Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Would President Gore have gone to war with Iraq? (Prove me wrong)

Among the bloggers I read (more on that in a few days), Slate's political commentary has the reputation of being contrarian to the point of idiocy.

So when Steve Kornacki argues that President Gore would've gone to war against Iraq just like Bush did, it's well worth pausing to find the inevitable mistake(s).

Kornacki is working off of a Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll that asked if things would be different if Gore had been president. That Kornacki decides to focus on the Iraq war is telling, since he probably couldn't get anywhere if he took other parts of the Bush administration. What about Medicare Part D? What about the Bush tax cuts? What about water-boarding and domestic surveillance?

But let's take Kornacki's hypothetical seriously: would Gore have invaded Iraq like Bush?

Jonathan Bernstein at the Washington Post does some good work on this score, pointing out that Gore would've been more committed to multi-lateral action, which would've probably meant more time for weapons inspectors, which would've meant less of a reason for the invasion at all. (And let's add: a drastically different, less cowboy-swagger approach to the invasion if it had happened.)

And Matt Yglesias at ThinkProgress argues that, post-9/11, a Gore administration would've heavily invaded Afghanistan rather than split the focus with an invasion of Iraq.

But no one seems to be pointing out one other counterfactual possibility (and please, prove me wrong): if Gore had been president, would 9/11 have happened at all? Various Clinton-era initiatives produced information on Al-Qaeda; and there's at least some chance that a Gore administration would've paid more attention to Clinton-era info than the Bush team.

So, would Gore have gone to war with Iraq? No, because no 9/11 would have meant little-to-no interest in foreign military adventures.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Does Gallagher make any good points with Marc Maron?

I highly recommend the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, which is one of the best interview shows out there. Maron is a stand-up comedian and his guests are other comedians (stand-up, sketch, improv); and they get into some very personal issues, including sexual kinks, emotional hang-ups, and long-simmering feuds; but they also get into professional issues, like breaking in, career trajectory, and the process of developing material.

And sometimes (often), the interview can get into political issues, as it does when Marc met Gallagher (episode 145). This interview is somewhat notorious since Gallagher left halfway through; it's such a notorious interview that it's included on Gallagher's Wikipedia page. Long-story short: Marc asks Gallagher about his homophobic and racist jokes (about which, more here), Gallagher says they're just jokes and walks out.

It's strange to hear Gallagher get political ("Arabs are the enemy") when he occupies the same part of my brain as Double Dare. And I think it would be easy to dismiss Gallagher by saying that he's an old man and Fox News is the Nickelodeon of the dementia set; or maybe he's just bitter about how history is leaving him behind ("I have two stents in my heart, I could die during this interview").

And it would also be easy to point out the inconsistency of Gallagher's position: the "I'm a comedian, I'm not running for political office"/"it's a night club" defense doesn't fit with his bitterness about how people missed the "insightful satire" of the Sledge-O-Matic bit.

But I will say this for him: Gallagher is coming from an older school of comedy--go watch his non-prop work and it's like a time tunnel to an era of one-liners and bits, of vaudeville performers rather than POV work ("there's no show involved, they're slovenly"). It reminded me of the meeting between Louie C. K. and Joan Rivers in Louie: Louie has some trouble with his audience and Joan tells him to suck it up because you do the job--you play to the audience you have, not the audience you wish you had.

Even with that said, though, Gallagher presents the comedian's role as comforting the comfortable: if your audience has an issue with gays, a gay joke will make them laugh, and your job (says Gallagher) is to make them laugh--and anything that happens after that is not his business. (Which gives me another opportunity for this classic Foucault: "People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does.")

By contrast, Maron and Louie seem more interested in afflicting the comfortable, including themselves, with their self-lacerating self-consciousness. Which seems like the more important type of comedian. Do you remember what George Carlin said about his job in Occupation: Foole?

"I'd spell it with the final 'e' just to piss them off."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Does anyone know: Where do accents come from?

Where do accents come from? I'm thinking of large-scale accents, not personal idiosyncrasies; and I'm wondering about their original development, not the transmission of established accents to new speakers.

Take just one example: the Long Island pronunciation of "or" as "ar" of which my girlfriend never lets me forget. "Orange"->"Arange"; "Horror"->"Harrar" (or "Harra"); "Florida"->"Flarida."

Where does that accent come from? Is it a confluence of different speaking styles/languages? Is it a remnant of some original language that has survived? Is it the weather?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's so great about political gaffes?

Like it's older uncle, the Freudian slip, the political gaffe is supposed to show us the truth beneath the mask we wear, whether that truth is repressed (Freud's real interest) or merely secret (the usual way we think of Freudian slips).

And perhaps we're particularly interested in political gaffes because politicians are such slick products: like iPods, politicians are not supposed to have anything but a surface. So any reminder of how politicians have invisible interiors will get our attention.

(Perhaps this also helps explain why charges of hypocrisy are always so interesting to us: Larry Craig's sexual misadventures reveal something interior and hidden, whereas a Barney Frank man-scandal would be a little less juicy since his homosexuality is on the surface. Although there we have an infidelity angle, and anti-gay advocates would make hay of that charge of hypocrisy.)

Taking a slightly different tack, On the Media recently did a segment on the life of political gaffes, which boils down to confirmation bias: if you think someone is an idiot, you're more likely to recall moments when they said something idiotic. I think this does a pretty good job explaining (away) many gaffes and their lack of power to sway: many gaffes expose a truth we're already supposed to know.

Which makes it seem like gaffes are really not that important when it comes to well-known, national figures, since 1) everyone pretty much knows what they think about these figures; and 2) these figures have a long history of speaking and acting that should reveal to us their priorities.

So, for instance, Perry says he's opposed to Social Security; and maybe his language is interesting (why "unconstitutional"?); and maybe now he's trying to walk back that language (or chew his way out--and as usual, cover-ups make you look worse than the initial problem); but if he hadn't said that, would anyone doubt that he's an orthodox Republican/radical conservative? (Is there really a difference now between those two?)

There are some gaffes that are revealing--for instance, since no one is supposed to be racist, a gaffe revealing a politician's racism may expose something previously unknown; but by and large, the political gaffe today is an exercise in high-fiving your friends. When was the last time a gaffe really pulled the mask down and showed us an interior truth?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Should Anthony Weiner have resigned?

This is an easy one for me: no, I don't think he should have.

See, at the time of the scandal, people latched on to the idea that Weiner's sexting capital-T Told us something about him--he had bad impulse control, he didn't think things through, his decision-making was suspect. And I would be right there with those people if Weiner had been some unknown guy and this was all we knew about him.

But he wasn't--he had a long Congressional history that could have capital-T Told us about him. When I looked at those pictures, here's what I thought: "I like his social positions, but some of his positions on Israel worry me."

(I also kept thinking about the Cold War attitude towards homosexuals as a liability; which meant that anyone who was homosexual had something they needed to hide--which might have made them a liability. Now, post-Weiner, I await the first sexting-blackmail scandal.)

So, Weiner (and team) made the wrong call, and here's the result: his seat is up for grabs. I don't think it will go Republican, but it's a waste of time and money for the Democrats.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How will you feel in a driverless car?

Did you hear that Google's driverless car was involved in a five-car accident?

There's some question over whether this particular accident is the fault of the car's computer or the human who may have been attempting to drive; and in all this excitement, I hope we don't miss the priceless information that this crash involved three Priuses and two Accords.

I don't think this incident will become a rallying point for anti-driverless car activity, if only because the driverless car isn't too visible at the moment. (Now, if that driverless car started reading your emails and mining your personal data, that would be a different story.) I also assume that the future could include driverless cars that our descendants live with peacefully--descendants for whom the notion of "driver" seems a little archaic. ("Isn't that the software that runs my 3D printer?")
But I am looking forward to the convulsions between now and then, when people who are used to driving are confronted with the loss of that experience. (Will we lose that experience? If human-driving turns out to be less safe than computer-driving, then insurance rates will be higher for human drivers, and only the rich will afford to drive themselves. That seems as or more likely than laws against human driving, but we end in the same place: average Joe will take a computer to work.)

What will that be like, to be cargo in the vehicle that has come to be synonymous with self-determination and independence? I'd like to think that a lot of the bad behavior we see on buses and planes has to do with crowding; but part of me wonders if some that bad behavior comes from panic over one's own agency.

So, will driverless cars increase or decrease road rage? My guess: increase, unless we figure out some way to make "driving time" a lot more like "leisure time."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Is Jon Huntsman politically dead or undead?

Here's a question I won't even pretend to answer.

You may have heard that Jon Huntsman declared himself a fan of science, which is all well and good for conservatives when the subject is something like 3D TVs, which aren't contradicted by Biblical revelation. But Huntsman apparently believes scientists might be right about evolution and global warming. (I'm sure there's something in Leviticus about global warming being anathema; although why the fundamental conservatives would take that seriously and still eat shellfish is beyond me.)

Let's be honest: Huntsman hasn't had a very good showing this cycle, so I don't think he was ever going to be the nominee. But what has he done by setting himself so far from the rest of the pack?

Is Huntsman shooting himself in the foot today in the hope of getting a bionic leg to run with in 2016, as James Fallows thinks? (Although Fallows doesn't give you anything like that extended metaphor. You're welcome, internet.)

Will this moment of defiance set off a reaction of GOP moderates trying to take their party back?

I'm not sure what the Huntsman campaign is thinking--maybe "go out in a blaze of glory"? But my guess is that this moment of defiance is less like Warren Beatty in Bulworth--telling it like it is and shaking up the establishment--and more like Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby to the audience. Maybe realizing that he would never win the race, Huntsman decided to play an entirely different game. That's great, but you're never going to win a game meaningfully when no one else is playing.

So I salute Jon Huntsman's attempt to bring conservatism into the 20th century (only one century late!), but I don't think he's going to succeed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are magicians made or born?

This idea has popped up a few times at all my favorite web hangouts, so I think it's time someone burst this particular bubble. Let me sharpen my needle.

On the science fiction (and occasional fantasy) blog io9, author David Liss makes the claim that our idea about magic has changed: it used to be that anyone could be a magician--all you needed was the right book or the right pact with the devil (or whomever); but sometime in the last century, our idea of magic has become more elitist--only those who are born with the right spark can become magicians. Without any claim to certainty, Liss pegs this change to around the time of Bewitched, which wins him points, because I used to love that show.

Pretty soon, Alyssa Rosenberg was making some interesting connections between this idea (magic is only for special people) and a sense of powerlessness that we might feel in the face of powerful forces--dynastic, corporate, or what-have-you. (I'd want to connect that to Carl Freedman's comments in 2004 on the transition in GOP politicians from Reagan--the everyman--to Schwarzenegger--the inhuman. But just because I like this idea of Rosenberg's doesn't mean it's true.) And then Andrew Sullivan thought this idea was worth linking to.

But it's not. And here's why:

(1) Liss doesn't really provide any evidence demonstrating that there was this shift from the everyman magician (everymage?) to the elite born magician.

He mentions Faust, which I'll give him: anyone can pact with the Devil and become a magician or witch. He also could have mentioned the magical scientists/mathematicians, like Pythagoras or Paracelsus--anyone can be an alchemist or magical-scientist, since all you need in those cases is to be smart enough to understand the formula/read Enochian/run the numbers. And let's add Shakespeare's Prospero as a significant figure of the "being a magician is a choice" school of thought. (After all, Prospero could quit being a wizard because being a wizard wasn't an intrinsic part of him.)

(Actually, "read Enochian" is an interesting example, since Enochian was the work of two people--the everyman John Dee and the special medium Edward Kelley. Gosh, it's hard to come up with examples to support Liss.)

Against those examples, we have Merlin, often a half-demon; Tolkien's inhuman wizards; Leiber's inhuman Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face; Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged (born of a smith, but born special); and pretty much every other case of a chosen hero having a special destiny--and most of those are clearly before Bewitched

(Sidenote hypothesis: It's no surprise that the everyman using magic often occurs in horror--c.f., any Lovecraftean story--whereas the innate magician often appears in more epic genres, like fantasy.)

So, before I could give Liss this point, I'd really like to see more examples proving the switch from everymage to elite mage.

(2) Further, Liss's argument slips between the idea of inherited power and innate power--both of which may be undemocratic and elitist, but which aren't the same sort of undemocratic elitism.

That is, if anyone can be a magician, you've got a wide degree of social mobility: for example, the village smith can become a wizard if only he finds the right book or makes the right pact or etc.--this is the scenario that Liss wants (everymage). This is the radically democratic model.

But if magical power is inherited, you have no social mobility at all: in that case, only wizards can become wizards (tautology intended)--and this is the scenario that Liss fears is dominant today (the elite mage). This is the radically undemocratic elitist model.

But if power is innate--but not inherited--then you've got a wide degree of generational social mobility: the smith can't become a wizard, but his son can become a wizard. (Cf. Ged in Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea.)

The perfect example of this is the most popular contemporary wizarding world, Harry Potter: one's parental magic ability is not an absolute predictor of your magical ability. Magical parents have unmagical children and vice versa; for example, Hermione Granger may face social stigma for her unmagical family, but she could still be the most powerful wizard in the world.

That model is undemocratic and elitist--but not radically so (which is kind of the scenario that Liss paints).

(3) Liss ends his post with this impassioned and rather touching comment:
From Aladdin to the Golden Ass to Faust, in the past we told stories about people who acquire the ability to do magic--and sometimes benefit and sometimes suffer. That could be us. Now we tell ourselves stories about magical people who struggle to deal with their special gifts. Those people are not us...
And yet, we used to tell stories about Greek gods and demi-gods and mythic heroes--figures who were innately what they were, who were categorically different from us. We could all aspire to be heroic, but we didn't need to identify ourselves completely with these figures to do so. It seems crazy to claim that we used to tell stories only about people we could identify with. This is a touching comment, and I think Liss might not be totally wrong (see my above comment on the transition from everyman Reagan to inhuman Schwarzenegger as political model).

But the brush he paints with is too broad. This is a bubble that practically pops itself.

So, Liss's essay is thought-provoking, but doesn't work since (1) it lacks evidence of the shift he posits; (2) slips between two forms of elite notions that aren't the same; and (3) misrepresents our narrative legacy of caring about--identifying with--characters who are different from us.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is Colbert good for liberals?

Behind this question about Colbert and liberalism, there's a larger question here about the role of comedy in politics, but I'm going to ignore that larger question for now.

(And by "ignore," I mean I'm going to say just this: Daily Show-co-creator Lizz Winstead says (to Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress) that one of the difficulties of conservative humor is that it's harder to defend the status quo with humor. That doesn't seem right to me; I agree more with Martha Nussbaum when she pointed out that parody can be used for progressive ends (parodying gender norms) or for conservative ends (parodying the flaunting of gender norms). Not all subversive parodies are progressive.

(I might want to say that, even though it's easy to imagine conservative humor existing, there isn't a lot of it around now; but the truth is, it's probably just not very funny to me. Like pictures of Obama as an African witch doctor--that shit probably kills in certain circles.)

Now that I've ignored that bigger question, let's get to the particular question: is Colbert good for liberals?

Some friends and family recently told me that they feel bad for Colbert's liberal guests, since the guests can't keep up with him; and since Colbert is such a magnetic personality, the audience might end up liking him and his conservative/ironic worldview. In other words: the sincere liberals look like saps and the "conservative" ironist looks affable and calm. (Unless Jane Fonda is crawling into his lap. More of this, please!)

Satire and parody are notoriously difficult to read; and Colbert is a great example of that, since he was the object of that study that showed that liberals see him as satirical and conservatives see him as sincere. And part of that problem is that today's conservatives seem largely to exist in a realm of self-parody--it's not always easy to tell The Onion from The New York Times when the subject is conservatives.

But however much fun Colbert is to watch, I think his character remains distant from the audience for several reasons, not limited to his stupidity and venality. (His shilling for Prescott Pharmaceuticals is in the same register as his shilling for Republican policies.) Even more important, Colbert remains distant precisely because of his irony, which is not too hard to recognize most of the time.

(And if you don’t believe that, you could watch his regular show and his show from Iraq and notice the difference; Colbert breaks character sometimes to laugh at the jokes in his regular show, but he breaks character all the time in Iraq when he’s talking about something he sincerely cares about.)

So, yes, Colbert sometimes steam-rolls his guests, and if he’s talking to liberal guests, it can seem as if his steam-rolling is bad for liberalism. But I don’t think that’s the case, because in those situations, the joke is usually on Colbert; for instance, when Colbert asks a guest, “Bush: great president or the greatest president?,” we don’t laugh at the guest, who can’t answer, but at Colbert, who has such a limited view of the world and is clearly cheating to maintain that worldview.

So I don’t think he’s bad for American liberalism. We like watching Colbert, but no one wants to be him. Unless Jane Fonda is crawling into his lap.

Friday, August 19, 2011

If you can't answer the question, don't run away--stuff your mouth

A short post: If you're confronted by a question that you can't (or don't want to) answer, I think it's better to stuff your face, a la Rick Perry--who couldn't answer why he thought Social Security was unconstitutional because he was chewing a popover--rather than to leave the interview, a la Christine O'Donnell--who didn't want to discuss her views on homosexuality with Piers Morgan.

Perhaps Twix will use Perry in their "Need a moment?" ad campaign. Or maybe his handlers will learn to stuff his mouth before he says dumb things. I hope they don't--it's nice to have the reminder that he's thinking dumb things.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"That which we call progress is this storm."

--Walter Benjamin.

I'd like to promise that I'm done quoting Walter Benjamin, but I'd hate to start this relationship with a lie.

I've stolen the subtitle of this blog--"Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe..."--from Walter Benjamin's essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History," from the short ninth section concerning Paul Klee's Angelus Novus.

For Benjamin, the Angel can see only the past while moving inexorably towards the future. The Angel can't stop as he's being propelled by a storm (not pictured); and though the Angel wishes to stay and fix the world (which is also not pictured in this drawing), he can only watch the slowly unfolding car crash that we call history.

But the Angel has one advantage over most of us folk: whereas we not only move into the future without looking, but mostly keep our eyes firmly shut on the past as well, the Angel can at least see the connective thread of the past.

I'm no angel--I'm not even particularly sure that I'm on the side of the angels. But I'm starting this blog to try to narrate to myself some issues about history, about politics, and about the stories we tell ourselves about history and politics.

Or to be less grandiose, I'm starting this to keep myself looking for answers in a world that seems continually and/or increasingly catastrophic.

Boy, that still sounds grandiose. Well, let's see what we've got after a week of posts every day.