Sep 30, 2008

What Senator Obama doesn't understand

“I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy... Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy... I don’t think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state.... What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a “stinking corpse,” and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments... He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.... Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand..."
It was the most notable verbal tic of the night: the number of times McCain resorted to saying Obama "didn't understand" a particular topic. The McCain camp, and the media, were touting these as direct strikes on his opponent, and yet CNN's focus-group graph took a plunge every time: the viewers didn't like it.

What did they know that the pundits didn't? Anyone who has ever been in an argument, knows that the last card you play, after your attempts to persuade and explain have all fallen flat, is the "you just don't understand" card. Children, especially, are very fond of it, although it lays them open to is to the parental response, "what do I not understand", at which point you face a choice: cough up or leave the room. You-just-don't-understand is the nuclear option of debating tactics, just a shade away from an actual tantrum: why won't you agree with me?

But Obama's definition of the difference between a tactic and a strategy was the correct one. Kissinger had said that negotiating without preconditions was a good idea. And Pakistan was not a failed state in 1999. Not only is it false to say that "everyone knows" this: you would not be able to find a single person who thinks this. Nor do you have to be an geopolitical expert to know McCain was blowing smoke. We've all been patronised by someone who knew less than us at some point in our lives. A boss or teacher who pulled rank unnesessarily or relied too much on a priori assertions of authority — asserting expertise rather demonstrating of it. Sooner or later, people want proof. The proof, in this case, was standing right next to McCain, looking and sounding like he understood more than enough.

My view of the debate in general: a tie, which translates as a win for Obama.

Sep 21, 2008

He is who he is

"A new poll that accompanied a much buzzed-about Associated Press article on Saturday seemed to quantify the cost of racism to Obama: 6 percentage points in the polls." — Politico
So what? What purpose does that statistic serve? If we really put our mind to it we could probably work out how much better he'd be polling if he were from the South. Or pro-Surge. Or pro-life. Or right-handed. Working out the statistical cost of his race seems an academic exercise at best, and at worst neurotic and inflammatory. He is who he is. "A related and unresolved question is how many persons will vote for Barack Obama because he is black" says Nate Silver. So that's that poll rendered instantly meaningless.

Words, words, words

"Well, it was an unfair attack on the verbiage that Senator McCain chose to use. The fundamentals that he was having to explain afterwards, he means the work force, he means ingenuity of the American people. And of course, that is strong, that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack based on verbiage that John McCain used. Certainly, it is a mess, though." — Sarah Palin, Fox News

What can she mean? I'm assuming she means "verbiage" — wordiness — but whose? Obama's or McCain's? "An unfair attack on the verbage": that seems to suggest it was McCain she considers verbose. "An unfair attack based on verbage" could imply the verbosity was Obama's, i.e. "His attack was mere wordplay." The answer is of course, that she has no clue what the word means. Not that I'm attacking her verbage....

Sep 16, 2008

The Unites States of Agreeableness

"The results are in: New Yorkers are stressed and unfriendly but intellectually inclined, while people who live in Georgia and Florida are sociable and energetic. A group of Cambridge University researchers say they have scientifically confirmed what most people already suspected. In a six-year study of the personalities of almost 620,000 Americans, the researchers found that character traits closely tracked the country's different regions. The research showed that Americans on the eastern seaboard were "more anxious and impulsive" while westerners were comparatively relaxed.

Participants in the study answered an online questionnaire in which they were asked to read short statements, such as "I see myself as someone who is outgoing", or "I see myself as someone who is very religious," and indicate their level of agreement. Other findings: people from Arizona, a politically conservative state, received a high ranking for "conscientiousness" but a low one on "neuroticism". Researchers said that indicated that people there "like order and discipline, but are fairly relaxed". Some of the poorest states in the US ranked high for "neuroticism", which the researchers described as "anxious, stressful and impulsive". Those states, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia, are five of the six poorest, measured by median household income."— The Gaurdian

Is Obama telling the truth too much?

PolitiFact calculates that since July, John McCain and his campaign have made 11 political claims that are barely true, eight that are categorically false, and three pants-on-fire lies—a total of 22 clearly deceptive statements. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, meanwhile, have put out eight bare truths, four untruths, and zero pants-on-fire lies— 12 false claims. These statistics are born out by and the Washington Post's Fact Checker.
"This is exactly what's so puzzling about Obama's strategy—why is he paying any attention to the fact-checkers? So far, McCain has seen little blowback from lying. Polls show that he's perceived as more "honest and trustworthy" than Obama and that the public believes his claim that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class. He's boxed in by his oft-repeated search for a different kind of politics. But given the tenor of the campaign, Obama's audience might be happy to see him take the low road. In the past, Democratic voters have been willing to accept lies." — Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society.
It's certainly tempting. Last week McCain ran an ad claiming that Obama's "one accomplishment" on education policy was to push "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners." The ad contained not a single true fact: The Illinois Senate bill the ad refers to was not Obama's legislation. (He voted for it but didn't write or sponsor it.) It was not an "accomplishment"—the bill didn't pass. Nor did it advocate teaching kids about sex before they learned to read, but envisioned "age-appropriate" language instructing children on "preventing sexual assault."

Micheky Kaus thinks that highlighting McCain's lies is a losing strategy. "When Dems get outraged at unfairness they look weak. How can they stand up to Putin if they start whining when confronted with Steve Schmidt? Lecturing the public on what's 'true" and what's a "lie" (when the truth isn't 100% clear) plays into some of the worst stereotypes about liberals--that they are preachy know-it-alls".

There's no BBC here. No Fleet Street. No single authority to be trusted, just a republic of pure opinion, in which anything can be proved, or disproved, according to ideological persuasion. Anyone wanting to know where people like Bush or Palin come from — how they get as far as they do — need look no farther. Obama has an uphill climb ahead of him.

Sep 15, 2008

How to field-dress a moose

"All this talk about moose hunting! It is as though, because of the animal's enormous size and imposing antlers, bringing one down is a heroic feat of marksmanship. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods, killing these big, gentle, myopic creatures is more "like going out by night to some woodside pasture and shooting your neighbour's horses".

And yet, as we saw at the Republican convention, hunting seems to define a certain species of American politician.... The name of Teddy Roosevelt, the hunter, the moose skinner, was invoked just the other day at the Republican convention, in Fred Thompson's praise of Governor Sarah Palin. This mother of five is now celebrated as a moose hunter and, more than that, as a moose skinner, moose eater - and perhaps hanger of moose-head trophies. As Governor Palin was delivering her acceptance speech, an immense colour photograph of Alaska was projected behind her on the giant screen, where in the twilit foreground a moose could be seen, placidly staring at its reflection in water. And on the following day, in the video that encapsulated her life, Palin was described as having risen early with her father on cold mornings in Wasilla to go moose hunting, to augment the family's diet.

While people cheered, Palin was lauded for knowing how to "field-dress" a moose. Thoreau, who watched such an operation take place, wrote: "Joe [his Penobscot guide] now proceeded to skin the moose with a pocket knife, while I looked on, and a tragical business it was; to see that still warm and palpitating body pierced with a knife, to see the warm milk stream from the rent udder, and the ghastly naked red carcass appearing from within its seemly robe." I read that and somehow am not provoked to cheer." — Paul Theroux, The Guardian

Quote of the Day

"McCain has gone in some of his ads—similarly gone one step too far, and sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the '100 percent truth' test. They ought to—there ought to be an adult who says, 'Do we really need to go that far in this ad'?"Karl Rove.

Over-estimating your enemies

"Ever since World War II, the United States has tended to make its strategic missteps by exaggerating dangers. During the 1950s, conservatives argued that Dwight Eisenhower was guilty of appeasement because he was willing to contain rather than roll back communism. The paranoia about communism helped fuel McCarthyism at home and support for dubious regimes abroad. John Kennedy chose to outflank Nixon on the right by arguing that there was a dangerous missile gap between the Soviets and the United States (when in fact the United States had almost 20,000 missiles and the Soviets had fewer than 2,000). The 1970s witnessed a frenzied argument that the Soviet Union was surpassing the United States militarily and was about to "Finlandize" Europe. The reality, of course, was that when neoconservatives were arguing that the U.S.S.R. was about to conquer the world, it was on the verge of total collapse.

Since end of the cold war, similar alarms have been sounded several times. In the 1990s, the Cox Commission argued that China was building a military to rival ours, citing numbers that soon proved to be bogus. Then there's Saddam Hussein, who was described as a powerful and imminent threat to the United States. In fact, the greatest problem that we have faced in Iraq is its weakness, its utter dysfunction as a state and a nation. Rhetoric about transcendent threats and mortal dangers grips the imagination of the American people. But it also twists U.S. foreign policy in ways that can prove to be extremely costly to the country and the world." — Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek

Sep 14, 2008

"I kept telling them they had got the wrong person"

"Haji Ghalib, a tribal elder from eastern Nangahar province released late last year, claimed he was falsely denounced after closing down a drugs bazaar when he was police chief in a rough district near Jalalabad. 'It was a ridiculous accusation, but the Americans believed it. They beat me, gave me no food and interrogated me by strapping me to a wooden plank and pushing my head into water. I kept telling them they had got the wrong person,' he said. Independent sources confirm that Ghalib, a former fighter against the Russians, had fought against the Taliban in previous years and was allied with an anti-Taliban warlord. 'I spent four years in Guantánamo without any evidence of any guilt at all because I am innocent,' he said in Kabul. 'But I am not angry at the Americans because they were the victims of bad information. But I would like the money and vehicles they took from me. I am in a very difficult situation now, and I am worried about the people who accused me, because they could do it again.'" — One of the freed Gauntanamo detainees, interviewed in The Observer today

When you wish upon a star

"Palin camp clarifies extent of Iraq trip: Says she never ventured beyond Kuwait border" — Boston Globe

That's a pretty limited "extent." I.e. "none". Gazing across borders and imagining what might lie beyond is obviously a big hobby for Palin, who rates her ability to negotiate with Moscow on the fact that if you travel to certain parts of Alaska, stand on tip toes and squint really hard you can see Russia. I once walked on the moon in just this fashion.

Small town values

The New York Times does some fact-checking on Sarah Palin's reformist credentials:
"When there was a vacancy at the top of the State Division of Agriculture, she appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as one of her qualifications for running the roughly $2 million agency.

Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance..... State legislators are investigating accusations that Ms. Palin and her husband pressured officials to fire a state trooper who had gone through a messy divorce with her sister, charges that she denies. Interviews make clear that the Palins draw few distinctions between the personal and the political.
I've long worked on the assumption that ever since the media turned the presidential elections into a hunt for an everyman, candidates will be penalised for seeming too virtuous. Saints make people feel uncomfortable. Voters actually want someone who shares some of their character defects. That's what was behind a lot of Hillary's candidacy: here was a candidate who fought a mean fight in order to get ahead. To many people, this bore an uncanny resemblance to the themes of their daily life. Palin too is a familiar type. She attacks critics, pursues petty vendettas, blurs the line between government business and personal matters. A gut player who cuts dead those who cross her. An outsider who deplores croneyism only because they are not her cronies ("The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government.") The crusader who campaigns against her opponent's corruption, not because she dislikes corruption per se, only other people's.

There violent delights have violent ends

The media are finally beginning to call out the McCain campaign:—
"McCain’s tactics are drawing the scorn of many in the media and organizations tasked with fact-checking the truthfulness of campaigns. In recent weeks, Team McCain has been described as dishonorable, disingenuous and downright cynical. A series of ads — including accusations that Barack Obama backed teaching sex education to Illinois kindergartners and charges that Obama called Sarah Palin a lipstick-wearing pig — have provoked a cascade of criticism of McCain’s tactics. “We recognize it’s not going to be 2000 again,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said. “But he lost then. We’re running a campaign to win. And we’re not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it.” —
That last line is the killer: nobody seems to care. The McCain campaign has made a simple calculation, based on the lateness of the conventions: hunker down in the bunker, and ride out the clock. (Remind you of anyone?). It is a high-risk gamble, just like the Palin pick. The McCain campaign is a rocket running entirely on the fumes of Palin's celebrity right now, and the rocket is going very fast. The ever perspicacious Peggy Noonan:—
Democrats, hit reset. Accept the fact that the race has changed utterly, that you're up against a ticket that has captured the public imagination. Now you must go out and recapture it. You must aim your fire at the top of the ticket, John McCain, and not at this beautiful girl, Sarah Palin, about whom you can do nothing.You can never kill her now. Forget it. She can hurt herself, but in terms of Democratic attacks she is bulletproof. You made her that—she wasn't that way when she walked in.... The Democrats were up against Xena the Warrior Princess and came across, in response, as pale-lipped Puritans who actually, at the end of the day, don't really like women all that much. Mrs. Palin radiates the sense that she'd never give up her femininity in her quest for power because her femininity is part of her power. (On the Democratic side, she can be compared in this to Nancy Pelosi.) Right now only Mrs. Palin can hurt Mrs. Palin. Messrs. Obama and Biden can't do it and shouldn't try. And the media can't, because more than half the country won't listen to them on this subject now, and for a while. The media could get videotape of Mrs. Palin saying, "We should invade Mars and it will be easy because Mars is hidden inside my hair!" and people would say, "Stop sliming Sarah!"

Sep 12, 2008

Palin doesn't know what the Bush Doctrine is

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?

PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?

GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?

PALIN: His world view.

GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.

PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

Here's how out of her depth she was: you don't even have to know what the Bush doctrine is to know she was riding a wave of purest seat-of-your-pants horseshit. First the long pause, then the counter-question to buy more time ("In what respect Charlie?"). Followed by a broad guess ("His world view"?). And then the clincher: even when Gibson spells it out for her, she still starts talking about something else altogether, good old-fashioned self-defence rather than pre-emption. The thing I find most revealing, though, is the ice in her voice when she asks "In what respect Charlie?" That's a very talented liar at work, unblinking and direct, masking weakness with immediate threat: Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure, Charlie? Okay...... In that at least, Bush would be proud.

Quote of the day

"Until now, anti-Americanism has been exaggerated and much misunderstood: outside a leftist hardcore, it has mostly been anti-Bushism, opposition to this specific administration. But if McCain wins in November, that might well change. Suddenly Europeans and others will conclude that their dispute is with not only one ruling clique, but Americans themselves. For it will have been the American people, not the politicians, who will have passed up a once-in-a-generation chance for a fresh start." — Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian

Sep 11, 2008

The key to victory: the DNA of seals

Regardless of how you might vote, which ticket do you think will bring the right change to Washington?
Dem Ticket    Rep Ticket
Total 46 39
Democrats 84 5
Republicans 7 82
Independents 36 38
Its the number at the bottom that stuns the outside observer: Sarah Palin is winning over Independents, despite being way further right than McCain. This bears out a theory of mine: that many of the people who have been describing themselves as Independents are no such thing; rather, they are embarrassed republicans, a distant cousin of the shy Tory. Nate Silver, over at, spies a weakness:—
"Of course, the Democrats ought not make it personal against Sarah Palin. That will fail. The Democrats, however, do have a couple of things working in their favor. Firstly, voters do not know very much about Sarah Palin apart from the personal stuff... And fortunately for Democrats, the ground is fertile. It is fertile because the Republicans significantly overplayed their hand on earmarks. Palin was before the bridge to nowhere before she was against it. John McCain was against $3 million to study bear DNA in Montana -- but how does he feel about $3.2 million to study the DNA of harbor seals in Alaska? It was in Alaska's earmark request (last row of the second page). Or the mere fact that Alaska is the nation's runaway leader in earmark requests... Earmark reform is Palin's warrant for being a change agent. Palin is McCain's warrant for being a change agent. "Right change" is the argument that McCain has staked his election upon. You win this argument, you probably win the election. It's not that complicated. It should not even be a particularly difficult argument for the Democrats to win, but they need to make sure that 90 percent of the voters know about harbor seal DNA by the time that Election Day hits."
The election has taken a decidely Disneyish turn. First moose (skinned), then polar bears (endangered), then wolves (minus their feet), then pitbulls (minus lipstick), then pigs (wearing lipstick), now seals (bearing million-dollar DNA). When are we going to start seeing them in the ads? Please?

The day I did my photocopying

After watching it on TV for just under an hour, I went outside. I had some photocopying I needed to do, so I left my apartment building and as I turned the corner onto seventh, I saw the first tower collapse. I was about half a mile away, so I couldn't hear any sound: the building just turned to dust, and descended. Then I turned around and went and finished my photocopying. As I entered the store, the girl behind the counter pushed past me, in some distress, to see what was happening, but I headed inside, got my copies, paid and returned home.

I know: it's weird. I was probably in shock. The way I see it now, I had a choice: either I could exist in a world in which two buildings had been hit, more might follow, we were at war and all bets were off. Or I could exist in a world where two buildings had been hit, but that was it, and tasks like photocopying could still be finished. I chose the latter. I don't know what that means in terms of my chances if I had been inside the towers. In her new book, The Unthinkeable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes And Why, Amanda Ripley provides a fascinating statistic: on average World Trade Centre survivors waited, on average, six minutes before heading downstairs, and some waited as long as 45 minutes.

One office worker, Elia Zedeno, said that immediately after the first plane struck, she wanted nothing so much as to stay. She called relatives to get more information, then started walking in circles around her cubicle, looking for things to take with her. "Crowds generally become very quiet and docile in a true disasters" writes Ripley, quoting a Canadian psychologist, Guylene Proulx, who says, "Actual human behaviour in fires is somewhat different from a 'panic' scenario. What is reguarly observed is a lethargic response."

Few people understood that is was more than just a fire, of course, and nobody expected what was about to happen. Zedeno started making her way down the stairwell, and saw the second plane hit the other tower. Everyone went to the window, then "Every single one of us turned around and marched right down the stairway as if nothign ever had happened. We were like robots. There were no comments as to 'What do you think happened?' Nobody pushed anybody. Nobody tried to get back into the the stairway before anyone else. Everybody just went right back a group and continued to funnel into the stairways in an orderly fashion."

McCain's war

“I don’t think he said we have to lose,” McCain said, “but he did say in unequivocal terms, to standing ovations, ‘I’ll bring them home, we’ll end it, we’ll end it, I’ll bring them home.’” — John McCain, Atlantic magazine

It's an interesting insight into what lies behind the "he'll lose a war to win an election" slur. What gets McCain's goat is not so much that Obama wants the war to end but he gets "standing ovations" for it. In other words: civilians don't understand. It's what makes him truly dangerous, I think, because it means he will never see himself as beholden to having to explain why he wants to invade this country, or send airstrikes into that. It's all over our heads. So all he has to do is wave terms like "victory" under our noses, even after General Petraus has admitted the term is be applicable. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon — director and senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff 1998-1999 — recently wrote:—

For a man who routinely calls the fight against terrorism "the transcendent challenge of our time," John McCain seems to understand little about it. At least twice, he has confused Sunni and Shia, the two main sects of Islam. On one famous occasion in Amman last March he suggested that Al Qaeda terrorists, who are Sunnis, were receiving training from Iran's Shia government. That notion would have surprised the late Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, who killed Shia with a demonic fury and repeatedly called them "worse" than Americans. According to the CIA, Al Qaeda personnel do operate within Iran, but the Iranian government is unaware of their presence. McCain's other fumble came just a few weeks later when he implied that Al Qaeda was "an obscure sect of the Shiites." Perhaps there should have been less surprise at McCain's mistakes, given that in a 2003 interview with Chris Matthews, he predicted that there would be comity between the sects in postwar Iraq because "there's not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias. So I think they can probably get along."

McCain has also spoken about Hamas and Hezbollah in terms that suggest that he considers these groups no different from Al Qaeda, Iraq's Baath Party, and the Iranian regime. He has speculated that if the United States were defeated in Iraq, Iran and Al Qaeda would reach a strategic understanding to divide the country between them--an inconceivable outcome, given their deep hatred for each other.

What McCain fails to comprehend
is that his preference for firepower will give the terrorists exactly what they want. For bin Laden and his fellow jihadists, it is axiomatic that the United States must feel itself to be at war with Islam. Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, explained this clearly to his American captors after he was apprehended in Pakistan in 1995 and flown back to the United States for trial. When the United States considers itself at war, the mujahedin believe, it will behave in a warlike way, and the deployment of its heavy equipment in places like Iraq will confirm to the world's Muslims that America is, as bin Laden claims, at war with Islam. This is the jihadists' strategy for winning hearts and minds, and it has worked for them. It is true that Al Qaeda hasn't mobilized the masses as it wanted, but it is nevertheless getting the funding and recruits it needs.

The key is to provoke an American overreaction.... For the jihadists, a "war with America" not only wins them supporters, it also tempts the United States into overreaching. Jihadists know that they cannot defeat America militarily; but they can bleed it.
McCain doesn't understand asymmetry; Obama does.

Lipstick on a pig

Someone on TV explained the Karl Rove political strategy to me the other night. It goes something like this: take your opponent's strengths and turn them into weakness. And take your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. This week the McCain campaign discovered a new one: take your weakness and turn them into your opponents.

The last 24 hours have seen them call Obama variously "sexist"* a "smear merchant" "desperate", and "a liar", all the while selling McCain as the agent of "change". Hypocrisy is gets nowhere near the mark: its more like transference. The McCain campaign aren't so much describing Obama as dwelling on the worst attributes of their own campaign and then projecting them, guiltily, onto their opponent. They'll be calling him white soon. Or a Bush-flunkie. The ultimate McCain ad would consist simply of Obama's face and underneath it the word "Republican."

Sep 9, 2008

Quote of the day

"John McCain is not actually running for president. He’s running for Senate majority leader. All his passion is directed at defects in the legislative process. He’s been a military man or a senator for virtually all of his adult life, and listening to him talk, you get the definite impression that the two great threats of the 21st century are Islamic extremism and the appropriations committee." — Gail Collins, New York Times

Why Obama is going to win

Yeah I know the polls are lurching, and Hurricane Sarah is on the rampage, but consider this. If people vote for McCain and the economy carries on tanking, there's no-one for voters to blame except themselves. They won't be able to point to McCain's platform and say 'well you promised us this but what we got was that.' McCain is not even promising anything different, economically, from Bush. Obama, at the very least, is promising something different, whether or not you think he can deliver. If people vote for him, and things don't get better, the finger of blame has somewhere to go. Obama is going to win. QED.

I have another theory but it involves the health of the body politic and karma, which you don't hear much about on the political shows. But here goes: an Obama loss would demoralise half the nation and teach an entire generation that their efforts amount to nothing. A McCain loss would surprise nobody, least of all the Republicans, who would regroup, rethink their platform and come back another day. No healthy political system could produce result A (half the nation demoralised, a generation's hope snuffed out) over result B (no great surprise, no psychic wrench for anyone). An Obama loss would therefore constitute such a disruption in the Force as to cause butterflies the world over and drop to the ground, flapping their wings against the stony, unheeding soil. Therefore, Obama will win. QED.*

* My fiancee has just pointed out to be me that both these arguments amount to no more than 'If Obama loses, I will be very disappointed'. I disagree, and await an opportunity to broadcast these theories on any of the cable shows. I am free most afternoons except Tuesday.

Hacking the forelegs off wolves

"In early 2007, Palin's administration approved an initiative to pay a $150 bounty to hunters who killed a wolf from an airplane in certain areas, hacked off the left foreleg, and brought in the appendage."
Some things in this election cycle make a green-card holder feel very British. In the UK, a person who believed that evolution isn't really happening, and global warming isn't our fault, and gays should pray-away their gayness, and that hacking the feet off wolves is a rewardable activity, would be someone to avoid in a bus queue. Not someone seeking high office. Which just goes to show you how little I understand about this country, and the level of disbelief I'm having to suspend to get my head around the Palin phenomenon. I'm getting there, I'm really trying, but it's slow work. Maybe in a week, someone could stroll up to me on the street and tell me that she likes to drink the blood of lemmings and I would shrug — why not? — and get on with my day. I'm just not quite there yet.

Sep 7, 2008

Off to Camp Obama

So on October 4th I'm going to get trained by the Obama campaign to help organise volunteers during the last month of the election. Then, on October 15th I'm off to one of the battle ground states, for three weeks, to help elect the person who I hope will be the next president of the United States.

I've never done anything like this before. In fact, up until the beginning of this year I haven't ever been in possession of particularly strong political opinions. I've never been given to political crushes. I was pleased when Blair got in, but didn't hit the rafters. I disagreed with the Iraq war violently, but only followed the 04 election half-heartedly, sure that Kerry would win; and since then, I've been simmering, in a suit of suitably-contained fury, as befits a guest in someone else's country.

Then this year three things happened: I got engaged, I became a permanent US resident, and I heard Obama speak for the first time — and somewhere in there, I lost my political virginity. Suddenly, I had a rooting interest in this country, a more secure position from which to root, and a person to root for.

Part of it, as I said, is long-simmering anger over Iraq and its consequences, particularly the abuse of detainees, which revolted me on the deepest level. The incompetence of the Bush administration seemed to me to go beyond the merely political, to despoil something far more precious. Put simply, I never really thought of myself as living in any country that had a gulag. Itt wasn't really what I had in mind when I moved here. Call me fussy. Nor did I ever think I would move to a country that invaded others "pre-emptively". Nor do I think of either practise as particularly American.

Obama, on the other hand, is. He embodies all the virtues I think of as being indelibly and historically rooted here: its idealism, its optimism, its communicative gifts, its pragmatism. Above all, there is an intellectual transparency to him — an unwillingness to use specious arguments, a rigor to the way he tests his own ideas against others — that I find remarkable and rare, and which would, I believe, have secured him pre-eminence in any field, let alone politics.

This is, of course, what some people find suspicious about him: the aura of being 'more' than just a politician, of floating above the fray, his allegiances all-encompassing but transcendent, both from this country but not wholly of it. They could be right. In fact, I know they are, because that is what I like about him. Except it feels different to me. To me, it feels more like the thing I think people mean when they use the word 'leadership.' I could be wrong. Either way, it's going to be interesting. I'll report back.

Reversible raincoats

The hottest new accessory this election cycle, according to Slate magazine? The reversible raincoat, or antimetabole.

"We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us."— John McCain, in his Thursday convention address.

"In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change." — Sarah Palin, the night before.

"People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." — President Clinton, during his speech in Denver.

"He has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn't changed him" — Obama introducing Biden in Springfield, Ill.

"We need a president who puts the Barney Smiths before the Smith Barneys." — Barney Smith, a Hoosier who lost his job to outsourcing in 2004, at Invesco field.

The road to nowhere

Among her beliefs: that if a woman is raped, or the victim of incest, she should be denied the possibility of an abortion; that global warming is not our fault; that "pray-away-the-gay" is one way of dealing with homosexuality; that the government has the right to seize anyone they suspect of association with a terrorist group, U.S. citizens included, strip them of legal protections and keep them detained indefinitely; that the aerial shooting of wolves is admissable ("permittees will be paid $150 when they bring in the left forelegs of wolves taken from any of several designated control areas"); that it was God's will that an oil pipeline bisect Alaska, and for America to invade Iraq.

Even the right are starting to get nervous:—

George W. Bush had very slight executive experience before becoming president. His views were not well known. He won the nomination exactly in the same way that Palin has won the hearts of so many conservatives: by sending cultural cues to convince them that he was one of them, understood them, sympathized with them. So that made everything else irrelevant in 2000 — as it seems again to be doing in 2008..... I am pleading with my fellow conservatives: Please demand more and better knowledge before you commit yourselves to a political leader. That's all" — David Frum

The gamble is enormous. In a stroke, McCain gratuitously forfeited his most powerful argument against Obama. And this was even before Palin’s inevitable liabilities began to pile up — inevitable because any previously unvetted neophyte has “issues.” The kid. The state trooper investigation. And worst, the paucity of any Palin record or expressed conviction on the major issues of our time." — Charles Krauthammer

"[S]ome argue instead (or alternatively) that Sarah Palin's credentials are adequate. These arguments are mostly laughable. We are told that she was a courageous whistle-blower. But whistling-blowing isn’t evidence of leadership skill, administrative ability, or familiarity with vital policy issues. We are told that Palin challenged an incumbent governor and called him out for his corruption. But mounting an insurgent’s campaign for governor isn’t evidence of fitness for the presidency either. We are told that she is responsible for her state’s national guard and visited its troops in Iraq. How this amounts to foreign policy or national security experience, or otherwise qualifies Palin for national office, is unclear. What’s clear is that if Democrats made these sorts of arguments on behalf of a candidate for national office, conservative commentators would excoriate them for it." - Paul Mirengoff, Powerline.

Sep 6, 2008

Career advice: panhandling

A new website, Need.Com (“Market Research for Panhandlers”) offers to get people “thinking about panhandling as a realistic economic activity, rather than thinking that panhandlers are lazy or don’t work very hard.”

Is it better to look filthy or clean? "I'm gonna tell you, the ones that's real filthy are and laying on the ground with a blanket, acting like they're freezing and stuff like that, get more money than a person that's like me" says Lanette. Gary disagrees: clean gets you "more money. Cause I came out here clean, then I wore clothes with duct tape, and I got more money. For real!"

What do you do to get less people to ignore you? "You know what I do?" says Robert G. " I ignore them just like they ignore me. If they don't want to acknowledge me, I'll let them walk by, like I don't even see them. I'll talk to my friend. We ask the next person that comes by." Robert S takes the polite route: "When people ignore me, I say God bless you. I'm only speaking peace, love and happiness! That's all I'm saying! And God bless you! And love the Lord! Praise the Lord, that's all I'm saying."

Signs? "People want to hear you. A sign don't do nothing. You make more money without a sign. 'Cause people want to hear you verbally," says Robert S. Greg recommends the direct, humorous approach. "Just tell the truth! Everybody needs money, everybody, and everybody has a story. If you want to go get a drink, just say that! Don't give me a story about being a tunnel rat in Da Nang, or being burned out of your home, or about having to steal for food, or whatever."

The remains of the day

Sep 5, 2008

Back to the future

"We were elected to change Washington and we let Washington change us.... We lost the trust of the American people...... we lost their trust..... we lost that trust..... We are going to change that..... We are going to get back to basics..... We must catch up to history"— John McCain accepting the nomination of the Republican Party.
And my question is: Shouldn't he have done all that before he started to run? It sounded less like a set of policy proposals than a promise to get a set of policy proposals together sometime in the next two months. After four days I still have very little idea of what he wants to do. Cut back on pork barrel spending and earmarks; help children with special needs and small business owners. Drill. It seemed to be all about going back, recapturing something lost, disavowing what had befallen his party. This was admirably honest, but there was a touch of elegy to the whole thing. It reminded me of that moment in the debates when Hillary started sounding wistful and every thought she was conceding. McCain's gentleness has never come across better, I thought; it made me believe again that he is a decent man; and the courtesy he showed Obama was long overdue. But my God was it boring. People are going to vote for Obama just so they don't have to sit through a speech like that ever again.

Sep 4, 2008

Preaching to the choir

A big zero in terms of policy proposals, a lot of sarcasm, a lot of misstatements, and a few strategic errors, such as mocking miranda rights and community organizers: Obama was helping out-of-work steel workers, who probably won't appreciate the sarcasm. Expect him to hit back hard on that. She's shown what force-level she's comfortable with. She's also shown she's willing to risk opinions on foreign policy: game on for Biden. My overrall impression was that Palin was speaking only to the base. Few independents or Clinton fans will be tempted by what they saw last night. McCain is tacking hard to the right: this election will be won in the centre.

The has a selection of some of the more egregious factual errors:—
  • PALIN: “Listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform — not even in the state senate.”

REALITY: He co-authored the Lugar-Obama bill on nuclear nonproliferation, working across the aisle to pass legislation that intercepted illegal shipments of weapons of mass destruction and helped destroy conventional weapons stockpiles. He also passed sweeping ethics reform in both the Illinois and US senates, leading on two big contentious measures: racial profiling by police and requiring recordings of interrogations in potential death penalty cases. At last count, he sponsored 820 laws in Illinois, authored 152 bills and co-sponsored 427 laws in Washington.

  • PALIN: “Victory in Iraq is finally in sight… he wants to forfeit.”

REALITY: McCain is alone in wanting to continue the war in Iraq indefinitely. Both Obama, Bush and Malaki are in agreement on a timetable for withdrawal. Bush is now following Obama's plan in Pakistan as well.

  • PALIN: “Terrorist states are seeking new-clear weapons without delay… he wants to meet them without preconditions.”

REALITY: Again, McCain is alone on this. Republicans agree with direct talks with Iran. And for the record, there are no such things as "terrorist states". Terrorists are by definition stateless.

  • PALIN: “Taxes are too high… he wants to raise them... [increasing] the tax burden on the American people by hundreds of billions of dollars.”

REALITY: Almost every observer agrees that the Obama tax plan will provide a bigger break for middle class families than McCain's. The Tax Policy Center, a think tank run jointly by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, concluded that Obama's plan would increase after-tax income for middle-income taxpayers by about 5 percent by 2012, or nearly $2,200 annually. McCain's plan, which cuts taxes across all income levels, would raise after tax-income for middle-income taxpayers by 3 percent, the center concluded. But Obama would provide $80 billion in tax breaks, mainly for poor workers and the elderly, including tripling the Earned Income Tax Credit for minimum-wage workers and higher credits for larger families.

  • PALIN: "America needs more energy... our opponent is against producing it."
REALITY: A flat out lie. Turn it through 18o degrees and it begins to get near the truth: Obama plans to develop many more energy sources than McCain, who has skipped the last eight votes on renewable energy. She's talking about oil.
  • PALIN: "I have protected the taxpayers by vetoing wasteful spending ... and championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. I told the Congress 'thanks but no thanks' for that Bridge to Nowhere."

THE REALITY: As mayor of Wasilla, Palin hired a lobbyist and traveled to Washington annually to support earmarks for the town totaling $27 million. In her two years as governor, Alaska has requested nearly $750 million in special federal spending, by far the largest per-capita request in the nation. She in fact supported the "bridge to nowhere" until it was ridiculed. Then she was against it.

Peggy Noonan: "Its over"

Picked up by a MSNBC microphone today, Peggy Noonan talking to GOP consultant Mike Murphy and Chuck Todd.

MURPHY: "I come out of a blue swing-state governor world. Angler. Whitman. Tommy Thompson. Mitt Romney. Jeb Bush. And I mean, and these guys, this is all like how you win a Texas race, just run it up. And, It's not going to work."

NOONAN: "It's over."

TODD: "Is she really the most qualified woman?"

NOONAN: "Most qualified? No. I think they went for this, excuse me, political bullshit about narratives.... Every time Republicans do this, because that's not where they live, and that's not what they're good at, they blow it."

MURPHY: "You know what's really the worst thing about it? The greatness of McCain is 'no cynicism' and this is cynical."

TODD: "And as you called it: 'gimmicky'."

Sep 3, 2008

The fizz in the drink

“To be Leo! To have a huge role like that! To play the role that is the fizz in the drink, you know what I mean? You are the movie! I wish I could play the lead role in one movie, one great movie.” — Alec Baldwin, in this week's New Yorker.

He's in luck. I wrote the lead in my new novel, In The Rooms, with him very much in mind (for the full imaginary cast, see above). I wouldn't mention it, fearing retribution from whichever God it is who punishes hubris, but only three people read this blog, so who cares.

Daydream believer

"If your mind didn't wander, then you'd be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now," says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California. "But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded."

According to Schooler there are two types of daydreamer. The first doesn't notice they are day dreaming, the second does. Its this second type that tend to have break through ideas. "The point is that it's not enough to just daydream," he says. "Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight."

He cites the example of Minnesotan engineer Arthur Fry who, in 1974, was sat in church, pondering how to insert scraps of paper into his choir book, so that he could quickly find the right hymns during the service. Instead of listening to the sermon, he let his mind wander. "It was during the sermon," he said "that I first thought, 'What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.' " And so was born the Post-It Note.

McCain goes to war

The McCain camp has just pulled an interview with CNN after the above segment was aired, in which Campbell Brown asks one too many questions about Sarah Palin's credentials to be commander in chief. The questions were wholly legitimate, the answers wholly obfuscatory. The McCain camp need to forget about Obama. Say mcCain wins. The question remains: what are Palin's credentials to be commander-in-chief? According to Frank Gaffney:
"Speaking of geography, Alaskan territory is also along the trajectory of ballistic missiles launched eastward out of Stalinist North Korea. For that reason, among others, Alaska's Fort Greely was selected as the site for the principal U.S. ground-based defense against such missiles. As that state's governor, Sarah Palin would know more by osmosis – if nothing else – about the necessity for U.S. anti-missile systems than either Messrs. Obama or Biden."
Osmosis. Really.

Sep 2, 2008

The Sound of the Crowd

"His style is called professorial, though in their wildest dreams professors never find themselves addressing cheering throngs. He is also accused of populism, perhaps because he seems to feel that government of the people should also be government by the people and for the people. It is sentiment of this kind the wise of the political world tend to dismiss as lofty, as starry-eyed. And he is accused of presenting himself as a messiah. This charge is arrived at by reasoning backward from the fact of those crowds... Democracy in contemporary America can be enacted only on a giant scale. The calculations that lie behind cant phrases and broad gestures are no doubt unavoidable. But the core of it all is the candidate and the crowd." — Marilynne Robinson, The New York Times
80,000 people gathered to listen to Obama's nomination speech. I watched it on TV, along with the other 38 million — more than the Oscars, the Olympics — and couldn't wait for the cameras to pan back over that crowd. It's all I wanted to watch. I've never seen so many Americans in one place. Every speaker that came in front of it, even the old pros like Gore, looked slightly overwhelmed. The size of it brought its own peculiar dynamics: laughter didn't really register except as a sort of distant rustle. And there was none of that pantomime booing that bedevils political speeches. Which left only the cheering: slow to build, slower to dispel, starting in one part of the crowd, then going on a lap of the stadium, by which time it had transformed into the kind of roar familiar only to sports fans. People can caricature the Obama crowds all they like, but they are mistaken to think it dewy-eyed or devotional, for what lies behind those cheers — what brings 80,000 people out of their homes — is anger. The best kind of anger, transformed en masse into something altogether more uplifting, but anger nonetheless.