Saturday, January 05, 2008

How to Become a Grumpy Old Man Through Dieting

My mom (72) still thinks of herself as middle-aged and me as young, but I'm almost old enough at the age of 53 to be a grandparent to my students. That makes me old in their books. Mine too.

Most of the time, I stay in a chattering, laughing, good-spirits kind of mood--even when I'm under a lot of stress like I was last semester. After years of therapy, it turned out that the thing I wanted most of all was to be happy. So I became the kind of happy, laughing person Jesus warns against when he says: "Woe unto you that laugh now for ye shall mourn and weep." (Luke 6: 25)

Ah! Christianity.

Anyway, I have a feeling that those happy days are going to be over for awhile. After all the stress of last semester, I now weigh 240, need to lose 60 pounds, and know that the only way that I can accomplish that is to stop eating like I've been eating almost my whole life.

I may be the hungriest person I know. I love food, crave food, and want to have food almost all the time. Outside the period when my food allergies hit, I've always eaten an enormous amount of just about everything. Even then I ate 1 1/2 pounds of meet and six pounds of vegetables a day and I only weighed about 150 or 160.

Given my food allergies, the only way I'm going to lose weight is to go on something like my allergy elimination diet. That means I'm back to sweet potatoes, squash, meat, and rice and doing my best to like it. That means no more ice cream, no more Hershey's bars, no more Italian cuisine at Melini's, and no more of Mary's cupcakes, cookies, and biscuits. In other words, lots of craving and no satisfaction.

It also means a lot more exercise than I'm either used to or like.

It means I'm going to be a grumpy old man.

Catching Another Break

The Good News! Following up on hearing about my upcoming sabbatical and a great trip to Florida, one of my government colleagues told me yesterday that he's staying at Morehead State next year rather than accepting an offer from Eastern Kentucky. That was really good news. With Greg Goldey's death and Noelle N'Diaye's arrest, we had already lost two out of the six people in our group. Losing another person would have been tough.

My Reaction. Mostly I just relaxed and went to sleep. Despite the two week break, I'm still operating at a heavy sleep deficit and the prospect of losing another colleague weighed heavily on me. I was like one of the murderers that the cop talked about in The Usual Suspects. Hearing the good news allowed me to calm down, realize how much I needed some extra sleep, and go to bed. Finally, I got some good rest.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Giuliani Likes 9-11 Better Than Iowa

Today, Rudy Giuliani isn't worried about his presidential campaign despite his no-show in Iowa.
"None of this worries me - Sept. 11, there were times I was worried,"

Needless to say, that reference to 9-11 was completely incidental. 9-11 is such a painful topic for Giuliani that he rarely mentions it.

Back to the real world--Giuliani has every right to feel good about the Iowa caucuses. By not campaigning in Iowa, Giuliani was able to get out of the headlines for awhile and hope that everyone would forget his "shag fund" scandals.

But people's memories may not be quite that short.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Iowa: Third Not as Bad As Second

Ouch! Hillary in Third. I'm disappointed that my candidate Hillary Clinton finished in third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards. Not that I have any objection to spin (spinning is as much a part of politics as money). But there isn't much room for positive Hillary spin. Obama beat her by 7 points. That's a big margin in what was a close race. As Kos points out, however, there is plenty of room for Democratic Party spin. Obama, Clinton, and Edwards ran strong campaigns in Iowa. They all became better candidates over the last year and there's a good chance that any of them could beat the relatively weak Republican they're likely to face. The Democratic Party and progressive politics in general are stronger for the Iowa campaign.

She's Got To Win It to Win. I find myself becoming more strongly pro-Hillary and more critical of Obama and Edwards as the campaign moves along. Despite the fact that I'm impressed by Obama, I'm like many progressive bloggers in becoming annoyed with his "I can work with anybody," "above partisanship," "against polarization" stance. Hasn't he noticed who has been driving the polarization--the right!. But the hard fact is that Obama's "we can change by bringing everybody together" rhetoric is popular with moderates and young people. And he's also going to get a lot of votes from African-Americans who normally wouldn't fall for this line. Hillary Clinton was up by more than 20 points in national polling in today's RealClearPolitics average. If she wants to keep that lead and win the nomination, Hillary and her people are going to have to figure out a way to defeat Obama's particularly attractively progressive version of the moderate message. Neither Hillary nor Obama are going to be the nominee by default. They have to WIN the nomination and that's the way it should be.

The Romney Problem. Hillary's third-place finish is not as damaging to her as Romney's second-place was to his Republican candidacy. Unless he mounts an impressive comeback in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney's strategy of riding the momentum from big early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire is down the toilet. It looks like Romney, McCain, Huckabee, and the gang are going to be slugging it out state by state with nobody having a clear road to the nomination for at least a little while. It's difficult to see how the Republicans are going to put up a strong candidate. Taking off on Michael Tomasky, the battle for the Republican nomination is looking like a brawl between the evangelical wing represented by Huckabee, the economic royalists and Washington elite embodied by Romney, and neo-cons now represented by McCain. Given the mutual contempt of the Republican factions, how can this be anything but ugly and dispiriting for GOP voters?

It's hard for me to imagine Huckabee as the Republican nominee, but I have to admit that Huckabee has the advantage of an evangelical "base" of support. Neither McCain nor Romney have a comparable core of voting support. Huckabee might be able to nickle and dime his way to the nomination by winning primaries in rural states like Iowa and Nebraska while staying competitive in a fractured field by pulling down 20% in other states. At the end of the day, exhausted Republican leaders might say "why not?"

For my money, Mike Huckabee is God's gift to the Democrats and progressive politics. Gaffe-prone, ignorant, and at least as unethical as Giuliani, Huckabee would be easy pickings in a general election.

Altogether, a good night to be a Democrat!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Notes on the Better Brownstein Trilogy

Part of what makes Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times an interesting journalist is his inconsistency. Pretty much the smartest of the mainstream journalists, Brownstein is capable of trenchant analysis. But he also puts out more than his share of blandly Broder-esque conventional wisdom.

Today's Brownstein piece in the National Journal is more on the trenchant side because he gives a sharply drawn version of the conventional wisdom concerning the governing styles being projected by the leading Democratic candidates.

Here is Brownstein's analysis of each candidate with my response.

According to Brownstein, John Edwards is adapting a confrontational populism rooted in his experience as a trial lawyer in North Carolina. Campaigning in Iowa, Edwards is now viewing himself as preparing his own life for the "epic fight" with corporate interests that would occur if he were president.

What Edwards doesn't recognize is that the American corporate sector is stronger than the presidency and that his presidency would be wrecked by any confrontation with entrenched corporate interests. If Edwards were elected president, he would find himself opposed by the business lobbies, think tanks, all of the mainstream media, the Republican Party, and much of the Democratic Party. Given his slim chances of succeeding, Edwards would be deserted by most of his friends as well.

Edwards believes that his experience in suing corporations and doctors as a trial lawyer shows that he can defeat the corporate interests as president. But courtroom success is not a good indicator of political success. In courtrooms, the money and prestige of the corporate sector has relatively few outlets other than the quality of their lawyers and sympathy from judges. Those are odds that a talented guy like Edwards can beat on his own. To the contrary, the political sphere provides a full range of opportunities for the corporate sector to employ their tremendous wealth to pursue their interests. The money they pay to lobbyists and think tank personnel; the money they contribute to politicl campaigns, and the money they pay for advertising campaigns all creates a tremendous amount of support for corporate interests in the political process. The presidency alone isn't enough to counter that money and an Edwards presidency would be like the Carter administration in setting progressive interests back for 30 years.

Barack Obama views himself in diametrically opposed terms. Born in Hawaii, initially raised in Indonesia, and forced to straddle racial and cultural boundaries all his life, Barack Obama poses himself as a conciliator who can rise above the bitter partisanship of the last fifteen years.

Obama is running as though he's never heard of the right-wing. He doesn't seem to recognize the extent to which Republicans in Congress don't want to compromise with Democrats like him and can't afford to compromise even if they want to. Congressional Republicans adapted confrontation as a strategy in 1994 with the Contract with American, ramped up their confrontationalism with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, and responded to their defeats in 2006 by adopting threats to shut down the federal government as their primary political strategy. The more Obama wants to compromise and conciliate the more Congressional Republicans are going to play dirty with him. It's their only chance to win and the only game they know how to play anymore.

The last part of the Brownstein trilogy is Hillary Clinton who is posing herself as someone who has enough moxie to be both a conciliator and a fighter when necessary.

I have a lot of doubts that Hillary's approach is going to work either. The Republicans are that committed to ensuring that the federal government flounders when they're not in control. But I do believe that she will prove most adept at running the federal government in the context of nasty partisanship, perpetual Republican obstructionism, and continually rising pessimism. It's not a matter of what governing style will succeed, it's a matter of who can deal with the overall unworkability of the governing system at this time. In my opinion, Hillary's that person because she can play both offense and defense, because she's adept at working the angles, and because she's got a strong team.

Obama: The Democratic McCain?

According to the Washington Post, the Obama campaign is focused on getting independents and moderate Republicans to turn out for them at the Iowa caucuses tomorrow. Assumes that about 45% of Democratic caucusers would be independents, the DeMoines Register poll shows Obama ahead of Hillary by seven points.

This might bring the Obama campaign into a little bit of focus as the John McCain campaign of 2008, appealing more to independents and moderates from the other party than to regular Democrats. Perhaps Obama should call his bus "The Straight-Talk Express."

That would create an interesting "sub-primary" in New Hampshire between Obama and McCain himself as they both fight for the independent vote.

But that model didn't work for McCain in 2000. Why would it work for Obama in 2008? Sure, McCain cleaned up in New Hampshire, but he bottomed out in South Carolina. That wouldn't happen to Obama because of the strong black vote in South Carolina. But what about states like Florida, Michigan, and California? If Obama can't appeal to regular Democratic voters in those kinds of states, he'll basically be running to be vice-president.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Big Changes at RSI for New Year

Who's Going to Win in Iowa. That was the biggest question asked at the New Year's Eve Party of the Morehead gliterati last night. My answer: I have no idea. Will it be snowing in Iowa on Thursday? How many first-time caucusers are going to show up? Who's got the real momentum. Hillary's still the strongest candidate on the Democratic side and I'm sticking with my Hillary endorsement. Hillary is very smart, energetic, and determined. She's been involved in policy-making at the highest levels. She's been through the white heat and come out stronger and she knows the lay of the land in Washington. I like Obama a lot, but I believe that Hillary will make a better president for the next four years. Edwards would be a disaster as as Democratic candidate and a disaster as president if he were lucky enough to win.

It's too close to call on the Republican side as well. It's safe to say that Mitt Romney has replaced Rudy Giuliani as the favorite to win the Republican nomination. Giuliani's "shag fund" for his mistress was the last straw. But Romney's only a slight favorite and the race is extremely volatile. If Romney wins in Iowa, it could boil down fairly quickly after New Hampshire to Romney vs McCain with Huckabee, Giuliani, and Thompson stalking as strong second tier candidates. If Romney loses in Iowa, it would be wide open but Romney would still be a slight favorite because of his strong support from the Republican establishment. In the final analysis, it's tough to see any of these guys landing a knockout punch. As a result, there's a real chance that the Republican battle could go to the convention.

Changes at RSI. This blog has a lot more readers at the end of 2007 than it did at the end of 2006. But I'm going to be making some changes. Because of Greg Goldey's death and the upcoming Morehead State University reorganization, I'm going to be much more heavily involved in university politics this year than last. I also want to refocus on my research. As a result, I'm going to try to write more on university politics and my research and less on national politics over the next year.

Mergers in the Air. Speaking of university politics, the upcoming university reorganization (or "academic audit) got off to a bad start when new governor Steve Beshear forced a 3% reduction in the university budget. Reorganization goes down a lot harder when the pie's shrinking. My home program--Government (I'm government "program coordinator")--is a likely candidate for merger or amalgamation. There's a chance that my whole department of Geography, Government, and History will be merged with the Sociology, Social Work, and Criminology Department to form a monster academic unit. But that's not something I particularly mind. It's even more likely that the GGH Government program will be merged with the IRAPP (Institute for Regional Analysis and Public Policy) Government program. That's more dicey because the IRAPP Government program is home to two or three right-wingers who are very paranoid about people like me. Perhaps they can read my blog to see how friendly I actually am toward the right.

Academic Writing. An article I wrote on delirium tremens in ante-bellum Philadelphia came out last fall in Pennsylvania History. I was also approved for a sabbatical beginning next fall. My big task for the spring is to revise one of my articles on Philadelphia popular culture so it can serve as a sample chapter for my book--"Displays of Degradation: Cultural Transformations in Philadelphia, 1785-1850." I got a little bit of a start on that while I was in Florida for Xmas.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Die Frosty Die!!

Well, the RSI family is back from Florida and we had such a great time with the beach, swiming, and 75 degree weather that we've rethought the whole concept of Christmas.

Christmas is fundamentally a warm-weather holiday. The two major mythological figures associated with Christmas are desert dwellers. Jesus was born somewhere in Gallilee while Santa Claus is thought of as Syrian in origin. Obviously, all the American imagery of a White Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, the North Pole, sleigh-riding, winter wonderland, silver bells, and egg nogg are all about as authentic as the "Buddy Jesus" in Dogma. I'm sure it's all part of the liberal conspiracy to secularize Christmas. Christmas should be about palm trees, dates, olive oil, and orange groves. Instead of Santa pulling a cold-weather sleigh, he should riding gentle dolphins or strapped to sea turtles as he goes all over the world. If we must update the Santa image, we should represent him riding a surfboard like the Silver Surfer.

Die Frosty Die! It's time to get back to the real warm-weather meaning of Christmas.

The War in Iraq: Still a Dazzling Failure

According to Michael Barone,

"there are lessons to be learned from the dazzling success of the surge strategy in Iraq."

And the first of those lessons is that the American occupation of Iraq is still a "dazzling failure."

Even though everything broke right for Gen. David Petraeus at the beginning of the surge campaign, the American military has made little progress. Several sectors of Iraqi society decided to back away from the Hobbesian inferno just as the additional American troops began to arrive. Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province changed to sides after they figured out that al-Qaida in Iraq wanted to replace them too. On the Shiite side, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the leadership of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq started to cooperate with the Americans after they saw that they were losing out to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. They even dropped the "Revolution" from their title. Al-Sadr himself decided to stand down after he saw his 80,000 man militia become a vehicle for Shiite infighting and organized crime.

In other words, the United States faces no major military opposition in Iraq.

But they aren't getting anywhere with the occupation either. The central Iraqi government hasn't even passed the token "reconciliation" legislation that the Bush administration has been seeking. More important, the Iraqi government is still non-functional outside the Green Zone and not particularly secure inside the Green Zone. Iraqi ministries don't have the reach needed to perform their functions. The Iraqi government has almost no presence in Anbar and it does not control the Iraqi Army or the Iraqi police. Barone boasts about building Iraq from the bottom up, but it takes enormous effort for local Iraqi leadership and the American military to perform even simple tasks like fixing a door in Fallujah.

Even worse, Iraq has become a haven for the efforts of Islamic fundamentalists to produce religious paradise on the local level. Far from extending the modern, secular elements that had emerged during the Baath Party era, the American occupation of Iraq has resulted in increasing religious control. Even without al-Qaeda, Sunni Iraqis have turned their areas into little Taliban enclaves while Shiites have created little Irans in their territory. The pervasive fundamentalism has had an especially destructive impact on women who are assassinated for exercising professional skills and burned to death on suspicion of adultery or pre-marital sex.

According to Mark Latimer of Guardian Unlimited:
"In many cases the woman is accused of adultery, or of a relationship before she is married, or the marriage is not sanctioned by the family," Khanim says. Her husband, brother or another relative will kill her to restore their "honour". "If he is poor the man might be arrested; if he is important, he won't be. And in most cases, it is hidden. The body might be dumped miles away and when it is found the family says, 'We don't have a daughter.'" In other cases, disputes over such murders are resolved between families or tribes by the payment of a forfeit, or the gift of another woman. "The authorities say such agreements are necessary for social stability, to prevent revenge killings," says Khanim.

All of the developments connected with surge have resulted in what could be called a "frozen state of anarchy." There's been no reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis and no reconciliation of Shiite and Sunni factions among themselves. Another civil inferno could erupt at any time. Likewise, when local areas achieve some stability, the first thing that local leaders do is institute a Muslim fundamentalist regime that weighs most heavily on women.

The American occupation of Iraq is not just a failure. It's a dazzling failure.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mapping the American Oligarchy

Pakistan's turbulent history, a result of continuous military rule and unpopular global alliances, confronts the ruling elite now with serious choices. They appear to have no positive aims. The overwhelming majority of the country disapproves of the government's foreign policy. They are angered by its lack of a serious domestic policy except for further enriching a callous and greedy elite that includes a swollen, parasitic military. Now they watch helplessly as politicians are shot dead in front of them.
This is British journalist Tariq Ali commenting on the assasination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan in the Guardian Unlimited. But outside the assassination of politicians, much of what Ali says about Bhutto can also be said about the United States as well. The overwhelming majority of the American public disapproves just as much of Bush foreign policy as Pakistanis disapprove of Pakistan's American allegiance. Americans are also angry about the lack of a "serious domestic policy" in areas like health care and infrastructure repair and American economic policy has been primarily devoted to "enriching a callous and greedy elite" ever since the Reagan years.

The American elite is also making specific choices in how to deal with the many crises created by the criminality and incompetence of the Bush administration. According to Glenn Greenwald, several sectors of the elite or "political establishment" are rallying around the protection of the Bush administration from criminal prosecution.

In case after case, our political establishment has adopted the "principle" that our most powerful actors are immune from the rule of law. And they've adopted the enabling supplemental "principle" that any information which our political leaders want to keep suppressed is -- by definition, for that reason alone -- information that is "classified" and should not be disclosed.

But why is the American political establishment circling the wagons at this point. We can think fruitfully about this question by identifying the particular quandaries of the American elite or establishment at this point in time. In Pakistan, the rule of a predatory oligarchy" that includes the military is guaranteed by military force when it cannot be achieved through democratic political mechanisms. Backing up the power of the Pakistani military has been American economic and military power. This is one of the lessons that Benazir Bhutto learned during her two turns as prime minister.
She was not a natural politician and had always wanted to be a diplomat, but history and personal tragedy pushed in the other direction. Her father's death transformed her. She had become a new person, determined to take on the military dictator of that time . . . She changed again after becoming prime minister. In the early days, we would argue and in response to my numerous complaints - all she would say was that the world had changed. She couldn't be on the "wrong side" of history. And so, like many others, she made her peace with Washington.

To the contrary, the American elite has found it possible to dominate through an alliance with the far right. Traditionally, the American business and political elite dominated as the senior partner of an alliance between the corporate/political sector and what the sociologist William Domhoff calls the "ultra-conservative" faction comprised of the religious right, the NRA, war-mongers and other far right constituencies. Together, the corporate/political sector and "ultra-conservatives" managed to outweigh liberal/progressives and either get their tax-cutting/ deregulation policies passed or keep liberal progressives from enacting any initiatives that undercut corporate interests.

What happened with the Bush administration is that the "ultra-conservatives" got the upper-hand over the traditional corporate/political sector and gained control of the levers of the federal government for the first time in the history of the United States. There have been times when the far right has had control of Congress and the far right has controlled state governments in the South for decades at a time. But it appears that the Bush administration is the first federal government dominated by the far right in American history.

This poses several problems for the traditional corporate/political sector.

1. The traditional corporate/political sector has lost control over a Republican Party that is now completely dominated by the far right. The Bush administration gives the corporate sector what it wants in the way of regulatory and tax policy, but the overall direction of federal government policy under the Republican Bush administration is set by the far right. Given that the traditional corporate/political sector no longer exercises direct control over a political party, their influence over the direction of American government has been decisively weakened.

2. The war in Iraq and scandals of the Bush administration have resulted in a resurgent liberal/progressive movement that threatens to undercut the control of top management over corporate operations and corporate profitability as well as further reduce corporate influence on federal policy. Liberal/progressives have once again become a force in the Democratic Party and the traditional corporate/political sector must view the resurgence of liberal/progressive politics as particular threatening given that they no longer have control over the Republican Party.

3. The Bush administration is threatening to blow up in a series of scandals over politicizing law enforcement, warrantless wiretapping, data-mining, and torture that could result in the very least in long investigations and indictments of Bush officials for breaking American laws against government abuses and obstructing justice. Years of investigating the abuses of right-wing government could serve to weaken both the far right and the corporate sector to the point where liberal/progressives are looking at a long stretch of political domination similar to the New Deal years.

This is the context in which the political establishment is acting to both provide support for the Bush administration and the far right and explore strategies for recreating a business-oriented government consensus. The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and other media outlets are falling all over themselves to give far right figures like William Kristol opportunities to present and defend their views. The news media has also been favorable to the Bush administration's efforts to stonewall Congressional and judicial investigations into the destruction of interrogation tapes, warrantless wiretapping, vote suppression efforts, and other criminal activities in the Bush administration. More importantly, media figures have fought to ensure that Bush administration criminality does not receive the sensationalizing treatment given Britney Spears on a routine night of clubbing.

But the limits of the traditional corporate/political sector can be seen in the efforts of moderate business-oriented figures like David Broder, David Boren, and Sam Nunn to call for a "national unity government" and a return to bipartisan "consensus." This kind of moderation originally lost out to the far right because the Broders, Borens, and Nunns were much less creative and energetic than the Newt Gingriches, Tom DeLays, and Mitch McConnells of the world. There's no reason to think that business-oriented moderation is going to be any more inspiring now than it has been for the last 15 years. Whether the corporate sector likes it or not, the main conservative opposition to progressive/liberals now comes from the far right.

Given the current difficulties of the traditional American establishment, there are two directions they can go. First, the traditional elite can try to come to an accommodation with Democratic Party elites and progressives in the context of a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama administration. It seems that this will be tried if one of the Democratic candidates wins in 2008. If that doesn't work, they will most likely swallow their pride and throw their full support behind the far right.

In that case, the U. S. will look even more like Pakistan than it does now.

At the Risk of Offending My Conservative Friends

We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas with Mrs. RSI's mom in Venice, FL and got to watch a lot more television than a family without a TV usually watches. I was very interested to see that the Boston Pops Christmas special didn't contain any references to Jesus.

But they did end with an inspiring rendition of "Let There Be Peace on Earth." So did the Christmas program at the community center for the complex we stayed at.

So, at the risk of offending my warmongering conservative friends, here's a video of a Mahalia Jackson performance and the lyrics to "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

Let There Be Peace on Earth
Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on Earth,
the peace that was meant to be.

With God as our Father,
brothers all are we,
Let me walk with my brother,
in perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
With every step I take,
let this be my solemn vow,

To take each moment and live each moment
in peace, eternally.
Let there be Peace on Earth,
and let it begin with me.

A further note: Ms. Teen RSI thought it would be best to pose Stephen Colbert singing this song with a group of Guantanamo prisoners and then have Jon Stewart and some cops break into the room, arrest Colbert, and carry him off to be waterboarded. Maybe next Christmas.

We Saw Fred's Mom on the Road

One of the most noticeable things about our trip to Florida last week was the lack of Fred Thompson bumper stickers. All we saw in Florida was one little "Fred 08" sticker on a car at Manasota Beach outside Venice. But we did see a "Fred D. Thompson for President" sticker as we were entering Thompson's home state of Tennessee yesterday. As Mrs. RSI noted, it must have been Fred's mom.