Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate 1

I only caught the end of last night's two-hour presidential debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Judging from the reaction in the polls and papers this morning, though, it seems like I didn't miss a whole lot -- the consensus seems to indicate that both men stuck to their talking points, neither made any huge gaffes, and both (according to managed to mangle the truth several times each.

I was actually looking forward to the start of the "debate season," since out of almost two years of campaigning (these keep getting longer and longer, don't they?), there've been precious few times where the candidates actually have to face each other and talk about their positions. But after seeing some of last night's debate and then reading the subsequent reactions, I remembered, "Oh yeah. This is a campaign debate. Nobody's changing their mind about anything."

The editorial pages are all echoing the meme that "there was no 'knock-out' blow," and there wasn't. And pundits, columnists, and voters on both sides believe the candidate they already supported won. Republicans are saying that McCain was able to attack Obama on foreign policy (saying he was "naive" in his first reaction to the Russia/Georgia crisis -- by the way, what happened with that?), and Obama's crowd has been pointing out McCain's apparent inability to make Obama seem any less polished on world affairs, and their own candidate's strength on domestic issues.

As the debate wore on in Mississippi, the New York Yankees were beating the stuffing out of the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park -- Cody Ransom hit two home runs and Johnny Damon hit one, leading the Yankees to a 19-8 victory over Boston... which would be great news for me, except for the fact that the Yankees were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs a week ago. The only good news is it keeps the Red Sox from the AL East title -- they'll have to make do with the wild card slot.


Monday, September 15, 2008


Okay, I've read over my last couple posts a few times and I can't stand them. I'd delete them wholesale, but I'm keeping them up just to maintain some sense of personal integrity.

It may have been the beers I drank (before the one immediately proceeding this especially) or the classes I'm taking in high-minded theoretical models of comparative politics -- or some combination of both -- but the end result is an embarrassing mess of pseudo-intellectual, poorly-thought-out bullshit that I'm not happy I put my name on.

So what I'm doing is promising not to ever pretend to sound scholarly on here, ever again. It's annoying and pretentious and it makes me come off like an asshole.

As for an update, well -- I'm a happy guy. Things are going well. Classes are demanding but I'm starting to feel like I'm actually learning something (other than how to write like a jackass).


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pigs and lipstick

"I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." -- Winston Churchill

"I am very proud to be called a pig. It stands for pride, integrity and guts." -- Ronald Reagan

"[A] single pig can consume two pounds of uncooked flesh every minute. Hence the expression, 'as greedy as a pig.'" -- "Bricktop," Snatch, Guy Ritchie, 2000

"Hey, a sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know, 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I ain't eat nothin' that ain't got sense enough to disregard its own feces." -- "Jules," Pulp Fiction, 1994

The poor pig does not get a very fair shake in literature. The pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) are stand-ins for communists (Snowball is said to represent Trotsky, and Old Major is said to be either Karl Marx or Vladmir Lenin or a combination of both); in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the severed pig's head is regarded as a savage diety by the eventually animalistic boys who find themselves marooned on the island -- along with their hapless, glasses-wearing compatriot, the chubby boy known as "Piggy."

Pigs then, one might guess, are fortunate to be blissfully unaware of the metaphors we use them in. Pigs are, genetically speaking, strikingly similar to humans, so much so that their organs in some cases can be used in humans as transplants. Despite their reputation as "filthy animals," both by pop culture (see above) and religion (see the Torah), pigs are naturally rather fastidious about their upkeep and hygiene. 

But their reputation as dirty, loathsome things persists, and it is as such that they are used in our present-day analogies.

"You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," said U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, talking about U.S. Sen. John McCain's recently-rebranded campaign of "change."

Obama has since come under fire for the comment. Republican boosters (and, I'm sad to say, the news media) nation-wide have crowed that the presidential candidate from Illinois was most certainly referring to McCain's pick for vice president, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who, during the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, joked that the difference between a bulldog and a "hockey mom" was lipstick.

Therefore, the logic seems to run, Obama must have been calling Palin a pig.

It isn't the case (Obama was actually referring to McCain's economic policy and deriding him for suddenly painting himself as a "change" candidate), but that's almost beside the point. What has happened is that attention has successfully been diverted from the question of "Where do the candidates stand on such-and-such a policy" to "who called who what barnyard animal?"

This makes my current field of study -- political science -- supremely frustrating. What's the point in learning about this stuff if ("We The") people pay about as much attention to the political process as pigeons do to traffic patterns?

I'm just a student, and a new one at that, in political science. But in my first few weeks of study, the subject of voting behavior has come up in discussion. It's difficult, apparently, to accurately model voting behavior, because mathematically speaking, there's really no reason to vote -- there's no "margin." Any individual voter has an infinitesimally small chance of actually having any impact on the eventual outcome of a national election.

It follows, then, that doing any serious research into what candidate will actually influence policy the way one wants is subject to the law of diminishing returns -- you're putting more time into a choice that still has a near-zero impact. Why bother?

But people do vote, and perhaps that's a phenomenon that can't be easily represented by equations comparing x and y. People still (less so now than in years past, maybe) understand that voting is their one shot at participating in democracy -- although the time they spend balancing one choice against another may be severely curtailed.

My guess is that both parties are aware of this, and are (more or less successfully) campaigning with it in mind. It's a little frightening, since there are two months between the party conventions and the general election, and at least two of the days in the interim have been spent figuring out the importance of an offhand reference to a pig and the makeup it might wear. Out of the 54 days between the close of the Republican National Convention and November 4, that's 3.7 percent of the time... which of course is time we aren't spending talking about issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country's flagging economy, energy policy and education.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Palin's RNC speech

Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin delivered her speech in St. Paul tonight at the Republican National Convention, and I have to say I was impressed, with perhaps a couple reservations.

Her family, including the overly-scrutinized 17-year-old daughter Bristol, joined her on the space-age stage as she discussed bringing what she called "real change" to Washington. In a comment leaked to the press pool ahead of time, she dismissed charges of inexperience, saying that being the mayor of a small town was "sort of like being a community organizer... but with actual responsibilities," an obvious barb directed at Sen. Barack Obama's own relatively recent beginnings in politics.

Speaking about her own experience as Alaska's chief executive, she said she had used her veto power to save state taxpayers about a half billion dollars in costly legislation proposed by the state legislature -- but she didn't mention any of the bills specifically, which means now I have to go look them up.

She criticized Obama (and really, the Democratic Party) for allegedly planning on adding billions of dollars in tax burden to the American economy, and talked about Obama's intention of raising the "death tax" (formerly known as the "Estate Tax") and further burdening American taxpayers.

It's worth noting here that Obama's stated position on taxes is to protect tax cuts to the low and middle classes, and reverse only the tax cuts Pres. George Bush instituted for the extremely wealthy -- a rather important distinction. But when have campaign speeches ever stuck entirely to the facts?

Palin made some hay with the notion that a Democratic administration would be for "bigger government" and "irresponsible spending." Again, these are bad things, but Obama's (who she never named) stated position is to eliminate these things, too. And it's also worth noting that it's been under a Republican president and administration that the federal deficit ceiling was increased to $9 trillon (which Obama as an Illionois state senator voted against), the apparently worthless Department of Homeland Security was established, and countless billions in federal dollars were awarded in no-bid contracts (here's looking at you, Kellogg, Brown & Root and Blackwater).

This is not to say her speech was anything less than impressive. Palin spoke with confidence and poise, and I can't not like her. She has a commanding presence and voice, and, unlike Sen. Hillary Clinton, doesn't sound like an alien from Mars Attacks!. It's clear that Palin is a leader and is comfortable in that role. 

On the subject of her running-mate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Palin praised his record of service in the U.S. Navy and his steadfastness during his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. She spoke of him, not surprisingly, as a change-oriented reformer with a maverick streak. It makes me wonder what happened to the bill he authored a few years ago that would have made the Army's Field Manual on the interrogation (read: torture) of war prisoners standard for all U.S. agencies (including the CIA, which proved to be too restrictive for Vice President Dick Cheney's tastes). McCain seems to have backed off on that position in the two years since it fizzled.

Some of Palin's material seemed designed to distance her campaign from the sitting president -- certainly a good move, given Bush's past 20 months of 33 percent or worse job approval rating. But she also made a few pandering moves, such as bringing up the stock-standard Republican paper tiger of the shadowy al Qaeda operatives lurking just beyond our borders and plotting our destruction. She derided Obama for being worried about them "not being read their rights," which drew jeers and applause from the crowd. Call me crazy, but I am and remain a big fan of due process. Oh, and the Constitution.

There's plenty more to say about the speech, but it's late and I have statistics homework to attend to. Sarah Palin is a remarkable candidate and, by all appearances, clearly cut out for an executive role. That her speech departed from or ignored certain truths is to be expected -- since, after all, this is all really just theater.