Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kicking Us When We're Down

The second most disturbing thing about this video, to me, is not the mentally deranged Roman Catholic priest who seems to be hyperventilating as he spews his venom, but the gleeful reaction of the parishioners in Barack Obama's church, Chicago's Holy Trinity. And there's nothing new about their reaction. These vile lies have been repeated with glee all over MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, the New York Times Op-Ed page, the Huffington Post and a host of other news/opinion outlets. It has, in fact, become "conventional wisdom" that Hillary Clinton is a hypocritical white bitch whose political aspirations are rooted in a sense of entitlement. (And how DARE a bitch feel entitled to run for president.)

The most disturbing thing about this video is the lackluster response from Obama.

John McCain responded promptly and unequivocally, saying, "I think that kind of language and that kind of treatment of Senator Clinton is unwarranted, uncalled for and disgraceful."

Obama waited four days to respond, and then issued a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger's divisive, backward-looking rhetoric, which doesn't reflect the country I see or the desire of people across America to come together in common cause."

On the same day as Obama, Plefger issued a sort of backhanded non-apology: "I regret the words I chose on Sunday. These words are inconsistent with Senator Obama's life and message, and I am deeply sorry if they offended Senator Clinton or anyone else who saw them." (That phrasing, "I apologise IF you were offended" is a classic non-apology, implying that perhaps there's something wrong with you for taking offence; and "I regret the words" implies that he doesn't regret the message, just the way he conveyed it.)

The next day, Friday, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said, "We remain disappointed that Sen. Obama didn't specifically reject Father Pfleger's despicable comments about Sen. Clinton. We assume that he will... We think that he should because when Sen. Clinton's supporters see those comments, they are understandably angered by them. And it's important, I think, for the spirit of unity that we are all trying to create for Sen. Obama and his campaign to condemn them specifically."

We're still waiting.

This ongoing Hillary hating is all the more personal and nasty because she's lost. Obama supporters are just kicking us when we're down. I understand why a lot of women are starting to feel that they can't support Obama in the general election. I'm starting to wonder if I can.

And to those who say that Obama is not responsible for any old thing that gets said in his church, remember this: Pfleger was a member of the Obama campaign, actively stumping for him in Iowa; he was a member of an advisory committee to the Obama campaign called the Catholics for Obama Committee; he is a donor to the campaign; and he is a long-time friend and political supporter.

Obama's wishywashy half-hearted response, that he was "disappointed in Father Pfleger's divisive, backward-looking rhetoric", doesn't mention any of the hurtful issues: the sexism, racism or personal demonization of Hillary Clinton that was Plefger's main message and has been persistent throughout this campaign.


Gore-ed: Or How "Conventional Wisdom" Makes Sh*t Up

What she said:
CLINTON (5/23/08): Between my opponent and his camp and some in the media, there has been this urgency to end it. And you know, historically, that makes no sense, so I find it a bit of a mystery.

SIOUX FALLS ARGUS LEADER: You don't buy the party unity argument?

CLINTON: I don't, because, again, I've been around long enough—you know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, in California. You know, I don't understand it.

Why did she mention Bobby Kennedy? As a memorable example of a primary continuing into June. The 1968 Democratic primary was still in full swing in June.

Why not mention other examples of primaries that went on into June? As I have mentioned before, there are plenty. The following candidates all took the fight to the convention, despite being far behind the frontrunner: Ronald Reagan in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984 and Jesse Jackson in 1988. Why not mention these? Because, while they are good examples of occasions when the media and party did not howl for a candidate to drop out as they are doing to Hillary Clinton, they are poor examples in that the candidate who prevailed lost the general election. It could be argued that the decision to prolong the primary contributed to their defeat. (Which totally misses the point that even with the negative impact on party unity, there were no cries of foul when those men decided to keep their campaign alive.) In addition, had she used those examples it would have seemed that she is planning to continue on to the convention.

The misinterpretation of Hillary Clinton's quote was precipitated by an email sent to journalists by Obama spokesman Bill Burton. The backlash has been unbelievable, with allegations from dozens of sources that she is staying in the race because she wants Obama to be assassinated, that she is exposing her evil desires, that she is deliberately trying to get him assassinated, that she has made this claim "multiple times".

In fact, she said something similar once before, in March. What's telling about the March quote is that, while it was widely reported, nobody saw anything malicious in it. Everyone at the time understood that she was talking about primaries going into June, not assassination of candidates. Conventional wisdom decided that last week's quote was sinister only because the Obama camp told journalists that it was.

Joan Walsh (not a Clinton supporter), wrote, "to argue that she was suggesting she's staying in the race because Obama might be assassinated - even after both Clinton, and the journalists who interviewed her, said her reference was to RFK's June campaign, not to his heartbreaking murder - requires either a special kind of paranoia or venal political opportunism."

Walsh concludes that this is "an important and disturbing issue for Democrats." She supports being critical of the candidates for real reasons, but not twisting the truth out of all recognition.

The Daily Howler (one of my favorite sites), says, "Our culture is built on the basic idea that you can’t just make sh*t up. But that standard has been eroding for years in the cartel we still call a press corps. Al Gore said he invented the Internet! No: Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! (Soon, the words “invented” and “discovered” - words Gore never said - began showing up, by themselves, inside quotes!)" The Howler adds, "[Hillary] didn’t say that she’s staying in the race in case Barack Obama gets killed. You can imagine she said that if you want to, of course; but that is what you are doing. You’re imagining."

I almost didn't bother to write this post because the waves of "conventional wisdom" are so powerful that no airing of the facts will stop them. Even before the 2000 election there was convincing evidence that the lies against Al Gore were just that, but enough people believed it that he didn't secure the presidency; even today, many people believe that Gore is a delusional liar. (Way to go, Rove!) Prior to the Iraq invasion all of Bush's justification for invading Iraq were debunked in the international press, but the lies were believed long enough for Americans to support the war. In 2004 there was abundant evidence that the swift-boating of John Kerry was totally unfair, but it cost him the election. Again and again "conventional wisdom" fueled by crafty negative campaigning arises that is totally in opposition to reality.

For more info, see The Daily Howler for May 28, 29 and 30 and Why You Don't Have to Support Hillary to Deplore the Sexism that Brought Her Down.

For more info on the general issue of making shit up, see Eric Boehlert in Media Matters.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mulroney Is Recalled by the Ethics Committee

Kady O'Malley relates the proceedings of today's Ethics committee meeting. Mulroney is being recalled on June 12.


The Iraq War in Historical Context

There's a must-read new article by Robert Kagan, Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776, that puts the Iraq war in historical context. If you disagree with what I excerpt here, please - read the whole article.

The gist is that there is nothing new or maliciously neo-con about the Iraq war. The Iraq war is perfectly consistent with 200 years of American history, up to and including the Clinton administration and virtually all US legislators and the American public. And "there has not been a single criticism leveled at neoconservatism in recent years that was not leveled at American foreign policy hundreds of times over the past two centuries." Later, he says, "The expansive, moralistic, militaristic tradition in American foreign policy is the hearty offspring of this marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness."

Here's a little of what he has to say about the various players:

On critics of the war: "there was something more fundamental, and perhaps also more honest, about the debate over Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. When David Halberstam and others of his generation turned against the war, their objection went beyond personalities, tricks, and lies. The problem was not McNamara or Rusk or the misguided American military or the dishonest politicians. The “real problem,” Halberstam wrote, was more basic. It was “the failure to examine the assumptions of the era”—the widely shared assumptions about the nature of the Communist threat, about American interests in a place as far off as Vietnam, and above all, about the role of America in the world. It was the whole idea, which lay behind containment and the Truman Doctrine, of a “manifest U.S. destiny in the world,” the whole notion that the United States was the possessor of transcendent truth and was its best and only defender."

On public opinion: "The war was, as American wars go, immensely popular, both before and immediately following its launch—more popular than the wars in Kosovo and Bosnia, or the invasions of Panama and Grenada, and about as popular as the Persian Gulf War of 1991. It remained popular even after weapons investigators discovered none of the suspected caches of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons materials or the programs that the intelligence services of two American administrations and several European countries believed were there. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in April 2003 found that, nevertheless, more than 70 percent of Americans supported the war, and a CBS poll revealed that 60 percent of Americans believed it had been worth the sacrifice even if no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. A month later, a Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans considered the war justified with or without conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction, and only 19 percent believed the discovery of such weapons was necessary to justify the war. The war lost popular support only as it began to look as if the U.S. military was bogged down in a seemingly endless and possibly losing effort."

On Democrats and Republican moderates in the Senate: "In 2002, those voting to approve the war included everyone with even vague plans of running for president in either 2004 or 2008—not only John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Joseph Biden, but also Thomas Daschle, Tom Harkin, and Chris Dodd—as well as other Democrats who had no such plans such as Harry Reid, Byron Dorgan, Jay Rockefeller, and Charles Schumer, along with Republican moderates such as Chuck Hagel, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter. One can only speculate abut whether Barack Obama might have voted against the war had he been in the Senate in the fall of 2002. If Dodd and Harkin voted for it, either out of conviction or out of some distant thought of future presidential plans, would Obama alone have made a different calculation?"

On Bill Clinton: "...what has since been quietly and conveniently forgotten [is] that in 1998 the Clinton administration had changed its policy toward Iraq “from containment to regime change” and had begun “to examine options to effect such a change.” ...The Clinton administration had itself used force on several occasions, in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and, of course, against Iraq. It had used force without UN authorization. It had bombed and fired missiles into Iraq over the heated objections of France and other allies, and it had done so based on the same evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs that the Bush administration used to justify its war."

On Hillary Clinton: "When Clinton rose on the Senate floor to cast her vote in favor of the resolution “to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq,” the arguments she used were neither novel nor obviously disingenuous. ...Saddam Hussein, she noted, was “a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people, even his own family members, to maintain his iron grip on power.” He had used “chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds and on Iranians, killing over 20 thousand people.” He had “given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaeda members.” He had “invaded and occupied Kuwait,” and when the United States withdrew its forces after driving him out, he had taken his revenge against Kurds and the Shiites “who had risen against Saddam Hussein at our urging.” ...[However,] she opposed a “unilateral attack,” for if the United States went to war “alone or with a few allies,” such action would “come back to haunt us.” International support and legitimacy were “crucial” because, “while the military outcome” was “not in doubt,” “after shots are fired and bombs are dropped, not all consequences are predictable.”"

On Obama: "When Barack Obama talks about foreign policy, he evokes not Chomsky but Kennedy and insists America must be the “leader of the free world.” It must lead the way “in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” Its “larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom.” He insists, in phrases that should appall any true realist, that the “security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” He wants to increase the defense budget, to expand the size of American ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines to ensure that the United States has “the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.” He talks about “rogue nations,” “hostile dictators,” “muscular alliances,” and maintaining “a strong nuclear deterrent.” He talks about the “American moment” and how we need to “seize” it. He says we must “begin the world anew”..."


Lest We Be Hoist on Our Own Couillard...

There were some pretty hilarious articles today about the Maxime Bernier - Julie Couillard story. It's the perfect sex scandal because there's noone to feel sorry for. There's no sad spouse or kids. The femme fatale never looked like a fool. The names are even tailor-made for quips.

But let's not lose sight of the fact that there are some serious national security and diplomatic issues here and we need answers. The story is funnier if we assume that Bernier was bamboozled by lust and that Couillard took revenge because she was a woman scorned, but we don't know that that interpretation is even remotely close to reality.

Harper was pretty astute in breaking the story as he winged his way to Europe, but we need to maintain some focus at least until his return on Monday so we can demand answers. Is there an RCMP investigation? Was there a CSIS investigation? How did Bernier mislay the documents for such a long time (now estimated at 7 weeks)? Do we need stronger procedures for ensuring the confidentiality of documents? Will Canada suffer repercussions from allies?


Save Us From the Sociologists

I heard a lecture today by a political scientist who argued that international peacekeeping needs to move from a "top down" approach where western countries try to force their norms and institutions on a country in conflict to a "communitarian" approach where local institutions are encouraged to develop and flourish.

Sounds good until you hear the details. In the case of Afghanistan, it doesn't matter if local politicians and bureaucrats want to develop western-style institutions; they are the elite and are by definition corrupted by their exposure to the west. The new theory is that we need to send in teams of sociologists and anthropologists to study indigenous power structures and determine how to transfer authority to them. It took the West 300 years to evolve democratic systems, the argument goes, so there should be no attempt to impose a quicker time frame on countries in conflict. We should work with the war lords and the Taliban to rebuild the country, and not fuss about corruption: our Western disdain for third world corruption is a prejudice born in ignorance of the way other cultures get things done.

In a way I'm predisposed to agree with this argument. My work in Africa led me to believe that much of Western aid does a lot more harm than good. But the idea of teams of Western academics imposing their latest ideologically-based theories on vulnerable populations is a far, far scarier notion. And any argument that dismisses the importance of the middle class in creating a stable society is just plain crazy. A grand experiment that has the West funding warlords to try to bolster feudal institutions makes me shudder.

I can certainly see the need for sensitivity to local power structures. And in some cases, like perhaps the more moderate sections of the Taliban, it may be necessary to do business with the enemy. I don't see that we have to be so morally pluralistic that we can't agree on any norms at all, and must accept whatever our researchers say the local population believes - especially when the researchers exclude the educated, working population from their study. I have no doubt they will over-emphasize the views of women and groups that look particularly ethnic, after indoctrinating those groups with their own, western, politically correct notions.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

You Have Gay Family and Friends

I don't know how many times I've been talking with acquaintances and someone makes a snarky remark about homosexuality. The remarks are rarely malicious. The speaker just assumes that everyone in the conversation is hetero and so they make a crack about the "other".

I don't know what the percentage of gay people is but it's substantial, so you can be quite certain that someone you work with, probably even someone in your own family, is gay.

It's really impolite to speculate about other people's sexual orientation, but if you just keep the idea in your head that there might be gay people around, you might hold off on the careless comments. (And as a hetero, I can assure that it's not only gay people who are offended.)

Even more importantly, many gay people agonize over coming out to their parents, families and close friends. If those parents, family members and friends could just open a little crack in the door to let their loved ones know that they accept them in all orientations, it could ease so much pain. It would also make it less likely that you'll lose someone you care about.

Apologies for the preachy tone.


We Haven't Got the Full Story on Couillard-Bernier Yet

Jeff over at A BCer in Toronto has compiled links to a bunch of international stories about the resignation of Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier. One of his commenters refers to the incident as the Bernier Biker Babe Bungle. Jeff comments that he thinks this is "like news footage of parliamentarians brawling in the legislative chamber in Malaysia".

But it's a lot more than that, for a couple of reasons. One is that Bernier, as Foreign Affairs minister, represented Canada on official foreign trips. What do the people he met think of Canada now? What do the people he introduced Couillard to think now that it's known that she's linked to organized crime - and that he was aware of it all the time? She shrugs it off, saying that George Bush must have known her past when he lavishly complimented her. I doubt it. There is, or at least was, a certain level of trust when meeting the spouses of allies.

Second, and even more importantly, this story stinks to high heaven. There is no way we have got an accurate acccount of what happened:

* Are we supposed to believe that after weeks of the Opposition claiming that Julie Couillard was a security risk, it turned out that there was a very serious security breach involving Julie Couillard that was "just an accident"?
* Couillard says she broke up with Bernier in December of last year. How is it that he left super-sensitive government documents in her house in April of this year?
* Couillard says she didn't read the documents. How did she know that the documents were so sensitive that she had to consult a lawyer about them?
* Why did Couillard have her lawyer return the documents to the government? Why didn't she just tell Bernier to pick them up?
* Given the level of security and monitoring of documents this sensitive, someone must have known the documents were missing and people must have been actively trying to retrieve them. She had them for five weeks.
* Couillard claims her house was bugged. The most likely explanation for a wire-tap is a criminal investigation. Were Couillard or Bernier suspected of wrongdoing?
* Is it likely with this level of security breach that this is the only security breach? What else did Bernier show Couillard or leave around for her to see?

Who knows what really happened:

* Perhaps Couillard had the documents because the pair were trying to use her criminal contacts to sell them.
* Perhaps Couillard stole the documents from Bernier and then used them to try to blackmail Bernier or to sell them. She could have returned them through a lawyer because he threatened to have her arrested.
* Perhaps the couple played a high-risk game where he got a thrill by giving her classified materials in return for sex.
* Perhaps Couillard was successfully blackmailing Bernier and forced him to give her access to sensitive documents for as long as she liked.
* Perhaps Bernier's "stupid bungles" as Foreign Affairs minister were intentional and had the same cause as the document mishap.
* Perhaps Bernier was so careless that he left classified documents everywhere.

I make no claims. All I'm saying is that there's more to this story than has come out so far. The facts just don't add up.


The Ethics Committee Picks Up the Slack - Again

Months have gone by and Harper has done nothing about starting an inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair.

NDPer Pat Martin is now proposing that Mulroney be recalled to the Ethics committee to continue testimony. Two months ago Martin argued that the committee should not force Mulroney to reappear if he didn't want to; Martin was acting out of respect and the expectation that an inquiry would be started in a timely manner.

Now that it seems that the whole mess is being swept under the rug... AGAIN... Martin has proposed the following motion to the committee: "Due to the absence of any action by the Government to establish and begin the Public Commission of Inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber Affair I move that the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics recall Brian Mulroney to appear before the committee to answer supplementary questions and provide further details in relation to the third report of the committee Presented to the House on February 29, 2008 and the study undertaken by the committee giving rise to the report."

The motion will be debated at the committee's next meeting, which is tomorrow.

I have been extremley impressed by how diplomatically and intelligently the NDP and Liberal members of the Ethics committee have handled this sensitive affair of government corruption in the 1980s and 90s, and I hope they can continue to navigate the minefield of this scandal in an effective manner.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008


1. Maxime Bernier, cabinet minister - told his girlfriend to wear a low-cut dress to his cabinet swearing-in and when she was ridiculed for inappropriate attire, let her know he was delighted. When she was caught in a media scandal for, among other things, classified documents he left at her house, he didn't return her calls.

2. Peter Mackay, cabinet minister - broke up with girlfriend and fellow MP Belinda Stronach, pretended she dumped him and posed tearfully in Wellies with a loyal-looking dog. (It was later alleged the dog was borrowed for the photo op.) Called Stronach a dog in parliament. (Also in parliament, told former leader of NDP to "go back to your knitting".)

3. James Moore, junior minister - displayed photos of his girlfriend's butt in parliament (in view of the public gallery) and pilloried a female MP who complained about it. Rumored to be about to be promoted due to resignation-scandal of Sleazebag #1.

To be fair, I have never detected a hint of sleazebagginess in Stephen Harper. But his senior caucus, good god: how do the Reform/Alliance/Tories attract self-centered playboys in such numbers? Federal political coverage has become an X-rated soap opera.

And how can the Conservatives continue, with a straight face, to pretend to be the party of family values? It's more like The Party of Men Who Date Beautiful Women and Treat Them Like Crap.


You Don't Have to Support Hillary to Deplore the Sexism That Brought Her Down

Commenters on this blog have frequently made the claim that there was no anti-woman bias in the Democratic primary. I have provided plenty of evidence of it in the past, but here's some more material I happened upon today.

This video was put out by the Women's Media Center:

In addressing the issue of misogyny in the campaign, WMC President Carol Jenkins wrote this, in part: "Networks - in the year 2008 - still cannot seem to find women to anchor serious political programs. That every lead anchor for every network’s campaign coverage is a white male, suggests the work of inclusion is not being done. That every Sunday morning talk show—where what is news is decided—is hosted by men; that every late night show that gives us clever interpretation of the news is hosted by men; and where women behind the scenes still seldom hold veto power over blatant sexist behavior— it means that we have a media that is dysfunctional."

Here's a really good summary of one woman's reaction to the campaign: Misogyny I Won't Miss by Marie Cocco. It concludes, "There are many reasons Clinton is losing the nomination contest, some having to do with her strategic mistakes, others with the groundswell for "change." But for all Clinton's political blemishes, the darker stain that has been exposed is the hatred of women that is accepted as a part of our culture."

And a perspective from Andrew Stephens in the New Statesman: Hating Hillary: "History, I suspect, will look back on the past six months as an example of America going through one of its collectively deranged episodes - rather like Prohibition from 1920-33, or McCarthyism some 30 years later. This time it is gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind. It has been shamelessly peddled by the US media. ...The danger is that, in their headlong rush to stop the first major female candidate (aka "Hildebeast" and "Hitlery") from becoming president, the punditocracy may have landed the Democrats with perhaps the least qualified presidential nominee ever. But that creeping realisation has probably come too late, and many of the Democratic super-delegates now fear there would be widespread outrage and increased racial tension if they thwart the first biracial presidential hopeful in US history."

Obama supporters like to make the argument that misogyny doesn't matter because Obama has faced racism. To this I say:

(1) Obama has faced nothing like the overt female hatred that Hillary has faced. Find me one example of racism to rival the many examples of misogyny in the video above. And that video is really just the tip of the iceberg. Try reading the comments in any Huffington Post (or Washington Post) article about the campaign.
(2) It is illogical to dismiss a problem by citing the existence of another problem.

Want more proof? Try this video or this video or this one.

So when Paul Krugman says, as I quoted yesterday, that "many grass-roots Clinton supporters feel that she has received unfair, even grotesque treatment. And the lingering bitterness from the primary campaign could cost Mr. Obama the White House," Krugman is saying something serious. The campaign is over. Obama won. But we're left with a fractured and unhappy party heading into the general election. It isn't helping Obama's chances for his supporters to continue with the hate.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Obama Supporters Attacked Hillary, but Obama Attacked Bill

In his column today Paul Krugman wrote, "many grass-roots Clinton supporters feel that she has received unfair, even grotesque treatment. And the lingering bitterness from the primary campaign could cost Mr. Obama the White House."

I am definitely in the camp that sees the treatment of Hillary as grotesque. Some of the attacks on Hillary Clinton have been nothing more than anti-woman hate crimes. Some of the anti-Clinton sentiment has been caused by fear of women gaining equality. As Robin Morgan wrote, "This is sociopathic woman-hating. If it were about Jews, we would recognize it instantly as anti-Semitic propaganda; if about race, as KKK poison. Hell, PETA would go ballistic if such vomitous spew were directed at animals. Where is our sense of outrage—as citizens, voters, Americans?"

Some of the attacks on Hillary are not rooted in sexism. Things she said have been horribly twisted and horrible claims made about her: that she is evil, racist, power-grubbing. The character attacks are so ubiquitous that some people believe them implicitly. This demonization is just inexplicable to me, but it seems to be inherent in US politics, where there seems to be a need to hate the person you don't support.

The culprits behind the misogynistic attacks and demonization are the mainstream media, new media, Obama supporters and - doubtless - Republican operatives, working in the shadows.

But my disgust at the course of this campaign goes beyond the attacks on Hillary. I am also angry with Barack Obama for his treatment of Bill Clinton. Obama has repeatedly attacked Bill Clinton's record as president, popularizing the notion that Clinton achieved nothing worthwhile and was either a right-wing lap dog or just uncaring and incompetent. I recently saw a town hall meeting in which Obama was asked a rude question about Bill Clinton. Obama laughed derisively, sharing a little sneer and letting the audience join in with a laugh at the former president's expense before answering more diplomatically. It was ugly.

It has been a central strategy of the Obama campaign to undermine the record of Bill Clinton. I can see why he did it: to tear down Hillary he felt he had to tear down the record of her husband. It was unfair, it was nasty, and it was bad for the party, but it was good politics.

Krugman concludes that "it’s up to Mr. Obama to deliver the unity he has always promised — starting with his own party." Krugman suggests this might be done by offering Hillary the vice presidential spot. But I think Obama has to go beyond that. He has to heal the bitterness felt by supporters of Bill Clinton. That is necessary to unite the Democratic party.


Uptown Waterloo: Parking, Hotels, Groceries, and a Thriving Core

The plans are moving ahead for building a new Westin Hotel in the parking lot on Willis Way, across the road from the south entrance to Waterloo Square.

I have one concern about this project, but it's a serious one. It concerns the viability of the grocery store in Waterloo Square.

If the entrance to the hotel is on Willis Way, we will lose half the street parking that is close to the mall entrance. We will also lose the temporary parking spaces where the hotel will be built. We are already losing the convenient parking between Waterloo Square and King Street because of the new public square that City Council is building this summer.

That leaves only one parking area for Waterloo Square, the lot to the north. It is not terribly convenient: you have to walk, then cross rail tracks, then walk up a long ramp or flight of steps. Even that convenience may be reduced by the new LRT track that may run alongside the existing rail line.

The north parking lot will also be threatened by the parking strategy that City Council recently adopted. It includes a proposal to make all street parking on King Street require payment, and it proposes the most inconvenient form of payment: we'll have to find a machine that sells tickets and then walk back to our cars to display the ticket on our windshields. This will encourage many more people to try to park in the only remaining convenient free parking - the Waterloo Square north lot - which will make it even more difficult for grocery shoppers to find a convenient spot.

Council and the developer are currently haggling over who will pay for a 100-car parking garage that would be part of the Westin Hotel complex. That garage will be useful for hotel guests and people who are spending at least several hours in uptown, but it is not a solution for people who want to run into the grocery store.

When there is no convenient parking for Waterloo Square, the Valu Mart in the mall will get much less business. In particular, it will lose the business of people who want to run in and buy a few items quickly. A decent grocery store is imperative for a thriving community of uptown residents. The grocery store also anchors Waterloo Square. It brings in a lot of business, and people then use the drug store and other shops.

A Westin Hotel doesn't need a grocery store or a shopping mall. The Westin will likely be just as glad if Waterloo Square goes bankrupt and is replaced by a movie theater (a previous plan for the area). But for uptown residents the loss of amenities will be disastrous. Families and professionals may choose to move to more convenient locations, abandoning the uptown to student housing.

Waterloo city planners have decided that we have tons of excess parking in the uptown: they figure that at peak times we have 540 excess spaces. But empty spaces in the station lot on Regina do not help Waterloo Square. Nobody is going to park three or more blocks away when buying groceries.

A solution is to position the hotel so that its car entrance is on Caroline Street, so that it has minimal impact on the parking on Willis Way. The restaurant of the hotel could face onto Willis Way to encourage walk-in traffic.

Beyond the immediate parking issue, I don't know the long-term effects of building a large hotel in a small downtown area, particularly when we already have two more large hotels planned across the street in the BarrelYards development.

I live across the street from Waterloo Square and so have personal interest in maintaining a healthy neighborhood, but there is a larger rationale for the entire community to maintain a thriving city core. Kitchener let their downtown fail and have spent untold millions of dollars trying futilely to get it back on track.


Open Letter to George Lucas

Dear George,

It's time for the next trilogy.

We need this. Even though the second trilogy (aka the first trilogy) did not turn out to be quite as fantastic as we hoped. Even though when we went back and rewatched the first trilogy (aka the second trilogy), we noticed that the ages of the characters between episode 6 (aka episode 3) and episode 1 (aka episode 4) didn't quite match up.

Plus, Lucasfilms isn't inspring much confidence with your latest offering, whatever the heck it is (a cartoon version of the last movie?) or with the latest in the Indiana Jones franchise.

Still, come on George, you promised us nine movies - three trilogies - and we're waiting for our final installment. You don't have to adopt that plot line about Leia and Hans having twins. Or you could side-step it by skipping a couple of generations. Hey, since this all happened "long, long ago" you could start to plant some seeds of explanation about how we got from there to here. You also need to explain the Force - you started in episode 2 (slash 5) but then inexplicably dropped it in episode 3 (slash 6). If you set the last trilogy far enough in the future, you could even drop that dolt Yoda and turn Carrie Fisher into your wise-old-Jedi-returned-from-the-dead.

Surprise us. But bring it on.


Carbon Tax: Good, Necessary, Politically Dangerous

The enduring problem with democracy is that the voter has an inherent conflict of interest between the good of the whole and their personal well-being. So even though voters are crying for environmentalism from their government, they are also stridently opposed to any increase in gas prices - even though an increase in gas prices is the only way to improve the environment. Governments of Canada have not tried to raise the gas tax significantly since Joe Clark was tossed out of power in 1980 for making such an attempt. Consequently, the fuel efficiency of Canadian vehicles has plummeted and our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions has skyrocketed. Canadians cry that they want something done - but they won't stomach higher gas taxes. And as long as gas prices stay low, Canadians pollute like there's no tomorrow.

Finally the market stepped in and prices have started to rise. It's a pity that the excess revenue is going to the oil companies instead of the government. The government could be offsetting the pain of higher gas prices by improving urban transit, inter-city passenger and freight rail, home insulation programs, and on and on. That's the whole point of gas taxes.

Now Stephane Dion has suggested a carbon tax and he risks losing the next election over it - even though it is an idea that is not only good but necessary to effect a transition that will prevent disaster for Canadians. I disagree with one major part of Dion's proposal: the carbon tax should not be revenue neutral. Revenue from the carbon tax should be earmarked for programs that will help offset the pain of higher carbon prices, as outlined in the previous paragraph.

I have an 11-year old Corolla that I drive sparingly - a couple thousand kilometers per year. I have put off replacing it, in part, because I'm waiting for more fuel-efficient car options to come on the market. The SmartCar is a little too small; it's more suitable for a two-car household. Hybrids offer lower gas prices but a higher purchase price and higher maintenance costs; plus, their battery presents environmental problems for disposal. The diesel VW Beetle is an excellent car with better mileage than even a hybrid, but it's way too pricey. The Toyota Echo (3-door model) was just about perfect but it disappeared almost as soon as it was introduced. Surely, now that gas prices have risen car manufacturers will start to offer more fuel-efficient options.

Better fuel efficiency in vehicles is only part of the solution. Disposable diaper prices are rising 8% this summer, according to the Globe's Report on Business. The RoB laments that low-income consumers are being disproportionately hurt by higher prices, and "their influence on demand is so weak that even a concerted effort to cut consumption might be ineffective in cooling the hot market and pushing prices back down." The RoB misses the point. The goal is not to push prices back down, but to change consumption patterns. And in that regard lower income consumers could lead the way. For example, there is a convenient alternative to disposable diapers: the disposable diaper insert. You buy a washable diaper that has a pad that can be flushed. This product is thousands of times better for the environment; it is even more convenient; and it is far cheaper. Once widely known, I have no doubt it will be adopted. We continue to rely on disposable diapers because there's big profit in them for certain companies who advertise like crazy.

Toiletries, cosmetics, home cleaning products and the like tend to face non-price competition: consumers react less to price and more to advertising, packaging, and brand loyalty. That's why people buy toilet paper and paper towels that cost more than twice the lowest price brand. That's why they fall for heavily-advertised but ridiculous products like disposable brooms. It will take a massive force to get the market to stop succeeding with ever-more ridiculous disposable products. Sharply higher prices and resulting exposure to cheaper alternatives might just wake us up.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Threats to a Free Internet

I'm working in New York this week, so am reading the New York Times with more attention than usual, and am finding all sorts of great stuff. Here's another one (bolding mine). I'd be interested to know what Canada is doing about this, as well.

Democracy and the Web

Users of the Internet take for granted their ability to access all Web sites on an equal basis. That could change, however, if Internet service providers started discriminating among content, to make more money or to suppress ideas they do not like. A new “net neutrality” bill has been introduced in the House, which would prohibit this sort of content discrimination. Congress has delayed on this important issue too long and should pass net neutrality legislation now.

The Internet, at least in this country, is a remarkably unfettered medium. If you type in the domain name of a large corporation or a small blog, a government Web site or a radical political party, the pages are sent to your computer with equal speed. Like a telephone line, an Internet connection does not play favorites — it simply transmits the words and images.

I.S.P.’s, the companies that connect users to the Internet, want to change this. They have realized that they could make a lot of money by charging some Web sites a premium to have their content delivered faster than that of other sites. Web sites relegated to Internet “slow lanes” would have trouble competing.

This sort of discrimination would interfere with innovation. Many major Web sites, like eBay or YouTube, might never have gotten past the start-up stage if their creators had been forced to pay to get their content through. Content discrimination would also allow I.S.P.’s to censor speech they do not like — something that has already begun. Last year, Verizon Wireless refused to allow Naral Pro-Choice America to send text messages over its network, reversing itself only after bad publicity.

There are several good net neutrality bills in Congress. One in the House, sponsored by Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Charles Pickering, Republican of Mississippi, would give the job of preserving net neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission. A Senate bill sponsored by Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, and Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, takes a similar approach. This month, John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, introduced a bill that would allow the Justice Department to bring antitrust actions against I.S.P.’s that violate net neutrality.

Using the F.C.C. is the more direct approach, since an agency could step in quickly to correct violations. An antitrust suit is a much more elaborate step for the government to take, but also adding net neutrality to the antitrust law would give the I.S.P.’s a strong incentive to respect the democracy of the Internet.

Cable and telecommunications companies are fighting net neutrality with lobbyists and campaign contributions, but these special interests should not be allowed to set Internet policy. It is the job of Congress to protect the Internet’s democratic form.

The Ongoing Economic Turmoil

In the editorial Teeing Up the Mortgage Bust, the New York Times warns us about the next round of mortgage defaults: "a category of risky adjustable-rate loans — dubbed Alt-A, for alternative to grade-A prime loans — is scheduled to reset to higher payments starting in 2009, with losses mounting into 2010 and 2011. Distinct from subprime loans, Alt-A loans were made to generally creditworthy borrowers, but often without verification of income or assets and on tricky terms, including the option to pay only the interest due each month. Some loans allow borrowers to pay even less than the interest due monthly, and add the unpaid portion to the loan balance. Every payment increases the amount owed. In coming years, if price declines are in line with expectations, Alt-A losses are projected to total about $150 billion." That, they write, is in addition to the 11 million Americans who are in danger of defaulting on their mortgages now.

They add, "The housing bust is feeding on itself: price declines provoke foreclosures, which provoke more price declines." And conclude that the mess may go on into 2011.

In What Ever Happened to (the Good Kind of) States’ Rights?, Adam Cohen writes, "several years [ago], state attorneys general noticed a spike in predatory lending that the federal government was doing nothing about. When the states tried to rein in abusive mortgage lenders, the Bush administration finally did something. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued rules nullifying state predatory lending laws over the objection of all 50 state banking superintendents. The clampdown, which paved the way for the subprime mortgage crisis, was done by “pre-emption,” a little-understood doctrine that allows the federal government to wipe away state laws."

On areas outside of lending laws, Cohen writes, "The 2003 Medicare law was a disturbing case in point. It blocked states from regulating most abuse by private Medicare insurance plans — an area the administration is not properly policing." and "the administration has quietly rewritten more than 50 proposed or adopted federal regulations to make it more difficult for consumers to sue makers of unsafe food, drugs and other dangerous products." and "Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency blocked California from curbing greenhouse-gas emissions from new cars and trucks by denying it a waiver that was once granted routinely."


Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Mutual Interests of Iran and the US

The following letter appeared in the New York Times on May 19, 2008. When a letter to the editor is written by a distinguished writer, the NYT provides a brief bio. This is what they wrote about this correspondent: "The writer is a professor of international relations at Bentley College and a former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiation team."

To the Editor:

I disagree with the use of cold-war terminology to describe the competition between the United States and Iran in the Middle East today.

The United States and Iran share a great deal, despite their division with respect to Israel, Lebanaon and other interests. There is their common support for the Shiite-led government in Iraq and for the government of Afghanistan, as well as their common enmity toward Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

With their spheres of influence partially overlapping, the United States and Iran can potentially transition from the "new cold war" environment in the Middle East to a post-cold war based on selective cooperation and mutual respect. And they can do this with a greater ease than the previous cold war, particularly if the United States and its allies provide clear security guarantees and pledge to respect Iran's sovereignty.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
Waltham, Mass


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Another Way to Spin, or: The Rosy View of Things

Admittedly, my last post was kind of dumb. (Not my first, most certainly not my last.) Here's another take on the issue, or rather another way of thinking about the current media coverage of Obama's race that is a little less negative. It also changes my usual pessimism about the sexism experienced by the Clinton campaign. We could look at the primary like this:

Democrats are making breakthroughs on issues of race and gender: Democrats have overcome long-standing US racism and sexism to get behind a black candidate and female candidate in enormous numbers. They have faced some difficult issues about gender and race - questions such as: Can a woman be respected as Commander in Chief? and Is a member of a black community too much a part of an interest group to represent the entire population? and they have answered them more than adequately.

In addition, we could consider the lengthy battle not as a negative thing, but as:

The long nomination process is a PR coup for the Democratic party: Democrats are energized like never before. They are voting in record numbers. The numbers voting for Democratic candidates is much higher than for Republican candidates. This means that more Democrats are registered and are on lists. Come election day, Democrats have huge lists of people to call in their "get out the vote" push. This year's primary process has been extremely beneficial for our chances in November.


Friday, May 16, 2008

The Question of Racism

In election years we develop all kinds of crazyass bits of conventional wisdom. Al Gore was a delusional liar. John Kerry was a craven coward. George Bush was worthy of the presidency because he's the sort of guy folks would like to have a beer with.

Now, with very little evidence, we're being deluged with the notion that Democrats who didn't vote for Barack Obama are racist.

If we don't watch out, "conventional wisdom" is going to be that the Democratic party is the party of racists.

I don't want to be a racism denier. If it's true that there's a substantial racist element in the party, then we need to all stand up against it. But I have several reasons to question the notion:

1. Small anecdotal issue, but I didn't vote for Obama and my reasons had nothing to do with his race.
2. Part of the racism story is that Hillary and Bill Clinton are racist and fuel the racists. This is totally bogus.
3. I have read a lot of articles about this supposed racist anti-Obama vote, and they don't supply first hand evidence, substantial evidence, or serious allegations. This is such an explosive issue that the media would have dug up more dirt by now if there was dirt to dig. There are always nutters in every arena screaming horrible stuff, but in this case there appear to be fewer than you might expect (fewer than the people who made insulting comments about Hillary's body, for example).
4. Media reports on anti-Obama racism often provide evidence of people complainng about his religion, patriotism, citizenship and involvement in radical groups. These are ridiculous charges for sure, but they aren't racism.
5. Media reports on anti-Obama racism imply that the racists are Democrats, but don't say whether their anecdoates come from Democrats.

Even sensationalist Democrat-bashing MSNBC couldn't come up with anything more than "Doors have been slammed in [Obama campaign worker's] faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping." Hmm... white volunteers are called racist names. They've had doors slammed in their faces. Hell, I've been chased down driveways while canvassing for the middle-of-the-road Liberal party in small town Ontario. While canvassing for the NDP in Toronto I've had more doors slammed in my face than I can count and had all kinds of abuse hurled at me, including threats and profanity. That stuff happens in political campaigns.

MSNBC cribbed their story from a Washington Post article, Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause. The WP spent a lot of time looking for racist incidents, and didn't find much more. One volunteer said, "The first person I encountered was like, 'I'll never vote for a black person,' " recalled Ross, who is white and just turned 20. "People just weren't receptive." If the guy had numerous such incidents, why didn't he say how many? It sounds like he had one and is extrapolating from it.

The Financial Post did some investigative journalism in West Virginia. They say West Virginia's anitpathy to Obama "raises fresh doubts about whether the US is ready to elect its first black president" but they don't uncover a single racist sentiment. They uncover a lot of nutty misconceptions, but candidates tend to face that sort of thing before they make themselves known to the country - in the spring of 1991, many Americans thought that Bill Clinton came from a rich family and was the son of a previous governor of Arkansas.


The McCain Threat

Barack Obama faces a troubling strategic threat from John McCain. Obama has made his campaign all about change, but McCain might out-change him.

1. McCain is proposing actual concrete changes while Obama is mired in rhetoric. McCain proposed that they both adopt voluntary campaign financing reform; Obama rejected him. McCain is talking about ending partisan fighting and working together to get things done. McCain is talking about an end to negativity in campaigns. It really goes on much beyond that... Some argue that McCain is insincere, but I think his record and his current talk are really convincingly very sincere.

2. McCain might very well ask Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to be his running mate - both black and a woman. Rice is only 53, so we could easily have 12 more years of Republican presidents.

Rice is pretty impressive. Check out this video. She's good. Apparently her speeches are even better. As National Security Advisor at the start of the Iraq war she argued against the Rumsfeld strategy, but the then-Secretary of State overruled her. When Rumsfeld was ousted she was made Secretary of State to clean up the mess, and by some standards she has made progress in Iraq and Afghanistan - at least enough improvement to make a case that the McCain/Rice ticket is more qualified than Obama to get the US out of there.

If the election is about change and getting out of Iraq, Obama will face a formidable challenge in McCain/Rice. The main counter-attack is that McCain-Rice represents more of the same (a new nickname for McCain is "McSame"). There's some truth to that... not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but across the board in policy. The confusing aspect is that McCain also offers real change.

McCain/Rice is a relatively moderate ticket. (Rice even describes herself as "mildly pro-choice".) If they can hold on to the right wing Republicans, they might pick up votes to the center and left. Even I, who am horrified at the thought of 12 more years of Republican presidents, am concerned that McCain might be more able than Obama to tackle the difficult challenges ahead.

It would be a terrible strategic mistake for Obama to continue to aim his campaign at the left of the party - at rich people who are not vulnerable to economic downturns. Sometime soon he's got to drop his recently-acquired fake southern accent and start talking the way he used to before he entered the presidential race - pragmatically and with insight into important issues. All his empty rhetoric may have been enough to beat Hillary Clinton, but I don't think it will work against McCain.

An aside - the more I think about it, the more I think that Obama must choose a woman as his running mate. (No, this is not about Hillary.) If McCain recruits Rice, then he has both the black and female sides covered, and Obama would need to cover the female side as well.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Marathon

Every four years there's a marathon and I follow the race very closely. Usually by about Mile 13 it's pretty obvious who's going to win, but everyone cheers on all the others anyway. There's a chance, after all, that the lead runner will trip on a rock.

One thing about these marathons: women never win. They never even come close to winning. Then one year a woman enters the race. And she takes an early lead! But at around Mile 13 a guy passes her, and after that it's pretty clear that she doesn't have a chance.

This time, though, something is different. All the commentators and spectators start screaming at the woman to drop out of the race. Why are they doing this? It sounds like they never thought a woman should have been in the race in the first place, so they're taking their first opportunity to hound her out of it.

I'm just sayin.


Has Hillary's Defeat Set Back Feminism?

Feminism has been dead in the water - or at least flopping feebly - for quite a few years now. But I notice an even more disturbing trend in blog comments recently: when someone raises an issue about disrimination towards women (for example), commenters poo-poo the problems of women and say that racism is more of a problem.

I'm not saying that racism isn't a problem, but it isn't the only problem. It's as if Hillary's presence in the presidential primaries has made feminism into a partisan issue: you support feminism if you support Hillary, and you deny its importance if you support Obama.

This may be a transitory phenomenon that will pass when Hillary drops out. Or will it? As Maureen Dowd famously said, "feminism lasted a nanosecond while the backlash lasted 40 years." Feminism has proved to be so threatening to the status quo that it is under constant attack. A step backward will not easily be made up.

Many, many people in the world think that feminism is either irrelevant or evil. I have argued otherwise so many times that I won't do it again here (click the feminism label at the bottom of this post to see my other takes on the subject). I made my most direct attempt at explaining it in this post: Why We Still Need Feminism.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Pelleas et Melisande (review)

As Debussy's 1902 opera opens, a kingdom is engulfed in a long war and is suffering a famine. The king sends his grandson, Golaud, to marry the daughter of the neighboring king and so end the war. But en route Golaud gets off his ship to hunt in a forest, and trailing a boar he gets lost deep in a pathless area. He meets a lovely woman weeping by a pool. She won't say what happened to her - just that she has escaped from something awful.

We know from Maeterlinck's play Arianne and Bluebeard (on which the opera is based) that Melisande has escaped from Bluebeard - a mass murderer who let his wives live as long as they were strictly obedient, after which he slaughtered them and stored their bodies in a room in his castle. Other than that we have only tiny hints about Melisande's past. Golaud sees a golden crown in the pool and she says she has thrown it away; when he offers to retrieve it she has hysterics.

Instead of achieving his destination, marrying the princess and ending the troubles that beset his kingdom, Golaud marries Melisande. The famine continues: scenes of starving peasants appear throughout the rest of the story.

When Golaud takes Melisande home to his castle she recoils from the place. She has no specific complaints but seems to instinctively feel that it is rotten. Despite her revulsion, Melisande forms deep connections with two people in her new home: her husband's grandfather (the king), and her husband's half-brother, Pelleas. As the latter friendship deepens, Golaud can't decide if the relationship is adulterous or not. He goes back and forth between believing they are deceiving him and believing that their friendship is that of children. There is a history to his fears: he and Pelleas are half-brothers because when Golaud's father died, his mother married her husband's brother. Is history repeating itself?

As Golaud increasingly tends towards jealousy he treats Melisande with greater barbarity, forcing her to her knees and dragging her by her hair.

The enigmatic symbols in the play are largely locational: the forest, the sea and clear pools of water appear over and over, reinforcing the sense that we're in a fairy tale that is heavy with symbolism. Another recurring fairy tale symbol is Melisande's long hair.

It is strange that the recent Canadian Opera Company production of Pelleas et Melisande did not use the set for any effect but logistic functionality. The set was ugly - all beige, black and white, with an upper level that looked like a dock and a lower level that was covered in cheap-looking clear plastic sheets (resembling water, but used as dry land in the action). The music has a melancholy bleakness that could have been enhanced by colorful lighting and a beautiful set; the enigmatic qualities of the opera could have been intriguing and mysterious, but instead veered towards pointless and boring. Some audience members around me left at the interval.

Musically, the production was very good. The title roles can be sung by a tenor or baritone and a soprano or mezzo-soprano, respectively. Russell Braun, as a baritone with a high range (and one of my all-time favorite singers), is the perfect Pelleas. His interpretation was both complex and naturalistic. (It's no wonder he has sung Pelleas at Salzburg, La Scala, Glyndebourne and Hamburg.) His clothing hampered his interpretation: he didn't really work as a romantic hero until he lost the skullcap, and he was dressed too much like Golaud for those of us in the cheap seats.

Isabel Bayrakdarian is also one of my favorite singers, and she did an admirable job, but her clear pretty voice didn't add much to the role. I could imagine a mezzo singing the role, or a soprano with a darker voice - like Anna Netrebko. There were no spine-tingling moments in Bayrakdarian's performance and no air of disturbing mystery. Melisande seemed bored and unhappy, but she should have a much more fundamental, if enigmatic, role. Melisande could be a cursed woman who is plagued by rot or an evil woman who is the source of rot, but she shouldn't be an idle bystander who just drifts along as bad things happen to her.

The libretto positions the setting as a castle that rises between the forest and the sea. Golaud looks towards the forest and sees wolves. Pelleas and Melisande look towards the ocean and see the sun. The COC production ignored this completely.

The three pools in the opera are so prominent that the production couldn't ignore them, but it certainly didn't make anything of them. The first pool, in the forest, is clear enough that Golaud and Melisande can see her golden crown glinting at the bottom. The second pool, in a grotto near the sea, is again clear enough that Pelleas and Melisande can see Melisande's gold wedding ring glinting from the bottom after she carelessly drops it in. I think of those two pools as Melisande's and Pelleas's, respectively. The third pool is definitely Golaud's. It is murky and has a nauseating smell of rotting flesh. When Golaud shows Pelleas this pool it seems his intent is murderous, but he stops himself at the last moment.

Pelleas et Melisande is an opera that requires interpretation. It must probably always be ambiguous, and it could be interpreted in many ways: to show the clash of male and female principles; the barbarity that lurks hidden in some individuals; the consequences of passing up a chance at salvation. Melisande could be a temptress who bewitched both Golaud and Pelleas or a fatally damaged soul who lives but is dead inside or the last hope for national salvation; a canker or a rose. There is so much that could be done with this opera, but the COC - frustratingly - didn't even seem to try.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Mob

US politics is a terrible place of twisted truth and insidious character assassination.

The brouhaha about Obama not wearing a US flag lapel pin is a good case in point. While this was widely cited as evidence that Obama is not sufficiently patriotic, it turns out that very few politicians wear the US flag lapel pin, including Hillary and McCain and just about every other elected official. The entire issue was fictitious, and yet it sticks like feces thrown at a plate glass window.

The Mob forgets the original issue, but remembers the smear (the questionable patriotism). Then a few complementary issues are blown out of proportion: the pastor who dares to raise uncomfortable societal problems is used to suggest the candidate is angry and anti-white; the acquaintance who was involved in a radical group long before the candidate was born is used to suggest that the candidate has a revolutionalry agenda. The candidate refers to his grandmother as "a typical white woman" and the pundits declare it a racist statement. In the mind of The Mob, the idealist becomes a snarling Black Panther. Lock up your women and make sure you vote for the other guy.

There's plenty of reason to criticize Obama for being inexperienced and naive and without the managerial skills to take on the challenges ahead. But political spin doesn't like cool, rational criticism: it seeks to demonize. Rational criticism can be countered. The goal of the opposition is to create the image that the candidate is most horrified by, to leave them sputtering and unable to respond. Then The Mob, swivelling their attention from partisan extremes like spectators at a tennis match, is left thinking that if the candidate can't refute it, it must be true.

Seeing through the lies isn't easy. Bill Clinton said something in his autobiography that helps me keep things in perspective: most politicians are good people who have devoted their lives to public service - even those on the extreme right. A trick I use is to try to ignore the criticisms of character, most of which is spin, and look at candidates as I would look at someone I was interviewing for a job.

Now that it's effectively over for Hillary (short of Obama's head exploding, which I suppose is statistically possible), it would be a huge relief if the Clinton-haters in the Democratic party would calm down or at least direct their vitriol at the Republicans. It has been apparent for months that her candidacy was a long shot, and the main reason I carried on in countering attacks against her is that the attacks were generally untrue, unfair and disturbingly sexist. The demonization of Hillary was ridiculous and it sets back attempts at greater equality for women.

But The Mob is not a self-reflective entity, so it's not clear that any of the lies and misrepresentations of any of the candidates will ever be seriously uncovered. Obama will survive the anti-patriotism attack not by arguing that the issue is hooey, but by using American flag backdrops and adopting patriotic rhetoric.

The difference in the upcoming presidential contest and the thing that gives me hope, is, strangely, the character of the candidate I don't support. John McCain is a standup guy, and he says he wants a clean campaign without negative ads. When asked, urged, even tricked into criticizing his opponents (as he was last night on The Daily Show), he steadfastly refuses, saying only that they're formidable people, friends, and that he has a lot of respect for them. Sure, the RNC and the interest groups will do their thing, but this presidential campaign might be just a little more rational than recent ones.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Dissing the Dismal Science

The internet is overflowing with people who are outraged at Hillary Clinton (what else is new). Hill's latest Big Sin is seen as this:

* Her gas-tax-holiday proposal hasn't been endorsed by any economists.
* When asked about that on This Week with George Stephanopoulos she said, "Well, I'll tell you what, I'm not going to put my lot in with economists" - which has been interpreted as a complete dismissal of their input.

I agree that Hillary's response to George Stephanopoulos was a poor sound bite, but when you hear it in context you can see that what she's saying is essentially what we all should have learned in Econ 101: Economists provide input to policy-makers, but the discipline of Economics is not about policy making. In other words: we thank economists for their input, but economic considerations are only part of what policy-makers use to make decisions.

Furthermore, if you take the time to listen to her talking about her proposal, her focus is all about market manipulation by the oil companies that is responsible for nearly half of the current price of a barrel of oil, and the need to do something about that.

I am not a supporter of lowering gas taxes. I argue all the time that we need greatly higher gas taxes. Insofar as there is any justification for reducing the gas tax for the summer, I'd say that it would be a way to counter the recession by reducing consumer pessimism. For example, Americans might decide not to cancel their summer holiday when they see that the government has reduced the price of gas. (And Hillary has said over and over that her proposal is a temporary measure aimed at current market conditions.) It is not a disadvantage of the proposal, but an advantage, that it might bolster the economy while not greatly changing the price of gas.

CNN and other media outlets are going on about the gas tax holiday as if it were the only thing she's proposed. Media - both traditional and new - is failing us.


Democrats Will Lose by Playing Dirty

Democrats have been pummelling McCain recently - pummelling him like a little kitten batting at a wall. Pounding on him like a nightmare fight where your fists move sloooowly through the air and never quite connect. Wailing on him like... well, you get the idea.

There have been two recent points of attack:

The US will stay in Iraq for 100 years
Democrats have been flooding the airways with ads claiming that McCain wants to keep fighting in Iraq for a hundred years. They're calling him a warmonger and a continuation of Bush.

In reality, what McCain said was, "As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, that’s fine with me. I hope that would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world." He specifically said he was not talking about a fighting force, but a presence such as the US has in Japan or South Korea.

The Democrats are slamming McCain for talking about how to manage post-occupation Iraq. Maybe the Democrats should get off their truth-spinning butts and start talking about this important issue themselves.

McCain didn't vote for Bush in 2000
Arianna Huffington is making a huge hullabaloo over a conversation she says she had with McCain in 2001, in which McCain said he didn't vote for Bush. She claims that McCain's current refusal to criticize Bush shows "just how far he has fallen since then in his hunger for the presidency."

McCain denies the whole thing and Huffington has very little credibilty, but let's assume it's true that he didn't vote for Bush in 2000. So what? Bush had just beat McCain in a bitterly contested primary; McCain was probably still licking his wounds.

The fact that McCain is refusing to criticize a deeply unpopular president (currently 28% in the approval ratings) is an honorable move. Unlike Obama, who regularly belittles Bill Clinton's presidency, McCain is standing by his party and his president.

I'm not saying I want McCain to score points. I don't want him to be the next president. But when attacks are stupid and unfounded, as these two are, they might make the rabid partisans happy but they put off thoughtful people. They could even backfire and make some voters more likely to support McCain.

And they certainly don't bolster the Democrat line about change and rising above the fray. They just seem like more dirty politics: lying to the voters, twisting the truth, character assassination, same old same old.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Double Standard Around the Call to Quit

The other day my local daily paper (yes, a Canadian paper) published an editorial calling on Hillary to quit the race for presidential nominee, opining that her terrible ambition would keep her in the race even though it was destroying her party's chances in the election later this year.

What's new about that, I hear you asking. Practically everyone is saying that! From new media like HuffPost to old media like the New York Times, there are dozens of articles every day demanding that Hillary quit the race... and they've been going on since the beginning of March.

No matter that the primaries haven't finished, that she hasn't lost, that Obama hasn't won. The same people who decry superdelegates as undemocratic seem to think that they should be able to circumvent the democratic process by hounding the candidate they don't support out of the race.

This is what Eric Boehlert had to say in Media Matters (So now the press tells candidates when to quit?):
In the past there was always an assumption among journalists that candidates had earned the right to decide when they should quit. Journalists also respected the fact that candidates represented a sizable portion of the primary voting public and that the candidates owed it to their supporters to fight on, that there was a symbolic significance for the candidates -- and their supporters -- to persevere.

With Clinton, though, the press seems to have almost complete disregard for the 14 million voters who have backed her candidacy, as well as the idea that she is their representative in this race. Instead, they treat her entire campaign as some sort of vanity exercise in which voters do not exist.
Looking back at history, it's hard to find evidence of the same media response to Ronald Reagan's failed 1976 presidential campaign. Taking on President Gerald Ford, Reagan lost more primaries than he won, and Ford won a plurality of the popular vote, but neither man had enough delegates to secure the nomination. So the campaign went to the GOP convention, where Ford prevailed. The bitter battle did nothing to damage Reagan's reputation (in fact, it did quite the opposite), in part because the media did not collectively suggest the candidate was acting selfishly or irrationally. Instead, Reagan walked away with a reputation as a resilient fighter who stood up for his conservative values.

And what about Sen. Ted Kennedy's doomed run in 1980? He trailed President Jimmy Carter by more than 750 delegates at the end of the primary season and insisted on fighting all the way to the convention, where he tried to get committed Carter delegates to switch their allegiance. The press did not spend months during the primary season ridiculing Kennedy, in a deeply personal tone, for remaining in the race.

And what about Gary Hart in 1984? He and Walter Mondale split the season's primaries and caucuses evenly, and neither had the 2,023 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Superdelegates eventually determined the winner. (Sound familiar?) Mondale had many of them locked up even before the campaign season began, so after the final primary between Mondale and Hart was complete, it was obvious that Mondale was going to be the nominee because Hart could not persuade enough superdelegates to change their mind and support him.

When Hart took his crusade all the way to the convention, the media did not form a posse and decide it was their job to get Hart to quit for the good of the party. (And the press certainly didn't form a posse in March to start pushing Hart out of the race.) Nor did the press collectively suggest that Hart had an oversized ego that had turned him into a political monster.

That new media standard has been created exclusively for Hillary Clinton.

And where were the catcalls in 1988 for Jesse Jackson to ditch his quixotic run before all the primary votes had been tallied? He finished with 1,200 delegates, nearly 1,400 behind Michael Dukakis, yet soldiered on all the way to the convention without having a prayer of winning the nomination. There were few if any media drum sections trying to pound him out of the race.

Or Jerry Brown in 1992? He continued his campaign against Bill Clinton through June despite the fact he tallied fewer than 600 delegates. (By contrast, Hillary Clinton has won approximately 1,600 delegates so far.) Brown's attacks at the time were far more personal and bruising than anything we've seen this cycle. As The New York Times reported on June 2, 1992, Brown "put his party on notice that he intends to carry his politics-is-corrupt, Clinton-is-unelectable message to the Democratic National Convention in New York in July, and beyond." Brown also told the Times that voting for Clinton was like buying a ticket on the Titanic.

At the time, Clinton was actually polling in third place nationally, behind President George H.W. Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot, so why wasn't the press in a frenzy demanding that Brown drop out of the race because he was hurting his party's chances in November?

If you look at Reagan and Kennedy and Hart and Jackson and Brown, those men all ran competitive races. But toward the end of the primary season it was clear most of them had no mathematical chance of winning the nomination. (Reagan was the exception.) Yet none of them was told collectively by the press to go home. Nor were they routinely depicted in the media as being self-absorbed.

Today, Clinton does have a chance to win. Yet she has been told by the press to go home and to get over herself.

It's unprecedented.


Friday, May 02, 2008

Robert Downey Jr Redefining the Comic Book Movie

When I was a little girl my favorite comic was Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos. Fury was a grandly menacing figure: always scowling or screaming, usually with a cigar butt between his teeth. I'll never forget the exciting episode where I learned what forgery was and that there were people who could detect forged signatures. Now that was exciting super-sleuth technology!

Sergeant Fury turned into Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (our hero gets a promotion to a spy organization) and I liked that too, but age eventually changed my tastes and by the time I was nine or ten I had switched my allegiance to Thor. Thor was more your typical comic book hero type: an outsider, a wanderer - lonely, disgruntled, searching for meaning. (Plus he had long blond hair and a hat with wings.)

By the time comic books started becoming huge movie blockbusters I was an adult and hadn't read comics in a while, but what really appealed to me in the movies was that outsider thing. Great comic book heroes, I decided, have to have a whole lot of angst, like Batman and Spiderman. I would almost measure the effectiveness of a comic book movie based on the hero's level of angst.

Then today I saw Iron Man, and all that changed. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is the opposite of an angst-ridden teenager. He's a supremely confident 40-something engineer super-genius. His character flaw (if you choose to think of it that way) is that he gets bored and fills the void with drinking and philandering. Other comic book movie heroes are superheroes because some deep trauma has made it impossible for them to be otherwise. Iron Man dons his suit for rational reasons. For me, Tony Stark is a return back to my roots and the kind of hero represented by Nick Fury.

And I like him. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr pulling it off. He's a drunken jerk, but he's our hero.

The very last line of the movie is a real velvet hammer - a knockout punch that defines the character and made me, at least, exit the theater thinking only one thing: I can't wait for the next one. And they better bring back Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Shaun Toub, too.