Thursday, May 29, 2008

No Guts. No Glory.
I can't say I have a great deal of sympathy for Scott McClellan, the Bush administration press flack-turned-turncoat now garnering a lot of attention for a new memoir in which he blasts his former bosses. The Rude Pundit's got this one right: a last-minute act of repentance that seems mostly geared toward selling books and boosting speaker fees doesn't exactly present a profile in courage. McClellan strikes me as the better-dressed, (somewhat) better-spoken version of the mafia hit man who turns state's evidence to avoid the consequences of his crimes.

Which isn't to say that his account of the miserable Bush years won't be of value to historians. When Karl Rove declares that McClellan "sounds like left-wing bloggers," another way to put that sentiment is to say McClellan's account confirms what those bloggers have been saying for years now. Marc Ambinder makes the important point that when Rove's own memoir oozes out into the world, it will be "the first (and only, to date) sustained defense of the intersection of policy and politics of the Bush Administration."

But there's another group McClellan targets--and it's one on which I think he could hardly be more credible. That's the media and punditariat, which the former press secretary asserts absolutely failed the country in the runup to the Iraq war. Glenn Greenwald brings the smackdown:

In a minimally rational world, this extraordinary passage, from the new book by Scott McClellan, would forever slay the single most ludicrous myth in our political culture: The "Liberal Media":

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq.

The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. . . . In this case, the "liberal media" didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.

Just consider how remarkable that is. George Bush's own Press Secretary criticizes the American media for being "too deferential" to the Government. He lays the blame for Bush's ability to propagandize the nation on the media's uncritical dissemination of the Republican administration's falsehoods. And most notably of all, McClellan actually uses cynical scare quotes when invoking the phrase which, in conventional political discourse, is deemed the most unassailable truth of all: The Liberal Media.

How much longer can this preposterous myth be sustained when even the White House Spokesman not only mocks the phrase but derides the media for being "too deferential" to the right-wing Government "in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during [his] years in Washington"?

I share Greenwald's intense frustration at the staying power of the "liberal media" myth. The Clinton years and, especially, the 2000 election and recount should have sufficed to rid the country of this false notion. But his more important critique is that corporate power actively works against civic-minded journalism--and presents a threat to what's left of our democracy that isn't essentially partisan in nature. The revelations Greenwald details here and here about how far the networks went to stifle voices against the war began should trouble principled conservatives as much as liberals.

One response to this might be that we've been hearing for years, correctly I believe, how the nightly news and daily newspapers are declining in ratings, circulation and significance. But that isn't to say they aren't important: those Old Media sources are still pretty much the voice of authority for older Americans in particular, and even the blogs and alternate sources are largely dependent upon them as pivots for their coverage. (Consider how often I link to this or that piece from the New York Times, one of the signal offenders in hyping the Iraq war as well as the Clinton scandals and 2000 election.) And they're still the gatekeepers for public discourse; when "Wonkette" blogger Ana Marie Cox got a national following, she started writing for Time. Markos of Daily Kos is a Newsweek columnist now. The top rungs of the career ladder substantially remain what they were before anyone had heard the word "internet."

The question then might be whether "the market has spoken," and the public wants "news" that boils down to pro-government propaganda. This is arguable, but I doubt it; MSNBC seems to be doing better since its embrace of a more liberal line, and Fox worse... though I guess that could be a reflection of current political trends rather than an endorsement of more broadly confrontational journalism. I do know that a lot of people like me who were initially excited about the liberal Air America radio network tuned out after it occurred to us that what AA offered was not much less intrinsically ugly than right-wing hate radio--just for "our side."

What we really need is a return to the pre-Reagan mindset of network news divisions and papers as "loss leaders" that added to the owning company's prestige even if they detracted from the bottom line, because they served a clear public purpose. But given how the market has changed--the declining audience share and undesirable demographics--that's an almost unimaginable outcome. More likely is that the institutions that shape public discourse will transform in some way we haven't quite seen before. All I know for sure is that McClellan's insight--that the press isn't doing its job--is on target.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani
When I was thinking about the presidential race last year, the conclusion I reached was that on the Democratic side, the contest would come down to Hillary Clinton and one other candidate, whom I referred to as "Not-Hillary." I figured that if "Not-Hillary" could make his appearance early enough, he'd have a small but real shot at defeating the then-overwhelming favorite. And I knew, from watching Hillary Clinton in the Senate representing New York since I somewhat reluctantly voted for her in 2000--watching with growing dismay as she showed arrogance, imperiousness and a near-total want of principle--that I'd be 100 percent behind Not-Hillary.

But there was one scenario in which, I said (and meant), not only would I vote for a Clinton Restoration, but I'd volunteer, donate, and do anything else I could to boost her prospects of victory. That was if she matched up for the presidency against the former mayor of New York City. Rudy Giuliani. Rudy combined the hackery, belligerence and total inability to own up to mistakes of George W. Bush with the personal vindictiveness and paranoia of Richard Nixon--and, unlike Bush (but like Nixon), he was of sufficient intelligence and managerial acumen to be a "successful" president. The Bush/Rove approach to government was Stalinism as carried out by the Keystone Kops--absolute blind loyalty undermined by thoroughgoing incompetence, exemplified by Michael Brown at FEMA and Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. Giuliani would take the same approach, but he might be able to make it work.

So even Hillary Clinton would be vastly preferable to that. I thought.

Were the choice somehow to come up today between Giuliani and Clinton, I'm not sure how I'd vote. Probably I'd just drink myself into a near-coma, and/or emerge from that stupor to vote for Bob Barr. (And by "probably," I mean "definitely.")

In the course of this campaign, Hillary Clinton has shown herself to be every bit the monster that Giuliani is--and not half the manager. (Considering how badly Il Douche ran his own campaign, that's really saying something.) The same Rudy-esque blend of blind loyalty and straight-up meanness has manifested again and again. The tonal mood swings--from "I'm proud to be on stage with Barack Obama" to "shame on you, Barack Obama" in 36 hours--offered an early hint that this was not someone temperamentally suited for the presidency. We saw the brazen lying about her trip to Bosnia, the shameless jumping on "gaffes" in April, the comment that Obama was not a Muslim "as far as I know," the proud pandering on the "gas tax holiday," the ever-shifting criteria for what is and isn't "important" in the nominating contest, the ugly appeals to "hard-working white voters"--and finally, on Friday, a comment about assassination and primary politics that, at best, was incredibly thoughtless and tasteless, and at worst was a glimpse into a mind and soul as twisted even as Nixon's or Giuliani's.

There has been nothing remotely honorable or admirable about how the Clintons have conducted this campaign. But it has answered a few questions that lingered from the 1990s--perhaps foremost among them why Hillary Clinton had stayed with her husband after his biggest and most humiliating "bimbo eruption" was exposed in 1998. Just as Bill Clinton was shameless, dishonest, utterly averse to taking responsibility for his mistakes and forever a victim in his own mind, so too is his wife. And we can't afford that, at all, in this much more challenging time--any more than we could Rudy Giuliani's dysfunction.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Mets Go Through the Motions
I'm the rare Phillies fan who doesn't hate the New York Mets, probably because I live in NYC and I know and like too many people who suffer when the Mets falter. (This didn't make last September's reversal of fortune--when the Phillies roared back from a seven-game deficit with 17 games left to win the NL East by a game--any less sweet, but my joy didn't have that nasty edge to it of reveling in others' pain... the way I do when, say, the Eagles beat the Cowboys, or indeed when the Cowboys fail in any big circumstance.) So I'm not taking particular delight in the mess the Mets seem to be in these days.

There are two related components to their troubles. Most obviously, the team isn't playing well. The Mets enter play tonight a game under .500, in fourth place in the NL East. They're coming off four straight losses in Atlanta and have dropped seven of their last ten. And they're not facing the bad times with unity or resolve: closer Billy Wagner is taking shots at his position-playing teammates (a weird circumstance in itself, sort of like a football kicker calling out the offensive linemen), and manager Willie Randolph got in trouble last week for suggesting that he comes under extra scrutiny in New York City as an African-American manager. He's been backtracking from those comments all week, but they provided another distraction at a time the Mets really didn't need any more.

Yesterday the Mets' best player, 3b David Wright, spoke out:

"I can accept losing," Wright said. "Not easily, but every team loses here and there. But to go out and give the effort we're giving, to go out and lose without a fight ..."

His voice trailed off in much the same way his team has.

"I just don't think we have the fire I would hope we'd have," Wright said.

Standing at his locker, most of his teammates already departed, Wright pointed toward manager Willie Randoph's office, then to the room where the coaches dress.

"The problem," he said, "isn't there or in there. ... The problem is with us, in here."

Without any other pointing, he wondered aloud about the general confidence of a team that now has 22 victories, 22 losses and more problems than solutions. The Mets had been beaten by a team with less talent and, now, with more injured key personnel.

"Losing like this, I hope, would ruin their nights," Wright said of his departed teammates.

He didn't appear to think that it had.

"I want them to take it personally when we lose," he said. "I want them to be ticked off.

"If it was a matter of talent, it'd be different. If we just weren't any good, I could put my head on the pillow at night and sleep. But to got through the motions every night ..."

Tim Kurkjian said last night on ESPN that since the end of May last year--basically a full season's worth of action--the Mets are 76-79, three games under the break-even mark. This suggests pretty conclusively that attitude, fire in the belly, will to win, and other unquantifiable traits don't really explain the club's difficulties. The Mets' lineup is old and, other than Wright, somewhat undermanned, with outfielders Ryan Church and Carlos Beltran the only other dangerous bats this season. Shortstop Jose Reyes, who looked like a superstar in the making a year ago, has been just okay this year. They're in the bottom half of the National League in runs scored, home runs, and on base percentage plus slugging. Age and fragility are issues with the pitching staff as well: number two starter Pedro Martinez has made just one injury-shortened start since 2006, and number five Orlando Hernandez hasn't yet pitched this season. These were problems for the Mets when they blew their big lead over the Phillies late last season, and despite adding the outfielder Church and a legitimate ace in Johan Santana, they remain problems.

It's difficult to look good when you're losing. With their failure to meet expectations and clubhouse dysfunction--deepened, perhaps, by a rumored divide between Hispanic players and whites--the 2007-2008 Mets somewhat resemble the club's teams from the early 1990s, when a high-priced roster couldn't get its act together and the team stumbled to disappointing sub-.500 finishes. But it also wouldn't entirely shock me if these Mets follow the path laid out by their 1999 predecessors. That team sat at 27-28 on June 5, six games out of first, after an eight-game losing streak; a couple coaches got fired, and manager Bobby Valentine was rumored to be in big trouble. Then the Mets won 40 of their next 55 games, finished at 97-66 after beating Cincinnati in a one-game elimination contest for the wild-card berth, and won a playoff series before falling to the Braves.

So my phellow Phils phans shouldn't dance on their grave quite yet.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Stage 2
Hillary Clinton supporters going through the five stages of grief seem to have moved from stage one, denial, to two, anger. (A few early adapters have jumped to stage 3, bargaining: these are the people who bellow that Clinton has "earned" a spot on the presidential ticket, and an overlapping group--mostly big-dollar donors--seem to be cutting a different set of deals with their counterparts in the Obama camp.) A piece in Monday's New York Times details this anger, through the lens of supporters who blame residual sexism for their candidate's defeat.

Mrs. Clinton seemed to channel the lives of regular women, who often saw her as an avenging angel. Take Judith Henry, 67, for whom Mrs. Clinton’s primary losses stirred decades-old memories of working at a phone company where women were not allowed to hold management positions. “They always gave us the clerical jobs and told us we didn’t have families to support,” she said. At a rally last month in Bloomington, Ind., she sat with her daughter Susan Henry, 45, a warehouse worker, who complained that her male colleagues did less work and made more money than the women did.

Decades after the dissolution of movement feminism, Mrs. Clinton’s events and donor lists filled with women who had experienced insult or isolation on the job. Moitri Chowdhury Savard, 36, a doctor in Queens, was once asked by a supervisor why she was not home cooking for her husband; Liz Kuoppala, 37, of Eveleth, Minn., worked as the only woman in her mining crew and is now the only woman on the City Council.
[A]s others watched a campaign that starred two possibly transformative figures, they felt a growing conviction that the contest was unfair. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters point to a nagging series of slights: the fixation on her clothes, even her cleavage; chronic criticism that her voice is shrill; calls for her to exit the race; and most of all, the male commentators in the news media who, they argue, were consistently tougher on her than on Mr. Obama.

Some even accuse Mr. Obama of chauvinism, pointing to the time he called Mrs. Clinton “likeable enough” as evidence of dismissiveness. Nancy Wait, 55, a social worker in Columbia City, Ind., said Mr. Obama was far less qualified than Mrs. Clinton and described as condescending his recent assurances that Mrs. Clinton should stay in the race as long as she liked. Ms. Wait said she would “absolutely, positively not” vote for him come fall.
Cynthia Ruccia, 55, a sales director for Mary Kay cosmetics in Columbus, Ohio, is organizing a group, Clinton Supporters Count Too, of mostly women in swing states who plan to campaign against Mr. Obama in November. “We, the most loyal constituency, are being told to sit down, shut up and get to the back of the bus,” she said.

Identity politics is rarely appealing. What drives me crazy about this particular manifestation, though, is that Hillary Clinton--brilliant and strong-willed though she surely is--could hardly be less suited for the role of feminism's "avenging angel." Toward the beginning of the piece is this sentence: "As a former first lady whose political career evolved from her husband’s, Mrs. Clinton was always an imperfect test case for female achievement." But, the point having been made, the author then drops it. That's a mistake, because, simply put, THERE IS NO HILLARY CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN WITHOUT BILL CLINTON.

I'm at pains here to explain that this isn't meant as an insult. What I mean is that the money at the Senator's disposal, the network of loyal supporters within state and local party organizations, and of course the tremendous brand loyalty that she tapped into, all spring from her husband's presidency. It's not that she couldn't have built these things on her own--though, given her lackluster political skills through most of this campaign, I have my doubts, and considering that she evidently never considered running for office before the late '90s, I'm not sure she ever would have had the inclination--but the point is that she didn't have to.

This is not to denigrate the experiences of the older white women who have been Clinton's most loyal and vehement supporters. What they endured stinks. And beyond the particular slights and insults, the zeitgeist in which they grew up--that they met life with the societal presumption of a different and lesser set of possibilities--is unconscionable. My mother, a huge Hillary Clinton fan, wanted to be a lawyer when she was young; nobody in her world thought she could do that in the '50s and '60s, so she became a teacher. There are millions of smart, strong women like her out there who were dissuaded from pursuing their highest aspirations; it's easy to grasp why they're pissed, and it's no more seemly to belittle them for their loyalty to Clinton than that of African-American voters for Obama.

Even so, Clinton herself milked this sympathy for all it was worth. The Times again notes that "Mrs. Clinton, who made womanhood an explicit part of her run, seemed unwilling or unable to talk candidly about gender." And had a great piece a couple months back, which I might have linked here, about why Clinton could never give a parallel speech on gender to what Obama said on race:

[A]s much as Hillary Clinton the wife and the woman and the mom no doubt hates it, Hillary Clinton the candidate has largely benefited from her husband's extracurricular activities. That's because—and this is the tragic part—America seems to like her best when she's being victimized—by Bill or Rick Lazio or the media. In that sense, her husband is a useful prop who reminds us of the extent of her suffering.

She won't give that speech because the whole narrative of her candidacy—and more broadly, her life—is as rooted in grievance as Obama's is in getting past grievance.

Her biggest supporters are the women who see themselves in her and who feel that she is/they are owed this; after all she has/they have endured. But she won't give that speech because those women don't have as much in common with her as they think. Sure, her husband's behavior has humiliated her. But she has also helped him humiliate the women he's been involved with.

She won't give that speech because she has been on the wrong side of gender bias. OK, there is no right side, but she consistently relates to and protects and stands with the oppressors in the gender wars, not the victims. It isn't only that she stayed with Bill Clinton, but that she invariably sees him as the victim, preyed upon by a series of female aggressors.
One of the most laudable things about Obama is that he always elects to rise above the politics of victimization. One of the most troubling things about Hillary Clinton is that she is never above cashing in on it.

I believe very strongly that one day, very probably in the next 10-20 years, millions of us who have come to support Obama will proudly cast our votes for a progressive, inspirational woman running for the presidency. Women who feel that Clinton's election was their (and her) due, and that it was stolen from them by the less-qualified and less substantial younger man, deserve our empathy--but they're also missing the point, twice. One, Hillary Clinton didn't lose this thing because she's a woman; she lost it in large part because she's a Clinton, with the dishonesty, lack of integrity and ever-present sense of victimhood attendant upon that name. And two, she--unlike, I believe, the next crop of female candidates--came as close as she did largely for the same reason.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Most Troubling Thing I've Read Lately
Last week, CUF released a report I wrote titled "Schools That Work," which explores issues relating to vocational education--now known within the field as career and technical education (CTE)--in New York City's high schools. The report reached two main conclusions. The first is that CTE seems to represent a valuable educational option for students, particularly those who fit the profile of being at high risk to drop out before graduation. According to New York State Board of Regents data, compared to their academics-only counterparts, CTE students in NYC graduate at higher rates (64 percent to 50 percent) and drop out at much lower rates (5 percent to 20 percent), despite the fact that students at the 21 dedicated CTE high schools are poorer, more likely to be overage for their grade, and test sharply lower on standardized exams than the overall city averages. The second is that CTE has vast potential to serve as a pipeline to produce skilled workers in economic sectors projected for large numbers of job openings over the next ten to twenty years. The report has gotten decent media attention and seems like it will have some impact on a high-profile task force appointed by Mayor Bloomberg earlier this year, which is now concluding its deliberations.

What I really find compelling about career-focused education, though, is that if done right and at scale, it could come to complement or even supplant the current norm of academic progression in the United States: high school, then college, then work. CTE partially inverts that model by offering education in the context of work: in part, students choose a discipline that could (but certainly need not) lead to employment, and that creates a framework for their mastery of academic skills. So for instance at Automotive High School, one of the schools I profile in the report, English classes involve car-related literature like On the Road and students write essays about their perfect cross-country vacation, what cars they would take and how they might make their way from coast to coast. Another part of the curriculum, one with more direct relevance to potential employment, might focus on technical reading and writing--so that, say, a Volvo mechanic will never struggle to figure out what the writer of a service manual was trying to communicate.

Vocational education fell out of favor because education reformers of an earlier generation came to view it as classist and even discriminatory, a second-tier system for kids that someone concluded could not cut the academic mustard and had no prospect of going to college. This was understandable and laudable, given the challenges to the educational system as perceived in the second half of the 20th century. But the guiding principle that replaced it--the notion of "college for all"--has its own set of problems. The stunningly high college dropout rate suggests to me that we're admitting too many students who either don't know exactly why they're in college and what they hope to gain by the experience, who don't possess the basic academic grounding necessary to complete college-level classwork, or (most likely) both. Thirty years ago, it was assumed that "voc ed" existed in high schools as an alternative to college-bound academics; now, as I write in the report, it's less an "either/or" than a "both/and." Two-thirds of CTE program graduates from the city do go on to higher education, and the limited data available suggests that they outperform their academics-only counterparts.

This resembles what I imagine as the possible and desirable future path of working and learning in the post-industrial world: one starts with basic skill acquisition in elementary and middle school, and by the time you reach high school there's career-oriented instruction available that students can pursue without stigma or presupposition in terms of where it might take them. Post-secondary education might or might not resemble "college" as we've traditionally thought of it; maybe it's two years becoming a master mechanic or a radiologic technician or a restauranteur, in which you work while you learn--a new model of apprenticeship for the 21st century. And it might or might not happen when you're 18, right after college; given what we know about how often people change jobs and careers in the contemporary labor market, you might or might not keep alternating between work-only, school-only, and both at the same time through your entire adult life.

Which brings me, finally, to the piece I read earlier this evening that's bothering me so much. It's by an adjunct professor who teaches at two colleges, one private, one community, in the northeastern US. The story he tells both supports my take on what's happening in detailing the struggles of younger students who just "landed" in his classroom, and confounds it in telling of how fully adult learners--the people I envision as being in the vanguard of figuring out new models that blend work and education--are falling short as well. I highly recommend the entire article.

I work at colleges of last resort. For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.

Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.
A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.
Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.

There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed?
America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

For all the thought I've put into these issues--for all that figuring out this sort of thing would seem to be why I do what I do--I don't know what the answer is here. Not require cops to take English 101? Raise the high school standards even higher? Give up the notion that our workforce should be higher-skilled?

Maybe the takeaway is that even a powerful new model that seems a better match for the needs and priorities of this time will bring its own problems and challenges. Perhaps it should be a small consolation that I'll likely never run out of things to work on in my field.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Marriage, Priorities, and (In)Tolerance
My first reaction upon hearing the news Thursday that the California Supreme Court had struck down the state's ban on gay marriage was great happiness. It's a privilege to live in a time when ancient walls of prejudice come down, and a great sign of hope to see even a court staffed with Republicans rule against discrimination. A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr--"the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice"--came to mind.

The second reaction was concern and consternation that this issue might again help to torpedo progressives' political prospects this year, as it did in 2004. We're fortunate that John McCain, for all his other faults, seems to have more character and honor than Bush and Karl Rove showed four years ago and isn't likely to campaign on this issue. (His allies might, but that too poses political risks for McCain; if he doesn't try to stop them, he comes off as a hypocrite, and if he tries but fails, he looks weak.) But at the least, the issue opens a window for efforts to mobilize a Republican constituency that otherwise might have been inclined to stay home. At the far extreme of disaster scenarios, it could cut into Barack Obama's African-American support given the all-too-common homophobia that remains within the black church--a homophobia that Obama, to his great credit, has spoken out against.

Increasingly, it looks like this election is going to tell us a lot about who we are as a country, and how far we have or haven't come from the prejudices and irrationalities of years past. Maybe this is for the best. As I wrote the other day, Obama's blackness, juxtaposed with the severe damage Bush and his cronies have done to "the Republican brand," calls into question whether the country is more committed to residual racist sentiment (which, IMO, isn't the same thing as racism per se; consider for instance the West Virginian business owner who's happy to sell goods and services to African-Americans but claims he "doesn't feel comfortable" voting for one--we might deplore it, but irrational and ignorant isn't illegal) than to a candidate who espouses a governing philosophy and partisan affiliation that a majority claims to share. Voters prefer a generic Democrat to a generic Republican by 18 percent, but nobody thinks Obama will win by anywhere near that much. Throwing in an affiliation with The Gays might shave another point or two off the margin; will it be enough?

My own view on the question further complicates how I see it. I might not quite be as fervently for the rights of homosexuals to marry as fundamentalist Christians are opposed, but I suspect it's pretty close. In a secular country where the specific religious and cultural preferences of individuals or factions supposedly matters not a whit under the law, it's impossible for me to see how this is even a question. You're either equal or you're not. The "ick factor" can't be legally determinative. And to say otherwise--to hide behind "tradition" or "majority opinion" or "community values"--is indefensible. I'm entirely intolerant of intolerance on this question... and judging by my reaction tonight in re-reading this old argument (in which I make just one cameo appearance on p. 9), I'm actually a lot less willing to "see the other side" than I was even five years ago.

(Maybe this is because, from the point of view of the gay marriage opponents herein as I understand it, my own three year-old marriage might as well be same-sex, because it's unlikely that Annie and I are going to have children and we actively take steps to make sure this doesn't happen. If it's absurd for them even theoretically to deny my right to be married on that basis, it's equally absurd to argue against the right of same-sex couples to be wedded in the eyes of the state.)

Now, there is a distinction that's difficult but necessary to make: that between civil marriage and religious marriage. Just as the position of, say, the Catholic Church on the morality of homosexuality should be entirely irrelevant to the legal rights of gay couples, the civil law is and should be absolutely powerless to force the Church (or any other faith tradition, of course) to recognize same-sex marriages within the religion. But I doubt that most casual observers understand that distinction, and I'm very skeptical that even as skilled a communicator as Obama can get the point across.

But when those thoughts quiet down, what we're left with is a profoundly heartening step forward for committed life partners who happen to have the same equipment. The human stories alone make a powerful emotional argument that this is good, this is right, this brings us closer to becoming the country of our aspirations, not our fears. For that alone, it really is a great day.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bob Barr, non-Elephant
(See what I did there? You didn't get these read to you as a kid? Or see "Fletch"? Anyway, remember to tip your waitress.)

About two weeks ago, when I was actually worried that the Clintons would manage to muscle Barack Obama aside and take the Democratic nomination, I contemplated with a certain satisfaction the idea of voting in November for Libertarian spoiler candidate Bob Barr, who had announced the formation of an exploratory commission last month and officially declared his candidacy today, over Hillary. (Remember: I'm in New York, my vote doesn't count, so I can indulge myself however.)

During the 1990s, Barr--a former CIA analyst and federal prosecutor--easily would have made my bottom five most detested Republicans. He was a Clinton impeachment manager and a fervent champion of the idiotic "war on drugs." I once attended a Congressional hearing on instability in foreign financial markets at which the financier George Soros spoke; Barr, a member of the committee, used all his questioning time to attack Soros for his Open Society Institute's support for drug decriminalization. With his moral scolding and little mustache, he came across as an unholy hybrid of low-level Nazi and the guy at the drug store thirty years ago who yelled at you for reading comic books.

As revelations of Barr's various hypocrisies leaked out--the Clinton persecutor who had cheated his way through three marriages, the staunch abortion foe who'd paid for one--his star seemed to dim. He lost his Congressional seat in 2002 thanks to both redistricting and, ironically, the opposition of the Libertarian Party, which aired ads attacking Barr's ferocious resistance to medical marijuana. By then, Barr was beginning to show signs of political evolution: he attacked what he regarded as the Bush administration's excessive encroachments on civil liberties after 9/11. Losing his seat seemed to really liberate Barr (no pun intended): he became a high-profile member and paid lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, and endorsed the Libertarian presidential ticket in 2004, co-created the American Freedom Agenda, an effort to drag the Republican Party back to its small-l libertarian orientation, and finally repudiated his former support of the war on drugs, taking a role as lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project. He explained the switch by saying, "The tremendous growth of government power since 9/11... has forced me and other conservatives to go back and take a renewed look at how big and powerful we want the government to be in people's lives."

Like every third-party candidate with some name recognition, Barr apparently thinks he can win a plurality of votes. He can't, of course. But he'll cause John McCain a few headaches, and if Obama runs as strongly as polling shows he might in libertarian-leaning western states like Montana and Alaska, Barr could tilt those contests. Beyond the horse-race stuff, though, I'm fascinated by his personal evolution. As is true of Ron Paul (whose support he obviously hopes to co-opt), Barr doesn't strike me as someone with whom I'd have very much in common politically--and part of me still gapes in disbelief that I'm writing nice things about someone I considered an asshole of the first rank just ten years ago. But he could raise some important issues in this political year, and that's something we should be able to get behind.

(Yeah, I know that in theory this is also true of Ralph Nader. But in his fourth try for the White House, all anyone sees with Ralph is his ego, and the absurdity of his "cause." If Barr is gearing up for his fourth campaign twelve years from now, I'm sure we'll all be heartily sick of him too.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Battle Worth Fighting
The finish line is in sight at last for the Democratic nomination and attention is turning to a general election campaign that has the potential to elevate the discourse and focus primarily on policy, not personality. I've got my doubts as to whether this really will come to pass--just because I can't see how the Republicans can possibly win an argument on policy around issues like Iraq and the economy, and they really like to win--but here's hoping.

The bitter-enders of the Clinton camp, however, have one last argument to make. Boiled down, it's that Barack Obama is too highfalutin, too exotic, and ultimately too Black to win the presidency. Sen. Clinton herself came pretty close to explicitly making this case in her comments to USA Today last week about how support for Obama was "weakening" among "hard-working whites."

As this Juan Williams column illustrates, there's a fine line between acknowledging that by some metrics, Obama might have "a problem" with white voters, and suggesting that the Democrats would be wise to address this potential problem by not nominating him. (I have trouble wrapping my mind around the irrationality of then nominating Hillary Clinton, probably the second- or third-most detested politician in the country, in Obama's place, and I think there's a staggering racist sentiment that's tied to the assumption that Clinton could more easily win back disaffected African-Americans and other Obama supporters than Obama could gain ground with white Democrats, but never mind that for the moment.) Williams, I think, crosses the line; I'd love to see him and Bob Herbert argue this out.

The aggravating thing about this argument is that we can't be sure that the Clinton/Williams side of the argument is wrong until it's proven wrong. Perhaps it's true that among a decisively large chunk of the electorate, antipathy toward Obama--grounded largely if not entirely in the fact that he's a person of color--is a stronger motivating factor than his policy views vis-a-vis John McCain (and Bush), or considerations of his intellect, judgment and character that aren't impacted by racial stereotyping. Even if it isn't directly about race, maybe the country just isn't ready to say "Goodbye to All That."

This is the time to test the premise. If someone of Obama's talents and policy views can't win in 2008, with the political winds at his back and major advantages in money and organization, it's hard to imagine the circumstances under which someone of his description could win. Either way, I'm glad we're going to find out.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I did something smart Tuesday night and went to see "Iron Man" with Annie rather than coming home to watch the returns from North Carolina and Indiana. The movie is as entertaining as you've probably heard, with great performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges--playing the tech-company executive from hell; he struck me as a distinctly more pleasant version of Steve Ballmer--in a fast two hours-plus directed with style by Jon Favreau.

I was not a huge comic-book fan as a kid, and before the seemingly ubiquitous "Iron Man" ads began running a month or two back, with press stories describing the movie immediately thereafter, I knew nothing about the character or backstory. Last night, while watching, I realized I still basically knew nothing--and this made the movie far more enjoyable. This was just four days after watching the "Harold and Kumar" sequel--a movie that, while certainly not as good as the first one, had some fun moments, but about which I'd read so much, so many reviews and features, that I knew what was going to happen when each scene began.

There are a bunch of things coming out this summer that I anticipate checking out--mostly "franchise" movies like Indiana Jones, Batman, the Hulk, "Get Smart." That they're franchises doesn't bother me; in the 21st century, they're at least equally classics as commodities. (With a few exceptions, you don't get to be either unless you've got something pretty powerful in terms of drama and narrative.) And they have their own prestige: Edward Norton is one of the best actors of our time, and he jumped at playing "Hulk" just as the even more lionized Downey did Iron Man. I think the key to whether or not I enjoy them, though, will be how well I manage to shield myself before the lights go down.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Is the Journey to the Dark Side Complete?
Here now as we get toward the end of the primary season, Hillary Clinton has finally done something I thought was absent from her political character and taken a bold stand. Unfortunately, it's a stand in favor of both a bad idea and a practical impossibility: the "gas tax holiday." In urging this absurd policy move, she's parted ways with fellow Democrat Barack Obama, who calls it a gimmick, and lined up with Republican nominee John McCain. (Albeit with one differing detail in whether the oil companies pick up the slack--really just shuffling their money--or whether it goes on the card along with the war, the compounding interest of the national debt, and the rest of the tax cuts. This difference doesn't matter on any level other than rhetoric, because the proposal is a practical impossibility. But more on that in a minute.)

Robert Reich sums it up:

When asked this morning by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos if she could name a single economist who backs her call for a gas tax holiday this summer, HRC said "I'm not going to put my lot in with economists.”

I know several of the economists who have been advising Senator Clinton, so I phoned them right after I heard this. I reached two of them. One hadn’t heard her remark and said he couldn’t believe she’d say it. The other had heard it and shrugged it off as “politics as usual.”

That’s the problem: Politics as usual.

The gas tax holiday is small potatoes relative to everything else. But it’s so economically stupid (it would increase demand for gas and cause prices to rise, eliminating any benefit to consumers while costing the Treasury more than $9 billion, and generate more pollution) and silly (even if she won, HRC won’t be president this summer) as to be worrisome. That HRC now says she doesn’t care that what economists think is even more troubling.

Reich goes on to note that this is George W. Bush's modus operandi, which in his hands led to some "extraordinarily stupid policies." But what the Clintons are doing here is not actually what Bush does. It could be argued that this is worse.

I believe Bush (or, shall we say, "the Bush administration") pursues stupid policies in the face of expert opinion for three reasons: it's an item of political faith for him that he simply will not examine (tax cuts forever and always), there's a clear structural political motivation and/or it pays off the donors, (the "faith-based initiative" to buy off black churches and undermine the public sector, "tort reform" aimed at impoverishing Democratic-donor trial lawyers, restrictive election laws, the encouraging of media consolidation, Medicare Part D), or Bush's ego is involved (Iraq, leaving much of the bureaucracy vacant because the Congress won't accept ideologues as nominees)

In other words, it's because he's weak-minded and intellectually lazy, a champion of party ahead of country, or a monstrous egotist. I wouldn't characterize Hillary Clinton as either of the first two, and while she is a monstrous egotist (which most politicians, perhaps including Obama, are), I don't think that's what's going on here.

No, she's urging a stupid policy that is a practical impossibility simply to leverage a tactic. That tactic is illustrated simply by the language with which she and Bill Clinton are making their arguments:

Former President Bill Clinton was in West Virginia on his wife's behalf. In Clarksburg, he called her a scrapper and contrasted her appeal among working-class voters with the elitists he said support Obama.

"The great divide in this country is not by race or even income, it's by those who think they are better than everyone else and think they should play by a different set of rules," he said. "In West Virginia and Arkansas, we know that when we see it."

Today, Sen. Clinton put the cherry on it with this gem: "Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.” Elite opinion: this includes the people who populate think tanks, conduct research and analyze information. The people who come from the great institutions of learning where they spent years learning and thinking and honing their judgment and acumen. The people who are paid, often pretty well, to know what they're talking about.

This of course is the tactic Bush often used to disparage opponents of his policies: classics here include the "I've read the report put out by the bureaucracy" dismissal of a major study on global warming, and his perennial jibe at any nearby eggheads by reminding them that he, the C-student, is the president. It's a cheap emotional appeal, a call to irrational resentment barely fig-leafed by an appeal to "common sense" folk wisdom.

But he's using it for an end. In the Clintons' case, using the tactic is the end. The gas tax holiday isn't going to happen: it's opposed in the House, and its prospects aren't good in the Senate. And it's certainly not going to happen before Memorial Day. Clinton, of course, knows this; even were she there at, y'know, her day job, buttonholing colleagues and cutting deals and generally doing the things that Senate champions do to try and pass their favored legislation, there's no way something gets to the president's desk with broad support in anything like the three weeks until the holiday.

So Clinton is pushing a plan that, if implemented, would have no impact on the problem it theoretically addresses, while exerting a painful opportunity cost (among other costs) in policy terms. The plan can't be implemented, for the practical reasons noted above. And she's doing it solely because it advances the beyond-risible "heartland fighter versus sissified elitist smartypants" storyline she's trying to peddle in hopes of taking the nomination.

This is a strategy that panders to, even glorifies, ignorance as a virtue. It's pretty much certain that Clinton knows better--which illuminates the bottomless cynicism of her political character. And if she doesn't know better, that's a fairly significant problem too.

Friday, May 02, 2008

In Which I Answer a Questionnaire
Responding to queries posed by the proprietor of the Phuture Phillies blog (a brilliant guy in his mid-20s who badly needs a girlfriend; me, or fairly close anyway, minus ten years plus some measure of cranial candlepower), I share some thoughts on the sincerity and likely disposition of Britney Spears' rehabilitation efforts, which Roman emperor George W. Bush most resembles, when "The Simpsons" jumped the shark, and more.

This also actually helped me figure out, and I think get past, why turning 35 this week fucked me up as much as it did. Though that took a couple days and I'm still not sure it's totally internalized.