Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Country Music Round-Up: Aughts in Review

It's time for another country music round-up. Of course, it doesn't make mathematical sense for an end-of-the-decade article written in December 2010 to go all the way back to 2000, but I don't care—this one goes to eleven:

Alan Jackson: "Where I Come From" (2000)
Where I come from, it's cornbread and chicken
Where I come from, a lotta front porch sittin'
Where I come from, tryin' to make a livin'
Workin' hard to get to heaven
Where I come from
Fair enough. Alan Jackson clearly does not come from a place with, say, a vibrant local arts scene. And, as reiterated by practically every country song since Little Jimmy Dickens' "Country Boy" (1949),[1] there ain't nothin' wrong with that. But what happens when Jackson finds himself out of his element? Things get uncomfortable, that's what.
I was chasin' sun on 101
Somewhere around Ventura
I lost a universal joint and I had to use my finger
This tall lady stopped and asked
If I had plans for dinner
Said no thanks ma'am, back home
We like the girls that sing soprano
This is a transsexual woman we're talking about, I assume, and for all we know, she's spent her whole life in the decidedly non-country sprawl of Southern California. But, on the other hand, maybe her background is just like Jackson's. I mean, she's willing to pick up hitchhikers—it doesn't get much more country than that. Maybe she also has a strong work ethic, an appreciation for homemade cornbread, an inexplicable love of dirt, and everything else a country upbringing entails.

Maybe she'd love to get out of the big city and go back home, but, for some reason, just doesn't feel like she'd be accepted. Ever think about that, Alan Jackson?

Brooks & Dunn: "God Must Be Busy" (2007)
I know He’s heard my prayers
‘Cause He hears everything
He just ain’t answered back or He’d bring you back to me
God must be busy
The basic message here is hard to argue with—there are a lot of awful things going on in the world, and odds are your problems are pretty insignificant by comparison, so you should probably calm down. It's a fine song, until this part:
There’s a single mom, just got laid off
Went and lost her job to foreign hands
In some far away land
An American lost her job to a foreigner!? And God allowed this to happen!? It's like we're not His favorite country anymore!

Brad Paisley: "American Saturday Night" (2009)
There's a big toga party tonight down at Delta Chi
They've got Canadian bacon on there pizza pie
They've got a cooler for cold Coronas and Amstel lights
It's like were all livin' in a big ol' cup
Just fire up the blender, mix it all up

It's a French kiss, Italian ice
Margaritas in the moonlight
Just another American Saturday night
I like it—a celebration of America's long tradition of incorporating elements of other cultures into our own. Or a celebration of our long tradition of naming stuff after other nationalities to make it seem exotic. A little of both, I suppose. Anyway:
You know everywhere there's something they're known for
Although usually it washes up on our shores
Which is great, as long as it's tasty, alcoholic, and/or legally documented!

Dixie Chicks: "Not Ready to Make Nice" (2006)
I’m through with doubt
There’s nothing left for me to figure out
I’ve paid a price
And I’ll keep paying

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I know what you're thinking: This song doesn't belong here—it was written in response to the criticism the Dixie Chicks drew when Natalie Maines went and declared her opposition to the Iraq War and her disappointment with her fellow Texan in the White House.

The backlash was severe. Boycotts were organized. Country stations stopped playing Dixie Chicks songs. Maines even received a death threat. The whole mess was as sad as it was ironic, really, because what could be more conservative than speaking your mind and refusing to back down when people get offended?[2]

Johnny Cash: "Hurt" (2003)
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way
I have nothing to add, except that this is my all-time favorite audio recording of any kind (and the video's good enough to link to twice).

1. In fact, the two songs—recorded some 50 years apart—bear striking similarities, and that really speaks to the essence of conservatism, doesn't it? Compare the lyrics: Dickens and Jackson appear to hold identical views on the value of remaining true to one's modest background, the joys of a simple country life, and the importance of being wary of city folks who—it's probably safe to assume—just don't get it.
    But, in other ways, the songs illustrate how much things can change over the course of a half-century. Namely, cornbread is no longer spelled with a hyphen.
2. Answer: Blindly supporting a Republican president through two shaky administrations, then letting loose with relentless criticism as soon as a Democrat takes office.[3]
3. Ha ha, just kidding.[4]
4. No, actually, that sounds about right (pun not intended, but neither was it removed upon discovery, so make of that what you will).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Opponents of the DREAM Act: Evil or Stupid?

As I've discussed before, I'm a big fan of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for certain unauthorized aliens who were brought into the country as minors and intend to go to college or join the military.

I'm also a big fan of the principle of reciprocity:
[I]n the context of opinions and debate, the principle of reciprocity states that we should respect the reasonableness and the goodwill of those with whom we disagree, and to treat them with civility, even if we judge their opinions to be unreasonable and/or their views to be unjust or immoral.

If you assume the worst of someone only because of an opinion different than yours, then you’re being an intellectually dishonest asshole.
So, while I disagree with the (mostly conservative) opposition to the DREAM Act, I'd like to believe opponents are motivated by a sincere evaluation of the bill's merits, which isn't entirely implausible. The DREAM Act's benefits are clear, but—in a departure from the impeccable legislation we've come to expect from the legislative branch—it also has its share of problems.[1] Any member of Congress who votes against it, then, should have little trouble explaining why the bill is flawed, and why he or she feels the negatives outweigh the positives. Let's start with Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX):
I am sympathetic to the young, illegal immigrant children who were brought here by their parents. Because their parents disregarded America's immigration laws, they are in a difficult position. However, this bill actually rewards the very illegal immigrant parents who knowingly violated our laws. Once the DREAM Act's amnesty recipients become citizens and turn 21, if they haven't already they can sponsor their illegal immigrant parents, spouse, or children for legalization, who can then sponsor others, resulting in chain migration that will further hurt American workers and American taxpayers.
I hear this one a lot, and it's nonsense. To say that DREAM Act beneficiaries will be able to "sponsor their illegal immigrant parents" is an inherent contradiction. They will, of course, be able to sponsor their legal immigrant parents, via the legal process of which conservatives are so fond (with its 15- to 18-year waiting lists for most Mexican applicants). But if the parents are already here illegally, nothing can be done for them until they leave. On top of that, if they leave after having been here illegally for a year or more, there's a ten-year prohibition on even applying for a visa. By the time those hurdles have been cleared, I'd say it's a little unfair—that is, even more unfair than usual—to call the parents "illegal."

Lamar Smith's apparent belief that family-sponsored visas are a low-hassle way for unauthorized aliens to obtain legal status is, I think it's safe to say, incompatible with reality. That raises the question, is he trying to be misleading on purpose, or does he simply not know the basics of U.S. immigration policy? I don't have an answer to that, but, in Smith's defense, a lot can be forgotten in 14 years, which is how long it's been since he wrote the damn law.[2]

Moving on, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):
The DREAM Act specifically focuses on promising young foreigners a bright future if their parents choose to break the law. This will unquestionably encourage desperate parents to bring their children, perhaps millions of them, across our borders illegally.
Also a popular criticism, and not quite as non-sensical, but definitely misleading. Presumably, Rohrabacher's point is that in the future aliens will cross the border in the hope that similar legislation will be passed while they're here (because it's going so smoothly this time around!). In other words, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he's being more vague than dumb, because the DREAM Act unambiguously excludes anyone who wasn't already in the country at least five years before its enactment. Desparate as those future parents may be to get their kids across the border, they're going to have a tough time doing it in 2005 or earlier (and if they can pull that off, we should probably just let them stay).

Again, Rohrabacher surely knows about the five-year provision, but I bet a lot of casual observers—especially those inclined to take his side on this—do not, and I'm just cynical enough to wonder if maybe his vagueness is intentional—calculated to make the Act sound much scarier than it really is. Regardless, it's a counter-productive omission. Instead of making me think about the dangerous-precedent argument (which, presented appropriately, could be somewhat compelling—not that there isn't a counter-argument), it makes me wonder why Rohrabacher doesn't appear to know what he's talking about.

Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA):
According to the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated 2 million immigrants will be eligible for amnesty under this bill. That number is not too difficult to imagine given that H.R. 5281 would allow these individuals, once they are naturalized and become 21 years of age, to exploit our broken system by sponsoring their immediate relatives with no numerical cap. We call that chain migration. In fact, they could each bring in something like 179 other individuals.
Really? A newly-legalized alien could bring in 179 relatives? That's such an oddly-specific number. Do you have 179 parents, spouses, children, and siblings, Phil Gingrey? Because I have four.

Surprisingly, that's not the most ridiculous part of Gingrey's speech (well, it might turn out to be, if I ever figure out where that number came from). Even worse is that he sees sponsorship of immediate relatives as "exploit[ing] our broken system." Because that's what's wrong with the system—all those nefarious foreigners applying for visas with 15- to 18-year back-ups and patiently waiting for the paperwork to go through.

Representative Timothy Johnson (R-IL):
It is an affront and a sobering reality to the American taxpayers and their children and grandchildren who are going to pay this bill to the tune of billions of dollars over the future. It is also a reality to the 10 percent of Americans who are unemployed who realize that the effect on the infrastructure of America in this bill is going to be absolutely negative with respect to Social Security benefits, jobs, loans, health care, education and otherwise.
I don't have the energy to try to sort out the competing financial guesswork coming from both sides; I just want to point out that Republican Representative Timothy Johnson is one of many conservatives arguing that if we allow roughly one million unauthorized aliens to legally work (which leads to paying taxes), and legally get a college education (which theoretically leads to paying even more taxes, and sometimes to creating new jobs), it would cause billions of dollars of damage to the economy. If that's true, then our economy is fundamentally backward (which it very well may be, for all I know), and we might as well just give up.

Still, maybe I'm being unfair. (See? Always trying to avoid assuming the worst!) Maybe this is just a bunch of meaningless grandstanding for the C-SPAN cameras, which is about as meaningless as grandstanding gets. At least these elected officials aren't actively spreading misinformation for the clear purpose of riling up the public, right?

Here's Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), actively spreading misinformation for the clear purpose of riling up the public:
If the alien is unable to complete 2 years of college but can demonstrate that their removal would result in hardship to themselves or their U.S. citizen or LPR spouse, child, or parent (the ones who brought them here illegally), the education requirement can be waived altogether. The bill actually allows illegal aliens to get legal status indefinitely without any college or military service.
When he says "hardship," he's abbreviating a bit. The actual standard is "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship," a phrase—Senator Sessions may be surprised to learn—that was not chosen simply because some legislative aide likes the way it sounds. Under current law, one of very few ways an unauthorized alien can obtain legal status is by showing that deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to a spouse, parent, or child—provided that person is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (among other requirements). As the language implies, this exceptionally high standard is met only in extremely unusual circumstances. Sessions is upset about a provision that's essentially the same—in that it carries the same high standard—but would also allow DREAM Act-eligible aliens to attempt to show that deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to themselves. Hardly a sweeping reform.

The shot Sessions takes at the parents "who brought them here illegally" is another one for the Evil-or-Stupid file. Granted, the proposed law is poorly written, so he may just be confused, but the existing hardship waiver is poorly written in almost exactly the same way.[3] Assuming the two are meant to be similarly interpreted, the status of the parents is irrelevant to the DREAM Act debate. If they aren't U.S. citizens or legal residents, they can't be the basis for a hardship waiver under either law. If they've somehow obtained legal status, they can already be the basis for a hardship waiver, regardless of whether the DREAM Act passes.

That's just a small part of the latest version of Sessions' "Ten Things You Need to Know About the DREAM Act." The memos—packed with false and misleading claims—have been picked up by countless conservative news sites (Michelle Malkin, in particular, has been all over them), and appear to have provided the souce material for the speeches made by Sessions' colleagues in the House. Naturally, those already inclined to oppose the Act haven't bothered to question the memos' content (or, even worse, if they have they've been quiet about it).

I'm sure it's clear that I think it's wrong to oppose the DREAM Act, but I hope I've also made it clear that I don't think it's insane to oppose it. Why, then, are conservatives so unwilling to fight it on its merits? In the name of reciprocity, I want to believe they think they are fighting it on its merits—they just have two or three (dozen) facts wrong.[4] But everything I've seen and heard points, rather overwhelmingly, toward another explanation:

Conservative ideologues love to get worked up about immigration because it's an issue that (a) people know little about, (b) tends to arouse strong emotions, and (c) can be relatively plausibly blamed for any number of unrelated problems.[5] They know they'll be called out when they go too far, but only by the likes of Media Matters and the American Immigration Council—nobody their followers would actually listen to—so they can pretty much say whatever they want. They make the DREAM Act sound as sinister as possible and in the process portray themselves as patriotic freedom-fighters, protecting America from the terrible menace of foreign-born high-achievers.

Their obvious lack of respect for potential DREAM Act beneficiaries is nothing short of appalling, and their obvious indifference toward honest debate and accurately informing the people they represent is almost as bad—and this just happens to be an issue I know a few things about. Reciprocity be damned—when I hear the same blowhards talking about something less familiar, why should I trust anything they say?

1. An incomplete list:
— Fraud (also an acceptable argument against…anything, really).
— Dangerous precedent.
— Economic impact (projections are all over the map).
— Insufficient time for debate/amendments.
    I'm not saying I agree or disagree with any of those (or that, even if valid, they outweigh the positives of the bill), just that they aren't total nonsense.
2. From the biography on Lamar Smith's website:
He introduced and successfully advanced the passage of a 1996 immigration reform bill. This legislation was the most far-reaching reform of America’s immigration laws since the 1960s.
Prominently displayed on the main page of the same website, as of this article's writing, is the video of Smith's misinformation-fueled speech on the House floor. His audacity would be impressive if it wasn't so infuriating.
3. Immigration and Nationality Act, §240A(b):
(1) The Attorney General may cancel removal in the case of an alien who is inadmissible or deportable from the United States if the alien—

(D) establishes that removal would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to the alien’s spouse, parent, or child, who is a citizen of the United States or an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence.
Sort of looks like the citizen/LPR requirement only applies to children, and not spouses or parents, doesn't it? It could go either way, I suppose, but the settled interpretation is that, to qualify as the basis for a hardship waiver, a spouse or parent must have legal status too. Any chance Sessions has been politely set straight by the ambiguous clause's author, Representative Lamar Smith? Yeah, I doubt it.
4. Another possibility, as always, is that I have it wrong. After all, immigration is complicated, and I certainly don't claim to be an expert, so I'll concede that I may have made a mistake or two. And while I generally endorse the Media Matters and AIC articles I referred to above, I remain wary of anything coming from such a one-sided source (whatever that side may be).
    But for the anti-DREAM Act arguments quoted here—and many, many others I left out—to make sense, there are a lot of things I'd have to be wrong about.
5. Obviously, that goes both ways. Replace "conservative ideologues" with "liberal ideologues" and "immigration" with "tax cuts for the rich," for example.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Great Moments in Breaking From the Herd

Big Government, along with the rest of Andrew Breitbart's online mini-empire, has an unmistakable conservative slant. That is, you pretty much know ahead of time what kind of commentary you're going to get. For example—to choose a topic entirely at random—the controversial Arizona immigration law:
Unlike the reason based protests by tea partiers, the Arizona protesters are acting solely on emotions stirred by a constant barrage of leftist demagoguery. No civil rights have been violated, no racial profiling has taken place, and the motivation for this law was not racism. The motivation is completely founded in reason which is backed by facts and by a definitive understanding of the word 'illegal'.
SB 1070 goes to great length to avoid racial profiling, the specter of which has engendered nearly all of the well-orchestrated hysteria against the law.
This issue is no longer one which we can sit idly by and hope for a solution. We have solutions. First, we need to secure our borders. Second, we need to remove all financial incentives for illegal immigrants. And third, we need to demonstrate the clear and responsible pathway to legal immigration.
This is not an immigration law. It's also not racist. It's not racial profiling. And it's not usurping the role of the federal government (which has abysmally failed here). Instead, it's an employment law and property law.
I don't begrudge illegal immigrants doing what they have to do to take care of their families but I have a family, too, and immigration laws are supposed to protect us from unrestricted access to the infrastructure that comes out of my family's pocket.
Fun fact: That last one—which, by the way, makes some pretty good points—also answers the question of "hey, I wonder what Joe the Plumber is up to these days?"[1]

Anyway, you get the idea. Not all of it is wrong, necessarily, but it's staunchly pro-border-sealing and pro-government-mandated-paper-carrying. It's also rather insistent that of S.B. 1070 could be enforced without racial profiling, which, I'm sorry, is asinine.[2]

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read Ronald L. Trowbridge's article about a similar proposed law in Texas:
There is something downright sick in this prejudicial treatment. Conservatives and libertarians usually champion the supremacy of the individual over the collective. We judge individuals as individuals, not as members of a group. But too many conservatives are now demanding that we prejudicially judge people as members of a group. They have become the collectivists that they supposedly reject.
It doesn't even matter (at least, I like to think it doesn't) that I agree with his viewpoint—I'd appreciate it either way. In an era when it's so easy to isolate yourself from opposing opinions, and thus so easy to fail to notice your core ideology being gradually replaced by an arbitrary list of beliefs, we need more stuff like this. Trowbridge isn't saying conservatism itself is wrong, he's saying the views held by most conservatives on immigration cannot be accurately described as conservative.

The best part is at the end:
John Stuart Mill wisely observed that "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." Open, honest debate—even on the contentious issue of immigration—is healthy because it takes us closer to truth and resolution. Let refutations—not just anger—begin in earnest.
How was this call for "open, honest debate" and understanding of where the other side is coming from recieved? Have you ever read anything on the Internet before?
What a load doc. I carry a drivers liscense and a SS card. What part of illegal can't you get through you thick head!!! Any citizen schould be more happy to show IDwhen asked. Moron
Yeah. We all know a lot of you libertarians are retarded when it comes to supporting open borders and mass immigration. Nobody cares.
Cry me a river, Trowbridge! It's such an inconvenience to carry your driver's license with you for identification! Oh, ...wait. We do that every day already. You whining wusses with your bleeding hearts make me want to puke.
That is the single most absurd statement I have ever read regarding illegal immigration.
Those comments, by the way, are all among the dozen or so highest-rated on Big Government's thumbs up/thumbs down voting system. I wanted to see what kind of rating a comment in support of the article might have, but I couldn't find one.

1. I give it less than six months before Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher and John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner are co-hosting their own show on Fox News.
2. From the amended version of Arizona S.B. 1070:
A law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state may not solely consider race, color or national origin in implementing the requirements of this subsection except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution.
See, they took out "solely." Now the police can't consider race at all…except to the extent permitted by the Constitution, which, it turns out, is kind of a lot.
The likelihood that any given person of Mexican ancestry is an alien is high enough to make Mexican appearance a relevant factor, but standing alone it does not justify stopping all Mexican-Americans to ask if they are aliens.
Seems to me it'd be a lot easier to argue that racial profiling is acceptable in cases like this than to argue it won't be a problem, and I mean "easier" in the sense of "not quite so transparently naïve and/or disingenuous."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ten Million Dollars a Day

Hey, remember a few weeks ago when President Obama made that trip to India? People were justifiably upset that, in these tough economic times, a president would spend so much taxpayer money on what amounted to a high-profile vacation. The most vocal advocates for restraint and accountability? Some rather well-known conservative commentators.

Rush Limbaugh:
You have a guy and a family who thinks this nation owes him.  And while they're in a position to, they are going to live off of this country as much as they can…15 airplanes, 1,000 people, 200 rooms in one hotel. And that's just one hotel. For a ten-day trip—Ten million a day!
Sean Hannity:
Look, I want the president to be secure, but 1,000 people? Ten million dollars?…He needs half the Taj Mahal Hotel? Why? What is the point of this?
Glenn Beck:
A dozen warships, possibly. I don't know. Ten million dollars a day while in India. I don't know. The president has blocked off 250 hotel rooms. Do we even know if he's traveling with 1,000 people? Do we know if that's true? No one knows any of the details of this trip, the real cost of the trip. One thing we can say for certain is it's going to be quite expensive.
If you can look past the usual mean-spiritedness, these are sincere, thought-provoking appeals for greater public awareness of an issue the public should absolutely be more aware of.

The best part is, the facts are presented fairly, rather than exaggerated to absurd extremes. Sure, some of the numbers are estimates, and some of them—as Beck freely admits—are guesses, but they're reasonable estimates and educated guesses. The information was obtained from reliable sources, and the fact that it's more or less in line with similar (and also extravagant) presidential trips in the recent past only adds to its credibility.

Liberals in the media begrudgingly sided with their enemies on this one, because how could they not? Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck are spot-on. Obama made an excessively-costly overseas trip financed by us—the taxpayers—and conservatives rightly called him out on it. In the future, perhaps, politicians will think twice about treating our money like it's their own, lest they attract the same negative publicity.

Oh, right, none of that happened, because this is what they actually said:
You have a guy and a family who thinks this nation owes him. And while they're in a position to, they are going to live off of this country as much as they can…40 airplanes, 3,000 people, 500 rooms in one hotel. And that's just one hotel. For a 10 day trip—Two hundred million a day!
Look, I want the president to be secure, but 3,000 people? Two hundred million dollars?…He needs the whole Taj Mahal Hotel? Why? What is the point of this?
Thirty-four warships, possibly. I don't know. Two hundred million dollars a day while in India. I don't know. The president has blocked off 800 hotel rooms. Do we even know if he's traveling with 3,000 people? Do we know if that's true? No one knows any of the details of this trip, the real cost of the trip. One thing we can say for certain is it's going to be quite expensive.
A Google search for "cost of Obama's trip to India" brings up exactly two types of articles:
  1. Obama's trip to India costs $200 million PER DAY!!!
  2. How dumb do conservatives have to be to believe Obama's trip to India costs $200 million per day?
The first is stupid nonsense; the second is a sadly-necessary response to the first. Both are distracting and counter-productive. So great job, conservative media! Way to get people talking about wasteful government spending.[1]

1. Obviously, the Crazy Numbers made the story a much bigger deal than it would've been otherwise, which raises an interesting question: Would Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck rather promote conservatism in a way that makes it sound reasonable, so as to win over as many non-conservatives as possible, or would they rather keep creating controversies like this one, which get their names in the news but win over approximately no one?
    All three would undoubtedly insist on the former, but the Two-Billion-Dollar-Trip-to-India debacle is a pretty strong argument for the latter.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sean Hannity Doesn't Care What You Think

A few months ago, my favorite Republican, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson,[1] was interviewed by one of my least favorite Republicans, cable news and talk radio blowhard Sean Hannity. From the transcript (though I've done some editing, because Hannity's is-it-my-turn-to-talk-again-yet interviewing style is about as fun to read as it is to watch):
Hannity: I agree with everything that you did and everything that you said. You support tax cuts, limited government, you've been critical of Obama spending. So you have a pretty strong platform in my mind. In almost every interview that I read about you, it always goes back to the issue that you want to legalize pot.
Johnson: And when I say legalize pot, it's never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired and get behind the wheel of a car.
Hannity: But you're ok with people smoking in the privacy of their home?
Johnson: Absolutely.

Hannity: You don't think it's a gateway drug?
Johnson: It's not, Sean. It's just not.
Hannity: I don't believe that.
Alright, looks like we're on the verge of a stimulating discussion! Two diametrically-opposed viewpoints, both professed in no uncertain terms. Somebody's got to be wrong, right? Let's proceed, preferably with one guy listening patiently—mentally composing a thoughtful rebuttal—as the other explains his reasoning.
Johnson: You know, I've got on my cell phone, and I'll show it to you after we're done here, the government itself admitting that it's not—
Hannity: I don't trust that.
Ugh. Nevermind.
Hannity: Would you want your kids to smoke pot?
Johnson: Well, no.
Hannity: Why don't you want your kids to smoke pot? Because you believe psychologically it would be detrimental to them, right?
Johnson: No. No.
Hannity: I do.
Johnson never really answers these questions, though he tries several times. Most of his attempts are hannitied [2] before they can be fully developed, but my educated guess is that he was trying to say something like this:

"Like any decent father, I don't want my kids to do things that are harmful or irresponsible, but I also know it's naïve to expect them to meet that standard 100% of the time. So, more than anything else, I want them to be reasonable. Maybe they'll decide to smoke, maybe they won't—I'm not sure there's much I can do about it either way—but reasonable people can smoke without harming themselves or others, which is what's really important."
Johnson: I find it funny, if you will, that Republicans would talk about the fact that this country stands for freedom, this country stands for liberty, this—and it's about the personal responsibility that goes along with that, but not when it comes to marijuana. And, Sean, if the government made drinking beer illegal tomorrow, would you continue to drink beer or would you stop drinking beer?
Hannity: I don't put it on the same level as drugs. I'm a little bit more afraid of drugs.
The most telling part of the interview. In Sean Hannity's reality, marijuana is a drug, but alcohol isn't. How did that happen? I can't think of a possible explanation that doesn't, at some level, stem from the fact that one is (more or less) legal and the other is (more or less) not.

I'll give Hannity the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is, in fact, aware that alcohol is a drug (as are caffeine, tobacco, aspirin, penicillin, etc.), and that he used the term colloquially to refer to illegal drugs. (And I'll also assume that, when he says a little later that he's not impaired after drinking "a beer, two beers, a glass of wine, two glasses of wine," the missing conjunction is or, not and.) But that almost makes it worse. We can't dismiss his naïveté as the expected result of an absolute lack of familiarity with the very concept of drugs. He uses drugs! He obviously knows, from personal experience, at least a few things about how they work, but he's drawn a mental line between legal and illegal, and he's unable (or unwilling) to allow any knowledge gained from experience to cross that line.
Hannity: I drink—I'm a lightweight. I don't drink a lot. But you can drink alcohol, a beer, two beers, a glass of wine, two glasses of wine, and you're not impaired. If you smoke marijuana you are impaired.
Now things are just getting silly. Does Hannity really think this way? My God, are there elected officials who think this way? "I can have a few drinks and I'm totally still good to drive, but marijuana, which I claim to have never tried? One toke and I'd be an unstoppable car-crashing, homicide-committing, society-menacing fiend, as seen in the harrowing 1938 film Reefer Madness, which is a documentary, right?"

To argue with them when they're like this is to drift dangerously close to "How can you condemn something you've never tried?" territory. That question, taken to a logical extreme (which has never not happened), leads to nonsense like, "Do you think murder is wrong? Have you ever killed anyone? By your logic, you can't say murder is wrong unless you go out and kill someone, can you?"

Alright, alright, fair enough. There's nothing inherently wrong with condemning something you've never tried. But you should, at the very least, make an effort to develop an accurate sense of what that thing is, and to understand why millions of people think you're ridiculous for condemning it.
Hannity: You admitted in your life when you smoked it, it took away your motivation. You were on the path to be a professional skier, so you were much slower, it impairs you.
I bet if you forced Hannity to re-watch this interview, then read this paragraph, then spend 10 seconds or so in quiet contemplation (and let me know how that goes!), he would agree that at this point in the interview he's not even talking about prohibition anymore. He's talking about whether, at the individual level, the sum total of marijuana's effects tend to be positive or negative. And, you know, that's a question with an interesting, complex answer—certainly a conversation worth having—but it's not a legal issue.

Soy sauce, a breathalyzer, a sword, a pre-approved credit card offer, a Mexican wrestling mask, a 13-foot escape ladder (bought for a suspiciously low price), and a television. It only took me about two minutes of looking around my apartment to identify seven things that seem more likely than not to have an overall negative effect on me. Is that a good reason to make those things illegal? Of course not.
Hannity: But if you run for president, how do you reconcile these controversial positions with social conservatives that are not in agreement with you in the Republican Party?
Johnson: Well, and let's just get back to the amount of money that we're spending. Half of what we're spending on law enforcement, the courts and the prisons is drug-related. About $70 billion a year. And to what end? We're arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country on drug-related crime. And the use of drugs has not gone down. So again, advocating the legalization of marijuana, I just suggest is going to create an environment where police will actually be able to go out and address the real crime.
Very sly, Gary Johnson. I like what he says, but his answer to Hannity's question is in what he doesn't say. Conservatives seem to want libertarians like Johnson to try to pick apart their arguments about the harmfulness of marijuana, and I'm sure he could—not that they'd listen—but he wants them to realize they're completely missing the point. His "controversial position" is not that marijuana is harmless, but that we should re-evaluate our approach to it, because what we're doing now is:
  1. Wasting money.
  2. Wasting police resources.
  3. Doing nothing to lessen its popularity.
Conservatives are more than welcome to argue with that, but they don't. Maybe, on some level, they know they can't. Instead, they change the subject to an argument they can win, or at least play to a draw: Drugs are bad for you.

I can't say I have much confidence in Gary Johnson's ability to re-focus the debate—especially if Sean Hannity is any indication (and it kind of seems like he is)—but at least he's trying.

1. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, Wisconsin Senator-elect Ron Johnson, Miami Vice star Don Johnson, overpaid Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson, 17th President of the United States Andrew Johnson, The Economist's language blog: Johnson…I can barely keep it all straight. Chad Ochocinco looks more brilliant every day.
2. I don't even need to define that, do I? I hope it catches on—it could be useful in a wide variety of situations:
— "Sorry, what were you saying? I got distracted. Some jackass just hannitied me in traffic."
— "When Peterson broke into the secondary it looked like he had a clear path to the end zone, but he was hannitied just outside the 10-yard-line. What an outstanding defensive play."
— "Objection, your honor. Opposing counsel is hannitying the witness."
— "Dude, I was so close to hooking up with this chick last night, but her ex-boyfriend showed up and hannitied me!"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Four-Down Football

If you don't know the story, you can read about it here. Or if you don't know the story and you're also a fan of hysterical overreactions, here. And if you'd rather just watch the damn video, here.

Basically, one year ago two days ago, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick found himself in a situation where the overwhelming majority of coaches wouldn't hesitate to zig. Belichick chose instead to zag, and a few minutes later the Patriots lost the game. I won't go (too far) into the pros and cons of the decision itself, because way too much has been said already, and also that's not the point. Suffice it to say, it was defensible. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong, but any reasonable person can recognize that neither option—punt, or go for the first down—was substantially preferable to the other.

Alas, those with strong opinions about decisions made by professional football coaches are not, by and large, reasonable people. The backlash was immediate, and it came from all corners. Sportswriters (like Jay Mariotti and Pete Prisco):
This was the most obvious decision a coach could make on any level, NFL to Pee Wee. Punt the friggin' ball.

Each and every week we see bad coaching decisions in the NFL, but never, and I mean never, have I seen one as dumb as the decision Patriots coach Bill Belichick made Sunday night.
Players (like Rodney Harrison and Trent Dilfer):
This was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make.

This decision was ludicrous…This is the coach who's always talking about making good decisions…well he needs to be held accountable.
Coaches (like Tony Dungy):
You have to punt the ball in that situation. As much as you might respect Peyton Manning, you have to play the percentages and punt the ball.
And the football-watching public:
Bellicheat is no genius! Bottom line...he blew the call last night and cost New England the game!

There is absolutely no way to support the call he made. None.

It was the WRONG call last night. PERIOD.
So, yeah, a lot of people thought it was a bad idea, but note the subtle variations in the reasoning. There's "everybody punts in this situation," "going for it was too risky," "he must not respect his defense," and on and on. I'm resisting the urge to identify and pick apart as many as I can,[1] because I want to focus on the one line of reasoning I find most disturbing. From Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz, and the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy:
I hated the call. It smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris.

How did it come to pass that Belichick, a brilliant man, …eschew[ed] the obvious punt, arrogantly choosing to go for the first down?

[The] Patriots are saddled with a loss that will haunt them for the rest of the season. And Belichick gets the blame. Too smart for his own good this time. The sin of hubris.
While the "it was wrong for hazy and/or speculative tactical reasons" stuff was largely a product of the Patriots losing (because there's no faulty logic there), I'm not sure the "arrogant bastard!" crowd really cared who won—in fact, they might've been even more upset if the play had worked.

King, Kravitz, and Shaughnessy (who, by the way, are hardly alone here) sort of try to make tactics-based arguments, but you can tell their hearts aren't in it.[2] They're writing out of anger. I don't know why they're angry—maybe because Belichick is (by many accounts) a fairly unlikeable guy, maybe (in Shaughnessy's case) because the Patriots lost—but I suspect at least part of it is that a guy widely considered to be smarter than pretty much everyone, and thus probably smarter than each of them, had just made a decision they didn't understand, and that pretty much all the early support for that decision came from other smart people.

Now, some may say, "in this era of high unemployment, out-of-control spending, and the president being a communist or something, who cares what a bunch of sportswriters said about a play in a football game?" Well to them I say perhaps it's time to work on your microcosm-spotting technique, because, pardon the oxymoron, but this whole thing is a big-ass microcosm. (Also, thanks for reading!)

The same attitude shows up everywhere, including areas where it can actually be dangerous. For example, climate change, and the ongoing debate about whether humans have caused measurable harm to the environment, and the related debate about whether we're capable of reversing or mitigating whatever damage has been (or will be) done. To be clear, I'm a lot more comfortable talking about football than climate change, in large part because I don't know where to go for scientific data that isn't biased in some way or another (is there such a thing?), but I'm a big fan of what Bjørn Lomborg says here:
Common sense was an early loser in the scorching battle over the reality of man-made global warming. For nearly 20 years, one group of activists argued—in the face of ever-mounting evidence—that global warming was a fabrication. Their opponents, meanwhile, exaggerated the phenomenon's likely impact—and, as a consequence, dogmatically fixated on drastic, short-term carbon cuts as the only solution, despite overwhelming evidence that such cuts would be cripplingly expensive and woefully ineffective.

Acknowledging that man-made climate change is real, but arguing that carbon cuts are not the answer, amounts to staking out a middle ground in the global warming debate—which means being attacked from both sides. For so-called "alarmists," pointing out what's wrong with drastic carbon cuts is somehow tantamount to denying the reality of climate change, while so-called "deniers" lambast anyone who accepts the scientific evidence supporting this "mythical" problem.
Maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong, but any reasonable person can recognize this as a reasonable way of looking at things. At the very least, it's worth thinking about, right?

On the other hand, in the words—and I use that term more loosely than ever before in my life [3]—of everyone's favorite former Alaska governor:
Copenhgen=arrogance of man2think we can change nature's ways.MUST b good stewards of God's earth,but arrogant&naive2say man overpwers nature
Translation: "I simply cannot let the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit conclude without tweetin' my objection to what I perceive as the fundamental flaw of the event's underlying ethos. Namely, the notion that we, merely the humble children of our benevolent God, are capable of imposin' our will on forces—both natural and supernatural—beyond our full comprehension. To subscribe to this mentality is as arrogant as it is naïve, which is to say an excessive amount of both. That said, I do believe in treatin' the environment with respect, lest we do irreparable damage to this terrestrial home God has so graciously provided for us, and somehow I fail to realize that by qualifyin' the first thing I said I am, in fact, refudiatin' its logical foundation."

I don't think those sportswriters honestly believe going for the first down was indefensible, and I don't think Sarah Palin honestly believes there's nothing we can do to change the environment for the better. So, what's really going on?

It could be any number of things, I suppose, but, when a new idea challenges your worldview, it's a whole lot easier to attack the person who came up with it than the idea itself, because to attack the idea requires thought. So…that's my guess.

1. Alright, just one (this is why I love footnotes). From Bill Simmons:
Belichick did play the percentages…I am not disputing the numbers or the methods for achieving them.

In the biggest game of the regular season when a football coach tries something that…I cannot remember another team doing on the road in the last three minutes of a close game, that's not "gutsy." It's not a "gamble." It's not "believing we can get that two yards." It's not "revolutionary." It's not "statistically smart." It's reckless
No! Don't do things that give you a better chance of winning football games! That's reckless!
    I like Simmons, and I've obviously been subconsciously influenced by his writing style, and I really don't think he would've been one of the torch-wielding villagers in 17th-century Italy calling for Galileo's head, but that's what this makes me think of.
2. Peter King's half-hearted attempt is by far the silliest:
Let's place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes…that's maybe 35 percent.
Ok, I'll play along. King says the Colts have a 35% chance of scoring after a punt, which means the chance of them not scoring is 65%—about the same as the odds he gives the Patriots of converting on fourth down. And, by the way, a failed conversion doesn't guarantee a Colts touchdown, nor does a Colts touchdown preclude the Patriots from re-taking the lead on their next possession, so New England's odds of winning would be somewhat higher than 60, 65%. Later, he adds:
[T]his would never have been a great call. Even it you think you've got a two-out-of-three chance to make two yards deep in your own territory, the cost of missing it is too great.
So going for it gives you a 66.7% chance of winning, and punting gives you a 65% chance of winning. Therefore, going for it is stupid and indefensible. Arrogant bastard!
    Peter King is trying to make an argument that only sounds reasonable if you justify it with made-up numbers, and he can't even do that right. It's mind-boggling. I blame the public schools.
3. Look, I realize Twitter's character limit creates a certain degree of difficulty, and I realize Palin likes to play up her folksiness, and I'm decidedly not a prescriptivist (I know I made some jokes above, but I'm more than willing to defend Palin on her gerunds and on the "refudiate" thing), but this is just awful. Even if I agreed with everything she said, I'm not sure I could ever vote for someone whose transcribed thoughts look like that.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Three-Down Football

Conservatism is more than just a political philosophy. It's a way of life, leaving its mark on practically every facet of society. And as a red-blooded American Southerner, there is exactly one facet of society I care about from September through January: Football.[1]

It's a perfect match, really, conservatism and football, because conservatives can't stand change. "We've been doing things a certain way for as long as we can remember," they say. "We're not just going to start doing something different on a whim." Not that I'm opposed to that mindset—if something works, and there isn't overwhelming evidence that something else would work better, it does seem a bit irresponsible to shake things up—but, every so often, a new idea turns out to be rather compelling. Meanwhile, the status quo—the best system given what we knew and believed at some non-specific time in the past—has taken on a life of its own, becoming this thing that must be protected because it's the status quo, as if that alone is proof of its superiority.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, football, where the status quo is fanatically adhered-to all the hell over the place.

For those unfamiliar with the game, the team with the ball is given three plays, or "downs," to advance ten yards. This process repeats as many times as necessary until (1) the ball is advanced into the end zone for a touchdown, (2) the ball is stolen by the opposing team, (3) time expires, or (4) a play on the third and final down falls short of the ten-yard threshold. In the latter case, the team must either punt to the opposing team or attempt a field goal.

Or so it was commonly believed, until, in 2005, a professor at UC-Berkeley made a game-changing [2] discovery: In addition to the three widely-known downs, there was another, "fourth," down. It turns out that, by taking advantage of the new down, a team can make more attempts to advance the ball downfield than ever before—up to 33% more, by some estimates.

The implications are staggering. Could it really be true that Lombardi, Landry, Halas, and all the other legendary coaches were doing it wrong? It's a question that borders on heresy. The conventional wisdom, after all, is the sum total of more than a century of analysis, observation, and experimentation, dating back at least to 1906, when a St. Louis University student named Bradbury Robinson had the audacity to throw the ball forward. And yet, evidence continues to mount that—in terms of the crucial decision a coach must always make after a failed third down play—most have been, and continue to be, doing it wrong.

The football world, shockingly enough, doesn't want to hear it, because what could a bunch of number-crunching eggheads possibly know about football? "We'll just stick with punts and field goals," they say. "Fourth down attempts are risky." Well, of course they are. Risk/reward scenarios are the very essence of sports!

It's as if status quo-defenders are unaware that the more familiar options have risks of their own. A punt involves voluntarily giving up control of the ball without scoring points—not a sacrifice to be taken lightly, as the primary method of determining success or failure on a game-by-game basis is by comparison of cumulative point totals.[3] A field goal, at least, is worth a few points, though on average less than half that of a touchdown. And most fans need not be reminded that, from time to time, field goal attempts go awry.[4]

Obviously, it would be crazy to embrace fourth down with reckless abandon (except that maybe it isn't). The ideal approach is to seek an appropriate balance between caution and curiosity, but only a handful of coaches have been even that adventurous. Instead, most have planted themselves in a familiar, comfortable spot near the conservative extreme. Like an alien visitor to a three-downs-and-kick planet, fourth down is seen as strange and unwanted and probably dangerous. It's a threat to the status quo, and the best way to preserve the status quo is to refuse to question it.

Otherwise, you might find out the status quo isn't worth preserving, and that's a risk few are willing to take.

Coming up: A look at the events of one year ago today,[5] when an unconventional thinker did something unconventional, and received a lot of very conventional criticism. Basically, this article, but with more specifics and without all the condescending tongue-in-cheekiness. Well, not as much of it, anyway.

1. Ok, there's also politics, pretentious films, and, you know, friends and family and stuff. But mostly football.
2. Pun very much intended.
3. As noted above, most-points-scored is the preferred method of determining winners of individual games. It logically follows, then, that most-games-in-which-more-points-were-scored should be the preferred method of ranking multiple teams over the course of multiple games.
    This is the case in the NFL, but in college football that method is used in combination with countless others. To name a few: most-points-scored-against-hapless-opponents-who-never-had-a-chance, fans'-willingness-to-travel-and-spend-money-on-tickets-and-hotel-rooms, votes-held-by-a-team's-own-coach (up to a maximum of one, which doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot more than zero), and, of course, intangibles (having a contract with NBC, being last year's champion, not being from Idaho, having once employed Paul "Bear" Bryant, etc.). It's a staggeringly complex system, and yet, somehow, it seems to work. Sorry, I mistyped. It doesn't work at all.
4. Another good choice for that link: Wide Right, the band. Any guesses where they're from? Highlight the bracketed text (or just go to their site) for the answer: [Buffalo, New York—former home of NFL kicker Scott Norwood!]
5. "One year ago today?," you're probably thinking. "Why not post that article today, and this one a few days earlier?" Aren't you clever. Where were you this time last week, when I was blissfully unaware of the impending anniversary of the Patriots-Colts debacle?

Monday, November 8, 2010

James Madison Has a Few Things to Say to Rush Limbaugh

In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court found a gay marriage ban unconstitutional, inspiring Rush Limbaugh to say the following:
I guarantee you, if we could go dig up James Madison and say, "Mr. Madison, did you intend for the Constitution to say people of the same sex could get married?" And I guarantee you he would have the reaction, "What are you talking about? Are you sure you're asking me about the Constitution?"
As luck would have it, I ran into James Madison just a few days ago. (How is that possible, you ask? I don't know, voodoo or something. Who cares?) Obviously, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to show President Madison what Limbaugh had said and ask for his thoughts. He was happy to oblige, so he caught himself up on the major legal and societal developments of the last two centuries and got back to me the next day. Here's what he said:[1]

"My first thoughts, I must admit, were precisely as Mr. Limbaugh predicted: 'What are you talking about? Are you sure you're asking me about the Constitution?' Research revealed that he was not, in fact, talking about the federal Constitution. The Iowa ruling was based on state law, so presumably he was talking about the Iowa Constitution, which I did not write. Perhaps he was thinking of James Grimes, the governor when their constitution was ratified in 1857. An understandable mistake—people used to confuse me with Monroe all the time.

"That said, I'm quite intrigued by his question: 'Did you intend for the Constitution to say people of the same sex could get married?' I'll pretend he's referring to the Constitution I wrote, because I see that a federal judge in California recently issued a similar ruling based on that Constitution, and also I don't give a shit about Iowa. But I'm still not clear on what, exactly, Mr. Limbaugh is asking. Does he want to know what my opinion would've been in 1789, or what it is in 2010?

"In 1789, we're talking about a society where slavery is legal and only male landowners can vote. So, yeah, I think gay marriage might've been unpopular in 1789. You know what else might've been unpopular in 1789? Every single thing the federal government has done since 1790.

"In 2010, we're talking about a society where everything I see is weird and scary and baffling. I mean, I'm sitting here looking around and I saw, like, none of this coming. Oh, wait, that's the one thing I did see coming—that the future would be unpredictable. And guess what? We freaking planned for it! We threw in an amendment procedure—and I see you guys have been using it. Virtually everything I've read about same-sex marriage as it relates to the federal Constitution—you know, the one I wrote—references the Fourteenth Amendment, which, like the Iowa Constitution, I did not write, in part because I was dead.

"As for same-sex marriage…I don't know. Sounds pretty out there. Marriage, as I understand it, is a sacred, life-long bond between one man and one or more women of the same race. And yet, according to an unfathomably thorough electronic encyclopaedia I just discovered and learned how to use, Mr. Limbaugh has been thrice divorced. Thrice! And remarried a fourth time! You know how many wives I had? Yeah, about three less than four. Now, interestingly enough, the same encyclopaedia reminds me that my own wife was, in fact, married twice. Because she get divorced? No, of course not—the first guy died of yellow fever. Nobody got divorced back then. Yellow fever was our divorce.

"Things, apparently, have changed. And to be honest, I'm torn as to whether things have changed for the better. On one hand—let's say, for no particular reason, the right hand—21st century America is terrifying. The federal government has grown about a million times larger than I could ever have foreseen, dangerous maniacs have access to deadly weapons, the many nations have entered into some sort of sinister union, and everywhere I look I see women walking around half-naked, like it's the most natural thing in the world.

"On the other hand—which, by default, would be the left—21st century America has a lot going for it. Even the lowliest workers have reasonable hours and decent pay, people are living longer than ever, different classes, cultures, and races co-exist in relative harmony, and everywhere I look I see women walking around half-naked, like it's the most natural thing in the world.

"In other words, there's a lot to digest. So I hope you'll forgive me if, for the time being, I refrain from making a judgment on same-sex marriage one way or the other.

"But that's not even the point. This is the point. I understand that I'm kind of a big deal around here, and, believe me, I'm humbled. Wait, no, I'm not humbled—I should be a big deal. I wrote the damn Constitution, for Christ's sake! So please, keep talking about me. Talk about my ideas, my principles, my vision for America. Talk about what I had in mind when I wrote the Constitution. That's what I want. Why do you think Hamilton, Jay, and I wrote the Federalist Papers? Our own amusement?

"But don't speak for me. I don't care if you're the host of a popular radio show or just, say, some guy in Florida with an obscure, albeit funny and insightful, web-log. Only one person knows where I stand on the constitutional questions facing 21st century America, and that is me. To claim otherwise—to claim to have some magical ability to know my views on something I've never even thought about—is as insulting as it is absurd.

"You don't know me, Mr. Limbaugh, you know yourself. You only talk about me because you want to tap into the respect and stature I worked so hard to earn, and use it to amplify the volume of your own opinions. You're using my name as nothing more than a megaphone, and I'd like you to stop.

"Anyway, I don't know why this didn't occur to me sooner, but why the hell is the government involved in licensing marriage in the first place?"

And with that, he was gone. Off to explore the modern world's many curiosities—Rush Limbaugh's nonsense suddenly the last thing on his mind. Thank you, President Madison, for your thoughts.

1. I can't emphasize enough how impressed I was with Madison's grasp of the language. Almost immediately, he picked up on my modern dialect and adapted his speech accordingly, saving you—the reader—the chore of trying to decipher an endless stream of odd-sounding sentence constructions and old-timey idioms.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Rational Majority

This week has been downright lousy with conservatives crowing about the election, and there's no respite in sight. It was a rebuke of big government, a triumph of common sense, a return to reason, a resounding victory for the American people, and so on. The Democrats, after all, have spent nearly two whole years tinkering with the economy and most of us aren't self-employed millionaires yet, so out with them! And since we refuse, for whatever reason, to allow ourselves to be represented in Washington by a truckload of inanimate carbon rods, the duty falls to the Republicans.

But despite my sarcastic skepticism (not to mention my skeptical sarcasm), I can't help being cautiously optimistic (that is, when I'm not being aggressively pessimistic about the election's implications for immigration reform, gay rights, marijuana legalization, and other issues I won't get into here). I give conservatives a hard time, but, when it comes down to it, I do sincerely believe this country would benefit from a government with more of a laissez faire approach to the economy. In the two-year-old words of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Will:[1]
Conservatives rightly think, or once did, that much, indeed most, government spreading of wealth is economically destructive and morally dubious—destructive because, by directing capital to suboptimum uses, it slows wealth creation; morally dubious because the wealth being spread belongs to those who created it, not government.
And yet, when it comes to the conservative movement itself—rather than the philosophy in the abstract—Will and I are no longer on the same page. A line in his most recent column nicely illustrates why (emphasis added):
This was the serious concern that percolated beneath the normal froth and nonsense of the elections: Is political power—are government commands and controls—superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society's spontaneous order? On Tuesday, a rational and alarmed American majority said "yes."
So, if I've got this right, here's what George Will is saying:
  1. A free market economy is the smoothest road to prosperity.
  2. Therefore, it's rational to support free market economics.
  3. In this week's election, a vote for Republicans was a vote in support of free market economics.
  4. Therefore, Republican voters are rational.
Nope. Not how it works. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt on propositions 1, 2, and 3—as I'm inclined to do—there remains all kinds of room on the free market bandwagon for the least rational among us to jump aboard.[2] I'd be a lot more comfortable with proposition 4 if it looked something like this:
  1. Therefore, Republican voters may or may not be rational, because, while rational people support free market economics, irrational people support whatever the hell causes their semi-functional neurons to light up, including but not limited to Michael Bay movies, Scientology, bi-weekly Powerball drawings, the New York Mets, and, yes, free market economics.[3]
But still, flawed logic aside, who am I to say that Will isn't (accidentally) right about Republican voters? Maybe they are, indeed, (by sheer coincidence) uniformly rational. If that's the case, then it must've been a bunch of deceitful liberals—as Will points out, they'll stop at nothing to portray conservatives as angry, uninformed morons—who adorned his column with the following comments (edited for brevity, but, obviously, not for content):[4]
Leftist Lie: "Two never ending wars=republican"
Actual Truth: Iraq war is over.
Leftist Lie: "hate Muslims=republican"
Actual Truth: Republicans hate terrorists, leftists want to give them a safe haven.
Leftist Lie: "Hate gays=republican"
Actual Truth: Republicans value the tradition of marriage. Leftists want to destroy its meaning.
[Obama] is a pseudo intellectual who has been programmed by a series of communist and revolutionary associations. Collective Salvation is a key incite to his programming and whence it came. A perversion of Christianity by communists. Traditional Christians like POPES consider collective salvation as a political teaching as DEMONIC. There is no telling where an Unstable Obama will take us or what he will do. After he scolded us for going to Los Vegas he is taking a 2 billion dollar trip to India. Is the man sane?
We have a Communist sociopath as President.
[Obama] surrounds himself with Tax Cheats, Chicago thugs, incompetents, radical loony perverted Czars and has Democrat accomplices in congress that can't even READ the trillion dollar pork packages and Obama/Pelosi Government Crap Care they put their X on and inflict on Americans…
And now the investigations will begin. I can't wait for the one that Obama will try to explain how he is legally qualified to be president when he can't product a certified birth certificate and neither of his parent were qualifying US citizens.
Finally, my favorite (because really, you do need to be aware):
The intelligence of the Liberals is stunningly low.They lack the ability to see what Obama and the PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS are doing to this country…If you have money in the bank,you might want to pull it.Another piece of advice,watch GLENN BECK, THURSDAY,FRIDAY he has been warning for a year and a half about OBAMA ,everything he has said is happening.The man loves this country,he is warning us.The media,OBAMA,SOROS has been boycotting his show because he has been exposing them,WATCH,YOU NEED TO BE AWARE !!!!!
Alright, that's enough for now (check this article's comments for some more gems, if you're into that sort of thing). Internet commenters, as always, prove nothing, except that stupidity is ideologically-neutral.

So, are intelligent, thoughtful, and rational conservatives out there too? Sure—plenty of them. Is voting Republican, in and of itself, proof of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and rationality? No, of course not,[5] and if conservatives like George Will are as smart as they seem to think they are, they should understand that.

1. Also from the 2008 column (but not relevant to my point, which is why it's stashed away down here in this footnote):
Hyperbole is not harmless; careless language bewitches the speaker's intelligence. And falsely shouting "socialism!" in a crowded theater such as Washington causes an epidemic of yawning.
Well said.
2. I assume the Free Market Bandwagon, for the sake of comfort, fuel efficiency, and durability, would be a foreign model. Or, for the sake of irony, a GM.
3. Does that sound mean-spirited? I feel like it sounds a little mean-spirited. Oh well, I'm just trying to be funny. I really don't mean to offend Transformers fans, Scientologists, lottery players, capitalists, or…yeah, that's all.
4. For what it's worth, I tried to avoid picking out comments that are simply poorly-written. My intent is not to mock those with a shaky grasp on the language (or, to put it in PC terms, those with a "unique voice"), but to mock those who have proudly and openly severed ties with reality—though the latter is hardly a stranger to the former. Anyway, in the interest of fairness, here’s one of the good ones:
George, with all due respect, a wave of rational and concerned voters did not really come into it. You and I and a fairly small minority live in an informed and rational world, but the vast majority of the voting population votes purely from the hip. Happy? Yes – vote for incumbent, no – vote for challenger.
And one more, just because I like it:
We demand to see Boehner's birth certificate! He's orange. No human is orange. Is he American or Alien? Release his college records now! We want proof he attended college. We want our country back!
5. Is engaging in a Q&A with myself a lazy, overused stylistic device? Absolutely, but screw you—I'm doing it anyway.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Midterm Election Thoughts (Or Lack Thereof)

Here it is—the long-awaited (I assume) What I Think of the Tea Party article. Well, naturally, I think they're a bunch of racist homophobes who don't know what they're complaining about and don't have any real solutions.

Oh, wait—that's what the liberal media tells me I should think. Or maybe it's what the conservative media tells me the liberal media tells me I should think. I can't keep track anymore.

So what's left when you look past the mountain of nonsense about these people being hateful idiots, and the adjacent mountain of nonsense about them being patriotic freedom-fighters? I don't know—not much, as far as I can tell. They say a lot of the right things,[1] and they say a lot of the wrong things,[2] and I can't think of anything to say about them that hasn't been said elsewhere.

For all the reasons mentioned on this blog (and then some), I have little to no confidence in Republicans. Granted, these particular Republicans insist they'll do things differently, which is nice, but I'm not holding my breath.[3] Still, godspeed, you noble outsiders. I look forward to watching you find fascinating new ways to screw things up.

Meanwhile, I'll be voting for Side of Hash Browns:

1. Hope and change—keep it vague enough, and it's the perfect all-purpose political credo.
2. Virtually everything they've said about immigration, for example.
3. Like most humans, I lack the lung capacity to hold my breath for more than a few minutes, much less several months.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The NewsBusters Trilogy, Part Three: Restoring Sanity

In Part One I talked about, I don't know…something. Wolf Blitzer, perhaps? It was a while ago. I remember Part Two, though. I discussed the complex relationship between NewsBusters—the tireless exposer of liberal bias in the media—and Jon Stewart. But that's in the past, and it's time to look toward the future. Specifically, this Saturday, when tens of thousands will converge on The National Mall for Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity. If these excerpts from the website are any indication, it's definitely an event I can get behind:
We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard.
Ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs).
Think of our event as Woodstock, but with the nudity and drugs replaced by respectful disagreement.
    Man, respectful disagreement. I mean, I'm all for nudity and drugs too, but America sure could use a few boatloads of respectful disagreement right about now. Everything else sounds good, too.[1] No reference to any candidates or parties, and no suggestion that the rally is targeted at a particular ideology. Basically, it's not about what we're saying; it's about how we're saying it.

    Even the charity is great: the Trust for The National Mall. Because this is a gathering of people who are responsible enough to do what the government, the unions, the banks, and the oil companies haven't done in a long time—spend their own money to clean up their own mess.

    In short, it's an event no reasonable person could have a problem with. This, of course, is the point where we SMASH CUT to unreasonable people lodging unreasonable complaints (at unreasonable volumes).[2]
    The liberal media just can't stand all the attention Glenn Beck got for his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, D.C., last month.
    Obviously their real goal is to mock the hundreds of thousands of everyday people who gathered last month to worship God and love their country. What better way to make average Americans who dare to oppose socialism feel like freaks than with big rallies called "Keep Fear Alive" and "The Million Moderate March" (I guess Stewart won't be attending that one).
    While it seems like so many of Jon Stewart's adoring fans in the media are elated to see a counter-Tea Party, not many have been willing to call this event what it is—an event to belittle people who are exercising their rights as citizens to protest their government.
    If Arianna Huffington, an admitted "progressive," announces she's offering transportation to individuals that desire to participate in Comedy Central hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "million moderate march," can it really be described as "moderate?"
    Obama's endorsement clearly demonstrates a decidedly liberal slant to the event.
    In case Arianna Huffington plotting to spend an estimated quarter-million dollars on buses to the liberal Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally didn’t paint it as an Obama event, how about Oprah Winfrey? The Obama-endorsing, Obama-campaign-stumping Winfrey appeared via satellite on Thursday night’s episode of The Daily Show to announce that she was going to fly Stewart’s audience to Washington, D.C.
    If it's not obvious, all this paranoia is based on absolutely nothing, except maybe the revelation that two of the organizers used to work for Clinton, along with a mountain of deep-seated preconceptions. And I'm focusing on NewsBusters because otherwise this trilogy would be, well, unfocused, but—in terms of both content and tone—they're hardly an outlier.

    And, to be clear, I have no doubt the attendees and signs and costumes will be disproportionately liberal,[3] because conservatives just don't seem all that interested in going. And I'm sure a lot of ralliers will, in fact, expect the whole thing to be about bashing Fox News and the tea partiers, because people are staggeringly good at missing the point. And I'm sure a lot of things will be said that are aimed at Fox News and the tea partiers, because they're definitely responsible for some—not all, but some—of the idiocy that inspired the rally in the first place.

    And, of course, when those things happen, NewsBusters will report that the rally was exactly what they expected it to be.[4] But I'm getting ahead of myself (not to mention starting a few too many sentences with conjunctions in a row), which means it's probably time to wrap up this three-part mess.

    To recap, this, as far as I can tell, is the current situation:

    — Jon Stewart is holding a rally with the stated goal of restoring reasonableness and sanity, and Stephen Colbert is holding a rally to mock the divisive, hyperbolic fear-mongering that has seemingly taken over.

    — Everything Stewart has said—on his show, in interviews, and through promotional materials—has been ideologically-neutral, with frequent re-affirmations that the only characteristic attendees are expected to share is a willingness to have a reasonable conversation about politics.

    — Prominent conservative voices in the media—exemplified here by Newsbusters—have, on numerous occasions, and in no uncertain terms, insisted that the true goal of these rallies is to promote liberalism and debase conservatism.

    — The only evidence—and I use that term loosely—supporting this is that many of the organizers and supporters are liberals.

    — In other words, many conservatives,[5] based solely on an intense distrust of their ideological opponents, have convinced themselves of the existence of a vast, intricate, anti-conservative conspiracy.

    — That's insane.

    And there it is—the trajic irony of the plea for sanity: If you're listening, and if the message makes sense to you, then you're probably not the intended audience.

    1. Ok, one thing. I cringed a little when Stewart called it a "million moderate march." Moderates, in my unfairly-generalized opinion, are people who don't pay close attention to politics, but are inexplicably committed to preserving the two-party system. ("My primary sources of information are the candidates' dueling attack ads, and I only understand a few of the issues with any real depth, and there's a decent chance my decision will ultimately be based on something ridiculous, like which candidate's name sounds more like it matches my skin color, but vote for a third party? That's crazy! I can't just throw my vote away!")
    2. A trick I learned from The Daily Show, by the way.
    3. How can halloween costumes have a liberal bias? Tune in to Fox News at 5 p.m. and/or 9 p.m. on November 1st to find out.
    4. Specifically: (a) the speakers were predominately liberal, (b) Stewart made a few token attempts to appear non-partisan, but most of his rhetoric was aimed squarely at conservatives, (c) the crowd was unruly and disrespectful, and perhaps even hostile toward the few conservatives in attendance, and (d) attendance was less than expected. Maybe it'll be true; maybe not. Regardless, they'll find a reason to say it.
    5. No, not you. The other ones. You know who I'm talking about.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    The NewsBusters Trilogy, Part Two: An Exercise in Futility

    In Part One I discussed NewsBusters, and their relentless commitment to exposing liberal bias in the media. Turns out it's pretty easy, especially when you pick on professional hyperbole-spewers like Keith Olbermann, or disgraced politicians like Eliot Spitzer, or embarrassing loudmouths like Rosie O'Donnell. But NewsBusters wouldn't be where they are today if they were content to go after the easy targets. Their mission is to expose every square inch of liberal bias, even if it comes from the one media personality who still clings to archaic standards of journalistic integrity and intellectual honesty.

    I'm referring, of course, to Jon Stewart.[1]

    Now, close your eyes for a second and try to visualize politics as a one-dimensional line with a horizontal (i.e. left to right) orientation—a spectrum, if you will. And suppose that every person occupies a point somewhere on that line, as determined by their individual ideologies. (I know, I know—belief systems are way too complex and nuanced for such a simplistic model to have any real meaning, but bear with me.) At the left end of this spectrum is, say, Karl Marx, and at the right end is, I don't know…Sarah Palin.[2] Based on those parameters, it's probably a safe bet that Stewart would occupy a point somewhere left of the center.

    Thing is, I don't think it matters, because virtually everything he says and does on The Daily Show is ideologically-neutral. He doesn't use the show to advocate tax increases, or health care reform, or gay rights, or [insert the thing you're most concerned about the liberal media shoving down the throats of Real Americans]. He uses it to promote accountability (in government, corporations, and the media), rational conversation, and understanding of different points of view.

    But still, he's a liberal. Therefore, as far as the brilliant thinkers at NewsBusters are concerned, he's undoubtedly engaged in a narrow-minded campaign to further his nefarious agenda. And don't think they can't produce some evidence!
    In Stewart's castigation of this error, he made it seem as if Hannity was personally responsible for it even though it's much more than likely that the clips were added from the September 12 rally without Hannity's knowledge…[W]hat Stewart did on Tuesday was far from either comedy or media analysis, but instead a clear extension of his own anti-Fox agenda.
    [W]hen Stewart turned to actual data instead of humor, was he innocent of manipulating the polls? A quick look proves Stewart and his researchers mangled the poll numbers he used on screen…If the best argument liberals like Stewart can make is that perhaps Democrats should pass a health care bill that a "plurality" supports after pushed around by pollsters, then the desperate spinners are not the Fox News personnel.
    Liberal comedian Jon Stewart featured a rare conservative voice on Tuesday's Daily Show, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. As he often does during the occasions he talks to right-leaning guests, Stewart turned combative, attacking Thiessen for "living in a selective world."
    Comedian Jon Stewart on Wednesday bashed Fox News for parent company News Corporation's $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association. Unfortunately, Stewart failed to inform his viewers that Viacom, the parent company of Comedy Central, has so far given disproportionately to Democrats this year. Also missing in the "Daily Show" host's attack of FNC and Glenn Beck was that News Corp. prior to this contribution had historically given more to Democrats than Republicans.[3]
    Actually, many people believe [Stewart is a legitimate source of news] including folks inside the news industry, which of course is pathetic. Also pitiful is that people like Stewart and his ilk routinely talk about Fox being extreme as they typically give MSNBC a pass despite it being much further to the left than FNC is to the right.
    Maybe they're on to something, maybe not. If you watch someone closely enough, of course you'll spot a few examples of the type of bias you're specifically trying to find. But the sheer breadth of NewsBusters' coverage of the Evil Liberal Plot to Take Over the Government or Destroy America or Whatever creates an interesting paradox: Any time a prominent liberal is criticized, it's taken as further evidence of that person's crippling liberalism, so NewsBusters reports it—even if the criticism came from a fellow liberal.[4]

    Here are a few such headlines from the last 18 months (along with a sampling of the language used in the articles to imply that these stories are weird aberrations from the norm):
    Jon Stewart Cows Another Lefty - Did Matthews Change Book Title Over Stewart Mockery? ("unexpected")
    Jon Stewart: Obama Handled Gates Racism Question 'Stupidly' ("quite surprisingly", "I kid you not")
    Jon Stewart on ClimateGate: 'Poor Al Gore - Global Warming Debunked Via Internet You Invented' ("Somewhat surprisingly")
    Jon Stewart Rips Obama's Surge Speech: Sounds Like Bush in 2007 ("surprisingly")
    Jon Stewart Slams Rachel Maddow (!) for Politicizing US Response to Earthquake in Haiti ("There's hope for Jon Stewart yet.")
    Stewart Blasts Olbermann for Brown Rants, Defends Michelle Malkin ("shocking", "surprisingly")
    Jon Stewart Defends Republicans From Claims They Planted Alvin Greene ("mysteriously opposite to contentions by some liberal media members")
    Stewart: Fox Snookered No One, Breitbart Most Honest Person In Sherrod Affair ("surprising")
    Is anyone else reminded of Tom Hanks' "Mr. Short-Term Memory" character from Saturday Night Live? ("There's food in my mouth!") I mean, every damn time, it's "Whoa, that's an oddly reasonable thing for a liberal to say. Where'd that come from?"

    But how can I prove once and for all that Jon Stewart's leftward slant is, if not imaginary, at least irrelevant to the larger message of his show? I can't (hence this article's title). I can think of, like, a dozen more angles I could go into, but it's simply not the sort of thing that can be proven. So I'll just make one last observation: About a month ago, a certain Republican from Delaware got herself all over the news for some pretty silly reasons. Practically everyone in the media—especially the liberals and the comedians (plenty of overlap in that Venn diagram)—weighed in:
    David Letterman: Christine O’Donnell promised that if she’s elected to the Senate for Delaware, she’ll cast a spell on healthcare.
    Jay Leno: I don't know a lot about Christine O'Donnell, but she has some interesting views. She has come out against masturbation. And you thought the war on drugs was unwinnable.
    Jimmy Kimmel: The tea party supported a woman named Christine O’Donnell who, in the 1990s, mounted a campaign to stop kids from masturbating. It didn’t work.
    SNL's Kristen Wiig (as O'Donnell): Hi. I'm Christine O'Donnell, and I'm not a witch. I'm nothing like you've heard. I'm you. And just like you, I have to constantly deny that I'm a witch.
    Keith Olbermann: Karl Rove [wigged out] over the lump of dumb and judgmental that is Christine O’Donnell.
    Maureen Dowd: Evolution is no myth, but we may be evolving backward. Christine O’Donnell had better hope they don’t bring back witch burning.
    Jon Stewart: Poor Christine O'Donnell.  Look, she said something on MTV 20 years ago. I am the last person to judge someone who said weird things on MTV 20 years ago…She may be qualified; she may not…But the last thing that I would suggest is that her witchcraft or masturbation stance is what we should be even thinking about or focusing on. And I think that's an enormous mistake that the Democrats will make.
    Which of these quotes is not like the others? (Hint: It's a different color.)

    Coming up: Part Three, in which NewsBusters discovers an alarming new threat to freedom and American values, and—guess what?—exposes it.

    1. I'm also being facetious, but only a little.
    2. Yeah, I used Palin because she's funny, but also—and I'm clearly not an expert here—it doesn't seem right to equate people like, say, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman with today's conservatives, because I don't think they'd be so adamant about legislating morality. Am I wrong about that? Who is the personification of the modern conservative ideology? Please tell me it's not really Sarah Palin.
    3. This one is kind of funny. Stewart called out (skullf#@ked, if you prefer) News Corp. for donating $1 million to the Republicans. NewsBusters then claimed his motives were less than honorable, entering into evidence the following points: (1) He didn't say anything about Viacom giving more to Democrats, and (2) If you don't count the $1 million (under the little-known highest-and-lowest-get-thrown-out rule, I guess), News Corp. had also given more to Democrats. Fair enough—both of those things are true. Of course, Viacom had only given 110K to Democrats (67K to Republicans) which at least partially reflects the fact that there are simply more Democrats in office right now (and you can't buy political favors from politicians who aren't in office). And News Corp. had given 123K to Democrats (112K to Republicans), so that million shifted the ratio pretty drastically the other way, but shut up, there's liberal bias everywhere!
        Anyway, I went through all that in part because I also want to point out that I haven't looked into any of the other accusations of bias at all. I'm sure some of them aren't complete nonsense, but I wouldn't take them at face value either.

    4. Because these people are dangerous, selfish ideologues who will stop at nothing to further their radical agendas (agendae?), and therefore cannot be trusted to provide unbiased, fact-based analysis…except when they criticize somebody else we don't like.