Sunday, August 31, 2008

Getting the inside track

I am Important. I know this because I've been getting text messages from Barack Obama. Joe Biden and Michelle Obama wrote me emails. They were addressed to me, personally, starting off with "Dear Ian."

Actually, the Obama campaign has become more like the annoying co-worker who won't stop sending email forwards. I've gotten ones presumably from all the top players in the campaign, and they're normally breathless reviews of the last night's speeches (and always accompanied with links to YouTube videos of the same), or indignant "taking the high road" rejoinders to the McCain camp's latest juvenile TV spot ("He's the most popular person in America... but he also might be the antichrist").

What they all are is marketing. Image creation and manipulation is the name of the game today -- and that extends to both sides' purported "plans" for this great nation of ours.

After eight years of George Bush and Republican boondoggles, I was only too happy to jump on board the Obamawagon. But the infatuation is now over, and I'm getting that September sinking feeling, knowing all too well that campaign promises -- whether it's Winning the War or Bringing About Change -- are all just so much hot air, delivered, often eloquently, by individuals whose sole goal is to get into office.

I'm not alone in that theory. In fact, according to a textbook I bought just last week and read the first few pages of, getting into and staying in office are the first and foremost priorities of any polticial leader. Every decision made by a politician, the authors of this overpriced book say, is designed to hold on to or gain more power.

So, posed with the ethics question, "Is it better to lie or to tell the truth," our hypothetical politician would most likely say, "Well, which one would get me elected?"

Which brings us to Sen. McCain's choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee. A startling choice (if one is to believe the AP headlines), particularly since Palin is a rank rookie in American politics, whose resume still includes her service on her small-town PTA.

But she does bring a seemingly important trait to the table: she is, indeed, a woman, which apparently is all a certain bloc of Hillary Clinton supporters need to jump ship and turn Republican.

I don't have any particular problems with Palin at the moment, but it's worth pointing out that her selection to the GOP ticket shoots holes in McCain's favorite criticism of Obama -- "He's popular, but is he ready to lead?" Sure, the vice president doesn't necessarily need the leadership skills that the president does, but isn't the whole point of having a vice president so that you have a qualified person ready to take over should the president become unable to lead? I mean, if not, why not have Rebecca Romjin as your vice president?

But, as I've been pointing out at every opportunity possible, experience either matters, or it doesn't. When you're talking about potential presidents and vice presidents, the same requirements should be expected out of all of them. And to me, "experience" is a bit of an ephemeral idea, anyway. I heard someone make the claim that Palin actually has more "executive" experience than anyone else in the race -- all the rest of the candidates only have legislative political experience.

Well, okay, but I think it's fair to draw a distinction between running a po-dunk town of 5,000 and governing the "Great" state of Alaska, and governing the entire United States of America. In fact, my own feeling is that serving on the U.S. Senate would probably be a better set of "experience" for executive office than being governor of the only state where your building codes have to make allowances for igloos.

Anyway, all that aside, the point I was setting out to make here was that Palin is a marketing choice on McCain's part. She's easy on the eyes, has a kid headed to Iraq, and is by all accounts a social conservative. These aren't really indicators of the influence she'll have on policy (should she and McCain make it into the White House), but they're tags that make her marketable to a certain demographic of voters.

I feel pretty much the same way about Joseph Biden, who clearly was picked to counteract the "inexperience" Obama has been constantly criticized for. Of course, Biden is now considered a "Washington Insider" and a "good old boy," so I'm not sure where one is supposed to draw the line.

Or if you're supposed to draw one at all. At this point, I'm pretty convinced that the whole lot of them are cynical scumbags out to advance their own careers at whatever cost. I'd love to see some change -- some REAL change -- but I'm afraid that the way we have things set up, change is about the last thing we're ever going to get... at least on our own.


Bad blogger

Yup, I admit it -- I suck as a blogger, and really have for, oh, the past two years or so. If you're here, chances are good that you accidentally discovered this page during a Google image search for ACUs, or while trying to find the lyrics to a Li'l Jon song I referenced a long time ago.

But that doesn't mean things here are dead. I may be shifting gears with the blog rather soon, since I'm going to be spending pretty much all my time reading about various theories in the field of political science.

I was just reading one such paper today, which conveniently happens to be written by my comparative politics professor. In it, he creates a mathematical model to predict the outcomes of party politics -- there are variables, Greek symbols, and a bunch of operations that I don't even remotely understand.

It's frustrating so far, because I feel distinctly out of my depth (which I may have mentioned below, in my last vodka-flavored post).

But the hope is that as the semester rolls on and I cram more of this stuff into my head, I'll eventually be able to start digesting it and making intelligent comments about it in class -- maybe even writing papers about the stuff. In order to help that process along, I think it might be useful to use this space as a sounding board of sorts -- a place where I can hammer out ideas or just spitball. And who knows -- maybe some poli-sci expert looking for ACUs or Li'l Jon lyrics will happen across it and provide some direction for me.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Post 410

Blogger tells me that up till this point, I've created 409 posts -- which makes this 410.

That really doesn't mean a thing. But it's enough of a start to get me rolling on a new post, anyway.

I've arrived at the beginning of yet another new chapter in my life: a return to school. Monday, I began coursework on a master of arts in political science at Binghamton University, a scant 40 miles down the road from where I live now.

After only a couple days of actively participating in the program, I'm already acutely aware of the fact that my classmates (and the faculty) are academics -- members, or potential members, of the intelligentsia I have never felt much of a synchronisity with. They've all got extensive backgrounds in the social sciences... familiarity with Gauss-Markov assumptions in analytical statistics, understandings of the differences between "soft" and "hard" power, and the knowledge of what the term "rent-seeking behavior" actually means.

So I tend to feel as though I'm starting from behind the curve. I'm good at dropping a name or two when conversations turn philosophical -- I can identify an idea as essentially "Rogerian" or explain how the terms "liberal" and "conservative" both began as descriptions of different branches of the same post-Frech-Revolutionary tree -- but I'm hopelessly at sea when it comes to scientific method and the tools used in empirical enquiry, which are critical tools in the study of political science.

At least, that's how I felt when I showed up on campus for the first time. There I was, a pot-bellied, tired, ex-soldier, looking for directions on a prestigious state school filled with fresh-faced freshmen 10 years younger than me, gabbing to each other about what they expected out of school.

And after delving into the first set of assigned readings -- all treatises either attacking or defending the social science claim known as "Rational Choice Theory" -- I can feel my brain starting to turn on again. I don't pretend to understand the underpinings of political science yet, but it's certainly fun to re-examine the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning, and to look at the various ways a dispassionate researcher might examine the current conflict between Georgia and Russia.

Without any claims of being a great writer, I know this, though: I've got them schooled when it comes to putting words into sentences. These clowns know nothing about getting ideas across to people outside their field -- which might make for an interesting research paper in itself. I may not know how to plot a curve on a Cartesian table, but I can at least express my lack of knowledge in a way that makes some sort of sense.

But I've gained at least one insight: my understanding and feelings about politics have, up to this point, been rhetorical in nature. That's kind of a loaded word, so what I mean is this: I've listened to arguments, and aligned myself with whatever argument I feel takes into account the most variables and offers the best solution -- in its own terms.

That's a little weird, even for me to go back over and try to make sense out of. But the point is this: till now, nothing I've understood politically has ever been based on any scientifically testable data. Evidently, this is exactly the problem I'm going to be fixing over the next three semesters, and truth be told, I'm both incredibly excited and hopelessly intimidated.

I now have a desk under the Glenn Bartle Library (South), where I am apparently free to keep books, and am informally expected to spend the balance of my time while enrolled in the Binghamton University Graduate Program. I'm looking at two months of being totally broke until my G.I. Bill benefits kick in, but once that happens, I'll be free to completely delve into devotion to study and academia -- which hopefully will mean more faithful updating of this poor blog.

They tell me I should look at this as a 9-5 job. I've had those -- which have typically been more demanding than "9-5." Whatever the case, I'm excited about this new step (which I'm not paying for -- thank you, five years in the Army), and while I'm admittedly nervous, it's certainly the "right" direction to be moving in.

More soon....