Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year in Commentary

This is usually the time when blogs do one of two things - look forward with lists, or look backward with lists. Being faithful to the blogosphere, it seems I owe the world a list post.

I don't have any "best entries" to look at - half my output was for a primary in an election already decided, and you probably already know what of mine you like. So instead I'm going to point you at two sources for commentary on the year which I think were kind of awesome. Yeah, my list post is a list of two.

1. Ironman
This was certainly The Dark Knights year, in terms of almost everything - it was good, it made a lot of money, it had a good performance by a star who died tragically young. In an election year it had a vigilante, a realist of a public servant, and an idealistic politician all tied up in a mess of a situation, and confounded by maliciousness and chaos. It should have been the narrative to accompany election day.

It wasn't. This year, the best commentary about America as an entity was captured in reviews of Iron Man. Iron Man has no politicians. Iron Man, in fact, is rather minimal - inventor + tragedy = mind change + redemption. And all the while, America is still at war in the background. Tony Stark changes himself in a cave, and he comes back to change not Afghanistan, but to re-orient America. In the comics, Iron Man has become the victorious face of a government that killed Captain America, but in the movie Iron Man is America reborn - this isn't a struggle of identity, this is a coming of age. Captain America is the Greatest Generation - he is an eager and patriotic citizen made exemplary, and in his later years he embodied all the promise America had offered, and was more than a tad upset when it collapsed upon itself in a fit of paranoia and police-state antics. It's a good story, but it's an apocalyptic narrative, not the one of rebirth.

The re-birth narrative is all Iron Man. He literally makes himself over, and thanks to American inventiveness and determination, he sets out to undo all the evil he himself did. This is a narrative captured brilliantly in two separate reviews: one by The Ferret, and one at SciFi blog io9. Read both of them - they are as much about comics and film as they are about where America stands today. And that America doesn't include Gotham.

2. Sinfest
Sinfest is the name of a webcomic. A really, really brilliant webcomic. It's been around for a while, and its well-done art (plus decent humor) had kept me reading it on and off. Then the election got underway, and it is the narrative I will hand my children to explain this year. The humor is spot on, the metaphors used all resonate strongly, and it provides the cartoon narrative with the goofy faces and the cutting insights in a year where much has been made of narrative.

This one - the best attempt at turning Dark Knight into a parable for the US.

These three - the first one is Obama campaigning, the second one is Obama elected, and the third one is Obama taking office. All of them get the narrative of the election done beautifully, and they do it in a few panels.

Here we have Sinfest Uncle Sam, using Star Wars to explain how we got to be where we are. It's beautiful

And here we see the economic collapse, told in a wonderfully self-righteous fashion by the symbols of American wealth we have created for ourselves.

If I haven't fan-boyed enough over this comic, here's the years' end:

Pitch Perfect. Have a good night, everyone.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Living the Dialog

Editors Note: I wrote this piece as a pulpit editorial for delivery today at First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, where it was delivered for both first and second service. I'm posting it up here because I think it's worthy writing, but keep in mind that it is even more targeted at Unitarians than is usual.

Hello Congregation. I'm Kelsey Atherton, and earlier this fall I was the political advisor to Christine on her inspired if ill-fated presidential campaign.

I meant to write this pulpit editorial about my roommate and me- randomly assigned to live together in college housing, we disagree fundamentally on every political issue that has ever come up. And it was my intent to examine how before the election our interactions were all arguments, and how after the election it's become an oppressive silence. This pulpit editorial, as I envisioned it, was to be a parable of the dangers of partisan living, and a reminder of the strength of the divisions that persist in this nation.

The problem with that idea is that it doesn't really offer anything positive or useful, and I know that I for one don't come to church to feel powerless in the face of bad things. The other problem with that anecdote is that it is more or less the exact opposite of living the dialog - my roommate and I engaged in conversation when the stakes were high, and now that the election has concluded we sit around silently being contemptuous of each other. It's kind of a terrible example of how to live ones values.

There is, however, an essence of living the dialog in that. It's important to know where the dialog can be helpful, and where the dialog will amount to a lot of effort and frustration without any meaningful change. This isn't about "cutting ones losses" or "picking ones' battles" - this is about moving beyond war metaphors because this isn't, you know, war. And I think that's really what I learned from my experiences with my roommate - we treated this as a war, and now that the election is over, we're entrenched in a forced no-man's land, waiting for the next outbreak of hostilities.

That is no way to live. And while the situation with my roommate is looking irreparable, it's motivated me to find better ways to live the dialog with other people in my life. My conversations with friends about political issues are no longer winner-take-all debates, where personal attacks fly furiously, or where I discredit an issue because I doubt a given politicians' intelligence. Much as I'd like to say "your guy is an idiot, and you're an idiot for liking him", that's out of the picture. Talking like that is the exact opposite of productive. Every conversation, I strive to remove the petty from my politics. And yeah, I'm still met with the occasional "secret Muslim" comment. But it becomes rare, and it gets to be irrelevant.

More importantly than the lack of ad hominem attacks is the new found common ground - while I still argue tooth and nail for the right to choose, my pro-life friends and I come close to agreeing on "safe, legal, and rare." While I am sorely disappointed by the passage of proposition 8 in California, I can sympathize with the desire to settle the issue of marriage equality through voting and not judicial fiat. That is to say, in a way that respects "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within...our society at large". And while I am dismayed at insensitive and intolerant remarks expressed by some religious leaders, I can share with them the common ground of good works and a desire to lead a purpose-driven life.

Christine, in her post election sermon about Living in Purple America, quoted this from my blog: "But that doesn’t entitle us to inflict any of the same scorn and contempt on the losers that we’ve had to suffer through. Because if we do that, then it was all for nothing.". I wrote it hours after an electoral success I'd waited 8 years for, and I wrote it not so much because I needed to know it then, but because I knew I'd need to be reminded of it now. In the coming weeks, as the Christmas spirit wanes and the inauguration looms closer and closer, it's important that we continue the work of living the dialog of Purple America. Without it, we exist as bitterly divided armed camps. With the dialog, and the conscious effort to engage people in serious and rational discussion, we can begin to do away with battles against each other. Because there isn't an enemy here - just fellow Americans. We have to appreciate and understand where they're coming from in order to join them in fellowship.

The piece ends there, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include the following image:
The image comes from the excellent from52to48withlove, which is the site that best informed this pulpit editorial, and my post-election sentiments. The above image I found particularly moving, and while I tried I was unable to include it in my speech before the church. Here it is for you, faithful readers.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rick Warren, Obama, and the Center in American Politics

For more or less every person vaguely in the US political blogosphere, and especially for those people who care about social issues, the big looming discontent this week has focused on Barack Obama's selection of Rick Warren as the minister to give the inaugural invocation. And this is good - in our participatory democracy where personal views matter as much as stated policy aims, we as the public, as the pale apparition of new journalism, and even alongside the white elephant of old journalism (a term of endearment, that) have a right and a duty to examine in as much detail the little signifiers which could become the big signifiers.

There's some real grounds for fear here. In the wake of prop 8, and with the side note that the Obama campaign had both "Obama/Yes on 8" and "Obama/No on 8" voters, it seems like the president is not so beholden to the LGBT community as many had hoped. This perceived abandonment is cemented in the minds of many by Rick Warren. After all, he has likened gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. That's more or less an unforgivable offense, right?

Well, yes and no. Which I guess really means no. For many, any nuanced qualifiers (which, if you know me, you know are coming) are not enough. The far left, the progessive left, the left-left, the bleeding-hear-left, social libertarians, and a good many in the moderate left all view this as completely unacceptable. There are almost certainly political scientists right now formulating Obama's political obituary, examining the breakup of the new new deal coalition. First it was the social issues, they'll say. And indeed, I cannot begrudge those who feel betrayed right now, who feel that Obama himself has crossed a line of no return. This is not the first thing to exhaust serious political capital among the left, but it is one of the biggest. And for many, the mere act of the appointment overrides two very important things Obama is doing.

Firstly, Obama himself has a statement of very, very importantly phrased qualifiers. Secondly, Obama is appointing people with far more accepting views to actual meaningful positions.

Here's what I think are Obama's two key points:
• The President-elect disagrees with Pastor Warren on issues that affect the LGBT community. They disagree on other issues as well. But what's important is that they agree on many issues vital to the pursuit of social justice, including poverty relief and moving toward a sustainable planet; and they share a commitment to renewing America's promise by expanding opportunity at home and restoring our moral leadership abroad.

• As he's said again and again, the President-elect is committed to bringing together all sides of the faith discussion in search of common ground. That's the only way we'll be able to unite this country with the resolve and common purpose necessary to solve the challenges we face.
(emphasis mine). Barack Obama's selection of Rev. Rick Warren is not a blanket endorsement of Warren's views and attitudes. It is not even an endorsement of a majority of Rick Warren's views. It is, instead, an endorsement of a few very specific areas of Rick Warren's ministry - Obama says of Rick Warren that "He's devoted his life to performing good works for the poor and leads the evangelical movement in addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis" (emphasis, again, mine). This is that evangelical movement which, to an outsider like myself, appears to have repeatedly placed itself in opposition to all the issues of social justice I've cared about. No doubt many are attributing the differences in the success of McCain and Bush's presidential campaigns to the evangelical fervor that swung behind Bush, and was more lacking in support of McCain. This is a group I'd more or less written off as "the opposition". Fortunately for me, the political Left, and the United States on the whole, Obama does not see evangelicals that way.

Rick Warren's presence at the inauguration is not the selling out to the religious right that many fear it is. It is instead an acknowledgment of the religious center, which has been missing from our political discourse. Yes, Rick Warren has views which are antithetical to many progressives. But Rick Warren is not alone in that, and while he did speak in favor of proposition 8, and we can disagree with him on that, he does care about global poverty, and he cares about the fight against AIDS. Obama agrees with Rick Warren on those latter terms, and disagrees on the former. This is not a matter of selling out - this is a matter of acknowledging the diversity of our nation. A messy, sometimes frustrating diversity of opinion, but this is a rather vital one. Obama's inauguration will have another minister, a "giant of the civil rights movement" give the benediction. And Obama has made other, more meaningful actions to show support of LGBT people. That list of meaningful actions includes some hesitancy, and it includes some cautious opinions on his part. It also lacks the neat, doctrinaire uniformity that progressives want from their messiah, and we are foolish for wanting this.

This is a nation of diversity, and any leader who adheres so strongly to just one faction is a leader that betrays the core principles of democracy. It does not meant that our voices aren't valid - they are, now, more than ever. But it does mean that the nation isn't monolithic, that the president has to acknowledge that, and that sometimes a nation has to change underneath it's leader to move him in the right direction.

Obama's inclusion of Rick Warren in his inauguration is a sign that being on the left, or holding even center-left views (like an obligation to fight poverty) does not mean one can't express religion. It's a shame and unfortunate that religion in US politics is presently tied to the Religious Right; Rick Warren himself, while an evangelical, can be found much more awkwardly in the center, where his views do not easily align himself to one party - it's an awkward nation where religiously justified condemnation of poverty and religiously explained condemnation of sexual orientation do not share the same ticket, but it's the nation we have been living in. Obama, by including Rick Warren, seeks to bring religion into the discussion on social justice; it's been isolated in issues of social norms for so long that it's hard to remember the more broader applications of Jesus's teachings, the ones that apply out of the bedroom. By including Rick Warren, Obama does not endorse Warren's views on homosexuality - what Obama does do is endorse evangelicals taking an active role in social justice. This is not a move that could be made in a US where a whole side of the spectrum can hold "unforgivable" views. We, as the left, were excited to see on election day that cries of "socialism" and "spread the wealth around", topics for decades off-limits to US politicians, were not run into the ground. Not to say that we should be accepting of Warren's intolerances, but we should open up a dialog where our sound reason can win the day - excluding one side from every discussion because we don't like where they stand on one of them is tragic, and hurts our nation as a collective whole.

If you've made is this far, you've noticed my tip-toeing around the other big issue that upsets the left with Rick Warren's selection. Rick Warren not only actively campaigned against gay marriage, but he is fairly active against a Women's Right to Choose. I've buried this issue, not because I don't think it's relevant, but because it is harder and harder to see the right-to-life (or, if you prefer, anti-choice) side being an overwhelming national movement. The pro-choice fight is more and more of a quiet one -I'm willing to bet that the silent majority is pretty much entrenched on the side of choice in this one. Perhaps they want more qualifiers, refinement in the right, but this is a right that seems to be guaranteed. Not that we shouldn't fight - we kind of have to. But the fight can be won, and noticeable in this election the pro-choice fight had three significant victories - unsurprising in California, welcome in Colorado, and perhaps most profound in South Dakota. Christine over at iMinister made an important note of this in her post-election sermon. Rick Warren is not on the side of history for this one, and while I'm unwilling to say that progress here is irreversible, it is instead in the enviable position of being well defended when even the movement defending it seems to, at times, be on the margin. It's one of the few times I like how effective the silent majority is, and when the silent majority is winnign the battles in the ballot booth, it means the issue is close to safe. Rick Warren's anti-choice actions and opinions do not undermine this progress

There is one last point I have to make here, on this issue. The picture below these words is one of the most heartening signs that progressives will not be lost in this election. That, right there, is New Mexico's congressional delegation for 2009. On the far right (ha ha) is Senior Senator Jeff Bingaman, who has been protecting the interests of progressives nationally and in New Mexico for twenty five years. The remaining men in the picture (L to R, Ben Ray Lujan, Martin Heinrich, Tom Udall, and Harry Teague) are New Mexico's three congressional representatives, with the exception of Tom Udall, New Mexico's new Junior Senator. For all the symbolic angst that may arise about Rick Warren's stands on social issues, these are five reliable votes against those initiatives. For all the doubts about Obama's sincerity to his supporters on the left, these are five votes that will pull him further to where he should be. And for every move made to combat AIDS, and for every move aimed at fighting poverty, these are five votes that will reliably side with progress.

And that dichotomy mentioned above, where people work together on some but not all issues? That's more or less exactly what the Obama administration is about. It isn't an exclusion of hated opponents, a condemnation of outsiders by those in power, or even a takeover of government by the left. It is one of the ironies of this campaign that the Senate's greatest moderate in recent memory campaigned against a candidate identified with a fringe, only to have the roles reversed on the campaign trail. Obama won the election by a majority of voters not because this nation has become the ideological equivalent of San Fransisco, but because Obama's appeals, which endeared him to the left, are fundamentally centrist.

Leftist doctrine has, for the past century and a half, focused on competing interests within a society. Marxism, Labour, and the general confusion of class and nationality have played out over the past century to constitute a left that, while it has some popular appeal, cannot decide what to do when in power. In France in the 1930s, the Left achieved an electoral victory at the exact smae time all of Europe was afraid of both fascism and Stalin, and the left was too divided to let itself act as a party of rule. These divisions, inherent in notions of "class warfare" and echoed in such modern times by John Edwards' "Two Americas" speech, give the left its fighting words, but they also drive it away from being acceptable as a party of rule. Obama, from his very first appearance in the media spotlight, has focused on "One America". His notion of hope comes across as leftist because it involves reconciliation - such strange events have driven our nation to see diplomacy, talking to people we disagree with, and earnest attempts at working together for the benefit of all as leftist fantasies, left over from the 1960s. This misrepresents the left of the sixties and it misrepresents the left of now - both have widely differing views on what government should or shouldn't do, and I'm pleased to say that, 38 years after that decade ended, the left in the United States is able to position itself as a party of rule.

It's taken a long time for this, and it's required that most fundamental of compromises - ideals as a driving impulse, instead of being the straightforward rule of government. This is realism, this is pragmatism, and this is inching towards the Center. The center-left became popularized under Clinton and Tony Blair, but they are not so much leftists as real-mild-rightists. They made being identified with the left acceptable, but for all their strengths they lived scared of being seen as weak, as compromising, and as unfit to rule. Clinton, especially, faced the controversy of moral weakness, and his actions almost certainly added a decade to the lifespan of the religious right in US politics. But he did prove that a democrat, a person on the left, could both have that party and govern from the center.

Obama, as outlined wonderfully by fivethirtyeight, has a progressive agenda, with many items that are near and dear to the left and the far left. "But Kelsey," you thousands of readers clamor, "haven't you been saying Obama is a centrist?" Well, yes, yes I have, and you are all astute observers. So here's the big qualifier - the United States, as is, doesn't have a center. We have two points (or parties), both off center, around which voters tend to congregate. The battle for undecideds is so fierce because there is no party permanently camped out in the center - candidates aiming towards the middle have to moderate their views or open the appeal of their candidate beyond sticking on a certain pole. The battle for the loyal, on the other hand, is about convincing polarized voters that their guy this time is really much closer to the far side of the spectrum than they are to the center. This works, to some extent, for the winner-take-all system that is US politics. In other countries with parliaments and governments of coalitions, however, we see something very different. We see a center party, or center-left and center-right parties, or a center-christian party, and these will almost always be part of the ruling coalitions. Not entirely ideologically pure, but they get the job done, and they have, at their very core, a willingness to incorporate some ideas of others with their broad schemes. McCain, as a Senator, represented a clear example of the "across the aisle" spirit that pervades parties of or around the center.

Obama, alternatively, has made his rhetoric his centrist appeal. And he's done more than that - by inviting Rick Warren to the inauguration, he not only clearly sets himself apart from the left (or at least, those parts of the left that find this unforgivable), he also shows the United States where the center is. It's vague right now, and while it disagrees hugely on some issues (again LGBT and Choice), Obama is trying very clearly to connect the center in US politics to social justice. It's a bold move, and one that Obama has certainly taken flak for, but it has done something almost unthinkable - the evangelicals, the ones that elected W twice, the ones that gave Palin her moment and momentum, have found something to agree on with the President. It's allowed the intersection of religion and politics to not be dominated by the Religious Right, and its made the way possible for more openness in dialog. There are consequences for being in the center - every side gets to take pot-shots, and gets to pick more ideologically pure successors. But the center holds because it is where the voters are, and if Obama can use this almost-unprecedented opportunity for reconciliation (unlike that squandered, post-Civil War attempt), he can create a reliable center in US politics, longer-lived than the New Deal coalition, and he can place that center firmly on the left. It will take skill and careful manuevering. And it will take the inclusion of religious moderates and religious liberals. And it will come dangerously close to betraying that ideological purity we're all so fond of. But its doable, and it is a necessity for this nation.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rule of Law

This post is inspired by three separate occurrences, two of them fairly recent. They are: 1, the riots in Greece following the shooting of a 15 year old. 2, the questionable value of a life sentence for Texas inmate Son Tran. 3, the 11th hour move by the Bush Administration to allow doctors and other healthcare service providers the right to refuse health services (meaning birth control and abortion). These all strike me as diverse symptoms of a situation in which the rule of law is seen less as a desirable practice and more as a totalitarian imposition. To clarify for naysayers: I'm not in any way opposed to the rule of law; I take issue with laws that are unjust, and laws that work against the interest of most everyone involved. I think these are all examples of law falling into the later two categories.

1. I'll start with the latter. Bush's action will be debated constantly in the coming week (with bonus Baby-Jesus-themed comments), and will most likely be opposed and somewhat overturned by the incoming Obama administration. The move represents several things: a "thank you" to longstanding Bush supporters, another play in decades-old culture wars, and a decision made by an unaccountable elected official. For all of these reasons, despite public sentiment, it strikes me as a profoundly undemocratic move. My intellectual-sparring-partner JR will side with me on the specific issue of rights concerning access to birth control and abortion services, but he will argue against the constitutionality of Roe v Wade. Ignoring the actual impact of changing that decision as it concerns personal rights, there's a democratic sentiment behind it that is worth examining. The case of Roe v Wade is implicitly about abortion rights, but it is explicitly about privacy, and states rights. If there is no constitutional right to privacy, than abortion is an issue left to the states. States, when making the decision, varied much more widely than a simple "legal or illegal", and the decision was localized to small constituencies. Say what you will about the potential for denial of rights that this entails (and don't get me wrong - there is some serious loss of rights going on), it does allow for a more democratic decision to be made, and such decisions have a legitimacy that feels undermined by judicial fiat. The reaction we'll be seeing in the media, the blogosphere, and political action listservs is a very real sense of powerlessness, of an invalidity of the decision made, and a general disagreement with the new ordering of the law. And that's because this is not a change made with political legitimacy. It's worth noting, however, that the whole of the national abortion debate feels that way to many folk, and has produced an incredible wariness in the American public to accept such top-down detached legal rulings. Esteemed legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, when faced with the passage of similar culture-warsy Prop 8, says this
But please, let's not try to win this battle by summoning the Supremes. Even if it is right that this Amendment is contrary to the best interpretation of Equal Protection, let us bring the ideals of Equal Protection to life, by getting people to support them.
It's worth noting that a legal scholar, a man whose life has revolved around various interesting and new arenas for legal battles (code and other laws of cyberspace, copyright), is arguing against a straightforward legal solution and is instead pushing for a solution that has democratic legitimacy.

2. Charles Platt's piece on Son Tran is one I'm going to examine in more depth elsewhere (it is part of an in-process post about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It's a fascinating story (in that weird, bleak way more common in dystopic fiction), and what stands out from all of it is that, no matter the actual crimes committed by the individual (or, indeed, if they were committed), the punishment seems to be something profoundly useless to society. Confounding this situation is the nature of the person who committed the crime - at the time he was sentenced, Son Tran was 17 years old. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling concerning minors sentenced to death, he was moved from death row to life imprisonment. Depending on where you fall with your perspective of redemption, rehabilitation, and the changeable nature of humans, the 40 years he is now serving will make perfect sense, seem too short, or strike you as a gross waste of a human life, to say nothing of human potential. Charles Platt is upset by both this individual waste, and by the intended value of deterrence that sentences like this are supposed to have. He writes:
Let’s start with the concept of deterrence. I’ll ignore the death penalty, since the Supreme Court has already eliminated it for people under 18. Thus, we are left with incarceration. Has any study ever proved that the prospect of forty years without parole is a better deterrent than, say, thirty years, or even twenty years? It seems utterly implausible to me that the actions of a teenager in an inner-city gang will be affected by such a distinction. In fact I don’t believe that deterrence is either the effect or the purpose of the long, mandatory sentences that have become endemic in the United States during the past two decades.
The facts laid out are very few in the favor of Son Tran: gang member, confessed to murder, received a reprieve because of a supreme court ruling, not new evidence in his trial. But the gross failure and abuse of the criminal justice system (especially in Texas) are enough to make one doubt the whole validity of criminal justice in the United States. Platt's post at this point descends into a fairly typical "Reagan + Fear + Power + Money + Scared White People = Gross Human Rights Abuses that Shame America" argument, and it says something that this argument can have a standard form. It also poses a very real challenge to the acceptance of the rule of law in America, and it hits upon it from an entirely different angle that the Bush decision. The Bush decision is very much another move in decisions removed from democratic consensus - Platt's argument is that Son Tran's imprisonment is no social good (as imprisonment weirdly is supposed to be) but is instead the result of a poorly-framed democratic consensus. People have been pushing for politicians to be tougher on crime for at least 20-30 years now; what people haven't realized is that as a consequence of this:
Among the adult population of the United States, 1 person out of every 100 is now behind bars. Thus the unweighted odds of going to jail are greater than the odds of being a crime victim.
One could write a separate essay on how the people pushing for politicians to be tougher on crime are different than the people who are more likely to be persecuted by vigilant police forces (white & wealthy versus the poor, nonwhite, and disenfranchised) - I'm not going to comment on it anymore here than to say that, for a worryingly large percentage of the US population, law is seen either as "something to protect myself imposed on other people" or "illegitimate decisions made beyond my own personal control that will get me anyway, and so have no bearing on how I act." That's a breakdown in the very purpose of the rule of law, and of a democratic construction of society - laws have to apply equally, and laws have to be understood as threatening not just "those people", but everyone - especially the people who advocate for the law to be passed.

3. Lastly, we come to the Greek Riots. Others more skilled and/or better paid than I will make their conclusions about such serious anti-police riots in the birthplace of the World's first great democracy. The riots started as anti-police, but as they have continued they have done what all great riots do - become chaotic, divisive attempts to reinvent a status quo. The rioters are unemployed, upset with corruption, and think that the police forces have gotten out of hand - to express this discontent, they have attacked police and alienated their countrymen by destroying the property and threatening the livelihood of many small shopkeepers and business owners. It has all the hints of simmering class war, and rather than doing the democratic thing and siding with small owners as an upset middle class, the rioters are very much in the classical (or is it archaic?) mode of students, working class, and the unemployed so upset with the higher-ups that they willingly endanger and alienate those less outraged than themselves. This is not so much an issue of the nature of the rule of law as an example of a remarkable collapse. And yet, law itself hasn't entirely collapsed - the police exist, are a visible presence in Greece, and the government still stands. But the police are hesitant to act - one of their own is being tried for murder while on duty (the counterclaim is that he was provoked and responded appropriately), and so we have the potential for the rule of law, the semblance of a rule of law, and either a government or a police force unwilling to impose that law on the citizens it exists to protect. As law collapses on the national level, it re-imposes itself interestingly.

The shooting prompted parents all over the country to examine the liberties they have been permitting their children.

“My 12-year-old daughter has been getting text messages inviting her to join demonstrations,” said Constantine Michalos, president of the Greek chamber of commerce. “One of the messages said, ‘Don’t go to school today. We need to show our power on the street.’ I had to lay down the law.”

The riots will not, as many fear, have the effect of the French riots two centuries prior or the Russian riots all of 90 years ago. What they will do, however, is allow for a reforming of society around the rule of law - laws to protect against some of what inspired the riots (police carelessness and political corruption; it's hard to get laws passed against the economy), as well as against the actions taken by the rioters. Chaos like this is curious for it's ability to reforge society - France's Fifth Republic arose as a center-right forced the imposition of the rule of law over both the military and striking students and workers. And violence like this polarizes - while prior to the riots, many were discontent with the status quo in Greece, the value of the rule of law comes to the fore as people gravitate away from the dangers of the chaos and back towards the assurances of stability, becoming increasingly more willing to overlook injustices inherent in that stability as long as it means they have property, livelihood, and are guaranteed some freedom from molotov cocktails. The trick with any society structured around the rule of law, and especially that of democracies, is to balance freedoms with controls.

Stratis Stratigis, former chairman of the Athens Olympics organising committee, suggested he might have an answer. “Our democracy is destroying itself because it misrepresented the right to liberty and equality,” says an e-mail circulating his friends. “It taught the citizens to regard disrespect as a right, lawlessness as liberty, impertinence as equality and anarchy as enjoyment.”

This is a quote from Socrates, the ancient philosopher who ended up being sentenced to death for voicing truths that nobody wanted to hear.

“It’s funny,” said Stratigis. “Those words have a ring about them today.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UDHR is 60 years old today. Here's my previous post about them, with an awesome video that is worth watching again.

Also, here's the full text of the declaration. Enjoy! (I'll have a more elaborate post about the rights themselves at a time that isn't finals week. For now, enjoy some history of justice. Also, bonus points for UUs who can find all 7 principles hidden in these)

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories."

    Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

    Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

    Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

    Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

    Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

    Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

    Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

    Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

    Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

    No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

    Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

    All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

    Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

    Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

    (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

    (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

    (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

    (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

    (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

    (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

    (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

    (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

    (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

    (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

    (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

    (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

    (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

    (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

    (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

    (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

    (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

    (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

    Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

    (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

    (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

    (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

    (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

    Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

    (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

    (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

    (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

    (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

    (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

    (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

    (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

    Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

    (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

    (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

    (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

    Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Hitting the nail on the head

Recently I posted about the double redundancy challenge that faces the US military.

Reading this article, it seems I'm late to the modern military revolution, but that I was headed in the right direction.
Gates also blasts the Pentagon’s bizarre desire to treat the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as inconvenient distractions from a future of conventional warfare, a tendency reflected in the budgetary trick of funding the wars separately from the annual defense budget. “We must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as those the United States is in today,” Gates writes.
I'll have to read Gates article in Foreign Affairs to figure out his stand on nuclear policy, but from what I've just read, it seems like he is well prepared to create and adjust our military to the purposes that will actually be asked of it.  And lest people think that this is just a new top-down approach to justfying shiny new technology, Gates is well aware of the complex nature of the wars the US military has been tasked with.
A fundamental argument made by Gates is that military solutions in the war on terrorism — what he describes as “a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign” — are rarely sufficient. “Where possible,” he writes, “what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit.”
While acknowledging that war is an unpleasant thing, it looks like we have someone on the job willing to go ahead and assume the difficult responsibility of easing a war into a peace.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

UN Quickie

It seems I've fast reached obsolescence. In my early days as a far-left rabble-rouser, I disseminated a little pamphlet in the halls of my secondary school. After a few issues, I passed the torch to a competent young chap, who I've introduced to you many times. This fellow also shared my fondness for the United Nations (we met through Model UN), and he has written the post about the United Nations I've been meaning to write for years. That post is here, and it's short enough to read in entirety.

Still, I feel obliged to have some actual content. Here's an excerpt:
This is the danger of consensus. If everyone agrees, there is probably something very wrong, especially in an organization like the United Nations, which, by design, includes almost every possible viewpoint on almost every possible subject.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Watch This

I'm not one to post briefly, but I'm in the library, trying to write an essay about Iran, I can't really think of anything clever and witty to elaborate upon this with.

The video can be found here.

It's good, it's really, really good, and I kind of just want it spread everywhere. Iran is the nation to watch this coming decade, and this video gives me hope. That's about all it needs to do.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Double Redunancy

This morning I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow who's in both my "History of Islam" class, and my "War on Terror" class. The young man is going into the marines after graduation, and we talked about the nature in which war is waged by this nation.

The United States, he argues, has to be ready for two kinds of war at all times. We have to have the capacity to fight at least one superpower, and so that means a strong airforce, powerful navy, and the really expensive fancy stuff that combine technology with killing power. That's the high-end, worst-case scenario army we've got to have around, for the incredibly bleak "just-in-case" scenario.

The other war we have to be ready for is the kind of war we fight. Counter-insurgency, occupations, humanitarian missions - in these, our technological superiority is a given, so we have to better protect our forces and give them more tools to outmaneuver the enemies we fight.

Of course, the US is always in a process of readying ourselves for these wars - the 1950s saw the US arm itself to fight Russia on the fields of eastern Europe, and the 1980s saw the US readying itself for a massive air war against Russia. But then we fought the other kind of war - Vietnam was initiated with forces designed for the eastern European theater, and the 1990s saw an airforce useless against small bands of gunmen. The US of course adjusted - as the wars dragged on, we readied our military to fight the war it had to fight. But then, when the war was over, we switched from a force that could fight the war to a force that could fight another kind of war. But we had to fight the first kind of war again, and the transition hurt our effectiveness. A specific example - in Vietnam, our army was well-equipped for fighting along rivers, and we had what my classmate termed "a brown-water navy". This navy was then decommissioned and dismantled, leaving us in a position today where we have brown-water military needs (river patrols on the Tigris and Euphrates, fighting piracy on the coast of Somalia), but no brown-water capability.

My classmate argued for double-redundancy. We store the vast reserves of our military resources, and after a war of counter-insurgency, we keep our forces on superpower war alert. The costs here are only in storage and updating equipment - no wheels need reinventing, and we retain the military capacity we need during peacetime.

It's not a bad plan, but then I brought up the nuclear arsenals our country keeps. We discussed this for a while, and then had to part for class before I could make my argument.

I've argued on this blog before that having a nuclear weapon stockpile is a cheaper alternative to fighting big, costly, conventional wars. Of course, the United States still fights conventional wars - Iraq in 1990 is a good example of a recent one. But then, the United States transitions into fighting counter-insurgencies (more or less every other war we've fought over the past fifteen years). With the military's present emphasis on conventional superiority, the conventional war part doesn't last that long, and that's fine. That part sucks. But counter-insurgencies are also unpleasant, and by necessity take much longer. And our emphasis on the conventional aspect of war leaves us in a state of unreadiness when our armed forces switch over to police and counter-insurgents. And this is a problem we repeatedly find ourselves in.

My classmate's solution, as outlined above, is to keep a double redundancy of military forces. This way, we always have what we need, and can switch roles.

But my thinking is this - if the United States gets involved in a superpower war, it will go nuclear. It will go nuclear sooner rather than later, and it will go nuclear as soon as it looks like one side is doing better conventionally. And once the war has gone nuclear, everything else doesn't matter.

And that's well and good - if nuclear war was not the worst of all outcomes, it wouldn't be the strong deterrent that it is today. We need that. We absolutely need that horror waiting as a way of keeping us sane enough to not risk it.

But what we don't need, so much at least, is an army to fight a superpower war. We need some of that force, certainly, and the production capacity to make a conventional military on a large scale when the need arises. But we don't need to be able to fight that kind of war immediately, and I would argue we hardly need any new capacity to fight that war at all.

Nuclear weaponry cannot allow for a cheaper military if it doesn't actually replace anything. Nukes have to be allowed to take the place of a carrier group or two. They have to stand in for divisions and for bomber wings. And they can, provided we are dealing with nations. Nations still act under rules like Mutually Assured Destruction, and cold-war formulations. The situations where people ignore these constraints (terrorists, non-state actors) are the situations where a military aimed at counter-insurgency can flourish.

(Sex) Education

The Bedford Hillsian has a great little piece up about sex ed. Inspired by a rather frustrating radio show (though the host fact checks, which is awesome), blogger "the unbeatable kid" brings in that most stalwart of sex ed defenders: Dan Savage. I reccomend listening to both Dan Savage's bit, and then the whole radio show. Make sure you have time for the second one; it's rather long (50 minutes).

The debate is the whole abstinence debate, with a decade of implementation and studies to match it.

And it's an interesting conversation, between intelligent concerned adults with different perspectives and different data. What's interesting to is not so much the disagreements, but the agreements with qualifiers. "No parent disagrees with abstinence, they disagree with abstinence only" and "Abstinence programs do teach about condoms; they teach how condoms aren't very effective" are my two favorite qualifiers.

The immediate things that bother me: 1), abstinence programs aren't allowed to encourage condom use, and 2), there is a desire to present information about condoms with an emphasis on the flaws and shortcomings. Regardless of my stand on sex education, my general stand on presenting information to youth is that teachers shouldn't lie to them. For a humorous take on disinformation, here's a dressing down of other pieces of disinformation targets at youth.

I had rather unpleasant experiences with abstinence-only sex education in middle school, so I am rather grateful that I was able to partake in a comprehensive sex ed program offered outside my school. The strengths of that program are many - it addresses the emotional and relational issues of sexuality, it isn't exclusively hetero-normative, and it covers STIs and contraceptives with an eye towards accuracy. More than that, however, it does a remarkable thing - it trusts that youth, given accurate information, will be able to make informed decisions about their own lives.

To restate: it trusts that youth, when allowed to, have the capacity for rational decision making.

This is huge, and this is one of the big things missing from sex education in schools, and from the debate over sex education in general. And really, it's missing from education a lot of the time - the PSAs linked to above all trust in fear and trust to force youth into acting appropriately. And frankly, that's undemocratic and unAmerican.

If we want better decisions made, and if we want essential freedoms, we as a people have to do 2 things: make sure that accurate information is provided, available, and encouraged (while making sure that people know how to call "bullshit!" when they see it), and we have to trust people to take that information and act as best they are able.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Past in Color

According to the little statcounter in the corner of this blog, my most visited page is the one about Tsarist Russia in color. It's one of my favorite posts, and it is certainly much more in the blogger's tradition of "look at this awesome thing" than it is in mold of "look at my ideas here for you". And the work speaks more profoundly than anything I can really say about it.

Instead, here's another glance at the past as scene in color. The scene below is from about 90 years ago:

It's World War I, and the picture comes from this incredible gallery. (Incidently, I found the gallery via this BoingBoing post). Many of the other pictures are more vibrant than the one I selected. This one, though, I think sells it - the war wasn't as grim and stark as black and white photography makes it appear, but it came surprisingly close.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


In discussion with Evan, and inspired by Nora, I've decided to do some alternate history short stories. Speculative fiction, historical imaginings, that sort of a thing. It doesn't fit the tone of this blog, so I'm putting them elsewhere.

My fiction blog is Battles of Isonzo. Besides always thinking that "Battles of Isonzo" is a pretty kick-ass band name, it's one of those incredibly pointless parts of history. Twelve battles were fought on the river in WWI, with between 500,000 and 700,000 soldiers dying there. It seems like an appropriate title for futile reminagings.

If you don't mind speculative fiction that concerns war, have yourself a look! And if you do, know that this blgo won't be changing any.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Who the President Serves

Ever since I toured college campuses and sat in on political science courses, I've wondered about the advantages and disadvantages of a multiple party system. Voting for a party instead of voting for an individual seemed, to me, to be a much stronger way to get a variety of perspectives into office, and for people to vote ideology instead of personality. This is a compromised benefit when a party that one votes for is left out of a ruling coalition, however; coalition politics themselves are nothing but political machinations removed from the control of voters, and that's almost disenfranchisement. The contrast is strongest in how legislative bodies function: you vote for your party, and if your party (or it's coalition) wins, then they pass everything they want. The losers sit in government, and do very little except growl angrily and wait for the leading coalition to collapse.

This is not the best of things, and while many countries make it work, in the United States we expect our individual congressfolk to serve us. The congress as a whole has a terrible approval rating, but individual congressfolk are well-liked by their constituents. Indeed, working across party lines is often a successful slogan for congress people, as it shows a willingness to deal with the vile forces that ruin everything on behalf of the people the congressmember serves. John McCain made a career of this willingness, and had his campaign been run on that promise, he may well have stood a better chance.

But that didn't happen. And this post isn't really about legislative bodies.

This post is about the presidency. The president has one of the oddest constituencies ever (electors), but really that's just an odd calculation and a stand-in for the American People. Congressfolk all have a very set group they are supposed to serve, and on top of that, they are expected to act in the best interest of the nation. The president has the whole of the nation as his (aware of gender pronoun) constituency, and the president has a base who gets him elected that he is expected to serve especially well.

The fun part about the two-party system is that, contrary to many detractors, it gives the president the largest possible constituency. How so, you ask, my reader? Well, let's have a chart(!):

1 candiate: guaranteed election
2 candidates: requires 50+ percent of the vote
3 candidates: requries 34+ percent of the vote
4 candidates: 26+ percent of the vote
100 candidates: requires 1+ percent of the vote

By having a two party system, the president is forced to seek the votes of over half of Americans. This is majority rule, and while that has dangers, it means that a candidate seeking the presidency (or re-election) still has to appeal to more than half of all voters. That's the presidents constituency.

The president serves on behalf of the entire nation, however. Presidents who serve only in the interest of the followings that got them elected tend to alienate and divide the nation (cough *W* cough). So while Obama may be our candidate, and though he is aware of the debt he owes to the new left (are we calling ourselves that yet?), he has to serve the entire nation. And he's damn well aware of that; indeed, a lot of his appeal in this election is that he will serve everybody. And to the left, I just want to say amidst all the exuberance, that we knew this when we picked him. In fact, this is largely why we picked him.

Because if he's to be the president we want him to be, he'll have to act as the nation needs, and not as we want. At the moment, those two points are more aligned than they've been in a goodly while. And that's a relief. And that's to our nation's benefit. I'd say more, but you know the rest. Instead, I will leave you with this:


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Victory Means

It's a blessing this morning to wake up with Barack Obama as the President-Elect, and with all five senate and house seats in New Mexico in the hands of Democrats. I was worried about Heinrich for a while, but coattails buoyed him quite nicely. I certainly can't complain about that - almost everything has gone my way so far (Prop 8 and a few others being the outstanding examples).

What is strange is realizing that I don't know what to do about victory.

My first instinct, of course, is to tell the many people who I've seen long suffering in the face of American politics going against them that the good days are here. For my late grandfather Roy (and for Terry Arnold), part of my special appreciation of tonight is for you - we're going to have a sane Foreign Policy again, where we treat other nations like humans and not like playthings. At Roy's funeral I swore, in my idealistic 13 year old way, that I'd do everything within my power to fix the system, take the expanded Presidential powers under Bush and do everything to undo the harm he'd caused. It was a naive, idealistic statement, but it was also aimed at something in 2024. I had no idea that we'd have step one to repairing the damage of the last eight years elected immediately after Bush. I underestimated the nation, and it's reassuring to know that I was wrong.

While I wanted to share the joy of last night with almost everyone I know, the person I singled out to call was my dad. He's never before had an election where he voted for someone a) that he genuinely liked as a candidate, and b) had them win. Or at least, he hadn't before. And this is someone who grew up as a quasi-international citizen, with a wealth of experience in the universality of humans. To consistently have that understanding undermined and thwarted in the name of American interests must have hurt, and election season (starting in 2000) became very much a process of finding silver linings and proof that humans are basically good if misguided. So it's especially nice that my idealism was able to converge with my father's on my first election. There is a real potential for things to get better, and this isn't just the luxury of youth (where time for things to get better is more or less infinite) speaking. This is every failed promise to the baby boomers, and this is a passing of the torch. Things can get better, and they very likely will.

A special nod towards Nora's excellent post about coming of age politically in the Bush Years. She touches on a very important point, and one I want to elaborate on here. She says:

So knowing all that– understanding the only America I’ve known– you know the gravity that comes with the following statement:

I am proud to be an American tonight.

And it's a profound statement. It's not a statement I can really dispute, and it's not a personal experience I want to challenge.

But I'm not sure I feel identically. I've always identified very strongly as American. Well, not so much American as an Albuquerqueno and as a New Mexican. But also as an American - I can't go back a few generations and have relatives who came over by boat. Athertons and Coopers seem to have been rather perpetually American, if New Englanders. And despite being a bit of an anglophile (in the loving england way, not the other one), I really can't imagine any state of being that isn't as an American.

So the last eight years have been interesting. I politically came of age with Bush as President, with the War of Terror on, and with my diplomat grandfather's death, but I also came of age politically in the New Mexico under Richardson, and in a Unitarian Church, and with the changing of the guard in the democratic party. Not that the last eight years were fertile ground for unquestioing patriotism, but they were a challenge we grew into. The brilliance of Barack Obama is not that he's a democrat who won, and not that he's someone on the left who won. The brilliance of Barack Obama is that, for good or bad, he reimagined the left as a concept with mass appeal, and he reimagined the democratic party not as the Clinton's did (where it was the center + the left), but as an ideologically strong unifiying force. Democrats may have been the party of Obama, and they were certainly the people on the ground for him, but his message isn't exclusively for them, and it's never been.

Back to patriotism and the Bush Years. While I never felt like I wasn't a patriot, for those eight years I perpetually felt that my patriotism, which was real, didn't count. As though it was the wrong kind of patriotism, as though caring about the nation enough to see some of what it did was wrong was something like a sin. The Bush Years were, to understate things, devisive. And throughout those years, I felt that active democrats were the scrappy few, pursuing a vision of the nation that was different from the current course of action. And every time we failed, or ran into any obstacle, it felt as though we were through, as though our nation had been co-opted. And it felt as thoguh caring about the nation was a losign battle, one that would have us all drained, spent, and finished, without any real progress.

Waking up today with Barack Obama as the President-elect means that our struggle wasn't in vain, that our vision of America is a valid one, and that our kind of patriotism counts as well. It's a tremendous burden that has been lessened (if not lifted entirely), and that's something we can all be happy about.

I woke up this morning amid the feeling of resignation from those who had backed McCain. And McCain, despite the flaws of his campaign, was incredibly gracious in defeat. We can never forget that, and it is folly to imagine that he did anything but care about his country as best he knew how. His dedication to this country is remarkable, and it is unfortunate that he was the one to carry the republican banner to defeat this year. More importantly than the man himself, however, is the fact that in this nation, in this blue tide (as it were), 55+ million people voted for him. That's one in six americans, and that's 46% of people who voted.

One more detour before concluding. On twitter, some young parent friends of mine:
Last night, in bed, Eck turns to me and says, "Goodnight, my love. Just think - this is our last night as downtrodden liberals." :)
And part of that means that we're vindicated. Part of this is everything we've been waiting for, since, well, ever. And part of that is realizing that there are real people who are now, for the first time in eight years (and, depending on how you see it, for the first time since 1994) on the outs. And partially, this is because their vision isn't the one that fits the present America. But that doesn't entitle us to inflict any of the same bullshit on the losers that we've had to suffer through. Because if we do that, then it's all for not. We crawled through shit, through years of having our loyalty questioned, our values ridiculed, and our sense of patriotism deemed un-American so that no one has to put up with that.

Let's be gracious in victory. And with that, let's be one people again - a people who disagree, but a people. Two armed camps is a terrible stage of existence.

Epilogue: Two Readings

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone
-Wayne B Arnason

If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us an injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.

Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.
-Hosea Ballou

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Darren White and the Local Press

Note: This is nothing more than a copy-paste job of two comments I left in this comment thread on the Duke City Fix. The comments are long enough to count as their own posts, so I am putting them up here for safekeeping.

Darren White:

Darren White himself has shown that he's a take charge guy in executive situations. I don't agree with his decisions in many of them, but I can't deny that he made decisions and acted quickly. That's a great trait for an executive. However, he's running for a legislative seat. The duties and roles of that office are very different, and while his hands-on experience is certainly something rather novel in that body, it may be because it's largely irrelevant.

Being on a legislature requires compromising one's singular vision to work with others, even within one's own party, and having to make that compromise is a bare minimum. McCain is an unusual candidate in this election precisely because he's made a record of compromises that aren't strict party, that aren't the ideal version of what he wants, but are in the best interest of the nation, and are better than no solution. That's part of the wealth of experience that legislative experience adds to an individual, and it's helped McCain dodge a good chunk of the harm against the Republican brand. Martin Heinrich, though young, has a wealth of relevant legislative experience. Albuquerque as a city contains more people than many house districts, and governing that populace as part of a legislative body means Heinrich has experience in creating workable solutions, as opposed to pursuing his solitary vision. The streetcar proposal, arguably Heinrich's biggest mistake, was scrapped and abandoned when it was clear that it wasn't in the interest of the electorate, or the city itself, and that's something that had to hurt - as a tech-aware environmentalist from Nob Hill, street cars are all kinds of appealing. But as much as he personally may have wanted it, he knew when to quit, and when to work in the best interest of the entire city. Likewise, the minimum wage increase was first shot down as an overly-ambitious bill, but was re-introduced in such a way as to remove volatile ingredients and replace them with a form that both serves our city and doesn't alienate voters. This is the reputation of a man with ideals, but who understands that ideals have to be tempered with reality and practicality. That's more or less exactly the kind of legislative experience we need in CD3.

But this post isn't about Heinrich; it's about White. White, when working for the governor of New Mexico as head of the department of Public Safety, felt compelled to quit over an ideological opposition to Governor Johnson's support for medical marijuana. Rather than using his position to influence the implementation of any law Johnson signed, White quit over an ideological disagreement. Had he remained in that position (and had the Governor's support turned into a passable bill), White could easily have been in the best position to ensure that the drug is strictly controlled as a medical product, and could have maintained the sharp distinction between medicinal use and illegal personal indulgence. But he didn't, and instead left an office where he could have done much good because he didn't want to be seen as compromising his ideals over an initiative that never came to pass, and was ultimately not a crime issue but a health issue. Much as White touts that experience, it's terrible background for someone we want to reach across the isle, and represent all of us instead of just part of us.

(for more on Darren White, see my Fix post here)

The Local Press

I understand some frustration at the Journal's editorial board for it's endorsement. Always frustrating when those influential disagree with us. Still, this is no need to call for the paper's demise. The Journal, as an organ of the free press, is free to say what it wants until it can't afford to print, and then it can say things it wants online at an absolute minimum of cost. Living away at college and without a regular newspaper, there are some things I miss out on. Yes, I get news, and yes, the blogosphere does a fair bit with news. But what the blogosphere lacks (and the Journal has) is the economic necessity of objective reporting.

Blogs run at the absolute minimum of cost and don't have to appeal to anyone. Newspapers, at the least, have to sell to a large percentage of the city. Now editorial decisions can influence some of that appeal, but that's more background than reality - it's the printed blog entry in print every morning, and it's like eights inches at most. If that is offensive enough to not buy a newspaper, than don't buy the newspaper. It is, however, balanced out by the actual content of the paper, which cannot show bias and which has to care about Albuquerque. Those are both good things, both needed things, and both constraints that new media doesn't have to abide by. For me, that balances out disagreeable editorials (and the god awful content vomit that is the Tuesday editorial page).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Liberal Media Bias?

Thanks to a recent Pew study, the blogosphere and Fox News will soon both ring with more allegations of "Liberal Media Bias". Now, the petty thing to do here is quote Stephen Colbert with a comment from his White House correspondents dinner. Since I'm feeling slightly petty, and because it's a good quote, here you go:
Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in 'reality'. And reality has a well-known liberal bias. ... Sir, pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32% means it's two-thirds empty. There's still some liquid in that glass, is my point. But I wouldn't drink it. The last third is usually backwash.
The more relevant quote come from the blog Politico:
As it happens, McCain’s campaign is going quite poorly and Obama’s is going well. Imposing artificial balance on this reality would be a bias of its own.
Here's a better article, one with journalistic integrity. Better, because it is talking about bias, at most it can only be meta-biased.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tweet Terror

Originally, this post was going to be an indignant defense of twitter, inspired by this quote:

"Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences,... Twitter is already used by some members to post and/or support extremist ideologies and perspectives," the report said.

And I think a bit of indignity is warranted - since when are Vegetarians a threat? They are like the opposite of a threat. And what the hell is "political enthusiasts" a euphemism for? This election, I think that term more or less just means people.

But I don't really need to continue my rant. According to Wired, blogging is dead and twitter is the new social medium. The fastest way to make criminalize of something less scary is to make it ubiquitous and prove it to be harmless. Sure, it means that when the gestapo finds us at night that they have an additional charge against us, but it also means that data pool being mined is clogged to the point of uselessness. When security has to look at an over-abundance of data, two options are possible. The first is that they arrest everyone vaguely suspicious, and have to deal with processing a tremendous excess of indignant innocents. That's bad political capital, and leads to outrage and change. The other option is to realize that twitter is a useless place to be looking for terrorists, even if it is a tool they actually use, because the number of false positives renders it obsolete for security purposes.

You can find me on twitter here. Let's clog the tubes!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Speaking in Dystopias

Science Fiction blog io9 has an interesting post up about the two competing narratives of dystopia in this year's presidential election campaign. The post is a good start, but as we near the very end of a two-year-long campaign about the future of this nation, it's a good idea to take a closer look at our competing worst fears.

The dystopia that is easier for me to imagine is the dystopia of the McCain/Palin administration. Greatly to the disservice of McCain's record in the senate, people fear his government not on his own merits or policies, but on those they see him as a surrogate for. The fears about McCain being the next bush are what inspire the trite labeling of him as "McSame", and again, that's a fear that has everything to do with Bush and nothing to do with McCain. It's a repeat of the dystopia of the first 6 years of this millenium, where a Republican president and a Republican congress waged war, inspired fear, let competitive industries consolidate, undermined freedoms, and challenged the social norms of what was approaching an open and progressive society. The fear with McCain, as is the fear with all conservatives (which is is a stand-in for), is the fear of a regression back into a previous and oppressive state of existence. Reckless wars, failing education systems, and the transition of social norms to the rigidly-clamped down society that spawned first the beat poets and then the hippies are all valid fears, but the big one is not so much a fear of actively going backward as it is a fear of stagnation. Palin especially, with here "drill baby drill", epitomizes the failings of the status quo - not that we can't drill, but we can't do it for much longer, and to continue to rely on solutions which we know will stop working soon seems to be folly. It's another four/eight/sixteen years of watching the United States not so much collapse as go down with the ship. Dystopia here is letting ourselves be blinded by unfailing devotion to a system that worked once when it is obvious that times have changed, reality has changed, and that we need intelligence, innovation, and sacrifice to make the whole thing work. And it's a fear that we'll be blinded by infighting and hobbled by tradition in such a way that we fall behind as a nation, and are unable to maintain our position as the world leader in anything excpet debt.

Contrasted with this is the dystopia envisioned by the Nobama crowd. Obama's promise of government working for people again is views quite skeptically; government by its vary nature is harmful to individuals, and any expansion of government power or responsibility will mean, more or less, the end times. It's wars ended in ignominous retreat and a national debt accumlated by spending tax dollars on the lazy, the illegal, and the undeserviving. It's the loss of freedom to universal programs, and it's being expected to say "thank you" for the infringement on your rights. It's being told that your values are not only not unviersal values, but they are criminal values. It's the fear inherent in every American since we first got self-determination, and it's a fear that focuses on very specific definitions of the self, and of determination. It's knowign that tax dollars will be spent on an act you view as murder. It's a real, genuine, fear for our economic security which sees taxes as the final straw that will break the back of American industry. And it's a genuine fear for America's safety, that we'll be left vulnerable and that our president will not have the strength of resolve to punish those who've attacked us. It's a combination of both the oppressive nanny state at home and embarassing appeasement abroad.

Of course, both fears of dystopia are overblown - if they weren't, they wouldn't be fears about dystopia. The way to get around these statements? Read what the candidates say, about themselves, in positive terms - listen to what they say they are going to do, and ignore all the "gotcha!" moments, as well as the divise and petty partisan jokes. Because no matter what happens on Nov. 4th, change is more or less a given, and it's incredibly hard to imagine that change as anything less than positive.

(To be fair, degree of positive matters a lot. Also, this is assuming Obama, McCain, or even Biden administrations. A Palin administration is closer to the dystopic fears about McCain, and tobe fair she inspires many of them. Even under that worst-case of worst-case scenarios, thoguh, the progress will be measured at zero, and not in negative numbers.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voting in the Age of the Internet

From both BoingBoing and Nora comes this great post: How to Get the Nerd Vote.

My favorite part?
2. Universal Healthcare. Everyone I know that freelances or works a day job and wishes they could quit and follow their dreams of launching a company complains about the lack of healthcare. Whenever I used to talk about freelancing at tech conferences, the first question was always about healthcare coverage. I've heard that in places like Berlin where you don't have to worry about where your healthcare is coming from or how much it costs, up to 35% of working age adults are freelancers. It may sound crazy and anti-capitalist to consider healthcare for all, but if we flipped a switch tomorrow and everyone had health coverage I swear a million small businesses would launch overnight. I know lots of people that keep a job just to get healthcare that are wasting their creative talents because they had a cancer scare or were born with a defect or otherwise are deemed uninsurable on their own.
It's nice to see an argument for universal healthcare that isn't "moral obligation" but is instead "economic boon".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vote for Martin Heinrich

Edit: This post feels like a hatchet job. I'm aware of that, and a tad disgusted, but I think it raises relevant points. Therefore, I'm leaving it up, warts and all.

I've posted about Martin Heinrich once before, but the post is no longer online. It was for April 1st, 2008, and I had just finished my analysis of presidential candidates during the primary. So, as my April Fools day joke, I analyzed Heinrich as though he were a presidential candidate. My analysis was basically "great positions, but it needs to be more fleshed out for presidency". And that's still true. But Heinrich isn't running for the presidency.

He's running as representative for New Mexico, in a district that is Albuquerque-centered but contains parts of 5 counties. And if you're a New Mexican who can vote for him this election, you more or less need to. Over at the Duke City Fix, Johnny_Mango has a great piece up about the campaigning Heinrich is doing. And in the past, Mango has written quite favorably about the guy.

And this is fair. Martin Heinrich is in my top three of favorite political figures; the first is dead, and the second is Barack Obama. He was an exceedingly competent city councilman, and his campaign is one which emphasizes both optimism and an actual commitment to action. He's good people, and that should be enough to vote for him.

But he's inexperienced, you say. And he's too good looking, you say. Well then, we have another option.

Darren White is both experienced and does not have an abundance of handsome. Instead, he ran President Bush's campaign in Bernalillo County in 2004, which is a partisan attack but one that seems rather valid.

Second, Darren White is an incompetent fear-monger. Now, I'm not one to say these things lightly, and I don't mean to be libelous. But Darren White is a fear-monger. In 2004, there was a fire in the bosque, and our fire department responded to it. There was also a device there for converting vegetable oil into biodiesel. Darren White ordered a lockdown of the scene because of the biodiesel converter, and two things happened: one, a media circus, documented here. Two, the arrest and vilification of two sensible people who just happen to really like alternative energy. And while this is old news, it's relevant news. When faced with an unclear situation, White chose bravado and a get-tough attitude that not only made a situation far more complicated than it needed to be, it led to unnecessary fear. Fear that riles people up and gets the better of their reason. And fear that is directed at a perceived internal enemy. A willingness to jump the gun is not something I want in my representative, and it is especially bad when that representative is part of the body that declares war. And this aggressive grandstanding isn't a solitary phenomenon.

Also back in 2004 Darren White reacted viscerally to a story about a con-man. To be fair, what the con-man did was wrong (if it were right, he wouldn't be a con-man). But we have laws and procedures to deal with con-men. And we, as the United States, grant criminals some basic rights. Not the full rights of citizens, but rights as human beings, and I believe these rights are a key part of our society. How we treat our criminals does not reflect on how repulsed we are by their actions - it instead reflects our degree of civilization, and our willingness to pursue justice under law instead of the justice of the mob. It's one of those things that marks us as civilized.

Darren White holds a different perspective on the issue. As quoted in the Alibi story, Darren White, in his capacity as Bernalillo County Sheriff, said "I'd like to kick his ass. Seriously, let me have five minutes alone with him." Understandably, he was reacting to the appalling actions of a criminal. But this was no rapist, nor murderer. This was a con-man, who simply swindled taxpayer money, and who was under federal investigation. A five-minute off-the -record beating is not an appropriate sentence. I shouldn't even have to type that, but there it is. While I respect the right of Darren White to free speech in his personal life, in his capacity as sheriff he should know better. On top of it all, this remark came at a time when
...our new Metropolitan Detention Center has already earned a reputation for illegal brutality, and that guards were caught on surveillance camera pummeling three handcuffed inmates for 17 minutes earlier this year. The episode is very likely going to cost the public large sums of money once a fat settlement is reached. Do you think the lawyers for the inmates might have clipped and saved White's remarks?
So here's two incidents from early in Darren White's role as sheriff that undermine his judgment. Fear mongering in the first, and weakening our record on human rights in the second. Plus, both mistakes (no matter what perspective you have on the morality involved) were costly, and undermined public faith in the Albuquerque Police Department. This isn't the record of a man who is tough on crime, and it isn't the record of a man who supports inexpensive government. This is the record of grandstanding, bravado, and recklessness. And if elected to the house of representatives, this man will get a vote about whether or not our nation goes to war.

So, there's still time left. Vote for Martin Heinrich, and if you can't just do it because he's good people (yay raising the minimum wage), vote because the man he's running against is dangerous, irrational, and has lost the support of the Republican party.