Thursday, February 28, 2008

Someone Who Looks Like... 

Yesterday, I stuck an Obama sticker on my lapel and signed up to knock on doors on Saturday. I started out with Edwards because of poverty, and it's been a slow and painful adjustment since Edwards left the race. I still prefer Clinton on several aspects of domestic policy, which is usually more important to me, so that has made it particularly hard.

I'm going to vote for Obama--and if I'm going to vote for someone, I'll work for him or her as well--but I take no glee in watching Clinton go down. Indeed, the past few weeks have been extraordinarily painful.

This morning on NPR, they were interviewing voters in Texas. One woman said, about Obama, that she was excited about him because she thought it would just be so wonderful for kids to grow up in a world in which the president looked like that (paraphrase).

Can someone remind me, please, which one of our last 43 presidents was the woman? Because when I look them over, they're all looking pretty XY to me (although I suppose Millard Filmore could be a chick in drag). Doesn't anyone think there might be some ways in which it would be wonderful for kids to grow up in a world in which the president was a woman?

I know it's not a contest, who's more oppressed. I'm not trying to go there. And obviously, given my decision, I believe there are serious problems with this particular woman candidate. But I still feel as if it's almost as if people are acting as if (is that enough as ifs?) there's already been a woman, as if (there's another) that's no big deal anymore.

After interviewing the Obama supporter, NPR went on to the other side of Houston to talk to conservatives in a bible group. They were Huckabee fans, some of whom were reluctantly supporting McCain. One woman in the group said she admired how far Clinton had gone, but that she couldn't support her because she believed women need to submit to men, and that only a man should be a leader. The pastor of the group agreed and re-confirmed the idea that only men should be leaders.

We haven't really come such a long way, baby.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

He Said, "He Said." 

Jessica at Feministing takes David Gelernter to task for his unhinged screed against feminists' efforts to make English more gender neutral. "He or she", "chairperson", and we "language rapists" generally are the objects of Gelernter's rage.

Gelernter begins with the axiom, "The prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise." I can't quibble with those virtues, but Gelernter omits one critical virtue: Good writing should be precise. It's easy to be simple and concise when taking liberties with accuracy, but it's hardly commendable. Gelernter's English surrenders precision -- or rather simply wishes away its own imprecision:

When the style-smashers first announced, decades ago, that the neutral "he" meant "male" and excluded "female," they were lying and knew it....

In the third edition [of the Elements of Style] (1979), [E.B.] White lays down the law on the he-or-she epidemic that was sweeping the country like a bad flu (or a bad joke).

The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. The word was unquestionably biased to begin with (the dominant male), but after hundreds of years it has become seemingly indispensable. It has no pejorative connotations; it is never incorrect.

As someone who was deeply influenced by White -- including, for quite a long time, by the passage Gelernter quotes -- I have to say that White got this one wrong, and wrong on his own terms (which valued precision, even if Gelernter does not). We can't simply waive our hands and say (as Gelernter does) that "he" really means "he or she" or that "fireman" does not imply gender. It is Gelernter who is lying when he accepts the pretense that the supposed equivalence between "he" and "he or she" is purely a linguistic convention, rather than an affirmation of a patriarchal history. Gelernter is welcome to use the neutral "he", but he is making a political statement by doing so. I choose not to, and I stand by my political statement as well. (I do agree that "he or she" can be awkward, but the phrase can usually be avoided in favor of some other, non-sexist construction -- Mary and I have used "he or she" exactly three times in 651 posts on this blog.)

I do have to praise Gelernter for one thing. He provides us his own reductio ad absurdum, so I don't have to, essentially blaming gender-neutral language for an alleged decline in "civilization":

The depressing trail continues one last mile. What happens to a nation's thinking when you ban such phrases as "great men"? The alternatives are so bad--"great person" sounds silly; "great human being" is a casual tribute to a friend--that it's hard to know where to turn. "Hero" doesn't work; "Wittgenstein was a great man" is a self-sufficient assertion, but "Wittgenstein was a hero" is not. Was he a war hero, a philosophical hero? (Yes and yes.) "Wittgenstein was a great heart" (also true) can't be rephrased in hero-speak, and can't substitute for "great man" either.

We happen to know also that the idea of "great men" has been bounced right out of education at every level. Nowadays students are taught to admire celebrities and money instead. We might well have misplaced the "great man" idea anyway, but losing the phrase didn't help. Civilization copes poorly with ideas that have no names.

"Wittgenstein was a great person" "sounds silly". But "Joan of Arc was a great man" sounds just nifty.

Related Post: Dad and Man at Yale (UPDATE: Cross-reference included before I learned of William Buckley's death today.)

UPDATE: Jess McCabe has a similar reaction.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Not A Winning Argument 

This is not an argument that Hillary Clinton should be making:
Mrs. Clinton delivered a blistering speech on Monday that compared Mr. Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience to that of the candidate George W. Bush.

We’ve seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security,” Mrs. Clinton said in a speech on foreign policy at George Washington University. “We can’t let that happen again.” (Emphasis added.)
Remind me. Who "let that happen" the first time? Who gave warmaking power to the guy with no experience or wisdom? Oh yeah:
The President has begun to make the case for why the use of force may be necessary, and it is important that he do that. I look forward to hearing what he will say this evening and what Secretary Powell will have to say in the following days. -- Hillary Clinton, 1/28/2003
And the candidate she says lacks experience and wisdom:
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars. -- Barack Obama, 10/2/2002


Monday, February 25, 2008

"Meet Me In Ohio" 

Hillary Clinton has gotten terrible reviews for calling out Barack Obama on his campaign's NAFTA and health care mailers. Maybe that's inevitable. As Howard Dean learned, in contemporary American politics, being right doesn't justify being angry.

Except, of course, that it does.

"Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal healthcare."

I'm voting for Obama, but it's very, very unfortunate that he's dug himself this healthcare hole ... and that he's decided the best response is to keep digging.

UPDATE: Seems that Obama's is not the only campaign sending out mailers the candidate should be ashamed of.


Friday, February 22, 2008

It's The War, Stupid 

Harvard's Implicit Association Test says I love Hillary Clinton, loathe Mike Huckabee, and like Barack Obama slightly more than John McCain, but am pretty neutral about both of them.

So, why am I going to vote for Obama? It's not for the "universal" healthcare that's not universal, and it's certainly not for the dubious putdowns. I do think it's partly the phenomenon that many others have noted -- even if you like Hillary, it's hard to like her campaign or the people she's surrounded herself with. And it's partly electability -- a fool's game, to be sure, but I don't see how one can ignore the dramatic difference (currently a 10-point swing) in how Clinton and Obama poll against McCain, not to mention the seemingly very real progressive movement that Obama seems to be mobilizing.

But, ultimately, I think it's that I've never forgiven Clinton for her vote for the Iraq War. (John Edwards, either, by the way.) All politicians make compromises. But the justification for that has to be that the compromise is necessary for a greater good, whether maintaining a coalition (Lincoln's mollification of the Border States, for example) or even maintaining the politician's own position as a platform for other accomplishments. There has been no bigger vote than the Iraq War resolution since Clinton has been in the Senate. It was obvious at the time that thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives, and billions or trillions of dollars -- in short, the future of the Nation and the world -- were at stake. It was obvious that attacking Iraq was reckless, self-destructive, and immoral. It was, quite literally, a defining moment. There was no other fight that Clinton had to save her credibility for -- as a prominent opposition party Senator (in the Senate majority at the time) and as former First Lady -- Clinton was in a unique position to lead the fight against the war, and instead opted to for what she (incorrectly) viewed as necessary for her political viability. That was wrong on the merits, and wrong strategically.

Obama is right that judgment matters. And on that count, he wins hands down.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Yes, They Can 

Mary reminded me this week of the 2007 Gallup poll reporting that some Americans would not vote for a woman or a black person for President. (Complete results at bottom of post.)

These kinds of polls can seem pretty dire. How can Barack Obama win in a world where the last two presidential elections have been incredibly close, and he starts out 5 points behind? Same for Hillary Clinton, but she's 11 points down?

Leaving aside the unreliability of the answers as predictors of voting behavior -- after all, 21% said they wouldn't vote for a Catholic right before JFK was elected (and, guess what, only 13% said so right after, as many of the 21% apparently changed their minds) -- what bugs me about this poll is that it doesn't ask whether the respondent would vote for a man or for a white person. It simply assumes that no one could possibly say "no" to such a question. But, how do we know that? Yes, we know that white men are "electable". What we don't know is that every voter would say that he or she would consider voting for one. In fact, I'm pretty sure that some percentage -- probably 2, 3, 4% -- would say "no", especially now that it is clear there will be an alternative.

Without those questions for context, the Gallup poll tells us very little about who can win. My view is that either Dem can.

Yes, would
vote for

No, would not
vote for












A woman









Married for the third time



72 years of age



A homosexual



An atheist




Sunday, February 10, 2008

Girls' Night Out? Puhleeze! 

In the current post on her New York Times blog, Judith Warner describes a conversation in which two married male friends, middle aged & older, discuss in her presence the "kinds of women they’d go out with if they were single."

It turns out both men say they'd like to date "babes" who are much younger and childless. When she suggests they might be happier with women with whom they have more in common (age and interest-wise), the men are incredulous and start mocking her. She then describes how, when she told her husband of the exchange, he said he didn't understand what she was getting "all worked up about."

Warner then goes on to describe the rage she finds herself in. But instead of presenting this as a perfectly justifiable rage, instead of telling her male friends that married men who talk about the kind of women they'd like to date (regardless of the age of the imagined babes) are assholes, and that those who talk about wanting to date much younger women are revealing themselves to be not just assholes but immature, shallow assholes, she goes on to mock her own rage and assume that we readers will be mocking it, too, like her husband:
Perhaps you’ve already laughed yourself into red-eyed delirium....

And then, after talking self-deprecatingly about how she started identifying with bumper-sticker feminism of the "a woman needs a man..." variety, her solution to this rage is:
I need a Girls’ Night Out.

A girls' night out? She earlier says that her denial of the existence of bra-burning was a lame rejoinder, but this is seriously lame. What exactly does she think gets accomplished by going out with other women--forgive me, girls--and complaining about men?

I'm starting to notice that Warner often comes right up to the edge of being right about things, but (as here) she chickens out.

It seems to me that the appropriate response to a conversation like this--particularly for someone like Warner who is lucky enough to have such a platform as a NYT blog--would be to publish her male friends' names in this post. Such attitudes deserve to be outed and shamed and ridiculed. Her friends' wives should know that this is what they sit around talking about when they're away from home. Any men in their social circle who are closer to being decent human beings than Warner's husband (whom she does out in the piece, note...) should let them know that they think they're idiots.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Process 

Was it really unforeseeable to the DNC that there might be a contested primary between two strong candidates?

Josh Marshall explains that the Democratic Party's proportional allocation of delegates creates a high likelihood that neither Clinton nor Obama will be able secure the nomination before the convention (where superdelegates will have to cast their formal, and possibly decisive, votes). And, while not mentioned in those posts, we will likely face a contentious dispute over whether Michigan and Florida delegates count before we even reach the superdelegate vote.

If a primary process has one irreducible purpose, it would seem to be to select a clear winner in a two-person race, allowing the party to unite behind the winner without acrimony -- i.e., to avoid what happened at the 1972 convention. (Trivia: I must admit that I did not know that none other than the third remaining Democratic candidate, Mike Gravel, placed third in the VP voting at the '72 convention.)

I could, perhaps, understand if a system wasn't geared for a race between three or four candidates, but the Democratic primary process seems to have been constructed on the assumption that there would be a clear winner and that process wouldn't matter. Proportional representation is almost guaranteed to create a tight race when there are two closely matched candidates. Perhaps that is defensible in itself, but adding the ruling that Michigan and Florida delegates would not count was surely a foreseeable recipe for a disputed nomination.

The party seems to have planned on the assumption that none of this would matter, because, as in years past, we would have an obvious winner. Of course, in that case, virtually any plausible system of delegate allocation will work. In other words, they failed to make rules for the most obvious situation where rules would matter.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Kumbaya? My Lord! 

Have you noticed that, all of a sudden, "kumbaya" is in common parlance? And that it seems always to be associated with Barack Obama?

The chart at right uses Google Blog Search to track the explosion of blogs posts referring to "kumbaya" and "kumbaya and Obama", respectively, on a quarterly basis. (The first quarter of '08 is projected, but even in absolute terms "kumbaya and Obama" has appeared over 25% more in the first 35 days of this quarter than in all previous quarters combined.)

I had assumed this was another successful Republican meme -- simultaneously advancing the ideas that Obama is weak on national security, and that he's black.

And that may well be part of what's going on. But it appears that the origin of the "kumbaya" virus is on our side. One of the earliest kumbaya critiques of Obama is from Talk Left. And usage appears to have really taken off after John Edwards used the term about Obama in September 2007.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Cheers to the New Baby! Part II 

Kudos to ABC News for a good segment on drinking alcohol while pregnant. Instead of buying into the usual moral panic about fetal alcohol syndrome, ABC instead emphasizes the social stigma that pregnant women face if they have a drink in public and finishes with an expert explaining that moderate drinking is not a risk to the fetus. The best part is when the correspondent says that American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists refused to appear on the show because their official policy is zero tolerance -- presumably because they couldn't defend a position for which there is no scientific support.

I do hope this signals a shift in public attitudes on this issue.

Related Post: Cheers to the New Baby!


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