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Monday, September 29, 2008

Hanging Chad

Posted By on Mon, Sep 29, 2008 at 9:55 AM

I suspect there's going to be plenty of buzz about Chad Hermann's op-ed on the blogosphere in yesterday's Post-Gazette. My guess is that most of the conversation will focus on Hermann himself: Is he an asshole? A closet Republican?

I'm sure that will generate all kinds of heated discussion. So I'm going to ignore that side of the topic entirely, skipping over the merits of the messenger and addressing the message.

But before I do, let me get this out of the way. I've met Chad, and like him. I often don't share his judgments: For example, I thought his criticisms of Obama were unduly harsh, even when I shared some of his wariness. But I respect Chad for wrestling with these issues, and for signing his name to the things he believed. (In fact, full disclosure: The Post-Gazette piece includes an excerpt of an e-mail I sent Chad to that effect. I'm not identified as the author of that e-mail but … c'est moi.)

Hermann's argument, briefly summarized, is that he gave up on his blog in large part because the Internet has coarsened the discourse. And it falls to the Burgher to offer the natural response: Blogging is just a medium, and it's no more or less obnoxious than any other medium. If you don't like the rough-and-tumble debate you find online, blame society.

I think this is both true and not.

On the one hand, yeah: If you find Chad Hermann obnoxious and self-important online, you'll probably find the print version of Chad Hermann obnoxious and self-important too. And many of the most poisonous things you read online aren't any worse than what you hear on talk radio. The only difference is that the things online are posted and preserved for everyone to see.

But isn't that point? A talk-radio utterance tends to disappear into the ether the instant after it is spoken. A blog post or comment, by contrast, can last forever.

What's more, a radio station, or a newspaper, bears a certain liability for what gets said on their platform -- even by third-party commenters. City Paper can be sued for libel based on what someone says in a published letter to the editor. Bloggers are under no such constraints. Thanks to the Communications Decency Act, you can't be sued for what someone else posts on your Web site. So while I know many responsible bloggers who police their comments section, they do so on their own hook -- not because the law requires it. Inevitably, that results in comments that can be every bit as vicious, duplicitous, and ill-founded as those Hermann decries. You'll sometimes see these on even the best sites.

And for a newspaper like mine, the electronic frontier poses some strange contradictions. While I could be sued for a letter published in the print edition, I could NOT be held liable if someone posted the EXACT SAME VERSION of the letter online. And here's the weird part: While online stuff lasts forever, the print edition only lasts a few days. In other words, the law gives MORE protection in a context where you have LESS long-term exposure. Hell, if a story printed on paper really embarrasses you, you an always just move outside the paper's circulation area. There's no escape from Google.

To borrow from McLuhan, the medium IS the message. It changes the way we interpret the message, and the way we are affected by it. To pretend otherwise is, I think, a cop-out. I can't count the number of times I've heard the excuse "it's just the internet" to justify some bad behavior online. But it's juvenile to pretend that what happens online really stays there ... especially in this age of Google, where our future employment prospects can be held hostage to anyone with a grudge and a Blogger account. (And isn't this what got many people into blogging in the first place -- the chance to make a difference in the real world?)

Personally, I think it's inevitable that the law will change. In the 1990s, as the electronic frontier was opening up, the cry was to protect the internet from government intervention. Now, as the Internet becomes ever more enmeshed in everyday life, there will be calls on the government to protect people from the internet.

Newspapers are the canary in the coal mine in some respects -- you can already find papers wrestling with the implications of what people post online. Even the editor of little old City Paper has felt obliged to police the comments section of some of our own stories, and even report on allegations made by commenters. For us, the internet makes a lot of work, but not a lot of money. That's why on some level, I can't really blame the Post-Gazette for not having comments on most of its stories, despite all the investments it's made elsewhere online.

But unless and until the law changes, it's going to be up to the bloggers to police themselves. In that respect, I have one piece of advice, which of course everyone is free to ignore: End anonymous posting and commenting.

Like I said, most of the bloggers I know are pretty responsible. But part of what makes them responsible, I think, is that people know them. Chris Briem does Null Space, one of the best-regarded blogs in town. Bram Reichbaum attaches his name to the Pittsburgh Comet, Ed Heath to Cognitive Dissonance and it's no secret that the 2 Political Junkies are David DeAngelo and Maria Lupinacci. I'm guessing it's no coincidence that these are some of the most thoughtful blogs in town.

There are exceptions to this rule on both sides, of course -- the biggest being the Burgher himself (though I think I have a pretty good idea of who he is anyway). But think about it. As a rule, I enjoy 414 Grant Street, but would that site have engaged in this attack on Doug Shields if we knew who was authoring it? And is our political culture really any better off because anonymity allowed 414 to do so? 

And what's good for bloggers should be good for those who comment upon them. Sites like 2pj already require people to sign up for a blogger or other account in order to post. Of course, there's no requirement for anyone to use their actual names, and there probably shouldn't be. But even requiring people to use an online alias, I think, is a step toward accountability and transparency (which is a quality many local bloggers demand from those in government, after all.) Like the P-G quoted me saying to Chad, having an identity of any sort creates certain obligations -- toward coherence, if nothing else. One establishes a kind of online "paper trail," through which agendas can become clear, and by which today's utterance can be contrasted with yesterday's.

The objection, of course, will be that anonymity is part of what makes the blogosphere such a free-wheeling forum. Which may be true. Then again, part of what made the Coliseum such a popular attraction was the lions. We've devised more civilized forms of gladiatorial entertainment since the days of the Roman Empire, and we ought to find a more civilized approach to political discourse as well.

Chad apparently hoped his blog would bring about that result. Now, I guess, he's hoping that shutting down will accomplish it instead.

Monday, September 22, 2008

When Facts DON'T Speak for Themselves

Posted By on Mon, Sep 22, 2008 at 9:22 AM

Maybe it was just yesterday's shitty performance of the Steelers offensive line, but I found myself in a foul mood when I sat down to read the Post-Gazette forum section last night. Seeing the P-G's op-ed section swallow a GOP talking point hook, line, and sinker did nothing to help my mood. 

The P-G's Sunday section includes a regular feature called "Enough Said," which offers a surprising set of statistics or a graphic that reflects "facts that speak for themselves." This week, though, it parroted a bit of GOP propaganda instead.

This week's graphic was about drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve. The graphic purported to show what a small "footprint" drilling would occupy in the 19-million-acre wilderness reserve. Supporters of oil exploration in the area, like GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, assert that drilling facilities would require only require 2,000 acres. The P-G helpfully illustrated this concept with a roughly one-and-a-half-inch circle that represents the ANWR, and a tiny pencil-point dot that supposedly represents the drilling. 

But this picture is one-sided at best, utter bullshit as worse. 

That tiny dot makes it look like all the drilling would take place on just one site. But it ain't so. Politifact, a fact-checking site operated by Congressional Quarterly, points out that "oil is not concentrated in a single area but is instead spread throughout the refuge. ... And, between those acres would have to be a network of roads and pipelines connecting them." Environmental groups note that on Alaska's North Slope, a 12,000 acre drilling site actually disrupts a space five times as large -- roughly 1,000 square miles -- when you account for airstrips, roads, and other supporting infrastructure. It's precisely because the impact of drilling is so large that it hasn't already taken place.

But it's no surprise the P-G graphic doesn't reflect any of that controversy. After all, the sources cited for it are the Heritage Foundation and the Institute for Energy Research. Heritage, of course, is a well-known conservative/libertarian think tank backed by Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife. As for the Institute for Energy Research, it readily admits to believing "freely-functioning energy markets provide the most efficient and effective solutions to today’s global energy and environmental challenges." And its financial backers include -- go ahead and take a wild guess -- ExxonMobil.

Yes, that's right: The "facts that speak for themselves" are actually being touted by a mouthpiece for the petroleum industry.  According to documents dug up in a Greenpeace investigation (click on page 4 for the relevant info), ExxonMobil Foundation gave IER some $65,000 in 2006 alone -- an amount consistent with previous years' five-digit gifts. 

So way to go, Post-Gazette. Amidst a hotly-contested presidential campaign where domestic oil drilling is a big issue, you just composed a slide for a GOP Powerpoint presentation.

In fairness, you made up for it with an editorial questioning the "drill baby drill" mindset today, so I'm not even going to go into how the "Enough Said" graphic was accompanied with loaded language describing the areas proposed for drilling as "otherwise barren acerage." But I will note an amusing inclusion in this week's "Cutting Edge" -- a weekly wrap-up of "new ideas" and "sharp opinions" from the blogosphere.

This week's installment discusses a blog post by local economics guru Harold Miller, who explains Pittsburgh's disproportionately low median income rates are partly skewed by the city's "far higher proportion of college students and ... seniors." Fascinating stuff, but didn't you guys notice that Miller already made that point in an op-ed you published a week ago? How "cutting edge" is a column that touts stuff its own op-ed page has published days before? If you don't want to look into the source for your graphics, OK. But don't you at least read your own op-ed section? 


Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Pro-Life Message That Doesn't Make You Want to Kill Yourself

Posted By on Thu, Sep 18, 2008 at 9:40 AM

Word has reached City Paper that a liberal Catholic group, Catholics United, intends to run TV ads challenging John McCain to give a damn about babies after they are born. The ads will run on cable stations in Pittsburgh and other "heavily Catholic" communities. 

You can see the ad for yourself here. In it, a middle-aged woman described as "a Catholic pro-life mother of three from the Midwest," tells McCain, "it's not enough to say you're pro-life." She points out that McCain "voted against one of the largest support programs for pregnant women. You voted against health care for our children. And you voted for a war that has killed thousands of Americans."

McCain's support for the Iraq war is well-known; less well-known is the fact that in 2007, McCain voted against an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program  (SCHIP), which provides assistance to families who struggle to insure their kids. McCain has explained that this was because the bill didn't specify how to pay for the expansion, but the Children's Defense Fund ranked McCain as the single worst Senator for kids last year. McCain missed 8 out of 10 votes on family-friendly legislation tracked by the group.

On a strictly partisan note, any ad that helps deflate the GOP's claims to be "family friendly" is OK in my book. The fact that VP candidate Sarah Palin has a child with Down syndrom has allowed the GOP to claim they care about "special needs" children. But they don't seem to care much about families who need help with insurance premiums. 

More broadly, I'm in favor of any group that wants to expand the "values" debate beyond reproductive issues. What I find so objectionable about the Christian right isn't that it spoils politics -- it's that it cheapens religion. These latter-day Elmer Gantries are comfortable using the Bible to control the behavior of poor women. But it seems like their Bibles don't include all the Old and New Testament calls for social justice on the part of the wealthy and powerful. 

If we must have religious debates spill over into our political campaigns -- and apparently we do -- we ought to be using the whole book.

Monday, September 15, 2008

In Which I Mark the Death of a Personal Hero

Posted By on Mon, Sep 15, 2008 at 6:41 PM

Eight years ago, back when John McCain really was a maverick, David Foster Wallace followed him around on the campaign trail for Rolling Stone magazine.

The resulting essay, "Up, Simba," explored the inanity of modern politics, the media coverage thereof, and the nature of John McCain's appeal in a vacuous political environment. Of course, any political writer could have done as much: In the modern American campaign, the cynical pageantry is torn down almost as quickly as it is staged. But what set Wallace's effort apart was his effort to get beyond that -- to investigate what Wallace called "a very modern and American type of ambivalence."

Could a politician -- any public figure -- be genuine? he asked. And at this point, how would we even know if he or she were genuine? McCain's run for the presidency, Wallace wrote, pitted "your deep need to believe" against your almost equally "deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit."

Eight years later, it's clear which side of the battle John McCain has joined.  I just hope -- against all the evidence that Wallace apparently hung himself last week -- Wallace didn't come to the same conclusion. 

Wallace will be remembered mostly for his novel Infinite Jest. He'll be remembered too for his postmodern stylistic affectations -- those endlessly discursive run-on sentences, the nearly paralyzing self-awareness, and all those footnotes attached to the text (and often to the footnotes themselves). But for me, Wallace's major contribution was that within those pomo affectations -- and maybe partly because of them -- he found a way to be sincere. 

That doesn't sound like much. But if you're of a certain age -- as Wallace was and I am -- you have always lived in a culture immersed in bullshit knowing irony, where the biggest mistake you can make is to give a fuck. Even McCain has learned the lesson. He may have tried to inspire voters in 2000, but this year his campaign mocks the very possibility -- portraying Obama as Moses, for example. McCain can safely make fun of Obama's "cult-like" appeal, of course, because so many of us have stopped believing. In anything. He can tell transparent lies at little cost, because we've given up expecting anything else. You're probably already losing interest in this paragraph. 

Wallace tried to see through all that ... tried to see through even the desire to smugly "see through" things. He was an agoraphobe who suffered from motion sickness and a palpable self-doubt, and yet he took more chances than almost any writer I can think of. I mean, how many modern celebrity authors would let slip the fact that they attend church regularly, the way Wallace did in a post-9/11 elegy to middle America?

That essay came from Consider the Lobster, a book I reviewed a few years back. And it was in Lobster that he was his most sincere -- wrestling with the ethics of eating animals, the alienating effects of the porn industry, the philosophical burdens of writers ranging from Updike and Dostoevsky to tennis-prodigy Tracy Austin. There was something -- a lot of things, actually --  at stake in these pieces. Sometimes, the message was veiled by Wallace's wry wit, or buried in his constant self-reflexive contextualizing. But I'll bet that we wouldn't have paid attention otherwise -- and that Wallace knew it.

Even so, he always came clean in the end. Dostoevsky's challenge to the modern American writer, Wallace wrote, was that the Russian author "never stopped promulgating the unfashionable stuff in which he believed." Or, one might add, the unfashionable idea of believing, period.

I wish to hell Wallace hadn't stopped either. For all his pomo stammering, Wallace made me think giving a damn was a noble enterprise -- and for me, he was as convincing as any Obama speech ever will be. His death, like the McCain campaign of 2008, is just one more thing to be cynical about.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lipshtick for a Pig

Posted By on Fri, Sep 12, 2008 at 4:08 PM

This shit just stopped being funny.

As this space noted recently, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America has recently begun listening to local right-wing radio host Jim Quinn. Which is great, because it means the rest of us don't have to.

It also means that this priceless bit of hypocrisy will be preserved for the world to see on the internet.

As you'll see from the link, Rose Tennent, Quinn's co-host, professed to be outraged by Barack Obama's now-famous "lipstick on a pig" line. The McCain campaign, in an empty-headed stunt that still leaves me breathless, has insisted that this old cliche -- which McCain himself has used -- was a sexist remark directed at Sarah Palin.

Here's Tennent on the matter:

I was so offended by that. I was so appalled by that ... You know what, you're a pig, you're a chauvinist pig is what you are, Barack. OK, you're a sexist pig. You want to talk about pigs? You're a sexist pig. I can't believe it. You know, the sexism, the ageism, is there no end to the -isms with the Democrats?

As MMFA notes, this is coming from a radio show that plays "The Bitch is Back" as its Hillary Clinton theme song. Quinn himself refers to the National Organization of Women as the "National Organization of Whores." Hilarious.

It gets better. Moments after Rose offers this deeply-felt expression of sisterhood, Quinn says:

"It's only an -ism if we do it. And, of course, for the most part, we never do."

Yes, indeed. For the most part, it never happens that conservatives engage in sexism. For the most part, it never happens that conservative radio hosts are sued for sexual harassment. And for the most part, juries never rule against those radio hosts, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.

But it does happen at least part of the time. And it happened to Quinn. 

Some of us recall that in 1988 Quinn -- who was then the cohost of the B-94 morning program -- was sued by B-94 Liz Randolph, for remarks that went far beyond references to barnyard cosmetics. 

Quinn and "Banana Don" Jefferson verbally bullied and belittled Randolph repeatedly on the air, accusing her of being promiscuous and of having contracted sexually transmitted diseases. After being exposed to that sort of humiliation -- in front of an audience of tens of thousands --  Randolph had a breakdown. Quinn and Jefferson then made jokes that Randolph was crazy to boot. 

Randolph sued in February of 1988. Two years later, an Allegheny County jury found in her favor, awarding her nearly $700,000. Quinn has repeatedly cited this as the moment in which the scales fell from his eyes, and he began recasting himself as a die-hard conservative with no patience for women who complain about sexism.

And this is the host who is so concerned for the well-being of that delicate flower of the Yukon, Sarah Palin. 

There's really not much you can say here. If you've gotten this far in the post, there's no need for me to rail at the laughable hypocrisy. I will say that Quinn and Tennent used to work for the parent company that owns City Paper. I don't think they're dumb. I think they probably know better ... and I think they figure their audience doesn't. And they're probably right.

My optimistic friends tell me this whole lipstick thing will blow over, that it won't hurt Obama. Maybe it will even make reporters a bit more suspicious of transparently trumped-up accusations like this one. Maybe. Then again, perhaps the real point of seizing on this bullshit "issue" wasn't to make Obama look bad, but to make virulent misogynists like Quinn look good


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Jesus Is Just All Right ... and other media notes

Posted By on Tue, Sep 9, 2008 at 5:19 PM

So my Post-Gazette this Sunday came with a copy of the New Testament inside. And strangely enough, Jesus doesn't sound like columnist Jack Kelly at all.

Actually, the delivery didn't come as any surprise. We'd been warned about it awhile back, and there were a handful of P-G readers who threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Despite the uproar, though, there was a noticeable absence of "hallelujahs" or sudden sidewalk conversions on my street this weekend. 

I'm not in a position to criticize the P-G for the ads it takes. For one thing, my own paper accepts ads from "open-minded transexuals," strip clubs, and PNC Bank. With a motley crew like that, I'm not going to fault the P-G for making a buck off the Gospels. I only wish Jesus would advertise with us -- at least there'd be no danger of preaching to the converted. 

I guess it sounds like I'm not taking this very seriously. I've heard from friends who were irked by the insert, and there are people for whom being proselytized to is painful -- a reminder of historic oppression. As someone who once helped teach Sunday school for awhile -- I'll pause and let that sink in -- I suppose I'm less likely to feel that insult. Even so, those of us on the left ought to show the same religious tolerance we ask for from the right. Is it really so oppressive to see Christianity marketed as if it were a white sale? 


If any media story DID bug me on Sunday, it was the realization that CBS has opened up some restaurant near Foxboro Stadium, home of the Northeast Region Patriots (as Penn State professor Michael Berube calls them). It's not just the rampant product-placement I'm going to loathe -- it's all the Patriots-related vaporings we'll apparently be forced to hear all season long. Already, my Steelers-watching experience was marred by jokes like -- "It's easier to get a great meal from the CBS Scene than it is to get an injury report from the Patriots!

Haha. Ha. Heh. Hrrrrrrr....


In other media news, my old friend -- and former coworker -- Jim Quinn has again drawn the attention of Media Matters for America, the liberal media-watchdog site. MMFA has begun diversifying its targets from the usual Limbaugh/Hannity/Colter suspects to more regional voices, who otherwise tend to run below the radar. Now the group has started given an ear to Quinn, retaining a hapless intern to listen in. On the plus side, this means Quinn's silliness will be on display for all to see. Then again ... this means Quinn's silliness will be on display for all to see.

But the latest MMFA post is an amusing read, especially when Quinn gets pissy and starts acting tough. "[W]hat did I get busted for last week?" Quinn asks. "Oh yeah, 'The Bitch Is Back,' the Hillary theme song. Apparently this intern that they've got listening to our show every day, Greg Johnson, just started listening because we've been using that theme song for, oh, upwards of 13 years."

Let me get this straight: You've been doing the exact same shtick for 13 freaking years, you've finally found someone who hasn't heard it before -- and you're complaining?


A final note. An interesting piece in today's New York Times that asks, "Is the definition of companies that are 'too big to fail' getting broader?" As the piece notes, financial companies like Bear Stearns and Fannie Mae are getting bailouts, while "the once-powerful American steel industry was allowed to shrink to a shadow of its former self." 

It got me to thinking: In my lifetime, this country has been content to shed many of the industries that generate wealth by actually, you know, making stuff. Whereas the financial firms, which merely shift wealth around, get all the attention. 

There are economic reasons why the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout was inevitable. For one thing, if the housing giants had failed it would have pissed off foriegn investors -- and they're about the only ones who still have any faith in this economy. So as much as it sucks to think my tax dollars are going to be spent preserving the assets held by a Russian plutocrat, I guess the alternative is worse. 

Even so, I'm reminded of the wisdom of Western Pennsylvania native Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire. "When the biggest, glassiest buildings in town belong to banks," he said, "you know that town is in trouble."

That's been Pittsburgh's fate for the past quarter-century. And now it's America's too. Our economy is more dependent than ever on what is often called the FIRE sector -- Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. None of these businesses produce anything; they just find new ways of "securitizing" the wealth generated by others. It's a very slender thread for an economy to hang on ... but as we've seen, politicians are much more sympathetic to Wall Street titans than they are to, say, steelworkers from Monaca. And so billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent on bailouts -- not to make steel mills more competitive, but to "restore consumer confidence." 

You know what other business venture falls apart when people lose confidence in it? Ponzi schemes.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Sergeant Vollberg Speaks!

Posted By on Mon, Sep 8, 2008 at 7:23 AM

Yes, Virginia, there is a Sergeant William Vollberg. And while he's too busy to show up at public hearings to investigate his conduct, he apparently DOES have time to write letters to the editor denouncing the ACLU.

In case you missed it, yesterday's Post-Gazette featured a letter from William Vollberg ridiculing the civil-liberties group. The ACLU recently complained to the P-G that on numerous occasions, Pittsburgh police have cited citizens for swearing at police, giving officers the bird, and so on. For this exercise of free-speech rights, the ACLU contends, nearly 200 Pittsburghers have been slapped with charges of disorderly conduct in a period of 20 months. 

Vollberg's wrote in to denounce the lawsuit, and the Post-Gazette editorial board -- or, as he puts it, the ACLU's "sycophantic followers on the Post-Gazette editorial board" -- for echoing the ACLU's concerns.

Vollberg contends the law makes being a jerk a criminal offense, should an officer see it that way. "Perhaps your newspaper should interview the residents of our city's neighborhoods and ask them if they appreciate our efforts in maintaining civility on our city's streets," his letter concludes.

Hearing Vollberg trumpet the cause of civility is a nice bit of irony. See, although Vollberg's letter didn't mention it, and the Post-Gazette didn't note it, Vollberg's own public conduct has been sharply questioned. Last August, antiwar demonstrators complained that Vollberg assaulted a protester at a Shadyside demonstration

Vollberg then blew off not one but two subpoeans issued by the city's Citizen Police Review Board, which is charged with looking into complaints of miscondcut.  As he told City Paper at the time, Vollberg "was working. I answer to the taxpayers."

Nice to see the taxpayers give Vollberg enough time off that he can compose rants for the daily paper. Let's hope he has time to send a nice note of apology to the taxpayers for blowing off their review board. And I hope he uses only clean language in it -- I'd hate to have to send a cop over to charge him for dirty words. 

Friday, September 5, 2008

Razing McCain

Posted By on Fri, Sep 5, 2008 at 5:52 AM

I think I lost my lest shred of respect for John McCain last night, and ironically, it came during one of the few passages of his speech that I agreed with. 

"If you find faults with our country, make it a better one," McCain said. "If you're disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed."

Fine sentiments, no doubt. But, ummmm .... didn't your running mate, and several other prominent Republicans, recently ridicule Barack Obama for doing just that?

You may recall that early in life, Obama took a job as a community organizer to help laid-off steelworkers. You may recall this because McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, mocked Obama for it, suggesting that the job had no responsibilities. Rudy Giuliani made fun of it as well. So much so, in fact, that "community organizer" has now been rendered a catch-phrase -- like "flip-flopper" and so many others -- meant to stand in for Democratic effeteness and eliteness.

Ordinarily, this would just be your garden-variety political hypocrisy. Like, for example, the duplicity of Palin's speech, in which she praised herself for having taken on the "big oil companies" (boooooo!) within moments of urging that they be allowed to drill wherever they wanted. After all, she said, "We need American energy resources, brought to you by American ingenuity, and produced by American workers." (Yaaaaaaaay!) You'll note the rhetorical sleight-of-hand there: When you want to critique the oil industry, you talk about "oil companies"; when you want to pander to the oil industry, though, you talk about oil workers

But the attacks on Obama are more than just standard political BS. If Republicans believe in people trying to  help each other out -- and they sure don't think government should take the lead -- why make fun of Obama on this basis at all? Why attack him on the basis of something their own nominee admits is a noble thing to do? 

Part of the answer, of course, is that Palin's own credentials are questionable, so the Republicans have to deride Obama to bolster her own credibility. But more importantly, there's that Rovian strategy at work as well -- attacking your opponent's strengths, not just his weaknesses.

But I'm going to argue that the Rove strategy is far more damaging than most of us assume. And that it damages not just the candidates, but the rest of us too. I'm going to argue that attacking Obama for his strengths is un-American. 

In the old days, you'd attack a rival for making a gaffe during a speech. But the GOP attacks Obama for NOT making gaffes. He's TOO GOOD a speaker, see. And thus the snide insinuations: Do we really want someone who talks well to be our president? Do we want a leader who attracts large crowds of foreigners, and who might inspire people? That's the sign of a cult! 

Then there was the whole tire pressure thing: Early this summer, Obama noted that Americans could save fuel by making sure their tires were properly inflated, and suddenly GOP activists began mocking the notion.

Everyone -- from the folks at Triple-A on down -- recognizes that properly inflated tires improve fuel economy. If we were all checking this regularly, we could reduce domestic oil consumption by as much as 3 or 4 percent nationwide. And unlike offshore drilling, it would have an impact right now. What's more, this is something people can do themselves, without government's help.

In other words, you'd think that this was just the sort of self-reliant approach the GOP would embrace. John McCain himself noted that it was a good idea ... but as with his speech last night, he only did so after his lackies had ridiculed it. Which just means he gets to have it both ways, benefiting from the attacks and from seeming to rise above them. And of course it's the attacks that everyone will remember: People will remember how the GOP ridiculed Obama's idea for a lot longer than they'll recall how McCain endorsed it.

McCain's speech last night pledged to take good ideas from either party, but when his minions laugh at the most non-controversial idea imaginable, how can we believe him?

What we're seeing from the Republicans is The Sneer. No matter what Obama does -- make a good speech, make a modest suggestion -- the reflex response is to denigrate it. To mock the very presumption of speaking well, of trying to help the unemployed, of taking a small step to reduce the demand for oil. If Obama walked across water, Sarah Palin would deride him for having a Messiah complex.

And the effect of all that is to devalue the very things McCain claims to want -- a thoughtful politics, a caring community, individuals working to make America a bit stronger, more self-reliant.

If you attack a strength as if it were a weakness, you basically erase the difference between the two. You cheapen the political debate, and society as a whole -- even more than the run-of-the-mill negative attack does. Voters get the message that even the most modest step to improve fuel efficiency is just a big joke. Kids of all races get the message that if you really do learn to speak well for yourself, you'll be held up for ridicule. And people everywhere get the message that community organizing is a dishonorable career. 

Conservatives like to say that ideas have consequences. So does campaign rhetoric. And Rove's tactic -- attacking your rival where he is strong -- has the consequence of making the country weak.

As Obama noted during the tire-pressure thing, "It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant." Which would be fine ... except they are making us dumb as well. 

I get the politics here. The Republicans just don't have many weapons at their disposal. After the past 8 years, they can't run on their record, and the speeches made by McCain and Palin prove that they have only the haziest vision of the future. The Sneer -- that reflex assertion to mock not what is worst but what is best -- is all they have left.  

But it's still a despicable, empty-headed way to run a campaign. 

I used to have some regard for John McCain. His military service, and much of his career in politics, has been honorable. But he is running a dishonorable campaign, one that is cheapening the very values he claims to be fighting for.

If McCain wins, it won't be the end of the world: He probably will be better than Bush -- no great accomplishment -- and it seems likely that a Democratic Congress will be able to check his worst impulses. But I'll despair anyway. Because it means that these tactics will have worked. And at the very time we desperately need clarity of word and deed, a majority of Americans will have turned their backs on those virtues. They will have decided, again, that they prefer to indulge in the lazy, ironic smirk.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Palin in Comparison

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 8:46 AM

Well, Sarah Palin's ascension to the status of GOP vice-presidential candidate has accomplished one thing at least: It's given the media yet another "identity politics" debate this election season. And it's given the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette an excuse to plug the "" site the paper recently acquired.

In a front-page story by Mackenzie Carpenter today, the P-G frets over what Palin's nomination -- and the ensuing revelations about problems in her family -- mean for the "mommy wars." Carpenter quotes a "blogger identifying herself as 'Suzeet'" who opines on that she "would DEFINITELY NOT run for VP ... if I had a very young special-needs infant and a pregnant minor."

Carpenter's story makes no mention of the fact that the P-G owns the site, which it purchased last month. Which means that, by using the time-saving miracle of the Interent to gauge public opinion, Carpenter also managed to plug a P-G property on its own front page, without disclosure. That's the kind of thing you'd expect from, well, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which routinely cites "expert sources" from think tanks bankrolled by publisher Dick Scaife.

I don't want to single Carpenter out. Overall, her story offers a well-rounded treatment of the issues raised by the Palin brouhaha: Do gender roles mean that female candidates are held to a higher standard when it comes to caring for their families? Such questions are being asked around the country, and as Carpenter shows, from both ends of the political spectrum. 

Still and all, I'm cringing at this whole issue. Barack Obama's take -- a candidate's family life is off-limits, especially when it applies to kids -- is exactly right. And while Palin's situation does raise issues of gender and work/life balance, we can't debate them in this context without infringing on the work/life balance, and privacy, of Palin's family. Which does a huge disservice to her children.

Besides, there are plenty of "mommy wars" that CAN and NEED to be fought in a political campaign. Like what Palin's running mate is going to do to provide health insurance to them and their children. (Answer: not a hell of a lot, and far less than Obama.) Or what Palin believes their kids should be taught in school. (Answer: religiously-inspired, scientifically bankrupt "alternatives" to evolution.) Can we find time to talk about those?

Of course we can't. It's so much easier, and more fun, to hash that out these issues that everyone can have an opinion on. 

It's actually the evolution thing that really drives me crazy. We're about to get our lunch eaten by the Chinese, in part because our kids are falling behind in math and science. The LAST thing we need is to elect someone who wants to suck up class-time with a bunch of faith-based idiocy. Everytime I hear someone urge the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design" in our schools, you know what I hear? A backwoods fiddle playing "Turkey in the Straw" while Rome burns. 

But I guess when WE'RE the ones sewing soccer balls together for 12 cents an hour in a sweatshop, we can have all the debates about work/life balance we want.


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