Monday, December 31, 2007

This Answers So Many Questions

Psychiatrist Paul Steinberg has a fascinating article in the NYT about binge drinking and how it affects long-term brain function in rats.

...after a longstanding abstinence following heavy binge-drinking, adult rats can learn effectively — but they cannot relearn.

When put into a tub of water and forced to continue swimming until they find a platform on which to stand, the sober former binge-drinking rats and the normal control rats (who had never been exposed to alcohol) learned how to find the platform equally well. But when the experimenters abruptly moved the platform, the two groups of rats had remarkably different performances. The rats without previous exposure to alcohol, after some brief circling, were able to find the new location. The former binge-drinking rats, however, were unable to find the new platform; they became confused and kept circling the site of the old platform.

Why? The toxicity brought on by heavy drinking lingers long in the brain.

From a political perspective, though, this quote warrants the double take:

Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

"Stay the course?" President Bush isn't mentioned in the article, but he appears to be there in spirit, so to speak.

The obvious question is whether results like these can be extrapolated to humans. Maybe not, although the author thinks there's a good case to believe they can.

Our understanding of how the brain operates is experiencing giant leaps forward. When future historians try to piece together how such a disastrous presidency happened, it's an area that will receive substantial attention.

Hat tip to the High Plains Bull Moose.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

How Negative Will Clinton Go in Iowa?

David Corn asks, and the answer from inside Clinton sources seems to be, as much as we have to.

An interesting flip of conventional wisdom from one:

"We once thought he had to win Iowa to stay alive," this Clintonite says. "We now think that we might have to win to stay alive." Will the fight get even more nasty as Iowa approaches? "There's still plenty of time for that," this person says. "And that's how things go in politics. There may be no choice."

From a politico's point of view, sure. But in the context of this race, doesn't going negative, especially by the book, feed right into Obama's narrative? Voters are always fed up, but this year seems worse than usual. Obama is telling them he's the one who can change that for good, that there is a choice in whether a candidate has to attack.

Of course, it depends on which attacks voters believe are unfair. It appears Iowans believe Obama and Edwards were on the right side of the line with theirs. Clinton's have sounded harsher, and she also faces a problem that plenty of voters think she's a bit nasty underneath anyway.

Little doubt she's tough as her campaign sells her. How much toughness will voters want?

Democratic Nightmares of Huckabee?

I first saw Mike Huckabee in person at the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 11. So did a lot of other people, who took notice of his moderately-surprising second-place finish. A rise in the polls did not follow, however, and few took him seriously.

Later that month I followed him to a meet and greet at a pizza restaurant in Pella, IA. Only about 50 people came out to meet the man, but most were blown away. They loved the guy. That event, and the reasons they love him, more than anything made me think if Huckabee could somehow, some way get some traction, he could easily be the toughest opponent for Democrats in 2008.

Chris Cillizza examines that premise here. He lists some good reasons Huckabee may be tough, including his media savvy and facility with debates.

Here was my thinking at the time, and it hasn't much changed:

  1. He's a New Testament conservative. It's the Old Testament guys (and they are almost all guys) that tend to dominate religious conservative discourse, the kind that tends to be more about punishment for the guilty and fear of great social change and creeping immorality (aborition, gay marriage, etc.). The Old Testament rhetoric, and fundamentalism that often goes with it, scares a lot of Independent voters. Huckabee talks forgiveness, kindness and human potential. He doesn't scare people, he makes them feel welcome.

  2. Huckabee may be the only candidate who can hold together a GOP in danger of fracturing. Economic conservatives have their problems with the Other Man From Hope, but it's hard to see them abandoning the Party over it, especially since he's taken a pledge not to raise taxes. And while good-sized chunks of the religious right don't trust Giuliani, McCain or Romney, they're eating up Huckabee. That's where most of the Republican activists are, the ones who do much of the ground work in campaigns.

  3. I've talked to a lot of Republicans (mostly in Iowa) who have a soft spot for Obama. Some are going to vote for him. When talking to Democrats, Huckabee elicits the same sort of response. He's the guy in the GOP field they don't mind.
In a general election campaign, certainly partisanship would take over and opponents wouldn't feel as charitably toward Huckabee. But the man leads with compassion, and is hardly a doctrinaire economic conservative. He doesn't have the rough edges to turn Democrats off the way many of his Republican rivals do.

Of course, all this is based on what we see on the surface. The media is starting to vet Huck, importing whatever skeletons he may have from Arkansas. We don't know what we'll find or how the public will react. If he comes through relatively unscathed, though, he could be a formidable wild card for whom Democrats likely don't have a game plan.

Update: TNR's Barron Young Smith writes for the opposition.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wonkin' Out on Obama's Health Plan

That now-ubiquitous figure that Barack Obama's health plan would leave 15 million uninsured? Apparently Jonathan Coen put it out there, and he writes today on how he came up with it, and how he still thinks it's about right.

Slate's Tim Noah argues that's ok, because Obama's plan makes the most sense politically.

Noam Schreiber essentially agrees, but has something in the back of his mind. A doubt, I think:

As I say, this argument comes pretty close to convincing me that Obama has the right approach. On the other hand, it's Obama who tells us that if we want to win the next election, we can't be afraid of losing it. If you accept Cohn's claim that his plan leaves millions of people uninsured, and Noah's claim that it's nonetheless the more politically viable way to structure a non-single-payer plan, then this seems like precisely the kind of overly-cautious thinking Obama was warning us about.

Point taken, but it's also arguably one of those bipartisan situations Obama has been talking about. Major health care reform would be landmark legislation, and if he believes using this approach will achieve a strong plurality in Congress, he may have a case.

I haven't heard him do it, and both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards may have even stronger points when they say a mandate is necessary. But there are a lot of times in politics when two principles come into conflict, and that's one reason ideologues don't get elected president.

NIE and the Race

In what amounted to a bombshell to most everyone today, the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003-4, and the White House had tried to block its release for nearly a year to get them to change their assessment.

Things like this make Ron Paul's constant state of incredulity perfectly understandable to me. But others will write on such things.

How will the revelations affect the presidential race? Do things like this even shock Americans anymore? Getting to 30 percent approval may be about as low as a president can get already, and Republicans aren't exactly trying to identify themselves with the administration.

Hillary Clinton got a lot of heat starting in October for her vote to mark the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Whether it is or not likely hasn't changed. But John Edwards loves to point out that in imposing the resulting sanctions on Iran, President Bush listed as a reason that the country is a "proliferater of weapons of mass destruction."

The NIE may give more ammunition to use against Clinton, although the issue is admittedly a bit arcane. But as they say, as close as Iowa is, any edge may turn out to be important.

The 5587th Insult to Intelligence Already This Month

If you watch the NFL you can't avoid the ridiculous New Orleans Visa commercial (sorry about the weird quality of video) unless you mute it like I obsessively do.

Look, I understand marketing. It's like being a defense attorney; you're making the best case you can for your product, not a balanced presentation of the facts. But the Visa campaign is intellectually insulting.

The ads all show intricate dances of humans (possibly Cirque du Soleil members on their off days) engaging in commerce, only to have the finely-tuned machinery break down when some moron tries to pay with...CASH. Does anybody remember that cash is faster than paying by credit card? It's not like we all haven't tried both options and don't have a frame of reference. Even when you don't have to sign a receipt on some smaller transactions, it's not like it's faster. How does this make any sense?

The New Orleans commercial is by far the worst, though, because the subhuman that screws up the line is wearing a pink polo shirt with a sweater tied around his shoulders while manly Saints fans wait behind him to make their purchases of, I don't know, giant foam fingers perhaps. That's right, little prissy boy is demeaning men everywhere! Please avoid rolling your eyes until he leaves!

The oddest things get my blood to boilin'.

Reich Rips Clinton Strategy

There's nothing like a devastating critique from a friend:

I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the stridency and inaccuracy of charges in Iowa -- especially coming from my old friend. While I’m as hard-boiled as they come about what’s said in campaigns, I just don’t think Dems should stoop to this.


Yesterday, HRC suggested O lacks courage. "There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," she told reporters in Iowa, saying Iowa voters will have a choice "between someone who talks the talk, and somebody who's walked the walk." Then asked whether she intended to raise questions about O’s character, she said: "It's beginning to look a lot like that."

I just don’t get it. If there’s anyone in the race whose history shows unique courage and character, it's Barack Obama. HRC’s campaign, by contrast, is singularly lacking in conviction about anything. Her pollster, Mark Penn, has advised her to take no bold positions and continuously seek the political center, which is exactly what she’s been doing.

All is fair in love, war, and politics. But this series of slurs doesn't serve HRC well. It will turn off voters in Iowa, as in the rest of the country. If she's worried her polls are dropping, this is not the way to build them back up.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Obama's Iowa Trench Warfare

MSNBC's Carrie Dann says she's become convinced of Barack Obama's organization in Iowa.

Being skeptical of it makes some sense. Obama has little national campaign experience, and Howard Dean's collapse in part from over-reliance on young voters is still fresh in peoples' minds.

What I've seen over the last four months in Iowa, though, is that Obama's structure is first-rate. His many staffers in the state have impressively executed every event I've attended, and generally exceeded expectations in head-to-head matchups with other campaigns. The turnout they delivered at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner was no fluke.

Make no mistake, Hillary Clinton's and John Edwards' are also formidable, but they underestimate Obama's at their peril. Clinton's got a great machine, but Obama's supporters are more enthusiastic. Many of Edwards' proponents are too, but at big events like J-J, his lack of money is evident, and he can't scale his efforts the way Clinton and Obama can.

There are too many unknown variables to predict the outcome of the caucuses. Especially with students, I bet none of the campaigns really has a good idea who is going to show up on Jan. 3.

David Redlawsk, political science professor at the University of Iowa, told me recently that the campaigns that exceed expectations at the caucuses almost always have significantly better organizations than most of us so-called experts knew about. From everything I've seen, this year I'd bet Obama will pick up that award after the dust settles.

Clinton Begins Heavy Shelling

There was a a little-noticed moment in the Las Vegas Democratic debate in November. You know, the one where Hilary Clinton came out fighting back hard again Barack Obama and John Edwards. Clinton took direct aim at Obama's health care plan, saying "the most important thing here is to level with the American people."

She wasn't just presaging her line on their policy differences, she was going after Obama on character, his greatest strength and perhaps her greatest weakness. And in doing so, she brazenly appropriated a line he had been using in his own speeches about her.

Now Clinton is coming after Obama even harder, and from multiple directions. Over the past few days, Clinton's campaign has stepped up attacks on health care, and essentially charged Obama with laziness and lack of fight in the Illinoins legislature. And how thick must be the opposition research file they have when they quote a former teacher talking about him wanting to be president in kindergarten?

The whole "turn up the heat" on Republicans thing lasted about a week, yes? Clinton's campaign is arguing it has been under constant attack for a month, and needs to respond by "drawing distinctions."

That's a valid reason, and Clinton's attacks are at least plausible. The problem is, Obama never made the argument that going after other Democrats to draw distinctions was a bad thing. Clinton did in order to try to defang her challengers. When it didn't work, she revealed her original contention was nothing but posturing.

David Weigel over at Reason sums it up well while investigating Clinton's charges of Obama's PAC acting unethically. He argues Clinton's PAC disbursed money to potential presidential allies in exactly the same way Obama's did, and simply shut it down a bit earlier. The same pattern is evident:

That's what this is all about, of course: A Rovian attack-from-weakness ploy. The Clintons have played faster and looser with fundraising and donating-for-influence than any Democrat in history, so an attack on Obama's funds is unexpected, the sort of thing that could muddy both of their images—although he would have more to lose.

And that's the point. Even if Clinton is sullied by going negative, Obama's got farther to fall. It's cynical, often effective, and will likely remain a big part of her campaign until the nomination is decided.

Romney's Faith, Out Front

Via Mark Halperin (more here), Mitt Romney will make his "religion speech" Thursday in Texas, after apparently much internal deliberation.

Romney is hoping voters see it much like JFK's 1960 speech, also given in Texas, about Catholicism. Paraphrased, that means, "I know you haven't elected someone of my faith before, but I'm not a religious nutjob even if what you may have heard about Mormonism sounds that way. Nothing to worry about here."

It's now, and will be, almost impossible to figure how big an issue Mormonism will be in the election since even if it is, voters aren't likely to say so. I don't think it's his big problem, though. It's that voters don't know what they'd really be getting with a Romney-marked ballot. He's not the personality type that can sell a life-changing transformation to a mass audience, as impressed as they may be with him in person. He looks too much like he's executing a marketing plan.

It seems hard to imagine the decision to give the speech wasn't heavily influenced by Mike Huckabee's dramatic rise in Iowa, especially since his support has come from giant chunks of the evangelical Christians Romney needs to beat Rudy Giuliani.

Romney has been telegraphing his strategy the last few days. He's making the explicit case that if GOP religious voters want to stop Giuliani, they would be wasting their vote on Huckabee. I don't buy the idea that Huckabee doesn't have a chance at the nomination, but the caucuses, and Romney's campaign, may come down to whether Iowans do.

Is There a Democratic Huckabee?

At an event in Des Moines two weeks ago, I asked Joe Biden if this could be the first presidential election where being a white male is a disadvantage. He laughed and said the whole idea of having a woman and African-American in the lead was pretty cool (well, maybe he used slightly different words), but that in these dangerous times, people would go with experience.

Jonathan Alter says Hillary Clinton may be touting hers, but the second-tier Democrats are the ones that really have it. And one of them might make a surge as a result:

If Clinton wasn't worried about Obama in Iowa, she wouldn't be bashing him every chance she gets. Should she lose there, the door might open for a second-tier candidate to get competitive. You think I'm crazy? That's what they said when I wrote about Mike Huckabee in August.

Biden does get similar reaction to Huckabee at the events I've seen in Iowa. The relatively few people who see them come away loving both. So why hasn't Biden gotten the uptick Huckabee has in the last month?

The problem with Alter's analogy is that in general, Republicans don't like their field, but Democrats do. The GOP contenders, especially in Iowa with so many Christian conservatives looking for a better choice, was wide open for a guy like Huckabee.

Both Bill Richardson and Biden have made mini-surges in Iowa, but Richardson has never gotten beyond about 12, while Biden peaked around six percent. It's possible John Edwards could tank and one of the other two sneaks into third, but even that won't put them in position to win the nomination. They're cursed with front-runners that haven't disappointed primary voters.

Speaking of Edwards, Alter slips in this surpriser without fanfare:

Edwards may yet prevail; Iowa is once again as fluid as ethanol. But if he doesn't win the Jan. 3 caucuses—he's been steadily losing altitude since early summer—he says he'll drop out.

Plenty of people have speculated that very thing (and one wonders how Edwards would be doing without all that speculation, actually), but I've never heard anyone report him saying it. The nightmare for Clinton would have to be Edwards dropping before New Hampshire, and his support largely going to caucus-winner Obama.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Asserting What We Want to Believe

It's come to the point where literally every day or two I expect to awake to an absurd, intellectually offensive announcement from the Bush Administration, and they have always lived up to those expectations the last few months. Partly this is because Congress is applying more pressure, and the media digging up more secreted information, to which the White House needs to react.

I've explained my past support for Bush roughly this way: I firmly think that almost all people believe they are doing the right things even when they're not, and that on policy issues there are often multiple plausible answers that come from differences in philosophy. My internal occam's razor gives me strong resistance to conspiracy theories and explanations of behavior that question motivations as somehow craven or stupid, instead of really thinking through what another person is saying. I thus tend to give pretty much all people the benefit of the doubt with their intentions until they prove me wrong.

Usually this works. In the case of Bush, it ended up being a huge blind spot for his policy decisions that, still a bit unbelievably to me, really have turned out to be almost as bad as many detractors were saying they were. I still don't doubt Bush believes he's doing the right things, but his intellect is not up to the tasks required of his job, and his ability to rationalize decisions is more than up to it.

Which brings us to the latest bombshell, reported in the Washington Post here, that basically says that if the president makes a claim of executive privilege, the Justice Department, by the definition of the "unitary executive" concept that says that the president essentially is the will of the entire executive branch, will never investigate the president.


From the Post article:

David B. Rifkin, who worked in the Justice Department and White House counsel's office under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, praised the position and said it is consistent with the idea of a "unitary executive." In practical terms, he said, "U.S. attorneys are emanations of a president's will." And in constitutional terms, he said, "the president has decided, by virtue of invoking executive privilege, that is the correct policy for the entire executive branch."

What the White House is saying is that if Congress has a problem with what's going on, too bad, because the president defines his own powers, and what he will or will not allow Congress to do. Now, I have some sympathy for the idea of a strong executive branch in some cases, but how can anyone think this is a good idea, or even makes sense?

First, the unitary executive theory is senseless because only about 3000 of its members are political appointments by the president. The others are bureaucrats who have an at-times deserved reputation for inefficiency and resistance to change. But that independence is also a good thing, especially when we're talking about legal disputes.

If we think attorneys are there to uphold the president's version of the law, we're in serious trouble. But that's what much of the U.S. Attorney firing flap is seemingly about. Few doubt Bush being within his rights to put in people that reflect his philosophy, but how is a philosophy that protects one party and a president's own people really a philosophy? It isn't, it's an attempt to pursue power through unethical means.

And even assuming that the unitary executive concept did make sense, it would clearly not apply to self-prosecution! What other response can we reasonably have other than that this is Bush's attempt to expand and protect his own power without much limit? It seems to be the classic case of someone believing that their own beliefs are so right and unassailable, that they are too important for anyone else to be allowed to dispute them.

Congress should do whatever is necessary to force compliance with its requests for information to aid in its investigations into its various legitimate targets. Once more, the Administration has brazenly insulted us, and such precedents as they are attempting to set need to be forcefully fought.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Russia, Part 2

I swear, I'm not looking for things that make me angry about Russia, they just keep turning up. Now it seems there's a Kremlin-sponsored summer camp for about 10,000 youths that depicts the leaders of Other Russia (the coalition of non-Putin parties dedicated to averting a de facto dictatorship in the country, put together and arguably led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov) as prostitutes, and apparently teaches the li'l campers that they're fascists. Funny how "democratic" gets confused with fascists so often in authoritarian regimes. How long shall we give Other Russia before it is banned or chased from the political scene?

Checkers? Done.

It seems that a program has been created that can win or draw any possible game of checkers you can think up. Given its much more limited scope and set of available moves compared to chess, it shouldn't be surprising that we still have a long way to go to defeat the future Mecha-Kasparov on autopilot.


Russia Again Steps Down

A la' Keith Olbermann's Countdown, yet more evidence that Russia is the Worst Country in the Wooooooorld. The U.S. and Britain have not been sterling actors on the international stage these past years, and deserve criticism. But Russia's stance that it will stop cooperating with the fight against international terrorism if a murder suspect, one that they may well have asked to commit the murder in question, is the height of irresponsible national egotism. We should fear Russia as much if not more than Iran and North Korea for the long-term.

A History of the Simpsons

Who says this is all politics? I don't know if the upcoming Simpsons movie is going to be great or not (I'm predicting a Rotten Tomatoes score of 75% for whatever that's worth), but I'm still looking forward to it. After 18 years on the air, it's almost an institutional part of my life. And to get me caught up for the film, and all behind-the-scenes and stuff, Vanity Fair has an oral history from the people who worked on it and were involved. Even Rupert Murdoch speaks...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cheney and the Environment, Part II

I already wrote a fair amount about the Washington Post series that wrapped up today with chapter 4 on Cheney's environmental legacy as Vice President. Kevin Drum's blog mentions former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman's admission that she resigned because she couldn't defend the ultra-lax environmental regulations she was being asked to write. He ends with this:

Needless to say, the power and refinery industry was a heavy contributor to the Bush-Cheney campaign. Just a coincidence, though, I'm sure.

The money didn't hurt, but the whole idea of buying votes and influence is generally overblown. Money will get you face time with a candidate, but beyond that it's sort of a chicken-or-egg argument: did energy companies contribute to buy policies that they wanted, or did they contribute heavily because they knew Bush-Cheney already supported the policies they wanted? Both happen, but I think it's usually the latter.

Religious Republicans Staying With Bush?

That's the conclusion of a recent Pew Research poll, which showed that though support for President Bush's job approval has dropped, that still a whopping 71% of Religious Republicans approve, and 61% of other Republicans*.

I will leave aside for the moment how it is even possible for that large a segment of people could approve of Bush's job in office overall. I will also note that he has been far more supportive of social conservatism than he is commonly given credit for, though the stories of his administration's contempt for the religious right in other ways have been well-reported.

My biggest question has to do with the strength of support. I watch and read a lot of Republican commentary on the president, and talk to a lot of Republican activists where I live. It's difficult to find anyone who strongly supports Bush anymore, and all my instincts tell me that a good chunk of the 71% and 61% may approve of the job he is doing, but their support is much softer than it once was. The overwhelming feeling I get in talking to Bush supporters is that they're very disappointed, but he's their guy, and he's still a lot better than Hillary Clinton.

I'm not confident enough in my gut to make any grand pronouncements, but I think if the administration is looking to these numbers for support, it should take them with a large grain of salt.

* - Note that if between 61-71% of all Republicans approve of the job Bush is doing, and his overall rating is 29%, that would mean that among Democrats and Independents, his approval must be around single digits...

Remaking the World

David Brooks wrote last week of a recent conference where foreign policy thinkers gathered to discuss the future state of the world order. Princeton's John Ikenberry proposed what took up the most intriguing space in Brooks' piece:

The new global architecture would have three features.

First, there would be a global social services sector, providing health care, education, shelters, emergency services and other parts of any healthy community. Second, there would be renewed security alliances, in part to enmesh China before it becomes so powerful that it's uncontainable. Third, the U.N. would be reformed and a Concert of Democracies would be created, where the free world could respond as threats emerge.

As Brooks writes, this vision underestimates the power of nationalism and, I would add, the power of inertia, but much of it is compelling. I don't believe the world is at all ready for a global social services sector, nor do I think it would be a good idea. But a nascent agency to coordinate information sharing, rapid disease response and the like would be a promising beginning.

Re-doing our security alliances makes sense as well. Times have changed a great deal since the Cold War, and many countries are still unsure where their most lasting alliances lie.

Is NATO still relevant? I would like to think so, but perhaps it requires a new mission. Can it bring Russia into its fold? I doubt it can anytime soon, as the country has regressed into past jingoism and confrontationalism to complement its dangerous slide away from democracy.

Will China and Japan be able to reconcile? Will the United States reassert its leading role as honest broker in the Middle East in the post-Bush era, or are we too far gone? If so, who will step into that vacuum? Such fluidity demands a fresh look at the underpinnings of the alliance system.

The third concept, a reform of the United Nations into a Concert of Democracies, is the most fascinating to me. The U.N. has a role to play in the world, but by and large is not doing so. Its bureaucracy, in the experienced words on the Bull Moose, is arrogant and inefficient. Its committee makeup - most notably the Human Rights Commission - is a notorious joke. It is plagued by scandal, and its General Assembly sessions too often, not just in the Bush era, amount to opportunities for small countries to bash the United States. I am optimistic based on new Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's early-term actions, but there is so much to fix.

Bringing together democracies has many potential pitfalls, but also much greater opportunity to act efficiently and with concerted aims. Likely it would not be a reformed U.N. but a separate organization that, if it works, would effectively assume some of its power. Indeed, some competition may be good for both organizations regardless of other benefits we may expect.

Do I see these things happening? Only in part. Alliances are already shifting to some degree, but it's unclear if America has a coherent grand strategy into which to fit them. If a Concert of Democracies emerges, it may happen informally and almost by happenstance, or perhaps even grow fortuitously out of an existing organization like the G-8 or European Union.

The world is changing drastically, and it's not just American politics that is undergoing a realignment. The Bush administration's response to shifting international conditions has largely been to exercise as much hard power as possible, a track that is still useful but increasingly outdated. Its retreat from international institutions will be reversed by the next president, and we should all be relieved for that. But who we elect will have a significant impact on which direction we go with the topics at hand. As damaged as its reputation may be, the United States is still clearly the world's leading nation.

I'd Almost Rather Watch Paris Hilton


Chris Matthews unfortunately hosted columnist Ann Coulter on Hardball for a full hour last night. The story of the show was the call taken during the show from Elizabeth Edwards, John Edwards' wife. As you may remember, Coulter spoke to the CPAC at a South Carolina straw poll in early March of this year, one of the lines of her speech being as follows:

"I'd say something about John Edwards, but if you use the word 'faggot', you have to go to rehab."

Coulter yesterday was true to her formula: 1) Throw out baseless inflammatory rhetoric; 2) Complain that anyone who responds just needs to lighten up; 3) Run away from any fallout by questioning her accusers' motivations.

Let's break down the conversation, shall we? My comments are italicized, except for the [Applause from the crowd] line.

Chris Matthews: You know who's on the line? Somebody to respond to what you said Edwards yesterday morning -- Elizabeth Edwards. She wanted to call in today we said she could. Elizabeth Edwards go on the line you're on the line with Ann Coulter

Elizabeth Edwards: Hello, Chris.

Matthews: You wanna say something directly to the person who's with me?

Edwards: I'm calling you … in the South when someone does something that displeases us, we wanna ask them politely to stop doing it. Uh - I'd like to ask Ann Coulter -- if she wants to debate on issues, on positions -- we certainly disagree with nearly everything she said on your show today -- but uh it's quite another matter for these personal attacks that the things she has said over the years not just about John but about other candidates. It lowers our political dialogue precisely at the time that we need to raise it. So I want to use the opportunity … to ask her politely stop the personal attacks.

Ann Coulter: OK, so I made a joke -- let's see six months ago -- and as you point out they've been raising money off of it for six months since then.

[Ed: Miss Coulter, you've claimed this was a joke ever since that night. This isn't a matter of political correctness, because I believe that banning words and thoughts does a lot more harm than good. But why don't you try to explain what could possibly be funny about that line? To be a joke in this context, there has to be some tie to reality, and there is none to be found here. You're insulting everyone by claiming an attempt at humor.

Also, it's not exactly unusual for candidates to raise money by mentioning the people their supporters can't stand. You've intentionally qualified yourself for that role many times over.]

Matthews: This is yesterday morning, what you said about him.

Coulter: I didn't say anything about him actually either time.

[So this was another John Edwards you were talking about in the quote above? Who are you expecting to buy this?]

Edwards: Ann, you know that's not true. And once more its been going on for sometime.

Coulter: I don't mind you trying to raise money. I mean it's better this than giving $50,000 speeches to the poor.

[Again, change the subject with something completely irrelevant. This is all so much cowardice.]

Edwards: I'm asking you.

Coulter: Just to use my name on the Web pages…

Edwards: I'm asking you politely…

Coulter: … but as for a debate with me, um yeah, sure. Yeah, we'll have a debate

Edwards: I'm asking you politely to stop personal attacks.

Coulter: How bout you stop raising money on the Web page then?

[Again, please tell me how these are connected in any way.]

Edwards: It didn't start it did not...

Coulter: No you don't have cause I don't mind

Edwards: It did not start with that you had a column a number of years ago

Coulter: OK, great the wife of a presidential candidate is calling in asking me to stop speaking...

Matthews: Let her finish the point...

Coulter: You're asking me to stop speaking, stop writing columns, stop writing your books.

[Either you are incapable of simple logical distinctions, or again are simply lying. I would bet on the former not because you are stupid, but because you are so thoroughly brainwashed by your ideology that you automatically give anything a Democrat says the worst possible spin. Mrs. Edwards is clearly saying nothing of the sort.]

Matthews: OK, Ann. Please.

[Another common tactic: just shout over the other person. It's much easier debating a straw man.]

Coulter: OK

Edwards: You wrote a column a couple years ago which made fun of the moment of Charlie Dean's death, and suggested that my husband had a bumper sticker on the back of his car that said ask me about my dead son. This is not legitimate political dialogue.

Coulter: That's now three years ago --

[What possible difference does the time interval make? Was it wrong or not?]

Edwards: It debases political dialogue. It drives people away from the process. We can't have a debate about issues if you're using this kind of language.

Coulter: Yeah why isn't John Edwards making this call?

[Again, why does that matter? If he had called in, you likely would have been talking about how pathetic it was for a presidential candidate to stoop to the level of calling a columnist and worrying so much about it. Further, you imply something negative about John Edwards without actually saying what it is.]

Matthews: Well do you want to respond and we'll end this conversation?

Edwards: I haven't talked to John about this call.

Coulter: This is just another attempt for –

Edwards: I'm making this call as a mother. I'm the mother of that boy who died. My children participate -- these young people behind you are the age of my children. You're asking them to participate in a dialogue that's based on hatefulness and ugliness instead of on the issues and I don't think that's serving them or this country very well.

[Applause from the crowd]

Matthews: Thank you very much Elizabeth Edwards. (Turning to Coulter) Do you want to -- you have all the time in the world to respond.

Coulter: I think we heard all we need to hear. The wife of a presidential candidate is asking me to stop speaking. No.

[Could someone please hold an intervention with you? You are implying that you are unable to speak without baseless insult and appealing to the worst in your audiences. We did hear all we needed to, but the vast majority of us got something much different than you did.]

Coulter is the worst example of a columnist my mind can realistically conjure. She appears little but a ball of insecurity and attention-grabbing controversy, and exhibits a general contempt for those who disagree with her. That she is sharing her honest opinions I will not question. But they are in some ways the equivalent of the worst shock radio, a play for cheap applause and without much basis in reality. If she could defend them, she would be able to debate rather than throw insults childishly back at her accusers.

"Putting the B Back in British"

For those who point to Western Europe as a model of progressiveness on immigration, know that they are dealing with many of the same issues as America: Did we let diversity go too far and end up with a society that lives in separate ethnic groups at the expense of national cohesion? How much assimilation should we be doing?

Separated Muslim minorities are much more of an issue in Western Europe than America, and more explicit government support for national identity and ideals has achieved good popular support in many countries. In signaling how his administration will change priorities from his predecessor, Britain's Labour Prime-Minister-to-be Gordon Brown gave vocal support to greater social integration (reported in the Christian Science Monitor):

As he took over Sunday as Labour Party leader, Brown – more traditional and mindful of Britain's heritage than his predecessor – hinted at a new "contract" between the British state and its people. "In return for opportunity for all ... we expect and demand responsibility from all: to learn English, and contribute to and respect the culture we build together." British values, he said, involved "liberty, civic duty, and fairness to all."

He's already hinted that he wants to institute a new public holiday – a "British day" – and that immigrants seeking citizenship should demonstrate their loyalty through voluntary community work.

"We do need a sense of identity in a changing world, and there is nothing wrong with saying if people come and make this country their home then there should be a sense of Britishness to which they must subscribe," says Bob Marshall-Andrews, a Labour parliamentarian.

Labour's rhetoric on this is similar to what was espoused in this blog in several recent posts: that this is not about abandoning one's culture, but accepting that citizenry carries responsibilities and core values that add up to an essential national identity. To live in a country together we don't need to agree on what films to see, marriage rituals to observe, or even the relative importance of work and leisure time. Those things matter, but we can all make different choices. But if we don't agree on the primacy of a secular rule of law, the rights of the individual, or the limitations on church and state, then it would be irresponsible to avoid their discussion on grounds of political correctness.

You Mean One Actually Works?

A study by U.S. researchers seems to show that echinacea, an herbal mixture, actually does significantly help fight the common cold. The results are unfortunately in conflict with previous studies, and the differences in results are large on the surface. It will be interesting to see how the discrepancy is explained.

Thompson in Context

Peter Beinart and Jonah Goldberg this week talk about how Fred Thompson is not the next Ronald Reagan, as well as how each party today is in some ways captive to the memory of its favorite deceased president.

They make excellent points as usual, but I'd like to veer off to address Thompson for a bit. I'm on record as saying I think he won't be all he's advertised when he finally enters the race, reportedly next week.

That Thompson looks the part of a president is obvious, and it's his closest tie to Reagan. But by accounts from people inside his own proto-campaign, his extemporaneous speaking skills leave much to be desired. His energy and commitment have been questioned by many, and one wonders just how much of his popularity is due to simply not being named Giuliani, McCain or Romney.

But what is getting short shrift in coverage are Thompson's own issue conversions. Ever since thinking about getting into the race, he has been using his media space in the National Review, radio commentaries, and talk shows to show off his conservative credentials. He has hit all the hot-button issues on the Right: repeal of McCain-Feingold, abortion, social issues, patriotism, tax cuts and the like.

But this isn't the same Fred Thompson I remember. He was one of my favorite senators while he was in Congress because he was reasonable, moderate and plainspoken about it. He was the same guy who was John McCain's national campaign co-chair in 2000, one of the only senators to publicly support the Arizona Republican. He even voted enthusiastically for McCain-Feingold. Thompson was hardly the darling of conservative voters.

I've said before I expect a certain amount of issue shifting with a presidential candidate. They are no longer representing just their own states, but the entire country, and not every change in rhetoric betrays an unforgivable character flaw. I think we just ask that they keep those changes within a area code we can reasonably accept.

Thompson's conversion to me is just a bit too calculated and much, and I'm not buying it. That so many others are would indicate a great deal of wishful thinking in the hopes of finding another Reagan, and is also a testament to their candidate's charisma. We shall see if it holds up over the long haul.

A Glimpse of Despotism

The Washington Post's four-day epic, behind-the-scenes look at Dick Cheney's tenure as Vice President is, whether one supports Cheney or not, a portrait of creeping despotism. There we see through glints and anecdotal shards how one of the most powerful men in the world operates from behind a wall kept deliberately opaque, shunning credit and fame for far-reaching results. And we get an idea of how one man can garner such immense power through experience, energy, certainty, and sheer force of will.

So is Cheney's an enlightened despotism that cuts through bureaucracy to efficiently serve the country's needs at a time of war, or simply a dark era of executive power run amok? It is neither, or rather it is not that simple. And it is also the wrong question to ask.

There is an allure to the get-it-done strongman, especially in time of crisis. The hero who bends the rules of a stultified bureaucracy to save what's really important is a staple of pop culture. People around the world rail against red tape and arcane rules that in practice ignore the people they're meant to help. And there's something to it. The exercise of that kind of authority has its advantages, efficiency, clarity, and results among them.

The problem is, concentrating so much power in one person makes a lot of people dependent on his or her character and judgment. Perhaps democracy's greatest virtues are the accountability that even the powerful have to the people, and the diffusion of power. All those checks and balances reduce efficiency, but make it hard for one person or a small group to take over.

And yet to an extent, that is what we've allowed to happen these last six-plus years. To be sure, Dick Cheney has far from absolute control of the federal government. But he has shown what a man with extraordinary personal focus and talents can have if he uses secrecy and tight control of information to its greatest advantage. He and others in this administration have set so many damaging precedents that it will be difficult to pull back from some of them.

It shouldn't have been this way. From Part I of the Post series:

When James A. Baker III was tapped to be White House chief of staff in 1980, he interviewed most of his living predecessors. Advice from Cheney filled four pages of a yellow legal pad. Only once, to signify Cheney's greatest emphasis, did Baker write in all capital letters:



Cheney told Baker, according to the notes, that an "orderly paper flow is way you protect the Pres.," ensuring that any proposal has been tested against other views. Cheney added:

"It's not in anyone's interest to get an 'oh by the way decision' -- & all have to understand that. Can hurt the Pres. Bring it up at a Cab. mtg. Make sure everyone understands this."

Excellent advice, but Cheney unfortunately has run the Vice President' office nearly the opposite way. He has kept vital information to himself and trusted aides only, bypassing even high-level cabinet members who might disagree with his agenda. Documents and records have been destroyed, and administration officials repeatedly blindsided by decisions. The list goes on in shocking detail.

The corruption of power is a cliche, and it is an easy morass into which to fall. Cheney has made the mistake of so many powerful men throughout history, which is that he is so certain that he is right and indispensible, that his agenda's achievement is so critical, that he need not follow the rules. All that matters is pushing through the right things.

Take the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Cheney saw its enforcement at Klamath Falls, OR as being in conflict with economic needs of farmers, but the law and science were clear against him. But for Cheney, to paraphrase Clausewitz, science is just politics by other means. So he got the floodgates opened by making sure that other scientists came out with a report stating the effects of allowing irrigation in the Falls area were unclear. Unfortunately, the aftereffects were not:

Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

On issue after issue, Cheney has put ideology over established procedure and law, delivering tortured justifications for doing what he wants to do instead of what the executive branch has been mandated to do.

It is not that he is cravenly serving his own ends; it seems clear he sincerely believes he is America's first (or perhaps second) servant. It is that he has forgotten his own lessons, that no one is infallible, that successful politics is not just machination and willpower. Ideas and conduct must be stood up to scrutiny both to obtain buy-in and to make them better, and he has systematically done just the opposite, pushing through his agenda with as little transparency as possible.

The same applies to President Bush, who suffers from the same certainty that he is right, and the additional crippling handicap that he is uninterested in complexity or facts that may cloud what he already feels to be true.

What about accountability to public opinion? Though far from a perfect roadmap to truth on complex issues, there is often wisdom to be found in a poll. But Bush and Cheney seem to have treated opinion not so much with skepticism as disdain:

"The only person in Washington who cares less about his public image than David Addington [Cheney's counsel] is Dick Cheney," said a former White House ally. "What both of them miss is that ..... in times of war, a prerequisite for success is people having confidence in their leadership. This is the great failure of the administration -- a complete and total indifference to public opinion."

Convinced of the rightness of their mission, this administration has assiduously avoided and even actively shut themselves off from opposing viewpoints and contrary evidence. Where someone was not sufficiently ideological or loyal (read: unquestioning), they were forced out in one way or another. If not a full-fledged mental illness, this faith-based blindness is at the least an extreme personality trait that has done massive damage across vast swaths of policy decisions. And far be it from Congress or the courts to stop them:

According to participants in the debate [about torturing enemy combatants], the vice president stands by the view that Bush need not honor any of the new judicial and legislative restrictions. His lawyer, they said, has recently restated Cheney's argument that when courts and Congress "purport to" limit the commander in chief's warmaking authority, he has the constitutional prerogative to disregard them.

Statements like these might be the comical ravings of a power-drunk lunatic about to crash if this were a film. And perhaps the sheer ludicrousness of pronouncements made by this administration, coupled with its secrecy and public relations that stands in opposition to its actions, have made it hard for us to come to grips with just how awful and dangerous they have been. Speaking for myself, the old adage that a big lie is easier to sell than a little one held true. As guarded as I am against extremism and conspiracy theories, I simply could not believe they could be this bad.

What America has gotten from Bush and Cheney is writ small what countries always get from concentrated power: a magnification of the leaders' strengths and weaknesses. Such works when a leader is right, but can be disastrous when he or she is wrong. Their overweening intransigence only amplifies the problem.

It is fair to ask the specific results of Dick Cheney's leadership, but the more important question is whether it is a good idea to invest anyone with the kind of authority he has accumulated for himself and the administration. There is a reasonable debate to be had that executive power should increase as a result of the September 11th attacks, or that some freedom should be sacrificed to increase security. But we have not had that debate, just stilted rhetoric that frames the issues only in extremes. The power in question has been claimed and consolidated without regard to whether the public wants it, or whether other branches of government have explicitly acted against it.

As citizens, we could not have known all that was going on behind the scenes. But we can't claim ourselves not culpable for its actions either. Doing so avoids our own responsibility as voters and informed citizens. We already have an impressive group of candidates running for president in 2008, and they will follow our lead. We need to demand more of them than we have of the current administration, including ensuring that the proper role of executive power and its oversight receives its proper, public debate.

Built-in Racial Preference?

This is likely not surprising to evolutionary biologists/psychologists, but studies would seem to indicate that a preference for one "race" (used loosely, because many scientists disparage the use of that term as being technically inaccurate) is either in-born or learned very early in life depending on the predominant race one grows up around.

An article on the study can be found here.

The reason this shouldn't be surprising is that humans have a great many evolved traits that served us well when we were scrambling to stay alive a few million years ago in the African savannah, but are counterproductive for the industrialized, high-tech, urban lives many of us lead today.

When we lived in Stone Age tribes of 100, an innate fear of anyone who didn't look like the people we grew up with might easily save our lives when another tribe ambushed ours to take over the local water supply. Our instinct to defensiveness, the numerous ways that emotion overcomes reason, and so many of our fears helped us survive in the past, but complicate and contradict each other now. It's likely that at least some part of racism is similarly rooted.

But as with other remnants of our past which no longer fit, that doesn't mean we just accept them. We no longer allow for unchecked emotion to be a legitimate excuse for committing crimes against others, we expect people to restrain themselves. Regardless of our predispositions, racism belongs in the same category. The main impact of these findings is simply to make the problem easier to understand.

Back to it...

The house has been sold, its contents (mostly) moved, and a little corner of an upstairs room formed into a makeshift computing command center. And so, let's get back to some posting, shall we?

Right after I go downstairs and get myself some corn chips.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Slowed Reactions

If you're one of my ten readers, you've noticed a dearth of postings the last few days. This is because I'm moving in about a week, and have way too much stuff to pack, sell, give away, or toss between now and then. I'll post when I can, but it will likely be a little slow until then.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Sopranos Finite

One apparently can't have a blog without some sort of comment on the Sopranos today. And since I've seen them all, I won't shy away from one of my own.

I loved it. Not so much right afterward; the person I watched it with and I laughed out loud at the cut-to-black ending. We knew creator David Chase was not going to go out like anyone expected, we just didn't know how. At first it played like a Bobby Ewing wake-up in terms of jerking around an audience.

But it was one of two things: Chase saying we could end things however we want to (unless a movie is coming down the pike) or, more likely I think, that Tony was killed. I'm not the first to reference Tony's conversation with Bobby where they talk about not seeing death coming, that all of sudden everything would just go black. But I don't want to get too into that.

Don't count Nikki Finke of the L.A. Weekly as a fan. She writes:

The line to cancel HBO starts here. What a ridiculously disappointing end lacking in creativity and filled with cowardice to The Sopranos saga....Chase clearly didn't give a damn about his fans. Instead, he crapped in their faces. This is why America hates Hollywood.

My goodness, get a grip here. Because you didn't get total closure? This show has never provided that. I'm sorry it didn't follow a formula, but the best stuff often doesn't. Even better:

...The Sopranos was not a show that went on inside your head. It was a richly visual series whose most memorable moments were graphic and in your face and damn proud of it.

What have you been watching? More than almost any show that's ever been made The Sopranos goes on in your head. It's continually ambiguous, filled with personality details that have no direct meaning on the plot, but are there for you to do with what you will. Endings of seasons are left vague and unsatisfying. My question is, why did you psyche yourself up to expect anything different at the end?

There are legitimate reasons to not like yesterday's ending, but if nothing else, Chase was consistent with what came before. It worked for me.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Brief History of Puppet Governments

Huh...President Crow T. Robot. Who knew?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Thoughts on the Debate

Manchester, NH - There seems to be no consensus in the punditry of who "won" the Tuesday GOP debate, although John McCain and Rudy Guiliani have garnered the lion's share of praise.

Response to McCain ranges from saying he was the best he's been so far the entire campaign, to positing that he effectively ended his campaign with his aggressive support of an immigration bill that is so unpopular with the base.

McCain's only winning gambit is that his staunch, straightforward toughness and experience outweighs his positions on individual issues. It will be a tough, long fight to get there, as McCain is fond of saying about Iraq.

I thought he was admirable Tuesday. He was eloquent, stuck to his guns with reasonable arguments, and made about the best case he could for his immigration stance. He was commanding and humorous. No candidate the presidency can afford to say exactly the same thing to every crowd. That said, McCain and Barack Obama are the two first-tier candidates who deserve our praise for being as consistent in their positions even when unpopular.

Guiliani came off well too. He made compelling cases for his positions on health care reform even if I don't think they're comprehensive enough, and his defense of being pro-choice was well stated even if he should have said it earlier. And he surely looked the part of a president, even injecting humor at his own expense.

Mitt Romney looked and sounded great, unless you thought below the surface of what he said. He was very smart to emphasize looking toward the future, and the other candidates could take a page from that.

Mike Huckabee was again excellent, but has no chance.

So who won? It's hard to read how primary voters are going to react to it all, especially since still so few people are paying attention. All I can say is that for me, McCain beat Giuliani by a nose, and both seem to be hitting their stride more as we go along. That's one upside of this cycle's long run-up to the election.

A Day in New Hampshire

Manchester, NH - Just below the surface of those passionate souls who came out Tuesday to support their favorites in the St. Anselm College presidential debate was a hint disorganization and lack of focus. It says much about Republican voters around the country, and especially in more independent-minded New Hampshire.

The pre-debate rally had its share of true believers, but numbers were sparse compared to previous elections, and to crowds Democrats have drawn of late.

Ron Paul's supporters were greatest in number, vocal strength, and creativity. They chanted frequently, lines like "Is there a doctor in the House?" (Paul is known as "Dr. No" for his consistent votes against almost any expansion of government) and many others advocating an Iraq pullout, abolishing the Federal Reserve, and saying no to a national ID card. Paul's crowd was almost exclusively male, and had the passion that ideological candidates often engender.

Mitt Romney had a relatively strong contingent that was vocal early on, but seemed to tire of it. That the state he was recently governor of is less than an hour away surely helps.

John McCain's group was sizeable and almost as vocal as Paul's, while Rudy Giuliani seemed to have a few more people, but many straggled in at the end and seemed quiet and disorganized.

The only other candidate with a presence to speak of was Tom Tancredo, whose supporters made up for their lack of size with pure amplification. They blew referee's whistles and sported cow bells around their necks. Several assured me the latter had no symbolic significance, they just made a lot of noise.

Two of Tancredo's supporters got in the face of a man from PrioritiesNH, a New Hampshire group dedicated to paring the Pentagon's budget "
on obsolete Cold War and nuclear weapons and invest significant funds into programs like education, healthcare, and energy independence." Insisting that the War on Terror is "black and white, good versus evil," they blasted the man for his naivete, while the man responded with a cool statement of the organization's rationale and ideas. I don't think they ended up agreeing.

Reporters would walk by to take photos or video, or to interview someone in front of the line, at which point the group in line of sight to a camera would start chanting on cue.

Overall, it seemed to support the idea that this is a party in transition. The old alliances that make up the Republican party are fraying if not broken. Many supporters seemed genuine, but unsure of what ideas joined them together.

You could see it on stage at the debate: one after another candidates ripped George W. Bush for his incompetence. When a president is on the ropes with an approval rating in the high 20s one expects that, but there is something more to it. People are questioning why they are Republicans. Why has their party abandoned its principles? Were some of those principles wrong, or perhaps once right but no longer so? What does the fact that even a majority of Republicans favors increased environmental protection mean for conservatism?

The people I met really do support their candidate, but overall there's a tentativeness about the future I haven't seen in my lifetime. The party is in the middle of soul searching and re-examining itself. I see that as a hopeful sign. Blaming someone else is always the easiest way out, and though there is plenty of that going on too, the amount of genuine internal debate is reason for optimism.

The Myth of Irreducible Complexity

When I saw the op-ed by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) in the New York Times last week, I had to let it sink. Brownback at a Republican debate some weeks ago raised his hand to say he was one of three presidential candidates on stage who did not believe in evolution.

In the editorial, he seeks to stake out a middle ground between faith and reason, arguing that they are not contradictory. In so doing, he only makes his answer worse by filling in further implausible detail.

Quoting from the piece:

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

The word "wholeheartedly" is revealing. Human emotion is critical to who we are and determines what our goals are, both as individuals and societies. They represent our wants. One of Brownback's biggest problems is he confuse what he wants with what actually is. Let me say it plainly: what we want has nothing to do with what is true, and in fact is often a poor predictor of it.

Arguments that there are different kinds of truth, such as a subjective idea that popcorn is the greatest food ever invented are fine, but here I'm talking about the no-doubt, universal truth that religion pretends to answer.

On my drive back to Boston Tuesday night, I heard a caller on the radio say there wasn't a single doubt in his mind that the lightning that disrupted the microphone system at the GOP presidential debate during Rudy Giuliani's answer about abortion was a purposeful act of God. Now, I can understand feeling that way, but how can one possibly say there isn't a doubt in one's mind about something like that? Or as almost all presidential candidates say about their belief in a creator? To believe anything for which there is not a single verifiable piece of evidence, not one?

One can believe what one will, but we need to stop confusing terms here. Emotion is a guide to figuring out what we want, something that gets us to act or not act, instinctual. Rationality is a tool to allow us to better fulfill those goals. Their domains are separate. And on questions of religion, they do in fact contradict in numerous ways.

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true.

I had not heard of microevolution, but have read up on it since. It is the idea that while within a species evolution can happen - and this cannot be denied because we've seen it happen in many experimental trials - it doesn't create new species. This is also contradicted by evidence, but it's inherently more difficult given the far greater complexity involved.

Sharon Begley addresses the fallacy of irreducible complexity, which argues that complex organs and systems couldn't have evolved slowly because, for example, an eye would be of no evolutionary advantage in an intermediate stage, something that is mistaken on several counts. One is because an intermediate system for simply detecting light would be of enormous advantage vs. a creature that did not have that ability. Another is that organs and systems are not always used for the same purpose in different stages of evolution.

Stripped of its pretense, microevolution amounts to a strategic retreat by believers in creationism, necessitated by overwhelming evidence for evolution, that they hope will allow for keeping their fundamental tenets intact.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today.

This is a non sequitur, as the debate in question has nothing to do with whether those scientists believe "macroevolution" is a fact. They do.

Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

This is also mistaken.
Science has much to say about man's unique place in the world, as it is relatively simple to tick off in which ways he is unique and which ways he is not.

I believe it is the noble feeling of sacredness for human life that Brownback and many others have that leads to this fallacious conclusion. That is, if humans are shown to be random and material, what is the basis for morality? This is an excellent and momentous question, but the consequences of an idea are independent of its being factual or not.

Brownback is partially right that there are questions that science alone cannot answer, but theology and philosophy don't belong in the same basket. The former inherently deals with what we hope to be true, while the latter generally does not rely on the supernatural for its lessons.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded.

Though again I understand the sentiment from which this comes, the sentence offers a corruption of the phrase "fundamental truth." If we were to speak of universal respect for human life, dignity and rights, I am right there with you. But I am looking for morality without the supernatural, and instances of such happen in real life many times a day.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

This last sentence must be addressed, as it is a frequent rejoinder by creationists. It is aimed at leveling the debate, arguing that atheists (which I am not, by the way) are just as "religious" as those who don't believe in evolution.

This is - and I do not use these words lightly - flatly wrong. Again, those who advocate evolution have an unbroken, massive collection of evidence pointing to their conclusion that can be tested and tested and tested again, all with the same result. Creationists, though they rely on reason and evidence whenever they can (e.g. the Shroud of Turin, Dead Sea Scrolls, or anything else that seems to support their beliefs) have literally none whatsoever. Believe what you will, but do not confuse that belief with science in any way.

Weighing a great deal of verifiable evidence that points toward, but does not prove that life was in some sense accidental, versus a created order with not a bit of evidence, does not lead me to being able to speak with conviction. Such uncertainty is daunting, but to deny it is intellectually dishonest.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I Just Wanted Everyone to Know...

...that Edward Said and Noam Chomsky may be seriously deluded in their moral relativism on American foreign policy, but it's not their fault. They're just high in anti-occidents.

Don't worry, that will be the only way-too-obscure pun I'll try for quite a while. I hope I haven't violated the Geneva Conventions.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Official English

From tonight's Democratic debate in New Hampshire, candidates were asked about their position on English as America's official language:

To a question on whether English should be the official language in the United States, only former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel raised his hand in the affirmative.

But Obama protested the question itself, calling it “the kind of question that was designed precisely to divide us.” He said such questions “do a disservice to the American people.”

Actually it's the other way around. One of the fundamentals of a united society is a common language, and we don't have that everywhere in the country. Yes, this has been true with immigrant communities in the past, but those were times when America assimilated its population. We don't nearly so much anymore, having at times taken the admirable goal of diversity too far.

I've been surprised at how impressed I've been with Obama in this race. He's more than charismatic, intelligent, articulate and optimistic. He's also measured, nuanced and more centrist than advertised. But on this, I think he's missing the point.

Senator Dodd in the same debate said that we should be encouraging our children to learn other languages, not talking about English as being official. How are those two things mutually exclusive? Should we not be doing both?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Grade A Turnover?

I am not nearly qualified enough to say, but I'll cite another post from Steve Clemons at the Washington Note, who is positively exultant about the more recent appointments to spots at Defense, State, intelligence, and others. I've been seeing this sort of thing here and there for a while. If it's true, wonderful, but it'll still end up being too little, too late.

Just Because I Don't Care Doesn't Mean I Don't Understand

ESPN Radio's Steve Levy reported a few minutes ago that there are a grand total of four major non-Southern California American newspapers covering the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals. The NHL has long been a distant fourth behind the MLB, NFL and NBA, but isn't this a bit much?

Does anyone care anymore? Professional hockey has become like boxing, except there's no Bert Sugar who I'd listen to for hours even when I don't know what the heck he's talking about.

Perhaps on July 4th Would Be a Good Time

Politico's Craig Shirley posts this question:

In order to save its ideology, should the conservative movement declare its independence from the Bush administration and the GOP?

Um...yes? Well, at least to the first part. How much evidence do conservatives need that Bush has done a terrible job?

He's not a Republican in Name Only, because the party has never been made up of only conservatives. Shirley asks rhetorically:

Some may argue a breakup is premature, citing President Bush’s prosecution of the war on terror, enactment of tax cuts and the appointments of Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court.

Let's not forget Bush has solid conservative credentials on some things, mostly social issues and tax cuts. But cutting taxes while simultaneously increasing spending significantly is a disastrous combination, and not conservative. It was a flaw Ronald Reagan shared, by the way, though not to Bush's degree.

It would be electoral suicide for most Republicans to not divorce themselves from Bush, and I'm surprised it hasn't been more noticeable. And though I don't agree that a simple back-to-basics approach to conservatism is the right answer for the party, if the GOP doesn't drastically change how it operates, it is doomed for a sustained period of relative obscurity.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Revolution or Recommitment?

David Brooks is good today as usual, viewing the Republican field on a continuum of revolution vs. recommitment:

[Fred] Thompson thus becomes one pole in the debate now roiling the G.O.P. Nobody is running as the continuation of Bush. The big question now is: should the party go back to the basics or should it jump forward and transform itself into something new? Thompson articulates the back-to-basics view in its purest form. Newt Gingrich articulates the transformational view in its purest form. The other candidates are a mishmash in between.

If I were a political consultant I would tell my candidate to play up Thompson’s back-to-basics theme. This is a traumatized party, not in the mood for anything risky and new. But over the long run, back to basics is no solution because it doesn’t produce a positive agenda for today’s problems.

In between is the right place to be on this one because there isn't a simple answer on where the GOP needs to head. It must find its center again on fundamentals like competent and efficient government, personal responsibility, and a strong, multi-faceted foreign policy. But in many other ways, it must find a coherent message for change, one that for example embraces environmentalism, de-emphasizes religious dogma, and adapts to the drastic changes to the social and economic landscape of the last 20+ years.

In a practical sense, Brooks is probably right on in recommending a candidate preach "back to basics," but govern transformationally. It may not be very inspirational, but make no mistake, the party must reinvent itself.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Water Buffalo Strike Back

Andrew Sullivan links to this wonderful, um, nature video. Kind of reminds me of the plot of Revenge of the Nerds, though I'm not sure who the crocodiles represent. Probably U.N. Jefferson.

A Genius Problem in the Immigration Bill

Well this is a new wrinkle to me, and not a good one. It seems that one of the things I like about the immigration bill, that is emphasizes skills and English proficiency and other traits as desirable for citizenship, is partially offset by the loss of EB-1 visas.

No, I hadn't heard of them either. EB-1s allow highly talented individuals (scientific geniuses, top athletes and artists, etc.) to fast track their way to permanent residency. A point system is nice, but there are always outliers with intangibles that get missed, and American companies, universities and the like benefit from their being here.

The Washington Post has the story, where there really is no defense of why it's going away. I may be missing something, but it's hard to see what.

Ocean's Thirteen

It probably won't be a great film, but how could I not have fun watching these guys just have fun on screen?

This I Would Love to See

After being slammed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board over its immigration stance, the editors of the National Review today challenged them to a duel...or a debate, actually. I really hope this comes off, as the two boards ably represent two major factions within the conservative movement, and they strongly disagree on this issue.

Real Clear Politics sums it up well.

Organizing My Taste

So the Moose got the idea from his friend to post his all-time five favorite albums, and since I generally can't resist lists or ranking things, I need catharsis. So for something different today, the next link in a sort of bloggish chain letter (these are favorites, not necessarily best, and are in chronological order):
  1. Bob Dylan: The Royal Albert Hall Concert (1966)
  2. The Beatles: Revolver (1966)
  3. Love: Forever Changes (1967)
  4. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (1972)
  5. Big Star: #1 Record (1972)
  6. Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (1986)
  7. Radiohead: OK Computer (1997)
  8. Richard Thompson: Celtschmerz (Live) (1998)
  9. Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (1999)
  10. Beck: Sea Change (2002)
  11. Brian Wilson: SMiLe (2004/1967)
Ok, I did 11. Sue me.

The Moose also listed his favorite live shows. These are sorta' in order.

  1. Pink Floyd, Boston and Minneapolis, 1995 - how could a stadium show be better?
  2. Violent Femmes, M.I.T., 1991 - played four encores, crowd was as into a show as I've ever seen, and the band fed off it.
  3. Brian Wilson, Minneapolis, 2004 - got to see him perform SMiLe, perhaps the most legendary lost album in rock history, live for the first time to an American audience, and it far exceeded expectations.
  4. Richard Thompson, Omaha, 2002? - could pick several, but will go with this one because it was in a club and I had literally the best seat in the house to watch some of the most amazing guitar work one will ever see.
  5. Green Day, Minneapolis, 2005
  6. Page & Plant, Fargo, 1997
  7. Leon Redbone, Seattle, 2002
  8. George Thorogood, Boston, 1993? - Great live band
  9. Bright Eyes, Fargo, 2006
  10. Foo Fighters/Weezer/Kaiser Chiefs, Minneapolis, 2006
I feel much better.