Friday, October 31, 2008

Remember the judges

The 2008 presidential election has been notable for many reasons -- its sheer length, the amount of money raised and spent by the candidates from all parties (the most expensive per delegate expenditure belongs to Rudy Guiliani, who spent $43 million dollars to win one delegate from Florida, which he awarded to John McCain; the most bizarre expenditures belong to Hillary Clinton, who burned through $100 million before the Democratic campaign process ended in May, even though she was mathematically eliminated from contention in March, yet kept getting and spending in the hope that Democratic "superdelegates" would rescue her, a hope that was extinguished as soon as she was mathematically eliminated . . .) and, my personal favorite, the inexplicable selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.  But one notable absence from the campaign has been a serious discussion of what kind of justices either President Obama or McCain would appoint to the Supreme Court and, by extension, the lower federal courts.  Seeing as how the Court's four most conservative members are relatively young by the standards of Supreme Court justices, and that two of those members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito, are in their fifties, one would think that the Clinton or Obama campaigns would have made the Court a more important issue than they did or subsequently have. Then again, the Iraq war, which was the issue that Barack Obama first emphasized when he began testing the presidential waters two years ago, has been notably absent from either McCain or Obama's list of top-shelf issues for the past two or three months. I'm not sure what it says that a mindless, futile war that has resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 American soldiers and scores of Iraqi civilians is not a major campaign theme of this presidential campaign, but it does say something.

No one asked Obama or McCain about what kind of judges they would appoint to the federal courts, or how they felt about the Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), which eliminated the "health of the mother" exception as a constitutional requirement in any state law regulating abortion. I was surprised not to hear any questions about how either candidate viewed, first as a potential president, the Court's four separate decisions in the Guantanamo Bay detainee cases since 2004. I really wanted to hear their answers: Why, for example, did John McCain work so hard to pass the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which the Court ultimately declared unconstitutional, which permitted the administration to hold detainees pretty much forever and do what they wanted with them, after he publicly stated his opposition to the Bush administration's stance on denying constitutional rights for terrorist suspects held on American soil?  I guess, in the grand scheme of things, little ditties like this are just not all that important, not compared, anyway, with getting to the bottom of Obama's "associations" with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.  Seriously, go back and look at the transcripts of the three presidential debates -- more time was spent on Ayers, Wright, Joe the Plumber and other inanities than the constitutional exercise of presidential power or having John McCain look millions of American women (and their daughters) in the eye and say, "No, I do not believe that women have a right to abortion under any circumstance, and neither does my vice-president."

And so here we are, just five days away from the presidential election, and neither candidate has had to address the role of the courts in the American political system or what kind of judges he would appoint to serve on them.  This morning, the New York Times reports that President Bush has appointed just over one third of the judges serving on the federal courts -- 65 to President Clinton's 61. His two successful nominees to the Court, Roberts and Alito, are, at least for now, much closer to its two most conservative members than Justice Anthony Kennedy or the recently departed Sandra Day O'Connor. One fact here bears worth mentioning for no other reason than I never see anyone mention this when they hear either W. or McCain talk up the greatness of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.  Scalia and Thomas are not just the two most conservative justices on the current Court; they are, if you take a look at what they write and how they justify their decisions, without a doubt the two most conservative justices to serve on the Court since Willis Van Devanter and James McReynolds, two of the "Four Horseman" that blocked the New Deal legislative initiatives of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  And McCain wants to appoint more justices like that?  Justices who, seventy years ago, opposed the minimum wage, Social Security, labor rights, occupational safety and health regulation and virtually every staple of the modern administrative state.  Take a wild guess what Van Devanter and McReynolds would say to the constitutionality of the federal government's near-takeover of wide swaths of our financial, banking and insurance sectors.

Go ahead.

I feel about presidential campaign expenditures the way I do about my electricity bill.  I don't want to look, so I let my wife pay the bills. Actually, I don't "let" my wife pay the bills.  She has to pay them because I don't know how. But, I do know that the composition of the federal courts matters for reasons that matter a lot more than whether women will continue to have a constitutional right to abortion (they will, regardless of who is elected, for reasons I argued a few weeks back).  It's a shame that a complacent, disinterested mainstream media, more interested in Sarah Palin's costly makeover, Barack Obama's nic-fits, John McCain's home and automobile and house collections, and whatever the deal is with Joe Biden's hair, didn't see fit to ask our next president about he will exercise his considerable power to shape and define the federal judiciary for years, and possibly a generation, to come.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

538 -- the best polling site going

Forget the rest of the polls and the "experts" who pontificate about them. The best place to track the 2008 presidential campaign is the website FiveThirtyEight.

The site was started by a baseball statistician named Nate Silver, who is a partner in a firm called Baseball Prospectus, which complies and analyzes primarily baseball statistics, as well as some other sports.  In starting his site, Silver explained that baseball and politics are both data-driven enterprises, yet was frustrated by how badly the data were cherry-picked and misused by the captains of their respective industries.  For people, whether professional statisticians or interested civilians, interested in what all these polls mean and what they're saying, check this site out.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Conventional fiction

Poor Anne Applebaum.  A columnist for the Washington Post who specializes, according to her, in foreign affairs, Applebaum reluctantly concludes in her Op-Ed piece this morning that she cannot, as much as she would like to, vote for John McCain. Instead, Applebaum, unless she decides to take a pass, will vote for Barack Obama, whom she calls the "least experienced, least tested candidate in modern presidential history."

Applebaum is not unique among the Post's stable of Op-Ed foreign affairs specialists, such as Fred Hiatt, Jackson Diehl, David Ignatius and Jim Hoagland, all of whom, at one time or another, have paid tribute to John McCain's superior knowledge of military and national security matters and have praised him, as Applebaum describes him, as a "foreign policy intellectual."  Seriousness about foreign affairs in Washington is defined, first of all, as beginning with Republican assumptions about toughness and force while acknowledging that diplomacy and multi-lateralism, the twin pillars of the Democratic foreign policy, have their place -- and never the other way around.  Bi-partisanship and its virtues, of course, reign supreme over any other qualities that a serious thinker must possess to earn the designation as a serious thinker by Washington opinion-makers, who themselves are serious thinkers because of their own commitment to bi-partisan solutions. And, for reasons that will forever remain mysterious, John McCain is considered by those who trumpet themselves as "foreign policy intellectuals" as the ultimate serious bi-partisan problem solver.  McCain might be able to recite more names of more leaders in foreign countries than many of his colleagues and even identify more countries on a globe than most geographically-challenged Americans.  But that doesn't make him an intellectual, as four qualities I would never associate with John McCain are thoughtfulness, skepticism, deliberateness or open-mindedness.  

So what's new, right? A broken-hearted member of the Washington Establishment who can't bear to reconcile the image that John McCain has manufactured for himself over the years with the John McCain that votes and behaves as he does.  Applebaum cites McCain's opposition to torture and his willingness to call the White House's plan to establish military commissions exempt from any laws whatsoever as an example of using uncivilized means to achieve goals related to war (as if the barbarism that is war can be called civilized).  But then forgets to mention that McCain gave in to the White House on torture when the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which permitted the Bush Administration to go right on ahead doing what it was doing in Guantanamo Bay and wherever else it has prisoners locked away.  Presidents can't torture alleged terrorists held in lawless detention facilities; only Congress can authorize the president to torture alleged prisoners and attempt to deny them their constitutional rights. Too bad the Supreme Court, which consists of seven Republican-apointed justices, doesn't agree.

McCain's brilliance, sense of honor and, best of all, bi-partisan spirit aren't the only pieces of fiction that Applebaum's column perpetuates. Worse, in some ways, is her conclusion that Barack Obama is the "least experienced, least tested" presidential candidate in modern times.

And that conclusion begs this question: when did the "modern presidential" era begin? Did it begin with John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 after barely one term as a United States senator and three terms as a congressman who was not known for his diligence and hard work? Did it begin in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected president after just one term as the governor of Georgia, a term he spent mostly campaigning for higher office? Did it begin with two-term California governor Ronald Reagan, the first president elected since Dwight Eisenhower not to have ever held a federal elected office? Or Bill Clinton, who, yes, had served as governor of Arkansas since what seemed like his 12th birthday? Neither Carter, Reagan nor Clinton had any foreign policy credentials, Carter's early, promising and brief career in the Navy aside.  And there is, of course, George W. Bush, who spent most of his life at the children's table in his own family before his Daddy's friends got him elected governor of Texas in 1995.  There he served for slightly over one term, most of which, like Carter, he spent campaiging for the presidency. 

Four of the last five elected presidents (not counting Gerald Ford) had no other "credential" prior to taking the presidential office than a term or two or 67 (in Clinton's case) as governor. Going all the way the back to 1932, when, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the modern presidency is considered to have begun, the "experience" factor wasn't much different than it was when Jimmy Carter became the first governor elected president since, well, F.D.R. The man considered the greatest president of the 20th century and perhaps ever by most presidential historians (and Ronald Reagan) had two years in the New York state senate and a partial term as New York governor before he brought the New Deal to Washington and revolutionized everything about American politics.  In case you need a reminder of F.D.R's legacy, look at the response of the Bush administration to the current financial crisis.  From the power of government to intervene in the "private sector" to the proposed plans to bail out this peculiar economic oligarchy of failed capitalists from themselves, the actions of the Bush administration owe everything to the New Deal and nothing to the Reagan years.  Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke could have pointed to the Reagan-era rhetoric of free market magic and self-correction and simply let the bodies pile up on Wall Street and beyond. But that was never a possibility . . . no, not with the New Deal legacy alive and well.

Barack Obama, just like every person who has ever run for president, has his flaws.  And like every person who has served as president, he will disappoint his most devoted partisans and confirm the suspicions of those who opposed him and/or secretly hope to see him fail.  His successes and/or failures will be the result of many factors within his control (his appointments to the Cabinet, the courts, his judgment and decision-making in times of crisis) and plenty more beyond it (another 9.11, Russia, too intimidated by Sarah Palin's anti-moose artillery battery, skips Alaska and attacks Canada, Wal-Mart goes bankrupt or the Cubs win the World Series and he's pushed out of office in favor of Lou Pinella).  Perhaps the Anne Applebaums of the world will point to his "lack of experience" and insufficient "testing" as the reasons for his inability to scale the heights of greatness that a less snookered version of John McCain (circa 2000) may well have reached.

But, as with most everything else that passes for conventional Washington wisdom on matters of weighty and serious importance, their collected wisdom is closer to fiction than reality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap hold forth on Bill Ayers, Halloween, the Red State Update Town Hall meeting and other important matters on this week's Red State Update.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . .

Monday, October 27th, La Ferme, 7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, Md., 6.30-9.30 p.m. Three sets of soft acoustic jazz in a Country French dining setting.

Wednesday, October 29th, Pap and Peteys, 5th and H Sts., NE, Washington, D.C., 7.30-11.00 p.m. Three sets of straight ahead jazz, served with a slice of funk.

Thursday, Clare and Dons, 121 N. Washington St., Falls Church, Va., 7-10 p.m. We are in the front room near the bar.

As always, thanks for your support.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In defense of college teaching

You would think on a small, liberal arts-oriented campus like mine that teaching -- real, quality and engaged teaching -- would be my university's first priority. You would think that for approximately $40,000 per year an undergraduate would come here in search of demanding professors who are dedicated to lighting up their bright and largely untapped minds. You would think that professors currently practicing their craft here wouldn't complain about teaching four or five classes per year to undergraduates who rarely number more than 35 per course. You would think that newly-minted Ph.Ds or more senior professors who are contemplating coming to American University would want to know as much about the student body as possible, and would look forward to coming to an institution where they will have the freedom to develop their own courses, hold six office hours per week and not have to bear the administrative responsibility for "advising" undergraduates, as is the case at many larger and self-described "research" universities.

You would, kinda, sorta, probably . . . believe that would be the case. So why, at American University, does the idea of teaching anywhere from 30 to 70 students a semester strike such a chord of terror in so many professional academics? Why is having to teach more than two different courses in the semester when you're assigned three classes -- that is, you teach two sections of one class and one section of another --  viewed as the academic equivalent of a 70 hour week in an unregulated West Virginia coal mine? Why is teaching four courses or fewer a year the ultimate status symbol for the "serious" academic?

I don't have good answers for any of those questions because, frankly, I've never understood why anyone would want to pursue an academic career in a university environment and not want to teach. These questions are even more mysterious when posed for an institution like mine, which enrolls an undergraduate student body of approximately 5,000 students, with another 5,000 or so dispersed across various graduate programs, including our (separate) law and theology schools. My very first college class at the University of Tennessee was Introduction to Western Civilization at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, which I thought was quite reasonable after having to get to my first high school class by 7.45 a.m. There, I walked into a lecture hall that accommodated 400 students and there wasn't an empty seat by the time I arrived at 8.55, so I sat on the floor just off the left side of the front row. Yes, indeed, my first college class was one-fourth the size of the high school I attended in Atlanta, and slightly less than one-tenth of the size the institution where I now teach. When I was in graduate school at Emory University, a far superior institution then and now to American, I taught one class of American Government to 75 students per semester for two years, which, compared to my American Government class at Tennessee of 325, seemed quite reasonable. No standardized tests in a "small" class of 75, I was told by my graduate advisor. Students attending a private university were paying for more than a "circle the most correct answer" approach to their introductory classes. And guess what? They really were. The first semester I taught my own course, I asked my students if they would prefer a multiple-choice or essay-oriented exam. Almost everyone wanted a written exam because they had already circled enough answers in high school. This rule didn't just apply to Ph.D candidates like myself cutting their teeth in the college classroom. Everyone in the department was expected to offer challenging, writing-oriented assignments to their students regardless of whether the class was a survey course or an advanced upper-level class. Even at the advanced level (300 and above at American), the "smaller" classes hovered around the 40-55 mark, with more popular classes capping at 75, the number of seats that were available in most of the classrooms housed in the newer buildings on campus. At American, there are only two classrooms in the building where almost everyone government course is taught that can accommodate more than 35 students. Advanced courses at American generally enroll no more than 30 students, and usually anywhere from five to 10 students less than that.

So . . . teaching at American is a pretty sweet deal, eh? You would think . . . but

no, apparently not always.

Our department is entering recruiting season for academic appointments that will begin in Fall 2009 or, depending on how savvy the person being recruited is, Spring 2010 or Fall 2010 or Fall 2011. Desitutute Ph.Ds coming out of graduate school generally want to begin as soon as possible so they can upgrade their grocery lists and clothing budgets to something beyond Spaghtetti O's and jeans and their favorite moth-eaten college sweatshirt they bought on the first day they arrived on campus for their freshman year. Senior professors can and generally are a little more demanding. They need time to sell their house and prepare their family for a move. And, because the process of academic hiring is so laborious and time-consuming, their home universities need time to replace them. There's nothing unreasonable about this to academics, although to people who function outside the academic world the notion of taking two or three years to switch jobs is a little strange.

Regardless of whether you're looking to fill out your first 1040EZ form or change the environment in which you work, you should, if you are serious about wanting to house your talents in a university setting, particularly a liberal arts-oriented institution like mine that is roughly 95% tuition driven and advertises itself as a place where students will experience intimate yet platonic relationships with their professors, not balk at our "heavy" teaching load of, again, on the average, five courses per year. No tenured or tenure-track professor in my department will teach more than 130 or so students per year. Even though the maximum, theoretically, would be 175 students, that would mean a professor would be assigned five classes at the maximum of 35 students per class. And that never happens unless a professor asks for such a schedule.

Our department and the school that houses it worry that we will not enhance our stature unless we offer a lower course load of four courses per year for incoming professors, with possibilities to reduce that load further through grants, what passes for sterling scholarship or some other professional feather in-the-cap. We already do offer reduced teaching for our assistants and a semester off, something that was not available to me when I came in 20 years ago. For senior hires, I've listened to candidates express an interest in avoiding undergraduate teaching altogether, as his or her talents are best suited to our graduate students, who comprise a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of our department's population. Yes, I hear my colleagues talk about all the powerhouse "research" that we're "churning out" and the need to heighten our "profile" among our "peer" Ph.D-granting institutions like Duke, Maryland and Johns Hopkins. Remarkably, this desire to avoid or minimize teaching doesn't seem to offend as many sensibilities among my colleagues as I'd like. Then again, as some of my colleagues have told me or told others about me, I don't do "serious" work. If "serious" is defined as holding no real interest in asking questions or pursuing ideas that either perpetuate the status quo through techniques that winnow out "politics" or "normative" assumptions to better predict behavior that we already understand fairly well, then I plead guilty. To me, the "seriousness" of an idea has nothing to do with where it gets published or how few people genuinely understand what an article or book is about. Publishing the same thing over and over doesn't advance anyone's understanding of anything. It does, however, fatten one's curriculum vitae. And that, more so than students know or professional academics want to admit, is what structures and drives the cause of "scholarship" in political science, as it does in almost every academic discipline. If the very "best" political scientists were as smart as they thought they were, then we'd have known how the 2008 presidential election would have turned out years ago through the various "predictive" models that "explain" who gets elected and why, or how the Supreme Court will decide the cases on its docket for the October 2008 Term.

To me, there is something wrong, horribly wrong, with a professor that views undergraduate teaching at a small, expensive private university as some sort of obstacle to pursuing the generally itsy-bitsy research questions that drive the "profession" of political science. Or, as I've heard before from colleagues -- in fairness, not so much here as in other places -- "real professors don't teach" -- I don't understand how "churning out" articles and books that are fairly meaningless for anyone other than a small group of colleagues who have an interest in perpetuating a professional model that has served them well. Simply because McDonalds has churned out billions of hamburgers doesn't mean they're any good.

Yes, there are some professors who enjoy teaching and put real time and effort into their courses and their students. And, yes, these professors, particularly untenured assistant professors, are quite justified in wondering if their time is well spent, especially when the sole measure of their hard work is the standardized student evaluation that doesn't measure or evaluate much of anything other than what one colleague of mine used to call the "happiness quotient." And, yes, there are some professors who are great teachers and write about interesting topics in interesting ways. But these are generally professors who have made a calculated decision, usually after tenure, to leave their past behind and pursue fresh, new approaches to their interests. Even so, as I can personally attest, a decision to develop new courses or put real time into the classes you teach more or less every semester or say good-bye to the past is not always met with great professional admiration by your colleagues. That should be the standard career arc for anyone interested in the world of ideas. So should teaching. But that's not the way it is. For universities like mine that are neither "serious" research institutions or elite teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges, there are choices to be made. And I'm afraid that my university continues to make the wrong choices to impress the wrong people, all because the right choices are considered counter-productive to improving our position among the people who are not paying to come to school here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap have been busy as the presidential campaign nears the end. Comments on Colin Powell's decision to endorse Barack Obama, more coverage of the presidential debates, their visit to Belmont to watch and report the debate, and more . . .

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . .

Monday, October 20th, LaFerme, 7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, Md., 6.30-9.30 p.m.

Wednesday, October 22nd, Pap and Peteys, 5th and H St., NE, 7.30-11.00 p.m. Three sets of straight-ahead jazz, served with a slice of funk. Come on out and help celebrate my birthday, since I'm too old and washed up to celebrate myself.

Note the new time at Paps. We're now starting at 7.30 p.m. More time to get your funk on.

As always, thanks for your support.

To learn more about Zeebop, click here. Zeebop is Mark Caruso, guitar; Gregg Ivers, drums; Justin Parrott, bass.

Zeebop is presented by Grabielismo productions.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Proud of this?

Remember when John McCain said Wednesday night he was "proud" of the crowds that have turned out to support his (and Sarah Palin's) campaign events?

Here's a video montage featuring some moments that I seriously, seriously doubt a man of honor like John McCain should be proud of.

Friday, October 17, 2008

No, it 's not about race . . . or is it?

Wednesday's New York Times featured several articles on the Obama campaign's encounter with racism and other "race-conscious" issues on the campaign trail. Several Times reporters interviewed Obama campaign workers canvassing in every region of the country, and they also spoke with respondents from all walks of life about how they felt about a black man running for president. Like it or not, these everyday Americans -- not just Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber, but Joe the College Student, Mary the native Alabaman, Bob the Industrial Park Cubicle Worker -- were refreshingly candid in assessing their own feelings about seeing Barack Obama as president of the United States. The disconnect between listening the elite media debate which candidate is more "authentic" and connected to the working-class or how factors such as "character" and "honesty" are really what drive voters' opinions on the candidates rather than race and the response that these "real" Americans give to reporters who actually venture outside the Beltway or an East Coast television studio could not be more stark. Sure, I'd be a lot more likely to laugh at John McCain for his outrage at John Lewis for comparing the rallies held by his campaign to the racial hatefests of George Wallace in the early 1960s if I thought McCain wasn't serious. But I think McCain, as well as his defenders in the elite mainstream media who can't stop talking about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, really doesn't understand why Lewis and so many others are so upset and offended by his campaign's tactics and behavior. Race-baiting, whether direct or carefully coded, has been a staple of Republican presidential campaign politics since 1968, when Richard Nixon launched his famous "Southern strategy." And yet all we ever hear from the John McCains and George W. Bushes and their apologists is how these tactics don't really represent the mainstream of the Republican party.

Actually, they do. Or else professional Republican campaign strategists wouldn't keep pressing the matter. And those Republicans outraged by John Lewis's dead-on words -- and remember, he did not call McCain a segregationist; he simply said that the racially charged atmopshere at his rallies, an atmosphere that McCain did not criticize even as he demanded that Obama "repudiate" John Lewis's sentiments, might well lead to violence if not squelched by the candidates themselves -- don't seem to get nearly as worked up when one of their own treads down that familiar Republican path of racial manipulation. It's really an incredible two-step. I'm not a racist, says a John McCain, a George W. Bush, a George H.W. Bush or a Ronald Reagan; but I am helpless to control the people around me who I am paying to get me elected for exploiting racial fears for electoral gain.

Huh?

Some crackpot African-American public figure says something that makes white people upset, and the Republican political-media echo chamber can't stop talking about it. Signs like "Vote White, Vote Right" show up next to McCain-Palin signs, and the whole thing is just one big misunderstanding. As I have said before, when a prominent white politician is forced to give a speech apologizing for some right-wing nutcase's idotic statements about African-Americans, gays or any other minority, I'll agree that we've made some progress on the racial double-standard front..

In two and a half weeks, Barack Obama will be elected the next president of the United States. Between now and then, John McCain faces a choice. He can either lose with dignity and counsel his supporters to grow up and accept American life in the 21st century. Or he can fan the flames of their racial resentment and continue to propogate the myth that a mysterious black man is about to land on planet Earth, pimp out the White House, trick up Air Force One and hold outrageous ghetto parties on the Elipse. The second choice might be more fun for McCain, Sarah Palin and their supporters, some of whom are wearing the shirt that you see pictured above to campaign events. But the first choice, the one that McCain should make, will be the one that will give him his best chance to preserve what little there is left of his carefully cultivated but no longer accurate reputation as a man of honor.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What does Joe Six-Pack want?

In case you were wondering if Barack Obama is a baby murdering Muslim, this photograph should dispel whatever doubts were left. Let's be careful. It might be taken out of context by the liberal media.

Remember one important distinction between this average American and Obama: He has never been nor is he now good friends with Bill Ayers and, for the sake of argument, has never worshipped in Jeremiah Wright's church. And unlike the nutcases on the abyss side of the democratic left, this fine gentleman isn't agonizing over whether we should spell woman with an "a" or a "y," or fretting about organic food production and the plight of caged chickens or milling about a hippie commune somewhere in search of free love or blaming America for the world's ills, including those we don't know about yet. He is simply a man of good and sincere character wanting to see our nation return to a simpler time that never existed, but one he thinks did because that's what he's heard in his church, a church that would never permit the kind of vile racism that is a requirement for Baptism in the Church of Wright.

And that's all that matters.

"Issue of Race Creeps Into Campaign"

That's not my headline, blurb or whatever you call the short phrases above a blog post. That's the headline from a front-page Washington Post story in Sunday's paper calling attention to the latest "injection" of race into the McCain-Obama presidential campaign -- Representative John Lewis's (D-Ga.) criticism of the 1936 Munich beer hall-style rallies, usually led by McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, that have turned into angry venting sessions of racial resentment. After a good 10 days of hearing Palin rail against Obama in the familiar language of racially coded invective to her supporters shouting, "Kill him," "terrorist," "traitor," and more, Lewis issued the following statement:

As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.
Lewis has taken a hit for this from the McCain campaign and, by extension, a bewildered corporate media, which had grown quite comfortable with Barack Obama as a "post-racial" candidate. The pattern is familiar. From the first presidential election in 1788, as in, yes George Washington, race has always been an issue. Prior to the Civil War, every presidential election involved the question of slavery, and which presidential candidate was more or less likely to alter or maintain the status quo. The elections of 1852 and 1856 involved the most explicit discussion of race, slavery and territorial disputes, with Buchanan's wink-and-nod to the pro-slavery forces in the Democratic party the most obvious manifestation of the "race issue," as it was once better known. Buchanan had become quite cozy with Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, and when Buchanan took the oath of presidential office in March 1857, he did so knowing full well where Taney was prepared to take the country on the slavery question -- that the Constitution forbade Congress from interfering with the states' power to establish and maintain slavery. Later that year, of course, Taney would write the Court's opinion in Dred Scott, a decision that constitutional scholars and historians generally agree fired the first shots of the Civil War.

Slavery dominated the presidential election of 1860, with Abraham Lincoln taking the position that the nation could not remain a "house divided," while his opponent, Stephen Douglas, favored the status quo. Lincoln did not carry a single Southern state in that election, the most prominent reason being, of course, that he expressed opposition to the "peculiar institution" and favored its gradual elimination by forbidding slavery in new territories, whereas Douglas favored a nation "forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it as the people of each state have decided." After the Civil War, race remained at the center of the presidential elections of 1868, 1872 and, most notably, 1876, where Rutherford B. Hayes inched out a corruption-fighting district attorney from New York, Samuel Tilden, by pledging to end Reconstruction in the South. Hayes's concession to the Southern racists and race-weary (and racist) Northerners opened the door to Jim Crow, the political creation of Southern politicians who cleverly established the doctrine of "separate but equal" to meet the requirements of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, which was intended to enfranchise primarily African-Americans and make the guarantees of the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. The Supreme Court never contested the power of Southern states (and a minimum of a dozen others outside the old Confederacy) to establish a racial caste system that not only forcibly separated whites and blacks, permitting contact only when it was convenient and necessary for whites, never for blacks. In 1896, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, officially validated these rules establishing racial apartheid throughout the United States when it ruled that racially segregated train cars did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. No public figure or official of import -- including all presidents from Theodore Roosevelt through Dwight D. Eisenhower -- saw fit to challenge a system -- at once economic, social, cultural and political -- that was created by and for whites and enforced by law until the late 1940s. Around that time, the Supreme Court, prodded by a series of cases brought by the NAACP (and argued by attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall, Spotswood Robinson, Jack Greenberg and Charles Hamilton Houston), began ruling that unless public universities and law schools provided genuinely equal facilities for blacks, white schools would have to admit them. By 1954, the NAACP had established enough favorable legal precedent to force the Supreme Court to confront once and for all the motive behind Jim Crow: that the forcible separation of the "races" was not the product of some "natural" order or mutually desirable arrangement; rather, racial apartheid was based on the long-held view that whites were superior to blacks and entitled to create rules that enforced this belief. Brown v. Board of Education did not, as many people still mistakenly believe, overturn Plessy. Brown held that any language in Plessy inconsistent with its ruling was no longer good law. The decision did not reach beyond public education.

So, naturally, race returned to more prominent position in the 1956 election, with Eisenhower choosing to remain mute on the subject rather than take a more forcible stand on racial equality beyond public education. Not until 1958, when the ugly events in Little Rock, Arkansas were literally broadcast to the entire world, including those countries behind the Iron Curtain, did Eisenhower see fit to enlist the power of the executive branch to enforce a racial integration order. And that case, Cooper v. Aaron, involved the admission of nine black students into a high school of 1200 white students.

Nine in 1200. And it took a nationalized Arkansas Guard and the 82nd Airborne Division to enforce the Court's decision.

Moving ahead . . . 1960. Let's see, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon danced gingerly around the issues that were now becoming more and more a staple of domestic American politics. They competed to see who could first reassure Coretta Scott King that her husband would not remain confined in an Atlanta jail for challenging the city's racial segregation laws in public accommodations, with Kennedy emerging as the winner. The short-term impact of Kennedy's intervention in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s incarceration was minimal, but the long-term consequences were soon evident. After 1960, African-Americans moved en masse to the Democratic party, a shift of historic importance, as it marked the modern transformation of the Democratic and Republican parties into the institutions they are today. The party of Lincoln was morphing into the party of Barry Goldwater, a Republican congressman from Arizona, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and almost every piece of federal legislation intended to remove racial inequities from the law. By 1968, the Republican party had inherited the racist faction of the Democratic party, which had begun losing Southern Democrats as far back as 1948, when Strom Thurmond, disgruntled with President Harry Truman's decision to integrate the armed forces and extend at-home veteran's benefits to African-Americans returning home from World War II, established the Dixiecrat party.

Cue Richard Nixon, who, reemerging from a self-imposed political exile after he lost the 1962 election for the California governorship, explicitly embraced the "Southern strategy" to puncture the Democrats once-firm hold on the South. By the mid-1960s, the Solid Democratic South built on the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt had started to crumble, primarily because of Lyndon Johnson's decision to embrace the civil rights movement while simultaneously advocating the "Great Society," an ambitious expansion of the New Deal welfare state that would include much more in the way of social services, health care and funding for education. That meant more taxes, and more taxes, to Southerners, meant white tax dollars going to support federal welfare programs that were intended for blacks. Indeed, it is not a stretch to say that the modern Republican party was constructed upon the triumvirate of race, taxes and the welfare state. More so than any other domestic issues -- and, yes, that includes abortion, gay rights, prayer in school . . . pick one from the "family values" palette -- divergence on these three policy issues, all linked, explains the composition of the modern Democratic and Republican parties.

And that's not even getting into George Wallace's two turns on the presidential campaign stage in 1968 and 1972.

Ronald Reagan was agnostic on the question of race. He never struck me as a racist in any classic sense, just as someone completely indifferent to the history of race in the United States and the consequences of a legally-enforced system of racial apartheid. Critics often pointed to his opposition to the social welfare state, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, his administration's opposition to the 1982 extensions of the 1965 law, its support for a tax exemption for Bob Jones University, a private religious school that discriminated against blacks, over the objections of the Internal Revenue Service, opposition to affirmative action and federal programs in place to provide assistance to the needy, some of which went back to the New Deal, not just the 1960s. Now that I think about it, tagging Reagan as a racist was and is unfair. A more accurate description of Reagan and race is to see him as the perfect modern example of racial privilege. A man of modest talents and even more modest intellect, he was able to work his way up through the businesses of entertainment and politics in no small part because of his race. In Hollywood, he did not have to compete with black actors; nor, as a pitchman for corporate America in the 1950s and early 1960s, did he have to compete with blacks for such a cushy and lucrative position. Reagan's turn as a governor in the 60s was simply a coming attraction for the Schwarzenegger-phenom of the celebrity as politician. At no point, I am fairly certain, did it ever occur to Ronald Reagan that race had anything to do with his success. Like many white Americans today, Reagan lived his life firmly convinced that his "success" in America was the result of merit and in no way, shape or form linked to the system that openly and with legal and political force advantaged whites.

And then there was Reagan's decision, urged by former Mississippi senator Trent Lott, to launch his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the small town where the Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were murdered in 1964 for their efforts to register black voters. This incredibly insensitive decision was greeted less with "What could you be thinking?" than a "Let's not read too much into this . . ." response from a national press core that was starting to bend under the charm of candidate Reagan. Lott's goal was clear -- to establish Reagan as the candidate of lower-income white America, and reassure those whites that he would not use the federal government to underwrite and encourage bad behavior among black Americans. This would be a president who would put white America first.

Let's see . . . 1988 Willie Horton . . . 1992 Bill Clinton's call to "end welfare as we know it" . . . the emergence in 2008 of the "white working class" from small-town America as the purveyors of all that is good and wholesome about America, with Hillary Clinton becoming the first Democratic nominee since 1964 to openly court the white vote at the expense of the African-American vote . . . . and on and on it goes.

So, now, we hear John McCain, Sarah Palin and their echo chamber on the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard, Fox and the other conservative purveyors of "opinion" discuss the unfairness of having criticize John Lewis, who is always among their first "some of my best friends are black" public figures because of his low-key persona and beyond reproach standing as a genuine American hero.  Just like no one should doubt John McCain's courage for enduring what he did in Vietnam, no one should ever doubt Lewis's commitment to a more humane and fair society.  He literally risked his life time and time again in the early 1960s on behalf of a more democratic and inclusive society.  And Lewis was never about "tolerance," a term so condescending that I cringe every time I hear it.  Lewis was about reconciliation and trying to get Americans, regardless of who they were or where they were born, to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in the democratic ideal. When John Lewis says something stinks, it stinks. 

And yet . . . there is no call for "white leaders" to "repudiate" Sarah Palin or John McCain for their association (in the former's case, encouragement of) with the yahoos at their rallies. There is no call by Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Rush Limbaugh or anyone else for McCain or Palin to give a national speech explaining the obligations of white Americans to behave more responsibly in public or to "tolerate" those not like them.  Yes, yes, yes . . . we'll hear more and more about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers in the weeks to come; we will hear nothing about John Hagee, Charles Keating, James Dobson or any other right-wing nut from generations past and present, and how their "relationship" to John McCain raises doubts about his character.  No, no, no . . . white Americans have no obligation to be responsible for anything that any other white American might say or do.  But when a black man or woman says or does something that offends the sensibilities of some white Americans, the reaction is some sort of Twilight Zone version of the children's game, Freeze Tag: stop what you're doing immediately and denounce, reject, disassociate or disown the offending party.  

Or just kill him. Or her. Whatever works.

So let's take this opportunity to remind ourselves that now, in this late stage of the 2008 election, the "issue of race [has] crept into [the presidential] campaign."

Who knew?

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap review the McCain-Obama "Town Hall" debate, the "Welcome Wagon" for the campaigns visit to Nashville, and offer their own definition of Joe Six-Pack.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop This Week . . .

Monday, October 13th, 6.30-9.30 p.m. at LaFerme, 7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, MD. Three sets of soft, straight-ahead jazz in a country French setting. We're also there on October 13th, 20th and 27th.

Wednesday, October 15th, 7-9 p.m. at Pap and Peteys, 5th and H Sts., NE, Washington, D.C. Pap and Peteys received a great write-up in a recent Saturday Weekend section of The Washington Post. Come out for three sets of straight-ahead jazz and enjoy a great atmosphere. College students and federal employees receive discounts. We're there every Wednesday night from 8-11 p.m. This is a one-off time change to accommdate the presidential debate.

Thursday, October 30th, Clare and Dons, 121 N. Washington St, Falls Church, VA.,, next to the State Theatre.

Thursday, November 20th, 6.30-9.30 p.m., at Maggianos, 5330 Wisconsin Ave., NW, in Friendship Heights.

More venues forthcoming.

As always, thanks for your support.

Zeebop is Mark Caruso, guitar; Gregg Ivers, drums; Justin Parrott, bass. To learn more about Zeeebop click here.

Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions.


Friday, October 10, 2008

iPod confessions

The iPod has revolutionized how we collect, listen to and store music on so many levels that it's hard to even know where to begin. As a teenager, a point of pride was my stereo, which consisted on carefully matched "components," preferably manufactured by different companies . . . the better to show off your knowledge of who made the best turntable (Dual), the best receiver (Harmon Kardon or MacIntosh) or best tape deck (a toss-up between Denon and Sony). Then there was the issue of appropriate speakers -- the "reflecting" Bose 901s, which cost about the same as a small house in a nice Atlanta neighborhood, JBLs, for superior bass response, or Infinity, if, like me, you liked crystal clear high-ends so you could hear the ride cymbals of great drummers like Roy Haynes or Bill Bruford, or wonder if Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet or Jimmy Page's guitar could really shatter glass. Then, of course, you had to buy albums -- never prerecorded cassettes, which had inferior fidelity to albums recorded onto blank tape (Maxell, of course) -- to play on your carefully chosen stereo. Was it worth it to buy the imported version of your favorite band's records on the hunch that it was better than the American counterpart? On top of all this, you had to clean the record, everytime you played it, with a Discwasher3 cleaning kit . . . coming after you had applied Sound Guard to the record to protect it from the stylus, which the discerning buyer bought separately from the stylus that came with the turntable. The even more discerning buyer, who some might call a true freak, the kind of person who still lives with his parents at 46 because he still spends all his money on comic books and "audiophile" equipment, would buy the tone arm separately from turntable and the stylus.

Except for lunatics slavishly devoted to high-end audio, nobody puts much thought into buying stereo equipment anymore. People buy "sound systems," preferably all-in-ones to save space, and buy a cord to link to their iPod. Forget albums. How many people are still buying CDs (besides me)? As I wrote last year on the tragic demise of record stores, displaying your albums -- very much, admittedly, a guy thing -- was a point of pride. "Wow, where did you get that imported version of "Dark Side of the Moon," a new visitor might ask. "I noticed that your album has a blue outline around the front. Mine doesn't. Cool." That doesn't happen anymore. My son, for example, just views CDs as transfer medium to get music onto his iPod. And since he listens to music through his headphones more than through conventional speakers, I don't really know what he's listening to until I see his iPod library. As a teen-ager, I only listened to music through headphones when my parents didn't wanted quiet. Later, in college, I began to listen to more music through headphones, usually late at night or very early in the morning (as in 1 or 2 a.m., not 6 or 7 a.m.) to get the full effect of "On the Run," by Pink Floyd or "The Gates of Delerium," by Yes in a somewhat herbally-enhanced state of mind. The headphones were big and clunky, like the kind Keith Moon wore during live renditions of "Won't Get Fooled Again" so he could hear the keyboard part over the Peter Townsend's guitar.

Yes. Cool it was. And I knew it.

But what no one knew is that I kept a stash of records back in my closet, behind abandoned tennis rackets, board games and too-small shoes of albums I liked but dared not display in public. Go ahead, I'd think to myself, check out my complete Yes collection, including the album version of a broadcast from the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Oh, you like the bootleg of the 1976 Genesis tour where they played "White Mountain?" Good luck finding that at Tower, because you won't. "Who is Thelonious Monk?" a friend entering my music space for the first time would want to know. And I'd try to explain, knowing full well he just wouldn't get it.

No, no . . . behind the cool albums, plus the two or three I kept out on display so that my friends could see just how many cool and hard-to-find albums I had, were my old Monkees' records with "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm a Believer" on them. And, yes, the Carpenters, with Karen Carpenter seductively singing, "We've Only Just Begun," a song that I had to sing at my 7th grade graduation ceremony. Like every other self-described cool guy, I feigned disgust at that song. Secretly, though, I loved it, just like I loved "Top of the World." And there were more, coming in the form of 45s that I bought before I became too cool to buy singles (or at least too cool to buy them in front of my friends): "Ride Captain Ride," "Spirit in the Sky" and "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," and "Patches," a song that always made me cry when I listened to it.

Now, you can hide all your music on your iPod so that no one knows what guilty pleasures you're indulging when no one's looking. Does anyone really know, for example, when you're sitting in a coffee shop pecking away on your "work" that you're listening to, say, "One Toke Over The Line, (Sweet Jesus)" by Brewer and Shipley or "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You," by Sugarloaf? Of course not. And if, by chance, you run into someone you know and she decides to come over for a quick hello, you can just make that song disappear with a quick click of the Menu button. That was inconceivable in the old days, where you would have had to stop your turntable, wait for it to stop turning (never interfere with the natural speed of a belt-drive, for fear of throwing the carefully chosen calibrations off by the slightest variance), put the record back in the album sleeve and then hide it. You just couldn't do it. Not possible.

Now, though, I've reached a point where I am no longer embarrassed about some of the incredibly cheesy music I have on my iPod. And even if I am slightly embarrassed about knowing the words to "In the Year 2525," by heart, even though I might only listen to that song twice a year, I am no longer embarrassed about being embarrassed. So here, in an effort to come clean as yet another birthday burying me further into middle-age is just around the corner, are the next ten cheesiest songs (after the ones above) I have on my iPod.

1. "Year of the Cat," Al Stewart
2. "Rainy Days and Mondays," The Carpenters
3. "Don't You Forget About Me," Simple Minds
4. "Take on Me," a-ha
5. "Diamond Girl," Seals and Crofts
6. "Temptation Eyes," The Grass Roots
7. "Ooh, Ooh, Child," Beth Orton
8. "Guitar Man," Bread
9. "Spill the Wine," Eric Burdon with War
10. "Midnight at the Oasis," Maria Muldaur

I feel a burden lifted. Nothing like a clean conscience to the start the weekend.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The culture war of elections past

Just when I thought Sarah Palin was the Flight Attendant From Hell, I thought about it a little bit more and realized that she's really . . . Pat Buchanan reincarnated.

No, she is. Really.

Hold your nose and watch Pat Buchanan's infamous "Culture War" speech from the 1992 Republican National Convention that sent mainstream Republicans running for the exits and compare against Sarah Palin's "Barack Is A Terrorist Who Wants to Raise Your Taxes" speech Monday in Clearwater, Florida.

See a pattern here? Ever see Pat Buchanan and Sarah Palin in the same room? Did anyone ever see Bruce Wayne and Batman together?

There you go.

And, by the way, Barack Obama is no longer being given the honorific "Senator Obama" in the introductions to Palin's campaign appearances. He's now . . . Barack Hussein Obama. Bet you didn't see that coming, now did ya?

Homer for Obama

As falls Springfield, so falls the nation . . .

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

"That one?"

I had wanted to write something funny about tonight's presidential debate and combine it with something funny I had wanted to write about last Thursday night's vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and America's Favorite Flight Attendant Circa 1975 ("Coffee, tea or me, Joe?" . . . "You're darn tootin' right you can give my size 2 tush a squeeze" . . . "Wanna join the Mile High Club, Joe? We're a 100 miles away from home" . . . "Ever tried the Maverick in an airline washroom, Joe?" . . . "Why put your tray in the upright and locked position when you can do the same to me [WINK, WINK]?" . . . "Our pilot has informed me that we may or may not land in a jiff . . . ya see he's really not a pilot, but a former snowmobile racer who used to belong to Alaska's secessionist party.  How's that for an outsider? We don't need no fancy, FAA-certified pilot to fly this plane, now do we?"

And then I heard Senator John McCain refer to his colleague, Barack Obama, as "that one," not even looking at him with his finger pointing across his chest, while answering a question (technically; like his running mate, Sarah Palin, McCain simply refuses to answer questions and instead turns to prerecorded statements that mash the English language into nearly unidentifiable gibberish) and decided I could not continue to watch this "debate." 
Since the early 1990s, I have had a great deal of respect and admiration for Bob Dole. Until I read Richard Ben Cramer's book, "What It Takes," many years ago -- the book profiled the presidential field of 1988 -- I thought Dole was a mean-spirited crank with a chip on his shoulder a mile wide and deep.  That all changed when I learned more about his life story. McCain, on the other hand, has always come across to me as a fraud, a man whose success came to him by dint of birth and marriage.  Like W., McCain was born into a family of privilege, yet chose to reinvent himself as a Western populist, albeit one with mulitiple homes, multi-zillionaire corporate patrons and a country club social circle, and maintain that image by openly embracing medicocrity and anti-intellectualism.  McCain's turn on the national stage as a presidential candidate has been embarrassing, and I actually feel for the friends of mine who, as misguided as they are politically, are good people trapped below the deck of the S.S. Straight Talk as it continues to sink to the bottom.
Tonight's comment, coming on the heels of Palin's racially-tinged comments earlier today and yesterday about Obama's "association" with 60's radical Bill Ayers, either reveals McCain for the conventional pol he really is or adds another exclamation point to his appalling lack of judgment. Either way, his "that one" comment tonight should send shivers up the spines of men and women of a certain age who grew up in a certain part of the country. My wife and I caught it immediately. 
My guess is that McCain had no idea how offensive his comments and gestures were. That's no surprise, as McCain, his self-reinforced narrative as America's bravest soldier aside, genuinely believes that he came about his life of privilege honestly and through dint of hard work.  He didn't, as any cursory examination of his life story shows.  Obama, on the other hand, earned his place in the world (like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan and  . . . boy, does it hurt me to say this, Richard Nixon), coming from nothing to make himself into something.  Privilege, I suppose, has many advantages.  Insularity, though, is not among those advantages.  And tonight America got a full blown view of what the consequences will be of electing a 19th century man to deal with a 21st century world where the "that ones" will outnumber the Joe Sixpacks (does anyone believe that Sarah Palin's aggrieved and concerned Joe Sixpack is black?) by a margin that was once the other way around. 

Monday, October 06, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap review the Biden-Palin debate, the Obama-McCain debate and discuss their new-found fame in the Wall Street Journal.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop This Week . . .

Monday, October 6th, 6.30-9.30 p.m. at LaFerme, 7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, MD. Three sets of soft, straight-ahead jazz in a country French setting. We're also there on October 13th, 20th and 27th.

Wednesday, October 8th, 8-11 p.m. at Pap and Peteys, 5th and H Sts., NE, Washington, D.C. Pap and Peteys received a great write-up in this Saturday's Weekend section of The Washington Post. Come out for three sets of straight-ahead jazz and enjoy a great atmosphere. College students and federal employees receive discounts.We're there every Wednesday night.

Thursday, October 30th, Clare and Dons, 121 N. Washington St, Falls Church, VA.,, next to the State Theatre.

Thursday, November 20th, 6.30-9.30 p.m., at Maggianos, 5330 Wisconsin Ave., NW, in Friendship Heights.

More venues forthcoming.

As always, thanks for your support.

Zeebop is Mark Caruso, guitar; Gregg Ivers, drums; Justin Parrott, bass. To learn more about Zeeebop click here.

Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The abortion conundrum

Two topics that I don't generally discuss with the outer-world -- that is, people outside my small network of close friends, family, street corner drunks, Google-stalkers and randomly selected conversation partners in grocery store check-out lines -- are the Middle East and abortion politics. It took me longer than it should have to realize that any "discussion" of these topics quickly turns into an argument, an argument that, in almost every case, was about as satisfying as reading the "Fuck me? No, Fuck You" volleys in the comments section of some celebrity pundit's most recent column. So, after years and years of engaging these topics to no avail, I amended my own personal employment/discussion/arguing manual many years ago to exclude any discussion of these two topics with people I don't know very well. And, I must say, unlike most decisions I make, this one has proved a good one.

An article this past Sunday in the Washington Post Outlook section by Linda Hirshman has, against my better judgment led me, to borrow John McCain's phraseology, to "suspend" my moratorium on discussing abortion politics (my off-limits approach to the Middle East is still off-limits). Hirshman is a lawyer and former professor who writes most often on women-and-work-type issues and is most noted for her view that well-educated, professionally-trained women should not remain home with their children, where their education and skills are wasted on demeaning and unproductive "labor." Rather, women should "choose" to stay in the workplace, where they can enhance their power and prestige and, presumably, get much more out of life than they otherwise would taking their little ones to Gymboree and wiping their runny noses between thrown together lunches of Mac 'n Cheese and sliced fruit. I have never found Hirshman's writings appealing, and the reasons are legion. First, I don't necessarily agree that all women (or men, who are never mentioned in her work, except as villains) have "choices" about whether to work or not. Second, the careers that women are "choosing" to forsake, like their male counterparts, are not all that spectacular. For every one woman torn between what is, in reality, a fetishized life of power and glory in a corner office high above the teeming masses in a tall glass building, thousands more are plugging away in jobs that they'd throw away in a minute if they could (ditto for men). Third, her take on the workplace/life issue assumes that spending more time with your family is somehow "beneath" the well-educated and accomplished mind. Speaking for myself, I would much, much rather spend my time with my family, especially my young children, and, unlike most of my well-educated and affluent friends, I have a job I absolutely love and wouldn't trade for any other -- and I've had my share of chances to take positions that, in the eyes of those who offered them to me, would be considered advancements. But I simply don't care about "advancing" to please others or to convince myself that I have "succeeded." And that will never change. The Linda Hirshmans and Judith Warners of the world will have to agonize about the plight of well-educated white women and their "choices," choices that, in my experience of being the only Dad on the "primary caregiver" circuit during my childrens' pre-school days, were usually being debated at a well-maintained park subsidized by private contributions over Starbucks and a dog-eared copy of Architectural Digest. Their nannies, usually Fillapino or Latina, played with their kids, who weren't allowed to get dirty, lest they mess up their carefully chosen collared shirts with matching plaid shorts.

Hirshman's article in the Sunday Post was not about poor little rich white women and the Congresswoman vs. stay-at-home mom "choice" that so many of them face. Timed perfectly to coincide with the upcoming McCain-Obama debate on domestic policy, Hirshman writes about the post-Roe/Casey/Gonzales world that awaits women should a McCain-appointed justice (or two) vote to overturn those decisions, assuming that Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia can put together a majority to abandon Roe/Casey. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito did not join the Scalia/Thomas concurrence in Gonzales to discard Roe. In fairness, her article was not about which justice would agree to do what. Assuming the Court would take the final leap that liberals have fretted about for the last twenty-five years or so, Hirshman offers a nightmare scenario for women, their doctors and almost everyone involved who believes that the right to abortion should remain as it is. Women will subjected to criminal prosecution, forbidden to travel across state lines to obtain an abortion, be subject to invasive searches to determine if they've had illegal abortions, and more. A parade of horribles, for sure.

Don't forget: the current state of abortion law is dramatically different than the rules the Court created in Roe thirty-five years ago. Technically, it is a misnomer to even describe the abortion debate as one that involves a choice between a pre-or post-Roe landscape. Roe stands in the sense that women cannot be legally blocked from obtaining an elective abortion prior to fetal viability. Everything else about Roe has changed. States can mandate waiting periods, require "informed consent," place restrictions on the right of minors to obtain abortions, compel testing to determine fetal viability and deny public funding even for therapeutic abortions. On the law side, the trimester system upon which Justice Harry Blackmun built Roe was laid to rest in Casey, and states are not required to justify their regulations as related to maternal health. States may, if they choose, prefer "life" and pass laws to promote the state's asserted in interest in protecting that life. They may say, in the preambles to their laws, that life begins at conception without violating the First or Fourteenth Amendments. And, since Gonzales, the Court has said that laws prohibiting abortions after fetal viability no longer require a health as well as "life of the mother" exception, something that previous majorities, even those upholding restrictions on abortion, had never done. Still, the power that Roe has as a symbol of women's equality and reproductive freedom is so great that commentators and politicians discussing abortion law and politics can still use it as shorthand, even though the actual decision is a shell of its former self.

So, why do I, as someone who is a long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood, unwaveringly and unapologetically pro-abortion rights and donates to organizations that work to protect legal abortion as well as lobby for comprehensive sex education . . . as someone who do anything to secure an abortion for my daughter if she wanted one, even if that meant breaking the law, fail to get riled up by the "Chicken Little" arguments like the one Hirshman makes? I suppose it is because I subscribe to the "burning building" theory of constitutional law and judicial decision-making. I'll explain . . .

Have you ever been in a conversation where you insisted that you'd go back in a burning building to retrieve your favorite things, rescue your or your children's cat, climb the fire escape to help the kindly old gentleman who lives four doors down from you and always remembers your birthday or to save the wheelchair-bound elderly woman who is always there for you when you need to discuss your personal problems? Of course. We all have. Yet, would we actually go back into the building to save a cat, rescue a person who isn't related to us or retrieve family photos? The only honest answer is that we don't know. Until you are actually faced with a choice that, until that point in time, has only been an abstract point of discussion, you really have no idea what you are doing to do.

As of today, there are only two votes on the Court, Justices Scalia and Thomas, to do away with the constitutional right to abortion. Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts haven't indicated as such, and Justice Kennedy's objections to late-term abortion do not extend to pre-viability elective abortions. Do I think that Scalia and Thomas, should the votes fall into place, would pull back from their commitment to deconstitutionalize abortion rights? No. Do I think the same is true for Alito and Roberts? In Alito's case, I'm not sure. In Roberts's case, I don't think he'd do it. Yes, yes, yes . . . we can point to this decision or that one as evidence that one justice or another might vote a certain way. But that's a very limited predictor, as not all cases carry the same weight. To say that a justice is pro-this or anti-that might be true in cases with low stakes. But in cases where the law will shift dramatically, in this case to give states the power to criminalize performing, aiding or obtaining an abortion, a justice might have a greater reason to pull back. Often lost in this highly-charged discussions on abortion rights (or any other contentious civil rights/liberties issue, for that matter) is how justices want to be remembered by the casebooks, articles and opinions that house their work. Does John Roberts, an apple-polisher from the get-go and a Grade A member of the Washington Establishment, the Establishment that "agrees to disagree" about everything from which elite private schools can best serve their children to whether Jackson Hole or Martha's Vineyard should be this year's vacation destination, really want to be remembered as the Chief Justice who presided over what would be the Court's most unpopular decision in modern times? Does Sam Alito want to be remembered by the country's law schools as the justice whose opinion outlined the end of constitutionally protected abortion rights? All this reminds me of Justice Anthony Kennedy's concurring opinion in the 1988 case of Webster v. Reproductive Services. Kennedy excortiated the indecisive "let's limit this decision to today" approach of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which led many "legal experts" and those who play them on television to conclude that he would sink Roe if given the chance. Four years later, Kennedy joined with O'Connor and David Souter to preserve what he called the "core" of Roe -- that women, in consultation with their doctors, had a constitutional right to abortion, albeit one that could be heavily regulated, that the state could not prevent.

Rather than viewing Kennedy's decision as one that came through reflection, a sense of his place in history (positive rather than negative) and a realization that moving the law of abortion from an abstract law school seminar to something that would alter the lives of everyone from women seeking abortions to the doctors that performed them to the insurance companies that paid for them, he was lambasted by conservatives, who accused him of intellectual cowardice, the need to protect his reputation on the Washington cocktail circuit or to remain on the good side of Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times long-standing (and now former) Supreme Court correspondent. The stark reality is that no one knows why Kennedy pulled back. Yes, there are law professors and political scientists out there who believe it is a worthwhile use of their time to come up with some "explanation" of the decisions that justices make. I'm not one of them, though, because I don't believe big decisions are that easy to make, much less predict. Could there be a difference between how a "justice" thinks and how a "judge" thinks? A justice, perhaps, can think more abstractly about the relationship between law and society. A judge, on the other hand, must, well, "judge" how to balance the competing interests before him or her in any particular case.

So, for the sake of argument, if we can't really predict with any degree of scientific certainty what a "justice" or "judge" -- presuming we view their roles as slightly different -- will do when the stakes are raised, do we really know what states will do on abortion? A handful of states do have "trigger" laws on the books (laws ready to go into effect in the event the Court abolishes constitutionally protected abortion rights) but their power lies in their symbolism, since they are legally impotent. Will state legislators show no mercy on women who will undoubtedly seek abortions? What about their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, uncles or grandparents who drive them to an illegal abortion provider? Are they now accessories to a crime, no different than someone who drives the stick-up man to the bank or agrees to wait in the car while his partner walks into a convenience store, robs it, and shoots the clerk? And what about doctors? Will their first obligation be to the Hippocratic Oath or a newly reconstituted set of laws that prevents them from performing a procedure that had been legal for over 35 years? On more than one occasion, I've heard "pro-life" politicians hem on this question, claiming that their interest is not putting anyone in jail or punishing women, but to promote the "culture of life." That's all well and good. But when you criminalize something, someone has to get fined or sent to jail. Otherwise, why write laws?

Take it up another level. Does a moderate Republican governor like Charlie Gilchrist of Florida want to stake his career on putting women in jail who had an illegal abortion? That assumes, of course, that reasonable governors with national political aspirations would even sign laws like these. Does the United States want to project an image around the world as a place where teen-aged girls raped by their stepfathers must bear that child, one that was "created" by a dehumanizing and degrading act that has no equal? And what about the doctors who perform abortions? Are we now going to send them to jail as well? And what kind of jail -- a minimum security facility where they can "think" about their crimes while learning a trade or a hard-ass lock down facility where a woman who was raped by her stepfather is viewed as fair game for sexually abusive prisoners and those who guard them.

I have never heard a politician calling for the end of constitutionally protected abortion in the United States answer those questions in any meaningful or satisfactory way. There's a good reason for that -- it isn't necessary. As long as the abortion debate remains abstract, a "pro-life" politician can please his or her constituents by demanding an end to the practice without having to account for any real-world consequences. Take John McCain. He knows full well that if he put the abortion issue front and center in his campaign he scares away a lot more voters than he would attract. He'll say the right things and offer reassurances to his "pro-life" supporters; but the reality is that he wants this issue as far down on the totem pole as possible. See how he responds if one the moderators in the upcoming presidential debates asks him if he believes states should send women to jail for obtaining abortions, doctors for performing them, expend resources for law enforcement to police emergency rooms and other facilities to nab women who have attempted to perform abortions on themselves or, worse, made up a story about a miscarriage. Let's see how Mr. Straight Talk handles that one. Really. Just someone, anyone, ask him. Ask the same question to Sarah Palin tonight.

So where am I on all this, a few thousand words later? There are lots of reasons I don't want to see John McCain or Sarah Palin appointing anyone to the lower federal courts or the Supreme Court. But concern for the Court's precedents on abortion, surprisingly, is not one of them. So much has to happen for a committed pro-life justice to get to the Court. He or she would have to make it through a Senate confirmation process that would be, justifiably, contentious and partisan -- and may well center on abortion rights. Yes, yes . . . I can hear you now . . . "concern for the process," . . . "politicizing the judiciary," and so on. But if presidents can choose people for ideological reasons, then the Senate can oppose them for the very same reason. That doesn't bother me a bit, and I'd feel the same way if an Obama Administration found itself swimming upstream on a judicial nomination. I think debate and discussion is good for politics, especially when any potential decision involves a lifetime appointment. Once on the Court, new justices don't typically attempt to stake out new ground or make controversial decisions in their first few years, although, as in the cases of Scalia and Thomas, there are exceptions. Then that same justice, faced with the very real possibility of forever altering the course not just of constitutional law, but the lives of women, doctors, families, insurers, law enforcement and public health organizations. And then there's the rest of the world, which might find the idea of American "moral leadership" (always more of a fantasy than a reality, but that's another topic . . .) little more than self-parody as it marches the victims of nonconsensual pregnancies off to jail for not wanting to have their rapist's child. By the way, has anyone thought about who gets custody of a child that no one wants? Is John McCain prepared to tell a woman that she must keep and shoulder the cost of raising a child that resulted from a nonconsensual act?

No, the "burning building" theory of constitutional law and judicial decision-making doesn't have the elegance of some (almost always inaccurate) mathematical model that purports to "explain" how the Court works. But admitting that we sometimes don't know what we would do when confronted with the real over the abstract, we might end up with a better and sometimes calmer perspective on a issue that tilts too often towards hysteria and not enough towards understanding the world as it actually works.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Drummed Out!

Last night, I competed in the 20th annual Drum Off competition sponsored by the Guitar Center, the national musical instrument store. I had my qualms about "competing" against players who I knew would be 20 years (at minimum) younger than me and full of powerhouse athletic chops. But my kids wanted me to do it, and my buddies in the drum department wanted a jazzer to round out all the heavy hitters.

I ended up finishing third, not good enough to advance. But it was a blast, and I got to see some incredible young players put on some amazing performances and meet some new friends in the drumming world.

And, yes, because my son recorded it, you can view it here, screw ups and all.