Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Sad Case Of Political Realism

At Fire Dog Lake, Ian Welsh offers an analysis of the situation in the Caucusus that relies very heavily on real politique. He offers three bullet points, the first two of which show the limits of this particular school of political thought.
One: Georgia is completely inside Russia's sphere of influence.

Two: NATO expansion into Georgia would be incredibly stupid.

Three: The international fetish for territorial integrity based on essentially arbitrary borders is a problem.

To the first, I would counter that "spheres of influence" would allow the US to invade Venezuela to overturn the socialist government of Hugo Chavez. Or even instigate a coup against him, as the US did in 2002. Indeed, such a view of power politics would permit the US free reign from Canada to Chile, including the Caribbean, as this has been our traditional "sphere of influence". It would legitimate the coup in Chile in 1973, our attempted coup in Venezuela, and our myriad invasions in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Dominica, Cuba, and Mexico.

As to two, Georgia appealed for NATO membership for this very reason. I do not think they would have used the pretext of such membership as a cover for war to reclaim Ossetia. Rather, I think the Georgians have been pushed past the point of endurance, resorting to force in the final extremity, knowing full well they would face Russian troops. As a member of NATO, they might have had the benefit of other members to support diplomatic efforts against the Ossetians. Had it come to war, the Russians might just have thought twice against intervening (my Franz Ferdinand reference in a previous post holding true).

As to the third, while his major point - that borders in our contemporary world are, in many cases, arbitrary - is correct, this does not mean, ipso facto they can be changed willy-nilly, or should be considered impermanent. This point also takes away with one hand what it offers with the first. That is to say, it states that self-determination should guide diplomatic efforts to deal with nationalist yearnings for autonomy; to do so, we should be willing to carve up nation-states to create new borders that are, by definition (at least the definition offered here) malleable. It is the yearning for recognized borders, for that most important symbol of independence, that lies at the heart of self-determination. There is a fundamental, practically unworkable, contradiction at the heart of the dismissal of borders.

I do not believe there is much anyone can do except look on in sympathy at the civilian populations in the paths of the various military forces, appeal to Russia to resist the temptation to absorb Georgia in to a Greater Russian, and work through diplomatic channels to alleviate the situation as soon as possible. I do not think, however, that we should concede Georgia as part of a Russian "sphere of influence"; nor should we necessarily deny Georgia a place in NATO. Finally, we should uphold the principle of nation-state border integrity in the face of Wilsonian "national self-determination" because it creates the situation we are currently in.

Saturday Rock Show

Des Moines' own Slipknot has a new release in the works, and this is the first released song (with the demise of vinyl, including 45's, I really don't like calling them "singles"), "Psychosocial". This is really a kind of breakthrough. The lead singer actually sings. I have always had trouble liking this band because that hardcore screaming/growling just doesn't do it for me, but now the singer is reminding folks that he can, indeed, sing. And the song doesn't lose any of its punch for that.

Besides that, any band that has a tympani player in it is pretty cool in my book.

Public Sex, Part II - John Edwards (UPDATE)

I think the thing I am most frustrated about concerning the revelations that John Edwards had an extra-marital affair is this - this story, which is really quite meaningless (apart from the personal hurt and betrayal former Sen. Edwards' wife must feel), has managed to push the war in the Caucusus Mountains off the radar screen. Right now, I really want to know what the hell is going on between Georgia, its two break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Russia. The last time I checked, Georgia had applied for NATO membership. If it has it, this could be another Franz Ferdinand moment*. If not, it might be anyway, because we have a trigger-happy bunch of ignorant yahoos in power who aren't content with screwing up two wars, and are constantly looking for a third. Usually, the intended target is Iran, but, hey, why not invade Russia and vindicate Ronald Reagan's dream as well?

Back to John Edwards.

Big deal. He isn't a closeted gay man, he isn't hiring prostitutes, he isn't a pedophile, and he isn't implicating his lady friend in the rape of her child. These Democrats just don't know how to do it up right, do they? No flare. No imagination.

*Franz Ferdinand was the son of the Ausro-Hungarian Emperor whose assassination by Serbian terrorists was the spark that ignited World War I. In itself, the event really meant little. It was the intricate web of alliances and secret defense protocols that led, in the end, to the slaughter of a generation.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall offers a different perspective, one which I think is relevant to the extent that it considers one possible outcome. In an alternate universe. Where Edwards won the nomination.
Edwards made a strong run for the presidency knowing full well that he was carrying on an affair, at least in the early stages of the campaign, which could come to light in the midst of the general election and fatally damage all Democrats' hopes for regaining the presidency. Just think how fun this weekend would be if John Edwards had won the nomination. Indeed, it seems clear that the aftermath of the affair was such that the chances of its coming to light were substantial. It's a level of recklessness and selfishness that I probably shouldn't but still do find shocking.

Public Sex, Part I - Another Republican Family Values Pervert

It's getting so you have to wonder about an entire movement that prides itself on its defense of "traditional family values".
Missouri state Rep. Scott Muschany, R-Frontenac, was indicted today in connection with a reported sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl on May 17, the day after this year’s Legislative session ended.

Gotta get that legislative business done, first, I suppose.
The alleged victim is the daughter of a state employee. The girl’s mother and Muschany -– who is married and has two children — were romantically involved, the woman said.

Or, perhaps they were not so much "romantically" involved as they were "involved so that he could nail her fourteen year old daughter."
A Cole County grand jury returned an indictment today charging Muschany with the Class C felony of “deviate sexual assault.” The indictment identifies the victim only by initials. It says that on May 17, Muschany “had deviate sexual intercourse” with the girl, “knowing that he did so without” her consent.

It would have been so much better had a fourteen year odl girl given her consent to having sex with her mother's adulterous boyfriend.

My favorite line, in a sick and twisted way, finishes this all up:
The document also alleges that the mother “did admit that the incident did take place, including her witnessing same.”

The next time some right-winger says that those who support, say, gay marriage or even full social and economic rights for sexual minorities are a threat to family values, I'll ask that person if family values includes adultery and pedophilic exhibitionism.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Bust This Blog

So, I'm going to try some syndication with Bustablog. In order to this, I have to put up the following HTML - . If this works, maybe I won't have too many more nights like the one I had last night.

Don't ask.

Suffice it to say that falling about eight feet and landing on concrete flat on your back makes your bones ache, especially when those bones are 42 years old.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Magic Book On The Magic Of Words

When I was in seminary, I worked as a receiver at the campus bookstore. One day, in a shipment of books from the distributor Ingraham came, unsolicited and unordered, a small paperback book entitled Quote, Unquote by Jonathan Williams. It is a small paperback compendium of quotes from the famous to the obscure, ranging from the profound to the absurd to the vulgar. The book is to Bartlett's what Boone's Farm is to Dom Perignon - a (small "d") democratic version of the idea that even the most meaningless collection of sounds might hold magic for someone who works hard enough to discover it.

In the seventeen years since I got it (it came in without a price point; occasionally, Ingraham would send along something "free" if the order was big enough, and the store supervisor told me I could have it, because it was far too vulgar to put on the shelves of a nominally Christian bookstore), the book has passed in and out of my mind and bookshelves I don't know how many times. I can remember not packing it when we moved from Virginia to Illinois in 1999, and complaining to my wife because I had lost this wonderful little book. I also remember not unpacking it when we moved in. In the spring of 2000, though, there is was, on a shelf where it didn't belong.

I have no idea where it disappeared to next, but it did, and it passed out of my mind until about three years ago, when I found it sitting on my dresser, next to our bed. Don't ask me how it got there. I put it on the shelves downstairs, but this afternoon I spied it sitting on the small shelves in our bedroom, tucked away neat as could be, even though I distinctly remember seeing it just a couple weeks ago on some shelves downstairs, where I had put it when I found it a few years back.

Whether it's the absurdity of Joe Garagiola ("What got you here will get you out of here."), the wit of Harry Truman ("Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day."), or the observation of someone named Norman Douglas ("I'd cross an Alp to see a village idiot of quality."), this book has what a real book of quotes should have - an opportunity to discover the beauty and power and, yes, magic of words.

From this little book, I have changed the quote in my sidebar to one from that most American of writers, Walt Whitman.

Political Analysis From The Onion

With a wonderful hat-tip to Parklife for emailing me a link, I offer the Onion News Network's analysis of the way our media covers our Presidential elections.

Poll: Bullshit Is Most Important Issue For 2008 Voters

On Solzhenytsin

The passing of Alexandr Solzhenytsin is an historic moment. Unlike, for example, Anatoly Sharansky, who has dived in to the politics of his adopted home of Israel, Solzhenytsin disdained the celebrity his status brought him, and sought in rural Vermont the quiet life. He was rewarded by his adopted hometown by the protection they could afford (that and a fence surrounding his property).

There is no doubt his Gulag Archipelago opened the eyes of the west to the details of the brutality of the Soviet regime. To be sure, there were few who had illusions about them; yet, in the post-Stalinist era, they at least could pretend that things were different. It was a difference of degree, however, not of kind, as Solzhenytsin's writings made clear. I remember reading them in the midst of the Reagan era of hyper-anti-Soviet rhetoric. It was difficult to maintain the necessity of engaging a state as brutal as theirs, except perhaps through the minimalist position afforded by realpolitique.

There is certainly something of the hero about Solzhenytsin. Yet, as Masha Lipman writes in today's Washington Post, his life and beliefs were so wholly caught up in a peculiar Russian approach - not so much "premodern" as Lipman writes as "nonmodern" - that his example is difficult to follow. He was, in many ways, a combination of two of Russia's great writers and thinkers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. From Tolstoy comes the kind of idealism that views the modernizing tendencies of western influence as a threat to a certain kind of peculiar Russian agrarian purity. From Dostoevsky comes a love of the purity of Russian ethnic identity, including religious conformity under the Orthodox Church, that cuts through the moral relativism of modernity and offers simple answers and a clarity of vision which, in Solzhenytsin's case, gave him the moral courage to write his book in the face of all the power of the state to silence him, including death.

While there is in the US an intellectual legacy that is similar to his (that of the pantheistic anti-modernism of Thoreau), I do not think that, other than as a symbol of resistance to a particular form of modern tyranny and a gifted artist who could see clearly because he was not willing to see shades of gray in his own nightmare, he offers a way to understand our world. That's OK, though, because he has left us a legacy that should serve as a warning to any who might harbor illusions about the benignity of totalitarianism.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Music Monday

As promised, more of your requests. Except for this first one, which comes from the Mrs. Seeing as she does have some pull around here, I figured I'd put this one out first. Of course, I like it, too, but that's beside the point. It's the Dead, from 1991, with (what else?) "Truckin'".

For Alan, here are the Gin Blossoms, with "Hold Me Down" (a much better song than "Hey Jealousy"):

For Kirsten, here is one of Amy Ray's best songs for the Indigo Girls. There are a lot of great road songs from them, but "Chickenman" is probably the best. By the way, what are "median cats"?

Fighting Trivia (UPDATE)

It seems the McCain campaign and its surrogates in the RNC are gearing up for another Trivia Campaign.
Today, Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee are taking issue with Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) recent suggestion that Americans inflate their car tires to save on gasoline.

Both are not only falsely claiming that Obama’s energy policy is based entirely on car maintenance, but they are concurrently selling and handing out tire gauges reading “Obama’s Energy Plan” as part of a fundraising campaign.

The Democrats should have seen this coming as early as Friday, when Newt Gingrich appeared on FOXNews calling this off-hand remark of Obama's "loony" (I suppose Gingrich should be considered the expert on nutty off-the-cuff remarks . . .). I suppose this is another signal the Republicans really don't have anything to offer the American people other than mocking a Democrat through trivia. Yet, I have neither seen nor heard nary a peep on how, or even if, to respond. My guess is that he is in a "Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" position - if he responds, he is giving a certain legitimacy to the charges; if he doesn't, he is weak in the face of the hardball tactics of the Republicans. I find this kind of thing infuriating. AN excellent example is Somerby's column from today. His advice to the Obama campaign was to "laugh" at the Obama/Britney ad. To my recollection, he didn't respond at all; it was bloggers and some surrogates who responded - myself included among the former category. Yet, I'm not sure what good making light of the ad would have done, because that is hardly a muscular response to the coded racism the Republicans have been using since 1968 to win Presidential elections.

Rather than respond to the specific nonsense of the tire gages, it might be nice to have Obama put out a TV ad that began with McCain's recent statement that he is reluctant to talk about his POW experience, then feature clips of all the times he has talked about it. Or, perhaps an ad featuring McCain's various flip-flops, using his own words to prove the point. Or even an ad featuring McCain stammering to try to answer questions. In other words, fight trivia with substance.

Or, he could use these tactics and ads as a way of pointing out the fact that McCain's got nothing. Just an ad featuring all this crap, juxtaposed with images from the war, of home foreclosures and bank runs. I think this might even be the best idea yet.

Yes, it's negative. Yes, it's the "old" politics that Obama has sworn to change. Yet, I fail to see where he has much choice now. The Republicans have nothing, and this stunt reveals that. It would be far better to go as hard after him in a far more substantive manner than to sit back and allow this death by a thousand cuts.

Of course, if Obama takes this advice, I want a consultancy fee. . .

UPDATE: I had a brain storm just now, and I think this is a winner. Should this ad run, I expect a big, fat check from the Obama campaign . . .

Juxtapose images of the war with images from the Obama/Britney/Paris ad. Juxtapose images from a recent bank run with images of McCain stuttering to try and answer a question. Juxtapose images of the price of gas with those of Republicans handing out tire pressure gages. No words. Just the images. Then, with no voice over, a simple sentence sits on the screen for about ten seconds: "Is John McCain ready to be President?" In fact, it would be best to run the images of him stuttering and stammering right before that question appears.

I should be a political consultant.

Is Michelle Obama From Babylon, NY? If So . . .

I suppose this kind of nuttiness was inevitable.
America has never faced so many different crises at the same time in living memory. The war with al-Qaida and Islamic terror, the Iran crisis, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, the rising price of oil, the falling dollar, enemy acronyms like OPEC, NAM, OIC, U.N. ... Obama is correct in saying that the world is ready for someone like him – a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib and seemingly holding all the answers to all the world's questions.

And the Bible says that such a leader will soon make his appearance on the scene. It won't be Barack Obama, but Obama's world tour provided a foretaste of the reception he can expect to receive.

He will probably also stand in some European capital, addressing the people of the world and telling them that he is the one that they have been waiting for. And he can expect as wildly enthusiastic a greeting as Obama got in Berlin.

The Bible calls that leader the Antichrist. And it seems apparent that the world is now ready to make his acquaintance.

Thus Hal Lindsay of The Late Great Planet Earth fame.

Please note how careful Lindsay is here. He quite clearly says Obama is not the anti-Christ. Yet, he is walking like that particular duck, quacking like that particular duck, so we are left to ponder, if not Obama, then who?

If every person fingered as the anti-Christ by these dispensationalist whackos were indeed the child of Satan come to Earth, we would be facing an army of them, from Napoleon through Kaiser Wilhelm II, to Woodrow Wilson, Josef Stalin, Hitler (obviously) to Saddam Hussein. Seeing as all these previous A/C's are all dead, I suppose that does leave the field open for Obama - putting his mark on us, making war on the saints, and all that.

When "defenders" of "Christian values" write garbage like this, I do believe any pretense that these people have any clue what it means to really follow Jesus should just be set aside. We can laugh at them and their murderous fantasies, their near-schizophrenic howling at the way liberals want to kill us all and make us all gay at the same time. But "Christian"?


Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Mixed Week

While technically Sunday is the beginning of a new week, everyone treats it as "time off" from the rest of the week, a day removed from the rest of the flow of time. In that spirit, we have a chance to sum up the past week's events and, perhaps, look forward to new challenges coming up.

Much of the political talk on the Sunday shows concerned the Obama/Britney/Paris ad and the race issue, including the interesting finding in a poll that a slim majority of Americans believe that Obama started it. Joe Trippi has a great explanation of the way this has unfolded to McCain's advantage, although I believe that advantage to be only temporary. When a former aide to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan gets on This Week and politely but firmly explains the reality to the gathered half-wits, I do believe the conversation is beginning to turn.
God Bless David Gergen! Really--he was on This Week and said (check the video or transcript for exact wording), "When McCain's camp calls Obama "The Messiah" and "The One", he's really calling him "upitty." I'm from the South, and we understand what that means. That's code."

I think digby is wrong in this analysis, if for no other reason than people are already discussing the not-so-subtle racism of the Obama/Britney/Paris ad. It is subtle, which I acknowledged in my post on the ad. But, as I also said, just because it's subtle doesn't mean it isn't there. I think McCain's options in this arena are actually more limited now. While it's true that the Rasmussen poll indicates that people see the issue as having been opened by Obama, McCain's attempt to square the circle of his own position has become far more difficult because there are people paying attention now, and calling him out. This isn't about a few liberal bloggers, either. Again - David Freakin' Gergen made the point as clear as day on This Week. It doesn't get any more plain than that. McCain's options are now limited because there are fewer more Establishment figures than David Gergen.

Obama has had a rough week, it is true. McCain, however, narrowed his options - regardless of the opinion poll - and forced the issue of what digby calls "dogwhistle politics" on to the table. Finally. I think, despite all appearances, the long-run implications of the Rovian tactic of using an opponents strengths against him will backfire precisely because Obama's strengths are so much greater than McCain's.

One of the things in Obama's favor this week is we are entering the August doldrums. Between the Olympics, Congress' time off, and the conventions, we are entering a time when the focus is off big events (barring something either catastrophic or phenomenal). I think that Obama is waiting to really open up. He's got far more money. He's got many more advantages publicly. He isn't limited by an infamous temper, or the way he's altered his public positions to win over a very narrow political base.

Twelve years ago, a certified war hero was running against a much younger opponent. This certified war hero was known about Washington, not only as a great figure, but for a certain misanthropy that arose every once in a while. The war hero managed to gain an advantage coming out of his own convention by nominating a younger person of a much different political ideology. That advantage became a lead in the polls moving in to the autumnal race. The problem was that the war hero had little money, and the social and political climate mitigated against the radical break of electing a new President from a different party. Even as the polls fluctuated throughout the fall, it became clear that the war hero would lose. It wasn't just incumbency that Bill Clinton had going for him. The times favored him. The political climate favored him. His youth favored him. In retrospect, Bob Dole's convention bump, helped by picking Jack Kemp as his running mate, was a political anomaly, the kind of thing that happens but means little in the long run.

There are two comparisons to make here. The election of 1932. The election of 1996. Study those, and maybe some understanding of the dynamics of this race will come.

Reasonable People Can Disagree

I suppose it is in keeping with my own commitment to a certain kind of American pragmatism that I am interested in discussions with others whose political and other views differ from mine. I have an interest in dialogue for its own sake, a conversation to move forward a certain kind of social and political understanding in which differences become a matter of negotiation through mutual understanding and respect. Part of that understanding and respect is rooted in an acceptance not just of limits, but of fallibility as well. No one has access to the keys to the Universe. No one has insight in to the mind of God. No one has the corner on wisdom, knowledge, morality, and correct judgment. One of the beautiful things about the American political system as it has developed over the past 119 years is a desire, no matter how vital an issue, to keep talking. Our lives play out our beliefs, and even the most dedicated reformer, the hardest working entrepreneur, the most self-satisfied CEO, and the most humble clergy person are all also American citizens. We live out our pragmatism by continually talking; we try to share our perspective with others in the hope that such will create a shared vocabulary in order to induce others to work with us.

On the other hand, there is the nagging suspicion that some do not accept the idea that even on matters of great import there is room for disagreement. For thirty years, on matters of abortion, of the place of religion in the public sphere, and a host of other issues, we have been bombarded with a rhetorical onslaught of absolutist rhetoric that not only shuts down meaningful debate and work towards compromise, but betrays what is the heart of American politics - public discourse. The introduction of absolutes in to our public debates is the end of politics. We enter a non-political realm in which those who do not accept the position being offered are not considered worthy fellow-members of society. Differences become a matter not of the complexity and joy of human diversity, but of moral perversion.

Recently, in a discussion on abortion at another website, I was the subject of a long polemical attack by someone who stated, unequivocally, that those who are pro-choice on abortion desire the murder of infants. Not only had I made my own position on abortion - a pretty minimalist pro-choice position, I might add - abundantly clear, I also made it clear that, of all the great troubles facing our land, I didn't even see abortion as being on the political, social, or cultural radar screen. For the most part, the American people have accepted the kind of regulated regime that exists right now, in which for all practical purposes, most areas of the country are shut out of having the option of abortion (the vast majority of counties in the US do not have an abortion provider, and the average distance of travel for someone who does not live near one is well over fifty miles).

The personal invective leveled at me was quite substantial. The person who did this at least had the consistency to speak out of a belief that, abortion being murder, those who accept the practice are aiding and abetting murder. We are moral monsters, in other words.

Our "exchange" is almost a case study in the way the introduction of any kind of absolutes - be they moral, religious, or what have you - in to our political debates in fact destroys those very debates. It is the end of American politics. Dare I say it is even un-American. The roots of our politics are in dialogue, in compromise, in listening to another, and seeking common ground. It is rooted in the wonderful humanistic idea that different people can hold different beliefs, even very strongly-held beliefs, and still be fully human, fully moral agents with which one can deal and dialogue. When a person sees no room for moral nuance, or can accept that a person can differ from him or her on a matter of great personal import and still be a person worthy of respect, that person is no longer willing to participate in the democratic process. Our politics is always about giving away one thing to get another. No one gets everything they want - the art of political negotiation is figuring out how to finagle more of what I want and less of what you want, knowing full well you are trying to do the same with me - so the introduction of any kind of absolutist position, rooted in extra-legal, extra-Constitutional grounds, destroys the political process, because by definition, there can be no compromise on issues rooted in the acceptance of moral absolutes.

This is where, ultimately, the comparison between the pro-life movement and the Civil Rights movement fails. Despite all the high-flown rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the end, his position, and that of the hundreds and thousands of local activists and others who did the grunt work towards equal rights for African-Americans, was rooted not in the Bible but in the American Constitution. It was a movement with roots in the Church, to be sure, and fueled by a certain religious passion. The political heart, however, was not a Christian belief in the sanctity of human life, but a (small "d") democratic belief in the (small "r") republican values that include the dignity of all human beings. There was no compromise available on the issue of Civil Rights not because it was an absolutist position in the way, say, a pro-life person views abortion as murder. There was no compromise because the structural racism that existed then and exists now is a betrayal of our Constitution. Our polity is warped by a social and legal structure that denies part of our Constitution.

On the other hand, to take another example, the debate over same-sex marriage, by bringing in religious arguments, also runs the risk of ending any serious political dialogue. While those who oppose same-sex marriage also often rely on historical arguments, these at least have the virtue of being proved or disproved. When one hears, "God made marriage between a man and a woman," all opportunity for understanding and dialogue come to an end. Politics stops at that point. Reasonable people can argue the merits of legal recognition of same-sex unions on a par with marriage (and there are gay rights activists who view the emphasis on gay marriage as a distraction from other issues). It becomes impossible to reach a political agreement when one side insists that any agreement would betray a moral abosolute.

It is possible to view others who hold political opinions and beliefs far different from one's own as fully human moral agents, worthy of respect, dialogue partners in the democratic experiment. Once one stakes out a position rooted in the belief that compromise is impossible, however, one no longer becomes a (small "d") democrat, but a tyrant, demanding acquiescence to a certain moral standard that is arbitrary, betraying the very heart of our political system.

Virtual Tin Cup

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