Friday, November 30, 2007

Selling Votes and Winning Elections

In keeping with my pattern of commenting on yesterday's news today, I just noticed that a couple of weeks ago, a New York University journalism class ran a survey to find out how much NYU students care about their right to vote. The findings indicated that two-thirds of respondents would gladly avoid the polls in 2008 if it meant receiving one year's free tuition. Roughly 20% were prepared to skip the next election provided that someone would, in return, give them an iPod touch. Fully half went so far as to say that, for a one-time payment of a million dollars, they would renounce the franchise for the rest of their lives.

Naturally, these unnamed students were immediately pilloried by the usual naïve idealists and compulsive good government types. One student, who apparently earned an A in Civics and an F in Constitutional Law, opined that "anyone who'd sell his lifelong right to vote should be deported." Fair enough; a million bucks would go a long way in Costa Rica.

I was that young once. There was a time, around my eighteenth birthday, when I know I would have turned down the million dollar proposal, even if it had been legal. Fortunately, the offer never came, because today, many years later and saddled with a mortgage, I would walk the earth a festering heap of self-loathing, bitterly cursing the starry-eyed teenager who had ruined my life.

It's not that I see no value in voting. Rather, I calculate the likelihood that my vote will prove decisive (approximately zero) versus the cash value of an iPod touch (greater than zero). And let's not forget that tuition at NYU works out to well over twenty thousand dollars per year. Sadly, there have been elections so dreary—such as Bush-Dukakis, 1988—that I would have willingly stood outside the polling place like a ticket scalper five minutes before game time, prepared to hand over my registration card to the first person to offer me a kind word and a twenty.

Anyhow, I do actually have a point here other than celebrating my own world weariness. As it happens, whoever put together the NYU survey doesn't know a lot about American politics. Given the low turnout rates among college students, you don't need to bribe them with iPods and tuition waivers. Next year, well over half the students in the United States will voluntarily forfeit their right to vote in exchange for not having to go to the bother of voting.

They have a point. Individual votes do not win elections. Indeed, given the fact that recounts nearly always provide results different from those originally reported, the sad truth is that we are literally unable to measure down to the level of the individual vote. In that sense, one's vote is, almost by definition, wasted. The problem, of course, is that large blocs of votes do matter, and if everyone stays home, the composition of government will be determined by only the most highly motivated, fanatical elements. Kind of like the Iowa caucuses.

This is what economists refer to as the collective action problem. It is rational for me to sit at home watching Oprah while everyone else does the heavy lifting, in this case educating themselves about politics and going to the polls on Election Day. But if everyone on my side makes the same decision, then my opponents will win and I'll be unhappy (unless I got that million dollar deal, which is both unlikely and felonious).

Somehow, then, both parties have to find a way to mobilize voters to engage in a behavior that, at least at the individual level, has essentially no chance of paying off. This is not an impossible task. Indeed, it is, more or less, what the GOP did with Christian conservatives back in the 1970s and 1980s, firing up millions of relatively inattentive voters with stories of libertine liberals and godless Supreme Court justices. The country has not been the same since.

It won't be quite that easy for the Democrats. They will be unable to imply, as the leaders of the religious right do, that casting a ballot is a mandatory service to God. One surefire way to galvanize political participation is to suggest that the Guy who will determine the fate of your everlasting soul is keeping track of the voter rolls. It also gets around the whole notion of a secret ballot. Unfortunately for the Dems, there's not much they can really do in that regard.

If you are a Democratic presidential candidate, this is a matter of no small concern. No Democrat has received a majority of the popular vote in over thirty years. In 2000, they blew an election in which they were perfectly positioned as the party of peace and prosperity. Four years later, they faced an unpopular president conducting an unpopular war and they still couldn't get over the hump. Yeah, I know, Gore and Kerry and hanging chads and swift boats. Still, it should be clear that given the electorate as it currently stands, the best the Democrats can hope for is to win yet another nail biter. Or to run against Bob Dole again.

Appeals to patriotism and civic virtue are surprisingly effective at getting people to the polls. But they're not very relevant in this case. Those who can be won over by such arguments already have been, and they vote habitually year after year. Further nagging will not increase their numbers appreciably.

The Democrats' best hope for mobilizing voters rests with three sympathetic groups that have histories of relatively low turnout: Latinos, poor and lower-middle class Americans (including millions of African Americans near or below the poverty line), and citizens 25 years old or younger. As any political science major could tell you, there are myriad reasons why individuals in these categories fail to show up at the polls on Election Day. Even the most successful mobilization effort will likely result in a payoff of maybe two or three percent higher participation. But that would have been decisive in 2000 and 2004, and it might even have made Dukakis competitive in 1988.

Voters, of course, cannot be mobilized without incentives. Since the threat of eternal damnation has already been used, the Democrats will have to be a bit more creative. Tomorrow, I'll talk about the implications of all this for Hillary, Barack, John, and the rest of the Democratic field.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another Day, Another YouTube Debate

Thursday 11/28/07 7:00 p.m. EST

For the past few days, CNN has featured a little counter on the bottom right hand side of the screen. At first, I thought it might be an effort by Lou Dobbs to tally the number of illegal immigrants entering the country at any given moment. But upon more careful inspection, it appears to be a countdown to the latest YouTube presidential debate, GOP edition, featuring all your favorites: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mike Huckabee…and Mitt Romney as the Beaver. And let's not forget Ron Paul, who has raised millions of dollars despite a platform that consists of replacing paper money with gold shavings and auctioning off the National Archives on e-Bay.

I love the Republican presidential field in large part because most Republicans hate it. Never has the average conservative faced such an array of unappealing options. The baby killer or the immigrant lover. The anti-war libertarian or the pro-war tax raiser. The tired old actor or the vigorous young Mormon. (Oh, did I say Mormon? I meant the vigorous young guy that troubles some voters for reasons that they can't quite explain.) Even the one percenters, Tancredo and Hunter, contribute to the ambiance with their wild eyed tales of Osama bin Laden crossing the Rio Grande so he can have a baby and sign up for food stamps. Or something like that; words spoken through frothing mouths can sometimes be difficult to understand.

To paraphrase John Kennedy's famous quote about Thomas Jefferson, there hasn't been this much anger, kookiness, and self-delusion in one place since Richard Nixon dined alone.

Still, as much as I love the GOP field, and as much as my soul is nourished by the sight of all of them together on a single stage, I detest the YouTube format. CNN sells this as the people's debate, where average Americans set the agenda and Jefferson's dream of unfettered citizen democracy is finally realized. But it is, of course, nothing of the sort.

The people don't choose which of the 3,000-plus videos will actually be played during the two-hour event. That choice is made by the same journalists who crave confrontation and controversy, and live for the moments that candidates lose it on live television. With so many submissions from which to select, Anderson Cooper and the gang can be pretty confident that every possible question has been included in the mix. Their job, then, is simply to cherry pick the ones that they would have asked anyway.

And that's fine, in a sense. Tim Russert can pose a question or a snowman can do it, as occurred during the Democratic YouTube debate. At least we have the pleasure of knowing that the snowman will melt shortly and then we'll be through with him forever; Russert, on the other hand, never goes away.

The bigger problem is that CNN, in love with the gimmick, wastes our time on sophomoric, self-indulgent contributions that add nothing to our knowledge of the candidates or their positions on the issues. When clueless middle aged media types try to pander to the younger generation, the results are often painful to watch. Don't these people remember the Mod Squad?

In any event, I'll endure the debate tonight if only because I have a blog and it beats trying to think up some other topic to write about. See you on the other side.


Thursday, 10:45 p.m. EST

Well, someone has been listening to me. OK, nobody's been listening to me, but CNN obviously internalized many of the criticisms they received after their first YouTube debacle. A lot fewer gimmicks this time around and a lot more videos consisting simply of people asking questions. In fact, aside from the lame folksong-y intro and two or three cartoon characters (Uncle Sam, Dick Cheney, Grover Norquist), the "most trusted name in news" played it pretty straight tonight.

But as I said before, with the power to select just a small number of videos out of thousands of entries, make no mistake: CNN maintained complete ownership of the "people's" debate. Thus, when one contributor quizzed Ron Paul over whether or not he was a conspiracy theorist wackjob, it was really the network asking the question. Likewise, it was CNN's decision to spend the first twenty minutes of airtime mired in the Tancredo-land of immigrant bashing.

For my money, Mike Huckabee probably fared best. He's a good television performer and he has the sincerity act down cold. Or maybe he really is sincere. I'm far too jaded at this point to tell the difference. Huckabee also pulled off the biggest applause line, suggesting that NASA send Hillary Clinton to Mars, though there was perhaps some awkwardness in the implication that this would be accomplished involuntarily.

Giuliani did fine, too. He particularly benefited from a softball question about whether he was anything more than just the 9/11 guy. Also, he had a pat answer prepared when Anderson Cooper brought up the breaking controversy about Giuliani's security expenses as mayor, which may or may not have had something to do with covering up his philandering. On the other hand, Rudy was again forced to tell GOP voters things about abortion and gun control that they probably didn't want to hear. Iowa Republicans tend to be hardcore social conservatives; New Hampshirites love their hunting rifles. So it’s not clear whether the candidate actually gained ground despite a generally strong performance.

To my mind, Mitt Romney qualified as the biggest loser. John McCain slapped him down mercilessly on the question of waterboarding, and Huckabee, by standing firm on college scholarships for children of illegal immigrants, made the former Massachusetts governor sound simultaneously unprincipled and heartless. Even Romney's well rehearsed line about changing his mind on abortion four or five years ago came off as tinny and unconvincing.

A few scattershot observations:

John McCain, though a bit preachy, sounded better than he has in weeks. McCain, it seems, is a crappy frontrunner, but he shines as the (kind of) straight-talking underdog. Having said that, his sensible and reasoned position on immigration will almost certainly cost him any serious shot at the Republican nomination. And he still waxes a bit too enthusiastically about the Iraq war.

Can it be only four months ago that serious political observers insisted that Fred Thompson possessed Reaganesque charisma? Didn't look like it tonight. Just because you've been on a successful television series doesn't mean you have star power. Call it the Alan Thicke rule.

Duncan Hunter should insist that he no longer be filmed from behind. Not to put to fine a point on it, but baby got back. By the way, given his poor fundraising and low poll numbers, why is he still allowed to show up at these debates without buying a ticket?

As for me, I'm all pundited out. I'll post in the morning.


Friday, 11/29/07 7:30 EST

For those of you who still take online polls seriously, chew on this. As of this morning, the public's choice for winner of last night's debate was Ron Paul. His supporters must have been up all night keypunching their man to victory. But such are the sacrifices one must make to hold off the Trilateral Commission's bid for world domination.

On the main CNN website, the poll of the day wants to know "[w]ho asks better questions at debates", the media or the public. Last I looked the public was winning with over 80% of the vote. So I guess the network did, indeed, fool a lot of people. Once again, and at some risk of belaboring the point, when CNN can simply cherry pick their favorite submissions from among over 3,000 videos, the "public" is not asking the questions in any meaningful sense.

On to Iowa...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I realize that reading the Washington Post for its sports section is a bit like buying Playboy for the travel tips. Despite an evident qualitative decline over the past couple of decades, the Post remains the paper of record for devotees of American politics, and, whatever its faults, it is still the only daily in the District not founded by the leader of a religious cult. But there are far better sources for athletic insight both in print and online, and nobody beyond the beltway could possibly be interested in the fate of the capital's four pathetic pro franchises.

Regardless, inertia drew me to the Post's sports page yesterday and particularly to a piece by one John Feinstein, one of the paper's more celebrated columnists. Feinstein, it seems, is all bent out of shape because a college football coach hundreds of miles from the Potomac compared two difficult losses to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The coach, Nick Saban of the University of Alabama, evidently attempted to reassure the Dixie pigskin faithful that "catastrophes" can be turning points that lead to a redoubling of effort and eventual triumph, so long as FDR and not George W. Bush is president (that last part is mine, not Saban's).

Feinstein's overheated response:

"Okay, let's just say this: NO ONE should be allowed to mention catastrophes in which thousands of people died when talking about football -- or any sport. Not ever. And certainly not someone who is working at what is supposed to be an institution of higher learning. What kind of message is he sending to his players? If he makes a comment like this in public, what in the world is he saying to his players behind closed doors?" (Emphasis in original.)

OK, let's leave aside the thuggish notion that "NO ONE should be allowed" to mention human tragedies when referring to football games. Not ever. Or the idea that a "supposed" institution of higher ed (take that, Alabama!) shouldn't employ people who use metaphors that John Feinstein doesn't like. Instead, my favorite part of this sputtering diatribe is the sinister suggestion that Saban may be saying even more dreadful things to his players when the locker room doors are shut. ("Men, just remember, we are the Manson family, and our opponents are the citizens of Los Angeles!")

But no, I guess that's not really my favorite part after all, because I found something even better. About a decade ago, Feinstein wrote a book about the football rivalry between Army and Navy. And you know what he called it? Wait for it…he called it:


Now please correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm reasonably certain that civil wars—and certainly the U.S. version—represent "catastrophes in which thousands of people died". I realize that nobody is alive from 1865 to take offense at the comparison, but Feinstein's fatwa against insensitive analogies doesn't mention a statute of limitations. Not ever.

I have no interest in carrying water for Nick Saban or any other football coach. Saban makes a lot of money and can take care of himself. The folks down in Alabama are not likely to fire him because some sports columnist up north considers hyperbole a capital crime (of course Feinstein doesn't want Saban executed, so I suppose that's hyperbole, too; so shoot me).

The problem, of course, isn't just with John Feinstein and it didn't start last week. A couple of years ago, Kellen Winslow, Jr., then a student athlete at the University of Miami, had the temerity to refer to himself as a "soldier" trying to "kill" the opposition. Because he had the poor timing to make this comment during the early months of the Iraq War, the usual army of the self-righteous (is it all right for me to use the word "army"?) pilloried him for demeaning the troops. Since Winslow was, in fact, the first human being ever to employ martial metaphors when referring to football games (note to Feinstein: that's sarcasm), he was naturally forced to apologize.

So I guess my main point is: Can we please cut this out? Save the outrage for something real and important like, well, you know, actual war. Athletes and coaches and writers have been comparing athletics to combat for as long as anyone can remember. To do so does not insult the troops in any manner. Nick Saban did not say that his team's losses were more tragic than the collapse of the Twin Towers. Kellen Winslow never suggested that his bravery exceeded that of the Marines patrolling Baghdad.

If John Feinstein wants to be outraged, he should pick up his own damn newspaper, skip the sports section, and just spend a few minutes reading the stories on the front page.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

You've Got to Change Your Evil Ways

The pop-psych dilettantes who write for Time magazine seem to be engaged in a little intramural debate about nature and nurture. Several weeks ago, Time favored us with a cover story about birth order, reviving the old chestnut about firstborns being leaders, middle children falling through the cracks, younguns rebelling, and so forth. It's the sort of unsophisticated nonsense to which some parents desperately cling as they seek to decode the infinitely complex little ciphers they have brought into the world. The birth order argument clearly represents a brief in favor of nurture, suggesting that environmental factors (negotiations and struggles between siblings) supersede the determinism of genetics in shaping our lives.

This week, however, Time reverses field with a new cover on the subject of morality. "What," they ask, "makes us good [or] evil?" Surprisingly enough, the answer has nothing to do with big sister getting all the best presents at Christmas. Instead, the magazine lurches back over to nature's side, filling us in on the latest findings of brain scientists and zoologists who insist that the answers to life's most enduring mysteries can be found under the skull and in DNA's double helix.

But don't worry: Time hasn't forgotten its reigning Person of the Year: You. Sprinkled among the descriptions of MRI results and tales of altruistic apes are several morality puzzles specially designed for dinner table family discussions, assuming that such things still occur. One, a kind of Anne Frank meets Sophie's Choice scenario, asks whether you could smother to death a crying infant if that were the only way to prevent enemy soldiers from discovering and subsequently executing you and everyone else hiding with you in the basement. And would it matter if the baby was yours, rather than someone else's?

The article is at its worst when it oversimplifies good and evil, at one point providing us with photos of what appear to be the starting lineups for the Heaven/Hell basketball tournament. The baddies open the game with Hitler, Stalin, Osama (tall guy, presumably the center), Augusto Pinochet, and Pol Pot. The angels counter with Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama (I know that's only four, but maybe they can draft Albert Schweitzer to play point guard). The suggestion is obvious; to quote Dylan in his worst days: "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody."

Aside from being lazy and facile (c'mon you could have picked at least six of the nine without even looking), this gallery of Cains and Abels plays once again into the currently popular Manichean view of evil as inborn and unidimensional. If our enemies are innately and irredeemably bad, then there is no reason to reflect on the causes or purposes of their actions. Every murderer in prison, from the once-abused child to the rage-filled victim of bullying, can be consigned to the human refuse heap, sentenced to be caged without mercy until death. Those who attack us from abroad can be dismissed as Hitler's moral descendants, and anyone who attempts to understand their motivations can be slandered as just another Chamberlain gullibly traveling to Munich.

This is obviously not to say that some acts, regardless of their context, shouldn't be considered unforgivable. Of course we should imprison murderers, even the ones whose unbearable childhood traumas help account for their behavior; not all abused children grow up to kill. And nobody would dispute the need to capture or eliminate bin Laden and as many of his terrorist associates and acolytes as possible. My point is simply that when we dismiss these people as evil, we oversimplify a complex reality, hinder efforts to prevent future misdeeds, and eliminate the need to reflect on the constant battle between id and superego that takes place in all of us.

Just consider Hell's starting five, listed above: two sociopaths, a religious fanatic, a garden-variety brutal military dictator (still revered by many on the American right), and Pol Pot, about whom we still know relatively little. Hardly a matched set. Further, as the article points out, none of the quintet could have committed their atrocities without thousands (Osama) to millions (Hitler) of accomplices, few of whom would themselves satisfy any meaningful definition of evil. Therefore, unless we are willing to label every German who supported Hitler and every devotee of bin Laden as being alien to the rest of humanity, there are obviously still levels of understanding yet to be explored.

Indeed, by sticking with these relatively safe choices of bad guys (except, perhaps, Pinochet), Time frees itself from the more troubling question of how to distinguish between terrible acts committed by people who consider themselves moral (and may otherwise lead exemplary lives) and behavior that is truly malevolent. Were the Crusades evil? What about European colonialism? Does it mitigate your crimes if your slaughters are carried out in the name of national self-defense or religious mandate or some theory of manifest destiny?

And how do we regard the person who opts to murder that infant in the cellar?

These are obviously difficult questions and I am being somewhat unfair in raising them in the context of the Time magazine article, which was actually quite a bit more nuanced than their unfortunate rogues/saints photo gallery would suggest. Further, it is quite possible that some people are so damaged or so mentally unbalanced that they are indeed beyond repair and reason, and perhaps these people can be best described as evil. But the word is thrown around far too carelessly, often by people who have an ideological stake in silencing opposition to their policies. Like birth order, evil is a seductively easy explanation for a very complex set of phenomena. Regardless of our religious and philosophical traditions, we might be well served to see less evil, hear less evil, and, most of all, speak far less about evil.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pat and Jerry's Not-So-Excellent Adventure

If you’re my age, it is sometimes easy to forget just how distant the 1980s have become. And then something comes along, an anniversary, a death, a Men at Work song, and you suddenly realize that a quarter of a century has elapsed since the cool kids were programming their Sony Betamax to preserve each episode of Miami Vice. Or maybe you're talking about the day the Space Shuttle exploded, and someone asks, "Which one?"

Another of these moments of realization came just a few weeks ago when the withered ghost of Pat Robertson appeared on a stage somewhere to endorse for president a man who, by Robertson's own standards, professes comfort with the notion that women should be permitted to kill their unborn children. The old reverend had worked his entire career to banish people like Rudy Giuliani from public life, and yet there he was taking one last, desperate stab at relevance by giving the press its daily man bites dog story. He probably had to go wash Rudy's car in the parking lot afterward.

Not long before Robertson's well-earned day of humiliation, the press announced the death of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a fellow Virginian and one-time co-leader of the movement to mobilize evangelical Christians for partisan ends. During the last thirty years of his life, Falwell had fallen from rock star to sideshow, popping into our consciousness now and again to embarrass himself by weighing in on the sexual preferences of Teletubbies. In the obituaries that followed his passing, many reporters felt compelled to explain to younger readers who Falwell had been and why he was once so much more than just Tinky Winky's nemesis

Still, while both Robertson and Falwell were fittingly condemned to reach their twilight years more as curiosities than celebrities, their original cause—the politicization of Christianity—has been a fabulous success. We live in their world today, one in which candidates compete with one another to claim the most fervent religious conviction and in which millions of American Christians regard the voting machine as an instrument of God's will. Thirty years ago, Jimmy Carter's profession of born-again faith was considered exotic and, to some, troubling. Today, it is rare to find any serious candidate who does not confess a personal relationship with his or her savior.

In the process, we have once again learned why the Framers of the Constitution included the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, discouraging entanglements between church and state. When faith becomes a campaign talking point, it becomes a political issue. And as a political issue, it becomes something to explore, dissect, and debate. In the process, both religion and government are diminished.

When John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was challenged in 1960, the contentious issue (other than bigotry) involved whether or not JFK was willing to separate his personal fealty to Rome from his civic duties as President of the United States. When he answered that question in the affirmative, the concern largely receded, though prejudice no doubt dampened his vote totals anyhow. At the time, nobody wanted to hear about the depth of Kennedy's commitment to his church; rather, they sought reassurance that he would keep that faith firmly sequestered in the East Wing—the family quarters—of the White House.

By contrast, nobody today would dream of asking Mitt Romney whether he intends, as president, to take his marching orders from the alpha temple in Salt Lake City. Any reporter who dared to suggest such a thing would be accused of fomenting religious intolerance and read out of the profession. Perhaps this is a good thing, evidence that the sort of ignorance that Kennedy faced nearly fifty years ago is nearing extinction. Or, to be less optimistic, maybe this simply demonstrates that faith and public policy have become so intertwined during the intervening half century that the question no longer makes any sense.

Instead, and bizarrely, the concern about Romney's religion centers mainly on the fact that a lot of Americans find the Mormon faith itself to be strange. There's Joseph Smith and the seer stones, the location of the Garden of Eden in suburban Kansas City, and the long-time (though now renounced) practice of polygamy. Jacob Weissberg of went so far as to argue that devout Mormons should, by the very nature of their doctrine, be disqualified for the presidency, calling the faith "Scientology plus 125 years".

Thus has the life's work of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell slowly but inevitably poisoned our national discourse. Of all the responses Romney can give to his critics, the least acceptable would be, "That's none of your business." He cannot do so because people like Robertson and Falwell, Reagan and the Bushes, and—let's be fair—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have turned JFK's hard-won victory on its head. Religious conviction, once honored by politicians only in generic terms, has become the wellspring from which all policy and philosophy are expected to flow. So elevated, how can the discussion of religious tenets possibly be off limits?

When the candidates in both parties' recent debates were asked (offensively, in my view) to name their favorite verse from the Bible, nobody mentioned the passage about reaping what you sow. In this case, however, it seems depressingly appropriate. Religion has become fair game in a manner that would have been unthinkable just one generation ago. Today, we demand that Giuliani square his divorces with his Catholicism. We expect Mike Huckabee to justify a fundamentalist viewpoint that rejects the science of evolution. We force Hillary Clinton, the daughter of mainline Midwestern Protestants, to speak of her religion in near-evangelical terms, as though it were she who had dragged Bill to Arkansas. And, of course, there's the highly inappropriate question of whether Romney wears the temple garments ("Mormon underwear", to the less decorous) beneath his unwrinkled, tailored suits.

The Establishment Clause was not added to the Constitution in the interests of secular humanists or atheists. It was added, at least in part, because the Framers well understood that the interests of neither government nor religion are served by inserting faith into the inherently filthy business of electioneering. Robertson and Falwell were men of great ambition who sought and gained power by blurring the lines between church and state, and persuading parishioners that God takes sides in earthly politics. The damage they have done will long outlive them.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Don't Tase ANYONE, Bro!

In more innocent days, when "homeland" was immigrant-speak and the World Trade Center towers were merely eyesores, most of us welcomed the taser into the arsenal of law enforcement. At last, police officers would have a non-lethal method for subduing the dangerous, the unbalanced, and the drug-crazed. Electric shock was surely unpleasant, we reasoned, but it lacked the bullet's capacity for rending vital internal organs or the Billy club's facility for crushing skulls. We thus pronounced the taser a win-win high-tech solution to crime fighting, tailor-made for the 1990s.

As so often happens, Americans focused on ends rather than means. We eagerly embraced what we assumed to be a new, life-saving technology. Thus enamored with our own humanitarianism, we spent little time contemplating the fact that the purpose of the taser itself is to inflict unbearable pain. We had, despite our best intentions, endorsed an instrument of at least short-term torture.

The barbarism of the past seven years has put a strain on our once-unanimous rejection of torture. No longer do we debate whether, but rather how much, or how long, or how excruciating. A society that can entertain ambivalence about waterboarding is not likely to flinch at the sight of a little street-level shock therapy. Hardened by nearly a decade of brutality, we even made a national joke of the University of Florida student who received a brief taste of electrocution when police removed him from a speech by Senator John Kerry. Don't tase me, bro! People downloaded it to use as their cell phone ringer. Ha ha ha!

The young man in Gainesville may have been overly dramatic in his pronouncements, but his screams of pain were all too real. He did not physically assault the police officers. He did not threaten anyone with harm. He was simply obnoxious and disobedient. And then he was tasered.

The Florida incident should have been a watershed event. We were promised—we promised ourselves—that this new technology would be, like the revolver, a last resort, employed only under the direst of circumstances. In this case, however, the electric shock was delivered as a matter of convenience, the easiest and most efficient way to deal with a troublemaker. A line had surely been crossed.

Except, of course, that the boundary had already been publicly breached several weeks earlier in the UCLA library. There was momentary outrage then, too, but other shiny objects demanded our attention and we soon forgot. And now it has happened again, captured by a police cruiser's dash cam on a remote freeway in Utah.

But, really, it hasn't happened again. It probably happens all the time, but we are only permitted to observe it when cell phone cameras are nearby or when a highway patrolman temporarily forgets that his own vehicle bears silent witness. There are, in all likelihood, hundreds of victims of elective taserings whose screams will remain forever unrecorded, never destined to become some hipster's callous ring tone.

I don't know why it never occurred to us, as we were blissfully paving the road to Hell, that the taser would become a weapon of first, rather than last, resort. It is quick and efficient, and it requires no heavy lifting. It is, indeed, the very opposite of the handgun: it can be employed thoughtlessly and without regard for consequences. It eliminates the need to argue, to reason, or to take a load of crap off some mouthy speeder in the middle of the desert.

It also turns out, on occasion, to be more lethal than advertised. But even if it never took a single life, the taser would still rank among the worst law enforcement innovations of the past quarter century. The thing about the gun and even the stick is that they are not easy solutions. They're messy and they require follow-up reports and interviews with internal affairs. No sane officer would ever have beaten that kid in Florida with a Billy club, much less fired a bullet into his body. Not with everyone watching.

But even if police reserved the taser for only the most serious confrontations, it would still be unacceptable. The deliberate infliction of extreme pain is simply not a valid tool of law enforcement in a civilized society. We once understood things like that. It used to be the way we distinguished ourselves from the Communists and all the other bad guys in the world. They were brutes who never thought twice about torturing their citizens.

But America doesn't torture. Our president said so.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Greatest Republican President?

Yesterday, I mused about the Democratic Party's ongoing love affair with Bill Clinton and his presidency. This morning I want to talk about the great paradox at the heart of that infatuation. Simply put, the secret to Clinton's success was, in large part, his betrayal of bedrock Democratic principles dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Despite the right-wing's bizarre insistence that our 42nd president was some sort of postmodern socialist (as well as a rapist, drug runner, and murderer), Clinton's actual record was not even recognizably liberal.

When Ronald Reagan was first elected president in 1980, he brought with him a Republican Senate and a working conservative majority in the House of Representatives. It was the culmination of a twenty-year battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and the most soulless elements had finally prevailed. In addition to lusting for a reinvigorated Cold War, the Reaganites also proposed an audacious domestic agenda that represented nothing less than the rollback of forty years of progressive government. They spoke of crippling the power of organized labor, creating punitive roadblocks for welfare recipients, and balancing the federal budget regardless of the sacrifice required.

Twelve years later, the Reagan Revolution was a shambles. The Soviet Union had imploded, and while the Republicans quickly worked to seize credit for this historical inevitability, the loss of the U.S.S.R. deprived them of their most salient issue and single unifying cause. Domestically, things were even worse. By 1990, Reaganomics had been unmasked as a fraud, and massive budget deficits and economic stagnation had finally forced George H.W. Bush to break the only significant promise he had ever made by asking Congress to enact a comprehensive tax increase. Public welfare, though unpopular as ever, survived the Reagan-Bush years more or less intact. Labor unions suffered serious losses during the 1980s, but even they assumed the worst was likely behind them.

Cagey politician that he was (and still is), Bill Clinton entered the White House selling a progressive vibe, but few specifics. Two of his most prominent pledges, reforming health care and permitting gays to serve openly in the military, were met by unexpectedly fierce opposition and Clinton's feeble response to his foes bore the faint whiff of amateurism. Two years into his administration, the young president had even squandered the Democratic Party's crown jewels as both houses of Congress fell to the GOP for the first time in nearly half a century.

Bill Clinton recovered, of course, in large part because Newt Gingrich and the new Republican majority badly overplayed their hand, their ruthless Social Darwinism contrasting poorly with Clinton's well-honed empathy. Nevertheless, the damage was, to some degree, irreversible. From the president's 1995 State of the Union concession speech ("The era of big government is over.") to the Republicans' obsessive pursuit of scandal, corporate and carnal, the final years of the Clinton presidency were about perseverance rather than promise.

Seven years later, it is easy to identify the three most significant accomplishments of Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House. When history books devote their lone paragraph to the first president of the 21st Century, they will highlight the fact that Clinton balanced the budget, enacted sweeping welfare reform, and championed the North American Free Trade Agreement against the wishes of organized labor. They will, of course, also mention that he was impeached for having sex.

Back in their darkest hours, the post-Watergate years of the mid-1970s, dispirited conservatives would have been overjoyed to know that within one generation, Americans would elect a president who would erase the deficit, take on and defeat Big Labor, and "end welfare as we know it". They would have been stunned, however, to learn that the man of their fondest dreams would be a Democrat. And yet, this very same man, Bill Clinton, having been midwife to so much of the unfulfilled Reagan agenda, remains not only adored by liberals, but also despised by right-wingers nearly to the point of mental illness.

I saw Stephen Colbert on an interview show the other day—I think it was with Tim Russert—and, speaking out of character, he expressed somewhat reluctant admiration for Richard Nixon. Colbert pointed out, quite correctly, that the gains made in environmental protection and gender equality during the Nixon years set the stage for everything good that has happened subsequently on both fronts. Nixon, Colbert suggested, could be considered the greatest Democratic president since Roosevelt. Liberals, however, revile Nixon to this day; conservatives regard him fondly as one of the earliest martyrs of the culture wars.

Maybe in the same way that only Nixon could go to China, only Clinton could clear out the debris of outdated policies and build that bridge to the 21st century that he was always jabbering about. Who knows? Much of Clinton's legacy will depend on outcomes that cannot yet be fully measured. Will free trade, despite the painful dislocations it has created, eventually usher in a new era of American prosperity? Will the incentives built into welfare reform at long last break the cycle of dependence, or will they simply condemn thousands of fellow citizens to the sort of desperate poverty that has been unknown in this country since the 1960s?

In the meantime, we can only marvel once again at the manner in which partisan attachments distort even the most recent memories. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we probably don't want doctrinaire presidents, either on the left or the right. The incumbent, in particular, is busy giving ideological consistency a bad name. Still, historians will struggle to understand how Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, men of compromise and equivocation, managed to evoke such strong loyalties and unrelenting hatreds.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Shadow Candidate

There is, as almost everyone knows, an undeclared candidate in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He receives more media attention than Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Dennis Kucinich combined. His presence is felt at every debate, though he never stands behind the podium. His popularity exceeds that of all of his rivals, but his name will not appear on any ballot. He is, without a doubt, more qualified for the presidency than any American now alive, yet he is ineligible to hold the office. His name, of course, is William Jefferson Clinton.

Bill Clinton would cast a shadow over the current election season even if his wife were not engaged in her own campaign for the White House. Unless you have adult grandchildren, he is probably the only successful Democratic president you have ever known. Without the redemption of his two terms of peace and prosperity, the Democrats' chances of ever again being trusted with the keys to the Oval Office might have died forty-four years ago yesterday on Elm Street in Dallas. Had Clinton failed, the 2008 election would likely hold interest only until the Republican nominee was determined.

Most Americans, and nearly all Democrats, want to re-re-elect Bill Clinton. His popularity, already high when he went into retirement, has only grown during the seven years of malign, incompetent administration that followed. Sandwiched between two Bush presidencies, one inadequate and the other disastrous, Clinton is credited not only with his own accomplishments, but with those of Bill Gates and Newt Gingrich as well.

As Democrats ponder the 2008 presidential field, they are, whether they realize it or not, looking for the next Bill Clinton. Many look no farther than the woman who has shared his career and—on most days—his bed for the past three decades. Indeed, her husband's presidency, and her own role in it, constitutes her primary claim on voters' attention. Without Bill's administration, Hillary Rodham is a one term U.S. Senator without executive credentials, no more prepared to lead the nation than John Edwards, and far less experienced than Dodd, Biden, or any of the GOP hopefuls. If George H.W. Bush ran as a kinder, gentler Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton is presenting herself as a tougher, less promiscuous version of her id-burdened spouse.

Hillary is running as the 1996 Bill Clinton, the incumbent, experienced, seasoned, prepared. Barack Obama, by contrast, is campaigning as the 1992 edition, the vigorous young man who explicitly rejected the past, asking only that we have the courage to change and the faith to believe that we could rise above the corruption and meanness of the Bush years. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. He will not—indeed, cannot—say so, but Obama is styling himself the rightful heir to the Clinton legacy and particularly the promise and optimism that preceded the years of compromise and scandal, Monica Lewinsky and Mark Rich.

It is no accident, then, that these two candidates are leading the race for the Democratic nomination. This election is about the two Bill Clintons, the one who inspired and the one who governed with a flawed, technocratic brilliance. John Edwards, by contrast, is the pre-Clintonian candidate, the last remaining representative of the Walter Mondale wing of the party (I mean this as no insult; Mondale is a man of great decency and would have provided a worthy substitute for Ronald Reagan's bumbling, directionless second term). Voters like and admire Edwards, but they want to vote for Bill, and they see little that is Clintonesque in the former senator's class-based appeal.

For their part, the Republican candidates are similarly hitching their own prospects to the memory of the only successful GOP presidency of the past half-century, that of Ronald Reagan. It will make for a strange, but fascinating election. I am reminded of those baseball board games (now computerized, of course) that allow you to pit the 1927 Yankees against the 1976 Reds to see which is the greatest team of all time. The 2008 election will, by proxy, finally allow Reagan and Clinton to square off for all the marbles.

This is, to be sure, a bit of an exaggeration; 9/11 and W have intervened significantly since 2001. Still, this is as close as we are likely to get to a final decision, by voters who still remember, as to which legacy will reign supreme. And then, perhaps, we can finally, truly move on.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Politically Correct Thanksgiving!

Most of what I know about Thanksgiving, I learned from elementary school plays. I believe I was one of the Pilgrims in first grade, which meant I had to dress like the Quaker Oats guy and replace all pronouns with funny words like thee, thou, and thy. "Thou gave me thy cooties," I said to Wendy Russell (not her real name; these are litigious times). Pilgrims were evidently stern and serious people because our teachers instructed us not to smile or laugh as we thanked our Native American friends for explaining that this "maize" stuff was actually corn, without which starvation might have turned the colony into a colorless version of that soccer team that crashed their plane into the Andes. ("Thy legs are plump and juicy, Miss Priscilla!" "Speak for yourself, John Alden.")

The kids assigned to play the Indians had the even more difficult task of being as racially insensitive as possible. Unable to wait three decades for the premiere of the History Channel, their performance was informed by the media available to them: John Wayne movies, Saturday morning cartoons, and F Troop. While the Pilgrims struggled with silly pronouns, the Indians were busy banishing all articles from their speech. "How." they would begin, and not in the form of a question. "We bring squaws and children from forest to white man's feast." Needless to say, they clothed themselves in a manner that would make even today's Atlanta Braves fans blush.

With those precious memories at hand, I would like to observe the 386th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving by expressing my gratitude for political correctness. Yes, you heard me right, I am thankful for P.C. in all its censorious glory. I rarely use the term political correctness, of course, preferring synonyms such as consideration, inoffensiveness, or basic human decency.

Like everyone else, I struggle with boundaries. Is it OK to say Indian Summer? Should I speak of Hispanics or Latinos? Why is that hockey team in Vancouver allowed to call themselves the Canucks?

Nevertheless, unlike many of you, I remember how things used to be before the culture required us to engage that little editor in our brains. Back then, we lived in a world of buck-toothed Asians, Frito Banditos, and J.J. "Dy-no-MITE" Walker. When we eenie, meeny, miny, moed, it was not always a tiger whose toe we were seeking to catch. On those rare occasions that we were called to account for our oblivious epithets, our response was, "Can't you take a joke?" We didn't much care to be called honkies, however, because that was nasty and threatening.

Words and symbols matter, and if you don't believe that, simply monitor your emotions the next time someone sets flame to the American flag.

There is, no doubt, at least some prejudice in all of us; we are human animals and we are biologically rigged to choose sides. But there is nothing wrong, and much right, with feeling self conscious about our biases. When we ask ourselves, "Am I allowed to say that?", the experience may be annoying, but it is also evidence that we can rise above our animal inheritance.

And that's something for which we can all be thankful. Enjoy your turkey!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Myth of Indoctrination

Indoctrination is a powerful word. It evokes the Hitler Youth and Chairman Mao, Orwell's Big Brother, Jim Jones and the tragic men and women who willingly put cup to lip and then rotted away in the unforgiving Guyanese sun. Indoctrination robs people of their agency and makes them instruments of their captors' will.

It is no accident, then, that this word, indoctrination, has been adopted by conservative critics of American higher education. These are not people who traffic in ideas. Their arguments appeal to the primitive regions of the brain, where friend and foe are distinguished and fear dominates reason. It is not enough simply to assert that liberals and leftists control the curriculum. Instead, the culture warriors must convince frightened parents that professors have the power to undo eighteen years of faith, family, and national loyalty.

Anyone who has ever stood on the salaried side of a podium already knows that this position is laughable. On our best day, we college professors manage to persuade students to refrain from text messaging during lecture. If we are successful, we send our alumni into the world with an ability—perhaps even a willingness—to entertain ideas that would previously have been dismissed out of hand. And some of those ideas will no doubt be political and perhaps even controversial. But only the most arrogant academics are under any illusion that they have the power to reshape minds with their eloquence and charisma.

So let's start, then, with the worst case scenario, the sum of all right-wing fears. Impressionable young Americans may be compelled to endure four years of courses taught by people who question God and country, perhaps even champion equality and socialism. For the moment, let's leave aside the obvious point that this would probably be good preparation for the challenges of life outside the parochial cocoon of family and neighborhood. Instead, consider just one statistic that should, in a world ruled by logic, end the entire conversation: citizens with college degrees are far more likely to vote Republican than those without. That this most likely results from factors unrelated to higher education doesn't change the fact that the university experience, though it may be liberalizing, is apparently not Liberalizing.

Conservatives, however, are not only mistaken in the conclusions that they draw. In fact, the fundamental premise of their entire argument is without merit. The American college experience is anything but a four-year immersion into leftist propaganda.

For one thing, there are relatively few courses in any university curriculum that actually lend themselves to ideological warfare. To my knowledge, the graying counterculture has yet to develop a postmodern take on integrals and derivatives. The inside of a dissected frog looks the same whether you voted for Kerry or Bush. Sure, your o-chem prof may decide to open a lecture or two with a passionate critique of U.S. militarism (alternatively, she might bore you with stories of her precocious grandchildren), but surely that's no reason to rouse David Horowitz from the Batty-Cave.

Thus, we've narrowed our search for the red peril to just a small handful of departments, but we're not done yet. Nobody—not even Horowitz—is suggesting that every college professor shills for the Communist conspiracy. Many, if not most, pride themselves on their classroom neutrality. Quite a few would rather boast of the breathtaking theoretical significance of their own research than dirty themselves with mere current events. Still others are burnouts who allow the textbook and its power point ancillaries to teach the class for them. Oh yeah, and some of them (perhaps as many as twenty percent) are actually conservatives and libertarians. Sure, some proselytizing lefties are likely included in the mix, but they are clearly a small subset of a small subset.

But let's be careful here. Teaching from a point of view is not the same thing as proselytizing, much less indoctrinating. There is a long and honored tradition of college professors who approach their courses as a semester-long argument, in the academic—rather than confrontational—sense. A professor of international relations, for example, might structure his lectures around the premise that U.S. imperialism undermines national security and violates human rights, or, conversely, that America is engaged in an existential clash of civilizations with the Muslim world. So long as students are free to question and challenge, so long as their grades do not depend on parroting anyone's viewpoint, then this sort of pedagogy is not only acceptable, it is often highly effective in promoting student learning. Our job is to make students think, not to make them comfortable.

OK, so where does that leave us? It leaves us with the very, very tiny minority of professors who abuse their mandate by browbeating students into confessing agreement with certain causes and principles. We've all had one or two in our day, and not all of them worked the left side of the arena. Where offenses can be proven, they should be adjudicated. Nevertheless, even if a few of these cretins continue to walk among us—and they do—smart students will know enough either to give them what they want or to avoid them altogether.

That some people propose to deal with this trivial matter by eliminating tenure and neutering academic freedom only reveals the naked partisanship and shameless disingenuity of their agenda. The right-wing culture warriors do not want ideological balance; they want liberal capitulation. They almost never aim their invective at conservative professors or, indeed, entire universities that require adherence to a narrow set of religious and sociopolitical tenets (that these schools are private is irrelevant; the culture warriors claim to act on principle). Groups like ACTA and NAS have manufactured a problem where none exists and now they are busy trying to sell it to gullible parents and extremist lawmakers.

We owe it to our students to stop them.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Caucuses for Caucasians

So here's something I don't get. The Democratic Party has spent the past several weeks playing chicken with its Florida affiliate over the Sunshine State's plan to hold their presidential primary in January. The national Dems have determined that only four states are worthy of casting ballots before the fifth day of February, and those are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Having so decreed, the party has informed Florida that any delegates selected by their outlaw primary will not be seated at the national convention.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see the D.C. Democrats stand up to anyone these days, given how often they've been rolled by the Bush administration. On the other hand, why start with Florida, a state boasting 27 electoral votes and a history of deciding the outcomes of recent presidential elections? Do the Democrats have a death wish, or are they simply tired of being competitive? Floridians will cast their ballots on the same day (January 29) as voters in South Carolina, a state that last supported a Democratic presidential nominee when John Travolta was still a Sweathog. Nevertheless, the Dems will recognize only the South Carolina results as legitimate, earning the gratitude of an electorate that is still debating exactly where—not whether—the Confederate flag should fly on the state house grounds.

Anyway, let me get to my real question. As long as the national Democrats have learned how to say no, even if it's only to one another, why can't they, at long last, say no to Iowa? Until 1976, nobody was even aware that the state had a presidential caucus, but then Iowans shocked the nation by catapulting an unknown Georgian, Jimmy Carter, to the top of a crowded field of candidates. And look how well that turned out.

First, let me say for the record that I have nothing against Iowa. I have been there several times, and I can report that it has a wonderful interstate highway, tidy motels, and dozens of clean service stations with easy freeway access. Iowa has given the world Donna Reed, Andy Williams, both Ann Landers and Dear Abby, and, in about three centuries, it is scheduled to produce Captain James T. Kirk. It even has cute little quirks, like the fact that Des Moines is not in Des Moines County. There is no place I would rather spend the long hours between Illinois and Nebraska than in the Hawkeye State. Even if I had a choice.

Having said that, there are two serious problems with opening the electoral calendar in Iowa. First, rather than simply holding a traditional primary election, the state employs a hopelessly arcane caucus system in which residents wishing to exercise the franchise must spend two or three hours at a meeting that chooses representatives to a county convention. This is, I suppose, more exciting than watching corn grow, but even Iowans have several diversions at least as enticing as sitting around someone's house talking politics until bedtime.

The result, of course, is that only the most engaged and motivated voters will actually show up on January 3, caucus day. And by engaged and motivated, I obviously mean dateless and fanatical. This wouldn't be so bad except that the national media, which knows that Chris Matthews won't shut up until somebody votes somewhere, assign enormous importance to this process, filling every Holiday Inn and Red Lobster from Bettendorf to Council Bluffs waiting for results that prove very little, but end up making a big difference. Candidacies will end because of the Iowa caucuses, while others will at least temporarily take flight.

Compounding the problem is the reality of Iowa itself. Those friendly faces you see in the Wal-Marts and Cracker Barrels are almost all white. They are also disproportionately engaged in the practice of agriculture, a vital industry to be sure, but one that has certain needs and desires that are not consistent with those of most Americans. Say what you want about New Hampshire, but its ballooning population of tax-fleeing Boston yuppies has at least given it a less parochial electorate than it once had. Iowa, on the other hand, remains as unrepresentative as ever.

Please don't take this as an argument against Middle America. An early primary in, say, Illinois or Missouri, states that mix urban and rural, agricultural and industrial, would make a great deal of sense. But it's time to tell Iowans that if they want to have extraordinary clout over American politics, they need to hire a lobbyist and buy themselves some politicians like everyone else.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Dumb and Dumber

If I could enact just one unconstitutional law, I know exactly what it would be. I would take the pruning shears to the First Amendment and prohibit the news media from reporting any scientific study, social or natural, until at least ten years after its publication. Before we allow journalists to frighten and misinform their audience (remember the now-discredited abortion-breast cancer link?), let the scientists do the quiet but necessary work of re-testing and replication. If the findings stand up over time, they can be revealed to the public with honesty and confidence.

If I could make a second such law, I would enjoin's Will Saletan from ever again writing about matters of biology, physiology, or genetics.

Saletan's latest contribution to the public discourse is a bizarre brief on behalf of the proposition that black people are, on average, less intelligent than everyone else. Most of us had assumed that this sort of nonsense had been buried sometime between the demise of Josef Mengele and the death of George Wallace, but it seems there's always someone around eager to exhume the grotesque and rotten corpse. Several years ago, it was the authors of The Bell Curve, a book disturbingly embraced by some right-wingers who thought it proved…something. Now along comes Saletan.

Unlike previous apologists for this viewpoint, Saletan wants us to understand that he really, really, really wishes that everyone was just the same and that we could go back to judging people by the content of their character. But sadly, he tells us, the scientific evidence is now so persuasive that it is time for liberals to concede that their dreams of human equality might forever remain unfulfilled. Saletan goes so far as to compare those who refuse to accept these findings with creationists who insist on biblical inerrancy and deny Darwin. That he is equating a group of people who dispute a single line of research to those who reject science altogether is apparently lost on Saletan.

As is almost always the case with these arguments, the instrument for measuring intelligence is the IQ test. Saletan's evidence is conveyed as a ranking of various ethnic groups in terms of their average Stanford-Benet score (or whatever form they're using these days): American Jews and residents of Hong Kong (113); Japanese (110); Asian-Americans (106); white Americans (103); Brits (100); Latino-Americans (89); African-Americans (85); and black Africans (70, which is, by the way, equal to the high-end standard for mental retardation).

It's the usual bait and switch. First, we're talking about intelligence and then we're reciting IQ scores as though they were the same thing. The cultural and class biases embedded in IQ tests are well known and clearly documented (did the Latinos take the exam in Spanish?). Further, there is a tautology inherent in this argument that should be clear to even the dead-average Englishman. Rarely do analysts or their journalistic enablers actually attempt the Herculean task of defining the elusive concept of intelligence; thus, the IQ test becomes both the definition and the evidence.

Saletan's thesis, however, becomes progressively weirder as it goes along. To answer the charge that IQ is subject to cultural influences, he pulls out the measuring tape. "How could genes cause an IQ advantage?" he asks. "The simplest pathway is head size."

Well, it turns out he doesn't really mean noggin width (Saletan is nothing if not rhetorically careful). Otherwise, the smartest man in the world would currently be Barry Bonds. He's actually talking about brain volume, which is not always the same thing. It seems that MRIs or witch doctors or somebody has demonstrated that "Asian-American kids have bigger brains than white American kids, who in turn have bigger brains than black American kids." And since IQ covaries with brain/head size, then the differences cannot merely be cultural.

Indeed, says Saletan, displaying the full measure of his scientific chops, "the new science of MRI finds at least a 40 percent correlation of brain size with IQ". Does he mean that the correlation is .40 or that brain size explains 40% of the variation in IQ scores? As it stands, his statement makes no sense.

Could a man who doesn't understand what a correlation is also fail to comprehend that a single article or series of findings cannot possibly constitute definitive evidence? 'Fraid so. According to, a website produced by a collective of people who actually know what they're talking about (i.e., scientists), "[t]here is evidence to support both sides" of the debate about the relationship between head circumference and smarts. Indeed, one criticism of the genetic argument suggests an environmental factor that could influence both brain size and intellect: childhood nutrition. Duh-uhhh!

Anyway, Saletan goes on to propose his own wacky theory of evolution, which is effectively demolished here. He also takes pains to reassure us that he is no racist nutjob with this smarmy reminder:

"Remember, these are averages, and all groups overlap. You can't deduce an individual's intelligence from her ethnicity. The only thing you can reasonably infer is that anyone who presumes to rate your IQ based on the color of your skin is probably dumber than you are."

Nice try, Will, but it's a little late to make the individual-level case for colorblindness after telling us that the average African-American is far less intelligent than the average white person. If Saletan is right, the presumption of inferiority would not only be appropriate, it would prove correct a vast majority of the time. There are monstrous implications to the casual acceptance of such questionable science, and Will Saletan should not be permitted simply to walk away from them.

There's a lot more that could be said here about the whole nature/nurture debate, and maybe I'll take it up some other time. For now, suffice it to say that we should tread carefully when arguing that some races are less intelligent than others. We should not do this because it is politically correct. We should do it because it is destructive and, in all likelihood, wrong.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Sermon: Law and Order

We're going to talk about lawyers this afternoon, so sharpen the knives, drag out your favorite jokes, and don't forget to quote Shakespeare's line about killing them all. Get it out of your system, because we're not going to be talking about those lawyers. I actually harbor some sympathy for the ambulance chaser, the funeral crasher, even the slick huckster who appears on cable TV promising to turn your twisted ankle into a beach house in Malibu. Annoying they may be, but when that drunk in the Hummer broadsides you at three in the morning, you'll be glad you kept their business card. Some people sue over fast food coffee, others endure years of legal warfare to hold polluters accountable for the children they sicken. I'm more than happy to tolerate the first in order to bring satisfaction to the second.

"In the criminal justice system," says the voice-over guy, "the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups." These are, of course, police officers and prosecutors, society's garbage collectors and the heroes of our current national narrative. To be a cop requires a fit body, a slow fuse, and a great deal of physical courage; to be a prosecutor requires a law degree.

It has not been a good summer for the nation's prosecutors. Alberto Gonzales' Justice Department was revealed to be a cesspool of corruption and cronyism where non-partisan integrity was a firing offense. A district attorney in North Carolina was humiliated and then defrocked for pursuing a rape case against four collegiate lacrosse players despite a wealth of exculpatory evidence, some of which he tried to sequester. In Jena, Louisiana, the parish D.A. exhibited a troubling enthusiasm for exploiting racial tensions after some nooses were found hanging from a tree at the local high school. And over in Georgia, prosecutors inexplicably fought for months to require a young man (black, if that matters, and it probably does) to spend the first ten years of his adulthood in the penitentiary because he had, as a seventeen year old, received sexual gratification from a classmate two years his junior.

It is important, of course, not to try to spin a few anecdotes into a sweeping indictment. First, it would contradict the argument I made just two posts below. Second, and more important, it would ignore the many noble public servants who keep us safe from wrongdoers, tirelessly pursue the perpetrators of Jim Crow-era hate crimes, and tell the president's henchman to pound sand when he demands that they time their activities to correspond with the electoral calendar.

Still, the list of ignoble prosecutions is growing to the point that it behooves us to wonder whether the problem is somehow built into the system. With the advent of DNA testing, we have now learned that a disturbing number of innocents, accused rapists mostly, have done the time without doing the crime. We can only wonder about the other men and women behind bars, convicted of offenses for which there is no relevant genetic evidence. Most of the mistakes are honest ones, but some make us wonder whether the bad guys are wearing coats and ties, rather than bright orange jumpsuits.

But that's not really the right way to look at it. Indeed, the difficulty here is that we are not, by and large, talking about bad people. Take, for example, Michael Nifong, the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case. Does anyone really believe that he woke up one morning and decided that he'd like to spend the next year or so trying to send innocent men to prison? Of course not. A young woman told police that she had been gang raped by several party goers. She was black; they were white. The lacrosse team had a reputation on campus for boorish behavior, and racial epithets were allegedly exchanged. Nifong was outraged. You would have been, too.

But you're not a prosecutor, and he was, and soon his zeal for justice intersected with his private self-interest in ways that would change several lives and ultimately ruin his own. Because of the media's obsession with wealth and race, the Duke case quickly went national, and Mike Nifong found himself, in late middle age, a sudden celebrity. He was the hero of his own reality show, and that fact very likely affected his judgment.

Meanwhile, what vanity didn't distort, ambition almost certainly did. District attorneys are elected officials, and Nifong had a re-election battle pending. Not only would his prosecution of the lacrosse players curry favor with African-American voters, it might also put him on the short list for higher office. Attorney General Nifong? Governor Nifong? Opportunities like this rarely happen twice, and must be seized with both hands.

Nifong's case is obviously exceptional. Most prosecutors will never have to decide if they can squeeze in Larry King between pre-trial hearings. But they still have egos and dreams. In this way, they are unexceptional among human beings, save for one important difference. Unlike the rest of us, prosecutors realize their ambitions by causing other people to forfeit their life, liberty, and property. Most of these people are guilty, but not all of them. The question is whether prosecutors can walk away from failing cases after investing their time, egos, and reputations. Mike Nifong couldn't. He's not the only one.

If there is any lesson we should take away from Injustice Summer '07, it is this: People are not guilty just because prosecutors say they are. So let's give Barry Bonds his day in court. O.J., too. And let's resolve never to forget the defendants who cannot afford expensive legal teams.

Prosecutors are people, just like you and me. That, in the end, may be the whole problem.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

And Another Thing...

Even if only twenty percent of American college professors lean to the right, that still means that intellectual diversity on campus exceeds racial—and, in some disciplines, even gender—diversity by a significant margin. Since the groups that decry ideological imbalance (ACTA, NAS, etc.) are also fiercely opposed to affirmative action, it might be worth asking them to address this point. If, as they believe, the persistence of an overwhelmingly white, male professoriate is not prima facie evidence of racial discrimination, then why can't we assume that the numerical dominance of liberals is similarly benign?

Maybe conservative intellectuals just aren't trying hard enough.

Let the Bad Guys Win Every Once in a While

The right-wing critics of the American academy are not stupid people. They understand the power of the sound bite, and they excel at putting their adversaries on the defensive with a few misleading statistics and a couple of carefully chosen anecdotes. A well-prepared pundit can deliver her misinformation in mere seconds, giving Sean Hannity all the time he needs to bludgeon the hapless respondent, usually some shell-shocked professor-type, all the way into the next spot break.

How easy is it? Well, Sean, the problem with the politically correct university is that they have abandoned education in favor of indoctrination. Did you know that 80% of all faculty members identify themselves as liberals or radicals? I'm sure your audience has heard of Ward Churchill, the tenured Colorado professor who actually compared the innocent victims of 9/11 to Nazis. Nazis! Our organization has done a study proving that there are hundreds of Ward Churchills out there spreading their radical propaganda on the taxpayer's dime.

And how do you respond to these disturbing charges, Dr. Elbowpatch?

Well, how do you respond? The 80% figure is probably a bit high, and there are a lot more liberals than radicals, but neither of these arguments is going to get you very far. You could point out that the Churchill case is exceptional, and that it was already adjudicated by the university, but, really, the less you say about goofy old Ward, the better. So you decide to play defense and explain that most college professors try to be fair and balanced—you are on Fox, after all—and that these additional Ward Churchills constitute only a miniscule percentage of the overall professoriate.

You have, of course, now effectively conceded every allegation raised by your opponent (maybe several hundred is a trivial number to you, Mr. Pointy-Head) and Hannity is beaming like Hillary's campaign bus just mowed down a troop of Girl Scouts. Alan Colmes has slouched off to wherever he goes each evening to count his money and salve his conscience. Sean thanks you, the theme music starts, and you spend the taxi ride home trying to understand how it all went so wrong.

Given enough time, it would not be difficult to demonstrate the shallow fraudulence of each of these claims. But you certainly can't do it in three to five minutes, especially with another guest and two hosts all competing for attention. So it comes down to a battle of bumper sticker slogans, and you lose.

Either we need better slogans, or we need to stop engaging these people on their terms.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Clap for the Wolfman

Thursday Night, 11/15/07, 7:45 p.m. E.S.T.

Wolf Blitzer is on my television screen right now flogging the latest installment of that moveable feast of pre-packaged baloney known as the 2008 presidential debates. This time it's the Democrats, and Wolf is promising that this particular episode will be more important than Lincoln-Douglas and Kennedy-Nixon combined. He does not actually speak these words, but his eyes betray his excitement and even his beard seems to pulse with anticipation.

The reason, of course, is that last time out, Hillary Clinton, heiress to Bubba political fortune, finally stumbled. We know this because that single verb, stumbled, passed the lips of nearly every pundit on the talk show carousel. She also stubbed her toe several times and dented her armor repeatedly. And you thought it was only the comedy writers who were on strike.

As you probably know by now, the former First Lady spun out on a question about the wisdom of providing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a plan proposed—and now withdrawn—by New York Governor Eliot "One Term" Sptizer. The junior senator's response (she favored the idea, though not the specific idea, though maybe not so much after all) was, shall we say, nuanced enough that she found herself in the unfamiliar role of piñata with John Edwards, Barack Obama, and even the single-digit guys like Chris Dodd laying into her and drawing blood (or candy, if you'd prefer to stay with the metaphor).

As the story built, and with only O.J. Simpson's tragicomic life for competition (oh, plus a couple of wars, too, if they still count), Senator Clinton's poll numbers took a sharp turn southward and her inevitability became, well, evitable. Wolf and the gang attributed this to the debate, though it almost certainly had more to do with the relentless post-debate media coverage that convinced the casual viewer, who didn't watch the event itself, that Hillary Clinton is 1) a flip-flopper who 2) wants to hand out driver's licenses like breath mints so that 3) non-Americans can more easily board airplanes that fly over 4) your children's school. Given this unexpected shot at redemption, Barack Obama seemed to recapture his famous eloquence and John Edwards' Cheshire cat smile threatened to white out the entire state of Iowa.

So here we are five minutes before the principals take the stage in that most subtle of American cities, Las Vegas, Nevada, for this most subtle of political events. Wolf can barely speak through the palpitations. If only they could require the contestants to don those old American Gladiator costumes. Anyway, here goes…


Two-Plus Hours Later

God help us, the very first question of the night, addressed to Hillary Clinton, asserted that she "stumbled" in her previous outing. Somebody should have started a drinking game. Actually, someone should have purchased a thesaurus.

Still, a funny thing happened on the way to the steel cage death match. Like kids on Halloween, Blitzer and crew just couldn't wait to Wolf down all the chocolate bars as soon as they walked in the front door. Rather than allowing the intramural hostility to simmer to a slow, natural boil, the questioners forced the issue right off the bat, allowing Clinton, Obama, and Edwards to spend the initial quarter hour of the debate leveling charges and countercharges.

By the time the first noncombatant was allowed to speak—I think it was Joe Biden—almost all the bile had been spilled and Wolf found himself compelled, much to his evident dismay, to move from personalities to issues. Campbell Brown tried to relight the fuse somewhere around the one hour mark, questioning Hillary about her reference to her fellow candidates as the "boys club", but to no avail. The senator slugged the offering over the fence, across the Strip, and into the Bellagio fountain, and only one of the boys (Edwards) was dumb enough to attempt a rebuttal.

Other than that, though, it was a surprisingly watchable debate, even if most of the candidates agreed with one another most of the time. Leaving aside Dennis Kucinich, still channeling Eugene Debs through Shirley MacLaine's dentures, it would be difficult to park a Vespa in the spaces between these candidates' platforms. But those differences that did exist were effectively highlighted and clarified to the benefit of any truly undecided voters who happened to be in the audience. By frontloading all the nonsense about who was flipping and who was flopping, Wolf and the Wolfettes inadvertently put together a meaty show that enlightened rather than titillated. Even the characteristically self-indulgent questions from audience members weren't as distracting as usual.

So who won? I don't know. I think everyone did pretty well, even Kucinich, whose comments at least remained terrestrial this time around. They all left the arena with their market shares intact, which probably means that the primary beneficiary was the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. I suppose if I had to choose a single winner, I'd go with Bill Richardson. After a series of awkward, uneven performances over the past six months, Richardson appeared downright Vice Presidential tonight, befitting the only office to which he could still reasonably aspire.

In the end, the Most Important Presidential Debate Ever did not entirely live up to its advance billing as a difference maker. Still, credit where credit is due: the Wolfster did a generally good job of letting the candidates have their say without insinuating himself too much into the proceedings, unlike NBC's Tim Russert, whose tiresome gotcha act demeans everything it touches and nurtures more voter cynicism than a whole latrine full of Larry Craigs. Clap for the Wolfman!


Friday Morning, 11/16/07, 7:45 a.m. E.S.T.

So CNN hosts perhaps the most substantive candidate forum of this entire, ceaseless campaign season, and how do they headline their wrap-up coverage?

"Democrats Spar in Heated Debate"

The "Most Trusted Name in News" at your service.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Indoctrinate This!

As grateful as I am for oxygen and avocados, I'm not one who spends a whole lot of time contemplating nature's gifts. I would much rather watch the Home Shopping Network peddle Barry Manilow commemorative plates than endure even five minutes of the Jim Bob Fishin', Huntin', and Spittin' Hour. For that reason, I suppose, I was just about the last American alive to learn that the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy has declared open season on college professors.

I'm afraid I do take this personally, since professing happens to be my day job. Well, professing and attending endless, soul-draining meetings, but we can take that up some other time. As my students might say, I don't know if I'm any good at it, but I try really, really hard, and that ought to count for something. Anyway, it isn't exactly clear what my colleagues and I did to draw the Conspiracy's attention away from the ubiquitous threat that is Islamofascistnazicommunism, but I'm sure we could work it all out with a handshake and a couple of best practices seminars. I mean, we're not especially formidable people.

My first inkling of the trouble to come occurred when David Horowitz, radical-turned-reactionary-turned-camera-hog, published a book naming the 101 most dangerous professors in the United States. Now I spend a lot of time around professors, and I'm here to tell you that the only danger most of us pose is to the few unlucky souls with a chronic allergy to tweed. But it seems that 101 of my fellow academicians are evidently brainwashing the flower of American youth with all manner of subversive nonsense about brotherhood and diversity.

As luck would have it, I even know one of these mortar board traitors, a witty, dedicated pedagogue who wouldn't force an idea down your throat if you were dying of idea scurvy. He loves his students, and not in that icky way they write books about. I have no doubt that he eagerly shares his opinions in the classroom, and he is certainly to the left of, say, Sean Hannity, but he simply enjoys a good argument far too much to silence dissenters.

In any event, a circus needs more than clowns, so it was inevitable that several serious sounding organizations would be formed to take on the left/liberal goliath that is higher ed. One, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), is a dour gathering made up largely of old timers still resentful that they couldn't even get laid during the 60s. They have a real thing about white guys, too few dead ones being discussed in class, too many live ones being passed over for jobs. They also like to bitch about grade inflation, which I think they blame on the Warren Court.

A more virulent strain of anti-professor activism can be found in a group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), led by Anne Neal, wife of a Republican congressman you've never heard of (which, given how most GOP legislators make the news these days, is probably a good thing). ACTA shares the same white guy fixation as NAS, but it is more militant in attacking the professoriate. In particular, the Council has developed an unhealthy obsession with one Ward Churchill, a doofus from the University of Colorado who once compared the victims of 9/11 to Adolf Eichmann, an analogy that so offended the cultural right that they retaliated by making Churchill a national celebrity.

Ultimately, however, Churchillmania ran its course and Ward himself was asked to find another line of work, preferably one that did not involve having an opinion on the issues of the day. Deprived of their moby dickhead, the Ahabs of ACTA were forced to scour the planet for another pod of whales over which to feign telegenic outrage. So they commissioned an investigator with the attention span of a freshman and the research skills of a dachshund, who (so it appears) trolled Google for about an hour searching for on-line syllabi that included any of the telltale keywords of the counterculture, such as postmodern or dialectical or black. Armed with their quarry, ACTA proceeded to submit for public approval a report entitled, "How Many Ward Churchills?", to which the answer was a giga-buttload, which was about all the mathematical precision that the ACTA-pods could summon, given their laughable sampling techniques.

If this weren't enough, a callow young man named Evan Maloney has now joined the effort with a documentary called "Indoctrinate U", which I have not seen, but which evidently provides devastating evidence that many professors disagree with Evan Maloney's view of the world. It seems that Maloney, having mastered the art of the ambush interview, seeks recognition as the mossback Michael Moore, which is a bit like thinking that you're Jim Carrey because you know how to cross your eyes. Regardless, the usual army of fraudcasters* is working breathlessly on Maloney's behalf, from Limbaugh to the Fox Newsers to Glenn Beck (and while we're on the subject, how long do you think they had to dredge the pond before they found him?).

It is too early to know how all of this will play out. But I suspect we're in it for the long haul. I'll have more to say on the subject in the next day or so, and I'll try to be a little more serious next time.

Except when referring to David Horowitz.

* No, I didn't coin that one, either. The term shows up over 100 times on everyone's favorite search tool. Damn you, Google.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Saving Our Humanity: Add it to the To-Do List

Here's the problem. George W. Bush believes in the basic decency of his fellow citizens. Many leading human rights supporters, on the other hand, do not. Or, perhaps to be more charitable, they lack the confidence to put that decency to the test.

Against all evidence, Bush stands behind the presidential seal—Harry Truman's presidential seal—and, in the sort of clear, declarative sentence uttered only by the spotlessly honest or the hopelessly corrupt, says simply, "We do not torture." Almost nobody believes him, of course, not even the D.C. press corps that will nevertheless transcribe his remarks without comment for the morning broadsheets. Maybe his mother is persuaded; his dad certainly knows better.

Still, Bush says it. And he says it because he presumes that no other answer is acceptable. However tempted he might be to swagger to the microphone and promise that no stone will be unturned and no electrode detached until the terrorists are stopped, he invariably defaults to the same four-word response. Even after six desensitizing years of nearly non-stop bloodshed, Bush fears the outrage that might ensue if the popular appetite for human debasement proves no match for his own.

On the other side of the debate, those who oppose simulated drowning, sleep-deprivation, and bestial behavior in general have their own four-word mantra: "Torture does not work." It is an odd debating tactic, not least because it can be read as an invitation to the more indelicate of the redneck de Sades to come back to the table when they find more effective cruelties. Beyond that, however, it is a statement that implicitly concedes the moral argument and simply frames the issue in utilitarian terms. Worst of all, it betrays an attitude that Americans are a bloodthirsty lot who cannot be depended upon to reject even the most inhumane techniques so long as they get the job done.

Nearly as bad is the argument that we must not torture our enemies because we do not want our own sons and daughters in captivity to meet the same fate. Once again, the condescension is unmistakable, the virtuous appealing to their ethical inferiors in the only language they could possibly understand. Don't play with fire, children, or the troops might get burned. That these insults are delivered unintentionally does not diminish their sting, nor the resentment they almost certainly generate.

There is, however, a second, larger problem. These increasingly shopworn slogans are not only demeaning to their target audience they are also, in many cases, provably wrong. For some people, under some circumstances, torture almost certainly does work. Alan Dershowitz, a veritable fountain of bad ideas ever since the towers fell, points out correctly that the Nazi version of enhanced interrogation regularly forced damaging betrayals from the mouths of members of the French underground. Further, John McCain's very presence on the national stage is a persistent reminder that torturers are rarely deterred by the degree of moral behavior exhibited by their opponents. We could deliver Guatánamo to Fidel and beat the waterboards into plowshares and still the barbarians would be unmoved.

The only solution, then, is to gather the chips before us and go all in on the proposition that the American people possess a core decency that, in the end, will not allow them to make common cause with the armchair Torquemadas at the Justice Department and in the office of the Vice President. Effective or not, we must argue, torture is simply evil, regardless of whose fingers are turning the thumbscrews. Even if we can purchase a little more security by inflicting unbearable pain, the price is too high. Give us humanity, or give us death!

We will not persuade everyone, of course. As the past several years have painfully revealed, there are authentic sadists among us; they spill their hollow, twisted ids into glib, nasty blogs every morning and call it patriotism. As well, there will be those whose all-embracing cowardice compels them to support any degradation that will make them feel even a tiny bit safer during their next flight home for the holidays.

Make no mistake: we may lose this argument. But it is, in the end, the only one that we can possibly win. And time is growing short. A new generation is rising, and we must not let them grow up to think that everything they have seen since 2001 is normal.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Lou Dobbs

Anyone remember the old Chevy advertising jingle about "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet"? Did you know that apartheid-era South Africa had its own version? No, really, I found it on a site commemorating Springbok Radio, the now-defunct broadcaster that once filled the airwaves with happy talk and pop classics while Nelson Mandela wasted away in brutal captivity.

It is more than a little jarring to hear a chorus of peppy white South Africans singing about "braaivleis [barbequed beef], rugby, sunny skies, and Chevrolet" back in 1973, fully three years before the Soweto uprising at last focused world condemnation on the minority government in Pretoria. Could life in the "good old RSA" (as the jingle goes) have really been this normal? It is hard to listen to this cheerful little time capsule without thinking of Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil.

Except that most of these people weren't really evil. They were simply born and raised in South Africa and this was their life. Parents worried about keeping their kids out of trouble. Children chased puppies and puppies chased tails. Teenagers clumsily struggled with their burgeoning sexuality, wasting nary a thought on the incarcerated Mandela. Sigh, the beloved country.

We like our bad guys to be caricatures, Hitler gesturing spasmodically from a Swastika-draped dais, Osama sourly mumbling fatwas from the bleakness of a death-cold cave. We do not want to recognize ourselves in the faces of those we despise. To acknowledge them as human is to concede our own capacity for oblivious transgression and animal violence.

When I was very young during the 1960s, I wondered what life must be like in Alabama or Mississippi. I imagined a daily routine of protests, water cannons, police dogs, and especially angry people, everywhere angry people, jeering, hissing, spitting, and cursing. I never considered that the day to day existence of a middle class white Mississippi schoolchild might be no different from my own. But everyone knows that Cap'n Crunch tastes just as sweet in Yazoo City as it does anywhere else.

It could not have occurred to most southerners of the 1960s just how severe and unflinching history's judgment would be. They were simply born and raised in Dixie and this was their life. Their world consisted of football, sweet tea, humid nights, and Chevrolet, even if nobody had yet composed a tune to match the lyrics. Even today, millions of them—millions of Americans—harbor nostalgic, if perhaps conflicted, memories of a time and place where tire swings and nooses hung from the same trees.

In the end, of course, the Old South died for all our racial sins. The Watts riots shook Californians from their laid back smugness as early as 1965. Detroit, Newark, and Washington would soon follow. New Englanders would find their own faces, contorted with rage, beamed around the world after a federal judge dared to suggest that school integration was as right for Boston as it was for Birmingham. To this day, the celebration of Dr. King's birthday is as much an act of national contrition as it is the recognition of the heroism of a fellow citizen, one of us.

I bring this all up because I fear that we are once again drifting toward the wrong side of history as the debate over illegal immigration turns increasingly ugly. There are plenty of progressive reasons to be wary of open borders. When employers claim that immigrants fill positions that American workers don't want, the unspoken coda is that Americans don't want these jobs given the paltry wages employers are willing to pay. If cheap labor could not be so easily obtained, wages would simply have to rise for working class citizens, a goal for which liberals have struggled since the industrial revolution.

But these are not the grounds on which the battle is being fought. Instead, thanks in large part to the regrettable Lou Dobbs of CNN, we have allowed the term "illegal alien" back into our lexicon, carrying with it the baggage of decades of bigotry. Immigrants, we are unceasingly reminded, are breaking the law, as though seeking a better life for one's family were a criminal, rather than technical, violation.

It gets worse. Children born in the United States to immigrant parents are now "anchor babies", their very birth an offense against our nation. Each crime committed by an undocumented Mexican or Central American is tallied as a mark against an entire race of people. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of dirt-poor Irishmen, Italians, and Eastern Europeans demand that the same indignities endured by their own ancestors be visited upon this latest generation of would-be Americans. Dobbs himself uses his national pulpit to spread the falsehood that illegal immigrants have brought leprosyleprosy!—back to our shores.

Someday we will have to explain all this to our own grandchildren, just as earlier generations had to explain Jim Crow and apartheid. History is already drawing up the bill of indictment. But demographics is destiny: when the trial finally comes, the jury will be predominantly Latino.

Enjoy your high ratings, Lou.