Friday, July 25, 2008

No Three Strikes on Marriage

Matthew Yglesias asks whether it would be better to ban fourth marriages rather than gay marriage if we want to protect the sanctity of marriage.
Marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples leads naturally enough to gay divorce. Along those lines, I was thinking recently that if you really wanted to do something to shore up the sanctity of marriage then rather than ban gay marriages you ought to ban, say, fourth marriages. It's one thing to say that people who make a mistake ought to get a second chance, but serial nuptuals really do make a mockery of the institution's basic premises in a way that same-sex couples don't. Maybe some people just need to admit to themselves that they have no business making promises of life-long commitment.

But he's very mistaken here.

A lot of people who get married aren't ready for marriage. Hell, some folks who get married aren't ready for a decent hook up yet. But, they show their "commitment to marriage as an institution" by continuing to try until it works.

I have an aunt in her late 70's who was working on her fifth marriage when she was 48 and husband no. 5 had just moved out of the house in San Diego the day before I pulled for a visit. My poor aunt was just as blown away by no. 5's departure as Snow White would have been if Prince Charming left her. But, she hung in there, No. 5 eventually back and she's still married to the guy 29 years later. What would she have done if Matt's silly "three strikes" idea was in effect? More to the point, how would Matt's idea have helped her given that either she or her third husband weren't ready for marriage (at least to each other).

My aunt's story is one of the reasons why legalizing gay marriage is important. People all over the country put an incredibly high value on marriage and are willing to go through any number of traumas to make their marriages work--even their fifth.

The fact that gay people are largely banned from marriage is an extremely harmful form of discrimination that excludes gay men and women from one of the satisfying and significant dramas of human life. Marriage is something that my aunt was willing to go through five times before she got it right. It is something that everybody, straight or gay, should be allowed to experience, work through, struggle with, and succeed or fail in if they wish.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Cause of All Mankind

In the introduction to Common Sense, written in 1776, Thomas Paine states that:

The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested.
In today's Berlin speech, Barack Obama completed the circle that Paine began drawing in one of the fundamental documents in American political history.

For Obama, the cause of America is still universal, but the cause of all mankind is also America's.

Although Obama emphasizes that Americans are citizens of the United States, he also stresses that we are citizens of the world who stand equally with the global citizens of other countries.
I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before. Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen – a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.
Obama portrayed the Berlin Airlift of 1949 as creating a bond between the United States and Germany that foreshadows the need for even wider and stronger bonds today. He believes that the problems of Afghanistan, terrorism, climate change, and genocide in Darfur call for a global cooperation that requires even stronger bonds between the United States and Germany, the United States and Europe, and the United States and the rest of the world in general.
That is why America cannot turn inward. That is why Europe cannot turn inward. America has no better partner than Europe. Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe as strong as the one that bound us across the Atlantic. Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It was this spirit that led airlift planes to appear in the sky above our heads, and people to assemble where we stand today. And this is the moment when our nations – and all nations – must summon that spirit anew.

The idea of a shared bond between peoples is something that escapes conservatives. The right has a difficult enough time sharing our society with liberals, urban dwellers, gay people, immigrants, and other people who aren't like them. The idea of "shared bonds" with people in other countries is almost entirely outside the range of their imaginations.

President Bush was a true conservative in viewing himself as above the rest of the world. Bush could teach, threaten, bully, and discipline other countries and he took special pleasure in holding the rest of the world "accountable." But he could never bring himself to view himself or the U. S. as "sharing" any kind of bond with anyone. That was just too much equality for President Bush's hierarchical sensibilities--trained in the privileged, pampered milieu of a rich white guy growing up in segregationist Midland, Texas--to bear.

What makes Barack Obama different from Bush is that he views American global leadership as being built on the equality of shared efforts to solve common problems. Obama's assumption is that other governments will be more willing to accept American leadership if the United States views itself as the "first among equals" rather than the dominant party in a hierarchical relationship. Obama's global popularity is a sign that that the rest of the world is eager for a new model of leadership from the United States.

But there is a question about whether America is tolerant enough of equality to lead in a way that the rest of the world finds acceptable.

And that's one of the many questions will be decided by this election.

Death of Nancy Peterson

It saddens me to report that Nancy Peterson died this morning. Nancy was a longtime friend and colleague of mine at Morehead State University. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer six years ago and fought it with everything she and modern medicine had. Nancy had an outsized personality and she fought her cancer in an outsized way, gathering all the information possible, getting herself into experimental treatments, and undergoing round after round of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. It was all emotionally exhausting to contemplate, but Nancy was never emotionally exhausted. She was very tough and determined even after she was told her time was limited.

Nancy and her husband Glen also had tremendous support from a group of very close friends who will go unnamed here but deserve an enormous amount of credit for their loyalty and steadfast love.

But, finally, her body just gave out. It's my understanding that her kidneys stopped functioning and that her liver was also having problems. After being in the hospital for most of the week, she finally slipped into a coma and passed away.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Fly on Novak's Windshield

Right-wing journalist Bob Novak was so engrossed in NPR's "Morning Edition" this morning that he didn't notice the fly on the windshield of his Corvette convertible. But oops! That fly turned out to be a 66 year old guy who was "splayed" across Novak's window.

It turned out that Novak had turned illegally, hit a man who was crossing the street according to the light, and then drove away. Novak would have left the scene of the crime entirely except that he was chased down by a lawyer on a bicycle.

Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias refers to Novak as a "sociopath" and "criminal." But to consider conservative involvement in crime, it's necessary to think about what Novak has in common with liberals like Yglesias. In fact, I bet that most conservative media figures in New York and Washington start out their day by obsessing over NPR's "Morning Edition." They also lead largely secular lives. Ann Coulter is one of the few big-league conservatives one will ever hear talking about her own religion or speaking at churces. Media titans like Novak, Sean Hannity, and Rich Lowry of the National Review talk a lot about traditional values, non-college educated constituencies and and guys in Wheeling, West Virginia. But they have just as little in common with the guys in the Wheeling or Winchester, VA pool halls as Al Gore and should be considered just as much a part of the political elite as Al Gore or Barack Obama.

So what do conservatives mean when they pose themselves as fighting against "liberal elites." Basically, they're fighting against liberals in order to improve their own position within the elite political culture they share with liberal politicians and media figures.

This is where the question of crime comes up.

In many ways the Bush administration criminalized politics as a strategy in their competition with liberal political elites. Bush, Cheney, Rove, and their allies viewed their illegal warrantless wiretapping, torture of suspected terrorists, involvement of civil servants in Republican campaigns, perjured testimony to Congress, and politicization of the Justice Department primarily in terms of gaining and maintaining the upper hand in the competition between conservative and liberal factions of the national political elite. The idea was to openly flout the relevant statutes, brag about it, and then let Congress, the courts, and liberal media elites enforce the laws if they dared.

To date, Congress and liberal political elites largely avoided the showdowns associated with confronting the Bush administration about their behavior.

Conservative media figures like Novak, Hannity, and Ann Coulter weren't committing these kinds of crimes, but they have been implicated in the Bush administration's criminality to the extent that they are 1000 percent behind the Bush administration's criminal endeavors. Bob Novak himself gleefully participated in the "outing" of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame as a way to get revenge on her husband for criticizing the Bush administration.

What gives Bob Novak his "criminal" mindset isn't his absent-minded driving. I have lots of liberal friends who are lucky they don't run people over while they're absorbed in listening to National Public Radion. What involves Novak in the criminal world is his decision to defend Bush administration to the hilt. Not unlike a mob lawyer, Novak and other conservative media figures devote their considerable talents and energies to defending, rationalizing, obfuscating, and diverting attention from the crimes of their allies in the Bush administration. In Rush Limbaugh's words, conservative media figures like Novak are "carrying the water" for the criminal enterprise even if they aren't committing the main crimes.

As a result, they deserve just as little respect as the Bush administration.

The Depth of Republican Pessimism

One of the dimensions of the presidential campaign that doesn't receive enough comment is the depth of the pessimism among Republican elites concerning John McCain's chances. There are times when it appears that liberal bloggers are the only political commentators who think McCain has a chance to win. It seems that Republicans see Democratic advantage everywhere they look. Insider worries about the incoherence of McCain's campaign induced McCain to replace his senior leadership. When that didn't help, conservative journalists like Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru started writing articles on how McCain could "turn it around before it's too late" even though McCain's barely behind in the daily Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls. Other reasons for McCain to lose include the economic tailspin, climbing gas prices, the unpopularity of the war, the even greater unpopularity of the Bush administration, and the Democratic fund-raising advantage.

And Republicans keep seeing new clouds over the horizon.

Today, Newt Gingrich came out with a statement on McCain's VP choice in which he argued that the Obama campaign will have so much energy in the fall that McCain can't afford to nominate another "boring white guy" for vice-president.
“What I’m afraid of is that if Sen. McCain picks one more relatively boring, normal, mainstream Republican white guy … he just makes the ticket seem boring compared to the level of energy and drive and excitement that Obama has . . . And this is not a comment on any of my many friends who are competent people . . . It’s a comment on the objective reality that this fall, there is going to be a lot of energy surrounding the Obama campaign.”
Obama's "fall energy surge"--yet another reason for Republicans to be pessimistic.

Monday, July 21, 2008

It Ain't Over Till It's Over

Reflecting on al-Maliki's endorsement of Obama's timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, liberal journalist Spencer Ackerman claims the election is over:

There's nowhere left for McCain to go here. Either he endorses a timetable for withdrawal, which he has consistently said would be a disaster, and cedes his only big issue to Obama -- and more importantly, concedes that Obama's judgment is sound -- or he deliberately ignores the concerted, expressed wishes of the Iraqi government in order to prolong an unpopular war.
But the mainstream media have already formulated a new "gotcha question" for Obama. The question which Nightline asked him tonight is "If you had to do it over again, . . . would you support the surge?" It's a clever question because it focuses Obama's immediate attention on whether the Bush administration was correct in launching the surge rather than whether it's now appropriate to withdraw American troops. However, if Obama acknowledged that the surge was a good idea, he would leave open the possibility that the Bush administration might be right about not withdrawing at all.

Obama's answer was that "these kinds of hypotheticals are very difficult." That's not very good and he'll probably have to come up with a better answer the next time he's asked. Maliki's endorsement of the idea of getting American troops out of Iraq in 2010 could be a big boost for Obama. But Obama has a long way to go before he nails that big boost down.

And there will be more "gotcha questions" coming Obama's way.

Contrary to Spencer Ackerman, "it ain't over till it's over."

McCaining the Media

The massive coverage of Barack Obama's overseas trip has led the McCain campaign and various voices on the right to complain of media favoritism toward Obama.

According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Obama has been featured in 77% of the stories done between the end of the Democratic primaries and early July. There are far fewer stories on McCain.

Rush Limbaugh sees an effort to tilt the playing field toward Obama:
"My prediction is that the coverage of Obama on this trip will be oriented toward countering the notion he has no idea what he is talking about on foreign policy and defense issues and instead will prop him up as a qualified statesman . . . McCain, on the other hand, is a known quantity on these issues and his position does not excite nor fit the mainstream media's narrative on Iraq and Afghanistan, so they simply ignore it and him."

Unlike most observers on the left, I view Limbaugh as an extremely perceptive observer of the media and Democratic Party politics.

But Limbaugh's mistaken here.

Before Obama got into the air, the basic media narrative of his overseas trip was that Obama was playing defense in the face of criticism from the McCain campaign. McCain had been taking the initiative by challenging Obama to travel with him to Iraq and hold as many as ten townhall meetings. McCain was also aggressive in calling for overturning bans on offshore drilling for oil and attacking Obama's ideas on negotiating with Iran and withdrawing from Iraq as naive and ideological.

In the context of McCain's aggressive criticism, the media has been portraying Obama as "on the defensive," "dogged by criticism" and "boxed in" by McCain on Iraq and other issues. For example, the Kansas City Star framed one of their stories on Obama's patriotism by emphasizing the extent to which he was "dogged by criticism" for not wearing a flag pin in his lapel. Likewise, an ABC story by Jake Tapper was headlined "The Success of the Surge Seemingly Puts Obama on the Defensive." The same was the case with Dick Morris and Eileen McGann column for the New York Post which was headlined "The Way to Box in Barack on Iraq."

Contrary to Rush Limbaugh, the basic media narrative has been that McCain on offense/Obama on defense.

That doesn't mean that all the puff stories from the network talking heads aren't going to help Obama. But the question is not whether the current success of Obama's trip is going to confirm media bias toward Obama, but whether the trip is going to change the media narrative in Obama's favor.

The Miracle of What?

Salon has an interesting interview with James Carse, a historian of religion and the author of a new book entitled The Religious Case Against Belief. For Carse, being religious is connected with a question of existence:
Are you religious yourself? I would say yes, but in the sense that I am endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human, to exist at all. Or as Martin Heidegger asked, why is there something rather than nothing? There's no answer to that. And yet it hovers behind all of our other answers as an enduring question. For me, it puts a kind of miraculous glow on the world and my experience of the world. So in that sense, I am religious.
For Carse, the world has a "miraculous glow" because something was created out of nothing. But that doesn't strike me as quite right. I believe it would be more accurate to say that the world has a miraculous glow because "something" is always being created that didn't exist before. The earth is a tremendously fertile place where all creatures great and small, plant and animal, are continuously and miraculously bringing new things into life. Thus, the world isn't miraculous because an original "first" thing came out an original "nothing" as Carse suggests. Instead, the world is miraculous because of the constant cascade of newness around us. It isn't the first creation that should fascinate us, it's the continuous roar of creativity within us and around us.

Carse also has a comment on the popular atheism of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens:
To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.
Of course, it's as easy to misfire on atheism as it is to misfire on anything else and the new atheists strike me as being superficial. It strikes me that atheism is more a matter of separating one's most profound questions from any kind of understanding of "God" and divinity. I'm fascinated by miraculous things like the green-ness of my environment after it rains, but I fail to see how that interest of mine connects to a concept of god at all.

Where Carse sees a religion of the miraculous, I have an atheism for a miraculous world.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

When Will the Maliki Bomb Go Off?

MALIKI'S TIMETABLE BOMB. On Saturday, Maliki certainly dropped a bomb when he told Der Spiegel that he agreed with Obama's plans to withdraw American troops from Iraq within 16 months. Here's the key passages from the interview

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq.

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes . . .

Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems.

FALLING INTO THE CLUTTER ZONE. As I noted in an earlier post, Maliki's agreement to any kind of timetable severely undercuts John McCain's presidential candidacy. McCain has banked most of his argument for being elected on his greater foreign policy wisdom. If Obama's position on withdrawing troops from Iraq in 16 months becomes widely accepted, McCain's going to lose most of the justification for electing him president.

As a result, McCain is lucky that the Maliki's announced agreement with Obama's particular timetable did not go off with the big bang that might have been expected. The liberal blogs caught on quickly and fully recognized al-Maliki's statement as a "game-changer." But the significance of Maliki's statement ended up being lost in the mainstream media "clutter." After the McCain campaign issued a counter-statement and Bush administration leaned on the al-Maliki government to take the statement back, the mainstream media began reporting on the various sides of the "controversy" rather than focus on the significance of what al-Maliki originally said.

MSNBC's report was typical in its "he said/she said" effort to appear objective:
The Illinois senator, challenged at every turn on the Iraq issue by Republicans, including presidential rival Sen. John McCain, was expected to arrive in the country amid the controversy over comments by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that were supportive of Obama's 16-month timetable.

The Iraqi leader's aides have said his remarks, published in a German magazine, were misunderstood and that he was not taking sides in the U.S. election.

Other media sources buried al-Maliki's statement in their reporting about Obama's trip to Afghanistan. Following the conservative blogs, some media figures are warning against Obama becoming over-confident or appearing immodest. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin framed her comment in terms of Obama's need to stay "humble" despite his positions in favor of negotiations with Iran, troop increases in Afghanistan, and troop withdrawals from Iraq all being validated within the last week.

Given the various forms of media clutter that have obscured the significance of al-Maliki's endorsement of Obama's position, it's possible to wonder whether al-Maliki's bombshell will eventually explode to Obama's benefit.

THE ULTIMATE ANSWER. It's likely that al-Maliki's statement is going to help Obama a great deal over the long run. There are several ways in which it will be helpful. The most immediate effect will be that day to day campaigning is going to be easier for Obama. Barack Obama and his surrogates can use the day to day jousting to remind voters that the Iraqi prime minister and Iraqi people agree with Obama's position and that McCain hasn't adjusted to the realities on the ground. Obama will also be able to quote al-Maliki to great effect during the campaign debates. Obama can also al-Maliki's statement to great effect in his campaign advertising. Although the al-Maliki bombshell on troop withdrawals isn't going to greatly help Obama on a short-term basis, it will be a gift that keeps on giving to the Obama campaign.