Saturday, June 28, 2008

Will Obama Ever Get It?

Barack Obama delivered a couple of lessons to his supporters on the left this week. As he stated over and over in The Audacity of Hope, Obama has considerable empathy with conservative values and Republican positions on issues. As a result, he was able to view the current FISA legislation as furthering American national security and as a genuine compromise between the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership. Liberal bloggers were outraged by Obama's perceived "cave" on the FISA bill but Obama decided to view the issue of national security as overriding blogger concerns about Bush administration and telecom immunity.

Obama's view seems reasonable. Obama's view also seems like it rises above partisanship. And the left needed to know that Obama was not one of them just as Obama has always said that he's not one of them.

But now it's Obama's turn to learn a lesson. The Republicans don't believe in compromise.

According to M. S. Bellow of Huffington Post:

In a press conference call this morning, John McCain surrogate Sam Brownback (R-KS) pointed at Barack Obama and essentially called him a spineless panderer -- and welcomed it, saying he expected Obama to cave in on Iraq withdrawal next. McCain senior policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, with tremendous self-assurance, described Obama's support for the FISA bill -- a bill McCain also supports! --as an example of Obama's supreme commitment to his own "political fortunes" above all else . . . Brownback said Obama's spinelessness on the D.C. gun ban, campaign funding, and, most importantly, on FISA, meant he probably would eventually cave in on Iraq. Brownback even "set down a marker" -- dared Obama -- to concede on Iraq just like he's said he'll do on FISA.
What bloggers know and Obama doesn't is that this kind of "heads I win, tails you lose game" is how the Bush administration and the right-wing sets up most issues in American politics. In the case of the FISA bill, the Bush administration set up the issue so that they could characterize opposition to the Bush administration position as being "weak on terrorism," "putting America in danger" and "surrendering" to al-Qaida and Iran.

That's the "heads I win" part.

The Bush administration also sets up a "tails you lose" dynamic. In the case of the FISA bill, the Bush people put in a number of "poison pill" provisions that would allow them to engage in extensive data mining, by-pass the FISA courts and immunize the telecoms from civil lawsuits. The point of these provisions was to ensure that the Democrats would not like the bill and that Democratic acquiescence would be a "capitulation" to the Bush administration. This allows guys like Brownback to gloat about the Democrats as "spineless," "weak," and "craven." Here, the Republicans can bask in a sense of their own strength, power, and toughness and sneer at the Democrats for not being willing to stand up for their own principles.

From their point of view, the Republicans win either way. If the Democratic leadership opposes FISA, the Republicans call them weak on terrorism. If the Democrats give in, the Republicans get to treat them as just simply soft and weak.

It's important to emphasize that the Republicans normally don't see political issues the way that Barack Obama views them. Unlike Obama, the Bush administration and the right does not recognize Democratic politicians, liberal interest groups, or Democratic constituencies as having legitimate concerns or points of view. Unlike Obama, the Bush administration doesn't see politics in terms of mutual respect, compromise, or finding common ground. Unlike Obama, the Bush administration views the political game strictly in terms of domination and submission in which giving ground is appeasement, compromise is "surrender," and mutual agreement is selling out.

From this perspective, Obama is weak because he views conservatives as having legitimate viewpoints. Obama's support for the FISA bill is just confirmation of his spinelessness and guarantees that Obama will knuckle under on Iraq when he starts feeling the pressure.

Everything I've said is common sense to liberal bloggers like Glenn Greenwald, Huffington Post, Digby, Atrios, Daily Kos, and Jane Hamsher. Unlike the Congressional Democrats and Obama, liberal bloggers figured out the political gamesmanship of the Bush administration from an early date.

Barack Obama brags that he doesn't read blogs. Maybe he should start.

Why Shaun Alexander?

In other words, why doesn't Shaun Alexander get any football respect. Having gained almost 10,000 yeards and been named NFL MVP in 2005, Alexander should at least have gotten a solid lead on a football job after Seattle decided to go another way. Sure, he's 30 years old and has been plagued by injuries for the last couple of years. But a lot of high profile guys who've been hurt for a couple of years get another chance.

Why not Alexander?

One NFL general manager ran down a long list of Alexander's weaknesses for sportswriter Clark Judge:

"He doesn't have anything left . . . People are always talking about the numbers, but the numbers don't tell the story. There's the injury factor. And the hands factor. And a desire and competitiveness that don't seem to be there. He's never been known as a very tough player, and there have always been questions about his attitude. I'm not saying that because he's out there (unsigned) now. I would have told you the same thing four or five years ago. Basically, I don't like him (as a back), and I don't trust him."

"Don't trust him" to what? The GM sounds like a Walmart manager talking about a union activist.

According to Shannon J. Owens of the Orlando Sentinel (in an article that appeared in today's Lexington Herald-Leader), Alexander's attitude gets questioned because of he wears his Christianity on his sleeve and is such a community activist.

That sounds good. But Warrick Dunn is a big-time community activist who's gained about 10,000 yards and he didn't have any trouble landing a position after getting released by Atlanta. And Dunn's 33 where Alexander's only 30.

So, why the hostility towards Alexander?

It's an interesting question because Alexander was getting the business even when he was a star at Boone County high school in Kentucky. In Alexander's senior year, Boone County lost to one of the Louisville powerhouses (either Trinity or St. Xavier) in the state finals and I can still remember the winning coach sneering at Alexander's "pitty pat" or "tippy toe" running style.

My own speculation is that Shaun Alexander has always been the kind of stud athlete who plays his game and plays it extremely well while maintaining a psychological distance. As Alexander puts it himself:
"Because I don't carry football around everywhere I am, it kind of throws people off. They're never really sure . . . I've never made football my identity, and that's where God has graced me."
The problem for Alexander is that scouts, coaches, and GM's are guys who were often marginal athletes who were dedicated to the game in a fanatical, obsessive way. Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos is a good example. He petitioned everyone at Eastern Illinois to allow him to continue playing even though he's lost a kidney. The only thing that guys like Shanahan respect and trust is their own kind of fanaticism and they look suspiciously at a guy like Alexander who leaves the game on the field. They tolerate Alexander while he's piling up big numbers but treat him like a pariah as soon as he has problems.

Unfortunately, Alexander's problem is also an American problem. The obsessives--the fanatics--the guys and women who only sleep three or four hours a night looking for that thin sliver of an angle are the people in charge of American politics, sports, and business right now. It's one reason why there's such a warped quality to everything we do.

In a sane world, Shaun Alexander wouldn't have such a hard time finding work. But it's not a sane world.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Should Addington and Other Stonewallers Be Arrested?

David Addington, VP Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, and John Yoo appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to testify about how the Bush administration developed its policies concerning the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

Members of the Judiciary Committee were acting in their capacity as the members of Congress charged with oversight of the executive branch's legal operations. Specifically, were investigating whether John Yoo's "torture memo" functioned to justify illegal practices like waterboarding, stress positions, and fake executions at Guantanamo and other facilities.

Not that Yoo or especially Addington cared. Both men were intent on showing their contempt for Congress in general and the legislative oversight of the Judiciary Committee in particular.

When Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers asked about Addington's "unitary theory of government," Addington disdainfully replied:

"I frankly don't know what you mean by unitary theory," Addington replied.
"Have you ever heard of that theory before?"
"I see it in the newspapers all the time," Addington replied.
"Do you support it?"
"I don't know what it is."
The usually mild Conyers was angry. "You're telling me you don't know what the unitary theory means?"
"I don't know what you mean by it," Addington answered.
"Do you know what you mean by it?"
"I know exactly what I mean by it."
And on and on.

When the final questioner, Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), asked about waterboarding, Addington refused to answer altogether

"I can't talk to you -- al-Qaeda may watch these meetings."

What should the Congressional Democrats do when Bush officials like Addington stonewall, refuse to answer questions, or refuse to testify altogether as in the case of Joshe Bolten and Harriet Miers.

Perhaps Congress should just arrest them for contempt.

That was the solution proposed by Judge John Bates in a hearing over Congress' lawsuit over the refusal of Miers and Bolton to appear before a committee in relation to the fired prosecutor scandal. According to Judge Bates:

"Congress has the authority to hold someone in contempt . . . Did it really need to go to court?"

The problem for the Democrats is that the Bush administration is eager to play chicken on issues great and small and dare the other branches of government to override them.

Let's give some quick examples. First, the Bush administration enacted its detention and interrogation policies in knowing defiance of American and international laws against torture. Likewise, Bush's warrantless wiretapping policies defied the 1978 FISA law. When these policies were overturned by the courts, the Bush people then demanded that Congress counter-act the courts and immunize all the people who violated the law.

Further, the Bush administration basically threatened to shut down the federal government last fall if Congress did not fund the Iraq War without deadlines or conditions on troop rotations. The president was going to veto any budget that did not have funding on their terms. If the government shut down or the military ran out of funding in Iraq, so much the worse for Congress.

Finally, Bush administration officials have either refused to respond to valid Congressional subpoenas, refused to testify when they do appear, and refused to answer questions in any kind of honest way when they do testify.

Of course, there is no doubt that much of the answer to the Bush administration's constant efforts to force showdowns is for the Democrats to develop more political backbone. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid should have called Bush's bluff on Iraq War funding and passed legislation that only allowed funding for a withdrawal.

It would have been an appropriate and popular measure.

But Congress should also look at using more of its tools. Congress has the power to defund defiant units like the Vice-President's staff and put David Addington out of work. They could also defund various offices in the Department of Justice like the Attorney General's staff

They should be much more willing to do so.

Congress should also think about revising the special prosecutor law in a way that sets up a permanent investigatory agency that is not answerable to the President.

But Congress can start by putting administration officials in jail when they are "in contempt of Congress."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Gun Rights and Gun Regulation: The Court Upheld Both

I'm rather surprised that President Bush, John McCain and the National Rifle Association view today's Supreme Court decison in DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER as such a stupendous triumph for gun rights.

To Review Briefly. The Supreme Court held today that District of Columbia laws banning the possession of handguns in one's home were unconstitutional. They also overturned a requirement that any other types of guns in one's home be either fitted with a trigger lock or disassembled.

Specifically, Justice Antonin Scalia held for the majority that the Second Amendment right to "keep and bear arms" was a right of individuals. The amendment itself is worded in an ambiguous way that also allows the interpretation of rights to bear arms to be associated more with militias. According to the Constitution:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

For the court majority, this language means that the amendment refers to individuals rather than the militias mentioned in the first part of the amendment.

A Muddy Picture. This was the first time that the Supreme Court had held that the Second Amendment applied to individuals. The NRA, President Bush, and John McCain were ecstatic. Here's the NRA:
“This is a great moment in American history. It vindicates individual Americans all over this country who have always known that this is their freedom worth protecting,” declared NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. “Our founding
fathers wrote and intended the Second Amendment to be an individual right. The
Supreme Court has now acknowledged it. The Second Amendment as an individual
right now becomes a real permanent part of American Constitutional law.”

I'm not sure why the NRA is being so triumphalist here. Given that the decision was 5-4, there's a good chance that it won't be "a real permanent part of American Constitutional law."

More precisely, Scalia's opinion goes also goes far to validate government regulation of guns as weapons. The Court majority ordered that Washington, D. C. allow Heller and others to register their handguns according to the city's weapons registration laws. However, it left those registration laws standing. The implication is that the registration of guns is as constitutional as registering cars.

The Court also held that the individual right to bears arms did not extend to "dangerous and unusual weapons" (p 55) which appears to mean that the states or federal government might legitimately regulate or ban items like assault rifles, armor piercing bullets, and perhaps automatic pistols. Of course, there's plenty of room for debate about what constitutes "dangerous and unusual weapons" but Justice Scalia specifically mentions M-16 rifles as weapons that might be legitimately banned.

If people in the anti-gun movement had imagination, they would start drafting legislation that expansively defined "dangerous and unusual weapons." By doing so, they might cripple the gun industry by banning their most profitable products.

Finally, Justice Scalia was emphatic about individuals having the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of defending their own homes. But he did not give a clear indication at all that individuals had a right to keep and bear arms in any other context whatsoever. In other words, Scalia formulated the right to bear arms as a much more narrow kind of right than First Amendment rights of free speech, religion, and assembly. It was especially ominous for the gun faction that Scalia did not mention hunting, target practice, or any other recreational use for guns. People generally think of these practices as sacrosanct, but Scalia's opinion provides no basis for thinking that they might not be further regulated or banned altogether.

Conclusion. In other words, the Court majority recognized gun ownership as a constitutional right, but also allowed for expansive government regulation of that right. In the future, a more liberal court majority might expand the scope regulation in ways that actually reduce gun ownership.

And that would be a good thing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Praise of Political Correctness

Recently reinstated Don Imus got in trouble again for making a comment about Adam "Pacman" Jones of the Dallas Cowboys getting arrested multiple times because he was "black." I'm not sure whether Imus meant that Jones was arrested so many times because cops target black men or that Jones was arrested so often because black guys are such criminals.

But I don't care either. Imust should have been booted out of the talk radio permanently after his "nappy headed hos" comment about the Rutgers Women's basketball team and a lot of other racist nonsense.

But Jimi Izrael of The Root, an African-American blog, begs to differ and argues that "the race police" should lay off Don Imus.
Imus is in the business of talk radio, and his business is caustic wit and irreverence. But if Imus can't order a cup of coffee—black—without a special dispensation, without the need of some kind of interpreter or co-signer, then soon he'll be out of business, along with a lot of other folks. Black folks. Because when you start trying to censor other people, you're next.

But that gets it exactly wrong. The American army of race police has had a huge role in making it easier for black people to speak out and be heard. One of the effects of stereotyping is that it tends to both keep black people from talking and guarantee that anything they say won't be heard. It's been documented hundreds if not thousands of times that stereotypes of African-Americans as lazy, criminal, unintelligent, angry, and outside the magic circle of beauty are extremely painful and debilitating. In the classic The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Patricia Williams posed racial stereotyping as literally driving her crazy.

If that weren't bad enough, racial stereotyping makes it more difficult for even well-intentioned whites to get free of white supremacy. With the constant circulation of racial jokes and people like Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh on the air, whites always have access to racial put-downs, innuendos, and sneers for every occasion. And it's not only all very clever, it also has a powerful legitimacy because famous and famously cool people are talking that way.

This brings us back to the contribution of political correctness. Because it's the only effective counter-weight to racial stereotyping in American society, the purveyors of "political correctness" have performed invaluable service in making the United States a less racist society. Writers like bell hooks, activists like Al Sharpton, professors, lawyers, and thousands of everyday people do their bit to advance the cause of racial justice by refusing to tolerate racial stereotyping, calling people out who make derogatory comments or tell derogatory jokes, and pushing for remove the worst purveyors of the stereotyping genre--people like Don Imus--from their lucative careers.

Hardly anybody likes politically correct people--I know I don't--but we're all much better off because of them. Because political correctness provides a constant reminder that racial stereotyping is morally wrong, inappropriate, and rude, it helps people--especially white people--to look at African-Americans and their abilities and accomplishments in new ways and hear what African-Americans have to say. Political correctness helped create a cultural space for Oprah Winfrey to become an entertainment dynamo, Michael Jordan to become a hero for everyone, and Barack Obama to become the leading presidential candidate. Political correctness has enhanced free speech because it has helped create conditions under which African-Americans can speak more freely.

In the final analysis, politically correct people deserve much more credit than they get--certainly more than a creep like Don Imus.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Which Poll To Believe--the 12 or the 3

There's a couple of new polls out that pose a little bit of a conundrum. LA Times/Bloomberg has Obama ahead by 12 (15 with Nader and Barr added) while Gallup has Obama up by 3 which is within the polls margin of error.

Hopefully, the Obama people are taking Gallup as the real number.

That's not because Gallup is the more accurate survey because there's no way to predetermine the accuracy of the polls for this election. The accuracy of any election poll depends on its ability to project the size of voter turnout among various segments of the population. But nobody knows the extent to which Obama's candidacy is going to bump up turnout among African-Americans or 18-25 year old voters. There's also no way to be sure about how much conservative disenchantment over John McCain is going to depress Republican turnout.

Another monkey wrench is the impact of race on polling. As much as 10% of the electorate is willing to lie to pollsters about their willingness to vote for African-American candidates. That number might be down in this election, but nobody knows whether and to what extent that will be the case in 2008.

In other words, there are so many unknowables that nobody can have much faith in either the LA Times/Bloomberg or Gallup.

That's why the Obama campaign should go by Gallup and assume they have a 3 point lead at most. That will keep Obama's top staff anxious, edgy, and seeking ways to seize the initiative.

Here's what I think the Obama campaign needs to do.

1. Maintain Its Focus. McCain and his people are throwing out a lot of gimmicks, the most recent of which is the idea of a $300 million award for the person who invents the next big leap in the kind of automobile battery technology that would lead to lower fuel consumption. When the Obama campaign responds to these gimmicks, they need to do so in a way that reminds voters of their main themes of bringing people together, lessening the influence of corporate money on politics, and developing a new approach to foreign policy. Don't let McCain get them off track.

2. Overcome the Surrogate Deficit. I'm not sure that McCain asked Bush to do this kind of thing, but Bush started serving as a McCain surrogate as soon as he referred to Obama's foreign policy ideas as "appeasement" and called for more off-shore drilling. McCain has Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and Carly Fiorina talking for him as well. These guys might not be doing McCain any good yet, but Obama needs to recruit some heavy duty surrogates of his own. Tom Daschle and Wesley Clark are both pretty good at going after McCain, but people like Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher just don't have the zing needed to be effective political surrogates. Obama's already started to use Jon Corzine to talk about the economy. Hillary Clinton and Robert Rubin can also be very effective and it wouldn't hurt Obama to recruit a number of fresh new faces--some Barack Obama types--as well.

3. Take the Initiative. As already mentioned, the McCain camp has been able to take the political initiative through its gambits about traveling to Iraq, holding 10 Townhall meetings, and off-shore drilling. The Obama campaign should start thinking of ways to take the initiative themselves, challenge McCain, and force him to respond. One way would be for Obama to challenge McCain to end the Bush administration's efforts to politicize the federal government. The Bush administration is drowning in scandals. The Obama campaign should challenge McCain to demand that the Bush administration allow Karl Rove and Harriet Meiers to testify before Congress. Over the last couple of days, a new Justice Department scandal has emerged over the efforts of Bush appointees to favor conservatives. Obama should challenge McCain to spell out what steps he would take to de-toxify federal agencies if he is elected.

Should Obama and Dobson Keep Jesus in the Closet?

One of the big unknowns of the 2008 presidential campaign was how, when, or if Christianity was going to come up as an object of controversy.

Whether most American voters, especially white voters, are eager to inject religion into the presidential campaign is an open question. The two main centers of Christian politics in the United States are the religious right and African-American churches. If religion does become more central to the campaign, voters might have to learn more about the religious right or African-American Christianity than they want to know.

But the parameters of religion as an issue might emerge in the current manuevering between Barack Obama and Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Initially, the question is about embracing diversity. Obama envisions a multi-cultural America in which many religions exist and everybody sees value in everybody else's religion or lack of religion.

He especially wants leaders on the religious right to acknowledge "the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."

And as an atheist, I appreciate the shout out to non-believers.

Obama also wants figures on the religious right to recognize the beauty, or at least the legitimacy, of various views among Christians as well.

Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles."

Personally, I agree with Leviticus about shellfish and avoid them at all cost.

To paraphrase a children's story, all this makes James Dobson "grim and grumpy," and he emphasizes the need for conservatives to fight for their views on abortion. If Dobson had been really expansive, he could have mentioned gay marriage here as well.

But does Obama really want people in the United States to take the Sermon on the Mount as a guide. That's because the radicalism of the Sermon on the Mount goes far beyond the Defense Department. It touches the economy, running for President, and managing religious empires as well. In fact, it's hard to see much about American life that isn't condemned by Jesus in one way or another.

Jesus is especially emphatic about condemning wealth. It's not just the camel getting through the eye of the needle. In the Luke version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims:

Blessed be ye poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! For ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-24—20).
What makes the wealthy condemnable isn't so much the money itself, but what money signifies to Jesus--fullness and satisfaction, laughter and happiness, friendship and popularity. Having riches represents the ability to buy things that make one full and it represents the social status that makes others "speak well of you." Generally speaking, wealth represents a promise that "this life" can be blessed. These are all things that Jesus condemns in no uncertain terms and he condemns them throughout the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Needless to say, this kind of thought condemns people as popular, privileged, and "full" of themselves and this life as Barack Obama and James Dobson to the "woe" of eternal torment rather than the blessings reserved for the poor and suffering.

Conversely, Jesus values the poor, hungry, and grieving because their lives are saturated with suffering and bereft of human happiness. One of the striking dimensions of the biblical narrratives of Jesus is the intensity of his identification with the poor, suffering, sick, and tormented.

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

The poor, suffering, and persecuted are especially blessed and allowing them to suffer is exactly the same as allowing Jesus to suffer. Taking it upon yourself to relieve your suffering or take revenge is also forbidden. This is what I take to be the logic of Jesus' invocations against resisting evil, striking back at those who strike us, and hating our enemies.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5: 38-44)
Resist not evil? The logic is there. Don't resist evil because suffering and persecution are blessed and it will ultimately be doubled blessed because they resemble the suffering of Jesus himself. This must be where Obama views the Sermon on the Mount as disallowing the Department of Defense. The invocation to "resist not evil" forbids defending oneself against Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Soviets, and the Nazis. If you should not defend yourself, why need a Defense Department?

But the injunction to "resist not evil" doesn't allow non-violent protest, bus boycotts, or other kinds of resistance to segregation either. Or escaping from slavery. From the perspective of "Resist not evil," Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King are just as wrong as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush.

For that matter, it wouldn't allow resistance to abortion either.

As I read the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew and Luke, being a Christian means following Jesus on the road to suffering some form of perseution or martyrdom in the manner of the early saints. As a result, I'm not sure what specific meaning "biblical" Christianity can have in a society like American society that does not persecute people for Christian belief.

Likewise, much of what is involved with government can be summed up by the ideas of working to "resist evil" and helping people be as "blessed" as they can be in this life. These are both things that Jesus explicitly condemns. Perhaps government can legitimately give aid to the poor. Otherwise, it's hard not to think that those who are concerned with government either have to ignore the doctrine of Jesus or set themselves in opposition to Jesus.

Maybe Dobson and Obama should just think of keeping Jesus in the closet for the next five months.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Karl Rove and the Politics of Weenie Macho

One of the interesting cultural dimensions of the 2008 election is the two strands of dominant masculinity represented by John McCain's hot-tempered fighter jock and Barack Obama's androgynous, intellectual cool.

They might seem like opposites, but that isn't quite the case.

A tough-guy who likes to remind everybody how tough he is, John McCain's always bristled against, defied, and ignored the rules and expectations that were set for him. But McCain also had the savvy needed to realize his ambitions despite not toeing the line. McCain not only broke the rules at the Naval Academy, he in fact graduated. McCain might be cynical about his public image, but he's also worked hard enough to promote far-reaching proposals on areas as diverse as campaign finance reform, immigration legislation, and military affairs. In U. S. Senate terms, McCain's both a "work horse" and a "show horse," and he's been effective at both.

Barack Obama hasn't played by the rules either. Not that he had much choice. Being bi-racial, Obama had to feel his way gradually toward an African-American racial identity. Then, Obama was the "first black this" and "the first black that," but had the brains, flexibility, and equanimity needed to succeed in both the African-American world of people like Jeremiah Wright and the white worlds of Harvard Law School, Illinois politics, and the U. S. Senate. Where John McCain refused to play by the usual rules and won, Barack Obama couldn't play by the usual rules and still won.

Cue Karl Rove.

According to ABC's Christiane Klein, Karl Rove talked fairly extensively about Barack Obama's character at a Republican fund-raising breakfast.

"Even if you never met him, you know this guy . . . He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."
Outside the "beautiful date" idea, the image is ridiculous. Judging by Michelle Obama, it's easy to see Obama as dating attractive women. But after that, it's all distortion. The Obamas of the world--the class presidents, big men on campus, the Harvard Law School editors, the stalwarts of the local mega-church-are well-liked by most people, and chat amiably with "everyone who passes by." Comfortable in their own skins, they're comfortable with other people and don't have the resentment level needed for constant snideness.

In his own way, the same is the case with John McCain.

Talking Points Memo thinks that Rove's image is portraying Obama as an "uppity," overly-ambitious black person. There's something to this. Like other conservative activists, Rove's been searching for a formula for casting aspersions on Obama's blackness while maintaining a "plausible deniability" about racism. Here Rove characterizes Obama as having a "cool arrogance" which I take as meaning that Obama has the "arrogant" presumption to think that he can socialize in "our" white clubs, date "our" white women," and still makes snide comments about "us" white people. Michelle Obama gets lots of criticism for her lack of "gratitude" for all her opportunities. Here, Rove is saying the same thing about Barack.

But Rove's has another layer of mendacity about Democratic politicians like Barack Obama.

Cue Jake Tapper.

In his column on Rove, Tapper asks where Karl Rove would be and poses possibilities such as "the brainy guy with all the sports scores" before getting to his cheeky bottom line that Rove would "be the guy who vandalizes your car and blames it on the kitchen staff."

But it seems more likely that Karl Rove would just be standing against another wall, wishing that he were dating a woman like Obama was dating, or dating any woman at all. Karl Rove's a dough-faced, homely kind of guy who's not comfortable with women (he barked "don't touch me" at Sheryl Crowe once when she touched his arm). Whether it's height, looks, maturity, having the easy confidence that impresses people, or being comfortable with themselves, there's a lot of guys who have a hard time getting ahead in high school, college, business, or the country club. They don't do well with people in general and don't interact comfortably with women in particular. In fact, these kinds of guys do their best at obsessive type things like video games, following professional wrestling, memorizing "all the sports scores," handling their guns . . . or politics.

In this sense, Karl Rove wouldn't just resent Barack Obama as a black guy, he's resent Obama as a guy who is too well-liked, overly comfortable with himself, and comes by his success with such apparent ease. Given that success didn't come nearly as easily for Rove, it ticks him off to think that Obama can just walk into the "club" and take it over.

Rove didn't like McCain either and did his best to destroy McCain's war hero reputation with an orchestrated campaign of innuendo during the 2000 South Carolina primary.

The right-wing and the Bush administration are filled with Rove-type guys--"weenies" for lack of a better word. George W. Bush didn't having the size, coordination, or self-discipline to be an athlete himself and embarrassed his father well into his father's presidency. Rush Limbaugh's idea of a good time with women is sex tourism in the Dominican Republic. And the list goes on. Tom DeLay and Scooter Libby are tiny little guys. So is Alberto Gonzales and Gonzales has a high, reedy voice to boot. Bradley Schlozman of fired prosecutor fame has such a high voice he sounded like he had been sucking helium before his Congressional testimony last year. In fact, one of the interesting dimensions of the fired prosecutor's scandal is that fired prosecutors like Bud Cummins and David Iglesias were conventional "big man on campus" types while the political appointees doing the firing looked like guys who didn't get dates.

How does the weeniness of someone like Karl Rove become a kind of macho politics? Rick Pearlstein claims in Nixonland that one of Richard Nixon's innovations in politics was his way of appealing to the men and women who were outside the magic circles of conventional ideals. The same is the case with Karl Rove and the contemporary right. During the late nineties and the early years of the Bush administration that the right invented a new politics of outsized macho gestures. Lining themselves up with the gestures of old westerns, professional wrestling, violent video games, trash-talking sports heroes, and action or horror movies, the Bush administration started bumping chests, relishing their opportunities to exchange threats with enemies like Kim Il-Sung and Mohammed Ahmadinejad, and calling out America's enemies with lines like "Wanted Dead or Alive" and "Bring it On."

For awhile, the politics of weenie macho succeeded as the right succeeded in making its fantasies of out-sized masculinity into the dominant image of political manhood in the United States. This is what killed Al Gore and John Kerry. Both Gore and Kerry were embodiments of conventional "big man on campus" masculinity. They were popular, relatively secure guys who were ambitious, served in the military, and worked their way up the ladder. With the cooperation of the media, however, the conservative weenies were able to trump the conventional masculinity of Gore and Kerry and make the "natural," "assumed" manliness of the Democrats look artificial, contrived, and effeminate.

But the relentless failure of the Bush administration has delegitimized the politics of weenie macho just as much as it's delegitimized the Republican Party and conservatism. Power is about to shift back to the guys like Obama and McCain who make it look too easy and part of the election is going to be about which form of the dominant masculinity people want to see in the White House.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bummer: George Carlin's Dead

I just saw an announcement of the death of George Carlin due to heart failure. That's too bad. I thought I was going to die from heart failure once back in 1999 because I was laughing so hard at one of Carlin's HBO specials.

Luckily for Carlin and his fans, his death won't be greeted with the endless media blathering that accompanied the death of Tim Russert.

The Unofficial John McCain Campaign Song

One of my ideas for the campaign is to make suggestions about how John McCain can goof his campaign as badly as George McGovern blew it in 1972.

After all, if McCain's going to lose, he might as well lose big time.

So far, my suggestions have been limited to nominating really bad vice-presidential candidates like Karl Rove or Rudy Giuliani.

Today, I'd like to propose a tune that John could adopt as his campaign song. It's bold. It's brash. It also has the kind of not-so-deeply-embedded drug message that only John McCain would have the guts to adopt.

The John McCain Campaign Song
To the tune of Casey Jones (with major apologies to the Grateful Dead and their fans)

Flying that plane, high on McCain,
Hey Big John, you’d better watch your speed.
Flip flops ahead, no money behind,
And you know that notion just crossed his mind.

Running for office takes all his time,
Straight Talk Express leaves at quarter to nine,
Flying to Baghdad, St. Louis too
At a quarter to ten you know he’s flying again.

Flying that plane, high on McCain,
Hey Big John, you’d better watch your speed.
Recession ahead, failed war behind,
And you know that notion just crossed his mind.

Trouble ahead, there's crowded air space,
Deregulation ain't always so safe,
Pilots are Sleeping, Green Airline 02 is
in the wrong quadrant, now he's heading for you.

Flying that plane, high on McCain,
Hey Big John, you’d better watch your speed.
Obama’s ahead, bad poll numbers behind,
And you know that notion just crossed his mind.

Trouble with you is the trouble with me,
Big John’s flying but he still don’t see.
Too many townhalls, you know its the end,
John's down in a cornfield, straight-talkin' while dead

Flying that plane, high on McCain,
Hey Big John, you’d better watch your speed.
Flip flops ahead, no money behind,
And you know that notion just crossed his mind.

And you know that notion just crossed his mind.

McCain: It Is What It Is

This stage of the John McCain campaign is taking shape in interesting ways. Here are some key themes.

McCain: The Gimmicks. Taking the initiative is important in any contest whether it's sports, war, or politics. John McCain has been able to seize the initiative in not insignificant ways. First, he made news by challenging Barack Obama to travel to Iraq with him and set up a little countdown of the number of days since Obama has visited Iraq. McCain then made a little more news by challenging Obama to hold a series of ten weekly town hall meetings. It's all kind of gimmicky, but McCain is forcing Obama to respond to him rather than attack.

Expect more such gimmicks in the future.

McCain: The Schizophrenia. Republican insiders have been complaining to the media about McCain's inability to settle on a particular theme. Last week, McCain trumpeted that he had stood up to George Bush on global warming one day, then went out and called for more off-shore drilling the next. It looked particularly bad to insiders that Bush then rushed out to endorse McCain's drilling ideas.
"I'm baffled that the McCain guys have somehow managed to take a guy who practically had 'reform' tattooed to his forehead and turned him into the bastion of the status quo," said one Republican strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The conflicting themes sound like political schizophrenia, but we'll probably be seeing a lot of this from the McCain campaign. Because Bush, Republicans, and conservatism are unpopular, McCain needs to convince voters an independent maverick willing to stand up to to Bush. But it's just as important for McCain to attack Obama as well. Given that McCain is hardly going to attack Obama from the left, he needs to push standard conservative views on the few issues where such views might be popular. Given $4.00 gas, there's a decent chance that McCain might be able to score some points by calling for more drilling. So he has to go for it.

This might sound inconsistent. It might sound schizophrenic, and it might sound like the kind of unprincipled flip-flopping that killed John Kerry.

But the McCain campaign needs to be brazenly inconsistent if McCain hopes to win. It all might sound schizophrenic, but "it is what it is."

McCain: The Man. Actually, the McCain campaign is pursuing the consistent theme that John McCain is a highly principled man and proven leader who will do what's right whatever other people think. To promote this image of McCain the Man, the McCain campaign relies heavily on McCain's image as a war hero, his reputation for having defied George Bush in 2000, and his affinity for Gen. Petraeus. It helps McCain that the mainstream media buys into this view and portrays McCain as a principled man who will be a strong leader in office even if he has to contradict himself and pander to get elected. Call it "principles pandering."

McCain: The Danger. But this is where McCain's gimmicks and schizoid inconsistency might wreck his campaign altogether. McCain's campaign is doomed if his pandering backfires in a way that sticks in the public imagination as their image of McCain the man.

This is essentially what happened to Rudy Giuliani. After months of dodging bullets on his arrogance and corrupt associations, Giuliani's front-running campaign fell completely apart when it was revealed that New York City police had provided security for his mistress. After that, it was impossible for opponents, the media, voters, or anyone else to take Giuliani seriously.

The same thing could easily happen to John McCain if he's not careful with strategies that are ultimately pretty risky.