Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Reverend Wrong


I think I got too excited, too fast. I really enjoyed the speech that Wright gave at the Detroit NAACP. It was energetic and spoke on race in a way that we rarely hear on national television in this era. I thought he was ready to come out and show his intelligence and his humor and put the vitriol in the past.

As I thought about it today, I realized that I might be wrong. I read the excellent Washington Post Assistant Editor Eugene Robinson talking about how Wright was making a caricature of the Black church and trying to speak for a broad group of people as if they were all the same. My own feelings about race began to bubble up and I realized he was right. Robinson put the "different, not deficient" remarks into a more balanced and representative perspective and in doing so put Wright back in his own ideological wing. I felt a bit remorseful that I'd written so glowingly about his speech, since I think it was a bit too showy for the point he was trying to make. The humor was great for easing some of the tension surrounding him, as a political football, but in the end this is no MLK. The dignity of MLK transcended race, gender, nationality, and ideology. Wright's demeanor transcended the pettiness of the cable television journalism, but not all that much else.

Then, I see today that Wright was at the National Press Club tossing Obama under a bus, while hocking his book. Obama turned around and tossed him back under a bus of his own, finally cutting him off in a way that many had been calling for all along. I wasn't one of those people, but I see why he's been forced to do it at this point. Wright's a self-promoter and a showman. He may be a legitimately good man of God, and an inspiration to the people of Chicago, but he has a little of the celebrity in him too. He seems to relish the chance to be up in front of people. For a little context, MLK was said to be hopelessly shy and reluctant to promote himself. He found the courage to defeat that shyness and used his pulpit for social justice.

It's unfortunate. Had Wright come out with a message of strength in the face of the tabloid nonsense, but used his opportunity to calm the fire, unite people, and take advantage of his clear intelligence, we'd all be better off. All he's done is make another spectacle and ruin a relationship with a member of his flock that could have worked with him to do tremendous good. It's something for all of us to be sad about...

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Reverend (W)Right

I just finished watching the CNN coverage of the good Reverend Wright at the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and I have to say, "WOW!" I'll be honest, I didn't know anything about Wright and I suspect neither did you. I knew that he'd said some bombastic and perhaps offensive things, and I felt that Barack Obama did a fine job of putting him in perspective. I felt that Obama did the right thing by denouncing the comments we all saw via the mainstream media and YouTube, and that the Reverend Wright would have to slink into the shadows.

Boy, I didn't know Reverend Wright....and neither did you.

Yes, the things he said in those clips we saw for weeks and months were over the top and perhaps even offensive. No, Obama didn't have to gloss over this thing for political points as we all thought. His explanation that you can't boil a whole man's life down to a few 30 second clips was taken as a mechanism of spin, but it seemed effective so we let it pass. The problem is, he wasn't spinning. He was speaking the truth.

The speech given by Revered Wright tonight was so intelligent as to make me shake in my seat. The rhetorical style of the African-American church has to move you unless somehow you're dead, or a Republican (just teasing). The style was perfect for television (as a media scholar), but the substance was ground breaking for our national discourse. Not since the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement has the nation been treated to a frank, intelligent, and passionate discussion of race and society. I don't think we can put Wright in King's class, but you never know. If he gets a platform for his Word as a result of this whole controversy, he may save our American soul. I'm not a Christian, or a practitioner of any particular religion, but I felt like shouting out, "Praise Jesus!"

This is a man with two Masters degrees and a doctorate, who speaks 5 languages and possesses rhetorical gifts that would make the finest speech writer blush. He's a man of social conscience and an advocate for justice. There may be a few things that come out of his mouth that rub the wrong way. There may be some things that are unpopular or controversial, but this is no empty demagogue. It's okay if people disagree with the things he says, or find it uncomfortable, but that's GOOD for us as a people. When we're forced out of our comfort zones, out of our familiar paradigm, we grow furthest and fastest.

I encourage you to see this speech if you haven't already. It will move you, whatever direction that is.....

Disgraceful Treatment of Troops

This clip will speak for itself. Watch it. Understand the level of disrespect our government has shown our troops from the Walter Reed scandal to this individual case. Contact your Congressperson by looking them up at Congress Watch.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Atomic Hillary

The "he said, she said" game that has taken over coverage of the Democratic Primary Campaign has done more than exhaust the spirit of good Americans looking for answers from their government and some sign that better days are ahead. Rather than taking on the issues of the economy, the Iraq Occupation, the Afghan Occupation, the environment, and healthcare we've been treated to flag pins, the Reverend Wright (while McCain's Reverend Hagee has had a free pass), and "bitter-gate."

One aside....can we please stop calling anything remotely controversial "something-gate?" The Watergate scandal was a historic moment in America and has been largely diluted by the repetitive use of that suffix to describe things like Barack Obama fumbling some words and looking silly in the process. Watergate led to the resignation of a president and transformed our political culture forever. Enough-gate. Now back to our regularly scheduled rant.

One of the important REAL developments that has received a more "under the radar" treatment in the media is the Hillary Clinton policy on the Middle East that includes massive nuclear retaliation against Iran should it attack Israel or any of its neighbors. This policy position first emerged on the infamous ABC debate amidst discussion of aliens and recipes for secret Muslim apple pie. In the days that have followed, all the attention has been focused on the Pennsylvania primary and why Obama can't win white, blue collar women with high school educations, making less than $50,000 a year, over the age of 50, who like peanuts better than cashews. Oh, and beer. And...bowling. Can't forget the beer and bowling voters.

Here's a clip that should raise the hair on the back of your neck. Comments to follow:

This is one of the most hawkish ideas I've ever heard from a Democrat. It's almost to the right of neoconservatives. It makes me wonder if her foreign policy adviser is Norman Podhoretz, on loan from the Rudy Giuliani campaign. The policy is problematic on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin. In my opinion, there's only one place that's necessary. It comes in two parts.

1. Iran isn't really that close to weaponizing nuclear materials.

The latest National Intelligence Estimate(NIE) has shown that while Iran continues to pursue nuclear capabilities, it has not resumed its plan to transform materials into weapons systems. This NPR article and timeline help to follow the issue in a snapshot. The following development is particularly important to this discussion:

"November 2007: A final draft of the National Intelligence Estimate is presented to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. It concludes that Iran stopped its weapons program in late 2003 and since then has shown no signs of resuming it."

Let's not be too comfortable here. It's not prudent to assume that there isn't some behind-the-scenes work being done to at least keep the possibility open. It's the conservative thing to assume that Iran will eventually weaponize their nuclear material and lord it over Israel and the US as a threat. The problem is, our own best intelligence work has shown that the current climate is plainly calm. The time for saber-rattling isn't now. Hillary Clinton opening the idea of massive nuclear retaliation against Iran is more likely to inflame the situation, and if I were the Iranians, I'd start wringing my hands a bit more about getting that program back in motion. If the US is posturing hawkishly against me, and that position holds true across the Right and Left, I think I'd want to have a big club in my hand for when they come marching into my backyard (Iraq and Afghanistan). I think Clinton just played a huge blunder in our foreign relations, and she's not even in office yet. (slaps own forehead).

2. Massive nuclear retaliation kills millions of innocents.

If the crazy dictator of Iran decides to lob a nuke into Israel, does that make the appropriate response a nuclear war? What of Russia? What of Pakistan? Won't they retaliate? Then India has to get involved, right? Where does it go from there? This idea shows a fundamental lack of understanding of both Iran and nuclear deterrent strategy.

The Supreme Leader is given province over the armed forces in Iran. The president controls the ministers of defense and intelligence, but only at the discretion of the Supreme Leader. For all of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's lunacy regarding Israel and the Holocaust, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is not in favor of the rhetoric about either. He's a human rights violator and something of a dictator himself, but he's far from the monster the hawks would like to make him on the issue of mass destruction. For all the vitriol he's spewed about the United States, he has also said with respect to 9/11, "Mass killings of human beings are catastrophic acts which are condemned wherever they may happen and whoever the perpetrators and the victims may be." He refused to attend Ahmadinejad's disgusting conference on the Holocaust.

It's also important to note that the Khamenei isn't universally supported by the religious establishment in Iran. There are multiple prominent clerics who have called for a Supreme Council, questioning the logic of placing power in the hands of one man. Ahmadinejad is far from the universally loved president that the US media paint him. A good deal of dissent exists in Iran among the more moderate middle class. Iran has always been a more evenly distributed society than its neighbors along the economic and political spectrum. It has an infrastructure and a long, established history of development unlike its Middle Eastern cousins.

The idea that there is an impending danger of nuclear aggression from Iran is ridiculous in the first place, but assuming that a radical change occurs in a very short period of time that results in an attack on Israel, Hillary Clinton would be willing to kill millions of Iranians who no more support Ahmadinejad than I do George W. Bush. She'd be willing to engage in the most destructive act in US history by "obliterating them" when so many of the Iranian people only want peace and prosperity. Insane! She's playing a very hot game in a situation that calls for a cold one. The cold war wasn't about hot rhetoric. Every time the Soviets or the Americans shook their fists at one another the effectiveness of the cold strategy was compromised (remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?).

If this isn't enough to give Clinton supporters pause about where her head is at, and to whom her loyalties lie, I don't know what to say to you. Just something to think about.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pennsylvania Poll-ka

I took the early train from New York Penn Station to my mother's local Exton Station in Chester County, PA today. Over the years, I've spent a fair share of time down here working and visiting and I know the vibe fairly well. Likewise, I spent a year living in Center City, Philadelphia in the late-90s and keep my legal US residence in Pennsylvania while I live in Japan. My heart belongs to New York, but my vote resides in the purple state of Pennsylvania.

When I arrived at the polling station around lunchtime, it was very quiet. As I cast my ballot, only 2 other people were present among the machines and the dozen or so volunteers. I filled in all the little black circles and tallied a vote for Barack Obama. All afternoon and evening I've been tuned in to the election coverage hoping for a 5 point loss for Obama, knowing that it would mean a practical defeat for Hillary Clinton. However, back on April 10th I wrote the following here at Communicative Action:

"My impression of the polling in Pennsylvania leaves me cold about Obama's chance to win PA, let alone close to within 5 points. It's sexy for the networks and for Obama supporters to imagine Obama winning the state or coming within 2-3 points of Clinton, but it ignores the fact that her baseline support has changed very little in his overwhelming spending. She has been sitting at around 50% for virtually the duration of the campaign in PA, and while Obama has stolen a couple of point from her, and vacuumed up most of the undecideds, her 50% has held firm. My guess: Clinton 55% Obama 45%"

With around 95% of precincts reporting, the tally now stands at Clinton 55% and Obama 45%. There are times when you are right and you really feel bad about it. This is a very bad defeat for Barack Obama. In fact, I actually think it's made worse by the excellent speech that Hillary Clinton made in celebrating her victory. By my estimation, it was her best, most inspiring speech of the campaign and the kind of speech that may have locked up the nomination in February had she gone inspirational rather than safe/shrill. Obama was fair in his Indiana speech tonight, but I thought it was flat by comparison. It was sort of a hollow rally in light of the defeat and in fact it seemed a bit like he's phoned it in half-heartedly.

The interesting swing in perception for Clinton probably rescues her campaign from true bankruptcy and allows her to at least hang on for May 6th. It holds the superdelegates frozen in place for at least another 2 weeks. In the end, she can't come close to evening the pledged delegate count, and has a huge uphill battle to close the popular vote. For whatever money boom she gets from the PA victory, it will still pale in comparison to the Obama take and she still has a huge debt to pay off. The numbers advantages, the money advantage, and the time advantage are all on his side. This bad night for Obama will wash away with a big victory in North Carolina and will cripple her with a win in Indiana. If she tries to compete beyond Indiana, there will be bigger money issues and less delegates and votes to catch up. By most metrics the Clinton campaign is a "dead man walking." For at least one night, and maybe 2 weeks, she is the hot political property again.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thick Irony

How years in Washington warp good people. George Stephanopolous. James Carville.

1992 NH Primary

Carville: Let me tell you what's at stake in this election. Every time that somebody comes along that's got some ideas, the Republicans come up here and they ambush 'em. Remember Muskee? Okay? That is standard procedure. And here comes Clinton, he comes to New Hampshire. People here are hurtin'. They want hope. They want somebody with vision. He gives it to 'em. So what do Republicans do? They get together with their wedge issues and they knock him off."

Stephanopolous: What he's going to do in this campaign is focus on what's important to the American people, on the jobs and the education. That's what the American people care about. They want to move into the future. They don't want to be diverted by side issues, and they're not going to let the Republican attack machine divert them.

Funny how we can plug in "Democrats" in these quotes where it says "Republicans." And, those Democrats are the hypocrites who made the statements originally.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


From "The Boss" on his website:

"'Like most of you, I've been following the campaign and I have now seen and heard enough to know where I stand. Senator Obama, in my view, is head and shoulders above the rest." The posting added: "He speaks to the America I've envisioned in my music for the past 35 years.'"

More from The Guardian.

Worst. Debate. Ever.

ABC spent the first hour of this debate dealing with Reverend Wright, William Ayers, Bosnia, elitism, and all the peripheral nonsense that has bogged down our national discourse during this silly primary season. People are going hungry in America, dying in Iraq, and being tortured in Guantanamo Bay and we have to listen to the political equivalent of Paris Hilton for an hour. Absolutely shameful.

Barack Obama is performing horribly in this debate. Just horribly. Partly, he doesn't seem prepared for the style of questioning that Gibson and Stephanopolous is asking. Partly, it's because the style of questioning is petty, framed poorly, and skewed towards a Republican ideology in many ways. Insane. Hillary Clinton isn't exactly setting the world on fire either. She is rehearsed and especially stiff tonight. She occasionally can be seen looking up in the air as she answers as if to try to recall something she'd memorized earlier.

One ethical question...

Is it okay for the former Communications Director of the Bill Clinton campaign and presidency to be one of the moderators of a debate between Bill Clinton's wife and a second hopeful? How is that ethical? The appearance alone is problematic for a "news" organization. I don't think I can ever take him or ABC seriously again.

Last thing for now...I'm sure I'll be posting more later. Is Charles Gibson the biggest jackass that's ever moderated a debate. He's playing "gotcha" moderator at every turn. He's more visible in this thing than the two people running for president. Hell, he's helped to make John McCain more visible in this thing than either of the Democrats participating in the Democratic debate. Here's a great clip of the crowd booing Gibson for his shameful performance:

UPDATE: Here's a snippet from the ABC News Live Blog of the "debate":

"Live Blogging from the Democratic Debate

April 16, 2008 8:52 PM

9:50 pm ET: Apologies for drop-off in postings as the debate wore on -- the overwhelming number of comments slowed down our server.

Overall -- with the preface that all of this may not matter, since Obama was and is the delegate leader, this was not a good night for the frontrunner. He hasn't been all that strong in any of the debates, and we saw some of his less attractive qualities tonight -- odd comparisons (Ayers and Tom Coburn?), some slippery answers, and a general prediliction to avoid confronting his own words and actions directly.

Clinton had one of her better nights -- set a generally positive tone, despite the need for her to score some points. She managed to avoid overt attacks but still found ways to differentiate herself -- and make herself look presidential.

Bottom line: I don't think Sen. Obama got this much scrutiny in any other two-hour period during this campaign, but then again he shouldn't have been surprised by any of the lines of inquiry. I'm not sure he held up that well -- not that he fell apart, but he didn't do himself all too many favors. There are a number of answers I think he'd like to have back. But for his supporters -- the soaring above his opponent is almost certainly attractive."

The key point is that ABC apologized for a dropoff in posting because the overwhelming number of postings slowed the server. By all accounts the comments section was SLAMMED with negative responses, so I guess that would make it likely that ABC would shut things down. They've done it before. You can send your opinions to ABC News Media Relations: Natalie Raabe at Natalie.J.Raabe@abc.com or 212.456.2418

UPDATE2: This Washington Post article sums the whole thing up very well from the shoddy moderators to the poor direction that showed Chelsea, Ed Rendell, Mayor Nutter, and other Clinton supporters throughout the debate. Also, this excellent post from Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Daily News.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I Heart Michelle Obama

Yeah, Barack's my candidate, but my heart belongs to Michelle. This clip from tonight's Colbert Report:

Not to bump my far more important post about Neoliberalism (READ ON BELOW!), but I had to throw this up there.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism: Part I

I'm zeroing in on a presentation for my Communication Ethics grad course this Thursday and busy with the paper that goes along with it. I will post excerpts of that paper here by the end of the week, but you'll be interested to listen to author David Harvey's talk at the University of Chicago a few years back in anticipation of my article. Give it a listen and absorb the important aspects of this paradigm shift in the global market structure. It's a little long, but it's fascinating and one of the most important topics in our national and international discourse in the 21st century.

More soon.

Friday, April 11, 2008


This is the strongest I've ever seen Obama. It comes off very well, I think. If he had done this prior to Texas and Ohio things may have turned out differently. I'm curious about the reaction to this in the next couple of news cycles, since they've all jumped on him for suggesting that people are bitter and vote on cultural issues instead of their own economic interest. Here's what he said originally, the McCain and Clinton statements, and then his reply via YouTube.

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

McCain replied, "Asked to respond, McCain adviser Steve Schmidt called it a "remarkable statement and extremely revealing." "It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," Schmidt said. "It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."

Clinton replied, "I saw in the media it's being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter," Clinton said this afternoon. "Well, that's not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard everyday for a better future, for themselves and their children.`"Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them, they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families."

Obama's final word:

Let's face it, if people weren't bitter and frustrated all over America how could you explain a 25% approval rating for Congress and a 30% approval for Bush? You couldn't. Let's be real. I should note that I stole this format directly from a great post over at DailyKos. You can head over to see it in its original form, but I wanted to spell it out very clearly here as well. Hat tip to SusanG. By the way, Digg the Obama video by clicking this link. Get it out there everywhere.

UPDATE: The comments on CNN are excellent. This is going to backfire on McCain and Clinton big time. Watch this and listen, in particular, to Jeff Toobin. The other pundits are good, but Toobin is priceless.

I'm glad Obama finally channeled his inner Howard Beale:

"Regular Guy" Pet Peeve

Something's been bugging me for a little while. I wasn't able to put my finger on it exactly, but I think it's getting clearer recently. The election season has brought it out into the light. What is it, you ask? It's the "regular guy" thing.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC is particularly useful in illustrating this point as he takes pride in his regular guy credentials. He talks about his Philadelphia roots and loves the people who "tell it like it is." It's a kind of homage to the Philly brand of blue collar, street vendor coffee, hockey jersey wearing, bar stool street cred that turns Matthews on. There's a different version of this regular guy myth depending on where your from, but it's out there. It's more than that though. The other half of the equation is the imaginary formula that constitutes irregular guyness or non-regular guyness, or however you'd like to put it. If you have a job in an office, drink coffee from Starbucks, wear a polo shirt on weekends, and drink wine with your dinner you're some kind of "namby pamby" wuss. At least, that's the implication. You don't count for a real, down to earth, honest to goodness opinion on the "stuff that really matters."

The problem with the "regular guy" theorists, like Matthews, is that they disdain the elitist, intellectual, white collar sensibility but set up an elitist position of their own in doing so. In effect, they are the grand champions of the dumbing down of the American middle class. Speaking in terms of the properties of media, television works best when it sets up either/or propositions. It deals with issues in black and white, setting up false choices at every turn. In that respect it serves propagandists and PR specialists perfectly because it narrows our perspective and sets us up in a position of extreme polarization. Wonder why we have red and blue states? Thank you CNN.

George Bush is a "regular guy" because he clears brush, talks kinda dumb, and used to be an alcoholic. Al Gore was a latte-drinking, Prius driver "non-regular guy" cause he likes to answer questions and stuff. The ultimate sign of a non-regular guy? Nobel Prize. Ed Rendell is a regular guy cause he looks kind of burly, "tells it like it is", and doesn't care what people think about it. Barack Obama isn't a regular guy because he can't bowl, speaks real good, and was President of the Harvard Law Review. Forget Hillary Clinton. Women obviously can't be regular guys, but whatever the equivalent might be for them it must include taking no offense to being called "honey" or "dear" by regular guys.

The way I see it, the whole phenomenon is a direct result of the extreme reliance on demographics in marketing, advertising, and politics. In order to capitalize on trends in spending we've become slaves to targeted messaging that defines the boundaries of personal identity. While ad execs are busy dissecting the psyche of every possible sub-group of American society, they are also reinforcing the psychological boundaries of identity that they seek to understand. It works perfectly for an industry that wants to identify and hold a particular audience in place in order to target it most effectively. This works to define identity in general, but reserves a particularly insidious place when it comes to politics. The excellent book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" by Thomas Frank describes the phenomenon very well, saying:

"Over the last thirty-five years the Republicans have transformed themselves from an aristocratic minority into the nation's dominant political party, a brawling, beer-drinking buddy of the working man. The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it's sometimes hard to believe it's actually happened: Think of Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of the "silent majority," or Ronald Reagan shaking his head at those crazy college professors, or George W. Bush sticking up for the "regular Americans," or the army of pundits who have written so eloquently in recent months about the humble folk of the "red states.""

That quote identifies the shift in the political environment perfectly, except that I think it overly emphasizes the Republican identity. Yes, the GOP managed to take control of the electorate using this strategy to convince blue collar America to abandon the labor union, embrace cultural identity, and vote against their own economic interest. The entire political landscape is now dominated by this line of thinking from Republican to Democrat and everywhere in between. In fact, the Lou Dobbs brand of everyday man mythology targets the large number of independent voters who are disillusioned by the whole process. In an age when everything is branded, packaged, marketed, targeted, spun, and carefully managed the ultimate quest for authenticity is the defining characteristic of our modern world. The irony is, the definition of authenticity takes place by the identical process used to brand, package, market, target, spin, and carefully manage everything else. Authenticity is now the province of the mass media.

I'm on the cusp of my first graduate degree. I like wine. I like espresso. I'm inclined to buy a hybrid if and when I buy my next car. I take pride in my ability to express myself intelligently. I read the New York Times. I speak Japanese. I'm a vegetarian and I like to eat at expensive restaurants with foreign names. Chris Matthews is writing me off as I make this list. The thing is, I like street vendor coffee for a dollar. I prefer to wear jeans and Timberlands. Beer is good. Whisky and tequila, too. If you crowd me on the subway, I'm gonna say, "Get outta my fucking space." I'm a fan of clearing brush and stacking wood. Put on the game and I'm likely to jump through the roof when something happens good or bad. I love boxing and I think motocross is about the most exciting sport to watch in the world. Sit me down at a diner and I'll order the greasiest thing on the menu. What does all that tell you Lou Dobbs?

It tells me that there is no such thing as a "regular guy." The myth of the regular guy sells all of us short. It counts on us all being zombies. It counts on men favoring their more base selves and women favoring their submissive side. Humanity is best for its complexity and we demean our American culture by boiling it down to false choices. Reinforcing these choices by framing our national political discourse as a battle between the regular guy and the elitist intellectual class is a distortion of the truth and robs us all of a deeper vision of who we are and what problems face us as a people. Next time you hear someone playing this "regular guy" game, ask yourself what the truth is. Ask yourself what's missing in their portrayal of the issues and the culture itself. I'm sure you'll find it lacking.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

April 10th Political Notes

I have nothing specific to discuss today, but I thought there were a few things floating around that are worth a mention.

1. Pennsylvania

The mainstream media are on top of the story in Pennsylvania as the primary approaches and have almost unanimously reported that Barack Obama has closed to within single digits. The set up now is a bit like a stretch run for the pennant. I know that sports analogies rub some people the wrong way (as was in evidence in the reaction of some critics of my last post), but the sports metaphor is one that applies to the coverage of news and events on television. Students of media will understand this, but anecdotally I only have to point to the CNN "Ballot Bowl" coverage of the election to make my case. My impression of the polling in Pennsylvania leaves me cold about Obama's chance to win PA, let alone close to within 5 points. It's sexy for the networks and for Obama supporters to imagine Obama winning the state or coming within 2-3 points of Clinton, but it ignores the fact that her baseline support has changed very little in his overwhelming spending. She has been sitting at around 50% for virtually the duration of the campaign in PA, and while Obama has stolen a couple of point from her, and vacuumed up most of the undecideds, her 50% has held firm. My guess: Clinton 55% Obama 45%

2. Iraq

The president made a speech today about the Occupation (which everyone keeps calling a war for some reason) and our stay in Iraq. The Democrats sent Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi out to respond. The president was necessarily vague about where we go from here, and the Democrats were necessarily outraged. Neither group is dealing with the situation realistically at this point. I have said that I support a withdrawal on a 2-year timetable. I still think that is doable, and I think it's what Hillary Clinton has said for some time. Barack Obama may be coming around to that timetable, but he's been more aggressive about his schedule. I watched the horrendously unattractive Michael Ware (why doesn't he fix that nose?) on CNN last night talking about the Petraeus/Crocker hearings and he said that the duo was full of shit about a number of things, while taking time to point out the ridiculous notion that we can leave anytime soon.

Ware, for his part, lives everyday in Iraq and sees the problems of the US military, the Iraqi people, the insurgents, Al Qaeda, and the Maliki government up close. He is emotionally and intellectually invested in the full dynamic. I believe he sees the situation as a quagmire that has to be resolved by reconciliation at a grassroots level. He has no faith in the Maliki government (nor should he), little faith in any politician on either side, and is hinting at a Balkanization of the country that separates the factions and sectarian parties in order to achieve a lasting, if tenuous, peace. I'm putting words in his mouth, but I believe I've captured some of the nuance to his position. At least I can say that he sees some complexity and lives in the gray area between the two political wings of the United States.

The Petraeus hearings have taught us two important things. First, the news media have largely ignored the Iraq Occupation for at least a year. We've lost touch with the on the ground reality of 2007-08 Iraq. Second, we're beginning to see the worst repercussions of our national blunder peek their heads out from the sand. The foothold that Al Qaeda has taken in Iraq, the depth of the Shiite ties to Iran that have evolved, the Kurdish separation from the Federal agenda, and oh so many other things that will grow worse before they get better. We're in this for a generation. The question is, how deeply? Are we in Iraq with a sizable military presence (combat or non-combat) for 100 years as McCain suggests, or do we draw back and seek out other means of support for a national Iraqi identity? Who knows at this point? I do think the president is dragging things out in order to leave it at the next president's feet as Nancy Pelosi says. That's unfortunate.

3. Gas at $3.36 a gallon

I don't see this as a tragedy actually. I live in Japan, where gasoline has been more expensive than any place on Earth (other than Sweden, I believe) for decades. We get by. It's forced the Japanese to develop fuel efficient automobiles, light engine cars for urban and short distance drivers, and hybrids. What's more, people can afford it. Why? Because Japan is the world's most successful socialist state. Don't get me wrong, Japan is a capitalist powerhouse with one of the world's most powerful economies. That's despite the fact that Japan has few natural resources except their own labor and ingenuity. It's actually quite remarkable.

Japan, traditionally, has been a middle class nation. There are few uber-wealthy, and virtually no working poor. The social services that Japan provides for some of the highest taxes in the world provide a good life for everyone. National social health care is a blessing that has provided for my family and the birth of my son. My daughter(?) will be born this summer under the care of fine doctors, in a fine hospital, free of charge. High gas prices are a product of high import costs in Japan. We're seeing that in the US now. That's never going away as long as any of us live. That makes the cost of goods and services rise, and the cost of living will become almost unbearable for many, while it's already been unbearable for millions for some time. Solutions will depend on whether you believe that neoliberal economic policies that trust in the free market, while providing bail outs for financial institutions when they fail, are the answer or a move toward higher taxes and more social services is the answer.

It's more complex than that, of course, but we live in this paradigm. One philosophy destroys working people by holding their wages and social services at a minimum while propping up the rich. The other tends towards stagnation that stalls the economy. Japan has seen significant periods of stagnation, which have been managed as relatively short lived. Economic downturns are less likely to result in recession, while upturns are less likely to result in booms. Japan has unique problems that threaten a prosperous future, but a commitment to supporting a broad middle class has always been a priority. I'll write more on this soon, but it's something to consider.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"The Surge" Hearing

I've been watching the MSNBC coverage of the Petraeus/Crocker hearings before Congress all day, often wishing someone would say something tangible or constructive. I'd like to deal with the things I've heard today, piece by piece. I don't want this to be another 2008 election post, despite the obvious overtones with all 3 candidates addressing the panel. I will start, briefly, with that point to get it out of the way.

The question I was hoping to hear from any or all of the candidates (or any of the other Senators) was, "What is the minimum requirement to declare victory in Iraq that will allow us to bring our troops home?" I'd heard all the prepared statements from Petraeus and Crocker and found them seriously lacking in detail or vision. They were very careful and non-committal, generally preferring a combination of status quo rhetoric and ambiguous progress which may or may not continue in the future. Essentially, they said, "The conditions dictate our next move, and we don't know what those conditions will be at any point in the future despite optimism about recent progress."

John McCain, to use a baseball analogy, drew a walk in his inquiry. He didn't take a swing with any real questions, preferring to highlight the party line on successful benchmarks on the ground. He said more or less the same thing he's been saying on the campaign trail and while he didn't hurt himself with any ridiculous new projections about Iraq, he also never took the bat off his shoulder to get answers for us, the American people. He took his base, and passed the rest of the inning along to his Committee on Armed Service teammates.

Hillary Clinton hit a ringing double with her command of the facts, pointed questioning, and her insistence that the U.S. Congress holds the right to ratify a treaty with the Iraqi government, not the other way around. I think she missed the opportunity to ask more questions as a result of her rather long opening statement, but the tone was very very strong.

Before I get to Barack Obama, I'd like to say that I think the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, overall, was FAR superior in their tough questioning of the two guests than their Armed Service colleagues. The Democrats on the Committee on Armed Service panel allowed Petraeus to repeat his prepared statement talking points over and over and allowed Ambassador Crocker to drone on in a filibuster-like waste of valuable questioning time. The Republicans kissed their asses on a number of occasions, never asking a single productive question about where the Occupation ends.

Barack Obama was fortunate to make his questioning near the end of the Foreign Service business, after Senators from both parties had tenderized the Bush administration's front men with tough, pointed questions about the loss of life, treasure, and focus in the Middle East and on the larger battle with Islamic extremists. The Committee managed to keep the pressure on regarding our finite resources, patience, and military personnel. Obama hit a solo home run, by following a rather powerful and heated Barbara Boxer and a fairly bland George Voinovich with an almost professorial examination of the duo before him. He started slow with a bit of a wordy opening question that never materialized as clearly as he wanted, but evolved into a productive, respectful, and logical dialog. He occasionally interrupted the panelists when their answers strayed from his point, but did so with a respectful and dignified tone that kept the pair open to his line of questioning. I'm biased in Senator Obama's favor, but he asked the question that I wanted to hear. He asked about whether a messy status quo would be an acceptable outcome for the United States, especially in light of the uber-high bar the administration seems to be setting to define success. That was close enough for me, as it gets right at the heart of my own question, and far more effectively.

There was never an answer to that question that seemed remotely acceptable. We have lost 4, 024 American soldiers since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, if not more, have been killed. We have spent trillions of dollars. We have diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. We have allowed Al Qaeda and Iran to create footholds in Iraq where they did not exist before. We stand by and allow the political stalemate in the Iraqi government dictate the tenure of our military presence. What little progress they make in the effort for reconciliation and an end to sectarian violence is offset by the corruption, bad blood, and lack of commitment to a real Iraqi state. 1,000 Iraqi soldiers went AWOL in the recent battles in Basra, refusing to fight. News reports show US inspections of Iraqi units which find them taking long lunches and sleeping on the job. There has been almost no progress on restoring electricity, water, sewage, or other important basic services, while money has gone missing at an alarming rate. The list goes on and on.

The people that needed to be seated before Congress to take the heat for this situation, or explain it to all of us, are Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Those are the people responsible for the policy in Iraq. They need to address military and diplomatic goalposts for success. Could they sit there are answer the question that I wanted to ask, and that Senator Obama posed so eloquently. Senator Robert Menendez put it very well when he said something to the effect of, "You can't tell us what the end game is for success. It's almost like you're saying, we'll know it when we see it and give us an open checkbook in the meantime."

In the end, we never heard anything resembling a decent answer about where this thing goes from here. I've said in the past that I don't want a precipitous and risky withdrawal that leaves a power void to be filled by Iran, Al Qaeda, Moqtada al Sadr, militias, criminals, or civil war. I do want a reasonable withdrawal starting ASAP that indicates that Iraq needs to stand on its own sooner than later. It needs to resolve the unresolved with some measure of urgency and seriousness. A messy status quo looks good to me, as long as we stand prepared with an international coalition to provide some air cover for the Iraqi military and/or some logistic support in the area of intelligence and reconnaissance. We need to reject the idea of a long term presence in Iraq because it will be unproductive for them and for us. It will put a tremendous drag on our economy and promote ill will with the Arab and Muslim community that already sees us as imperial occupiers.

The upcoming election will determine everything about the way we move forward, and I think either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama have a good command of our realistic options for the future of the Occupation and our presence in the region. John McCain? Not so much.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


I just arrived back in New York after a nice weekend with my sister and brother-in-law in Pennsylvania. I spent a number of years living in the Philadelphia area, and much of my immediate family has been there for nearly 20 years now. I'm the lone hold out New Yorker. New York is a bit of an illusion as far as the rest of the United States goes. There are too many departures from the American norm in New York, including the fact that 36% of New Yorkers are foreign-born and somewhere in the neighborhood of 60% of the city's population is non-White. It's my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The other part of my life includes the majority of the last four years living in Japan. I am one of the very few foreigners living in my community there, and I'm very used to being the foreign spectacle.

Going to Bucks County, PA for a few days reminded me of just how Caucasian the United States is overall, and how different predominately white communities feel. Bucks is a beautiful county with a fairly high median income and an approximately 95% white population. The county has become one of Pennsylvania's "purplest" electoral areas with a large pharmaceutical presence as well as a fairly strong conservative undercurrent politically. Doylestown, PA, where I spent part of the weekend, is the typical Prius-driving, wine sipping, university educated Democratic base that has gone to Barack Obama throughout the primary season and it was evident that the town was buzzing with Obamamania during the evening I spent having dinner with my family. The town opens up the streets to a festival atmosphere on the 1st Friday of every month, and chants of "Obama" could be heard from blocks away as groups of young, excited teens carried signs and bumper stickers to show their enthusiasm. Most of the younger crowd were still 4-5 years from voting age, but they were swept up in the atmosphere of this unusual election season.

The Obama headquarters were open in town and people casually strolled in and out to pick up materials, give donations, and generally share in the positive vibe of the movement. I bought two pins and two bumper stickers while visiting with the kind people in the office and really began to think about how other communities like this one were wrapped up in the big campaign. New York is a bustle of 10 million separate agendas, and the sheer number of activities, happenings, and attractions tend to swallow one another on most occasions. The city is capable of tremendous unity and community character, but on the average day it's a vast Metropolis. Doylestown was alive with Obama. I walked into the restaurant where we had reserved a table and was immediately greeted by a table of people sitting near the door. "Where did you get those bumper stickers?" one man asked. He was thrilled to hear that the Obama headquarters were open around the corner and rallied his table of middle-aged friends and family to head over after dessert and coffee. While sitting at our table, a neighboring diner gave the thumbs up for Obama and nodded in approval. The waiter stopped to touch the bumper stickers on the table and said, "Good choice." I thanked him and agreed.

Driving through the area there were dozens upon dozens of Obama lawn signs, with only a smattering of Hillary's placards visible from the street. It was evident that the money Obama has put into Pennsylvania has given him an overwhelming presence. I saw one Hillary sign in town, sitting next to an Obama sign in the county Democratic committee office window. I saw one Hillary pin on a woman in her late-50's, surrounded at a cafe by a number of Obama supporters. Likewise, I saw more Obama television ads than I care to remember, while the only presence Hillary currently has in Pennsylvania is a phone campaign asking for donations and support. There was one on my sister's answering machine when we got back from dinner. Obama's been running a blitz of ads on television in PA for weeks now and has at least five different versions in play at this point. The newest of those ads is called "For Decades" and was aired during what seemed like every commercial break I saw. See it for yourself:

In Philadelphia, the Obama spirit was also very high with brilliantly stylized artwork featuring Obama's face at every bus stop in Center City. There were a lot more Hillary placards in town, but the placement was awkward and haphazard. Personally, the experience was very exciting. On a broader level, the weekend in Pennsylvania was a great chance to steal part of the enthusiasm for our political future that has embodied this campaign. At a time when things look bleak, and when our problems seem to be mounting by the hour, an energy is in the air for democracy. The trick is, can we maintain it when times are good?

UPDATE 4/7: The New York Times blog "The Caucus" reports that two Pennsylvania counties, Montgomery and Bucks, have accounted for more registered Democrats than Republicans for the first time since the 1960's. I guess this long primary season hasn't been all bad, has it? My weekend in Bucks seems to anecdotally illustrate this point.