Friday, November 18, 2011

Mind's Eye Of Newt

Since I do not believe polls mean anything, I refuse to speculate as to whether or not Newt's recent rise in said meaningless polls is or is not correct. All the same, since some media outlets put stock in such drivel, it does give us all a chance to revisit our most silly, megalomaniacal politician. Public life offers a spectacle of personality disorders, from the mildly OCD to the outright psychopathic. In Newton Leroy Gingrich, we have the joy of sitting back and watching a man swallow his entire political career whole, with his head firmly resting as far up his ass as possible. Photos don't do the picture justice.

I was reminded of this fact - Newt's best friend, from his own perspective, is Newt; Newt's worst enemy, from the perspective of the rest of humanity, is Newt - when I heard the teaser to this story. I was glad I was making good time so I didn't have to listen to it. It's hard to drive when you're laughing so hard you're doubled over, tears streaming down your face.
"If you look at the totality of what we accomplished, I had a pretty good speakership. I'd rather have done that than been a caretaker," he said. "I did burn out my party. There's no question [that] by the spring of 1998, they were just tired, and they didn't want to fight anymore, and they didn't want to have any new ideas — I actually had a senator say to me, 'We're not doing any ideas this year.' "
I love this. It's like looking at the world through crap-colored glasses. Newt got the heave-ho because he just wore out those poor House Republicans with his new ideas, his legislative accomplishments, his bold leadership.

I have to wonder if he figures cheating on his various wives with female staffers was all their fault. They just couldn't keep up with his manliness, his desires, his prowess.

Seriously, there is something so deranged in this, it should be remembered going forward. It isn't even rewriting history, because Newt, I firmly believe, sees this as the reality with which he dealt in 1998. Anyone paying attention back then knows it resembles those halcyon days of the second term of Pres. Clinton as much as the Disney version of The Alamo resembles the siege of that mission.

Should Newt make it through the first round of primaries and caucuses (caucki?), we should expect more of these kinds of professorial reflections. The kind of question-free zone in which Gingrich continues to walk - did Brian Naylor do no research at all before producing this story? Did he actually quote someone saying Gingrich is a man full of ideas, professorial in his approach to public life in the same way as Pres. Obama? How could he do this without spit taking all over his keyboard? - may well serve the Republic well. After all, if he winds up with Republican nomination, Obama cake-walks to re-election. In our current historical moment, electing a Republican would be even more disastrous than maintaining the status quo. Gingrich, having slightly less discipline in his personal and professional life than a pithed frog, would certainly provide four years of entertainment, including a whole cycle of female staffers emerging from his office tousle-haired and flushed. I say this only because his personal history is against him, not because I wish these poor women to be subjected to his version of "Serving the President".

I just wish we could stop reading and hearing stories about how full of ideas Gingrich is. Seriously. He isn't. He opens his mouth, whatever falls out gets printed, and that's it. The filter that most people use most of the time, that little voice that says, "Don't say that! It's just nuts!", has no power over Gingrich. The guy said that Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her children, was an example of the results of Democratic social engineering. He said the Columbine HS shootings in 1999 were an example of what happens when we have Presidents getting blow jobs in the Oval Office (as opposed to disgraced former Speakers getting them wherever they can grab the two minutes it takes for him).

Part of me hopes the guy does it, gets the nomination, and just cuts the last frayed moorings to reality. On the other hand, I really, really, really want him to just go away, take his second trophy wife and returns to some public college in Georgia and rails against government all the while pulling in a high salary from the government.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Annoying Personal Reflection

Tomorrow night is my last night at the job I have had for the previous five years. Leaving has been a long time coming. I needed all sorts of assurance and reassurance from the Rev. Mrs. that jumping without any visible net was OK. Once I got it, though, I didn't hesitate.

I won't bore you with the irrelevant details. I have been searching for new work, and thanks to Lisa I check each day for new opportunities. I won't deny a certain amount of trepidation in the prospects of waking up on Saturday knowing I am, of my own volition, among the unemployed.

At the same time, for the first time since I graduated from college, I am actually setting goals for my life, planning, and working toward accomplishing those goals. This is really what I want to write about.

When I graduated from Alfred University back in the dim, dark days of 1987, I had been accepted at the Public Policy Analysis program in the Political Science department at the University of Rochester. Two years there would pretty much guarantee me a nice, cushy wonk job. From there, it seemed that the skies were blue, the forecast sunny, and the world would be a field of oysters.

It didn't turn out that way for me. Between September, 1987 and early summer, 1990, my life seemed out of anything resembling control. Looking back, I raced to the notion of ordained ministry in much the same way the old joke about people joining the French Foreign Legion: I wanted to forget. My first year in seminary taught me this, at the very least - I was not cut out for pastoral ministry. I suppose at the time I was going through this realization, it was a bit traumatic, but I really don't remember it that way. In fact, just the opposite. My three years at Wesley were a marvelous time. I learned a great deal, felt myself anchored spiritually, and, most important, was surrounded by a group of people I still consider the best friends I have ever had and will ever have.

Needless to say, I met my wife there. What more needs to be said, right?

Well, a whole lot, I think. Most of the past quarter century since that time leaving the cocoon of Alfred to the harsh reality of life has been spent denying even the possibility of making any kinds of plans for one's life. See, once upon a time, I had plans, and life and circumstances unforeseen intervened, and left my plans in a heap on the ground. One would have thought that being older and wiser (I know I'm older; I only hope I'm wiser) I might change my ways, but the voice of that much younger me, burned by an experience that should have left me me stronger, insisting that making any kinds of plans only collapse because life intervenes. As the saying goes, life sucks, right? So, just kind of float from day to day, hope for the best, and hunker down. Basically, that's been my approach to life since Ronald Reagan was President.

So much for all my preachments on courage, huh. If you're wondering, yes, I am quite aware of what a big, stinking hypocrite this makes me. It doesn't help that hypocrisy is the common cold of human failings.

So, here I am, a guy whose adult life has pretty much been dedicated to the proposition that doing anything long-term is impossible, who has stuck with his own personal status quo out of a trembling fear of the unknown taking flight over the abyss.

And, I have plans.

I've been doing the National Novel Writing Month, less with any thought of publishing the results than with the intent of developing the habit of sitting down, each day, and cranking out a minimum number of words. The goal - 50,000 words for November - isn't really "novel" length. At best, the lower end of the range. Furthermore, I have known since the first of November this was more an exercise in habit formation than anything.

And the habit has formed. Whether I really feel like writing or not, whether the words come easily or with difficulty, I sit and I write. It feels good to do that.

In the midst of this daily writing, I managed a couple weeks ago to write a short story. It is, I think, among the best things I have written. Response from alpha readers has been generally positive. With some polishing, I firmly believe it will land somewhere that will share the belief it is worth reading.

I believe that the best things, the most important things, have been said in fiction. The truth that lurks within the compounded lie of the novel is durable, tangible. Human. I have no interest in beating people over the head with ideas or my own political or religious point-of-view. Those kinds of books are both boring and annoying. The best stories make their point by being recognizably human. I do not believe I will ever write "the best stories". I do believe I have the capacity to write stories that include characters who are recognizably human in situations that are recognizably human.

So, that is my plan. When I finish the whole NaNoWriMo thing, I will go back and do a rewrite based on the input I've received from my alpha readers, then tuck it away, and turn my attention to something a bit more ambitious, even more than trying to write a fifty-thousand word novel in a month. If I feel the urge, I might write more and different things, too. The habit has settled upon my life, and plans and hopes are forming.

For the past five years I've been woodshopping here. Once upon a time, I thought this would be a vehicle to something more. It has become that; just not in the way I once imagined.

So, as I head out to my penultimate night at Sam Walton's emporium, I feel a mix of things. Most of all, for the first time since I was 21 years old and thought I had it made in life, I have hope because I have plans, and know what it will take to move forward.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Real Challenge For The Occupy Movement

It was increasingly evident that the powers-that-be across the country were losing patience with the Occupy Movements in various places. For a couple weeks now, stories of police violence in Oakland have made it clear that the tolerance of the ruling classes in various places was disappearing.

It started Sunday in Portland, OR, and was telegraphed on Friday, when the mayor - who repeatedly made the claim he supported the Occupy movement - insisted that police were going to move in at one minute after midnight two days later. Since then Oakland (again) and last night in Manhattan, where police cleared Zuccotti Park. There are various videos abroad the show pretty clearly the police were none too gentle as they pushed the people out. They were, one and all, in riot gear, with state-issued truncheons and pepper spray. What good is it having all these toys if you can't play with them?

I have to admit that I am surprised at the sweep of officialdom's decision to act this broadly. At the same time, it isn't like it should be that surprising. What really troubles me, however, isn't the predictable reaction of state power to a growing, and popular, movement of popular democratic resistance. Instead, this article in particular, while certainly within a history of radical ideas, betrays the heart of the Occupy movement by identifying the institutions of state power with the interests of the people who make up that institution:
Individual officers and even groups have expressed support of certain struggles--most notably, for a time during the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol last winter. Some participants in Occupy Wall Street, despite regular police attacks, have chanted, "Police are the 99%!"

But the truth is this: The police force is not, and cannot ever be, a force for social justice.

In reality, the police don't do the job that they do on TV: protect regular people from crime and violence. Instead, they serve and protect private property and the existing racist, sexist, and massively unequal social order.
What makes my discomfort with this even deeper is I pretty much agree with it, at least to a point.

Yet, I am far more sympathetic with the following:
Addressing government authorities, one occupy spokeswoman used the police aggression as an opportunity to refocus on the larger message of the movement:
You claim to support us, and yet you tell your police force to destroy us. Peaceful citizens are being injured in the process. This is not democratic, this is autocratic. … We have said from day one that our fight is not with you, but rather with banks, irresponsible corporations, and a corrupt federal government. By camping outside the city hall, we gave you a choice to decide to stand with us and with working class Americans. Instead, you made the choice to protect unjust social and economic policies that are leading our nation into a state of financial ruin and institutionalized oppression.
More of this kind or thing is needed. We need to address police officers as members of the working class whose jobs, too often, lead them to acts that are contrary to their own interests.

There is little doubt, I believe, that the mild-mannered, establishment commentator Charlie Pierce is correct, however, in his general description of what has happened over the past 24 hours:
Your right to peaceably assemble for the redress of grievances, and how you may do it, and what you may say, will be defined by the police power of the state, backed by its political establishment and the business elite. They will define "acceptable" forms of public protest, even (and especially) public protest against them. This is the way it is now. This is the way it has been for some time. It's just that people didn't notice. And that was the problem with the Occupy protests. They resisted the marginalization — both literal physical marginalization, and the kind of intellectual marginalization that keeps real solutions to real problems out of our kabuki political debates.
Now that the police have moved, en masse, across the country, the next step will determine whether Occupy will go the way of similar protests in Britain that ended after the Tory-led coalition government there sent the cops in to smash some heads, or if they will defy the police, the mayors, and the nonsensical political commentators. I would caution, by the way, that relying on the courts as a bastion of defense is a sketchy plan. They are as much a part of the apparatus of control as the police, who do their bidding.

The question that faces Occupy now is: Do protesters return to Zuccotti Park and the other public spaces they have taken over, in the face of the state making their feelings about the movement clear for all to see? If they do, then Occupy may well be on its way to overcoming the internal debates and divisions, some of the more important of which I highlighted above, and pose an even graver threat to the institutions that would stifle democracy.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Full confession - I do not read Ross Douthat. Not because he is conservative. Not because he is often skewered by folks like Tbogg and the folks at Sadly,No!. I don't read him because, by and large, I only have so many minutes in a day to dedicate to reading stuff. He is one who has slipped through the cracks, is all.

When the folks at Crooked Timber dedicated a post to a column Douthat wrote on the whole sad Penn State business, I thought it might be a nice idea to find out what it was Douthat had said. First, here's the key point in Douthat's attempt to understand what happened at PSU:
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.
Good so far? Paterno screwed up not because he is a fallible human being who acted out of a sense of self-interest and self-preservation, but a hero who, if he has fallen further, had already climbed higher than so many of the rest of us.

Here's what Belle wrote as a summary of Douthat:
The only reason Catholics like Joe Paterno and Darío Castrillón Hoyos are able to commit such uniquely awful crimes is because they are ethical in a way that run-of-the-mill godless folk cannot understand.
N.B.: The Dario Castrillon Hoyos who is named was a heroic Roman Catholic bishop of Medellin, Colombia who, upon being raised to the Crimson and becoming the Vatican's point man on the pedophilia scandal, became the leader of those who denied the existence of such a scandal, tried to claim it was a uniquely American experience, and praised bishops who refused to denounce their priests to secular authorities.

In any event, some commenters at CT are up in arms that Belle wrote what she did about Douthat's column. Except, that is exactly what he said.

And it's bullshit. From beginning to end. To even imagine there are human beings who are intrinsically more in tune with the moral order of the Universe is a marvelous pagan idea. As Douthat describes events, he sounds far more like a classicist describing the role of hubris in Greek tragedy, instead of someone trying to make a serious moral point in some kind - perhaps Roman Catholic, although I can't imagine a serious Roman Catholic ethicist making any claim close to this - of a Christian context.

This is a kind of praising with faint damnation that envisions a Universe where good and evil, virtue and vice, are weighed in a balance. Furthermore, Douthat does a marvelous job reading Paterno's mind, divining all sorts of morally superior reasons for not coming forward, or moving more vigorously to investigate, allegations that a protege of his was buggering little boys in the showers. There is already enough evidence in the public record to make the case that, in fact, Paterno kept mum because he knew, if he pushed to hard, he could lose his job. Imagining he was acting out of an inherently superior sense of right and wrong is not only contradicted by serious ethical reflection. It is also contradicted by the evidence in the public realm.

I'm honestly not sure what Douthat was thinking when he wrote this particular column, beyond - perhaps - attempting to claim that there are individuals out there who are just morally better than others. If that is the case, he probably should have picked a different set of circumstances that the attempt to cover-up serial child rape. It's disgusting.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Few Words In Defense Of Michelle Bachmann's Whine

I don't pay attention to the Republican primary candidates' debates out of a sound sense of personal preservation. It seems, however, the latest dust-up might - despite my preferred attitude of bemused neglect - have some merit. Michelle Bachmann is complaining that last night's debate in South Carolina was weighted against her.
Michele Bachmann told reporters in the spin room after Saturday night’s presidential debate here that her campaign has proof that, in the words of a Bachmann spokesperson, debate sponsor CBS News had “a pre-planned attempt to limit” the number of questions Bachmann was asked on stage.

Bachmann has an email from CBS News Political Director John Dickerson she says backs up her claims, but before the controversy could cook off, one debate co-sponsor — the South Carolina GOP — said Bachmann was barking up the wrong tree.

“The SCGOP had no input on how questions were developed or to whom they were addressed,” party Executive Director Matt Moore told TPM. “Congresswoman Bachmann seemed to receive a fair number [of] questions, and had ample opportunities to answer.”

That’s not how Bachmann saw it.

“Clearly, we received an email today, unintentionally, that CBS had an effort not to ask questions,” she said. “That was their effort, I don’t know why.”

“The email was targeted to me,” Bachmann said. “I don’t know if it was targeted to anyone else.”
TPM, which is covering this latest bit of news, offers the following less-than-sterling defense of the decision by CBS to ask Rep. Bachmann fewer questions than other candidates:
CBS’s just hired political director, John Dickerson, wrote an email — apparently to CBS colleagues — noting that Bachmann probably wouldn’t get many questions tonight since she’s basically tanked in the polls. That’s not terribly surprising — also-ran candidates typically get less mic time in a multi-candidate debate.


For some context, the TPM Poll Average puts Bachmann currently at 3.2% support nationwide among Republicans. So she’s creeping up on Gary Johnson territory. And well into Santorum-ville.
I have been immune for quite a while to the nonsensical "liberal media!!!" screeching from the right. This case, one would think, is evidence of the real problem with so much of our national political media. It isn't liberalism, or excessive Democratic partisanship.

It's hubris. Stupid hubris.

"Polls" at this point in time - before a single vote has been cast - are meaningless. Considering current "polls" have Herman Cain in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney, one would think cooler heads would merely chuckle at them then insist on going about the business of constructing these debates with some sense. The constant tea-reading - it's Perry! no, it's Cain! Gingrich is up! Bachmann is down! - is meaningless drivel. Even Romney's pretty consistent high numbers are meaningless because there haven't been any primaries or caucuses yet. The playing field is level for one simple reason - the current crop of Republican primary candidates haven't had anyone vote for them yet.

So, basing the number of questions any particular candidate will face at any given time based on polls is ludicrous. A good answer here, a bad answer there, a misstep on this one, a clear, concise, knowledgeable response on that one - this, too could change the polls. Most sentient people understand this. None, apparently, work for CBS.

Putting in writing that the debate format is limiting opportunities for some candidates is monumentally stupid. It may well be the case that Michelle Bachmann deserves less attention than some other candidates. We have no way of knowing that unless we as the voting public are exposed to her ideas on specific topics. We can't be exposed to them if she has fewer questions addressed to her, and is allowed a shorter response time than other candidates.

There was a time when these debates were run by the League of Women Voters. Back in those halcyon days, the League made it a policy to just let candidates in, to have a moderator ask questions, then sit back and let them talk. Complaints over the way the League did things were perennial, especially when they had the temerity to refuse to block debate access to non-party and Third Party candidates. It would be preferable to have such institution do these things without any input from any of the candidates or news organizations. The candidates want to debate? Here's the format. Folks who show up will be asked whatever questions we want. Folks who don't show up, well, doesn't that tell us something about them?

I would be more sympathetic to Ms. Bachmann if she, and so many conservatives, hadn't spent decades whining about the liberal media. I would be more sympathetic if this whole incident didn't start before the debate was even over last night. Running as the perpetual victim of Big Blue Meanies who lie in wait ready to pounce is unbecoming, to say the least. Yet, she does have a point. No matter her standing the "polls", she deserved the right to have as many questions asked of her as other candidates did. It isn't "fair" to deny her time just because her poll numbers are low. Even if Josh Marshall thinks it is, or CBS, or anyone else.

Besides, according to the same site that thinks she got about as much attention as she deserved, she did manage a marvelous whopper.
“If you look at China, they don’t have food stamps,” she told the GOP debate moderators. “They save for their retirement.”
I mean, come on. Why deny us the opportunity for more of this preciousness?

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