Friday, February 22, 2008

The Transit Question

Take my town as a case study: 100,000 people, a vibrant but small downtown core, three post-secondary institutions, a huge sprawl with big box stores and far-flug industrial parks rimming the suburbs. But we are not alone: we are a twin city with a town of 200,000, and we're in a regional government with another city of 200,000, bringing our regional total to half a million. The region controls the transit.

Now the region has a plan to span the three metropolises with limited-stop, fast transit. In the future, they propose, people from the south side of Cambridge will be able to travel across Kitchener and to the north side of Waterloo quite quickly. They call this idea Light Rail Transit, or LRT, although it hasn't been decided whether it will be on rails or take the form of dedicated bus lanes.

There will be a stop in the downtown core of my town, Waterloo (en route to the outskirts), and this has caused some concerns:

* LRT stops tend to require a lot of space and a fenced-in area, but our downtown core doesn't have much space to spare.
* Any configuration of LRT is going to disrupt pedestrian flow - make it hard for people to cross the street.
* The presence of an LRT station could threaten the village feeling of our downtown. (I don't really get this one.)
* Any configuration of LRT is going to disrupt traffic flow, and although many people see this as a good thing, it's rightly worrisome to merchants who constantly compete with malls and big box stores... and we are about to get our first Wal-Mart.
* Because the LRT stations are far apart, people will likely drive to the LRT, which doesn't reduce car ownership.
* The LRT is extremely expensive and will drain money from more cost-effective bus routes.
* The LRT will probably never be heavily used.

Supporters of the LRT have their reasons too:

* There will be a commercial impetus to build density (housing, work and retail) around the new stations, and this may be the only way to change the formation of our city long-term so that we're not so car-based.
* The current bus-based transit system is not widely used because people find it too slow and inconvenient.
* We have to plan for a future of expensive gasoline when people are forced to give up their cars. The LRT may never appeal to the hard-core car users in the suburbs and rural areas, but it would appeal to occasional transit users, youth, and so on, and may be required by the non-rich as gas prices rise.

The solution, as my friend Adam proposed, may be to accept the LRT but to impose strict guidelines for how stations are built in the downtown core so that there is as little disruption as possible. This is a wise suggestion as we, as a city, have fairly little control over regional decisions - and the region is gung-ho on LRT.

The other side of the coin, as my friend Alan suggested, is that transit technology and culture is changing rapidly, and the LRT may be too inflexible for the great unknown of the future. With climate panic setting in and gas prices on the rise, many people are looking for solutions to the environmental toll of commuting. Solutions could be in transit technology - we could be driving tiny fuel-efficient vehicles or taking jet packs; or it could be in work culture - we could mostly work at home, or congregate in communal work centers that include many companies, and utilize audio-visual technology to communicate with colleagues. Bus routes can be changed easily: rail lines and dedicated bus lines are expensive to build and difficult to alter.

But then there's that one huge hope of the LRT: that we could finally fix up our flawed city planning and get some efficiency in density and placement. You'd think that city hall could affect that through zoning, but they never seem to.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Who Will Stand Up to the Cuban-American Lobby?

Will any of the candidates for president stand up to the Cuban-American lobby in Florida and promote the idea of lifting the embargo against Cuba?

Now that Fidel has resigned the US government is revving up to make Raul the next Great Satan.

The US government could take advantage of Fidel's resignation to open talks with Cuba, but no... CNN reports that "Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the U.S. embargo on Cuba will not be lifted in the near term."

Cuba had a socialist revolution in a time of great capitalist corruption, including US-sponsored corruption. Some property was confiscated. Harm was done to both sides. Cuba has some human rights abuses. The US has some human rights abuses - some of them being perpetrated on illegally occupied Cuban soil.

The Cuban revolution was nearly 50 years ago. The Soviet Union ended nearly 20 years ago. Even the Sandinista revolution was nearly 30 years ago (not that I think Cuba was on the wrong side of that one, by any means). It was all a long time ago. Get over it. Stop embargoing this small idealistic island off your southern shores. And give back Guantanamo. The behavior of the US has been shameful and it's time to stop it.

Sure, if only one candidate supports lifting the embargo, then they may lose Florida and that would probably cost them the election. But isn't everyone all about "change" this year? Aren't they all promising to stop with the same old/same old crap and bring some sense to presidential policy? Isn't US persecution of Cuba just about the biggest human rights fiasco that the western hemisphere has endured in the last half century?


Reducing the Use of Plastic Bags

The KW Record reports that regional government is grappling with how to reduce plastic bag use.

The Record says, "It's estimated that local residents use more than 100 million plastic shopping bags a year. ...Most local bags are believed to end up in the landfill, where pieces of them will last for up to 1,000 years. Plastic bags are accepted in local blue boxes, but recycling success is spotty. Until last fall, local bags were shipped to China for recycling, a practice condemned by Greenpeace."

We could easily reduce plastic bag use by forcing grocery stores to charge a dime for each bag (and then collect part of the funds, which could be put in an environmental fund). Charging for bags is a common practice in discount grocery stores, and is widely done in Europe.

However, first it would be a good idea to do an audit of the issue to determine how big a problem it really is. Many grocery store bags are reused. Also, we need to take a serious look at claims that sending recycling to China is bad. Sometimes we get on bandwagons about issues that are not major; I'm not saying this is one, but we should always proceed responsibly. For example, the LCBO deposit policy is a disaster, forcing people to drive across town to beer stores to return bottles that they could put on the curb.

In addition, plastic bags are just a part of the plastic packaging issue. Excess packaging is everywhere, especially in items that face non-price competition like cosmetics and toys. Federal packaging regulations should be tightened.

And we should do something to reduce the use of single-serving plastic water bottles. A hefty surcharge on water bottles might not even make a difference. More drinking fountains might.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Schlesinger Round-Up

Excerpts from some recent columns by Stephen Schlesinger:

Why Hillary Clinton still matters:
I have had the good fortune to observe Hillary Clinton's career while living in New York. Up-close, she is an unusually tough, savvy as well as charming political figure. While not as visible as Mayor Giuliani on 9/11, she showed great mastery in the difficult days after the attacks in helping to bring about the physical and emotional recovery of New York City and gaining Federal assistance for Ground Zero workers exposed to toxic air. As importantly, in her eight years in the Senate, she has compiled a strong liberal voting record in the tradition of the FDR-JFK wing of the Democratic Party. While she has known defeats (e.g., health care in 1994), she has turned her reversals into legislative prowess on the Hill.

Her work on the Armed Services Committee and her fact-finding visits overseas belie the notion that she has limited foreign policy experience. Her vote for the congressional resolution on Iraq in 2002 was a vote for continued weapons inspection and diplomacy and in opposition to preemptive war, as she clearly stated in her Senate floor speech. She has said on many occasions she would have voted differently had she known that President Bush would misuse his authority and dispatch US troops to Iraq without allowing UN inspectors to complete their job. Today she vows to end the war and is currently trying to prevent the establishment of permanent US bases in Iraq by requiring prior Congressional approval for any such outposts.

Of extraordinary importance, she has taken the lead on the most important economic crisis to face our country in decades. She was among the first of the first Democratic contenders to propose a bold economic recovery program designed to rescue the nation from recession. Over a month ago, Senator Clinton advocated a $70 billion emergency spending and a back-up of a $40 billion tax rebate should economic conditions worsen. Hers is a direct attempt to help the most threatened people in America - namely, lower-income families facing foreclosures of their mortgages, those in need of home heating aid, the unemployed who require extended jobless benefits and funding for alternative energy and environmental programs. Her opponent, Senator Obama belatedly came out with his own plan a few days ago which seemingly lifts most of his ideas straight out of Senator Clinton's proposal.

On a more specific level, Senator Clinton's recommendations on helping Americans caught in the sub-prime mortgage mess are far-reaching. She has called for a moratorium on foreclosures, a freezing of interest rates, the use of federal subsidies to help homeowners keep up with payments and restructure loans, and augmented regulation of the financial industry. Senator Obama has come up with an alternative plan, which, by contrast, does none of these things but tinkers around the edges. He backs a bill against mortgage fraud, supports an average $500 tax credit for homeowners and endorses additional funding for a limited class of homeowners. This is a tepid response to an enormous tragedy.

In many ways, Senator Clinton is to the left of Senator Obama. Hillary Clinton has outlined a program of universal health insurance -- meaning that every person in America would be covered. By contrast, Senator Obama's plan is more restrictive and would leave 15 million people uncovered. Lastly, Hillary Clinton is a fighter for change. Senator Obama, on the other hand, is a self-described conciliator. What Democrats want today, however, is a battler, not a motivational speaker. They have suffered enough from the vicious blows of President Bush and the Republicans. What the party needs is a nominee who will take the contest directly to the opposition. Come the Fall showdown, a candidacy of "friendly persuasion" is going to be swiftboated into oblivion.

McCain has some questions for Obama:
What is Senator Obama going to say when Senator McCain asks him why he is in favor of granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants as Obama has admitted at least twice in Democratic debates?

What will Senator Obama say when Senator McCain cites Obama's present position that undocumented workers will not be covered in his health care proposal, yet when he was running for the Senate he said that children of undocumented workers should get the same health care benefits that citizens get?

What is Senator Obama going to say when John McCain starts to ask people to compare Obama's qualifications to be president to McCain's experience? That his years on the Senate Armed Services Committee don't matter?

What is Senator Obama going to say when John McCain begins to ask him about negotiating in unstructured summits with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba without preconditions?

What will Senator Obama say when Senator McCain asks him why he said in 2004 that he did not know how he would have voted on the Iraq war authorization and that his view of the Iraq war was not different from President Bush's? What will Senator Obama say when Senator McCain compares Obama's votes to fully fund the Iraq War in the Senate to Obama's rhetorical opposition to that war?

What is Senator Obama going to say when Senator McCain questions Obama's claim to be "the most qualified person in America to conduct the foreign policy of the United States"? What is Senator Obama going to say when Senator McCain says that Obama is not one of the most qualified members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to lead this country in today's dangerous world but instead one of the most absent?

What is Senator Obama going to say when Senator McCain points out that Senator Obama has not conducted a single policy hearing as chairman of the subcommittee on European Affairs of the Foreign Relations Committee?

Hillary and RFK:
It is interesting to read the op-ed piece in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times (Jan 29, 2008) written by three of Robert Kennedy's children -- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Kerry Kennedy, endorsing the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. The match-up of RFK's offspring with Hillary Clinton is, on one level, a personal and passionate embrace of a woman whom all of them greatly admire for her political prowess and broad vision. But, on another level, it is a symbolic reminder to America of how similar Hillary's and RFK's political experiences have been -- and what lessons we can draw from them.

First, all political analogies are imperfect. Still the similarities are quite atonishing. Both individuals, we should remember, started their political careers with famous last names. Like RFK, Hillary ran for the U.S. Senate in NY State as an outsider and won. Like him, she won the adoring support of New Yorkers. But, like him, the moment she jumped into the presidential race, she was labeled ruthless and unprincipled. And like him she has faced an opponent who is considered a "breakthrough" candidate, a man of change. In the case of RFK, voters were eventually able to see through the din and dust to his true progressive beliefs. In the case of Hillary Clinton, her triumphs in New Hampshire, Nevada and Michigan suggest that as more and more people listen to her, the more they are willing to embrace her as the most reliable liberal trailblazer in the contest.

- Stephen Schlesinger is the former Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City (1997-2006). He was Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy advisor. He worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with global cities. He is the author of three books, including Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations; Bitter Fruit: The Story of the U.S. Coup in Guatemala; and The New Reformers. He is a specialist on the foreign policy of the Clinton and Bush Administrations. In the early 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; he is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation Magazine, and The New York Observer.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

The RCMP Falls Down On the Job and Other Items of Interest in the Mulroney Probe

In the face of recent contradictory evidence and uncooperative witnesses, it looks like the Ethics committee is going to fold its tent and hand its mandate over to the yet-to-be defined public inquiry.

Liberal MP Robert Thibault is quoted in the Globe as saying, "It seems a bunch of good old boys set a system up where they could get very rich, very quick. And the name of the prime minister was used a lot. Was he part of the thing? I don't know. You don't see any direct evidence. This is work for an inquiry... At a committee you can scratch the surface, at best." The same article quotes NDP MP Pat Martin as saying, "It's our opinion we should wrap it up now, hand it over to the public inquiry to see where they can take it."

Despite the problems, some really telling information came to light in committee hearings in the last couple of weeks.

Karlheinz Schreiber's former accountant Giorgio Pelossi didn't provide much information beyond what Stevie Cameron and Harvey Cashore had already published in their book The Last Amigo, but he provided some disturbing information about the RCMP investigation into Mulroney. The RCMP interviewed Pelossi at length in 1996 and gave him a lie detector test, but apparently did not follow up on his detailed testimony about Schreiber. Pelossi told them that Schreiber received $27 million to use to bribe government officials in the Air Canada Airbus deal, and that Schreiber earmarked 25% of that money for Mulroney - while Mulroney was prime minister. Nevertheless, the RCMP did not interview Schreiber until 1997 - after Mulroney had received $2.1 million from the government in his defamation suit about his business dealings with Schreiber.

The Globe continued, "Startled opposition MPs on the committee said Mr. Pelossi's testimony calls into question both the RCMP investigation and the recent assertion by David Johnston - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's appointee to set terms of reference for a public inquiry into the matter - that the Airbus investigation is "well-tilled ground." "Here we have someone who was interviewed by the RCMP for six hours 12 years ago, gave them chapter and verse, had all his documents with him - and they still never met with Schreiber until (after) the settlement with Mulroney," said an incredulous New Democrat MP Thomas Mulcair."

Pelossi painted Schreiber as an habitual liar. Reading between the lines, I wonder if Schreiber lies as a way to protect himself - there's noone who can provide a coherent account of his activities, not even the man who was his accountant and money manager from 1969 to 1991.

Several of the Ethics committee's witnesses also appear to have been caught out in lies:

- Fred Doucet claimed he did no business with Schreiber until after he retired from the government in 1989, but the Globe reports that German authorities have receipts showing that he and his companies received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Schreiber in 1988.
- GCI employee Greg Alford testified that GCI did not do any work for Airbus, but again, documents from the time prove otherwise.
- The Globe reports that Francois Martin, former Mulroney chef, "told the MPs he only met former Mulroney chief of staff Fred Doucet once to get cash for the prime minister's wife Mila. Mr. Doucet told the committee the same thing. But detailed notes provided to the committee from investigative journalist Stevie Cameron's 1993 interviews with Mr. Martin show the chef repeatedly told her about getting cash from Mr. Doucet on an ongoing basis." You can read Cameron's notes here. This is not a he said-she said moment: journalist Rod Macdonell witnessed Cameron's interviews with Martin.

The Ethics committee apparently has to call it quits because it is not set up to wage lengthy legal battles to obtain information or to cope with witnesses who lie. The RCMP claims that they will not release their tapes of the 1996 Pelossi testimony to the committee because they don't want to compromise a possible future investigation into the matter - despite the lackluster nature of their investigation to date. The Globe also reports that "At yesterday's in camera session, MPs also agreed to drop their pursuit of Mr. Mulroney's tax records. The committee members feel they have the power to do so, but that Mr. Mulroney might challenge the request in court, leading to a prolonged fight."

It is starting to be clear that the RCMP did not want and does not want to find evidence that Mulroney took bribes while prime minister. Their investigation was inadequate at best and yet they have implied, or at least they have allowed people to believe, that the end of their investigation effectively cleared Mulroney. It is shameful that the RCMP has never made any of their findings public, unlike official investigators in Germany and Switzerland. Mulroney may be innocent, but this is not the way to allay doubts about him.

What's next? Before closing up shop, the Globe says that the committee will hear from Schreiber on February 26 and Mulroney on February 28. It may also hear from Elmer Mackay, and I hope (but am not optimistic) that he will be more truthful than his former colleagues.

I hope that the end of the committee isn't just a winding down of interest in this matter. We need to get to the bottom of questions of Mulroney corruption during and after his time in office - somehow, through the committee or a public inquiry.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

The War Against Women

This was a sad week for women.

Not only were we treated to an increasing barrage against women in the campaign of hate against Hillary Clinton, but singer k.d. lang also revealed ongoing McCarthy-style blackballing of gay women.

k.d. said in an interview this week that after her song Constant Cravings became a commercial hit a few years ago, she came out as a lesbian and that was the end of her commercial success. She said advertisers instructed radio stations that they didn't want the song played. She never had another hit. k.d. was easy-going about the issue, saying that it was a blessing in disguise because her music never ended up in a car or toothpaste ad. But that's not the point: this is another high profile case of women being put down when they don't follow mainstream images of what women should be - sex objects for men. Had she been better looking or more feminine, she might have gotten away with coming out (gay women being a male fantasy). But mannish, chunky and gay: no way.

On the Hillary front, a tiny wee bit of backlash is starting against misogyny in the Democratic presidential race. Unfortunately, some of it is pretend criticism. Jake Tapper wrote Is Obama using sexist language?, but he doesn't try to make any serious case for his question. He references one rather inoffensive Obama quote ("the claws come out") and then reports on how "female TV reporters" are pushing the issue. The end result of his article is, I think, to dismiss the issue. The hate-filled comments (559 at time of writing) are more revealing than the article.

In Hillary sexism watch, Melissa McEwan documented 62 events from September 2007 to February 12, 2008 that raise questions about the misogyny of the US media. They aren't all examples that I would use, but it's an interesting recap of this troubling campaign.

Erica Jong, who has been plugging away trying to get people to see the war on women that this race has become, this week published Patriarchy:1000, Hillary:0, a summary of some of the misogyny she has witnessed in this campaign.

Jong ends, "I give up." Sometimes I feel that way too. But can we use our frustration? Can women and men who are sickened by what has happened to Hillary (and Geraldine Ferraro and Sheila Copps and others) channel our energy into making our political arena and our society a fairer place for women?


Friday, February 15, 2008

The 21st Century with Gilles Apap (Review)

You know something remarkable has happened when the most conventional music of the night was the Bartok.

So it was last night at the University of Waterloo Humanities Theatre when violinist Gilles Apap played with Edwin Outwater and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. This was part of the symphony's Intersection series, which bills itself as exploring "the points where classical music meets other kinds of music and art: rock, jazz, folk, ethnomusicology, literature, and theatre. Each concert is focused on a dynamic artist that bridges the gap between classical and another art form."

Apap is a gifted classical violinist who also plays fiddle and world violin music. He is known for having musical digressions in the middle of classical pieces. These digressions include whistling, humming, singing, playing other tunes, veering off into other types of music... well, see for yourself:

Apap gave us a demonstration of his approach, playing a couple of bars of Mozart and then playing them again but with his bow held slightly differently, making them sound like an Irish reel. He does a lot of interesting things with his bow like bop the bow on the strings. His fingering includes a slide thing that creates an East Indian sound. And he has this way of wringing the last bit of sound out of a note.

The innovative bits are not all that defines Apap, though. He has a very interesting style. If some virtuoso violinists are aggressively flashy, Apap's the opposite: his style is laid back, effortless, organic. Unfortunately, last night he also sounded a little sloppy at a couple of points, but mostly his music was lovely.

For much of the concert Outwater let Apap lead the orchestra. (For parts, Outwater played double bass.) I was fascinated by how Apap led the other musicians: at times, they seemed to be playing refrains after him; at times the strings played backup rhythm; at times they seemed to be playing the bits of Mozart that Apap had just played; and at times it appeared to be a jam session.

The concert, which ranged from Bach to Bruch to Sarasate and Bartok, focused on Mozart's fourth concerto in D major and also featured a bunch of Apap's folk music, the best of which were some pieces he said he "learned from a Romanian guy." It was all very entertaining, but I wish he had explained the motivation behind his riffing: the musical digression didn't connect to the Mozart piece as I had expected. Was there any connection, or is he just bored with Mozart?


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gobsmacking Nastiness

In the last few months I have read and heard a lot of nasty things about Hillary Clinton - almost all of which, in my opinion, she did not deserve. I have heard her accused of being hypocritical, arrogant, racist; of pimping out her daughter; of being ugly; of having a laugh like a cackle. It feels like all the hatred in the world against successful women has been aimed at this one 60-year-old. It's not just depressing, it's distressing.

Then on Slate today, I saw a link to this article: Hillary's Scarlett O'Hara Act by Melissa Harris-Lacewell. This article is so unsubstantiated, so nasty, so unfair and so utterly a character assassination that it left me in shock. And then at the bottom of the article I see that the author is a professor at Princeton. And in the Comments section, other professors left messages of gratitude and agreement.

This is the author's argument against Hillary:
Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband's power and influence, have been complicit in black women's oppression. Many African American women are simply refusing to play Mammy to Hillary.

The loyal Mammy figure, who toiled in the homes of white people, nursing their babies and cleaning and cooking their food, is the most enduring and dishonest representation of black women. ... Privileged, Southern white women were central in creating and propagating the Mammy myth. ...

Media have cast the choice in the current election as a simple binary between race and gender. But those who claim that black women are ignoring gender issues by voting for Barack just don't get it. Hillary cannot have black women's allegiance for free. Black women will not be relegated to the status of supportive Mammy, easing the way for privileged white women to enter the halls of power. women challenge white women who want to claim black women's allegiance without acknowledging the realities of racism. They will not be drawn into any simple allegiance that refuses to account for their full humanity and citizenship.

This academic does not ever make the case against Hillary that her headline implies: she relies on racist innuendo. She can't argue that Hillary has a poor record on helping African-Americans because it's not true: she and Bill have always been high profile supporters of the African-American cause, and were justly recognized for it until Obama supporters started to rewrite history.

Professor Harris-Lacewell concludes:
Black women want out of the war. Black women need health insurance. Black women need decent schools for their children. Black women need a strong economy that creates jobs. Black women need help caring for their aging parents. Black women want a Democratic win in the fall. Sisters chose Barack on Tuesday because they believe he can deliver these things, and that is much more empowering than just having a woman in the White House.

Never mind that Hillary is more qualified to tackle the economy, regulation, foreign affairs and domestic infrastructure than Obama. Never mind that her health plan is workable, while he refuses to admit the fatal flaw in his (lack of universality). Never mind that in a general election in which national security is a central issue, McCain has a huge advantage over Obama.

Far from proving her premise that race and gender both matter, the article completely disproves it, and shows that to Harris-Lacewell only race matters. No matter how good the female candidate is, Harris-Lacewell rejects the candidate who is not African-American. It's her right to make that choice. But it's not right for her to throw mud on the non-black candidate just because she isn't black, and to imply that Hillary treats black women as Mammys and is "complicit in black women's oppression" without a shred of evidence or rational argument.

Does being African-American give someone license to be racist? We might often be sympathetic when the African-American person is poor or under-privileged. That is not the case with Harris-Lacewell. She makes her money not just as a professor, but also with books, magazine articles and TV appearances. Being controversial has a commercial benefit for her, and her racist hatred should not be condoned just because she's black.

To me, the biggest insult is that this article is so poorly reasoned. As a woman, I'm embarrassed to see a distinguished female academic publish something so emotional, illogical and poorly researched. Her intent is apparently to support Obama over Hillary, and she could have done that more honestly and transparently, rather than launch a baseless, vicious attack against his opponent.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Can Any Democrat Beat McCain in November?

A couple of days ago there was a lot of buzz about a poll that asked voters who they would support in the presidential election if McCain were running against Obama or Hillary. (The headlines trumpeted that Obama had a better chance.) Forget that the results were within the margin of error; the whole premise of the poll was bogus. Asking voters who they'd support against alternative opponents in the future is about as useful as asking them what kind of sandwich filling they plan to order for lunch next November. By asking the question repeatedly, you might get some useful trend data, but as a snapshot it's close to useless. The discussion should be about vulnerabilities - what ways each candidate is vulnerable given various situations that might occur next fall, such as a full-blown recession, a national security threat, and so on - and possible ways around those vulnerabilities. And it's all very speculative.

So to start. The Democratic party has a lot going for it in the upcoming presidential election:

* The current Republican president is widely hated.

* The war in Iraq is very unpopular, and defacto Republican nominee John McCain supports it.

* The economy is heading into a recession, always a problem for the incumbents.

However, a savvy John McCain could turn those negatives into positives:

* McCain's strengths are largely in areas where Bush is weak: McCain is extremely qualified to do the job, has a well-deserved record as an intelligent, capable leader, is a plain-speaker, has demonstrated solid values in his strong opposition to torture, and has a history of bi-partisan cooperation.

* The war in Iraq is a fact of life, and requires a qualified person to deal with it. In a McCain-Obama race, McCain has such an enormous argument against Obama that I can't see Obama prevailing if the war or national security become the key election issue. Obama has scored points with a lot of Democrats through his record of opposition to the war, but that's all backward-looking; in the real campaign, Americans will want to know what the candidates can do in the future - and Obama is weak on experience and practical ideas. If Hillary is the candidate, she has problems on the war too: it's difficult to see how Hillary could use the war as a wedge against McCain since her Sentate votes helped lead to it, but she could highlight the differences between herself and McCain on how to get out of it, and how fast - I think Hillary could win that one.

* The recession, too, is a fact of life requiring qualified management, and economics is a weakness for both McCain and Obama. Both will probably argue that the president needs to hire qualified economists to run things, but doesn't himself need to know the details. (In this vein, the latest joke/insult/commentary about Hillary is that President Obama should make her his chief of staff.) I don't know how this will play out. I think Bill Clinton's deep insight into the economy was necessary to his steady guidance of it. Economic crises arise on a regular basis and need to be dealt with. Hillary has a big advantage in her grasp of economic realities, but it's unclear whether it would translate into votes.

McCain has real charisma. He has appeared on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show so many times that I feel like I know him. His appeal crosses parties and ideologies from the youth to the old, from the left to the right. He could pick up independents and even some Democrats. The demographics that support Hillary tend to be lower income people because those people are worried about their economic future and they want a qualified manager who can improve conditions for them: those people might see their interests served better by McCain than Obama. From the other side, it is not at all clear that Obama supporters would be willing to support Hillary if she were the nominee. The hate is so vitriolic that even venerable economist Paul Krugman is the target of it because he questioned the attacks on Hillary.

Another issue is the timing of the two parties in choosing a candidate. McCain has it in the bag, which is a bit of a minus for him in that the ongoing Democratic fight gets more air time, but is a huge plus in that he can start campaigning now while the Democrats are still tearing themselves to shreds. The ongoing Democratic race tends to highlight the weaknesses of both candidates, rather than their strengths. It is also pushing them farther to the left than might be popular in the election: Hillary, in particular, tried to position herself in a more centrist way for the election, but has been forced left in the primary.

But the Democrats have some things going for them too: The religious right isn't happy with McCain, and given Obama's preacher-in-a-revival tent style, some might like him enough to at least stay home on election day. In a debate, Hillary could beat McCain. (Obama is not a strong debater.) And many more people are voting in Democratic primaries than in Republican.

Perhaps McCain's biggest weakness, at least from the perspective of today, is that he can fairly be called a warmonger. This video is so effective:

But an anti-war message is tricky. One, it doesn't resonate with everyone. Two, the decision to go to war was made long ago and the practical questions are about what to do now that we're there. McCain may be able to change his stance from appearing pro-war to appearing practical in how long it will take to get out of it. And he has a point that there's no quick fix: Hillary was trying to explain this when her stance was twisted bizarrely into her being for the war and she was forced to back down.

I'm afraid that Obama will not be able to beat McCain. Obama is too inexperienced: he lacks substance. He's had a free ride from the Democrats, getting away with teleprompter speeches and softball interviews. I used to think that Hillary could beat McCain, but the character assassination by her own party has been so effective that I'm no longer sure.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Questions for the Candidates

I haven't followed the Republican primary much, but occasionally when I've listened to part of a debate I have been struck by how substantive the discussion has been compared to the Democrats. I want the Democratic race to be more substantive. Matthew Yglesias picked up this theme in his blog post Important things we haven't talked about: " reason the [Democratic] campaign often feels so tedious is that both campaigns keep talking about the same very narrow set of things over and over again." Yglesias proposes a list of topics that Hillary and Obama should start talking about:

- Budget deficits: Are Clinton or Obama committed to reducing them, or are they open to expanding them in order to establish new programs that they think are especially important? And what programs might qualify?

- Federal Reserve: Are Clinton or Obama happy with the past 25 or so years of conservative Republican leadership at the Fed or would they like to take things in a new direction?

- Judiciary: Assuming a Democratic Senate allows for relatively easy confirmations, do Clinton or Obama intend to continue appointing 1990s-style moderates, or would we see a return to the liberal jurisprudence of a Thurgood Marshall?

- Unilateral preventive war as a non-proliferation policy: Should we disavow this aspect of the Bush National Security Strategy or are we going to stick with it and hope that more conciliatory rhetoric can make it work?

- Israel: Any number of things come to mind, but in the most general sense do Clinton or Obama see this as an important issue it's worth focusing on in 2009, or is it a headache the intend to ignore until a crisis breaks out or they're lame ducks?

- Root causes: Does reducing the appeal of al-Qaeda really require the transformation of the Muslim world into a series of democracies, or are there aspects of US foreign policy that drive radicalism?

- War on terror: If, as both candidates affirm, we're in a "war on terror" when might that war end? What, if any, special war powers do Clinton and Obama think the state of war justifies? Or is this a pure metaphor that, like the "war on poverty," is simply supposed to signify a high level of commitment?

Ezra Klein adds a number of issues with a series of posts starting with The unmentionables:

- Taxation: Do they think our current levels are sufficient? Putting aside political questions, what sort of taxation should America have? Is the current cocktail of payroll, income, and capital gains taxes the right way to do this? Are there alternative systems we might want to try?

- Unipolarity: Do they agree that preserving America's dominant status should be an explicit tenet of American foreign policy? Do they think Paul Woflowitz was right to say "the United States to perpetuate its military supremacy and prevent the emergence of any rival superpower?"

- Prison Culture: Obama has spoken a bit about inequities in the justice system, but, to be honest, the best statements on this have come from Huckabee, who says we lock up a lot of people we're mad at, rather than afraid of. Do they agree with our system of retribution-based justice? Or would they prefer a more rehabilitative approach? And how would they pursue that?

- Military Spending: Do we really need to be spending this much? If so, why? Would a 10 percent shift in resources towards soft power and humanitarian uplift not do more to increase our international prestige and security?

- Health Spending: Seriously, how do we cut it? Tamp down on services? Cut reimbursement rates? Vastly expand individual financial vulnerability? Smart cost sharing? What's your end game to keep our budget from exploding?

- Can we talk honestly about how much Americans understand or not the civic process in their own country rather than having that understanding assumed? This is an education/ignorance of the political process question. What should we expect people to realistically understand in a complex society?

- Multinational institution building: What sort of role will such institutions play your foreign policy? Which institutions to you foresee taking major roles in the next decade? What sort of new institutions would you build? How would you reform existing ones? In general, what sort of international order do you envision? How important is national sovereignty?

- [Do they support] keeping or abolishing the 60 votes for cloture requirement in the US Senate?

- What criteria they will use to select Federal judges especially members of the US Supreme Court and how they feel about amending the Constitution to impose term limits or a requirement to be reappointed periodically for the high court or requiring a 2/3 vote for nomination to the Supreme Court if life tenure is preserved?

- Do the candidates believe it is a good idea for presidents to have unilateral authority to decide whether the nation goes to war? That is what Hillary Clinton voted for in the Iraq war resolution.


From the House of the Dead (Review)

Czech composer Leos Janacek left a manuscript on his desk when he died in 1928. The opera, based on Dostoyevsky's semi-autobiographical novel about his time in a Siberian prison camp, was so weird that Janacek's students, examining it after his death, believed it to be unfinished. They "finished" it (reorchestrated it to make it more conventional and changed the ending to make it more upbeat) and the revised version was performed sporadically. Decades later some musicologists, including noted Janacekophile and maestro Charles Mackerras, decided that there had been a terrible error: Janacek had indeed completed the piece. They were able to reinstate the original opera, but it has been sparsely performed since.

Enter the Canadian Opera Company and the vision of General Director Richard Bradshaw. With the aid of set and costume designer Astrid Janson, Bradshaw started a process to mount Janacek's original version of From the House of the Dead. Bradshaw died before he could conduct the piece, so the Australian conductor Alexander Briger was hired. Briger happens to be the nephew of Mackerras and a next-generation Janacek expert.

The opera, currently being performed by the COC at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, is a short sharp shock: 90 minutes of uninterrupted power. Bradshaw told Janson that the only time he'd seen the opera he'd fallen asleep, so they, along with director Dmitri Bertman, ensured that there was no boredom in this version. The set contains three levels: a lower level of cramped cages that hold the 75 prisoners at the start of the opera; a middle level that serves as the commandant's dining hall and later the prison hospital and has ramps on which the prisoners walk in shuffling circles; and an upper level where guards watch security cameras. Janson says that after studying Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and modern prison fiction, the themes that she and Bradshaw wanted to convey were over-crowding, social hierarchies and violence, with sub-themes of substance abuse, despair, and the spark of humanity. To this end, there are no entrances or exits: all 75 members of the cast mill around on the stage throughout the opera, the effectiveness of which is heightened by this opera having no stars but many soloists, with a lot of important music for the chorus.

Janacek's orchestration is decidedly different, but always beautiful and engaging. Briger says that Janacek's favorite key is A flat minor - "a key used so seldom that many musicians don't bother to practice it". He adds, "his music is full of double flats, double sharps. He'll use D double flat not C major." Briger says that "for the orchestra, this is the hardest opera ever written." In one infamous anecdote, a conductor who tried to perform this opera was so shaken by the experience that he gave up conducting forever.

Not only is From the House of the Dead not in most musician's repertoire, but most have never heard it and they have trouble conceptualizing what it should sound like. The rhythm changes frequently in odd ways. In addition, Janacek stretches the use of instruments: according to Briger, he calls for "extremely low notes from the trombones and tuba, along with screaming high piccolos." It takes many rehearsals to get the music right. Globe & Mail reviewer Robert Everett-Green apparently found that perfection was not reached by opening night; in his review he wrote, "It must be a challenge to play all those jagged unisons, which did not always come off cleanly in an otherwise shapely performance." If that's true, the orchestra had worked out the kinks by the time I saw the opera on February 10.

The singers also face challenges with From the House of the Dead. Singers come in with brief snatches of song and disappear: it is enormously difficult for them to know when to sing, especially with 75 men jostling on the stage. (At an opera symposium on Saturday, tenor Robert Kunzli said that during a performance last week he suddenly realized that it was time for him to sing and he didn't even have time to take a breath; conductor Alexander Briger, sitting next to him, looked genuinely shocked and upset by the revelation.) For parts of this production the chorus points towards the back of the stage and takes direction from Briger via monitor. This must be difficult for all concerned, but creates a wonderful echo-y sound.

The first act is the most challenging for audiences, with a lot of clanging sounds. Janacek's orchestration conveys a sense of despair through the omission of a middle range, relying often on very high sounds played with very low sounds. The second and third acts become more accessible. You might think of Puccini or even Aaron Copland in some of the music. It's not so much that the beautiful music creates a contrast for the brutal stories being told, but that they show the humanity that exists in everyone; as one character sings, everyone has a mother. The music seems to reflect Dostoyevsky's Christian socialist utopianism and Janacek's humanism.

The history of Russian prison camps goes back to Ivan the Terrible in the mid-sixteenth century. As Russia started to build an empire by expanding east into Siberia it confronted the challenge of how to populate its new territories; the solution was to send criminals and dissidents there. By the nineteenth century Russia was sending hundreds of thousands of citizens to Siberia, a practice famously continued by Stalin. Some were sent for periods of exile and some were sent to labor camps. Depending on a person's degree of influence and privilege, the experiences could be very different; for example, Stalin was sent to a harsh sentence in northern Siberia, while Lenin was sent to a relatively cushy sentence in southern Siberia, near a railway so his mother could visit and send packages, with his colleagues and fiancee nearby.

The characters in From the House of the Dead also have different experiences. The political prisoner Petrovic Gorjancikov, who enters the camp at the beginning of the opera, obviously comes from a wealthy family. Everyone else is doomed to stay in the camp forever, or nearly. They lament, Will I ever see my home again? or Will I ever see my children? with a real sense of hopelessness.

The opera ends with the release of Gorjancikov (presumably because someone bribed the commandant), and simultaneously with the release of an eagle (played in Toronto by a trained Harris hawk) that has been nursed back to health by the prisoners. That's the opera as Janacek wrote it, but I prefer the original Dostoyevsky version: the eagle still has a broken wing and so is released to certain death in the wild. It seems wrong to say Okay, off you go - sorry for the beatings and all that; and then presume that the person (and society) is not irretrievably altered by the brutality of the experience.

From the House of the Dead is not a popular opera, so I was able to upgrade my season's tickets to prime seats on the floor. Once again I was disappointed by the sound there: the mix of orchestra and voice is too much in the favor of the orchestra, drowning out some singers. In a piece like this that is mostly about the orchestra, that wasn't a big problem, but still, I think I would have preferred to see it from my usual cheap seats in Ring Three.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Republican Nomination is All Down to the Veep

The far right of the Republican party is not on board with the party's de facto nominee, John McCain. They are currently engaging in some pretty heavy duty sabre rattling: Rush Limbaugh and others are saying they will vote Democrat if McCain is the Republican candidate.

But wait... the right wing of the Republican party seems to be waving an olive branch. They may hold their noses and stay on board if only McCain will do one little thing for them: accept one of their own as his vice presidential running mate.

If John McCain wins the presidential election, he will be 72 when he's sworn to office. He has had three operations for melanomas. His six years of torture in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp left him with numerous permanent injuries (he can't raise his arms over his head and walks with a limp). It is much more likely than with most presidents that McCain won't survive a term as president.

So it may be that loony-tunes religious extremist and flat tax promoter Mike Huckabee may find himself commander in chief. It could be worse. The Bush family could climb back into the White House through a back window if Jeb Bush becomes the vice presidential running mate.


Calling for a Closer Examination of Obama

Toronto Globe & Mail, February 9, 2008 editorial:

...If the presidency were solely about inspiration, all other candidates in either party might just as well concede now. But if the past eight years have taught us anything, it is that there is a great deal more to leadership than that.

In 2000, Americans made the mistake of tacitly accepting the then-popular "End of History" arugment that the era of global conflict was over and the United States would endure as a benevolent hyperpower. As a result, they paid little attention to their presidential candidates' ability to contend with challenges and crises on the foreign policy and national security fronts. They elected a president with little knowledge or interest in such matters; unsurprisingly, he has proven out of his depth in the post-9/11 era, which has seen the United States' standing in the world severely diminished.

Now that they understand that there is no shelter from the global storm, voters in 2008 need someone with the combination of sophistication, decisiveness and restraint necessary to get America's foreign policy back on track. Mr. Obama may be that man, but he has seemed wobbly. Beyond the credit he has received for his early opposition to the Iraq war, his views on foreign policy have come under surprisingly little scrutiny. While it is evident that he doesn't stray far from Hillary Clinton and most other Democrats on the domestic front, he remains more of a wild card on matters of great concern not just to the United States but to our own country and the rest of the world.

Last August, seeking to disprove notions that he is too soft on foreign policy, Mr. Obama recklessly overreached, telling an audience that as president he would be willing to attack al Quaeda targets inside Pakistan with or without consent from that country's government. He betrayed a shockingly simplistic attitude toward one of the world's most volatile regions, and raised alarming questions about his willingness to infringe upon other countries' sovereignty. Mr. Obama still owes Democrats an explanation of how he arrived at a policy too hawkish even for Georege W. Bush.

If his views on interventionism require close scrutiny, so does his inclination toward protectionism. While Democratic candidates inevitably veer in that direction while campaigning for labour votes, Mr. Obama exceeded anything even Ms. Clinton has proposed when he called in December for an outright ban on importing Chinese toys. In grossly overreacting to legitimate health and safety concerns, he sent a disturbing signal as to how he might exploit similar issues if he made it to the presidency. How would he respond, for instance, to a BSE outbreak among Canadian cattle? To what other lengths might go to protect flagging US manufacturing industries? A president must understand proportionality.

Mr. Obama's gaffes might be easier to overlook if he had a more extensive foreign policy record. But while he has gained valuable experience sitting on the Senate foreign relations committee, his chairmanship of the subcommittee has been criticized for a lack of policy meetings and his failure to travel across the Atlantic even once since assuming the post more than a year ago. That shortcoming is unlikely to prove fatal in a country whose current president was naything but a world traveller before he moved into the White House, but it represents a missed opportunity to deepen his international credentials.

Given the power of the presidency, and the continuing importance and military power of the United States internationally, these are not small concerns. In selecting their next commander-in-chief, Americans must make sure he or she has the level of maturity and experience the job requires. For Democrats in those states that have yet to hold their primaries - not to mention the media that have been captivated by his narrative - that responsibility should take the form of a closer examination of Mr. Obama.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Nebraska Outlaws Electric Chair

This ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court was not written in the 19th century, but last week:

We recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it. Condemend prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes. And the evidence clearly proves that unconsciousness and death are not instantaneous for many condemned prisoners. These prisoners will, when electrocuted, consciously suffer the torture that high voltage electric current inflicts on the human body. The evidence shows that electrocution inflicts intense pain and agonizing suffering. Therefore, electrocution as a method of execution is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Nebraska Constitution.

There's something unbearably chilling about a system's top judiciary feeling required to express sympathy with the desire to intentionally inflict pain and suffering.

And that's in the positive side, the rationale for finally stopping execution by electric chair. The dissenting opinion provides some other charming nuggets. In arguing that "evolving standards of decency" cannot be used as an argument for striking down the electric chair, it says, many American jurisdictions are needed to show that society’s standards of decency have evolved? In Stanford, the Court observed that only 15 of the 37 death penalty states refused to impose capital punishment on 16-year-old offenders and only 12 refused to do so for 17-year-old offenders. In the 15 years between Stanford and Roper, a total of 18 state legislatures - or 48 percent of death penalty states - prohibited the execution of minors.


Fighting an Election on the Crime Bill

I would love to fight a federal election on the Harper crime bill.

At the start of our last federal election campaign, mainstream media undercut one of Paul Martin's best campaign strategies by predicting that he would run a negative campaign that demonized Harper and scared Canadians into thinking Harper would impose values repugnant to most Canadians. This blanket media interference effectively kicked the stuffing out of legitimate Liberal arguments that Harper is at odds with the majority of Canadians on abortion, crime, capital punishment, the social safety net, universal health care, an evangelical religious agenda, and on and on.

When Harper came to power the media told us that Harper couldn't do any of those things, even if he wanted to, because he had a minority government. Then they told us that coming to power had shifted Harper towards the center and blunted some of his more extremist views.

But during the last two years Harper has moved Canada towards a less caring, more punitive US model. This "Tacking Violent Crime" bill is an outrageous reversal of practices that have helped Canada maintain a startlingly lower crime (and incarceration) rate than the US. As I've written before:
The homicide rate per 100,000 people in the US is 5.59. In Canada, it is 1.85... and declining. It makes no sense to follow the model of a country that locks up inordinate amounts of its citizens - especially minorities - and only manages to keep crime rampant.

Canada has had huge success with a kinder, gentler approach to crime. Jail diversion programs reduce recidivism, but that should not be the only metric used to judge their effectiveness. This is a human rights issue. Going to prison wrecks a person's life: it is traumatizing; it makes it difficult for a person to ever work at a good job or fit in to regular society; it is a training ground for future criminal behavior. People should only be subjected to prison when there is risk to society or a strong need for deterrence.

Since Day One, the Harper government has been waging a propoganda campaign to convince Canadians to Americanize our justice system. Their biggest target has been youthful offenders, who Harper wants to lock up more often and for longer periods - just the ticket to ruin their lives, ruin their family's lives, and encourage them to enter a life of crime.

Liberal party leadership have to decide which issue to focus on in the next election, and that decision should be made on the basis of a much stronger understanding of the country than I have, but for me, the crime bill is The issue of the day. Afghanistan is much iffier for me. I don't like the idea of Canadians being involved in any war, but a Liberal government got us into this engagement, and I supported Paul Martin's reasons for doing so at the time.


Ongoing Bickering May Doom Democrats

As a Canadian (and an American) and a Liberal who recently went through the Liberal leadership race, the concept of superdelegates is not so shocking to me. The Liberal party also has superdelegates, although they don't call them that: they're just people who get to be delegates because they're MPs or senior party officials.

In these days when people regularly confuse democracy with direct democracy, it is not surprising I suppose that they would be scandalized by the idea of party and elected officials having a say alongside voters in choosing a candidate. But there are some advantages to it for everyone: these are professionals with long experience and insider information. They shouldn't be the main deciders, but it helps to have them in the mix.

But now the existence of superdelegates is being called anti-democratic, the flouting of the people's will, and un-transparent. It is being described as a power grab by the party establishment.

At this point I have to concede that there will be a legitimacy issue if either Obama or Hillary wins when people are questioning the superdelegates or the omission of Michigan and Florida delegates. There are solutions. Tom Hayden suggests that the DNC should pay for new primaries in Michigan and Florida. Dan Martin predicts that superdelegates will choose to vote according to the votes of their constituencies (as Maine Dem party chair John Knutson has done). Another solution to both problems is that one of the two candidates should concede; this would be especially beneficial if they formed a joint ticket.

It's a quandary, to be sure. The Democrats have a big advantage in the election, but John McCain is the de facto Republican nominee and so is free to start his campaign for president now. Meanwhile the Democratic candidates are still fighting each other, and the race continues to get dirtier, at least on the Obama side.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Bill Clinton's Presidency: Manager or Visionary

Ezra Klein writes, in The Democrats' Choice: Manager or Visionary, the following about the Bill Clinton presidency:

Reagan set the politics; Clinton played the steward. ...Newt Gingrich and his followers were intent on enacting a far crueler version of Reaganism. Clinton, sensing their threat, smartly co-opted their principles and refashioned them as part of a relatively progressive and unquestionably compassionate agenda. In doing so, he succeeded in making some admirable policy advances... and staving off their most dangerous initiatives.

That's not the way I remember it.

Bill Clinton, along with Tony Blair in Britain and Jean Chretien in Canada, created a new liberalism: a progressive agenda that also emphasized fiscal responsibility. This new approach blew the lid off the old conservative complaint that liberals were fiscally irresponsible and poor economic stewards ("tax and spend"). At the time this movement was called The Third Way, but since then it has just been accepted as what modern liberalism is. To some on the left it spells abandonment of core values, but to me it is responsible leadership.

Even though welfare reform had seemed anathema to previous generations of Democrats, the welfare state as it existed in 1992 was not working for welfare recipients or the country, and so Bill Clinton reformed it. He didn't do this (as Republicans like to pretend and Democrats have been duped into believing) because he was triangulating: he did it because it was the right thing to do.

A similar initiative was all the hard work that Al Gore, as vice-president, put in to reforming government to make it work better and more efficiently. Other examples were middle class tax cuts and balancing the budget - they were things Clinton did because they were right thing to do, and they fit in with his Third Way approach. Dick Morris might like to tell people that Clinton was out-Republicking the Republicans, but that it is not the essence, purpose or legacy of the policies.

To say that Clinton adopted Reagan's values is ludicrous. Clinton didn't adopt trickle-down economics. He didn't follow the crazy Libertarian economic policies of Reagan guru Milton Friedman. He didn't try to break the unions. He didn't adopt an environmental policy that claimed trees were major polluters. He didn't promote school lunch programs in which ketchup and mustard were deemed vegetables. He didn't adopt the rabid anti-communist policies that caused Reagan to persecute and attack small Central American and Caribbean countries or make slimy secret deals with Iran. He didn't divert the scientific geniuses of the day into a pie-in-the-sky missile shield.

The genius of Bill Clinton was that he didn't reject policies just because the opposition supported them. That doesn't mean that he adopted the values, agendas and platform of previous governments.

Bill Clinton didn't accomplish everything we would have liked, but that's because America voted in a Republican congress. The buck stops there.


I Am Weary

I hate to say it, but here it is the beginning of February, nine long months before the election, and I - long-time obsessive political junkie - am wearing out.

I'm sick of all the lies and bullshit being thrown at the Hillary camp by mainstream media and even more by the alternative web-based press. I'm sick of the license this election is giving people to show their misogyny. I'm tired of the endless prognosticating, punditing, blahblahblah talking about nothing. It's just wearing me down. Now that Edwards is out of the race, it seems the only Democrat in America who wants to talk about policy is Hillary Clinton, and even Ezra Klein (who I respect and like) makes fun of her for that.

I'm sick of the idiotic network news coverage and the lying columnists in the New York Times (all except Paul Krugman, natch) and the obamabiased Huffington Post. I'm tired of hearing about exit polls and blue collar workers and Hispanics - that's all useful data for the campaigns, but how does it help any of us decide how we want this country to proceed? We've entered into a neverending horrible tunnel of hype designed to make people like big media owners and Arianna Huffington very rich but that is not doing dick for any of the rest of us.

I am weary. If I say that in a fake preacher voice with a husky lilt at the end of each sentence and repeat it three hundred and fifty times will it sound like an Obama speech?


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Huffington Post - For Entertainment Purposes Only

Quick scans of today's main pages on the Huffington Post show the usual mix of celebrity bloggers and celebrity photos and celebrity news. Sometimes it seems that politicians make the Huff only insofar as they themselves are celebs.

The Huffer has a bad habit of putting headlines on the main page that promise content that isn't delivered. An example today is "West Wing" actor Bradley Whitford's column on the supreme court: "Supreme Injustices", with the tag line, "It's not too late to take back the Court. Supreme Court Justices may keep their jobs for life, but the person with the power to appoint them does not. Conservatives know where their candidates stand on judges. Do you?" That seems much more interesting than the usual HuffPo scandal and innuendo, so I bit. The article pontificates vaguely about the importance of who gets on the bench, but says not a thing about Hillary or Obama or who they might appoint. It doesn't even comment that there's little to say because there's so little difference between the two candidates, and such a huge gap on this issue between Democrats and Republicans.

Here's another (and keep in mind I'm only reading the articles that seem serious): "BREAKING -- Clinton's Economic Stimulus Package", with the tag line, "Just off the phone with a top Clinton strategist. It's a specific plan, not like Obama's "let's all hold hands and reach for the stars, which we can't even grab because we're all tangled up in each others' hands..."" This one turns out to be a (not funny) joke, with the stimulus package being the $5M she loaned to her campaign. I guess the joke is that a reader who wanted some real information might have been so stupid as to look for it here. Heyuk, yuk indeed.

I've said it before, but we need to be very wary of "new" "alternative" "web-based" media. Complain about the New York Times all you want (I do), but it abides by newspaper standards and government regulations, and readers have recourse when they detect unfactual or overly biased reporting. Newspapers can even get in trouble for not printing a fair representation of viewpoints in letters to the editor. They can face legal penalties for being unfactual. They regularly print corrections to even the most minor errors. Mainstream print media is far more responsible, reliable and accountable than the alternative press.

Unlike mainstream media, there are no codes of ethics to govern the behavior of alternative media and money-making blog aggregators like HuffPost. The HuffPost provides no auditor to ensure fairness in reporting. Its entire web site is sensationalism designed to increase ad revenue. It should contain a warning, "For entertainment purposes only" - but it doesn't even need to do that, because it abides by no laws, guidelines or standards.


Some Thoughts on Women in Politics

On a personal level, the distressing thing to me about the campaign of hate against Hillary is that it appears that the hatred is directed at women in general and is aimed at keeping women down. There is a rising tide of concern among women about this campaign, but it is no longer clear that there will be time to do anything about it before it achieves its dirty end to stop her political ambitions. Here are a few takes on the subject...

Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir rose through party ranks and war, positioning themselves as proto-male leaders. Almost all other female heads of government so far have been related to men of power—granddaughters, daughters, sisters, wives, widows: Gandhi, Bandaranike, Bhutto, Aquino, Chamorro, Wazed, Macapagal-Arroyo, Johnson Sirleaf, Bachelet, Kirchner, and more. Even in our "land of opportunity," it’s mostly the first pathway "in" permitted to women: Reps. Doris Matsui and Mary Bono and Sala Burton; Sen. Jean Carnahan . . . far too many to list here.
- Robin Morgan on the Woman's Media Center

[Hillary] is, to [Republican Hillary-haters], an empty vessel into which they can pour everything they detest about politicians, ambitious women, and an American culture they fear is being wrested from their control.

"Some of it is related to the truth that, as Hillary says, she and Bill Clinton have defeated what she calls the right-wing machine," says Carl Bernstein, author of A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bernstein... says that the Clintons rudely stirred Republicans from their dream of perpetually occupying the White House, which seemed plausible after the Reagan revolution. Many hold her responsible, first, for beating them with her role in Bill Clinton’s War Room, and then for supporting her wounded husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
- Jason Horowitz in GQ Magazine

I first became aware of a Hillary backlash when she began working on the Clinton healthcare plan in 1993. Hard to believe that was 15 years ago, but looking at that plan now, even if you disagree with it, you have to admit it was a bold and pioneering step toward addressing one of the major issues of our time. Almost immediately, the cry of, "Who does she think she is?" went up all across the airwaves.

From then on, the narrative on Hillary Clinton was set. Every misogynistic cliché in the book was applied to her. Some at least bothered to mask this with an ostensible concern about her not having been elected, but that was a thin veil indeed. Of course, her plan was defeated by the Republicans and the health insurance industry, and labeled a failure in the press.

Since then, she has weathered a never-ending tsunami of scrutiny and criticism and hate from every quarter. ...History will record those who smeared her with misogyny as clowns.
- Tommy Christopher, AOL News

Young political Kennedys - Kathleen, Kerry, and Bobby Jr. - all endorsed Hillary. Senator Ted, age 76, endorsed Obama. If the situation were reversed, pundits would snort "See? Ted and establishment types back her, but the forward-looking generation backs him."
- Robin Morgan on the Woman's Media Center

Respected political commentators devote precious network time to deep analyses of her laugh. Everyone blames her for what her husband does or for what he doesn’t do. (This is what the compound "Billary" is all about.) If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine. If she dresses conservatively, she’s dowdy. If she doesn’t, she’s inappropriately provocative.
- Stanley Fish in the New York Times

This is not "Clinton hating," not "Hillary hating." 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?
- Robin Morgan on the Woman's Media Center

I support Hillary Rodham because she’s the best qualified of all candidates running in both parties. I support her because her progressive politics are as strong as her proven ability to withstand what will be a massive right-wing assault in the general election. I support her because she knows how to get us out of Iraq. I support her because she’s refreshingly thoughtful, and I’m bloodied from eight years of a jolly "uniter" with ejaculatory politics. I needn’t agree with her on every point. I agree with the 97 percent of her positions that are identical with Obama’s—and the few where hers are both more practical and to the left of his (like health care). I support her because she’s already smashed the first-lady stereotype and made history as a fine senator, because I believe she will continue to make history not only as the first US woman president, but as a great US president.

As for the "woman thing"?

Me, I’m voting for Hillary not because she’s a woman - but because I am.
- Robin Morgan on the Woman's Media Center


Monday, February 04, 2008

Brokeback Mountain (an interpretive essay)

There's a certain sad quality to brown paper bags. When we first see Ennis Del Mar at the start of the film Brokeback Mountain, he carries all his worldly possessions in a tattered brown paper bag. Near the end of the film he is given another paper bag to carry two shirts - all he has left of the one great love of his life.

Ennis changes substantially in the 20 years between those two brown paper bags. When the film opens in 1963 Ennis is so badly damaged that he is like someone who has suffered abuse. Losing his parents young, forced to quit school, raised by elder siblings who abandon him as they get married, and conflicted about his sexual identity, he is so beaten down - so devoid of spark - that he walks in a slow shuffle with his head bent way forward, round shouldered. He can barely meet another person's eye and doesn't talk except to answer a question. Although he is only 19 years old his forehead is scrunched in a perpetual frown and his eyes are wary.

But Ennis is a powerful character: smart, intuitive and purposeful, with a great capacity for love. The choices he makes throughout his life require terrible compromises and preclude his having any kind of social or financial security, but he finds a safe path for himself and the man he loves in a world that's treacherous for them.

As the story opens the two teenagers Jack and Ennis meet while applying for a summer job. The foreman who sends them up the mountain to herd sheep for the summer decides that Jack (who is more experienced with sheep) should be the herder and Ennis the camp tender, so in effect, as they start their summer Jack plays the role of husband and Ennis the role of wife. Jack acts a bit like a parody of a husband. He barks, "No more beans!" as he's heading off to work one morning, and when Ennis is late for supper one day, Jack gripes, "Where the hell you been? I've been up with the sheep all day hungry as hell!"

Ennis repositions their roles in a manner that better suits each of them: at Ennis's suggestion they switch and Jack takes the wife role. (In the short story the film is based on, their sexual relationship begins the night after they switch roles; in the film, it's a bit later.) Jack had already started to treat Ennis with maternal affection: he dabs a wound, shows concern for Ennis's childhood privation, praises his skill at shooting, and plays the clown to cheer him up.

One night Jack shares his whiskey with Ennis and Ennis speaks freely for the first time - perhaps the first time in his life. Jack says, "Friend, that's more than you've said in two weeks" and Ennis replies, "Hell, that's the most I spoke in a year." Ennis's expression after he says that tells it all: he tries to smile, but can't, and instead looks a little wistful and a little ashamed; he has admitted a deep secret about his damaged, lonely life.

The first time they make love (the night after brief, drunken coupling), Jack pulls Ennis's head to his breast and kisses his hair before rolling on top of him. The brief scene is heart-wrenchingly tender and also wonderfully erotic, and that's all we get to see of their love affair that summer. It's frustrating for the audience to have such a powerful, delightful love story revert to other plot lines, just as the relationship is fleeting and frustrating for Ennis and Jack.

When the summer ends and they part, it's not clear why Jack waits four years before he contacts Ennis. Ennis has no idea where Jack is and so is unable to contact him. He believes that Jack is angry because Ennis sucker-punched him just before they parted. But while Ennis has little hope that he will ever see Jack again, he seems to have done some thinking about how they can be together if Jack ever does get in touch.

When Ennis's wife Alma shows Ennis the postcard that arrives unexpectedly from Jack, she asks if Jack worked with Ennis. Without missing a beat Ennis lies, "Nope, Jack he rodeos mostly. We was fishin' buddies." He then prepares a series of other lies. He has a story concocted to explain Jack's unsociable behavior: "He's from Texas." He tells her they may stay up drinking and talking all night. When Jack arrives Ennis has foreseen Alma's delaying tactic of asking him to bring back cigarettes, and has some ready for her.

The connection between the two men is epic. In the short story, Annie Proulx describes their first meeting after four years like this: "They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying son of a bitch, son of a bitch; then, and as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together... pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together, treading on each other's toes until they pulled apart to breathe and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, "Little darlin." [Jack's] shaking hand grazed Ennis's hand, electrical current snapped between them. ...From the vibration of the floorboard on which they both stood Ennis could feel how hard Jack was shaking."

The night of their reunion, lying together in a motel bed, Jack tells Ennis that he red-lined it all the way to their meeting and asks if Ennis missed him. Ennis is unable to do more than mumble incoherently but he presses his thumb to his eye (a gesture he makes only when he is extremely emotional and trying to explain himself); the expression that flies across his face, unseen by Jack, is part embarrassed grimace and part wry smile: it exposes the depth of his feelings over those four years.

The next day Ennis tells Jack his plan for how they can be together: fishing or hunting trips, deep in the backwoods, on an infrequent basis. Ennis must have planned it long before he lied to Alma about being fishing buddies, and Ennis's plan (unlike Jack's plans) is workable. It is a compromise designed to meet his family obligations and allow him to be with Jack, but it's a sad compromise: it means that he and Jack can never spend enough time together, and it requires (as we learn much later) that he work casual jobs that he can quit to spend time with Jack, so he is never able to adequately support his family.

Eventually Ennis and Alma agree mutually to give up on their marriage. Ennis is stoic while his divorce decree is read until the judge says that he must pay $125 a month child support for each child until they turn 18. Then Ennis's eyes well with tears: he realizes that there is no freedom for him in divorce. He has written a note to Jack telling him of the divorce and Jack makes the 14 hour drive to see him, hoping that they can finally start their life together, but Ennis pretends it is all a mistake and sends him away. At a subsequent meeting he tells Jack that the child support obligation means he can't just quit jobs anymore - getting together is even more difficult than when he was married.

Ennis is stoic about everything in his hard life except losing Jack. The two times he faces the prospect of losing Jack he is so affected that he literally falls to his knees. The first time, when Jack drives off after their summer together, Ennis collapses in an alley with dry heaves and uncontrollable crying. During their last moments together, when Jack says "I wish I knew how to quit you," Ennis's knees buckle and he falls in anguish, trying alternately to beat Jack away and cling to him.

The healing of Ennis is a function of his sexual awakening. At the start of the film he has a fiancee he has apparently barely spoken to (given that he says he hasn’t spoken hardly at all in the last year); later, when a waitress picks him up, we see how he might have drifted into that relationship. Before he met Jack, it seems that Ennis must have lived in a state of cognitive dissonance over his sexuality that made him utterly incapable of dealing with people on a social level. That dissonance never fully goes away.

Scarred as a child by seeing a lynched homosexual, Ennis can't admit to himself that he's gay. In their final meeting he blames Jack for his condition: "Why don't you just let me be. It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this. I'm nuthin. I'm nowhere." But Ennis is wrong about himself. We are shown the great erotic charge between the two men, Ennis's lack of interest in his wife and girlfriend, and Ennis's physical breakdowns at the prospect of losing Jack. In the short story Ennis tells Jack that during the four years they were apart "I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy," but adds, "except I sure wrang it out a hundred times thinkin about you."

If Jack is the sexual initiator in their relationship, Ennis is the orchestrator: when Jack was supposed to go sleep with the sheep, he always did; it is Ennis who neglects his duty and stays at the camp, precipitating their first encounter. When Jack goes to Ennis after four years, it is Ennis who first pushes Jack up against the wall to kiss him. It is Ennis who has planned how they can carry on their affair. And it is Ennis who, as Jack describes it, keeps Jack on a "short fuckin' leash."

In describing their characters, director Ang Lee told Jake Gyllenhaal that Jack and Ennis are water and milk. By this I think he meant that Jack is clear and Ennis is opaque. Jack is comfortable in his sexual orientation. He is optimistic. He's upfront about his feelings and openly affectionate. Ennis is the opposite: unreadable. For 20 years he didn't tell Jack that he had to quit his jobs to make time to see him; nor did he let him see, until their very last meeting, the power of his feelings.

Proulx writes, "What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger. ...Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it, even the knowledge that Ennis would not then embrace him face to face because he did not want to see or feel that it was Jack he held. And maybe, he thought, they'd never got much farther than that. Let be, let be."

After their final week together (we learn later), Jack drives to his parents' ranch and tells them that he is going to leave his wife and move to the ranch with a friend from Texas, just as he used to tell them that Ennis would move there with him. Jack has tried but been unable to tell Ennis about his new boyfriend. It seems to be a result of that relationship that Jack's sexuality is exposed in Texas and he is murdered.

Jack's death occurs just as Ennis is freed of his family obligations. In the final scene of the film Ennis is living in a trailer in a secluded spot. His beloved daughter, now 19, has come to tell Ennis that she is getting married (and as with Ennis's brother and sister, marriage is effectively abandonment). Since his other daughter was born directly after the first, we realize that both children are 18 and so Ennis owes no more child support. Ennis is finally free to be with Jack, but Jack is dead.

Ennis is grieving Jack at the end of the movie, but his spirit is no longer broken. He even takes some pride of ownership in his little, underfurnished trailer, putting numbers on his mail box and stepping back to appreciate how they look. In his grief he builds a sort-of shrine to Jack in his closet, made of the two shirts that he carried away from Jack's parents' house, and when he adjusts the shirts and the postcard of Brokeback Mountain that he has hung there, he says, "Jack, I swear." In the short story, Proulx intends this to mean that Ennis is perhaps finally ready to make a commitment to Jack. She writes, "Jack, I swear-" he said, though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind.

The short story by E. Annie Proulx was published in the October 13, 1997 New Yorker and is available in the "Complete New Yorker" DVD set as well as in book form.


Saturday, February 02, 2008


Barack Obama currently does not have the skills or experience to be an effective president. In particular, the next president is going to face a tsunami of problems left by Bush, as well as a huge deficit that will make it very difficult to initiate new policies.

The candidates differ very little in policy or in the degree of "change" they will bring. What they differ in is qualifications.

What we desperately need is someone who can figure out:

- an exit strategy for Iraq
- how to create a new global monetary system
- how to improve financial regulations so the subprime-initiated meltdown is not repeated
- how to reform health care so that it is universal and more cost effective
- a new approach to US foreign policy
- how to effectively tackle global warming
- what to do about the divisive issue of illegal immigration
- how to improve education
- about a billion other vital issues and impending crises

The Democrats need to win in November, and nobody is looking closely enough at Obama's flaws. That oversight will be corrected by the Republicans if Obama becomes the Democratic candidate. Obama will be portrayed as weak, inexperienced, idealistic, unrealistic, and incapable of leading the country. His bad temper and grumpiness will become issues. His extensive hard drug use will be cited over and over. He will appear as being unable to command the US armed forces, especially in comparison to John McCain, so Republicans will make Iraq the center of the campaign. He will be held up as too liberal to lead, while McCain will take over the center.

Obama may be a great candidate in 2016, but he has not prepared himself sufficiently for this job. There is a far better choice in Hillary Clinton.


Friday, February 01, 2008

On Yearning

I was walking through my local library the other day and saw the film Brokeback Mountain on the DVD shelf. Somehow I missed it when it came out a couple of years back, so I picked it up and brought it home. It left me so profoundly moved that I couldn't identify what my reaction was. The next day I watched it again, and it left me in a blue funk that took hours to shake. So today I watched it a third time, and I think I'm starting to get a handle on why the film affects me so strongly.

It all has to do with the character of Ennis Del Mar. His character works on many levels - you can sense the lonely child he was and the taciturn old codger he will become, the tragedy of taking the wrong path, the slow crush of predestined failure - but the level that got to me is the way he's locked inside himself and barely able to connect with the world.

Whether this is a universal condition or a personality trait, I don't know. But for some of us who feel that way, being close to people can be a lot more difficult than being alone. Closeness just heightens our sense of never being close enough, and our sense of yearning for something unattainable.

The irony of Ennis Del Mar is that while he suffers from an inability to be close, he achieves a closeness that most people are never able to achieve.

The last time a movie got to me this strongly was Naked Lunch. I still haven't sorted out what there was about the character Bill Lee (played by Peter Weller) that left me with another sort of yearning. That film too made me realize that something is missing from my life - perhaps it is a connection to the subconscious.

(It's just coincidence that the actor who played Ennis Del Mar died last week. I hadn't even known who Heath Ledger was.)


The Politics of Black and White

By Black and White politics in the current Democratic primary race, I don't mean skin color. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has become all about Demonization and Lionization, about seeing only Good and Bad and not the grey shades that are the real world. The two frontrunners, Hillary and Obama, are portrayed - especially in the left and youth press - as all Bad or all Good. The really disturbing thing about this is that false images and self-generating hype have driven out discussion of policies and real character differences.

In particular, Hillary is increasingly portrayed as "status quo", "dirty politician" and "hypocrite" by commentators who distort events and then repeat the distortion until it becomes common knowledge. I wouldn't mind if she lost on her own merits, but the current treatment of her is part of an insane pattern in US politics of distortion and demonization of front-runner Democrats that I have documented over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

When they couldn't find something to attack Hillary about, they overemphasized the role of her husband and attacked him. When Obama attacks Hillary, virtually nobody sees a problem with it, but when Hillary attacks Obama, the web rings with calls of "Foul!" If we were all geographically closer, leftist youth would probably have lynched her by now.

Just today, the rabidly anti-Hillary HuffPost ran an article with the headline, "Clinton Backer Compares Obama Ad To Nazi March". Talk about twisting the truth: Obama ran an untrue ad that could hurt the cause of universal health care, and then somehow it is Hillary's fault because someone who happens to support her (and is not even affiliated with her campaign) went too far in criticizing it.

Despite the relentless demonization of Hillary, she's still ahead in the polls. Although the gap is getting mighty narrow, she just might pull this nomination off. As she is the most qualified, inspiring, competent and electable candidate, I'm hoping she can find a way to do it.