Sunday, September 30, 2007

Blogging, Recent and Forthcoming

Counting this post, I've put up 27 posts in September: significantly surpassing my previous record of 20 for a single month (from March of this year and July, 2006). For various reasons, however, I have quite suddenly gotten far busier, and will likely stay that way for a while -- through October at least, and possibly well into November.

So while September was busy here at Attempts, don't expect October to be. It doesn't mean I've abandoned the blog (FSM forbid!); it's just (unavoidably) on the back burner for a while.

This also means that my ongoing-series on The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton will have to be delayed. I quite definitely intend to finish it -- and to do so before any primary ballots are cast. But it won't be on the schedule I optimistically forecast for in my most recent entry. I may get an entry or two up in October; otherwise, look for the final three parts in November.

Finally, since I have done so many posts this month, I thought I'd highlight a few of the better ones, in case you missed them. (They slipped down page faster than usual, after all.)

As far as political posts go, aside from the aforementioned Clinton series, I also was personally fond of my 9/11 memorial post, Grief and the Uses of Grief, which, while ending on a political note, had some more general things to say about grief and loss, too.

In non-political posts, I would draw your attention to my review of Gene Wolfe's two-volume novel, The Wizard Knight; and my review of Bryan Talbot's graphic novel, Alice in Sunderland.

And while it's probably of less general interest, my tracking down of a quote from Montaigne might be of interest to some. This came up, of course, with the addition of random sidebar quotes to Attempts, which also happened this month; re-load the page to get a new quote, or go here to see all of them.

I hope you'll bear with me in the forthcoming slowdown; I particular apologize for the delay in the Clinton series (although, to repeat, I have very intention of finishing it before any votes are cast). The present busyness, while it is likely to last a few weeks at minimum, is temporary, and will lift eventually. (Also, if the past is any guide, the fact that I'm putting up a "slowdown forthcoming" notice all-but guarantees that I'll have a new post up shortly. Seems to always happen that way.)

And, as always, my deep & sincere thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Tin Woodman Shoots Up

Talking to a friend today, he pointed out that if you look at the original W. W. Denslaw illustrations to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, you can clearly see that the Tin Woodman is shooting up. I just checked -- the entire original edition is online as images at the Library of Congress, bless 'em -- and by Cthulhu's tentacles, he's right.

Remember the scene: Dorothy and the Scarecrow find the Tin Woodman rusted still. They oil him, and he feels better; then he takes the oil can and finishes oiling himself. How does Denslaw portray this?

Here's the image from page 60:

And here's how he feels after that:

Part of the trick here is that you need to see the two pages -- on facing pages in the original edition -- together. Here's how they pair in a single image:

I don't know if Baum intended this (although my friend did point out that Baum sent his characters through a poppy field to get sleepy), but it's clear what Denslaw was doing.

Pretty wild, huh?

Unrelated Housekeeping Note: Part six of the Liberal Argument against Hillary Clinton is indeed coming. But I fear it's going to be another day or three. This pesky little thing called "real life" has gotten in the way. Fortunately, the first primaries are still four months away, and it's not like anyone's going to pick a candidate for us before then -- by declaring her "inevitable" or "unstoppable" or anything like that. Right? Right?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Link Round-Up: Special Non-Politics Edition!

Look for part six of my ongoing series on the liberal argument against Hillary Clinton tomorrow or Friday -- FSM willing. (Scroll down for parts one - five -- or follow that link.) In the meantime, here is a Special! New! Politics Free! edition of Link Round-Up.


Brad Curran has a question: why aren't more people talking about the fact that Joss Whedon is writing a web comic for Dark Horse? My guess is that it's because the web interface makes the damn thing all-but unreadable. Issue 2 is up now; but I couldn't find a link to issue 1 anywhere on the site. (Google knows all, however: here's a direct link to "issue 1", without all their crappy formatting around it and here's a direct link to "issue 2".) And it's clearly formatted for print, so even those direct links don't read all that well. It's too bad, seeing as how Joss is boss and everything.

Zot!'s coming back! I can't tell you how excited I am about this. HarperCollins is reprinting the B&W issues of Zot! (#11 to the end of the run), Scott McCloud's wonderful, charming first comic (via). Three out of four* promised volumes were printed, way back in the day -- one printing the (really skippable) first 10 (color) issues, and two printing the first 2/3 of the B&W series. But the final volume never appeared. I asked him when I saw him speak (in the autograph line) if it would ever come out... he said maybe. I didn't believe him. O me of little faith! It will be well-worth re-purchasing the first 2/3 of the series to get the end. If you haven't ever read Zot!, Scott did a web-only Zot! comic some years after the print-run. It's a lot of fun, and can be read totally independently of the earlier stuff. Check it out... and then wait for the HaperCollins volume.

(* Actually, there was a promised fifth volume, which would have collected two guest-artist issues plus all of Matt Feazell's back-up feature Zot! stories. I'd have bought that one too... but that's probably too much to hope for.)

• Today's Boing-Boing-Did-You-Click-Through?™ Link: sketchbook of famous comics artists drawing Ninja Turtles.

Dave Sim blogging: for those who've never read Cerebus (and haven't read my oh-so-brilliant introduction to it), Dirk Deppey captures in a few words the maddening brilliance (and I mean that first word literally) of the man. Meanwhile, Noah Berlatsky thinks about the different madnesses of Dave Sim and Philip K. Dick, and about Dave Sim and the epistemology of the closet. When you hear a loud explosion from Canada, it's Sim's head exploding when he gets wind of that second post.

• I like to read Geoff Klock's blog, both for the blog itself and the commentators. This post is an example of why. I myself get into the act in comments here.

Not Comics:

This article on "The Buffy Formula" -- talking about the formula not for any given episode (of course), but for the story arcs that form each season -- is quite interesting. Seasons 2-4 and 6 follow the formula; seasons 1, 5 and 7 don't -- though each has elements of it, "failing" in different ways. Well worth reading for Buffy-fans out there. (And the rest of you: you're missing one of the best shows ever on TV.)

The Ladies' Home Journal in 1900 on what will happen in the next hundred years... fact checked. They were actually far more accurate than I'd have guessed. This one's fun.

Berubé's back, and talking about Allan Bloom. For some of you, that will be 'nuff said: for the rest... Berubé's one of the wittiest writers in the blogosphere. Some assembly required. Don't miss the poem in comments (Yeats meets football).

A kosher vending machine -- kosher food served 24/6! (Yes, that's 24/6, not 24/7.) What a wonderful, strange world we live in. (via)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Tale of Elizabeth and Hazel -- and America

As a student of Twentieth Century history, I know the story of the integration of Little Rock's Central High School very well, of course -- I've even taught it to my history classes including, yes, what happened after the cameras stopped rolling and the nation's attention moved on. If you don't know the story, you should: not only is it a central event in recent American history, it's a gripping tale, and the heroism of the young protagonists is really quite inspiring.

But I didn't know the story of what happened to the students after they graduated (save for the bare fact of their later public recognition). It's quite extraordinary: and this article from Vanity Fair (via Kevin Drum), which tells the story of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock nine, and Hazel Bryan, a white student from Little Rock that year, is quite extraordinary: I think Kevin quite undersells it. It's superb.

If you look that that famous photo above, Elizabeth is the African American girl, being screamed at by the mob for trying to go to high school. Hazel Bryan is the girl on the left of the photo, screaming at Elizabeth.

The story the article tells begins as a feel-good racial reconciliation story: Hazel seeks out Elizabeth, and apologizes; then, later, they meet again, and become friends. They write a book together; and they go on Oprah, of whom the article says, "Reconciliation and redemption are her things, but this one was too much even for her." Elizabeth, who suffers for a long time from depression, revives. A feel good-story for our time...

Except, it's not, and the writer doesn't let us loose sight of that even at the story's height. None of the other people in the photo apologized; there remains a lot of racism in the area; and the others of the Little Rock nine are suspicious of Hazel's motives. And then things fall apart: the two women, having become unlikely friends, drift apart: Hazel's apologies, so often made, seem to have gaps in them, areas she is unwilling to go. Eventually she drops out of public life.

And while Little Rock's Central High School now has a student body that is half-black, half-white, David Margolick reminds us of the reality behind that facade:
Central High School looks as imposing as ever, but over the past 50 years, its innards have changed unimaginably: the school is now more than half black. It's all misleading, of course, because Central is really two different schools, separate and unequal, under one roof. The blacks go to different classes, sit on separate sides of the cafeteria, have different, and far lower, levels of performance and expectations.

The whole article is tinged with a bitter realism, recognition of progress paired with a strong sense of the complexity and ambivalence of reality. Through all this runs the voice of Elizabeth Eckford, a formidable character in her own right. (One of the other of the Little Rock nine, asked if she knows Elizabeth well, replies: "Well enough to leave her alone.") Elizabeth Eckford's life can be seen as a triumphal story of personal will pulling her up by the bootstraps... but only if you don't really listen to it, only if you ignore the terrible parts, like her son Erin's fate (read it and see); only if you ignore the poverty and difficulty of her current life. Her attitude -- tough, working to make things better, but realist in a way that seems cynical against our favored stories about our own progress -- seems powerfully right.

It's a story with a lot of happiness, but a lot of pain, and ultimately a lot of complexity too: it's not a tale with a happy ending. And it shouldn't be.

Everyone is talking these days about race again (update: Digby too), in the context of yet another racist story in yet another American high school. And there's a lot of surprise, as people think (the cliche goes) that this is a story that should be from long ago, not from the Twenty-First Century. But the long ago wasn't all that long ago: its protagonists are still alive, and the grand tale of national redemption and reconciliation that the Civil Rights Movement is dressed up as has a far less triumphant, a far more ambivalent, ending than we like to pretend. If we understood that better, then the events in Jena would not surprise us so much; and the necessity to grapple with the reality of race in our country would be far clearer than it ever can be when it is buried under platitudes about how we all loved Dr. King (just so long as he's safely dead for most of the white folks, of course: far more palatable that way).

Of nothing is it less true than the ugly history of America and race that "the past isn't dead; it isn't even past", as Faulkner famously put it. It's right there, we're still living it, and it's not a fairy tale that ends with flowers and democracy and everyone holding hands. But it's not that nothing's changed either. It's complicated. We have to see that. Reading David Margolick's article is a good place to start.

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Vote for the Liberal!

(Part five of a series. Links to earlier parts: Part One, Introduction; Part Two, Who Can Win?; Part Three, The Affirmative Action Arguments; Part Four, Experience and Other Distractions.)

And now we get to the real arguments, the fundamental reason that liberal Democrats should not support Hillary. I will be spelling these out, elaborating on them, and so forth, in the forthcoming parts -- which will include arguments which (I believe) ought to sway people who are not liberal Democrats too.

But for liberal Democrats, the argument is really quite simple:

If you are politically liberal, you ought to support the most liberal of the viable candidates.

Or: vote for the liberal!

There are, I think, reasonable disagreements about whether this means voting for Edwards or Obama. But there's no possible way it could be read as suggesting a vote for Clinton.

The reality here is very simple. Hillary Clinton -- like her husband -- is a centrist. She's a triangulator. She believes in the (supposed) centrist consensus of American politics -- the pro-business, pro-empire, but not lunatic-right-wing consensus that American elites cluster around. As far as that goes, she's a pretty decent version of it, I suppose.

But that's not what liberals want, or should want. We should want someone who will shift the politics of the country towards the left.

To a large degree this is a rhetorical project -- a project of selling values, philosophies, world views; of shifting the overton window; of changing the underlying assumptions of the debate. This is, for me, one of the central points -- enough so that I will devote an entire entry in this series to it (the projected future part eight).

Clinton seems perfectly willing to adopt left-wing ideas once they have become mainstream -- adopting John Edwards' health care plan, for instance (and good for her: it ain't perfect, but it'd be a heck of a lot better than what we got now); or opposing the war. But what about low-profile issues? Issues where she has to make a spur-of-the-moment decision? Issues where she has to lead? Clinton's instinct will almost certainly be what it has always been: to play it safe (or what our political class assumes will be safe), to try to play off both "extremes" against some imaginary middle.

This spirit will pervade her government; and it's far less than a liberal should hope for.

In some sense, this basic notion -- the idea that one should vote for the person most broadly in agreement with one's beliefs -- is far more important than any of the specifics on any issues that any of the campaigns put forward. This is true for two reasons.

First, because so much of what a president does is done through appointments. It is the presidential appointments -- not the high-profile stuff like the cabinet posts, but the lower-down posts -- that affect so much of the governance that a president is the public face of. Which laws are vigorously enforced, and which only reluctantly; how those laws are interpreted in novel situations; what relationships regulators have to those they regulate -- all of these things are affected by the president's appointments. That's one of the reasons that Bush has been such a disaster in so many areas: the cronies and hacks that he's appointed, the ideological nitwits with barely any expertise about or even interest in the government they are supposed to be running, go deep, and lead to corruption, mismanagement and mendacity such as has been so routine in this administration.

But Clinton will appoint very central, standards DLC-Democrat types. Her economic advisors will be centrist, if not slightly-right-of-center ones; so will her advisors in every other area. It will be the Clinton restoration. Which, needless to say, will be like heaven after the multiple calamities of Bush. But will be far less than we should want out of the government. As I wrote in earlier installments: the Republicans' trashing of their brand (and of conservatism) has created a (possibly) once-in-a-generation opportunity here. We should ask for more than the cautious, half-way

Now, Edwards and Obama will appoint a lot of those too. But they'll appoint fewer. And, more to the point, there's at least the hope that they'll appoint some staunch liberals in the government, in a way that Clinton almost certainly will not. Worst case scenario? They appoint the same centrist technocrats that Clinton would: and what have you lost? But in the many appointments they make, surely in some cases they'll be better?

Isn't that worth going for?

Aside from the issue of staff, there is another -- equally if not more important -- reason to vote for the person who matches your political preferences broadly, rather than focusing on a particular candidate for one particular reason. And that's the inevitable fact that what presidents actually focus on and deal with are things that no one has foreseen. History is, as always, unpredictable.

Therefore you need to vote for general tendencies. And, again, Hillary Clinton is the most conservative of the three major democratic candidates.

I will go on, in the next two installments, to make arguments about two central areas of policy -- ones that are of central importance in the foreseeable future. (Although even there I'm going to focus on broad areas rather than specific policy proposals.) In other crucial areas -- such as health care and gay rights -- all three of the leading candidates are about the same: far better than any republican; quite far from as good as I'd wish.

But who knows what the next president will actually deal with?

All three candidates have plans for Iraq. But (as many blog writers, at least, have pointed out) all are plans for right now; none are dealing with where we'll be in January, 2009 -- with two and two-thirds more Friedmans gone, Iraq still a hell on Earth, our army even more broken than it is now. And certainly none of them have plans for the frighteningly likely possibility that by the time we become president, Bush will have launched yet another criminal war, this time against Iran.

Will they have to deal with an economic meltdown? Some new area of cultural war we can hardly imagine now? Who knows?

And, of course, there's not guarantee that any of them will do well.

But the best gamble is on the one with the most sensible political approach overall -- not the one who's the best on this or that policy.

What we want is a strong, solid liberal.

Barbara Boxer'd be great; but she's not running. Paul Wellstone would be great; but he's dead. Maybe Kucinich would be good; but he won't win.

Of the plausible candidates, there's reason to think that both Obama and Edwards are the most liberal.

There's every reason to think that Hillary Clinton is the least liberal.

Which is why liberals shouldn't support her.

Interestingly, my friend's arguments for Hillary -- which you can read in her own words in comments here (and I encourage everyone to do so) -- have a big component of "I've-been-hurt-before-so-I'll-take-the-known-quantity" in them. Like many spurned lovers, my friend is scared of hoping for something better. Liberals were disappointed in Bill Clinton (boy, was I ever disappointed!); so we shouldn't hope for more. This is evident not only in the ire against Gore (which is a fair cop, I'll admit), but in this:
I believed in Bill Clinton, and I believed in the tooth fairy too - which leads me to the second reason I'm supporting Rodham Clinton. With HRC, you know what you're getting. She's not a liberal, she's not an ideologue, she's not passionate. I will never understand what makes her tick. However, she has spent her entire life in the public eye, and she is exactly who she seems to be: rational, calculating, competent. After the past eight years, competent - and not venal - sounds pretty good.
It seems to me that the idea of picking someone who you know is not a liberal, not passionate, over someone who might possibly be is (for a liberal) madness. It's quite clear that Obama and Edwards might be no more than "rational, calculating, competent". But they certainly won't be any less. And I think that picking someone who is known to be as good as the worst case scenario of the other two is wildly defeatist.

Yeah, we'll be disappointed with Obama or Edwards. Inevitably. But we'll be disappointed in Clinton too -- probably in every single case that we would with Obama and Edwards. And with Obama or Edwards we might, sometime, be surprised in a positive way.

I agree that "competent - and not venal" is better than what we have now. But I disagree that it's good enough. As I've said: this is a chance, in the face of conservatism not only rampant but overwhelmingly obvious failure, to make a real case for liberal -- to appoint a real liberal. Not a centrist; not a triangulator.

Edwards and Obama may not be that. But Clinton definitely isn't. Let's go with somewhere there's hope for better.

And less chance of things being worse. Which brings me to the area where I fear Clinton the most: foreign policy.


I had already written the above when I came across David Brooks's column for today. Kept safe by the NYT Firewall, I haven't read Brooks in two years, but from what I remember, he usually deserves his appallingly bad reputation. (Maybe he's improved.*) Today, however, I think he's basically right.

Oh, his tone implies all sorts of ridiculous things -- he gets the netroots totally wrong (honestly, some of these right-wing pundits sound like they're afraid they're living in a Phil Ochs song or something); he uses the usual "intellectual" spin to try to disdain liberals versus centrists (i.e. liberals are "intellectuals" therefore elite; centrists are the salt of the earth, real Americans; usually used by Republicans vs. Democrats, but always good in a pinch); and so forth. (Update: If you want a demolition of the mendacious and malevolent parts of Brooks's column, read today's piece by Glenn Greenwald.) But Brooks's basic point is celebratory: the centrist party -- the party of "the old Clinton establishment in Washington" -- is winning.

Now, I think he's wrong about why they're winning. He thinks it's because
Democratic politicians... know their party has a historic opportunity to pick up disaffected Republicans and moderates, so long as they don’t blow it by drifting into cuckoo land. They also know that a Democratic president is going to face challenges from Iran and elsewhere that are going to require hard-line, hawkish responses. Finally, these Democrats understand their victory formula is not brain surgery. You have to be moderate on social issues, activist but not statist on domestic issues and hawkish on foreign policy.
Translation help: for "moderate on social issues", read, anti-gay equality but (at least squishily) pro-choice; for "activist but not statist" read: not going to fool around with any good health care plans; and for "hawkish on foreign policy" read "lacking any reluctance to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense." (Wording of that last from here.)

Now, I think he's wrong about what Democrats need to do to win. (Of course, I'm a member of the netroots, I suppose, so I guess I would think that, wouldn't I?) And his claim that not wanting to be "hawkish" -- read: in favor of wars of aggression -- makes you "cuckoo" is, well, depressing in how well it reflects the D.C. establishment, but morally horrific.

But he's right that the most hawkish and least liberal candidate is Clinton, and that she's winning.

And liberals -- and people who don't want to live in an Empire -- should be against this.

(Brooks is happy Clinton's ahead, of course, because he's a conservative imperialist. The netroots, who tend to be in favor of odd things like not starting aggressive wars against countries that don't threaten us, restoring the balance of constitutional power between the executives, universal health care on the European model, etc, are unhappy for the same reasons -- even if the others aren't not nearly as good as we'd like (then, I doubt Brooks will vote for Clinton: he'll probably support whichever cuckoo the Republicans settle on.))

So why is she winning, if it's not that she's hawkish, moderate and "not statist"? Well, I think it's because she's successfully misleading people about her positions. The same polls that show she's ahead show that Democratic voters think she's the most likely to end the war -- the most anti-war candidate. (Probably in part because she's running ads like the one critiqued in the video here (also here and here)).

Basically, she's doing what Joe Liberman did: projecting a false dovish image long enough to win the election. (Now that he's back to his old self again, by the way, Liberman would loose if the election were re-held -- but it won't be, so he's free to war monger all he wants.)

But she might successfully do it through the rest of the election. Still, liberals who know better should not support the balancing of Bush's right-wing lunacy by a return to mushy, hawkish, "moderate" Clintonism. We need to do better than that.

Now, the other mistake that I think Brooks makes is thinking that the netroots influence is that big with Edwards and Obama. The most serious critique of my position here, I think, is not that Clinton is better but that she's only marginally worse.** But the point is, she's clearly worse -- more hawkish, more "moderate", less likely to, well, end wars and promote liberal reforms -- even if how much worse is up for question.

Brooks knows which side favors his constituency -- the rich, the hawks, the D.C. establishment friendly. He's glad she's winning. Those of us who have other priorities shouldn't be.

(Update: Another view: Matt Yglesias -- no less irritated than Glenn Greenwald, or I -- sees the bright side of the reality behind Brooks's column.)

Later Update: As far as the correlation between Hawkishness and winning, see this post by Steve Benena>. Even Later: Tom Tomorrow has a special cartoon on the Brooks column in this post.

noted here, I have been forced to put this blog on the back-burner for a few weeks; normal blogging will resume sometime in November. It may be a few weeks before I manage to complete parts six through eight, therefore. But I strongly intend to finish this series before any votes are cast, so watch this space...)

This series, past and projected.
1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against excessive executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

* That's what we call a laugh line, folks.

** Indeed, reading Chris Floyd last night I almost gave up the idea of this series completely; I'm finishing because I do think there is a difference, and that that difference is likely to be important even if small (remember Nader and 2000!), and also because, well, momentum and promises and all that. And the key fact that I've not heard any plausible suggestions from the abandon-the-Democrats crowd -- note that Chris Floyd in that post suggests only symbolic and/or extremely unlikely possibilities.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Experience and Other Distractions

(Part four of a series. Links to earlier parts: Part One, Introduction; Part Two, Who Can Win?; Part Three, The Affirmative Action Arguments.)

One more bad argument to be dealt with, before I get to the arguments which I think are good and should influence our votes.

But here, the bad argument is not one for Clinton, but one against one of her chief opponents -- probably the person who is, at this point, her most important rival: Barack Obama.

And that's the issue of "experience".

The question of "experience" is, I think, a complete red herring. It's a non-issue -- or it should be: I grant that our fashion-slave heathers-style media may make it more of one than it should be. But let's face it: they will empower Republican narratives no matter who the candidate is. (Lord only knows what they'll do to Hillary if she wins! Except for talk about the Clintons' sex life: we know they'll do that because they already are.) Yet another reason not to make electability our criteria here.

But is it an issue as far as actually making a good president goes?


There isn't a shred of evidence that I can see that good presidents have more experience than bad ones. Now, the problem (as someone -- Kevin Drum, I think? -- has pointed out) with generalizations about presidencies (and even presidential races) is that it's hard to draw good conclusions because the sample size is so small. For Pete's sake, we've only had 42 presidents* in this country -- and the country is very different than it was in George Washington's day (or even Abe Lincoln's).

But even if you want to assume that the experience of past presidents, however long ago they were in office, is relevant here, the record speaks against the argument of experience.

Historians are remarkably consistent about who they think the best presidents (usually "greatest" were). For instance, for decades, whenever you poll them the number two and three slot are taken up by George Washington and FDR -- the order varies, but they're almost always two and three. And the number one slot is even more consistent than that.

Who do historians agree was the single best president of the United States, ever?

Abraham Lincoln.

The single man to come into the office with less experience than any of his predecessors.

(Lincoln's immediate predecessor, James Buchanan -- who, until Bush '43, was the usual favorite pick for the worst president of the U.S. ever -- had an enormous amount of experience.)

Lincoln had served precisely two years in the U.S. Congress, and another six in the Illinois Legislature. That's it.

Oh, yes -- it happens to be precisely the same experience that Barack Obama has had -- or will have had, as of January, 2009.

Now, I don't think that means that Obama will be another Lincoln: I just think it helps show that the "experience" question is silly.

Why is it silly? Because being the president of the U.S. isn't like any other job in the world. There is no -- can be no -- preparation for this. The closest, one might argue, is being governor of a U.S. State** -- an experience which none of the leading Democratic candidates has had (although Bush '43, of course, had it: see where that got us).

But further, it gets wrong what makes a good president***: and what is worse, it gets it wrong in a way that fits in with a pernicious conservative talking point.

The worst version of this argument is to compare Obama to Bush. I've heard people -- liberals! -- say this: oh, we tried an inexperienced president; it didn't work out.

First, one might note that Bush had been Governor for the same length of time that Hilary will have been Senator, if she's elected. He wasn't particularly inexperienced as presidents go.

Second, if what one really means is that Bush was an ignorant SOB, then you're right... but none of the Democrats will be that. That's a non-issue.

But of course the key problem here is that it gets wrong why Bush has been so catastrophic. Bush wasn't bad because he, personally, was inexperienced, or even dumb or incompetent (although those latter two elements no doubt helped him add additional dimensions to the disaster that has been his presidency). Bush wasn't bad because of his inexperience, he was bad because of his ideology: Bush is a conservative, and conservative governance is terrible.

I've heard it said that the problem with Bush's inexperience is that he therefore had to rely upon his advisors. But of course his chief advisor -- some say the shadow-president -- was Dick Cheney -- who had lots of experience, precisely the sort of experience that people who natter on about the importance of experience are talking about.

Or, put another way: if experience is a criteria, then Cheney passes with flying colors. If you think the problem with Bush is his inexperience, then you ought to love Cheney.

But, of course, most people don't. Because Cheney has been a particularly pernicious influence on an unprecedentedly bad administration. Because he is a particularly fervent neoconservative on foreign policy issues, and a standard movement conservative on everything else.

The "experience" issue -- like the "character" issue, like the "competence" claim -- are dodges that conservatives use to try to avoid the fact that their governing philosophy has been a complete disaster from beginning to end in every area. Bush is bad because he implemented a conservative politics with a particularly free hand -- not because he didn't know what he was doing.

John McCain has lots of "experience". He'd be a terrible president.

Obama has very little. Clinton, actually, has reasonably little; so does Edwards. But every single one of them would be far, far better than McCain.

Experience is just irrelevant.

Finally, of course, Obama isn't inexperienced compared to Clinton -- unless one accepts a silly hierarchical conception of levels of experience in government.

Obama, of course, was a state legislator for six years, and then was elected to the U.S. Senate; Hillary will have been a U.S. Senator for six years if elected. But I can't think of many reasons that one is better "experience" for being president than the other. (One might argue that experience with the U.S. Senate is important for passing legislation, but here again, experience isn't the relevant issue here: Kennedy wasn't all that much more experienced as a Senator that LBJ, but he didn't do as well in the Senate. It was mostly about personality, political skill... other things.)

But the fundamental point is that this is a distraction. We ought to vote for candidates based on what their ideology is: it's that which will shape their governance. Which will influence the decisions they make on issues we can, today, barely dream will matter to us as much as they will. Other things matter -- the kind of people they appoint and take advice from, for instance. But experience is just a big red herring.

Okay. Enough about Obama. In part five, I'll get back to Hillary -- and on to the real reasons to vote against her, the ones that I think should matter (unlike electability, gender or experience).

This series, past and projected.
1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against excessive executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

* Yes, I know that W is the 43rd President. They count Grover Cleveland twice. I think it's silly. But even if you want to say he had two presidencies, it's hard to say that he was two presidents.

** Actually the closest would probably being the executive leader of another country. But so far a I know, no candidate for U.S president has ever had that qualification -- indeed, it would almost certainly rule anyone out as a candidate. (Sorry, Tony.)

*** Good as opposed to great, here. Good presidents either have mixed-but-generally-positive records (e.g. Wilson), or presided over comparatively uneventful periods (T. Roosevelt, Clinton, Jefferson) and did well at it. What distinguishes a good president from a great president -- Washington, Lincoln and FDR from the merely good -- is a crisis: the great ones faced a crisis and did well at it. (Starting a new country, a civil war, and the depression/WW2). (Whereas the worst presidents face a crisis and do terribly at it, often making it worse (Buchanan, Bush '43.))

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dianne Feinstein Believes In the Evil She Enables

Read Glenn Greenwald (who's always trying to snatch Digby's spot as best political blogger around) today on Dianne Feinstein. He makes the key point quite clearly, with his usual reams of supporting evidence.

Now: what the !@#$% can we do about this? Not Feinstein in particular, but this whole general class of Democratic politicians?

(Consider this an adjunct to my ongoing series on the liberal argument against Hillary Clinton.)

Update: Digby has more here. And Avedon Carol ways in here (on the general issue) and here (on Feinstein specifically). Though while they lay out the problem well, no one has any solutions that I can see.

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: The Affirmative Action Arguments

(Part three of a series. Links to earlier parts: Part One, Introduction; Part Two, Who Can Win?.)

And so I jump from an issue I'd rather not focus on -- who can win? -- to an issue I'd really, really rather not focus on: the affirmative action arguments.*

But -- as with the "who can win?" argument -- I am going to talk about this because the two conversations that kick-started this series both highlighted it. (See also the first comment to part one here; it's one of the four reasons given.) My two Clinton-supporting friends both cited Hillary's being a woman as one of the chief reasons they had for supporting her as well. To paraphrase a comment from the first of the two conversations: "if they're all going to be equally ineffectual, I'd rather have a woman".

Now, this argument is of course premised on the idea that they're all going to be "equally ineffective" -- or, since given the broader case I don't really think that this is my friend's view, that they'll all be the about the same, politically (she likes the Democrats; I'm sure that she thinks, on balance, that they'd all be good). The balance of this series will be devoted to my arguments against this proposition, so that will bear the chief weight here.

But I suppose I should at least touch on the core point here -- if only because it's been such a big motivation for her support, insofar as I've read about it online, and heard about it. People -- mostly women -- are thrilled with the idea of a woman president. People talk about how thrilled their daughters are that they could be president some day. And so on.

Now, if there's a basis for choosing a candidate that I think is less worthy than picking the one you think will win, it's picking one based on identity politics. I really don't think it's the issue here. It's nice that having a woman president would inspire girls around the country, but we don't (or shouldn't) pick a president on that basis: we pick a president to govern the fracking country, and it's on the quality of their governance -- as best as we can judge it -- that we should pick candidates. (Frankly, the affirmative action argument reminds me, structurally, of the "he'd be good to have a beer with" argument for Bush: both are irrelevant in precisely the same way (the latter is even, arguably, de facto an affirmative action argument for good ol' boys -- who, granted, hardly need one.))

But -- particularly since I'm a middle-aged white man -- saying that makes me sound like a cranky, anti-affirmative action person: perhaps an effective stance to take in parts of the country, but not for my intended audience here. And anyway, it wouldn't bother me so much if it ended up helping a candidate I favored -- I still don't think it's the basis on which one should choose a presidential candidate, but in voting no one looks at your work and gives you partial credit: it's the result that counts. So if it helped the cause of good governance, then I wouldn't sweat it. -- But since it won't, let me address a few arguments against it that might better sway my intended audience here (left-leaning Democratic primary voters).

The central argument here is if you want an affirmative action candidate, your candidate should be not Hillary Clinton, but Barack Obama.

What's hard here is that a lot of the people making the affirmative action argument -- certainly the two friends I mentioned -- are themselves white women. They probably feel, personally, the injustices of American society in terms of gender; they probably feel, personally, the tug of emotion that it's about time for America to have a woman president. And as a white man I can't address those things on an emotional level -- any more than I could answer an African American who, for parallel reasons, supported Obama.

I could argue that, as someone who has a personal stake in neither minority group, I'm more disinterested in the outcome, and thus am better positioned to judge the relative merits of a pro-Black male affirmative action argument versus a pro-white woman affirmative action argument. (Under this theory, only white men (or, arguably, men of other non-African American ethnicities, say Asian American or Native American) and black women could be disinterested.) That's true in a sense, although personally I find it a rather repulsive argument. It is, however, the sort of repulsive argument that an excess of identity politics leads to -- which is one of the reasons that I don't like it (but some might claim that of course a white man would say that, wouldn't he?).

But I do think that it would do more for this country to have a black president than a woman president -- if that's the choice.

Now, granted, there are more white women than African Americans in the country, so if we're choosing on the grounds of who it will inspire the most, that's an argument for Hillary. (And it might be a good argument for electability, if you think that women on average will get more fired-up about being pro-Hillary because of her gender than African Americans will about Obama because of his race.) So you could argue for voting for the woman over the African American on majoritarian grounds. But frankly that's a really fracked-up argument to make in an argument which presupposes the importance of justice to minority and disempowered groups. So let's move on.

Certainly both groups have, historically, been radically disempowered in our society -- and I won't even get into the rather squalid argument of who's been more disempowered.**

So why do I think it would do more to have an African American than a woman president?

Because I think that, right now, today, African Americans are more shut out of power than women.

Since Obama and Hillary Clinton are both in the Senate, let's take a look at the Senate. There are currently 16 women in the Senate (counting Clinton herself). There is one -- one -- African American in the Senate: Obama himself. You sort of have to count the candidates, or there wouldn't even be one.

In more localized races -- including the Congress -- African Americans can do well, if they represent a majority-African American district. But in the country as a whole -- or large chunks of it, like states -- women are definitely more empowered. Not anything like as much as white men, of course (and alas): but, I'd argue, more than African American men.

I'm hardly a specialist in these matters, and there are a lot of different statistics one could pick out, and I'm sure some would go both ways. But I'd submit that there's at least a very significant case to be made for the idea that white women are more empowered than black men. (Again: an odious question. But one I feel I need to address.)

It would also, I claim, do more, practically, for the country. We are now hated around the world as never before. I can see no sign that electing a woman leader has done anything for the reputation of countries that have done it (Maggie Thatcher? Indira Gandhi? Golda Meir?). But I think that electing an African American president would do something for the country. We are seen now as a colonialist power: in much of the world, that goes hand-in-hand with being a racist power. Electing an African American president would be as clear a repudiation of Bushist imperialism as the country could make.

None of this is dispositive, or at any rate I don't think any of it should be. But I think that, if we're going by affirmative action standards, then Obama and not Clinton is the right choice.

Incidentally, on the "affirmative action" front, there is one serious argument to be made against Clinton: that she got where she is because of her husband. This has been, frankly, all-too-true for women in power in general: that one of the only ways in which they can gain power is through men. Perhaps one shouldn't hold it against her. And in some ways it would be fitting if the first woman president got power, essentially, through marriage (since it's been such a common means by which women have gotten into government roles in the past). But it sure doesn't sound very inspiring to me, so far as a tale of women's empowerment goes.

It does, however, get an argument which I think has roughly the same normative status as the affirmative action argument, i.e. it isn't really at issue, is purely symbolic, and shouldn't be the basis -- but which is, symbolically, a powerful argument, and in this case works against Clinton: namely, the argument against pseudo-aristocratic governance.

We're just now suffering through a president who was elected on the basis of who his father was -- restoring the old order of his father's reign (only much, much worse) after an interruption by Clinton. It seems to me to be a very bad symbol if the answer to this is to elect a president who will have gotten where she did because of who her husband was -- again, restoring the old order of her husband's reign.

Frankly, it is unfitting for a democracy to select its leaders on the basis of family connections like this; it is dangerous for a democracy which is in multiple and important ways developing aristocratic tendencies and suffers ever-more entrenched hierarchies to do so twice in a row. Having a presidential succession which goes Bush/Clinton/Bush is unseemly; having one which goes Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton is so much the worse. It reinforces lots of terrible trends in our society -- symbolically only, perhaps, but it's symbolism we're discussing here. Dynasties are not becoming for a democracy: two in a row approach the downright dangerous.

Let's elect someone who is not related to any U.S. Presidents -- most especially to any still-living ex-presidents.

You might say that that's irrelevant to whether Clinton would be a good president. I agree; but so is her gender. In the realm of symbolic politics, there are arguments which cut both ways.

But, again: I don't think that any of these grounds are good ones to decide on. So let's move on.

This series, past and projected.
1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against excessive executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

* Point of clarity: what I'm calling the affirmative action argument here is the idea that we should vote for Hillary Clinton because she's a woman (or Barack Obama because he's black, or Bill Richardson because he's hispanic), and it would be a good thing to have a woman (black, hispanic) president on the basis of redistributive justice ("it's about time") or the like. The idea that Clinton is better on women's issues -- which some have argued -- is a different point, and one I probably won't address -- for me the central issues of the election are different (I'd say they are war, empire, restoring constitutional balance, health care and gay rights, roughly in that order, and articulating a broad liberal philosophy as a important step in achieving all of those things), so I'm going to try to make the case on what I believe are the central grounds. Anyway, just bear in mind as you read what I am talking about when I talk about the "affirmative action arguments".

** Small sample, offered as a immunization measure: (A) African American men got the vote before white women, since the 15th amendment was passed in 1870 and the 19th was only passed in 1920! (B) Ah, but the 19th amendment was put into practical effect immediately -- African Americans were de facto barred from voting in large majorities until the voting rights act of 1964! etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Who Can Win?

(Part two of a series. Part One, the introduction, can be found here.)

Who can win?

Frankly, this is not the issue that I want to focus on. There are lots of reasons for this. First, I am not a political scientist, nor a pollster, nor pundit, and thus don't trust my analyses of this issue particularly. (Not that I, nor anyone else, ought to particularly trust theirs either.) I have ideas about it, but I have less trust in those ideas than I do my ideas about the actual politics of the country, who's likely to do well at governing.

But, second -- and far more important -- I actually think it's a mistake for Democrats to focus too much on this. I think it's a mistake both tactically and strategically; and I think that it's a mistake both in general and in the context of the 2008 election specifically.

It's a mistake tactically because not only I, not only political scientists and pollsters and pundits, but because Democratic voters in general, are very, very bad at predicting who can win. Remember how the reason everyone supported John Kerry was that he was electable? Look where that got us. The truth is, we aren't good at judging this, for pretty much any value of "we". This is partly true because we focus on the wrong things, and partly because this whole 'who-can-win' business is inherently dependent on factors that don't become clear and events that don't happen until long after the candidate is chosen. So if we can't tell who's most likely to win, we might as well pick the person who we'd most like to win.

But it's a strategic mistake, too, because one of the central knocks against Democrats has been their perceived willingness to pander rather than stand up for their beliefs (think of the knocks against Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry); and one of the central handicaps against liberalism over the past few decades has been an excessive pragmatism, a tendency to preemptively compromise and to make small arguments rather than arguing for large visions of how society should work that arise from core beliefs. This latter point is, essentially, conceding that the former point, while far from wholly true and (to the degree it is true) far from as damning as it is made out to be*), has a partial truth to it.

In short, I think that we're bad at picking candidates pragmatically; I think that the perception that the left side of the spectrum picks candidates pragmatically reinforces the stereotype that we have no core principles, won't stand up for our values, etc, which in turn becomes a genuine handicap in electoral contests; and I think that in fact we ought to spend more energy making the basic case for our governing philosophy than trying to eek out narrow wins in an essentially hostile rhetorical environment.

Finally, however much of a mistake I think it is in general to pick an "electable" candidate, I think it is a particular mistake in this election to do so. Due to their having had undivided control of the government for six years (and all-but- unimpeded control since January, due to the spinelessness of the Democrats), the Republicans have trashed their own brand (so to speak) through the simple expedient of governing as they wish to govern. People like conservative rhetoric, but they tend to hate conservative governance since conservative governance, in a word, sucks.

Thus, despite all the Democrats have been able to do to spoil this opportunity -- cave in to Bush at every turn, fail to do one damn thing to stop a hated war, etc -- they nevertheless still have a very rare chance -- a once-in-a-generation chance, perhaps -- to make a big change in the politics of this country: both practically (winning the Presidency and a lot of congressional seats, as well as other races, etc.) but also structurally and philosophically. We have a chance, now, to re-orient American politics -- in its underlying assumptions and beliefs and rhetoric, as well as in its practical politics -- the way that the conservative movement reoriented politics in 1980 and 1994 (successive waves of a single re-orientation, I'd argue).

Let's not blow it by picking a middling candidate who we happen to think -- perhaps erroneously -- is "electable".

For that matter, given that the Democrats, atypically, have the edge (thanks to Republican mis-governance, not to anything good they've done), let's actually pick a good candidate and not simply a passable one.

Now, I'm trying to take a middle-of-the-road approach to this. I'm not saying that the issue of electability is irrelevant. I'm not arguing for Kucinich nor (FSM forefend) Nader. William F. Buckley's argument -- from the other side, naturally -- that there's "no sense running the Mona Lisa in a beauty contest" strikes me as basically good advice. But I think a middle-of-the-road approach is the one to take here: pick the best of the major candidates, rather than simply the most seeming-electable of the candidates (on the one hand, or the best tout court, on the other).


But when I spoke to both of my pro-Clinton friends (as discussed in the introduction to this series), the fact that Hilary could win loomed large in their thinking. It was, I believe, one of the two or three central reasons that they were supporting her. So I don't think I can skip it.

So, very briefly, here's why I think that Clinton, far from being more likely to win, is less so.

Clinton is seen as the most liberal candidate. This is wrong -- indeed, oddly wrong, since she is in fact the least liberal of the major candidates. But she isn't seen that way, which makes her more

Clinton will inspire the right-wing base as no one else will. Lord knows why, but they really, really hate her. In a year where they are -- for good reason! -- dispirited and hopeless, given the demonstrated disaster of their governing policy and the pathetic inadequacy of their candidates, Clinton is one thing that could really fire them up.

Clinton is already seen negatively by many people. This is separate from the item above because here I'm referring to swing voters, not the base: Clinton already has -- fairly or unfairly -- high negatives, which the other candidates don't. She'll have fewer people who she might win over from among the great middle, those who don't pay much attention to the details of politics

Clinton fails to articulate a liberal philosophy. I'll have more to say about this when I reach a later installment in this series. But I think that Clinton's triangulating, centrist roots in fact harm her candidacy rather than help it. (Yeah, Bill Clinton won that way -- but it was a different country then.)

Now, when I spoke to my friend, one of the things she spoke about most was desire. Paraphrasing, she said: Clinton really wants it. She'll sell her child to win. We can't have any more candidates who don't really want it.

Frankly, I find the idea that the problem with Gore, Kerry, etc, or for that matter Edwards and Obama, was/is that they don't want it to be a bit bizarre. No one puts themselves through the sheer torture of running for president who doesn't really want it; and anyway, all four of those men strike me as terrifyingly ambitious (just as all the Republicans are, and Clinton too: you sort of have to be to run for president.)

But let's accept for the sake of argument the idea that Clinton has more sheer will than other candidates, past or present, and see where that gets us.

I would argue that it doesn't get us very far.

In fact, I think it's an application of what Matt Yglesias calls the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics to domestic politics. The GLTG is the idea that what matters in global politics -- especially warfare -- is will. Thus, if America can simply keep it's will unified and strong, then anything it wants to happen -- the maintenance of South Vietnamese independence, the arising of a Jeffersonian Democracy in Iraq, etc -- will happen. That we are inevitably defeated, not by arms or tactics or what have you, but by our own lack of will.

See Yglesias on why this is silly in foreign affairs. But I think it's equally silly in domestic politics. Kerry didn't loose because he didn't want to win; he won because the Republicans out-campaigned him, painting him as a liberal panderer, and portraying him as so scary that even Bush (who a lot of right-leaning people were already beginning to dislike) was preferable.

In broader terms, I don't think that will has a lot to do with why candidates win. I think they win based on strategy, on their inherent talent as campaigners, unforeseeable circumstances, etc.

Now, in my friend's defense, in addition to will she also said she thought that Clinton would run a more disciplined, better campaign. And she may think that Clinton is a better campaigner -- she didn't say. And these issues strike me as much more up for grabs. I think that Obama and Edwards are better natural politicians; but Clinton is clearly campaigning very well. She has a staff that I find suspiciously traditional, filled with the sort of people who lost for us in 2004 and before... but, again, she's clearly running a tight ship. So on this aspect I'm agnostic. I'll simply say, again, that I think we have a very good shot next year, and we might as well put up the best candidate rather than the most electable one.

Okay. Enough on who can win. As I said at the beginning of this section, I'm not as interested in who can win. I'm interested in who we should want to win. So beginning in the next section I'm going to talk about that.

This series, past and projected:
1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against unchecked executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

* Pandering is thought to be bad because it shows lack of principle; but of course "pandering" is another word for "doing what the majority of the people want". Now I agree that there are issues where the majority is wrong (appeals to base bigotry often gain majority support, but aren't any better for that), but often doing what the majority wants in a democracy is a good thing. At the very least it should be evaluated on the merits, rather than on some ridiculous notion of "authenticity". (But, in our country, it won't be.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Introduction

The other day I spoke with a friend of mine, a firmly liberal Jewish woman, about who she was supporting in the Democratic presidential primary. Rather to my surprise, she said she was supporting Hillary Clinton. I say "to my surprise" because, in all the talk with all my liberal friends about the race, I hadn't actually talked to a real, live Hillary supporter before. I knew they were out there -- she's leading in the polls, so obviously she has a big constituency -- but for me it was like the existence of Bush supporters: I know that there are a lot of them, but they aren't part of my social circle. Or so I had thought. But the election is just starting to come up in conversation: so I guess I don't really know. (And come to think of it, that colleague was... and...)

A few days later, I had lunch with another friend -- another liberal woman, this one from the Midwest -- and she, too, said she was supporting Hillary. When I described the reasons the first friend gave, the second friend agreed that those were pretty much her reasons too.

So having encountered Hillary supporters not online, not in print, but in person, indeed in the person of friends I care about and respect, I want to consider (yes, online and in print, not in person, unless you, Noble Reader, want to fly to Ithaca: we'll do lunch) the reasons that these friends of mine gave -- and why I think they are so terribly mistaken.

It may be too late: the U.S. media is already building a Hillary-is-inevitable narrative, and of course the media in this country are interested largely in narratives rather than in policy or any of the other things in politics that actually affect our lives. And, of course, my blog isn't read by more than a handful of readers. But confronted by an impending mistake -- indeed, I fear, a grave mistake -- I throw what I have into opposing it, little though that may be and hopeless though the cause might be.

Let me begin by saying that I think one central problem here is the existence of two leading candidates apart from Clinton. If the liberal wing of the Democratic party -- and that's really what we're talking about here, I think: Clinton represents the establishment, centrist, DLC, old-school side of the party, and both Edwards and Obama represent the liberal side, except insofar as Clinton has suckered (I use the word deliberately) liberals such as my friends into seeing no difference between them (more on this anon). Start again. If the liberal wing of the Democratic party splits, of course the establishment candidate will win. Even if this series of blog posts, in a miracle of biblical proportions, reaches half the Democrats in the country and convinces them all, Hillary would still win if we split between Edwards and Obama. Unless the anti-Hillary forces coalesce around a single candidate, Hillary will win.

I don't have an answer for this last one. I don't even have a candidate: at the moment, my current plan is to vote for whichever candidate -- Edwards or Obama -- is the anti-Hillary candidate at the time of the New York state primary. This is presuming that one or the other of them will have (practically if not technically) knocked the other out of the race by that point, but that that one still has a chance to win. If in fact by the time of the New York primary Hillary has the nomination sewn up, I'll vote for Kucinich as a protest-vote against the hawkish, pro-Empire tendencies of the Democrats; if, in fact, all three candidates are still viable, I'll then have to choose between Edwards and Obama. (I'm leaning in one direction, but quite definitely swayable on this point -- or even towards Bill Richardson or one of the other dark-horse candidates.)

I'm not saying that Hillary Clinton wouldn't be an okay President. She would, without question or doubt, be far better than any Republican currently either in the race or considering it -- with the extremely problematic, possible exception of Ron Paul, who would be far worse about almost everything but far better about the most important thing. But let's face it: he's Kucinich on the other side -- a nice idea, but not going to happen. So, certainly, if Clinton's the Democratic candidate, I'll vote for her, I'll support her, I'll hope she'll win.

But I think it will be a mistake -- a grave mistake, a mistake that will throw away a big chance, both for liberalism as a movement in America, and for our country as a whole. I think that Hillary Clinton will be distinctly worse than either Edwards and Obama -- although both of them are far, far, far from as good as I would wish or as I hoped they would be.

So I want to speak -- with as much force as I can, which admittedly isn't much -- to my fellow Democrats, and particular to those within the party who think of themselves as largely on the left -- as my friends do -- and see if I can convince them that I'm right.

At the moment, I am imagining this essay series as dividing into six parts; this plan may change as I go forward, however, and the essay takes final shape. But for the moment, the projected table of contents (so to speak) is as follows:

1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against unchecked executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

The first three parts are, as I see it, necessary hurdles to jump; the final three parts will be the core of my argument here.

Except to see new entries regularly -- about one a day for the next week or so if I can manage it (excepting Saturday, which is Yom Kippur). If not, they'll still come as fast as I can write 'em. So stay tuned!

Part two is now posted; click here to read it.

Update 9/23: My friend (the first of the two I mentioned) was kind enough to post her own version of her arguments in comments here. Thus instead of relying on my summary, you should click through and read what she has to say herself.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Republicans Filibuster Restoration of Habeas Corpus

The vote was 56-43 for the basic principle of democratic liberty (via) -- but of course 60 votes are needed to pass anything in the Senate -- at least when Democrats control the Senate.

Every Democrat voted to restore habeas corpus, I'm happy to say, as did the independent Bernie Sanders. Also unwilling to betray the cause of freedom were six Republicans: Specter, Sununu, Smith, Snowe, Hagel, and Lugar.

Traitors to every principle of moral government were all the rest of the Republicans, and the perfidious warmonger of Connecticut. May God forgive them -- and may the people of the United States not. They are enemies of liberty and democracy, and should be thrown out of office at the first available opportunity.

(Lest you get too excited about the Democrats showing signs of courage and dedication to principle, however, you should read the main part of Glenn Greenwald's post for today.)

Update: Factual error corrected. (According to the Senate page, Sen. Reid did vote for closure; I don't know why Daily Kos says differently.)

Update 2: Oh, and on the whole "60 votes" thing, what Digby said. The Democrats really ought to force full, honest-to-God filibusters on most if not all of this stuff... maybe not the "giving DC a seat in the house" (I'm for it, but not sure it's real-live-filibuster worthy); but the restoration of habeas corpus? The war bills? Damn straight. If the Republicans are filibustering multiple bills in a single day, this tool has gotten way out of hand. The Democrats should force them to stand there and talk themselves horse in order to block habeas corpus, a draw-down from Iraq, and other things. Make them actually filibuster for their filibusters. Get the press to report it. We might actually win some; and if not, we'll definitely win the political theater. Their crimes thrive in the dark; and actual filibuster would let in the light.

Update 3: And the Webb amendment!! -- practically the vote, 56 - 44. As Publius says, it's been a shameful day for the Senate Republicans. MAKE THEM ACTUALLY FILIBUSTER.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland: A Review

Note: I originally wrote this review for the column I was supposed to do at Broken Frontier (and which I did in fact do two entries of). Well, that site has had some problems, the nature of which I probably shouldn't go into (and don't really understand anyway), but the upshot is that two months after I wrote it, this review still hasn't been posted there (nor rejected; they've just sat on it). So I've decided to reclaim it and post it here -- a bit old, but hardly past its sell-by date. Enjoy!

In Nineteenth-Century America, the lecture was a form of entertainment. Many of what we read today as Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays were, in fact, originally lectures he presented on the circuit as a way to make a living; decades later, Mark Twain's first fame came out of lecturing, which he would periodically return to throughout his life. In Twenty-First Century America, however, we are less apt to think of lecturing as a form of entertainment, even though some of its decedents (including stand-up comedy and documentary films) are recognized as such; teachers are even needled to avoid lecturing on the grounds that it's dull.

Bryan Talbot's extraordinary work Alice in Sunderland is subtitled "an entertainment", and, while it certainly is that, its format is basically that of a lecture. To be sure, it is a lecture with various interruptions for stories (more on those in a moment) as well as other diversions. Further, it is presented as a theatrical performance, complete with a curtain, an impolite audience and an intermission; Talbot himself calls it a "variety show". Mostly, though, it's a lecture.

But it's so damn entertaining that it makes you want to spin around with delight.

Strange as it is to say about a book so full of fantasy, fancy and imagination as this one, Alice in Sunderland is non-fiction. It's twin topics are those indicated in the title: the Alice books (and it is a sign of their cultural centrality that that phrase is sufficient to identify them), and Talbot's hometown of Sunderland in the north-east of England. These topics, it turns out, are entwined: although Lewis Carroll (né Charles Dodgson) was an Oxford professor who lived at the college during term-time, he spent a great deal of his life in Sunderland, and the multiple Sunderland influences on the Alice books might be said to be thesis of Talbot's book, if such a phrase didn't sound far too linear and dull.

Talbot dances between these two topics -- now tracing out some bit of the history of Sunderland shipping, now exploring the (often deliberately-created) myths that surround Charles Dodgson's life. The organization is associative and playful rather than didactic: an oneiric logic appropriate for a Wonderland-themed tome. Talbot has pointed out on-line that the whimsical surface hides a deeper structure, as later information builds on earlier bits so as to all flow together; and this is indeed true. But to the reader it seems wandering, not marched: Talbot takes us through a wonderland of history and fable, fact and story, bizarre coincidence and grand inevitability.

Talbot's art is a delight -- and one of the reasons that Alice in Sunderland never fails to enthrall. He uses a panoply of wildly distinct styles at various points in the book, but two modes are dominant. The frame narrative -- of a narrator/performer speaking to a hall empty save but for a solitary audience member -- is done as black and white drawings, in the traditional pen-and-ink style of comics, with Talbot's individual style familiar from his earlier works from unique projects such as his Tale of One Bad Rat to his work on Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Bill Willingham's Fables. The other dominant style is that of collage. Talbot will take images from a wide variety of sources -- his own drawings, contemporary photographs (often photoshopped), historical photographs, pictures of manuscripts, older art from many sources (above all from Tenniel's Alice illustrations), and many others -- and arrange them into a wonderful new phantasmagoria.

Through these collages walks Talbot's own figure (or, rather, one of them: Talbot has two different cartoon personae who narrate the tale, as well as a third one who makes up its audience), describing what we are seeing, detailing some bit of the history of Alice or Sunderland or something else entirely, drawing connections with what we've seen before or what we know from elsewhere. These lessons are utterly fascinating, the line between story and fact blurring into a mist of fascination: the information that Dodgson's marriage proposal to Alice (if that mythical event occurred at all) was controversial not due to their differences in age but to their differences in class; Sunderland's rise and fall as an industrial town; the Venerable Bede's life in north-east England; Alice Liddell's forbidden romance with the son of Queen Victoria; local legends and fables of all sorts.

Talbot does not stick rigorously to his theme: like Lewis Carroll's Alice, Talbot's Alice is a book all about play and wonder and delight. He takes time out from his main subjects to trace out all sorts of digressions and byways and stray thoughts. Many of these are presented as separate little short stories. These tend to be drawn in an artistic style distinct from the rest of the work: Talbot illustrates the opening soliloquy from Henry V in cartoon form; he uses pastiches of Hergé and EC horror comics and many other artists both from within the history of comics and otherwise (again, Tenniel is a recurring figure).

Other themes do not gather themselves up into a tight little ball of story, but rather unwind leisurely through the entire work, poking their heads up here and there. The most important of these is the history, and artistic validity, of Talbot's medium: comics. The first three pages of the book are a single image (with different captions), first in rough pencils, then in tight pencils, then inked: the nature of the works as a comic (and the issue of comics' production) thus announces itself as a theme right from the start. Throughout the work Talbot breaks the fourth wall, showing himself creating his book, often expressing doubts about it, before working his way back in: peeling off a mask to reveal a different character beneath, waking from any number of dreams within dreams, or being visited by "the venerable Scott McComics" who brings him the gospel of comics as medium, not genre. (Whether the irony is more pointed or affectionate is an interesting question, although I suspect the latter.) I must admit that Talbot's defensiveness about the artistic worth of comics strikes me as a bit out of date: surely we don't need, in 2007, to argue for the aesthetic worth of comics, or point out that they don't reduce to superheroes? But I admit that it might be I and not Talbot who is mistaken about this one.

Talbot's use of collage as the central artistic style of his comic is thematically appropriate, for the book itself is a kind of collage, pasting the into the same work the history of comics, the history of the Alice books and the history of Sunderland. To be sure, these go well together, overlapping naturally at many points; that's why the collage works. But these different threads of the work are each larger than their overlap, and are framed by the many other digressions, tales, fantasies, factoids, tidbits, jokes and other entertainments that Talbot pastes into the work atop and alongside his central motifs.

Another central theme in Alice in Sunderland is the process of creation. The book is in part about its own creation, filled with scenes of him writing and drawing, comments upon his own structure, and brimming with metafictional play. Paralleling this story is the story of the creation of Alice -- and the story of the creation of the story of the creation of Alice, that is, the many myths that have arisen about Charles Dodgson, Alice Liddell, and the many other aspects of Alice's composition. Part of that latter story is the elimination of Alice's Sunderland roots in favor of an Oxford-only version -- which ties, in turn, to the grandest origin story of all: the history of Sunderland from the deep evolutionary past right up to the present day.

It's a lecture; it's an old-fashioned variety show. But do not be put off. This book has it all: romance and humor, fascinating history and serious moral argument, quirky characters from monks to miners to kings, a persistent ghost and a fight with a dragon. It is a beautiful work of art as well as an entertainment of the highest order. This glorious, overflowing book is unquestionably in the running for best graphic novel of the year. Don't miss it.

(Preview images from here; click through for more. Or just buy the !@#$ book.)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday Link Round-Up

Again mostly politics (but not entirely, so scroll down if you want to close your eyes to the disaster we're living...).


Ezra Klein reviews Hilary Clinton chief pollster Mark Penn's new book; hilarity ensues.

• I don't like Roy Zimmerman in general as much as P. Z. Myers does, but this most recent song of his, "Thanks for the Support", really hits home. Funny, if you like your humor dark & bitter.

John Nichols reminds us that the founders intended Congress, not the President, to have the power of war; and specifically thought impeachment was important for this. Be nice if someone in the !@#$% Congress read this...

• Everyone's linking to this article about Iraq as a dollar auction (hell, Andrew Sullivan's linked to it twice) -- I think I first saw it via Chris Hayes. But the basic reason everyone's linking to it is that it's so bloody accurate. Read it.

Juan Cole thinks that the next Democratic president will get screwed by Iraq (and thus loose in 2012). I don't think he's right, but his arguments are definitely worth considering.

• Finally, I don't know if Andrew Sullivan worrying about Cheney attacking Iran is worth reading for itself (although if you want to worry, here's some fodder; and here's some more (via) -- both, it's worth noting, in British papers.). But I have to pause and kind of shake my head at how far he's come in the last six years. Rather astonishing.

Not Politics:

• I think you may have to be in academia to find this hysterically funny. But if you are...

• And, not politics: this youtube video has Wallace Stevens reading his own extraordinary poem "The Snow Man". The visuals aren't what's important: just close your eyes and listen.