Friday, October 30, 2015

Jeb Bush needs a haircut

Pete's Barber Shop, Pinecrest, Florida
There's a place not far from my house that has been graced by the presence of various celebrities, powerful politicians, and the like—both of a local and national sort—for near half a century. That place is Pete's Barber Shop in Sunniland (Pinecrest, Florida). An unassuming place with old-school barber chairs and what is now an antique cash register, the guys (and gal) at Pete's have been cutting hair for almost sixty years. And the walls and front windows are filled with pictures, mostly of local Little League Teams (which the shop has supported), but also of some of its more notable patrons.

Included in the last are the Bushes, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, along with current presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. In fact, Jeb was pretty much a regular at Pete's when he lived in Miami in the 80's and 90's. I know this because I saw him there many times. And after becoming Governor of Florida, word has it that he still went by Pete's when he happened to be in town.

This isn't about Pete's Barber Shop, however. I'm telling this tale for the purposes of explaining something about Jeb Bush that I think few people really get, or at least may have forgotten: he's a down-to-earth, well-grounded kind of guy. He's a decent guy, at least with respect to the vast majority of politicians and wealthy, powerful people immersed in politics out there. And he doesn't depend on four hundred dollar haircuts or image consultants—or never has in the past—to accomplish his goals, whether those goals were becoming "very wealthy" or forging a political career for himself in the State of Florida.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying Jeb Bush didn't use his connections to do these things, to get were he is today, because he most certainly did. Sometimes, as the above piece from the Miami New Times notes, he used them unintentionally, or maybe it's better to say that they used him. But of course, that was a long time ago. Jeb's goals of being a self-made man are a thing of the past; at some point his political connections and ambitions took over, whether that's what he truly wanted or not.

And if you look back at his campaigns for governor, they were not the campaigns of a media-savvy, slick politician looking to score points and win votes through any means necessary. They were, in fact, quite dull campaigns built around—of all things—the issues and the idea that Jeb Bush was a serious-minded guy who would simply get things done.

I have to admit, I wasn't a fan of Jeb Bush when he first ran for office. And maybe that's because I was much younger then and found him boring and uninspiring. But I was obviously in the minority, as Bush cruised to victory in both the 1998 and 2002 elections. As Governor, Jeb Bush was very effective, there's no way around it. In particular, he proved to be a master of crisis management, especially with regard to hurricanes and their aftermath. To this day, I believe Jeb Bush would be the ideal person to head up FEMA, because he truly excels at this sort of stuff.

With all of this in mind, the reasons for Jeb Bush's current struggles in his campaign for the Republican nomination come into focus: he's no good at gamesmanship. He never has been. As he says, he's "not a soundbite guy." That's not his strength, and it's little wonder that his attempt to score points in such a manner by taking a pot shot at Marco Rubio in the last debate failed miserably. After Jeb Bush chastised Rubio for missing Senate votes, Rubio responded with this:
I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record; the only reason you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that it’s going to help you.
And that was the end of that because Bush had no real response. The reason he didn't is because Rubio was exactly right: someone convinced Bush to take this shot, even though doing so was way out of character for him. And chances are, Rubio knows exactly who in the Jeb Bush campaign did the convincing. Rubio's retort was, I think, a seriously personal barb. He not only dressed Bush down with his rebuttal, he rather pointedly told Jeb that his (Jeb's) advisers were not doing him any favors.

The problem here is that Jeb Bush is simply not equipped for this kind of political race. It's possible that of all the candidates—on both sides—he might be the best person for the job. He knows how to govern, he's smart, he's serious, and he knows when to compromise. But he's not going to win this nomination contest unless several other candidates—including Rubio—see their campaigns completely collapse from scandal or the like.

And in Jeb Bush's heart of hearts, I think he knows this, all too well. He's putting on a brave face, telling his people that he's still in this, that he'll find a way through, but that's just face-saving talk. He doesn't want to let his supporters down, I am sure, but even they are starting to realize the truth here.

Jeb's a good guy, he's had a nice political career, but for all intents and purposes it is over. He should get it over with and withdraw, go do the other "cool things [he] could be doing instead." I'm sure the crowd at Pete's would love to see him again.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

In total defense of Cruz's skewering of the media

As everyone who is paying attention to politics in the U.S.A. certainly knows by now, last night's CNBC-hosted GOP debate was the worst presidential debate in the history of the universe. And not because it was filled with pompous, self-righteous, arrogant little pricks, but because it was moderated by pompous, self-righteous, arrogant little pricks. If CNBC had any more egg on its face from last night's debacle, it could serve up an egg-white omelet large enough to feed half the stars in Hollywood. More, if Tom Cruise didn't show up.

One of the most memorable moments of the debate came from Ted Cruz, who took issue with a question he was being asked and used it as a jumping off point to say this:



A pretty good moment for Cruz, a pretty poor one for CNBC and the reast of the mainstream media.

And interestingly enough, Cruz's comments about the way the debate was being conducted have earned him quite a few "way to go Ted"s and "damn, Ted Cruz is right"s, not only from people on the Right, but also from people in the Left, and even from members of the media elite. And that's because it's tough to take issue with what Cruz said, relative to the conduct of the moderators and the questions that they were asking. Who could possibly defend Carlos Quintanilla and the question he asked that prompted the above rant from Cruz?

Enter the media apologia, from—unsurprisingly—a columnist at The New Yorker, one Amy Davidson. In this piece, Davidson actually tries to argue that the question asked of Cruz was a perfectly valid one:
For the record, this was the question that inspired Cruz’s rant about insubstantiality: “Congressional Republicans, Democrats, and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown and calm financial markets that fear of—another Washington-created crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?” Given that Cruz’s previous responses to such crises have included filibustering the Senate with a reading of “Green Eggs and Ham,” and that he has, in just the past month, been involved in a squabble with his fellow-Republicans over his efforts to make the debt ceiling a hostage in the fight against Planned Parenthood, it was a pretty good question, which Cruz blithely ignored.
Sorry Ms. Davidson, no it was not a "pretty good question." Because it was what is known as a loaded question, purposefully designed to make it almost impossible for Cruz to answer without looking bad. It's similar in nature to "have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Or—a question that could be directed at Davidson—"given your apparent ignorance of fallacies of argument, are you the type of person who should be writing columns for The New Yorker?"

Look at the question again:
"Does your opposition to [this compromise bill on a serious issue] show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?"
Possible answers:
1) No, it shows that I am the kind of problem solver American voters want because I refuse to compromise, even in order to solve a serious problem. 
2) Yes, it shows I am not the kind of problem solver American voters want, so don't vote for me. 
3) I don't understand the question.
There is no good option available for Cruz straight up, and again that is by design. It's not the kind of question a moderator asks at a debate, it's the kind of question a partisan hack asks to trap an opponent.

This really isn't rocket science. It's debate 101. Anyone with half a brain can see the trap here, can see why the question is unfair. So claiming that it is a "pretty good question" means one has less than half a brain or one is being totally partisan, is not being objective in the least. I don't think Davidson is stupid, so I'm going to go with the second choice.

And as further evidence in this regard, check out another part of Davidson's piece. After quoting the beginning of Cruz's rant in answer to Quintanilla's question, Davidson describes what happens next thusly:
He got a big round of applause, which Carlos Quintanilla, one of the moderators for CNBC, tried to interrupt, asking, “Do we get credit…,” before Cruz interrupted him again.
Watch the clip again. Quintanilla tries to talk over the applause and ask Cruz what was clearly going to to a self-congratulatory question, but Cruz isn't done talking so he cuts Quintanilla off with "Carl, I'm not finished yet," then continues his comments. Davidson characterizes this as Cruz interrupting Quintanilla again. What "again"? Cruz never interrupted Quintanilla to begin with, just took issue with the loaded question that he was being asked. And at this moment, it was Quintanilla doing the interrupting, regardless. Yet Davidson tries to give the impression that Cruz is just interrupting left and right. Tres disingenuous, to say the least.

In short, Davidson's piece amounts to a pathetic attempt to defend CNBC. She mis-characterizes events, doesn't offer an honest assessment of the question asked by Quintanilla, and presents it all through a fully partisan lens. Thus, completely proving Cruz's central thesis.

One Nation Without a Groove

In 1978, George Clinton's band Funkadelic released what would become it's most successful album, One Nation Under a Groove. In fact, it is the only Funkadelic album to ever reach platinum status (meaning over one million in sales) and has been hailed as one of the greatest albums of all times by Rolling Stone and others. The album opens with it's title track, the seven and half minute R&B number one hit "One Nation Under a Groove." It also contains the very popular "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!"

The album is a bit of a concept album, insofar as there is a common theme running throughout, consistent with the title of the album. Simply put, that theme might be stated as "everyone is happy, nonjudgmental, and dancing." And the force majeure responsible for this state of existence? Funk music, specifically the music of Funkadelic (and Parliament, to be sure).

It was an unusual motif in the moment (though somewhat shared by the disco genre), as compared to traditional blues music, the hard rock of the seventies, and the still-nascent socially aware music (rock and folk) of the late 60's and early 70's. And it also had a lot of weird elements to it, like extra-terrestrials, but it was an unquestionably effective one for both Parliament and Funkadelic.

And it contrasts sharply with what came before and after it, by and large.

I don't want to overstate all of this, of course. The entire nation was not jamming to Funkadelic in 1978. And that period was hardly one of sunshine and lollipops, in general.

Still, recent events have given me pause and caused me to consider what the fuck is so wrong with this country right now. And I'm not talking so much about events and incidents as I am about general attitudes. There seems to be, in my view, new levels of vitriol and obnoxiousness being reached every day. And for all the talk about partisanship in politics, it seems to me that there is more in our day to day interactions with each other.

To say patience is in short supply in our society would be the understatement of the year. Almost no one can wait for anything, not for a single damn second, without rolling their eyes, making a face, or audibly sighing. Don't believe me? Next time you're in line for anything, watch and listen. Of course to do that—to watch and listen to what's actually going on—one would have to actually stop looking at their goddamn cell phone for a few seconds.

Of course, that would mean not checking what is trending on Twitter, not mocking someone's status update on Facebook, or not checking Instagram to see how many likes one's latest selfie is getting from unknown people, most of whom are probably living in a small village in Upper Mongolia.

But I digress.

Again, no patience. With anything, for anyone. And then there is this constant self-promotion, spurred on by "reality" TV and fifth-tier celebrities who are collectively about as interesting as a cold cup of tomato soup. What has that given us? A potential presidential candidate whose hair looks like a tribble and who can't go ten seconds without bragging about how great he is. Thanks for that, people.

Things have been bad before, the nation has lost its way before to be sure, but I don't know if it's ever been like this. Worst of all, there's no calming influence, there's no one with any credibility to say "slow down," or at least to present a steady and respectable demeanor. There's no segment of society not enveloped in all of this mindless stupidity, no segment that can just look away, go about their business, and live their lives. Not even the Amish.

To prove my point, I give you the clusterfuck that was last night's Republican Debate on CNBC. The moderators were so dimwittedly and arrogantly (a helluva combo) obnoxious that they succeeded in making Trump look sympathetic. They got hardcore leftists to stand up and cheer Ted Cruz.

Why? What were they thinking?

Obviously, all of them—especially John Harwood—were not there to moderate a debate, they were there to get attention by reimagining themselves as pastiches of our self-involved, obnoxious, attention-obsessed society. Those morons are exactly what we have wrought. Like so many others, they mistook belligerence for intelligence, braggadocio for wit, and arrogance for professionalism.

And today, the morning after, the media as a whole is jumping on them for all of this, completely unaware that it is part of the problem. It created this moment of supreme stupidity and it did so by blindly reflecting back the worst aspects of our current culture as things that are important and need to be noted.

Where's the groove? Because this song sucks.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The many facets of the Hitler/Nazi comparison

In a recent piece at WaPo, Ruth Marcus took Dr. Ben Carson to task for his repeated use of Nazi metaphors. To be fair to Carson, Marcus sites exactly three specific instances of such talk (and one instance of defending it) from Carson, stretching back to February of last year. I'm not sure this actually qualifies as a "tendency toward Nazi metaphors," as Marcus puts it. Still, Carson has made use of the Nazi boogeyman a number of times and it's fair to question the validity of his statements in this regard, as Marcus does.

Here are the three statements from Carson that Marcus is taking issue with:
You know, we live in a Gestapo age, people don’t realize it.—February, 2014
[We’re] very much like Nazi Germany. And I know you’re not supposed to say ‘Nazi Germany,’ but I don’t care about political correctness. You know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate the population.—March, 2014.  
I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.—October, 2015.
Now with regard to the last, Carson is simply wrong and clearly out of his depth. Hitler's popularity among Germans was huge in the late 1930's and the Jewish population of Germany was exceedingly small, so the idea that more guns would have made any sort of difference is simply an indefensible argument. The other two? Hyperbolic, no doubt, but are they really so far beyond the pale, as compared to the kind of rhetoric of this sort that we generally hear.

Regardless, Marcus says the following about these kinds of statements, and she does so with the faux-authority of being in Berlin when writing this piece (it doesn't matter a whit where she is):
You don’t have to be German, or a student of German history, to grasp the repugnance of Nazi analogies, but being at the scene of Hitler’s crimes helps reinforce the caution against comparing the Holocaust to anything except another genocide. Nothing about which Carson complains — alleged but unproven IRS targeting of Obama administration critics, what he sees as the chilling effect of political correctness — comes close to the brutality of Hitler’s Germany.
In the above, Marcus makes a very common mistake: she conflates all comparisons using Hitler and/or Nazis to comparisons about the Holocaust, proper. Carson's first two comments had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They were using Nazi Germany as an example of a police state and comparing events here—fairly or unfairly—to such a construct.

Source: http://disinfo.com/2010/11/chances-are-theyre-not-nazis/
And this points to an underlying aspect of the Hitler/Nazi comparison that is often ignored: there are many different ways to use it because there are many different aspects to Hitler and the Nazis. It's not always about the Holocaust. For instance, both Obama and Bush have been openly compared to Hitler (stupidly so, in my opinion). And the theme of such comparisons is the rise of totalitarianism or of fascism under some sort of supreme leader. Or it's about cults of personalities in particular and the consequences thereof. Also, government agents like police officers have been compared to the Nazis. And again, it's not because of the Holocaust, it's because—supposedly—they are behaving like the Brownshirts or the Gestapo, abusing their authority and abusing the citizenry. Then there are the comparisons of government agencies that are using their power to intimidate citizens, to force them to knuckle under, for one reason or another.

Obviously, Carson was drawing from some of the above with his first two comments (again, whether fairly or unfairly). Of course, there is the Holocaust angle. But let's be fair in this regard: that angle is used all the time by others, as well. It's a staple in fact of criticisms of Israel and it's handling of the Palestinians, oddly enough.

That said, the existence of the Holocaust does play a role, I think, with regard to the other sorts of comparisons. Namely, it serves as a reinforcing factor to these comparisons insofar as people are reminded that Hitler and his cohorts were Really Bad People. Because there are plenty of historical examples of police states that would function just as well as would Nazi Germany for such comparisons, plenty of other cults of personality, plenty of other figures who instituted totalitarian or fascist regimes. There's Mussolini and his fascist Italy, Stalin of course and the totalitarianism of the Soviets, Mao and Red China, Peron and Argentina, etc., etc.

But the truth is, the Nazis are the big villains of world history for the Western world, not solely because of the Holocaust or because of their police state mentality, but more than anything else (in my opinion) because their rise was so dramatic against a backdrop of a failed war and because they came perilously close to actually winning a second world war, to taking permanent control of Europe. In other words, it is their success that puts them in the forefront. Everyone learns about them in school. Countless movies have been made with them as villains, whether during the 1940's or even much, much later. And sadly enough, the Nazis and Hitler still have plenty of actual fans.

Prior to the 1940's, the only historical "villains" who may have enjoyed the same kind of popularity in the West as the Nazis and Hitler were probably Attila and the Huns or Genghis Kahn and the Mongols (and maybe Napoleaon, to a lesser extent). Of course, these villains—the first two—were characterized as barbarians, invaders from without. In contrast, Hitler and the Nazis came from within, were perversions of a supposedly civilized world.

It is thus hardly surprising that they continue to occupy our thoughts, that there is still a fear that they—or someone very much like them—may return, and that we should therefore always be vigilante in this regard.

I get the fact that modern Germans probably don't like these kinds of comparisons and certainly wouldn't engage in them, as Marcus points out. And I get the fact that such comparisons are most definitely overused, are usually used unfairly, and are typically hyperbolic. But they are not going away. And in my opinion, most analogies or other kinds of criticisms that use past historical figures/regimes are flawed, regardless. Ones employing Hitler and/or the Nazis are not worse as a matter of course.

In short, stop harping on the issue. If the analogy or metaphor is a bad one, point it out. But just because it is based on Nazi Germany, it's not automatically a bad one. Like it or not, these are the kinds of comparisons people in general are most likely to understand. And THAT is a lesson of history.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Hand of Alberich

Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a German opera composed by Richard Wagner. It is actually composed of four separate operas. In order, they are as follows: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The series is, more often than not, referred to as The Ring Cycle. The total time of the series is around fifteen hours, depending on the production and the it is rarely shown in full, outside of the Bayreuth Festival Theater in Bayreuth, Germany, where the Cycle is staged periodically, along with other operas by Wagner during the yearly Bayreuth Festival.

Alberich by Arthur Rackham, 1910
As it happens, I'm a huge fan of Wagner, though I've yet to see a live performance of the entire Cycle (though I've seen videos of it in full and own all of the music). I actually prefer Parsifal to the Cycle, truth be told. But the Cycle is still amazing, still gripping. And like many great operas, it is not a happy tale. I'm not going to recap the story here—there are plenty of synopses available online for those interested—but instead focus on one character in the story: the dwarf Alberich, the nemesis as it were of the Cycle's pseudo-hero. Siegfried.

Das Rheingold opens with Alberich stealing the "Rhine gold" from the Rhinemaidens, mystical water-nymphs of an unknown father who tasked them with guarding the Rhine gold because it could be fashioned into a Ring that would give it's wearer the power to rule the world (sound familiar?). Alberich soon makes the Ring and begins to use its power to control those around him and enrich himself.

The rest of the Cycle revolves around this initial incident, as other characters in the story—gods and men, alike—strive to possess the Ring. It passes from Alberich to others, is eventually obtained by Siegfried, and then is returned to the Rhinemaidens upon Siegfried's death by the valkyrie Brünnhilde, Siegfried's lover, just before she kills herself by riding into the flames of Siegfried's funeral pyre.

In a tale wherein most everyone dies, Alberich and the Rhinemaidens are unique in that they do not. The sparing of the Rhinemaidens makes perfect sense, of course, as they are the spirits of the Rhine river and are the true owners of the Rhine gold. But Alberich, he is again the chief nemesis of the story. He is a thief, a tyrant. the one who cursed the Ring (after he lost it), and the one who renounced Love (which he had to do in order to get the Rhine gold). He is Greed and Evil personified.

Now for anyone who knows much about Richard Wagner the person, this is hardly surprising, for Alberich is widely viewed as a symbol of world Jewry, i.e. Alberich is THE Jew, the symbolic representation of everything that is wrong with Jews in the minds of anti-Semites like Richard Wagner. Not everyone agrees with interpretation, however (I think it's largely correct), but even those who do not see things this way nonetheless agree that Alberich represents something more than just an evil dwarf.

Regardless of underlying meanings, however, one thing I've noticed is that the story of the entire Cycle can be viewed as a series of manipulations by Alberich. Even his failures can be seen this way, as planned moments, if one ascribes a slightly different motivation to the character, beyond simple world domination: namely, the ending of the era of the gods, i.e. Götterdämmerung. And if this is the case, Alberich, far from being the nemesis, is at the very least the agent of change, though also the puppet-master.

No doubt, many readers are seeing parallels in the story with Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien has denied that Wagner's work influenced him in any way, but it is difficult to not see the similarities between Gollum and Alberich: both are dominated by Greed, both seek their respective Rings throughout the tales, both are pitifully ugly creatures whom others mock (the Rhinemaidens mock Alberich's lustful advances in the opening scenes of the Cycle). Of course, there are also parallels between Sauron and Alberich: both are the makers of their Rings (each is thus the true lord of the Ring), both are tyrants who seek world domination. Of course, both Gollum ans Sauron perish in at the end of The Lord of the Rings; Alberich never does, as noted above.

Still, none of this means Tolkien used Wagner, specifically. Because the character of Alberich is drawn form older Germanic and Norse traditions, used by Wagner as a basis for his tale and familiar to Tolkien, without a doubt. So the issue is unknowable and, in my opinion, largely insignificant. But from these other traditions, there is more to learn about the roots of the character of Alberich

Most agree that Alberich is closely related to the Norse dwarf Andvari, who lived under a waterfall, possessed a magic ring, and could shape-shift into a fish at will. Then there is the obscure Merovingian figure of Alberich, a sorcerer who could turn himself invisible (Wagner's Alberich also possesses the "Tarnhelm," which makes him invisible). Finally, there is the anglicized version of Alberich: Oberon. In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon is the king of the Fairies, consort to Titania. But in this story, Oberon is mostly concerned with making people fall in and out of love, though he is most assuredly the puppet-master of the story.

There is one other Oberon worth noting: Roger Zelazny's Oberon from his Chronicles of Amber. In the original five book series (published from 1970 to 1978), Oberon is the patriarch of Amber, the One True World, which casts shadows that create other worlds (including our own). The story arc of the series revolves around Corwin, one of the nine princes of Amber (sons of Oberon), who through a series of events causes Amber to nearly be destroyed but ultimately succeeds in preserving it from an onslaught by its foes at the Courts of Chaos. Oberon is seemingly missing through most of the books, but in actuality is there in disguise and is carefully manipulating all of the events to achieve an end to his era as ruler of Amber.

I had never considered until recently just how well Zelazny's Oberon tracks with Wagner's Alberich, in terms of manipulating events. But that's probably because it was only recently that I began to see Alberich as the puppet-master of the Ring Cycle. I realize this may not have been the way Wagner intended Alberich to be perceived, but it fits in my opinion. And again, that's because Alberich—like Oberon—represents the key to a new world order, a means of overturning the old one.

With all of this in mind, here's another interpretation of Alberich, in the tradition of Marxist criticism: Alberich is the herald of the age of the bourgeoisie, the dawn of capitalism. He steals the treasure of the earth to feed his greed, to bend others to his will, to master the world. But the gods still stand in his way, the guardians of the old ways, and it is necessary for them to be destroyed in order to free man from their control. This freedom is thus rooted in a break from harmony with the world, just as it is with an end to the control of a chosen few. There are thus both bad and good results; the question is whether or not ending the age of the gods to usher in the age of man is ultimately worth it.

Missed votes, Presidential runs, and partisan hacks

So, one of the current issues wafting through punditry-land is that of Senator Marco Rubio, his general unhappiness with the Senate, and his apparent unwillingness to do his job (i.e. show up in the Senate and vote on things). Here's the story at The Daily Beast. Here it is at WaPo. And at CNN. And at Slate. And at USA Today. They're all saying basically the same two things:
  1. Rubio "hates" his job as a Senator, according to an unnamed, inside source (insert eye-rolling emoticon here).
  2. Rubio has been missing a lot of votes in the Senate, nearly 30% this year, even more since he began his Presidential campaign in earnest.
The Daily Beast piece uses spokespeople from various "watchdog" groups to deliver the criticisms. The others mostly just lay out the facts (some lay out far more facts than others) and allow the reader to infer why they are doing so.
In my opinion, it is a fair and valid criticism. After all, Rubio was elected to this office by the citizens of his State, not as a means of advancing his own political career, but in order to serve their needs and interests. And while Rubio is right when he says his job is not just about the votes, the votes are most definitely a part of the job. That said, missing Senate votes is nothing new, especially for Senators who are seeking higher office (i.e. the Presidency). And of the various stories I linked to above, only one—the USA Today piece—makes a real effort to note and explain this. From it:
[Rubio and Rand Paul] cite the cases of three former Democratic senators — Hillary Clinton (who missed 23% of votes in 2007), President Obama (who missed 38% in 2007), and Secretary of State John Kerry (who missed 62% in 2003)
Wait, what? John Kerry missed 62% of the Senate votes in a year? And yet he still won the nomination for the Democrats. That's pretty weird, isn't it? No doubt, all of the people coming down on Rubio were all over Kerry back in the day, right? Well...no. They weren't. It was barely on the radar.

But what about Obama, who missed 38% of his Senate votes in 2007? That's still more than Rubio. And much worse than Hillary Clinton, whom he was campaigning against. Well lookee here, CNN did dial this up, back in 2007:
Sen. Barack Obama has missed the most votes of any Democratic presidential hopeful in the Senate over the last two months, including a vote on an Iran resolution he has blasted Sen. Hillary Clinton for supporting.
Though interestingly, it was couched in a way to benefit Clinton. Remember, Obama was not yet the front-runner. But MediaMatters was nonetheless quick to correct the record, since CNN didn't include any mention of McCain in the piece:
Yellin stated that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has missed "nearly 80 percent [of Senate roll-call votes] since September" and that Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (DE), Chris Dodd (CT), and Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY) "don't have great voting records, either." She added that "the Obama campaign points out that if you consider the entire year of voting, it is not Obama who's missed the most, but Senator Biden, then Dodd, and Obama comes in third." However, Yellin left out the fact that Sen. John McCain (AZ) -- the only current Republican presidential candidate who is a sitting U.S. senator -- has missed more votes than any other senator since Congress convened in January, with the exception of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), who spent months recuperating from a brain hemorrhage.
Well okay, then. Fair enough. Obama has missed the most lately, but Biden has missed the most for the entire year. And luckily, the Media Matters piece provides some hard numbers as well:
According to washingtonpost.com's U.S. Congress Votes Database, Obama has missed 74 out of 93 roll-call votes (79.6%) since the end of the August congressional recess. McCain has missed 63 out of 93 roll-call votes (67.8%) since the end of the August congressional recess. But for the entire year, McCain has missed 79 more votes than Obama; since January, McCain has missed 212 out of 403 (52.6%) roll-call votes in the 110th Congress, while Obama has missed 133 out of 403 (33.0%) roll-call votes.
Look at those percentages. The eventual nominees for both parties basically stopped showing up after August. Prior to that. Obama was absent for a third of all votes, McCain for over half. And Obama's percentage eventually ticked up to 38%, as we know from the USA Today numbers, meaning he continued to miss almost all the votes for the rest of the year (both of the above pieces were published on November 2nd). I'm betting Media Matters is none too happy that it ran that story, as it essentially prevents them from jumping on the current Rubio-castigating bandwagon. And indeed, a search through Media Matters yields nothing on the issue, which I guess proves they are not dumb enough to let themselves get snookered as total hypocrites.

Interestingly enough, though, WaPo did a story some time back on the biggest vote-missers in the Senate. This story came out on May 1st, so no doubt the numbers might shift a little. Nonetheless, the graph—showing career missed votes of likely 2106 Presidential contenders (and Obama)—is instructive. If you look at it, Obama is far and away the leader for career missed votes (if this were career home runs, the graph would be seriously impressive). He's at nearly 25% (24.2%). No one else even comes close to 15% (number two is Cruz at 10.7%). But never fear, WaPo has a built in escape clause for Obama:
Obama's misses almost certainly link to his success on the national stage; he's the only one of the candidates on our graph who spent a full year of his time while in the Senate campaigning non-stop, given that he won his party's nomination. So it's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison with the nascent Cruz campaign.
Yet in so doing, WaPo also gives away the ghost. Note the wording: a full year of his time... campaigning non-stop. If nothing else, this pretty much demolishes leftist pundits excoriating Rubio for "not doing his job." Hey, it is what it is. Honestly, I don't like it; I think Senators and Representatives (and Governors) who pursue the Presidential nomination full time should step down from their offices and allow someone to be appointed to replace them, or allow the Lt. Governor to take over in the case of Governors. But these folks are political animals for the most part, so they are just not going to do that.

Oh, I almost forgot the partisan hack portion of this piece. Enter one of my favorite partisan hacks (because he's just so bad), Steve Benen:
I suspect many Rubio supporters will naturally want to draw parallels between his record and President Obama’s Senate tenure. And at a certain level, they have a point – Obama was quickly frustrated by Congress’ pace. David Axelrod later admitted that the Illinois Democrat “was bored being a senator” and quickly grew “restless.”

It seems the same words could be applied to the junior senator from Florida.

The difference, though, is that Obama put in far more effort than Rubio, and as a result, he had more success. As a senator, Obama developed a reputation as a work horse, being well prepared for briefings and hearings, introducing a lot of bills, and developing an expertise on serious issues like counter-proliferation.
Hmm. I don't know if "partisan hack" does Steve sufficient justice. He's far too much of an Obama fanboy, really. Look at the above nonsense. Obama's Senate career was a scant four years. And for two of those years (incidentally, Obama missed 64% of the Senate votes in 2008), he did very little in the Senate, proper, because he was spending almost all of his time campaigning for President (which is, again, the way it is). No way is someone who wasn't present for half of his term a workhorse. Sorry Steve, the parallels are there. You know it, which is why you avoided actual numbers in this piece and your previous one. From it:
The truth is, presidential candidates who are sitting senators miss a lot of votes; Rubio’s not the first and he won’t be the last. Indeed, it’s entirely bipartisan – take a look at Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s attendance in 2007 and you’ll see two sitting senators who cast some important votes, but who were also on the campaign trail more than they were on the Hill.

This matters a bit more with Rubio because he, even more than the other senators running for president, seems to have given up on his day job altogether.
What Steve desperately doesn't want to say, what is preventing Media Matters from weighing in on any of this, is a simple truth: candidates miss votes, true enough, but Obama missed more than any of them, including during the time when he was not yet a candidate. And I'm not pointing this out because I have it "in" for Obama. Rather, I have it "in" for partisan hacks, fanboys who are more interested in protecting the reputation of Obama than they are in anything else. Bleck,

Divisive discourse and the media's constant culpability

Do you remember 2011? Specifically, do you remember the aftermath of the Tuscan shootings? On January 8th of that year in Tuscan, Arizona, Jared Lee Loughner came to a political rally at a shopping center being held by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. He drew a gun and shot her in the head at point blank range, then proceeded to randomly shoot other people. Six people were killed, thirteen were injured by gunfire (including Giffords who miraculously survived) before Loughner was finally disarmed and taken down by some brave bystanders (one of whom had been shot).

While the aftermath of this event led to another spirited round of gun control debates, it also led to some rather vile finger-pointing with regard to who was responsible for this tragedy. Those fingers were being pointed primarily at Sarah Palin, the tea party crowd, and right-wing talk radio. The argument went like this: Sarah Palin and these others were using a lot of violent and divisive rhetoric to inflame people's emotions, Palin was even using targeting crosshairs on maps (to indicate vulnerable seats for upcoming elections), and this kind of stuff caused Loughner to do what he did.

A empty-headed and evidence free argument, to be sure (there's nothing that anyone has found connecting Loughner to Palin, the tea party, or talk radio), but one that got a lot of play in the media. Accusations—eventually withdrawn with various sorts of mea culpas—that Loughner was a member of the tea party were made almost immediately after the shooting, as were ones that he was inspired by radio talking heads like Glenn Beck. And of course all of these accusations led to angry defenses from the right, with many noting various instances of violent talk from the left—like Obama's "bring a gun" comment—and the fact that the DNC had employed maps with bullseye targets on them.

But the hardcore left dug in their heels for a while, even as their arguments collapsed around them, until all that they were left with was a more or less general position of there being too much violent imagery and divisive talk in politics; the specific linkages to the Tuscan shooting were gone, yet the general feeling persisted, that there was something here, despite the lack of any evidence in this regard.

What to do, what to do?

The answer: study the problem with a "blue ribbon panel" and "position papers." And thus, the National Institute for Civil Discourse was born, a mere two months after the shootings, on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tuscon. This birth was accompanied with a great deal of fanfare, with public figures on the left and right sitting on its board and with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush serving as its honorary co-chairs.

Maybe you remember hearing about all of this, maybe you don't. But if you do, ask yourself this: when was the last time the NICD was in the news? You'll have to dig deep to find any stories on it across the past few years. It's largely faded into a memory hole.

And this is not meant to belittle the NICD. I'm sure the people there are working hard to achieve the institute's missions, to fulfill "a public demand for civil discourse" and to have a "media that informs and engages citizens." The problem is, I don't think that demand is all that significant, not now, not ever. And the media, while its members love to pontificate on subjects like this, well, it's just more interested in selling controversy than it is in informing the citizenry.

Case in point: Dana Milbank's oped yesterday on the subject of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. In this piece, Milbank takes Bush to task for saying the following recently:
If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then I don’t want any part of it...I’ve got a lot of really cool things that I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.
Milbank calls the speech "petulant," compares it to Nixon's "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," and argues that Bush's lack of fight is exactly why his campaign is faltering so badly.

And Milbank is right.

Bush is not going to get anywhere by taking this tack. But look at the total context here. Trump is attacking everyone, insulting everyone who is in his way, demonizing and "othering" them at every opportunity. And the media—Milbank included—is eating that up. Bush says "I won't sink to that level, it's too far beneath me." Is he congratulated by the media that was once fired up over the need for more civil discourse? Nope. Exactly the opposite. He's catching heat for not engaging in divisive discourse, for not stooping to Trump's level.

Here is Milbank in 2011, ostensibly hoping that the Tuscon shootings will lead to a "McKinley moment" and help tone down the political rhetoric (granted, he's talking more about violent imagery, but then he's conflating that with assassination fantasies, which is something of a leap). Fast forward to 2015 and Milbank is essentially complaining that Jeb Bush is not being mean enough, is not be insulting enough to his political opponents.

So don't tell me that the media is interested in any sort of "toning down" when it comes to political discourse. They're not. They want it as hot as it can be and are more then willing to even light some fires of their own to help it along.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reverse panopticism or two wrongs don't make a right

When it comes to critical theory, few authors are more widely read than is Michel Foucault. Though Foucault himself consciously eschewed attempts to categorize his ideas as a part of a school of thought, usually postmodernism or one of its subdivisions, it's difficult to avoid such labeling, as Foucault impacted the view of so many thinkers who came after him and, indeed, coexisted with him.

One of his best known and most widely read works is Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. It is, in my opinion, both a brilliant work and a deeply flawed one. In it, Foucault examines the roots of the modern penitentiary system, and in so doing theorizes that the underlying structures of that system are reflective of a shifting power dynamic (almost everything Foucault writes is, at its core, about power) in society, from a more traditional and personal dynamic to a more modern and more anonymous one.

He makes his case by examining the specific constructions of prisons within France beginning in the 18th century as a means of supplanting things like torture and public ridicule as methods of punishments for transgressions against society (whether against codified laws or social mores). And to buttress that case, he looks at the intellectual development of ideas mostly within the new liberalism of 18th century England. This is, of course, the underlying flaw in the work: Foucault analyzes the specific developments of prisons within France with respect to intellectual trends within England. Having read this book years ago in graduate school, I have been and still am amazed at how few readers and would-be critics of Foucault have failed to note this problem. Perhaps this is because few of Foucault's critics are actually looking to criticize; most are looking to carve out a niche of Foucaultian thought to use as a basis for their own points of view.

So with that in mind, I'm going to carve out just such a niche.

One of the ideas that Foucault develops extensively in Discipline and Punish is that of "panopticism." The term is drawn from Jeremy Bentham's (part of the above mentioned liberals in 18th century England) vision of the ideal prison, a vision which he worked on and wrote about extensively for many years. Some of what he wrote was published in various forms and Bentham went as a far as commissioning an architect to create blueprints for the actual structure.

The key feature of Bentham's vision was it's surveillance aspect. In an age before video cameras and the like, Bentham created a structure that allowed the surveillance of every occupant from a central room via a system of mirrors. Thus one person could theoretically keep watch over hundreds of others.

Of course, Bentham understood that this one person could not simultaneously observe all of the others, But what Bentham understood very clearly—and what was of primary interest to Foucault—was that the observer didn't need this capability; the prisoners would be unable to know if they were being observed in a given moment, but they would know that this could be the case. Thus, it was the threat of observation and the fear this would engender that would lead to a level of control over the prison population. And Bentham saw a logical extension of his ideas to other arenas, to schools, hospitals, factories, and the like, anywhere that would benefit from this kind of surveillance for the purposes of safety, security, or even productivity.

No doubt, many who have never been exposed to these ideas are now saying to themselves "holy shit, that's exactly what is going on today!" And it's true, there is a real growth of panopticism in the current world, perhaps not coincidentally centered to some extent in England, in London proper, with its many thousands of surveillance cameras (estimates put the total number of surveillance cameras in London at around half a million). And of course, all of these cameras are not continuously monitored. Rather, they record events and can then be accessed later, if necessary. The point is for people to know that what they are doing might be seen by an unknown watcher and to thus condition their behavior.

But this isn't about London, alone. Things are not much different on this side of the Atlantic. One doesn't always know when one is under surveillance, either by the state or by a private interest (like in a store or bank). And the legal surveillance by private interests is, of course, usually accessible to the state as well, so it all amounts to the same thing with regard to the individual: a feeling that one could be under surveillance at any given moment.

And this kind of thing, this increase in a surveillance-based state, draws a great deal of criticism, especially among those with a non-statist point of view—libertarians, anarchists, and like—and even among those who accept a powerful central authority but are nonetheless uncomfortable with this kind of overt attempt at conditioning behavior (albeit under the guise of protecting the citizenry, more often than not). There is, however, another side to this coin...

Yesterday, Leonard Pitts Jr. (whom I read regularly, by the way) offered this brief but thoughtful piece about police accountability. He opens with a smart quote form Juvenal—"Who watches the watchmen?"—then goes on to discuss why body cams and dashboard cams for police officers are more than fair, given the many incidents of police misconduct that have been coming to light:
This is about accountability, something that has been absent from police interactions with the public for far too long. And where there is no accountability, justice is tenuous. The plain truth is, cameras are here to stay; this genie will not go back in the bottle. Police will not stop the watchers from watching.
Prior to the above conclusion, Pitts rightly points out how the police are able to surveil the citizenry, especially with regard traffic issues (red light cameras, cameras that check plates for outstanding warrants, etc.). Thus he argues that police have no room to complain if they too are being watched. That seems fair. And he similarly mocks the idea of a "YouTube effect" on the police that prevents them from doing their jobs.

He's probably right to mock the last, but maybe not for the reasons he is giving. Because this "YouTube effect" (the idea that officers don't want to end up on YouTube and get criticized for their actions), well it's actually the basis of panopticism, isn't it? It's the idea that potential surveillance is as good as actual surveillance, that such a potential will condition behavior. In this case, however, the idea is that officers won't do their jobs correctly, exactly contrary to what the supposed consequences should be.

Now, think about that. How can panopticism be an effective tool in one direction, but not in the other? In other words, how can it be good for the goose and not for the gander?

I submit that obviously it's not really good for the goose at all. It never has been. And thus it's also not good for the gander. Pitts' point of view—while completely fair in the moment in my opinion—takes the surveillance state as a given, as something that shouldn't be undone. And in that respect, he's terribly, terribly wrong. Genies may not like going back into their bottles, they may put up god-awful fights, but they can go back. And this one most definitely should. We don't need more cameras, we need fewer. And the place to start is with the ones controlled by the state.

Bentham's vision of a panopticon was not a product of a rising tide of liberal thought. It was a product of Bentham's desire to get paid. He saw the venture as a money-making one from the beginning. It was never really about safety or security, it was always about productivity, because Bentham saw his prison as a workhouse, as well. It was always about the discipline, never about the punish.

Friday, October 23, 2015

It's ba-ack: the imminent collapse of the Republican Party

The collapsing Republican Party, circa 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016...
Like clockwork, it appears. And always from some pseudo-intellectual "journalist" who imagines that they have espied something terribly significant that no one has yet espied. And it's always presented as an objective observation, though it oozes partisanship as a matter of course.

There. That's a sufficiently elitist-sounding opening, no? So what am I talking about? Simple, the trope that appears with increasing regularity during most every Federal Election cycle: the Republican Party is doomed, it's cracking up, falling apart, and it may not survive!

The latest purveyor of this silliness? William Greider of The Nation, who has written a piece that opens with the following:
Fresh chatter among Washington insiders is not about whether the Republican Party will win in 2016 but whether it will survive.
Got that? The Republican Party may not survive this election cycle! Ohmygodohmygodohmygod! Run for the hills! And this is serious stuff; Greider has a lengthy analysis to defend his thesis, centering on, of all things, the Nixon Coalition of 1968. I'm tempted to end this with just a facepalm emoticon, because Greider's analysis is so lame, it's not worth rebutting.

Beyond that, I'd note that "fresh chatter among Washington insiders" is actually self-important journalist code for "a conversation I had with some friends over drinks at a bar." And despite my playful approach here, I'm dead serious about this part. It's what our vaunted media elites do when they don't have any actual quotable sources to support an idea that they've had for a story.

But back to the imminent collapse of the Republican Party. Let's go back in time to November, 2012. From the New Statesman:
It is Charles Darwin who said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” If the Republican Party is to survive, it must listen to Darwin's words. Its current choice is to evolve or die.
Evolve or die. That's pretty bleak stuff. True enough, the Republican Party didn't fair well in the 2012 elections, but it also didn't get creamed, top to bottom. In total, it lost two Senate seats and eight House seats, but maintained it's level of control in State legislatures and actually picked up one governorship.

Still, there was more talk of the Party's demise in the years that followed. Yet in the 2014 elections, the Republican Party gained control of the Senate and maintained control of the House. I don't know about anyone else, but I didn't see much evolution during this period, regardless of whether that was for good or ill.

There was actually similar talk around the 2010 elections, believe or not. Many pundits believed the tea party movement was going to cost the Republican Party dearly, that it would split votes or cause people to stay home, Obviously, those pundits couldn't have been more wrong. Not only did the movement lead to a reversal of control in the House, it also led to a rarely noted reversal of the balance of power on the State level. Going into the 2010 elections, Dems controlled 27 State legislatures, Repubs 14 (9 were split). Coming out? Almost a complete reversal: Dem control of 15, Repub control of 27, 8 with split control. Governorship control fared similarly, with the Dems going from 26 to 20 and the Repubs going from 23 to 29 (with 1 independent).

I'm going through all of this 2010 data to make a point: that election was something of a watershed moment for Republicans at the State level. Since the 2010 elections, the Republican party has continued it's dominance in this regard. It's control of State legislatures has increased to 31 (the Dems have dropped to 11) and of governorships to 31, as well (the Dems have dropped to 18). Regardless of the recent failings of the Republicans at the Presidential level, it's political power is not on the wane. And it's silly to claim that it is, in the face of this actual empirical evidence.

Yet the trope continues: the Republican Party is in danger of collapsing, of imploding from within.

But to deny the trope is not to say there are no challenges, nor is it to say the opposite: that the Democratic Party is somehow in danger of collapsing. Because clearly neither is the case (and the Democratic Party has its own challenges, to be sure, particularly at the State level). It may very well true that a collapse of either or both parties would be a good thing. But that's not happening. Because right now, our two-party system has pretty much all of the bases covered. This continued fantasizing from partisan journalists on the left about a Republican collapse is funny stuff, though,

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Our obsession with predictions

Yesterday was Back to the Future Day. I know this because my teenaged kids both gleefully told me all about it and then convinced me to watch the first movie last night after dinner. Why was yesterday Back to the Future Day? Simple, because the first movie ends—and the second movie begins—with Doc, Marty, and Marty's girlfriend Jennifer going forward in time to October 21st, 2015. Yesterday. And their precise arrival time is (was? will be?) 4:29 pm, thus causing people all over the country to look around yesterday afternoon at that moment, just in case.

It is a funny thing, though, how Back to the Future continues to capture the imaginations of new generations. Some kids at my son's high school even came to school in costume yesterday. But aside from just enjoying the movie, my kids were also interested in how the movie portrayed a twenty-six-years-distant future (Back to the Future  II came out in 1989) as compared to the "now" that they know. And this is something many news sites have seen fit to explore (exploit), as well. Like Time Magazine, which has an article detailing the "10 Back to the Future Predictions That [supposedly] Came True."

I stuck that "supposedly" in there, because frankly this article and most all of the other similar ones are being way too generous with the soothsaying prowess of the movie. And of course they are completely ignoring the far more numerous things that Back to the Future II got completely wrong. But this isn't really about such things; the movie wasn't made to predict the future, it never claimed that it was doing so accurately, and so it's unfair to hold it to account in that regard (just as it's also pretty mindless to credit it for what it maybe/sorta/kinda did get right). I'm just using Back to the Future Day as a jumping off point to talk about predictions in general, why we seem—as a culture—so obsessed with them, and why that obsession might reflect a much deeper and more significant problem within that same culture.

I like making predictions. Hell, I just made some earlier today. And like many other people, I've filled out brackets for the NCAA basketball tournie, made a preseason wager on the Superbowl, and so forth. But that's just sports and really, mostly just an offshoot of the gambling side of the sports world. Of course, I've also done my share of Oscar-predicting (not so much, lately), too. But that's just entertainment.

Of course, many people make a living off of these kinds of predictions, some directly (gamblers and bookmakers) and some indirectly (people who build their reputation by getting things right). And I have to say that the one sports-related prediction-based avenue that most perplexes me is the NFL Draft stuff. People not in the business of actually deciding who to draft and who not draft (i.e. people who don't work for any of the NFL teams) spend the entire year leading up to each draft researching things in order to simply make predictions that have no impact on anything. And surprisingly, some actually make some serious jingle doing this. But who am I to judge.

There's also the very serious—in terms of real world consequences—realm of financial market predictions. Obviously, most stock, currency, and commodity purchases are in a sense predictive, but what I'm talking about are the professionals who tout stocks and the like, who claim that something will go up (or down) as a matter of fact based on their supposed knowledge of future events. Many such people are actually engaged more in prophecy than they are in prediction, especially those touting gold and the like, or warning of an impending crash. These are serious things, making such public prognostications in order to entice people into investing their own money in one place instead of another (or instead of not investing it at all).

Then there are the sciency kinds of predictions, ranging from day to day weather, to numbers and strengths of tropical storms, to future catastrophes based on things like global warming (climate change). Such predictions are generally rooted in science, use advanced modeling software, and are really not (usually) about personal gain, at all. But these can be serious things, as well, as they are often used as justification for specific and/or general policy that can have a serious impact on a given society/government and its allocation of resources, especially when such resources are needed for a recovery from a serious climate event.

So to be clear, there are all sorts of predictions that people engage in for all sorts of reasons. Some are about fun, some are about profit, some are about security and safety. But note that I haven't really touched on the doom and gloom crowd of soothsayers, the ones who really are prophesying, even more so than the above self-described financial wizards. And for good reason. These last ones, well they've been around forever and are the ones who claim special insights into the future because of supernatural ability, more often then not. Yet, I'd venture to say that they have been, are, and always will be on the fringe of society, as it were. Few take them seriously or credit then with any sort of special knowledge (granted, they can still be quite dangerous to that few, as has been proven time and time again).

But all the other kinds of predictions, we've settled into allowing, even expecting them—whether we rely on them or not, engage in them or not—in daily lives. Prediction is now a facet of existence in our modern, consumer-driven society. I say "now" because it's not always been this way. In my opinion, it is consumerism that has led to an explosion of predictions, an expectation of them, even a reliance on them. Seriously, who buys a stock without first looking at what the "experts" are saying the stick will do? What movie fan doesn't read up on the Oscar favorites when the time comes for the awards? Or doesn't choose which movie to buy or rent based on awards won? And who doesn't predict one thing or another, however important or unimportant, then later revel in glory if such a prediction turns out to have been correct?

The current level of permeation of such activities is a New Thing in our society, relative to the whole of the past. Gambling has been around forever, so has saying "I think it might rain tomorrow." But occupations built solely around predictions, tracking predictions on the mundane as if they were significant, these have not been around forever, at least not to the current degree or anywhere close to it.

Why? What is it that is so infatuating with this stuff?

I have a theory in this regard: boredom coupled with a relatively secure high standard of living. Because I'm guessing that some people in the current world who still need to worry about where their next meal will come from, who don't subscribe to Netflix and don't watch the NFL Draft because they don't have a television, aren't doing a whole lot of this kind of predicting, aren't consuming a whole lot of this kind predicting from others.

There's a fundamental detachment taking place in all of this from everyday reality. And while that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's also not necessarily a good thing. I worry that this can have a severely negative impact on some people who might be detached form society/community in other ways as well, that it can be sort of tipping point. Because let's face it, getting upset because the Jets didn't select Mel Kiper's number one rated player on the board with their second round pick is stupid. One could say that getting upset over sports in general doesn't make sense, but this isn't even sports. It's not even actual competition. It's just a glorified hiring process for a bunch of open positions. And being angry because an actor or film was snubbed by the Academy? Equally stupid. What does it matter in the grand scheme of things? One either enjoyed a film or one did not. Awards don't change this. Or at least they shouldn't.

This isn't even the bread and circuses so often cited as problematic for a free society, it's just talk about bread and circuses. Yet this stuff is treated as if it mattered, as if it were tangible. It doesn't and it isn't. But okay, that's enough navel-gazing for today...

FIFA Women's World Player of the Year predictions

Everyone who follows football (soccer) knows about the Ballon d'Or—the Golden Ball— the annual award given by FIFA to the best male player in the world. As has been the case since 2009, this is basically a face off between Messi and Ronaldo, with Messi looking set to reclaim this year after back-to-back wins by Ronaldo (preceded by three Messi wins). Thrilling stuff.

But there's a women's version of the award, as well, the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year award. It's been around since 2001, and of the previous fourteen awards, the first ten were won by Mia Hamm (the first two), Birgit Prinz (the next three), and Marta (the next five). In fairness to Hamm, if the award had existed before 2001, she's likely have a few (shoot, maybe a bunch) more. The last four awards have seen four different winners however, a testament to the expansion of the women's game.

And the crop just announced as the short list for the 2015 award, well they're even more of a testament to the expansion of the game. Neither Abby Wambach nor Marta is in this group, nor is Homare Sawa, arguably the three most dominant players in women's football since 2010 or so. Fair enough, they are all past their primes, but still it's good to see that FIFA isn't stuck in the past.

So, let's have a look at the nominees and decide who should win (and who should get second and third). In alphabetical order, with country and club in parenthesis):
Nadine Angerer (Germany/Brisbane Roar/Portland Thorns)—goalkeeper, 36 years old, most certainly one of the best at her position right now and maybe of all time. She's made some magnificent PK saves this year, especially at the Women's World Cup (WWC). 
Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland/FC Rosengard)—forward, a wizard on the ball, and only 24. She scored a memorable hat trick in the WWC and scores consistently in the Swiss league. 
Kadeisha Buchanan (Canada/West Virginia University)—defender, only 19, and an offensive threat because of her speed. She already won the Best Young Player award at the WWC.  
Amandine Henry (France/Olympique Lyonnais)—defensive midfielder, 26 years old, and a model of consistency. She won the Silver Ball at the WWC and was a finalist for the UEFA best player award. 
Eugénie Le Sommer (France/Olympique Lyonnais)—striker, 26 years old, and always at or near the top in goals scored in the French league. She had a less-than-memorable WWC, however, though she still forced the best out of her opponents. 
Carli Lloyd (U.S./Houston Dash)—midfielder, 33 years old, and current USWNT captain. She won the Golden Ball at the WWC, along with the Silver Boot (though she scored as many goals as the winner of the Golden Boot). Her third goal from midfield in the final against Japan was easily the goal of the tournament. 
Aya Miyama (Japan/Okayama Yunogo Belle)—midfielder, 30 years old, and the directing force for Japan's national team. She's a true two-way player and always one of the classiest players on the pitch. 
Megan Rapinoe (U.S./Seattle Reign)—winger, 30 years old, and a fan favorite wherever she plays. She had a strong WWC and has been a consistent force for the Reign whenever she is available. 
Célia Šašic (Germany/FFC Frankfurt)—striker, 27 years old, and recently retired from football. She won the Golden Boot at the WWC (tying Lloyd in goals scored, but with fewer minutes played) and the UEFA best player award. She was also the top scorer in the German league for the past two seasons. 
Hope Solo (U.S./Seattle Reign)—goalkeeper, 34 years old, and possibly (likely) the best women's keeper to ever play the game.  She lead the USWNT to victory in the WWC with a 540 minute shutout streak, earning her the Golden Glove for the tournament. 
Now before I announce my picks, I'd like to point out that I actually follow women's football, beyond just the WWC. It's enjoyable to watch, largely because most of these athletes aren't making all that much money—as compared to men's pro sports leagues and really, most other women's pro sports leagues—and their club teams are often teetering on the brink. They play because they love to play, want to play, by and large. Sure the best ones, like many of the above, have scored endorsements and the like, but getting there was a hard road. I note all of this because I don't want to come across like an Amerophile, someone who automatically assumes whatever is from the U.S. must be the best. That said...
Third Place: Hope Solo—a difficult call, because Henry is just so consistent (and good), especially at the club level, and because Angerer has had a great year in the net. But Solo had a better one and dominates club games in an almost Neuer-esque fashion. That said, Solo's off-the-field problems may end up costing her here, so I wouldn't really complain if Henry or Angerer finished third. Solo would have no one to blame but herself. 
Second Place: Célia Šašic—this was a much easier call, because Šašic is a force on the pitch. She retired in July, but even without the additional goals she might have accumulated, she was unquestionably the best striker of 2015. 
First Place: Carli Lloyd—in my view, this is a no-brainer and Lloyd should be a lock for the award. She has really blossomed as a player in the last couple of years, perhaps owing to the need for leadership on the USWNT, as some older players retired or saw less playing time. And this particular year, her WWC performance was simply unparalleled.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Just let it go, man...

Last Friday, the new film Truth opened in theaters across the country, six of them to be precise. The film is based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes, the former CBS News producer who was sacked in 2005 in the aftermath of "Rathergate" (what a stupid name for a scandal), i.e. the Killian documents controversy.

For those who may have forgotten, the controversy revolved around some memos obtained by CBS News in 2004 and supposedly written by Colonel Jerry B. Killian, George W. Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Air Guard from 1972-1973. The memos painted an unflattering portrait of Bush, insofar as they indicated he wanted and received special treatment in the Guard, but had also been grounded for failing to meet certain requirements.

All in all, these were hardly mother-of-all-scandals kinds of accusations, but given that this report aired just a few months prior to the tightly contested 2004 Presidential Election, they were viewed as potentially very damaging, if not devastating to the Bush campaign. But shortly after the Sixty Minutes II segment on the documents aired—with Dan Rather doing the reporting—the story began to fall apart. It turned out that the documents had been supplied to CBS—to Mapes—by a long-time critic of Bush, retired Texas Air Guard Colonel Bill Burkett. And Burkett, conveniently, faxed the documents to Mapes and then later claimed to have destroyed the originals.

The story within the story here is that of a reckless pursuit of a scandal on the part of Mapes, Rather, and others at CBS News. When shots of the memos were made available, it was immediately noticed by many that the typeset was inconsistent with manual typewriters, which was odd since the memos dated from the early 70's. Instead, the typeset was wholly consistent with the default settings of Microsoft Word, circa 2004. Obviously, the memos appeared to be forgeries and even a cursory attempt to authenticate them would have made this clear. A point of additional convenience was that the supposed author of the memos, again Colonel Jerry Killian, had recently passed away.

Nonetheless, Mapes and Rather decided to run with the story, apparently based on some interviews with others who served with Killian and who declined to declare that the documents were false. Let's be clear here, this was the standard used by Mapes and apparently allowed by Rather: no independent verification of the documents, just interviews with people who essentially said "yeah, I guess they might be real."

The aftermath of the airing of the story is well known: CBS apologized for it, Mapes was sacked, and Rather and a few others involved were forced to resign. Yet even after everything in the story had fallen apart, even after Burkett had admitted to lying to Mapes, both Mapes and Rather stood by the story, with Rather infamously proclaiming that he still believed the story was true, even if the documents were false. Rather even filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS News, claiming that the company had scapegoated him (it was eventually dismissed in full by the New York State Appeals Court).

For her part, Mapes chose to defend herself with an entire book on this episode, as noted above, though much of the book is just polemical. And she apparently still insists that she did nothing wrong, still insists that the memos have not been proven to be forgeries, obliquely unaware that it is impossible to prove anything in this regard, given that no one has ever actually seen the originals. But a portion of her book is worth quoting here:
It was another day of exhausted exultation [the day after the story first aired]. I got congratulatory e-mails, phone calls, and pats on the back. Other reporters called repeatedly as they worked to catch up to my story. I was thrilled.

All that changed about 11:00 a.m., when I first started hearing rumbles from some producers at CBS News that a handful of far right Web sites were saying that the documents had been forged.

I was incredulous. That couldn't be possible. Even on the morning the story aired, when we showed the president's people the memos, the White House hadn't attempted to deny the truth of the documents. In fact, the president's spokesman, Dan Bartlett, had claimed that the documents supported their version of events: that then-lieutenant Bush had asked for permission to leave the unit.

Within a few minutes, I was online visiting Web sites I had never heard of before: Free Republic, Little Green Footballs, Power Line. They were hard-core, politically angry, hyperconservative sites loaded with vitriol about Dan Rather and CBS. Our work was being compared to that of Jayson Blair, the discredited New York Times reporter who had fabricated and plagiarized stories.

All these Web sites had extensive write-ups on the documents: on typeface, font style, and peripheral spacing, material that seemed to spring up overnight. It was phenomenal. It had taken our analysts hours of careful work to make comparisons. It seemed that these analysts or commentators -- or whatever they were -- were coming up with long treatises in minutes. They were all linking to one another, creating an echo chamber of outraged agreement.
Granted, this was 2004, but even then the internet was something of an investigative force (and of course a font of misinformation). With so many people having so many different levels of expertise and prepared to analyze things like documents and pictures, the fact that these documents were exposed so quickly is just not all that surprising. Mapes appears to not have understood this at all. And again, her claim that her analysts had done "careful work" to validate the documents doesn't hold water.

Because of the spectacular and costly nature of this scandal, there were rumblings of gaslighting almost immediately, rumblings which live on today and are still acknowledged or at least not denied by Mapes, Rather, and others. In this tin-foiled version of events, Karl Rove or someone like him set this all up to bring down Rather; the documents were forged by conservative operatives and passed on to a dupe—Burkett—who could be counted on to pass them to someone in the media (how it was known he would choose Mapes is, of course, never explained). Thus, the response to the story from the "hyperconservative sites" was all prepared beforehand. They were just waiting for the report to air so they could "expose" it as a pack of lies.

The scandal consequently has a two-pronged criticsim: 1) no one ever proved the documents were false and the story was actually true, and 2) it was all an ingenuous set-up.

So, like many great political scandals, this one lives on for some. But for none moreso than Mapes and Rather. And from this rather pathetic refusal to accept reality springs Truth, the movie.

Fair enough, I haven't seen it yet. I might, if it ever gets to a theater near me, though I'm not holding my breath in that regard.

The film stars Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes. By all accounts, the movie is largely a panegyric to both, as it presents them simultaneously as warriors for truth and victims of the powers-that-be, regardless of whether the reviewer likes or dislikes the movie. The people at CBS don't think much of the movie at all, having said in a statement:
It’s astounding how little truth there is in Truth. There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them all. The film tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom. That’s a disservice not just to the public but to journalists across the world who go out every day and do everything within their power, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to get the story right.
To which the filmmakers have replied:
Although we understand CBS wants to put this episode behind them, it’s disappointing that they seem to be so concerned about our film. The events depicted in Truth are still vigorously debated, and that’s a good thing. It’s a fascinating story at the intersection of politics, media and corporate America and features powerhouse performances from Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and the rest of the cast. We hope people will see the film and judge for themselves.
Which is a bunch of self-congratulatory bullshit, pardon my French. The events aren't "still vigorously debated," except on fringe websites and at dinner parties attended by Mapes and Rather. And there's no intersection of forces here, just an improperly vetted story rushed on to the air by people looking to score with a big scandal in the middle of a presidential race. And the really funny thing here is that the scandal wasn't really much of a scandal. If the memos had actually been authentic, they would have amounted to very little, in my opinion (which, of course, feeds the gaslighting twist).

I'm sure Redford and Blanchett play their parts well, both being fine actors, but they're not playing real people, they're playing obvious caricatures, for the purposes of mounting holier-than-thou soapboxes in a film that can only preach to the choir (the choir being the left wing lunatic fringe). To me, it looks like Redford is imagining reliving the glory days of All the President's Men, only he's trying to do it through a prism of stupidity, driven on by a couple of people who just can't let things go. It's actually a little sad.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Donald Trump: heel or face?

The latest polls from CNN, NBC, and FoxNews show Trump garnering 27%, 25% and 24% of the vote among registered Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters, registered Republican primary voters, and likely Republican voters, respectively. For the sake of absolute clarity, here are these three polls:
CNN: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2015/images/10/19/rel11b.-.republicans.pdf 
NBC: http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/poll-trump-hits-highest-mark-yet-carson-close-behind-n447291 
FoxNews: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/interactive/2015/10/13/fox-news-poll-carson-giving-trump-run-for-his-money/
The CNN poll has a sample size of 465, the NBC one is 400, and the FoxNews one is 402. All three polls were conducted via telephone interviews. To someone unfamiliar with the statistical side of things, the numbers probably seem small—drawing conclusions about a population of 319 million from 400 interviews—but they are, in fact. sufficient.

General Elections polls, pitting Trump against Clinton, Sanders, or Biden, show Trump consistently losing, but also consistently drawing 40% or more of the vote. Past polls—now probably unnecessary—that looked at Trump as an independent showed him getting 20% or more of the vote (and this was back when his general poll numbers were smaller than they are now).

The upshot of all this is that Trump seems to be a legitimate contender for the nomination, if not the actual Presidency, contra the opinions many offered about his chances when he first entered the race. And I include myself in that group. After all, just a month ago, I said the following:
That said, I also think Trump is wrong (though I admit that I do not know that he is). It's not a zero-sum game because the actual pie is not defined (meaning that the American electorate changes in scope and size from election to election). And--more importantly--I don't think everyone in the group Trump is catering to is as stupid as Trump thinks. People are going to start wising up, are going to start realizing that they are getting played.
Since then, Trump's support has not wavered and in fact has ticked upwards, even after the debates which many believed would cause Trump to fall flat on his face.

So I'm left with a little egg on my own face and with the task of understanding why Trump is getting the support he is getting.

First, I should note that Trump and Carson seem to be working with the same general crowd, despite the very different natures of these two candidates. So, if Carson were to drop out of the race tomorrow, I think most of his support would move into the Trump column, putting Trump clearly in the driver's seat. I say this based on the General Election poll numbers and the Trump-as-independent poll numbers. It's the only way I see to explain them.

And frankly, that just makes things worse, the task of understanding the "why" behind this support. Certainly, a good portion of it must be based on both Trump's and Carson's "outsider" statuses. Neither is a professional politician, neither has a political resume of any sort, and both revel in these facts. But I don't think that's sufficient to explain everything. After all, Fiorina is the same sort of outsider. And Rubio has always enjoyed plenty of support from the tea party crowd.

So what's the answer?

Consider this: Trump is and always has been a shameless self-promoter. He'll say and do almost anything for face time in front of the camera. Remember, Trump is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. In 2007 at Wrestlemania 23, Trump and Vince McMahon made a bet on a match, wherein the winner would get to shave the other's hair off. Trump won and shaved McMahon bald, then proceded to get slammed to the mat by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. In 2009, Trump "bought" Monday Night Raw, only to have McMahon buy it back shortly thereafter and "fire" Trump.

And WWE fans ate all of this up. It was fun stuff and Trump was more than willing to play the role of babyface-turned-heel, to be the villain, reviled and hated by all (in wrestling parlance, "babyface" or just "face refers to the good guy while "heel" refers to the bad guy). Really, this was the basis for his reality show, The Apprentice, as well. Regardless of what the contestants did or didn't do, how much they were liked or disliked, the chief villain was Trump.

People love to hate Trump. Nowhere was this more apparent than at this past weekend's Golovkin-Lemieux title fight at Madison Square Garden. The jumbotron showed various celebrities in attendance—as it always does at big pay-per-view events—and most received at least a little applause when they were on screen. Not so for Trump; he was roundly booed. One would think that at this kind of event, he'd have some support in the audience. If he did, they were certainly quiet.

Or maybe it's something else. Maybe it's that Trump's biggest fans, his actual supporters, still love to hate him. After all, if one goes with the now-accepted mainstream media narrative, that Trump is drawing support from the ignorant and the stupid, one would expect to find a fair number of both among boxing and wrestling fans (for the record, I'm a fan of both), right? But the WWE universe hates Trump, by and large. Well, to be more precise, they hate his persona. But they love the storylines involving this persona. A subtle thing, no doubt, but equally true of WWE Chairman (no longer owner, as WWE is publicly traded) Vince McMahon. Fans love the product, what he has created, and that product includes "McMahon the heel." So, fans hate Vince McMahon, though they understand what the real McMahon has created and love him for it (i.e., wrestling fans aren't all as stupid as many people think they are).

So, is this possible, that Trump supporters are willing to "hate on him"—or at least not support him—in public because they are dealing with two different Trumps: the public persona and the Presidential Candidate? It actually explains a lot of things, in my opinion.

But it leave a couple of questions unanswered: is there an actual difference between the two and if there is, how can we tell which Trump we are dealing with in a given moment?

I'm guessing that a good chunk of Trump's supporters see a face persona under the more commonly seen heel persona of the Donald. And that's probably a good way to differentiate the two: The Donald (heel) versus Donald Trump (face). But I have to admit, I'm still seeing only the heel.