Thursday, September 29, 2011

College Republicans Think They're Smarter than They Are. (In other news, lead appears to be heavier than shaving cream.)

Driving home from a recruiting trip to Houston a couple nights ago, a colleague from the School of Art and I were discussing the nature of satire. It strikes me that three things make satire work: 1). enough similarity to the referent that the ironic juxtaposition is apparent, 2). enough difference from the referent that the ironic (i.e., “not real”) intent is clear to the observer, and 3). recognizable referents. Stated more simply, satire must be comprehensible, funny, and recognized as a joke.

The example I used was this photo that’s been making the rounds on the Internet of late. I think it’s funny, and it’s clearly intended to be so. Understanding it requires a series of data which all must be known to the observer for the joke to achieve its effect: we need to know who McCoy and Spock are; what their relationship to each other is; who Sulu is; the fact that Sulu was played by George Takei, who is openly gay; what “being in the closet” means; and the fact that in the Chronicles of Narnia series of C.S. Lewis, that enchanted kingdom is entered from our world through a closet. Only a viewer with all that information will completely “get” the humor.

Anyway, the notion of satire in real life has arisen of late, thanks to a story from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, where the College Republicans sponsored a bake sale at which prices for the items on offer varied according to the demographic profile of the buyer: $2 for whites, $1.50 for Asians, $1 for Latinos, $.75 for African-Americans, $.25 for Native Americans. Women of all races get a $.25 discount. Now, as mentioned earlier, for satire to work, the spectator needs to be in on the joke—that’s why the only Aristophanes play that works anymore is Lysistrata, which is about sex (and the threatened withholding of it), which people understand. The transgressions of Cleon (The Wasps) or the purported links between Socrates and the Sophists (The Clouds), not so much. So I was curious what prompted this apparently unfunny parodic outburst.

Turns out it’s something called SB 185, a bill which would moderate but not overturn 1996’s Proposition 209, the Ward Connerly-inspired initiative to disallow Affirmative Action in admissions decisions at California’s state universities. Well, that and the fact that the student government had organized a phone bank to call Governor Jerry Brown’s office to urge him to sign SB 185. As Shawn Lewis, the president of the College Republicans at Berkeley, explains in an opinion piece in The Daily Californian, the bake sale was specifically intended to be offensive:
Some members of the community have been outraged by our event, as they should be! Treating people differently because of the color of their skin is unquestionably wrong, and that’s how we hope people react to the satirical bake sale, along with SB 185. The point is that considering race in university admissions does exactly that — it treats people differently because of their race.
So now that you understand the gag, it’s funny, right? Well, no, I don’t think so, either, but I can see why it passes for terribly clever in College Republican circles.

Indeed, I generally understand those who are suspicious of the alleged need for, or advantages of, Affirmative Action. I’d go so far as to endorse their skepticism. Still, we differ in one significant regard: I kind of like the truth. By that, I refer not merely to analytical things like the fact that research tends to show that minority college students outperform their white peers with the same high school academic profile and board scores, or that significant exposure to other cultures and sub-cultures seems to me an inherent positive. Nor am I talking about the fact that the pricing hierarchy implies (but, of course, never states) that white males would be the most adversely affected by SB 185. In fact, of course, women outperform men in high school and Asians outperform whites, meaning that someone named Jessica Wong is a lot more likely to be disadvantaged by the proposed law than would someone named, say, Shawn Lewis, who, as you no doubt already suspected, is white and male.

Be it noted in this regard that Lewis specifically calls attention to the unanimous support for the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” by the College Republicans board, which, he tells us, “includes Hispanic, Chinese and Taiwanese representation, with over half of the board being female. The notion that this event was planned by a bunch of insensitive white guys is harshly inaccurate and draws on false, negative stereotypes about Republicans.” I, for one, stand corrected. This inane idea was planned by a bunch of insensitive multi-ethnic men and women, who of course can be just as stupid as white guys.

But what really bothers me here is the bald-faced lying. Here’s Lewis: “The [Associated Students of the University of California, in other words the student government] phone bank intends to send the message to Gov. Brown that all UC Berkeley students support SB 185, but that is not true.” It seems pretty clear to me that two things are true: the student body is largely but of course not unanimously in favor of SB 185, and Lewis has no evidence to support his claim that the ASUC is misrepresenting student opinion. How do I know? Because I’ve spent over 30 years on college campuses less liberal than Berkeley’s; because this guy is, after all, the president of the College Republicans; and because he is demonstrably lying elsewhere.

To wit, here’s Lewis again:
SB 185 does nothing to connect any of this information to the actual socioeconomic status of a college applicant. As the bill is written, public universities would be authorized to use race alone as a factor in the admissions process, but certainly the color of one’s skin is not the only factor contributing to one’s opportunity or access to higher education. Socioeconomic status is a fundamental component of the debate of equity and inclusion on our college campuses, but this bill fails to include it.
This is a compelling argument, and it is certainly true that the left often conflates race and economics. Trouble is, they didn’t this time. It took me about one minute to find the actual bill, which clearly states: “the University of California may, and the California State University may, consider race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, geographic origin, and household income (emphasis mine), along with other relevant factors, in undergraduate and graduate admissions, so long as no preference is given.”

Of course, the reaction on the left—accusations of racism and the like—are just as silly. What Mr. Lewis is doing is exactly what one might expect from the College Republicans at a place like Berkeley: it is smug, sophomoric, provocative for its own sake, and fundamentally dishonest. The first three of these descriptions apply to a good many post-adolescents, the fourth to most political causes, especially (these days) on the right. But, as I’ve suggested before, while all racists are jerks, not all jerks are racists. Mr. Lewis is Exhibit A for this assertion.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Idiot of the Month: Amateur Theatre Division (Runner-Up and Champion)

Two amateur theatre productions in different parts of the country have been shut down this month for offending the tender sensibilities of idiots with the power to censor their enterprises.

Of the two suppressions, far and away the less troublesome is the decision by Wayne Garner, the mayor of Carrollton, GA, to overturn a decision by the board of the city’s arts center to present The Rocky Horror Show, long after the show was in rehearsal and a fair amount of city money had presumably already been expended.

Mr. Garner is a prude and an imbecile, of course, but at least it’s possible to see his point: while defenders of the production can quite reasonably wonder what the city was expecting when they booked Rocky Horror, implicit in that argument is an acknowledgment that the play is “risqué.” Indeed, naughtiness is no small part of the charm of a musical that features bi-sexual seductions, R-rated choreography, and song titles like “Sweet Transvestite.”

Still, Mayor Garner over-reacted, imposed his personal prejudices on the community, over-rode the board charged with making the very kind of decision he claimed for himself, and generally acted like a schmuck. In a normal month, this would have made him a contender for Idiot of the Month, Amateur Theatre Division. But he’s mayor of a jerkwater town in the Deep South: I confess I don’t expect a lot more from such people.

Besides, Garner’s escapades came before we heard about Thomas Fleming, Superintendent of Schools in the Richland School District in western Pennsylvania. He shut down a high school production of Kismet. Yes, really. Kismet. The quintessentially 1950s musical that gave us songs like “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and “Stranger in Paradise”: that Kismet, one of the most innocuous plays ever staged. Ah, but (wait for it): the central characters are Muslim. Seriously. That’s it. That’s the concern.

“After reviewing the script, the decision was made to move on rather than risk controversy. We're in the business of trying to do what’s best for the kids—not to do anything detrimental if we can avoid it.” That’s the official declaration of the Superintendent of Schools: an ungrammatical (don’t get me started on that part) celebration of cowardice, bigotry, and censorship. Mr. Fleming may be incompetent, unethical, and craven, but at least he serves a function: definition by example of everything that is wrong with the nation’s schools.

I’m so old I remember when educational leaders sought to instill free-thinking, moral courage, and the values that made the country great. The Flemings of the world engage in pabulum-speak, capitulate to the most moronic elements in society, and stifle students while pretending to take care of them.

The correct response to those cretinous yahoos who believe that scheduling a production of Kismet “not long after the tenth anniversary of 9/11” is the slightest bit problematic is easy for anyone with a brain and a spine, two organs not prominent in Mr. Fleming. It would look something like this:
STFU. [OK, maybe that part should just be inner monologue.] Criticizing this play choice simply because the characters are Islamic is both an egregious misreading of the central themes of the script and an outrageous insult to one of the world’s great religions. To suggest that the Muslims of Kismet bear any real resemblance to the 9/11 hijackers is to say we can’t produce The Sound of Music in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was raised Catholic. It is an inane and illogical argument; it could not be advanced by an intelligent and rational person, and is therefore unworthy of legitimate consideration.

We seek to create young men and women who are empowered by the world of ideas and energized by the vast panoply of human culture, who view free expression as central to the American way of life, who believe in facts and reason rather than bigotry and hysteria. Such students, such citizens, cannot be cowed by the rantings of hand-wringing zealots of any description. Censorship of this musical, which, after all, won the Tony Award over a half century ago, and was produced at this very school without incident in 1983, would send all the wrong messages to our adolescent population: that being ignorant and loud trumps being intelligent and respectful, that capitulation to extremism is appropriate if it averts controversy, that the exchange of ideas should be subordinated to a doctrinaire religio-political orthodoxy, that the most innocuous of artistic events ought to be subject to prior restraint.

We do not ignore these arguments; we reject them as ill-founded, irrelevant, and repressive. Our production of Kismet will go forward as scheduled, and we have every confidence that it will be a source of pride for our students and our community. We’d be happy to sell you a ticket. Or you can stay home and pout. Your call.
Of course, as noted, such a response would require an IQ above room temperature and the leadership skills of the assistant captain of the 6th grade intramural flag football team: considerably more credentials than Mr. Fleming and his equally gutless minions have manifested. I offer best wishes to those student thespians unlucky enough to be subject to the pusillanimous posturings of Mr. Fleming. I hope they have fun and learn a lot on their production of Oklahoma… which will presumably be staged without the character of Ali Hakim.

All is not lost, of course. In a country as large as this one, there are bound to be some real idiots. I just wish fewer of them were school superintendents and principals.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Troy Davis, Capital Punishment, and the Battle between Law and Justice

I am a long-standing and proud supporter of Amnesty International, but there’s one of that organization’s core tenets that I can’t completely support: their unequivocal opposition to the death penalty. Don’t get me wrong. Just because I live in Texas and my name is Rick doesn’t mean I break into a Pavlovian slobber at the thought of breaking out the electric chair. But there are those of our species whom, to be frank, we’d be better off without. To qualify for this dubious designation, however, one would have to meet two specific and independent criteria: the crime(s) one committed must have been so depraved and/or egregious as to transcend the merely felonious, and there must be absolutely no doubt about one’s guilt.

Troy Davis, whose execution by lethal injection by the state of Georgia is imminent and now probably inevitable, fails to qualify on either count. His conviction 20 years ago was for the 1989 killing of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail by shooting him in the face in what has been described as a brawl in a Burger King parking lot. That’s certainly not something one brags about on a résumé, but it was a single event, the cop was off duty, there was no particular malice shown, and no suggestion of anything like torture.

More importantly, there’s a reasonable chance that Davis didn’t do it. There is no physical evidence, the gun has never been found, and seven of the nine non-police witnesses who testified against Davis have subsequently not merely recanted their testimony but alleged that they were coerced into perjurous statements by a police force more interested in solving a case than in whether it was solved correctly. Indeed, multiple sources now point the finger at another witness against Davis, Sylvester “Red” Coles.

Time for skepticism. If you, Gentle Reader, believe that Georgia cops wouldn’t go out of their way to convict and indeed execute a black man for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re probably too gullible to be reading this blog. On the other hand, if you think that no guilty defendant has ever rallied cause-obsessed lefties to follow an utterly mendacious claim, you’re definitely too trusting. Ultimately, while I am sure the various powers that be think they’ve really proved Davis’s guilt, even in the light of post-trial revelations, I’m persuaded by the skepticism of the likes of William S. Sessions and Bob Barr, neither of them exactly bleeding hearted liberals.

I do not contend that Davis is necessarily innocent, or even that there’s enough evidence to overturn his conviction, but if we’re going to execute a man for a particular crime, it would be a really good idea if we were more than pretty sure he was guilty. Here’s Sessions, who sums up my argument rather well:
What the hearing demonstrated most conclusively was that the evidence in this case—consisting almost entirely of conflicting stories, testimonies and statements—is inadequate to the task of convincingly establishing either Davis’ guilt or his innocence. Without DNA or other forms of physical or scientific evidence that can be objectively measured and tested, it is possible that doubts about guilt in this case will never be resolved.

However, when it comes to the sentence of death, there should be no room for doubt. I believe there is no more serious crime than the murder of a law enforcement officer who was putting his or her life on the line to protect innocent bystanders. However, justice is not done for Officer Mark Allen MacPhail Sr. if the wrong man is punished.
The case is particularly noteworthy not merely for itself, however. First, there are the comments at the recent Republican debate by Governor Rick Perry, the current front-runner for the GOP nomination. Responding to a question by Brian Williams about whether he ever worried about killing an innocent man among the 234 executions he authorized, Perry crowed,“I’ve never struggled with that at all.” Ultimately, that tells us all we need to know, especially since there have been a couple very controversial cases, e.g., Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted and sentenced to death for murdering his three daughters, although a). he quite possibly didn’t do it, at least in the way alleged by prosecutors and b). Perry shut down an investigation that might well have proved that, prior to Willingham’s execution.

Still, Governor Perry’s amoral braggadocio pales in comparison to the mind-boggling jitbaggery that is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. When the Davis case percolated up to the SCOTUS a couple of years ago, Scalia proclaimed, in dissenting with a decision to order a federal court in Georgia to examine the evidence, that “actual innocence” (his quotation marks) is insufficient to overturn a conviction: “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

A zillion years ago, I was in a production of a rather bad (who am I kidding? very bad) play called The Downstairs Dragon. The play is set in a small-town museum, and there’s a dragon in the basement. I played a gray-bearded (I needed makeup then) member of some learned society—the Society for the Encouragement of Wisdom in America, or something like that. Rather than opening the trap door and seeing the beast, however, we all debated whether or not a dragon could exist: one of us argued psychologically, another sociologically, another zoologically. I was the religious zealot. Anyway, we all decided that there couldn’t possibly be a dragon there. It was a little difficult to finished our debate, of course, because we had to shout to be heard over the roaring of the dragon.

Scalia’s position strikes me as about as intellectually coherent. The Constitution doesn’t forbid the execution of an innocent man? I’m no lawyer, but killing someone for something he didn’t do smacks of cruel and unusual punishment to me. This is the same Antonin Scalia, of course, who argues that corporations are people, based on… well, damned if I know. (Best snarky political line I’ve seen in a while: I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.)

More to the point, I really don’t care if the Court has never prohibited the execution of the innocent. It bloody well should have. Prior to 1954, that same court had never had a problem with “separate but equal.” No one whose surname isn’t Paul is sad that the SCOTUS overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. If Mr. Davis could have proved his innocence (not merely “reasonable doubt,” or even the “preponderance of the evidence,” but demonstrated his actual innocence), Scalia would still have cheerily allowed the execution to continue, caring more about his idiosyncratic reading of the Constitution than about the obviously just decision. I’m beginning to think Sonia Sotomayor’s “empathy” is not a bad thing at all. As a reader of the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page put it, “There are a surprising number of people in high, influential positions in this country who would greatly benefit from being punched really hard right in the fucking face. I'm pretty sure that's constitutional too.” I’m not sure that would knock the supercilious smirk off Scalia’s face, or even get his attention, but I’m willing to try.

And so… I’m still not entirely convinced that there isn’t a place for the death penalty in carefully delineated circumstances. But the Troy Davis case weakens my resolve. Unlike Justice Scalia, I’d rather not cling to legal niceties if the result is, or even very well might be, the state-sanctioned murder of a non-murderer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Idiot Right's New Poster Boy

The Idiot Right has a new poster boy. He’s Louisiana Congressman John Fleming, and he is a piece of work. He was interviewed by MSNBC’s Chris Jansing today. At first there was nothing new: the same old talking points bullshit (“if you go after the high income earners, you go after the job creators” and similar pseudo-economic slop). But Jansing is a good interviewer, and Fleming was, shall we say, not ready for that.

Here’s the exchange, starting at about the 2:26 mark of the link. I've taken the liberty of supplying the Congressman's inner monologue in brackets:
Jansing: Well, with all due respect, Congressman, the Wall Street Journal estimated that your businesses, which I believe are Subway sandwich shops and UPS stores—very successful—brought you last year six million dollars.

Fleming: Yeah, that’s before you pay five hundred employees, you pay rent, you pay equipment and food. The actual net income of that was only a mere fraction of that amount.
If he’d shut up right then, he might have escaped without serious damage. But he’s a politician, and apparently a remarkably dim-witted one even in comparison to the rest of the cretinous yahoos who populate the House. Here’s the follow-up [OMG—my staff didn't warn me she could ask me something else!].
Jansing: So, you’re saying that if you have to pay more in taxes, you would get rid of some of those employees? These are not as successful businesses as what we want to indicate?

Fleming (interrupting): [Shit, I’m trapped. I can’t tell the truth or my hypocrisy is on display. But if I don’t strut a little, she just got away with calling me unsuccessful. Quick! Change the subject!] I would say that since my net income, and again, that’s the individual rate that I told you about, the amount that I have to re-invest in my business and feed my family is more like 600,000 of that 6.3 million. And so, by the time I feed my family, I have, you know, maybe 400,000 left over to invest in new locations, upgrade my locations, buy more equipment, all of that.

Jansing: You do understand, Congressman, that the average person out there, who’s making forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars a year, when they hear that you only have four hundred thousand dollars left over, it’s not exactly a sympathetic position. You understand that?

Fleming: Well, again, class warfare has never created a job. [Ah, relief, back on Talking Points!] And that’s people that will not get jobs. This is all about creating jobs, Chris, this is not about attacking people who make certain incomes. You know, in this country, most people feel that being successful in their businesses is a virtue, not a vice. And once we begin to identify it as a vice, this country is going down.
Before you ask, Gentle Reader, yes, he really is that stupid. Yes, he really is that arrogant. And yes, he really does think his shit don’t stink.

As I write this piece, I realize that tearing this douchebag’s argument to shreds is more difficult than I’d originally thought… because he has so many mind-bendingly inane things to say it’s difficult to decide where to start.

OK. So we’ll take what he says and doesn’t say chronologically. So, we start with where the majority of that $6.3 million went. He nets $600K. Therefore, he spends about $5.7 million on business expenses ranging from rent to equipment to personnel. And he’s got 500 employees. Anyone notice a problem? The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Multiply that times a 40-hour work week, times 52 weeks, times 500 employees, and you get $7.54 million, which, where I come from, takes up a sizeable chunk of that $6.3 million in gross income. And that’s with everyone working at minimum wage, with no benefits. It doesn’t include rent, utilities, equipment, or inventory.

So one of the following must be true: A). a huge percentage of those 500 employees are not merely making crappy wages, they’re also part-time, B). he’s lying about the number of employees, or C). he’s lying about his gross income. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume it’s choice “A.” According to Wikipedia (yeah, I know, but the internal link doesn’t work), he owns “owns 33 Subway sandwich shops in northern Louisiana and owns Fleming Expansions, LLC, a regional developer for The UPS Store, which supports stores in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.”

So that’s at least 34 locations. Let’s say rent and utilities are a steal… say $2000 a month per venue. Let’s see… there’s $816K. The food for those Subway stores… a markup of what? Well, standard appears to be about 300%, but let’s give him a little lower expenses to maximize what he pays his workers. How about 400%? That would mean an expenditure of $1.26 million. Insurance and other overhead… again, let’s be conservative. $5000 per venue? Another $170K. So that leaves us a whisper over $4 million to be divided among those 500 employees: wages, benefits, payroll tax, everything. In other words, $8000 per employee per year. This, ladies and gentlemen is what the fat-cat “job creators” have to offer.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that a business like Subway is likely to have a lot of part-time, short-term workers. But these aren’t the kind of jobs the country needs to recover its economic footing. And if Rep. Fleming thinks otherwise, he’s even stupider than I thought.

OK, next point. Now it’s time to notice that he never answered the question about whether he’d lay people off if his taxes went up. Of course, he wouldn’t: he needs those drones to work for subsistence wages to finance his lifestyle. He hires people because it’s more profitable to do so than to lose business because customers, miffed at the lack of service, go elsewhere. He can, poor lamb, try to figure out a way to survive on a mere half million or so.

Oh, and since small businesses pay taxes on their profits, not their gross sales, Mr. Fleming wouldn’t be affected by the proposed tax on those making over $1 million a year. That’s because he’s destitute.

Moving on. He nets $600K, but after “feeding [his] family,” he has only about $400K to re-invest into his business. His official website says his children are grown, so his family consists of himself and his wife. My wife and I can eat pretty well on considerably less than $10,000 a year. He, on the other hand, needs $200,000. Perhaps he is married to an allosaurus?

OK, OK, I get it. He’s talking about all the expenses of running a household, meaning that he’s scraping by on about twice what my wife and I make between us (I’m a Full Professor at a university; she’s the Director of Financial Aid at a community college). Well, of course, that doesn’t count all his other sources of income… like the $174K (plus an extraordinary benefit package) he makes as a Congressman, for example. Or whatever he makes in his medical clinic. Or…

But the impoverished Mr. Fleming says he’s left with a mere $400K to re-invest on things like “upgrading [his] locations” and “equipment.” Uh, Congressman… how does that create jobs? Really. How? Still, he clearly believes that having that kind of money to invest is his sovereign right. Newsflash: it isn’t. Not to mention the fact that it’s very clear that he does little if anything to actually earn any of that money. Being a Congressman is—or damned well ought to be—a full-time job. He’s almost certainly making over $1000 for every hour of actual work at his private business: money he can make because he has assets to begin with, not because he’s doing anything noble now.

Faced with a perfectly reasonable point that the average person isn’t going to weep for him, Fleming reverts to inane platitudes about “class warfare.” As I’m not the first to note, they only call it class warfare when the rest of us fight back. And “virtue” is an ironic word coming from an acquisitive ass like Fleming. There is nothing either virtuous or vicious about wealth. There is something virtuous about labor, but Fleming does little of that. Nor is asking the wealthy, the greatest beneficiaries of what the nation has to offer, to contribute a little to the common weal—to pay as high a percentage of your income in taxes as a cop or a schoolteacher do—an “attack.” But, sir, if you and your gluttonous and avaricious co-conspirators continue to adopt the smug, supercilious, and hubristic attitude you seem unable to suppress… well, the attack will come soon enough.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Another Power Play Masquerading as Democracy

A few days before the 2000 election, there was speculation amongst the Talking Heads world that whereas George W. Bush seemed poised to win the popular vote, Al Gore had a reasonable chance of winning the only vote that mattered by means of a victory in the Electoral College. Republican spewers of talking points bemoaned the archaic system whereby the Voice of the American People (Always capitalized. Always.) was subject to such flagrant misrepresentation; their Democratic counterparts babbled about how “rules are rules,” and both sides knew them from the outset.

Of course, the actual election was as close as it was expected to be, but it was Gore who won the popular vote and Bush who (with a little help from the Supreme Court) claimed the presidency. I need hardly mention that the airwaves were promptly filled with more blatherers from both sides, making precisely the opposite points from what they’d been saying only a few days earlier. Neither side as much as missed a beat. One was indeed reminded of Lili Tomlin’s sage observation that no matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.

Since then, there have been numerous attempts to tinker with the electoral process. Mostly, these have consisted of Democratic attempts to register more voters in urban areas with significant minority populations, and Republican efforts to require more identification than had hitherto been necessary. Both these campaigns seem legitimate on their surface: the ethical position must be that every effort should be made to allow all qualified voters the opportunity to exercise that franchise while exercising appropriate controls to prevent abuse (voting by non-citizens, multiple votes by the same person, etc.).

Of course, both sides were actually engaged in largely disingenuous endeavors not to provide a comprehensive and legitimate electoral base, but to help their side win. Indeed, about the only thing more outrageous than the campaigns themselves was the opposition to them. That is, while Democratic efforts to register voters were unquestionably more self-serving than altruistic or patriotic, the GOP’s hysteria about ACORN and the like was as disingenuous as it was voluminous. Similarly, Republican efforts to require photo identification of prospective voters purported to be a response to a problem that was largely imaginary, but actually expecting some sort of real identification from someone attempting to vote hardly qualifies as the sort of diabolical voter suppression the left would have us believe.

True, there are exceptions: Steve Krieser, the jackass in Wisconsin who decided that state employees shouldn’t tell citizens that government-issued ID cards are in fact free (if you ask specifically), not $28, should be bitch-slapped; whoever was responsible for firing a state employee for having the audacity to inform the public of their rights should face a worse fate than that. But I confess myself unable to work up much righteous dudgeon at the idea of actually needing the card (provided that it’s free).

The latest attempt to fiddle with the system seems on the surface to be innocuous enough, even though everyone on both sides knows it’s a power play. Pennsylvania is contemplating, and—given who’s currently in power in the state—may well pass, legislation to change the way its electoral votes are allotted. Needless to say, Republicans, who currently control state government but haven’t won the state in a presidential contest in a generation except in the blowout of 1988, claim that their proposition is intended only “to more fairly distribute our electoral votes based on the popular vote in Pennsylvania.” Meanwhile, Democrats argue that the problem with the idea is that it would reduce the influence of Pennsylvania on the national election. I need hardly mention that both sides are lying.

This is all about gaining a political advantage, and has nothing to do with providing a real voice for voters or ensuring an accurate representation. Why else would the Dems have thought this was a good plan a couple years ago and the GOP hated the idea? Of course, the cleanest and most sensible solution would be to adopt the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would ensure that the Presidency would be won by whoever gets the most votes. The ploy here is to entice enough state legislatures to vow that the entirety of their state’s electoral votes would go to the national popular vote winner, regardless of who wins their state.

If states totaling 270 electoral votes sign on (they’re currently at 132), the problem is solved. Don’t expect it to happen any time soon, however: the Pennsylvanias, Ohios, and Floridas have too much to lose if presidential campaigns—and the accompanying media buys, demand for office space, hotel rooms, restaurants, and the like—were to afford them only the same interest those of us in states dominated by one party (whichever one it is) receive. Indeed, of the eight states (and the District of Columbia) which have passed this legislation, which would kick in if and only if the 270 vote threshold is achieved, only one, New Jersey, is ever seriously in play in a close election.

The system being proposed in Pennsylvania has already been adopted by Maine (in 1972) and Nebraska (in 1996), but those deviations from the norm have swung a grand total of one electoral vote ever, giving then-Senator Obama a slightly larger margin of victory over John McCain than he otherwise would have. But it is perfectly plausible that a state like Pennsylvania, with a heavy concentration of Democratic voters in and around Philadelphia but a largely Republican electorate elsewhere in the state, could vote for Obama’s re-election but he not only wouldn’t take all the state’s electoral votes, he might not even get the majority. Yale University constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar argues that “[it] might be very likely to happen in [Pennsylvania], and that’s what makes this something completely new under the sun. It’s something that no previous legislature in America since the Civil War has ever had the audacity to impose.”

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with dividing a state’s electoral votes. But, even apart from the obvious partisanship that underlies this proposition, there are problems here. First off, it leads to a bizarre patchwork of state policies that leads to a system even more arcane and, frankly, stupid, than even the silliness that is the Electoral College to begin with. Indeed, about the only thing more inane than giving a state’s entire complement of electoral votes to someone who wins by a couple hundred votes is to give the majority of electoral votes to a candidate who doesn’t even win the state. The Republicans don’t care, of course, and I’m not naïve enough to think the Democrats would be any different if the shoe were on the other foot.

More importantly, especially in the short term, this change provides a further incentive for the shameless gerrymandering characterized by post-Tom DeLay Texas. Politicians’ first instinct, alas, has little to do with service and everything to do with power: theirs, and that of their ideological brethren. The Republican Congressmen and their staffers who are quoted periodically admitting that they don’t want to do anything to help the President—as agreeing to a jobs package that they implicitly admit would have benefits to the country would do, for example—are different from their colleagues on either side of the aisle only by the frankness with which they confess their unfitness for office.

So it comes as no surprise that we get districts—state and federal alike—that look like butterflies, cobras, and coatimundis (complete with tails). Indeed, identifying the shape of gerrymandered districts is the 21st-century equivalent of naming constellations a couple of millennia ago or playing “that cloud looks like…” when you were a kid. The inevitable result, however, is a democracy in name only. The majority of the population voted for Al Gore and we got George W. Bush. I think that’s a calamity: not (just) because Bush was the worst President in American history (although he was), but because of the means by which he was… ahem… elected. But at least (with the possible exception of the Florida debacle) that was “by the rules.” More significantly in the here and now: gerrymandered state districts lead to gerrymandered federal districts, which could reasonably lead to tipping an election by means of the kind of vote-splitting now being contemplated.

Indeed, the only significant officials at the state and national level who are elected directly by voters without artificial and often dishonest districting policies are governors and US Senators. There are a lot of idiot governors out there—there’s one in my current state and another in the state I lived in before moving here—but at least the people actually had a voice, however much the Citizens United decision may have skewed their ability to discern the actual characteristics of the people they were electing.

But nothing can pass the US Senate if Senators representing a pretty damned small percentage of the population decide to filibuster (or, given the fecklessness of today’s Democrats, even threaten to do so). The 15 states with two GOP Senators total less than 27% of the population. Add in 11 other Republicans (from states with one Republican and one Democrat) representing another 10% of the population, and you’ve gummed up the works for everyone. Meanwhile, over 42% of the population lives in a state that elected two Democratic Senators, and another third live in a state with one Democratic Senator. And, of course, citizens of the reliably Democratic District of Columbia, with essentially the same population as reliably Republican Wyoming, have no representation in the Senate at all. For all this, we get gridlock… if we’re lucky.

Choosing electoral votes by Congressional districts is not the end of the world. But taking one more step down the road towards re-writing laws to benefit those currently in power might be. And that’s where this proposed legislation will take us. In a just universe, of course, if the bill passes, the Republican nominee (whoever that may be) will squeak out a narrow victory in Pennsylvania, but the handful of electoral votes President Obama gets by winning Philadelphia tips the election to him. It could happen. Hey, it’s even possible the GOP will nominate someone sane. Just don’t hold your breath.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Jobs Speech and the Bi-Partisan Failure of Leadership

The prelude to President Obama’s forthcoming address to a joint session of Congress has probably already generated more buzz than the speech itself will. Let’s face it, Obama’s speeches are more heavily weighted to the ornamental than the pragmatic, and the GOP will bellow in full-throated opposition regardless of what he says, even if he adopts the policy they themselves wanted twenty minutes ago.

The people who got Mr. Obama elected—progressives and labor—will be temporarily buoyed by the soaring rhetoric only to be profoundly disappointed a few days later when he trades away anything of substance in what are euphemistically referred to as “negotiations”: John Boehner or Mitch McConnell or whatever other corporate flunky happens to be in the room will demand something so outrageous that no rational being could even ask for it with a straight face, and Obama will give them about 98% of it. (To pick a number at somewhat less than random.) The corporate media will give equal credit for compromise to both sides, even though all the Republicans gave up was their initial insistence that Mr. Obama drop to one knee and sing “Mammy” at Eric Cantor’s nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.

So there’s a very real sense in which the speech itself will carry only a ceremonial function, if that. Still, a presidential address to a joint session of Congress to talk about what everyone says they believe is the number one issue facing the country ought to be a pretty big deal. Of course, it’s difficult to believe that either side, especially the GOP, really believes its own rhetoric. This Congress has been in place for several months now, and we’ve had legislation to restrict abortions, eviscerate the EPA, eliminate NPR, PBS and the CPB, etc. The party that claimed in the most recent election and its aftermath that its priorities were “jobs, jobs, jobs” has yet to propose a jobs bill. Funny thing, that.

The Democrats haven’t been much better, but at least they recognize that the GOP’s new-found interest in balanced budgets after years of profligacy cannot manifest itself solely through budget cuts without having a lot of people lose their jobs. Curiously enough, the Dems seems to think that cops and teachers and secretaries for government agencies are actually contributing members of society and of the workforce.

So… Obama decides he wants to talk about jobs, and although he apparently intends to circumvent Congress with a sizeable chunk of his plan, he wants to give a speech to them rather than to the rest of us. OK, whatever. But, of course, oh-so-coincidentally, he wanted to do this little exercise in pontification on Wednesday night. Let’s see… is there something else happening that evening? Oh, yeah, the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, the GOP’s opportunity to worship yet again at the shrine of the man they all naïvely, ignorantly, and/or disingenuously purport to revere. I knew there was something.

In one of the most egregious fits of childishness of an administration that, not without reason, fancies itself the grown-ups in the room, Obama and his minions forged ahead. Apparently, John Boehner initially seemed amenable, but then a staffer probably reminded him that professionalism and civility were specifically outlawed by the creed of the new GOP. So Boehner, good soldier that he is, obeyed the marching orders of whatever corporate master called his private number first and became righteously indignant. Except… not really (see below).

The kerfuffle serves as an effective Rorschach test for all observers. The right-wing media were, needless to say, outraged at the maneuver: they call it “petty, hyper-partisan political gamesmanship,” “a silly request,” and “an unbelievable example of chutzpah.” They are in unanimous agreement that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was lying in his protestations that the proposed scheduling of the speech was not designed specifically to trump the GOP debate. And they’re right.

The left-leaning press, meanwhile, are outraged at the “unprecedented” rejection of President Obama’s proposed time. They noted that the debate organizers agreed to delay the debate by an hour to accommodate the Presidential address. They point out that this is the second of twenty (count ‘em, twenty) Republican debates, that no one is really paying any attention yet: front-runners four years ago at this time, after all, were Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. They cite the fact that Speaker Boehner didn’t watch the first debate, that it’s carried by only one television channel (MSNBC… let’s face it, there’s a healthy subset of Republicans who think they’d be possessed by demon spirits if their sets stayed tuned to that channel for an hour), that if, as both parties claim, jobs are the central issue facing lawmakers and the President alike, then having a Presidential speech on the subject immediately on Congress’s return from hiatus seems like the reasonable thing to do. They’re right, too.

It is certainly true, as James Taranto points out, that it’s really “supporters of both parties,” rather than Messrs. Obama and Boehner themselves, “that are squabbling.” I’m reminded of the closing scenes in one of the most under-appreciated plays of the 20th century. In La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (literally The Trojan War Won’t Happen, but translated—for reasons beyond my feeble ken—most often as Tiger at the Gates), Jean Giraudoux shows the heroes Achilles and Hector finalizing negotiations of a peaceful settlement even as their belligerent underlings are in fact starting a conflict that, once initiated, cannot but engulf both the Greek and Trojan civilizations. And, of course, we know that the war lasted a decade and resulted in the deaths of thousands, not least Achilles and Hector themselves. That Giraudoux was writing as much about current events (the play was written in 1935, when the prospect of a World War was still a spectre rather than a reality) is undeniable. But his portrayal of the systematic undermining of leadership by a cadre of bomb-throwers resonates all too well today.

In fact, it would offer some consolation to believe that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner aren’t quite the irresponsible ignoramuses they appear to be in this exchange. After all, both official letters were professional and cordial. Obama’s calls for the need to “put aside politics and start making decisions based on what is best for our country and not what is best for each of our parties.” He says he intends to “lay out a series of bipartisan proposals… to rebuild the American economy by strengthening small businesses, helping Americans get back to work, and putting more money in the paychecks of the Middle Class and working Americans, while still reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order.” He concludes by urging the Speaker (and the Senate Majority Leader) to “put country before party.”

Of course, he did so by demonstrating the precise opposite: the scheduling was perhaps the most stupidly partisan political gambit of his administration. We are presumably to believe that an administration already in re-election mode really thought there would be no public relations repercussions to such a ham-handed decision. (To be fair to Mr. Carney, the tape makes clear he never tried to pretend that the administration didn't know about the conflict, even though some right-wing commentators have accused him of doing so.) Our choices are that a). Obama’s people believed they really had an agreement, when any sentient adult would have waited to make a public announcement until the formal invitation was in hand, or b). they somehow thought there would be no political downside to acting like a playground bully. Not happy choices, these.

Mr. Boehner fares little better, despite the fact that whereas the overwhelming majority of left-leaning commentators are on record criticizing Mr. Obama, there are those on the right who think Boehner acted nobly. At first glance, he did. After all, his letter to the President, though slightly partisan (as was Obama’s), contains phrases like “thank you,” “I agree,” and “look forward to hearing your ideas.” It never mentions the debate at all. The stated reason for asking the President to compete with the opening game of the NFL season instead of with a debate that I can’t imagine more than 10% of the population would watch at gunpoint was logistical: the need to adopt a Concurrent Resolution on short notice and security issues. The Speaker suggests the following night, when there would be “no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks.” I mean, really, how accommodating could he be?

Except, of course, for the fact that everyone—left, right and center—knew damned well he was lying about the reason for the delay. I won’t claim to have read every article, watched every news clip, or scoured every blog on the topic, but I’ve certainly read a lot. I’ve yet to find anyone of any political stripe who believes that either a). Boehner’s letter was prompted by its stated rationale or b). it wasn’t intended to disrespect the President (there’s dispute over whether Obama deserved to be thus disrespected, but that’s another matter).

Luckily for Mr. Obama, the Speaker of the House is just as silly and politically tone-deaf as the President of the United States. (How jolly for the rest of us!) Even a twit like Charles Krauthammer gets this one right:
If he [Boehner] had just accepted this, the President would look small for stepping on the debate. Secondly, I think the Republicans could easily have moved the debate to 9:00 o’clock, and then had eight people on the stage gang up on Obama with essentially the biggest response to a Presidential speech ever done, rather than one person in a room with a camera… which never stands up to the majesty and the grandeur of a Presidential speech in Congress.
Krauthammer is thinking in purely political terms, but there are other reasons to believe that Boehner’s posturing is problematic.

For one thing, don’t you think it’s a little outré for the de facto leader of a major political party (at least until there’s a Presidential nominee) to be so… dare I say it… unpatriotic as to dis the POTUS? When the President of the United States asks for a moment of your time, you freaking give it. Period. Secondly, does the prevarication need to be quite so transparent? Finally, to the extent that Mr. Boehner is supposed to be the leader of the Republican majority in the House, isn’t it fair that he accept at least some of the responsibility for the even more irresponsible and juvenile antics of Joe Walsh (yes, the one who owes $100K+ in back child support), Todd Rokita and (of course) the reliably loathesome Eric Cantor and Jim DeMint?

But ultimately, the buck stops at the desk of the POTUS. A.B. Stoddard sums it up pretty well:
And they [the President and his team] absolutely knew, even if John Boehner said, “You’re welcome here on Wednesday, September 7, at 8:00 pm,” they knew that that long-scheduled debate was taking place. And this was the kind of thing that was going to come up regardless. It’s just too cute. And it’s not the type of thing that they should have done if they wanted the whole attention and the focus of independent voters, who can’t stand these kind of reindeer games, anyway, but might be shopping the Republican ticket eventually, or considering staying with President Obama, and wanting to also hear his jobs message, perhaps on another evening. It was just a bad call to begin with, no matter how silly the Republicans were in their response.
So it’s time to generate a final grade for both the principal players in this brouhaha, based on ethics, maturity, and political savvy:
Obama: F

Boehner: were I in a good mood, I could swing a D-. Do I seem to you like I’m in a good mood?