What? Was Robert McNamara Busy? Henry Kissinger? The head of the 9/11 inquiry needs to be trustworthy and credible, so his or her report isn’t suspected of being a whitewash. Kissinger may be many things, but trustworthy and credible aren’t the virtues that leap immediately to mind. This is a man whose recent op-ed on the Iraq war was such a jumble of hidden agendas and Machiavellian bargains that nobody could figure out if he was dissenting from the Administration’s policy or supporting it….Even if Bush wanted a whitewash, he could’ve picked a better whitewasher than Kissinger—at least if Bush wanted a whitewash that’s actually believed….McNamara might have been a better choice! He’s repeatedly been arrogant and wrong, with calamitous consequences for the nation and the world. But he’s at least (compared with Kissinger) been transparently and straightforwardly arrogant and wrong.Monica Gabriel, 9/11 widow (link via Vicki Rosenzweig), 27 November:
[He] was certainly not on the short list we were hoping for. Is there anyone who is not tainted?Tom Tomorrow, 27 November:
They’re just doing this to mess with our heads, right?The Talking Dog, 27 November:
Meanwhile, in the “I guess Hitler is dead and we can’t seem to FIND bin Laden department”, the President named “Ten Most Evil Men of Twentieth CenturyTM” member Henry Kissinger as head of the commission to study the events surrounding the September 11th terror attacks. I have nothing to add. Which is ALSO what we can expect from this commission.Avedon Carol, 28 November:
Even I can’t believe some of the stuff that comes out of this administration. The only reason they haven’t got all of their convicted criminals and unindicted co-conspirators in this administration is because some are too busy doing talk radio or, in Nixon’s case, in Hell, to join them.Sam Heldman, 29 November:
Henry Kissinger’s appointment to the 9/11 commission is the equivalent of an “in your face, you impotent little nothings, we can do whatever we want and get away with it!” to those who pay attention to the news and to history. It’s a grotesque triumphant dance of the currently-powerful, designed largely to make the opposition feel marginalized and disheartened. It’s almost working on me.Avedon Carol, 29 November:
Who did you think he was going to appoint when it has been manifestly obvious all along that the last thing Bush wants is an investigation of 9/11? Or didn’t you notice? How the hell can you not notice?Leonard Cohen, 1988:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
The introduction of cable-television news and Internet news made news a commodity, available from an unlimited number of sellers at a steadily decreasing cost, so the established news organizations became the high-cost producers of a low-cost commodity. They92re selling a hybrid product now that92s news plus news-helper; whether it92s entertainment or attitude or news that92s marbled with opinion, it92s different. Now, especially in the cable-TV market, it has become good economics once again to go back to a party-oriented approach to attract a hard-core following that appreciates the predictability of a right-wing point of view, but then to make aggressive and constant efforts to deny that92s what they92re doing in order to avoid offending the broader audience that mass advertisers want. Thus the Fox slogan “We Report, You Decide,” or whatever the current version of their ritual denial is.Sounds spot on from here.
[Crichton is] forever describing things that could change the world—but don’t. The Andromeda strain of space germs mutates into harmlessness and goes away; the lost city of the Congo is wiped from the map by lava; in Sphere, the discoverers of the extraterrestrial artifact of untold power use that power to wish it into retroactive nonexistence. The fact that Crichton has no interest in showing what might have happened is what makes him a writer of suspense fiction, rather than of science fiction. A science-fiction writer would naturally want to see what would happen if the technologies stayed out of control (as most do), and might even want to ask whether the consequences would be all bad (as they often aren’t). Might not free-range dinosaurs make Costa Rica an even more interesting place than it is today? What if nanoswarms offered promise as well as peril? Prey, with its kill-them-all-and-get-out approach, is neither as frightening nor as fascinating as Greg Bear’s novelette of twenty years ago, “Blood Music,” in which the characters, transformed by the nanotechnology within them, become both far more and much less than human.(Via Gordon Van Gelder. From Oliver Morton’s review of Prey by Michael Crichton, The New Yorker, Dec. 2, 2002, pp. 108-110. Not online, at least so far.) (UPDATE: It’s online now, right here.)
But then Crichton’s essential conservatism may well be the secret of his success. You get a glimpse of something strange and unsettling, but you don’t have to live with anything worse than the chance it might happen again. His goal is simply to convey a compelling and dangerous idea as quickly and noisily as possible. It’s often said that Crichton’s novels read like movies. In fact, they’re more like trailers, previews of coming destructions.
I’ve actually worked on some of this stuff. It was for the National Reconnaissance Office, doing an unclassified (!) study of future information technology for the Intelligence community; the first phase was on looking 25 years out, and the statement of work explicitly said we could assume any technological breakthroughs we wanted to, except FTL and time travel!Darius Bacon makes some similar points, including an explanation of “truth maintenance,” here.
I have no brief for John Poindexter, and I’m thoroughly disgusted by the casual disregard this administration has for privacy, but there actually are a lot of technological ways to improve intelligence without Big Brotherish implications—mostly by improving how we convert data (of which we-the-U.S. government already have overwhelming amounts; the last thing we need is to collect more) to information, and (even more important) information to knowledge (meaning something you can actually do something with). Alas, there are an awful lot of people in the intelligence community who are absolutely (and IMHO idiotically) convinced that the One True Way of the future is the One Giant Database.
[…] [“Story telling, change detection, and truth maintenance”] have entirely legitimate technical meanings, and they’re real problems that lots of people have been working on since long before 9/11 or the Second Bush administration. “Story telling” is the process of conveying key information in a connected and memorable fashion, and is incredibly hard to automate; “change detection” is the problem of distinguishishing real changes from random noise and systematic errors in complex data (most often in images). I can’t say I’d run across “truth maintenance” but by slight extrapolation from some of the problems I looked at, I suspect it’s referring to trying to keep a single common picture of a situation (“truth”) updated when many people are independently both updating it and looking at it — the classic example being trying to keep all the military commanders in a theater looking at the same map, so the guy who got his information from headquarters at 9 a.m. doesn’t send his troops into the path of the airstrike that got scheduled at 2 p.m….
On the subject of the sheer loopiness of the IAO’s web site, Stefan Jones observes:
I wonder if the IAO has been taken less seriously that it could because its presentation—the stunningly brash name, the over-the-top logo, the jargon-laden web page—is so unbelievably campy.
People scared of terrorism might find this comforting (given that it’s a Republican administration…if the IAO were established under Clinton there’d be freepers in the streets of D.C. throwing rocks and burning cars).
Skeptics, on the other hand, might merely be amused. It’s like something out of a fundamentalist techno-thriller, in which it would be the agency in charge of bar code tattoos and kidnapping the hero’s girlfriend.
So the Amazon “Chief Algorithms Officer” is the person responsible for the code that determines that if you like the early Christian theologians (Marcion, Karl Barth) you might want to buy the Fodor Guide to St. Augustine? Or that if you look for books by yours undersigned, searching on his full name, you were really looking for T-Bird maintenance guides?More Reader Mail shortly. Loyal Electrolite reader, do not despair. (It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.)
Just wanted to clarify that.
Elton Beard actually read all the small type on the IAO’s web page, and notes that, listed among among the terrorist-fighting “technologies” the IAO plans to deploy, we find “story telling, change detection, and truth maintenance.”
As Beard observes:
The news media has provided this service to the administration pretty reliably for some time now, but maybe they’re ready to cut out the middleman.Just to save him the effort of pointing it out himself: yes, Jim Henley was all over this story months ago, and did you listen? So was the much-abused Guardian, back at the time of Poindexter’s appointment, when John Sutherland raised an eyebrow at the remarkable coincidence between the national terror alert of last February 13 and the quiet appointment of the Vice-Admiral on the same day. Of course, nobody would ever have planned things that way, and Guardian columnists just suggest things like that because they hate America. Moreover, none of your opinions have ever been fed you by experts in “story telling, change detection, and truth maintenance.”
Keegan, author of essential books like The Face of Battle (which you should read), isn’t infallible—in the days immediately after 9/11, Teresa noticed him demonstrating some cluelessness about how this Internet thing works— but when he’s on his game, he’s very good indeed. (Link thanks to Bruce Rolston of Flit, who is often interesting on military affairs himself.)
Yesterday I removed a couple of posts by one Philip Shropshire that seemed to me to go over the line into namecalling. (To my mind, there’s a difference between saying “conservatism is stupid” and suggesting that a particular individual’s conservative views come from being personally stupid.) When Mr. Shropshire responded with further truculence, I deleted that post as well, and used Moveable Type’s “IP banning” feature to block further posts from his IP. Mr. Shropshire’s response has been to use a different IP to spam multiple Electrolite threads with reposts of the same material—posted under names like “Isaac Asimov,” “Avram Davidson”, “Repent Harlequin”, and “Freddy Pohl.” (Oh, the wit, my aching sides.)
We won’t be having any more of that. The ability to post further comments to Electrolite has been disabled. Existing comment threads can be read, for now, although I don’t guarantee that they will stay up forever — so if there’s something you’ve written in one of my comment spaces that you want to save a copy of, I suggest you grab it now.
Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and Electrolite was young, readers used to send me interesting email and I used to post selections from it. For the moment, at least, that arrangement is what’s on offer. Life is too short.
But the fact that he reads a lot of popular fiction and nonfiction and reviews it on Amazon is actually one of the more endearing things I know about him. Along with the fact that he loves science fiction and is still enthusiastic about dinosaurs. Hey. I love science fiction and dinosaurs too, and also pop nonfiction books like Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Maybe this means I’m regressive, too, or have “cheesey” tastes. Probably, in the eyes of some people, that’s true. I’m oddly reminded of all the reasons the media constantly told me I should dislike Al Gore. He’s wonky! He’s a brainiac and a social oddball! He goes on about science! Goodness, how unlike any of my friends. Can’t have that.
The lesson of history is that democracies don’t initiate wars of aggression, and if we want to live in a peaceful world, then there’s very little we can do to bring that about more effective than promoting a democracy. People who live in democratic societies don’t like to pay for massive military machines. Democratic societies don’t empower their executives to make unilateral decisions to plunge countries into war. Wars have been started by tyrants who have complete control and who can squander the resources of their people to build up military machines.(Via Eschaton.)
You may have thought your government cared about whether you were killed or maimed. Silly you. Your government cares about whether desperately-needed, rare-as-hens’-teeth Arabic-speaking Army translators have sex with members of their own gender.
Keep that in mind the next time you hear the Right going on on about how “liberals” are unserious about issues of war and national security.
UPDATE: Nathan Newman makes a good point: what we have here is a collaboration between two right-wing fundamentalist movements, one of which wants to kill you and the other of which is more interested in expunging homosexuals than in protecting you. Handy how that works out.
“When I was on Atkins, it was easy,” said Jody Storch, a vice president of Peter Luger Steak House. “I had a steak and creamed spinach for lunch every single day.” And a year ago, she said, the restaurant bowed to demand and made a rare change to its menu, adding an appetizer of broiled bacon strips that had previously been known only to long-time regulars. “Now we serve over 400 pounds a week,” Ms. Storch said. “Low carbers love it here. They can even have dessert: a bowl of plain whipped cream.”Let me just say that Teresa and I started this diet in mid-July, and I have now lost 35 pounds. Despite, while travelling, throwing it to the winds on more than one occasion.
Favorite vignette, so far: the Queen warning the butler that “there are powers in this country of which we have no knowledge.” I daresay. (Via Nick Denton.)
As it turns out, a lot of computer programming consists of building abstractions. What is a string library? It’s a way to pretend that computers can manipulate strings just as easily as they can manipulate numbers. What is a file system? It’s a way to pretend that a hard drive isn’t really a bunch of spinning magnetic platters that can store bits at certain locations, but rather a hierarchical system of folders-within-folders containing individual files that in turn consist of one or more strings of bytes.Earlier in the essay, the author provides the best description I’ve ever seen of how TCP/IP—the basic communication protocol of the internet — actually works. Wayward Broadway actors and UFO crashes are involved. No, really.
Back to TCP. Earlier for the sake of simplicity I told a little fib, and some of you have steam coming out of your ears by now because this fib is driving you crazy. I said that TCP guarantees that your message will arrive. It doesn’t, actually. If your pet snake has chewed through the network cable leading to your computer, and no IP packets can get through, then TCP can’t do anything about it and your message doesn’t arrive. If you were curt with the system administrators in your company and they punished you by plugging you into an overloaded hub, only some of your IP packets will get through, and TCP will work, but everything will be really slow.
This is what I call a leaky abstraction. TCP attempts to provide a complete abstraction of an underlying unreliable network, but sometimes, the network leaks through the abstraction and you feel the things that the abstraction can’t quite protect you from. This is but one example of what I’ve dubbed the Law of Leaky Abstractions:
All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky.
Abstractions fail. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. There’s leakage. Things go wrong.
You are doing to the American left exactly what Martin Amis did to you when he laid the crimes of Stalin at your Trotskyist feet. Sure, there are plenty of people (not all of whom are leftists) who oppose this war because they oppose all US military intervention on principle, and maybe there is even some graduate student out there, mind addled by an all-Ramen diet, who believes that Osama bin Laden is merely a “misguided anti-imperialist.” But surely you know that lots of people oppose invading Iraq who supported the war in Afghanistan and intervention in Kosovo—why aren’t Mark Danner, Aryeh Neier and Ronald Dworkin on your radar screen? Who died and made Ramsey Clark commissar?
Lockyer made it clear long before evidence turned up implicating Enron that he wanted to prosecute Ken Lay, then the company chairman.I don’t care for Ken Lay, either, and I’m all for throwing the book at high-flying scam artists. But for an elected official to winkingly suggest that prison rape is an appropriate punishment is, well, a disgrace. To his office, to his party, and to his state.
“I would love to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, `Hi, my name is Spike, honey,’ ” Lockyer told the Wall Street Journal.
Here’s a picture of a disgusting sack of shit.
The fallacy of the ”get tough” approach is that it mistakes the symptom (cravenness) for the underlying malady (a lack of political creativity). Taking a stand for unpopular positions is often necessary. But it’s seldom a truly successful way of practicing politics. The key is framing debates and crafting messages so that one doesn’t find oneself in such an unfortunate position in the first place.That’s true too.
Jeanne quotes a Washington Post article that summarizes some remarks by General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the effect that “there is a debate taking place within the Pentagon about whether the United States needs to change its priorities in Afghanistan and de-emphasize military operations in favor of more support for reconstruction efforts” and that “it may be time for the military to ‘flip’ its priorities from combat operations aimed at hunting down al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to ‘the reconstruction piece in Afghanistan,’” which the Post calls “a notable shift in priorities for an a Pentagon that has eschewed nation-building exercises.”
So far so good, but Jeanne’s own remarks are:
You’re a little behind the curve, honey. We have been trying to tell you for almost a year now that keeping Afghanistan from falling back into the chaos that made a cozy little nest for terrorism was at least as important as tracking down the big guy with the beard. Okay, so you’re a little slow. We forgive you. You don’t even have to apologize or anything. (It would be a nice gesture, but we understand about all that stupid macho pride stuff…) Just do it. And if you’d like more advice, feel free to call on us any time.I don’t get this. Where is it established that General Richard B. Myers suffers extraordinarily from “macho pride”? Does Jeanne D’Arc know something the rest of us don’t about General Myers having a record of being unable to acknowledge mistakes? For that matter, do we know that these remarks represent a substantial shift in General Myers’ view of how we should comport ourselves in Afghanistan? (The Post calls it a “shift” for the “Pentagon,” but it’s unclear whether the term “Pentagon” is being deployed as synecdoche for “Secretary Rumsfeld” or “the officer class”.) Further: As the Post article notes, General Myers delivered his thoughts as “after-dinner comments Monday night at the Brookings Institution.” How frequently do hard-core Bush Administration neocons get their views out to the press by delivering them as after-dinner remarks at the Brookings Institution?
I don’t know much about General Richard B. Myers, but from here his quoted observations seem level-headed. From whence comes the assumption that he’s hitherto been in favor of the Administration policies of which Jeanne is critical? Indeed, there’s been a great deal of well-documented tension between this Administration and top military management, some of it because of Rumsfeld’s military-reform agenda and some of it because military people often tend to think the world is a more complex and intractable place than political ideologues do.
I may be suffering from a moment of humor-impairment, but it seems to me Jeanne’s remarks demonstrate one of modern liberalism’s chronic problems, which is that too many of us regard ourselves as being in a kind of culture war with the military. Perhaps because I’ve gotten to know a number of actual military professionals in my years as a book editor, I’ve come to think this is a mistake. By and large, the American military executes goals, rather than setting them—and this is a feature of our system, rather than a bug. In my experience, if you can actually get military people to talk about what they think we ought to be doing (which they’re frequently reluctant to do—see the feature, not bug, mentioned above), they often turn out to have nuanced and well-informed views.
A smart liberal like Jeanne D’Arc would have no trouble readily agreeing that the workers inside a business often have insights about its condition which elude high-level management. This commonplace observation can be found in Marx and also in every third business book. Why, then, should it be surprising when military professionals turn out to have thoughtful observations about the details of the deployment of American power? In the enterprise of manufacturing American foreign policy, the military are the proletariat—the workers and low-level managers on the factory floor.
It’s true that military officers are often socially conservative, for a variety of reasons; and it’s true that, as an institution, the military could stand to grow up a little bit on certain issues. But it’s also true that capable people who have been out into the world on the front lines of American power usually wind up knowing things that both liberal and conservative pundits don’t quite get, and liberals in particular could stand to cultivate the habit of listening to them without condescension.
Fixed now. Next, more physical comedy from Electrolite, as I manage to slip on a banana peel, poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick, and fall down the stairs.
The middle should never be a destination for a political party. The middle is a byproduct of the tug-of-war of ideas. Politics has been trending conservative because the right has been tugging harder than the left. Political territory has to be created through argument and combat. It’s not static space. Civil rights activists understood this when they started out in the 1940s. The founders of the modern environmental movement did, too, in the late 1960s, just as America’s founders did almost 300 years ago.Political territory has to be created through argument and combat. It’s not static space. Democrats: Write it on your eyelids. Write it on the sky.
email@example.comNow, which one do you suppose writes Electrolite? And which one do you suppose writes Making Light?
Hint: try looking at the top of each of those web pages.
Why are so many people suddenly sending me email obviously meant for Teresa’s weblog? Poor reading skills? Cognitive impairment? Or just niacin deficiency?
When I first moved [to the UK] and couldn’t watch baseball anymore, I was distracted by snooker, and particularly one amazing player named Jimmy White, who had a knack for doing things that were physically impossible. In post-match interviews, White, like most snooker players, is astonishingly humble, even when his performance has been utterly dazzling. When he loses, he usually says it’s because his opponent played better than he did, and when he wins, he doesn’t insult the competetion. The phrase he uses to describe the only thing that matters in winning goes something like this: “He did the business.”James M. Capozzola:
The Republicans lied and cheated, and had non-stop free advertising from the mass media, and a lot of other things, but at the end of the day the real problem in this election was that the Democrats didn’t do the business. We knew in advance that the media was underplaying the election and distorting the issues. We knew that the only way to get our message out was if we did it. But did we? Or did we keep expecting that somehow the media would have an epiphany and do it for us?
Well, get real, folks. Tim Russert is not going to suddenly develop a conscience, GE is not going to magically decide that getting the truth out to the public via their network is a good thing after all. […]
If the media has gone over to the other side, and the party isn’t going to use their resources to inform the public, then the rest of us have to do it. Remember, the powerful have always had more access to the media than “the little guy” has—and we’ve always had to find alternative means to communicate with our peers. Create those flyers that explain the issues and why people should vote for your candidate. Hit the streets and distribute them. If you’re a good writer, post your text on the web so people can print up fliers from it. If you’re not a good writer, find someone else who is (on the ‘net or elsewhere) and ask if you can use their material. But for goodness’ sakes do the business, ‘cause if you don’t, nobody will.
It also is time to start taking the Republicans seriously. Yes, the Republican Party long ago was hijacked by representatives of the lunatic fringe and the vested aristocracy, groups that have succeeded in making their extremist agendas the standards with which all else is compared. Contempt for the right-wing party and its ideas or policies can be strangely satisfying on an intellectual level, but it is dangerous when it veers into hubris and it easily renders itself useless in politics.Eric Alterman:
When we fail to understand that Republicans and conservatives actually believe the words they say, believe them to be the truth, and intend to take action upon them, we yield the advantage to the other side. Lamenting the devastating effects talk radio and the talk radio culture have had upon our political discourse—and now on our polity as a whole—does little if anything to advance our cause. Millions of people are listening to talk radio every day and Democrats have not only failed to refute the lies and defamation it spreads, they seem incapable of even pretending to be able to speak the pidgin language of the medium.
Taking Republicans seriously does not mean giving credence to their morally and fiscally bankrupt platforms and policies. It means listening to their arguments, determining the messages they are sending, finding the reason voters respond, and then attacking them, vigorously and mercilessly, and exposing their lies, relentlessly and repeatedly, in a way that speaks to the real needs and interests of the American people.
Let us note as well, that the roll-over-and-play-dead DLC strategy for the Democrats was a total dud. They lost the South and lost the Senate. Speaking of yesterday, let92s quote Paul Krugman again: “Of course, some pundits tell you that not much is at stake in this particular election, that the parties aren’t really very different on the issues. I don’t know what planet they are living on: in reality, the parties are further apart than they have been since the 1930’s. The fact that anyone imagines otherwise is a tribute to the timidity of the Democrats, who are afraid to say what they really think, and the subterfuge of the Republicans, who show a disciplined willingness to pretend to hold positions they actually abhor.” The reason for this, which I don92t think Krugman explained, are two:Tom Tomorrow:
2. The so-called liberal media is actually in the pocket of conservatives.
And so we have a country that is to the left of the Democrats on the issues, but is run by people who are to the right of virtually every respectable right-wing party in Western Europe and beyond.
Memo to the Democratic leadership: You’re called “leaders” for a reason. Sometimes you have to take what you fear may be an unpopular stand and try to, well, lead the public to your position. And you know what? Sometimes it may cost you your job. You wanted job security, you should have gone into another line of work.Dwight Meredith:
1) Politics is never over;Jason Rylander:
2) Unity and discipline beat chaotic backbiting every single time;
3) Elections are won by occupying the center;
4) You do not beat something with nothing; and
5) Politics is about substantively improving people92s lives.
The Democratic Party must present voters with a true alternative to Republican politics and policy. It is less important whether that alternative is liberal or moderate so long as voters have a choice. If the party chooses the centrist position (and that may be the right choice) it cannot simply mimic the GOP or offered watered-down versions of GOP ideas. It needs to offer its own distinct plans. If the party can do that in a compelling way, we’ll go a long way toward rectifying the problems Democrats faced in this election.Matthew Yglesias:
Well, at least we’re rid of Dick Gephardt, a totally reprehensible man and a basically failed leader. I never understood how one could go into the ‘94 elections as the #2 Democrat and emerge as the #1, and Dick’s unique ability to personify the worst instincts of the party’s right (senseless accomodationism) and left (protectionism) while throwing some poor public speaking abilities into the mix was just too much. I suppose I’m supporting Nancy Pelosi over Martin Frost in the leadership battle, because while I think I agree with Frost that a moderate would be preferable to a liberal, I think Frost is the wrong kind of moderate. Trying to win the South and put the New Deal coalition back together again by ditching the cultural issues is both immoral and strategically silly. It’s true that Dems could stand to do better with white men, but there are fewer and fewer white men in this country every year, so better to look for votes elsewhere.More from Yglesias:
Let me offer a prediction and say that while the media will cover Pelosi/Frost as a left/right ideological struggle, that the actual breakdown in the House Democratic Caucus will break down more along generational and stylistic lines, with old-school types flocking to Frost irrespective of ideology and younger folks more comfortable with postmodern politics’ emphasis on fundraising and media strategy will go for Pelosi.
Remember that when Pelosi ran against Steny Hoyer for the job she’s currently got that everyone felt the need to interpret that race as a left/right battle, too, even though no one was quite sure who the liberal was. It was all about age, gender, style, and region. After all, picking a Minority Leader isn’t like picking a President since all the voters in this election are people who are actually going to need to work with the new Leader on a day-to-day basis, so they’re bound to bemore concerned with that person’s general approach than with his specific policy stances.
(In my first draft of this post, the first line read “Jeanne D’Arc is really cooking.” Er.)
The truth is that neither major political party makes much effort to mobilize the millions of Americans of modest means and education who stand outside the electorate. Neither major party supports electoral reforms such as the elimination of voter registration requirements or a shift to weekend voting. Both practices are standard in Western Europe, and the European experience suggests that these two changes alone would appreciably boost turnout.
One of the undemocratic unmentionables of American politics is that most elected politicians are not eager to see an expansion of the electorate. Boosting the number of voters is a risky strategy seldom undertaken lightly. Lord Derby famously called the increase of Britain’s electorate under the Reform Bill of 1867 a “leap into the dark.”
Today, both political parties seem more afraid of the dark than ever. Republicans fear that enlarging the electorate will lead to an influx of poor and minority voters who are less likely to favor the GOP. The Democrats, meanwhile, fear that millions of new voters might be less than friendly to some of the party’s traditional allies, such as anti-smoking activists and environmentalists. It’s not that poor and working-class people favor damaged lungs or dirty air, but that they might have political priorities inconsistent with the “post-materialist” values of some liberal interest groups. They lack the material resources needed to feel post-materialistic. This demobilization of the American left may help to explain the rightward drift of American politics since the 1970s.
The Three Rivers pulled into Chicago a bit after 9 AM; the Empire Builder wasn’t scheduled to leave for St. Paul until after 2. I was reluctant to put my guitar into one of the lockers at Union Station—the whole point of this exercise, after all, was to get my guitar to the convention without entrusting it to shipping or storage systems of dubious security—but on the phone, Teresa reminded me that high-end museums usually have cloak rooms that will check anything. Which proved to be the case. Freed from my twenty pounds of Taylor guitar and hardshell case, I wandered around confirming my suspicion that if it’s in North America and it’s not at MOMA or the Met, it’s probably at the Art Institute of Chicago. The place was full of school tours, and the kids seemed well engaged with what they were seeing. I spent a good five minutes staring at Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” while three waves of kids came past, each time yielding a significant number who did double-takes—one suspects some of them had seen the painting’s many parodies but not the original. Around the corner, youthful cries of “Look, it’s that farmer picture” heralded, yes, “American Gothic.”
Back on Amtrak, the Empire Builder is a much nicer train, an immense affair of two-level “Superliner” cars interspersed with dining cars and glass-ceilinged observation decks. Pulling into Milwaukee around dusk, we passed what appeared to be an honest-to-gosh hobo encampment, complete with bonfire and hobo glyphs on the outdoor wall behind the men warming themselves. Here begins the upper Midwest, I thought to myself, where many older American things persist. (Probably an indefensible thesis, and yet I’ve always had that sense about the Northern Tier.)
The World Fantasy Convention itself was fine, and yes, I did get to make various kinds of music with writer/musician cronies like Charles and MaryAnn de Lint, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ellen Kushner, Lojo Russo, and others. Sometime Flash Girl Lorraine Garland has a new band which, somewhat to their distress, was booked to play at famed First Avenue on Sunday evening; due to a general sense of unreadiness for this heady venue, Lorraine arranged to commandeer a convention function room for Saturday evening, so that the band could get a bit of time playing in front of an audience, something they hadn’t actually done yet. They needn’t have worried; they were fine in front of thirty friends in the Duluth Room, and fine at First Avenue the following night. But their semi-public rehearsal did give me a chance to sit in with them on a few things, which was fun—I don’t get to jam with fiddle players every day, and Lorraine and I have similar sensibilities about how the song goes. The next evening, at an actual kinda-sorta official convention music performance thing, Charles and MaryAnn and Nina and I did a bunch of songs we’d actually kinda-sorta rehearsed, including vocals, even lead vocals, by me on a couple of them. I’m working on learning to sing, or rather, on not being neurotic about singing. Progress has ensued. Of course, working with musicians as accomplished as Charles and MaryAnn, to say nothing of Nina “True Voice of Hank Williams” Kiriki Hoffman, affords the comforting sense that if you screw up, someone else will know what to do.
I did plenty of stuff at the convention that wasn’t about music, but most of it was workaday publishing-business stuff I won’t bore you with here. I will note, though, that admirable small-press publisher Michael Walsh, of Old Earth Books, has reissued all five of the novels of the brilliant Edward Whittemore: Quinn’s Shanghai Circus and the “Jerusalem Quartet,” Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic. These aren’t genre fantasies; they’re not genre anything. They’re kind of spy novels, or secret histories, or religious fantasy, or addled vision of a different, better Middle East. There’s certainly nothing like them in all of fiction. Good on Mike for publishing them. (Now, Mike, how about making them available from your own web page? Right now they can be ordered on Amazon but not directly from you.)
The trip back was rougher. The Empire Builder to Chicago pulled out of St. Paul at 8 AM in gathering snow, and I’d had about two hours’ sleep after the immense Guy Fawkes’ party at Neil Gaiman’s home the night before. (Let me just say that a twenty-foot bonfire sporting a crucified pumpkin-headed Guy offers equal-opportunity offense to a remarkable number of sensibilities. The fireworks were good, too.) I did get to enjoy seeing some landscape by day that I’d previously passed through at night; I had no idea the Mississippi downriver from St. Paul passed through such rugged country. (As someone who spent much of his childhood in the American West, I’m always surprised when any landscape east of Denver is other than flat.) But it was a gray day and my head hurt. The layover in Chicago was shorter, and once I got onto the Lake Shore Limited heading home to New York, it seemed like the dining-car and lounge-car hours were constantly reset by sadists in order to keep me from getting any food or, even more importantly, coffee.
Still, as a final note, I will remark that, grubby though New York’s Penn Station may be, it has a far more secure system for claiming checked baggage than New York City’s airports. Which is to say, it has a system—actual humans who check your claim tickets before letting you waltz off with the bags you say are yours, which is more than is usually the case at LaGuardia or Newark, at any rate. (Good Amtrak!) Would I do it again? Maybe. The best thing about trains, to my mind, is that you get to see the back side of everything—the working America that hooks up to rail, the weird factories and power plants and canal junctions and scrappy parts of town that often don’t present themselves to Freeway America. On the other hand, America is big. I was in Train World for about 34 hours in each direction, and I’m beat. In the future, I may just bite the bullet and buy one of those several-hundred-dollar airline-proof guitar cases. But I don’t regret this experience.
Max Sawicky, on his own weblog and on Stand Down/No War Blog, discusses the idea that it’s improper for liberals and left-wingers to ally themselves with the “so-called isolationists of the right.” Observes Sawicky:
This canard is a clear violation of Godwin’s Law, since it harkens back to American Nazi sympathizers of the 1930s. It’s bad analysis, bad history, bad politics, and a steaming pile of monkey crap. […]You may not agree with either Marshall’s or Sawicky’s central points, but both of them are playing at a higher level than most of blogland.
Isolationism connotes at best a selfish indifference to events outside the homeland. At worst, it implies a failure to recognizing looming threats that form at a distance. In other words, you are immoral for failing to empathize with the downtrodden Iraqi people, and foolish for not seeing that Saddam is coming to get us.
By contrast, the objection of both left and right regarding Iraq stems to an important extent from doubts of the power of any government to construct a peaceable society from the outside with force. In other words, it derives from inherent skepticism as to the efficacy of state power in this endeavor. There is no implied disregard for the well-being of the Iraqi people’s tribulations under the Hussein dictatorship. To the contrary, I take a general apprehension to stem from aversion to destroying villages in order to save them.
Over on Altercation, Charles Pierce observed:
Trent Lott, offended by the sight of Democrats enjoying themselves. Isn92t that special? Here92s a guy whose stomach never turns at those gatherings of the Council of Conservative Citizens, where he confers, converses and otherwise hobnobs with the foul detritus of American white supremacy. Smiles away. Has his picture taken. Stays ‘til the band packs up. But he is much too delicate to sit there and listen to Democrats in mourning suggest to people that the deceased might like them to vote for Democrats. I certainly hope the poor, dear man was all right in the morning.YOUR DEVOTED WEBLOG WRITER: Indeed.
THE COMMON READER: You know, I’m figuring that’s what you say when you want to agree with something really partisan without completely admitting that you agree.
YOUR DEVOTED WEBLOG WRITER: Indeed.
A high-level delegation of European and North American election observers—including members from Russia and Albania—arrived yesterday for a week-long mission to watch Florida’s mid-term elections, which take place on Tuesday.
Their task: to see if the world’s most powerful democracy has learned anything from the disastrous 36-day showdown between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000, in which the world saw every wart in Florida’s deeply flawed electoral system without ever discovering for sure who had won.
Certainly, the Russians and Albanians know a thing or two about flawed, rigged or fraudulent elections. After receiving a decade of lectures from Western democracies about overhauling their own systems, they also have a good idea how to overcome them. […]
[T]he team will look at the broader picture of Florida’s electoral laws, how they are applied, and the ways in which US practices fall short of the stringent requirements imposed on emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.