Friday, February 29, 2008

Recent Link Round-Up: Leap Day Edition

For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I’ve no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don’t know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February,
twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.

-- W. S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance
Happy leap day! Here's some stuff to read/watch/look at/hear, none of which has anything to do with the fact that the year is (just slightly under) 365.25 days long.

Don't skip the "other" section just because it ain't sorted like politics, comics and humor are... great stuff there too. Actually, just to try and make sure you don't, let's start with miscellaneous this time, and work backwards from there.


• I linked to this in passing recently, but it deserves a little more focus: every year Beloit college makes a list of what first-year students -- assuming they are eighteen years old -- know, not in a "aren't students ignorant" sort of way, but just in terms of generational experience: what teachers tend to think of as helpful contemporary comparisons are as foreign to them as the War of 1812. They have all their lists from 1998 - 2007 online (for classes of 2002 - 2011), and they make very interesting reading, particularly (I suspect) if you were born before, oh, say, 1980. (Via Charles Stross, who made a UK-centric version of such a list.)

This N+1 essay on using Adderall as a lifestyle (?) drug in the Ivy League is absolutely fascinating, making it sound both tempting and scary. (via)

Jo Walton on the Industrial Ruins of Elfland -- just marvelous. (Via Patrick, who also links to this piece on the Roman Ruins of Seattle.)

The lion-eating poet in the stone den -- with audio!

• I'd read George Chauncey's fabulous book Gay New York before -- for my Ph.D. general exams, I think -- but I didn't know the amazing story behind it (and Chauncey's career), as written up by the always-amazing Rick Perlstein (taking a day off from his usual beat).

Terry Teachout on how aiming for greatness sometimes sabotages getting there, while just trying to do good work actually leads to great work. (via)


The single best campaign-finance plan I've ever heard about. Too bad this isn't getting more play; it's two different, wonderful ideas.

• You've probably seen the headlines about Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calculating that the Iraq War will cost the US $3,000,000,000,000, but the details are really worth reading about.

Tom Englehardt on Iraq's vanishing from the (US) headlines.

Diebold accidentally leaks results of 2008 election nine months early.

The Wilsonian roots of our current international politics.

The history of hope: Obama in context.


• Tintin and Alph-Art is Herge's final, unfinished work; via Derik's review of the unfinished version, it turns out that someone has produced a finished version of it. I have to admit I haven't read the whole thing; but it looks fabulous...

• While we're on the subject of Tintin, this list of Tintin's adventures in twenty-first century terms is quite clever, and not simply the one-note joke you might think.

I've enthused about Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story several times before (online samples here). I've even mentioned the great guest-artists versions (to which I am a proud contributor). Well, there are some new guest-artist versions up that are all worth checking out: three at Madden's own blog, and one fabulous one in the style of a Harvey Pekar script here (also, scroll down the comments for a real sample page from a Pekar script for comparison!)

• More Maddenania: Pantoum comics.

• I linked earlier to his preliminary list, but Dick Hyacinth has now completed his final tabulation of the top 100 comics of 2007, collating results from best-of lists from all over the place. The community consensus of the best -- as near as can be determined. Interesting stuff.

Good for a Giggle

Everyone's linking to this, but the reason is that it's so damn funny.

A forgotten feminist icon.

...And that's all, folks!
How quaint the ways of Paradox!
At common sense she gaily mocks!
Though counting in the usual way,
Years twenty-one I’ve been alive.
Yet, reckoning by my natal day,
Yet, reckoning by my natal day,
I am a little boy of five!

-- Ibid.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr., 1925 - 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr. died this morning.

It's not often that a person who gets an entire chapter in one's dissertation dies (it's currently in draft, I guess I'll need to edit it now...). Resisting the temptation to say too much, I think I'll say just this:

When Buckley founded his magazine, the National Review, in 1955, it was the journal of a fringe set of ideas. When he died, the same magazine, with very much the same ideas and ideals, was solidly in the mainstream of American political discourse. And Buckley had as much to do with that as any other single individual. (Of course others were vital; but he had as an important a role in changing the political conversation as anyone, I'd argue.)

Buckley devoted his life to spreading his political ideas; and, judged by what he set out to accomplish, Buckley was more successful in his life than almost anyone I can think of. He was a man who did what he set out to do: and how many of us can say that?

For better and for worse, we all live in the world Buckley made.

Rest in peace.


Here's some of what others are saying about him:

Rick Perlstein has a touching tribute that is the must-read of the day, at least from the left side of the spectrum. One piece of it:
Nice people, friends, can disagree about the most fundamental questions about the organization of society. And there's nothing wrong with that. We must not fantasize about destroying our political adversaries, nor fantasize about magically converting them. We must honor that some humans are conservative and some humans are liberal, and that it will always be thus.
Read the rest.

• Patrick Nielsen Hayden, in contrast, recalls to our attention the less humane side of Buckley with one of Buckley's more infamous quotes. A good thing to read alongside Perlstein, to get a rounded view.

Robert Farley replays an instant-classic quote from a few years back that shows the divide between Buckley and the movement he did so much the create. Along the same lines, Ezra Klein links Buckley with other political writers of his era, and comments:
Now, the space they inhabited in the discourse is held by the Coulters and O'Reilly's of the world. Where we once prized a tremendous facility for wit, we're now elevating those with a tremendous storehouse for anger. Run a search on quotes from Galbraith, Buckley, or [Milton] Friedman, then do the same for O'Reilly and Coulter. We're really losing something here.
• Andrew Sullivan offers not only his own remembrances (as a self-identified conservative), but a round-up from that side of the spectrum. (He also links to the classic Buckley - Chomsky debate on youtube.) And, of course, for the right-sided view, you should check out the remembrances from the web site of Buckley's own magazine. (Can't find a permalink yet, but here's the main site.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It's the War, Stupid

The problem with Hillary Clinton's campaign -- at least for me -- is simple. It's the war.

It annihilates every argument she might possibly make for her candidacy -- at least in a campaign where a anti-war candidate is a possibility. (If Clinton wins the nomination, then it's a moot point in the general.) If she'd gotten this right, then she would deserve a close hearing despite her other problems (such as simply being a less talented and able politician than Obama, say). But as it is, any argument she made is poisoned from the start by the blood of many hundreds of thousands, if not a million or more, people.

The war vote turns her experience argument from a poor but genuine argument (experience just isn't that important when it comes to the Presidency) to a sick joke.

From today's New York Times:
“I’m convinced that when the going gets tough, Hillary Clinton will never let America down,” General [Wesley] Clark said.
But she did let America down: she voted for the war. She was not tough enough -- or smart enough, or wise enough, or whatever-the-fuck-it-required enough -- not to.
“We’ve seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security,” Mrs. Clinton said in a speech on foreign policy at George Washington University. “We can’t let that happen again.”
Yes: the result was an immoral and disastrous war -- one which she supported. If Bush is the problem, then someone who supported his single worst policy cannot be the answer -- not while there's another choice.

I mean, the idiocy, the gall, to raise Bush's lack of wisdom... when she herself showed that very lack of wisdom when it mattered?

(And don't give me that "she voted for it as a threat, not for war" crap. If so, her lack of wisdom was just slightly different: she bought Bush's bullshit when anyone could see it was a vote for war. Either way, she failed.)
Electing a president should not be an either-or proposition when it comes to national security,” she said. “We need a president who knows how to deploy both the olive branch and the arrows, who will be ready to act swiftly and decisively in a crisis.
Yes: and she has demonstrated, conclusively demonstrated, that she is not that president. She chose wrong when it counted. Not when there was a swift crisis -- when there was time for reflection, she did the wrong thing, the immoral thing, the stupid thing, the criminal thing.

She voted for the war.

Experience isn't worth a damn unless you learn from it. Maybe -- maybe -- if she did the John Edwards thing and owned up to having gotten the single most important vote of her life wrong, her experience might count for something.

But as it is, her experience is that of either cowardice, criminality or idiocy, depending on whether she thought the war was wrong when she voted for it, thought it was right, or didn't think she was voting for the war.

Yes: we need a President who can be trusted to do the right thing. Obama may or may not be that President... but we know for certain that Clinton isn't.

It's the war, stupid.

It's really that simple.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Tale of Two Articles

On the front page of today's New York Times, above the fold, you get this article, which is more or less empty fluff.

Today on Making Light -- on the very same topic -- you get this post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, which has some actual, honest-to-God reporting (from other newspapers, and elsewhere) with some terrifying analysis.

Now, I don't really know if the implications of Nielsen Hayden's horrifying speculations are true -- and, clearly, neither does she, as she'd probably be the first to admit. All she can do (not being a professional reporter with the resources and time that go with that) is identify a truly terrifying pattern. We need someone whose job is reporting -- who has, say, the resources of a national newspaper backing them up -- to investigate the possibility. (And, true or false, the result would be a real news article.)

I hope the conspiratorial implications of Nielsen Hayden's post are false. But assuming they are, given the actions of this administration in politicizing the government and turning every branch into banana-republic style corruption vehicles, would be foolish in the extreme. So someone needs to find out.

If only we had a functioning national media (and not the vehicles of partisan censorship we actually have.)

If you want to look at the truly terrifying -- more terrifying than I care to admit, really -- possibilities, click through to Nielsen Hayden's piece.

Otherwise, have some bread, and enjoy the circuses. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: just hope he doesn't have a gun.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Honorable Men

These people have honorable records, and they're honorable people, and I'm proud to have them as part of my team.

-- John McCain, defending the lobbyists in his campaign

For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men--

-- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III:2
Isolated from its context, this particular aspect of McCain's defense of the tissue of lies that make up his reputation as a man of honor isn't really of much interest on its own -- it's just laughable. A politician who claims not to be influenced by lobbyists is surrounded by them -- lobbyists doing their lobbying from his campaign bus -- and his defense is to reassure us that it's okay because they're honorable? It's like a rejected draft of a comedy routine: "nah, that's not funny, it's just stupid."

Except that it isn't isolated: rather it's a perfect example of one of the key flaws in current Republican governance, a perfect synecdoche for Bush's foul theory of government.

Over and over, as Republicans have shredded the rules that make up our political and civil life, they have responded that it's okay because they are doing so for good motives -- and that they're good people. To any questioning of this dismantling of our basic governmental structure, they have replied, in effect: "are you saying that we aren't honorable?" -- As if that were the only objection.

When they break the law to spy without warrants, it's okay because they're only doing it to spy on terrorists -- and we know that that's true, because they're honorable men.

When they give no-bid contracts to their business contacts, it's okay because they're only doing it to expedite governmental processes -- and we know that that's true, because they're honorable men.

Over and over, the response to the shredding of rules is "trust us". This even transcends the national level: their basic principle in international affairs is to try to free the U.S. of all legal constraints -- which other countries are supposed to accept without worry because we are an honorable country.

Laughable, perhaps. Yet not really, because it isn't laughed at, but taken seriously.

It should go without saying that even if they were right that they are honorable men using these powers for honorable ends, this still wouldn't justify their actions: for the restraints are placed there because, eventually, we will be governed by not-so-honorable men -- so that honorable men follow the rules to ensure that their less honorable successors will have to too.

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

-- James Madison, Federalist 51

But, of course, they aren't honorable men. And we know this for certain -- because they're breaking the rules. Their actions make irrelevant what is in their hearts (that favorite Republican organ, appealed to again and again to justify the acts of their hands and heads).

The basic conservative defense of torture is that it's okay because we're the good guys, doing it for good reasons -- never seeing that the very act of torture belies our claims to be the good guys (not that it makes our opponents the good guys: both sides can be bad).

Conservatives believe that waging war on a country that is not threatening us is okay because we're the good guys, doing it for good reasons -- never seeing that the very act of aggressive war belies our claims to goodness.

It is this two-stage process that underlies so much of conservative thinking in the past decade. We don't need (can't risk) rules, because we're honorable men and need freedom of action; and our evil deeds are okay, because we are doing them for good ends.

McCain is, of course, in most ways simply the heir to Bush -- a believer in aggressive war and American Empire, and a defender of torture. But this statement of his demonstrates that he is an heir to the central theory of government that has propelled Bush in his worst excesses: on a national level, to have the rule, not of law, but of self-proclaimed honorable men; and on the international level, to have the rule, not of law, but of our self-proclaimed honorable nation. To throw out the rules as necessary only for lesser beings; to throw out even the moral rules, as inapplicable to those of our transcendent honor.

McCain's claim to honor has always been a sham: but now everyone should recognize that he will use that (false but widely believed) reputation to justify the continuation of the crimes of our current rulers. Our current honorable men.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Living the Nightmare of the Founders

No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

-- James Madison

We can't have acquittals. We've got to have convictions.

-- William Haynes, general counsel of the (U.S. ) Department of Defense
To its legalizing of torture, evisceration of habeas corpus, and numerous other assaults on the rule of law, the Bush administration has now added show trials to its accomplishments. The new report by Ross Tuttle with the utterly-devastating- if-you-care-about-justice quote is here, but I recommend starting with this piece by Scott Horton who gives you some context. Both Tuttle and Horton are interviewed by Amy Goodman (who has to be on the short list of the best journalists working at the moment) at the link.

This is a personal issue for me -- in (thankfully!) a very oblique and tangential way. You see, I'm teaching a U.S. history (to 1865) survey this semester at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. We're just at the point in the semester where we're talking about the ratification of the Constitution -- reading selections from the federalist and anti-federalist papers, talking about the theories of government and politics and power that lay behind both, drawing connections back to the debates around the Revolution, etc.

And it is damn hard talking at length, for weeks, about late Eighteenth Century theories of power and government to students who were born in 1989 or 1988 (all but one of my students are First-Years or Sophomores) without specifically referencing the current King George. Oh, I manage -- I try really hard to be totally political neutral: my students presumably include some conservatives, possibly even Bush supporters (still nearly 1 in 5 of us), although HWS is a pretty liberal school. I may fail but I certainly haven't explicitly referenced King George in class in anything but a politically neutral context (e.g., the answer to a student question about the constitutional timing of Congressional meetings* included the note that the current system was that the Congress elected in November, 2008 would meet a few weeks before the end of W's term). All of which is to say, it's damn hard, but I try damn hard, and I think -- I hope -- I succeed. (I most certainly don't point them to my blog!)

But it's hard because Bush is, to such an extraordinary extent, the nightmare of the founders. They worried that the presidency would be the "fetus of a monarchy", worried that war-making powers in particular would be used by Presidents to run roughshod over the liberties they fought for. It's an obvious point -- so obvious that my particular title, I found as I was googling for a citation for this blog post, has been used before.

We are living the nightmare of the founders. They would be saddened -- but not, I think, surprised -- to see what we have come to. Benjamin Franklin was asked upon emerging from the Constitutional Convention whether they had created a Republic or a Monarchy and he, famously, replied "a Republic -- if you can keep it". They knew that what they had created was fragile; they knew it could be easily lost. And they knew that "loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions [against] danger real or pretended from abroad."

But they also knew the answer to that:
..when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Emphasis added.

My job is to teach the students what happened in the past -- to explore the arguments and beliefs and actions and debates that lead to the founding of this country. I can't draw the connections for them. But they are as plain as day: I shouldn't have to. And I hope, for all our sakes, that they are drawn by our citizenry.

And soon.

* A good question, actually, since this seemingly bureaucratic matter was surprisingly important in early American history, since lame duck congresses would meet for (roughly) a year after a new Congress was voted in, which had all sorts of implications at various points...

Postscript: Madison on War

The worries of the founders about war as the engine of tyranny are famous. But in trying to find online sources to link to in the above piece (which I'm keeping above this one, since this is but a postscript to it), I found a Madison quote that -- so far as I can tell -- is spurious.

But first two real Madison quotes that are often paired with it.

First, from Madison's "Political Observations" (1795):
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
I don't have a copy of Madison's collected papers handy, but this quote is well sourced: Scott Horton gives a full citation here, for example. This looks like a complete online edition of the pamphlet, but as always, caveat surftor.

Second, from a May 13, 1798 letter to Thomas Jefferson:
Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions agst. [against] danger real or pretended from abroad.
The letter is reprinted in this 1865 edition of Madison's letters, online thanks to the awesomeness of Google Books; or, in a perhaps more accessible format, you can read the letter online here, from this site which offers a lot of Madison's papers online (although not, alas, the 1795 "Political Observations").

Finally, the (apparently) spurious quotation:
If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.
-- This is quoted all over the place, and almost always attributed to Madison (although at least once to (!)), but the citations are never specific. (I hate it when quote sites don't give real citations!) A bunch of sites specify that he said it while in Congress -- a bit of pseudo-specificity that makes it sound genuine but doesn't actually help in tracking it down. At least one article I've seen specifically says it's a made-up quote -- suggesting, persuasively, that it's a corruption of the second quote given above. (Frankly, any time a quote is widely quoted but never given a specific citation, skepticism is called for.) The Madison page I cited before gives the quote.. but only without a proper citation on their "Madison quotes" page. (Doesn't inspire much confidence in the web site, frankly.)

So: unless anyone has a real citation for that last quote, I have to say that it's most probably made up.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Sense a Theme, Here

The Cartoon:

The Response:

"XKCD aptly describes my life" - Ezra Klein

"Why do all the cartoonists keep making fun of me?" - P. Z. Myers

"Boy, does today's XKCD ever resonate with me" - Cory Doctorow

"Dear sweet God, this is my life" - Robert Farley

"I am guilty, God help me" - John Scalzi

The question:

Is there any blogger who doesn't feel like this was written about them, personally?

The Truth:

They're all wrong, of course. XKCD is really writing about me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Quote of the Day: Great Statesmen

It is difficult to think of any politician who has lived to be eighty and still been regarded as a success. What we call a ‘great’ statesman normally means one who dies before his policy has had time to take effect. If Cromwell had lived a few years longer he would probably have fallen from power, in which case we should now regard him as a failure. If Pétain had died in 1930, France would have venerated him as a hero and patriot. Napoleon remarked once that if only a cannon-ball had happened to hit him when he was riding into Moscow, he would have gone down to history as the greatest man who ever lived.

-- George Orwell
I discovered that this essay was online thanks to this blog post. Actually, a lot of Orwell's fabulous work is online there -- well worth exploring, especially if Orwell's essays have somehow passed you by.

Update: Familiar with Orwell's more famous essays, I had never before seen his rather charming list of eleven rules for making good tea. This, incidentally, is not some metaphor for politics or literature or a jumping off point for anything else: it's just what it claims to be. Here's point ten:
[O]ne should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
Like a good stereotypical American, I drink coffee not tea; but this essay makes me want to give tea a try this afternoon...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Yet Another Recent Link Round-Up

Good stuff from all over, by categories: politics, comics, cultural criticism and uncategorized.

Politics, Humorous and Otherwise

A totally awesome McCain political cartoon. (And another.)

The best thing I read about the successful conclusion to the Writer's Guild strike. It's all about the context, baby.

• Chalmers Johnson is one of the more interesting people on the current state of our beleaguered American Republic. There's a long interview with him here (both video and a transcript thereof). (He also writes at TomDispatch a lot.)

RIAA bashing: always funny. (I like the slogan in particular: "We don't make music: we make music illegal.")


• What were the best comics of 2007? Don't ask me -- I just work here. Indeed, don't ask any one person: ask the hivemind. Dick Hyacinth has been assembling (according to a complex and arcane -- but very sensible, when you think about it -- set of rules) best-of lists from all over the web, creating a Meta-List of the Top Ten Comics of 2007. I can't express on the quality of the list, since I have read about or under half the list, depending on how you count. (And anyway, what is my opinion next to the hivemind's?) I will express surprise that my favorite comic of 2007, Alice in Sunderland, wasn't on that list -- and less you think this just me, I'll note that Dick Hyacinth himself predicted before making the list that it'd be in the top ten. -- I suppose it still has a chance, though, since the list so far is preliminary, since more results are due in and DH is going to revise his list to fit it. Anyway, check it out -- some good comics listed there.

• Someone took one of Jack Chick's creepiest tracts (online in four parts: one two three four) and made a musical narrative youtube video of it -- fascinating bit of cultural transformation there. A very creepy story -- that's one bit that survived the translation.

Reading Tintin-in-America (part two is here): a very funny demonstration that the first Tintin book (first since we're all pretending Tintin in the Congo didn't exist) is batshit crazy. I'm convinced (although I still love the book -- hey, it's Hergé). (Update: this "Tintin-in-America is the first Tintin" is a joke from the link post; it wasn't really the first. Derik Badman points out in comments that it wasn't even the second; it was third, after not only Tintin in the Congo, but also after the he-never-colorized-or-redrew-it-so-it-somehow-doesn't-count Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.)

Cultural Criticism

Abigail Nussbaum blogs about fiction, both prose and televised. Her just-completed eight-part series on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- inspired by a recent rewatching of the show -- is really fantastic. I haven't seen the show since it aired (and only saw bits and pieces of the later seasons), but found her essays fascinating. There are spoilers throughout -- it's written, she says, for people "who watched, admired and loved Deep Space Nine in its original run, but who haven't thought about it much in the intervening years." I don't know if I ever loved it (although I loved some episodes), but as someone who watched it once, her essays gave me food for thought -- and an impulse to go re-watch the series from stem to stern, or at least the ones she said were worth watching. But if you dimly remember DS9, go read her essays. If you never saw it, or are a crazy fan of it, probably better to avoid them.

Andrew Rilstone on Tolkien is always worth reading.

Bruce Sterling on Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (scroll down).

• I just read (large chunks of) Daniel Lord Smail's book On Deep History and the Brain. Interesting stuff (although a bit scattered I thought... but then, I didn't read the whole thing, so I really shouldn't say). Here's an essay he wrote to promote the book, which will give you a taste of some of it.

Uncategorized Coolness

This video of over 200 people freezing in Grand Central Station -- some sort of avant-garde art project presumably, although it's never really explained -- is awesome.

The finalists of the New Yorker's redraw-their-anniversary-cover contest. Some of these are terrific; the whole idea is too.

All the Nebula-award-winning SF novels rewritten as haiku. (via -- as were a few others of these, probably -- they have some of the best weird links on the web)

Chimps have better memories than we do.

• Did L. Ron Hubbard really say "the way to make a million dollars is to start a religion" shortly before founding Scientology? This exhaustive analysis investigates. The short answer: he probably did. Click through if you care about the details.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

How She Wins (If She Wins)

I'm still very hopeful -- even cautiously (read: nervously) optimistic about his chances of doing so. But, obviously, the Democratic nomination is still very much up in the air.

It seems to me that if Clinton wins, it matters enormously how she wins.

There are three possibilities here.

First, she could win fair and square: by which I mean getting a majority of the pledged delegates, not counting delegates chosen by non-elections and not counting superdelegates. This is still a possibility; apparently the polls are tight in Wisconsin, and Clinton has an overwhelming lead in the most recent polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Obviously these results could change; but if Clinton pulls of a genuine win, well, then she's the choice of the Democratic party under the rules governing that choice. I think that the Democrats will be making an extraordinary mistake if they do this; but it's their mistake to make. So in this case I will grit my teeth and support the choice of my political party.

Second, she could steal the election fair and square. By this I mean she could succeed at what she is apparently planning to try, and use superdelegates to win the election despite having won fewer pledged delegates (but without seating the delegates from the non-elections in Florida & Michigan). This would feel a lot like theft to me and to millions of other Obama supporters -- but it is a sort of theft that the Democratic party specifically designed the superdelegate system to pull off. I think the system is a bad idea, but it's certainly defensible. This, to me, would feel like someone winning the presidency by legitimately winning the electoral college while loosing the popular vote. It will feel fundamentally unfair, but it will be an unfairness of the system, rather than one that Clinton just rigged.

None of this is to discourage efforts to pressure the superdelegates to follow the will of the voters. I think those efforts are not only clearly legitimate, but deeply important. (So yeah: go sign the petition!) And, of course, in theory these efforts could backfire on Obama supporters -- scenarios where Clinton wins the pledged delegates but would loose if the superdelegates voted their consciences are by no means implausible.

For that matter I'm hopeful that if Obama wins the pledged delegates but who wins comes down to superdelegates, Obama will still win: as Matt Ygelsias puts it,
there's no real reason to think that the bulk of the currently unpledged superdelegates have a secret preference for Hillary. An early Clinton endorsement was an essentially zero cost move for people to make, so non-endorsers are probably either genuinely undecided or else closet Obama fans.
And there are other reasons for superdelegates to support Obama over Clinton, such as fears about her down-ticket effects in the red and purple states (you know -- those states that the Clinton team thinks don't count.) So even if it comes down to superdelegates, it's not clear how it will shake out. (Indeed, this very uncertainty makes the process, illegitimate though it feels, not just an outright theft.) (Update: And then, tonight, an example: John Lewis -- one of the very few people in Congress who can quite fairly and without hyperbole be called an American hero -- just switched his vote (as a Democratic member of Congress, he's automatically a superdelegate) from Clinton to Obama.)

So in scenario two, yeah, I'll grit my teeth, accept that Clinton legitimately won a rigged game, and vote for the lesser of two war-mongers.

Then there's possibility three: Clinton could steal the nomination outright.

By this I mean winning by seating the delegates from the non-elections in Florida and Michigan in violation both of her (and Obama's) campaign's pledges, and in violation of Democratic party rules. (Or this in combination with a superdelegate strategy).

As Ezra Klein has argued in an absolutely must-read post, this is not enfranchising voters: it is cynically using them by attempting to change the rules ex post facto. (See also this follow-up from Klein, about how these are not stands on principle, and this from Scott Lemieux.) I mean, for Pete's sake, Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan! (Because he fully fulfilled his campaign's before-the-fact pledge not to count the race -- as did Edwards's campaign, and as Clinton's campaign did not, despite making the same pledges as did Obama and Edwards.)

(Update: If you're concerned about the disenfranchising of voters -- and I agree with Digby that we should be, and that this disenfranchisement (which was, to repeat, agreed to by both the Obama and the Clinton campaigns when it mattered) was a terrible idea -- then we should do as many people have proposed and run new (by which I mean real) primaries in both states. This would be fully legitimate, and I would support it strongly.)

Seating the delegates from the non-election would be another matter entirely.

This wouldn't be legitimately using a rigged system; this would be rigging the system.*

This would be like stealing a state and using that to win the electoral college and thereby become president against the will of the majority of voters.

Would I vote for her then?

I don't know. -- Probably. -- I do believe in the lesser of two evils.

But I'd have to think about it. And I might not.

Because this act wouldn't take place in a vacuum. It would take its place as part of an ongoing series of assaults on American democracy over the past decade -- an assault whose central act was Bush's theft of the Florida election in 2000 (and with it the electoral college and the presidency), but which includes a lot of other things too (bogus voter-ID laws designed to suppress the votes of legitimate voters, Tom Delay's Texas redistricting scheme, etc. -- and, considered in a broader sense, Bush's parallel assault on the Constitution.)

Up until now, this has been almost entirely a Republican effort: they are against fair voting, fair elections, and ballot access. But this would enlist Clinton in the effort -- against the party that (insufficiently, half-heartedly, meekly) stands against them.

Oh, she's already dipped her toe in -- remember Nevada? -- but so far it's been small potatoes. This would be stealing the nomination -- parallel to Bush's stealing of the Presidency, the event which kicked off the terrible era we now live in.

If this happened, it would mean there was no longer a political party that even half-assedly stood for Democracy. It would mean there were two competing dynasties stealing elections to succeed each other. Clinton would have brought Bush politics into the very heart of the party that is supposed to oppose them (however little it actually does).

It would be destructive -- Ezra Klein calls it "cynical, risky politics that brings a lighted match and a can of gas near the Democratic coalition", and warns that it could presage how Clinton would govern: without concern for the progressive coalition, but simply for her own political ambition. But it would not just be destructive for the Democratic party, nor progressive politics: it would be destructive, ultimately, for American democracy.

I am sad to say that I think that Clinton, far from being above it, will do it if she can.

Which means we need to work, hard, to see that she isn't able to.

We should pressure the superdelegates to ratify the choice of the voters -- so that whoever wins will simply win.

But even more so, we should make it clear: if Clinton success in seating the delegates from the non-elections in Florida and Michigan, she'll be stealing outright the election. And she will be shooting the last, best hope of our country squarely in the head.

We must shout about the possible consequences loudly now, so that those who are in a position to abet or defeat a possible attempted theft will hear us, in advance.

Of course, we also should hope that this won't come up -- that Obama will win strongly enough that Clinton won't be able to steal the nomination. (The concept of too big a win to steal, versus narrow enough to steal, is, alas, familiar to us all post Florida-in-2000: how sad it now applies to the Democratic nomination!) So donate if you can, work if you can, vote if you haven't yet, for Obama -- help him win a theft-proof victory.

But, in the meantime, decry any potential theft before it can occur. Because after will be too late.

Update: Welcome, CNN readers! Feel free to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. I write on politics, but also on literature, comics and sundry other topics. See the links at the right if you want to explore more.

* If you're in doubt about the idea that seating the delegates chosen in the non-elections in Florida & Michigan would be stealing the election, go read the previously-linked posts from Ezra Klein, and this from Scott Lemieux. The basic point is that -- to appease the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire -- the Clinton campaign, like the Obama campaigning, agreed that the Florida & Michigan campaigns didn't count, and that they wouldn't campaign there. (And as Lemieux says, "outside the necessity for desperate ad hoc pro-Clinton spin nobody would argue that no-stakes straw polls produce the same results as actual elections, or that campaigns in primary elections don't matter.") If Clinton had stood up for the votes of Floridians and Michiganians before the fact, that would have been a principled stand -- one I would have agreed with and supported. Doing so after she already "won" an election that both sides agreed didn't count is simply an attempt at legal theft -- the same sort that Bush pulled in 2000 (not quite as bad, perhaps, but still the same ballpark.) And one which relies on the fact that Obama -- far more than Clinton -- actually gains adherents as he campaigns. (...but to pursue that line of thought gets into the argument for Obama over Clinton, which is a different topic than the one under discussion here.)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Back in the Day We Used Call This a "Convention"

CNN reports:
If there is no nominee selected by his predicted mid-spring date, or by Puerto Rico's June vote – the last presidential primary on the Democratic calendar – [Howard Dean, DNC Chair] said the party would likely bring both sides together to work out a deal. “Because I don't think we can afford to have a brokered convention,” he said.
...which, of course, is what a convention is: the bringing of both sides together to figure out a candidate.

Or, at least, what it was.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Neck and Neck

Nothin' to add to the conventional wisdom: it's really close. Could go either way. Gonna be a long spring.

By May I may have no fingernails left at all.


On an utterly unrelated note, February is going to be a slow month here at Attempts. Occasional updates but likely nothing too substantive (although who knows).

Monday, February 04, 2008

Endorsing Obama

Friends of mine wrote this endorsement and are trying to spread it around. If it speaks to you, please email it to those voting tomorrow (or thereafter), or even post it to your own blog -- they are trying to spread it as widely as possible.

We are supporting Barack Obama for president and we want to urge you to consider voting for him in the primary in your state. There are many reasons we support Obama, but we focus here on what we take to be the most important considerations. We would like very much to hear your views too, whether you agree with us or not.

This is a pivotal time for the United States. The last few years have seen us go down the wrong path on many issues of national and global importance. It is vital that we now choose a president who can bring us back to the right and reasonable path, restoring what we know can be great about our country and repairing the world we live in.

Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have very similar policy platforms. Either candidate's policies could in principle deliver what we need -- if they can get it done. "Getting it done" will require four things. First, they must be able to win the presidential election against the Republican nominee. Second, they must be able to forge an effective governing coalition in Congress. Third, they must be able to win the respect of people and leaders around the world. Fourth -- and this may be the most important if elusive factor -- they must be able to inspire all Americans to come together with a sense of common purpose, shared sacrifice, and dedication, to work to make the country and the world a better place.

Obama is our choice because he alone appears likely to succeed on these four criteria. We admit we were first drawn to him because of the "inspiration" factor. When we watch his speeches, or read his books, we are inspired in a way that we have not been by any candidate in our lifetimes. We highly recommend his first book, "Dreams from my Father", written years ago, before he entered national politics. It is actually a good book! When we read it, we couldn't help but feel astonished that someone who writes and thinks so clearly and honestly could actually be running for president. If you haven't watched any of his speeches, watch his South Carolina victory speech:

What's important is not how we feel, though, but how Obama makes people feel across the country. You can search on Google with the query "Why I support Barack Obama" (make sure to use quotes) and you will find about 108,000 hits telling similar stories. You will see stories not just from stereotypical Democratic party constituents, but from lifelong Republicans, libertarians, evangelical Christians... people from across the full range of the American political spectrum. You can see video testimonials at (we particularly recommend "Why Lorna switched from Clinton to Obama", currently #3 on their most popular list). Obama's impact on the youngest adults is most striking and significant. He is inspiring a whole generation to become active in setting the direction of their country, and this is the best hope we have.

In contrast, if you search Google with "Why I support Hillary Clinton" you will find fewer than 5,000 hits. (Variations on the phrases yield much smaller numbers.) The statements for Clinton are impassioned and genuine, but they are almost all from the stereotypical Democratic base. We have no doubt that many people will vote for Clinton and support her if the choice is between her and a Republican, just because they are committed to the Democratic party. Clinton has fought long and hard for core Democratic party issues, and she is respected as a tireless partisan. But that's the problem: she is the consummate partisan at a time when most Americans feel we need to move beyond the partisanship of the last 15 years. Clinton does not have the potential to transform our political landscape. As Obama has said, and many have said about him, on the day he is inaugurated, our country will see itself differently, and the rest of the world will see us differently too.

Obama's potential as a transformative political force is fundamentally why he is best positioned to succeed on the other points above.

1) Who is most likely to win in the general election? It now seems very likely that John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president in 2008. McCain is a strong candidate, appealing to free-thinking voters (such as ourselves) who are not committed to a particular party. National polls currently show a close race between him and either Clinton or Obama. In the most recent poll we have seen (Washington Post-ABC News), McCain beats Clinton 49-46, but Obama beats McCain 49-46. And yet, more Democratic-leaning voters view Clinton as the stronger candidate in the general election. This perception of her greater "electability" seems to be the source of some of her support, but it is simply mistaken. Obama has a much wider reach into the independents and swing voters who will decide this election. Most importantly, he has received an astonishing degree of support from Republicans,

which will be vital in winning the general election and building a new national consensus for how to set our country back on track.

2) Who is most likely to forge an effective governing coalition in Congress, in order to implement the changes we so desperately need?

While Clinton's main strength is as a partisan, Obama's strength is as a coalition builder.

A central theme in Clinton's campaign against Obama is his lack of "experience". Yet Obama has held elected office for longer than Clinton has; and he spent his formative years as a community organizer, which is all about getting people to talk to each other and getting things done against the odds. As an example of how he has been able to apply these skills in political office, look at his work on reforming the death penalty in Illinois (as a state senator). You can read about it at

Here's a summary of just one aspect of Obama's contribution: he sponsored a bill that would require all interrogations in capital cases to be videotaped. The bill was initially opposed by police unions and the majority of the legislature, and the Illinois governor said he would not sign it even if it passed. Obama got all the parties to talk to each other and to figure out what they could agree on. He compromised on some implementation issues, but not on the core. The bill ended up passing unanimously and was signed into law.

3) Who is best able to win the respect of people and leaders around
the world?

Here is an excerpt from a New York Times magazine article from last November:

"There are maybe 200 people on the Democratic side who think about foreign policy for a living," as one such figure, himself unaffiliated with a campaign, estimates. "The vast majority have thrown in their lot with Obama." ... Most of them served in the Clinton administration, too, and thus might be expected to support Hillary Clinton. But many of these younger and generally more liberal figures
have decamped to Obama. And they are ardent. As Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council official under President Clinton who now heads up a team advising Obama on nonproliferation issues, puts it, "There's a feeling that this is a guy who's going to help us transform the way America deals with the world."

Clinton's election, in contrast, would signal "more of the same" to the rest of the world. In part this comes from how she handled her role in the Senate votes authorizing Bush to go to war. She did not project visionary leadership or raise the hard questions that some other Democrats, less concerned about polls and popularity, did at that crucial time. Rather Clinton seemed like someone trying to protect her national electability in a climate of fear. She did not show courage at a time when our country most needed it. Obama did.

In late 2002, while Clinton was voting to authorize Bush's move towards war, Obama was speaking out at anti-war rallies. At a rally in Chicago, he said: "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined costs, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida." Of course Obama was not in the Senate at that time; he was not under the same kind of national scrutiny that Clinton was. Yet time and again, Obama has shown that he is willing to speak the truth as he sees it even when it might be unpopular with his audience.

Speaking at Martin Luther King's church in Atlanta, he called on his mostly black audience to recognize homophobia, anti-semitism, and xenophobia as genuine problems in the Black community.

Speaking to a strongly pro-Israel group of American Jews, he recognized that both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered greatly from the failures of peace efforts, and that both sides will have to make heavy sacrifices to achieve peace.

Speaking to auto workers and executives in Detroit, he talked about the "oil addiction" that jeopardizes our national security and about the need for tougher fuel economy standards in US auto manufacturing.

Speaking to teachers' unions, he has endorsed "merit pay", a position the unions are strongly opposed to but which he feels may be essential for bringing better teachers to public schools.

We could go on, but we have probably already worn out your patience. Here is the bottom line for us. This election presents a once-in-a-generation chance to choose a president who can truly make us feel proud to be Americans, who can inspire the full range of Americans to come together to fix our country and achieve its greatest possibilities, and who has the vision and skills needed to make these changes real. It is a chance to say to ourselves and the rest of the world, "Look, we got it right this time!" It felt like that chance would never come, but here it is. Seize it.

Your friends,

Josh Tenenbaum
Mira Bernstein

P.S. If you live in a state that votes on February 5th or later, please go to the polls and vote regardless of how prospects look in your state. Unlike in the general presidential election, every vote counts as delegates are awarded in rough proportion to the number of votes a candidate receives. Every vote can make a difference!
I'm the blogger here at Attempts, and I approve this message.

Another good Obama endorsement can be found here.

Get the word out!


Update: I also recommend Hilzoy's Obama endorsement, which addresses the oft-peddled falsehood that Obama has no substance to him -- and does so with terrific positions that I didn't know he'd taken on not-so-high-profile issues (as well as other stuff). Worth a read.

If You Live In California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois...

...Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee or Utah,

Don't forget to vote tomorrow!!

Preferably for Obama.

I'm really busy these days, but I imagine that I'll have something to say about Tuesday's vote either late Tuesday night or Wednesday...

(List source.)