RICHARD COHEN GETS THE FJM TREATMENT AND PROBABLY ALSO FIRED

Posted in Rants on November 12th, 2013 by Ed

You've probably heard about this one already, so there's little I need to do here in terms of setup. Sometimes I question my purpose in life; at other times it is so very clear why I was put on this Earth. When I first read Richard Cohen's latest, I had one of those moments of clarity. This is my everything.

The day after Chris Christie, the cuddly moderate conservative

When Chris Christie is your cuddly moderate, you need to start asking questions. Start with "Are we a party full of crazy people?" Then say "Yes." and move on to wondering how it came to be that a guy who looks like Kevin James doing a Tony Siragusa impression is your most charismatic candidate.

won a landslide reelection as the Republican governor of Democratic New Jersey, I took the Internet Express out to Iowa, surveying its various newspapers, blogs and such to see how he might do in the GOP caucuses, won last time by Rick Santorum, neither cuddly nor moderate.

"took the Internet Express out to Iowa" is the noblest way ever concocted of saying, "I read some blogs and I'm going to treat them as representative of public opinion, at least inasmuch as I can use it to make my point."

Superstorm Sandy put Christie on the map. The winter snows of Iowa could bury him.

That's deep. This is why he gets the big bucks. Looks like we're all about to get blasted by Tropical Storm Bullshit just as Mount Hackneyed begins to tremble.

From a Web site called the Iowa Republican, I learned that part of the problem with John McCain and Mitt Romney, serial losers to Barack Obama, "is they were deemed too moderate by many Iowa conservatives." The sort of candidates Iowa Republicans prefer have already been in the state. The blog cited Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah (considered to the right of Cruz, if such a thing is possible), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's recent vice presidential candidate and its resident abacus, and the inevitable Sarah Palin, the Alaska quitter who, I think, actually now lives in Arizona. If this is the future of the GOP, then it's in the past.

And what in the ball-jiggling hell is "Iowa Republican"? The linked story has a typo in the headline. Even by right-wing standards this does not seem like a legitimate source. And remember, these are people who found Ahmed Chalabi credible.

None of these candidates bears the slightest resemblance to Christie. And the more literate of them — that's not you, Palin – must have chortled over post-election newspaper columns extolling Christie as precisely the sort of candidate the GOP ought to run in 2016. This is the dream of moderate Republicans, but not many of them vote in the Iowa caucuses or the South Carolina primary, two of the early nominating contests.

And New Hampshire, which people like McCain and Romney have used as a springboard to the nomination. But other than that.

At the moment, it is Cruz, not Christie, who has seized the imagination of Iowa Republicans. Cruz has not only been to the state, but he also was accompanied by his evangelist father, Rafael, a colorful preacher who opposes almost anything, including, of course, same-sex marriage. ("It was Adam and Eve, it was not Adam and Steve," he recently said.)

Boy that's clever. That line is so old, I think the nuns beat Michelangelo's ass in grade school for using it.

Cruz the younger is not merely tea party to the nth degree, he is a Christian conservative as well – and for 22 percent of Iowa's "likely 2016 caucusgoers," polled by the Des Moines Register, that's who they think stands the best chance of winning the presidency. The No. 1 choice (44 percent) was "a candidate focused on civil liberties and a small government rooted in the U.S. Constitution."

Well 22% isn't great, especially when followed by the revelation that twice as many respondents preferred a vague description of someone who doesn't exist to Cruz.

Christie can passably argue that he is that,

As plausibly as I can argue that I starred as Wade Garrett in Road House.

but no one is going to call him a Christian conservative. After all, he opposed same-sex marriage in New Jersey, but he acquiesced. Cruz would not to do that. He’d still be talking – and Steve would still be single.

In comedy this is what's called a "comeback". It's usually only done with good jokes, but whatever.

Iowa not only is a serious obstacle for Christie and other Republican moderates, it also suggests something more ominous: the Dixiecrats of old. Officially the States' Rights Democratic Party, they were breakaway Democrats whose primary issue was racial segregation. In its cause, they ran their own presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, and almost cost Harry Truman the 1948 election. They didn't care. Their objective was not to win — although that would have been nice – but to retain institutional, legal racism. They saw a way of life under attack and they feared its loss.

This is what we call some good ol' fashioned foreshadowing! Everyone take a big sip of your drink.

Today's GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled – about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde.

It's not racist, it's just "deeply troubled" about "expansion of government" (READ: WELFARE QUEENS) and immigration (READ: OMG MEXICANS), not to mention secularism and "mainstreaming" of what used to be "avant-garde", which I assume are coded references to the gays.

People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

spit take

crash

OK. Wait.

drinking

(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)

NO, YOU SHOULD QUIT WHILE YOU'RE AHEAD. And by ahead I mean fired. Maybe just sit the next few plays out, champ.

This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts – but not all – of America.

Pretty sure interracial marriage happens, like, everywhere. Even when I lived in the deep south, where one might expect resistance to be found even if nowhere else, it seemed pretty unremarkable. If there is a bloc of resistance to "the miscegenation" or whatever such people – PEOPLE LIKE RICHARD "GAG REFLEX" COHEN – might call it, I'd like to see some data on who they are.

To cultural conservatives, this doesn't look like their country at all.

Maybe all of their endless rage and wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments is not a result of their country changing but of their delusion that the country is "theirs". You know those black lesbian wiccans with adopted Chinese children and three purebred Greyhounds who live in Dem Big Cities are Americans too, right? Like, they can vote and stuff, and they have an equal 1/319,000,000 claim to ownership of America as does Richard Cohen. Nobody's taking away "their" country; they're just dying off, and not quickly enough if I may say so.

As with the Dixiecrats, the fight is not over a particular program – although Obamacare comes close – but about a tectonic shift of attitudes.

Sounds more like a lack of shift in attitudes, cubby.

I thank Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, for leading me to a live performance on YouTube of Merle Haggard singing “Are the Good Times Really Over.” This chestnut, a lament for a lost America, has been viewed well more than 2 million times. It could be the tea party's anthem.

It took a guy with a Ph.D. to find a YouTube video of a popular song by an artist who is nearly a household name? While you mull that over, let's talk about nostalgia for The Good Ol' Days. Maybe flip through a book of Norman Rockwell paintings while we're at it. Ask for whom they were good – white men with money, not unlike Richard Cohen – and you answer the question of who's so desperate to bring them back.

For all his positions and religious beliefs, Christie is too Joisey for the tea party – too brash, as well. He would be wise to steer clear of Iowa lest he lose or, worse, follow Romney and take on the deeply conservative coloration of the state's GOP.

Yes, this man who is running for president will skip Iowa. Richard Cohen has quite the grasp of how the nomination process works. He should skip Iowa, lest he follow in the path of Mitt Romney…who won the Republican nomination I think. Let me check. Yep, he won it. Didn't win Iowa, but neither did McCain. I guess Iowa isn't that big of a fucking deal after all.

That might make him (barely) acceptable to Republican Iowans but anathema to the rest of us.

This is the dumbest thing I've ever read, and one time I read Going Rogue.

Read more from Richard Cohen's archive.

I'll pass, thanks.

ETERNAL MALAISE

Posted in Rants on November 11th, 2013 by Ed

Sunday was the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember watching this TV broadcast of a young Peter Jennings in Berlin like it was yesterday. Aside from 9/11, which I/we remember for how awful it was, this is one of the only things in my life that I remember in the kind of excruciating detail that comes with the awareness of being witness to at a significant moment.

At the time, the evening stood out for me as the first time – I had just turned 11 – that my bedtime was unconditionally waived. Even on cable, which we had, there still just wasn't much news on TV in 1989. CNN was in its infancy and the major networks didn't preempt regular programming. But everything that was available, we watched. I made it to about one in the morning.

It also stood out because my dad cried. All four of my grandparents are from Poland. My dad, like most Americans of Eastern European stock, was fiercely anti-communist. The lack of freedom in Poland and the rest of the Eastern Bloc was a regular topic of conversation. He cried because for so long people had suffered and now they would not have to. When the symbol of restricted movement between the East and West fell, we all knew that the world was about to become a very different place.

It is indeed very different, but not in the way that the commentary of that time imagined. For Americans, life changed inasmuch as the Cold War was no longer the framework in which we understood economics, politics, international affairs, and our own society. For the people living in the soon-to-be-post-Soviet parts of Europe and Asia, they may have expected that their lives would improve. In time, both groups would be disappointed.

Now that American-style free market democracy has established itself as, to paraphrase The End of History, the final form of human social organization the world finds itself in a persistent malaise. When no alternative exists – in fact, when no alternative can even be imagined or proposed – what are dissatisfied people supposed to do? Our society encourages them to work within the existing institutions to reform the system to their liking, a process with a tendency to protect the status quo and weed out any real reform about 100% of the time. When people cannot believe, even if it constitutes wishful thinking, that the Other Way is better, what else is there to do but feel powerless and aimless? This is It. This is the system. This is how we all must govern ourselves from now on. These are the rules under which we will live and with which our interactions with one another will be defined. Is it any wonder that so many people here and around the world look at politics with such overwhelming apathy?

For the ex-communists, the rude awakening was discovering that the Soviet-style communist system, which they believed to suck, was being replaced with another system that sucks. In fact, it might suck more. There is and has been a tendency for Americans, and westerners in general, to paint an overly optimistic picture of the glories of capitalism and democracy. The peoples of the Eastern Bloc might well have imagined that they were about to tear down their ossified system and replace it with a far superior one. Twenty-four years later, precious little has changed. Sure, there is more shit to buy; Moscow has American fast food restaurants and Russians can waste their money on all the same gadgets and consumer goods on which Americans waste money. But places that were grim, underdeveloped, and poor under communism remain grim, underdeveloped, and poor after two-plus decades of capitalism. Russians and Poles and East Germans learned quickly that capitalism shares an important feature with their communist systems: it has a small number of Winners and the overwhelming majority of the population gets the shaft.

If they were expecting otherwise when they threw off the shackles of the Evil Empire, surely they must be disappointed. A little truth-in-advertising could have prepared them for the fact that capitalism would do very little to improve their lives, and that the transition to it would mostly serve to replace one system that exploits people with a different one. The big difference is that now there is no alternative, no mysterious border to gaze across and think, "Surely their way must be better." We are left as nations and as a planet to wonder: If our way of life is so self-evidently great that no alternatives exist or need to exist, then why is everyone so unhappy? Why does everything, for lack of a more sophisticated description, still suck?

Old-school anticommunists would answer that it does not suck; that the system has worked as intended and rewarded those whose talents and achievements deserve to be rewarded. That group of people is small, of course. Our system is one of staggering inequality. It replaces the control of centralized bureaucracy with the control of banks and debt. We are told that our lives are better because we have cars and 30000 channels and 60" TVs, and that even the poorer members of the working class can afford these things (on credit). But that persistent feeling that everything is not quite right, that capitalism simply privatizes the job of making your life dreary, never goes away for long. While we are encouraged to make ourselves fat and stupid with beer and Pizza Hut and nine hours of football on Saturday and Sunday, none of that is able to drown out completely the nagging question, "Is this it?"

The answer is yes, and it has been for more than twenty years. This is it. The fall of communism replaced six with a half dozen. All of the same inefficiencies, inequalities, and indignities remain; only the names and titles of the people and institutions who make it so have really changed. They will not change again anytime soon.

NPF: AUTUMN POTPOURRI

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 8th, 2013 by Ed

Here's a collection of things to speed you through your Friday.

1. From the "right in Ed's wheelhouse" files, here is a gallery of deteriorating but still staggering Soviet-era space murals in Kazakhstan. Nature seems to be well on the way to reclaiming some of them, which is a damn shame (click to embiggen).

kz

By the way, the link is to Esquire Kazakhstan. So I guess Esquire Kazakhstan is a thing.

2. Speaking of galleries, photographer Klaus Pichler has a haunting series of photos of "cosplay" aficionados doing mundane activities in full costume. It's a combination of endearing and creepy that makes it hard to tear your eyes away.

Just the two of us, Klaus Pichler, 2013

If you're not sure how to feel about that, join the club.

3. If you're interested in cryptography (particularly during WWII) and/or the history of computing, Bletchley Park is putting its entire archives up online slowly but surely. Is it still OK to find this stuff interesting now that electronic surveillance is a way of life?

4. The newest orders for Boeing 787s and Airbus A330s – two long range airliners used primarily for transatlantic flights and trunk routes in Asia – are for ten-across coach seating. The standard for the past few years has been nine-across for widebody airliners of this type. How will they make the transition from nine to ten? Well obviously they're just going to make the seats even more miserable. The new coach seats will be an incomprehensibly awful 16.7" wide. I am quite narrow by American standards, and I am still shuddering at the idea of sitting in one of those fucking things for 10 hours. Grab a measuring tape and look at 16.7". Then remember that these planes are used on flights that can last as long as 14 hours. It's almost an inch per hour!

On the bright side, air travel is rapidly becoming unaffordable anyway so there's no point in worrying.

THE MODAL STUDENT

Posted in Rants on November 7th, 2013 by Ed

When I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living, one of the first questions I tend to get asked is what it's like to have college athletes in class. This is apparently the higher education equivalent of asking a cop, "Have you ever shot anybody?" and I enjoy answering it approximately as much. Are the athletes dumb? Do they come to class? Ever have any Famous ones? Here's my experience.

In general, student-athletes (the NCAA has cloyingly rebranded them "scholar-athletes") get a really bad rap. Most people don't understand how many hours per day their sport takes up. You don't have to feel sorry for them – in many cases they're getting a free education out of the deal – but their non-athlete peers are not getting up at 5 AM to work out for 3 hours before going to class and then practicing for 5 more after class. Compared to the average college kid who rolls out of bed at 11 AM with great difficulty, that's a heroic display of discipline.

And athletes come to class. They come to every class. Again comparing them to regular students, they are far better in this area. Most NCAA schools give them plenty of tutoring and academic help so it's fairly difficult to fail (and lose academic eligibility to play sports) as long as they show up. So most athletic departments have a near-zero tolerance policy for absences. We are asked to fill out progress reports for athletes constantly. Have they missed class? What are their grades? And so on. College students tend to skip class at the drop of a hat, of course. Students who attend every class stand out. Sure, sometimes they're half-asleep in class (see above). I promise you there is nothing unusual about sleeping undergrads.

So. Are they as dumb as everyone assumes?

Not really. At my current institution, the two best students I've had so far are athletes. Certainly not every student-athlete is brilliant. Some of them are the proverbial bag of hammers. Most of them are average. In other words, they're no different than any other group of undergraduates; they range from brilliant to how-did-you-graduate-high-school with most falling in the middle. It's a normal distribution, as far as I can tell. And unlike most students I don't have to ask them a half-dozen times to do the assigned work. Even the ones who are not very good at academic work try really hard in most cases, which is refreshing. These are competitive kids who don't like to lose. Compared to the general population their effort levels are off the charts.

Now, I'm not naive. I am certain that there are sports-crazy schools where athletes are given extensive leeway and strings are pulled to keep them eligible. It's equally certain that there are individuals, usually of the Superstar Athlete variety, who get every manner of special treatment imaginable and rarely appear in a classroom. That's a small group, though. The vast majority of NCAA athletes are anonymous and play sports in which "going pro" is not even a realistic option. For every famous Reggie Bush or Kevin Durant there are a thousand people on a tennis or track scholarship who you wouldn't recognize if you tripped over them.

The best part, in my experience, is that most Scholar-Athletes get it. They know they're not in line to make millions in the pros. Even at the giant SEC Football School I worked at, the football players I encountered knew exactly what odds they had of making the NFL. Or even the CFL. Or even Arena Football. They broadly understand, as the cheesy-ass NCAA slogan says, that they are going to go pro in something other than sports. So surprisingly few have that "Fuck it, I don't need this" attitude about classes and the work required to pass them.

In short, people who expect college athletes to be dumb and lazy should probably take an honest look at their own (or their own kids') performance as students. If athletes are dumb, they're no dumber than the other students. If they're lazy or they act entitled, it's because all students are pretty lazy and entitled these days. I just don't see any way in which student-athletes, even if they are bad students, are any worse than students in general. And in a number of ways they are clearly better – they show up and do what they're asked to do. Believe it or not, that's becoming an increasingly rare commodity these days. Let's put it this way: if I could get a class full of football players or a regular class I'd take the former. It would certainly be no worse and would most likely be better.

NEVER GET HIGH ON YOUR OWN SUPPLY

Posted in Rants on November 5th, 2013 by Ed

As a kid I made annual trips to Oak Brook, IL in mid-November with my family to knock out the Christmas shopping. Oak Brook was home to the Fancy Mall. People of the suburbs understand the typography of malls; there is the standard mall against which others are judged, the Good mall (with a Banana Republic instead of a Gap), the Bad mall (read: patronized by black people and mostly Foot Locker derivatives) and then the Fancy Mall containing exotic and expensive stores unknown to peasants. Oak Brook was a logical location for Fanciness, being the global headquarters of McDonald's. It will not surprise you to learn that those McDonald's folks have some serious money. Accordingly, Oak Brook is crammed with seven-figure homes and the kind of high end retail and "corporate campuses" that wealth attracts.

The funny thing about Oak Brook to me – I was a perceptive little bastard, and greatly unpleasant to be around no doubt – was that for a place built on the fortunes of a fast food megacorporation, there didn't seem to be any fast food places. An eight year old, when picturing the World Headquarters of McDonald's, envisions the biggest Playland on Earth or perhaps a McDonald's with an eight lane drive-thru and seating for 1000. But It was just a bunch of well maintained if totally bland office buildings. There wasn't even a regular McDonald's in sight. In fact there were hardly any fast food restaurants at all.

The irony that I grew to understand with age is that upper-middle class people who have made great sums of money building the McDonald's empire are, almost without exception, people who would not be caught dead in a McDonald's. Nor would they consent to having one in their neighborhood, with its gaudy, plasticky exterior dragging down property values and attracting Undesirables. They don't eat that stuff and they would never feed it to their kids. There are no McDonald's restaurants in swanky neighborhoods for the same reason there are no car title loan places or drive-thru liquor stores – because these establishments were invented by the well-to-do as a means to screw poor people for profit. I often say half-jokingly that if you see a product, service, or social institution that is enthusiastically supported, but not used, by rich white people then it's a safe bet that it exists to screw you.

Which, in an analogy that probably makes sense only in my mind, brings us to the School Reform industry. Why is it that the very wealthy are so vocal these days about reforming public schools that they would never send their children to anyway? Why are they so enthusiastic about "charter schools" and for-profit education models when they and their kids continue to go to elite, expensive private schools? Do you think the CEO of Kaplan, now extracting money from the masses under the guise of "Kaplan University", is going to send his kids to Harvard or to the school run by the company that has made him so rich?

I'll believe that McDonald's thinks its products are healthy when I see some statistics about how often its white collar employees eat there. I'll believe that online schools, for-profit colleges, and charter schools are superior educational options when I see a university president or EduCorporation executive with a degree from one or with kids enrolled in one. A cynic might suggest that their tremendous enthusiasm for replacing traditional publicly funded education – which, to be certain, has plenty of problems – with privatized alternatives has less to do with academic excellence and more to do with money. They don't want to pay for public K-12 institutions and they want to figure out a way to line their own pockets with the money funneled toward higher education.

Education reformers are a mix of well intentioned if somewhat naive young people and hard, cynical predators who know a cash cow when they see one. Next time you encounter one, ask them where they went to school. More importantly, ask them where their kids are enrolled. More often than not, the names of expensive private schools and elite public schools will roll off their lips in much greater numbers than any of the bogus alternatives they hawk to their social inferiors. That, in a dramatic oversimplification, tells you everything you need to know about School Reform.

SHAME: HOW DOES IT WORK?

Posted in Quick Hits on November 4th, 2013 by Ed

I'm currently indisposed. Fear not; I've been saving this "Here, read this instead" link for just such a moment. It's not the most insightful thing you'll ever read, but it sure is fun. And how can you top a title like "Supply Side Jesus and the Death of Shame?"

And while all this fuss and feathers was taking place, this: Senator Ted Cruz, who with each passing day appears more and more to be the likely product of a test-tube combination between a dented egg from Phyllis Schlafly and the weakest sperm Joe McCarthy ever produced, hates the very idea of socialized medicine. He did that little faux-filibuster to tell you about it.

(snip)

Their greatest strength, for years and years, has been their utter lack of shame. Their ability to say or do anything, and hypocrisy take the hindmost, has vaulted them into the position they hold today in American politics.

That's Mr. William Rivers Pitt. No idea who he is, but if he makes a habit of this I will have to seek him out.

NPF: THE PUZZLE

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 1st, 2013 by Ed

Can it still be No Politics Friday if I give you two links about gerrymandering? It can if they're both links to puzzles. Slate just put up a map/puzzle game challenging readers to put six states' "ridiculously gerrymandered congressional districts" back together against a timer. The average for all users is 10:30. My best was 9:32. I bet someone with very little desire to do work on a Friday afternoon can beat that.

Slate's game reminded me of an old favorite that I still use in Intro classes: The Redistricting Game. Players are given different tasks – i.e., create districts in which the incumbent candidates will all have at least 55% support while maintaining equal population – that will pass the state legislature, governor's mansion, and courts. It's actually pretty difficult at first (on the "advanced" settings) but dammit if you can't get it done in a half hour or less. As I tell the kids, "If it takes you 30 minutes, it probably takes your legislators an hour because they're not as bright. But an hour isn't much time."

Hey, no one is going to force you to think about gerrymandering, redistricting, or state legislatures on a Friday. However, you're two clicks closer to filling the dreaded 3:00-4:00 hour on Friday afternoon. And if all else fails, there's always minesweeper.