Sunday, December 28, 2008

That (Brilliant) Column Idea Seems Familiar, Sir

I'm sure it's just great minds thinking alike or coincidence or something, but this Donald G. McNeil Jr. column seems to echo an awful lot of my ideas from this piece for the Foreign Policy Association from last January (and which appeared in Cape Town's Cape Argus a couple of weeks later -- perhaps apropos of nothing McNeil is a foreign correspondent based in South Africa. Also: his argument about tribalism is dumb and self-contradictory.) I'm just sayin' is all.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On Starbucks, McDonalds, and Going Home

Over at the Cyber Hacienda Jaime has a great post putatively proclaiming Starbucks to be the "21st century McDonalds." But I think even more importantly the post serves as a reflection on change and personal history and the fluctuating yet permanent nature of the modern economy. And also how Starbucks is a good place for writers to work when on the road.

I would also add that the one huge difference between Starbucks and McDonalds is that Starbucks managed to help develop a coffee culture in America by taking a product that millions used, making it more sophisticated but also accessible, and charging a lot more for it than people would pay at Dunkin' Donuts. Seattle's greatest 90's-era contribution to the zeitgeist turned out not to be Nirvana and the grunge music but rather a business model that made people happily fork over insane amounts of cash for an espresso-based drink. McDonalds flourished by doing the opposite -- by making something that everybody loved and by doing it cheaply. And McDonald's is an unfathomably bad place to try to get writing done, which points out the other huge difference: Atmosphere. Starbucks has cultivated it. Yes, it's got a Starbucks-homogeneous feel to it, but in some circles that's simply known as branding.

(Some time ago I wrote a long post sort of defending Starbucks that is probably one of my top-five favorite of my blog entries of all time.)

On Recruiting

The New York Times has a great feature on the football recruiting process for one of the best prospects in the nation, Jamarkus McFarland, a defensive tackle from Lufkin, in East Texas. His choice came down to the heated Red River rivals, Oklahoma and Texas and he has verbally committed to Oklahoma.

It is hard to fathom what being recruited at that level must be like. My own experience twenty years ago, in a non-revenue sport like track & field (I was recruited by a handful of small football programs, but not with much zeal - smart programs) leads me to believe that for a big-time football or basketball player the frenzy must be both ego-boosting and seriously pressurized. By the fall of my senior year I was receiving letters and phone calls every day, mostly from DIII schools but from a number of DI programs as well, albeit mostly the Ivies and their ilk. And even for an athlete of relatively limited talents in a sport that does not exactly carry with it a great deal of status I learned quickly that recruiters run the gamut from the unctuous purveyors of sleaze to the genuinely kind, almost avuncular. One Ivy League coach called me weekly and by the time the recruiting process was done we could spend an hour on the phone. But the school was too close to home and I had decided on Williams, which was actually comparably low-key in the recruiting process.

My favorite recruiting story: I had just gotten home from football practice one afternoon when the phone rings at my Dad's farmhouse. I answer and it is the secretary from a major ACC basketball powerhouse track program. I was being recruited by their blood rival, which was another basketball power but not an especially prominent (read: "good") track program (and going to a subpar program was the only way I was going anywhere near the ACC). I assume my being on the rival's recruiting list explains the call. The secretary asked me to hold for Coach X, and as soon as he got on the line he addresses me in a Southern drawl out of central casting. He asked me about some of my performances, and then there was a pause so pregnant it could have been half of the girls in the sophomore class at my high school before he let out with this gem: "Son, that just won't fly with us." I was taken aback (being insulted is generally not part of the recruiting process, which usually involves lots of smoke going up lots of derrieres) and since I was clearly not in any position to blow a scholarship at this Tobacco Road redoubt I simply responded, "But coach, YOU called ME." I still root ardently against that team during basketball season.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas

I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Um, No

No matter what happens this weekend (and I have a hard time believing the Pats will go 11-5 and miss the playoffs, so I am going to predict an easy Pats win and a narrow Jets victory over the Dolphins to propel the Pats to another AFC East title) the Patriots are going to have a decision to make at the quarterback position. Already some (also including Thunderstick in a text message to me the other day) are beginning to spevculate whether New England would keep Cassel and trade away Brady. Let's not be premature.

Cassel has been a revelation, and has done a great deal to help vindicate Bill Belichick's coaching reputation (not that he needed it in sane circles). But it is hard to envision a scenario in which the Patriots keep him and jettison Brady. Now, that said, I would not be surprised if the Pats do something uncharacteristic by placing a vast percentage of their resources in the quarterback position by franchising Cassel in order to ensure that they have a healthy starter at the beginning of the year, and then perhaps trade one of them as things shape up, though I am not certain if it is legal to franchise a guy and then trade him, or whether a traded franchise player can be signed to a long-term deal by his new team.

At the same time, the reality is that Brady is almost certainly not going to be ready to be the player he was when the start of the season rolls around next September. This is simply the reality of the knee injury he suffered, an injury that not so long ago would have been career-threatening. And so that is where the dilemma comes in to play. Intellectually I understand the sentiment, and I know that the Patriots do not exactly operate based on sentiment. But I still have a really hard time imagining even hard-hearted Belichick placing Brady, who played a significant role in turning his hoodie-adorned head coach into a genius, on the trade market in favor of Matt Cassel, no matter how painful losing Cassel is likely to be. Whatever Brady's condition in September, it is a pretty good guess what he'll be by December. And December is pretty important in the NFL.

Uncertain Principles

I just realized that my friend and college classmate Chad's brilliant blog Uncertain Principles is not on my blogroll. It used to be on the blogroll of my old blog and then I changed blogs and he changed servers, and well, you know the age-old story. Chad is a physicist at Union College and is a really sharp guy with a range of interests. He's back on the blogroll and I promise you he is worth a daily read.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bad Predictions

Andrew Sullivan is holding a vote for his end of year awards. The Von Hoffman Award goes to the worst, most brazenly arrogant wrong predictions of the year. Here are the nominees. Sullivan also directs us to Foreign Policy's 10 Worst Predictions for 2008. Feel free to dig up a few of mine. I'm sure they are not all that hard to find.

The Paradox of the State University

A large swath of American institutions of higher learning are hugely dependent on tuition to cover expenses. This includes a sizable percentage of private institutions, including fairly elite ones such as St. Olaf College. But this also is the lot of many small state schools, such as my own, that do not draw in huge amounts of state money because they are not big enough to make up more than a negligible representation in state funding formulas. So the irony is that while increasingly applicants are giving schools like mine a second look, these schools are also finding our budgets cut preemptively out of a fear of what might happen. We are actually doing a good job of drawing students, are holding up our end of the bargain, as it were, and yet soon enough will be asked to do more with less. And of course as well all know from the last season of The Wire, you never do more with less, admin-speak notwithstanding. You do less with less.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Airport Eatin'

In today's Sunday New York Times travel section "The Frugal Traveler," Matt Gross, has a feature on eating at airports. Fortunately despite what it sometimes seems out there in the sterile world of airports it's not all Chili's Too and limited-menu McDonalds franchises. I'd also recommend the Oscar Mayer Weiner Hot Dog Construction Company in Atlanta's madhouse of an airport, which is operated by my friend and college teammate, Boogie. If you go and ask for Boogie, tell him that Vinnie sent you. (Ahhh, college nicknames. Though no one there will know who the hell you're talking about if you ask for Boogie. Ask for Stu.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Death Penalty and the Granite State

First off, let me be clear right up front: I oppose the death penalty. I do so ardently. The deterrent argument is absurd, the poor and minorities are disproportionately subjected to its whims, and the consequences of being wrong, as we increasingly know has happened in recent decades, ought to be unconscionable. And so when I saw that New Hampshire is set
to execute someone for the first time since 1939 I had more than a passing interest.

And then I saw that he is black. And I could not help but be cynical. New Hampshire is blessed by having pretty low violent crime rates. But those violent crime rates are not nonexistent. Yet the first person sentenced to death in the Granite State in more than fifty years (and those individuals did not die at the hands of the state because of the Supreme Court's decision more than a decade later that the death penalty was unconscionable) is black, in a state with an infinitesimal black population? Color me cynical.

Now there is the X factor. (And this might get me into trouble.) You see, Michael Addison killed a Manchester cop, and as we all know, killing a cop is a capital offense. But why? Why is a cop's life worth more than mine or my wife's or any of my friends or members of my family or the vast majority of the American population? I know the theoretical argument: Cops put their lives on the line every time they put on the uniform. But this is sort of bullshit. No, let me rephrase that: It's actually complete bullshit. I'd be very curious to know whether more cops died last year at the hands of assailants than did, say, construction workers doing their jobs. And I'd be especially curious to know how many cops killed people "in the line of duty" who maybe did not deserve to die, as opposed to how many, again, let's say construction workers, killed people.

And maybe my bias comes from being a native of a small town in New Hampshire where cops most decidedly did not put their lives on the line, but did take their power to its very puffed-up limits whenever dealing with, well, anyone. I guess at the end of the day, I'm pretty sceptical of the heroism rhetoric. You know what I'm talking about. It's the whole post 9/11 dialogue that has done a pretty good job of chilling dissent. Cops and firemen and soldiers have become heroes not by virtue of what they actually do as cops and firemen and soldiers, but simply by virtue of being cops and firemen and soldiers. In another political climate, this standard would be simply silly, and in reality it is inane and ought to be called as much. People become cops and firemen and join the military for a whole host of reasons. And in the line of duty they act in a host of ways, some, but relatively few, heroically.

In any case, New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the country, is about to execute the first person the state has put to death since 1939. And that person is a black male. Forgive me for being cynical. But I am calling bullshit on my home state.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blog Meme: Stuff You've Done

Via Itinerant Thinker comes this blog meme. Highlight in bold all the stuff that you've done. (I've added bold parenthetical asides for those I've come close to but not actually done in the most literal sense):
1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain

9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitchhiked
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort

25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping

27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset

31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person

34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language

37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance

47. Had my portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (I echo IT's question: why are so many of these about Paris?)
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling (I'm assuming that grabbing a snorkel and swimming in shallow water at the beach as a kid does not count)
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater

55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma (Though donating blood, or even having blood tests where they take more than trace amounts really makes me sick)

65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial

71. Eaten caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle

79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book (You can order Bleeding Red here or Freedom's Main Line here! Yes, I'm shameless.)
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car (Closest is my current car, which was basically a dealer car that I bought with 4000 miles on it. I'll probably never buy a brand-spanking new vehicle if there is something available with really low mileage on it.)
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper

85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House (Like IT I've never gone inside)
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox (I honestly have no idea)
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury (I have done jury duty but have always gotten excused before the moment of truth)
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club (I'm assuming they mean some sort of reading club, and not History Book Club or something like that.)
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee

100. Ridden an elephant (Though I do have some good elephant stories from Africa.)

By my count either 53 or 54 depending on my chicken pox status.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stadiums and Terrorism: Self Indulgence Alert

The latest issue, published this week, of the new online magazine The Public Sphere includes an essay of mine, "Stadiums and Terrorism," in which I address the piecemeal, showy-but-empty approach to combating terrorism that we continue to take more than seven years after 9/11. I use stadium security as a backdrop. Here is a sample:
Prevention of a stadium attack will come in the form of vigilance, intelligence, and competence, rather than slapdash and showy efforts to appear tough. A little sanity would also go a long way in bringing a level of reasonableness to our discussions. When you enter a stadium on a hot day and are drinking a bottle of water, scare stories from the news notwithstanding, the odds that your water will become a deadly weapon are almost nil. It is hard not to be cynical about a policy that happens to profit the concessionaires who sell overpriced drinks without demonstrably increasing safety. It also inspires less, not more, confidence if our official approach to matters of terrorism and security seems reactive to news stories or rumors rather than part of a rational and comprehensive strategy. Meanwhile, if I had hidden a gun in my waistband, security would not have noticed because they did not bother checking. In terms of odds, I would surmise that an attack at a big game will more likely come from someone wielding a gun than someone wielding a half-empty bottle of water.

Let me know what you think. And read the entire issue -- it is a publication very much worth your while.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ranking the College Bowl Games

Because even the most insane among us cannot watch them all, Stewart Mandel ranks the college bowl games from the best (Oklahoma-Florida) to the worst (the December 28 Independence Bowl, featuring 7-5 Louisiana tech versus 6-6 Northern Illinois).

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Darfur Crisis (Self Indulgence Edition)

The Foreign Policy Association has published a lengthy piece that I have been working on for quite a while, "Never Again," Again: The Darfur Crisis. It is also available in .pdf, with footnotes, here.

The Opening paragraph:

The pattern is relentless, bleak, frustrating, and odiously predictable. The leadership of Sudan and its murderous minions engage in brazen and cynical acts of murder and foment chaos, either directly or by proxy. The rest of the world responds tepidly if it responds at all. Sudan oversteps, the world criticizes, hinting of ramifications to come. Sudan backs off just long enough for the goldfish-length attention span of the western powers to turn their attentions elsewhere. And then the self-preserving thugs in Khartoum return almost immediately to their cruel and rapacious ways.
[Crossposted at the FPA Africa Blog.]

The Assist

There is a specific genre of books that I'll fall for every time. The writer embeds himself with a team for a season, or a year, or longer, providing the insights not only of the dynamics of a sports team, but in the best cases, also of the humanity at the heart of sports. The latest of these, and one of the best, that I enhaled pretty much in one sitting is Neil Swidey's The Assist, which follows Charlestown (Massachusetts) High School's basketball team over the course of three years. Heartbreaking and tragic, it also just came out in paperback with a new epilogue, meaning that just weeks after buying the hardcover I am going to have to shell out for the paperback. (In other words: One of you may be receiving The Assist for Christmas.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Utah v. Boise State

Awesome! Now that the DI college football season is done, and given that one of the justifications for not having an actual national championship tournament is that the regular season is in effect a playoff, I am thrilled that we will have a legitimate national champion decided between the only two undefeated teams: Utah and Boise State!

That should be a great game. And by going undefeated, you've earned your opportunity!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday Advice

When the nice lady who owns the Thai restaurant warns you that the hot version of the meal you are ordering is "very, very hot," you should probably trust her.

That's some friendly Friday advice from dcat, who is weeping openly as his tongue blisters.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mumbai, America, and the Global Community

This David Ignatius column in The Washington Post on the Mumbai terrorist attacks asks some important questions. I am always astounded when I hear about how safe Bush administration policies have made us. And I am reminded of how profoundly we have devalued our alliances these last eight years. For while there have been no attacks on United States soil (note: We went longer between attacks on US soil during the Clinton administration and into the first eight months of this one, so the "kept us safe" meme is a bit fraudulent in any case) our allies have certainly faced the horrors of terrorism. Madrid, London, Mumbai, and of course Israel have all faced terrorist attacks. American solipsism has led too many to assume that 9/11 somehow made us singularly victimized and thus singularly virtuous. If, as many have asserted, 9/11 ended the American holiday from history, perhaps 1/20 will mark the end of our holiday from the responsibilities of (and not just expectations from) our alliances.

David Ignatius is right that we, the United States, almost certainly will face future threats of terrorist attacks. But it is equally important to recognize that we, as part of a larger world, have been facing these challenges regularly, and that triumphalism about supposed successes on the home front should not cloud our judgment as to the realities of the world.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Obama Fills the Cabinet

This Michael Gerson column in The Washington Post commends the moderation of Obama's choices for cabinet and other positions thus far. But I am truly unclear what Gerson (whose column is actually quite good) or anyone else expected. Keep in mind: the attempts to paint Obama as a dangerous radical did not work, and they did not work largely because, foundationless as they were, such accusations were idiotic. Obama's judgment and temperament are his strengths, neither of which attributes could be credited to John McCain by the end of the campaign.

Obama is a serous person who, up to now, is making serious choices. The only people who should be surprised by this are people who continued to insist, after the longest, most in-depth election cycle in history, that we did now know who Barack Obama was.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The BCS Mess

Courtesy of this guy comes the heads up about a blistering Jason Whitlock column in which the Big sexy takes square aim at ESPN and fires repeatedly. Now Whitlock has more than his share of sour grapes about ESPN, and his hook into the column, the (he believes overlooked and dismissed) success of Ball State's football team comes with the caveat that Whitlock not only is an alum of Ball State, he played football for them. That said, many of his criticisms hold true.

Whitlock's column once again reminds us of the problematic nature of how the NCAA decides its postseason in college football. In every other sport, indeed in every other division of college football, championships are decided by players on the floor, field, track, pool, court, pitch, or what have you. But not big time college football, where these things are decided (the passive voice is intentional) by an unwieldy agglomeration of polls of journalists and coaches and a secretive computer program. And yet every week during the season the pollsters get it wrong, then blithely go back on tv or in their columns and explain why this time they have it right and how dare you question their judgment. the computers don't have a much better success rate.

And as we've seen this year, with three undefeated teams from non-BCS conferences, two of which are almost certain to be shut out of the BCS bowls, even an 8-team playoff would not do the trick. I still advocate, as I have in the past, a 16 team playoff whereby every conference winner gets a bid to the tournament, with remaining spots chosen at-large by a committee very much like the one that chooses the Big Dance for college basketball. One of the main arguments in favor of the current system is that every week there is a de facto playoff, and the regular season means so much. Which is hogwash. Otherwise the three undefeated teams from non-BCS schools would populate those top four spots with Alabama, Texas would rank ahead of Oklahoma, having beaten the Sooners when the two teams played on a neutral field, and USC and Penn State would have every opportunity to compete for the national championship with their one-loss teams, rather than almost certainly be relegated to also-ran status because people have decided that a one-loss team from the SEC or Big Twelve is better than other one-loss teams.

A (minimum) 16-team playoff is the only plausible and legitimate solution. Too bad we are years away from sanity prevailing.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

For Bibliophiles

This week's New York Times has two end-of-year book lists, 100 Notable Books of 2008 and Janet Maslin's and Michiko Kakutani's personal top ten lists. And here is the Times Literary Supplement's "Books of the Year" feature as chosen by a number of prominent literary figures. And since you'll be buying all of these books, including, of course, this one once it comes out in the next few weeks, you'll need to think about shelving space. Laura Miller is here to help, though I, for one, am not very good at discarding books.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bill Clinton for Senate?

At The Washington Post Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac present an intriguing proposal:
Amid the blizzard of résumés blanketing Washington as the Obama era dawns, there is a superbly qualified candidate for full employment whose name has been overlooked. We refer, of course, to William Jefferson Clinton, America's 42nd chief executive and commander in chief. Yet now, by a wonderful combination of circumstances, comes an opportunity to harness his unquestioned political talents to benefit his country, the Democratic Party, New York state and his spouse. If, as is expected, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes secretary of state, New York Gov. David Paterson could send her husband to the U.S. Senate.

It strikes me, however, that getting Hillary to State is a brilliant coup for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it will be more difficult for her to pursue an independent political agenda or undermine the Obama administration from Foggy Bottom than from the Senate. Bill Clinton in the Senate might prove to be the sot of sideshow the Democrats would as soon avoid. Then again, the Clintons are still a powerful political force, and it seems possible that Bill Clinton in the Senate would mark the sort of changing of the guard that keeps the Clintons heavily involved in politics while maximizing their utility to an Obama administration.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hot Stove News: Japanese Prospect Edition

It appears that the Red Sox are the frontrunners to sign Junichi Tazawa, an amateur right-handed pitcher in Japan who worships Daisuke Matsuzaka and who was a priority for a number of Major League teams. He would almost certainly start off in the minors after signing a contract, but if recent seasons have taught us anything it is that an abundance of starting pitchers tends not to be a luxury, but rather a necessity as a season wears on and guys get hurt, struggle or as it otherwise becomes clear that too many pitchers is usually not enough.

Deja Vu?

Even without Tom Brady, the Patriots' offense under Matt Cassel has been the strength of the team as the defense has struggled. Raise your hand if you saw that coming.

In the meantime there is a very real possibility that the unheralded backup quarterback who had to step in for the famous starter might have to help the team run the table in order for the Patriots to make the postseason. Coincidence, or shades of 2001?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Defending What (Ideally) Need Not be Defended

In The Chronicle Review Douglas Little reminds us why we need diplomatic history. He's preaching to the choir not only with me but with a goodly portion of dcat's readers. Nonetheless his is a message that needs to get out to a broad audience. We need more diplomatic history, and more military history, and more traditional political history. Not at the expense of much of the good work going on in the historical profession, but rather to strengthen and augment and provide context for that work.


Jan Freeman defended wordiness in yesterday's Boston Globe. I raise my glass to her. Brevity is sometimes a virtue. But not always. And not unquestionably.

Not Playing Any More

Play, the fantastic sports magazine that came out quarterly in the Sunday New York Times is closing up shop after an all-too-brief run at the top. Play fell victim to the frankly lousy economic situation facing newspapers and magazines right now. It will be missed.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Harvard Beats Yale

On the eve of the 125th installment of "The Game," the annual football rivalry between Harvard and Yale, The New York Times reviews what Manohla Dargis calls a "preposterously entertaining documentary" of the most famous of all Games, the 1968 29-29 tie.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chinese Democracy Unleashed!

Chuck Klosterman reviews the long, long, long awaited Guns 'N' Roses/Axl Rose album Chinese Democracy at The Onion's AV Club. I'll give two excerpts. First, the intro:
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I've been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I've thought about this record more than I've thought about China, and maybe as much as I've thought about the principles of democracy. This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can't psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.
Then from the conclusion:
Still, I find myself impressed by how close Chinese Democracy comes to fulfilling the absurdly impossible expectation it self-generated, and I not-so-secretly wish this had actually been a triple album. I've maintained a decent living by making easy jokes about Axl Rose for the past 10 years, but what's the final truth? The final truth is this: He makes the best songs. They sound the way I want songs to sound. A few of them seem idiotic at the beginning, but I love the way they end. Axl Rose put so much time and effort into proving that he was super-talented that the rest of humanity forgot he always had been. And that will hurt him. This record may tank commercially. Some people will slaughter Chinese Democracy, and for all the reasons you expect. But he did a good thing here.
He gives the album an A-, but I bet the reviews are all over the charts. And while the album is supposedly available, it is nowhere to be found on Amazon. So maybe this is all part of an elaborate ongoing farce.

Team of Rivals

In an op-ed in The New York Times the historian James Oakes takes issue with both the novelty and the efficacy of the "Team of Rivals" model of putting together a cabinet that. Many people have pointed to the Lincoln model, popularized by Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, as the one that President-Elect Obama might be following as he continues to put together his cabinet. Oakes provides a model of using historical insight to shed light on current concerns.

(Update: Reader Mark points out this Matthew Pinsker op-ed in the LA Times on the same topic.)

Handouts and Chutzpah

I have to admit, I am not certain how to think about the myriad and complicated bailout plans both passed and proposed. On the one hand, I am wary of giant corporations that clearly screwed up royally suckling at the teat of federal largesse when they will reject government oversight or regulation whenever possible. On the other hand I worry that not providing federal help will make a nightmare economic scenario all the more intractable. I keep remembering the unseemly way that the airline industry after 9/11 ran to get handouts while the smoke was still wafting from the charred remains of those horrible attacks despite having resisted federal oversight and despite security malfeasance by the airlines and airports having contributed to the perilously unsafe situation we faced.

Now we are considering helping out the Big Three automakers. I am not theoretically averse to this, though I do hope that any of this support comes with serious strings attached. Let's see a few austerity demands, not to mention provisions for the common good (hello electric car!) come with any federal support. But it becomes a lot more difficult to sympathize with an industry that sent the three CEO's to Washington on private corporate jets or that at least one of the CEOs earned @28 million last year.

As Anne Kornin writes at the Set America Free Blog:

I am reminded of Nero and violins. That $36 million GM private jet is the cost of making 360,000 cars gasoline-ethanol-methanol flexible right there (it’s a $100 cost per car,) breaking oil’s monopoly in the transportation sector through fuel choice. And GM has 8 such jets. Add up the Ford and Chrysler plane fleets and we’re talking the cost of making several million cars gasoline-ethanol-methanol flex fuel vehicles. Given that taxpayer money is on the table here, the trade would seem only fair. I for one don’t appreciate having taxpayer money be used to pay for someone’s private jet and 8 digit salary. If they earn it, fine, hats off, but once their hand dips into taxpayer pockets for a handout, that’s quite a different story. And I would guess others share the sentiment. Let Congress know what you think.

As I say, I am fairly ambivalent about all of this and want to see it play out. I am not averse to strategic aid to struggling industries. But right now my inclination is to say that the auto industry appears to be the victim of its own profligacy and that any help should begin with paring waste at the top of it and any other industry or field in which those at the top do little to sacrifice while cutting jobs, paring benefits, and asking for government aid but maneuvering for little oversight.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blogging Africa: Self Indulgence Alert!

In an exciting change, the Foreign Policy Association is combining the South Africa Blog with the Africa Blog, which will be the new permanent site of FPA Africa commentary. I will continue to post on South African issues, but this transition will be better for me, as keeping both blogs has not always been easy, it will be more convenient for readers, and will serve the FPA best. Basically everybody wins. Shortly those who attempt to access the South Africa Blog will be redirected to the Africa Blog.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Grammar Assholes

The thing about blogging, for better and for worse, is that it is temporal. Time after time I find an article about which I ought to say something but then a day passes and that article's relevance declines.

But as many of you know, I love the snarky or angry or simply biting review. So at least some of you will appreciate the asshammering that Louis Menand once gave to Lynne Truss, the person who not so long ago made us all feel bad about our mastery of grammar.

90% of the shit that I write I do with virtually no idea of its grammatical accuracy. And the other 10% is done (passive voice!) with an awareness that while I may not get this crazy language of ours, I have a feel for it. So on the one hand I have a deep and abiding respect for the Lynne Truss types in this world.

On the other hand, if you are going to be a sanctimonious grammar gasbag who writes books making the rest of us feel bad, then you probably should not be called out in The New Yorker for being sanctimonious grammar douche runoff. And so go fuck yourself. (Thineself? Your Self? One's selfness? Hey, you figure it out. You're the goddamned expert.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

FJM, You Will Be Missed

It is a sad day. Fire Joe Morgan is closing its doors. A voice of witty, sometimes outraged, sanity in a world of witlessly smug insanity, FJM punctured some of the blather of written baseball commentary. FJM enhanced my own understanding of the game while sometimes making me laugh out loud. It will be missed.

Race and the Election

Naturally many of the questions that have emerged after Barack Obama's historic victory in the 2008 presidential election have related to the question of race and racism. What does Obama's victory tell us about racism in the United States today? Since he won, is it not clear that we are free of the burdens or fears of racism in contemporary politics? Are we really in a post-race era in the United States? What role will race play in Obama's policies as president?

There is much to celebrate, and there can be no doubting that the United States has made tremendous strides since the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. As veteran civil rights activist Charles McDew has often said, those who say things have not gotten any better were not there when things were bad. But improvement from a nadir is hardly sufficient to proclaim that we are past race. There is less racism in the United States than there once was. That hardly means that we are past racism. We just need to take a more nuanced perspective on the role that race plays in the United States, and we especially need to be aware that the black-white dynamic is no longer the sole, or even necessarily most important, dynamic when it comes to racial politics in the United States. Take a few minutes to listen to some of the more obnoxious statements from the anti-immigrant right and you might understand why it is not only black Americans who have a right to be skeptical that we have reached perfectibility on race relations in this country.

While race did not decide this election, that hardly means that race was not a factor in Obama's margin of victory, or that it did not play a role in specific states and localities or among particular demographic groups (including among those who supported him). But there is still much to celebrate, even if the rosiest pronouncements are pretty silly.

Race and racism will continue to have a place in the discussion. From concrete policies -- disproportionate sentencing, say, or affirmative action -- to those incidents, such as children blithely chanting "assassinate Obama" on a school bus in Idaho, we will have regular reminders that when it comes to racism, apologies to William Faulkner, the past is not necessarily past.

The Death of the Public Intellectual: Greatly Exaggerated

It seems that certain cultural phenomena are always on their death bed. We constantly hear about the death and decline of: Rock & Roll; The Movies; The Novel; Civility; etc. In some circles the public intellectual is on that list of endangered species. And as often as not the main cause of death is usually attributable to technology and all that goes with it. Well, at least when it comes to public intellectuals, Daniel Drezner denies the declension argument and even goes so far as to defend that blasted technology, including those damned blogs that in the minds of some are ruining everything.

Oh -- and rock & roll, movies, and the novel are fine too.

Angry Dishonesty; Dishonest Anger

This just in! Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and their ilk? Deeply Dishonest; Angry.

Praising Dean

In the aftermath to the 2006 midterm elections I noted that whatever his failings, Howard Dean deserved credit for helping shape a 50-state strategy that enhanced Democratic competitiveness in a short span of time. With the announcement that Dean is stepping down as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, it is worth recognizing Dean's vision again, as Adam Nagourney does at The Caucus, the politics blog of The New York Times:
As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Dean pressed the party to expand its efforts and set up offices in all 50 states, arguing that the party was making a mistake in effectively ceding states to the Republican Party. That position led him into some famously pointed clashes with Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who at the time headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign, and who was angry that Mr. Dean was not sending money he had raised to help in Democratic efforts to take back Congress.

Dean, who was never as much a man of the left as either his supporters or detractors let themselves believe -- he was a centrist-turned-opportunist -- proved to be a pretty savvy and successful party chair. The Democrats are a legitimate national party again, indeed, are the majority national party again, and while no individual deserves the full credit for the party's reemergence as the dominant political force in the country, Dean deserves a significant amount of the credit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hot Stove Talk (Good Liberal Edition)

Already missing baseball? Me neither, yet. The NFL is in full broil. College football is on pace for its annual BCS cock-up, leading to the inevitable smug sports pundits who weekly screw up the rankings (as evidenced by their certainty with each week's pronouncements followed by the inevitable loss of a top-ten team they pronounced wonderful) that this time the BCS got it right. The NBA is underway. College basketball is kicking off. We just got over an election season that felt every bit as exhausting and exhilarating as a great sports season. Hell, they're even playing hockey.

Nonetheless, baseball's siren song beckons. The Washington Post travel section this week drew some of us in with a story on the Dominican winter league. And of course with the awards season comes anticipation of the Hot Stove League kicking into full gear, a process that has already begun with the Holliday trade to the A's and the first free agency chatter bursting forth.

A few weeks back, after the Sox lost Game 7 of the ALCS, GoodLiberal asked a series of questions. I figure the least I can do is try to respond:

OK- so Beckett and Papi have to be trusted to rebound from sub-par years. Lowell will be back. Unresolved issues include Lowrie/Lugo, Tek, what happened to Bucholz?, middle relief, What happens to Coco?, does Lars Anderson step up? etc.
A nice intro to the offseason post would be welcome!

Ask and ye shall receive.

First off, isn't it amazing the difference two games made? Had the Sox lost in five, I think many of us would have headed for the ledge. By coming back to take the series to the end of the 7th game I think many of us were able to say: Good season, not a great season, bring on 2009. The loss was disappointing, but it is refreshing to know that I can live without a sense of entitlement. Winning is better because we know what losing feels like. That said, I'd rather win in 2009, just as I hope the Pats find a way to win this year and the C's work toward a repeat and the Bruins can work their way back to long-dormant glory.

Papi and Beckett dealt with injuries. This is no excuse, it is simply a statement of fact. Papi was never right, which actually places his production as a wonder rather than a disappointment. We all have to hope that an offseason of rest and rehab and strengthening and a little luck will return him to full strength. This offseason will go a long way in determining whether Papi ends up as a (by any measure better) version of Mo Vaughn or if he retruns to a Hall of Fame-caliber (Jimmy Foxx?) trajectory. Meanwhile Beckett never really was what he is this season, if that makes any sense. But he's a young power pitcher with no structural arm problems. Let's hope he rebounds. Indeed, let's expect that he will.

I do not see a Lowrie-Lugo tension. Lowrie has a place in the future, Lugo is a nice guy to have but is not a difference-maker. Tek is getting old. And he has lost some bat speed. And while he always has run well for a catcher, he is not going to be able to compensate by becoming a dink-and-dunk hitter. So the question becomes: Is his management of the pitching staff, and defense, and those dreaded (because often unfounded) "intangibles" (leadreship, eg.) enough to make the difference. Were his agent anyone but Scott Boras I'd say possibly -- try to sign him for two years at more than he's worth but perhaps a little less than the market might bear. But not for three or four years. The Sox have been very smart about letting guys go a year or two too early rather than a year or two too late. In Tek's case they kind of broke that rule with his last contract. I simply do not see him in a Sox uniform in 2009 unless Boras finds an inhospitable market, which could happen, but which I don't expect. Some alchemist will seek gold in Varitek. And I will wish him nothing but good things as one of my favorites of all time.

The pitching situation is interesting because the Sox of this era finally learned that pitching 9or at least balance) is the key. Yes, of course, you want to bash. But the Pythagorean/Pythagenport theory of baseball, a (more complicated) calculation of runs scored against runs given up has made it quite clear that no matter how much you bash, a solid staff is the key factor. The Sox have always produced at the plate. In recent years, however, they have learned that there is simply no such thing as too much pitching. In several recent springs the Sox have had more starters than slots to fill. And every one of those years guys have gotten hurt, guys have floundered, things have changed. Every year that we have entered with supposedly too much starting pitching we have ended the year with a different rotation than what we expected.

Were I the Sox, I'd at least put in a bid for every significant pitcher on the market. At minimum drive up Sabathia's price (prediction: CC reverts to his still fine mean next season; the last eight weeks or so of the season was an outlier). And who knows -- maybe you end up with him. In the end, the Sox have a pretty impressive staff, and all praise to Lester and Dice-K, who showed signs of making the leap. If both continue to improve -- Dice actually needs to become less focused on perfection, which would reduce his walks -- and if Beckett gets healthy again and Bucholz pulls it together, that is a hell of a foundation.

Bucholz is young. And young pitchers struggle, especially when a lot of burden is placed on them. he has the stuff. He has shown an ability to compete in the Bigs. But he has to work on some mechanical issues, on pitch selection, and on confidence. Being in the fourth or fifth slot will help him, as may lesser expectations and a year of growth. As for the middle relief, that is often a crapshoot, because those guys by definition are men in between. No one sees their career ceiling as being a bridge reliever. And so what you get are excess starters and non-closers and wily veterans and green rookies in middle relief. We would like to see the Okajima of 2007. We would like some of the young arms to do their time in middle relief. And we need luck -- do not forget what a role simple fortune plays in all of this. The stat Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is a telling one, because wide variations are often attributable to luck. Take away home runs (and walks and strikeouts) and balls hit in play are often a crapshoot -- after all, what's the difference between a bloop hit and a screamer right at someone? As far as the quality of contact the screamer is better, but in terms of outcome, you'll take the bloop every time. That difference may not be all luck, but luck plays a vital role.

As for the young talent, the Sox are in that rare position of being able to play what I have called "Moneyball Plus." They can incorporate the smarter approach to baseball embodied in finding inefficiencies in the marketplace, knowing what data to prioritize, and so forth, but they also have the money to go after the pricey talent. Moneyball is almost certainly the most understood book of its time even as those who have understood it have grown in their knowledge (or had ideas confirmed) of the game. The reality is that the Sox can be Moneyball smart but big market bold. It's the best of both worlds, and as teams like the Sox have caught up and thus teams like the A's struggled, idiots have assumed that the so-called Moneyball approach has failed, when in fact it has exploded and become the norm among successful teams of all economic stripes, thus making it difficult for poorer teams to reap its considerable benefits. In any case, the point is that the Sox can develop young talent, but they can do so for two purposes: To become stars in the system or to trade for talent elsewhere, much of which might be out of the price range of a lot of teams forced to be spartan.

Yeah, ok, I'm missing baseball a little bit.

Conservatism Eats Its Own

At The Washington Post conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, hammered for her supposed apostasy by not towing a (losing, by the way) party line, responds to her critics. It is always amazing to me how thin skinned many conservatives, who otherwise prattle on about strength and deride perceived weakness in others, can be such thin-skinned, hypersensitive ninnies. Towing the party line has never been a trait of conservatism. It has, however, been a trait of authoritarianism.

And no, there is no parallel, and thus no hypocrisy, with the case of Joe Lieberman, who repeatedly broke from his party and said noxious -- and false -- things about the party nominee for the presidency. He, after all, broke from the party by becoming an Independent after losing a primary campaign, but wants to maintain the perquisites of being in the party caucus. Parker, an opinion writer, wrote an opinion column based on long-held principles that can still be seen as conservative. The difference is so huge as to be obvious, which does not mean that many will not find that difference elusive.

More Lieberman

Oh, sure. So you want a sensible take on the Lieberman situation. Well, how about KC Johnson's at Cliopatria, which is critical of Lieberman, proposes a solution, and lacks vitriol?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Whither Joe Lieberman

One of the little dramas that will play out among Democrats in the days, weeks, and months to come will revolve around a simple question: what to do with Joe Lieberman? Early indications are that Barack Obama is far more gracious than I, as he has indicated that he still wants the Connecticut turncoat to remain in the Democratic caucus even as many, myself included, advocate stripping Lieberman of his chair of the Homeland Security and Government Reform committee and his seniority on other committees, a move that Lieberman has promised would lead him to leave the party caucus. To which I respond: Good fucking riddance you traitorous weasel.

To my mind, the only thing that should save Lieberman would be a situation in which he is needed to invoke cloture. Since the Democrats are not going to have 59 or 60 seats, I say so long, Joe. Enjoy life in the minority party. Have fun filibustering for the next two years. But Obama is going to use Lieberman's case as an example of his new politics, even though Lieberman stabbed him square in the back throughout the campaign, including in his whorish little gig at the GOP convention. Lieberman is going to owe his status to the graciousness of Obama, who owes Lieberman nothing. I hope his colleagues remind him of that every single day in the Senate by shunning him as the pariah he deserves to be.

Post-Election Analysis Roundup: Recrimination Edition

Much of the post-election inquisition comes from pundits wondering what will happen to the Republicans. The Washington Post asked a host of analysts where the GOP went wrong. Jay Cost at RealClearPolitics wonders if the election represents a political realignment. At The New York Times Stanley Greenberg asserts that the Reagan Democrats are no more. George Will wonders what Barry Goldwater would do. Defeat even brought out the rarely-seen sane version of Victor Davis Hanson.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Dumb Conservatism Watch

This Charles Krauthammer op-ed is vaguely incoherent and kind of dumb (in other words it is a typical Charles Krauthammer column). But I'd like to take issue with this especially dumb assertion, tagged on at the end of his column as if most people do not read to the very last paragraph of his silliness: "He [John McCain] will be -- he should be -- remembered as the most worthy presidential nominee ever to be denied the prize."

This is a categorically fucking inane thing to write. More worthy than John Kerry? Why, exactly? More worthy than Al Gore, who spent eight years as the Vice President (and served in Vietnam)? Why, exactly? Conservatives in the United States have become the masters of assertion without evidence, but why should we give MORE credit to a man who held the United States in such low esteem that he felt that the unvetted candidacy of Sarah Palin represented a legitimate leadership opportunity for this country he so purported to love?

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

The Bloody Sunday inquiry in Northern Ireland has been delayed yet again. At some point people have a right to hear from the state, especially when the state was responsible for wholesale slaughter. The Troubles in Northern Ireland are the apodictic example of the State claiming virtue where the state is equally responsible for vice. Release the inquiry. The victims deserve that much.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Sweet Land of Liberty

One of the most significant trends in the study of civil rights in the last decade and more has been the expansion of our conception of what the movement was and when it happened. Serious historians long ago abandoned the 1954-1968, Brown-to-Memphis chronology of the movement. And thanks in no small part to historians such as the University of Pennsylvania's Thomas Sugrue we now know a great deal more about the ways in which the struggle for racial equality was not confined to the South. In this weekend's New York Times Book Review Alan Wolfe assesses Sugrue's important new book Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.

Richard Wright Symposium (Self Indulgence Alert x2)

I am currently in Dallas where this weekend I am participating in the Dallas African American Museum's wonderful Centennial Celebration of Richard Wright as an invited participant in tomorrow's symposium. My talk is titled "Richard Wright and Black Resistance to White Supremacy: From Bigger Thomas to Henry Thomas," which is drawn (and expanded upon) from Freedom's Main Line. (And yes, such self-serving, self indulgence will become standard in the weeks and months to come.) If you are anywhere near Dallas, please do come by. It should be a wonderful symposium.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

When Punditry Goes Wrong

About ten days before the election Salon anointed "The punditocracy's Seven Biggest Blunders of the 2008 election," specifically of the last two months or so of the campaign. For me the problem is not when pundits are wrong -- that goes with the territory. It is the utter certainty in which they couch their assertions and the way in which that wrongness is never held to account. Indeed, bluster becomes so important in climbing the ranks of the pundit elite that being right or reasonable is far less important than making a name for being assertive. Bill Kristol (as just one example among many) has been so wrong on so much over the last few years, and yet seemingly every burst of idiocy pays off for him with a higher-profile gig.

Odessa, The Oil Boom, and Energy Policy

A while back a reader (presumably Canadian -- my sincere apologies -- I forget who) sent along this National Post article on how Odessa is experiencing a boom even as the rest of the country looks at an economy in which virtually all of the fundamentals are decidedly unsound. The "drill, baby, drill" mindset is nonsense, representing shallow sloganeering and empty thought, but will be the vital cog in the local economy in West Texas for a long time. We are not going to achieve energy independence through drilling for oil no matter where we do the drilling. Period. I've long known this and the point was hammered home to me at the Set America Free Energy Summit in Chicago a couple of weeks back. Oil is a fungible commodity and there is no way that we can ever drill our way to a self-sustaining capacity. I am absolutely agnostic about how we move away from oil (I have my preferences -- count me in for supporting the electric car as a first choice -- but adhere to no one true faith) but move away from oil we must.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We Hold These Truths . . .

[Tom Toles, Washington Post, 5 Nov. 2008]

Huzzah Duncery!

It is about damned time: RoJo is back writing at Amiable Dunce. Enjoy his Reagan-inspired observations about American politics.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

President Elect Barack Obama

I am still coming to grips with the momentous, humbling events of the night. There will be time for nitpicking (really, there are those who still want to assert that the country leans center-right?) and recriminations (Republicans, start your engines!) and worrying (be careful what you wish for, Democrats). Barack Obama has won a historic victory that a generation ago would have been nearly unimaginable and five years ago would have seemed merely utterly implausible. An American man of African descent has pulled together a vast coalition in an election with massive turnout to gain election to the Presidency. This, for now, is commentary enough.

Yes we can. Yes we have. Yes we will.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Past Time

Take a trip back in time as The Atlantic endorses Abraham Lincoln and argues that Truman and the Democrats can win in 1948.

On Political Books

The National Book Critics Circle has begun a new quarterly feature on its blog, Critical Mass, called "NBCC Reads." The organization asked its membership to comment on the best books on politics in honor of the ongoing (and seemingly neverending) election. Yours truly is quoted in the first edition. I sent in commentary on the five books I am using in my course on the modern presidency and presidential elections this tearm (a hybrid course half devoted to history and half to looking at this election) and while the NBCC used none of that, some of my comments on two other books were quoted.

From Colony to Superpower

In this Sunday's New York Times Book Review Josef Joffe reviews George Herring's ambitious contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Joffe concludes that while Herring's synthesis is not perfect, "We have long been waiting for a single-volume history like this one, and “From Colony to Superpower” deserves a place on the bookshelf, if only for sheer effort and sweep."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Billsville Bound

I am bound for Homecoming at Williams this weekend, so posting may continue to be light. Somehow I'm sure you'll get by.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bound to a Toddlin' Town

I am bound for Chicago to attend an "Energy Freedom Summit" being held by the organization Set America Free, which is affiliated with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, with which I was a fellow a few years back. I will be representing UTPB, which is developing an Energy Studies program, in hopes of bringing back some ideas. In between sessions -- and the list of participants is impressive; I'll be taking lots of notes, I'm sure -- I imagine there will be time for deep dish pizza, brats, hot dogs with vegetables on them, and other heart-healthy-living options. I will post as I can.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Leuchtenburg on Bush-as-Hoover

If William Leuchtenburg says something about American politics, you should pay serious heed. He is almost certainly right. At The New Republic Leuchtenberg addresses the comparison that some are making between Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush. Bush comes out on the short end of the comparison.

I have been lucky to get to know Leuchtenburg over the last few years, to the point where I consider him a friend and something of a mentor. There is no finer historian or human being.

Elections Past and Present

MSNBC has a worthwhile online feature called "Turning Points," which takes an in-depth focus on a series of elections. Start with the 1980 election and then follow the links to other series. This should keep you busy for a while.

Then, when you're prepared to return to 2008, which will be the subject of its own inevitable features in years to come, you may want to look at the series of essays in The Washington Monthly on this year's election. The Stakes 2008 includes essays by eight prominent writers, including Jonathan Alter, Kevin Drum, Gregg Easterbrook, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Stephanie Mencimer, Timothy Noah, and Nicholas Thompson.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Race Rears its Head

The Republican party is not a racist party. But American conservatism is the ideological home of racism, and most racists are conservatives, even if most conservatives, as with most members of the GOP, are not racists. And today the vast majority of American conservatives are Republicans. Just as the Democratic party has a racist history to bear (and to a far greater extent and depth than the Republicans could ever dream of at that), so too does today's Republican party, built at least in part on a Southern base of whites disaffected by the national Democratic party's attention to civil rights in the postwar era. This is a complex issue, of course, immune to reductionism, but the broad contours as I have laid them out hold.

Race has come to the fore in the 2008 campaign in the way that most of us could have expected. The racial attacks have not been frontal, and their racial nature has at least been couched in deniable manifestations. But racial, and oftentimes racist, they have been. John McCain is not a racist, but he has aligned with racists because, as McCain has shown, winning now trumps honor and it certainly trumps whatever true beliefs he once held.

Thus Charles Krauthammer's fatuous article accusing Obama of playing the race card (and that's what he does even though all of his examples are of others, many unaffiliated with Obama, alleging racializing the campaign) is particularly rich, but not especially surprising. Conservatives have managed to create a moral relativism whereby accusing someone of racism is a breach of decorum every bit as bad as racism itself and is thus itself subject to condemnation. This is actually a pretty clever gambit intended to enable certain kinds of words and behavior while at the same time chilling criticism. It is also demogaguery of the rankest sort.

I cannot help but wonder what Krauthammer thinks about GOP fundraisers joking about Obama's assassination or Republican officials in California distributing what I am certain they believed to be hilarious postcards depicting Obama on a food stamp voucher surrounded by foodstuffs such as fried chicken, watermelon, ribs, and Kool Aid. But of course this has nothing at all to do with racial stereotypes! How stupid do they think we are?

But the height of hypocrisy on the issue of racism comes in the wake of Colin Powell's epochal endorsement of Obama, which naturally led to Rush Limbaugh accusing Powell of racism. This yet again reveals an amazing amount of relativism that is all too common in the playbook of some conservatives. They are quite willing to claim moral equivalency between white racism, built on a historical foundation of white supremacy, and alleged assertions of "black racism," which is nowhere to be found in Powell's endorsement, even if that does not prevent the Limbaughs of this world from spinning their vitriol.

Of course there is another way to think of these matters. My tendency is to become enraged. But at The Atlantic, Matthew Quirk welcomes GOP race-baiting. It reveals the other side for what it is, after all, and when "That One" wins, it will be fun to see the response.

in the midst of all of this comes John McWhorter's piece in The New Republic in which he discourages readers from blaming racism if Obama loses. Matthew Yglesias quite effectively pillories McWhorter's peculiar preemptive strike on an issue that surely will account for some tiny slice of the opposition to Obama, whether it proves decisive or not.

Ironically enough, some of the same conservatives tapdancing around the race issue will be the first to use an Obama victory to claim that we are past race and racism. Having lived, traveled and worked in South Africa during the Mandela and Mbeki years I can assure you that a comparable assertion about racism being over because the country has black leadership would be laughable were it not both demonstrably false and blithely offensive.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rays 2008 AL Champs

Congratulations to the Rays. They played great baseball, were utterly imperturbable over the duration of the series and a scintillating ALCS, and, yes, were the better team.

I am feeling that old pre-2004 queasiness in the gut, a combination of sadness and hurt and loss and anger and annoyance (leaving the bases loaded in the 8th will haunt me all offseason). I guess that shows that I still love the Red Sox and that after 2004 and 2007 I did not become a devil-may-care fan. The 2008 Red Sox had a very good season. Just not good enough.

Tampa will beat the Phillies. It may not be that close. I'll be rooting for them.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On Blogging

Andrew Sullivan has a fantastic article at The Atlantic about blogging. I'm pretty lousy in terms of cultivating dcat, and my Foreign Policy Association blogs (on South Africa and Africa) are unorthodox -- I distill news stories and provide longer commentary. I'm sure my editors hate me because I do not play all of the games geared toward drawing eyes -- short, frequent posts, with multiple links to other bloggers, assiduous attention to the quid pro quo of blogging, and the like.

One of the things I like about Sullivan is his unabashed defense of a genre that still can garner eyerolling. Some time ago I received business cards from the Foreign Policy Association that simply give my title as "blogger," and it seemed a little silly to me, almost embarrassing. Since I have written a number of analytical pieces for them, I prefer the term "writer" or something along those lines. And yet this medium, however imperfectly I do it (as you well know), largely reflects the prevailing direction of media today and in the future. Sullivan's article provides a pretty good articulation of what blogging means and why it can matter, albeit mostly from the vantage point of the high-end professionals like himself.

Siegel on Literature's Salvation

In this weekend's New York Times Book Review Lee Siegel takes on the grandiloquent trope that reading literature can make you a better person. After several examples, Siegel writes
I hope you are at least partly convinced by the power of my examples. Somehow, we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how literature empowers us. But the idea that great literature can improve our lives in any way is a con as old as culture itself. The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall. “Willing suspension of disbelief”? Code for: distract him while I lift his wallet. The government regulates drugs, alcohol and (finally) bad lending practices. How long can we continue to allow the totally laissez-faire dissemination of literature? Not even a warning from the surgeon general or the attorney general, or some sort of general, on the back of every book?

Siegel's a crank, but he's my kind of crank -- critical but with tongue near enough to cheek to mitigate his most tendentious pronouncements.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On W

In case you were wondering (and I know you were not) I have zero interest in seeing this. I do not even have the energy to bury or praise Oliver Stone, though as Tootle always rightly says, historians have every right to resent Stone simply for the time we have to take to correct him. Let's just say that Stone's claims to be a "historian" are laughable.

Stone and I are on the same side of the aisle in that we will both be voting Democrat in this election, and in all of them. But you do not necessarily have to waste time on everyone on your side of the aisle. I'll simply nod in recognition and move on to more important things. (Though it does seem that no one will go to this movie who is not already convinced of its premises. And it might breed some resentment among not only the doubters, who are unlikely to vote for Obama anyway, but also from those cherished independent voters. This leads me to see a whole lot of solipsism in this movie's pre-election release date. Ultimately W seems to be as much about Oliver Stone as about its putative subject. In other words: It's a typical Oliver Stone movie!)

Richard Wright: Self Indulgence Edition

The African American Museum in Dallas will be hosting a symposium and celebration of the life and work of Richard Wright on November 7 & 8. There will be two panels at the museum on November 8 and I will be one of the guest speakers. I am not a Wright scholar, but the preface to Freedom's Main Line uses Wright's Native Son as a springboard to discuss the Civil Rights Movement. I expanded that work for my presentation in order to reflect upon Wright's relationship with civil rights more generally.

If you live in or will be anywhere near Dallas on November 8, I hope you will consider attending. The other speakers, in any case, will be legitimate Richard Wright experts.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Peril of Anecdotes

OK, let us see: Joe the plumber and independent voter wants to buy the plumbing company he works for, which earns $250,000+ a year, and he is concerned about the tax burden for which he will be responsible.

Shall we deconstruct the sentence?

"Joe" - His name is Sam (But ok, given what follows I'll assume that he might be known as Joe, as that seems to be his middle name).

"the independent" - He is a registered Republican.

"plumber" - He is unlicensed.

"wants to buy the plumbing company he works for" -- But which is not apparently for sale, which Joe is not actually trying to buy, and which Joe could not afford to buy on his $40,000 income. Oh, and that damned licensing issue again.

"which earns $250,000+ a year" - Actually it's about $100,000, which is important given the supposed magic number of $250,000 based on Obama's tax plan.

"and he is concerned about the tax burden for which he will be responsible." - Obviously (well, maybe not so - people usually are unclear on the arcane tax code) any rate hike for those incomes above $250,000 would only count against the money earned above $250,000. But beyond that, my favorite part of all of this is that Joe has a tax lien against him. So he is not paying his taxes now.

So here is what is accurate in the sentence:

"Voter plumbing company he works for, and he is concerned." Actually, I think Sarah Palin uttered that exact sentence in her debate in response to a question about foreign policy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Go to the Polls

Hands down the best polling aggregating website out there is the data-rich Fivethirtyeight, the brainchild of, among others, Nate Silver (also a founder of the incomparable Baseball Prospectus -- and Silver is only thirty). Prospects look very good for Barack Obama right now. The GOP will convince themselves that McCain hit the ball out of the park. He didn't. Nor did Barack Obama. But Obama's up by several runs in the late innings. A tie in a debate like this is no good for the team down big, and none of the polling data indicates that this was a tie, McCain-supporter spin notwithstanding.

It's A Boy!

At 1:30 this morning Thunderstick and Mrs. Thunderstick had a beautiful baby boy ("Thundertwig"?). Both Mom and Baby are doing great.

From Dad: "Upon hearing that the Red Sox were down 3-1 to the Rays in the ALCS he immediately tried to crawl back into where he came from but once he learned that the Yankees couldn't even make the playoffs, he decided this wouldn't be a bad world to live in after all."

Congratulations and best wishes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sleeper 1 Brooks 0

Over at Talking Points Memo Cafe Jim Sleeper puts the smack down on David Brooks. A sample:
He pirouettes like this constantly to maintain some intellectual self-respect, on the one hand, and to hold onto his market niche as a conservative Republican apologist, on the other. He has tried to square this circle with forced geniality throughout Republicans' Iraq War lying, torture and warrantless surveillance, borrow-and-borrow, spend-and-spend fiscal policy, bottomless corruption, and, lately, national socialism. But John McCain is stopping Brooks' game.

Ever since it has become clear that McCain is unstable and incompetent as commander-in-chief of his own campaign, not least by choosing his horror show of a running mate, Brooks has been squirming and stumbling furiously toward a reckoning that should be of some interest to every Times reader and would-be public intellectual.

This time, the choice facing Brooks is too stark and time-bound for his usual gyrations. He can maintain his intellectual self-respect only by breaking openly with McCain/Palin in the next couple of weeks.

It comes as no shock that David Brooks has little intellectual core. But as we watch him and other conservative columnists squirm as they wrestle with their intellectual barrenness, let us keep in mind that there are three weeks left in this campaign.

I would thus encourage my fellow Democrats not to be too effusive yet and not to start the touchdown celebration before we reach the goal line. Our party has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory before. The polling data looks good for Obama supporters, but I would be willing to bet that those numbers tighten, that the gap closes, in the next three weeks.

Were the election to be held tomorrow, Obama would win handily, quite possibly in a landslide. But election cycles have their own nearly-organic development, and when hubris begins to build I try to remind myself of the 1948 election, when all polling data indicated that New York Governor Thomas Dewey was bound to win handily, a sentiment that prevailed until election night, when the pollsters were humiliated. Polling is methodologically better today and we have much more data to work with, especially for those of us who like to look at aggregates rather than place our faith in any single poll. But now is not the time to be planning victory dances for an endzone we have not yet reached and it certainly is not the time for complacency to prevail.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bland Boys

Joan Anderman is not impressed by an anodyne generation of male singer-songwriters. She blames John Mayer. (I kind of like John Mayer because while he sings earnest songs he is pretty talented and he does not take himself too seriously. That said, I take Anderman's point.)

Debating Whether Sarah Palin is Fucking Retarded or Just a Moron is Not Cost Effective

I have hit this mark before and I will hit it again now: We keep hearing about the so-called Independents in this election. Yet some one has to say it: What kind of utter fucking retard does not know where he or she stands at this point in the election cycle?

Look, John McCain is a mendacious opportunist who, in choosing Sarah Palin, utterly abandoned everything he once claimed to care about. Foreign affairs? Off the table. Nor can any serious case can be made for Sarah Palin giving a shit about anything related to policy within the United States. Why are we catering to these utter fucking morons? Why has the GOP become the party of not only stupidity (the last eight years have made that clear) but of willful ignorance?

I seriously challenge any conservative to explain to me this race, McCain's approach, the Sarah Palin phenomenon, or simply a rationale for a victory that, at least for now, seems elusive. Obama is smarter than McCain. But we've long known that. Would that we had the McCain from 2000. Instead, we have a McCain who loathes himself from eight years ago.

One might ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want to be president now? Other than so that Sarah Palin, Pied Piper of the fuckwit brigade, cannot be?

Remember when Republicans had integrity? OK, me neither. But remember when they pretended to? Vaguely? Me too.

Oh -- and if you actually know how to get Osama bin Laden, how exactly is it putting country before self not to, you know, make that plan clear? Granted: President Bush could fuck up adding the chocolate chunks to a chocolate chunk cookie recipe. Still: If you know how to solve the problem, shouldn't you either share the solution or recognize and acknowledge that the current regime always finds banana peels on which to slip?

Obama > McCain. But then sentient people have known that for a while.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

From the Alamo City to the Crescent City

Today I head to San Antonio to bring our little godson/nephew, who has been staying with us for the last ten days or so, back to San Antonio. Then it's off to New Orleans for the Southern Historical Association's annual meeting. If any of you will be in New Orleans, track me down. I'll be staying at the Marriott on Canal, right down the way from the Sheraton, and will inevitably be aimlessly wandering the book exhibit much of the time.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Lore of the Smoot

If you've ever walked the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge from Cambridge to Boston you know of "smoots," a strange system of measurement that is part of Boston lore. Here is the story of a fraternity pledge at MIT and the establishment of the "smoot."

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The College Sporting Life

Were I a student at Bates College (A proud member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference) I do believe I would be clamoring to take this course.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Dan Shaughnessy thinks a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series matchup "has to happen." I can live with that, though Manny would scare the hell out of me every time he came to the plate.

Rejecting Israel-As-Apartheid (Again)

David Hirsch has an important commentary from South Africa's Mail & Guardian (via Engage) in which he addresses and refutes the Israel = Apartheid analogy. Here is a sample:
The Israel-apartheid analogy expresses moral outrage effectively but it is also counterproductive to Palestinian liberation and it encourages ways of thinking which are threatening to democratic politics. It portrays Israel as an evil, like the apartheid regime, and so implies that Palestinian freedom requires the dismantling of Israel – an aspiration which the overwhelming majority of Jews strongly oppose – and with justification.

The analogy is also a short cut to the conclusion that Israelis should be boycotted. In truth, a mass movement for the exclusion of Jews, even if not all Jews, from the academic, cultural, sporting and economic life of humanity resonates with an altogether different memory from the boycott of white South Africa.

There is a temptation to treat the Middle East as an empty vessel which we can fill with our own issues. In England thinking is often influenced by colonial guilt; in Germany Israel is understood through the lens of the Holocaust; in Ireland the Palestinians become Republicans and the Israelis Unionists. In Poland many sympathize with Israel as a small democratic nation threatened by tyrannical neighbours. In South Africa the conflict is increasingly thought of in relation to apartheid.

Israel cannot forever hold on to Gaza and the West Bank. A two state (or perhaps three state) solution has to come. But the Israel-as-Apartheid analogy is historically vacuous, a polemic without a serious intellectual foundation, and a barrier to coming to grips with the very real problems in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. A future Palestinian state or state must emerge, but not without Israel being able to be secure and safe from the states that surround it.

Sportsguy on Manny, Epically

Sportsguy has an absolute tour de force essay on Manny leaving the Red Sox that falls into the must-read category. It is very long, and shows Sportsguy playing to his strengths, which he does too infrequently. I also would be willing to bet that for Simmons this article represents an homage to the recently departed David Foster Wallace -- the epic scale, the 39 footnotes -- though he does not tip his hand on that. I also agree with Simmons to some degree -- while he seems a bit too charitable to Manny about the slugger's departure, I too find myself rooting for him, still liking him, and lamenting that he is not part of the Sox run this fall.

Scool House Rock

If you are a late-era Baby Boomer or fall in Generation X, School House Rock holds a sacred place in your heart. Saturday mornings, embodied by the Smurfs and especially Bugs Bunney-Road Runner were framed by these animated music videos that, well, made learning fun! Recently I was in Target and saw a new Election Edition of School House Rock and thought it would be fun to show some of the clips in my class on the Modern Presidency and Presidential Elections. But then I rounded a corner and my wife noticed that for $2 less I could actually get the entire School House Rock collection. Giddyup!

Talk about a trip down memory lane. "Conjunction Junction," "Noun is a Person, Place or Thing," "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here," The Adjective Song (probably my favorite -- what a melody!), and dozens of others come flooding down the memory banks. What is remarkable is how well written the songs are, how infectious the melodies, how varied the genres. We have our little godson/nephew with us for about ten days, and so this morning I got up and once the boy was up we put on the dvd to play through the whole history of School House Rock. The grammar songs are the best, the ones that really bring me back to Satruday mornings in the 1970s and early 1980s.

"Verb! That's What's Happenin'!"

Michael Cera: Supergood

The New York Times has a fine feature on Michael Cera of Arrested Development, Juno, Superbad, and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. His roles all come across as very samey for non-fans, I'm sure, but underneath it is clear that he is smart and talented and at some point he'll brilliantly play a serial killer and make it clear that he'll be a semi-star (the best kind of star, if you think about it) for a long time. For what it is worth, I'm still pissed that Arrested Development was cancelled.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Holidays to Avoid

Feeling wanderlust? In the Times of London Sam Jordison (author of the book Sod That! - 103 Things Not To Do Before You Die) has an amusing annotated list of "twenty holidays you should never take."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Friday Night Lights on Satellite

The New York Times has a favorable review of the new season of Friday Night Lights, which most of us will not be able to see until January, as in a unique deal the show will spend the fall on DirectTV before shifting to NBC in January. It appears that the show has lost none of its nuance or verite. Damn most of you for not watching it from the outset so that we could all see season three on network television now.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Baseball Playoffs: Fearless Predictions

In yesterday's Boston Globe Bob Ryan had a wonderful column remembering John Updike's New Yorker essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," one of the finest pieces of writing about baseball or anything else. The playoffs start this week with lots of compelling storylines: Is the the year the Cubs finally break through, rewarding their fans like the Red Sox and White Sox have rewarded theirs in recent years? Will the Tampa Rays' carriage turn into a pumpkin, or are they for real? Can the Red Sox repeat, establishing a legitimate claim to the first dynasty of the twenty-first century? And a Cubs-Red Sox World Series: great matchup or the greatest matchup?

I'm thrilled with how the Red Sox are heading into the postseason. They did not have a dominant year, but they still emerged with one of the four best records in baseball and are poised for another deep postseason run. They have the pitching, especially to master the short five-game series, when they will only need to rely on a three-man rotation, with Beckett, Dice-K, and Lester to take the hill. The Sox struggled against the Angels and Rays this year more than I would like to see but that will not matter one bit in the postseason. The lineup is reasonably balanced, and is led less by Big Papi than by MVP candidates Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. Terry Francona is as well equipped for this stage of the season as anay manager in baseball, and to my mind handled the last two weeks of the season just about perfectly, as he did last year. The Angels are talented. They have a deep lineup and they play small ball, but they do not work deep into counts, which may favor the Red Sox starters. They will rely on their starting pitching to bridge the way to their excellent relievers, so the key for the Red Sox will be to get to the starters early to disrupt Mike Scoscia's preferred pitching usage and to get whacks at the middle relievers. The Angels want to shorten the game by getting to K-Rod. The Sox have to avoid K-Rod getting into that situation. They thus need to work pitch counts, be patient, score early, and avoid a traditional Red Sox bugaboo even for good teams: leaving men on base. The Angels may have been the best team in the regular season, but the Red Sox have been their nightmare in the playoffs. I expect that to continue. Sox in four.

As for the other matchups:

Tampa has a huge advantage inasmuch as the AL Central has yet to be decided, with the White Sox having to make up a missed game against Detroit today and if they win, then facing a one-game playoff against the Twins. That has to favor the Rays who will continue their run for another week. No matter who they play, Rays in five.

The Cubs have been the best team in the National league by a long way. The Dodgers won the worst division in baseball only in the last week. This should be a mismatch. It won't be. The post-Manny Dodgers have been very good. Joe Torre knows how to manage in the postseason. On paper this should not be close. In reality, it will take the Cubs five games to pull this one out (and part of me wants to predict the Dodgers).

The fight for the final spot in the postseason represented a war of attrition. The Mets did their now-traditional vanishing act (New York Baseball Fever: Catch It!) thus allowing the Brewers to slink into the playoffs like a drunk trying not to wake his spouse as he stumbles into things on the way to the bedroom. The Phillies did not exactly seize the east until late. Nonetheless the Phils will take this largely because the Brewers won't know how. Phillies in five.

The Cubs will beat the Phillies in 6 for the NLCS, the Sox will beat the Rays in five for the ALCS, and the Red Sox, playing the role of hissable bullies and enemies to karma, will break the hearts of Cub fans yet again in six games split between Fenway Park and Wrigley that will cause an outbreak of purple prose across the land. Go Sox!!!