Tuesday, August 31, 2010

American Tsunami revisited

Every horror of our time contains within it an image that visually distills that horror. This is a fact of a modern world that takes its behavioral cues, marks its transitions and upheavals, according to what we can see. For many, the carnage and barbarity of the Vietnam War are embodied in either one of two photographs: the image of a Vietnamese general holding a pistol to the head of a Viet Cong suspect, a fraction of a second before blowing his brains out; or the vision of naked children running in primal fear, bodies burning from the effects of a napalm-laden air strike courtesy of the United States.

For the residents of New Orleans, the agonies of the biblical wrath unleashed by the hurricane known as Katrina on Aug. 29 and 30, 2005, left a multitude of candidates for the Image That Says It All. The site of the actual breach in the Industrial Canal levee in the Ninth Ward. The dispossessed standing on the rooftops of homes fully underwater. Masses of humanity screaming for assistance from inside the Superdome. The I-10/I-610/West End Boulevard interchange so badly flooded that parts of the roadway utterly disappear from view.

There’s another choice, of course. You’ve seen the woman in the shot taken by photographer Eric Gay of The Associated Press. An elderly woman who sits amid the devastation wrought by Katrina, awaiting rescue while draped in the American flag, her face a map of fear and woe.

When 84-year-old Milvirtha Hendricks was covered by the blanket adorned in the stars and stripes outside the New Orleans Convention Center, she became the Katrina Madonna, the visual symbol of those enduring dual catastrophes: one unleashed by nature, the other incrementally unleashed by human indifference in the long years before nature’s fury hit the Gulf Coast five years back.

When she huddled for warmth under the blanket, her coverage by that blanket flag was a sign, a visual metaphor of exactly what the United States wasn’t doing for its poorest, most defenseless citizens: covering them, protecting them from a burst of meteorological fury that didn’t have to be this bad.

More than 1,800 people were killed by Katrina, directly or indirectly. More than $81 billion in property damage was sustained. Tens of thousands of people were displaced permanently. And maybe the storm that scarred the Gulf region and other states further inland created a dividing line. For New Orleans, there was a life Before Katrina and life After Katrina. Life was tough enough for New Orleans' poor B.K.; it’s been far worse A.K.

And the disparities of life in the city after the storm revealed that other dividing line, that eternal third rail: the fissure of race in America.

“No response, no security, no food or water. We were back there on our own. Nobody to help us, direct us or nothing.” Layman Thomas, who worked for the New Orleans Parks Department, expressed outrage at what he saw at the convention center, in a 2005 interview with The AP.

“I think they played race on our entire state,” he says. “We had people from all different cities who wanted to come get us. But the president and the governor had to release all that. But it took them all days to sign the papers.”

Katrina’s vicious storm surge overpowered a levee system that, many have said, the Army Corps of Engineers had designed and maintained so badly it amounted to the proverbial accident waiting to happen.

Mike Davis, a San Diego historian and author of “City of Quartz,” an acclaimed 1990 social history of Los Angeles, went to New Orleans post-Katrina, and expressed for AP what black people in New Orleans almost certainly believed: “Communities of color have always favored urban legends, because all too often they have corresponded to reality.”

The urban legend that flared after Katrina is one that’s persisted for decades: that black people in the impoverished Ninth Ward were intentionally abandoned to the furies of the weather since the Industrial Canal was built back in 1922.

◊ ◊ ◊

A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, released in 2007, stated plainly that the failures of the levee system in New Orleans were mainly caused by mistakes in the system’s design — the start-to-finish responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers.

That’s presumably why on Nov. 18, 2009, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. found the Corps responsible for “monumental negligence” for failing to properly maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the vital arterial connecting New Orleans and Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Diagrammatically opposed

“The outcome of the 2008 Presidential Election was the best thing that ever happened to Fox News. It's like the Discovery Channel got to run shark week for four years, and its audience never gets tired of being scared of sharks ...”

So sayeth the wild bunch at Cracked.com, the humor Web site that vies with The Onion and Break.com for the high ground of politically and culturally topical satire and parody.

The Cracked crew recently posted this wicked funny distillation of Fox News’ view of President Obama, one done by using the Venn diagram common to management culture, business plans and PowerPoint presentations as a way to identify the "Enemies of America." The disparate poles of Fox News’ anxieties, the four sums of all its fears come together in the classic Venn construction, centering finally on the image of the 44th president.

You can bet that full-color printouts of this thing are adorning the walls of some of those who work for Fox News right now. The diagram would truly be funny if its graphic assessment wasn’t so close to what Fox brass almost certainly believes.

Of course, in humor there is simplicity. Why, it’s probably all one big oversimplification.

Or maybe not.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Rupture: Glenn Beck hits the Mall

Everything turned out OK today in Washington, D.C. The Rapture According to Glenn Beck came off without a hitch on the National Mall. No, the Fox News commentator, author and conservative firebrand didn’t walk on the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial.

While the weather was flawless at Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, no shafts of light emerged from the skies over the nation's capital to follow him around. No one resembling the Almighty whispered in Beck’s ear during the proceedings, as he had said might happen (although Keith Olbermann at MSNBC’s “Countdown” promises that his program will feature a recording of the actual audio of the voice speaking direct to Beck in an “exclusive” on Monday).

And despite the fears of civil rights veterans for whom this day looms large in history — Aug. 28, 1963 — there is no danger of the speech uttered that day by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. being eclipsed in the national memory. This was upheld, with thunder and conviction, by a counter event today elsewhere in Washington.

They were both reminders of how far we’ve come as a society since that date 47 years ago, an indelible benchmark of our social progress as a nation. But Beck’s attempt to upstage the date, location and spirit of a clarion American event, points to the deeper, inescapable irony: At its core, the Beck rally revealed the stark contrast between itself and the event it desperately tried to emulate.

Olbermann is justifiably fond of addressing Beck as Lonesome Rhodes, the indelible character in Elia Kazan's “A Face in the Crowd.” Today, Beck was in something close to full Elmer Gantry mode at his rally, whose stated purpose was to honor the American military and to reassert the importance of religion. "Something beyond imagination is happening," he said. "America today begins to turn back to God. ..."

“We must get the poison of hatred out of us,” he told the crowd. “We must look to God and look to love. We must defend those we disagree with. ...”

“Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished – and the things that we can do tomorrow,” he said.

At another point, and despite his protestations that the site selection of the Memorial was a coincidence, Beck tipped a hand that was already obvious, calling on the crowd to "recognize your place to the creator, realize that he is our king. He is the one who guides and directs our life and protects us." Note the words “he is our king,” a deliberate shot at the legacy of the man who synonymized this date and place with history.

The previously announced inclusion of Alveda King, MLK’s niece, also disproves the idea that all this was by happenstance. Her presence at the Beck event — despite Beck’s bid to give the rally a weight, an impact beyond the purely promotional — reflected the underlying duplicities of the rally.

"If Uncle Martin could be here today … he would surely remind us that as brothers and sisters, united by one blood in one single race, the human race, we are called to honor God and to love each other," Alveda King said, in a message that, on its face, is consistent with the message and the universal motivations of her uncle.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

This is a checkpoint.

For all the heated rhetoric generated about the Park51 (Cordoba House) mosque controversy in the last month or more, one man’s drunken, potentially murderous manifestation of outrage in a cab in lower Manhattan on Tuesday night may be the physical tipping point in the debate.

If not for the actions of Michael Enright, the arguments over the fate of the proposed Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan would probably go on being arguments, and nothing more, for weeks to come. But because Enright, a young white documentary filmmaker with an apparent drinking problem, slashed Bangladesh-born, New York City-raised taxi driver Ahmed Sharif at East 24th Street and Second Avenue on Tuesday evening, a Rubicon of intolerance has been crossed and, by utter coincidence, the forces against the mosque are the ones who crossed it.

In one stroke all the theoretical fears of violence in the wake of the Park51 controversy aren’t theoretical  anymore. What Enright did effectively conveys to supporters of the Park51 project the kind of public relations victory money couldn’t buy, at the expense of opponents.

It was bad enough for the center’s opposition that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has come out strongly in support of Park51 — not once but twice, in ringing and memorable speeches that have set the debate’s new, and higher, rhetorical bar. It was bad enough that the issue had breached the usual water’s-edge convenience of partisan politics (with some well-regarded conservatives starting to support the project).

Now this. An earnest, young videographer on a bender in the city takes a knife to an everyday American while allegedly screaming military phrases — “This is a checkpoint, motherfucker! I have to put you down!” — and changes everything. And nothing.

◊ ◊ ◊

The game, of course, changes from a standpoint of perception, and it damn well should. The crime allegedly committed by Enright has finally put a human face on the Islamic experience in post-9/11 America.

From all available evidence, Ahmed Sharif is precisely what he appears to be: an immigrant who’s been here far longer than the country he was born in, someone who defines his identity as being an American as much as being a Muslim. He’s lived in New York for 25 years. He’s a father of four kids. He pulls his 9-to-5 oars in the water like anybody else.

For Michael Enright, Ahmed Sharif was, at least briefly, the New Other.

“I saw the knife coming through my neck right here," Sharif said Wednesday to reporters. "Once I see his face, is so much anger and mad at me, I don't know, and hate. He have to kill me. And I ask him, 'please don't kill me, why you have to kill me, what I did?'" Sharif escaped the cab after being slashed in the face, neck and shoulders; he locked Enright inside the cab and contacted police.

Enright, of Brewster, N.Y., remains in jail without bail on charges of attempted murder and assault, with hate crime designation, and weapons possession.

Where to from here. Despite what seems to be an open & shut case of a hate crime a la 2010, strands of the story don’t fit the comfortable templates. Hardly: Enright, an honor student who was recently attempting to get publicity for a documentary film, had worked in Afghanistan as a volunteer with Intersections International, a mulitfaith, multiethnic cultural and social outreach group founded in September 2007, an organization that publicly announced its support of the Park51 community center on Aug. 3. Friends have said that the Michael Enright they knew wasn’t capable of this kind of outrage; Intersections International said basically the same thing in a statement on its Web site.

Curiouser and curiouser. Leave it to Zead Ramadan, board president of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to ask (last night on MSNBC) what everyone’s asking. “My question is, what made him tip?”

The early blame, of course, goes to the alcohol. But there’s been something in the air since May (since before May, really), that virus of intolerance that’s contagious and familiar as the flu.

Some members of an evangelical church got the bug bad early this month when they traveled to Connecticut from Texas — Texas! — to protest against worshippers leaving a mosque in Bridgeport, shouting "Jesus hates Muslims!" and “Islam is a lie!”

Hundreds of people have joined with Republican politicians in protesting plans to build a large Muslim center in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

And today, on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Terry Jones, the sadly stubborn, undereducated evangelical minister of the Dove World Outreach Center, declared that his church will observe Sept. 11 as “International Burn-a-Koran Day.”

“We hope to send a clear, radical message to Muslims ... that sharia law ... is not welcome in America,” Jones said, insulting the broad cross-section of Muslim Americans in a single sentence.

◊ ◊ ◊

We know where we stand. What’s taking shape is the first play of a disturbing zero-sum game being advanced principally by the most extreme ideologues on the right. With them, you are either for or you are against. And in the current toxic (and now violent) climate, that kind of division amounts to being the drawing of battle lines.

Drunk or sober, whether he knew it or not, Michael Enright was right about one thing: This is a checkpoint, a moral checkpoint for an angry, exhausted nation that’s lashed out like this before, under similar trying circumstances in the national past. More to the point, this is a crossroads. Two roads really are just ahead of us.

One leads to a challenging but definitely possible future; the other leads to the abyss. And we know, right now, what lies at the end of each of them.

Image credits: Enright: Unknown (possible courtroom pool). Sharif: via newsopi.com

Kanye, Bush and Katrina (from TheGrio)

"George Bush doesn't care about black people!"

In a media environment that had already generated hundreds of thousands of words about Hurricane Katrina, its aftermath and the response of the Bush administration, those seven words spoken by Grammy-winning rapper-producer Kanye West, at a concert fundraiser for Katrina victims on Sept. 2, 2005, distilled what many Americans believed about the 43rd president's efforts on behalf on the flood-ravaged region.

West was caught up in the moment of what was even then, three days after the floodwaters inundated the Crescent City, a still-evolving national event.

In the nearly five years since, with benefit of hindsight, it's possible to put West's outburst in a broader perspective — one that, with some research, yields facts more charitable to the Bush #43 legacy than one might expect.

Read the rest at theGrio

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Maddow, the mosque and the Fox

Rachel Maddow has been a necessary voice in the cable news landscape, and has been since before MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” debuted in September 2008. In that brief time, she’s dazzled and endeared viewers with a interrogative fearlessness and a breathtaking command of facts and analyses (couched, it’s gotta be said, in a self-effacing on-camera style whose occasional corniness seems a deliberate attempt to get us to like her, which she needn’t worry about in the least).

But the antennae for news that we’ve thought were damn near infallible weren’t quite fully calibrated recently, in the wake of a controversy that’s in the process of reframing old arguments of religious freedom, and maybe redefining 21st-century America to itself and the world.

In a startling admission, Maddow, in an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast, said she didn’t want to address the mosque controversy on-air because she felt that the issue was manufactured by conservative extremists, and their proxies and minions at Fox News.

"I’d rather not cover it,” she told Grove. “It’s just one of those fake, non-controversial things that has been ginned up into a controversy for a political purpose. Participating in the discussion of this, as a political matter, is playing right into the hands of the people who ginned this up. Adding to the volume — in both senses of the word — of the coverage, um, grosses me out a little bit."

◊ ◊ ◊

"I have been talking for awhile about the Fox strategy of scaring white people in order to score political points and benefit conservative politicians,” Maddow told Grove. “And one of the hallmarks is that their most potent ‘scare-white-people’ stories are not real news stories. They’re stories that they invent out of thin air. That’s true about ACORN. That’s true about the Shirley Sherrod case. That’s true about the fake New Black Panther Party thing. That’s true about Van Jones.”

But those examples don’t dovetail with the emerging Park51 (Cordoba House) mosque story. This “scare-white-people story” wasn’t “ginned up” by the extremists on the right; it wasn’t evidence of a spot strategy meant to sow discord among Americans generally. It exploited (or just revealed) something that’s already been there, as part of the fabric of American life.

What’s given the Park51 matter such traction, such heft into the culture, is the fact of its real bottom-up origins, its truly and sadly organic place in American society and history. Today, Muslim Americans — like Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and Irish Americans before them, and like African Americans, still — are faced with portrayal as The Other in American life, a portrayal that’s happened before in the years since the Iranian hostage crisis ... of 1979.

The fact that the location of a place of worship in the world’s pre-eminent bastion of diversity could be so hotly debated by its citizens and Americans everywhere is a news story in itself.

Add to this the public's debate over a Muslim place of worship placed a short sprint from the site of the country’s worst terrorist incident — an action perpetrated by Muslims (whose actions on Sept. 11, 2001, proved they’d vacated the faith they professed) — and you have an even bigger news story.

Regardless of Fox News’ role in attempting to brand the story with its conveniently binary view of American culture, the Park51 mosque controversy is worthy of coverage because of what it says about the insistences of this nation’s founding Christian heritage and its siege mentality in the post-9/11 world.

That’s not “ginned up” like ACORN or the New Black Panther Party scare. The Park51 issue taps into Americans’ age-old sense of their identities, and the identities and lifestyles of those who frighten them (including not just Muslims, by the way, but gays and lesbians as well).

That’s a story, Fox News be damned.

◊ ◊ ◊

The idea that Maddow had to be dragged just short of kicking and screaming into covering the story, finally weighing in on Monday, is especially disturbing, given her proven willingness to jump aggressively into a day’s given headlines.

Maddow told Grove that by Monday, the Park51 matter had “become the foremost political issue in the country right now ... and not weighing in on it is to spit into the wind."

That’s the rationale of a follower, not a leader. As such, it’s hard to reconcile with the Rachel Maddow who jumped into coverage of the Tea Party movement and the birther movement — both utterly manufactured by the extremist right — without a second thought.

Why the double standard?

Maddow’s intellect is such that, even though she was slower than usual out of the gate on this one, we can expect her to shed light on the issue where there hasn’t been any before. Now that she’s grasped the depth and passion of this debate — one that as of Tuesday evening took on a violent dimension — we can rest easier.

No worries. We'll carry on like this never happened. Even the best and brightest miss one every now and then.

Image credits: Maddow: MSNBC. Fox News Channel logo: Fox News. Japanese internment order, May 1942: authentichistory.com.

Interdiction prediction

The line between fiction and reality, blurry as it is already these days, may soon be undergoing a complete obliteration for the purposes of law enforcement, courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department. One of the most consistently understaffed police departments in the country — 10,000 officers, 4 million people, you do the frickin' math — has resorted in the past to any number of strategies to control crime. What the LAPD is predicted to do about it in the future could be a crime in itself.

The operative word is "predicted" or, more accurately, "predictive." The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that the department is investigating predictive policing, which is, for the most part, exactly what it sounds like.

"Predictive policing is rooted in the notion that it is possible, through sophisticated computer analysis of information about previous crimes, to predict where and when crimes will occur," The Times' Joel Rubin reports. "At universities and technology companies in the U.S. and abroad, scientists are working to develop computer programs that, in the most optimistic scenarios, could enable police to anticipate, and possibly prevent, many types of crime."

Rubin reports that some of the cutting-edge work in the field is being done at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Another researcher, at Santa Clara University near San Jose, is investigating whether it's possible "to forecast the time and place of crimes using the same mathematical formulas that seismologists use to predict the distribution of aftershocks from an earthquake," Rubin reports.

"The naysayers want you to believe that humans are too complex and too random — that this sort of math can't be done," said Jeff Brantingham, a UCLA anthropologist who is helping to supervise the university's predictive policing project.

"But humans are not nearly as random as we think," he told The Times. "In a sense, crime is just a physical process, and if you can explain how offenders move and how they mix with their victims, you can understand an incredible amount."

◊ ◊ ◊

You're forgiven if you think you've seen this movie before. You probably have. The 2002 Steven Spielberg sci-fi film "Minority Report," starring Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, proposed just such an approach to law enforcement in Washington, D.C., with officers of a shadowy Precrime Unit dispatched to arrest unsuspecting murderers before they become murderers. The result: six years without a homicide in the nation's capital.

Some in the real world are skeptical of the whole thing, including some in the LAPD. ""There is the science of policing, and there is the art of policing," Deputy Chief Michael Downing told The Times. "It is really important that we learn how to blend the two. If it becomes all about the science, I worry we'll lose the important nuances," said Downing, who directs the department's counterterrorism units.

As you might expect, one of those "important nuances" has to do with identification of suspects, and exactly who gets to build the models and set the definitional standards of suspects and suspect behavior.

In a city like Los Angeles — with a weave of people of different races and ethnicities, a history of explosive evidence of racial intolerance, and a parallel history of fractious police-community relations — predictive policing has the potential for abuse, just like any crime-fighting tool. The flashpoints that led to riots in Watts in 1965 and South-Central in 1992 had decidedly strong racial overtones; what would prevent a rogue element of the LAPD Predictive Unit from exacting pre-emptive retribution on former felons of another color or ethnicity — or innocent people who just happen to know former felons, or innocent people mistaken for felons?

◊ ◊ ◊

There's another little matter. Brantingham of UCLA said "humans are not nearly as random as we think," and given the fairly narrow motivational range of human behavior, that's probably true. But what happens to predictive-policing models when a tractor-trailer suddenly jacknifes on Interstate 10 — preventing a predictive suspect from even getting to where he's expected to commit a crime?

What happens when a predictive suspect is on his way to commit a crime the LAPD anticipates when, like all criminals, he decides to capitalize on a new opportunity — taking a left turn to seize on that unexpected chance, rather than heading for his previous (and predicted) destination?

Brantingham's confidence in the predictability of human behavior seems to have a lot invested in people staying put, not going anywhere, not traveling beyond a given range or outside a given neighborhood — hardly the case in a dynamic, constantly mobile city like Los Angeles.

Brantingham's calculus also appears to dismiss any way to factor in how the infrastructure could play a part in effective predictive policing, as well as the predictable unpredictability of variables that have nothing to do with human behavior: the weather; the traffic; the likelihood of accidents; the sudden chaos of earthquakes; a water main blows; an electrical substation shuts down — all the deus ex machina events that characterize life in any modern city, the kind of events that define life in L.A. The kind of events whose ripple effect would have an impact on everyone in the city — including the suspects who suddenly aren't where the LAPD expects them to be.

The next step in this tantalizing speculative forensic enterprise may come soon; Rubin reports that the LAPD may be first among equals as the Justice Department decides which big-city department will secure a $3 million grant to further study the idea.

So many big ideas that take the nation by storm often start in California. You have to hope that if the LAPD takes the lead in this provocative, Nostradamus-by-algorithm approach to law enforcement, they get the bugs worked out. First by understanding that, as a rule, bugs don't always conveniently stay where you think they are.

Image credits: 'Minority Report' still: © 2002 DreamWorks/Twentieth Century Fox. LA freeway map detail: iNetours.com

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cordoba House: the national local story

Michael Bloomberg, mayor of the little town of New York, made the local news again tonight, in his support of the planned Cordoba House Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"If we say that a mosque and community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom," Bloomberg said at Gracie Mansion during an iftar, a ritual dinner observance that is part of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims," he said. "We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen."

Other voices in the mediasphere have characterized the Cordoba House matter as a local concern that's been elevated (largely through talk radio, conservative media, comments in the Twitterverse and a presidential weigh-in on the matter) to a national level it wouldn't have otherwise achieved.

But despite its seemingly parochial context, the Cordoba House matter speaks volumes about the nation we've become since the horrific, epochal events of Sept. 11 — and the nation we say we want to become.

◊ ◊ ◊

In many ways, the Cordoba House venture was, almost from the start, a victim of phenomenally bad timing. The project, organized by an imam of a mosque in the financial district, his wife and a local real-estate investor, made its debut at a Community Board land-use meeting on May 5 — the day after Faisal Shahzad, an American-born Muslim, was arrested for planting a car bomb in the heart of Times Square.

It's also been the victim of bad press. As the issue achieved a critical mass of awareness, various media outlets began the customary phrasal shorthand, inaccurately distilling the matter with the words "W.T.C. Mosque" or "Ground Zero Mosque" — the kind of breathless tabloid compression that short-circuits debate and savagely embroiders the truth.

By accident or design, it was an extension of the same blurry identity snapshot that gave the birther movement license in its attempt to paint President Obama as an "other," born outside the United States in a Muslim nation.

We've known Cordoba House was bigger than just local news when the pollsters began checking in. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll, for example, found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the community center/mosque plan, while only 29 percent approved.

◊ ◊ ◊

Standing on principle, Obama gave the debate fresh oxygen when he spoke at the White House iftar on Aug. 13.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

"Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us – and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today," he said.

“ ... [T]ime and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, and stay true to our core values and emerge stronger for it," he said. "So it must be and will be today."

Obama's statement — a moment of civic clarity and firm grasp of what it means to be an American — was clarion, it was pitch-perfect, it didn't need further elaboration.

Which made it strange when the next day President Obama felt the need to tweak that forthright stance, essentially cautioning that having the right to do something doesn't necessarily mean one should do it — a rhetorical adjustment whose rationale is elusive, to say the least.

If the Cordoba House issue itself wasn't big enough by that time, it gained new attention as much for Obama's statements as anything else.

◊ ◊ ◊

What undercuts the notion of the Cordoba House community-center case as local news is the wide range of people who have debated it, and their positions on the matter. Never mind the dialogue-by-placard going on in the streets of Manhattan; the rich, broad and often literate conversation on the issue on cable, in print and the public square of the Internet points again to how national this local story was from the beginning.

It goes without saying that many in the conservative community would be opposed to the center, on reflexively partisan lines. Via Twitter, 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee and political personality Sarah Palin called on “peace-seeking Muslims” to reject the center, labeling it an “unnecessary provocation.”

"President Obama is wrong," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque, they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much."

Redstate.com CEO Erick Erickson tweeted: “Paging the Church of Satan: Our founding principles demand Barack Obama support your rights to Human Sacrifice.”

But Alberto Gonzales, attorney general in the Bush administration; Ted Olson, Bush White House solicitor general; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, libertarian maverick and darling of the tea party movement, have come out strongly in favor of the center's construction — Paul late last week in an online statement of thundering defense.

◊ ◊ ◊

Life for non-Christians in New York City has historically been a matter of enduring somebody's bad behavior. As a Manhattanite in the mid-90's, I lived on East 11th Street, across the street from Webster Hall, then and now one of the city's more popular entertainment venues, a place frequently visited by the bridge & tunnel crowd and bright young things from everywhere.

The taxi traffic orbiting the rowdy club on those light-sleeper weekends was so heavy that the bouncers and security people, one in particular, had a standing traffic-control mantra: "Move the CAB, Mohammed! LessGO! Move the CAB, Mohammed!"

This random form of address, of course, was no respecter of true identity or place of origin; a cab driver's real name and background didn't much matter. It was a rude, reflexive, lumpen strategy that made it easy to identify one's adversaries back then.

For some, apparently, that kind of ethnic objectification makes it easy to pick one's enemies today.

◊ ◊ ◊

But it's difficult, or it should be, to make enemies of the people who shared the same fate as your friends. Borrowing from an Islam Web site, HuffPost Pundit elfish made that clear in a recent comment that the 18 hijackers who wreaked havoc on the United States almost nine years ago were equal opportunity destroyers:

60 Muslim-American Citizens died during the 9/11 attacks

They were Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Stock Brokers, Security Officers, Nurses, CEOs, Lawyers, Bankers, City Workers, Airline Personnel, Children, Unborn Children and IT Workers.

So these people are so devalued that their religious symbols should not be allowed even two blocks away?

(1) Samad Afridi, (2) Ashraf Ahmad, (3) Shabbir Ahmad
(4) Umar Ahmad, (5) Azam Ahsan, (6) Ahmed Ali
(7) Tariq Amanullah, (8) Touri Bolourchi
(9) Salauddin Ahmad Chaudhury, (10) Abdul K. Chowdhury
(11) Mohammad S. Chowdhury, (12) Jamal Legesse Desantis
(13) Ramzi Attallah Douani, (14) Saleem Ullah Farooqi
(15) Syed Fatha, (16) Osman Gani, (17) Mohammad Hamdani
(18) Salman Hamdani, (19) Aisha Harris, (20) Shakila Hoque
(21) Nabid Hossain, (22) Shahzad Hussain, (23) Talat Hussain
(24) Mohammad Shah Jahan, (25) Yasmeen Jamal
(26) Mohammed Jawarta, (27) Arslan Khan Khakwani
(28) Asim Khan, (29) Ataullah Khan, (30) Ayub Khan
(31) Qasim Ali Khan, (32) Sarah Khan, (33) Taimour Khan
(34) Yasmeen Khan, (35) Zahida Khan, (36) Badruddin Lakhani
(37) Omar Malick, (38) Nurul Hoque Miah
(39) Mubarak Mohammad, (40) Boyie Mohammed
(41) Raza Mujtaba, (42) Omar Namoos, (43) Mujeb Qazi
(44) Tarranum Rahim, (45) Ehtesham U. Raja
(46) Ameenia Rasool, (47) Naveed Rehman, (48) Yusuf Saad
(49) Rahma Salie, (50) unborn child, (51) Shoman Samad
(52) Asad Samir, (53) Khalid Shahid, (54) Mohammed Shajahan
(55) Naseema Simjee, (56) Jamil Swaati, (57) Sanober Syed
(58) Robert Elias Talhami, (59) Michael Theodoridis (60) W. Wahid

The Cordoba House issue is no more a local land-use dispute than the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were a matter of the misuse of local airspace. From the date of the first Community Board meeting in May, the fate of Cordoba House has been a national story for what it says to this country about this country. From the beginning, it's been an American concern by what it says to the world about this nation. What we are and what we presume to stand for. The resolution of the matter will say even more.

Bad day at Black Rock: Harold Dow dies

Personally, he looked to be an ebullient teddy bear of a man. Professionally we knew him to be a tireless seeker of what happened, what went down, even when whatever happened happened half a planet away.

And when Harold Dow of CBS News died early Saturday, of an apparent asthma attack behind the wheel of his car at the age of 62, black American journalists lost another rare voice and presence in an industry that already didn’t have enough of them. Dow's jones was the news.

Like his colleague, the late Ed Bradley, Dow brought another kind of substance to television journalism. He was present at the start of some of the CBS programs that have since become institutions. Dow contributed to “48 Hours on Crack Street,” the 1986 documentary that was the kernel for the “48 Hours” franchise that’s been a part of CBS since 1988.

In Dow’s 37 years at CBS, there was nothing the man couldn’t do. Starting as a reporter at the CBS News Los Angeles bureau, from 1973 to 1977, Dow worked his way up the food chain of broadcast journalism, becoming a correspondent from 1977 to 1982, and a co-anchor on CBS News early-morning Nightwatch from 1982 to 1983. He also reported for the Dan Rather iteration of the CBS Evening News, and worked on the “Sunday Morning” program.

The business was in his blood. "He covered many of the most important stories of our times,” CBS said in a statement, “including 9/11 where he barely escaped one of the falling Twin Towers, the return of POW's from Vietnam and the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, with whom he had an exclusive interview in December 1976, the movement of American troops into Bosnia and the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster. He also conducted the first network interview with O. J. Simpson following the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.”

It’s fair to say, too, that on top of everything else, Harold Dow was a barometer of black male fashion, too. Back in the day, brother Harold sported an Afro with the best of them; watching videos of him through the years, we’re witness to a man whose sartorial and personal style evolved right in front of us.

◊ ◊ ◊

Count on Richard Prince’s Journal-Isms, an extension of the Maynard Institute for minority journalists, to get comments no other mainstream media outlet could — some of them from the black TV journalists who can thank Harold Dow for making a crooked path straight, or at least straighter.

"We r all together tonight on assignment," "60 Minutes" correspondent Byron Pitts told Journal-isms late Saturday via e-mail. "We all raised a glass for our friend," Harold Dow. "Harold was one of the funniest men I've ever known. Always welcoming, always willing to share his wisdom with those of us coming along. All of us owe him a debt of gratitude. He was a credit to our profession. As a journalist of color, he along with Ed Bradley is a cornerstone of my Mt. Rushmore."

"We, at CBS NEWS, are saddened and shocked,” said Randall Pinkston, the longtime New York TV reporter now with CBS Newspath, told Journal-isms an hour after he heard the news. “He was a trailblazer, a great journalist, a great friend and mentor. I shall miss him enormously."

And CBS national correspondent Russ Mitchell, anchor of the Sunday "CBS Evening News," jumped in. "I would only add … Harold was my Angel. The go-to-guy who had done it, seen it, survived it. A man who took his role as a pioneer seriously and always had a smile and great advice. Yeah, he was a remarkable journalist but he was an even more incredible human being. I loved him and already miss him."

It’s hard work being a minority journalist in this country, work made more challenging, psychologically anyway, by the relative rarity of faces in the newsroom that look like you. Harold Dow was a force in journalism, and that business — not just the TV news business but the whole news business — is different today without him: poorer for his absence, richer just for his having been around.

Image credits: Harold Dow, CBS eye: CBS Inc.

Friday, August 20, 2010

8/18/10: Shock & awe in reverse

There was no bugout mode in effect this time, no overloaded Hueys lifting off the embassy roof at precarious angles. When about 440 soldiers of the 4th Styrker Brigade, 2nd Infantry took the main north-south highway into Kuwait on Wednesday, they were about to make history, but quietly for a change. They were the advance guard of a new dawn for Iraq.

On Wednesday, 2,666 days after President George W. Bush declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq, reality finally caught up with him. The last United States combat troops in Iraq began leaving that beleaguered country (two weeks ahead of schedule), formally starting the process of ending Operation Iraqi Freedom, after 4,415 servicemen and women killed, about 32,000 wounded and a cost in billions upon billions we will be paying until we are old.

An estimated 50,000 U.S. forces will stay behind, serving mainly, but not exclusively, in support, training, administrative and security roles. Some U.S. presence in counter-terrorism operations will be maintained, but the rest of American forces there will be the vanguard of a new U.S. military relationship with Iraq: more limited engagement, more surgical intervention — approaches that some military analysts have been calling for for years.

Credit Richard Engel of NBC News with the scoop of the year: Riding with the Strykers as they roared down the highway at high speed in the dead of night, broadcasting the departure live via a sometimes jittery satellite hookup — a mirror opposite of the time and circumstances of March 2003, when the late David Bloom of NBC News rode the network's satellite vehicle in the other direction, covering the invasion in the heat of the day.

◊ ◊ ◊

You can't spend seven years and five months in one place without having something invested, personally and emotionally, in where you are. Maybe now that it's over, for all practical purposes, we'll see who knocks out that Great Book, that must-read novel that puts this mess into a final overarching perspective we haven't read before, for obvious reasons.

Every American who was in country will take something of that experience with them. That's personal. What should be of greater concern to the U.S. military is what we're leaving behind.

In August 2007 Ivan Watson of NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported that “a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report … found [that] the Department of Defense cannot account for 190,000 pistols and rifles that were distributed to Iraqi security forces during the first two years of the U.S. occupation.”

The Government Accountability Office reported that same month that the Defense Department and U.S. forces in Iraq couldn't account for 135,000 pieces of body armor, and 115,000 helmets issued to Iraqi forces between June 2004 and September 2005.

In December 2007, CBS News reported on a wide array of missing military vehicles. “Tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, crates of machine guns and rocket propelled grenades are just a sampling of more than $1 billion in unaccounted-for military equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces, according to a new report issued ... by the Pentagon Inspector General,” Laura Strickler reported.

And the Center for American Progress reported, via its research, that the United States military in Iraq has lost 20 Abrams M1 tanks, 55 Bradley fighting vehicles, 250 Humvees, 20 M113 armored personnel carriers and 109 helicopters.

And that was almost three years ago. Then as now, weapons in the wrong hands are a worrisome thing. Throw up the hope that we'll never know. The only thing worse than fighting a war you didn't have to fight in the first place is having to fight it twice.

◊ ◊ ◊

As U.S. forces vacate Iraq, the manifest of lethal hardware we're leaving behind should be worrying, saying nothing of the prospect of facing another enemy in the future, an enemy with weapons identical to the world's strongest military power.

That's the numb truth that ends the United States' military role in Iraq, the new baseline of our experience with war and its domestic consumption: Not only was this an unnecessary war, it's one whose detritus, whose machinery may be used against us, and almost certainly will. This is the new, sobering postwar reality, only this time "postwar" means post-Iraq war; the word will come to mean what we've just this minute put in the rear-view mirror: the Iraq war as history.

But just like with other interpretations of "postwar" — most notably post-World War II — the history attached to this chapter of the story of the United States will be informed by the present day, which borrows from the past all the time, as a way of anticipating the future. Think: the Iraq war as warning.

◊ ◊ ◊

For students of distant history (like the grand ceremony aboard the USS Missouri, the grim gala that closed the proceedings of World War II) or the more recent kind (like the stately ceremonies at the lavish Majestic Hotel in Paris, where Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, among others, signed the Paris Peace Accords exiting the United States from the Vietnam War), the end of the Iraq war will go down almost as anticlimax, so ordered, so utterly measured at the end as to almost contradict the chaos there at the beginning, and for every minute of the seven-plus years that followed.

Anyone looking for the cosmetic closure of bunting and pageantry, presidents in flight suits and speeches on the carrier deck is bound to be disappointed. But considering the bill of goods sold to the United States and the world by the Bush administration — the yellowcake nonsense, the aluminum-wrapped tubes of hubris, the smoking gun/mushroom cloud sophistry proffered as either sober analysis or absolute fact — ending the Iraq war with that kind of pomp and circumstance would have just been … wrong, on so many levels.

To go by the subdued Strykers photographed on Wednesday, the Iraq war ends for the United States with shock and awe in reverse: sweet and blessed relief; the dead calm of uncertainty; and the kind of introspection that should have been there, with the leaders of another White House, before that war even began.

Image credit: U.S. forces exiting Iraq: via MSNBC. U.S. tanks entering Baghdad 2003: public domain. U.S. casualties: public domain.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Visualizing unemployment

Like a virus unchecked, like a cancer left to metastasize at will, unemployment has spread across this country at a dizzying rate of speed. You know that. You’ve been living it. You’ve heard it on the cable news. The White House has made it Job #1 for the months and years to come.

But in a visual culture, one that thrives on the distilling snapshot image to get a point across, it’s hard to top the recently released and thoroughly alarming graphic by an enterprising journalist, a series of images that nationalizes the scope and the stakes of the problem like nothing else can.

Latoya Eguwuekwe, a political reporter, television anchor and producer in Cleveland and Tallahassee, and currently a labor writer based in Washington, produced an interactive county-by-county breakdown of the rise and march of unemployment while she was a graduate student at American University in Washington. The map graphic (available at YouTube) uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to show the impact of the recession not just from its official starting point, in December 2007, but almost a year before.

The Daily Kos published it earlier this month; the Huffington Post followed with it today.

“The Decline: The Geography of a Recession” shows what happened between January 2007, when the unemployment rate was a manageable 4.6, and June of this year, when the official rate hit 9.7 percent.

Problematic for Team Obama is the rate of decline since the president took office. In January 2007 the rate was 4.6 percent; it drifted in the low to mid-single digits for much of the next two years. Shortly after Obama was inaugurated, the rate accelerated. Fast.

Making matters worse: the graphic and the official rate, disturbing as they are, don't even account for the underemployed and those who've just given up looking for work.

You can be damn sure that this video is required viewing at the White House; the video clarifies the situation better than any policy statements, even better than the most crystalline prose of President Obama himself.

For analysts and policy wonks, it’s a stark indicator of just how daunting the challenges for this White House really are. For the rest of us — the nearly 30 million Americans caught up in the worst economic maelstrom since the Great Depression — it's a reminder of how far we’ve fallen in no time at all. As if we really need a reminder of that.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dearth of a salesman:
Petraeus and the Afghan war

On this date in 1945, the hostilities known as World War II effectively ended when Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers. On the day before this date in 2010, according to NBC News’ Richard Engel, the last combat brigade in Iraq began repatriating its military forces from there back to the United States, began ending the war in Iraq the United States started seven years and five months ago — twice as long as the United States fought in World War II.

The war that’s left to finish, the one in Afghanistan, has been going on for nearly nine years. It continues as the domestic appetite for the Afghan war is rapidly diminishing. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Americans’ sentiments about Afghanistan and the continued U.S. involvement there found that 58 percent of the country has negative feelings about the mission, with 11 percent viewing it favorably.

Lopsided as those numbers are, they tell another story. 58 and 11, of course, doesn’t add up to 100. That remaining 31 percent of the poll sample, people either without an opinion or unsure what that opinion really is, may indicate the national mood more precisely than either the positive or negative responses. It reflects a kind of paralysis of opinion, either a deep ambivalence about the war or such an inability to envision what our next move should be, that they can’t venture a position on a U.S. Afghan scenario of any kind.

The NBC/WSJ poll also sampled the squishy but accessible attribute of confidence in a successful U.S. end to the Afghan conflict. Twenty-three percent of those polled are more confident of the outcome now, while 68 percent are less confident than before, the poll said.

◊ ◊ ◊

That poll and its divisions writ large symbolize the domestic war facing Gen. David Petraeus, newly named to head the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus huddled recently with NBC News’ David Gregory, in the general’s first interviews since taking command in July. The interviews, likely to be a rhetorical tank-and-Bradley show intended to shore up public support for the war, begin today on “Meet the Press” and will run throughout the week.

We can expect Petraeus to at least rhetorically sign on to President Obama’s “conditions-based” plan to begin the process of getting out of Afghanistan in July 2011, even while Petraeus the soldier will insist on the latitude he needs as the commander in country to press the fight against the Taliban, the better for a dignified exit from Afghanistan next year.

A deep national divide is obvious from the NBC/WSJ poll; the deep national dissatisfaction about the war may well be distilled in a Thursday editorial in The New York Times, a call for fresh endgame thinking about the Afghan war’s prosecution and for candor from the president on what the hell the metrics for success really are.

“[L]ike many Americans, we are increasingly confused and anxious about the strategy in Afghanistan and wonder whether, at this late date, there is a chance of even minimal success,” The Times says.

“Mr. Obama has promised to review his policy this December. We agree that the ‘surge’ and his new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, need time. But reports from the ground have been so relentlessly grim — July’s death toll of 66 American troops was the highest since the war began — that Mr. Obama needs to do a better job right now of explaining the strategy and how he is measuring progress.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In Saturday’s Huffington Post, columnist Dan Froomkin writes a piece headlined “Why Petraeus Can’t Make the Sale.” Froomkin explores the philosophical skirmishes going on between factions within the Obama administration over ending the U.S. role in the Afghan war. Among the, uh, insurgent views is one from the so-called Team B of Afghan strategists, analysts and policy wonks. This group, Froomkin says, plans to release a report in the near future, one that likely won’t be so much a popular read as a necessary one.

From the report, which Froomkin excerpted:

"We are mired in a civil war in Afghanistan and are struggling to establish an effective central government in a country that has long been fragmented and decentralized. No matter how desirable this objective might be in the abstract, it is not essential to U.S. security and it is not a goal for which the U.S. military is well suited. There is no clear definition of what would comprise 'success' in this endeavor, and creating a unified Afghan state would require committing many more American lives and hundreds of billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years to come."

All due respects to the headline writers at HuffPost, but Petraeus can’t “make the sale” because there’s nothing he has to sell besides a protracted and bloody holding action, and we’ve been there and done that before as a nation and we’re still paying for it, in too many ways, a generation after Vietnam.

◊ ◊ ◊

And all due props to The New York Times and the White House Team B, but the gist of their assessments came through loud and clear last Oct. 29. That’s when Christopher Preble, foreign policy studies director of the Cato Institute, said:

“Countering al-Qaida and disrupting its ability to carry out future terrorist attacks does not require a massive troop presence on the ground. Bringing more U.S. personnel to Afghanistan undermines the already weak authority of the Afghan leaders, interferes with our ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world, and pulls us further into a bloody protracted guerrilla war with no end in sight. ... We should be looking for ways to extricate ourselves militarily from Afghanistan, not excuses to dig a deeper hole.”

The fact that two assessments of our stake in the Afghan war come to much the same conclusion nine months apart is exactly the problem — and the biggest challenge to the salesmanship Petraeus begins today.

Image credits: Petraeus: Robert D. Ward, Defense Department (public domain). U.S. war casualties: via MSNBC. Casualties chart: Market Data Group, The Wall Street Journal.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Relatively silly

Conservative dumbmness has finally, officially, completely jumped the shark. We find (by way of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday) about TPMMuckraker’s excellent story on Conservapedia, the conservative Christian revisionist Wikipedia knockoff founded by Andrew Schlafly, son of conservative doyenne Phyllis Schlafly.

His Web site has effectively called the Special Theory of Relativity a liberal plot to mislead people into embracing the official model of the concept of relativity. Solution? Do some misleading of your own, of course: “Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. ...”

In 1905 when a nondescript patent examiner named Albert Einstein formulated E = mc2 — what’s become, in its lean and elegant way, the Promethean mathematical equation of our time — he made a discovery that’s stood the test of time because (more than anything else) it’s fully grounded in the bedrock of science, rather than trapped in the quagmire of politics.

But don’t tell that to Schlafly. He and the board of scientific advisors at Conservapedia came up with a gem of a refutation to Einstein: “The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

“[E]vidence contrary to the theory is discussed outside of liberal universities,” the site says.

◊ ◊ ◊

It gets worse, or crazier. Later on the site in a further refutation of that which the scientific community has embraced for 100 years, Conservapedia notes that "Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of 'curvature of space' to promote a broad legal right to abortion."

A flat-out untruth, as New Scientist explains:

“The article in question is "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What lawyers can learn from modern physics" by Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. Published in 1989 in the Harvard Law Review, the paper includes a "thank you" to Barack Obama in the acknowledgments, an unsurprising fact given that Obama was the journal's editor at the time.”

Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light, as we know. But there’s always room for one more theory:

BS = 0 x ╬▓www … Idiocy equals unfounded assertions in the public square times the speed of the Internet. That wouldn’t pass mathematical muster, but to go by Schlafly’s example of scientific fiction, it’s provable just the same.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sex and the smartphone

If you bristled at the premium price you paid for your iPhone, this may be welcome news: the premium price for that smartphone may yield another kind of premium. The folks at the dating data-mining Web site OKCupid determined that there’s a quantifiable relationship between smartphone and sex life if you own one of the three leading brands. (Guess which one came out on top.)

OKCupid, which boasts 3.5 million active members, explains the origins of the information that makes it all possible: “We found this data as part of our general camera-efficacy analysis: we crossed all kinds of user behaviors with the camera models and found we had data on the number of sexual partners for 9,785 people with smart phones. We dropped what we found into Excel, and voila.”

Voila indeed.

◊ ◊ ◊

Android users take note: you’re on the short end here, regardless of the Droid’s capabilities. OKCupid’s data indicates the average numbers of sexual partners at age 30 at six, for men and women. Not bad, but compared to the other brands, one thing Droid doesn’t do (as much) is sex. This could be a reflection of nothing more than the Droid being the newest of the three models. Time and brand awareness should change that (especially if Google completes its mission to become Unrivaled Master of the Universe).

BlackBerry holders fare better; men score 8.1 partners by age 30, women get a little busier with 8.8. Apparently, carrying a Torch works very well.

But our winner is the one you know and love. The holders of the Apple iPhone bigfoot everybody on wild sex in the working class. OKCupid’s data finds that male iPhone users each have had 10 sexual partners by age 30. Women top the scores again with an average of 12 partners each. How will Steve Jobs work this into the next iPhone generation?

Interestingly (marketing people take note), OKCupid’s data showed, in another graph, that the sex/smartphone relationship by brand stayed the same for smartphone users for a wider universe, of those between 18 and 40 years of age — even as the amount of sex keeps rising ... throbbing ... climbing passionately as users increased in age. Between age 25 and age 40, sexual healing for holders of any of the three brands doubled, even tripled.

So when the bill comes for service from the signal carrier for one of these three brands, suck it up and pay, and sing a joyful noise. If OKCupid’s stats are right, your smartphone makes you smarter than you thought.

Image credits: Graph images: OKTrends > OKCupid. Thanks and a hat tip to Del Engen.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The enthusiasm gap gap

There may be no squishier measurement in the metrics of American politics than the enthusiasm gap, that loosey-goosey way of making a quantifiable out of something that’s more ephemeral than an opinion or a belief. Recently — in the days before last week’s primaries and the ones to come today — it’s gained attention for what it’s thought to say about the mood of the American voter in 2010.

Some have all but rolled up the tumbrels for the Democrats, stating that the red caps of the GOP will definitely make big gains this November. We’ve heard from all the usual suspects, from USA Today/Gallup to Washington Post/ABC News to CNN/Opinion Research Corporation.

Among those tolling the bell are Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight and (in a well-articulated Aug. 5 piece) Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics. Their projections are supported by strong Republican turnout in last Tuesday’s primaries in Kansas, Missouri and Michigan, and also, in large part, because of a perceived heightened enthusiasm by Republicans, a passion expected to translate into higher turnout than the Democrats a few months from now.

That makes the assumption, of course, that Democrats (in their more traditionally messy, fractious, disorganized way) won’t summon enough enthusiasm to show up at the polls in the fall. That’s one problem with enthusiasm-gap polling: it’s necessarily a captive of the snapshot mentality. By virtue of the underlying evanescent emotion that supports it, the enthusiasm-gap theory is dangerously subject to change. It’s less reliable than the Gallup Daily Tracking Poll, which, in its sampling of the American mood, grounds itself in not much more than which side of the bed John & Jan Q. Public got out of in the morning.

◊ ◊ ◊

The thinking goes that Republicans will turn out in greater numbers than the Democrats, who “historically” sit the midterms out. It’s true enough that in midterm elections and the generals, Republican voters have “historically” been older voters, with a deeper civic connection to the voting experience than their younger Democratic counterparts.

And the prevailing wisdom says that Republicans this year will be especially animated by outrage and a desire for payback. “Nothing warms the spirit like revenge,” Nate Silver observed on Aug. 4, as part of his rationale why the Democrats may be vulnerable in November.

It’s a truism that Democrats outnumber Republicans in pure party registrations (a fact that may or may not matter at all considering the number of independent voters, unregistered voters or first-time voters). But whatever the D-to-R ratio is, there’s one that’s more problematic for the Republicans than the one representing voter registrations. A bigger problem for the GOP is a light-to-heat ratio that they’ve done precious little to change in the last two years. In terms of how they do business, and the lengths they’ve proven they’ll go to to prevent the majority party from doing its business, the Republicans haven’t demonstrated much light, but way too much heat.

◊ ◊ ◊

Consider how the Republicans in Congress have done their best to block legislation advanced by the Obama White House, thrown up roadblocks out of nothing more than sheer obstinacy.

From their responsibility for two ruinous wars to disparities in drug sentencing they’ve supported for years; from their own fiscal mismanagement to the racial and ethnic polarization they’ve cultivated; from opposing the unemployment benefits Americans need to keep food on the table to blaming the unemployed for being unemployed in the worst U.S. economy for generations, the Republicans have as much to answer for in November as the Democrats. And maybe more.

“Nothing warms the spirit like revenge,” Nate Silver says. But Silver’s smart enough to know that nothing clouds the judgment like revenge, either. The Republicans, whether they believe it or not, are on the verge of being fully consumed by hubris — so blind to their own obstructionist actions they can’t see the effect those actions have had on the people they expect to vote for them; so tone-deaf to anything but the volume of their own screaming that they’ve forgotten the need to make a fresh message, a new way of governing, part of that scream; so enamored of the historical certainty of a swing in their direction as a political fact that they’ve overlooked the predictably unpredictable nature of the electorate that put them in the minority in the first place.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A losing proposition

“Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage, marriage under law is a union of equals,” Chief Judge Vaughn Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ruled on Wednesday, when, in a precisely worded, stunningly reasoned 136-page decision, Walker altered the landscape of debate over gay marriage in America.

Walker ruled that Proposition 8, the voter-enacted law that outlaws gay marriage in California was a violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. And there’s no short-circuiting the power of this judicial opinion: Marriage bans have been quashed before at the state level; what happened on Wednesday was the first time a marriage ban was overturned on grounds of violating the federal constitution.

"The evidence shows that, by every available metric, opposite-sex couples are not better than their same-sex counterparts; instead, as partners, parents and citizens, opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples are equal," Walker wrote.

“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in
 singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. 
Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than
 enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-
sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California 
has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and 
because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its
 constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis,
 the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.”

Despite having his name included as one of the defendants in Perry et al. v Schwarzenegger, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed his support for the triumph of the plaintiffs. "This decision affirms the full legal protections and safeguards I believe everyone deserves," he said Wednesday.

Prop 8 Ruling FINAL

Walker’s opinion was a sound repudiation of old assumptions about family integrity and social benefit. It upheld findings of fact that disprove the long-held contention that children in same-sex family units are somehow damaged, deprived or compromised compared to heterosexual couples.

◊ ◊ ◊

And Walker got past the platitudes of the conservative wind machine, who’ve tried to equate heterosexual marriage as a bedrock societal custom with heterosexual marriage as unbending, immutable law. The ruling Wednesday sharply challenges the primacy of marriage’s historical expression as an exclusionary experience.

In its existential sweep and the clarity and forthrightness of its language, and in its framing of the gay-marriage debate in terms of fundamental human decency, Walker’s ruling may be the lower-court equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education — a demand that niceties, deceptions and outright lies give way to the force of the inescapably moral and the irrefutably practical.

“[It] vindicates the rights of a minority of our citizens to be treated with decency and respect and equality in our system," said former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who argued against the ban with veteran trial lawyer David Boise.

Walker’s ruling sets the stage for a likely battle over the issue at the Supreme Court, the first with Elena Kagan in robes as the court’s newest Associate Justice.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the short term, the Walker ruling changes little but the intensity of the rhetoric, and the speculation about where this goes next.

The SCOTUS Handicap has officially started, and the betting windows are open for business. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that John Eastman, a conservative scholar and Prop 8 backer, “said Walker's analysis and detailed references to trial evidence were likely to persuade U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a swing vote on the high court, to rule in favor of same-sex marriage.”

For those on the right, the ruling is a further defense of the standing 14th Amendment — the same amendment conservatives want to change for completely different reasons. Congressional conservatives, including the birthers and nativists from the Arizona Territory, have championed making tweaks to the 14th, which endows citizenship on those born in the United States — a sore point for conservatives in the evolving debate over undocumented immigration.

The Associated Press reported that Byran Fischer, of the American Family Association, urged AFA members to petition their congressional representatives to start impeachment proceedings against Walker for not recusing himself from a case in which "his own personal sexual proclivities utterly compromised his ability to make an impartial ruling." (Some have said Walker is openly gay, but his sexual orientation is, by this writer anyway, unknown and nobody’s business but his own.)

◊ ◊ ◊

We can expect attacks on Walker and his ruling to pick up steam now, starting with the expected appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Maggie Gallagher, chairwoman of the National Organization for Marriage, offered a fast broadside in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“The Proposition 8 case on which the Ninth Circuit's Judge Vaughn Walker ruled Wednesday was pushed by two straight guys with a hunger for media attention, lawyers with huge egos who overrode the considered judgment of major figures in the gay legal establishment, thinkers who feared exactly what we anticipate: the Supreme Court will uphold Prop. 8 and the core civil rights of Californians and all Americans to vote for marriage as one man and one woman.”

On Thursday, Andy Pugno, a lawyer for Prop 8 supporters, told the Los Angeles Times that Walker's "invalidation of the votes of over 7 million Californians violates binding legal precedent and short-circuits the democratic process.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But the right to vote isn’t the issue in Walker’s ruling, and never was; the issue is the constitutionality of the measure the people of California voted on. For all the fire and rage conservatives have brought to bear against the ruling, this distinction is one they won’t be easily overcome. Just because you’ve got the right to vote for something, it doesn’t always mean that what you’re voting for is constitutional in the first place. The fact that a measure’s on the ballot might make good politics; that doesn’t necessarily mean its passage, even by the voters, makes good law.

“Did our Founding Fathers really create a right to gay marriage in the U.S. Constitution?” Gallagher asks in the Chronicle. The answer of course is no, but neither did the Framers specifically endorse heterosexual marriage as deserving of any special treatment. There’s no language in that Constitution that conveys to heterosexual couples exclusive rights to the equal opportunity objectives of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

That’s the kernel of Walker’s ruling. That’s the kernel of the challenge to be mounted by conservative opponents of his ruling and its fundamental assertions. Those seven quoted words — and the breadth of their application as American law — are the stakes facing a new U.S. Supreme Court, probably not many months after the first Monday in October.

Image credits: LGBT flag: theodoranian, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. Walker: via powered news. Ted Olson and David Boise: via The Huffington Post. Anthony Kennedy: public domain. Equal Marriage flag: Stars represent states that actively perform same-sex marriages as of Jan. 1, 2010. Source: makeitequal.org.

The other Mad Men (From The Root)

The start of a new season of "Mad Men" has had its loyal followers wondering what's next for the talented but conflicted alpha male Don Draper as he leads a group of disaffected executives in the launch of a new ad agency on Madison Avenue.

In its past seasons, the Emmy-nominated series deftly revealed personal and professional dramas against a backdrop of the social and political changes in Kennedy-era America. Now, with season four opening after Kennedy's death, the question is, will "Mad Men" tweak its focus and more fully show life in America during the period of the struggle for civil rights, the most tumultuous domestic issue of that era?

It's been accepted more or less as a truism that black people didn't work on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. But facts are stubborn things. There were black people in advertising even then, some (a few) in high places. Contrary to the popular assumption, blacks in that era met with success and challenges on Madison Avenue, like everywhere else. ...

Read the rest at The Root
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...