Wednesday, April 30, 2008

News Judgment

Over at the website of CNN.com, it's not difficult to determine the single most important news story of the day. The lead headline reads, "Incest Family Holds 'Astonishing' Reunion." Above, a blood red banner alerts us that "[p]olice are investigating possible links between man suspected of imprisoning his daughter and unsolved murder of a young woman." These are, as you probably know by now, references to the same story.

It's a horrible story, obviously, something about a guy holding his daughter captive while fathering several children by her. For this, his relatives have, in the insensitive shorthand of the mass media, earned the title of the "Incest Family". But really, there are some truly twisted people in the world who do unspeakably awful things to one another. This is news when it happens on your block, or perhaps even in your home town.

In this case, however, the "Incest Family" hails from Austria. What happens in Central Europe rarely qualifies as news in the United States unless casualties number in the dozens or some celebrity gets buried in an Alpine avalanche. To my knowledge, CNN has never before featured local crime news from Vancouver, let alone Vienna (or, in this case, some place called Amstetten).

The interest in this sordid tale, then, must be seen as almost entirely prurient. In the battle for ratings, the Cable News Network has decided to travel the globe to update us on a local matter involving kidnapping and incestuous rape. In Austria.

It is tempting to make an immediate appeal to nostalgia, to the days before 24 hour cable broadcasting, when the Big Three networks had only thirty minutes to bring us the news and simply did not have the time to regale us with tales of Austrian incest or guys named Peterson who kill (or may have killed) their wives. But as early as the late 1980s, ABC began regularly squandering part of their precious half hour with some fluff about naming the "Person of the Week". And CNN, around that same time, remained fairly true to its middle name, bringing the public a relatively steady diet of hard news.

It's easy to blame the Fox News Channel for the degradation of cable journalism. By mixing confrontational right wing politics with interchangeable hot blonde newsreaders and spiffy graphics, Fox quickly made CNN look as anachronistic as a black and white Movietone Newsreel. But the sad truth today is that Fox seems far more likely than CNN to concentrate on hard news and leave the blood and gore stories to their elders. The reactionary bias on Fox is unmistakable, of course, but on an average day, you're more likely to see political coverage on FNC than wall to wall coverage of the latest missing white woman.

But if the fault does not rest with Fox, neither does it entirely lie with CNN. People vote with their channel changers. Networks follow their ratings closely and they do so on more or less a daily basis. The reason that the murder of Lacy Peterson was turned into a national soap opera was presumably because the folks in Atlanta noticed that the story produced higher viewership than some dreary discussion of health care or the economy. Same thing with Natalee Holloway. If the old CNN Headline News had generated decent numbers, Nancy Grace would still be toiling on the lower rungs of cable TV hell and Glenn Beck would be nothing more than another forgettable right-wing jerk with a radio show.

The tragedy here is that there are real stories to cover. Few Americans truly understand the forces that have driven housing prices down and gasoline prices sky high. Surely, someone could find a way to make these fairly complicated stories interesting. They are, after all, matters that concern Americans a great deal more than the fate of the Austrian "Incest Family".

One of the "traditional" networks, ABC, recently scooped the full-time news outlets by reporting on direct White House involvement in the decision to torture terrorism suspects. President Bush actually confessed on camera (though he likely didn't view it as a confession) that he was fully engaged in the decision to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" on captive prisoners of war. This represents an extraordinary moment in American history, made no less so by the fact that some attractive young schoolteacher may have been caught seducing one of her students.

Or how about the Supreme Court decision that just came down reaffirming a law in Indiana requiring photo identification in order to exercise democracy's most fundamental right, the right to vote. The justices were unmoved by the knowledge that this law would almost certainly disadvantage poor and minority voters. Nor did they show any concern over the fact that this is a solution without a problem; evidence of rampant voter fraud is rare to nonexistent. Everyone recognizes that laws such as Indiana's are bald faced attempts by Republicans to discourage traditionally Democratic constituencies from casting their ballots. While it's true that the cable networks gave this issue a little attention yesterday, they characteristically did so in the usual, useless point-counterpoint fashion where opposing spokespersons exchange talking points and the public emerges no wiser for watching. A real news organization would investigate the issue of fraud itself as well as the political history of attempts to limit turnout.

But who has the time for that? Apparently, the American people would prefer to watch the 5,000th story about that polygamist cult in West Texas while their economy tanks, gas prices rise to $4 a gallon, more people lose their jobs, and another family is evicted from their home. And "the most trusted name in news" is more than happy to deliver.

Maybe Barack Obama is wrong. Maybe the rot in politics today doesn't begin on the banks of the Potomac. Maybe it originates in the average American living room, where the new flat screen TV hangs on the wall bringing the latest news from Austria's "Incest Family".

At least ancient Rome managed to provide bread along with its circuses.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Art and Exhibitionism

I'm an academic and a blogger, but I typically don't think of myself as an academic blogger. Now and then I'll have a word or two to say about the right wing's attack on academic freedom because I think that's an issue people should care about even if college is neither in their past nor in their future. The United States boasts the greatest system of higher education in the world, and the desire of ultraconservative culture warriors to dismantle it should be a serious concern to everyone.

Most on-campus controversies, however, are either arcane or meaningless to those who are not closely connected with the academy. But once in a while, some issue makes its way from the ivory tower to the popular press and hits the radar screen of Middle America. Such an event is taking place right now at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, the school that improbably produced both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

A senior art major named Aliza Shvarts decided that her going away present to her fellow Elis would be to ensnare her alma mater in one of the ickiest dilemmas imaginable. For her graduation project, Shvarts decided on a performance piece commenting on "the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body" (that's ok, I have no idea what it means, either). The particulars? Let's go with the description offered by InsideHigherEd.com:

"A Yale University undergraduate said she repeatedly inseminated herself and induced multiple miscarriages to produce a senior art project."

Suffice it to say that the project itself included display of the results of her efforts.

Now let me begin here by saying that not only do I not know what art is, I don't even know for sure what I like. I went with drama—rather than music or art—to satisfy my fine arts general ed requirement in college. That means that the last time I actually studied the subject, I was very young and we were making plaster casts of our right hands for Mother's Day.

Shvarts efforts, which will apparently never find their way into a Yale studio, have simultaneously generated three separate threads of controversy. The first, of course, involves the morality of abortion and the definition of life. The second concerns the nature of art and the dividing line between creativity and exhibitionism. The third involves the responsibility of a university and its personnel to monitor the choices its students make, particularly if those choices might put a student at some level of danger.

I actually find the third controversy to be the most interesting, so we'll start there. First of all, Yale insists that the school was told by Shvarts that her performance piece was a hoax. She replied in an article in the Yale Daily News that her efforts were authentic, and that she did, indeed, artificially inseminate herself with samples from volunteer donors and then deliberately attempt to induce miscarriage.

The distinction here is critical. Every reputable university has a board of faculty members and/or administrators that weighs in on research projects that involve human beings. The complication, of course, is that this was, strictly speaking, not a research project and Shvarts was jeopardizing nobody's health other than her own. Nevertheless, academic advisers presumably have an obligation to keep students from harming themselves, and there is the non-trivial issue of the sperm donors and whether or not they were fully informed as to what would occur in this course of this project. If the Yale Art Department and its adviser(s) understood Shvarts' work to be a provocative hoax, then they have presumably committed no wrongdoing; if not, their judgment is certainly open to question. (Oddly, while insisting on the hoax story, Yale has nevertheless disciplined Shvarts' adviser. That seems inconsistent with logic, though consistent with the CYA attitude of many college administrators.)

As to the question of what is art, I will leave that to the experts. Several years ago, a young man placed a crucifix in a jar of urine and displayed the piece at one of America's finest museums. He was defended against the predictable public outcry on the grounds of free artistic expression, even though the entire concept struck me as something a couple of drunken high school sophomores might come up with before dissolving into an evening of Beavis and Butt-head giggling. If "Piss Christ", as it was called, is art, then I don't see how Shvarts' more complex and creative piece is not (my point here is not to defend Shvarts, but simply to compare her work to other controversial exhibits that have been supported by the artistic community).

It is, interestingly enough, the abortion controversy that provides perhaps the greatest justification for Aliza Shvarts' efforts. If one purpose of art is to get people to think (and that is what many critics argue), then she has succeeded brilliantly. I don't mean that she got the world thinking about "the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body", whatever the hell that means. But she did provide an interesting challenge to both sides in the debate over abortion.

Pro-choice groups have been quick to condemn Shvarts for trivializing abortion and miscarriage. They are, of course, worried that public revulsion at her project will play into the hands of those who wish to criminalize the voluntary termination of pregnancy. But they also find themselves in a sensitive situation here, since Shvarts' supposed terminations all occurred during the first trimester of the gestation period, a time in which abortion rights advocates claim that the product of conception is emphatically not a child. Perhaps they can take issue with the safety concerns of inducing repeated miscarriages, but their efforts to distance themselves from Shvarts betray an ambivalence about abortion that does their cause no favors.

But the pro-life groups also face problems. Those who oppose abortion rights like to conflate abortion at all stages of development. Their protest signs regularly display fetuses, usually from the second trimester or later, that appear human in their basic anatomy. But if Shvarts actually did induce spontaneous miscarriage (and inducing miscarriage is clearly equivalent to abortion), she did so at such an early stage of pregnancy that few outside the pro-life camp would seriously believe that she had actually killed a baby.

The first trimester, of course, is the Achilles heel of the anti-abortion movement: it is both the time period in which most Americans are comfortable with the abortion procedure and the one in which most elective abortions take place. Nobody who forced themselves to view Shvarts' project (if it were allowed to be displayed) would observe anything resembling a baby in the gory byproduct of her efforts. The success of the pro-life movement, however, depends on us "seeing" the baby every time an abortion is performed. Even more problematic for the pro-lifers is the fact that Shvarts claims never to have visited an abortion clinic, but rather to have used natural herbal methods for inducing miscarriage.

Again, I have no idea if Aliza Shvarts is an artist. Nor do I have any interest in sickening myself by viewing her project, should that ever become possible. But she has, for better or worse, raised several uncomfortable issues that go beyond the ickiness factor. In the end, I would not, as an adviser, allow a student to do potential harm to herself in the name of art or research, but it is hard to deny that Shvarts has provoked a national conversation on several levels.

Monday, April 28, 2008

America's Sweetheart

So I'm channel surfing last night and I can't find anything worth watching. The network fare was typically worthless. The cable news channels were still obsessing over Barack Obama's pastor, wondering why he chose this week to make a round of highly publicized speaking engagements and broadcast interviews (maybe because he doesn't much care for his current national image as an anti-American, conspiracy peddling lunatic?). Depending on the channel, ESPN was offering up NFL draft coverage, more NFL draft coverage, or classic women's bowling.

So I found myself flipping over the C-Span, something I almost never do. Don't get me wrong: I think C-Span is a wonderful resource and provides the best unfiltered coverage of politicians and other political types doing what they do best: speaking, debating, and conferencing. But most of their programming is, for lack of a better term, excruciatingly boring. And the call-in shows represent the worst of both worlds of that particular genre—nutty, uninformed callers being given respectful treatment by hosts who are apparently instructed to let them ramble on, no matter how idiotic they appear.

But anyway, there I was parked on C-Span watching Michelle Obama addressing some audience in Nowhere, Indiana. I like Michelle Obama, probably more than I like her husband. She seems as smart as he is, but a great deal more authentic. With Barack, there's always the sense that the audience is being lectured to, even talked down to a bit, by a very bright college professor who knows that most of the class probably won't earn passing grades for the semester. Michelle, on the other hand, seems less practiced, her eloquence less ringing but more personal. She also conveys a toughness that her spouse seems reluctant to harness even in the heat of battle; you just know that she would have come to that Pennsylvania debate the other day and put Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos in their place and probably dusted off Hillary a time or two, as well.

But as I watched Michelle Obama entertain this crowd of mostly white Hoosiers, something else struck me, too. In many ways, she is the equivalent of the 1992 Hillary Clinton. Like Hillary, she is a successful professional in her own right, someone whose self-image and personal standing are not dependent on her husband's accomplishments. She feels no need to project that first lady stare, the one that conveys both adulation and hero worship, but also self-abnegation. She is, in short, no wifey.

If we are in a celebratory mood, I suppose we can remark on how much things have improved in just 16 years. Hillary's independence was considered problematic by many observers back in '92 and people openly questioned whether this outspoken career woman really met America's expectations of a First Lady. Her flippant comment that she didn't plan to stay home and bake cookies was treated as blasphemy by many pundits, the violation of a 200-year old tradition that had been honored by every women in the White House, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Up until the emergence of Hillary Clinton, the role of First Lady had been updated only cosmetically, the way General Mills had gradually modernized the image of Betty Crocker on their food packages. Maybe Betty had graduated from stay-at-home June Cleaver to contemporary soccer mom, but she was still the lady who baked the brownies. Likewise, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter helped modernize their office after 22 years of Mamie, Jackie, Lady Bird, and Pat. But they still conformed to America's outdated expectations of the job.

But here we are in 2008 with another strong, successful woman fiercely defending her husband while refusing to merge her identity with his. This time, however, it doesn't seem to matter. Indeed, the only time Michelle Obama has been controversial was when she chose her words poorly and said that public reaction to Barack's candidacy had made her proud to be an American for the first time. But even then, the attack was not based on the notion that the woman didn't know her place. And in fact, the incident really didn't gain much traction. We all knew what Michelle really meant.

This is progress, I guess. We seem unlikely to get a woman president this year, but at least we are no longer arguing about the proper behavior of the president's wife. What was the stuff of heated debate 16 years ago barely registers today. Of course, Michelle Obama is a successful woman with her own career and her own mind. It's the 21st Century, after all.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fifty Bullets and One Body

I'm pretty sure I don’t have the psychological makeup to be a police officer. I'm not attracted to risk and excitement, I have a relatively low tolerance for mortal danger, and I would be highly disinclined to kill another person in an ambiguous situation. It's obviously a good thing that other people are willing to take on this responsibility; I'm just glad it's not me.

I try to bear all of that in mind when evaluating cases like the one that is currently dividing New York City. You probably know the story by now: three unarmed men, all African American, left a bachelor party at a Queens strip club around 4:00 in the morning. Some sort of argument followed with other patrons who turned out to be undercover detectives. Stories differ as to what happened next, but two facts remain undisputed. Three officers fired fifty rounds from their service weapons and a 23-year old man named Sean Bell died on the morning of the day he was to be married.

On Friday, the three officers were cleared of all counts resulting from Bell's death. The judge in the case (the defendants waived jury trial) determined that reasonable doubt existed as to whether the policemen might have been justified in believing that their lives were in danger. Witness testimony was contradictory. The cops say that they were worried that Bell was using his vehicle as a weapon. Someone suggested that a shattered window in the victim's car—the result of the officers' fusillade—was mistaken for return fire. A defense expert persuaded the judge that fifty rounds could be fired so quickly that intent and premeditation were impossible to assess.

On the one hand, the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" that protects us all must also protect officers of the law. This is a criminal case, after all, and the rules don't change just because the alleged perpetrators wear badges. On the other hand, if you or I had killed someone under these circumstances, the only remaining question is whether our resulting prison sentence would be twenty years for second degree murder or five for voluntary manslaughter. No judge or jury on the planet would entertain the notion that our actions were justified.

But you and I are not police officers. We are expected to walk—or even run—away from deadly confrontations and to let the bad guys get away rather than risk our own lives. We are not obligated to consider the danger our adversaries pose to others, nor are we charged with enforcing any law.

Still, the Bell case presents a number of disturbing issues that somehow always seem to dominate matters such as these. First, the waiver of jury trial is problematic because many judges are drawn from the ranks of criminal prosecutors, whose predispositions may well favor law enforcement. Although that was apparently not true in the present case, it is still possible that even those judges without prosecutorial backgrounds will identify with the professionals rather than the public (more on that in a moment). Juries are valuable precisely because their members are not otherwise participants in the criminal justice system and are drawn from all sectors of society.

Second, anyone who has watched even a couple of episodes of "Law and Order" should be familiar with the extent to which police and prosecutors not only work hand in hand, but also come to depend upon one another. When district attorneys bring charges against law enforcement officers, a potential conflict of interest automatically exists. Any deficiencies in the subsequent prosecution raise questions—fairly or not—as to whether the D.A.'s office is really fighting to win, or merely going through the motions. These sorts of cases cry out for an independent prosecutor.

According to the trial judge, one of the key factors in acquitting the three police officers was the inconsistency between witness' statements at the time and their later testimony. Here's the judge's statement:

"The court has found that the [prosecution's] ability to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt was affected by a combination of the following factors: the prosecution witnesses' prior inconsistent statements, inconsistencies in testimony among prosecution witnesses, the renunciation of prior statements, criminal convictions, the interest of some witnesses in the outcome of the case, the demeanor on the witness stand of other witnesses and the motive witnesses may have had to lie and the effect it had on the truthfulness of a witness's testimony. These factors played a significant part in the people's ability to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and had the effect of eviscerating the credibility of those prosecution witnesses. And, at times, the testimony just didn't make sense."

Let's parse these words for a moment. To being with, details are commonly misremembered, particularly in the heat of a violent and traumatic altercation. Further, the "interest of some witnesses in the outcome of the case" and the "motive witnesses may have had to lie" would logically apply much more strongly to the police officers—who faced prison sentences—than to those who sided with Bell. As to the demeanor of witnesses, what does that mean? Does anyone expect a polished performance from young men and women who have never before taken the witness stand, especially compared to cops who do so routinely? Reduced to its essentials, the judge's statement basically boils down to this: "I didn't believe any of these thugs."

I'm not arguing that this case was necessarily wrongly decided. Nor am I suggesting that police officers should be presumptively disbelieved; quite the opposite: they are entitled to the presumption of innocence as much as anyone else. But the fifty spent bullets and one dead body provide testimony unimpeached by issues of consistency, criminal conviction, or demeanor. Something wrong happened here and justice was obviously not served.

At the very least, even if criminal culpability cannot be proven, these officers should clearly be excused from further participation in law enforcement at any level. Having never worn a badge, I am willing (albeit reluctantly) to concede that split second judgment calls can go terribly wrong and innocent people can die without criminal responsibility on anyone's part. But I would feel better about reaching that conclusion if there was no conflict of interest in the prosecution and a jury was impaneled to weight all of the evidence without bias.

I would also be a bit more comfortable if these mistakes on the part of law enforcement--and the number of bullets fired--didn't always seem to correlate so highly with the race and social class of the victim.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

John McCain's Southern Strategy

Thirty-eight years before John McCain's Monday photo op in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, another Republican presidential hopeful made his own symbolic nod to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Ronald Reagan kicked off his third bid for the presidency in 1980 by offering a speech on states' rights before a nearly all-white crowd in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Reagan himself was no student of history, but his advisors obviously knew that Neshoba County, of which Philadelphia is the county seat, was the scene of a ghastly murder of three young civil rights workers in 1964. It was a cynical bid on the part of the Gipper, an attempt to appeal to the votes of white bigots who may have supported Reagan's rival, Georgia-born President Jimmy Carter, four years earlier out of regional pride.

So we can at least say this: it may have taken them nearly forty years, but the GOP is finally on the right side of the most significant moral divide of the 20th Century. McCain, to his credit, did not employ the language of white resistance as he stood before the scene of a bloody police riot in 1965. Indeed, the presumptive Republican nominee had nothing but praise for the courageous men and women who endured the billy clubs and attack dogs with persistence and dignity. This is progress, and we should bear it in mind the next time someone demands that we attach Ronald Reagan's name to yet another school, post office, or airport.

Still, there was an oddity about McCain's brief visit to Alabama that received notice even from his usually fawning media embeds. In a city which is 70% African American, McCain's Selma audience was nearly all white. The senator's graceful response to this rather embarrassing revelation was, in effect, that he wanted to show that his presidency will respond to the needs of all Americans, regardless of whether or not they support the GOP. Nobody, however, thought to ask McCain precisely how he would respond to the desperate poverty faced by rural black southerners, including those in Selma.

The next stop on McCain's "I Care" tour was New Orleans, the city that America pledged never to forget, and then promptly did. While in the Big Easy, the nominee-in-waiting took a couple of polite, if indirect, shots at President Bush, wisely separating himself from the incumbent administration's shameful record of obliviousness followed by neglect in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If nothing else, McCain implicitly assured the country that the next time a major American city is overwhelmed by an epic natural disaster, he would not be 1,000 miles away sharing a birthday cake with an old rival on an airport tarmac somewhere, as President Bush did (the old rival, as you probably guessed, was none other than John McCain, though it's clearly not his fault that he shared the stage with his incompetent Commander-in-Chief on that terrible August day).

While in the Crescent City, Senator Straight Talk was asked what he would do about rebuilding the Ninth Ward, a devastated African American community that remains in ruins nearly three years after the city was flooded. He was unable to summon an answer, indicating that he would consult with experts or something. He also, to my knowledge, said nothing about the fate of the tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees, mostly African American, who have never been given the chance to return home.

I tend toward the cynical, but I suspect that even Pollyanna herself would have raised a few questions about John McCain's new southern strategy. What message did the senator hope to send by visiting towns that will never support him in states that almost certainly will? Was a Republican presidential candidate finally, at long last, reaching out to African Americans in a serious way? And if so, why was that not reflected in the crowds that came to hear him speak?

Well, obviously McCain has to know that he will lose the black vote by a margin of roughly 9-1, especially if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee. No campaign, especially one as cash-starved as McCain's, goes looking for votes in politically hostile or indifferent territory. McCain, then, was, at least in one sense, doing precisely what Ronald Reagan did in 1980: he was evoking symbols of the civil rights era in order to appeal to white voters.

To his credit, McCain was not making a pitch to the same kind of voters that Reagan wanted to persuade during his visit to that other Philadelphia. Rather, the Arizona senator was reaching out to an audience that was all the rage a decade or so ago, but is now largely forgotten: the soccer moms. White women will be a key swing constituency in an Obama-McCain general election contest and McCain knows he has some ground to make up.

Soccer moms, who inhabit the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Denver and Milwaukee, are political moderates who abandoned the GOP back in the early 1990s as Republican rhetoric on civil rights, women's rights, and religious freedom grew increasingly harsh and intolerant. Some returned to the fold in 2000 under George W. Bush's banner of "compassionate conservatism", while others were frightened into voting Republican in 2002 and 2004 out of fear that their children would grow up in a country in which every airplane ride could result in sudden death.

If we assume that the minority and youth votes go to Obama and the white male electorate sides with McCain, then it is quite possible that married white women will decide the 2008 presidential election. Further, the GOP hopes that many of them will be alienated from the Democratic Party because of Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful bid for the nomination (assuming, of course, that it is unsuccessful). Perhaps a straight-talking, maverick, compassionate conservative can convince some of these women that an untested, weak-willed Obama is too risky to entrust with their children's safety.

To do this, however, McCain must distance himself from the angry, edgy, testosterone-fueled Bush Administration and its reign of incompetence and insensitivity. His visits to Selma and New Orleans represented the first step in that process. Their key audience was not the children of the brave men and women who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, nor was it the desperately poor Katrina evacuees in Houston and Atlanta, praying for a chance to go home. Rather, McCain's target audience was the mother of two in Shaker Heights, Ohio, juggling a job, a marriage, and a family, discouraged by the mean spirited tone of contemporary U.S. politics, but also worried that her children will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Osama bin Laden next decides to strike.

If John McCain can win their votes, he will take the oath of office next January.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Clinton, Obama, and Daily Kos

If you're trying to gauge a candidate's viability in April of an election year, you probably don't want to start with the polls. Public opinion is notoriously fluid in the spring and, with no immediate need to decide, voters regularly flirt with candidates about whom they still know relatively little. At this point in the campaign season, the best estimates of a potential nominee's strengths and weaknesses are probably derived from a dispassionate analysis of the issues, both personal and political, that are likely to dominate each party's talking points in the fall.

Nevertheless, the polls are out there and it is sometimes irresistible to take a peek and try to draw some tentative conclusions about where things might stand in November. The website www.electoral-vote.com provides a useful map of the 50-state match-ups between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, on the one hand, and John McCain on the other. Let's start with the headline before we get into the spin:

IF THE ELECTION WERE HELD TODAY, HILLARY CLINTON WOULD ALREADY HAVE SECURED ENOUGH ELECTORAL VOTES TO BECOME PRESIDENT; BARACK OBAMA WOULD NOT.

This alone obviously does not prove that Clinton is the most electable Democrat. It is, after all, still six months before Election Day and plenty can change between now and then. In addition, many of the states in which Clinton leads are very close, some within the statistical margin of error (this is also true for Obama). And there are some goofy results in there, indicative of a period in which voters have yet to give serious thought to the general election: California, for example, is improbably listed as a "weak Democratic" state.

Still, it is what it is. The Democrats win 289 electoral votes and the presidency with Hillary at the helm. They win 269 with Obama, one short of the magic number. Indeed, for Obama to win under this scenario, he would have to capture the one state on his map that is tied, North Carolina, which hasn't supported a Democratic candidate for president since Obama was a Hawaiian high school sophomore (i.e., 1976). On balance, then, this information would, if anything, support those who argue that Clinton is the superior choice to face John McCain in November.

But wait—you haven’t heard from the 24/7 pro-Obama spin machine that is Daily Kos, the premier left-wing blog. The site's proprietor, Markos Moulitsas, helpfully provides us with the following summary information:

Strong Dem: Obama, 67; Clinton 74
Weak Dem: Obama 144; Clinton 98
Barely Dem: Obama 58; Clinton 117
Tied: Obama 15; Clinton 10
Barely GOP: Obama 76; Clinton 13
Weak GOP: Obama 44; Clinton 89
Strong GOP: Obama 134: Clinton 137

Fair enough, I suppose, though he does leave out the grand total, which is, as we've noted, 289-269 in Clinton's favor. But then, in the best traditions of the cable TV pundits, Moulitsas proceeds to spin like a gyroscope. Here are his arguments for why a deficit of 20 electoral votes actually represents an Obama victory:

1. Obama does better if you look only at strong and weak Democratic states.

2. McCain does worse against Obama if you look only at strong and weak GOP states.

3. More Democratic electoral votes are "at risk" with Clinton because more of her support comes from the "barely Democratic" column. (Does Moulitsas not recognize that this is simply a re-statement of point #1, or does he think his readers' analytical skills are that dull?)

4. "Obama puts more pressure on McCain states." (A re-statement of point #2.)

5. "Obama holds the Kerry states better." It's not clear why this is an advantage since Kerry, you know, lost. But I guess Moulitsas had only two arguments but wanted to stretch them into five.

A couple of things the Daily Kos webmaster did not point out in his somewhat redundant analysis. First, both of the states that decided the past two presidential elections—Ohio and Florida—fall into the Clinton, but not the Obama, column. Indeed, with Obama heading the ticket, Florida becomes a "strong GOP" state. Moreover, to say that Obama "holds the Kerry states" sidesteps the fact that, other than a couple of very iffy pickups in Colorado and Nevada, that's really all he's got. Obama, of course, was supposed to be the candidate who expanded the Democratic coalition beyond the parameters of 2000 and 2004. But outside of Denver and Las Vegas, the evidence suggests that his electoral territory would be little different from that of Al Gore and John Kerry. So much for the new Democratic majority.

The problem with Moulitsas and many of his allies in the left blogosphere is that they have built a small empire that may be just as important to them as their original mission, which was to replace Republicans with Democrats. An Obama nomination validates Kos' mantra of "people powered politics"; a Clinton win renders his movement impotent and, perhaps, irrelevant. Moulitsas is a player now, with a gig at "Newsweek" and a regular seat at the pundits' table. There is more at risk for him these days than the mere fate of the Democratic Party. (Indeed, even now, he can't bring himself to concede that the amateurish anti-Joe Lieberman campaign of 2006 was an unqualified disaster for the cause.)

It goes without saying that none of us yet knows how the 2008 election will play out. It is quite likely that John McCain will never be stronger than he is right now, as he traipses around the hinterlands pretending to care about people (black Alabamians, displaced Katrina survivors, etc.) whose lives his economic policies would only further devastate. But it's also very possible that Barack Obama—like John Kerry before him—is currently enjoying his high-water mark in terms of popularity. Experience tells us that relatively unknown quantities—Carter in 1976, Dukakis in 1988, Kerry in 2004—generally see their appeal decline as the campaign wears on.

Say what you want about Hillary Clinton, but she is one of the best known quantities in American politics today. She has her deficiencies and a lot of people despise her beyond all cognitive understanding, but very few people have yet to decide how they feel about her. Of the three remaining candidates in the race, she is the one most likely to remain where she is in the polls, both nationally and at the state-by-state level. There's not much chance that she will win more than 310 electoral votes, but it's equally unlikely that the bottom will drop out on her come October.

But don't ever expect to read that in DailyKos.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Three Cheers for Four Dollar Gas!

One summer back in the early 1970s I spent a couple of months with my family in Europe. When I returned back to the states, the very first thing that struck me was how large American cars were. I mean, it was striking. After several weeks seeing nothing but tiny European roadsters, the contrast was overwhelming. Imagine someone raised on 1950s television sets suddenly appearing on the showroom floor at Circuit City in 2008. That's what it was like.

By the end of the 70s, of course, everything had changed. The first oil crunch hit and then the second, gas prices shot above (gulp) one dollar a gallon and people waited in hour-long lines just to fill their tank. Cars were no longer judged by their metallic flourishes and expansive tailfins but rather by their mileage. Datsuns and Fiats and, eventually, Yugos began to dominate the American highway.

By the 1990s, when the first SUVs began to stare down on us as we navigated the interstate, it became clear that the lessons of the Carter years had been lost. Automakers convinced otherwise sensible people that they needed to cart their children to soccer practice in armored personnel carriers. Those of us old enough to hate disco worried aloud that this new love affair with multi-ton vehicles could someday come back to haunt us. Nobody listened. Instead, suburbanites flocked to buy non-military versions of the Humvee, the four-wheeled behemoth that was a minor star in that brief and glorious reality show known as the Gulf War of 1991.

Usually, I enjoy saying "I told you so". This time, not so much. As gas prices rise toward four dollars per gallon, SUV drivers face the prospect of dropping a cool C-note every time they refuel the monster. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't occurring simultaneously with rising unemployment and widespread housing foreclosures. All of this is topped off, of course, with a ruinously expensive war that we cannot win. It turns out that we didn't elect the son of George H.W. Bush in 2000; we elected the illegitimate love child of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

I don't understand the oil markets well enough to know exactly what's going on. From what I gather, three factors stand out in the current crisis. First, we've made a mess of one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world (Iraq) and an enemy of another (Venezuela). Second, commodities speculation, based as much on fear and greed as anything else, is driving the price of petroleum to new heights. And perhaps most important, countries such as China and India have created enormous new demand for oil, putting the producing countries and energy corporations in the driver's seat.

As we ride this out, I suppose we can at least try to search for the silver lining that some people insist lurks behind every recessionary cloud. So how about this:


1. Just as the 1970s oil crises drove the giant Oldsmobiles and Buicks from our lives, perhaps the current decade will usher in the demise of the SUV. That would be so good on so many levels. It would, first and foremost, be an environmentalist's dream. It certainly wouldn't solve global warming, but it would move the ball forward. And those of us who drive more sensible sedans would no longer have to share the road with cell-phone yapping yuppies trying to pilot their giant killing machines while simultaneously disciplining six spoiled brats in the back seats.

2. Except in fits and starts, Americans rarely get serious about real public transportation until the alternative is civil insurrection. Four or five dollar gas could, if we are lucky, get us to that point. Not only is mass transit environmentally preferable, it is also an enormous boon to the lives of poor people, a group that has, sadly, been increasing significantly during the Bush years.

3. This could force all the bitter and nasty debate over illegal immigration into remission. As transportation costs rise, the price of food will naturally follow. As that happens, it will become politically impossible to crack down on migrant farm workers without pushing already high prices through the roof. Bigotry is one thing, but self interest trumps all. You heard it here first: if oil reaches $200 a barrel, Lou Dobbs will be unemployable and reduced to carrying signs and ranting about "illegal aliens" in front of soup kitchens and bus stations.

4. Maybe, just maybe, we'll finally get serious about alternative fuel sources. Everyone knew that this would happen after the crises of the 1970s, but of course it didn't, at least not to any appreciable degree. But maybe it would happen this time.

5. NASCAR! How about an executive order canceling the next five seasons of auto racing? How awesome would that be? I'm just kidding. I think.

Anyway, this is my week for optimism (enjoy it while it lasts), so let's get out there and spread the word. Four dollar gas is our friend. As long as we don't, you know, eat, travel, or heat our homes during the winter.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why Pennsylvania Doesn't Matter (and Why it Should)

In the minds of most Americans, Hillary Clinton got the double-digit victory she needed in Pennsylvania last night to remain viable in her race against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. To the liberal zealots over at Daily Kos, on the other hand, special rules of arithmetic always apply: round up or down, depending on which result most benefits Obama. The latest reports from the Keystone State show Clinton leading Obama 54.69% to 45.31%, which, to most of us, rounds up to 55-45. Listen, however, to Kos himself, site proprietor Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga:

"That's a difference of 9.38 percent which, if you're going to round, would round down to 9 percent, not 10 percent."

Well, all right then.

Another front page Kos diarist is busy this morning insisting that nobody should pay attention to the nationwide popular vote totals, a strange statement to post on a website that still insists George W. Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore. But apparently, if the votes from Florida and Michigan are included, Clinton has now received more support from individual Americans in 2008 than her frontrunning opponent. At this point, of course, such an argument would be a bit of a stretch for Team Hillary since Obama's name was not even on the ballot in Michigan. But the fact that Kossacks feel the need to strike back preemptively against the argument that every vote should count tells us a great deal about where Obamamania has taken the left blogosphere.

And this is, quite clearly, the dilemma that the Democratic Party now faces. For the past four years, left-wing activists and their blogs have claimed that they are committed to the Democrats recapturing the White House in 2008. But something has changed over the past four months. It seems that they are now committed exclusively to Barack Obama winning the presidency and are impervious to all the warning signs that have emerged over the past several weeks, particularly their champion's persistent inability to connect with white working class and Latino voters in the states that will likely decide who wins the election in November.

Having said that, it is likely that the Kossacks will, in the end, get their way. By promising to throw a tantrum if the nomination is "stolen" by Super Delegates acting entirely within the scope of their authority and mandate, the Democratic left has put their party in an impossible situation. The one thing the Democrats cannot afford is to go into the fall campaign with large portions of their base openly questioning the legitimacy of the party's nominee. That is especially true this year, with the issue of race never far from the surface.

At some level, Hillary Clinton must understand this. She must realize that unless she wins every remaining primary and caucus, which she won't, she will come to Denver at least 100 delegates behind Obama. Further, her political instincts should tell her that the Super Delegates, elected officials and party officers, will lack the political will to overturn what is now called—and laughably, given the disproportionate impact of low-turnout caucuses—the will of the people.

At this point, I assume that Clinton is simply hanging around hoping for an electoral miracle. Or, more likely, she remains in the race just in case there is yet one final skeleton to be found in the closet of her still relatively unknown opponent. Obama has already been rocked by his connection to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his carelessly elitist comments about working class bitterness, and even (ridiculously) his nodding relationship with a radical bomb-thrower from the 1960s. We've learned a lot about Senator Obama over the past month or so, little of it helpful to his campaign. Team Hillary can perhaps dream that one more shoe remains to be dropped.

The Obama argument, repeated often and with conviction in the internet echo chambers, is that once the Democratic nominee is chosen, Hillary Clinton's supporters, especially women, union members, and Latinos, will line up behind his candidacy. This may well be true of Latinos, who could be critical in several southwestern states, though a Clinton nomination would likely do more to motivate high turnout. But Obama's prospects among working class men and women are great deal more iffy.

Four years ago, in the darkness of George Bush's victory over John Kerry, liberal bloggers pledged themselves to do everything possible to see that the next presidential election would bring the Democrats to power. And then they fell in love. Ever since, they have been unable and unwilling even to consider the possibility that Hillary Clinton, rather than Barack Obama, might be the strongest Democratic candidate to face off against John McCain.

Thus, they will not stop to consider, even for a moment, the implications of Senator Clinton's ten-point victory last night in Pennsylvania. Indeed, they'll insist that it's only a 9.38 point victory and then demand that we round that figure down. They'll tell us that delegates matter more than voters. They'll persistently defend the notion that victories in Alabama, Idaho, and—since it's coming soon—North Carolina matter every bit as much as primary results in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California. They'll willfully ignore the distorting effects of the caucuses.

And then, if the Democratic ticket loses in November, they'll blame the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Raging Bull?

I guess the media decided the other day that it was John McCain's turn to take the heat. Every four years, the working press establish their negative narratives and then dare the candidates to prove them wrong. This year, for example, Hillary Clinton is a soulless liar who will say or do anything to win. Barack Obama is an elitist wimp with a barely disguised taste for radicalism and friends who hold their country in contempt. And now we have McCain, the raging bull of politics, the man with a temper so out of control that even some of his Republican colleagues express concern about his ability to represent America as diplomat in chief.

This is nothing new, of course. These narratives go as far back as I remember, so they're not just the creation of the 24/7 cable TV industry or the internet echo chambers. Over forty years ago, Barry Goldwater was the reactionary nutjob who never met a bomb he didn't want to drop. Hubert Humphrey was the loyal vice presidential lapdog, too weak to stand up to LBJ, let alone the Vietcong. George McGovern was both wimpy and extremist, not decisive enough to negotiate tough Cold War realities, yet simultaneously single-minded in his pursuit of the San Francisco-ization of America. Tricky Dick Nixon obviously served as his own self parody.

More recently, Bill Clinton carried the burden of the nickname Slick Willie, while the first President Bush was such a pampered rich boy that he didn't even recognize a grocery store scanner. Bush's son played the role of anti-intellectual frat boy and sometime religious fanatic. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, had a weird penchant for making up tall tales about such bizarre personal accomplishments as inventing the internet. John Kerry was one beret short of being a French citizen.

My theory, both unoriginal and previously expressed, is that candidates get into trouble when they say or do something that inadvertently plays into these negative stereotypes. That's why the eleventh hour discovery, back in 2000, that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in Maine in 1976 likely hurt him. It's not that anyone really cared how their presidential nominees celebrated the Bicentennial; instead, the incident simply reminded the electorate of the pre-existing frat boy narrative. Likewise, Hillary Clinton has been enormously damaged by peddling an apparently false story about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia. See, her opponents said, we told you she can't be trusted.

In any event, now that the narratives have been developed for the 2008 election, it should be clear that Senator McCain is both at the greatest advantage and the most significant risk. Assuming that Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee (and he might well be by the end of this evening), everything he says will be parsed carefully for any evidence of arrogance, elitism, or subtle anti-Americanism. Phrases that would seem innocent coming from others will be transformed by the media into smoking gun proof of either weakness or world-weariness, and everyone will be hunting for further signs of his supposed disrespect for Joe Six-Pack. Obama will be fighting this battle all the way until November.

Should Hillary Clinton shock the world by upsetting Obama at the Democratic convention this summer, she will receive the Al Gore treatment. That is, fact checkers will pore over her every utterance to make sure that what she said happened in Minneapolis didn't actually take place in St. Paul. The slightest deviation from the historical record will be taken as indicative of her inability to speak honestly about her past, a particularly damaging result considering that her opponent will be Mr. Straight Talk.

As for McCain, all he needs to do is keep his tantrums private. So long as he doesn't blow up at anyone, press or public, he can actually reverse concerns about his capacity for anger. The Democrats will almost certainly work to goad him into some sort of explosion, with campaign trail surrogates seeking ways to annoy him whenever and wherever possible. Either Clinton or Obama—but especially Clinton—will spend much the fall debates working to get the GOP nominee's goat and trigger some sort of angry reaction in front of an audience of millions. As long as he refuses to take the bait, McCain will be fine.

But the risk is obvious. Whereas no individual act on the part of Clinton or Obama would be irreversibly devastating, a single incident of McCain rage, expressed publicly, might effectively doom his candidacy. It probably won't happen, but you know that every Democratic flunky with a cell phone camera will be out there trying to provoke a Macaca moment.

Of course, politics doesn’t have to be this way. Our professional media could make the effort to treat these complicated men and women as something more than stick figures with only two or three defining personality traits. I could also win the lottery, move to Tahiti, and stop worrying myself about all the nonsense.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Obama Nation

Flipping through the cable channels yesterday, I landed on MSNBC, where Tim Russert was talking to David Gregory and Chuck Todd about the Democratic presidential campaign. Usually, the sight of Russert alone is sufficient to propel me in the direction of the nearest channel changer, willing to hit any button to make it go away. But I was lazier than usual this particular Sunday afternoon, so I hung around for a few moments.

Someone—I think it was Todd—made a point that has not received nearly enough attention from the popular press. He mentioned the single-minded ferocity of Barack Obama's supporters, christening them "Obama Nation", as though they were devotees of some professional sports franchise. Todd remarked on the deluge of e-mails received by ABC News after last Wednesday's Democratic debate, most of them coming from Obama backers who were outraged that their man should be asked uncomfortable questions about his personal associations. Todd concluded by suggesting that these political zealots would have a difficult time uniting around a Hillary Clinton candidacy, should Clinton somehow wrest the nomination from Obama.

Anyone who frequents the major political sites on the internet must have found Todd's comments utterly unsurprising. The most significant liberal blog, DailyKos, has been a veritable clearinghouse for pro-Obama propaganda ever since John Edwards dropped out of the race in February. That, in itself, might be unremarkable, of course. Obama polls well among young people and highly educated Americans, two groups overrepresented on the web. If Clinton owns the union halls, Obama is the master of cyberspace.

Still, the devotion of Obama Nation goes far beyond a mild preference for one liberal Democrat over another. Instead, the Illinois senator's supporters not only deify their own preferred candidate, they also demonize a woman who, less than a decade ago, was considered liberalism's greatest friend in her husband's disappointing administration. Go to Google and punch up "Hillary Clinton is a liar" and you will be rewarded with 95,000 hits, a large proportion of them from liberal websites, including Daily Kos. It's as though a whole new generation of liberals needs to re-learn the lessons of the 1960s and 1970s: the point of presidential elections is to win in November, not April.

Chuck Todd, whose relative youth may be a disadvantage as he searches his memory for analogies, compared 2008 Obama supporters with backers of George W. Bush in 2004. That, I thought, revealed a startling ignorance of the conservative movement. Outside of Bush's immediate family (and we really don't know for sure how Jenna voted), very few right-wingers are invested in W himself. Rather, they are focused on the success of the movement. They're not very fond of John McCain, but you notice that they are predictably flocking to his campaign now that he has become the only alternative to four years of Democratic governance. George W. Bush was never the point to the conservative movement; winning was.

Had Todd reached back a few years, he could have found at least two superior analogies, one Republican and one Democratic. The last presidential nominee to enjoy this level of personal loyalty from his troops was Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater's supporters not only displayed the requisite level of fanaticism, they also despised their hero's opponents for the GOP nomination, especially New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. But the analogy breaks down at this point. Unlike in the current Clinton-Obama contest, the ideological distinctions between Goldwater and Rockefeller were substantial. Imagine Barack Obama fighting for the nomination against Joe Lieberman.

Perhaps the better comparison comes from the Democratic side. And no, it's not George McGovern. McGovern's supporters certainly idolized the South Dakota senator, but their focus was mostly on ending the Vietnam War. Had McGovern lost the Democratic bid in 1972, they would still have been united in their dislike for Richard Nixon.

Rather, the best analogy may be to the supporters of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Like Obama, McCarthy appealed to a coalition of the young and the educated limousine liberals. He built his following in opposition to a destructive, hopeless war and to the incumbent president who refused to bring the troops home. So great was their devotion to his candidacy, that thousands of youthful campaign workers even cut their hair and beards (a pretty significant sacrifice in the late '60s), going "clean for Gene".

Once it was clear that the anti-war vote had legs, Robert Kennedy swooped into the nomination fight as the establishment alternative to McCarthy. This outraged many of McCarthy's supporters, despite the fact that Kennedy's views were essentially indistinguishable from those of their champion. They redoubled their efforts, spoke angrily about RFK, and handed the Kennedy family its first-ever electoral defeat in the Oregon primary, just before the race headed to California.

Tragedy would intervene in Los Angeles shortly thereafter, so we will never know for sure whether McCarthy's army would have sided with Bobby Kennedy had he won the Democratic nomination. We do know that they not only rejected the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, with a vengeance, but that many of them converged on the Dems' Chicago convention, resulting several nights of violence (mostly in the form of police beatings) that discredited the party and helped give the unsavory Dick Nixon the keys to the White House.

It's not 1968 anymore, so nobody expects a repeat performance of the melee in Grant Park this year in Denver. Indeed, unlike McCarthy, Obama probably will win the Democratic nomination, where he will ultimately receive the grudging support of Team Clinton. The party will unite around Obama in a way that it might not have united around Hillary.

And therein we see the problem. What happens if Obama loses the 2008 election to John McCain? Will the netroots be chastened and realize that the party needs all of its legs (including the hated moderate DLC) to run a successful race? Or will the Daily Kos diarists and their internet allies simply return self-righteously to their echo chamber prepared to make all the same mistakes four years later?

The future of the Democratic Party—indeed the country—may hang on their response.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

In Praise of Bad Debates

I guess I'm a little late to the table on this, but I didn't actually see the ABC Democratic presidential debate the other night. I saw plenty of snippets and highlights, so I have a pretty good idea what transpired, but I had other plans which were, I think it's fair to say, infinitely more attractive than watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama lock horns for the 237th time.

Anyway, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos have been pilloried ever since for the gotcha quality of the questions they asked the two Democratic contenders. One after another, the veteran newsreader and his diminutive sidekick inquired about each of the mini-controversies that have recently plagued the campaign. Obama seemed to get the worst of it, which greatly offended his blogosphere cheerleaders, but he's the frontrunner now, and that's the way these things go. Though Clinton did respond to pointed questions about her honesty, Obama had to fend off queries about his supposed elitism, his relationship with his former pastor, his refusal to wear an American flag lapel pin, and his acquaintance with a neighbor who did some bad things as a 1960s era radical.

As I said, I only watched the post-debate coverage and a YouTube video or two, but Obama seemed very much thrown off his game by these attacks. His responses were often defensive and much of the self-confidence and eloquence that has characterized his performance on the stump seemed, at least temporarily, to elude him. He had his moments, of course, but if he performs like this against John McCain in the fall, he will do himself little good.

But mostly, what the audience witnessed on Wednesday was not so much the failure of journalism as the ultimate futility of endless debates during the primary season. The truth is, has been, and will remain that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama differ only on the margins of most issues, if that. A debate between two people who agree on almost everything is simply not going to be terribly edifying. Only policy wonks and diehard candidate supporters really want to hear yet another retelling of the subtle distinctions between Clinton's health care proposal and Obama's, especially when neither will likely get Congress to pass an unamended plan. As for the Iraq War, regardless of what took place five years ago, they're both against it now and their blueprints for withdrawal are essentially identical.

So what exactly were Gibson and Stephanopoulos supposed to ask about? For better or worse (which is to say, for worse) network news departments are now required to be profit generating engines first and journalistic resources second. Presumably, ABC wants an audience and Wonkfest 2008 would not have retained more than a handful of viewers after about the first five minutes. It's not 1960 anymore—we've had plenty of substantive debates and anyone who desperately needs to know the candidates' take on trade with Greenland need only punch up a couple of websites to find out.

Look, at this point the only relevant question facing Democratic voters is which of these ideological twins can defeat John McCain and bring an end to the ruinous Bush reign. I realize electability is a difficult concept to nail down, but really, it's all we have left. Ask anyone but the geekiest of the geeks why they prefer Clinton to Obama, or vice versa. You will, almost 99.9% of the time, get an answer that has nothing to do with the policy differences between the two. The closest you might come is if someone mentions Clinton's vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution, but that's not a policy difference, either.

If there is any advantage to a long primary election season, dragged out over four or five months, it's the fact that the candidates get poked and probed for weaknesses. We find out what where they are vulnerable to attack in the fall and how they hold up in the face of withering assault. John Kerry's early triumph four years ago deprived us of that opportunity, and by the time we learned about the man's abundant deficiencies as a candidate, it was too late. I presume that no Democrat wants to see that happen again.

In that respect, Gibson and Stephanopoulos were asking exactly the right questions Wednesday night. If you read any of the blogs that attacked the ABC duo this week, you will know that they have spent an inordinate amount of time fretting about the very issues (or non-issues, if you prefer) that were covered during the debate. Wouldn't it have been nice two decades ago if we had learned during the primary season just how ineffectively Michael Dukakis would respond the attacks on his patriotism? Of course the attacks were petty, unfair, and un-American. But that didn't stop them from coming and it didn't reduce their effectiveness.

If it were up to me, I'd schedule one more debate. This time I'd hold it on the Fox News Channel and invite former journalist Brit Hume and the second stringers he laughably calls the "Fox News All-Stars" to ask the questions. And the only ground rule would be that the Foxsters would have to hold nothing back. Ask about Jeremiah Wight and Bill Ayers and Mark Rich. Hell, ask about Vince Foster. Give Clinton and Obama a dress rehearsal for the kind of battering they can expect when the Republicans go into full attack mode later this year.

See, the good thing, as I mentioned yesterday, is that John McCain has yet to face the music. And when he does, it may be the GOP that suffers from buyer's remorse. Let him enjoy his moment in the sun and don't worry about the pettiness of debate moderators. Just be glad that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be nearly impossible to sucker punch.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Optimism Saturday

I'm going to be optimistic this morning. I don't feel this way very often, but we've got clear skies, no deadlines for another 48 hours, and only three days left before we're finally done with the Pennsylvania primary. Not only that, but one year from today, George W. Bush will be in permanent Texas exile, dictating his straight-to-the-bargain-rack memoirs to a ghost writer who knows how to conjugate verbs.

But really, the thing that has me temporarily looking to the future with relatively less dread than usual is something a friend told me the other day. She reminded me that sixteen years ago, right around this time of the year, H. Ross Perot was the frontrunner in the race for President of the United States. Her point, of course, was that if old, batty Ross and his cornpone jeremiads could reach top of the charts back in 1992, then we should all know enough to ignore springtime presidential horserace polls.

I mention this because John McCain, presumptive nominee of Mr. Bush's discredited political party, is currently holding his own against either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, at least according to the latest surveys. At first glance, this is terrible news for the Democrats. President Bush is currently about as popular as food poisoning, voters have long since rejected his bumbling foreign policy, and most Americans are convinced that a three-card monte dealer could produce a superior economic outcome.

If this is, as we were all promised back in January, a Change Election, then why are some polls being led by the one Washington lifer left in the game? Is the country really that desperate and childlike in its demand for heroes after eight years of incompetent malevolence? I know a lot of Americans adopted Ronald Reagan as their surrogate daddy, but at least he didn't let the wheels fall off until he had safely handed off the baton to his inarticulate successor. Do people actually think that leadership consists of nothing more than physical courage, unreflective self-confidence, and headstrong blustering?

Or is this, like most everything else, the fault of the media? Political reporters are—most of them, anyway—privileged children of the suburbs who have never been asked to sacrifice anything greater than an Ivy League tuition check. Measured against their lives of entitlement, perhaps McCain and his valiant back story provide what they think is the first taste of reality they have ever experienced in person. Maybe they have been so intimidated by decades of dishonest right-wing rants about the "liberal media" that they cower at the thought of having to expose yet another Republican charlatan.

Anyway, I believe I said I was going to be optimistic this morning. So here goes. For weeks, I have been looking at the polls and wondering how any GOP candidate could still be competitive after the party produced the most incompetent, venal, brutal, repressive administration in American history.

But there's another way to look at it: Given that McCain has received a free pass from the media for nearly three months while Clinton and Obama have been hitting each other with increasingly damaging assaults, why has the presumptive Republican nominee been unable to put any distance between himself and his potential opponents? According to Real Clear Politics, the current average of all national horserace polls has McCain tied with Obama and just one point ahead of Clinton. Only in Florida—and only against Obama—does McCain show a substantial lead in any of the key battleground states needed to win the presidency in November.

It's hard to imagine how things could get any better for John McCain than they are right now. He has no GOP opponent, he enjoys fawning press coverage, and his two Democratic challengers are currently locked in a steel-cage death match. The disaster that is the Iraq War is in a temporary lull that is inexplicably being described as victory. Fears about the economy abound, but the other shoe hasn’t quite dropped just yet. Nevertheless, despite these favorable conditions, if the election were held this afternoon, McCain's best-case scenario would be the sort of narrow, tainted victory secured by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

As for the Democrats, there is a silver lining to all the nastiness of the past several weeks. We're learning a lot of damaging things right now about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She can't get her story straight about going to Bosnia in 1996; he thinks Middle Americans are "bitter". Her husband has a big mouth; so does his pastor. Democrats naturally worry about the potential destructive power of these revelations, but imagine how much worse it would be had they been uncovered in October rather than April. If nothing else, this extended primary season has used up all of the GOP's talking points as Clinton and Obama lob their nastiest spitballs against one another. By the time the Republicans drag these stories out again in the fall, they are going to sound like ancient history.

There are three serious candidates remaining in the race for the presidency. Two have been severely battered over the course of the first four months of 2008. The other has taken few, if any, significant hits. Despite that fact, half the country still wants to purchase the damaged merchandise. Eventually, the Democratic Party and its nominee are going to turn the spotlight on John McCain and his image will suffer the same tarnish that Clinton's and Obama's have already endured. His poll numbers, in that respect, can only go down, and if they do, he loses.

And we are assuming here the maintenance of the status quo. In fact, things could get a lot worse for the Republicans. At best, the economy could stabilize at its currently unsatisfactory level; at worst, the slippage could continue or ever accelerate. As for Iraq, there is already evidence of a slight uptick in violence against both Iraqis and U.S. troops. Iraq on the back burner doesn't do McCain much good. Iraq on the front burner absolutely destroys his candidacy. Every decent American hopes for the first outcome, but the second—more violence and death—seems increasingly possible.

I am under no illusions that the current presidential race will be easy for the Democrats. McCain is formidable and well-liked by the media. The Electoral College favors the Republicans. The 1988 election proved that voters can be persuaded to act against their own self-interest in the name of patriotism or religion or fear. The GOP will do everything in its power to turn Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton into Michael Dukakis. Maybe McCain will even visit a flag factory, as George H.W. Bush did twenty years ago in his ignoble quest for the White House.

But this isn't 1988, a period in which an apparently robust economy and a crumbling Soviet empire made Americans feel like world beaters. This is more like 1980 going on 1932. In the end, McCain will—as Carter and Hoover before him—have to account for his party's dismal mismanagement of the country's affairs.

I'm sure I'll switch back to pessimism soon enough. That pessimism has, after all, been well rewarded over the past few decades. But at least for now, when I lose hope I can always think of Ross Perot and my unhappiness will at least temporarily fade away.

Like a giant sucking sound.*

(*For you young'uns, that's how Perot described the sound of American jobs being lost to Mexico if Congress adopted the North American Free Trade Agreement. Hillary and Barack think he was right.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

You Don't Need a Weatherman...

On a Tuesday morning a few years ago, the New York Times published an article on Bill Ayers, a one-time radical who had just produced a memoir about his time in the Weather Underground. You probably don't remember the article. But you definitely remember the date it appeared.

It was September 11, 2001.

This was, to say the least, just about the worst possible moment for someone to say, as Ayers did, that he had no regrets about setting a bomb that blew up in the Pentagon. Ayers, of course, could hardly have known what would transpire the morning the article hit the newsstands. Nor, it must be pointed out, has Ayers ever been accused of detonating an explosion that killed or seriously wounded anyone. Still, his timing obviously could have been better.

In the six years and seven months that have passed since copies of the Ayers article were reduced to dust in the rubble of the World Trade Center, the former Weatherman has hardly attained the status of a household name. But that probably changed on Wednesday night when the fake journalist George Stephanopoulos, at the urging of reactionary cable screamer Sean Hannity, asked Barack Obama to defend his supposed relationship with Ayers. Obama responded that they were not close, that Ayers lived in the same Chicago neighborhood, and that they briefly served together on the board of an anti-poverty organization.

And this, my friends, is what we have come to. A man born in 1964 is being asked to defend—what?—the fact that he periodically interacts with a guy who did bad things in the 1960s and claims not to regret them. (And would it really matter if he apologized? Jane Fonda, who never bombed anything, has expressed regret for her youthful visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and she has been forgiven by exactly nobody.) So now guilt by association has been defined down to the level of casual acquaintances. What precisely was Obama supposed to do, stab Ayers in the chest with an American flag lapel pin?

Last night, some meathead cable TV pundit tried to argue that Obama should have refused to serve on the same board as Ayers. Yes, there's a sensible solution: decline to help out an organization dedicated to assisting the poor because you don't like one of the other board members. Hell, if he really wanted to make a statement, maybe he could have moved away from Illinois entirely, just to make sure he wouldn't have to breathe the same air that Ayers might have exhaled. Do it for your country, man!

I get why the Republicans are doing this. Given the disastrous state of foreign and domestic policy and the deficiencies of their economically-illiterate nominee-in-waiting, they can only win by destroying the reputation of the Democratic candidate. And I know why Hillary Clinton wants to give this non-issue additional life. She's desperate to keep her campaign hooked up to life support for at least a few more weeks.

I guess I even understand why the media types are so excited. They're dumb, lazy, and uncreative, and a race between two ideologically indistinguishable candidates doesn't give them much to talk about. At this point, they're looking for something—anything—that can help them extend the conversation and stop viewers from flipping over to Animal Planet.

What I don't get is why the 1960s and early 1970s continue to be such a flashpoint in American society. When I was a kid, people who had lived through the Great Depression were still in their middle aged years. The 1920s and 1930s had their own share of culture wars, from prohibition to the flappers to FDR's bold attempts to insinuate the federal government into the economy in an unprecedented manner. The early 20th Century arguments between liberals and conservatives were often heated and bitter. But three or four decades later, everyone had moved on, choosing not to live their lives in the past.

Today, not only do sixty year old Baby Boomers wallow in memories of the Movement, but young conservatives seem absolutely transfixed by events that happened when they were in diapers, in utero, or in waiting. My theory (though unoriginal) is that right-wingers, both young and old, feel a great deal of sexual and social repression and deeply resent the apparent freedom and carefree lifestyle of the hippie and student radical. That sort of projected self-loathing combined with visceral dislike of the Movement's occasional anti-Americanism has twisted our conservative friends into psychological pretzels, raging against gray-haired men and women who haven't had a radical thought since they received their first mailer from AARP.

And while we're on the topic, why is it only the former radicals who are considered to have blood on their hands? The Vietnam War sent tens of thousands of young Americans and perhaps millions of Vietnamese to premature deaths and inadvertently ushered in the genocidal reign of Pol Pot in Cambodia. Why, then, should Bill Ayers be regarded as a pariah while Henry Kissinger continues to be treated with unearned respect by the same media hacks who wonder why Obama doesn't recite the flag salute after every meal?

I have my doubts about Barack Obama both as a potential Democratic nominee and future president, but his election, should it occur, could perform one enormously valuable service to his country. It is long past time to relegate the Vietnam era to the history books. The sooner we can all stop choosing up sides over events that took place during the impossibly distant past, the better off we will all be.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The First Catholic President

Here's something you can try if you enjoy being offended. Go to Google and punch up "first Catholic president". You will be rewarded with a listing of websites, half of which refer to George W. Bush.

Now I know some people used to call Bill Clinton America's first black president, and that was kind of stupid, but at least nobody had to pass over an actual African American chief executive in order to make that claim. And should Barack Obama win the battle for the White House in 2008, nobody will ever again refer to Clinton in that manner.

But we did actually have a Catholic president. His name was John F. Kennedy. He was well known, quite popular, and his Catholicism became something of an issue during the 1960 election. His face appears on the half dollar coin even today, so it's not like anyone could really forget about him.

Maybe not, but last Sunday, with Pope Benedict XVI coming to America (yeah, I had to look up his name, too) some guy named Daniel Burke wrote the following in the once reputable Washington Post:

"[I]f Bill Clinton can be called America's first black president, some say, then George W. Bush could well be the nation's first Catholic president. This isn't as strange a notion as it sounds. Yes, there was John F. Kennedy. But where Kennedy sought to divorce his religion from his office, Bush has welcomed Roman Catholic doctrine and teachings into the White House and based many important domestic policy decisions on them."

Then, just to dig the hole a little deeper, Burke drags former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum out of the political graveyard to remark that Bush is "certainly much more Catholic than Kennedy". When a man has publicly compared homosexuality to "man on dog" sex, the idiot bar is already set pretty high. Santorum, however, may have shattered his own world record. A practicing Catholic himself, the recently defeated senator evidently feels that opposition to abortion and stem cell research trumps confirmation, communion, and confession in the eyes of Rome. It's hard to imagine a man being any dumber without needing to wear a metal bracelet reminding him how to breathe.

As for Mr. Burke, we will generously assume that he was not a history major. At no time did JFK seek to "divorce his religion from his office". Kennedy was a proud and vocal Catholic and his faith clearly informed his views on social justice (just as his ambition informed his general unwillingness to act on those views while in office). In his famous speech to the Houston Baptists, the future president never promised to put his Catholicism in a blind trust. He simply reassured his more bigoted countrymen that he would refuse to take orders from Rome and would resign the presidency before he would impose his personal faith on the public agenda.

Only late in the article does Burke concede that maybe there's more to the Catholic Church than its views on a couple of hot button issues. Indeed, a few Catholics, apparently unwilling to throw JFK under the historical bus, even suggest that Bush's policies "have created a wealth gap that clearly upends the Catholic principle of solidarity with the poor". Ya think? Oh, and our 21st Century Carl Bernstein neglects to mention the death penalty, but W's Texas record as a serial executioner would earn a real Catholic serious minutes in the penalty box, or at least the confessional booth. When John Paul II talked about the "culture of life", he was not merely referring to fetuses.

Bush has, the article noted, appointed Catholics to both Supreme Court positions that have come open on his watch, continuing the pattern of recent Republican presidents. (Of course, his first choice for one of those slots was his own attorney, Harriet Miers, an evangelical Protestant.) Indeed, a majority of the High Court now consists of Roman Catholics, as Bush's justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, join Clarence Thomas (selected by his dad), Anthony Kennedy (chosen by Ronald Reagan), and Antonin Scalia (ditto) on the bench.

Speaking of which, the majority-Catholic court celebrated Benedict's arrival in the United States Sunday by upholding the practice of execution by lethal injection, an activity which was challenged on the basis that it might be cruel and unusual. Some have argued that the process paralyzes the victim but still allows him or her to feel excruciating pain. The Eighth Amendment would seem to frown on that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, this apparently troubled the Court no more than it bothers the "first Catholic president". Chief Justice Roberts, once celebrated as a brilliant legal mind, bizarrely argued that "a condemned prisoner cannot successfully challenge a state's method of execution merely by showing a slightly or marginally safer alternative." The issue, of course, is not safety; this is an execution, Einstein. The issue is finding a way to perform the procedure without torturing the condemned prisoner (assuming the Court considers torture a constitutional violation, something we may—shudder—learn in the near future). By a 7-2 margin, the Court decided it didn't matter.

Perhaps someone will think to ask Pope Benedict how he feels about the fact that all five of the Court's Catholics voted with the majority. Or, even better, maybe they can see what the Pontiff thinks about the concurring opinion written by Scalia and Thomas, both members of the flock, that a "method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment only if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain." Evidently, pain inflicted carelessly or ignorantly doesn't hurt as much; I must have missed that message in John Paul's teachings.

Four years ago, the country was treated to a moronic debate over whether John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, should be allowed to take Holy Communion. Oddly, those same voices of tolerance are not only silent on the eligibility of the Catholic justices, they are even suggesting saving a wafer for our warmongering president. If we are lucky, Benedict will remind them what a real Catholic sounds like.

In the meantime, just to clear things up, George W. Bush is not the first Catholic president. You do not become a Catholic—much less a Catholic president—simply on the basis of your desire to impose your beliefs on other people. John F. Kennedy, the first real Catholic in the White House, understood that. Bush's actions do not make him the first Catholic president; if anything, they make him the first Taliban president.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Straight Talkin' Flim Flam Man

Is it too late to propose a New Year's resolution? It took me three and a half months, but I finally have one. By the end of the current decade, I am going to play quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals.

You may scoff, but I've got it all figured out. First, I am going to read every book ever written by, about, and for NFL quarterbacks. I'll take the best advice from each and put it together to mold myself into the perfect signal caller. Then I'll hit the workout room for at least four hours a day, maximizing my strength and conditioning. I will also pick up the latest version of the John Madden video game, which will help me to hone my reflexes and test my strategy.

Finally, I'll wait for the football fairy to sprinkle some pixie dust on me and I'll be good to go.

At this point, you're probably wondering if I've been sampling some of the local mushrooms, but I can promise you I've been drug free since…well, since long after the statute of limitations expired. Besides, I don't need to convince you, because I already know that John McCain will believe me. In fact, right now, he's probably telling all of his friends back in Phoenix to invest in Cardinals' season tickets, if only for the resale value. McCain, after all, knows his economics just as I know my football, and he understands that my plan to participate in Super Bowl XLIV is every bit as plausible as his proposal to restore America to full fiscal health.

And sadly, he's right.

Let's start with yesterday's headline, McCain's plan for the temporary elimination of the federal gas tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Please join me in counting all the ways this proposal is frivolous. First, kicking eighteen cents or so off the price of a gallon of regular hardly gets us back to normalcy. Yesterday, I paid $3.35; had I paid $3.17 instead, I would have saved exactly $1.80. Now granted, I don't drive a movable fortress, but even you Hummer owners would only pick up about five bucks per fill up. And let's face it: if you own a Hummer, five dollars is chicken feed, and if you own a Hummer, screw you anyway.

Second, the gas tax is one of the few means the feds have to help repair our country's crumbling infrastructure. Take that away and the Minnesota bridge collapse we saw a few months ago could become a regular occurrence. It's like deciding that the best way to lose weight is to have your liver removed.

Third, why do this during the summer? The most serious problem with high gas prices is not that families won't be able to visit Auntie Em in Kansas during July. Rather, it's the day to day difficulties faced by commuters and those who operate motor vehicles for a living. Their problems aren't going to end in September.

Finally, as someone else mentioned (I forget where I saw it, or I'd give them credit), no tax cut should ever be regarded as temporary. At some point, one of two things would happen. Either everyone's gasoline tax would have to rise by a noticeable and presumably anger-inducing eighteen cents, or a timid Congress would simply make the cut permanent for fear that opponents would accuse them of voting to raise taxes again. And somewhere in the heartland, another bridge would fall.

OK, other than that foolish innovation, what else does Senator Straight Talk have in his bag of tricks? Well, most of it is warmed-over Bushism, the sort of economic genius that brought us to this moment of crisis in the first place. McCain wants to make Bush's tax cuts for the rich permanent. And yes, these are the very same tax cuts he voted against when they were originally proposed, proving to all doubters that the senator does, indeed, have a learning curve. It simply has a downward slope.

Perhaps his best idea—not really his, of course, but that's all right—is McCain's recommendation that the Medicare prescription drug benefit be needs tested. Single people earning over $82,000 a year and married couples taking home more than $164,000 would have to pay market price for their pharmaceuticals. I guess it's only fair that they should invest part of their sizable tax cut windfall to purchase a few more years of life, but my guess is that McCain will feel enormous pressure from the Republican base to dump this proposal. Maybe even before the election.

Then we get to the truly risible stuff. Remember my goal to use pixie dust to ease my way into the NFL? It turns out John McCain has similar plans for his presidency. He says that he'll freeze all discretionary spending for at least a year, veto any spending bill with earmarks, and institute a "top to bottom" review of the entire national budget. Except, of course, that military spending—including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—will be untouchable.

McCain estimates that these measures will save the federal government $100 billion per year. That's almost certainly false, but let's take Mr. Straight Talk at his word for the sake of argument. Even if he's right, the Iraq War current costs $341 million dollars each day, meaning that McCain's gains would be offset by his fixation on military "victory" by early October of each year, leaving us about $25 billion in the hole by December 31.

And that's only if he's right. There is a very simple and time-tested rule for judging the budgetary implications of any would-be president's economic policies. If he or she resorts to statements about cutting the fat in order to make the whole thing add up, then you know you are dealing with a hoax. There's obviously fat in the budget, of course, but not nearly as much as advertised, and when it comes time to bring out the axe, nobody can ever agree on what items are and are not necessary.

Same thing with pork barrel spending and earmarks. The whole notion of pork barrel spending is a right-wing misnomer. Nobody in Washington literally takes hundred dollar bills and burns them in a giant bonfire. All spending creates jobs, stimulates the economy, and furthers some laudable goal. That doesn't mean we shouldn't prioritize, but anyone who claims that local spending is inherently wasteful is a liar. And when a sitting member of Congress does so, he or she is a lying hypocrite.

McCain is running for president right now, so his Senate website has probably been scrubbed of all information regarding the money he has brought home to his Arizona constituents over the years. So let's look instead at the site of his GOP colleague from the Grand Canyon State, Senator John Kyl. Kyl says:

"I will also continue to seek funds outside the highway funding formula for priority highway, airport, and transit projects in the state. Some of the projects I’ve helped win funding for in recent years include:

"In Fiscal Year 2008:
· $1.25 million for taxiway improvements at Sky Harbor Airport;
· $1.75 million for taxiway construction at Williams Gateway Airport;
· $2 million for construction of the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge;
· $1 million for bus programs in Tucson;
· $500,000 for bus programs in Mesa;
· $1.375 million for I-10 Widening in Maricopa County; and
· $750,000 for the Houghton Road Corridor Bridge Replacement."

How about we ask John McCain exactly how many of these seven measures he voted against. I'd do it, but I have to get back to my pre-season workout. I'm cutting the fat as we speak. I can't wait for my phone call from President McCain when I finally win the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Juicy Libel?

I learned something today. I have no idea whether or not it's true, but the word is out. I learned that a number of women on college campuses across America are sluts, whores, and a few other nouns that I choose not to repeat. Further, I discovered their names, what university they attended, and what sorority they pledged.

The story of JuicyCampus.com is no longer new, but it takes a while for contemporary cultural phenomena to reach my desk these days. I am aware of MySpace and Facebook, of course, but I have only visited one of them a couple of times. I don't remember which one; I have an account there because my students once set up a page for me and I wanted to check it out. Ever since then, I occasionally get requests from people I may or may not know asking me to be their friend. I leave these queries unanswered, which may be a major breach of etiquette and will probably earn me a label as aloof or thoughtless, but I really don't care. It is, I've learned over the years, best not to party with one's students, even if only in the virtual world.

One of the pleasures of growing older is that you recover your ability to be shocked. During childhood, everything is shocking, from the first time your hear someone curse in public to the first time you see a picture of a naked person (and yes, I do realize that these events may take place sooner in life now than they once did). As adolescence kicks in, the senses are overloaded and a certain jadedness sets in. By the time you reach thirty, you've seen and done everything, you've mastered the shady and sleazy precincts of popular culture, and you laugh at your elders who constantly decry the declining standards that allow the likes of Beavis and Butt-head to enter their living room (as the man once said, I date myself, but at least I always send flowers the next day).

At some point in the blur of the fourth decade, you wake up one morning to find that popular culture has passed you by and you discover that Billy Ray Cyrus is not only still alive, but he now has a famous daughter with a rhyming stage name. Contemporary music hits start to sound indistinguishable. You begin to wonder when all the jokes on "Saturday Night Live" became so damned childish.

And then somewhere, maybe around the age of forty, you suddenly regain your ability to be shocked. Maybe it was "South Park", or perhaps "Family Guy". Or possibly the obscene lyrics emitting from the future hearing aid wearer stopped at the light next to you. Regardless, eventually you hit that first moment when, usually involuntarily, you hear yourself ask, "Can they really say that?" Recalling that your parents once asked the same question about Archie Bunker and the Sex Pistols, your day is now ruined.

Eventually, you get over your repulsion at what you've become and make peace with your alienation from popular culture. We had Jello Biafra, they have Fifty Cent; I can deal with that. Still, once in a while something comes along that offends you so much that you consider writing your Congressman, except that you don't remember his (or is it her?) name.

The discovery of JuicyCampus.com was such a moment for me, though, to be honest, I might well have objected to this site even if I were still seventeen. After only a few minutes on the site, I learned that a certain young woman in a certain sorority at some campus in the United States was "the nastiest most pathetic whore on the face of the earth". Her first and last names were mentioned explicitly, along with the assertion that "[s]he's a stinky ugly [ethnic group]."

Armed with the name, the sorority, and the campus affiliation, I went to Google and discovered that this young woman does, in fact, exist. (I am only giving you this much because Juicy Campus does not allow its content to be indexed by search engines.) She no doubt has, in addition to feelings, friends, parents, siblings, and other people who love her. And here I am, in another part of the country, able to read some anonymous coward's vile and bigoted words about her intimate sexuality.

The First Amendment protects a lot of things, but we generally assume that it does not protect slander and libel. In a technical sense, I suppose, we are probably not expected to believe that the coed in question actually performs sexual acts for pay, though that is obviously the dictionary definition of "whore". Nevertheless, at the very least, we are led to think that she is carnally promiscuous, which is itself, if untrue, a potentially libelous statement. She's not the only one, of course; the word "slut" shows up with alarming frequency in the various descriptions of women posted on the site.

I could have given you even better examples, except that they would be more specifically identifying, and I have no interest in furthering anyone's humiliation. But there are explicit descriptions of sexual acts some of these women supposedly perform as well as diseases that they carry and pass on. If true, then the twisted individuals who post these allegations would be, for better or worse, legally protected. If not, they could quite possibly be sued successfully in a court of law.

Except that the jackasses who post these vile remarks do so anonymously. And the owner(s) of the website are evidently shielded by a law that holds internet proprietors blameless for libelous remarks made by visitors leaving comments. As a blogger with a comment section, I can certainly see the wisdom of this law. As we speak, someone could be leaving a note on my site saying that President Bush bites the heads off live birds and spits them out on Iraq War veterans. If I found such a falsehood, I would remove it quickly, but sometimes I go two or three days without checking my comments (since I usually don’t get too many). It's reassuring to know I'm not responsible for the vicious acts of others.

But Juicy Campus is different. The whole purpose of the site is to invite people to spread rumors and nasty gossip about their fellow students, and to do so anonymously. It is unclear to me why anyone who actively solicits these salacious tidbits shouldn't be held legally accountable if the words in question turn out to be false and defamatory. And if a law needs to be passed to make that happen, then let's get on with it.

I'm ready to take action. All I need is to figure out my congressman's (congresswoman's) name.