Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Voted Today

When my maternal grandfather served in World War II, the army was still segregated. 

When my parents were born, Brown v. Board of Education had been decided only three years ago, and the Civil Rights Act was seven years away. The Voting Rights Act was eight years away. 

Four years ago, I sat in the dining room playing poker with my friends while an obscure Illinois politician with a funny name gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. "Hey," my dad called from the family room. "You should come see this speech. It's really something." I kept playing poker. 

Over the last 19 months, Barack Obama has been campaigning for President. America has learned a lot about him - and a lot about itself. I wanted to confirm the length of his campaign, so I typed "Barack Obama candidacy" into Google. The third result - ranked above Obama news pages from MSNBC and CBS, ranked above Andrew Sullivan's "Why Obama Matters" piece in The Atlantic Monthly, ranked above the Boston Herald's page detailing Obama's platform, read, "Barack Hussein Obama: Affirmative-Action, Negro-Muslim President."

But I voted today. 

I voted for a candidate who is fiercely intelligent and refreshingly curious. I voted for a candidate who values cooperation over antagonism. I voted for a candidate who isn't interested in fighting the old culture wars, who treats Americans like adults, who carried himself with dignity while his detractors became more and more vicious. 

America faces incredible problems, and no president can solve them all. But we have no chance of making progress in this country if we carry on as we have for the last eight years. If you had told me a year ago that I'd feel this way about John McCain a week before the election, I would have said you were crazy. But I never saw this campaign coming - and the ugliness, shortsightedness, superficiality, dishonesty, and stupidity of it has shocked me. 

But I still get the last word, and I voted today. 

This is my first Presidential Election. I don't feel good about American politics very often, but today is different. Because I voted today, and despite everything, I know that's progress. 

Best of the Best

As the race comes to a close, Jon Swift reminds us of the right-wing blogosphere's greatest hits. 

...Oh, and it should be noted: while some of these rumors come from the truly bizarre and dark corners of the Internet, and others come from the usual suspects (WorldNetDaily, Townhall), a few (including stories about the non-existent "whitey tape," the speculation that Bill Ayers wrote Dreams From My Father, and charges that Obama's birth certificate was forged) were given prime real estate at The Corner. Could that have happened at WFB's National Review

The old institutions of Republican and conservative thinking have crumbled. The Corner is enough to sour any sane person on NR, and after seeing what Bill Kristol's done to the party (and to the country), I can't imagine The Weekly Standard becoming the new home of intelligent, principled conservatism. Culture11 was recently launched as a sort of conservative Slate, but like Slate, it has a broader focus than politics, and it isn't a platform from which to launch new conservative ideas. 

That's not to say that National Review or The Weekly Standard are fading away, though. The crowd that gave you George W. Bush - and most recently, Sarah Palin - is hunkered down, and they aren't going without a fight. Consider this report from the Sunday Telegraph, courtesy of Matt Yglesias:
Jim Nuzzo, a White House aide to the first President Bush, dismissed Mrs Palin’s critics as "cocktail party conservatives" who "give aid and comfort to the enemy". He told The Sunday Telegraph: "There’s going to be a bloodbath. A lot of people are going to be excommunicated. David Brooks and David Frum and Peggy Noonan are dead people in the Republican Party. The litmus test will be: where did you stand on Palin?"
The Republican Party excommunicates Brooks, Frum, and Noonan at its own peril. You can't build a successful political movement based on class envy, cultural warfare, anti-intellectualism, and contempt for dissent. I thought that would be the lesson of the Bush years, but I guess I was wrong. Make no mistake, though: if the Republican Party pursues that strategy, the resulting movement will be devoid of new ideas and rotten at its core. And that's not good for anyone. 

Saturday, October 25, 2008


"There are people in this campaign who feel a real sense of loyalty to her and are really pleased with her performance and think she did a great job [...] She has a real future in this party." - McCain campaign insider, speaking to Politico about Sarah Palin. 

Friday, October 24, 2008

Theology and its Discontents

I was spending some time in the College Bar last night after dinner, sipping on cheap beer and avoiding the inevitable trip back to my room to begin reading the eight books on or by Alexis de Tocqueville that I just took out from the library. Someone mentioned that Oxford's own Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist polemicist, had been upstairs just recently in our college's Senior Common Room. (Dawkins was educated at Oxford, and he's a professorial fellow at New College, which is another constituent college just down the road from ours.) We began talking about Dawkins' particular style of atheism, one which has been popularly dubbed "neo-atheism" and is seen in the writings of Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (also an Oxford grad - but who's counting?)

If you regularly read this blog, or know me well, you'll probably know that I share almost no philosophical or theological ground with these writers. But a disagreement on the existence of God or the validity of religion isn't what repels me. It's their very style - the tendency to conflate Falwell-esque foolishness with rational faith; their denunciations of belief as inherently stupid; their almost - dare I say it - fundamentalist  approach to any opposing ideas - that really turns me off. I had the opportunity to see Alistair McGrath, himself a scientist of some distinction (holding a D.Phil from Oxford in molecular biophysics) who also holds a Doctorate of Divinity from this institution for his work in systematic theology. He was at Oxford for many years, and only recently left to take a chair in Theology, Education, and Ministry at University College London. Needless to say, he's distinguished himself brilliantly in two fields that are often viewed as naturally opposing one another, and there are few - if any - scholars alive today who have done more important work on systematic theology and science and religion.

Hitchens himself is a noted public intellectual, and I enjoy his writing immensely. I was expecting a much better debate than the one I saw. 

What I saw was Dr. McGrath offering nuanced, thoughtful statements that wrestled deeply with the various problems of faith and rationality - and aside from a brilliant opening statement, I saw Hitchens offer almost nothing in response but glib remarks that bordered on rudeness. It was a far cry from the famed BBC debates between Bertrand Russell and Fr. Copleston. 

This, it seems to me, is the primary problem of neo-atheism: it simply doesn't take opposing ideas seriously. It looks at thousands of years of accumulated thought from some of the most brilliant minds that ever put pen to paper -- and it dismisses them with a sneering laugh, wondering how anyone functioning at a basic level of intelligence could ever believe such drivel. The utter contempt with which neo-atheists enter the marketplace of ideas is certainly marketable - their books have been met with big sales numbers, and their debates bring huge lines of people to watch - but it is beneath the formidable intellects of the thinkers involved. What I saw from Christopher Hitchens was a debate performance that could have been given by someone of a much lesser intellect, and this case was by no means an isolated one. 

As I expressed these thoughts at the table, I was met with some friendly criticism from others who - perhaps sharing some of the ideological leanings of Dr. Dawkins - remarked that while their style was perhaps impolitic, the ideas the neo-atheists were promoting were essentially valid, or at least important. I must reject this argument, because it seems to me that style is paramount in this case: after all, in what other circumstances would Dawkins reach such a wide audience and prove so popular? Certainly a nuanced, academic attack on faith would never become a best-seller, and a healthy respect for the other side is never a good marketing ploy. 

No, the neo-atheists are popular almost exclusively because of their style - their arguments are important, sure, but they've been made before - and more convincingly, I might add. Since style is at the core of their appeal, their vitriol cannot simply be regarded as a political problem, or a question of their "image." It is their defining attribute, and it serves the debate very poorly.

That, of course, is to ignore the other relevant criticism of Dawkins: he doesn't have the slightest clue what he is talking about. The most brilliant illustration of this point is Terry Eagleton's much-cited takedown of The God Delusion in The London Review of Books - the full article is here, and I'd encourage you to read it. On theology, Eagleton notes:
Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it. But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism.  
Put simply: for better or worse, the burden of proof is on the critics. 

The most interesting critique of Eagleton's piece that came up in our discussion was a rejection of Eagleton's premise: Dawkins doesn't have to be well-versed in theology because he is not rejecting aspects of it, but theology as such. Saying, as Eagleton does, that you can imagine what it's like to read Dawkins on theology if you read someone "holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds," is therefore an invalid analogy.

This is an interesting argument, but it ultimately rings hollow. Even when avoiding the important moral and intellectual question of the "obligations" of someone entering a debate, I find that the flaws with the argument are obvious. One cannot dismiss theology as such - not just its claims, but the ontological nature of the discipline - while simultaneously being fundamentally ignorant of what its essential claims are. A life of faith may be possible for everyone, but that doesn't mean that theology is essentially an amateur's pasttime. Rejecting the entirety of metaphysical speculation simply because it is metaphysical speculation requires a spectacular lack of imagination and a spectacular abundance of arrogance. "This is why," Eagleton writes, "they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince."

So, in the end, we are back to style. The style of the neo-atheists can be summed up thusly:
1.) Attack the caricature (which the neo-atheist has himself constructed) of religious faith
2.) Respond to criticism by saying that attacking anything besides the caricature would grant legitimacy to an area of metaphysical speculation that is inherently invalid.
Hasn't style revealed substance? Isn't there something quite striking about the reluctance to engage faith in the real, rational, loving, intelligent forms we so often find it? In the end, saying that theology in and of itself is a pointless, misguided exercise is unprovable. As Kant would point out, it is something that we posit even though its answer is outside the realm of our experience. To believe such a statement requires, in a word, faith. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

You Can't Hide From the Facts

Michele Bachmann tries to - hmm, what's the right euphemism here? Oh well, I'm not a journalist, so I suppose I can just say it - lie her way out of a little mess she made for herself. Video here. Best quote: 

"It was reported that I questioned Barack Obama's patriotism. I did not - nor do I question Barack Obama's patriotism." 

Luckily, the reporter quotes this part of the 

MR. MATTHEWS: So you believe that Barack Obama may have anti- American views.

REP. BACHMANN: Absolutely. I'm very concerned that he may have anti-American views. 

Her response:

"The thing is, I don't question Barack Obama's patriotism. I do question his ideas." 

Ok - deep breath here:

Yes, you did question his patriotism. It's right there on tape for the whole world to see. 

These people are unbelievable. "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

The problems we face are too serious for one of our representatives to be this much of a deceptive, ignorant dolt (unfortunately, a lot more than one are that way). I wonder if she had any clue what she was saying when she made that statement - about those hideous chapters of American history when people like her took such awful steps in the name of "patriotism." 

Hopefully this lying clown will be unceremoniously kicked out of her seat by the Minnesota 6th come Election Day. 

The Future of the Republican Party

One can only hope it rests with the good people at this rally who stood up for inclusion and respect. Liberalism needs a strong, principled opposition, and too many of today's "conservatives" just aren't offering it. I'm happy - in fact, I'm eager - to argue about any of the important issues facing America today. That's necessary. It's what moves us forward as a country. So it saddens me when the opposition is reduced to race-baiting, ignorance, and hatred. Hopefully the supporters at this rally are the future of the party and not a dying minority (though one must wonder, to some extent, why they haven't been turned off by the campaign's tactics so far). 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why Blog?

Because it moves the thought process along. In a broader post about race and the election, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great insight about blogs:
"There's nothing comfortable about writing--it involves repeatedly interrogating yourself and your own assumptions. It's hard and it's awful, and you often find you're wrong..."

Powell Endorses Obama

This strikes me as one of the most profound, thoughtful, and important statements of this election cycle. General Powell made an excellent argument for electing Senator Obama, and in addition to all of his thoughts, he addressed the important issue of Islamophobia, which is one of the biggest elephants in the room right now. Powell said what truly needed to be said, and what few observers have remarked yet: that even if Obama were a Muslim, it wouldn't matter. Islam and American patriotism are not mutually exclusive, and the smear campaign that seeks to demonize Islam (and Senator Obama) is anti-American.

That message is exactly what America needs to hear right now, especially from a leader of this stature. This really is a must-watch clip.

We Could All Do a Little Better (Myself Included)

David Frum calls out Rachel Maddow - and he's absolutely right (start watching right before the three-minute mark). 

Frum accuses Maddow of "sneering sarcasm." Unfortunately, Maddow responds by claiming that he's criticizing her for being "playful" when she approaches issues. (Her next argument, believe it or not, was: Well, people at McCain rallies are shouting "Terrorist!" and "Kill him!" about Barack Obama, so how can you criticize my rhetoric?

Frum certainly was not accusing her of being playful (as if that were bad) - after all, playful is fine from time to time, but sneering partisanship is what Maddow specializes in. She was educated at Stanford and Oxford (where she was a Rhodes Scholar). She holds a D.Phil in political science, and I'm sure she knows it's an awfully weak response to say her style is above reproach because someone yelled out a threat at a political rally. Watching her flail around, I shook my head and wondered if it was above my political allies to start behaving like adults. Frum's response was pitch-perfect: "The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way." 

This is a lesson we could all benefit from. Maddow (and Keith Olbermann) are good at providing political red-meat for liberals, and mockery isn't always bad - sometimes the other side deserves it! But we harm ourselves if we create political echo-chambers where self-awareness is a vice. Maddow was clearly uncomfortable addressing Frum's criticism, and her weak justification for not inviting conservatives onto her show to have real debates betrays her true political sensibilities, which seem to be partisan rather than substantive. 

I know the right is guiltier of this than the left - AM talk radio and Fox News are the prime examples of echo-chamber political dialogue. Even Maddow and Olbermann, as prominent as they are, are nothing like Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity, and the other right-wing partisans who pollute radio and television. But that is no excuse for producing "lite" versions of their products. We should be trying to elevate the debate.

(Another thought occurs to me: Is Jon Stewart guilty of this? I don't think so, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a big fan of his show. First of all, Stewart makes fun of politicians when they are being truly ridiculous, and he does so in a way that is more straightforward and honest than much of what's considered "serious news." He's just as comfortable attacking the left as he is the right, and the last third of his show is an interview where he does engage his opponents in a serious manner. If anything, he's the prime example of how we can be "playful," to borrow a word, keep our politicians honest, and maybe even raise the level of debate.)

Quote for the Day

"Of all things, wisdom is the most terrified with epidemical fanaticism, because of all enemies it is that against which she is the least able to furnish any kind of resource." - Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Don't take this as a general endorsement of Burke's political thought - but he was on to something there. 

Friday, October 17, 2008

Words Have Consequences

A reporter is assaulted at a McCain-Palin rally - but hey, the culprit was just sticking it to the anti-American, elitist, left-wing, blame-America-first, pro-defeat media, wasn't he? 

The WaPo Endorsement

The Washington Post's endorsement of Barack Obama is a great overview of the campaign and the candidates. It hits Obama where he deserves to take some flack - most notably on his populist anti-trade rhetoric - and gives McCain credit where credit is due. But elections must be preceded by campaigns, and the editorial board does a fine job of pointing out why John McCain's campaign should disqualify him: 
But the stress of a campaign can reveal some essential truths, and the picture of Mr. McCain that emerged this year is far from reassuring. To pass his party's tax-cut litmus test, he jettisoned his commitment to balanced budgets. He hasn't come up with a coherent agenda, and at times he has seemed rash and impulsive. And we find no way to square his professed passion for America's national security with his choice of a running mate who, no matter what her other strengths, is not prepared to be commander in chief.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Honesty is a Family Value, You Know

Andrew Sullivan has a must-read post describing the truly bizarre nature of Sarah Palin's lies about Troopergate. Anyone who pays close attention to politics has to have a certain tolerance for bending the truth, but this is ridiculous. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Let's Hear it for Connecticut

And for Justice Richard Palmer of the Connecticut Supreme Court, who wrote the following in the majority opinion of that court's ruling on gay marriage:
Although marriage and civil unions do embody the same legal rights under our law, they are by no means ‘‘equal.’’ As we have explained, the former is an institution of transcendent historical, cultural and social significance, whereas the latter most surely is not. Even though the classifications created under our statutory scheme result in a type of differential treatment that generally may be characterized as symbolic or intangible, this court correctly has stated that such treatment nevertheless ‘‘is every bit as restrictive as naked exclusions’’; Evening Sentinel v. National Organization for Women, 168 Conn. 26, 35, 357 A.2d 498 (1975); because it is no less real than more tangible forms of discrimination, at least when, as in the present case, the statute singles out a group that historically has been the object of scorn, intolerance, ridicule or worse. 

We do not doubt that the civil union law was designed to benefit same sex couples by providing them with legal rights that they previously did not have. If, however, the intended effect of a law is to treat politically unpopular or historically disfavored minorities differently from persons in the majority or favored class, that law cannot evade constitutional review under the separate but equal doctrine.
Civil unions are, ultimately, nothing more than societal accomodation of gay couples. The existence of this separate institution - devoid, as Justice Palmer correctly points out, of the significance and profound beauty of the union of marriage - is in fact discriminatory. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I made almost precisely this argument in a paper I wrote about gay marriage in 2005; if I could only find a copy of it I would post some of the relevant excerpts. 

I do recall beginning my argument with an overview of the language used to describe homosexuality. Unfortunately, it is only too easy to find examples of prominent public figures comparing homosexuality to bestiality, demeaning the loving and committed gay relationships that are genuinely pro-family, and reducing a significant portion of our population to nothing more than the target of hateful rhetoric. To survey this political/legal milieu and conclude that civil unions are the answer is an simply an insufficient response to an already-embattled group.  The right of marriage is not simply the right of legal union and the benefits that come with that union. It is the right to express love and devotion through a profound and ancient institution -- one which will benefit from this sort of inclusiveness. 

Fundamentally, the argument against gay marriage (at least the one from a religious perspective) is an old-world argument, and this is why I am convinced it will fail. The familiar cliché that "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" - besides being theologically, historically, and scientifically ignorant - appeals to a sort of reasoning that has been largely abandoned in the Western political tradition. Few today will argue that the law should ban whatever the Bible bans or permit whatever the Bible permits (or what it fails to condemn). That outdated thinking was often the force behind political and religious support of slavery, racial discrimination, and denial of women's rights. 

But the religious argument against homosexuality and its legal sanction takes this very form, relying on a sort of Biblical interpretation that focuses on distinct passages, often read out of context and divorced from the Bible's transcendent message of love. 

This point is brilliantly demonstrated by the Presbyterian theologian Jack Rogers in his book Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. Rogers demonstrates that, in fact, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality in general, and that its relatively small number of declarations on homosexual behavior (relative, that is, to the number of its declarations on violence, poverty, greed, and many other issues which should be of more concern to people of faith) are highly contextual. Furthermore, the subsequent condemnations of homosexuality by Christian churches have relied on faulty interpretation, lack of historical and cultural context, and (in some cases) simple hatred. It is worth noting, incidentally, that Jesus is completely silent on the issue of homosexuality. Rogers concludes that acceptance and embracement of loving, committed homosexual relationships is entirely compatible with - and encouraged by - the Christian faith. Even if one allows that there is some room for disagreement on the specific issue of marriage, certainly there is nothing Christian about the disdain, hatred, exclusion, and discrimination leveled against our gay brothers and sisters by some "Bible-based" Christians among us. 

So, three cheers for Connecticut for standing up for equality - not just in letter but in spirit. Advocates for marriage equality will no doubt suffer disappointing setbacks, but ultimately these goals - which are important and worth our continued efforts - will be achieved. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

It Starts

For months now, it's been a common right-wing "question" - who is the real Barack Obama? What do we really know about him? Of course, anyone who's bothered to pay attention to Barack Obama knows quite a bit about his life, his background, his political history, and his policies. But of course that was never the point. The point was to get people to take a second look at Obama, to emphasize his apparent otherness - this shadowy figure whose identity remains an enigma. Can he really be trusted? 

It hardly needs to be pointed out that race was always the subtext of this question, but it wasn't just race. It was religion as well - how about that middle name of his? - and the political volatility of claims that Obama was a Muslim, that his Christianity wasn't genuine, and that his candidacy somehow represented a victory for radical Islamic terrorists. Even a member of the U.S. Congress pushed this idea. For a party that loves to fret about anti-Americanism, this is ironic, because it's so anti-American at its core - the idea that your name and who your father was should prevent you from leading. 

But this is the slime that is coming from the extreme right. For a long time, John McCain had, admirably, stayed away from that wing of his party. But, as with pretty much everything else that was once admirable about John McCain, that stance is history. McCain's new strategy: to take up the same line of attack favored by the worst in his party. Who is the real Barack Obama?

But maybe John McCain is unaware of what he's about to unleash. Or at least that's what it looks like when you see the crowd's reaction in this video. Here is something that truly unsettles me: a major party candidate speaking to an audience that seems angry - actually angry - at the mention of the opposition's name. Not any particular policy or statement. McCain is tapping into forces of suspicion, anger, envy, and perhaps racism, and he seems shocked to find that, after asking his crowd who the real Obama is, the first and loudest answer is "TERRORIST!" 

He shouldn't be so surprised.

Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic Monthly notes:
Judging by McCain's slightly startled reaction, he clearly didn't anticipate that reaction, and McCain's in no way responsible for the utterances of anybody in his audience.  But he must have some idea of how deeply this fear/outsider/other meme has spread.
One other thing to consider: the Washington Post reported that when Sarah Palin was in Florida yesterday, repeating her lie that Obama pals around with terrorists, a man in the crowd shouted, "Kill him!" 

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Few Thoughts

Things have been busy over here for the last few days, but observing the race brings a few thoughts to mind:

The last 30 days are going to be unbearably ugly, not only because John McCain's campaign is pledging to make it so, but also because the Obama campaign is ready to hit McCain hard on the Keating Five scandal. Could this be a tactical error on the part of Obama's campaign? Certainly McCain's past associations with Charles Keating are more substantive, more consequential, and more relevant than are Obama's loose ties with William Ayers, but it seemed that the McCain campaign was already imploding. We'll see if it proves wise to jump into the fray instead of standing back and allowing that implosion to happen. 

On the other hand, watching Sarah Palin ramp up the culture wars with her (racist?) rhetoric is enough to get just about anyone into attack mode. Watch Paul Begala's reaction on MTP:

(By the way, the article Palin is referring to is this tepid piece from October 3, which debunks many of the lies being spread by right-wing blogs and notes that there is little public record of any contact between Obama and Ayers for the last six years. I don't think that was quite the smoking gun you were looking for, Governor!) 

I hope I'm wrong about Obama's "Keating Economics" attack on McCain. Obviously, the Obama campaign has learned the lessons of the Swift Boat debacle, and they've probably concluded that they're going to be hit with the Ayers/terrorism smears (and a broader culture wars attack) whether they go after McCain's past associations or not. It's certainly beginning to look that way, at least.