Category Archives: Politics

Have You Voted?

It was a beautiful, overcast morning outside of Robert F. Kennedy elementary school in Jersey City. The lines were long. The faces were friendly. I exchanged a nod with a cute, readheaded guy, whose glasses fogged up from the steam rising out of his Starbucks cup as he leaned his face down toward his torso and took off his McCain/Palin ’08 button and placed it inside his pocket before entering the school compound.

I left my flag pin on.

“Turnout looks good” he said. “Yes, it’s great!” I replied.

I don’t claim to be able to read his thoughts, but in the finest American tradition, I give people the benefit of the doubt and trust their genuineness until they prove me wrong — no matter how many before them have proven me wrong.

He’s a patriot, I concluded. His candidate might fare poorly by a high turnout in our precinct, but he celebrates the civic triumph of that turnout nonetheless.

Going Back To Liberal Roots, Recognizing The Limits of Relativism

Cultural Diversity?

I went to see Bernard-Henri Levy at the Union Square Barnes & Noble the other day after hearing about his new book Left in Dark Times; the talk was compelling enough to sell me the book, and Levy was pretty entertaining, too. He regaled us with stories about Sarkozy’s attempt to enlist his support; and said his criticism of the left was a “family” matter, and that he had nothing to say about the Republican candidate “Mrs. Pah-leen” (nothing is funnier than a French accent) and her running mate John McCain.

Left in Dark Times promises to be a sort of call to the left to take back liberalism. Levy addresses at least four specific problems that have been bugging me in recent years about the state of left-leaning liberal politics. I don’t yet know exactly how he tackles those issues (I just started reading the book), but it’s nice to see them taken on by someone from the left.

One: Knee-jerk anti-Americanism — please people, if you think this is an antidote for knee-jerk- “pro-Americanism” a la Bush-Cheney et. al, it’s not. Political thought isn’t a viral infection (although it is sometimes an inherited genetic disorder, but that’s another topic). For those who are confused, I put “Americanism” in quotes because there is something decidedly un-American in the idea of blind allegiance to leaders and government policies. Real Americanism has to do with American ideals, not unthinking nationalistic fervor.

Two: sympathy for (or at least refusal to criticize) unsavory autocratic regimes simply because they call themselves revolutionaries for some brand of “egalitarianism.” How can anyone be that blind? More importantly, what’s the real agenda here? If you are a liberal (rather than simply a leftist-central-planning-junkie) then, shouldn’t your preoccupation be the actual conditions of people’s lives (you know, open societies, freedom to make choices about your lives, privacy from surveillance, access/right to make a living, etc.)?

It’s delightfully ironic to see a French dude criticize people for sympathizing with leftist authoritarianism, since that particular ideological tick tends to be more common among Europeans, especially the French (although the usual intellectual dishonesty of right wing critics typically permit them to treat American liberalism as though it were no different).

Three: the misguided view that caring about the Palestinians requires condemning Israel as evil.

Four: treating certain classes of human rights as cultural rather than universal. I couldn’t agree more, although, I suspect, given his approval of the French government’s veil-ban, Levy probably goes further than I (or most Americans) can get comfortable with — because it allows government precisely the kind of authority over personal choice that we are trying to prevent governments (and religious leaders) from having.

(Side note: some will be uncomfortable with a veil ban because it shows inadequate respect for religious “tradition” in a way that might interfere with their own agenda of tradition, like “family values” or “traditional marriage” — I have NO such qualms; yes, many traditions are harmless and some have great value, but that value is not intrinsic to or derived from their status as “traditions” or “respect” for tradition for its own sake; I remind you that slavery and feudalism have been the “tradition” in most societies for vast stretches of human civilization. My only issue is the freedom of choice for a woman who wants to wear a veil.)

Speaking of cultural relativism, I remember a discussion in law school about the question of political asylum for victims of gender-based oppression from “traditional” societies. I was disheartened (but not entirely surprised) at the enormous ease with which “liberals” adopted a “non-interventionist” posture, loathe to “impose our world view” on “other cultures.” Apparently, it was somehow more acceptable for the priests and warlords of these countries to impose their world view on these women. Keep in mind, we were talking about asylum seekers rather than “intervention” initiated by the United States. By the way, conservatives, who like to feign great concern for women’s rights when trying to justify invading a country to secure fuel sources, are (and were in this case) predictably more concerned with “cultural sensitivity” to the sheiks and mullahs when it came to granting asylum to the same women. So, I’d be suspicious of any critique on this topic from that side of the political spectrum.

Back to liberals: their frequent acceptance of the absurd (and logically self-canceling) idea of “respect” and “tolerance” for systemic intolerance in “other cultures” assumes those cultures are monolithic (and buys into the conceit that dissent and diversity of opinion can only exist in western societies). Does that really sound “respectful”? It treats human rights and individual dignity differentially according to the ethnicity of the person whose rights/dignity have been proscribed. Does that sound respectful? While purporting to refrain from “judgment” this sort of thing is very much a judgment that the priests’ and emirs’ characterization of their “culture” is authentic and worthy of respect, while women asserting their human rights are somehow “influenced” in an illegitimate way, by the “western” notion that each of them should have control of her own life. That’s the most utterly disrespectful and illiberal attitude imaginable.

I have hopes for a robust analysis of all this in Levy’s book. I may even write a review for the Thought Oven, but no promises; my regular readers (do I even have any?) know that I’m not regular or dependable with the entries. But really, is that such a bad thing? Think of all the blogs that you could keep up with if they didn’t insist on posting something EVERY DAY 🙂 Yeah, I’m not above using emoticons in a blog entry.

Incidentally, the most entertaining portion of Levy’s talk was when this communist guy with a loud voice (I mean REALLY loud, like a large subwoofer) expressed his disapproval by yelling out all kinds of obscure “facts” about the former soviet union and Cuba, the relevance of which was never entirely clear to me, and chanting “down with anti-communism” and calling Levy “a French Rush Limbaugh!”

Levy seemed to enjoy it and wanted to engage him in a friendly conversation, but that was really going nowhere. Levy turned to the young man filming the event and asked if he had planted the “communist” in the audience to manufacture juicier footage. Ultimately, the communist had to be taken away — which led him to charge “you talk about liberty, but have them drag me away by force, what a fucking joke. . . . down with anti-communism!”

Poetic Epithets: To Honor Or To Slight?

Pundits keep pontificating about Obama’s failure to mention Martin Luther King by name in his speech. Instead, he said “a young preacher from Georgia” and apparently this has all kinds of subtle and vaguely unsavory implications.

OF COURSE  it does.  Nothing is more delectable than the unsavory.  Oooo!! This is so juicy! Is Barack Obama uncomfortable talking about MLK? Is he afraid that maybe it will make him look too “black”?

Um… on the anniversary of King’s historic “I have a dream” speech, was there anybody, anywhere, who was confused as to who “the preacher from Georgia” was?  If Obama wanted to minimize the impact, wouldn’t it be better to dispense with the obligatory King reference somewhere relatively early in the speech instead of treating it as the climax?

When people say “The Bard” as though there was only one in history, do they do it to distance themselves from William Shakespeare lest they look too English?

World View In Six Words

Chuck Schumer thinks we can learn something from Republicans (besides posing for a photo op at a shooting range).  He says Republicans can sum up what they stand for in 6 words: traditional values, strong defense, smaller government. He challenges Democrats to think about distilling their own essence in the same away.

Keeping in mind that this is an aspirational description (certainly Republicans can’t claim they have actually shrunk — or even really tried to shrink — government), here is MY attempt at taking up the challenge to define the Democratic values:

Equal Opportunities; Civil Liberties; Global Community


Hamming It Up Old Style

This morning I got a nice pumpernickel bagel with Virginia ham. It was yummy. It made me homesick for Virginia.

It also reminded me of a concession speech at the end of a long-ago senate race by (now-former-governor) Democrat Mark Warner. He made a good showing for a relative unknown, but lost to veteran Virginia Republican, incumbent John Warner. The younger Warner seemed content and even excited and said – apparently sincerely – that it was an honor to concede to the old man and asked the “Salty old Virginia Ham [to] keep bringing home the bacon.”

In 2008, this would be extraordinary. In 1996, it seemed natural. Cute, cordial, but nothing all that special. It was in the early years of the vitriolic Gingrich Revolution. The divisions hadn’t fully set in yet. Bitterness still seemed to be an upstart tactic rather than the established norm.

These days, we rarely – make that NEVER – see this kind of genuine cross-party congeniality, much less encouragement. I haven’t been back living Virginia for many years but my guess is that even Mark Warner doesn’t talk/think that way any more. But it’s obviously possible. There was a time – long before Warner v. Warner – when it was commonplace.

I don’t mean to posit a mythical past filled with civic harmony. I just think the partisanship was less pervasive, less default. Ordinary people like my parents were able to be quite liberal themselves while respecting people like Henry Kissinger and William F. Buckley for their intellect and accomplishments, even while disagreeing with them. Republican presidents appointed moderate and liberal justices, based on jurisprudential abilities rather than mere ideology.

I’ve changed too. As a young girl (and even more staunchly feminist than I am now), I was thrilled about Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment in a way that I’m not sure I would be today about a Republican first female president or chief justice or secretary of defense. . . .  Of course there are other reasons for that.  As an adult my policy concerns are a bit more complex than the preoccupation with “a first woman anything.” But I know there is more to it than that. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy excited me at least in part because she is a woman. But I wonder if a Condi Rice candidacy would have quite the same resonance even at this basic, feminist level.

For all the talk of “post partisan” politics this election cycle, the sincerest among us probably imagine a kumbaya moment when, in the spirit of brotherhood/sisterhood, we absolve the other side of its sins; NOT a good faith allowance that they might have good ideas — or even good intentions. Maybe good faith, like innocence, can’t be recovered once lost?

At the end of innocence, sometimes there is wisdom. Let’s hope. . . .

length is tyranny

I am saddened that Morgan Tsvangirai is bowing out of the fight.I don’t really know enough about him to know whether he is the kind of guy I’d want running my country. But I know enough to know that I’d pick him over Robert Mugabe in a heartbeat. In fact, I’d take almost any non-dictator politician over almost any person that’s ruled my country for 28 years.

In fact, Mugabe (having ascended to the leadership of Zimbabwe as the hero of a democratic movement and the icon of a country’s aspiration to freedom) is a perfect illustration of history’s most commonly recurring lesson: a long tenure in power is by its nature an oppressive tenure in power.

In defense of the candidate I am not supporting

It’s been some time that people have been clamoring for Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race. Ostensibly because it would be best for the party to have a united front. By that logic, though, why not just have one candidate to begin with? Why bother with primaries at all?

I should clarify, for those who don’t know, that Clinton is not my candidate. She was, once upon a time (and I was nonetheless on record being critical of her in many respects). But long after I have changed my mind and cast my primary vote for Barack Obama, I have to go on record pointing out the sheer volume of unfair press and lopsidedly negative analysis she has received over her long campaign.

Let’s start with the characterization of her relentless pursuit of the nomination as somehow unreasonable or inappropriate. It started a while ago, when Obama’s lead was quite marginal. Frankly, it’s STILL pretty narrow. Why should she have stepped aside for someone who hadn’t beaten her yet? Yes, it would be great for the party if she did, but just because the party (or I) might want something from her doesn’t obligate her to give it to us. If Obama wants to lead the party, it’s his responsibility to unite it, not Clinton’s.

Not so long ago, when Clinton (then dubbed the “establishment candidate”) was heavily favored by super delegates, the Obama campaign and others were strongly urging the super delegates not to substitute their judgment for that of the voters. Much was made of the number of “contests” Obama had won and the “will of the people.” Now that Clinton has won a large number of contests and won them BIG, no one seems to have very many qualms about the super delegates ignoring those wins and the pledges that go with them. In fact, each landslide Clinton victory seems to precipitate a proportional super delegate movement away from her, with the talking heads blithely discussing her demise as though it had already happened.

Pundits deride, or dismiss in an offhand way, Clinton’s (admittedly self-serving) arguments (1) that caucuses (which Obama tends to win) are less democratic than primaries (which she does better in); and (2) that the popular vote – not just the delegate count – should matter in picking the nominee. But self-serving or not, are they really such bad arguments? Caucuses are less democratic (they are structured in a way that deters participation particularly among poorer and less educated people.) Typical caucus turnouts are generally a tiny fraction of typical primary election turnouts. This means delegates chosen by caucuses represent far fewer voters than those chosen in primaries. Which leads us to the question of whether the delegate count, when it is unrepresentative of the popular vote, should be paramount in nominating a candidate. In some cases, as in Texas, the candidate with more popular votes (an actual majority in fact) got fewer delegates.

I should clarify also that I think Clinton has – sadly for former admirers like me – sometimes shown herself to be a rather cynical opportunist, donning many masks and telling many politically expedient tales. She has been an unreliable liberal (contrary to what the conservative pundits have said, but all the worse for it in my book). She has adopted too hawkish a foreign policy posture on a number of occasions (although I understand you kind of have to as a woman – but as a woman, I say, if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t anyway, then why not just do what’s right?). Worst of all: she has at times preyed on racial fears and capitalized on racial divisions when it became opportune. I really think none of these things represent who she is at heart. But they do point to a person with integrity issues. We had eight years of integrity issues. That’s more than enough. Contrast this with Barack Obama, who has emerged from every ugly drama into which he has been drawn with intact dignity, magnanimity, grace, and even nuance and complexity of thought! Though he has not always emerged politically unscathed….

All of these are good reasons to choose him over her. But they are not legitimate reasons to expect those who do support her to just roll over. These are not reasons to call her laugh a “cackle” and to perpetuate the fiction that she “turned on the waterworks” in New Hampshire (no man who has a tinny laugh or whose voice occasionally crackled with emotion would ever be subjected to so much derision over it).

These are not reasons to minimize her accomplishments. The claim that she wouldn’t be where she is today but for her eminent husband is doubly insulting because in a twisted way, it is true. It is true, not because she didn’t have what it took to make it on her own merits – everything in her background bespeaks a smart, ambitious, well-connected, and extremely capable woman. In fact, Bill probably owes as much or more of his success to her as the reverse. The only reason that she needed her husband’s coattails at all is that she is a woman, and even in 2008, a woman must get a man’s imprimatur to be considered credible.

So, those are my ramblings as the votes come tumbling in . . . . Good night.

Personal Shame ≠ Refutation of Policies

Many people are taking what I think is a perverse pleasure in Eliot Spitzer’s downfall. When pointing out the irony of Spitzer’s role as an anti-corruption crusader, they are using the term “clean up Wall Street” and putting air quotes around “clean up” — as if his visiting prostitutes means there’s no fraud or deceptive practices on Wall Street!

One person commented on my other blog that he “loved” watching Spitzer “crash and burn” — a sentiment echoed by a number of my conservative friends. I most definitely didn’t love it. I was deeply saddened that one of the apparent bright spots in our political landscape turned out to be just that: an “apparent” bright spot. He was unable to build coalitions, he became mired in scandals like “trooper gate” — and now this — this was not the governor New Yorkers thought they elected.

For me, there’s no joy in watching the death of so many people’s hopes that integrity would be restored to government, that transparency and accountability would be demanded of corporations, that corruption would be attacked everywhere. These are the things that people saw and admired in the Eliot Spitzer they thought they knew.

One of the most disheartening aspects of this scandal is that Spitzer’s long-time detractors are treating it as a vindication of their policy disputes with him.

Let’s please remember what happened and what didn’t.

What happened: a man was disgraced and a family dragged through enormous public humiliation and a state full of people deeply disillusioned in their civic hopes.

What didn’t happen: nothing about any policy that Spitzer advocated (that many, many New Yorkers supported) was discredited in any way. In fact, I think recent events have made it painfully clear that Wall Street really could use a good Sheriff.

Ballots Too Crowded?

When I was a kid – way back when people actually told jokes about Communists – there was the one that went like this: “did you hear that the Soviets are holding a two-party election? The Communist Party and the victory party.”

Well, here in New York state we not only we have two major parties (and then some), but each candidate can just institute his/her very own multi-party system – or at least represent multiple parties on the same ballot.

This seemed very weird to me at first (I grew up in another state). Something in my gut said that the corollary to the “one-person, one ballot” idea had to be “one candidate, one ballot slot.” That just seemed natural to me. But, honestly, I couldn’t tell you why. Is it just a culturally transmitted mental habit?

Really, what’s so bad about having your name on the ballot multiple times? Even if it gives you a probabilistic advantage (does it? Statisticians please weigh in – my math creds are not what they once were!), maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If you’re able to capture multiple ideological camps, (literally “reach across party lines” as politicians are fond of promising) chances are good that you – and hopefully your policy postures – appeal to voters who identify with those camps… so your statistical advantage may just reflect the will of the people.

Besides, it is New York, and we just have to do things a little differently from everyone else, just because we can.

We Can’t Shut People Up to Keep Them From Lying

I voted for Obama. Mainly because I like the way he’s run his campaign better than the way Clinton has run hers. So, I was a bit disturbed to find the following email from the Obama campaign urging me to donate to it. It began this way:

“News broke yesterday that a few wealthy Clinton supporters are gearing up for a massive spending campaign to boost her chances in the big upcoming contests in Texas and Ohio on March 4th. The so-called “American Leadership Project” will take unlimited contributions from individuals and is organized the same way as the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”

What does “organized the same way as the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” mean? Isn’t it a little misleading to imply an equivalence between the two groups based solely on organizational similarity?

The Swift Boat Veterans campaign was a smear campaign based on lies. That was its problem. Whether 527s should be free to engage in candidate advocacy is really a secondary issue. Frankly, I am not even sure that issue advocacy groups should be prohibited from candidate advocacy. We might not want them to do it with tax-exempt dollars, but we can prevent that without stifling their free speech. For example, every dollar spent on election-related programs could be made subject to taxes (even if the organization as a whole is an exempt entity). But keeping them from vocally supporting or opposing candidates for office raises serious First Amendment concerns for me.

I care as much as the next guy about the equality of access to the public megaphone. There are other ways to address that: like requiring the broadcast networks (licensees of our public airwaves) to give free and equal time to all candidates. I’m sure there are better approaches still. In any case, I think that access is becoming much less of a problem with so much proliferation of new media.

Whatever else we do though, a restraint on political advocacy can’t be the way we safeguard truth and fairness in politics. And government can’t be the arbiter of that. That’s exactly the point of the first Amendment.