Sunday, August 31, 2008

it's the narrative, stupid


(Image by Thomas Roche used under a Creative Commons license.)

This campaign has been about two, competing narratives: change vs. experience. Is that a simplistic, stupid way of looking at politics and governance? Sure thing. But that's been the story of the election. Which do those mythic swing voters like better? Since it is essentially conventional wisdom that swing voters care nothing for policy and only about character and identity politics, that has been the question of this election. Change or experience?

If the panel on today's Chris Matthew's show, several bloggers and pundits I admire, and some op/ed columnists are to be believed, the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency isn't happening in a vacuum, but is part of a larger change for the McCain campaign "back to the roots". McCain campaigned in 2000 as a "reformer with results"; the maverick label, so lovingly crafted and perpetuated by the press, is his calling card; and he appears personally to detest the "voice of experience" title that has been applied to him this election cycle. The Palin pick, for all of its obvious (I would say shameless) political appeal, is supposed to also be a bold statement from McCain about where his real political identity lies.

Fair enough. It's his campaign and he can run it however he chooses. Many think this was a brilliant choice for McCain. The reaction to this pick from the conservative blogosphere has been almost total glee.

But I see only trouble for McCain here. I don't think he can appropriate the change narrative. Not this year, not with this opponent. The incumbent party will always have a hard time winning a change election. Against Barack Obama? Whatever else is true, Obama has more claim to outsider status and the change appeal than John McCain. By a long shot.

I think the Joe Biden nomination was equally dispiriting to people who actually believed in Obama's call for change. But I see no signal from the Obama camp that the Biden selection represented a sea change for the central message of the campaign. Certainly, the convention speech would have been the place to make such a change clear. Biden instead seems like a nod to ticket balancing and appeasing the old guard, as distasteful as that is to me. McCain's choice to me bodes at least a confused narrative, and perhaps a wholesale shift.

I could be wrong. McCain could keep flogging the "experience" narrative, though I don't see how Palin contributes anything to that. I think it's a mistake, following 8 years of Bush and Iraq, with a grim economy, to run implicitly on continuity. But it's an argument McCain can win. The change argument? I just don't see it.

PS I'm already really tired of hearing the term "hockey mom."
PPS Everybody recognizes the sexism inherent in the appeal to women, right? Isn't the idea that women voters, in mass, will say "Why, a woman for a VP candidate? Forget ideology, sign me up!"? Pretty insulting.

Update: This, from Kinsley, is perfect.

storm preparations

Contra Yglesias, I don't really care why Republicans are paying attention to the coming hurricane in New Orleans and the gulf area; I'm just glad that attention is being paid. If the Republicans are doing this for cynical reasons, but genuine good is done for the residents of that region, well, that's good enough for me. It seems like a lot more is being done in preparation this time then last, and it also seems like that is a product of the negative fallout from the horrors of Katrina-- which, by the way, is exactly the sort of vigilance that is supposed to come from failures like Katrina. This is democracy in action; if preparation and response improve it is because citizens demand that their leaders not repeat the previous mistakes.

This storm looks like it will be hellish. Will the levees hold? All my hopes to the people of the region.

squishy agnostics

Re: a new path for atheism, let me recommend this post by ddjango, where I am generously linked to and quoted.

On this same front-- it seems to me that there are a lot of people who operate with a kind of casual, unstudied relationship to questions of the spiritual and the divine, a knowing and chosen refusal to make their thoughts about the existence (or lack thereof) of god explicit. Instead, they live their day to day lives with little thought of god or theology, and don't allow those concerns to influence their actions in any which way at all. But they are also not atheists, have some intuition of the divine, and don't like to be pressed into declaring one set of beliefs or another. These are the people who an evangelizing atheist would have the most opportunity to convert, I suppose--certainly more than the average regular church-going believer. Yet I think that these people are also some of the hardest to convert to uncompromising atheism, because they embody the core American principle of leaving people alone.

I don't have any data on this, but I think that there are many, many Americans who operate this way, with a kind of critical distance from the question of god, who neither actively believe or disbelieve. I put it to you that, although this is a stance that is bound to be unsatisfying for soldiers for either side, it is also quintessentially American, and an attitude that is the most amenable to a free, secular government for a religious people. This is the attitude that I find most likely to promote tolerance.

Now, in a sense, I'm giving the game away here, because my first source of admiration for people who operate like this is that they are refreshingly free of any theocratic nonsense. And they are bound to disappoint both sides, atheists for their refusal to stand against religion and theism, and the religious because, well, if you believe in a supreme being, that thought should probably motivate you to some sort of action. A real believer, I mean someone who truly believes in a capital-G God who is the maker of everything, and omnipotent, would have to adjust their behavior accordingly. Indeed, I have a hard time understanding how someone can really believe and not make the concerns of god issues of profound personal importance. Most people who are believers don't operate that way. I imagine that this is what Richard Dawkins means when he says that most people who claim to be religious act like atheists.

This is perhaps true. But I've also been struck by how theistically many atheists think and operate, and in that too there is a challenge. The refusal to abandon the idea of absolute morality or values in the face of the death of god, for example, strikes me as wrong-headed. I believe that when you eliminate the idea of god, you have abandoned absolute principles, or the hope of perfect understanding of the truth. This is a controversial point, though, and one that is debated endlessly by people far smarter than I am. I guess it's enough to say that, for many, this "squishy agnosticism" is the best way to lead lives both free from theocratic trappings and accepting of the religious beliefs of those around them.

It's true, if the specific question is asked "Is it empirically true that god exists", this kind of attitude becomes insufficient. But as I've said before, as soon as you've made the question an empirical question-- as soon as you've decided to interrogate the idea of god with the language of science and fact-- you've rigged the game, in atheism's favor. God can't win if the only authority is empirical science, just like science can't win if the only authority is what's contained within the Bible. And that I think is why I have an intuition that this squishiness is an attractive attitude that makes it easier to live. Perhaps the correct way to consider the question of god is to let go of requiring a concrete answer.

This attitude is sometimes called, pejoratively, "the god of the gaps". It's not, to be honest with you, how I happen to think. It's a remarkably incomplete attitude. But I tend to enjoy the company of those who feel this way more than I do the company of those who have a concrete answer.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Chinese lobby, Israeli lobby

Remember how, during the later stages of the Clinton administration, a popular right-wing meme to attack the Clinton White House was to say that the Chinese lobby was too powerful? That the Clinton administration was in thrall to the Chinese, that there was too much Chinese money and influence within the administration and other elements of Democratic party leadership? It was a favorite talking point of Rush Limbaugh et al.

Now, do you remember a hew and cry about anti-Chinese racism following those accusations? Did anyone get pilloried for suggesting that the Chinese government's lobby was overly influential? Did merely asking the question mean that, ipso facto, the asker was an anti-Sino bigot? Was the rise of these questions seen as portending the rise of the "new anti-Chinese racism"? Were there articles full of stern warnings about the great danger to the average Chinese person posed by these questions of Chinese influence on American government affairs?

Of course not. Because there was and is a Chinese lobby, a lobby for Chinese interests, as there is for just about any country of a certain minimum level of power. And it was appropriate to ask whether that lobby's relative strength compared to other lobbies was a detriment to the overall interests of the United States. It wasn't racist to ask because the country of China is a political, governmental body, not a race or ethnicity, and the country of China has interests that (believe it or not) are not always 100% congruent with the interests of the United States. And asking whether or not what the lobby wanted was in the best interest of the USA was no insult to the people of China, or of Chinese descent. It made no statement whatsoever, as a matter of fact, about the merits of the Chinese people at all. Accusing Rush Limbaugh or anyone else of anti-Chinese racism would have been a non-sequitur.

Now, that doesn't mean that the accusations were fair or accurate. Personally, I didn't think they were at the time, though I was too young to really have a grasp on the issue at the time. And, yes, it is probable that some of the people, some small percentage, who were making these accusations were indeed motivated by anti-Chinese hatred. But it would be absurd and counterproductive and wrong to impugn everyone who questioned the relative power of Chinese influence in this way. The question wasn't made illegitimate by the motivations of some small number of the people asking it, and the fact that many were asking the question didn't mean that there was some new rise in anti-Chinese hatred for us to all worry about.

I think you know where I'm going with this.

Jeffrey Goldberg asserts again that the slope, in questions about Israeli, is absurdly slippery. Asking about the power of the Israeli lobby is ipso facto an act of Jew-baiting, according to Goldberg. In this, Goldberg is a moderate, as (I'm not joking) there are those who assert that mentioning the fact that there is such a thing as a lobby for the country of Israel is symbolic of anti-Semitism. Apparently, saying that a Congressman demonstrates too much deference to Israel in relation to other constituencies and responsibilities has to be Jew-baiting.

Look-- there are members of Congress, and then there are lobbies who try to influence them. Coca Cola has lobbyists. So does the NRA and NARAL. So does the corn lobby and the Catholic Church and civil libertarians and pharmaceutical companies and hosts of other interests. And so does France, and so does Georgia, and so does China. And so does Israel. Like the lobbies for various interest groups and industries, these lobbies attempt to leverage Senators and Representatives into certain actions that are beneficial for who the lobbies represent. Like these other lobbies, additionally, these foreign policy lobbies sometimes exert pressure on legislators to vote in a way that some consider detrimental to the rest of the nation. Sometimes, we have to criticize our legislators for being more beholden to their lobbies than to the country-- like Joe Biden, for being a tool of the credit card companies. And, perhaps, like Eric Cantor.

I don't know if Eric Cantor is too beholden to AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israeli lobby. It's possible, just like there may be Congressmen who are too devoted to the French lobby or the corn lobby or the insurance industry. But whether or not Cantor is, criticizing him for being overly deferential to one lobby or another has to be on the table, like it is for any other member of Congress and for any other lobby.

The difference between the Chinese lobby and the Israeli lobby is twofold. The first is that, yes, there are unique concerns of anti-Jewish bigotry and oppression in this world, although I find the "who's more oppressed" line of argumentation unproductive (as well as kind of unconscionable. Certainly, the Chinese are no strangers to oppression or bigotry.) It's a sad statement on the level of debate here that I feel the need to make this clear: Anti-Semitism is a pernicious and persistent evil. Jewish hatred is horrific. There are indeed many anti-Semites in the world. This anti-Semitism has to be combatted with superior speech and loud condemnation. (Not censorship.)

But this is the other difference between the Chinese and Israeli lobbies: the Chinese are not protected by the blanket of accusations of anti-Semitism, the protective shield that blocks out criticism of the Israeli government's actions again and again. Accusing someone of anti-Semitism is the atomic bomb of American discourse; there is no harsher charge, short of rape or similar. This necessary and righteous condemnation of anti-Jewish bigotry has sadly morphed into something else, a catch-all insult designed to prevent legitimate criticism of the political body that is Israel. Any particularly prominent criticism of Israel or its lobby will at some point be met by an accusation of anti-Semitism, from someone, whether it's Abe Foxman or Marty Peretz or Alan Dershowitz or whoever. This rush to make this powerful accusation cheapens it, and makes it easier for legitimate accusations to be dismissed.

People of conscience have to be able to disagree about what choices are wise for their country to make, and that includes asking whether a particular legislator is too dedicated to the desires of a particular lobby. Even if that lobby represents a country filled with people who have every right to be cautious and fearful of bigotry.

too much, too much

The weird part of Gawker's nosedive in quality, intelligence and humor is that the best outlet to point out this recent collapse in quality would be... Gawker. Right? I mean I'm thinking that no one but quality Gawker would be as good as explaining how Gawker lost its edge, and why, exactly, the current product is such a pale, sad imitation of what it was.

Consider this post. What would the old Gawker make of such a weak attempt at righteous anger? I can't imagine a more classic example of revealing your own desperation and weakness through an attack on someobody else. What comes across even clearer than Ian Spiegelman's derision for this guy (Message: I really dislike this guy! And it's funny cause its so over the top!) is his emotional investment in what this dude thinks. Who the hell cares? I can't imagine getting up the bile necessary to write this about just about anyone, let alone this choch. I think this whole thing reveals the secret of Gawker and similar temples of derision: the insult is only as important as you let it be. I imagine that if you're targeted by Gawker or some similar site, the negativity seems like the worst thing in the world for a little while... and then, suddenly, it strikes you that it doesn't matter at all.

The problem with these kinds of angry harangues is that they almost always say more about you than the person or thing you're attacking.

Look I never liked Gawker or most of its sister sites, though I dig Jezebel. I believe that treating other people with empathy and kindness is one of our duties here on earth, and Gawker is a never-ending carnival of petty cruelty and casual insults. But I at least have always admired their skill, the edge to the comedy and the note-perfect attitude that the writers developed in their writing. And that's been lost, almost completely, from the main site. This isn't a very original thought, but I've always thought that the fuel that powered Gawker (and Defamer, and Deadspin) was plain jealousy, jealousy of people in the Manhattan media elite, in the Hollywood movie business, and professional sports, respectively. And I've also thought that the writing was at its best when that jealousy was admitted frankly and openly. As the famous n+1 piece said, the more powerful Gawker has become, the less effective and cutting its satire has been. The worst part of every new batch of Gawker writers has been that all of their posts seem to scream "Don't you know who I am? I write for Gawker!"

This guy seems to think that he can summon some of that old magic just by upping the forced indignation. But none of it rings true, as a few brave commenters have pointed out. Gawker is never particularly well served by its commenters, despite their massive self-regard, and the more I read comments telling the writers how well they took somebody down, or how great and cutting the blog has been, the more convinced I am that the opposite is true.

Friday, August 29, 2008

So when I started this, it was a really effective way for me to express myself with less anger and more discretion than I have a tendency to be in the comments of various blogs. But lately I'm losing that and I'm sort of reverting to a less temperate style, which is a major concern. I gotta take a little time and think about things.

giving in, giving up, giving in

The protest kids always used to mock my inability to fully disengage from partisan politics. It thought they were wrong then and wrong now, for various reasons. But it gets harder.

Now look where we are. Two campaigns, two rival parties and their attendant supporters in the punditocracy, and thus two competing critical narratives. One side says that the other candidate is too inexperienced, too driven by identity politics, too lacking in foreign policy depth, too much a product of politics and not enough about policy. The other side calls their opponent too old, too entrenched in Washington, too much a part of politics as usual. And as they do, the pundits and bloggers and commentators and trend-setters and opinion-makers set about rolling out these narratives. They make a virtue or a vice of change, they pronounce experience good or bad, they intricately craft a narrative based on the strengths of their own guy and the weaknesses of the other. We stand with change, or we stand against it; we believe experience means wisdom, or we believe experience means the same old Washington. Our stance on policy is important and largely unchanging. But our stance on character, on process, on values-- those positions are as permanent as the next political moment.

And then the campaigns choose running mates who perfectly represents what their side derides in the other.

Obama, whose campaign's central message has been change, an end to Washington as we know it, and a new day, chooses Joe Biden. Joe Biden, a Senator for decades. Joe Biden, tool of the credit card companies. Joe Biden, as much a part of the old guard as you can get short of Robert Byrd. Joe Biden, who sits on committees and panels and boards in the Senate. Joe Biden who plays the game as enthusiastically as I can imagine. Joe Biden, the very picture of Washington insiderism and calcification. Where are the liberal bloggers to point this out? Where is the outrage? Where is the intellectual consistency? If experience is the devil and change the goal, how can anyone support Joe Biden? On matters of policy, I agree with Joe Biden, largely. But how can the people who have worked so hard to denigrate Washington and its culture support a man who radiates both?

I'm reading today the crowing of conservatives and Republicans, who are whooping with glee at the Palin pick. They are breathless with excitement and pleasure. The only problem is that they have been viciously and ceaselessly attacking a candidate much like Sarah Palin for over a year. Every aspect of Palin's political identity conforms to a narrative that conservative bloggers have been deriding over and over again. Palin is the conservative analog of Barack Obama, in every meaningful way. Obama lacks foreign policy experience? Sarah Palin has none whatsoever. Obama is an empty suit? Compared to Palin he's Dean Acheson, he's Henry Kissinger. Obama's campaign is a naked appeal to identity politics? I cannot imagine a more cynical nomination than Sarah Palin's. If anyone believes that the biggest factor in Sarah Palin's nomination isn't that she will steal women away from Obama because of the Hilary factor, do me a favor and punch yourself in the face.

How can the people at the Corner laud this selection and not catch on fire? How can the people at Daily Kos approve the Biden selection and look themselves in the mirror? Is partisanship so powerful? Are the politics of resentment really so totalizing, so all-encompassing?

I know that this is the sort of thing that gets me labeled preachy, and guilty as charged. Hell, I think I'm preachy. But I just don't believe post-partisanship is possible. Not anytime soon. What possible hope is there for intellectual consistency and for basic philosophical integrity, in this climate? There is none. There is no hope. If the principled Republican bloggers can't stand up and say "This Palin nomination is a matter of the greatest hypocrisy"... what can they have to say on principle at all?

Why aren't people exploding, about this? Where is the anger? This whole thing boggles my mind. Where is the anger? Why aren't so many smart people throwing their hands in the air and screaming?

I'm no better than anyone else. I sat and said "Nice pick" when I heard it was Biden. Nice pick, nice pick.

I'm checking out, I'm done, whatever and ever amen.

Just stop it.

Perhaps the most annoying consequence of the (generally positive) rise of reformist conservative bloggers is that, given their heterodox cred, they tend to think that when they pronounce Obama (or another liberal politician) disappointing or underwhelming or unimpressive, it actually means something outside of the usual partisan bickering. "I'm heterodox! I'm open-minded! Therefore my thoughts that Obama's speech was lame is really saying something." But it's bogus. Do you want to know why so many heterodox conservative bloggers are dissing Obama's speech? Because they are conservatives and don't agree with Obama's politics, and for no other reason. This is pure rhetoric: I am standing outside of my partisan shell to analyze my opponent's speech, so when I criticize it, it makes my criticism cut deeper. Bogus. You don't agree with Barack Obama's policy, you aren't a Democrat, and you don't want Barack Obama to win. Own up to that, and stop putting on these post-partisan airs.

Note, of course, that this is a courtesy that will not be extended in kind to liberal bloggers. When they enjoy Obama's speech, or denounce McCain's convention speech, they won't be "stepping outside of ideology". They'll just be typical liberals, bashing McCain.

Also immensely annoying: do you remember during the Olympics how the commentators would constantly say that an American victory in a particular event would be unthinkable, simply to make the inevitable upset more dramatic? It's just as annoying now that conservative bloggers and pundits are doing it regarding John McCain. Nothing was ever certain; I don't know of anyone who ever said that there was no chance for a McCain win. A black guy getting elected over a rich white old man was always going to be a monumental task, no matter how conservative bloggers played it. Indeed, it's always been conservatives who have been most certain of an Obama victory. And I find this setting up for the huuuuuuuge upset to be straightforwardly and transparently cynical, a way to make punishing liberals and Democrats in the event of a McCain victory that much more cold and stinging. (Remember when it was classless and foolish for Democrats to feel assured of victory? Remember that, guys? What's bad for the goose....)

I can see Wolf Blitzer now... "This is a crushing defeat for Democrats and liberalism!", the snide language, the sneer on every talking head's face, the absolute glee that will grow among the Washington media elite....

Thursday, August 28, 2008

today in hypocrisy

Apparently Will Wilkinson thinks it's wrong to base your arguments on an assumption of bad faith.

Oops.

No no, I know-- if I only I had the Glasses of Supreme Understanding, it would all make sense.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

moving the sticks

It seems to me that the most important aspect of the conservative ascendancy of has been the gradual rebranding of what constitutes liberalism and leftism and the attendant squeeze on the media to shift the goalposts accordingly.

Human politics is a politics of meaning. It is an utterly banal thing to say the ability to define terms grants incalculable political power. Conservative talk radio and punditry has, for the last several decades, demonstrated great discipline in one key endeavor: redefining the center of American politics and relegating liberalism to the status of weird fringe ideology. All of this happens, of course, in a country which has historically been an idiosyncratic but largely consistent exemplar of liberal values and liberal government. And it remains a place where, on many issues, liberal policy prescriptions are consistently popular. The difference now is that a much larger percentage of those who endorse those policy prescriptions refuse to call themselves liberals, out of embarrassment or shame or, most perniciously, a genuine misunderstanding about what the term means and how it is positioned relatively on the political spectrum in any kind of historical or international context.

In a world where Nancy Pelosi, Shaun Penn, Hilary Clinton, Hugo Chavez, Al Gore, Noam Chomsky, and Barbara Streisand are all routinely referred to as "ultra-left", the term has no meaning. This is why it's important for people like Matt Yglesias to push back against the steady moving of the goalposts, and why I find conservative freakouts about things like referring to the Atlantic or Slate as center-right so disingenuous. It's the

When people talk about a liberal media I simply don't know how to respond. The media has become so utterly cowed by the "liberal media" accusation that they've become reflexively anti-liberal. This is not the same as conservative. But in a zero-sum electoral political system like the one we have, the effect is to empower conservatives. As I've said before, the dominant attitude of the media towards liberalism is the sneer. Liberalism is always something to fear or to deride; it is definitionally "out of touch", and by default contrasted to the mainstream. Conservatism reflects the real America, the thinking goes, the common man, the heartbeat of our country, whatever the actual demographic reality of the people of the United States. Conservatives convinced the media that they were biased, and totally chagrined, the media caved into a sad parody of fairness that treats insistent criticism of the left as a victory for neutrality. In this rhetorical space the right pushed furiously against the definition of what it meant to be liberal, and what it meant to be mainstream, and left us in a place where liberalism is a dirty, unspeakable thing. This was the most successful rebranding effort in the history of advertising.

So when Ericka Andersen asks how progressives would feel if they saw the media through conservative eyes, I ask if she could put herself in my place the other night. I'm watching CNN, and Wolf Blitzer is asking James Carville whether the Democrats are making a mistake by opening the convention with so many liberals. Why, Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton! What kind of message were the Democrats sending, Blitzer wanted to know, by having so many liberals at the start of the convention. Never mind that the actual leftist credentials of just about anyone speaking at the Democratic convention are suspect. Just consider that Wolf Blitzer, in his role as neutral journalist, thinks that it is a plain fact that liberalism is inherently some bizarre affectation that the people of America fear and revile. Can you imagine, under any circumstances, Blitzer asking a conservative pundit about the wisdom of having so many conservatives opening the Republican convention?

Of course not, because the Republican party is the party of conservatives, and unapologetically so. This is so unremarkable a fact that it feels funny writing it down. And yet Very Serious people like Wolf Blitzer assume quite straightforwardly that the Democratic party shouldn't be a liberal party if it is to be relevant or powerful. No, embracing liberalism won't strengthen the Democratic party by making it a genuine alternative to Republicans and conservatism. Because liberalism is defined as an inherently lunatic ideology, the degree to which Democratic candidates and ideas are to be taken seriously is only a function of the degree to which they represent capitulation to conservatism. In America, it seems, we are meant to have two political parties, center-right and right-right. I don't believe that Blitzer would have been appeased by anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman or Zell Miller.

I read a lot of conservative blogs, though truth to tell they are almost all of the "reformist" or heterodox variety. I don't in fact believe them to be heterodox in the true sense, but that is a question for another day. What is true of them is that they all operate under certain considerations of fair dialogue and process. Most of them, however, seem to accept the notion that there is simply something untoward or unmannered about unapologetic liberalism. I find myself wanting to ask them to consider what it's like to come of age in a political time when the default stance is the defensive crouch, where I feel expected to offer every idea and position with a note of apology. I know what some of you are thinking: this is exactly what conservatives have expressed feeling like for decades. That may be fair. But if we are to step off of the hamster wheel of recrimination and bitterness in politics, we can't take turns marginalizing the other side. And simply as a matter of understanding the current time, I think that it behooves us all to acknowledge the degree to which conservative notions of what is or isn't moderation have seeped into the media, and for conservatives to abandon the canard that they are an oppressed, powerless minority.

Update: And, look: people who support John McCain do not get to complain about media bias. Ever. The media's portrayal of John McCain, at least since his unsuccessful Republican presidential campaign in 2000, has been one of the most unfailingly positive and noncritical imaginable. The effect is so obvious and so powerful that even he is in on the joke. The man called the media "his base". The media like Barack Obama. But they distrust narratives about hope and racial redemption. What they love are narratives about toughness and character and being a Real Man, and they like people who claim to embody straight talk, no matter how often that straight talk is demonstrated to be a dodge. And more than anything else, they like candidates who kiss their ass. McCain is commonly called "a man of the people", or similar, which is a neat trick for someone as hugely wealthy as he is. What he really is is a man of the media, like George W. Bush, and like Al Gore before him Barack Obama consistently refuses to play the game. And he, and my party and my ideology, are paying the price for it. Again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

apolitical crime policy

Briefly-- this post reminded me of an important fact about the debate over crime. Discussions of crime and crime prevention tend to be deeply political and often quite harsh, with differing camps making various accusations of each other. Liberals' concern for rights of the accused is often represented by conservatives as a failure to be tough on crime. Conservatives' tendency to push for harsh punishment and aggressive enforcement is often represented by liberals as a slouch towards totalitarianism.

But the actual small-scale policy prescriptions that work best to reduce crime tend to be rather apolitical, or so it seems to me. Much has been made of the aggression of the Giuliani-era police force in New York city, and the enormous reduction in crime during that period. (I find the NYPD's record on racial equity and the number of violent acts against black men during that time very disturbing.) But the people who know the best all seem to think that the gains weren't from racial profiling or more aggressive police actions, but from the increase in the number of police officers and the large increase in information-sharing within the department. Boots on the ground and intra-agency interoperability and communication seem to be the most important facet of reducing crime in our nation's cities. And those are both things that I find people of most political stripes are amenable to.

Of course, nothing is apolitical, and I can imagine how these policies, taken to extremes, could become controversial. Hiring additional police officers is an expensive fix, and any public expenditure involves complicated tradeoffs. I certainly don't want to live in an over-policed society, and I am not one of the people who thinks that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from the police. But in general, I think that the additional cops on the beat, and the emphasis on rapid information pooling and cooperation within departments, has been a frankly spectacular success in New York and should be emulated.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Virginia Woolf on Elitism





Reading Andrew Sullivan demonstrate Jonah Goldberg's inconsistency on elitism, I'm reminded of some thoughts from Virginia Woolf on the subject, from her collected letters, I believe.

It has to be remembered that crime and poverty had none of the attraction for the Elizabethans that they have for us. They had none of our modern shame of book learning; none of our belief that to be born the son of a butcher is a blessing and to be unable to read a virtue; no fancy that what we call life and reality are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality...

(Hat tip to my brother for showing me this quote years ago.)

Update: Turns out the quote is from Orlando.

Vouchers

In a discussion in the comments section on her blog-- I can't find a link, I'm sorry to say-- Megan McArdle once asked me whether I really think that selection error accounts for all of the perceived advantage of private schools in educational quality. I think she was saying it in a rhetorical, "you can't possibly think this" kind of way. But in fact, that's exactly what I think. Selection data isn't some minor noise that we can remove from the signal; in this issue, it dominates our ability to make meaningful comparisons between the two schemes, and in doing so gives opponents of public education the rhetorical space they need (and they need very little) to begin asserting the superiority of one against the other.

Whenever we make comparisons, we want to make meaningful comparisons, and one aspect of making meaningful comparisons is comparing like things. The general thinking behind the "private school is better than public school" attitude seems to be, first, that educational output (what the students produce) is a simple linear function of educational input (what the teacher does in their role as teacher). Second, private school education output is asserted to be superior to public school output (more on that later), so therefore private education is better than public. The first part seems to me to be an enormously wrongheaded general notion of education, and contrary to the real world. But OK-- lets say we accepted this general framework. In order for this to be a valid comparison, you'd have to have equivalent inputs; the student populations entering into public and private would have the have roughly the same natural ability and life situations. And they don't; it's not even close.

What factors do we know roughly correlate with low academic success? A partial list includes emotional disturbance, intellectual and cognitive disability, severe behavioral problems, criminality, drug use in the home, and (the biggie) poverty. (Contrary to popular assumption, in many cases special education students are not checklisted out of their state mandated tests, and their testing data is largely pooled with that of the regular student population.) And broadly speaking, what students do private schools not educate? Students with emotional disturbance, special education students, students with severe behavioral problems, and poverty-stricken students. Are there many exceptions? Sure. But largely speaking, there is no question that the populations of private schools are much, much less likely to have the characteristics that are seen again and again in students who struggle. And this is particularly true of poverty, the ur-disadvantage, the trait which is connected to so many negative aspects of American economic and social life.

This is the disadvantage that public schools find themselves in. They teach populations of students of vastly different ability and are criticized for failing to produce students of equal aptitude. Nowhere is this more starkly (and comically) seen than in private high schools. The large majority of private high schools in America require potential students to possess a strong academic record or pass an entrance exam. (This phenomenon is not restricted only to high schools, as some private middle and even elementary schools have similar policies.) In order to attend these schools, you have to demonstrate both strong academic history and the ability to do well on standardized tests. These schools then proceed to flaunt... their students success with academics and standardized tests! The local private high school in my hometown, in their promotional materials, routinely touts the student body's strong academic performance and aptitude on standardized tests. But they require a strong academic record and minimum score on an entrance exam to attend the school. This is akin to setting a minimum height requirement for your school and then bragging about how tall your student body is. Of course your students will maintain a high average on grades and testing. That's one of your requirements to get in.

Even outside of schools with entrance requirements, public schools face an incredible disadvantage in the kinds of students that they have to educate. Poverty disadvantages students in myriad ways. I can't for the life of me understand how people can think that you can draw a meaningful comparison between, say, a student who lives in a crime- and drug-infested inner city Detroit with one drug-addicted parent in the home, with no academic toys or private tutoring, no Internet access, no trips to the museum on weekends and cello practice in the afternoons, no experience in pre-school and an entirely lacking social support system, and your average student from Cheshire Academy. Imagine that you simply swapped the students from the average public high school of an impoverished inner city with the students of Exeter or Fairfield Prep. How do you think the academic performance of those two schools would stack up then? Forget about the difference in resources between those two schools, forget about the enormous logistical and pragmatic advantages the private academies have. Just swap the student bodies. Who do you think would look better in side-by-side comparisons then? The truth is we aren't comparing apples to apples here. Not even close. This is why I find Megan's incredulity at my attitude puzzling. It's perfectly easy to see how selection error troubles simplistic readings of educational quality.

What makes this more aggravating is the fact that it isn't as though this selection error is affecting some sort of powerful library of data that shows superiority in private education. By and large, standardized testing data that demonstrates an advantage for private schools is largely non-existent. Many private schools are not required to give state standardized aptitude tests to their students. I'm often frustrated by the assumption by those arguing in favor of vouchers or private schooling that there is a clear statistical advantage in testing data. This is commonly assumed and often asserted but not really true. (Incidentally, this demonstrates the incoherence of some of the pro-voucher community's favorite party lines. Private school vouchers are supposed to at once increase accountability and reduce bureaucracy. That's a neat trick, as the proposed decrease in bureaucracy largely stems from reducing or eliminating educational testing, and from other standardized systems that are designed to ensure minimum thresholds of quality and service. You can reduce bureaucracy in education, or you can increase accountability in education, but you can't meaningfully do so at the same time. If you're actually interested in doing that, that is, and not just in crafting slogans.) And what data there is about public school failure relative to private schools (largely anecdotal, I find) is subject to the kind of selection error I've described.

Sadly, the idea that private schools are inherently superior to public is largely created simply through the repeated assertions of people who just know that private school is better. Well, I don't believe that public policy and enormous government expenditure should be based on justifications that come from bald assertion. (It's worth saying that private schools have both enormous financial incentive to misrepresent their own educational data in a positive direction, and oversight that amounts to the honor system. But then, in this debate we must always remember that private schools are filled with tireless teachers who want only to bring quality education to students, and public schools are filled with lazy, conniving unionized teachers who only want to live fat on government paychecks and avoid accountability. So I should know better than to question the integrity of private schools.)

This is all compounded by the fact that there is precious little understanding of what method private schools are supposedly using to increase student performance. No one (and I've asked many) can reliably point to the mechanism which creates this supposed vast superiority. As I will persist in saying, there is almost no difference between the pedagogical techniques of public and private schools, and certainly no universal differences that enable one to say "Public schools use method X, private schools use method Y". You don't go to school for private education or public education. Teachers move easily between public and private school all the time, and they don't need any kind of dramatic re-education when they do. Don't take my word for it; ask a teacher who has taught both public and private school and ask them if they were introducing some dramatically different methods from one class to the other. These students are taught the same things in the same way, overwhelmingly. What is the method through which is supposedly creating these distinctions? It is absolutely incumbent on voucher proponents to demonstrate how these gains are supposedly made by private schools; they are proposing a massive change in American education and a massive public expenditure. It's on them to demonstrate how this change and this expense will work to benefit society.

So here's the situation we're left with. We have neither reliable empirical data to demonstrate this advantage; we have no description of the mechanism through which this advantage is supposed to be working (beyond vague inanities like "we're eliminating bureaucracy!"); and we have a fundamentally flawed vision of what constitutes a fair comparison, as the populations taught by public schools and those taught by private schools are not close to the same. And even if it could be demonstrated to my satisfaction that private schools were doing a better job of educating the students that they educate, the question would remain whether that advantage could be upwardly scaled to the incredible degree necessary in order to create the libertarian vision of vouchers for all, publicly funded, privately run schooling. That scaling up would represent an enormous undertaking, and as even private schools most zealous advocates have a difficult time describing how, exactly, private institutions "teach better"than public, it's not unreasonable to ask if that dramatic growth would jeopardize this ephemeral phenomenon.

No, public schools don't face anything like a level playing field, in either academic achievement or the debate about the virtues of vouchers. I know that most proponents of school vouchers and private schools are genuinely committed to improving education and argue in good faith, though I disagree with them strenuously. But there is also a core of really dark thinking hidden in the views of many on public school, thinking that is caught up in classism and racism and fear of the other. Most parents send their students to private school because they believe that their child will get a better education, though sadly their evidence for this is some form of "Everybody knows...." Most parents of private school students are principled people.

But this also true: some parents of private school students send their children to private school because they don't want their child associating with poor kids, with black kids. They don't want their child mixing with "that element". For them, the promise of public education is precisely what they wish to avoid: that every student from a community will be educated the same way. Limiting egalitarian is one of the chief unspoken pillars of private education; indeed, it's the main selling point. I think it takes great naivety to fail to grasp that private school is inextricably bound up with status and class hierarchies. One of the many ironies of this discussion is found in the distance between the wonky pro-voucher pundit class and the activists on the ground, the parents and private educators who want public money for private schools. "Vouchers for all" is a common libertarian, pro-voucher pundit dream, where public schools is eliminated entirely and we simply provide tax money for private schooling. But that's an ideal I never hear from the parents and private school administrators asking for voucher money. After all, if every student got to go to private school, for many it would eliminate the point. The appeal is the distance from the common student, the poor student. Grassroots voucher advocates don't want to extend private schooling to everyone, as far as I can tell; when I read the literature of the grassroots voucher advocacy groups, I don't see ideas about universal vouchers. It doesn't appear to be on the radar. The parents and administrators just want public money for their kid, for their school. They just want the money. That's not a fundamentally unfair desire for them to have. But it's a far sight from the kind of broad reform pro-voucher proponents often discuss, and it's a reminder that these programs are ultimately about robbing from Peter's kid to pay Paul's kid.

Educational arguments are proxy arguments. We argue about education as a surrogate for larger, more intractable problems. Everyone loves magic wand solutions. The supposed benefits of private school vouchers are often presented as laughably dramatic. Vouchers will sweep in and eliminate educational disadvantage all over the country, bureaucracy will be smashed, achievement will skyrocket. (And as a nice bonus, ideologues who are committed to the total destruction of unions in America will see some of the best organized unions remaining in the country smashed. But I'm sure that's mere coincidence.) Well this is my assertion: you cannot solve educational problems in this country without solving the problems of poverty and family disintegration which have preceded the educational ones. A poor kid from West Baltimore who lives in a tiny, squalid apartment, without two devoted and able parents, in a neighborhood ravaged by crime, who never went to preschool or had a private tutor in his life-- this kid's problems are not going to be solved by switching to a private school. His problems are endemic and totalizing, and they are the product of the basic realities of American poverty. We can use his schooling as a way to leverage attacking unions and destroying public education, or we can actually confront the fundamental problems of fatherlessness, crime and poverty that overwhelm America's urban poor. But then, doing something about poverty tends to require endorsement of social programs that are not favored by those who support vouchers.

There is another question that has to be asked. The question isn't only whether individual students can excel given the difficulties of their life circumstances. The question is whether every individual student can excel at all. One of the basic assumptions of this debate is that everyone is capable of performing up to certain academic standards. But there is such a thing as simple natural ability, and if we are to reform education in this country we must start to ask the question of whether every student realistically can ever meet academic standards. I'm not advocating giving up on anyone; I am advocating giving up on holding every student to simplistic standards when life demonstrates to us again and again that not everyone is capable of doing everything. Mickey Kaus likes to imagine himself an iconoclast, one who asks "the tough questions" about education. But the question he seems to refuse to ask-- and the one the supposedly free-thinking educational policy wonks in that post seem to refuse to ask-- is whether or not an individual student can always eventually be made to reach certain academic standards. If we really want to get iconoclastic, lets start to ask whether the best thing for struggling students is to continue to try to change them to fit the curriculum, or to change the curriculum to fit them.

Kaus is seemingly interested in educational reform as far as it allows him to bash unions. That's another reason I'm so skeptical of libertarian grand-narrative thinking on educational reform. As Matt Yglesias has said in the past, it makes very little sense to entrust the reform of public education to those who want to destroy public education. And make no mistake, many of these pro-voucher pundits want nothing else than to eliminate public schooling. I'm not in the habit of asking those who would scuttle the ship to take the wheel.

Private schools and their proponents assert that private schools teach students better. I assert that they teach better students. Private schools have meticulously crafted a system in which they overwhelmingly avoid teaching those who are most difficult to teach. Forgive me if I don't turn around and entrust the education of those self-same students to them.

Update: Commenter bcg suggests in comments that my assertion that many private school parents are motivated by classism or racism weakens my argument, and he/she is right. It's tempting to redact it, but in the interest of intellectual honesty it'll remain. I do believe that in fact a part of the appeal of private school is the ability to remove your child from "undesirable" kids, but that has little impact on the tangible discussion and I should have held my tongue. And as I tried to say, I don't think it's anything like the majority of voucher or private school proponents who feel that way. Consider this a mea culpa and an admission that those things aren't effective arguments for my side.

Update II: Cole Porter thinks I haven't made enough of a positive argument for the alternative (continuing public education as we know it). I think, first of all, that it's the responsibility of those who are advocating this kind of change to demonstrate the wisdom of such a large undertaking. But to answer the question, public financing comes, in almost all areas of governance, with public oversight and public administration. I'm sure there are people who want the government to simply distribute everyone's share of taxes that is spent on the fire department back to the individuals, and let them hire their own private fire-fighting force. But that's not how the American tradition of taxation and public works operate. Part of living in a community and paying taxes in a community is having government systems of administration that runs the public work in question and ensures the publics interest. That's just how government operates, and there's no reason for the public school systems to operate differently than the police force, or the department of water and sewer, etc.

And, of course, no one is preventing parents from sending their children to private schools. We are simply not permitting people to use public money to finance private schooling. People have the right to own a car rather than use public transportation. But they don't get to withdraw their money from the public transportation system because they don't use it. Simply disliking the alternative that local government has created doesn't entitled you to remove your tax money from the system and use it to pursue alternatives. I mean, it's kind of weird, when you think about it. In what other aspect of life do so many people expect the government to fund them simply because they can't afford a service they desire? Well, there's healthcare. But there, there isn't a viable publicly-funded alternative, and yet still the self-same people who want vouchers don't want public funds to pay the difference.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

minor blegs

So I use the "Minima" template for this here blog. If I use Minima Stretch, my quote, picture heading and About Me all fit nicely on the left hand side; but the posts are too stretched out. If I use the regular Minima template, the posts are just the way I want them but the stuff on the left is annoyingly laid out (as you can see). Anybody know how I can have both the wider sidebar and the skinnier posts?

Also, does anyone else have the problem with Firefox where, when you've got streaming video going in a tab, you can't click over to another tab? Sometimes with Youtube or similar I click another tab but it stays stuck on the page with the streaming video. It's not a big deal, I'm just wondering if anyone else has the same problem.

elitist?

When people say that the number of houses that McCain has or the amount of money he has is immaterial to the campaign, they should understand that this argument is happening in the context of pieces like this. When someone like Jonah Goldberg (who got his job the old fashioned way, nepotism and patronage) calls Democrats elitists, it is important for us to demonstrate that in fact it's the Republicans who have always represented the only elite that matters, the moneyed elite, and at times they are quite open about that fact. (Dinesh D'souza is one of the conservatives most open about the domination of the Republican party by the affluent.) Barack Obama is significantly less wealthy than John McCain, and McCain is hardly some boot-strapping entrepreneur. On a simple level, the fact that the wealthy continue to support Republicans overwhelmingly demonstrates the degree to which Republican policies benefit the affluent; these people vote pragmatically, and that means endorsing (and funding) whoever will best protect their financial interests.

The addition of Joe Biden, the poorest Senator, to the ticket can only help to highlight that the Democratic slate is in fact much closer to "the common man" in the only real measure of elitism that matters. Of course, saying that suggests that Jonah Goldberg believes that words (like "elitist") have meanings and that he's not just a Republican shill.


via Andrew Sullivan.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond is established between you and him... These things I know, Ubertino; I also have belonged to those groups of men who believe that they can produce the truth with white-hot iron. Well, let me tell you, the white heat of truth comes from another flame."

-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

DS eBook Reader


So I've added an eBook reader to my modded Nintendo DS and it has been working pretty well. It has the same problems that I've identified in the past with an iPhone ebook reader-- the backlight runs down the battery and LCDs aren't the best for reading off of. The DS however is legendary for its battery life and since there's no sound, and I keep the backlight on the dimmest setting usually, it's not a problem at all. It's a bit of a weird feeling reading from it, but I choose the homebrew program ReadMore specifically because it has a book-style orientation, where you hold the DS vertically. I wouldn't read anything that was too intense or difficult with it, but I'm finding it's a lot of fun for sci-fi, adventure and books I've read before. And because .txt files are like a couple dozen K, I can put tons of books on here if I've a mind to.

Incidentally it's not illegal to modify your DS, if you're not using it to pirate content (which I'm not). I'm sure Nintendo doesn't particularly care for the idea of people modifying their handhelds or consoles, but if they aren't illegally file sharing or violating copyrights, I don't see how you can be blamed for getting more features out of a piece of hardware you've bought legally and own. It's my DS, and if I want to monkey with the firmware without violating someone's copyright, I'll do it.

That's another cool thing about eBooks, by the way. Because books have been around so much longer than movies or CDs, there's tons more public domain content out there to load onto your gadget free from incrimination or guilt.

Disenfranchising people for fun and profit

I think this sort of thing is pretty straightforwardly an impediment to democracy and demonstrates that we need to abandon the electoral college. We do have an at least philosophical commitment to one person, one vote, and the electoral college undermines that both metaphorically (candidates don't see any need to campaign in states they are sure to win, or sure to lose, or those whose electoral votes are too small to justify the time and expense) and literally (two states with different populations can have the same number of electoral votes, meaning that the people who represent the difference between the two populations have their votes effectively thrown away).

All of my thoughts on this are retreads of things that have been said again and again. But I was struck watching this at how perverse a system is when the states that support a candidate the most are precisely the ones which he needs pay the least attention to. And of course it's a recipe for a disinterested populace, although the media and their certainty (near the big day) of who will win does a pretty good job of convincing people that their votes don't count anyway. I've heard it argued that a national popular vote increases the chances for voter fraud and other shenanigans, although I've never been sure how, exactly. And as we've seen, we can have shenanigans aplenty in our current system. Indeed, putting so much importance in so few places encourages shady behavior in those places, and it empowers local officials to have way more influence than they otherwise would.

To do list: reduce the number of times I say "thing" on this blog. And "under girds".

Cuba/Georgia, continued

Matt Yglesias says pretty much exactly what I've been saying about the Russian Occupation of South Ossetia. Of course, Yglesias has the benefit of the audience, so it's nice to see the ideas get out there.

I really think that people like Peretz or similar just can't possibly get past my country/their country distinctions to see this kind of similarity. As I've said before, the nuance card tends to get played a lot: the people who are pointing out similarities between American action and the actions of America's antagonists just aren't seeing the nuance that makes these comparisons legitimate. But it's a weird vision of nuance that holds that nuanced readings invariably lead to one conclusion or another. Usually the benefit of nuance is that it reveals the errors in any kind of broad-strokes reasoning, but these people tend to think nuance can only justify their black hat-white hat visions of foreign policy.

Update: As a bonus, Yglesias neatly encompasses my obsession with the predominance of notions of relative morality when describing America's misdeeds:

Now nothing in America’s fairly long history of shabby acts toward our “near abroad” comes close to justifying Russia’s bad actions in its near abroad. But they do provide the necessary context of fairly banal great power politics rather than terrifying and unprecedented expansionism.
Saying "America's actions are more moral than Russia's" is an entirely separate thing from saying "America's actions are moral". The first statement is an academic question, of limited interest to just about anyone. The second statement is a fundamental question, of incredible important to anyone who concerns themselves with their country's commitment to democracy, and to righteousness.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jews good, Palestinians bad

Commenters on a post from MegArdle about Palestine engage in the Marty Peretz line, averring that Palestinians are simply inherently immoral, wicked, stupid, cruel, etc. If you ever want to witness the enormous power of cognitive dissonance, just watch people making claims that a group of people, as a function of their ethnicity, are fundamentally malign, and then strenuously deny that doing so is racist.

Megan's commenters cheerfully avoid the fact that, of course, the Palestinians have had every possible disadvantage, and the Israelis have had enormous advantages, the most important one being the unwavering support of the most powerful country in the history of the world. I am a supporter of Israeli peace and prosperity. But it baffles me when people speak as though Israel's success is the product of the virtues of Jewishness, that Israelis progress comes not from the enormous military, economic and diplomatic advantages of being blessed with the unwavering support of America, but because Jews are fundamentally more decent, smarter, harder working, etc. than other races. That kind of thinking is misleading and dangerous, and it empowers exactly the kind of "good race/bad race" thinking that has caused the Jewish people such enormous suffering throughout their history. It would be a cruel and terrible turn of events for the Jews to now become the beneficiaries of attitudes that have caused their oppression in the past.

Megan doubts that the Palestinians can achieve a meaningful state, anymore. I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from that. What is the alternative? There is none. There's just destruction or survival. The Palestinians are a dispossessed, disenfranchised people. They can only proceed in the direction of self-determination. As much as many people secretly would like it to happen, the millions of Palestinians are not going to disappear overnight. We don't have the luxury of pessimism in the face of the Palestinian ordeal. Especially if you are, as I am, a supporter of a secure and righteous state of Israel.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Spoilers everywhere I turn

The great advantage of the swimming finals at the Olympics was that they were swum in the morning in Beijing, so they were broadcast live back home. But for track, it's tape delayed, and there are spoilers all around me. It's becoming very difficult not to accidentally learn the results before I can watch the races, as I just did with the 200. Bah, bah, bah.


I guess I'll just have to really limit my Internet futzing for the next few days.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

better off unborn?

This isn't really relevant to any particular post, but I had a conversation the other day that included an argument in favor of abortion rights that I don't buy.

Does anyone wish they had been aborted? I'm sure some tiny number of people genuinely do, and I'm sure many angsty teens claim to. But I occasionally hear something along the lines of "it would be better for some children not to be born into a broken home/drug den/abusive family/etc. etc." Well, look-- I do think that the pragmatic realities of the kind of parents and family situation a potential child is going to be born to are legitimate concerns when considering abortion. In fact, I think they are the paramount concerns. But surely those concerns must be about what is right for society and the people who are already here. I'm not saying you can't argue that an individual situation is unsuitable for child-rearing. But when it becomes a straightforward appeal to what's best for the child, or what the child would want, well... would you rather have been aborted? For those of us not suffering from mental illness, the self-preservation urge is quite powerful. And while the appeal to never being born isn't quite identical to the appeal to death, they're similar enough.

To be clear, I fully support abortion rights, and I acknowledge that this is sort of a straw man. I think though that it's a rather common kind of thinking to wander into, and I don't think it stands much scrutiny.

Incidentally, I'm not one to add that "I favor a woman's right to choose, but with restriction" disclaimer on to everything, in part obviously because I don't really favor any restrictions, but in part because I think those tend to be an unexplained dodge. What kind of restrictions? In how many cases? And, most importantly, how do those restrictions follow from your larger philosophy regarding abortion? I think people tend to say things like "No abortion after the third trimester", and I think the reason is that it's seen as a compromise position. But I find that weird. If you believe that life begins at birth, that a fetus becomes a person at birth, then I don't see how you can believe that at 7 months terminating a pregnancy is worse than doing so at 4 months. Right? If the belief that abortion is moral is founded on the notion that the fetus is not a person, then that belief is true at 6 weeks or 16 or 26.

I suppose some might conceive of a "life begins at viability" argument, where a fetus gains human rights when it becomes viable. But of course, it would be a nightmare to adjudicate, and the right to life would become deeply fickle, dependent on factors like the mother's health and habits during pregnancy, the quality of medical care available, etc.

No, I don't think that many of the restrictions on late-term abortions make sense if you proceed from the assumption that life, and human rights, begin at birth. Which, by the way, seems an essential element to being pro-choice. If a fetus is a person I don't see how you can end that life, no matter what the appeal to pragmatics and societal cost. That's part of the reason why it's so important for pushback against the pro-life question begging about whether a fetus is a person or not. Too often, pro-life people baldly assert things like "of course a fetus is a person". Well, that's exactly the question at hand. Whether or not a fetus is a human or not is the foundational issue of the disagreement.

By the way, for awhile it seemed that the argument du jour for the pro-life set was to assert that legislating that life began at birth was essentially arbitrary, as a baby born much earlier than it's expected due date can live a normal, healthy life. And, in a sense, it is indeed arbitrary to say that life begins at birth. But that's only to recognize that all of the law is a series of arbitrary decisions. For having 19 hits of a drug, you get 6 months in prison. For 20 you get 3 years. Have sex with someone a day before her sixteenth birthday in some states and you'll go to jail; have sex the day after and you won't. We make seemingly arbitrary decisions because life is complicated and we need to establish set rules in order to have a functioning judiciary. And as far as arbitrary distinctions go, defining life as beginning at birth is a pretty good one, with a long tradition.

Monday, August 18, 2008



Image by Flickr user robertnelson used under a Creative Commons license.


"A gun is a coward's weapon. A liar's weapon. We kill too often because we've made it easy....This loud, clumsy, stupid thing. This is the weapon of the enemy. We do not need it. We will not use it." -- Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Since You're Gone



Ric Ocasek, the Cars, and New Wave music are all awesome.

That is all.

The example of Indonesia

I've been watching a little Olympic badminton today, including some matches featuring badminton-crazy Indonesia.

My father's job was deeply concerned with certain aspects of Indonesian culture, and we had Indonesian students living in our house sometimes when I was a child, he made near-constant visits there, my family spent part of my childhood in Indonesia, etc. Indonesia has and will always have a special place in my heart. I have always wondered why more isn't made of the example of Indonesia as a Muslim nation, in this post-9/11 world. Indonesia's government and democracy are far from perfect. But in most every way that matters, Indonesia is a pro-Western, progressive state, and could be a model for a modern Muslim nation, provided nationalist Islam (note, not radical Islam) doesn't become too powerful a force in Indonesian society. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, many commentators and pundits waxed on about various failings of Muslim nations, and a saw I heard often was that there weren't any Muslim nations that ensured religious freedom. But this simply wasn't and isn't true; Indonesia is a dominantly Muslim nation, with the largest Muslim population in the world, but it also has small but strong Hindu, Christian and Buddhist populations. Bali, the tourist capital of Indonesia, is a Hindu island in the Indonesian sea of Islam. There are Christian communities throughout the islands, and though it is small, the Buddhist population is influential (owing in large part to its place as a religion of the affluent within Indonesia.) It's worth pointing out that in Bali and other islands there are prominent statues of the Buddha, hardly a common sight in Muslim nations.

When the "Obama was raised in a madrassa" meme spread, many people were surprised to learn (if they bothered to learn) that Muslim women in Indonesia wear pants, and in general enjoy freedom equal to almost any women in the second world. And if people investigate, they'll find in Indonesia a country that is broadly supportive of America. It's a difficult line for Indonesia to walk, but they pull it off, often enough. I imagine that perceptions of Indonesia anti-Americanism stem largely from the terrorist bombing of the Balinese nightclub, but it's important to remember that an attack like that was carried out by a very small number of people in a nation of millions. Also, that attack targeted a largely Australian nightclub, which suggest that the attack was connected to deep antagonisms between Indonesian (and particularly Balinese) people and Australian tourists. The treatment of Indonesians and Indonesia by Australian tourists is a source of deep anger, largely justified. (Let me be quick to say that, of course, while I find Indonesian anger at Australian conduct writ large in the islands to be understandable, the attack, of course, is not and could never be justifiable.) It is a mistake to look at the nightclub bombing as a gloss on larger notions of Indonesian attitudes toward the West.

Of course, Indonesia is functionally pro-American in spite of American actions, and maybe that's why the country doesn't get more approving press. Let's not mince words: American conduct in Indonesia in the 20th century was utterly reprehensible. The United States supported the Suharto regime for decades. Suharto was an absolutely brutal dictator, who embezzled hundreds of millions from an impoverished country; squelched dissent at every turn; tortured, murdered, and exiled activists and protesters; and by conservative estimates killed a quarter of the population of East Timor or more. The United States propped up his regime, provided him with American foreign aid, shielded his regime diplomatically, and did everything possible to support his horrible dictatorship. (A senior administration official in the Clinton White House famously called Suharto "our kind of guy", just about a perfect encapsulation of American foreign policy and its priorities.) As a child living in Indonesia, I resided with my family in Bali, and as the tourist capital the government took pains to minimize the presence of the military. But still, every once in a while black military trucks would drive by, filled with angry-looking soldiers.

There's also of course the matter of Suharto's path to power and the events of 1965. The conservative figure for the number of communist party members is half a million; but the real number dead may even be twice that. It is frighteningly easy, in Indonesia, to find people willing to take you to the sites of mass graves. The United States backed the Indonesian military's anti-communist purge all the way through. They provided lists of communist party members and espionage to the army in support of the murder of millions. In a common turn in foreign policy discussions, people who for years denied any American involvement have switched to affirmative defenses, in the face of volumes of declassified CIA and military files making the United States's support for the military takeover, and the purge, quite clear.

You get many now who will assert that it was okay for the Indonesia military to indiscriminately murder hundreds of thousands, because the people murdered where communists. This is the kind of zealous disregard for human life and predominance of ideology that we deride in, say, Islamic extremists. First, anyone who stood opposed to the army was killed, and you can bet that thousands of those dead had no particular connection to the communist party at all. What's more, context, please-- the Indonesian communist party was popular in part because it represented the only real alternative to military dictatorship. These people were impoverished peasants, not the Bolshevik army. And all of that is tangential to the most important point: communist party members have a right to not be murdered, and to pursue whatever political ends they might prefer, no matter how much libertarians and market conservatives might hate communism. Being a communist really means that you deserve death?

The Indonesian situation in 1965, by the way, is a favorite for those who like to employ entirely different standards of evidence between the United States's actions and those of other countries. "Aha!" they say. "The United States didn't kill anyone!" Which is true. The United States didn't kill any Indonesian peasants. They just provided those who were going on a murderous rampage with intelligence and logistical support for their mass murder, including literally providing hit lists to the Indonesian army, assisting in the murder of hundreds of thousands. Again I ask: isn't this precisely the kind of thinking that we have attacked so loudly following September 11th? Didn't we decide that we weren't any longer going to make distinctions between terrorists and their supporters? If Iran provided a hit list to a foreign country's military dictatorship, with the goal of eliminating threats to Iranian power, and that hit list was used in the elimination of hundreds of thousands-- what would we say? What would the neocons say? What would our response be, diplomatically and militarily? To some people such questions don't matter. There simply is nothing that America can do that actually invites serious reflection on the morality of our actions. But a nation that believes in a righteous foreign policy and the principles of self-determination is obligated to ask those questions.

Indonesia is our friend despite the fact that they have every reason to hate us. Every reason. Perhaps the message should be that we should spend more time developing friendships with other countries-- principally by leaving them alone and not manipulating their internal struggles or governments-- in order to get what we want, rather than with a dangerous, incredibly expensive and diplomatically suicidal foreign policy.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Self Parody Watch

Rowdy Gaines, NBC's Olympic swimming color commentator: "The relays are all about teamwork, and no one knows that more than Michael Phelps!!"

Unreal. Absolutely unreal. You simply cannot make this shit up.

Friday, August 15, 2008

the decline of Hip-Hop

Ta-Nehisi Coates laments the lack of depth and humanity in mainstream rap today.

It's tough to ever call out a particular genre, because within any genre there is always of course enormous variety, in technique and message and sheer talent.

But I think it's fair to judge the mainstream, public face of a genre, and mainstream rap has become awful, awful, awful. Rap is hardly alone in this regard; most mainstream music is pretty bad, and I couldn't tell you that mainstream rock, to the degree that such a thing exists anymore, is any good either. However, mainstream rap is terrible yet remains in the face of public consciousness and the musical moment. And that's precisely the problem. I've felt for years that the problem with rap is that, after a brief artistic flourishing and quick ascendancy to mainstream dominance, the (white) entertainment media was so enthralled with the cache and cool of hip hop that they ceased holding it to any musical standard at all. Because the mainstream entertainment media so identified black culture with the cool, and hip hop with black culture, they abandoned any pretense of rendering critical judgment on the music and simply when into constant mythologizing and comic overpraising. This is the phenomenon that has brought you, for example, VH1's Hip-Hop Honors. Because, you know, nothing screams hip-hop authenticity like Mark McGrath MCing an awards show on VH1.

For awhile there it was the thing for previously rap-averse music critics to suddenly declare that hip-hop was the true artistic vanguard. Never mind that most popular hip-hop has always been rather derivative and shallow. Like many genres, the best in hip-hop has often been off the beaten path. No, to embrace hip-hop was to move away from the stodgy rock-centric musical criticism of the past and embrace the new new hotness. White music critics could demonstrate not necessarily hipness but (in their own minds) their unflagging pursuit of the best music being produced. It so happens that there was a time when hip-hop was indeed making the best music out there, but the mainstream media, as always, was a few years behind the curve. Outkast really started getting mainstream accolades with Stankonia; but there masterpiece, unquestionably in my mind, is Aquemini. As usual, the public perception of musical virtuosity was a few years late. Stankonia is Outkast's Sergeant Pepper; Aquemini, their Revolver. (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is sadly their Wings/Double Fantasy. But I digress.)

The trouble with this kind of laudatory press is that it equally praised brilliance and failure. I know I'm in the minority regarding Eminem and Kanye West. But surely anyone would concede that, say, Juvenile is not high art. When the mainstream face of musical media failed to distinguish between Talib Kweli and the Ying Yang Twins, it hurt everyone. Rappers could make comically derivative, tossed-off records and still be on the cover of every magazine, in every commercial, all over MTV. This isn't to say that music critics didn't laud some and deride others, but music critics hold littler power over the general thrust of the mainstream music media, and those subtle distinctions got lost in the wash. What remained was a sense than any rap was good rap, and that as long as music had a hip-hop construction, it was to be praised as "What's Now".

The effects were terrible for rap. When you're held to no real critical standards, there's no particular reason to write good material. Rappers have always been greatly prolific, often to their credit. In an atmosphere where anything went, though, this kind of mass production just exacerbated the problem. There was so much terrible rap out there masquerading as good music, and kept alive only by the vague notion that it was counterculture and cool. I am baffled by people who continue to insist that rap is a counter-culture. Rap is a Pepsi commercial and a show on the E! network. It's lost any claim to being out of the mainstream. That's not really such a problem; indeed it should be a goal for a mature genre. But rap has badly lost its way, artistically, though of course there are always exceptions.

I hope the knee-jerk association of hip-hop with the cool or the now is a thing of the past, precisely because I am a fan of good hip-hop. I think rap needs to be lost in the woods for a little while, for its own sake, so it can come out a more healthy, more self-critical genre. Whether the positive messages Coates laments come back, I really couldn't say.

Doping and double standards

If it had been an American athlete, would this have appeared in the New York Times? I'm not so sure.

The problem with associating any dominant performance with doping is that this sort of thing is never equally or equitably applied. What Michael Phelps has been doing, we're constantly told, defies belief. So if it's so unbelievable, why are we all so comfortable believing it? I'm not accusing Michael Phelps of doping, but I find the evidence that this swimmer is no more compelling than the evidence that Phelps is. When certain athletes excel in unexpected or extreme ways, we almost always have an edge of suspicion. But this just hasn't happened with Phelps, for reasons I can't quite understand.

Look at FloJo. She's been the subject of rife speculation and assumptions about cheating, even after her death. But the primary evidence, as far as I know, has always been the simple fact that she was so dominant. And again, that's problematic, because we don't apply that logic to everyone. Either everyone should operate under the veil of suspicion or no one should. If you've got other evidence, like the many allegations against Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire-- which include evidence of wrongdoing, like physical evidence of purchasing illegal substances or, in Bonds's case, admission in sworn testimony of using performance enhancing drugs-- it's fair to put that stuff on the table, though it doesn't really prove anything. But to inconsistently make that assumption based only on performance, or how expected that performance was, isn't remotely fair. And I certainly think the nationality of the swimmer has something to do with it.

In related news, Rowdy Gaines, Olympic swimming color commentator, baldly asserted during the 200 IM final that Phelps would have won had he swum the race. I nearly leaped out of my chair. That's so incredibly disrespectful to Ryan Locte and Aaron Piersol, I can't even believe it. You can't possibly know that, and to just assert it is beyond irresponsible and unfair. Phelps Phatigue grows and grows-- not because of Michael Phelps, but because of NBC and the commentators at swimming. Ugh.

Update: Anonymous makes good points in the comments. I should say that this isn't intended as a direct response to the NYT piece but to the general haze of doubt surrounding this performance.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

War

Via the comments section of Reihan Salam's The Current offering about Georgia and Russia, striking and unsettling pictures from that conflict. I warn you that there are some extremely graphic and disturbing images within them. But I think it's profoundly important that we remain as close as we can to the actual realities of a particular conflict when we discuss it, while remaining cognizant of the fact that we can't ever really understand the incredible damage of war through pictures or video or second-hand accounting.

War is always brutal and horrible and ugly. This is a fact that people treat as banal and obvious, and yet I find again and again that in casual discussion it's effectively forgotten. This is one of those strange principles where, when people are asked, they will say that yes of course, they believe it-- and then proceed to speak and act in a way that completely undermines that notion. John McCain says he hates war, and yet he demonstrates again and again that he treats the concept with little gravity; indeed, he has made many jokes about war and bombing and invasion on the campaign trail. This is disturbing in anyone. It's even more so in a decorated war hero like McCain. It's a prevalent thing, sadly, among our chattering class. The more orthodox niches of the conservative blogosphere often appear to be in a contest to see who can take war less seriously than any other.

As I say often, the commonly held notion that our punditry and political analysis have great variety within them isn't really true, and that as much as any group of bloggers or commentators or pundits may have various disagreements, there are many, many issues where there is a very limited range of acceptable positions if you're to be taken seriously as a commentator. Indeed, that's precisely what is denied to those who are broadly opposed to military intervention, the designation of seriousness. Matt Yglesias has done great work to point out how notions of Very Seriousness limits the foreign policy dialogue and de-legitimates dissent. But then Yglesias himself is a self-styled interventionist. Perhaps he must be, to continue to make a career in punditry. There are many positions you can hold and be within the acceptable framework as a public commentator. You can be, for example, an unapologetic, unreconstructed neoconservative, and many are, and continue to receive the greatest awards the profession awards. But you cannot be a pacifist, not if you want to be a professional pundit, not if you want to be a part of the club.

Well, I'm not a pacifist, and anyway my interest in the club remains largely tangential. My whole political intellectual life though it has been made clear again and again that the degree and frequency with which someone advocates the application of military power are enormously important to the kind of reception he or she will have, and the kind of traction he or she can generate as a respectable, intelligent thinker. When I look at pictures like this I am snapped back out of the surprisingly small, inbred world of American political intellectual life, and again find myself marveling at how such a simple truth as the undesirability of war can be so obscured by careerism, rhetoric and fashion.

What to say about Reihan's argument in the Current? I don't have much insight into his particular prescription for resistance to Russian influence by Georgians, although I find it deeply strange that we have come so far since 9/11 where open advocacy of terrorism is rather unremarkable, provided the government which is the target of that terrorism is an American antagonist. On a larger level, I remain deeply confused about how the average member of the punditocracy at once vehemently opposes Russia's coercive efforts (as Reihan calls them) in Eastern Europe, but strongly supports America's Cuban policy specifically and Latin American policy in general. The Monroe Doctrine is, again, an explicit statement of American hegemony and manipulation in the Western hemisphere. We practice precisely the same kind of economic aggression, internal manipulation through espionage, support for separatist groups and coups, diplomatic warfare and out and out military intervention in Latin America when it suits our purposes. This doesn't excuse Russia's actions. It does condemn our own, and calls into serious question the intellectual integrity and seriousness of many in our pundit class. I'm sure I sound like a broken record on this, but I haven't seen anything approaching a coherent explanation for this double standard. I wish the question would gain more traction among people who are more influential and more widely read than I.

Look at the pictures, if you don't mind their graphic nature. It's so important to always remember the reality of what war is when we discuss it in the media and national conversation.

NBC wants me to hate Michael Phelps

I'm kind of a hater when it comes to sports; like many I tend to find as much enjoyment in disliking teams and athletes as I do in liking them. This is always easier when a team or athlete enjoys a period of dominance, leading to the common hatreds of the Yankees, the Lakers, Duke, the Cowboys, etc. This isn't rational or fair, but luckily it doesn't really have to be. It's just sports. I don't need rational justifications for how I feel in sports like I do for my positions in politics. And I often don't have rational justifications for those! (Zing.)

So as you can imagine I have a natural tendency to dislike Michael Phelps. But I'm fighting it. I really am trying. But NBC is making it so, so hard.

I really wonder how they can know so little about basic human psychology. Most of us are inclined to think less of someone when we hear too much about how great that person is. And NBC's coverage of Phelps, I have to believe, would be wearying even for the most diehard of his fans. It's absolutely unrelenting in the primetime coverage. It's like they have a counter behind the scenes that informs them that they have gone 45 seconds without mentioning Phelps and must quickly amend that problem. I mean Rowdy Gaines, the color commentator for the swimming at the Olympics, takes his Phelps-stroking to a degree that I would argue disrespects the other athletes. During the 4x200 relay last night, they actually showed an inset picture of Phelps while his teammates swam in the relay, and that's definitely disrespectful.

I'm on record on saying that I don't care for this reflexively calling Phelps "the greatest Olympian of all time"; who, exactly, ordained the most golds as the sole criterion for deciding Olympic greatness? There are structural features of swimming that make it uniquely able to facilitate an individual athlete winning a lot of medals. Even a very versatile track athlete simply doesn't have the opportunity to win as many medals as Phelps has won; logistically it's not possible given the schedule of track meets. And who says versatility is the best measure, anyway? How about domination of a specific event. Is Phelps a greater athlete than Edwin Moses? It's not really a fair question to me. And it is certainly unfair to athletes who have literally one opportunity every four years to get a gold medal, like a Greco-Roman wrestler, or a beach volleyball player, or other team sports.

But, look, obviously this is an enormous achievement. And I'd like to like Michael Phelps and root for him. But NBC is making it so hard, by cramming him down my throat every 3 minutes. Swimming and the Olympics have a special place in my heart. Part of what I really like in swimming is the variety, the many opportunities to find interesting stories and enjoy different competitors. NBC is insisting that the only story here is Phelps, and that's not fair or entertaining. And just through the constant repetition of his name and by constantly flogging these same tired story lines, the network is making it much harder for me to like the guy. And that's a shame.

Update: King Kaufman feels the same way.