Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Setting the Palin Narrative, Part 1.

There's a lot of speculation on the internet about Thursday's VP debate.That's to be expected given the extraordinary way that Sarah Palin was presented to the nation at the GOP convention. Nobody knew who she was, and she delivered a laconic speech complete with a homespun delivery and a series of snarky little witticisms. Naturally the speech was written for her (and she had read it adroitly off the teleprompter), but people responded as if she had created it herself. It injected a shot of adrenaline into the moribund Republican party, and once people found out about her staunch social conservatism, Palin was built up into the physical representation of the future of the GOP. It was as if people were watching the discovery of the next Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

Right Wing pundits across the land became melodramatic in their excitement. They proclaimed the speech a "Grand Slam" heralding a new direction in politics. They worked overtime to build expectations for the unknown governor of Alaska. The McCain campaign, realizing the benefit of letting the energy cycle within the closed system, wisely kept Palin's appearances limited to pep rallies. Meanwhile the conservative-leaning media outlets concocted a narrative that had resentful Hillary Clinton-supporters flocking to the "historical candidate" (no matter that the glass ceiling was actually broken by Geraldine Ferraro and the Democrats 24 years ago). "Palinmania" and "Palin Derangement Syndrome" (a term that accurately conveyed the unquestioning zeal of her fans) became household words.

Opponents of the McCain/Palin ticket were stunned into an awkward and mute silence. Nobody had anticipated this choice. The Obama camp, along with his enthusiastic base, began to search for any information they could find about this little-known politician. It was his fanbase, and not his staff, that landed the first blows against the "Palin Factor". Scurrilous accusations, mixed with valid criticism, flooded the Web. The more scandalous and exploitive rumors (such as the suggestion that Palin's Down's Syndrome-afflicted infant was actually her daughter's baby) caused a backlash of appalled censure. Although the Obama campaign disavowed the salacious charges, the Palinmaniacs tried to hold it to account for the ever-intensifying smears.

As the Democrats tried to formulate a strategy to confront this novel sensation, cool heads initiated a more evenhanded examination of the claims coming out of the McCain/Palin campaign. It became clear that many of the Governor's reforms and "accomplishments" had been presented in a misleading light. Palin's record was picked over, and there emerged a new narrative- that of a typical (albeit inexperienced) politician with the facade of a "reformer". Many of the statements Palin had made during her GOP Convention speech turned out to be misleading (at best). Skeptical observers wondered whether the young candidate had been properly vetted. The sheen of the "maverick" began to dull underneath the gaze of the media.

While Palin's handlers tried to keep her sequestered from any genuine press scruitiny, eventually mainstream interviews would be inevitable. How would she perform without a script? A chous of "conservative" commentators rose up to defend her, and reassured audiences that Palin was smart and well-spoken, and would look even better under pressure. They warned her detractors not to underestimate her. Television journalists like Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric took this advice to heart, and abandoned their usual softball tactics. When their conversations with Palin were aired, the perception of the candidate changed quickly and decisively. The GOP's narrative was almost immediately challenged. And the "Palin factor" evolved.

Read Part 2

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Monday, September 29, 2008

EESA and the Transformation of American Economic Values.

Once again we are being told that the Wall Street bailout (I mean "rescue"... or is it "stabilization"?) was on the verge of accumulating enough votes to pass. The terms of the deal (now titled the "EMERGENCY ECONOMIC STABILIZATION ACT OF 2008") are available in complete and summary form on many sites throughout the Web. The fact that the breakdown of the bill was not presented in bullet form is a bit disconcerting. It's as if Congress wants the reader to work in order to understand it. The obfuscation written into all pieces of legislation inhibits most people from truly engaging proposed bills. If there is a truly "elitist" bent in modern-day American politics, it is most evident in this bipartisan approach to "transparency".

Make no mistake about it... the Democrats will own whatever bill eventually gets passed. Some will point out that the president can veto the bill, but it appears unlikely that any version will be voted on if that possibility exists. So the extent to which the EESA protects the interests of the taxpayer is determined by whatever concessions the Dems can wrangle from George W. Bush and Henry Paulson. Certainly House Republicans will try to take credit for introducing their own version of the legislation, but these claims will be mostly disingenuous. The fact is that the only addition they have contributed is a government-run insurance company for bad private investments (which seems like a function similar to that of AIG).

It's not like the small cabal of House Republicans* that were ushered into the White House by John McCain last Thursday didn't have a lengthy wishlist. But first and foremost, they wanted to test their economic theories of the "free market". At the heart of the matter, they are resolutely against any government intervention. In other words, they'd let the situation play itself out if it were left up to them- stability of the nation be damned. It doesn't really matter that the vast majority of national and international economists (from all points along the political spectrum) have warned that action is necessary to avert a major worldwide crisis. To give you a sense of where House Republicans are coming from, keep in mind that their main objective was to push for corporate and investor tax cuts to be included in the bill.

Despite what the disciples of pure economic theories believe, we are witnessing a major transformation in the way that global markets are managed. It is no longer possible to convince the majority that deregulation is an ultimate good. Those policies have allowed certain banking corporations to get so large that they can effectively hold the health of the country for ransom. This is effectively extortion by the very players that got us into this mess with their advocacy of completely unfettered markets. What I find particularly galling is that John McCain continues to enable those with this philosophy while simultaneously proclaiming himself the contemporary Teddy Roosevelt. This is a mortal insult to that great former president's legacy of trust-busting.

Now I'm not saying that I wholly support the bill that Congress turned down today. I would have preferred that the government simply offered loans at moderate interest rates, instead of offering to buy highly dubious assets at a reduced price. If these turn out to be worthless, the taxpayer would lose big under such a plan. I also appreciate the lip service devoted to regulation and oversight. We've heard that before, and for it to be effective government must attempt to be incorruptible. Still I am thankful that we don't have the Congress that presided over the economy for the first six years of Bush's presidency without confronting the impending collapse of Wall Street. If we've learned anything from the last ten years, it's that laissez faire capitalism is a potentially fatal strategy as it essentially rewards unlimited greed, borderline-criminal short cuts, and a dangerous degree of deception.

*The reponsible parties for inaction include John McCain, Eric Cantor (VA), Paul Ryan (WI), Jeb Hensarling (TX), John Carter (TX)... and ?

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mr. McCain Goes To Washington.

I’ve heard a lot of people from all different political persuasions weigh in on John McCain’s latest political gambit. Some were certain that it was a political trick to escape the debates. Others claimed that he was just acting out the essential risk-taking predisposition at the core of his personality. Quite a few suggested that the move was motivated by desperation. I’ve done a lot of thinking about John McCain’s motivations over the last twenty-four hours, and it finally occurred to me that there was a crucial component of the situation being overlooked. Could it be possible that McCain exercised his only option, given the situation on the ground?

Look at it this way… McCain is selling himself as a "maverick" that is willing to reach across party lines and work in a bipartisan fashion. Sure he flaked out when he realized that government intervention was necessary to “rescue” Wall Street from the position that it put itself in. He’s always been known as an impulsive guy. He genuinely wanted to believe that the “fundamentals of the economy were sound”. When he heard that the worst was yet to come, he went apoplectic. He looked around for a scapegoat and called for the head of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox (reportedly a long-time friend). Falling back on his long-held reputation as a proponent of free market Capitalism, he came out immediately against the bailout.

Let’s face facts. There is a base constituency that is at the heart of the GOP that is fundamentally devoted to completely deregulated “free markets”. Any Republican who has subscribed to this perspective cannot come out in favor of a government intervention, especially the likes of which the Bush Administration has proposed. To do so would expose him/her as a complete hypocrite. That’s the tragic flaw of the idealogue… they lock themselves in. On one level John McCain has always wanted to reassure this wing of his party that he is “on board”. Recall his proclamation to the Wall Street Journal on March 29, 2007- “You are interviewing the greatest free trader you will ever interview, and the greatest deregulator you will ever interview.”

It’s true that John McCain has always been attracted to hyperbole. But I trust that at his core, he really believed it when he said it. How galling it must have been to realize that he was caught up in a quagmire that demanded one of the largest government interventions in our history. And he also must have figured out that he couldn’t sit this one out. After all, he’s running to be the nation’s leader. Yet at the same time, he must have known that he would be essentially irrelevant to the process that would work out this issue. The Congress is controlled by Democrats, and like it or not any solution will be theirs to own. They don’t need a single Republican supporter, because whatever bill they work out with Bush and Co. will not be vetoed.

So what do you do if you are John McCain? Try to insert yourself and try to look useful… like a “statesman”. It doesn’t hurt if you can use the opportunity to threaten non-involvement in a crucially important presidential debate and criticize your opponent for continuing his campaign (while you step up your own). Now you (in your role of John McCain, after your 22-hour flight from New York City) are in Washington and completely superfluous- effectively shut out of the process and needing to look busy. If you try to muster your colleagues to join you in support of the legislation, you alienate them from those they claim to represent back home. If you are unable to get their support, then you look like a failure. If you join the Democrats, you look like a turncoat and a hypocrite.

The reward is entirely front-loaded. What’s to gain on the back end? All McCain has to look forward to is some good PR to offer to moderates and the undecided… that is, if he can get the press on his side. That’s going to be hard to do with the constant criticism he has directed at them over the last few weeks. And how does he vote for a “rescue” that he had no part in engineering, and still distinguish himself from Obama, whose side he has effectively joined? Who’s going to trust John McCain - the Republicans, the Democrats, or the media?

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

McCain's Tactics Expose Unsuccessful Strategy at Debate.

As anyone who has made up their mind already about who should be the next US president should be able to admit, it is awfully difficult to analyze a debate with a large portion of objectivity. That's why I have a bit of hesitation about declaring a "winner" in last night's event. I think the best way to assess the performances is to consider what the expectations were for each candidate before they stepped up on stage. The McCain campaign's initial efforts to make the subject of the first debate "foreign policy" was telling. Clearly they believe that this is McCain's strength, and I don't think you'd find many impartial observers that would suggest that the GOP candidate hasn't put his focus on overseas issues throughout his career.

On the other side, there was a lot of talk about Obama's lack of experience in world politics, and therefore an accompanying expectation that this would not be his strongest in this series of three presidential debates. Obviously his opponents expected an easy win for McCain. That's what makes the responses after last night's contest so notable. I was hard-pressed to find anyone claiming that McCain had won a significant victory, despite his supposed strength on foreign policy issues. To be fair, the first 40 minutes or so incorporated discussion about the crisis on Wall Street, and how it effects national standing. There is no one (except for perhaps his campaign) claiming that this is a particularly strong suit for John McCain. But still, the "more experienced" candidate should have had a distinct advantage, given the theme. If he did, he failed to fully capitalize on it.

I find it telling that several major media sources came out and called the debate in Obama's favor (including Time Magazine and The New York Times). Meanwhile the CNN viewer poll "had Obama winning overall by a margin of 51-38. Even more problematic for the McCain/Palin ticket, a CBS poll found that thirty-nine percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate thought Barack Obama was the winner. Twenty-four percent thought John McCain won. Thirty-seven percent saw it as a draw. While the conventional wisdom says that the initial reaction to debates can change over a few days, it's going to be hard for the Right Wing media machine to spin this to McCain's advantage. They will likely just cite "liberal media bias".

Unfortunately for the political dialog in this country, a lot of Americans make their judgments on superficial criteria. I suspect that this (for a change) will also hinder the perception of John McCain. His campaign tried to make the case that Obama looked defensive by agreeing with his aggressive opponent on a number of issues. While they suggested that this made Obama look "weak", the approach may end up making the Illinois senator look less "extreme" and more open to bipartisan diplomacy- which has been a big part of the strategy all along. On the other hand, I thought that the attack-dog version of McCain came off as more peevish than decisive (partially because he refused to look Obama in the eye). There have already been comparisons to the 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy. I wouldn't be surprised if that narrative reference sticks to this one.

As far as the specific content of the arguments presented by each side, there was nothing new for the informed viewer. Obama tied McCain to Bush's disastrous presidential agenda, and directed attention to the Arizona senator's unstinting commitment to a very unpopular war. McCain called out Obama on his opposition to the surge and continuously repeated the talking point that his opponent "just doesn't understand". I did find McCain's references to his record as not being the "Miss Congeniality" of the Senate puzzling. And his attack regarding Obama's supposed confusion over "tactics" and "strategy" was not only condescending, but flat-out wrong (I found it surprising that someone with an undeniable history in the military would screw that one up).

Overall, I can't see how anyone could come to the conclusion that this debate will be viewed as an asset for McCain in this race. This was his opportunity for an "early" knock-out punch on his chosen ground, and he failed to deliver it. Contrary to the claims of the McCain/Palin ticket, Obama came across as reliable, unflappable, and "presidential". Now the question of McCain's stamina rises to the forefront. He's behind and has to mount some sort of comeback. He's employed a few stunts that have largely fallen flat. Next up we have the confrontation between Palin and Biden, and the nation will be watching to see if McCain's running mate will be able to reverse the growing questions of her capabilities. That should garner a huge audience.

NOTE: If you are interested in reading an analysis of the various "misrepresentations" delivered in the debate, this site is a relatively unbiased one.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Self-Imposed Blackout for McCain/Palin.

It's remarkable just how fast information can become obsolete during this campaign season. I wrote yesterday's post on Wednesday, shortly before I heard about McCain's intention to pull out of Friday's debate. That fact didn't change a single thing that I wrote about, yet it still gave my analysis a sheen of dust. Because it turns out that even presidential debates, despite being programmed months in advance, can be sabotaged or even cancelled solely on the basis of one candidate's whim. It doesn't matter how much preparation, time, money, and energy the organizers have invested in the event; apparently if it's not viewed as convenient for one of the major players, he can just call the whole thing off. However, I can't find any record of it ever happening before.

Perhaps John McCain will reconsider his impetuous decision and rejoin the presidential race*. Maybe by the time you read this post, everything will have once again changed. Still I'd like to get my thoughts out regarding this latest controversy. Like many other Americans, I have been eagerly anticipating this showdown. I'm getting sick of the superficial posturing, the political maneuvering, and the dishonest ads. It's time to let these candidates face each other and the voting public. This is simply not the time for more backroom strategizing. There is plenty of that going on in the Legislature among those who are already on the appropriate committees to be dealing with this latest financial crisis.

Like many other observers, I suspect that McCain's decision was alomst completely about political expediency. Wednesday saw the release of a Washington Post/ABC poll that had Obama leading McCain 52-43%. The was the biggest differential in favor of Obama for months. In fact, the last time a candidate lost after this large a lead in September was in 1948, when Thomas Dewey lost to Harry S. Truman. Personally I distrust polls. But it seems that McCain's handlers watch them quite closely. Another factor** that dealt a huge blow to the GOP ticket was Wednesday's "revelation" within the mainstream media that McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis was an influential lobbyist for Fannie Mae during key years in the housing crisis.

For the past couple weeks John McCain has systematically squandered the boost he got from his previous "Hail Mary"-style gimmick- the selection of his running mate Sarah Palin. His proclamation that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong", his tradition of being a staunch deregulator, a general impression that he is "out-of-touch", an almost daily flip-flopping on his position regarding the bailout of Wall Street, and the claim that he would fire the SEC Chairman if he were president left the majority of Americans doubting his ability to act responsibly when it comes to the economy. Meanwhile Sarah Palin was increasingly displaying the fundamental lack of capabilty that keeps many wondering whether she should be anywhere near the presidency.

Given the situation McCain and his handlers found themselves in, it's no wonder that they sought a game-changing move that would distract the American Public from their campaign's steady collapse. So despite the fact that he hasn't cast a vote in the Senate since April 8th, and the general assumption that his economic credentials are dubious, he decided that he would "suspend his campaign" and go back to Wahington. Never mind that the negotiations regarding the bail-out have been underway for more than a week. This move is entirely in line with his self-imposed removal from the media. This past Tuesday he had his first press conference in 40 days. And the McCain campaign has not let Palin have one since her selection. Was anyone truly surprised that John McCain wanted to get out of the nationwide debates?

*Ok... well the truth is that he never did actually "suspend" his campaign. It was more than an empty gesture, however. Apparently John McCain went to DC to throw a wrench into a budding agreement between moderate Republican senators, the Democrats in Congress, and Bush.

** ... along with another terrible press appearance by Sarah Palin (with Katie Couric).

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bring on the Debates!

Having expressed my serious reservations about the validity of a series of debates with rules agreed upon behind closed doors by the two major political parties, I still have to admit that I'm looking forward to watching the candidates square off against each other. Supporters of both sides have been boasting about the verbal abilities of their respective candidates. Will John McCain lose his temper, or appear to be hopelessly out-of-touch in his dotage? Will Barack Obama be too long-winded, and will he be able to dispel Republican accusations branding him as an "elitist"? It's clear that there are some clearly defined tasks for each politician. Some observers suggest that these debates could have a decisive effect on a close election.

One interesting dimension that has already been examined concerns the agreements that the sides made regarding the structure of these "contests". The McCain campaign had two notable desires for the debates. They wanted to have a tightly-structured format for the entire series, in order to compensate for their candidates' perceived disadvantages in loose and flowing exchanges. Both McCain and Palin rely quite heavily on previously-scripted jabs and "folksy" witticisms. They excel in their combined ability to deliver sound-byte worthy declarative statements on the issues. Obama on the other hand is commonly considered to be an excellent improvisational speaker. He also tends to include more nuance and complexity in his answers.

Obviously there is some give-and-take involved in the secret negotiations of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Apparently the compromise that the Republicans and Democrat reached was that the presidential debates would allow for more free-flowing interaction, while the VP debates would be tightly controlled. This reflects the special concern that Palin's handlers have about her debating abilities. The New York Times reports that "McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive." At first glance this decsion seems to favor the GOP. Palin will have less opportunity to make another potentially "fatal" gaffe.

However, a case could be made that Biden will be assisted by the extra structure as well. He is well-known for his penchant for delivering provocative statements and using more words than necessary to make his point. In addition, there will be less possibility that Biden will appear brutal in his aggressive attacks on Palin's "qualifications". One thing the Biden people worry about is the "damsel-in-distress" sympathy factor. On the other hand, the trade-off is that Obama will be free to exploit John McCain's weaknesses. The 72-year old has often looked confused and unfocused in recent television interviews. If Obama can avoid looking condescending, this should be a major advantage.

On the second issue, the McCain campaign has definitely received its preference. The first presidential debate was initially supposed to be focused on the economy. This has been the source of tremendous difficulty for the McCain/Palin ticket over the last couple of weeks. McCain has been a consistent deregulator throughout his political career, and he needs more than a few days to rehabilitate that image. Despite his baffling comments about the Spanish Prime Minister, many consider foreign policy a strength for McCain. Obama meanwhile needs to appear authoritative on an issue that has led many critics to bring up his relative "lack of experience". If he can convey that he understands what is at stake, he could enter the following debates (in which he is clearly stronger) unscathed.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Trying to Understand Another Wall Street Crisis.

Like many across the nation and in the blogosphere, I've been investing a fair amount of time trying to learn as much as I can about the crisis on Wall Street. The last time I had an economics course was approximately nineteen years ago, and to say this is all new to me is a bit of an understatement. Still, people who have had an extensive background in the field and in universities seem just as confused. I think it's important to figure out as much as I can about the issues facing our nation, even (or perhaps especially) if so many of the major players seem intent on obscuring the reality. So I'm going to continue to plunge in and try and gather as much information from as many diverse sources as possible.

One of the most problematic aspects of the way the Government has responded so far rests squarely with the Bush administration. Along with Henry Paulson (US Treasury Secretary) and Ben Bernanke (Chairman of the Federal Reserve), the president seems bound and determined to force Congress into acting without much reflection. This, of course, comes as no surprise for anyone following along closely over the last eight years. The strategy seems to entail systematically letting things get so out of hand that it's possible to scare the political opposition into agreeing to "emergency measures" that further the Bush agenda for America. I've always suspected that those in power want to bankrupt the federal government in order to stifle progressive action.

So a $700 billion bail-out proposal has been delivered to Congress, and action is demanded this week. Within this proposal is embedded a very simple message- profits are privatized and losses are socialized. Who is genuinely surprised by the audacity being displayed here? There is NO oversight in this plan. There is NO reward for the taxpaying public that is asked to shoulder the financial burden of a cabal of criminals who knew exactly what was at stake when they risked the public welfare for their own material gain. Paulson continues to threaten the US with a deep recession if his rewards package for inefficient and corrupt financial institutions is not approved without change. But most observers suggest that severe economic pain is going to happen regardless.

Exactly who is looking out for the public good? I'm happy to report that both parties are resisting Paulson's onerous package. Yet I wonder about the motivation. Times Online is reporting that McCain's advisers and some senior Republicans are telling him to exercise the "nuclear option". They believe that a "populist" stance might be a "game-changing" move that would win him the election. So they are saying he must oppose the bailout. But for at least a few days John McCain has taken the position that something must be done for the future of the economy. Fortunately he doesn't feel as desperate about his chances for the White House as those around him. He still maintains* that he is committed to a bipartisan resolution. We'll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile no one in Congress seems anxious to accept the Bush/Paulson/Bernanke plan. Everyone insists that there must be more oversight. I find it remarkable that the GOP is abandoning its long-held, unquestioning position as the official standard-bearer of deregulation and "unfettered free-markets". But despite the "bipartisan" opposition to the Bush Administration's "no-condition bail-out", there is a significant difference between what the Democrats and Republicans are seeking. Barack Obama** and the Democrats are trying to ensure that the American taxpayer gets some kind of chance for reward in exchange for assuming risky investments. That condition is noticeably absent in the current McCain plan.

* I think it might serve the reader to have McCain's words documented now, in case he does end up engaging in another flip-flop:

"Inaction is not an option. The American people are watching, history will be our judge and it will judge us harshly if we do not put our country first," McCain said in his first press availability in six weeks." Link.

** Obama also seems to be looking past the crisis in an effort not to continue repeating the same mistakes. "Obama said he would aim to prevent another crisis by pushing for measures to curb the influence of lobbyists, streamline and strengthen regulatory agencies, crack down on no-bid government contracts and make government more open and transparent." Link.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The 2008 Presidential Debates, Brought to You By the CPD (?)

As most readers must surely be aware of by now, we are entering the debate period of the 2008 Presidential General Election. The first event will be held on Friday evening at Ole Miss, September 26th, moderated by Jim Lehrer, and broadcast on PBS affiliates. The remaining presidential debates are on October 7th (Tom Brokaw, Nashville, NBC), and October 15th (Bob Schieffer, Hofstra, CBS). The VP showdown, which could possibly garner a larger viewership due to the immense hype surrounding Sarah Palin, will be on October 2 at Washington University in St. Louis, and hosted by PBS' Gwen Ifill. For a short time (at least) the candidates will hunker down and bone up on the issues.

Given the contentious nature of these campaigns so far, it comes as no surprise that the terms and conditions of the debates are controversial. It's notable (of course) that only the nominees from the two major political parties have been invited to participate in these events. There will be no spoiler candidate in 2008. I find this particularly disconcerting because the two-party system makes our political dialog simplistic, and adds to the impression that every position must be framed in black-and-white terms. This type of "you are either with us or against us"-style of politics is more appropriate for an audience of 13-year olds than a purportedly "sophisticated" electorate. Pehaps one day we will see the rise of a viable third party.

Anyway, it is fascinating to study the arguments and negotiations that occur before the major players even take to the stage. Did you know that a "bipartisan" organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) ultimately makes the important decisions regarding the debates? The CPD is apparently a non-profit, 501(c)(3) entity as defined by Federal US tax laws, funded entirely by corporate contributions. The organization is headed by Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, former heads of the Republican and Democratic National Commitees, respectively. It was founded in 1987, and has only regulated debates since the 1988 presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

Right from its inception, the CPD generated criticism. In 1988, the League of Women Voters was the first to voice its objections. That association notably charged that "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." It may not be surprising that the League of Women Voters was offended by what they saw as a power-grab by the Republican and Democratic parties. Indeed the LWV had served the crucial moderating role in the presidential debates of 1976, 1980, and 1984. They were usurped by the major parties, who colluded to involve corporate contributions (soft money) in the sponsorship of the event. After the CPD takeover, corporations realized they could curry favor with both parties by donating funds.

Indeed the CPD is heavily influenced by the private sector today. According to the Open Debates website, "many board members of the CPD have close ties to multinational corporations; Frank Fahrenkopf is the nation's leading gambling industry lobbyist, and Paul Kirk lobbies for pharmaceutical companies." In the meantime, the two major parties resolve any issues involving the participation of third-party candidates behind closed doors. The CPD has no hard-and-fast rules either. In 2000, Ralph Nadar sued the CPD for arbitrarily requiring any participant to show at least 15% support across five national polls. If this is a concern for you (as it is for me) please support the initiatives of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a site working to replace the CPD with the Citizen's Debate Commission.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Sarah Palin's Obstruction of Justice.

Mercifully, people finally seem to be coming to the understanding that the Sarah Palin phenomena consists mostly of empty calories. While the Christian Right is determined to back her solely on the merits of her "socially conservative" views, and her "anointed-by-God" status, the rest of America is starting to have second thoughts about her capability to play a role in the federal government. Even in pre-scripted performances with Sean Hannity, and "Town Hall"-style meetings with meticulous pre-screening by GOP agents, Palin looks woefully under-prepared to assume any important office, let alone the vice presidency. Important members within the Republican party are finally admitting she is a liability for the McCain campaign.

Keeping Sarah Palin protected from the "liberal media" will likely be just one among many problems that the presumptive VP presents the GOP. They are going to have to (somehow) prepare her for the debates if she is to avoid embarrassing herself , her supporters, and her party... let alone provide further ammunition for her opponents in their quest to impugn McCain's political and personal judgment. But there is an even bigger threat on the horizon then a debate with Joe Biden. Palin (and by extension the National Republican Party) has to watch out for the Alaskan legislature. It doesn't appear that the bipartisan coalition that has been bound-and-determined to investigate Palin's possible abuse-of-power wants to back off.

I'm not going to get into the intricacies of "Troopergate" in this post. Any reader who is unfamiliar with this scandal has had plenty of opportunities to inform himself already. If you don't know what is at stake in this case, then it's likely that you really don't want to know. However, you should be aware that the investigation into possible malfeasance in the dismissal of popular Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan is taken very seriously in the Great White North. In fact that's probably why Palin herself directed her Attorney General (Talis Coberg) to initiate a separate in-house investigation to look into the allegations. Unfortunately for Palin, Colberg himself knew she was lying... indeed he was personally involved in the controversy.

Before Palin accepted McCain's offer to join his ticket, she expressed a willingness to cooperate with the Alaskan Congressional investigation (it must be pointed out here that the Alaskan legislature is controlled by Republicans). But predictably, when it became a possible black mark for the McCain campaign, she began to take every possible step to delay the release of that inquiry's conclusions. First she suggested that the state Personnel Board had jurisdiction over ethics issues. She called for another review of the findings. Then the legislators decided to expedite the investigation and set an October 10th completion date for the study. At last in a state of complete desperation, Palin (and/or the McCain campaign) ordered all of her administration (along with her husband Todd) to disobey subpoenas. Such an action is a criminal violation.

Perhaps Sarah Palin thinks she can pull the wool over the eyes of observers in the Lower 48, and convince everyone that she did nothing wrong. She's obviously proven herself completely capable of fooling a large proportion of the Republican base. But from all available evidence, she is not going to be able to do that in Alaska. The residents of that state are fiercely independent, and don't seem to follow the conventional party divide. In fact it is Alaskan Republicans that are driving the Palin investigation. It occurs to me to suggest that maybe we could learn something from their example. Do we really want someone else this close to the Oval Office who enforces loyalty by imposing a gag rule on his/her employees? Do we want another executive that refuses to cooperate with criminal investigations? Do we need four more years of that?

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Matt Reeves, "Cloverfield" (2008).

For the last year or so I've been pining for the release of an intelligent and atmospheric horror movie. That type of product is rarely forthcoming from the American film industry. Hollywood producers seem mostly concerned with establishing a commercially successful franchise that they can ride for several films, building on name recognition and familiarity. Alternatively their product is so chock-full of big budget special effects that there is very little room left for compelling characters or an interesting storyline. Much has been made out of the supposed return to the 70's approach to horror filmmaking. I simply don't see it. Hungry viewers still need to look abroad for quality movies in this genre.

Of course one can always hope. I still scan the Onion A/V Club and Amazon for the latest releases in the theater and on DVD. I'll still pick up a title that shows promise, especially if I need one last movie to get that special deal on previewed discs at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. I try to pay special attention to what appear to be "indie-films", although marketers have gotten better at exploiting the promise of a "diamond-in-the-rough". Flicks like The Blair Witch Project and Session 9 seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and it seems inevitable that a similar work of art will eventually be made. Generally the less hype associated with a film, the more likely I am to consider watching it. I have high standards.

When Cloverfield was released earlier this year, my interest was piqued. It got a fair amount of positive reviews from the sources I trust. It had a no-name cast and was created by a first-time feature director. Somehow (either because it genuinely was "below-the-radar" or due to the fact that I'm not tuned in to mainstream media) I really didn't know what Cloverfield was supposed to be about. Truthfully, that contributed to my enjoyment of the film. If you haven't yet seen it and think that you might- perhaps you should stop reading now. While the mystery is revealed early enough, it does add something to the experience and the anticipation helps you get through the rather annoying party scenes at the beginning.

Part of the difficulty with a story revolving around the unexplained appearance of a horrendous monster is the distraction that the thing entails. If some monumental creature is attacking NYC, it's going to be awfully difficult for the characters to compete with it. So it's a bit naïve of the director to truly believe he can make the audience care about the players. Still he gamely attempts to bring their personalities and relationships into focus. It's too bad really, because by the time that Reeves introduces his elements of destruction, I'd already come to hate most of the actors. The interactions between them is just too pro forma. This is not a film that works at the level of the individual.

Having said that, Cloverfield does have its entertaining moments. It's main asset is its setting. Manhattan does a yeoman's job of engaging the audience. Obviously the filmmakers have exploited the feelings and memories arising from "the day everything changed". I don't know how 9-11 survivors have reacted to the doomsday scenario of this flick, but I was captivated by the mayhem caused by the monster. It's pretty easy to relate to the panic that ensues when people start feeling trapped on the island. And Cloverfield is kept to a very reasonable 84 minutes (with more than ten of those devoted to the credits). That left its creators free from the onerous tasks of explaining how and why everything happened the way it did. Many thanks are due the editors.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Buffalo and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Note: Sorry this post appears a bit out of context in relation to the last couple of weeks of this blog. Obviously my attentions have been diverted by recent national events. I've been sitting on this account of my trip for awhile, waiting for an opportunity to slip it into the stream. I suppose the timing is a bit arbitrary... but after all, it is the weekend.

From the postings I've written regarding my recent trip to Western NY, it would be hard to guess that I spent a lot of time in Buffalo. That's mainly because I occupied myself with driving around the city, rather than journeying to specific pre-planned destinations. I did check out what are supposed to be the "hip" neighborhoods around town. Allentown was small and slightly gritty, appealing to younger hipsters. One inhabitant pointed me toward Elmwood and told me it was walkable from Allen Street. While this is technically true, I don't recommend it. The blocks are long and once you reach the first stretch of businesses, you are likely to be tired. Take the car instead. You'll find parking.

Elmwood is like any other gentrified urban enclave. It's got the swank restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques, and upscale art galleries you might expect to find in any similar area. Interestingly, residential blocks are interspersed among the component commercial districts, so the Village seems to stretch on and on. And it has the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which I had identified as one of the few essential stops on my trip. The place is much more properly referred to as a museum. It's large and housed in a building with classic Beaux arts architecture. It also has a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions, with many galleries to mount them in. Plus the admission fee is $10, no matter how late in the day you happen to arrive.

The focus of the Albright-Knox collection is clearly post WW-II abstract expressionism. This isn't a particular interest of mine, so I wandered through the representative offerings quickly. There is also a smattering of stuff comprising a survey of late 18th and early-20th century art history. I guess every museum worth its salt needs a Monet, a Picasso, a Dali, etc. The first floor happened to feature an exhibition of Pop art as well... which obviously constituted no novelty for an art fan from Pittsburgh. Additionally, there's a small selection of photos along a narrow hallway to represent the Gallery's longstanding interest in the medium (apparently the Albright-Knox was on of the first institutions to hold a "Photographic Pictorial Exhibition").

On the second floor I found a substantial grouping of works from the Op Art movement of the 1960's. The curator of Op Art Revisited traces its development to the square paintings of the German Josef Albers in the 30's. Later abstract painters like Richard Anuszkiewicz, Bridget Riley, Julian Stanczak, and Victor Vasarely were inspired by Albers to explore the use of parallel lines, concentric circles, and electric colors to create the visual effects of movement and afterimage. Despite the fact that critics wrote off Op Art as a dead end, contemporary artists have re-engaged many of its ideas with the advent of computers and digital technology. At any rate, the stuff is a lot of fun to look at (and its there until January 25, 2009).

Other temporary exhibits included REMIX: Recent Acquisitions. Works on Paper and Works on Paper: The Natalie and Irving Forman Collection. Of the latter, I can only describe my distinct lack of interest. It was predominantly minimalism of the abstract conceptual variety. But I enjoyed the former show for its variety and timeliness. Many of the artists chosen for display are younger than I am. Standouts included Robert Brinker, Lisa Yuskavage and Peregrine Honig. Overall I was impressed at the size and scope of the Albright-Knox, and I certainly recommend a visit. It will be interesting to see what Heather Pesanti (former CMA assistant curator) will do with the place.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Condoleezza Rice Tries To Re-ignite The Cold War.

I can't tell you how many times in the last few weeks I have had people suggest that I am a "communist" because I disagree with them about the proper direction of our county. This would be completely understandable if I was advocating the common ownership of all property in the United States, or if I wanted a single, self-perpetuating political party to control all aspects of the nation's social and economic spheres. If I was stating my support for such a situation, then it would be fair to accuse me of communist tendencies. That's clear because those are the definitive conditions necessary for that type of government. But I've never been in favor of those things. No, instead my opponents are reacting to my support of Barack Obama- who coincidentally has also never called for the aforementioned measures.

How long is it going to be before the McCarthy-ites in the extreme Right Wing abandon the tired and ignorant tactic of branding all those who disagree with them as "communists", "socialists", or "Marxists"? Never mind that these terms are used interchangeably as if they were truly communicating the same thing (a "socialist" is in favor of the government assuming control over the country's "means of production", and a "Marxist" is someone who follows the philosophies of Karl Marx*). Never mind that I've never actually met an American who seriously aligns himself with these views. These are simply outdated labels that have lost any connection to the reality of the world. Someone needs to remind "conservatives" that employ these labels that the Soviet Union collapsed nearly two decades ago.

Still the spectre of our former "superpower" rival seems to loom large on the periphery of GOP perception. I was frankly dismayed to hear about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comments to an audience at the German Marshall Fund on September 18th. If you aren't familiar with what she said, here are some highlights:

Our strategic goal now is to make it clear to Russia's leaders that their choices are putting Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance. (...) Russia's international standing is worse now than at any time since 1991. And the cost of this self-inflicted isolation has been steep.”

In typical Red-baiting fashion, the Bush Administration's reigning "Sovietologist" called out the world's largest nation (and the world's largest exporter of natural gas, the second largest oil exporter and the third largest energy consumer) in one of the most provocative manners possible.

Besides the fact that Rice's position betrays the essential hypocrisy of the Bush administration, it exposes the decreasing relevance the United States has on the international stage. Bush can send out his surrogates to deliver veiled warnings to rising powers all he wants- but the sad truth is that the policies put in place by this presidential administration (with the fawning assistance of Republican legislators) have consistently eroded our ability to be respected (or even feared) by would-be competitors. Given our inability to stabilize a third world country such as Iraq, I don't think Rice is fooling anyone. She is merely inflaming any two-bit opponent that dreams of giving the United States a hard time.

I believe it's time for us to take a good hard look at our new standing in the world. No matter what you might hear from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly or John McCain- our self-image as the dominant force in the international realm is becoming nothing but a delusion. Our economy is on the brink of collapse. The free market system that we've been trying to forcibly impose on the rest of the world is in dire need of re-evaluation. More and more we are being seen as a "paper tiger". And as far as "socialism" is concerned, the Bush administration is embracing that approach with its proposal to nationalize the home mortgage industry. It's time to abandon previous assumptions.

*Characterized by a "system of economic and political thought developed by Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, esp. the doctrine that the state throughout history has been a device for the exploitation of the masses by a dominant class, that class struggle has been the main agency of historical change, and that the capitalist system, containing from the first the seeds of its own decay, will inevitably, after the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, be superseded by a socialist order and a classless society."

- Dictionary.com

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

John McCain, "The Greatest Deregulator".

The US economy seems to be coming apart at the seams. The Federal Reserve recently announced its latest bail-out- the AIG Corporation. The Reserve has offered an $85 billion loan to be paid back over the course of the next two years. Of course this comes on the heels of government rescues of other private corporations like Bear-Stearns and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac (which readers of this blog certainly do not have to be reminded of). It's interesting to note that previous to this latest action, federal officials importuned the private sector to come up with some funds to save a crucial cog in its machine, but alas, when true saving is required it seems the government is always the fallback plan.

This is especially galling given that the private sector bemoans government intervention whenever they perceive it as a risk to their unfettered pursuit of short-term profits. I can't tell you how many times I've had to listen to armchair economists and "libertarians" extol the virtues of the Private Sector, and its vast superiority at meeting the needs of the American citizenry. These folks push for deregulation at every turn, and turn their heads when their Wall Street idols extend their hands for more taxpayer dollars to save their collective ass. The fact is that their self-interest always overwhelms their principles. When push-comes-to-shove they remind us that we are all "collectivists" when we are in trouble.

So the financial markets continue to make crucial mistakes that we are asked to pay for when times are bad, and then fight tooth-and-nail against giving anything back when things are going "well". When any politician even hints about raising corporate taxes, he/she is branded a "socialist", yet when "free market" adherents get themselves and the nation's economy into a crisis and require corporate welfare from the government, they are quick to remind us that "we are all in this together." I'm no expert in economics (and neither are you), but it doesn't take a genius to realize that we are getting bilked. There are very real individuals exploiting the myth that Capitalists can do no wrong.

These corporate pirates build their "house of cards" and resent anyone who wants to take a close look at its foundation. According to their worldview, government is corrupt and inefficient and has nothing to offer in its regulatory capacity. That's why a guy with a record like John McCain is so alluring for them. By his own admission, he doesn't know much about economics either. But he does have a solid record of being anti-regulation. His most notable bipartisanship effort was his membership in the Keating Five. That esteemed group of senators ignited a major scandal as part of the Savings and Loan crisis of the 80's. It cost the American taxpayer more than an estimated $180 billlion.

So John McCain does know a thing or two about the perils of relinquishing government oversight of crucial US financial markets. So why does he take such great pains to remind us that he is the "Greatest Deregulator"?* Besides the fact that it is the one time he seems to be telling the truth, it could have something to do with his top economic advisors. In the 1990's, Phil Gramm worked overtime as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee to deregulate the banking and financial services industry. And then there is Carly Fiorina, whose biggest claim to fame so far is having been fired by Hewlett Packard for having engineered a failed merger with Compaq. Of course McCain mostly uses her to level charges of "sexism" against Barack Obama. But at least she admits that neither McCain or Palin have the executive experience to run a major corporation.

Bottom line- the "markets" are not going to sort themselves out. We need to start thinking on a longer-term basis. Neither John McCain nor his advisors can be trusted on the subject of the economy.

* “You are interviewing the greatest free trader you will ever interview, and the greatest deregulator you will ever interview

-John McCain, As Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, March 29,2007.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Where In the World is Hillary Clinton?

As Barack Obama looked more and more likely to win the primary election this past summer, many observers wondered if Hillary Clinton would accept the decision of the voters. Perhaps she would try to find a way to include the excluded delegates from Michigan and Florida. Maybe she would try to make the case that Obama couldn't win the bigger swing states, and attempt to outmaneuver his campaign at the convention. As the time approached for her to either accept or dispute the outcome of the race, everyone waited with anticipation to see what she would do. Obviously, by now the entire nation knows what happened- she conceded the race and pledged to support Obama's candidacy in the general election, and her husband convincingly echoed those sentiments.

Still people wondered whether the Clintons would feel snubbed because Hillary was not tagged as Obama's running mate. Conventional wisdom suggested that she was likely considered, before being rejected in favor of Joe Biden. The McCain campaign exploited the situation by picking an unknown female politician from a remote state as his Vice Presidential nominee. Since then Sarah Palin has energized the base and inspired an avalanche of charges and countercharges among the media, her fans and detractors. In the meantime she has been vocal in praising the Clinton candidacy, claiming to have been inspired by Hillary's example. She has also tried to claim the support of "disenchanted" Clinton voters.

That latest charge is, at its core, essentially irrational. How any reasonable supporter of a Clinton candidacy could transfer his/her loyalties to Palin simply because of gender boggles my mind, and makes me a bit contemptuous of their mental capabilities. Their positions on all of the major issues are virtually dichotomous. Still we are told by Right Wing pundits and the McCain/Palin campaign that women voters who had formerly backed Clinton are flocking to the other side. I suspect that many of these folks are the so-called "PUMAs" that only voted for Hillary at the behest of hack radio host Rush Limbaugh. His calculated attempt to stop the Obama candidacy by having Republicans register to vote in the Democratic primaries fell flat on its face (see Operation Chaos).

But the lip service that disingenuous "conservatives" paid Clinton only betrayed their fears of an Obama victory. The same thing holds true post-convention. The idea that Sarah Palin would represent the core values of women drawn to Hillary Clinton is patently ridiculous. This is a politician who believes that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. This is a governor who knowingly replaced the fired public safety commissioner (who had refused to sack her ex-brother-in-law) with someone with an alleged history of sexual harassment*. Meanwhile the executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault reports that the high rates of domestic violence and rape in Palin's state "haven't been on her radar as a priority".

McCain's record on "women's issues" is even worse. He has been vocal in his opposition to the Equal Pay Bill for Women, and has suggested that what they need instead is more "education and training"**. In an attempt to kill existing legislation, he voted to suspend the Family and Medical Leave Act, "unless the federal government certified that compliance would not increase business expenses or provide financial assistance to businesses to cover any related costs." And like his running mate, McCain supports the overturning of Roe v. Wade. However, despite these concerns, Hillary Clinton is allowing the McCain/Palin ticket to claim her former supporters without any substantive challenge. Her campaign staffers have said that they won't allow her to be used as Obama's "attack dog". While that is certainly their right, it makes me wonder about her intentions and speculations about 2012.

*As a result of the public disclosure of these complaints, Chuck Kopp resigned two weeks after Sarah Palin appointed him. Palin admits having been aware of these reports when she offered him the position.

**Maybe the training he has in mind is the VP position?

ENDNOTE: This post was inspired in part by Carlo Osi's articulate and insightful analysis, "The Clinton Factor versus the Palin Effect". Please read it here.

POSTSCRIPT: I wrote this post on Tuesday, and then found out later that Hillary Clinton had a few words with Diane Sawyer (on Good Morning America) . Could this be the start of real support for the Obama/Biden campaign? Well, she did make a point of trying to redirect the attention from Palin to McCain. I'm not quite sure that spin is the best she can do for the ticket at this point.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is Richard Wright's Death the Final "Brick in the Wall"?

As a once rabid fan of the English rock band Pink Floyd, I was saddened to learn of the death of founding member Richard Wright. The 65-year old keyboard player and composer died of cancer on September 15th. While it might be easy for a casual fan to overlook Wright's contributions to the band's signature sound, anyone who has studied Pink Floyd in depth realizes just how important he was. Not only did he write most of his own parts, but he also sang lead vocals on several memorable tunes, including "Astronomy Domine" (written by Syd Barrett), "Time" (from Dark Side of the Moon), and "Echoes" (from the seminal album of the same name).

Even before The Pink Floyd Sound existed in name (1965), Wright was considered a significant contributor by bandmates Barrett, Roger Waters and Nick Mason. Wright met Waters and Mason at Regent Street Polytechnic College of Architecture, and together they played under the names "The Abdabs" and "Sigma 6". Wright's imprint is all over the first Pink Floyd album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Although he eventually lost interest in being a songwriter, Wright continued to provide compositions for such classics as "The Great Gig in the Sky", "Us and Them", "One of These Days", "Careful With That Axe, Eugene", and "Interstellar Overdrive". Suffice it to say that the early period Pink Floyd would not have been the same without him.

Given Wright's important role in the development of the band, it's a shame that Roger Waters' eclipsing ego shunted him aside during the recording sessions for The Wall (around 1979). In fact Waters threatened to end the entire project if Wright did not leave the band. Still Wright agreed to play on The Wall tour as a "hired gun". It's worth mentioning that Wright and drummer Nick Mason are the only two members of Pink Floyd to appear on every tour the band ever did. After Waters left for good in the early-80's, Wright got back with guitarist David Gilmour and Mason for the recording of two albums and several tours. He also released two solo albums during his career (1978 and 1996) and one with a short-lived band called "Zee" (1984).

Even though Pink Floyd continued without Roger Waters, I always had a hard time accepting them under that name. Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell were fine records for what they were- which was an incomplete form of a band I used to call my favorite. As I only really engaged their music in depth long after they had ceased to be vital, I always hoped that one day they would all come together for another album. I've never heard Richard Wight's solo music, but I have heard the work of Gilmour and Waters performing separately. None of it reached the standard of excellence that distinguished Pink Floyd during initial run. In 2005, Roger Waters stepped onstage in London and played a short set with the rest of "Pink Floyd". I've never seen or heard that performance.

I've heard several interviews in which David Gilmour spoke about the possibility of a full reunion of Pink Floyd (sans Syd Barrett, obviously, who died in 2006). He never made it sound very promising. His point was that it was a bit self-indulgent and unnecessary to try to recapture one's youthful glory in the midst of middle age. I found this argument fairly convincing. The magic of art doesn't come with the mere congregation of creators. It's a function of context, shared experience, zeitgeist, compatibility, abilities, and a myriad of other details. Sure, there may be calls for some collective gesture in the wake of Richard Wright's death. Perhaps it will be the proper time to put old festering resentments aside. But that doesn't mean they should ever perform together again.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

A Few Thoughts Upon the Death of David Foster Wallace.

In the midst of the slew of election coverage, I heard a very distressing message this past Saturday night. David Foster Wallace, perhaps the seminal author of the X-generation, was discovered by his wife on Friday, dead and hanging in his Claremont, CA house. At 46 years of age, many folks expected Wallace to continue writing and publishing both non-fiction and fiction for many years. I've read several of his books, and personally looked forward to what I thought would be numerous future installments from the brain of an extraordinarily articulate and nuanced thinker. His 1008 -page magnum opus Infinte Jest (1996) was (to my mind) one of the most substantial works created by any contemporary fiction writer.

I heard the tragic news in my car, while I was driving to a friend's house for a small get-together. I tried to locate someone by phone who had both heard of Wallace and had read his work. I wanted somehow to share a moment of consolation, and perhaps raise a virtual toast to his memory and achievements. It was tough to find someone who met that criteria, and I only did so after several attempts. In retrospect, I think it's a bit of a shame that so few intelligent, well-read folks have ever actually read David Foster Wallace. I suppose that fact speaks to the general lack of interest in challenging, well-written literature nowadays. No doubt there would be a rising chorus of melodramatic wailing if the latest American Idol hero had died instead.

Once I was able to contact a few individuals with some knowledge of DFW, I began to reflect on whether or not it was appropriate for me to experience a genuine emotional reaction over the death of someone I had never met. To be honest with you, I felt just a little bit silly. It made me recall the day Charles Bukowski died, and where I was the moment I heard the news from MTV's Kurt Loder. I didn't feel nearly as self-indulgent in my youth for shedding a tear or two for a literary hero. It's a bit embarrassing today to admit that I sat down and wrote a poem in honor of the fallen scribe. Granted its message was intentionally unsentimental, but the gesture itself didn't avoid that trap.

So downing a shot this past Saturday seemed about right. The people I was with had enough grace not to make fun of me for feeling a bit down. After all, another great writer will never again put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as is the current convention). That's sad, but a result of a wholly intentional action. Not knowing the man personally, I wonder why he was driven to make such an extreme and final exit. A very brief internet search has revealed that DFW had been clinically depressed off-and-on for over twenty years. To be completely honest, that would have been hard to guess from his writing. He seemed to have such a deep sense of humor about the world. He was not without a certain level of cynicism, but he didn't appear to be a complete malcontent.

Obviously it is his friends and family members that have the most insight into David Foster Wallace, and thus I will leave it to them to speculate as to why he checked himself out of this existence. Yet I will mark the news of his suicide by suggesting that serious literature fans check out the author's works, if they haven't already done so. DFW did leave a significant body of work behind. We don't necessarily have to dwell on what he could have done, had he chosen to remain alive. Check out A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) for a selection of essays that revealed an extraordinary mind and a deft facility for seeing through the thin facade of modern life. And if you're feeling really ambitious, tackle his masterpiece- Infinite Jest.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Note on the Perils of Blogging About Politics.

We are now more than a full week past Sarah Palin's convention speech, and the rhetoric is continuing to fly. One would think that the choice of a VP running mate would fade into the background, but it certainly hasn't in this case. Palin's supporters seem just as fanatical as they were last week, and her critics are as stridently determined to bring her down as they have been. Much has been made of the poll numbers being released from every source engaging in the practice of annoying people in their homes. I quit believing in these political surveys years ago. I have absolutely no faith that they reflect what people are truly thinking, nor do I believe that they are accurate predictors of future behavior. I learned of their essentially flawed nature in 2000.

So although conventional wisdom tends to suggest that "Palin-mania" will die off, it shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile people I've known for several years are starting to act in very odd ways. One person who I've known for awhile has resorted to personal attacks in the process of arguing with me. Apparently the outcome of this race means so much to him that he has decided to bring unrelated aspects of my life into the discussion. He knows I value the separation between my online presence and my actual life, and at first I thought that he didn't realize what he was doing. But even after I tried to address the issue privately, the attacks continued.

Why someone would jeopardize an otherwise amiable association with someone just to make a political point on a blog is beyond me. Especially considering that the poster-in-question valued his own privacy enough to insist on commenting anonymously. I have never considered revealing his true identity to other readers of the blog. I know that he'd rather not have his political ramblings interfere with his personal and professional life. In fact he has said as much in the past. That's why it's so surprising that he refuses to extend that same courtesy and respect toward me. I fully expect strangers to unload on this blog without concern for feelings or consequences. That's fair game. But to use insight gathered through "non-virtual" interactions in an online argument should be considered out-of-bounds.

Because of this occurrence, I have been compelled to switch to the "comment moderation" mode. I will now be reviewing all responses left on this blog. It's a real shame that it's come to this. I am adamantly against censorship, and would ordinarily never engage in deleting or refusing comments. As anyone who has read Serendipity for any length of time realizes, I tolerate and even seek out divergent opinions. I make every effort not to personalize my responses. And it's a very rare occasion when I ignore a comment. I enjoy getting in the muck now and again, and hashing things out. But I make consistent efforts to make sure my focus is on the issues, rather than the person.

I fear that the "politics of personal destruction" are creeping into our lives. I'm seeing less and less acceptance of disagreement when it comes to values and philosophy. Respect for others as participants in a "democracy" seems to be eroded continuously. It is still possible to share a goal without establishing agreement regarding process or justification; not everyone needs to be an idealogue. Perhaps we'll reach a point in our society when we can no longer debate the issues without personalizing them. I hope not, but during periods like this it's easy to imagine that time is nigh. There's a certain chilling effect when people insist on "exposing you" for the sins that they project, based on preconceptions of who "you are".

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Palin's Incompetence Revealed... Now Put the Focus on McCain.

There was a time not long ago (two weeks, actually) that I still believed that John McCain was a good and honorable man. He seemed to be above rolling in the mud and sleaze of a dirty political campaign. Unfortunately I can no longer credit McCain with such intentions. His stated approval of an ad that deliberately lied about Obama's stance on sex education in our schools was absolutely reprehensible. One wonders whether he puts the same amount of time into the approval of his ad campaign as he does into the vetting of potential running mates. Or has he completely given himself over to crass and cynical politics aimed at convincing people to vote against his opponent, rather than for him?

While such strategies are common for the GOP, McCain has always prided himself on being somehow "different". In fact he was one of the only Republican politicians to decry the low-ball slime demonstrated by the Swift-Boating of John Kerry in 2004. Unfortunately it appears that giving in to his comrades is more important than principle. After all, as one of my Republican acquaintances said- "Hey, you can't change things if you don't win". Still a fitting response would be to point out that running the executive department entails a series of invitations and temptations to abandon your values. I find it a bit sad to see McCain jump the gun merely to achieve more political power.

Why have his policies on immigration, torture, tax cuts for the rich, offshore drilling, windfall profits taxes, gay rights, defense cuts, lipstick remarks, etc. changed so radically over the last two years? Why has he met (in 2008) with the same sort of Christian Right leaders that he called (in 2000) "agents of intolerance"? Why did he risk the future security and prosperity of our nation by choosing a running mate with NO national or international experience, extreme social conservative values, and a penchant for lying? And why does he continue to trumpet those lies even after learning the truth? If he genuinely doesn't know the reality of Palin's record of pursuing earmarks, of her support for the "Bridge to Nowhere", of her fealty to oil companies, and her almost total ignorance of foreign affairs- then we MUST question his fitness for the presidency.

Instead of continuing to accept the "received wisdom" that McCain is a man committed to integrity, the voting populace needs to face the possibility that this experienced politician is merely a purveyor of half-truths and obfuscation. John McCain stood on a stage in Minneapolis and warned that "change" was coming to Washington. Ostensibly he is referring to the same nation's capitol that we refer to as "D.C.". It's the one that featured a scandal that exposed Republican lobbying corruption and sent Jack Abramoff to prison, and Tom Delay back to Texas. We're talking about the GOP-the party that McCain is now the nominal leader of. How is John McCain going to clean the place up after employing more lobbyists on his campaign staff than any other 2008 presidential candidate?

Like many other opponents of McCain's candidacy, I cringe at the the thought that Sarah Palin will be so close to the Oval Office (especially after her embarrassing interview with Charlie Gibson this past week). She is frankly incompetent. But we really need to redirect the light of truth back on the actual GOP nominee for president. If nothing else, the Palin selection reflects on his poor judgment as a leader. Yet still the message is patently clear, whether or not the worst nightmares of the anti-McCain/Palin contingent come true. McCain has called for "change" after voting 95% of the time with Bush in 2007 and 100% of the time in 2008. And I agree with him- we cannot afford another four years of the Bush play book. Obama/Biden must prevail.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

What Kind of Animal Wears Lipstick?!

I have to admit that I laughed hard when Republicans started squealing about the recent Obama quote. Barack was talking about McCain's newfound commitment to "change" and said:

"John McCain says he's about change too, and so I guess his whole angle is, 'Watch out, George Bush -- except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics -- we're really going to shake things up in Washington.’ That's not change. That's just calling the same thing something different. You know you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. You know you can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it's still going to stink after eight years. We've had enough of the same old thing."

That seems fairly straightforward to me. It's merely a continuation of his recent insistence that words matter. You can't just make stuff up. If your policies are simply a continuation of the last eight years (like the McCain/Palin ticket is), then it seems especially disingenuous to claim to stand for "change".

But the humorous thing is that conservative pundits throughout the nation immediately interpreted it as a knock against Palin. They knew in their hearts that Palin is indeed the Pork Barrel Queen, and so they naturally made that association. Who else could Obama have been referring to? Then they stepped back and started feeling guilty about their own train of thought. See... when extremist conservatives have a naughty idea that they feel guilty about, they try to project it on to someone else so that they can vilify him/her, while at the same time displacing the sinful thoughts. In that manner, they effectively repress the self-perceived "icky" parts of themselves. It's an all-too-human reaction.

Obviously they missed the boat, and now they look shrill and foolish with their strident claims that Obama's comments were "sexist". In a way, I guess it underscores just how well the GOP has disguised its true mission. Obviously they intend to continue the divisive strategies and business-as-usual politics that the Bush administration has been pimping for eight years. Yet they have finally found a way to see themselves as "victims"- something that they have been bitching about regarding the Democrats for decades. Apparently that's the bottom line for the Right Wing. Now that they have discovered their collective "inner feminist", they are appropriating for themselves the very role they have forced on women all these years.

Anyway, the McCain campaign shouldn't have whined in public about Obama's analogy. They should have just steamed about it in private, and came up with some witty retort. Because when McCain called for an apology, he exposed his immense facility for hypocrisy. He used the very same comparison to sum up his feelings about Hillary Clinton's plan for health reform. The intriguing thing is that the Clinton people didn't bite. Nor did they stumble into the trap of implicating their own help-mate. They went on with their tactics of trying to promote policy positions. Unfortunately for McCain/Palin, they can't do that. People don't want to hear that their candidate is simply recycling the Bush playbook.

Obama comes out looking pretty good after the onslaught of outbursts emanating from the school-marmish Republicans. The Right looks even more defensive and melodramatic than usual. And Obama's supporters should be overjoyed. Their man demonstrated both the depth of his wit, and his willingness to engage in the street-fighter style he's proclaimed to possess. Personally I prefer to assume that Obama meant exactly what the Republicans accused him of. Maybe he was just "calling a pig a pig". What's so wrong with that? Even according to the "Conservative" version of reality- he wasn't making a general characterization of women*, but rather summing up Sarah Palin as a politician. Is it really any more offensive than calling her a dog?

*... or being disrespectful of an entire profession merely to get a cheap laugh.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pittsburgh Art Happenings: 9/12/08

Today is obviously a day that's been mothballed, and thus both sides in the presidential race have decided to suspend political activities. I figure that if a break in the action is acceptable for them, then it's ok for me as well. It just so happens that this particular date falls on a Thursday, so it's easy for me to simply follow my routine of posting about art events. So here is what this weekend has in store for the art fanatic:


After months of preparation which included a grant proposal, a jury process, an inordinate amount of convoluted communication, the layout and printing of a full-color 250-page catalog, and the actual physical setup of the exhibition... In the Making: 250 Years/250 Artists is finally opening at Fe Gallery in Lawrenceville (4102 Butler St.), tomorrow night at 7PM. Well over 400 local artists submitted pieces for consideration in the show. Those who were eventually accepted each got to include one image to be displayed in the catalog, and one piece to be hung on the wall. The latter were selected by curator Jill Larson- former owner and proprietor of the Fe Gallery before it received its non-profit status.

The exhibition started with the awarding of a Sprout Fund Grant coinciding with the Pittsburgh 250 Community Connections Initiative. The idea was to organize a survey of the best local art currently being produced around town. In addition a print production would accompany the exhibition, and serve as a permanent testament to the project. A general cattle call was put out, and word spread quickly throughout the local scene. Because of limited resources and busy judges, there were several delays before official invitations were sent out to the artists who had been chosen. While not everyone was pleased by the process, few had a realistic idea of the logistical nightmares that a show of this scale entailed.

But now the work is on the wall, and a mock-up of the catalog is available for perusal. The show itself will be available for viewing until January 10, 2009. Catalogs can be pre-ordered the night of the opening, and there will be a reception for its official release on some as yet unspecified date in October. While all of your favorites aren't likely represented, I'm certain that at least a few of them are. Keep in mind that just because someone is not in the show does not mean that they were turned down. Many artists I know didn't even submit work. Still, having scanned the list, I have confidence that this will be a high-quality sampling of what the 'Burgh has to offer the rest of the world.

The "250 Show" just so happens to fall on the same night as Pittsburgh Center for the Art's reception for "Artist of the Year" Susanne Slavick. To be honest, I've never heard of her before*... but her work looks good online. As the PCA staff notes Slavick's latest series is concerned with "digitally and manually transforming photographic images of wreckage, she 'recognizes, rues or reconstitutes' what has been decimated." I'm sure it's nowhere near as cute as it sounds. Alongside Slavick, the work of "Emerging Artist Award"-winner Adam Welch will be presented. Welch is an installation artist who had a particularly memorable piece in the 2008 PCA Biennial. Things get underway at 5:30PM and run until 8PM. Admission is $10 ($5 after 6:30).

I also want to give a quick shout-out to the Wizard of Oddities (4314 Butler St.). This idiosyncratic art space is also having a reception this Friday, from 7-11PM. It's for a retrospective of paintings from the "Voyeur" series by Sam Thorp. Stop in before or after you visit the Fe Gallery.

* Likely due to the fact that she is part of the CMU arts faculty- the majority of whom do not seem all that well-integrated into the local Pittsburgh arts scene. I suspect this is largely intentional.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

James Ellroy, "Destination: Morgue!" (2004).

Once again I've returned to the work of the hard boiled L.A.-scribe, James Ellroy. Previously I've read and blogged about The Black Dahlia and My Dark Places. Although there were things about those books that bothered me, I decided that there was enough in the author's work to continue my explorations. Thus I picked up Destination: Morgue! (2004) during a recent spending spree at Half Priced Books. I didn't know whether this title was supposed to be fiction or non-fiction, and after reading it I'm still not sure. That in itself would be no reason to discount the quality of the writing. Ellroy consistently dwells in a netherworld that seems to merge reality and fantasy. Just so, he probably shouldn't be using those kinds of labels.

Destination: Morgue! is broken up into two parts. The first is given the heading "Crime Culture/Memoir", implying that it fits under the True Crime category. If these tales are accurately classified, there are some troublesome associations for the author. I already knew that Ellroy had a tough upbringing, what with the unsolved murder of his mother, and the untidy and untimely death of his Dad. And I knew that the young Ellroy fell into some maladaptive behavioral trends... but I had no idea about the extent of his perversions. It's one thing to be drawn to the seedy and violent side of life if you can contain yourself to voyeurism. It's quite another to get directly involved.

By his own account, Ellroy was (at the very least) a bit of a miscreant. He started off with garden variety shoplifting, and worked his way up to eating Benzadrine inhaler cotton wads, peeping, breaking-and-entering, and stealing panties. Considering his literary (?) obsessions with "hot prowls" and rape/torture/murder, I wouldn't be surprised if the guy didn't flirt with more serious crimes. Even if he was able to hold himself in check, he certainly succumbed to a life of dissolution. After spending time in various forms of incarceration, and ending up close to death from sustained alcohol poisoning, Ellroy "went straight" and got a job as a caddy at an L.A. country club. It was during that period that he was first successfully published.

While Ellroy has a certain facility for describing crimes scenes and investigations in great detail, he appears to have a lot of difficulty keeping his internal and external lives separate. He often conflates his own deeds and drives with those of historical figures, as well as his own creations. What makes this tendency particularly irksome is how self-righteously judgmental Ellroy gets. Despite his own flaws he fails to see the humanity in others (a major disability for a writer). Just one example of his hypocrisy is a completely irrelevant condemnation of Bill Clinton that he tacked on to the end of his own litany of perversion and crime. It's as if he feels justified to label others "good" or "evil" based upon political affiliations (or race, gender, sexual preference, etc.).

Indeed, Ellroy's proclivities are reinforced in Part 2 of Destination: Morgue! Here he presents a trilogy of novellas about a far right wing vigilante cop who enforces justice without regard for civil rights. And he can't restrain himself from peppering his narrative with a string of offensive ethnic slurs of all types (EX: "color coonordinated Tommy Hipnigger"). As if this weren't enough, the author continues what becomes an almost interminable habit of throwing arbitrary alliteration into every single paragraph. Dig the square loner trying to come on hip- "Local louts loitered. Porch punks paraded. They hopped house to house and shared Schlitz malt liquor." You think that's cute? Try 389 pages of that unrelenting crap.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hopes and Fears in the Presidential Race.

One of the things that I've found particularly fascinating during this presidential race has been hearing about the reasons different people support their respective favorites. While a few individuals have been motivated by the defense of a particular ideology, many find themselves choosing between the lesser of two evils (and these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive motivations). Many of the arguments that I have heard formulated over the last couple of weeks are framed in terms of fears. As is typical in cases of divisive elections (like the vast majority of national races nowadays), there are a lot of poorly reasoned accusations being bandied about. Only occasionally do they seem to have some grounding in reality.

I'd like to think that I could make my decision primarily on hopes, rather than fears. In my case I can truly say that I am ultimately voting FOR someone, rather than AGAINST his opponent. But that line has certainly been blurred for me recently. There was a time not long ago when (though I supported Obama) I believed that a McCain presidency would not be disastrous for the nation. He seemed to genuinely want to reach across the aisle and consider ideas on their merits. Perhaps his gradual shift back to the most conservative wing of his party over the last few years should have been a tip-off. Still I can admit that I was honestly shocked when he announced Sarah Palin as his running mate.

I have mentioned a lot of negatives regarding the Governor of Alaska in this blog. However I think it's important to keep a sound foundation in the real-world when it comes to my doubts about a McCain/Palin ticket. As much as Palin represents an extreme version of social conservatism, as long as McCain is able to fulfill the duties of the office (should he win, of course) I don't think this will be much of an issue. I don't believe that Palin wil be able to get the nation to agree to outlaw abortion in cases where a woman has been impregnated as the result of rape or incest. I don't think the citizenry will look favorably on her urges to ban books. And I don't think she'll be able to fully integrate creationism into our science curriculum at a national level.

On the other hand, I think it's unlikely that the Obama/Biden ticket will likely enact comprehensive health care reform that substantially increases our national debt. I don't believe he will boost corporate taxes by any meaningful degree. And I'm certain he won't seek to outlaw personal property rights (as some wingnuts suggest). My expectations regarding his (or McCain's) presidency are naturally contained by the limits of the office. The Chief Executive serves as Commander-in-Chief, and sets the tone for the country's foreign and domestic policy. I want a president who approaches relations with other nations with an intellectual and overtly diplomatic approach. I want him to consider war only as a LAST Resort. I want nuanced and considered strategies that enhance our international standing.

The biggest national issue facing the United States is energy independence. It has extraordinary ramifications for national security, the future of our economic success, and our relations with the rest of the world. We MUST somehow develop alternative sources of energy. Aside from the issue of global climate change, it is in our best interest. We cannot bear another presidential administration that is beholden to the military-industrial complex and the oil industry. Compare the records and stated positions of the two tickets. McCain has not supported tax credits for companies developing solar/wind power, and Obama has. Look up their voting records. The GOP platform is "Drill, Baby, Drill" and Palin practices "Alaskanomics". That's enough reason right there to support Obama/Biden.

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