Thursday, April 24, 2008

Enough

Enough. Enough.

"I'm very proud," said Hillary Clinton yesterday, "that as of today, I have received more votes by the people who have voted than anybody else, and I am proud of that." She's claiming a popular vote lead because she's counting Michigan and Florida. She's also not counting a single Obama vote from Michigan, where he wasn't on the ballot, but where 39.9% of Democratic primary voters were sufficiently wary of Clinton to vote "Uncommitted."

"I've won the states we have to win," she declared. "Ohio, now Pennsylvania. It's very hard to imagine a Democrat getting to the White House without winning those states." But the Clinton campaign has yet to produce a convincing argument that equates second place in a primary with second place in the general.

She was thrown for a loop when Obama won the Iowa caucus a hundred years ago. Never mind Iowa; it all comes down to New Hampshire. To Super Tuesday. To Ohio and Texas. To Pennsylvania. To Indiana. Enough.

Hillary Clinton and her minions just keep talking their way around the fact, and it is a fact, that this is over. It is not a tie. It is not a toss-up. It's over. To win the pledge delegate count, Clinton would have to win by fifteen points in Indiana and North Carolina, and then go on to win by thirty points in every remaining primary. This is just not going to happen, barring some unforeseen calamity, like if someone found a recording of Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright planning the 9/11 attacks. For Clinton to win the Democratic nomination would require an unexpected twist of that caliber.

Until now, I haven't thought she should exit the race. There were plenty of reasons. It was good for Obama to run against her before facing McCain; the historic nature of the race had all eyes on the Democrats; and anyway, who the hell is anyone to say that Hillary Clinton -- who, until fairly recently, we all assumed would be the Democratic nominee for president -- should drop out?

The trouble is that all of those arguments assume an honorable campaign, and Clinton's campaign has ceased to be honorable. It is now a destructive force. It's destructive to the Democratic Party (whose return to the White House is no longer seen as a sure thing), to both candidates (Clinton has not succeeded in raising her positives, but she has raised Obama's negatives), and to the general feeling of hope and excitement which once enveloped this race.

I'm tired of qualifying everything with assurances that I have always had all the respect in the world for Hillary Clinton, that I preferred her throughout the early months of the race, etc. It's all true. But the inclination to defend her is evaporating with her credibility; everything she says now is disingenuous. Suddenly it would be a major miscarriage of democracy if the nomination is decided before every last state has its primary. Suddenly Hillary Clinton is an anti-liberal gun-lover who threatens to "totally obliterate" entire countries? I can't defend it.

The two candidates have divided the Democratic Party, and as everyone knows, they are ideologically alike. The only way Clinton can stay in the race, then, is by pitting half of America's Democrats against the other half. In some ways, she has turned this into a general election, and cast herself as the Republican, purporting to defend regular, hard-working, God-fearing, gun-loving folks against smooth-talking, latte-drinking, secular big-city peacenik elitists.

And now, because the race can only get more personal, it has acquired a racist edge. In an Edison/Mitofsky poll, 18% of Pennsylvania Democrats said that race mattered to them in this contest; only 63% of those voters said they would vote for Obama in the general election. We are being told that 37% of 18% of Pennsylvania Democrats won't vote for a black guy. How is this useful?

How tragic it would be if the Democratic advantage in the 2008 election were squandered in this way. Unable to continue arguing that Obama cannot be elected, Clinton has begun to argue that he should not be president, which is entirely different. This isn't about staying in the race; I wouldn't mind if she stayed in the race, if she were running an honest and honorable campaign. She and her surrogates claim that the attacks have flown equally thick from both sides, but we can all see who has gone negative. The Washington Post reports that "in the two weeks leading up to the Indiana primary, a Democratic strategist familiar with the Obama campaign said aides are likely to turn to the controversies of Bill Clinton's White House years -- Hillary Clinton's trading cattle futures, Whitewater and possibly impeachment."

Please don't do that. Please.

It's enough.

Noah

The Real Americans

Last night on The Daily Show, during an interview with Howard Fineman, Jon Stewart stumbled into an important point about how politicians and the media patronize half of America while insulting the other half:

FINEMAN: But I do think some of the other things they discussed [in the ABC debate last week], including the Second Amendment and the role of faith, is something that the Democrats have ignored the seriousness of, sometimes at their peril, over the last twenty, thirty years.

STEWART: You know, I keep hearing that, that they've ignored faith, as though they...I still don't understand that. It's that whole idea of, the heartland are the real Americans, that's the real fabric, the faithful and the flag-wearing. And I find that to be almost a self-loathing on the part of the media, that they elevate this idea. I have yet to figure out, why are we -- honestly, let's face facts, I tape the show in Sodom. But I'm always baffled by that, because I have yet to find why the heartland is always, like, the good people. "Let's find out about the good people who love God and the flag." Like the rest of us are like, "Let's fuck the flag!" The people I know seem very nice, and they live not in that area.

FINEMAN: Yeah, I agree with you. We find them salty and well-seasoned [a reference to a joke earlier in the show]. And I think partly that's because of where they are in terms of the electoral college map. There is a reason why they're focused on, because in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which are key states, those voters happen to be swing voters. So one of the reasons we focus on them is they are important as swing voters in the election. The other reason is probably exactly what you say. We in the so-called big media are constantly doubting, even as we yak on and on, if we really understand the country we're talking about.

Maybe the whole way we do this should be changed. We patronize whoever votes next. We dismiss everyone else. We love the swing states more.

The quirks of the American electoral map are shaping world history. The whole planet may be on the verge of a food shortage crisis, and a third of the corn we grow in America gets thrown away into the ethanol boondoggle, and why? Because of the Iowa caucus.

Noah

Monday, April 21, 2008

In Short

IWO GREENER: Some World War II veterans who raised the flag at Iwo Jima are outraged by the current Time magazine cover, which they say trivializes their efforts. I argue that climate change is a far greater threat to a far greater number of people than anything that happened in World War II. See my previous entry for more.



BUSH ON SUCCESS: During a joint Rose Garden appearance with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week, George W. Bush expressed a fascinating view of the Iraq war. He was asked about his "measure of success" concerning U.S. involvement. "So long as I'm the president," Bush said, "my measure of success is victory -- and success." His measure of success is success. Success can be measured based on how successful we are. "When it comes to troop levels and duration, my question is, what does it take to win?" George W. Bush is the last man in the world who should be consulted about what it means to win. He has very little experience with winning, having failed as a student, pilot, businessman, and baseball executive. He has lost two presidential elections. He's just such a loser.

PRESIDENT OBAMA WOULD INVESTIGATE BUSH WAR CRIMES: Some Democrats remain uncertain about whether they prefer Clinton or Obama, but it's hard to imagine a voter being undecided between either of them and John McCain. Nonetheless, there are undecided voters out there, and the media loves to corner them. What would it take, they are asked, for so-and-so to get your vote? So, as a decided voter, I have asked myself: Is there anything John McCain could do to win my vote? Is there any possible way? And as a matter of fact, there may be. If John McCain were to come out in favor of impeaching Bush and Cheney before January, and if he were to aggressively pursue this goal, I might vote for him. Obviously McCain wouldn't do this; it would be political suicide, and he probably doesn't believe they deserve it, anyway. But that's what it would take. Mainstream Democrats, of course, are shamefully silent about whether the worst criminals ever to run the executive branch should be prosecuted for war crimes. But Barack Obama has come closer than any presidential candidate since Dennis Kucinich. He told Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News:

"What I would want to do is to have my Justice Department and my Attorney General immediately review the information that's already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued. I can't prejudge that because we don't have access to all the material right now. I think that you are right, if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated. You're also right that I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt because I think we've got too many problems we've got to solve.

"So this is an area where I would want to exercise judgment -- I would want to find out directly from my Attorney General -- having pursued, having looked at what's out there right now -- are there possibilities of genuine crimes as opposed to really bad policies. And I think it's important-- one of the things we've got to figure out in our political culture generally is distinguishing betyween really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity. You know, I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I've said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. Now, if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in coverups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody above the law -- and I think that's roughly how I would look at it."

MORE ON THE POPE AND RAPE:
In an article last week, I discussed the Catholic church and its long history of child molestation (see "The Audacity of Pope," 4/16). I stand by everything I said then, but it seems only fair to mention that since last Tuesday there have been some developments. For one thing, as noted in an update appended to my original post, the pope has now met with some abuse victims. Also, a Vatican official, Cardinal William J. Levada, has hinted at the possibility of revising the church's canonical statute of limitations, because "his office has frequently had to judge allegations from years before because the victims 'don't feel personally able to come forward' until they are more mature," in the words of the New York Times. I hasten to add that I don't think any of this will solve the problem. The tendency of priests to rape children is because of the sexual shame and repression intrinsic to Catholic dogma. But I suppose Ratzinger and Levada deserve some credit for at least acknowledging the problem, however feebly. Illinois Supreme Court justice Anne Burke told the Times, "This is an Enron crisis in the Catholic Church. The only difference is that the shareholders in Enron were able to get rid of their board of directors." On last week's Real Time, Bill Maher made the same point, only better and funnier: "If the pope, instead of a religious figure, was the CEO of a chain of nationwide day care centers who had thousands of employees who had been caught molesting children and then covering it up, he would have been in jail."

Noah

Iwo Jima Veterans Outraged by Magazine Cover

The cover of the current issue of Time magazine features Joe Rosenthal's famous Iwo Jima photograph, updated for the environmental cause:



This issue, which includes an article by Bryan Walsh describing the environmental crisis as a call to figurative arms, is only the second Time cover not to feature the usual red border since it was introduced in 1927. (The first was the 9/11 cover.) Astonishingly, the new cover has provoked some controversy, and not among garden variety global warming deniers. The outrage comes from global warming deniers who fought at Iwo Jima.

"It's an absolute disgrace," fumes Iwo Jima veteran Donald Mates, in an article published by the Business and Media Institute. "Whoever did it is going to hell. That's a mortal sin. God forbid he runs into a Marine that was an Iwo Jima survivor."

From the Business and Media article, the veterans sound less outraged by the use of the Iwo Jima photograph than by the substance of the article it promotes. "The second world war we knew was there," continued Donald Mates. "There's a big discussion. Some say there is global warming, some say there isn't. And to stick a tree in place of a flag on the Iwo Jima picture is just sacrilegious."

Tim Holbert, a spokesman for the American Veterans Center, sounded a similar note: "Global warming may or may not be a significant threat to the United States. The Japanese Empire in February of 1945, however, certainly was, and this photo trivializes the most recognizable moment of one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. War analogies should be used sparingly by political advocates of all bents." And here are the thoughts of John Keith Wells, who led the platoon atop Mount Suribachi and co-wrote a book about Iwo Jima: "That global warming is the biggest joke I've ever known...We’ll stick a dadgum tree up somebody's rear if they want that and think that's going to cure something."

Aha. Well, at the risk of having a dadgum tree stuck up my rear, it must be said that the "controversy" over whether global warming exists is an artificial one, motivated by political agenda; the science, as almost everyone now concedes, is irrefutable. Moreover, the threat posed by the destruction of the environment actually is a greater threat than any enemy we've faced on any literal battlefield. Given the stakes -- the continued existence of a planet habitable by humans -- you could make a stronger argument that Time's current cover trivializes the environment by comparing it to Iwo Jima.

On MSNBC last Thursday, Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time, explained that "one of the things we do in the story is we say there needs to be an effort along the lines of preparing for World War II to combat global warming and climate change." Walsh's article begins:

"Americans don't like to lose wars -- which makes sense, since we have so little practice with it. Of course, a lot depends on how you define just what a war is. There are shooting wars -- the kind that test our mettle and our patriotism and our resourcefulness and our courage -- and those are the kind at which we excel. But other struggles test those qualities too. What else was the Great Depression or the space race or the construction of the railroads or the eradication of polio but a massive, often frightening challenge that we decided as a culture we ought to rise up and face? If we indulge in a bit of chest-thumping and flag-waving when the job is done, well, we earned it.

"We are now faced with a similarly momentous challenge: global warming. The steady deterioration of the very climate of our very planet is becoming a war of the first order, and by any measure, the U.S. is losing. Indeed, if we're fighting at all -- and by most accounts, we're not -- we're fighting on the wrong side. The U.S. produces nearly a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases each year and has stubbornly made it clear that it doesn't intend to do a whole lot about it. Although 174 nations ratified the admittedly flawed Kyoto accords to reduce carbon levels, the U.S. walked away from them. While even developing China has boosted its mileage standards to 35m.p.g., the U.S. remains the land of the Hummer. Oh, there are vague promises of manufacturing fuel from switchgrass or powering cars with hydrogen -- someday. But for a country that rightly cites patriotism as one of its core values, we're taking a pass on what might be the most patriotic struggle of all. It's hard to imagine a bigger fight than one for the survival of the country's coasts and farms, the health of its people and the stability of its economy -- and for those of the world at large as well."

Unlike World War II -- in which the United States intervened to prevent two global powers from invading and destroying other countries, and ended up slaughtering 220,000 innocent people in history's only nuclear attacks -- the climate change crisis offers no convenient enemy other than ourselves. George W. Bush, of whom I'm guessing the offended Iwo Jima veterans are supporters, just announced his intention to begin restricting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions -- in seventeen years.

If we continue to destroy the planet, then the efforts of the soldiers in the Iwo Jima photograph -- along everything else that's been accomplished over the course of human history -- don't matter much at all. I'm sure the veterans consider their achievement heroic, something they did to ensure the safety and well-being of their children and grandchildren. If the image of their triumph provides a compelling metaphor for a challenge with the same stakes, you'd think they would be pleased.

Noah

Friday, April 18, 2008

Colbert in Philadelphia

I rarely just post video clips, and I never post eight in a row, but if you haven't seen this stuff and have a little time this weekend, it's worth watching. Stephen Colbert has done some of the best and funniest work of his career this week, during The Colbert Report's stay in Philadelphia. My favorite clips from the week are below.



















Noah

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Debate on the Non-Issues

Last night's debate on ABC was pretty rough, but probably a good experience for Barack Obama to have under his belt before the general. The questions posed by moderators Gibson and Stephanopoulos mostly eschewed critical issues in favor of irrelevant minutiae about gaffes and flag pins, and made it clear that Barack Obama's elevated approach to politics won't be easily embraced by a media culture addicted to gotcha.

During MSNBC's post-debate analysis, Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson calmly explained to Keith Olbermann that Obama voters will have to decide for themselves whether they have a problem with the Weather Underground bombings of forty years ago. It's good to know that although ABC's moderators stuck to tabloid traps, the Clinton campaign is willing to take the high road and put a clear choice before Democratic voters: Do you support Hillary Clinton, or terrorism?

Writing on his New York Times blog (under the headline "No Whining About the Media"), David Brooks acknowledges that "Democrats, and especially Obama supporters, are going to jump all over ABC for the choice of topics...but I thought the questions were excellent."

It's hard to imagine why Brooks would say this about a debate which never once touched on the environment, surveillance, interrogation, telecom immunity, or the new G.I. bill, but did rehash the tiresome old distractions of Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, bitter clinging, and lapel jewelry.

It turns out the reason Brooks thought these were excellent questions is that he thinks "the journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable." Really? I thought the journalist's job was to inform the public.

The media is not entirely to blame for the fact that so much of the public is misinformed. But by focusing the debate on trivia unrelated to policy or the presidency, the media is telling voters that it's okay to go to the polls without a clear understanding of the issues. Don't study the differences between the Clinton and Obama health care plans; think of it as American Idol.

"We may not like it," writes David Brooks, "but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall."

To whom?

Noah

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Audacity of Pope

With so much going on in American politics, it doesn't seem right that we should devote so much of our time to an old man in a dress, but here comes an old man in a dress, just the same, to soak up a week's worth of news cycles.

The funniest thing about the pope's visit to America (besides the dress) is the fact that George W. Bush met him at the airport. I guess the only way Pope Benedict could have avoided an airport reception was by arriving in a coffin covered with the American flag; Bush pays no attention to those arrivals. But he really wanted to see this guy in a dress. If you look at the video of the pope's arrival, you can see him, descending the airplane steps, grinning and waving in the wind, received by George, Laura, Jenna, and five thousand members of the American military.

Today, which happens to be the pope's eighty-first birthday, there will be a grand state dinner in his honor in the East Room of the White House. The pope himself will not be attending. This has been reported as "a matter of Vatican protocol," but so was the Spanish Inquisition, and the church's silent endorsement of the slave trade and the Holocaust. I know Benedict has come a long way from his days with the Hitler Youth, and I'm certainly not inclined to stick up for George Bush, but I think that if someone picks you up at the airport and then invites two hundred people to a party for your birthday, you might wanna put in an appearance.

In other respects, the pope's visit to America has all the markings of a contemporary media event, complete with branding. It has its own title -- "Christ Our Hope: Apostolic Journey to the United States 2008" -- with a flashy logo showing Benedict with his arms up to the sky. Reporters covering the Washington leg of the trip -- the pope comes to New York later this week -- were given a 73-page booklet from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, How to Cover the Catholic Church, presumably to make sure nobody asks any inappropriate questions.

There's always a chance of inappropriate questions, because when one thinks of the Catholic church, of course, the first thing that comes to mind is child molestation.

The pope knew he couldn't visit the United States without addressing this issue, and he dealt with it on the first day. "I am deeply ashamed," he said, when questioned about the tendency of the Catholic clergy to rape children, "and we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future...We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry." The problem is, nobody's going to check off a box on a form that says "I am a pedophile." You often can't tell if someone is a pedophile until he commits a pedophilic act -- unless, of course, he is dressed in the robes of the Catholic clergy. That's one of the warning signs.

"It is a great suffering for the church in the United States, and for the church in general, and for me personally, that this could happen," Benedict said. Yeah, good point! All those abused children should just be quiet for a moment and think about his suffering. I'm sure they would have kept their pain a secret all these years if they realized what "great suffering" those revelations could cause for the church. The pope continued, "It's difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children."

I don't think it's all that difficult to understand. It has to do with the Catholic church's archaic suppression of human sexuality. If you ask your leaders to refrain from sexual activity for the rest of their lives, eventually their natural drives will overcome your flimsy dogma. If the church would simply let its leaders enjoy traditional romantic partnerships, the temptation of the tender young choirboys who surround them would probably not be so strong. But if you deliberately cultivate an atmosphere of widespread sexual shame and frustration, you're ensuring that abuse will occur.

"He talks about feeling shame for the scandal," one Becky Ianni told the New York Times, "but it's a far cry from the shame that victims have had to live with our entire lives." Ms. Ianni, along with other members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, demonstrated outside St. Dominic Church in Washington, requesting that Benedict meet with the families of abuse victims. He won't do it. "Rather than shifting attention to pedophile priests, he needs to focus on the culpability of bishops," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability. "The crisis occurred because many U.S. bishops were willing to hide their priests' crimes from the police with lies." Becky Ianni agreed: "We don't really need his sense of shame. We need him to take firm actions to correct the situation."

Is there any chance that this might happen? Nicholas P. Cafardi -- dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and "an original member of the National Review Board appointed by the American bishops at the height of the abuse scandal" -- told the Times that the church's "Code of Canon" law "specifies that a man cannot be ordained a priest, or cannot remain a priest, if he has committed certain acts, like homicide, self-mutilation, attempted suicide or procuring an abortion." (It's hilarious that the church comes down so much harder on abortion than on sex crimes committed by adults against children who have actually been born.)

"It's time to add to that list pedophilia and sexual abuse of children," Cafardi said. "I'm reading Benedict's remarks as heading toward a change in the law of the universal church, so that this can be implemented throughout the Catholic world." Okay, but two things. One, is there any other religion or organization in the world that should have to specifically stipulate that you can't rape children and remain in a position of authority? And two, would an anti-pedophilia clause in the Code of Canon really make a difference? I doubt that the average priest, before molesting a child, takes a quick look at the Code to make sure it's not specifically outlawed. These are sick men. It's not like they're good people who just didn't realize that what they were doing was frowned upon by the civilized world.

The Catholic church -- unlike similar institutions such as NAMBLA -- is a threat to everyone in its grasp, and is probably responsible for more suffering than any other institution on the planet. It is also a study in how evil is born of religious suppression and fanaticism. Instead of treating the symptom, child abuse by clergymen, they should be treating the disease.

During his visit so far, the pope has actually made at least one excellent point, one that American religious conservatives ought to heed. The United States, he pointed out on Tuesday, "started with the positive idea of secularism. This new people was made of communities that had escaped official state purges and wanted a lay state, a secular state that opened the possibility for all confessions and all forms of religious exercise. Therefore it was a state that was intentionally secular. It was the exact opposite of state religion, but it was secular out of love for religion and for an authenticity that can only be lived freely."

Like other commentators, however, the pope left out an important point. The United States was founded as a secular nation not only to permit the freedom of "all forms of religious exercise," but the freedom not to engage in religious exercise at all. Breaking free of the shackles of organized faith is the only way to reclaim our moral responsibility from a fictional God whose orders are cryptically delivered by old men in dresses.

Somebody take that guy back to the airport.

UPDATE 4/18: The pope has now met with the victims of sexual absue by Catholic priests. I don't think this will undo anyone's pain, or address the systemic problems of religious sexual dogma as a gateway to abuse, but he deserves some credit for listening to them.

Noah

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hillary Clinton's Next Ad

FADE IN.

Black-and-white footage of Hillary Clinton, answering the
telephone at 3:00 a.m., pinned down by sniper fire.

HILLARY:
I'm Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.

Hillary throws back a shot of Crown Royal and bowls a
perfect game.

CUT TO:

White text on a black screen, as we hear a narrator's
voice.

NARRATOR:
Barack Obama said that living in a small town has made
you bitter, so you cling to guns and religion, because you
have nothing to live for.

A succession of testimonials from real people.

BLACK WOMAN:
(Weeping) I was extremely hurt and insulted by Barack
Obama. How could he? WHY? WHY? WHY?

WHITE MAN:
I don't cling to guns because I'm bitter. I cling to guns
because I'm happy.

YOUNG HUSBAND:
It just shows that Barack Obama is an elitist who's
out of touch with what real Americans -- excuse me.

His wife looks on in horror as he aims his AK-47 and
takes out several deer who are crossing the street.

OLD WOMAN:
I'm not clinging to my faith out of frustration or
bitterness. My faith is very uplifting. I thought
Barack Obama understood that, but now I guess
he's going to hell.

BARTENDER:
The good people of Pennsylvania deserve a lot
more than what Barack Obama said.

WHITE MAN:
I don't want a president who thinks I'm bitter. I want
a president who thinks I'm a nice guy.

BLACK WOMAN:
Unlike Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton likes people
from Pennsylvania.

OLD WOMAN:
Hillary Clinton is not an elitist. Before running for
president, she ran a tackle shop in Scranton.

YOUNG HUSBAND:
I know she'll work hard to keep guns on the street
and statues of Jesus in our schools.

Text on screen: "Approved by Hillary Clinton and paid
for by Hillary Clinton for President."


Noah

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bitter Pills

At an April 6 fundraiser in San Francisco, Barack Obama once again committed the political outrage of honesty. "I think it's fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work," he said, "are the places where people feel most cynical about government." Building on this point, Obama worked his way up to the "bitter" comment that has been repeated everywhere over the last three days.

"In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And...it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism...

"But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations."

Hillary Clinton, who has become a sad study in desperation, wasted no time in pouncing on the remarks, after they reached a wide audience on Friday:

"Now, like some of you may have been, I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small town America. Senator Obama's remarks are elitist, and they are out of touch. They are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans. Certainly not the Americans that I know -- not the Americans I grew up with, not the Americans I lived with in Arkansas or represent in New York.

"You know, Americans who believe in the Second Amendment believe it¹s a matter of Constitutional rights. Americans who believe in God believe it is a matter of personal faith. Americans who believe in protecting good American jobs believe it is a matter of the American Dream.

"When my dad grew up it was in a working class family in Scranton. I grew up in a churchgoing family, a family that believed in the importance of living out and expressing our faith. The people of faith I know don't 'cling to' religion because they're bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich. Our faith is the faith of our parents and our grandparents. It is a fundamental expression of who we are and what we believe.

"I also disagree with Senator Obama's assertion that people in this country 'cling to guns' and have certain attitudes about immigration or trade simply out of frustration. People of all walks of life hunt -- and they enjoy doing so because it's an important part of their life, not because they are bitter...

"If we are striving to bring people together -- and I believe we should be -- I don't think it helps to divide our country into one America that is enlightened and one that is not."

Sensing a gathering storm over his comments -- including Clinton supporters distributing "I'm Not Bitter" stickers in North Carolina, and a helpful list of reasons the comments could hurt Obama, published by Politico's Mike Allen -- Obama issued a series of clarifications. On Friday, speaking in Terre Haute,, he described the disaffected electorate: "People end up voting on issues like guns...They vote on issues like gay marriage. They take refuge in their faith and their community, and their family, and the things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington."

"If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that," he told the Winston-Salem Journal on Saturday. The same day, at a town hall meeting in Muncie, he conceded that "I didn't say it as well as I should have," but stood by the substance of his remarks, explaining:

"[There has been a] political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois, who are bitter. They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through.

"So I said, well you know, when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on. So people, they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. And they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country."

More from Muncie:

"I didn't say it as well as I should have, because you know the truth is is that these traditions [guns and religion] that are passed on from generation to generation -- those are important. That's what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don’t feel like they are being listened to.

"And so they pray and they count on each other and they count on their families. You know this in your own lives, and what we need is a government that is actually paying attention. Government that is fighting for working people day in and day out making sure that we are trying to allow them to live out the American dream. And that's what this campaign is about. We've got to get past the divisions. We've got to get past the distractions of our politics and fight for each other."

Well, perhaps you get the idea.

It's worth acknowledging, first of all, that Obama's original remarks did not constitute a great political chess move. Of course they would be quoted out of context to paint him as an elitist who looks down on average Americans (whatever that means). Of course they would present an opportunity for Hillary Clinton (and, down the road, John McCain) to claim the mantle of populist. And of course, what Obama said was absolutely true.

Republicans have long pinned Democrats with the damning charge of elitism. We have been asked to believe that George W. Bush won two elections because people decided they would rather have a beer with him than with his opponents. Has there ever been a less relevant litmus test for the presidency? I don't know about you, but I want a president who's not inclined to have a beer with anyone, a president who is far more intelligent and articulate than "the average American," a president whose skills include running a country. Bowling is really not a factor.

I don't want the President of the United States to be "normal" or "average." The President should be far above average. He, or she, should be concerned with policy, with engagement, with executive management; if these important prerequisites do not come along with an affinity for darts and duck-hunting, so much the better. We've spent the last seven years watching our republic crumble under a president who is more concerned with clearing brush than with creating jobs. The presidency requires excellence, and it's been a long time.

Of course, a president also must understand the concerns of the American people, and must be capable of relating to life in small-town, medium-suburb, and big-city America. John Kerry is an example of a candidate who never seemed connected enough to "the people," and partly because of this, he won the 2004 election by a small enough margin that the Bush regime was able to steal it by tinkering with a few machines in Ohio. But Barack Obama does not have this problem. His ability to connect with people is largely what's catapulted him to the front of the line. Obama connects because of the substance of his message, his personal gravitas, his sincerity. We trust him to tell us the truth, more than any national politician in recent memory, and that's why it's okay for him to be honest about the bitterness of citizens whose government has betrayed them.

If more of us were happy -- if more of us felt that our communities were safe and prosperous, that our families were healthy and content, that our occupations were secure and rewarding, we would be a lot less inclined to hate and kill one another. Religion thrives on the desperation of unhappiness, the promise that although life sucks on Earth, fidelity to religious dogma will be rewarded after we die. Guns thrive on the desperation of powerlessness, the promise that although we are the victims of everyone else's problems, we can always kill them, or if not them, perhaps a deer.

I don't want the President of the United States to be an elitist. But the president I'd want would probably be described that way by lots of people. Some of us don't trust smart people. Some of us don't trust black people. Some of us don't trust anyone. The responsibility to vote comes along with the responsibility to be informed. We vote based on what we know, and if all we know is guns, God, and beer, then those are going to be our issues. But pandering to that constituency is how we wound up living in Bush's dystopia. Those who have some understanding of national issues realize that there are other criteria. There are evidently people out there who can't imagine having a beer with Barack Obama. I say, good, because Barack Obama has one or two more important things to do.

I'm sure Obama's "bitter" remarks will resurface in the general election, when he runs against John McCain. Political action committees will air TV ads which say, "Obama is an elitist who thinks you believe in God and the Second Amendment because you're bitter! But he's the one whose pastor said 'God damn America!'" But I don't think this argument will help the Republicans much, because their own candidate avoids God and guns in his rhetoric, and seems less comfortable with these issues than Obama.

But the funniest outcome of the "bitter" episode is that suddenly Hillary Clinton loves guns. "You know," she said wistfully at a campaign event on Saturday, "my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton, and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl." This education presumably resonated with Clinton years later, when she was pinned down by sniper fire in Bosnia. "I have gone hunting," she proudly declared. "I am not a hunter, but I have gone hunting." Just as her father taught her how to shoot, she explained, "some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter."

Shortly after that, taking questions from the audience, Clinton was confronted by a woman whose son had been shot and was now paralyzed. What would President Hillary Clinton do to strengthen and enforce America's gun control laws?

What an elitist.

Noah

Friday, April 11, 2008

It's Torture

Long after the body of George W. Bush has become one with the soil, he will be remembered as the torture president. Now, for the first time, the White House has been directly implicated in the decision to torture detainees -- a decision the White House has until now pinned on the Pentagon and the CIA.

Yesterday, the Associated Press confirmed details of an ABC News report revealing that torture (or "harsh interrogation techniques") was condoned and approved in a series of White House Situation Room meetings by Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, John Ashcroft, and Donald Rumsfeld.

Apparently, great effort was made to insulate Bush from this process. He did not attend the meetings. But according to the Daily Mail, "there was speculation last night that Mr. Cheney -- who is very close to the president -- would almost certainly have told him in secret. It is claimed that the decision could not have been made without his implicit consent."

At the dozens of secret meetings which took place in the Situation Room in 2002 and 2003, it was agreed that "enhanced interrogation techniques," including waterboarding, would be authorized. Torture would be defined as narrowly as possible, to include only techniques specifically designed to cause "serious injury or death." Because any interrogation technique is theoretically designed to extract information, rather than to harm the subject, this definition of torture is obviously too narrow to matter.

Reports suggest that the lone voice of dissent, at these meetings, came from former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who asked, "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

UPDATE: George W. Bush said to ABC News yesterday: "Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people. And yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."

Noah

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Catching Up

400 Years in Print; the Clinton/Obama "Double Standard;" McMore McCain McConfusion; the Myth of Al Qaeda in Iraq

It seems like we have some catching up to do. The blog has been dark for a bit, because I've been preparing a book version of 400 Years in Manhattan, which will be available in a few weeks. It's the text of the show, with about seventy images, and extensive notes, and this is the cover:



Surprisingly, while I was busy with that, American politics didn't take a break and wait for me to be ready. Politics kept going, and that's the current state of the Democratic primary race -- it keeps going.

We're now twelve days away from the Pennsylvania primary, and the Clinton and Obama campaigns are playing the expectations game so hard that I don't know what to expect. If Obama can somehow pull off a win, that would probably be the end, but although he is narrowing the gap, Clinton is still considered the likely victor in Pennsylvania; so the Obama campaign is saying that losing by ten points or less would be a victory. The Clinton campaign is still feeling confident enough to send spokesman Howard Wolfson before the wolves with this statement:

"If Senator Obama is not able to win Pennsylvania with all the resources he has thrown at the state... it will again demonstrate that he has serious problems winning the large states and closing the deal with voters. We all know that the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue runs through Pennsylvania. If Senator Obama, outspending us three to one in the state, is unable to win Pennsylvania, it would be another sign that his campaign is not the best to face Senator McCain in the fall."

We've been hearing the word metric a lot, to describe the constantly-shifting parameters by which success in this race might be measured; the Clinton campaign's metric is that the states Hillary wins are the important states, that Obama's occasional losses happen to take place in the few states which actually matter, and that Obama couldn't possibly win the general election unless he wins Pennsylvania, or Ohio, or is married to Bill Clinton. "We all know that the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue runs through Pennsylvania" because the Clinton campaign keeps saying that -- though not, these days, from the mouth of Mark Penn. He has resigned from the campaign, which means he will continue to act as its top adviser, but won't be appearing on television so much, and as far as I'm concerned, that's enough.

On NPR two days ago, Michele Norris asked Clinton to respond to "something that I keep hearing...that the only way that Hillary Clinton can win is if she’s willing to win ugly." Clinton pointed out that an Obama victory would also rely on superdelegates, adding, "I understand that there has been, throughout this campaign, something of a double standard. I accept it; I live with it." Asked to elaborate on this double standard, she said, "Well, I think that it's pretty obvious to anybody who has followed it." Norris again asked her to clarify: "Just in case it's not clear to someone...I just want you to tell me what you think the double standard is."

Clinton:


"No, but you know -- for example, why is the question directed at me? I mean, neither of us has the number of delegates to win. It is a problem for both of us. And Senator Obama's supporters refuse to support a revote in Michigan, which I thought was rather odd for the Democratic Party to be against another vote. Senator Obama's supporters wanted to end this contest and short circuit it so that the votes of the people in the next upcoming contest wouldn't count because he has a slight lead. And it's by no means definitive. It would have been like calling the championship game last night with two minutes left to go because somebody was ahead. And that’s not how it turned out."

Since Hillary Clinton is not going to explain this supposed double standard, we're going to have to figure it out for ourselves. There is a double standard at work, and it does explain why Clinton gets asked these questions while Obama does not. The double standard is that Obama is winning, and Clinton is losing. The fact that neither of them has won the nomination yet does not diminish the fact that Obama's eventual victory is almost certain, and Clinton's is almost impossible. That's the double standard. Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee for president, and Hillary Clinton is not.

As I keep saying, I have always liked Hillary Clinton; although I have come to prefer Obama in this race, it gives me no pleasure to watch her lose. It's sad. But I'm insulted by her campaign's relentless spin, which suggests that Obama's virtually insurmountable lead is somehow a myth manufactured by the media. In fact, nearly the opposite is true. The possibility of a Clinton victory, at this point, is a media myth, promulgated to keep the horse race going, and to avoid being attacked for having a double standard.

I'm not on the Hillary-should-quit bandwagon. Not yet. I agree with Kos's theory that the race against Hillary Clinton is providing Barack Obama with needed practice for his race against John McCain. Which brings us to John McCain.

On Tuesday, during Congress's long commercial for General David Petraeus, McCain confused Sunnis and Shiites again. "Do you still view al Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?" he asked the general. "Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shiites overall. Or Sunnis or anybody else." Or anybody else! Doesn't matter; they're not an obscure sect of the Jews, either, or the Mormons. McCain apologists say that considering the man's experience in government and in the military, he obviously has a keen and deep understanding of the situation in Iraq, and anyone who suggests otherwise is making a big deal out of a slip of the tongue. But the fact is that McCain makes these mistakes over and over and over again. Maybe it's because he doesn't know, and maybe it's because he doesn't care; it seems to me that it has to be one or the other. And even if it really is nothing more than a misstatement, do we really want a president who makes the same misstatements again and again? Haven't we had enough of that?

And now, after weeks of constantly telling us that his Sunni/Shiite and al Qaeda/extremists gaffes are nothing more than misstatements, McCain is appearing on Fox News with the claim that he did know what he was saying. "I believe that al Qaeda does a lot of things," he said yesterday, "including with organizations and parts of the populations that are not necessarily just Sunni." It's good to know this. If tomorrow McCain goes on TV and says, "My friends, we must defeat al Qaeda, the infamous Shiite group, oops, I mean Sunni group," we will know that he is astutely reminding us that al Qaeda "does a lot of things" with people who are "not necessarily just Sunni."

The fact is that John McCain -- along with David Petraeus, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a host of others -- is deliberately misleading the American people about Iraq. Over the course of this war, we have been told so many little lies that it's easy to lose focus of the big ones. The war began with two big lies -- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was planning to use them against the United States, and that Iraq had some operational connection to al Qaeda and 9/11. Another big lie, a variation on this last one, is that we are in Iraq to fight al Qaeda.

The myth of al Qaeda in Iraq is as prevalent now as the WMD myth was five years ago. During the Petraeus hearings, the words "al Qaeda" found their way into nearly every sentence. The ridiculous Senator Lindsey Graham (R - South Carolina) hissed, "If you put a list of people who wanted us to leave, the number one group would be al Qaeda, because you've been kicking them all over Iraq!"

In reality, the group called "Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn" ("Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers"), which most people refer to as "al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," and which Americans like to call "al Qaeda in Iraq," barely exists. In 2006, the State Department estimated that AQI comprised less than one percent of the insurgency. Some other sources say it's closer to five percent. In 2007, the Congressional Research Service estimated that AQI was responsible for about two percent of the violence in Iraq. Furthermore, although leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed in 2006) was a dangerous terrorist in his own right, AQI's connection to al Qaeda itself -- Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda; remember him? -- you know, the al Qaeda which attacked us -- is sketchy at best.

So we are still fighting this war in Iraq, in which more than 4,000 Americans and perhaps one million Iraqis have perished, on the false pretense that this all has something to do with what happened to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. I don't know whether John McCain believes this lie or not. The good news for us -- and for our next president, Barack Obama -- is that most Americans are no longer buying it.

It's good to be back. More soon.

Noah

Friday, March 28, 2008

Not Decent

And then there's the Parents Television Council, a conservative organization which purports to defend America's children from such wanton influences as words. We could have an intelligent debate about whether some mainstream popular culture is harmful for children, but an intelligent debate is not what the Parents Television Council is having. These are the people who thought that America might never survive the trauma of briefly glimpsing one of Janet Jackson's nipples during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

In February, when Jane Fonda appeared on the Today show, she spoke about her experience performing in Eve Ensler's acclaimed play The Vagina Monologues. "I was asked to do a monologue called 'Cunt,'" Fonda told co-host Meredith Vieira. Now, as hard as it is to imagine those four little letters doing any damage to anybody, it's even harder to imagine a little kid repeating something Jane Fonda said on the Today show. Nevertheless, the Parents Television Council reacted strongly, under the funny headline "NBC Assaults Families with Offensive Language on Today Show":

"'There is no excuse for airing one of the most patently offensive words in the English language on broadcast television, especially at the breakfast hour...While NBC’s apology is helpful, it is not enough – millions of families were indeed offended...' said PTC President Tim Winter...

"'The networks can no longer claim to be surprised by this now-routine conduct. It is now something they must anticipate happening. Just a few weeks ago, ABC’s Good Morning America allowed the "f-word" to slip by un-bleeped. How many times does this have to happen before expletives are no longer "fleeting?" The public is entitled to the expectation that television is not going to assault their families during certain times of day and NBC clearly violated that expectation today.'"

Millions of families were offended! Assaulted! Anyway, this is who we're dealing with. When the PTC sent me an e-mail survey about decency on television -- filled with questions like, "Do you think it's appropriate for the networks to pollute our children's minds with offensive language?" -- I sent them an e-mail, in which I said, "You absurdly claim to 'protect' young people from such dangerous things as words and breasts. Your puritanical small-mindedness is a much greater threat."

Well, predictably enough, all that did was get me on their mailing list. I now receive weekly updates from the Parents Television Council, alerting me to such pressing issues as Fox's refusal to pay a fine after airing an "indecent Married by America episode featuring pixilated nudity." As Married by America demonstrates, there is a serious problem with American television, but nudity has nothing to do with it. Stupidity is the problem with most American television, and its effects are everywhere. We deserve smarter programming, and if we emphasized knowing words rather than banning them, perhaps the Parents Television Council would know how to spell "pixelated."

At least that's how I used to feel. But now that I've been getting these PTC e-mails, I have gradually begun to see their point. My conversion to the PTC's way of thinking was complete early this week, when I happened to catch something called How It's Made, on the Discovery Channel. Deeply offended, I dashed off a quick e-mail to the PTC, alerting them.

From: Noah Diamond
To: editor@parentstv.org
Subject: "How It's Made" inappropriate for children

Dear friends,

I deeply admire the work of the Parents Television Council, and I applaud your valiant efforts to protect our children from bad words and improper images of the human body.

I am writing to suggest that the PTC take a good look at the program entitled How It's Made, which airs on the Discovery Channel. Although How It's Made purports to be a show about the science of mechanical engineering, this is little more than a veneer for pornography.

On a recent episode, which aired on March 24 at 7:00 pm, the host of How It's Made lapsed into a horrifying spate of sexually-charged profanity, while explaining how to assemble an electric mixer. References to "mounting the shaft" and "lubricating the joints" had me reaching for my remote control, but I wasn't quick enough to avoid hearing the astonishing follow-up: "Next, we will screw the base."

Screw the base indeed. If this is the kind of smutty sleaze-fest we can expect from a supposedly educational cable network, I fear that the dangerous epidemic of profanity on television is only getting worse. I sincerely hope that the Parents Television Council will turn its attention to the Discovery Channel's sick campaign to corrupt our youth. I, for one, would gladly sign a petition to cancel How It's Made. Come to think of it, even that title is profane. Our children deserve better.

Noah Diamond

Noah