Friday, February 06, 2009

Getting It Wrong...

I'm not familiar with any of Yuval Levin's other work nor "Commentary" magazine which he apparently writes for, but (via Volokh) this article on Sarah Palin's legacy ensures I will be unlikely to read either again. The wrongness just oozes from his article and his analysis is inaccurate on almost every level.

Before her elevation, Palin had not been known as a combatant in the cultural battles of recent years... She was a good-government reformer with social conservative leanings, not the other way around.

Yes, yes, of course. That is very true. In fantasy land. Let's take a look at her actual record. According to Time, in this September article, Palin:

Palin was a highly polarizing political figure who brought partisan politics and hot-button social issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest among neighbors... While Palin often describes that race as having been a fight against the old boys' club, Stein [the mayor of Wasilla Palin unseated] says she made sure the campaign hinged on issues like gun owners' rights and her opposition to abortion (Stein is pro-choice). "It got to the extent that — I don't remember who it was now — but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her," he says.


Vicki Naegele was the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman at the
time. "[Stein] figured he was just going to run your average, friendly small-town race," she recalls, "but it turned into something much different than that." Naegele held the same conservative Christian beliefs as Palin but didn't think they had any place in local politics.

"I just thought, That's ridiculous, she should concentrate on roads, not abortion," says Naegele.

And, as we now know, she tried to have Wasilla's librarian fired because the librarian opposed Palin's attempts to ban books that didn't conform to Palin's Christian views. She also stopped paying for rape kits, a move which clearly put her on the front lines of "cultural battles." It's as if Levin wasn't paying any attention at all during the campaign. Or perhaps he wants to ignore things that don't comport with his premise.

And to the idea that she was a "good-government" reformer? She was under investigation for ethics violations for conduct as Governor of Alaska at the very moment she agreed to be McCain's running mate! She was accused of trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from his job as a State Trooper, and then firing the Public Safety director when he refused. We now know these allegations were true. Using one's office to settle personal scores does not make one much of a "reformer." That, in fact, is exactly the kind of thing that "reformers" oppose.

We were told that Palin was opposed to contraception, advocated teaching creationism in schools, and was inclined to ban books she disagreed with. She was described as a religious zealot, an anti-abortion extremist, a blind champion of abstinence-only sex education. She was said to have sought to make rape victims pay for their own medical exams, to have Alaska secede from the Union, and to get Pat Buchanan elected President. She was reported to believe that the Iraq war was mandated by God, that the end-times prophesied in the Book of Revelation were nearing and only Alaska would survive, and that global warming was purely a myth. None of this was true.

"None of this was true," Levin blithely asserts, to make his point. Except for the part that it was true. She did try to ban books, did support abstinence-only education, did make rape victims pay for their own rape kits (perhaps Levin is trying to pull a fast one by distinguising "medical exam" from "rape kit" here). Perhaps she didn't actually try "to have Alaska secede from the Union" but she and her husband were, in fact, affiliated with a political party who wanted to do just that. She did deny global warming and the church she attended for years in Wasilla did preach end-times prophecy.

Levin offers no evidence to contradict any of these facts. That's because he's lying.

There was a strong case to be made in her defense. Palin had as much foreign-policy experience as most governors do... And while Palin seemed out of her depth in several television interviews, she was extraordinarily effective on the stump, was a quick study, and proved to be at least an even match for Joe Biden, a six-term senator, in the vice-presidential debate.

Er... where to begin? First off, Palin's lack of foreign-policy experience became a center of controversy for two basic reasons that Levin is choosing to ignore. One, McCain had made Obama's foreign-policy inexperience a centerpiece of his campaign, so it naturally became a focus of criticism when McCain chose a running mate with even less. It created the legitimate question of why it was important for Obama to have foreign-policy experience but not the VP pick of a 70+-year-old candidate with past cancer problems? And, two, because Palin's argument in response to questions about her foreign-policy experience was to make stupid claims like the fact that Alaska is close to Russia makes her a foreign-policy expert. Her defense of her foreign-policy credentials was ludicrous and exposed how woefully unprepared she was to deal with foreign policy.

And I like how Levin breezes past how badly she performed in television interviews and how that, as much as anything, exposed her incompetence and invited criticism. Even conservatives were saying she should step aside after she showed that she had no freakin' idea what the hell she was talking about. It was not just "the Left" that was shocked that a candidate for major office was so unprepared to even discuss the issues of the time, it was everyone but the most ideologically bent crazies on the right. Her failures in those interviews weren't just a blip that wasn't important, to be easily overshadowed by her stump speeches (which were effective mainly when she was lying and distorting Obama's relationship with Ayers and his supposedly being a secret Muslim).

And I'm not sure what world Levin lives on when he says Palin was "at least an even match for Joe Biden." Wha? I seem to recall that Palin was roundly considered to have lost that debate, even by conservatives. She certainly didn't perform well enough to counter the negatives coming from those interviews.

The reaction to Palin revealed a deep and intense cultural paranoia on the Left: an inclination to see retrograde reaction around every corner, and to respond to it with vile anger. A confident, happy, and politically effective woman who was also a social conservative was evidently too much to bear.

Yes, yes, that was "the Left's" (note the capitalization) problem with her. Not that she lied right off the bat in her introduction to the nation, when she claimed she'd said "Thanks, but no thanks" to the "bridge to nowhere" when, in fact, she'd pushed for it, along with tons of other earmarks from the Federal government. Not that she shit all over the hard work people are doing on the groung all over the country when she made fun of community organizers. Not that she portrayed herself as a reformer even as she was being investigated for misusing her office to settle a personal score. No, none of that was the reason the "the Left" became angry. Not at all. It was because she was "confident" and "politically effective." Because, you know, "confident," "effective" politicians spend all their time complaining about how eeeevil Katie Couric is as an excuse for why she couldn't answer tough questions like "what do you read?"

In fact, as Levin himself notes, Palin "She spent the bulk of her time at Republican rallies assailing the cultural radicalism of Barack Obama and his latte-sipping followers, who, she occasionally suggested, were not part of the 'the real America' she saw in the adoring throngs standing before her." Perhaps stupid, wrong generalizations of anybody who reads the news being a "latte-sipping" person who isn't a "real American" is the reason "the Left" didn't like Palin, not her being "confident" and "happy." Do you think?

Palin never actually boasted of ignorance or explicitly scorned learning or ideas. Rather, the implicit charge was that Palin’s failure to speak the language and to share the common points of reference of the educated upper tier of American society essentially rendered her unfit for high office.

Ah, that's it! It was her "failure to speak the language" of the elites that was the problem. Yes! Because only elitists read the goddamned newspaper to stay apprised of world events. It's so "elitist" to think a person who wants to run the most powerful nation in the world, whose reach spans the globe, would have interest in knowing what the hell is going on in the world. Yeah. She didn't speak the high-flying rhetoric with the command of, say, Joe Biden. Uh-huh. Biden doesn't exactly speak like the professor from "The Paper Chase" either. It wasn't that Palin didn't "speak the language" of the elite that was the problem. It was that she didn't even speak the language of a normal person. She spoke the language of a goddamned idiot and said things that didn't even make a tiny bit of sense. That is what "rendered her unfit for high office." The fact that she was a freakin' moron.

Although the intellectual elite is deeply shaped by our leading institutions of higher learning, belonging to it is more the result of shared assumptions and attitudes. It is more cultural than academic, more NPR than PhD. In Washington, many politicians who have not risen through the best of universities work hard for years to master the language and the suppositions of this upper tier, and to live carefully within the bounds prescribed by its view of the world.

No, the problem wasn't that Palin hadn't worked "hard for years to master the language... of [the] upper tier," it was that she hadn't mastered language, full stop. She spoke in word salad. It wasn't that she wasn't saying the right things "within the bounds prescribed" by the elites' "view of the world," it is that her language and suppositions were fucking incoherent.

Applied to politics, the worldview of the intellectual elite begins from an unstated assumption that governing is fundamentally an exercise of the mind: an application of the proper mix of theory, expertise, and intellectual distance that calls for knowledge and verbal fluency more than for prudence born of life’s hard lessons.

Okay, I'll bite. Which of the "hard lessons" of Palin's life would have prepared her to deal with the banking crisis we're facing, for instance? Did she get burned on a credit default swap? Did she hold a bunch of mortgate-backed securities that she now couldn't figure out a proper value for? Which "hard lessons" taught her whether a macroeconomy like the US will best be served and kept from depression by tax cuts or government spending?

Let's reword Levin's idiotic claim here and we will see how dumb it really is. Who would agree with this claim?

Applied to medicine, the worldview of the intellectual elite begins from an unstated assumption that surgery is fundamentally an exercise of the mind: an application of the proper mix of theory, expertise, and intellectual distance that calls for knowledge and medical fluency more than for prudence born of life’s hard lessons.

I'd be very interested to see if Levin thinks that the "prudence" Palin gained from "life's hard lessons" will be sufficient for her to safely remove his gall bladder. If not, then I would submit he doesn't really believe the bullshit he is spouting, because there is no way in hell being President, which requires one to make decisions in a wide range of areas, is so much less difficult than being a surgeon that anyone, no matter how unprepared, can just "jump in."

And let me make this supposedly "unstated" assumption a stated proposition: yes, governing does require a great deal of "knowledge" and "expertise," and if Levin is seriously suggesting otherwise, then I wonder why he bothers to write articles at all, since if the Presidency doesn't require those things nothing does, and why, then, would anyone care to about anything Levin writes anyway?

This is why Palin was seen as anti-intellectual when, properly speaking, she was simply non-intellectual. What she lacked was not intelligence—she is, clearly, highly intelligent—but rather the particular set of assumptions, references, and attitudes inculcated by America’s top twenty universities and transmitted by the nation’s elite cultural organs.

She isn't "clearly, highly intelligent." If it were so clear, it wouldn't be such a contested premise. Which it is, whether Levin admits it or not. She's a goddamned moron, which even many conservatives ended up having to admit.

Levin ends his piece by making the claim that the real problem wasn't Palin's: it was that the McCain campaign didn't have anything to say. Well, that, indeed, was a problem, for both Palin and McCain. But using that as an excuse to ignore Palin's other significant faults is to be willfully blind.

As Levin clearly has chosen to be.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Reasonable Criticism

On "All Things Considered" on NPR yesterday, they interviewed South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint and asked him about the withdrawal of Daschle and Killefer from their nominations and if it was an embarrasment for the Obama administration. He was actually very fair in his assessment and, contra Limbaugh, he expressed support for what the administration is trying to do.

DeMint could have been full of it, just playing politics, but since I am so critical of Republicans I think it is only fair to point out when they are reasonable and fair in the criticisms and don't act like huge douche bags. DeMint's interview yesterday was an example of reasoned and fair political discourse and it should be applauded.

I don't know if you can hear it online, but it was on the 2/3/2009 episode.

Lobbyists and Ethics

I'm a bit disappointed by how the Obama administration is handling its policy on lobbyists. They've already given a waiver to a guy who lobbied for Raytheon to be a Deputy Secretary of Defense, another for a guy to be the Assistant Press Secretary (I believe), and, of course, as is now big news, Tom Daschle, the pick for Secretary of Health & Human Services, was essentially a lobbyist since his ouster from the Senate.

I've heard a lot of commentators on NPR note that "You don't want to pass up the right person just because they were a lobbyist. Your rules can't be so inflexible," or something to that effect.


Here's the problem with what that line of thinking, which is the one the administration is taking. The problem is that if you give waivers to former lobbyists because they are "the right people," then you take away the disincentive for those people to become lobbyists even if they want to serve in government in the future. And then you won't really be keeping lobbyists out of government because everyone you want will have been a lobbyist and you'll still end up waivering them. Only by taking it on the chin, and being willing to sacrifice in having to give up some of the people you want, and not hire any lobbyists can you actually change the revolving door of lobbyists in government. Because then you have created a true disincentive for people who want to serve in the future from taking lobbying jobs, and then you won't have to waiver people all the time and moot your anti-lobbyist policy. Because the "right people" won't have been lobbyists.

But if you start off, right off the bat, not taking a hard line and making exceptions, then no one is going to take the new policy seriously, no one will be deterred from becoming a lobbyist, and nothing in Washington culture changes. A radical policy change like this won't work unless, at least at first, you really stick to it, to the letter. If you are wishy-washy, then everyone knows you're not serious and that when push comes to shove, you're going to do what everyone else does and pick the person you want regardless.

Some people are saying that Obama is now "being confronted with the reality" and seeing that he can't really do what he said he would in his high-flying campaign rhetoric. But that doesn't make any sense at all. Anyone could have seen that putting a 'no lobbyist' policy into effect and actually sticking to it would have a cost. There would be some pain. I knew it. Obama should have known it. And he shouldn't have said he would keep lobbyists out of his administration if he hadn't already weighed the cost and decided to pay it. The "reality" here isn't a surprise and should have been easily foreseen and considered.

Of course, there's always the possibility that, in fact, Obama did make that calculation and then changed his mind after he won. I wouldn't be happy if that were the case, and I doubt we will ever know, but it wouldn't be surprising, either. It's a well-known and common psychological phenomena that you truly believe one thing at one time, say, when you are in a campaign to become President, that just doesn't seem as important anymore once you aren't worried about winning and losing. Because, as someone who isn't President, you of course look askance at the President hiring lobbyists, and worry if that will create conflicts of interest. But once you are President, you know (you feel) that, of course, that's true for other people who become President and hire lobbyists, but that your own motives are pure, so it's okay for you to do it.

But, of course, that's what every President thinks, what everyone thinks when it's them and not someone else. Everyone thinks everything is different when it's themselves. When you are in charge of the Home Owner's Association (HOA), of course you think the HOA works impartially and anyone who complains about their treatment is a whiner. But when someone else in charge of it, suddenly you realize that HOA has too much power and that the fine they just gave you wasn't fair...

But I do give Obama credit for admitting that he "screwed up" and taking responsibility for the poor choices he made in some of his choices for appointments. Conservatives are crowing all over the internet right now about it and acting as if somehow this is a bad thing. But it isn't. Conservatives seem to forget that one of things that most frustrated liberals during Bush's regime was that he never took responsibility and never admitted he was wrong. Which meant there was no chance of him changing failed policies. Obama admitting he "screwed up" doesn't mean Obama is a hypocrite and that liberals were taken by him. It means he realizes he fell short of what he said he would do and knows it. Hopefully he will do better. But, if nothing else, at least we know he knows he made a mistake. That's pretty earth-shattering at this point after the last eight years.

Still, I think he should reassess these waivers. Sure, some people say that now we need the best people and can't afford to turn people away, but there will always be a reason to say that. Crises are the best times to change things, and I think Obama may regret squandering this opportunity to make lasting change.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Batman Eats Sushi?

I had heard from some guys from Virginia who I have done costume events with that it is illegal for adults to wear masks in public except on Halloween. That seemed like a crazy law to me and I wondered about its constitutionality and how often it was enforced.

Well, it appears there is such a law in Florida, and it is, indeed, enforced. A guy dressed as Batman was arrested in Tampa while eating sushi sitting on a curb. Apparently the law, which dates back to 1951, had its origins in wanting to keep the KKK from wearing their hoods. From the article: "The law is part of a section of Florida Statutes relating to criminal anarchy, treason and other crimes against public order."

In what sense is the wearing of a mask, and masks are, after all, terribly comfortable,* "criminal anarchy" (whatever the hell that is), treason, or a "crime against public order?" By simply hiding one's face one creates lawlessness? One gives aid and comfort to one's country's enemies? One somehow creates chaos? Just because someone chooses to cover his or her face?

The modern argument, voiced elsewhere, is that people can commit crimes wearing a mask and not be identifiable on video. So, I guess, anonymity is bad because someone could commit crimes and be difficult to identify, so therefore, despite the absence of criminal intent on the part of any particular person choosing to wear a mask, the wearing itself must be criminalized. How, exactly, is that different than prior restraint in terms of freedom of speech? It may be more difficult to catch someone wearing a mask if he or she commits a crime, but how is it consistent with freedom to then forbid anyone from wearing a mask, just in case?

Further, if the argument is true that gun-control opponents regularly make about guns, that if we make guns illegal criminals only law-abiding citizens will obey the law and criminals will end up being the only ones with guns, then why doesn't that logic apply here? After all, criminals won't leave the mask at home when committing crimes because of this law, so the only people who won't be able to wear masks are law-abiding citizens. Only criminals will have masks. But I wonder how many NRA supporters would be willing to defend the right to wear a mask, even though the principle is no different.

I mean, heck, we might as well go whole-hog, right? Not wearing your name and address barcoded on your forehead might make it hard to catch you if you commit a crime, so why not require that? Or a chip implanted in your butt cheek that radios your location to the police 24/7 in case you do something wrong? If we're all possible criminals whenever the police don't know exactly who we are and what we're doing, then why not? Why not require everyone to wear a sandwich board with their name on it in neon letters? Or just put a 24/7 webcam on every single person so that the police can know who you are and what you are doing in case you do something wrong.

This guy should tell the court that Batmanism is his religion and he has to wear the Batman suit as part of it. That'd make it more difficult for them to nail him on this stupid law. I doubt police would arrest a Muslim woman with her face covered and I'm pretty sure no court would rule that you can arrest a woman just because she covered her face in public for religious reasons.

And no, BTW, I don't know why this guy was wearing a Batman suit in the middle of the day to eat sushi on the curb. And yes, it is weird, but weird and criminal are not (and should not) be the same thing. What kind of freedom do we really have, seriously, if you can't wear a stupid Batman costume when you want? Jeesh.

* In The Princess Bride, when Fezzik asks Wesley, wearing his Dread Pirate Roberts outfit, why Wesley is wearing a mask, Wesley replies, "They're terribly comfortable. I think soon everyone will be wearing them."

Monday, February 02, 2009

Oh, the Irony...

Kurt Warner, "born again" Christian, doesn't believe in "superstition."

Because, of course, as every sane person knows, the number 13 isn't unlucky, but failing to believe that a Bronze Age Jew is your personal savior and the son of an omnipotent, unseen god will lead your soul to be damned to eternal torment after you die.

Uh huh.

Again With the Faith-Based Initiatives...

Posting over at Volokh Conspiracy about the topic reminded me that I hadn't mentioned here that I am really pissed off that Obama has decided to continue the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. I condemned the whole idea when Bush proposed and implemented it, and it's still bad policy under the Obama administration.

It's been a while, so just as an update, I oppose government support of faith-based initiatives because the whole idea inherently involves government choosing to support one religious group over another, thereby endorsing some religions over others. Does anyone doubt that Christian groups, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish groups, will get most (if not all) the grants? Does anyone doubt that, say, Wiccan groups will have much if any chance of getting any of these grants? What if a Satanist group applied? Of course, no matter how good the proposal, Satanists will never get any of these grants. Supplying money to religious groups cannot but end up in government endorsing some religions over others.

Further, without an enormous amount of meddlesome oversight, there is no way to ensure that religious groups don't use these funds for proselytizing, or to ensure they don't proselytize those who avail themselves of government-funded faith-based programs. And, in fact, since these programs started, investigations show that, indeed, this is exactly what happens.

Besides, it's a bizarre entanglement of government and religion for government to be trying to monitor whether religious groups are proselytizing or not anyway. Religious groups should be free to proselytize all they want, and only because of the lure of government money are they even in a position where they are expected not to do so. It's like the government is bribing religious organizations not to do what they exist to do in the first place.

Let me note here that I do not think that all faith-based programs, when privately funded, are bad. Catholic Charities, for instance, does excellent work, and if any religious group deserved government support, it does. In my work with them when I was with the American Red Cross, I not only found their programs well-run and filling an important need, I saw no evidence they used the charity to push a religious agenda and I never once saw or heard of them proselytizing clients (at least locally).

But it is still an impermissible entanglement of government and religion for the government to fund Catholic Charities, no matter what I think of their work. It's a violation of both the letter and spirit of the First Amendment, and should be done away with.

Obama should close the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. He is wrong not to do so.

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes...

What is it with all these bigwigs not paying their taxes? Tim Geithner blamed TurboTax for his failure to pay his taxes when he was working for the IMF, Daschle somehow didn't pay $120,000 in taxes... What, exactly, is the problem? If the problem is the tax code is too difficult, then these are the people in a position to do something about it, right? Daschle was in Congress, after all, and Geithner will be in charge of the IRS.

Just like all this business with every nominee seeming to have a housekeeper or nanny who is an illegal immigrant. If the politicians who make the laws can't keep them straight, then maybe there's a problem with the law, no? Maybe they'd want to do something about it?

Truth is, though, important and rich people don't worry about these things because they know, outside of a confirmation process, they'll never be called to account for them. The IRS spends almost all its time auditing lower class and lower middle class tax returns because it's easier to squeeze money out of people who can't afford a lawyer and don't know how to fight the system. They don't audit people like Geithner and Daschle. It's too much of a hassle.

It's another example of how the laws really only apply to the little people.

Well, unless you screw up so big they finally don't have any choice but to act. See: Bernie Madoff.