Monday, February 25, 2008

Fear Strikes Out

Test the average man by asking him to listen to a simple sentence which contains one word with associations to excite his prejudices, fears or passions -- he will fail to understand what you have said and reply by expressing his emotional reaction to the critical word. -- Aleister Crowley

The Weekly Sift is now it's own blog. (Which should be obvious if that's where you're reading these words.) I bill it as "a political blog for people who don't have time to follow political blogs." My occasional longer political pieces will still be on Open Source Journalism and my philosophical/religious stuff on Free and Responsible Search.

Fear-mongering, Week II
We're still not dead.

This week President Bush and the Republicans did their best to convince us that our continuing survival (in the wake of the expiration of the Protect America Act a week ago Saturday) is just some kind of happy accident that we shouldn't count on. As President Bush put it in his weekly radio address:
Congress' failure to pass this legislation was irresponsible. It will leave our Nation increasingly vulnerable to attack. And Congress must fix this damage to our national security immediately. ... Somewhere in the world, at this very moment, terrorists are planning the next attack on America.
Here's the audio link. It fascinates me that even on the radio, where all he has worry about is his voice, President Bush still sounds like he's reading a text he doesn't understand. Frank Caliendo still does a better Bush impression than Bush does.

At the start of a 9-minute polemic (that I didn't watch all the way to the end either), MSNBC host Keith Olbermann summarized the issue concisely: "President Bush has put protecting the telecom giants from the law above protecting you from the terrorists." The House has already passed an extension of the Protect America Act that doesn't include immunity for the telecoms. President Bush has promised to veto it, and Congressional Republicans have boycotted a bipartisan meeting to work out the differences between the two PAA-extension bills. That's how urgent they think this really is. If ordinary Americans get their day in court, the terrorists win.

The issue fundamentally comes down to a difference between two visions of how the power to spy on American citizens should be controlled. In the Republican vision, the President's people go to the telecom companies informally and get their cooperation with no oversight from anyone outside the executive branch. (What could possibly go wrong with that?) In the Democratic vision, we follow the Fourth Amendment and require that some neutral party issue a warrant -- in this case, a FISA court specially designed to be quick and secure; if time is critical, the warrant can even be issued retroactively. The often-repeated claim that the FISA oversight structure is inadequate has never been supported by any evidence whatsoever. Whenever challenged, the Republicans always skip over evidence and go straight to fear-mongering.

In the most over-the-top element of the fear campaign, the House Republican Conference sponsored an Internet video made in the style of 24. (Somebody needs to tell them that 24 isn't a documentary.) It's got red-LED countdowns and weapon-waving jihadists and music that seems to be building towards some ultimate doom. The Republican video almost parodies itself, but that didn't stop another two parodies from appearing almost instantly. The first uses all the same visual elements, but turns the narration around to tell the story of the heroic House Democrats standing up for the Constitution. The second goes straight for yucks and is absolutely hilarious. It ends with: "This message paid for by Republicans trying to get you to crap your pants so that you forget how we screwed everything up."

The fascinating thing about this video back-and-forth is that the Democratic Party had nothing to do with it. In the Internet Age, the capacity to make compelling video is widely distributed, so the battle plays out like Microsoft vs. Linux. On the one hand you have the minions of our corporate overlords, and on the other you have the voluntary creativity of the people.

The Revelations about St. John
It all started Thursday, when the New York Times published an article about John McCain and a much younger female lobbyist. Back in 1999, the NYT claimed, McCain staffers were worried that their boss was having an affair that might threaten his campaign. If you read carefully, the story was about appearances and McCain's lack of judgment, not about sex per se. But that's not what caught everybody's attention.

By almost all accounts, the article was a bad piece of journalism. Here's what the Times' own public editor said Sunday:
The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof ... A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.
But after the article appeared, two interesting things happened. The first, which I think is noteworthy because it points up an essential difference between liberals and conservatives, is that the liberals blogs handled the story in a partisan-but-responsible way: From the get-go, most of them played down the poorly supported sex angle and instead focused on the legitimate connections-to-lobbyists angle. (Maybe we remember how easily stories about "appearances" turn into smears, like the Washington Post's article about the rumors that Obama is a Muslim.) OpenLeft's first article on the brewing scandal was ambivalent: "I wish the focus of the story had been more on the corruption angle than the sex angle." Kevin Drum wrote: "If McCain didn't have an affair, there's no story. If he did, then let's hear the evidence." Jane Hamsher: "the part of the story they're obsessing about (alleged sex) isn't really the story at all." Matthew Yglesias sums up: "In a nation of 300 million people, I'm sure some people on the left have jumped at the opportunity to skewer McCain, but just about every liberal I read has taken the time to note that the Times' sexual innuendos were a pretty inappropriate way to frame a news story."

The second interesting thing was this: On the lobbying and corruption side of the story, McCain's denials didn't add up, and in some respects were simply false. The lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, was working for Paxson Communications (and according to the Washington Post "extolling her connections to McCain ... she would regularly volunteer ... to be the point person for the telecom industry in dealing with McCain's office."). McCain, then the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote two letters (described by the FCC chairman as "highly unusual") pressuring the FCC to approve Paxson's purchase of a Pittsburgh TV station. According to the Post article: "At the time he sent the first letter, McCain had flown on Paxson's corporate jet four times to appear at campaign events and had received $20,000 in campaign donations from Paxson and its law firm." Iseman was on the jet with him at least once.

The McCain campaign responded that McCain had never spoken to anyone at Paxson about the issue. But it turned out that he had. And he had testified to it himself in a 2002 deposition discovered by Newsweek: "I was contacted by Mr. [Lowell] Paxson on this issue." The McCain campaign tried to weasel out of the contradiction by saying that McCain was using "shorthand" for the fact that Paxson's staff had talked to McCain's staff. But that turned out not to be true either: The Washington Post talked to Paxson, who verified that he met McCain face-to-face in his office.

Now, as I said last week, McCain is a politician. And the Paxson exchange-of-favors is garden-variety corruption in Washington today. If you threw out everybody who did something like this, Congress might be empty. (One chapter of Obama's The Audacity of Hope consists of his thoughts while riding on a private jet and wondering how this easy luxury might corrupt him.) But this is news because it unravels the whole "straight talk" image. If you ask John McCain an embarrassing question, he just might lie to you. Color me shocked. Horrified.

Why Words Matter
One way to tick off a writer is to say that something is "just words." It's like telling a cancer researcher that his new drug is just a molecule. So I feel a professional obligation to point out the significance of Barack Obama's ability to inspire people with words.

It comes down to this: By the time the public sees an issue, powerful behind-the-scenes processes have already shaped the possibilities. That's why President Bush can't be impeached, despite the ample grounds. Any discussion is immediately written off as pointless; it's impossible. That's why we can't have single-payer health care, and why we can't pull our troops out of Iraq. As soon as you open your mouth, people start rolling their eyes. Why even talk about something that's impossible?

Bill Clinton's biggest failing as a president wasn't that he couldn't keep his pants zipped, it was that he couldn't change the possibilities. He inherited a trail map of the Possible from the Reagan/Bush years. And though he tried to walk down the most humane and sensible paths, he never changed the map. When he left office, we were still talking about deregulation, Saddam, balancing the budget, global free trade, welfare reform -- Reagan/Bush issues. That's why Bush Jr. could restart the rightward push so easily: Clinton never really stopped it.

If we're ever going to change the possibilities, we need a president who can go over the heads of the possibility-defining establishment and talk directly to the people. Obama can do that. Bill Clinton couldn't and Hillary Clinton can't either. That matters.

Here's the video of Obama's speech in Houston after winning the Wisconsin primary. (You can skip the first 6:30, which is a wildly cheering crowd followed by some Texas-specific stuff.) I found it jaw-droppingly effective. My wife wanted to go to bed, but couldn't pull herself away from the TV. I don't remember ever having that reaction while watching either Bill or Hillary.

Previews of the Fall Campaign
Two developments strike me as previews of the Republican plans for an anti-Obama fall campaign. The first is the use of trivia to suggest that Obama is unpatriotic. He doesn't wear a flag pin. Apparently there's some photo of him not holding his hand over his heart during the national anthem. This seems modeled on the pledge-of-allegiance "issue" that Bush Sr. exploited against Dukakis in 1988. (Let's not even get into National Review's implication that Obama's parents must have been Communists.)

The second is to jump on any Obama story that sounds implausible to Republicans and charge that Obama must have made it up. We saw it happen this week with Obama's story about an officer in Afghanistan who didn't have his full platoon because some soldiers had been sent to Iraq. (The story checks out.) They did the same thing with John Edwards' claims about homeless veterans earlier in the campaign. Expect the Right to manufacture a bunch of these incidents and then turn them into an Obama-makes-things-up theme, as they did to Al Gore in 2000.

After writing the above, I discovered the Kevin Drum was having similar thoughts.

The YouTube Election, Part II
I already talked about videos in the fear-mongering section, but the creative political audio and video just keeps coming.

My favorite is a message to Ralph Nader from an anonymous supporter of his 2000 campaign, asking him not to run again. The gag is that all of the Nader-2000 people have to be anonymous now, so Phil Donahue and Michael Moore appear with black rectangles over their eyes. (Too bad Ralph ignored it. Obama's response to the Nader announcement: "He thought that there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush, and eight years later I think people realize that Ralph did not know what he was talking about.")

Second best is The Art of Speech, which is made in the style of a 1950s instructional video. It contrasts the bad example of a lifeless speaker named John ("Old Stone Face") with the good example of an animated speaker who happens to be Obama.

One of my heroes, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, has started a Change Congress campaign and is deciding whether to run for Congress himself. He explains it in this video. (I consulted a California progressive activist on Lessig's chances in the CA-12 district, and though he also admires Lessig, he was pessimistic.)

You can watch sock puppets explain the new economy and neoliberalism. This rock song by Max and the Marginalized protests Clinton's attempt to count the rule-breaking Michigan and Florida primaries. A Spanish folk music video (with English subtitles) brings the Obama message to Hispanics. Jon Stewart had a very political Oscar monologue, which you can see here.

Short Notes
A lot of the Internet video I watched this week wasn't political. I recommend the darkly funny and engaging series You Suck at Photoshop. Ostensibly, these are 5-6 minute instructional videos made by some Photoshop geek named Donnie who you never see. (They all start: "Hi, my name is Donnie, and you suck at Photoshop.") But stories emerge as you watch Donnie alter his pictures, and you come to understand that what really sucks in Donnie's life has nothing to do with you or with Photoshop.

Bookmark this: Donnie's creator Big Fat Brain is a member of My Damn Channel, a consortium of Internet video artists. Another good way to find new videos is through the Did You See This? blog at Slate V.

Everybody's going to be talking about the Atlantic article Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb. Gottlieb recommends that women not hold out for Mr. Right, but should marry Mr. Good-Enough while they're still young and attractive enough to have the opportunity. This article is sure to generate the kind of reactions described by the Crowley quote above. (The "critical word" is settle.) Just for clarity: Mr. Good-Enough isn't the boyfriend who mistreated you or lacked basic life skills; he's the guy you never considered as boyfriend material because he was too short or dressed funny or had an irritating laugh.

In the long run, the biggest story of the week was probably that Musharraf's party got soundly beaten in Pakistan's parliamentary elections. If the new parliament can get its act together, we may find out how you impeach a president for violating the Constitution.

This week's challenge: Can anybody (without using Google) recognize where I got the "Fear Strike Out" title?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Got Death?

He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression. -- Thomas Paine

This weekly series appears every Monday afternoon. It's old name was "What Impressed Me This Week" on the blog Open Source Journalism.

Fearmongering Finally Fails
I can only hope that a few of you are still alive to read this. You see, the Protect America Act expired at midnight Saturday, so America is now unprotected. The continued survival of our nation has become a matter of luck. In fact, the Heritage Foundation has a ticking clock on its web site so that future generations will know just how long it has been since we all died.

Or something like that.

A little background: The PAA amends the FISA law to increase the government's power to spy. It was passed in a big panicked rush right before the Congressional recess last August -- what might have happened otherwise is too horrible to contemplate -- but in a tiny gesture of sanity Congress included a six-month sunset clause, which just expired. The last month or so has seen the most bizarre parliamentary maneuvering. Bush and the Republicans in Congress have threatened vetoes, stalled, filibustered, blocked temporary extensions, and done whatever they could to recreate the situation of August, with Congress up against a hard deadline and no choice other than surrender to the terrorists or give Bush everything he wants -- including retroactive immunity for the telecom companies who broke an unspecified number of laws in helping the administration spy on American citizens.

The Senate caved, convincing me that Chris Dodd should be majority leader. But the House refused to be stampeded and adjourned for a week without taking action. This is probably just a meaningless gesture of rebellion before they give in too, but we've got to enjoy it while we can.

A lot of people are writing about this situation, so I'll link to them rather than reproduce their arguments. Scott Horton wrote before it was clear what the House would do. Glenn Greenwald summarizes the issues and skewers all the right-wing fear-mongering. The best case for telecom immunity comes not from the administration but from liberal blogger Kevin Drum.

The administration's arguments are only impressive if you believe that they would never abuse secrecy or lie to us about the things we aren't allowed to know. They make lots of assertions, but the supporting details are classified, so if they told us they'd have to shoot us. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell wrote in the Washington Post: "Under the Protect America Act, we obtained valuable insight and understanding, leading to the disruption of planned terrorist attacks. Expiration would lead to the loss of important tools our workforce relies on to discover the locations, intentions and capabilities of terrorists and other foreign intelligence targets abroad. Some critical operations ... would probably become impossible." The Balkinization blog characterizes McConnell's article as: "The fox requests immunity for its previous guarding of the chicken coop."

The White House put out a myth/fact sheet on the PAA, but again the "facts" are either uncheckable assertions or pure statements of opinion. And, as Brian Beutler points out, sometimes the "fact" is a non-sequitur, because the administration actually can't deny that the "myth" is true. One "fact" says: "Companies should not be held responsible for verifying the government's determination that requested assistance was necessary and lawful" -- which caused Dan Froomkin to wonder: "But isn't that the very definition of a police state: that companies should do whatever the government asks, even if they know it's illegal?"

And then there's this from President Bush himself:

The American people have got to know that what we did in the past gained information that prevented an attack. And for those who criticize what we did in the past, I ask them, which attack would they rather have not permitted — stopped?.Which attack on America did they — would they have said, well, you know, maybe it wasn't all that important that we stop those attacks.

So apparently there's a secret list of terrorist attacks that didn't happen. We can't look at the list, but Bush challenges us to pick which of these unknown non-happening events we would have wanted to happen. Because it would have failed not to happen if not for ... wait, I'm lost. The whole thing reminds me of this old joke: Auditors are interviewing a big-city mayor about all the relatives he has on the payroll and what they do. When they come to his mother, the mayor explains that she protects the city from tigers. One auditor objects: "But there are no tigers for thousands of miles." And the mayor says: "Don't thank me. Thank Mom."

Who Are They Really?
Back in 2000, the media presented us with two very clear images of the presidential candidates. George W. Bush was a regular guy who'd be fun to hang around with. Al Gore, on the other hand, was a pretentious bore -- preachy, self-important, and generally not somebody you'd want to spend any time with.

Looking back, those images seem pretty ridiculous. Bush is a fun guy if you don't mind him giving you a humiliating nickname like "Turd Blossom" and if you never hint that he might have made a mistake. He's so charming that all his campaign stops in 2004 had to be invitation-only events. Otherwise hard questions from voters might have evoked the Furious George that we saw in the first Bush-Kerry debate.

Gore, meanwhile, becomes more fascinating all the time. He starts companies. He makes movies. He turned around public opinion on global warming. Already in 2000, you might have read Earth in the Balance and seen a guy with wide-ranging curiosity who used his political status to see a lot of interesting things and talk to the smartest people in the world. I'd love to have a chance to sit down with Gore one-on-one.

The purpose of that history lesson is to wonder: Is the same thing happening now? Are lazy journalists fitting the facts into simplistic narratives that lack any foundation in reality? Yeah, I think they are. Let's take the remaining candidates one-by-one.

Obama. Here's the media narrative about Barack Obama: He's an inspiring speaker, but he lacks substance. His way with words is all fuzzy abstraction that masks his lack of detailed understanding.

The "inspiring speaker" part is true. But I saw him answer questions at a rally last summer, and his command of details is as good as anybody's. And if you chase the links on the issues page of Obama's web site, you'll find quite a bit of detailed policy commitment. His health care plan, for example, is a lot more specific than John McCain's -- even though McCain has been able to exploit the media narrative by saying: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas ... is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."

So Wednesday when Obama gave a speech in Janesville, Wisconsin specifically to outline his economic plan, it should have been a man-bites-dog moment, right? If you had the expertise and resources of, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post, think of the service you could offer your readers: You could examine his proposals in detail, get experts to assess whether they would help anybody, figure out what they'd cost, and so on. Readers aren't set up to do that kind of analysis for themselves -- and neither am I, to tell the truth (at least I provide the links) -- but you're a big news organization. It's right up your alley.

Well, maybe not. The Post sort of mentioned that Obama had made some economic proposals, but their article was totally focused on the political tactics behind the proposals: the up-coming Wisconsin primary, Clinton's advantage with working class voters, and on and on. If you want to know what Obama actually proposed, good luck to you. (Matt Yglesias took the Post to task here.) Ditto for the Times: They note that Obama is "adding detail to his oratory", but they treat "detail" as an ingredient, like salt. You don't need to know what the details are, just that he's adding them. And of course, you get a long tactical analysis about why he's adding details and what he hopes they'll do for him with certain kinds of voters.

Here's the upshot: Obama can spell out as much as he wants, but if the Times and the Post are sitting between him and the voters, nothing's going to get through. And even if you're a faithful reader of both the Post and the Times, when the guy in the next cubicle at work says: "That Obama -- he sounds good, but there's nothing there" you won't know enough to argue.

Clinton. In the musical 1776 John Adams doesn't want his personal unpopularity to sink the cause of independence. So he goes from one member of his committee to the next, looking for someone else to write the proposed Declaration. After several rebuffs, he approaches Robert Livingston.

Mr. Livingston, maybe you should write it.
You have many friends, and you're a diplomat.

FRANKLIN: Oh, that word!

Whereas if I'm the one to do it,
They'll run their quill pens through it.

He's obnoxious and disliked.
Did you know that?

LIVINGSTON: I hadn't heard.
Today, you'd have to be as diplomatic as Robert Livingston to claim you hadn't heard this about Hillary Clinton: She's unlikeable. She's cold and calculating and doesn't care about anything but power. Even her supporters don't like her. Women vote for her because she's a woman. Men support her because they have something to gain out of the Clintons' return to power, or because they're racists who don't like Obama, or because they're afraid she's going to win anyway so they want to get on her good side.

Now, I can't claim to have spent quality time with Hillary Clinton. But when I did see her in person at a New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner last March, I didn't find any support for the stereotype. She seemed quite likable to me, and I found one particular part of her message very moving: She talked about all the people who are invisible to the Bush administration, and she promised that as president she would see them.

I've talked to some of those older women who are Hillary's primary base of support. (My mom is one.) You know what? They like her. They don't just support her because she's a woman. They support her because they know the kind of crap a woman has to take to succeed in a man's field. Those women see Hillary sailing through the crap-storm with her head high, and they just admire the heck out of her.

McCain. Clinton supporters often claim that Hillary gets bad coverage because a strong woman threatens the manhood of male pundits like Chris Matthews. They're missing the bigger story: John McCain gets good coverage because he threatens the manhood of male pundits like Chris Matthews.

I feel something similar myself. Like most of the male talking heads on TV, I live in safety and comfort. My physical courage, my ability to think clearly when threatened, that whole Hemingway grace-under-pressure thing -- it's never really been tested. Given the chance, would I be a hero? Would I scream and faint like a little girl? Nobody knows, least of all me.

The intimidating thing about John McCain is that he's been tested and he passed. He knows. That gives him an alpha-dog aura that makes untested men want to follow him around like puppies. When he called on me during the question period at his town-hall meeting, I felt a little thrill that I normally don't. I felt honored. It's irrational, but very effective.

That's why McCain's media narrative is so positive: He's the straight talker. The maverick. The guy who says what he thinks and follows his conscience.

The truth -- and this really shouldn't be so controversial -- is that he's a politician. Not an outstandingly devious or dishonest one, but still a politician. When his target voters don't like one of his positions, he changes it or soft-pedals it or somehow makes it go away. Brave New Films put together a collection of his flip-flops. But you know, the striking thing about those waffles and self-contradictions is how ordinary they are. If not for the straight-talk myth, they wouldn't be noteworthy.

He's also not that much of a maverick. He has made a few independent noises over the past seven years, but when it comes time to vote he gets in line with all the other Republicans. This week he even backed down on his signature issue: torture. But again, that shouldn't shock anybody. There are no Republican mavericks. The breed is extinct.

The one downside of McCain's image -- his temper -- is also overblown. What strikes me about McCain's temper is that he gets over it. No campaign in recent memory was as nasty as the one Bush ran against McCain in South Carolina in 2000. But McCain has put it behind him. (A questioner took him to task for this at the town meeting I attended. McCain shot right back: The American people care about issues and getting things done; they don't want to hear about his ancient feuds.) He made up with Jerry Falwell. He even went back to Vietnam. Try to imagine George W. Bush doing anything similar. If you piss off W, you can go to Hell; he's done with you. McCain isn't like that.
The YouTube Election
When they get around to writing the history of YouTube's influence on politics, they'll start with the Jim Webb senate race in 2006. And then they'll say that it was a harbinger of the presidential election of 2008, when political viral video really came into its own.

Just look at all this stuff. Start with the inspirational music video made from Obama's "Yes We Can" speech. Then look at the parody about McCain. Then look at this other parody about McCain. (Weirdly, when I went there the page had a McCain advertisement.) And then check out the three commercials made by Brave New Films, where ordinary Americans call U.S. Customer Service to try to get the Iraq War charge taken off their monthly bill.

Those are just the beginning. This year will produce an amazing outpouring of political creativity, and overwhelmingly it will favor the Democrats. Why? Well, Erick Erickson, editor of the biggest and most influential conservative blog on the Internet, has it all figured out: Liberals have more free time. You see, conservatives "have families because we don't abort our kids, and we have jobs because we believe in capitalism."

That's got to be it, don't you think?

Short Notes
Michael Scheuer used to be the head of the CIA's Bin Laden group, and he still understands terrorist strategy better than any writer I know. In this article, he imagines what Bin Laden must be thinking now: "Thanks be to God, brothers, America is hemorrhaging money and ruining its military by trying to fight al-Qaeda's mujaheddin wherever they appear -- or, more accurately, wherever U.S. officials imagine they appear."

McCain's identification with the Surge may have worked this winter in Republican primaries, but next fall will be a different story. I was planning to write something on that theme, but now I don't have to -- Joe Conason did.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer connects the dots: The states tried to regulate against predatory mortgage lending, and the Bush administration stopped them. Remember that the next time somebody tells you that government regulations are bad for the economy.

One of the best news/comedy sites on the Internet is 23/6. This week Ian Gurvitz tried to imagine the reaction if Jesus came back and entered the presidential race. My favorite reaction came from McCain, who found "blessed are the peacemakers" in one of Jesus' old speeches and commented: "Sounds like a guy who's soft on defense, my friends, and I'm not sure this is who we need as commander-in-chief in these troubled times." And not all the barbs on 23/6 are aimed at Republicans. Check out Clinton Campaign to Replace Clinton.

Patrick Cockburn of the British newspaper The Independent gives an on-the-ground view of post-surge Baghdad. He compares it to Lebanon during the various lulls in its decades-long civil war "when everybody in Beirut rightly predicted that nothing was solved and the fighting would start again. In Iraq the fighting has never stopped, but the present equilibrium might go on for some time."