Thursday, February 28, 2008

Clinton and Sexism

We are told in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways that if we do not support Hillary for president it is because of our unconscious sexism. If we also happen to be supporters of Obama, we are naive idealists who fail to think things through and may even believe that he is anointed by God (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1ckrEeHDRY&feature=related). In fact, we are told that those same things we do not like about Hillary we would respect in a male candidate. I strongly disagree.

There is no question that our culture as a whole is image obsessed. The conversations about Hillary's hairdos, her laugh, her wrinkles, all of these are inane. But this shallowness is equal opportunity. Let's not forget how the media pilloried John Edwards for his $600 haircuts. This was as much about his vanity as it was about his anti-poverty stance. And far be it from me to defend George W., but we can't forget that his derisive, self-satisfied, smell-that?-I-did-that smirk has been the target of lampooning from the left by people like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart for nearly a decade now.

These critiques are sometimes shallow, but sometimes these critiques go to central hypocrisies or attitudes that inform and inflect the character of the individual we are critiquing. What is John Edwards' relationship to wealth? It's not simply that of the son of a textile worker, it's also that of an extremely successful litigator who made a fortune. I don't doubt his sincerity, but to raise the question via a glaring example of conspicuous consumption is not unfair. How does George W. Bush view his own position as president? What does this prep-boy smirk indicate about his character? There is a defiant air of entitlement about this smirk, and an attitude that seems to say, I'm pulling one over on you - I know it, you know it, whatcha gonna do about it? I'm the president!

Are we to ignore these windows into the inner workings of the psychology of our would-be leaders? Or, more to the point, are these things off limits because the candidate happens to be a woman? Are we not allowed to be a bit flummoxed as to what exactly Hillary is talking about when she says she gets the first question in every debate? Do we set aside our feelings of revulsion at the cruelly mocking and cynical "the sky will open, the light will shine down, celestial choirs will be singing" attack on Sen. Obama's campaign? Do we ignore the discomfort we feel when Hillary scolds Obama just days after saying what an honor it is to be on the same stage with him?

The pundits have consistently given Hillary credit coming out of this week's debate because she showed herself to be strong, and a fighter, but they don't seem to take note of the type of fighter she is. She fights dirty and she fights mean. She gives off an ever-growing sense that something she is entitled to is being taken away from her. The "kitchen sink" strategy that she is using against Obama in what may be the final days of her candidacy indicates a type of desperation that is anything but admirable. And, as one of my colleagues mentioned today, she fights everyone in her path: Obama landed the best punch in the debate on this very point - yes, she's a fighter, so much so that when she was fighting for universal health care as first lady she was fighting members of her own party. Those she didn't actively shut out of the negotiations, she alienated to the point where those who should have been natural allies no longer supported her. Is that the kind of fighter we need in the White House? I think we've already had that kind of fighter in the White House for the last 8 years.

I'm not equating Clinton with Bush - they're worlds apart. What I am pointing out is that there are qualities in Hillary Clinton that are being revealed in this campaign that are not admirable and that I would not respect in any candidate, male or female - a sense of entitlement, a willingness to resort to anything and everything including race baiting to win, and a reminder of the type of alienating force she can be. Before this campaign, I was open to being persuaded on Hillary. Now I find her downright distasteful. Perhaps that shouldn't matter when voting for someone to be President. Perhaps a utilitarian calculus would weigh in favor of a Clinton nomination, but we don't live in a purely utilitarian world or, if we do, there is a utility to being able to communicate positively, to inspire, to exhibit calm under pressure, and to bridge divides that, as far as I can see, weighs heavily in favor of Obama at this point. And I don't think Hillary's being a woman has anything to do with it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bearuch Spinoza

Some of you may know that I have been interested in the philosophy of Spinoza over the last couple of years. Julie found this funny link the other day and I thought I'd share it. You have to have the sound on to get the full effect.

http://www.spinozabear.com/

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Road

I started Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road at about 1:30 last night after coming home from seeing a movie with Julie. I finished it at 5:30. I couldn't put it down. I haven't had that experience of a book in a long time. I can't remember ever reading a novel in one sitting.

I'm not sure what pulled me from page to page. It just captured my imagination and wouldn't let go. It is a disturbing novel set in a post-apocalyptic America and tells the story of a man and his child traveling south to escape the cold winter. Because of the sometimes graphic and inhuman scenes that occur in the book, I wondered after reading it what separated it from pulp (McCarthy is praised as one of America's great contemporary literary figures) and thought McCarthy might just be fooling everyone with his incredible writing into thinking there are ideas in his work, not just harrowing filmic images and the suspense of a good psychological thriller. But as I began to examine my thoughts about the book, I realized there is a lot going on in this novel. It raises issues of memory, history, culture, myth, and morality and what these things mean in a world transformed beyond recognition. One of my favorite passages in the book follows the man's thoughts from a memory of the world that was lost to an encounter with books in the world as it now exists:

"His dreams brightened. The vanished world returned. Kin long dead washed up and cast fey sidewise looks upon him. None spoke. He thought of his life. So long ago. A gray day in a foreign city where he stood in a window and watched the street below. Behind him on a wooden table a small lamp burned. On the table books and papers. It had begun to rain and a cat at the corner turned and crossed the sidewalk and sat beneath the cafe awning. There was a woman at a table there with her head in her hands. Years later he'd stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He'd not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation. He let the book fall and took a last look around and made his way out into the cold gray light."

Here is an author writing about books and their value (a red flag, of course). The "smallest thing predicated on a world to come." We tell stories for the future, for tomorrow, so that we might remember. Here, in this library, are the charred ruins of all narratives - science, religion, philosophy, art. What happens in a world where the future bears no resemblance to the future the authors of those narratives imagined? Of what use is storytelling when the narrative of life itself has been so radically ruptured? The child is of course the person from that future. Born into this cold grey world, he knows nothing of what came before except through his father and he has trouble believing his father's "stories." These are myths to him, as make believe as anything in a book. Maybe even lies.

It is a good read and a rich work of art. I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Escher Afternoon

Sunshine today. Snow
melt forms icy puddles; sky
and trees reflected.

The Mukasey Problem

After yesterday's hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, I have a better sense of what the problem is here. In the hearings before the Senate last week Mukasey said he could not judge the legality of waterboarding without being presented with a "concrete situation." Now, presented with such a situation (via Hayden's testimony that the tactic was used), he says that he will not investigate because it was determined to be legal by his predecessor. Mukasey still thinks he's a judge. Judges wait for concrete situations to be presented to them. In his role as a judge, he never had to lead an investigation - people came before him and argued the case and he passed judgement. He has not figured out that he is the top law enforcement officer in the country, not a Supreme Court justice. And his refusal to investigate hints at the same confusion - the doctrine of stare decisis as followed in our common law system dictates that precedent should be respected and followed. Mukasey has not realized that it is his duty to investigate the legality of acts and to prosecute. The fact that Alberto Gonzales said the practice of waterboarding was legal is not binding on him as the Attorney General.

This isn't the whole story because Mukasey is certainly acting out of an impulse to protect the administration as well, but I think his experience as a judge is at odds with his new role as the highest law enforcement official. It's perfectly within his power to investigate the legality of a particular act by an interrogator. Alberto Gonzales' DOJ is not a higher court to which Mukasey must bow down. He is just resisting the full implications of his new role.

prompted by: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/02/07/politics/politico/thecrypt/main3802330.shtml, http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/ci_8199147)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Obama v. Clinton

There is no question that either of these candidates would be an improvement over our current president. So would John McCain. This is not, of course, a high bar. But why choose one over the other?

Politically, I consider myself a progressive. I am not registered in either party, but this tends to mean that I fall in the Democratic camp more often than not when it comes time to use the special black marker to fill out the ballots we have in Illinois (of course, if there's a Green party candidate I will often vote for him or her, especially for local elections). Outside the voting booth I fall somewhere left of the Democrats on most issues. Given that, neither of the two Democratic candidates are in line with my politics. In fact, when I took a couple of these surveys online that match you with your candidate (fun if you're a political junkie- http://minnesota.publicradio.org/projects/ongoing/select_a_candidate/poll.php?race_id=13), I was matched with Kucinich by a 2-1 margin over both Obama and Clinton, and where he wasn't available I was matched with Edwards by about 10 points over both. So, ideas-wise, the remaining Democratic candidates are much more moderate than I am. Not a surprise to anyone who knows me.

But I don't see this as a problem. I don't think Kucinich could get much done as president. I think he is a great voice in a legislative body. People like Kucinich ensure that there is a place at the table for progressive opinions, and occasionally they're able to pull decision-making in a more progressive direction. But they are not unifying forces; they are often stubbornly intent on particular objectives and consider compromise to be a kind of moral shortcoming. I don't know where I stand on the morality of compromise - perhaps that is for another post - but my point is people like Kucinich are necessary and positive presences in the political debate (from my perspective), but they will rarely become presidents. I say rarely because our current president is an object lesson in an extreme wing taking control.

Moderation is necessary when you have to work with a legislature that is made up of more than one party. The ability to compromise, to listen to others, and to pragmatically approach the problems facing the nation are, I believe, the hallmarks of a good presidential candidate at this point in history when the country is so closely divided. I believe both of the Democratic candidates have the skill set and the intention to do just that. To be fair, I believe John McCain has the skill set as well. And on the issues, I agree with Jim Lehrer who said the other night that there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two Democratic candidates. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/jan-june08/dempush_02-04.html)

So what is it that separates Obama from Clinton? I think in large part it's generational - young voters of all stripes support Obama; older voters, especially older women (the generation that came of age during the women's movement), support Clinton. And to the extent that it's generational, it is also symbolic- I think, although there is no question that electing a woman president would be historic, Clinton signifies a somewhat different America while Obama signifies a radically different America. Clinton is a return to the moderate pragmatism of the 1990s, Clintonism as some have called it. Obama's path is more open. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, he acts as a cipher for the hopes of everyone and opens himself up to the criticism that he is an empty vessel at best and an unknown quantity at worst. But in other ways, he presents the possibility of unimagined futures. I think this worries older voters and excites younger voters. There is a nostalgia for the 90s on the part of my parents' generation, a nostalgia I shared for a long time, when we had a charming intelligent President who, despite his human frailties, we felt was working on our behalf - with him in office, we didn't have to worry as much. We've had father Clinton, and if we can't have him back, we want mother Clinton. The Clintons are the equivalent of political comfort food. Obama is not a return to anything. And that is his appeal to young voters. They are tired of the politics of their parents, and are ready to take over. Obama speaks to that.

I will admit these thoughts may just be my attempt to reconcile the fact that two of my four parental figures are supporting Clinton, but I think there is some legitimacy to it. On a much more visceral level, I don't respond to Clinton. I experience her as narcissistic and think she believes she is entitled to the presidency, that it is her turn. Her narcissism is most apparent in the 'emotional' moment before New Hampshire. To my mind, this did not so much reveal her humanity - I have no doubt that she suffers and feels as much as any of us - as it revealed her character. What makes Hillary Clinton cry? Not injustice, not poverty, not the story of a soldier killed in battle; what makes Hillary cry is the thought that America might not get the chance to be led by her. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gq9wAHk-S_A&feature=related) I don't trust her motives. She thinks she is best for America and wants to lead; Obama thinks he is best for America and wants to serve. This is a subtle difference, but for me an important one. Obama also strikes me as sincere and likable. And this is not the same mistake that Bush supporters made in 2000- electing him because they would like to have a beer with him. Both Obama and Clinton are intelligent, thoughtful candidates. If one were to pick dispassionately based on issue statements, I think supporters on either side would be hard-pressed to distinguish between the two. I dismiss the 'experience' argument because Clinton has no more experience being president than Obama does. Watching your husband lead counts for little in my book. Finally, although the Republican party is divided and disheartened following the Bush presidency, there is one candidate who can unite them - Clinton. If Clinton is the nominee, I believe there is a good chance that McCain will be president. Clinton polarizes in a way that Obama does not. Clinton is not drawing independent voters in the way Obama is and she can't. She is perceived, rightly, as the Democratic establishment.

But in the final analysis, the reason I want Obama to be President is because he inspires me when he speaks and I think we need inspiration. I think the world needs inspiration. And I don't think that's a poor reason to support a candidate.

"We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." (Barack Obama, Chicago, Feb. 5, 2008)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Waterboarding

I know I haven't posted in awhile. I've been intimidated by the idea that I have to say something detailed and well-argued, but then I realized no one reads this so why not just write whatever comes to mind?

How hard is it to say that simulated drowning which, in some cases, may actually result in death, is torture?

Mukasey told the Senate earlier this week that there is basically a balancing test involved when considering forms of interrogation, that the value of information gathered has to be weighed against the methods used. (http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/5504023.html) It all depends, basically. But, as many have pointed out, the U.S. has long considered waterboarding to be torture and has prosecuted its own soldiers and enemy soldiers for using the technique. (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/10/31/usdom17210.htm) And the only reason Mukasey won't say it now is to protect the current administration from liability. If Mukasey was to say that this technique is illegal, it would open the door to criminal prosecution of CIA agents and soldiers who have engaged in waterboarding of terrorist suspects. The great fear is that someone as important as the President might be held accountable for his actions, in this case for approving the methods used.

Accountability. The terrorists must be held accountable. Countries that harbor terrorists or aid terrorists must be held accountable (unless, of course, they're our allies). Accountability, like beauty, appears to be in the eyes of the beholder. After all, those who want to attack the United States certainly believe they are holding us accountable for the ways in which our country has harmed them. How do we determine which side is right? What measuring stick does one use? Is there perhaps a balancing test? Who should administer it? Who would have the power and the wisdom to determine who should be held accountable?

The problem isn't that Mukasey uses a balancing test; the problem is he uses the wrong one. The question to ask is, what methods of torture would God use?