HISTORY WILL JUDGE HIM WELL

Posted in Rants on March 31st, 2008 by Ed

How is history going to judge George W. Bush?

While the answer may seem obvious (he will be ranked somewhere between Warren Harding and the Holocaust) academic work on the presidency shows an interesting lack of objectivity on the matter. We like to think of ourselves as impartial observers, but look no further than Ronald Reagan to understand how history interacts with PR campaigns.

Various attempts at ranking the presidents – some academic, some popular – show substantial variance in Reagan's placement. In reality, Reagan was a pretty middling president. His assets were his tremendous confidence, optimism, and ability to soothe with his words. These qualities become very important only when considered in the proper context – the miserable 1970s. Post-war prosperity ended. The economy was in shambles. Major cities often resembled war zones. America's position in the world was not as strong as it once was. Under these circumstances, Reagan was just what the doctor ordered. He also excelled at working constructively with the Democratic majorities in Congress – the mark of an outstanding president in the Neustadt model.

On the downside, Reagan was not a rocket scientist. He strongly advocated economic policies he didn't really understand. He engineered a dangerous, possibly reckless, increase in tensions with the Soviet Union. He accomplished no major act of domestic policy save the 1986 revision of the tax code. Most importantly, he created a "Government = Bad, Period" ideology that left government oversight of public health, education, safety, and the environment in shambles.

So what was he? He was an important president who was the right person for the moment. He also had serious flaws in his legacy, although on balance let's be generous and call his two terms more positive than negative. That would suggest a president in the top half of the rankings, but not an excellent one. If the 43 presidents are broken into quartiles, Reagan deserves a ranking in the 12-20 range.

Instead, the trend in recent years is to rank him somewhere in the top 8, occasionally even the top 5. Make no mistake: this is pure appeasement. To the right-wing media, Reagan is #1. Any ranking system that does not recognize his greatness is biased. So Ronnie has steadily crept up the list as academics, historians, and journalists cave in (deciding that it's easier to just throw him at #6 than to deal with conservative histrionics). Twenty years of retrospection have made him Great.

My question is, are we are going to have to play this game with George W. Bush? I mean, Ronnie was likeable enough that most people do not have to swallow too hard to sneak him into the top ten. Overrated? Definitely. Awful president? No. Bush, on the other hand…ranking him higher than Ass Cancer would qualify as "overrating." And he is certainly a thoroughly awful president. Which will the Cato Institutes and Fox News anchors of the world choose: will they simply try to forget Bush as quickly as possible? Or are we honestly going to be expected to Seriously and Solemnly look at him in hindsight before concluding that he belongs on Mount Rushmore?

NPF: AN OPEN LETTER TO VEGANS

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 28th, 2008 by Ed

I really like Anthony Bourdain. Anthony Bourdain loathes vegetarians. And don't even bring up vegans. Here's a famous, but by no means isolated, example of his philosophy, taken from Kitchen Confidential:

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.

A new blog, Hezbollah Tofu, apparently takes serious issue with Mr. Bourdain's claims, so much so that they are dissecting the recipes from his restaurant Les Halles and offering "vastly improved, veganized versions of your masturbatory, blood-oozing recipes." This is the Achille's Heel of vegan rhetoric. No. Stop. Drop the "vastly improved" tripe (see what I did there?) and I'll agree with your premise. Defend your decision to be vegan for all the valid reasons. There are many. But do not expect me to believe that mignon de porc made out of seitan, tofu and unicorn farts will taste better than one made out of pork. That, as the French say, is goddamn retarded.

I firmly subscribe to the "to each his own" philosophy of diet; if you don't want to eat pork, don't eat pork. If you want to be vegan, be vegan. Your pointless little exercise in self-denial does not, however, give you the power to change the facts. If you want to argue about how the agribusiness industry is morally corrupt and abusive to animals, fine. You are correct. You win the moral high ground. I yield the point. But don't expect me to pretend that your vegan "substitutions" in non-vegan cooking are improvements. It demeans us both.

Non-vegans will recognize the following scenario all too well. Vegan Friend tells us how f'n amazing he or she is at vegan baking. We express doubt. VF insists on making a vegan cornucopia to shatter our skepticism. VF hands us a piece of vegan "cake" which purports to destroy any suggestion that vegan baking is not orgasmically delicious. We take one bite, chew for 3 minutes on something that tastes like a fucking carpet sample, and silently pray for death.

You've only deluded yourself. Don't make the mistake of thinking we operate under a similar delusion.

Don't get me wrong, I can enjoy vegan food. My favorite selections are things that simply are vegan. No "adjustments" required. Lots of Indian recipes, for example, contain no animal products. Ditto many Cantonese, Mediterranean, and African dishes. But, like Icarus, your pride is your flaw. You start "fixing" our non-vegan fare. Note the website's "creme brulee" recipe. Whatever this is, whatever it tastes like, IT IS NOT CREME BRULEE. Do not call it that. Do not pretend like it is the same thing with different ingredients. It. Is. Not. Creme. Brulee. It is a blob of tofu with ersatz caramel sauce and a 6-hour aftertaste, and it sounds approximately as appetizing as fellating an incontinent bear. But if I'm wrong and it's delicious IT'S STILL NOT CREME BRULEE.

The world is not biased against your food. WE are not the ones with an agenda that excludes food based on principle. That's you. Most people have no politics in their diet. If vegan substitutes for non-vegan menu items tasted better, people would eat them. Alas, that is not the case. We don't dislike it because we're small-minded, as you like to assert smugly. We dislike it because it tastes like a sack of buttholes.

So here's 2 cents' advice to Hezbollah Tofu and the vegans: try to win me over on the politics and you might succeed. Try to win me over on the many cuisines around the world that omit animal products. That might work too. Don't try to win me over with fermented soy pinch-hitting for pork. Don't talk about how you've "fixed" cuisines heavily rooted in the use of blood, meat, and dairy. That just makes you look stupid. It makes you easy to tune out, and your message ends up confined to small communities of already-converted, true-believer vegans. And that is why websites like Hezbollah Tofu crack me up. Apparently you believe that if you constantly tell one another how delicious all of this unfortunate shit is, you might actually begin to believe it one day as you shovel another lump of Tofurkey at your joyless, long-suffering tastebuds.

Sincerely,
Ed

PS: We all know that you eat cheese and yogurt when you're certain that your Fellow Travelers won't find out. The loose lips of our vegan friends have sunk that ship.

TAX RAGE

Posted in Rants on March 27th, 2008 by Ed

Every year I think about writing this post exactly once. It happens when I mail a check to the IRS.

Even though we have essentially the lowest rates of taxation in the industrialized world, incessant bitching about taxes seems to be an American birthright. Some people allow it to take over their lives until they become, at best, unpleasant, consistent and predictable ranters in the office break room. At worst they become "tax protesters" who divide their time between tar paper shacks in Idaho and Federal courtrooms.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization." That sums up the way I feel. Due to peculiarities in the manner in which grad students are paid at my University and a pair of very active online trading accounts, I inevitably end up owing Uncle Sam several hundred dollars annually. I don't like paying it. You could even say I dislike it. I often utter profanities as I write the check. But you know what? I put it in the mail and proceed to get the fuck over it.

The fact that millions of my countrymen are unable to do so is, well, sad. I pity them. The amount of energy they waste and the amount of time they spend being pissed off about this is as unfortunate as it is illogical. The ideology of the Tax Bitcher seems to imply that without taxes and their accompanying rage he or she would be happier. The older I get, the more I doubt that.

Tax rage is just a symptom of how the (largely white) middle and upper-middle classes react to the steady erosion of the American Dream(tm) since the 1960s. No one understood the proper formula for political success in this era and with this demographic better than Ronald Reagan: pick something that angry white people are predisposed to dislike and blame it for their fading prosperity. The statement "_________ is/are taking all of your money" may be Ronnie's greatest legacy. It works with just about any convenient target. Welfare queens. Government. Immigrants. The liberal media. Black people. Any noun will do in a pinch.

People buy so heavily into a system and a way of life, even though it regularly fucks them, that they're willing to defend it more viciously than those who actually benefit from it. Explaining one's miserable, unhappy, unprosperous life by confronting the systemic flaws and rampant inequality built into our society is emotionally difficult after a lifetime of defending it. Picking a target and blaming the hell out of is easy. All it requires is a willing suspension of rationality, as if dropping the Tax Bitcher's burden from 28% to 20% would solve all of his problems and lead to non-stop, rainbows-out-the-ass happiness.

STATE-SANCTIONED CHILD ABUSE

Posted in Rants on March 26th, 2008 by Ed

It is my dime-store opinion that homeschooling is little more than legalized child abuse. Physical abuse and brainwashing are simply opposite sides of the same coin. I'm pretty confident that no one who thinks it is appropriate to control every piece of information that reaches their child should have children in the first place. Your anecdotal story about how you were homeschooled and loved it does not interest me. Good for you. For every one of you there are a dozen socially retarded zombies wandering the Earth with wholly fictional versions of reality in their heads – courtesy of their tinfoil-hatted mom and her Teach the Controversy textbooks.

This video has been making the rounds, taken from an ABC special about a group of homeschooled fundies (homeschooler logic: if we put all of the asocial kids in a room with one another once a month, it counts as social interaction – no different than school, really!) being taken on a tour of a natural history museum. Rather than try to describe it, just watch as much as you can before you vomit.

Let us ignore all of the obvious points of criticism for the moment. If you have ever taught a class in your life – from preschool to med school – the pedagogy on display here has to horrify you. It certainly made me want to projectile vomit. These people seem to have taken the Learning = Rote Memorization formula to an extreme that would shame the worst public grammar school teacher. The concept of "teaching" on display here consists of the guide speaking and then stopping for the children to fill in the missing word. In unison, mind you.

Here we see the three pillars of religious fundamentalism: all-encompassing ignorance, fear, and unquestioning obedience. Nothing says "fundie" quite like a pasty, empty-eyed gaggle of Children of the Corn extras listlessly reciting dogma memorized out of fear of punishment. It's hard to do anything except feel bad for them and baselessly hope that one or two of them will find a way to think for him- or herself. It's a longshot.

On one hand, it's tempting to say Who Cares to the homeschooling issue. After all, homeschooled kids are exceptionally unlikely to bother you or I. The few that enter the economy at any level above Sandwich Artist or Wal-Mart night manager will get degrees at Regent or Patrick Henry before returning to Lizard Lick, NC to embark on a long career of shitting out kids. But the kids didn't volunteer for this treatment. Public and private schools may do a pretty outstanding job of messing up kids, but at least one has a fighting chance of emerging from that environment with cognitive and social skills.

ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 17: FALSE ANALOGY

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on March 25th, 2008 by Ed

Individuals who spend any appreciable amount of time around me understand that I love reasoning via analogy. It has many advantages as a rhetorical tactic: it is powerful when done well, easily communicated, and full of potential for sarcastic humor. I'm sold.

Making a valid analogy, however, involves more than simply comparing two things that share a common characteristic. Comparing me to Michael Jordan works on some level. We're both male. We're both residents of the Chicago area. We both play basketball on occasion. We're both over 6'3". Nonetheless, subbing His Airness in place of Ed in an analogy isn't even remotely appropriate – unless the point being made specifically deals with one of the (few) things we share in common. And even then it's probably going to be a hell of a stretch.

To far too many of our Very Serious Professional Commentators, finding one superficial similarity is enough to mash the gas pedal on the Analogymobile. Take, for example, Michael Medved on Obama's pastor. Yes, Howie Kurtz at CNN apparently thought Michael "Slavery Wasn't So Bad" Medved was the best person to offer thought-provoking commentary on this racially-charged subject.

(The) truth is that people responded indignantly to Reverend Wright not because he’s black. It’s not about race, it’s not because of the racial outlook of the church, which very specifically defines itself as an afrocentric church and emphasizes blackness, blackness, blackness.

They didn’t respond to it that way. If a white pastor had made the comments that Jeremiah Wright had made, people would have been equally indignant (emphasis added).

Let's ignore for the moment how laden with non sequiturs this is. He's reading minds (claiming to know why "people" responded as "they" did), making unsupported conclusions ("It's not about race"), double-bagging hypotheticals (talking about how the public would hypothetically react to a hypothetical white pastor) and mischaracterizing his subject (I bet the church thinks of itself as being about, oh, maybe "Jesus" more than blackness). Let's let him slide on that. The underlying analogy is more ridiculous.

Black Pastor making these comments = White Pastor making same comments. The issue here, Medved insists, is the content of the speech. So who made the comments is irrelevant. Race is simply not an issue.

Unfortunately, black and white people are not interchangeable parts in the United States. When a black pastor makes comments specifically about race in a public forum it is beyond silly to claim that race simply isn't in the equation – especially when, as Medved just claimed, he preaches at the First Blacknited Blackptist Black Church of Blackness. So Medved's assertions that race is irrelevant are, on their face, ludicrous. Furthermore, the reaction to this speech is taking place in the context of a partisan political process. This is an event in the course of a competitive election. Medved is happy to wheedle on about why race is not a factor but he ignores partisanship. In the midst of a heated election, how is partisanship not a determinant of how "people" are reacting? Maybe his mind-reading powers ran out before he could divine the answer.

A good analogy would preserve the two crucial components of the equation: the speaker and his comments. Rather than shitting on the public's intelligence with this Red Herring discussion about whether or not this is "about race," a half-decent commentator might make a half-decent analogy that contributes to understanding the public and media response to the comments. Consider these two questions:

Would the reaction be the same if the pastor was white?

Would the reaction be the same if the pastor was supporting McCain?

Which one of those adds to a discussion of the dynamics of partisan competition and this election? Which one is a weak effort by a one-note commentator to grind his sole ax?

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NARRATIVE vs. REALITY

Posted in Election 2008 on March 24th, 2008 by Ed

You're watching your favorite football team (if you loathe the sport, play along for a moment) on a nice, relaxing Sunday. Five minutes into the third quarter the score is 42-3. Like clockwork, one of the announcers inevitably says, "This game ain't over yet…(insert losing team here) is the kind of team that can make up these points in a hurry!" His fellow announcer gamely concurs, elaborating a scenario in which the losing team makes up the deficit.

What such insipid commentary really means is obvious: Please don't change the channel. We lose a lot of advertising money if you do. Most importantly, we think you're enough of a mouth-breathing idiot to fall for our bald effort to create drama where none exists.

The dynamic of the current Democratic presidential nomination contest has not changed in the three weeks since I began writing this post – it is, by all but the most implausible of scenarios, mathematically impossible for Hillary Clinton to win. I am stunned, although certainly not surprised, that this fact has been almost entirely absent from the media's coverage. Seems relevant to me.

It is tempting to chalk this up to some flavor of media bias, but the idea of the media going out of its way to give Hillary Clinton a booster seat is dubious to say the least. No, this seems more like good old fashioned commercial bias. The "drama" provides a cheap, consistent storyline that appeals to both the media's lust for ratings and their thundering journalistic laziness. There's nothing the sponsors hate more than a game that's over by halftime.

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MYSTERIES

Posted in Uncategorized on March 22nd, 2008 by Ed

britt-cartoon-3-19.jpg

NPF: PARENTAL SUFFERING

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 21st, 2008 by Ed

Five days ago I took my sister's adorable kids (ages 4 and 6) to see Horton Hears a Who. What I am about to say may already be patently obvious to some of you, but I do not watch many (read: any) movies aimed at children so it is new to me.

While I can't say I enjoyed the film – and let's be honest, I'm not the target audience – I was amazed at how much of the humor was over the heads of children and aimed squarely at parents. I know this has been a trend since the mid-90s (approximately beginning with Toy Story) as a simple matter of economics: if the parents don't want to kill themselves for the duration of the film they will be more likely to bring the kids to see it. Fair enough. Parents everywhere are thankful.

This really started me thinking about how bad it must have been for parents when we (anyone born before 1980) were really young. Horton was full of actors I like doing things like talking in a Henry Kissinger accent…and I still found the experience much less than enthralling to sit through. But I have no illusions – it could have been so much worse. I shudder to think back to some of the horseshit my dad took my sister and I to see when I was 4 (Care Bears the Movie and so on). In hindsight it's a certifiable miracle that our parents were not shooting heroin in the parking lot to survive it. While I am in no way willing to rent the movies in order to empirically verify this, I don't suspect there was much that would entertain parents in films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2.

ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION

Posted in Rants on March 20th, 2008 by Ed

The three remaining presidential candidates have each taken turns suffering through the same "crisis" over the last two weeks. It is entirely a creature of the New Media age with its endless airtime to fill and heavy reliance on the Duelling Pundits format. Of course I'm referring to the fact that each candidate has taken heavy criticism on account of someone else's big mouth.

McCain has gotten criticized over John Hagee's virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric. Hillary had to deal with Geraldine Ferarro's enlightened views on race. Obama has taken heat over his pastor's different yet equally enlightened racial views. Personally, I find these discussions diversionary, pointless, utterly irrelevant, and unfair. Unfair? Yes. You may argue that it is fair to criticize the company a candidate chooses to keep. You may also argue that the candidates should be held to account for the views of those who endorse them. If either of those things crossed your mind, I want you to try a little thought experiment.

You wake up tomorrow morning and, through some series of events not relevant here, you are your party's nominee for President, Governor, the Senate, or some other high-visibility political office. Media descend on your home in droves. Everyone you've ever met suddenly claims to be very close with you and is giving TV interviews about you. Many of your friends and family are thrilled to support you vociferously. Now, tell me how long you believe it would take for someone you know to say something asinine on camera. In my case? Given some of the knuckleheads I know? Three hours. Tops.

Think about all the people you know. Think about how bat-shit insane some of them are. Think about all the bizarre views some of them hold. Think of how completely and totally unprepared they are to have a camera shoved in their face and be interviewed for an audience of 100 million. Think about how terribly, terribly wrong things would go if some of your acquaintances, co-workers, friends, religious community, or family members were given the chance to flap their gums on camera. We don't even need to play the degrees-of-separation game; one degree would be just fine for most of us.

While it can be argued that public figures like Geraldine Ferarro should know better, my point holds – would you find it fair to be held accountable for the words and actions of anyone and everyone you know? I didn't think so. Now consider the fact that Clinton, Obama, and McCain are running for president and their pool of associates prepared to say something stupid is several orders of magnitude larger than yours. Frankly, it is extraordinarily unlikely that this wouldn't happen at some point. Too bad we waste so much time and effort blowing hot air when it does.

ANATOMY OF A PARTISAN GERRYMANDER

Posted in Election 2008 on March 19th, 2008 by Ed

Teaching students at IU about partisan gerrymandering is very easy. It requires only a map of the district in which they live.

IN-9

What are some of the red flags that indicate a gerrymander? Split counties. Boundaries that just barely include (Bloomington) or exclude (Columbus) major towns or cities. Irregular shape. Failure to use logical and major features like Interstate highways, rivers, or county lines to create borders. Poor compactness. It's very safe to say that this district was drawn in a manner that took into account factors other than population and geography.

Redistricting is controlled by state legislatures – in Indiana's case the process involves both chambers. In 2001, when districts were last re-drawn, the legislature was split. Democrats narrowly controlled the House and Republicans had a lopsided advantage in the Senate (32-18). The result was therefore a mixed bag. Republican influence was significant but mitigated by the Democrats' precarious hold on the House. Compromises were made; the process was not nearly as one-sided as in other states with unified partisan control.

That said, what was the political motive underlying the image you see above? First, the GOP needed to minimize the impact of Bloomington, which is significantly more liberal than the rest of southern Indiana. Second, help Congressional Republicans make competitive a seat held by Democrats Lee Hamilton (1965-1999) and Baron Hill (1999-2005) since the invention of fire.

Bloomington is a hot potato in the redistricting process. Having it in one's district would benefit liberal candidates and hurt conservatives. The irregular shape of the 9th District, which appears to have some sort of cancerous outgrowth that reaches out to engulf Bloomington, is a function of efforts to "balance" the liberal town with a wide swath of ultra-conservative but sparsely populated southern Indiana. This provides an advantage to Republicans in adjacent districts, sparing them the challenge of dealing with Bloomington. It also creates, or so statewide Republicans hoped, a 9th District that the GOP might reasonably hope to contest if not win. In other words, if they couldn't make it majority-Republican they wanted to make the Democrats sweat over it. Did it work?

Cue the news that Mike Sodrel is challenging incumbent Baron Hill in 2008. If this sounds familiar, that's because this is the fourth consecutive election in which these two have squared off. That's right. In 2002, Hill won with barely over 50% of the vote. Sodrel won by less than 1100 votes in 2004, one of the narrowest Congressional races in years. Hill won his seat back in 2006 by a slightly larger margin. Both parties expect it to be tooth-and-nail competitive again in 2008. As the graphic in the linked WSJ article shows, increasing amounts of money, national media attention, and interest from the national parties have accompanied the close results.

Most folks know almost nothing about redistricting, yet it powerfully impacts the competitiveness and outcomes of legislative races. Redistricting and reapportionment have become pitched battles on multiple fronts – political, legislative, and legal (redistricting plans almost inevitably end up the subject of numerous lawsuits and legal challenges based on the provisions of the Voting Rights Act) – conducted by self-interested legislators with personal and partisan motivations. The amount of manipulation done to district boundaries and the varying motives for doing so leave us to wonder: Are you choosing your legislators or are your legislators choosing you?