It's over...

…and we did it. We elected the first black president of the United States. Historic times, indeed.

President-elect Barack Obama

In other news, it appears that Proposition 8 passed in California. Regardless of what you think of gay marriage, consider that the people of California just voted in favor of a proposition that eliminates a right. Think hard about that one. Frankly, I don't like the precedent. It scares the hell out of me.

A bit of remodeling

Observant readers will notice that the design of this blog is changing periodically as I try out new designs. I'm mulling over a few more changes, which may include changing the name of the blog. Stay tuned…

Pseudo-religious Schadenfreude

From a message posted to a Baha'i email list that has not yet removed me from its roster:

The world seems to be reaching a most perfect state of disintegration for us to be able to teach the cause of Baha'u'llah. Let's be ready.

I wonder if they realize what vultures that makes them seem. Or, as the Duc de la Rochefoucauld saidin 1665:

Dans l'adversité de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous déplaît pas.

(See link above for translation)

Just one more reason why I'm no longer there, I suppose.

A Prairie Home controversy

Rod Dreher isn't happy with Garrison Keillor:

Well, this weekend he went to Abilene, a small city in west Texas, and has written a column marveling over how even though they're all a bunch of Republicans, they actually were nice to him. He did end his piece on a grace note, though:

"But it's good to be among the opposition and know them as fine upstanding people. At the dinner where I was forced to eat the prime rib, we all sat around afterward and sang "I'll Fly Away" and "God Bless America" and "How Great Thou Art" and "Home on the Range" and a dozen other songs we all knew, and it was a lovely evening a couple weeks before a big election. We still do know some of the same songs, we Americans. Deep down, we are loyal to each other. And the truth is marching on."

Nice, that. I just wish it didn't come out of him as so grudging and condescending. It's like he was pleasantly surprised that the folks in Abilene weren't mouth-breathing troglodytes ready to lynch Meskins and nigras.


Here's my response, which I posted as a comment on his blog:


I just don't know.

Maybe it's because I'm not from the South, and so don't identify with Southern culture and norms. Maybe it's because I'm a Californian, and therefore view things through a different lens. Maybe it's because my family is largely from midwestern Scandinavian stock, and Keillor's rhythms and cadences are those of my extended family, like hearing the voice of a beloved uncle telling stories after dinner. Maybe it's because I travel to southern Oklahoma every couple of years for a family reunion on my wife's family's farm, something I look forward to eagerly despite an awareness of the differences between her cousins' outlook on life and our own. Could be any of those things, but I read his column and I'm just not seeing the sneering condescension that others seem to be reading into it.

First, you have to remember who Keillor is. He's a Minnesotan, a Democrat, whose career is largely based on a show he started in the 1970s on public radio, and the books that have flowed from it. Given that background, I'd be mightily surprised if he liked George W. Bush (the "Current Occupant," as he puts it), and of course he doesn't.

Second, you have to remember who he's writing for--Salon, whose subscribers likely tilt substantially to the left. To some extent, he's explaining Red America to Blue America, and Red America may be uncomfortable with its depiction, which is actually somewhat affectionate.

Affectionate? Yes. Go back and read it again. He talks of the civic virtues of the citizens of Abilene, "fine upstanding people," their pride in their community and the admirable qualities they evince, things like their firmness in their beliefs, their self-reliance, and their steadfastness of character. He writes of it being a lovely evening overall, with an implied recognition that we are all Americans, all part of the same tribe in the end despite the divisions in our culture and society.

What he's saying is really no different than how I feel about my wife's family in Oklahoma. I love them, although we come from different places and don't agree on everything, and I am baffled by some of their politics. I'd love to argue about it with them, but like Keillor I was raised by midwesterners and there's something inside that says, "Don't be rude." So I'm not. Instead, I enjoy the barbecue and lavish praise on the rhubarb pie. But in the end, we're all family, and that's what really matters--and that's what I heard Keillor saying between the lines in his column.

With a couple weeks to go in this election campaign, and things getting somewhat hysterical as we race towards the finish line, I wish more people would realize that.

Read Keillor's original column here.

Single-issue voters

With the last of the presidential debates now safely behind us, we have entered the home stretch of the race for the presidency. At this point, I think most people have formed some kind of opinion, and the candidates are now trying to nudge the undecided voters in one direction or the other. It does boggle the mind that there can still be people who look at McCain, Obama, Biden, and Palin and say to themselves, "I just don't know…", but there you have it. Some people are indecisive.

One thing I find particularly difficult to understand is the single-issue voter. With the economy a shambles, banks failing, the government stepping in, a Republican administration throwing billions of dollars in taxpayer money at anything that promises to stabilize the situation, a costly and divisive war in Iraq, and Iran this close to nuclear capability (and the Israelis doubtless making plans to attack Tehran before Tel Aviv becomes a smoking cinder), making your decision based on one issue seems, oh, I don't know, just a tad simplistic. The term idiotic also comes to mind.

I am especially perplexed by those who make their voting decision based on the abortion issue. This is not because I do not understand their position. I'm a Christian, of the Orthodox (AKA Eastern/Greek/Russian Orthodox) variety, and my church teaches that abortion means the death of a child. I am not unsympathetic to the pro-life position. But before we all jump on the GOP bandwagon and decide that Republican=good and Democrat=bad, because McCain/Palin claim to be pro-life and Obama/Biden want to keep it legal, let's look at what it means to be pro-life.

Ideally, being pro-life should mean that one is opposed not only to abortion, but also to torture. For the past eight years, we have had an allegedly pro-life president whose administration has repeatedly looked for ways to justify torture. Being pro-life should also mean that one is opposed to unnecessary wars and the needless taking of innocent civilian life. How many Iraqi civilians have been killed and maimed in this war that our "pro-life" President started? And before anyone starts in with "they attacked us first," it is worth remembering that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

Quite apart from the matter of what it means to be pro-life is the question of practicality. As a practical matter, the President of the United States has no say in whether or not abortion is legal, or whether Roe v. Wade is upheld. The sole action that the president can take is to appoint Supreme Court justices whom he thinks will uphold his position. History teaches us that this is essentially a crapshoot. The court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was appointed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, turned out to be one of the most activist courts this nation has ever seen. Justice David Souter, nominated by Bush the Elder, has consistently voted with the liberal wing of the court. Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed by Reagan, has proved to be a swing vote. John Paul Stevens, appointed by Gerald Ford, is among the most liberal. You just can't tell.

Even if the court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, this would merely return the matter to the states, where the pro-life movement would have to battle it out in fifty different state battlegrounds. Some places, Oklahoma for instance, would likely ban abortion; others, like my home state of California, would probably not only keep it legal but find some way to provide public funding for it. If you want to get rid of abortion, you'll have to push through a constitutional amendment, and that is something that has never been attempted, even under a Republican administration with Republican majorities in Congress. The reason is simple: it won't fly.

It won't fly because the votes just aren't there. Abortion is one issue where the American people are seriously divided, and the lines aren't shifting. If anything, they're hardening. You might oppose abortion, and your church might teach that it's wrong, but the guy next door might have very different opinions, and this is still supposedly a free and democratic country, the so-called Patriot Act notwithstanding.

You might argue that it's never been tried because we haven't consistently had a conservative in the White House. Probably true, but so what? For the last fifty-odd years, it's been rare to have one party in the White House for more than 8 years. Look at the history: the Democrats controlled the White House from 1933 to 1953, but then Eisenhower had eight years, JFK/LBJ eight, Nixon/Ford eight, Carter four, Reagan/Bush twelve, Clinton eight, and Bush II eight. Americans may not always want to change horses in midstream, but they do seem to like to alternate parties. Reagan never seriously tried to outlaw abortion, and neither has Bush the Younger. Both had eight years, and Bush even had a Republican majority in Congress for a while. For heaven's sake, what more do you need?

So if you want to end abortion, realize that you won't achieve anything through an election, either by voting or by withholding your vote. You're going to have to do the hard work of convincing your family, friends, and neighbors that abortion is wrong, and being a witness to the truth by the example you set. You'll end abortion by changing people's hearts, not by putting a particular party in power. The politicians are no more likely to end abortion than they are to end poverty and give everybody a new car. Cast your vote, by all means; just don't base it on one issue alone. You might even vote for a person, not a party.

In other words, if you like McCain, by all means vote for McCain. If you can't stand Obama but can tolerate McCain, vote for McCain. If you're undecided, look at the whole range of issues affecting the country. If you don't like McCain, and like Obama but are disappointed by his stand on abortion, think hard before pulling the lever for the GOP. You may just end up getting exactly nothing that you want. And that vote would be the most wasted vote of all.

The old John McCain returns

A couple of posts ago, I was critical of the McCain campaign for the tone of its rallies, and worried about what it might lead to. Fairness requires me to note the following, which took place in Lakeville, Minnesota:

He acknowledges the "energy" people have been showing at rallies, and how glad he is that people are excited. But, he says, "I respect Sen. Obama and his accomplishments." People booed at the mention of his name. McCain, visibly angry, stopped them: "I want EVERYONE to be respectful, and lets make sure we are."

The very next questioner tried to push back on this request, noting that he needed to "tell the American the TRUTH about Barack Obama" -- a not very subtle way, I think, to ask John McCain to NOT tell the truth about Barack Obama. McCain told her there's a "difference between record and rhetoric, and I plan to talk about his record, respectfully… I don't mean that has to reduce your ferocity, I just mean it has to be respectful."

And then later, again, someone dangled a great big piece of low-hanging fruit in front of McCain: "I'm scared to bring up my child in a world where Barack Obama is president."

McCain replies, "Well, I don't want him to be president, either. I wouldn't be running if I did. But," and he pauses for emphasis, "you don't have to be scared to have him be President of the United States." A round of boos.

And he snaps back: "Well, obviously I think I'd be better. "


UPDATE: Indeed, he just snatched the microphone out the hands of a woman who began her question with, "I'm scared of Barack Obama… he's an Arab terrorist…"

"No, no ma'am," he interrupted. "He's a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements."

Good on ya, Senator McCain. Now let's see if your running mate gets the message, too.

Listening in

CNN reports that Congress is investigating charges that the NSA, as part of a program designed to monitor terrorist suspects, engaged in illegal wiretapping of American citizens overseas, including military officers in Iraq (as always, all emphases are mine):

The congressional oversight committees said Thursday that the Americans targeted included military officers in Iraq who called friends and family in the United States.

The allegations were made by two former military intercept operators on a television news report Thursday evening.

A terrorist surveillance program instituted by the Bush administration allows the intelligence community to monitor phone calls between the United States and overseas without a court order -- as long as one party to the call is a terror suspect.

Adrienne Kinne, a former U.S. Army Reserves Arab linguist, told ABC News the NSAwas listening to the phone calls of U.S. military officers, journalists and aid workersoverseas who were talking about "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."

Disgusting. The calls monitored included deeply personal calls to wives and girlfriends, and apparently, when some personnel complained, they were told to shut up and keep listening:

David Murfee Faulk, a former U.S. Navy Arab linguist, said in the news report that he and his colleagues were listening to the conversations of military officers in Iraq who were talking with their spouses or girlfriends in the United States.

According to Faulk, they would often share the contents of some of the more salacious calls stored on their computers, listening to what he called "phone sex" and "pillow talk."

Both Kinne and Faulk worked at the NSA listening facility at Fort Gordon, Georgia. They told ABC that when linguists complained to supervisors about eavesdropping on personal conversations, they were ordered to continue transcribing the calls.

So this is how the Bush Administration treats the men it repeatedly refers to as "heroes." This presidency can't end fast enough to suit me. I can't wait to see the indictments that the Obama Administration will start handing down on January 21.

A chill wind

It is no exaggeration to say that today was an abysmal day for the economy. A 678-point, 7.3% drop in the Dow is nothing to sneeze at. It's too early to say whether this signifies the beginning of another Great Depression, but it is worth remembering what the last one led to, both politically and militarily. We have much to fear, and little to be optimistic about. Historians love to argue, but it would be difficult to find one who would not admit that at the very least, the Great Depression contributed to both the rise of extremist politics and the world war to which they led.

In terms of the latter, we are in a far worse position than we were in 1939-1941, when we sat isolated between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and were at peace with the world. We have been engaged in a bloody and protracted occupation of a country, Iraq, where insurgents have often moved around the cities and countryside with far greater impunity than our own soldiers. After five long and terrible years, we are at the point of hoping only for enough stability for Iraq's government to take responsibility for security long enough to permit us a graceful exit.

With a resurgent Russia no longer willing to be a bystander in the affairs of its "near abroad," a nuclear-armed Pakistan tottering on the brink of Islamic revolution, and a nominally Communist China asserting its economic might and demonstrating its technological prowess by moving into the exploration of space, we must be cognizant of the fact that with our economy in a shambles, we can no longer pretend to be the world's only superpower. We now live in an interconnected and multipolar world.

With respect to the political sphere, we are but a few weeks away from a national election, and if anything we have more to fear politically than we do militarily. Consider the following:

Item: The administration currently in power has permitted, even encouraged, the use of torture, and failed miserably to protect basic rights guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution (I have written more about this subject here.)

Item: The U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team has been redeployed within the U.S.:

They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack.Training for homeland scenarios has already begun at Fort Stewart and includes specialty tasks such as knowing how to use the "jaws of life" to extract a person from a mangled vehicle; extra medical training for a CBRNE incident; and working with U.S. Forestry Service experts on how to go in with chainsaws and cut and clear trees to clear a road or area…

The 1st BCT's soldiers also will learn how to use "the first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded," 1st BCT commander Col. Roger Cloutier said, referring to crowd and traffic control equipment and nonlethal weapons designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals without killing them.

The package is for use only in war-zone operations, not for any domestic purpose.

Or so they say.

Item:The current vice-presidential candidate of the party in power has implied that the presidential candidate of the opposing party is a terrorist sympathizer, and stated in her acceptance speech, "Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America …he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?" (emphasis mine)

Item:The same candidate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, implied, in a misquote of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that women who don't support her are going to hell.("There's a special place in Hell reserved for women who don't support other women.")

Item:The GOP presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, has abandoned all pretense of conservatism in favor of an erratic populism that in its promising of huge rewards for no cost resembles nothing so much as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny . Case in point: his plan for the government to buy up bad mortgages directly at face value.

Item:Writer Christopher Hitchens, who was once a Trotskyist but now embraces a more "conservative" world view, is now on record as saying that America's only worthy institution is the military:

In addition to exhibiting extraordinary efficiency and, most especially under the generalship of David Petraeus, performing some great feats of arms and ingenuity, the American armed forces manifest all the professionalism and integrity that our rulers and oligarchs lack. Who was it who the stricken inhabitants of New Orleans and later of the Texas coastline yearned to see? Who was it who informed the blithering and dithering idiots at FEMA that they could have as many troops as they could remember to ask for, even as volunteers were embarking for Afghanistan and Iraq? What is one of the main engines of integration for blacks and immigrants, as well as one of the finest providers of education and training for those whom the system had previously failed?

Ah, yes. Can't blame the military for anything, they're perfectly honorable, decent, and capable. It's just that the civilian leadership has let them down, stabbed them in the back as it were. Seems I've heard that song before.

Item: At a rally in Florida, Gov. Palin criticizes Barack Obama as a friend of terrorists, when someone in the crowd calls out "kill him!" 1(, nor does she denounce this outburst, and instead continues her speech.

Taken one at a time, with the exception of the first two items, all these things are explainable as the sort of silliness and drama that normally takes place on the campaign trail. But in a situation like the one we are in today, with the economy imploding and the public's fears at a high level, one needs to be cautious. History shows that economic dislocation can lead to political extremism and governmental upheaval, and those who think that we are somehow immune to such things are sadly mistaken. We've had plenty of homegrown extremists--just look at Huey Long, William Pelley, and Father Coughlin.

I don't really believe that this is what McCain and Palin are aiming towards. At least I hope not. But to the extent that they are tapping into dark forces that they don't really understand and ultimately can't control, they should be more careful. Sinclair Lewis once said that "when Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." His book, It Can't Happen Here, is eerily prescient when read in this age of the so-called Patriot Act, indefinite detention and extraordinary rendition. It should be mandatory reading.

As we approach Election Day, there's a chill wind blowing. Let's try to make sure we don't reap the whirlwind.

  1. Palin does not react

Profile of a voter

Conor Friedersdorf is asking people to send in election news from their neighborhoods.The latest oneis too depressing for words:

I am a third year law student here in Columbus, Ohio, the capitol of Buckeye Nation. My wife and I have lived here for the past four years, but we were both born Midwesterners, me, in Indiana and my wife, in Akron, Ohio. We live in the northern suburbs of Columbus, just south of Delaware County, one of the fastest growing counties in the US, and a GOP stronghold.

I work in a law office for a Fortune 500 Insurance company and it is a very conservative office. Everyone there loves Palin, including a life-long Democrat secretary who despises Obama. Several of the attorneys have attended McCain and Palin rallies here in Ohio. This Brooks/Krauthammer/Will-type elite derision of Palin just does not resonate with GOPers here, even with bright white-collar professionals (not that blue-collar equals dim!). I've heard several of them say, she understands us, she is like us, she gets where we are coming from.

Interesting. White-collar Midwestern attorneys say Palin "is like us." Another excerpt (emphasis mine):

My neighbor and his wife are United Food and Commerical Workers union members and they are McCain folks, mostly because they still think Obama is a Muslim, as do my other neighbors.

Repeat after me, folks: Obama is not a Muslim . Last time I checked, Obama belonged to the United Church of Christ, a rather liberal Protestant denomination. I suspect the fact of his middle name being Hussein has something to do with the misconception, regardless of the fact that he was named after his father, who left early on. His middle name is Hussein, so he must be a Muslim. Either that, or his childhood years in Indonesia when he was sent to a Muslim school are the reason. By that reasoning, my middle name is Edward (like King Edward VIII) and I was sent to a non-religious public school, so I must be atheist (or at least agnostic) British royalty (boy, would that come as a surprise to my priest). Anyway, back to the poster:

Speaking for myself, I was originally attracted to Obama's seeming embrace of George H.W. Bush's foreign policy. My heart lept at a possible return to realism! Since then, I must admit, I am incredibly taken with the Palin pick. No, she may not be at 100%, but dammit, she does understand us. She's worked in a factory, lacked health insurance, and is worried about paying for her kids' college tuition.* People here are loving that, including myself.

OK. I know I'm in the minority here, but I don't give a tinker's damn whether or not a President, or a Vice President, "understands me." I don't care whether or not he (or she) knows what it's like to be a Californian, to have grown up in a single-parent household, to have been an adult re-entry student at a university, or to have changed one's religious affiliation. I don't care if he knows what it's like to be underpaid. I don't care if he knows what it's like to have worked in a fast-food restaurant. I don't care if he knows what it's like to drive a pickup truck with 200,000 miles on it. I don't care if he knows what it's like to do or be anything I've done or been in my life.

What I do care about is whether or not he's intellligent and thoughtful--preferably, far more intelligent and thoughtful than I. I would like him to know something about the world, and to have the good sense to surround himself with the best advisers possible. I want him to be cool and calm, and not react to potential threats, whether terrorist attacks or intercontinental ballistic missiles, on the basis of emotion or misplaced religious zeal. I would be delighted if he had some experience of the world outside the U.S., because the one area in which the President has the field pretty much to himself is the area of foreign policy. I wouldn't choose a brain surgeon on the basis of whether or not he understood me, nor would I choose the pilot of a plane on which I was about to fly on that basis. Why would I choose a President or Vice President that way?

(Postscript: I seriously doubt the Palins have to worry too much about paying for their kids' college education.)

A lovely morning

I looked online this morning to see what reaction was to the debate last night. Not much news there, but boy oh boy was there economic news:

The Fed is announcing an emergency rate cut, the British government is partially nationalizing some of the biggest banks in the UK, the Tokyo market crashed overnight, Russia shut down its stock exchanges for the rest of the week, and Iceland's currency has collapsed.

It's going to be an interesting day.