Links, we get links…

…and this is partially because all my writing energies today went towards actual writing work that I’m doing. (Really not complaining at all, of course — the fact that I’m getting more commissions in general these days is very gratifying, and I hope to build on it further.) For that reason, planned longer pieces for the blog might wait until tomorrow. But three links to pass on for today:

  • Friend Kate suggested this New York Magazine article by Amanda Fortini as a useful reflection on the election season and whether or not the big losers this time out were female politicians and, potentially, women in general. I’d add that it’s interesting to see how the respective paths of Clinton and Palin since the election are generally reported on and treated in the same manner as beforehand, which admittedly says more about the general image both had established early on.
  • Over at the Quietus, an absolutely stellar piece by Can’s keyboardist Irwin Schmidt, which is actually mostly about food. Highly recommended, and he hits you right from the start with his story about growing up in wartime and after, and how this shaped his thoughts on food early on. To quote: “I have a big respect for food because of those times when throwing away something or letting it rot was such a sin, so heartbreaking, because you didn’t have a lot anyway. So now I can’t throw away anything, and I think the most important ability when you cook is that you are always able to make a new dish from leftovers.”
  • Finally, in a sign of the importance and respect the world of able and passionate online researchers and writers now gains, the passing of one of the two cobloggers at the economic site Calculated Risk, Doris Dungey aka Tanta, has garnered a slew of comments and tributes, perhaps most notably a high profile NY Times piece on her passing. While I knew of the blog I only have followed it a bit more closely in recent months due to the economic craziness, just as Tanta’s blogging started to slow as the cancer which took her life came to the fore. Turns out I missed quite a character, respected for both her no-nonsense, frank and detailed discussion of the many factors that have fed into the current situation, specifically with mortgages and their handling, as well as her wit, friendliness and intelligence. The blog’s founder has written a moving tribute to her and her abilities that I strongly urge reading, while also creating a compendium of her posts for general reference. This is the kind of ‘essay collection’ that could not have easily been put together and shared until these last couple of decades, and there are far worse memorials for someone who loved writing and who, like me, was an English grad student who took a slightly different path in life. RIP, and from a belated fan, much thanks.

A pre-post-Clintonian mortem

First off, I am quite happy to see this today:

Hillary Rodham Clinton will concede Tuesday night that Barack Obama has the delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, campaign officials said, effectively ending her bid to be the nation’s first female president.

The former first lady will stop short of formally suspending or ending her race in her speech in New York City. She will pledge to continue to speak out on issues like health care. But for all intents and purposes, the two senior officials said, the campaign is over.

My happiness is not for the reasons you might think, mind you — at least not entirely.

If you’ve followed my various comments over the months on the extended primary race here — which I do think ultimately has been good to see on a number of fronts, in terms of working against preset narratives and in showing how political dynamics can and do function even in a fairly stodgy republican democracy like ours — you’ve doubtless sensed that while I haven’t come out and said ‘hurrah’ for anyone in particular, I’ve been kindly inclined towards Barack Obama all this time. Over on ILE just now, Alfred summed up his thoughts this way: “I don’t lean towards Obama because he represents “change” – I consider him a pol with uncanny rhetorical gifts, of an attractive coolness, and incarnates a liberalism which will be a novelty in the Oval Office.” I find this both accurate and not — Obama does represent a very specific change in terms what can be expected and accepted in the political and social sphere in this country, and that is not something to be ignored in the slightest. It is not simply a matter of window-dressing. But Obama is indeed a very sharp politician who uses his gifts more wisely than most and to often devastating effect against opponents, and I think the run-up to November will be fascinating for that reason, though he’s not going to coast to a victory, not yet.

So there’s a happiness in that I think a very solid Democratic candidate is up against a Republican one whose problems with his party’s most obnoxious elements have been entertaining me for a long while. There’s also a happiness in settling uncertainties on one front even while the long stretch ahead — five months to go! — puts a lot of things still into play. (Iraq, for instance, is seemingly quieter — but there’s much more going on than might be sensed.) But there’s also a simple happiness in seeing a clearly intelligent person who has her own political gifts, and who appreciates policy wonkery, stop making a total fool of herself.

That sounds harsh, I realize. Yet there’s really been no other way to look at it over the past few months. That Obama’s had to make adjustments in the face of antagonism both from Clinton and the GOP is his own burden to bear — the Wright flapdoodle is a prime example (and reminds me about why I’m really uninterested in spiritual leaders as a personal political requirement as such — can’t say I ever remember anyone caring about Reagan’s pastor, for instance, or Carter’s for that matter; I’m not electing a pope or priest even by proxy). But in contrast the only word that can be used to describe Clinton’s approach, most readily seen via her various representatives and ads and the like, would be ‘flailing.’ Not constantly, by any means, but there was always this sense of that camp being spooked, angered, annoyed, that a cool professionalism was being constantly undercut by a near-atavistic explosion of concern.

It’s that loss of cool professionalism which has been the most wince-inducing thing to see happen. Compared to the ranters and goaders out there in the political world, Clinton’s a model of restraint, but in context, the picture that came together over time was something else again. McCain barely had to move for the past few months, of course, so he just skipped along. Obama figured out that acting like the nominee after a certain point would create its own reality and that’s paid him dividends. Clinton had to fight both and…well, we now know.

This all said, there’s a big reason why it was extremely good for everyone why she went through this wringer, namely because it exposed and, hopefully, discredited a cynicism at the heart of her campaign inherited from a certain person she’s married to as well as the team that’s worked for them both. The self-casting of the Clintons as liminal figures — friendly towards certain kinds of liberalisms but trying to show themselves as people who wouldn’t upset the apple cart — isn’t actually that far removed from Obama’s own modus operandi, but Obama’s persona is shaped around a key point: “Hey, America — I am who I am. Deal. Disagree, but deal, and let’s see what we can all do.” From Clinton’s side, their message was, “Look who I’m NOT. And I’ll always nod and wink towards your preconceptions about that.”

Clinton’s depressing series of ads over the weeks fighting against Obama underscored this fundamentally obnoxious approach, with its not-very-implicit codings about race, age and, especially with time, gender (this was actually the most fascinating part of it all, but would require more thought than I have time to go into). Clinton disappeared into this morass of dismal attitudes that just seemed to confirm a lot of the worst fears and assumptions about where we are supposed to be in the evolving experiment that is this country, where we can and do still see the extension of the core idea — freedom and opportunity for all — ever more expanded outward from the limiting conception of it in the late eighteenth century. That the GOP has long been trapped by such cynicism about this core point is its own unshakeable burden; that Clinton replicated it in full is just ridiculous. That Obama kept going forward sunny side up was, in retrospect, not merely a stroke of political genius but gave a tangibility to hope, to change as positive, against a retrenching.

I honestly hope that Clinton doesn’t retreat and disappear. She has intelligence, awareness, a gift of communication in her own right and is no more or less interested in the prospects of power than anyone else in the game. Also, no less so than Obama’s candidacy, the mere fact that she was in the running says something about this country — the Democratic candidate was going to be one or the other of them, and either way a string of assumptions over who was electable in this country to its most primary role was going to be exploded forever, and thank goodness for it. If anything, I hope she finds a point somewhere in the future — sooner, not later — where she simply says, “You know, I was wrong — I didn’t do this like I could have or should have, and I know why.” Maybe not in those words, certainly. But if there’s room for it, let it happen — I was, I think in retrospect rightly, taken slightly to task by Nari a while back when I expressed a strong cynicism of my own in respect to a McCain advisor leaving his team because he felt that Obama’s candidacy represented something promising and positive that he would not wish to oppose. In politics, some cynicism — or maybe more accurately, awareness of cynicism — is required. But the cynicism itself should not always be automatic.

In any event, this particular primary campaign is concluded for all practical purposes, and there will be studies, analyses, books, whatever. Let them come, and let it, perhaps, be an object lesson for the future. It could well be an important one — and maybe more positive will have come out of the Clinton campaign than might have been guessed.

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Hurrah for some sort of focus

That may sound a bit underwhelming (or underwhelmed) but while things are still being drawn out by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the likelihood is that Barack Obama will be securing the nomination in relatively short order. Which I’m more than fine with, really — the hypercheerleaders for him were sometimes a bit guileless, which I always find amusing when it comes to politics, but I’ve heard it argued, and quite understandably, that you need to be cheerily positive to some degree or another to succeed in American politics in general, and if that’s the case then Obama’s got it in spades and so do a lot of his supporters. It’s all good there, and we’ll see what goes from here.

But it’s a slog. A big ol’ slog, half a year. I’ve hammered my larger points about what will determine the election home often enough on here that I’ll spare you for now (but maybe not later). Instead it’s interesting to see what other undercurrents are up for grabs right about now. For instance:

  • As I linked yesterday, John McCain made a speech about judicial philosophy and making sure to appoint the right sorts of judges and so forth. The issue of the Supreme Court is a massive one that I’ve not ignored, but I admit I’ve underplayed a bit, partially because I see it as an issue that mostly drives those who are invested in the judicial process more fully than I. It isn’t only that, of course, and regardless whether or not you care about constitutional originalism as a theory or not, it’s the practical applications that have mattered to many people.

    But what’s interesting is how the speech has been received by its putative audience, the judiciary-interested right — badly. Or at least, with deep suspicion. Andy McCarthy at NRO:

    The Gang of 14 deal killed more judicial nominations than it saved. It elevated senatorial privilege over constitutional duty. It protected senators who didn’t want to stand up and be counted. It took off the table in 2006 what would have been a winning issue for Republicans. And once the Democrats won the midterm elections, it ensured that Sen. Leahy could take things from there — slow-walking nominations into a record number of vacancies he is waiting for a Democrat president to fill. There’s bipartisanship for you.

    If McCain really wants to open up this debate again, good luck

    There’s plenty similar out there. McCain’s got a long road to walk, at least with this bunch. It may not matter at all in the end, but we’ll see.

  • Where the real paranoia among the GOP seems to be, though, lies in the House:

    …in a closed-door session at the Capitol, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told members that the NRCC doesn’t have enough cash to “save them” in November if they don’t raise enough money or run strong campaigns themselves….Cole, on the defensive in the wake of special election losses in Louisiana and Illinois, pointed his finger Tuesday at his Republican colleagues, telling them that they had been too stingy in helping fund party efforts. He also complained that the Republicans ran weak candidates in both Louisiana and Illinois — a charge Cole made despite the fact that, as NRCC chairman, he could have played a major role in choosing the party’s candidates if he hadn’t made the decision to stay out of GOP primaries.

    In his meeting with members, Cole distributed a document showing that even former Republican political guru Karl Rove had badmouthed Jenkins, according to GOP sources. It’s not clear whether Cole meant it as a criticism of Rove or of Jenkins.

    The idea of the GOP having less money than the Democrats onhand amuses me — shilling for big business openly (as opposed to privately — which plenty of Democrats are happy to do, it should be noted) should have brought them greater rewards, you’d think. Alack.

  • Finally, the current administration is reminding all of us why we loved them so:

    The Bush administration has not found disaster recovery files for White House e-mails from a three-month time period in 2003, according to court documents filed this week, raising the possibility that messages sent before and after the invasion of Iraq may never be recovered.

    The White House chief information officer, Theresa Payton, said in a sworn declaration that the White House has identified more than 400 computer backup tapes from March through September of 2003 but that the earliest recorded file was dated May 23 of that year.

    That period was one of the most crucial of the Bush presidency. The United States launched the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, and President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1.

    Payton and other officials said that older e-mails could still be contained on the tapes because of the way the files are dated.

    Of course. Did I mention the raid on the Office of Special Counsel?

How much of any of this remains as even an undercurrent in six months is unclear, still. Long, long ways to go yet. But for now, the narrative at least got a little sharper. The better for the various unkindest cuts to come.

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Random thoughts? Why sure!

[EDIT -- well I didn't expect to be linked to CNN this morning about the SDSU case, that's for sure. Greetings all! Just a heads-up that there's really nothing much in my entry here about it, it's mostly links and quotes from other stories, but if you'd like to take the time to explore the site in general you'd be very welcome.]

A strangely full day and I’ve got a lot of writing ahead of me tonight. So in brief:

  • Oh hey there were some more primaries today who knew! Not me! There hasn’t been any coverage about that at all! Obama takes North Carolina in a walk and it’s more down to the wire in Indiana. Etc. etc. Meanwhile McCain tries to make the hard-right judicial wonks happy, which won’t please anyone else besides them. In sum…talk to everyone after West Virginia next week.
  • The existence of the continuing race however has led to the best photo I’ve seen in a long time from it:

    Bartles and Jaymes and Obama.  Well not really.

    Friend Tombot captioned this as “THE MANY KINDS OF HUMAN TEETH” and it seems hard to disagree.

  • Meanwhile, down south from here, it is proven that at San Diego State University frat guys can be, shall we say, creative when it comes to extracurricular activities:

    A year-long investigation at San Diego State University has resulted in 96 people being arrested on drug- related charges, including 75 students, officials said Tuesday.

    Officers infiltrated seven campus fraternities. In some fraternities, most of the members were aware of organized drug dealing occurring from the houses by other members, officials said.

    Narcotics authorities said the sales were predominantly arranged by text messages.

    The drug dealers “weren’t picky about who they sold to,” Mosler said.

    Weber said the fraternities involved, Theta Chi and Phi Kappa Psi, could face sanctions such as expulsion from the campus.

    There’s plenty to be cynical about in this whole affair, frankly — without trying to make light of a tragic situation, I note that this particular investigation was started due to a fatal overdose by an attractive young white female student, whereas I have to idly wonder what overdoses off-campus by people not fitting that description might have occurred, say. The whole question of drug laws and their enforcement is its own questionmark as well.

    Regardless, the one thing that comes to mind in reading up on all this is how much goofiness there is in all this. For instance, there’s this:

    Kenneth Ciaccio, 19, a member of the Theta Chi fraternity, allegedly sent out a mass text-message to “faithful customers,” saying that he was traveling to Las Vegas and would not be able to make his normal cocaine sales, the DEA said.

    Odd enough, but further comedy ensued when SDSU tried to expunge a puff-piece he appeared in last year on their website — more details here. (The piece itself is still cached over here, at least for now.)

    Then there’s this great bit:

    Officials said among those arrested is Michael Montoya, a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, who was one month away from obtaining his master’s degree in Homeland Security. Montoya also worked as a community service officer on campus and reported to campus police.

    Another student majoring in criminal justice was arrested for possession of 500 grams of cocaine and two guns, officials said.

    “A sad commentary is that when one of these individuals was arrested, he inquired as to whether or not his arrest and incarceration would have an effect on his becoming a federal law enforcement officer,” said Ralph Partridge, special agent-in-charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

    If he delivered that line with a straight face, I salute him.

Iraq. The economy. Repeat.

As I’ve said before and will say again, yes, but after pointing out a couple of things I will refine what I’ve been going on about a little more clearly.

First, Iraq — if I’ve not mentioned it before, you really should be going to the iCasualties site on a regular basis. From that we can learn:

  • 141 American military deaths this year so far.
  • 2817 Iraqi deaths so far — that have been reported, at least.

Further, going from there to the Reuters summation of reports in Iraq, these are the type of things that can happen on any given Sunday or Monday:

* TIKRIT – Two U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Salahuddin province, the U.S. military said. Two other U.S. soldiers, two Iraqi security volunteers and a civilian translator were wounded.

* BASRA – A local councillor in a town near the southern city of Basra was assassinated in front of his home by unknown gunmen, police said.

* MOSUL – A roadside bomb struck a police car in the northern part of the northern city of Mosul, wounding two policemen, police said.

* BASRA – Iraqi forces arrested a gang responsible for kiddnapping and killing doctors, clerics and women in Basra, said Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf.

* MUSAYYIB – A U.S. drone aircraft crashed near Musayyib, south of Baghdad, and was recovered, the U.S. military said.

* BAGHDAD – Four bodies were found around the capital on Monday. BAGHDAD – U.S. forces killed three militants on Monday morning who had shot a rocket-propelled grenade at their patrol in New Baghdad in the southeast part of the capital, the U.S. military said.

BAGHDAD – A U.S. drone aircraft fired a Hellfire missile at three heavily-armed militants in Sadr City, east Baghdad, on Sunday night, killing all of them, the U.S. military said.

SOUTHERN IRAQ – The Iraqi Defence Ministry said Iraqi forces killed 30 militants in southern Iraq over the past 24 hours.

BAGHDAD – Militants fired a rocket on Sunday that landed in the Kadhimiya area of northern Baghdad, killing one civilian and wounding eight, the U.S. military said. Also in Kadhimiya, an improvised explosive device detonated in front of a U.S. patrol, killing one civilian and wounding three, the U.S. military said.

And so forth. Spelling out the implications hardly seems necessary but let me remind everyone that this is now seen as an ‘improved’ situation. It is, comparatively — and that’s the only level it has improved on. But hundreds of people are still dying in droves. You can’t explain that away with a handwave.

The questions have all been asked before but note how they are no nearer a resolution — how long is this all going to take? How much is it worth? Is it worth it all? What is the purpose of continuing? There are melodramatic and foolish things which could and have been said all around on this issue but a little more hardheadedness at this point would not go amiss. For everything like Petraeus getting nominated to head Central Command, there’s a report on how the patchwork coordination of reconstruction efforts is a bureaucratic disaster. For every bit of waffle that Rice delivers, say, you get stuff like this:

Iraq is resisting U.S. proposals for a pair of new bilateral security agreements, saying it expects Washington to compromise on “sensitive issues,” including the right to imprison Iraqi citizens unilaterally, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Monday.

Other problematic areas now being negotiated, Zebari said in an interview, are provisions in U.S. drafts to give American contractors immunity from Iraqi law and allow the United States to conduct military operations without Iraqi government coordination. “These are the main ones, but there could be others,” he said, among them “issues of sites, of locations, of access” by U.S. troops.

Even after Blackwater the whole issue of the contractors is still up in the air. Are you surprised? Why, if you are? Why are you surprised about ANY of this?

As for that economy, where to start? (Right now, understandably, people are jawing about gas prices, but I admit that given the growing worldwide food crisis I think there’s a bigger problem to think about — higher gas prices in comparison are the type of problems you want to have, trust me.) Anyway, there’s this piece on Moody’s as credit raters which is instructive, and elsewhere here’s a little something:

Default notices — the first step toward foreclosure — were sent to owners of 110,000 California homes from Jan. 1 to March 31, according to La Jolla- based DataQuick Information Systems. That’s about 1.4% of the homes in the state.

Defaults are up 143% from the same period last year. Homeowners in default can avoid foreclosure by catching up on payments, refinancing or selling. But fewer are doing so.

Just 32% of the properties in default will avoid foreclosure, DataQuick estimates, down from 52% a year ago.

There are other examples.

There is something interesting to note, however, about the tone of the comments in the LA Times blog linking to that story at a lot of places. A couple of examples:

It would be fascinating to learn how many of these foreclosures were to illegal immigrants.

Just another reason why Americans are fleeing Mexifornia.

I’m not surprised. I moved to the mid-west – flyover country to the elitists on the coasts. But we’re not having forclosure problems. Anyway, every time I visit California, I shake my head at the high degree of materialism goin going there. I’m glad I left.

As other comments on the blog indicate, this story was apparently linked by Drudge — and that could explain a lot of things. Yet there’s another slew of comments worth noting, the ones saying things like “Most mortgages are being paid just fine, this is a nonstory!” What’s implied there, simply put, is that there’s a status quo which is — potentially, conditionally — content and not feeling affected by the larger situation — at least, not yet.

What’s the larger point to make here? Nothing deep — this is only a refinement of something I’ve long since concluded — but still can be pointed out. It goes something like this:

According to this official US Census notice from 2005, voter turnout in the US presidential election was 64% of the potential electorate, up from 60% four years previously. Turn this around, though — this meant that 36% didn’t vote, and that this 36% in fact consisted of the biggest voting bloc of the presidential election, larger than the numbers for Bush or Kerry. That’s a big chunk of people who shrugged and thought ‘heck with it’ — setting aside questions of good citizenship, the implied meaning of their ‘vote’ is that they felt that it didn’t matter to their lives who was in, whether because they thought things wouldn’t change anyway or that they were just fine as they are or whatever. It is an embrace, however conscious, of a status quo that is believed to be generally inalterable.

The meaning of that requires more time and research than I can put into it, though doubtless it’s been done. As the primaries grind on and looking further ahead into the future becomes less of a projection, I find myself wondering about that 36% and what will change this time around. We hear a lot of talk about energized voters among the Democratic Party supporters and I think this is a true statement, though prone to potential misreading (thus John Cole’s take on Pennsylvania votes last night — when he says “What is shocking is the turnout- 2.5 million Democrats versus 750k Republicans voting statewide. That can not be good for the GOP down-ticket this fall,” he is right but at the same time the Republican race has long since been decided, so I would be cautious out of seeing a specific sign here).

But as long as that chunk of the nonvoting populace — and more specifically its near cousin, the ‘undecided until the election is almost here’ group, which is way larger than political junkies ever realize and which is almost invisible to many of them unless they’re regularly speaking with nonjunkies — is up for play, along with the implicit conservatism of that group (not in a political sense per se, but again, in a sense of ‘things are fine as they are,’ however conveyed), then November ain’t a done deal for the Democratic Party by a long shot. Congress, I’ve no doubt, will stay Democratic and will probably become even more so. But the presidency is still up for grabs.

So to conclude, when I keep mentioning ‘Iraq, economy,’ I am operating with a basic projection of the data to hand, combined with my own thoughts on the American electorate as a whole and how our society has functioned over the years. This projection tells me, right now:

  • If some combination of Iraq and the economy, or even one of them, gets so noticeably bad that the implications are inescapable, the GOP gets the blame because of the current inhabitant of the White House. McCain loses, the Democratic candidate wins.
  • If Iraq and the economy both maintain themselves at the level they are at now — causing discontent and some concern but not otherwise going obviously and immediately to hell in a handbasket, yet — then barring some complete disaster on his part, which I don’t rule out at all, McCain wins. He wins in a close election perhaps, but he wins.

In both cases, it comes down to the non-voting bloc and the undecided bloc — the majority of voters. There are other factors and there will be other things that come up that nobody even knows about yet, and if my projection turns out to be wrong, it’s wrong. I’m obviously talking big here but this is just my own cockeyed view. But it’s the possible pair of futures that makes the most sense to me and which looks beyond the primaries to November, when it all comes together.

It’s all down to the calendar. There’s still over half a year to go. And so, we wait.

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And just remember on this, the day of the Pennsylvania primary

That we’ve got Guam next week and Indiana and North Carolina in two weeks time.

For fun!

(I think I have figured out why I’m under the weather today.) More tomorrow.

In a manner of speaking, semantics won’t do

So while I was away I got a copy of the Winston Tong overview on LTM, In a Manner of Speaking, in the mail. Great collection from a very underrated artist — friendly guy as well, we’ve exchanged a couple of e-mails in the past based on reviews for the All Music Guide I’ve done. His most famous song, done as part of a Tuxedomoon album, provides the title of the compilation, and having been familiar for years with the Martin Gore cover as well as the Nouvelle Vague remake a couple of years back it was nice to finally hear the original — I can be awfully lazy sometimes when it comes to tracking down things! It’s also especially enjoyable to hear how all three versions are quite different from each other — Tuxedomoon’s spare, understatedly intense take is not Gore’s warm, tremulous take is not Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova take etc.

But while I was also away something else came up covering semantics and speaking, namely a certain comment a few days back by one Senator Obama and the attendant fallout, which for now seems to have reached a concluding point with last night’s frustrating and infuriating debate. The amount of venting of pure rage at Charlie Gibson as moderator in particular still seems to be roiling, and a lot of it is due to the questions and how everything was pitched and aimed at the candidates — and it had to be a sign of the stars aligning when Jonah Goldberg’s comment about how the debate seemed to be little more than ‘Republican water-carrying’ almost perfectly echoed the sentiments unfolding on the respective ILX thread at the same time. To say that there are a lot of grumpy people this morning — as well as a few thrilled ones thinking McCain came out on top as a result, thus increasing the grumpiness — understates.

Getting into some sort of kvetch against mass media idiocy and the confusions and conflations of politics and policy right now — tempting as it is and being a continuation of past sentiments of mine over the years anyway — isn’t my goal in this post. Nor is it the fact that more than ever candidates are under surveillance with an even closer eye thanks to the Net (“citizen journalism” as a term annoys me for some reason; that might be a subject for a further post). Still, the whole ‘bitter’ fallout reminds me of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, a now justly-famed take on language and meaning covering ‘key words’ in terms of cultural study. I cannot claim to be an expert on Williams and will not try to pretend otherwise but a core value of the book lies in unpacking how language changes and takes on new contextual meanings with political resonance.

To my mind that’s been the chief value of the whole ‘bitter’ kerfluffle and all that comes from it — it’s been noted already that because Obama spoke to an invited audience he likely assumed a certain general agreement among his listeners, however unconsciously, and similarly there’s an unconscious sense of how words can be taken by such audiences — as a general rule, not in specifics, of course (otherwise this would not have been reported in the first place). This isn’t any great shakes to observe on my part, but contextual meaning of a word that becomes a keyword (or a keyword itself) mutates constantly and probably accelerates all the more quickly in this century, though a general rule still applies of there being a lowest-common-denominator take on things versus a slew of minority readings covering any amounts of nuance.

I’m not a politician and I’m not campaigning for votes on the broadest possible spectrum in a nation-state, ie actually at the nation-state level rather than something smaller. The pressures on how to address or respond to certain groups and their collective or individual questions, or to say what might be assumed they want to hear, are manifold pressures and they are not mine, they’re not most of anybody’s. Under a microscope, all three candidates have misspoken at best, betrayed some deep concerns at worst (that may sound unduly cynical but I think it’s best to assume that whatever your feelings on the three candidates, what you’re hoping for more than anything out of your preferred choice is not to be a stellar and world-changing figure but simply someone who can amelioriate idiocies of recent years — and a big reason why Obama captures the attention he does is precisely because he is not as obviously invested in those idiocies).

Still, being careful of one’s choice of words is all the more important now, even as this whole thing grinds on, and on. The votes in the end act as a voice in response to the candidates’ own words, and the last thing any of them want — and Obama especially knows it now — is a response where, to quote Tong’s stellar lyric again, silence becomes reprimand.

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Pre-EMP mid-week this and that and more besides

Things are quite full today — hey, perfect timing for a quick vacation, even if EMP is one of the busiest and most thoughtful gatherings out there even as just an audience participant, trust me. So more elaborate thoughts will have to wait a bit, but I did want to touch on a few things briefly that I’d addressed before:

  • The Petraeus/Crocker reports to the Senate went off as expected — meaning there wasn’t much going on beyond restatement of previously stated positions. Today’s testimony in the House was more crabby but otherwise the kabuki continues. We’ll just have to wait on what happens in between now and the next reports closer to the election…which will be of no consolation to all the dead and wounded in between then and now.
  • The fallout from the grand jury testimony regarding Theo Lacy Jail in OC is set to run for a while, as noted yesterday — what I had hoped to point out, but had no time to do, is the tension noted in some of the OC Register reader comments, between law-and-order types who were excusing the behavior and…law-and-order types condemning it. Which I’m more than happy to see in the latter case — there were folks angrily, and rightfully, denouncing the dereliction of duty and abuse of the power of the badge, who in more than a few cases were speaking from the perspective of those who had in fact worn the badge, or served in the military or something similar. (In another instance, someone who had been a victim of a violent attack made clear she would not have wanted this kind of beyond-vigilante justice wielded against her attacker — as cogent a case as any against the odious mindset that supports it.)
  • You’ll note that I’ve not had much chance to post on food lately — it’s because I’ve not had much chance to do some proper cooking! (Trips plus start of quarter crunch = me wondering what to quickly stir-fry tonight and have done with it.) But more upon my return — but in the meantime, there are three amusing food-related stories to share that I stumbled across.
  • “Latest College Reading Lists: Menus With Pho and Lobster” reads the headline, and while this is clearly the province of more elite colleges it is an interesting example of the power of tastes changing as well as the power of expectation — the same impulse that drives the worldwide push to the ‘Western model’ in many ways (cars, varied diets, etc.). A simplistic statement but the two are connected conceptually, and reflects the idea of demanding higher and higher baselines. But are they affordable in the end?
  • This profile of Washington-area chef Patrick O’Connell is simultaneously an incredible celebration of good food and its preparation and the portrait of a personality that’s a classic example of someone who it might be best to admire from afar. Just a guess, really, and maybe I’m wrong, but if after thirty years in the same location you refer, even off-handedly, to the folks in the place where your business is as ‘bumpkins,’ I’d like to think you might need to get a better handle on what to say to who, really…
  • Bobby Egan — New Jersey barbecue joint owner, fishing fanatic, pal to the North Korean representatives at the UN. Uh.

With that, hope everyone’s well — probably a couple of other posts before my trip to come, otherwise get ready for a flood of EMP liveblogging over the next few days!

“…we must put the nation’s interests before our own ambitions”

So one senator John McCain said today in advance of something tomorrow which can be summed up very simply:

With Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to testify before Congress on Tuesday, all three presidential candidates will have an opportunity to ask questions — McCain and Clinton on the Armed Services Committee in the morning, Obama on the Foreign Relations Committee in the afternoon.

And finally, things fully dovetail as they were going to inevitably do anyway — and it won’t be for the last time.

My broken-record (skipping-CD? corrupted-file?) observations about what will determine this election in the end remain unchanged, but what we’ve been waiting on is a combination of some sort of direct comments in the political theater as opposed to campaign speeches and debates as well as an observation of an intriguing dynamic that will be played out to one extent or another the following year. The combination is here, at last.

To talk about the dynamic first — Petraeus, through a combination of events, is going to be facing all three of his future bosses on Tuesday, not something he hasn’t done before at all but this is the first time where it’s all clear that it will be the case (for perspective, keep in mind that the last time he testified, Giuliani was theoretically running away with the nomination in a heartbeat). He is not the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of course, but it has been noted that the working relationship between him and the current president is a bit out of the ordinary in its direct closeness — and there’s a question as to whether that would continue or not at this point. With McCain, it would be likely; with either Clinton or Obama, less so — a pat conclusion but also an accurate one.

Had things been continuing on the up and up in Iraq tomorrow’s events would be a bit more set in stone, but at present things are in a muddle — not a collapse, but a muddle. If anything, whether it’s in a combination of halting troop withdrawals and increasingly public mutterings from folks in the Pentagon about the Army needing some sort of service break in particular or just another dully familiar observation of death in Iraq — we’re talking airstrikes and gun battles in Baghdad again — the optimists are sounding more hollow than they have been in a while. Thus McCain’s invocation of things like “the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests and the future of the Middle East” — the usual boilerplate, unsurprising, and meant to jolt everyone into recognizing the ‘truth’ of the matter, when the terrible fact of the matter is all this talk has simply become a background shrug. McCain can’t keep the politics out of his approach no matter what he says, which is in part the point.

But neither will Clinton or Obama, of course. So the comments they will inevitably make are going to be aimed at the voters just as much as McCain’s will be, but even more importantly will be aimed at a Pennsylvania audience — which may sound cynical, but what else does one expect at this point? It’ll be part of the campaigning in the run up to their primary by default, and any sort of slip or confrontation will result in plenty of egg on the face. Such a political disaster is unlikely to happen, but it will be capitalized on if it does, and it might be out of their control in any event. On that front, McCain has little to worry about — he can blithely act as the prospective nominee he is, the one who was ‘right’ on Iraq, and cadge more points among the conservative skeptics as he can.

So the ‘nation’s interests’ aren’t going to be placed before anything here, really — it’s part and parcel, the idea being that all three are aiming to present themselves as the best person to help said interests. Ultimately I’m not expecting much — it’s going to be the next time Petraeus appears before Congress which will be of interest. It will be before the November election, two out of the three will be facing him across the table once again (a slight pity that, as looks likely, said two will be the ones on different panels — a joint appearance would have the function of a further debate appearance without softball questions), and it will be after a long, hot summer that I’m not looking forward to, and in which the key question of if remaining in Iraq is worth it will be more hotly debated than before.

This is the dress rehearsal. Or even, in many ways, the real opening act, finally arrived.

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Forget the 3 am phone call

[By way of acknowledgment of the news, this political post o' the day is not a post about E***t S*****r and his curiously bad sense of what a governor should do on a night out. But as Cutty put it just now on ILX, "this has nothing to do with sex, it has to do with a lawmaker and governor abiding by the fucking law, no matter what the moral stance on it is." Sounds about right.]

Ever since Hillary Clinton came out with that 3 am phone call ad to use against Obama — and especially since there was a poll result with people going “Gee, in that situation I’d most prefer McCain answering the phone” — there’s been a understandable focus on the question of national security in a crisis situation.

Problem is, most of what’s been discussed is folderol, or misses the point. To explain:

Consider what happened on 9/11, conspiracy theories aside (please — for your sanity, for mine). That Bush struck a weirdly dull figure at various points during the day I’m actually not so concerned about; personally I always ascribed it to being as shocked and horrified as most of the rest of us. If you want to assume otherwise, feel free, but to my mind the more important reactions were those of the national security apparatus as such, from the FAA to the military to the executive branch chain of command. There’s a lot of grist for the mill there and a good amount of it isn’t positive, but even so, there was something operating, however haphazardly, responding to a crisis.

In otherwards, it’s not so much the 3 am phone call as the means by which the 3 am phone call is placed, the process of getting information up the chain and responding otherwise in the meantime. That there’s a ‘buck stops here’ role the president plays in such a situation is clear. The whole missed point of that ad and all the kerfluffle that followed from it, though, is that it’s a rarity — not an impossibility, not even necessarily an improbability, but a rarity. It’s what’s to be expected from an ad as well as from general rhetoric, a melodramatic heightening of a situation.

What I’d prefer to see and sense in a president is how they handle — or more accurately, how well they delegate and work with others to handle — and address the long term foreign policy concerns, not the crises. What do they do with the slow unfolding situations, the irresolvable ones or the ones that will take much longer than four or even eight years to settle, and how would they address those? It’s not that those questions aren’t asked either, but they’re still framed in terms of near-immediate danger, the ‘gift’ of 9/11 that keeps on giving.

Here’s three items of note to keep in mind, for instance:

  • The other day China reported the resolution of a planned terrorist attack during the Beijing Olympics as well as a foiled airline attack. Many reactions have been typical, including trumpeting about a purported worldwide jihad and skepticism of what the centralized government’s been up to. The folks over at Stratfor, meanwhile, mentioned in a mailing that what’s often forgotten is that China, as much a ‘go west young man’ state entity as America has been, reached out and claimed its western territory as part of a process of centuries, with the question of who is ‘Chinese’ something that has never fully been resolved as a result — and that the occasional outbursts of pseudo-’reconquista’ paranoia here are as nothing in comparison.
  • The just-concluded Spanish elections reveal a society that has a deeply polarized political split dealing with an annoyed populace — hauntingly familiar in and of itself. But as an integrated part of a larger European community itself riven by question of internal identity — notably they were one of the votes against recognizing Kosovo, in large part precisely because of the debates over separatism within its own country, including Galicia, Catalonia and most notably the Basque region — it can serve as a microcosm for larger political issues at play in general democracies in the 21st century, however conceived.
  • Elsewhere in Europe, the question of the anti-missile system being set up in Eastern Europe which has riled Russia hasn’t gone away, and the latest move — on the part of a recently elected Polish government — is to ask for the US to commit resources towards modernizing its military. The current Polish premier, Donald Tusk, has noted that Poland should “not be subjected to any undue security risks” by the missile deal, muddying waters that were already murky to begin with.

In all these cases what you’re seeing here is the type of thing that a president, when consider overseas interests, has to keep in mind far more regularly — and constantly — than a middle-of-the-night phone call. Which of these three situations, for instance, most immediately concerns the US? Do any of them have a truly high priority? If they do, how should they be addressed? Should they even be addressed? Can certain things be shrugged off?

This all may sound like a political science class exercise, or something from Model United Nations. But there’s a serious point to be made here, even if I am making it somewhat haphazardly. However much we respond emotionally to the kind of scenarios that a show like 24 makes people think are unfolding every second of the day, that sites like Jihad Watch are trying to browbeat us into thinking we are a step away from the destruction of the nation, there are other security issues here — and I’ve not even touched on intertwined national economies and energy issues yet — which will be of more paramount importance, and will require more than a fantasy of barking a coolly competent order to some professional military strike squad to save the day. From negotiations to communications, that’s the day to day world that a president deals with 99% of the time, internally as well as externally.

So dream or have nightmares about 3 am phone calls all you’d like — I’d be more interested in thinking about 3 pm meetings where a bunch of diplomats, having worked for months upon a resolution of a festering situation that is deemed important to the national interest, find themselves at an impasse and turn to a president or high ranking cabinet member for even a bit of inspiration or a way to rethink the problem in a different light. And I’d rather vote for the one who will best show they can deal with that.

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