Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Great Debaters

I suppose I should have known better than to think the media might be honest.

I'm speaking, of course, about last night's debate - which I suppose I should analyze before I analyze the analysis.

I'm going to step right up and say that Obama knocked it out of the park. Of course, I should preface this by saying he started off with the home team advantage - a little less than half the debate was on the economy, an area where Democrats in general (and Obama in particular) have a decisive lead. To add economic questions to any debate is a coup for the Democratic candidate, but this was supposed to be John McCain's night - it's Foreign Policy, where the Republicans are supposed to be right at home.

Key phrase: supposed to be.

Because John McCain was not at home - he was in the past or out to lunch, constantly harping on the Troop Surge when he wasn't defending himself from accusations of outright falsehood. Obama gets points from me for levelling those accusations, and even more points for sticking to his guns on the current Foreign Policy hot spots: the Iraq War and the possible invasion of Pakistan to capture terrorists. He could very easily have taken a middle road on either one of these issues; that would have been both the default Democratic strategy these days and a complete disaster.

First of all, the mere fact that we're winning the Iraq War is a ridiculous and superficial reason to praise it - too many liberals have fallen into that trap. McCain's attempt to paint the Iraq War as both a military triumph and a political irrelevancy was bold, but ultimately unsuccessful. He's counting on unconditional American love of victory, but the American people are frankly not convinced we've won anything - as well we shouldn't be. Obama was right to declare that our reasons were wrong, right to declare that too many lives were lost, and right to declare that the next President should do it differently. A lot of pundits have been singling out key quotes; one I haven't heard is "No soldier ever dies in vain, obeying the orders of his commander-in-chief." An absolute masterstroke! Our soldiers were noble, but our leaders were wrong!

But if I was pleased at Obama's handling of Iraq, it was nothing compared to the glee I felt at his handling of the Pakistan remarks he made earlier (discussed below, in "The Political System We Deserve"). This was an area where Obama could certainly have justified backing down - indeed, I would be shocked if there was not pressure from the liberal establishment to do so. Now, as it happens, I think he's advocating absolutely the right course of actions - but even if he weren't, to back down last night would have been an unmitigated disaster. As it was, John McCain was placed in the unenviable position of accusing the Democrats of war-mongering; how did he think that would play with his base? Did he really think that giving his opponent the opportunity to say "Osama bin Laden must be killed" was a good idea? "Counseling moderation in our pursuit of terrorists has worked wonders for the Democrats...I think I'll give it a shot!"

So, to recap: Obama won. I know it, McCain knows it, everybody knows it.

But an interesting thing happened while I was watching this debate. CNN, you see, adds a lot of nifty stuff to its debate interface - six Analyst Scorecards line the sides of the screen, while a focus-group line on the bottom tracks audience response by party. Even had I not watched the debate at all, I would have been able to tell just by this machinery that Obama was winning. The focus-group lines reached their highest points of the night while Obama was speaking - even the Republicans never got as high for McCain - and the scorecards gave him a dominant lead in points. Four out of the six analysts gave Obama the higher score - two by a considerable margin - and at the end of the night it was 44 Obama, 21 McCain. A decisive Democratic victory.

Or was it?

After the debate, of course, CNN turned to Anderson Cooper for a special edition of 360 wherein he asked the analysts what they thought. Every single one declared the evening more or less a tie.

Their scorecards were still on the screen!

Paul Begala, Democratic advisor and former "liberal" host of Crossfire, awarded the night to Obama by a margin of - if I remember correctly - 12 points to 2. When it came his turn to give an opinion, he said both candidates had been strong - but that Obama represented himself just a little better. Another analyst - Castellanos, I think - gave it to Obama 14 to 10, as any viewer could confirm, but called the event an outright tie. One of the commentators finally remarked that the focus group line had hardly moved, exhibiting no serious highs or lows, and nobody argued with him. By the time I checked my news sites this morning, the media consensus was in: the debate was a tie.

What in God's name happened between 10 and 10:30 last night? Castellanos is a conservative, as is Bennet - the only CNN commentator to seriously favor McCain - so no surprises there. But which of Paul Begala's kids did the Republicans have at gunpoint? Where are they holding the child? Is he or she okay?

Why, oh why, do they think we're so gullible? Why, oh why, aren't they wrong?

UPDATE:'s Debate Report Card actually has McCain scoring slightly higher, mostly by virtue of using almost none of the analysts who scored the debate live. Paul Begala gives Barack Obama a B, and John McCain a C. Yep; that's how I'd translate 12 to 2.

(Paul's child: if you are reading this, call the police!)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tough On What?

I'll keep this short, since I have one major question and I certainly don't have an answer:

How did we allow the Republicans to become both the tough-on-crime party and the gun party?

I'll elaborate, in case that question hasn't given you serious pause for thought (which it should have). The Republicans have been immensely successful (and not always incorrect) in portraying the Democrats as criminal coddlers, unwilling to punish evil and constantly searching for extenuating circumstances. They have been equally successful in portraying the War on Drugs as the greatest law enforcement enterprise of the modern era. They've been so successful, in fact, that we've actually lost the fight for drug legalization - it's a dead issue, as ruthlessly derided by liberals as conservatives. The parties now disagree only on whether addicts should be treated or imprisoned - in other words, coddled or punished. It's not hard to see where they get their stereotypes - if you really think drugs are immoral, which party looks like they're trying to get things done?

Take, for example, this essay by Jonathan Caulkins in response to an essay by the founders of Erowid:

I should be fair to Mr. Caulkins; I can't really find evidence that he is a genuine, card-carrying, gun-toting conservative. He worked for RAND, but that could go either way - and while there, he apparently authored a study on the ineffectiveness of mandatory minimums. Not exactly a Republican poster child. With that said, his essay articulates a perspective on responsible drug use that I think the modern conservative would find highly appealing:

"Does society have a right to “protect” its citizens from a one-in-six risk of dependence, even though that “protection” denies five times as many people legal access to something pleasurable? The question is parallel to asking whether society has a right to pass a law against riding a motorcycle without a helmet, driving without a seatbelt, or swimming when there is no lifeguard. Note: the issue is not, “If the question were put to a referendum, would you vote yes or no?” Rather, the question is, “If the majority wanted such a law, would it be unconstitutional?” I am no constitutional scholar, but I do not believe access to a recreational activity or substance is a constitutionally protected right that forbids passage of laws designed to protect people from their own poor choices, particularly when sometimes the choices can harm others."

He's responding, of course, to the suggestion that five out of six drug users behave responsibly, without any harm to themselves or others. His argument, quite simply, is that those five must surrender their recreation so that society can be protected from the sixth. Notice the mild tone of contempt at the end there - he's no constitutional scholar, but he's pretty sure you don't get special dispensation just because it's fun.

But wait just a minute. What about guns?

Let's leave aside the constitutional issue for just a moment - because let's face it, the Constitution is an inviolable document when people want it to be and malleable clay when they don't. Right now, the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. Maybe in a year it won't be. Right now, heterosexual marriage is not constitutionally protected. Maybe in a year it will be. Irrelevant.

Doesn't the fundamental notion that five people's rights must be sacrificed for the protection of the sixth fly in the face of everything the Republicans have to say about gun control? By this compelling conservative anti-drug logic, shouldn't all gun owners voluntarily surrender their weapons so that society can be protected from the fraction that will go out and kill someone? Keep in mind that even the recreational use of guns is violent. They have only one purpose, even to their advocates, and that is to cause harm.

Don't think I've overlooked the fact that Dr. Caulkins' argument is also fundamentally and irredeemably false - we'll return to that in a later post. Don't think, either, that I'm arguing against the right to bear arms - that's a complex debate to which I also hope to return. All I want to ask now is, how can the Republicans have their cake and eat it too? How can they argue that society must be protected from a substance whose side effect is sometimes death, and not from an object whose purpose is always death? How can they ban the drug syndicate's product, but not its most valuable tool?

And by what possible barometer are they tough on crime - and we're not?

Republicans have long claimed that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." By what possible token does that not apply to psychoactive drugs?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Political System We Deserve

I find myself, in recent months and years, becoming less and less convinced that politicians deserve our scorn and disillusionment. Don't get me wrong - I think the current state of the Democratic Party is shameful in many respects. The idea that this nation's liberals have to make do with these washed-up moderates in lieu of genuine representation is almost unconscionable. I'm not convinced, however, that the politicians are to blame for this. They face opposition from both their left and their right, and the middle position they're attempting to navigate satisfies no one - but it's what they need to get elected. Allow me to explain.

It's become an article of faith (no pun intended) that religion has become the decisive factor in this election - one blogger I read said that (my paraphrase) the divide between religious and non-religious, or practicing and non-practicing, has become a more useful categorization than any set of individual demographics. The Republican religious base is so conservative, in fact, that a newly Baptist (try not to snicker) John McCain was inadequate to satisfy them: he needed a bonafide small-town Bible-thumper named Sarah Palin to finish gathering his flock. Sounds fine for the Democrats, right? They don't need the religious vote.

Wrong. The religious vote has become the decisive minority in this election, to the point where the Democratic nominee had to beat the Republican in faith-based politicking in order to become a viable candidate. Fundamentalist Christianity makes up only one-fourth of the American population, but another one-fourth identifies as Catholic, and they're a tough vote to put in a party: the so-called "Catholic vote" has gone to every winning Presidential candidate since 1976, with the exception of George W. Bush (the first time. Not the second. I wish).

So the religious vote has become more than just a Republican issue - it's a nationwide issue, demanding acknowledgement from both major political parties. And what, you might ask, is the biggest issue for religious people? Why, Abortion, of course.

Evidence exists to suggest that Abortion has become a bigger issue for Catholics in this election than in either of the two previous - the Catholic Church has become more aggressive in their indictment of abortion, more insistent that Roe v. Wade constitutes endorsement of genocide, less willing to accept a compromise position. Five years ago, a devout Catholic could reasonably have been under the misapprehension that there was a plurality of Catholic opinions on abortion: now, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have come under strong fire for similar views ( The reason for this is simple: there is no plurality of opinions. The Catholic Church explicitly forbids abortion - and states that no devout Catholic can support legislation that permits it. Worst of all, most Catholics know it. So long, Mario Cuomo.

The non-religious in America might still insist that religious faith is a private matter, with no bearing on politics; the religious, however, are increasingly unwilling to stomach that position. They - and by they, I mean a majority of the population - insist that the law of the land reflect their morality directly. In light of this, the Democratic Party's Platform on Abortion starts to look like quite a risky move:

"The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right."

Wow. Strong stuff. Stronger, in fact, than any recent Democratic platform on abortion. The Party cannot have been ignorant of the immense risk it was taking: they have totally and irrevocably alienated the pro-life population, with no hope of reconciliation. What do you suppose they would have to do to make up that kind of ground in America's heartland?

"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and Musharraf won't act, we will."

Quid pro quo, America. Obama supports a woman's right to choose, but he will act decisively against hostile terrorist elements around the globe - while no less a luminary than Sarah Palin hems and haws to Charlie Gibson about the same issue.

Now, to me, this quote came as quite good news - not because I necessarily agreed with the sentiments being expressed, although I'm pretty sure I did (and a hush fell over the liberal crowd). No, it came as good news because a Democrat had distanced himself from the image of the weak-kneed liberal - unwilling to hurt anybody's feelings, unable to do what must be done. Democrats, Obama told us, can be tough on terror. Democrats can get it done.

Then I talked to a liberal friend of mine, who professed himself to be scared by this sentiment - uncertain that Obama should be so willing to invade another country without authorization. I think that's a very valid debate, and one that we as liberals should certainly have - just as soon as we win this election to the Presidency of a country that hates us.

That's right: this country hates liberals. It has exactly the Democratic Party it wants, unless of course it could have none at all.

It is an inability to recognize this that frustrates me about modern liberals. They seem unwilling to acknowledge that we live in a representative Democracy - that the government we have is the one we asked for. It's not that this country isn't producing liberals - it's that this country isn't electing them. You want to get elected in Chicago? Be a Democrat. You want to get elected in America? Be a moderate. This is a simple fact of the current political landscape - the Democrats are drifting to the right because that's what we'll elect.

Am I happy that a pro-choice stance is a political liability that Obama has to make up for? No - but I don't blame him, I blame the people of America. Am I happy that peace has become a bad word, synonymous with weakness? No - but I don't blame the left, I blame the people of America. Am I happy that the Republicans are very successfully spreading the same view of liberals as they did in Reagan's America - high-tax moral midgets without the stomach for tough choices? No - but I don't blame the left, I blame the people of America.

Or I would - if liberals would realize how badly we are losing this war, and how wrong a time to be choosy this is.

We have lost the fight on taxes - the country won't stand for them. We have lost the fight on drugs - the country won't legalize them. Obama hasn't abandoned the staunch liberals because he doesn't like us - he's abandoned us because America hates us, and it will take more than one election to fix that.

So if Obama wants to look tough on terror, let him - if it's that or lose the fight on abortion, I think he's made the right choice. I'm not happy that we have to pick our battles, nor am I happy that we get so few - but it's the truth, and if we can't face up to it we'll be just what they said we were.

If the Democrats are moderate, it's because America is moderate. Obama is as liberal a candidate as America will permit - and for that, I blame America, not him.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Open Letter To Richard Dawkins and Company

This particular rant takes the form of an open letter to those biologists fighting the good fight to see evolution remain the foundation of modern life science: most particularly, Richard Dawkins.

It's my strong opinion that evolution has been sorely misrepresented in popular culture, both by creationist demagogues and - more regrettably - by scientists themselves. It is generally spoken of as Evolution, with a capital E, as though it were a force (like gravity) that exerted a discernable influence upon an individual organism. This has led lay advocates of evolution to speak about it almost mystically, and creationists to argue that it has never been observed; it has never been measured. The actor in evolution cannot be seen to act.

Now, the physical sciences are one field where I feel experts and academics have done a considerable amount of due diligence in attempting to make their more esoteric discoveries mainstream. Historians, theologians, and philosophers have not bothered to do so, preferring to complain that they labor in obscurity instead of bothering to produce the kind of intelligent but digestible works the world so desperately needs (I speak as one with designs on a graduate degree in History). This is certainly laudable, and I think all of academia could take a lesson from Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins: the best way to make sure people get good information is to make sure they get it from the right people, instead of whining that they get it from the wrong ones.

The evolution debate, however, has not ended, despite the opinion of every credible biologist (every single one; no exceptions) that natural selection is virtually unchallengeable. Indeed, that opinion itself has come under fire in popular creationist circles; Darwinists, they say, subscribe to a religion of their own. They're unwilling to accept a challenge to this evolution voodoo; they're unwilling to permit discourse of the sort upon which Science claims to be founded.

Biologists: I know you are good scientists who advocate discourse and frown upon the unfair dominance of tyrannical theories. Why are you letting buffoons like Phillip Johnson portray you in this ridiculous light when the first step towards stopping them is so easy?

Please. Tell people what evolution actually is.

I have only heard a single succinct definition in any public forum, from the late Stephen Jay Gould. He was lecturing on common misconceptions about Darwin and Darwinism, and he began by wondering aloud why people find natural selection so difficult to grasp. It's very easy, he argued (and now I am paraphrasing): it is the only possible result of the following three facts:

1. All members of a species are not the same.
2. Some degree of this variation is inherited.
3. Not all members of a species reproduce.

Natural selection is quite simply the name for those three facts. If you agree with all three, you agree with natural selection; and what reasonable person cannot? Who believes that all human beings are identical? Who believes that blonde parents are no more likely to have blonde children than dark-haired parents? Who believes that every human being has children? The simplest and most fundamental human experiences inform natural selection; why make it sound academic?

The beautiful, elegant thing about this concept is that you need agree on none of the mechanics of natural selection to agree with the idea itself. We know, for example, that human variation and its heritability result from genes and their interplay; one need not know this - indeed, one can categorically deny it - and still not have undermined natural selection at all. You can believe that God ordains the degree of human variation, the degree of its heritability, and the power of an individual to reproduce, and all you have argued is that God controls natural selection. It's a logical syllogism, not a force; no evidence exists that could disprove it.

But, you may ask, will there not still exist those who accept all three of our premises and still challenge evolution as we present it? Actually, you (my target audience, who will likely not be reading this) will ask no such thing; you know perfectly well the technical jargon of the "scientific advocate" of "intelligent design." They will tell you, of course, that all those things are perfectly true, and that you are caricaturing them unfairly; everyone can recognize microevolution going on around them every day. What you suggest, Richard Dawkins (they will say), is macroevolution - one species becoming a different species over time. Two different phenomena; one possible, one impossible.

They will say this because there is a fourth premise, one so fundamental a scientist would not think to include it:

4. Life on Earth is quite old.

Because we know, of course, that the difference between micro- and macroevolution (for God's sake, it's right there in the name) is one of degree, not quality. Small change versus big change. And we know, of course, that a big change is simply many hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of small changes accruing over time. And we know, of course, that life on Earth has had billions of years in which to accrue small changes. It follows, then, that millions of big changes could easily have occured; it follows that one organism could easily have come another.

It doesn't follow to them. They're religious zealots.

You know this, and I know this, but the long and dedicated struggle of the Intelligent Design movement has been to convince the world that they are not motivated by religion; that they are simply scientists, educated at the best of universities, trained to challenge faulty theories and prevent intellectual hegemony. Their public persona is smart, thoughtful, academic - and outraged, that the scientific press is being censored in this way. We are real scientists, they scoff, and we're being treated like a religious cult.

They are a religious cult, and we know it; but the failure of their movement depends on the rest of the world knowing it. Presenting evolutionary theory the way I've outlined above will do just that; it will force them to either lie outright, or admit that they're not just creationists, but Young Earth creationists. The former is a depressingly well-represented group in America; the latter, I like to hope, remains a fringe movement. In any case, the least we can do is make this debate honest; it's about religion, not the clash of two scientific methods.

Obviously nothing I've just said will be new to you (you, my entirely fictitious audience of busy important people), but I hope you'll take it under consideration. The publication of The Selfish Gene was a landmark of modern science, and popular scientific literature remains intelligent, extensive, and relatively simple; it could, however, be simpler still. I regretfully think that it must be.