any convention-city prostitute can tell you that the Republicans are the kinky ones, and they can also tell you why: It's the repression. They want to both please and resist mommy and daddy at the same time. They want to be both bad and good. They're the Preacher's Kid writ on grand scale.

On moral culpability for the killing of civilians

John McCain, February 15, 2000:

"In the most obscene chapter in recent American history is the conduct of the Kosovo conflict when the president of the United States refused to prepare for ground operations, refused to have air power used effectively because he wanted them flying -- he had them flying at 15,000 feet where they killed innocent civilians because they were dropping bombs from such -- in high altitude."

Barack Obama, 2008:

 "We've got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there."

The difference is obvious, really: The President that McCain's talking about is Bill Clinton, who on top of being a Democrat and a draft dodger is a moral degenerate. The President Obama's talking about is a Republican and a staunch lip-service defender of morality. Puritan that he is, McCain of course would and could see no equivalence between these statements.

At a more subtle level, look at the language that's being deployed. In McCain's version, it's all about obscenity and moral condemnation. In Obama's version, it's all about pragmatism. When you start to look at it that way, Obama can look kind of cold and calculating. It's interesting that instead of pursuing that angle (which Democratic competitors found very fruitful during the primaries), McCain projects into it his own passionate moral condemnation. Couldn't have anything to do with his personal history behind the stick of an attack bomber in Vietnam.

[Via the Washington Times, of all places.]

Of course it's not about race!

From Salon, crystallizing the essence of creating a racist subtext (and burying the lede on page 2):

Which is why the real point of the ad may have been the image of the smirking black man who appears as the poster child for "CEO rip-offs." The man is Franklin Raines, former head of Fannie Mae, who resigned in 2004 under a cloud of scandal. It may seem odd that McCain's hit team selected a black CEO to illustrate the Wall Street meltdown -- there are about as many black CEOs as there are white defensive backs in the NFL.

Project Much?

Josh Marshall quotes one of his readers regarding John McCain's New Mexico speech from yesterday:

What a weird spectacle McCain's speech was this afternoon. It was as though McCain went out of the way to take every criticism that has come his way and attribute it to Barack Obama. In addition to being jarringly at odds with reality, it also seemed to undermine the larger questions that the campaign seems to want to be raising.

My wife said much the same thing. And it seems so obvious. The now-infamous Des Moines Register video shows a man so unable to master himself that he fairly seethes with anger -- so much so that the Register, a reputable if socially liberal newspaper, felt it appropriate to publish an op-ed on the topic as it related to McCain's suitability for Presidential office:

John McCain is angry.

You can feel it in the clenched muscles in his throat, the narrowing of his eyes, the controlled tone with which he handles a question he doesn't like, as if struggling to contain something that might spill out. We've seen that body language on TV. But around a Des Moines Register table Tuesday, the anger and tension were palpable. And unsettling.

The thing that bothers me a little is that in my experience, this kind of projection -- calling your opponent out for what you're doing -- usually works. People assume that no one would get that angry without good reason, especially if you've established a reputation for moralism and integrity.

The one hope is that McCain has indeed damaged his brand so badly that he has no reputation left to ground that impression in. (Discounting the "base", of course. The Republican base is rabid with frustrated fury by this time -- witness the un-corrected shout of "kill him" at a Palin rally over the weekend, or "terrorist!" in response to McCain's rhetorical question 'Who is the real Barack Obama?')

Disingenuous Question for the Moment

Byron York asks an interesting, if profoundly disingenuous question:

Let’s assume that FactCheck’s analysis is correct. Why shouldn’t McCain and Palin use the new, supposedly more accurate, numbers? When Palin said in St. Louis last week that Obama “had 94 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes and 94 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction” — well, why not change it to “had 54 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes and 54 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction”? Wouldn’t that still be a damning critique of Obama’s stance on taxes?

Indeed, it might (but probably wouldn't*) be, if they would actually do that. What's curious and interesting is that they haven't.

It suggests to me that truth isn't actually what's important to them. And it must not be that important to York, either, since he doesn't deign to provide the obvious answer to his own question....

*Probably wouldn't be, because York's own stance on taxes is so remarkably silly.

So, it looks like the plan is to attack Biden

So it's looking like the Palin Plan will be to attack Biden rather than 'going to the top of the ticket', as most pundits have predicted, and then rely on spin to cast any counter-attack as bullying.

That makes sense, attacking is what she's good at. But I have to wonder if the tactical decision isn't based on the (profoundly flawed) premise that Biden will be vilified if he fights back. Let's remember that he was smart enough to figure out the game in the first place, and articulate enough to describe it in a way that got through to people. There's a good chance he's also going to be clever enough to pivot and fight back without looking like a bully. It's actually not that hard if you can hold your temper and keep smiling.

It could be as simple as acknowledging that "Yes, Senator Obama and I have had differences in the past, but so have you and Senator McCain. Why, you yourself hired a lobbyist to obtain earmarks for the town of Wasilla, and campaigned on support for the Bridge to Nowhere! So I'm sure you understand what it's like to have to change your talking points."

At 4,800 female residents, that's how many rapes per year?

From the Boston Globe story about the idea that the town of Wasilla made rape victims pay to report a rape, this paragraph caught my attention:

After the Alaska Legislature banned the fees, Palin's handpicked police chief, Charlie Fannon, complained that the state's action would force the town to spend $5,000 to $14,000 a year to cover the costs. "I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer," Fannon said.

Now, supposedly the town didn't actually charge people to report rapes (by billing them for the rape kit that you'd have to use in order to actually get a rape charge to stick). That's actually not what I'm interested in, here: What I'm interested in are the rape statistics implicit in Charlie Fannon's statement.

Let's do some math. Now, I know that medical supplies and procedures are expensive under the current American medical system, so let's be conservative and assume that the real cost to the town for the billable parts of a rape kit are $200 each. That works out to between 25 and 70 reported rapes per year in the town of Wasilla, based on Fannon's cost estimates. That's in a town which might possibly have as many as 4,800 female residents, depending on whose demographic data you accept.

How does that compare with national averages?

The most recent data I could quickly find is from 1998, for a sexual assault rate (incidence of actual penetrative rape would be lower) of 34.4 per 100,000 persons. Roughly estimating, that's about .03% (math corrections welcome). With a total population of about 9,600, given 25 to 70 reported rapes per year, the town of Wasilla has a rape-rate of between about .3% and .7% -- that makes Wasilla's rape rate between 10 and 20 times higher than the national average for 1998, or about 260 to 730 per 100,000 persons.

What the hell are they smoking up there?

[Correcting my math.]

Poker Dreams. Or: Let's be clear how this is going to go.

I had a dream about poker last night. Barack Obama was in it, sort of, as a presence in the background, someone I knew was playing, somewhere. So was John McCain. I was getting together things for a rummage sale, and one of the things I was putting in was a poker set. Only, it was poker played with dice, and the game had been somehow "simplified" so that people wouldn't have to actually understand suits and hands and betting rules. The dice had arabic numerals on them. (In my dream, the old-fashioned dot-patterns were deemed 'too complicated'.) And there were lots of dice -- hundreds, possibly.

I'm generally not big on the idea that dreams are metaphors for life, but this one seems so relevant, so poetic, that I can't ignore it. See, Obama is a poker player. Supposed to be quite good at it. The most important thing in poker is to make decisions about your course of action that are based on what you actually know (is he showing his tell? what cards are face up? what have I got? is my gut telling me anything?), and then sticking to it until you know something that warrants changing your plan. McCain is a craps player. He throws dice. The most important thing in craps is that you have a lot of money, so it doesn't hurt so much when you lose it. Snap decisions don't matter one way or another, so intermittent reinforcement will tend to make those decisions stick with you as valuable more often than as detrimental.

John McCain will not be debating tonight. Sarah Palin will not be debating next week. John McCain will be maneuvered into position to take credit for a solution to the financial crisis as a favor from the Republican leadership, even though he'll have nothing constructive to do with it; in so doing, it will be made clear to half of America that he muddied the waters by injecting himself into the mix, and to the other half that he Took Charge And Got It Done.

I actually think there's an excellent chance there won't be any debates at all. He seems desperate to avoid them. Obama's best bet is to let it be known that he'll be available whenever McCain wants to carry forward with the planned debates, and keep pointing out that the Senate Finance Committee (which McCain has no part in) has actually been making excellent progress without intereference from the Presidential candidates.

At this point in time the campaign starts to look like a slow-motion train wreck: Palin is being shown for the lightweight she is, McCain is cracking under the pressure of trying to be something other than John McCain, and Obama is keeping his cool and sticking to his game. He seems to know what's in his hand, and to have known for months. Let the dice fall where they may: He's not playing that game. He's playing poker, not craps.

The Sarah Palin Nomination as an Insult to Sarah Palin

Judith Warner has had an epiphany:

Frankly, I’ve come to think, post-Kissinger, post-Katie-Couric, that Palin’s nomination isn’t just an insult to the women (and men) of America. It’s an act of cruelty toward her as well.

I think Sarah Palin is a pathological narcissist (and arguably, bully) with serious control issues. But it is becoming so much clearer how far out of her depth she's swimming that my inner David Foster Wallace is suggesting in his roundabout way that Ms. Warner has a point about this: If we ridicule the bullies, we just validate their approach.

"Hey, Biden! Get up off your big fat resume!"

Jonathan Martin quotes Sarah Palin from Charlie Gibson's tightly scripted command performance with Princess Sarah:

“But, Charlie, again, we've got to remember what the desire is in this nation at this time. It is for no more politics as usual and somebody's big, fat resume [sic] maybe that shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment, where, yes, they've had opportunities to meet heads of state.”

"Big fat résumé"? Biden's right, she's good at this schoolyard bullshit.

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Extending the Sarah Palin Goon Analogy

Sean Quinn's analogy between Sarah Palin and a hockey goon has been stirring my thinking on the matter. Especially the last part of his piece, where he points out that a goon is only as good as her [sic] line:

... Successful agitator Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings had the clutch Steve Yzerman for a lot of years. That worked. Detroit won Cups. They had parades.

Successful agitator Tyson Nash, when he was on my Blues, was stuck with the antithesis of playoff clutch, the easily thrown-off-his-game Keith Tkachuk. That didn’t work. No Cup. Even if Palin is successful in her task of agitation and distraction, which one is John McCain?

So Sean is apparently taking some comfort (or maybe just a professional interest) in the idea that McCain might not be able to capitalize on the chaos his goon has stirred up.

I had a couple of thoughts proceeding from this:

  • It's not entirely true. Hockey history (particularly in the US, where we love our goons) is full of teams who've leveraged goonish behavior to push teams of mediocre talent to the fore. The '70s Flyers are probably the paradigmatic case; I don't know hockey history well enough to cite other examples, but I remember lots of conversations about this from my hockey-fan friends. So the McCain-Palin electoral analogy would be that the Republican machine has the most incredible goon squad we've seen in American national politics since the 19th century. They're really really good at it.
  • Not directly related: How do you fight a goon? Why, with other goons, of course! This is the point where the Obama camp needs to organize its surrogates well and surreptitiously to go out there and goon it up on the goons. Since this is verbal combat, "naming the behavior" will be critically important: The cleverer equivalent of "I know you are, but what am I?" It's astonishingly applicable in this case. Attack: "Barack Obama is enslaved to earmarks" Retort: "I know you are, but what am I?" (Except, well, not "I". You get the idea, though.) See how the Earmark Queen deals with that.

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Quote for the Moment

Sarah Palin thinks she is a better American than you because she comes from a small town, and a superior human being because she isn't a journalist and never lived in Washington and likes to watch her kids play hockey. Although Palin praised John McCain in her acceptance speech as a man who puts the good of his country ahead of partisan politics, McCain pretty much proved the opposite with his selection of a running mate whose main asset is her ability to reignite the culture wars.

-- Michael Kinsley in TIME

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Sarah Palin: Hockey Mom, or Hockey Goon? Or: Cruelty Is Strength, And Strength Is Good, Episode #32589

Sean Quinn put very cleanly something I've been thinking about for a week and a half or so, ever since that cute "pitbull with lipstick" gauntlet-slap. They key is in understanding that she's not a "Hockey Mom" -- she's a hockey goon. Er, I mean, hockey agitator.

.... She's a hockey player. She’s a fourth-line hockey agitator, beloved by the home crowd, loathed by the opponents, injecting passion into both fan bases, the kind of home-team hero that no Stanley Cup winner goes without.

Once upon a time, I applied an NFL-replay mentality to hockey playoffs, holding on to outrages over missed calls, blatantly unfair officiating, double standards, and outright getting-away-with-stuff (which always led to an early spring exit for my beloved Blues). I wanted – and unreasonably expected – bad behavior to be proportionally punished.

And then several years ago I had an epiphany about the hockey playoffs – nobody is coming to save you. Initiators win, reactors lose. Expect adversity, because it's built in. The fourth-line, no-scoring-talent, pest agitators (or as we now call them, “energy guys”) have a specific job. Skate in, take a cheap shot, make it after the whistle. Make it against the rules. Stir something up. Put a wet glove in the other guy's face and rub it. Get the outrage flowing. Get the opponent not thinking about the game, get them thinking about your shenanigans. And what happens? The “victimized” team loses its composure, hitting back. The guy who hits second is always the guy who goes to the penalty box. [emph added]

Watching Sarah Palin this week, and the reaction to her by both sides, and all the talk of hockey mommery, I realized that this is who she is. She skates into the corner, throws up an elbow, and the Democrats cry: “Foul!” Hey! She said Obama has never passed a major bill – this is an objective lie! Hey! She ridiculed community organizing the day after Service was the theme! Technically people should punish her by not voting for her over this infraction!

It’s whining, and whiners hit back second and go to the penalty box on top of it. Electoral Projections Done Right: Sarah Palin Is Not a Hockey Mom

And what's more, in the Code of the Goon, they deserve it. Cruelty is strength, and the weak deserve to be punished. It's the Republican way.

Heaven forbid we dare to name the behavior, as Joe Biden so eloquently did a few days ago.

“It was about how well placed -- and boy she is good -- how a left jab can be stuck pretty nice. It’s about how Barack Obama is such a bad guy.”

(Thanks also to the Daily Show.)

All of this, of course, is bullshit in the Frankfurtian sense: Truth is irrelevant, because the objective is to make a new "truth" on the ground, shaped out of power.

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(Addendum: Just because I'm curious whether calling a spade a spade on this will actually catch on, here's Google's results on 'sarah palin' hockey goon,

Singularity as Death-Avoidance

IEEE Spectrum focuses on the technological singularity. Glenn Zorpette thinks it's largely driven by fear of death:
The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting.

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Freeman Dyson Undercuts Himself

Freeman Dyson recently wrote:

In his "New Biology" article, [Carl Woese] is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.

The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization.

Freeman Dyson, "Our Biotech Future" (The New York Review of Books)

It's difficult to tell what Dyson wants to communicate. He argues against "reductionist biology" and floats a lot of pretty images of synergism and vaguely Taoist ideas about the resilience of life. But his own understanding of the complexity of life is clearly quite limited, or he wouldn't be so quick to idealize "non-Darwinian evolution" (a "golden age"?) and predict a rosy outcome from unrestricted biotech game-playing. History much more readily supports a skeptical view on the affects of biotech than it supports Dyson's positivist version. The reality will almost certainly be more of the same mixed bag we've got now: High-yield crops help feed more people and strain the land to a greater extent, which hurts crop yields, which demands still higher-tech farming technologies, and so on ad infinitum. It's not a sustainable cycle, and one would like to think someone with such a reputation for cleverness would get that. (The fact that he doesn't, is to me another indication that he was over-rated to begin with.)

Dyson's thought seems to me to be fundamentally adolescent, in the sense that he always wants more and always thinks that things are simpler than the experts do.

Darwinian evolution may indeed have slowed evolution down considerably; but it may also have stabilized it. I suspect it was Darwinian evolution that made multi-cellular life truly feasible by making it possible to rely on large support structures generation over generation. In a diverse non-Darwinian framework, that reliance just wouldn't be possible. "Designs" that are stable in one generation could change fundamentally in the next, or even before the generation propagated, leaving no basis for reproduction. What Dyson casts in clearly pejorative language ("one evil day", "refused to share", "anticipating Bill Gates") was most likely the very change that made it ultimately possible for him to make these observations.

The analogy to culture is clear: Cultural evolution is rapid and destructive. It wipes out what came before without regard, and it has no mechanism to prevent the willy-nilly propagation of cultural "genetic" material. What we end up with, then, is a bunch of unstable structures that collapse quickly and harm their constituent people in the process.

The common response is that evolutionary processes will yield stronger and more stable structures through natural selection. But what if that's not possible without some kind of constraint on what kind of "genetic material" gets incorporated?

There's also an analogy to be drawn to information theory. Dyson is a cross-pollinator. He believes that the only real change comes via cross-pollination of ideas. He doesn't want to believe that it's necessary nor, I think, even very important to create systems of thought. He thinks every wild idea needs to be considered. (With special attention to his, of course.) (What Dyson's thought on the scientific establishment boils down to, when you analyze the language, is essentially that he's smarter than they are so they should listen to him more than they do. But I digress.)

But what if it turns out that it's necessary to constrain information in order to get use out of it? That much has seemed intuitively clear to me for many years. It's the lack of such constraints that characterizes many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and mania.

Of course, there are plenty of people -- Dyson might be among them -- who are more than willing to idealize mental illness in the same way. I'd like to say that those are people without the experience of talking with people suffering from such mental illnesses. I'd like to say that, but I've heard too many of them illustrate their cases with allusions to their interactions with the mentally ill. Rather, I suspect that they are people more in love with their theory than with the people they hope to explain by it.

Feral Residents of the Panopticon

What's it like to live inside the panopticon? Here's what I just wrote at the 'bot.

What's the effect of this kind of life? No doubt the people who brain-farted the idea for htis kind of a system in the first place would respond at this point that they are putting eyes on the street, they're addressing "lifestyle crime" (littering, loitering, miscellaneous minor malfeasance), and that the net effect is to get, through technology, what Jacobs asked for in the 1960s. But an honest appraisal would have to recognize that response as disingenuous. The voice is detached, judgemental, and doesn't brook response -- doesn't even afford it, since there are no pickups (that the security company is admitting to) on the cameras. It can't possibly work to provide the kind of human-scale, person-to-person interaction that happens in in the relatively messy but relatively safe neighborhoods of the real world.

Residents of the Panopticon |

Cyberspace as Woodstock Nation

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.--John Perry Barlow, 1996

In-thread at Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us | MetaFilter, at 12:17 PM

Yet another example of the happy horseshit approach to social activisim: Put an absurd stake in the ground and hope that it makes people come that much closer to what you want.

Of course, Barlow never got what he said he wanted, but there are enough new Web 2.0 toys floating around that let people do superficially cool collaborative things that Barlow's probably pretty assuaged, most of the time. Meanwhile a new post-industrial market has co-opted Barlow's Cyberspace (though, since they've been paying for it, maybe just plain "bought" is a better word), and governments like that of China have been doing a good-enough job of exercising sovereignty where it's cyber-citizens gather.

Behold the Agonizer

"You asked me once," said O'Brien, "what was in Room 101. I told you that you know the answer already. Everybody knows. The thing in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world." -- George Orwell, 1984

In the coverage at Wired of the Air Force's new Active Denial System for crowd control, I didn't see any mention of the agonizer. And yet, that's what it is, more or less: A device that induces searing, burning pain that's so intense, subjects cannot help but struggle to get away from it.

It works via millimeter-wave radiation. Wired (courtesy of the Sunshine Project) has thoughtfully provided a rundown of publicly available documentation. On a quick scan, it's hard to tell whether the pain is caused by heating in the skin or by some other interaction between pain-nerves and millimeter-wave radiation. But prolonged exposer to the beam can cause second-degree burns, so heating does definitely occur.

And there's also no mention in Wired's coverage of the applications for torture, which are painfully [sic] obvious to me. An uncreative sadist would leave a victim with second-degree burns after leaving the beam focused for too long in one spot. A creative sadist would hack together something like Gene Roddenberry's agony booth, to move the focus of radiation around to different sets of nerve endings, in order to reduce the effect of neurotransmitter depletion. After an hour or so, I'm quite sure just about anybody would be willing to tell us whatever we wanted to hear as long as it makes the pain stop. In room 101, the man who works the latch on the rat cage is your god.

A vehicle-mounted version is apparently being tested in Iraq right now. I'm very, very curious to know what Iraqis will make of it. I think they'll get the torture angle right away. And since the technology is pretty easy to replicate, I can envision disreputable dictatorships throughtout the world deploying copycat devices in the near future.

Male people are all, like, .... And female people are all, like, ....

Most comedy is bullshit, at some level. That is, it doesn't matter whether it's true, so long as it's funny. "If it ain't the truth, it oughta be." The point of comedy isn't to be honest -- the point of comedy is to make people laugh (at you).

Or, in the words of Peter "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" Sagal, some stories are just "too good to check." Like the one about how women talk twice as fast and three times as much as men, and men think about sex 300 to 1000 times as often as women.* It's only funny if we don't point out that, as far as any actual evidence has ever shown, it's just not true. And it really stops being funny as soon as we point out that the main reason people think it's so funny is that it's a convenient reinforcement of existing stereotypes.

And it really, really stops being funny when you put those two facts together and come up with the realization our stereotypes aren't actually based on evidence. How inconvenient. And we were having such fun with this new wave of reactionary "innate differences" nonsense.

I guess when all is said and done, it really is "just a story, dude." And it's not as though anybody ever did anything bad by making up stories. Right? Right? But still, I was fairly disappointed when I learned that Peter Sagal and his crew had swallowed the load of crap that Dr. Brizendine is dishing out in her new-ish book The Female Brain. I guess it was a bit much to expect, that they might, you know, have a view that wasn't a lockstep endorsement of the same old bullshit.

But then, that probably wouldn't be funny.

*According to Dr. Brizendine, men think about sex about every 52 seconds, while women think about sex one to three times per day; I extrapolated based on a 16 hour day, assuming that at least some men don't dream about sex every 52 seconds....


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