Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fighting 'the Government' by Killing Your Neighbors

cross-posted from Dagblog

Before dawn on Christmas Eve a man set fire to his car and his house and waited for the firefighters to arrive so he could murder them. He shot four, killing two. They were volunteers. One of the men he killed was also a local police lieutenant. They died for going out on a winter morning to protect their neighbors. Because the murderer kept the firefighters from doing their jobs, his fire spread to six neighboring houses, destroying thirty-three people's homes just before a blizzard rolled in.

This happened seven miles from my house. The neighborhood is a strip of beach between Lake Ontario and a local bay. It is an idyllic place where people go to sail, swim, or sit while their kids build sand castles. I like to walk on the jetty by the harbor's mouth and stand looking at the patient motion of the water. It is restful there. I don't know how any of us will find it restful now, looking at the place where our neighbors were murdered, where their homes were burned.

Gun-rights advocates insist that we have a right to semi-automatic weaponry in order to defend ourselves against the government. But this is what "resisting the government" looks like in practice: one disgruntled citizen shooting at the government agents who come to put out fires.

The Christmas Eve killer is a twisted parody of the guns-vs.-government ideology, but he did not have to twist it much. The rhetoric has come to center on the individual right to resist the government with armed force, and to talk about the government as an alien entity imposed from outside. This is passed off as a version of the original ideology of the American revolution, but it is profoundly different. The modern focus imagines a private individual, perhaps with a few friends, motivated by his own conviction of righteousness, rather than a group of volunteers representing the community at large. It expresses impatience and even disdain for the political processes that the Revolutionary militias were formed to defend. The Minutemen did not believe taxes were illegitimate confiscations of property; they believed that their elected representatives should set the tax rates.

Most of all, our modern guns-vs.-the-government narrative tends to oppose even local governments, exactly the governmental bodies that the Minutemen prized. The local sheriff and county tax assessor are just more government thugs. They are imagined as storm troopers beamed down from orbit somewhere, rather than as neighbors selected to do a job by the rest of the neighbors. But that is what they really are.

The government is your neighbors. The cop who comes to your door is coming on your neighbors' behalf. So is the fire marshal. It's more polite than having us all come over as a mob. And your taxes aren't a confiscation of your property on the behalf of the less deserving. They're a contribution to the community fund that pays for lots of things that you need and benefit from. 

I grew up in a community with a volunteer fire department and a mostly volunteer police department. My mother was the local police lieutenant, one of the few full-time professionals on the force. I remember her going out on calls on Christmas Eve to deal with emergencies. I understood that police had to be on call, because the other people in my town needed them. I was used to neighbors who volunteered as fire-fighters. I understood that people needed to be there for each other, that when there was a fire there had to be people who pitched in to stop it. The American revolutionaries that gun fetishists like to cite understood the same thing. That's why they volunteered. That's why they pitched in when the town needed them.

The men who were killed and wounded on Christmas Eve were practicing the same basic, small-town virtues I saw around me growing up. They were being the "government," which means, for most people on most days, being the folks who step up to be responsible when the neighbors need it. The government is us. Pretending otherwise is suicidal.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Gun Hobby

cross-posted from Dagblog

Our gun laws have been distorted to suit the needs of a single interest group. That small, privileged group’s desires outweigh the needs of nearly every other American, and have more influence with our elected leaders than the suffering of crime victims, the recommendations of law enforcement, or the common-sense demands of public safety. These privileged few are not hunters, or sportsmen, or homeowners concerned with self-defense. They are hobbyists. We live in a gun collector’s paradise, and it is very dangerous.

    Our nation’s worst mass shootings, like this year’s murders in Aurora and Newtown, were committed with semiautomatic weapons that have very large ammo magazines, magazines which were illegal until the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse in 2004. These weapons allow criminals to kill dozens of people without reloading. The concealed-carry laws currently promoted by gun lobbyists are useless when violent offenders use guns with such high-capacity magazines. Assault weapons were designed to overcome armed opponents by firing a large number of rounds at high speed, suppressing fire, so that the target cannot safely fire back. Police officers armed with handguns, no matter how well-practiced or well-trained, cannot easily fight back against such guns, which was one reason behind the original assault weapons ban. Random civilians carrying concealed handguns are not likely to do better. Those who argue otherwise display their willful ignorance about guns.

    The best hope for stopping a mass shooter, and often the only hope, is to attack him when he reloads. At that moment, and usually only at that moment, he is vulnerable and can be disarmed. The Tucson killer, who wounded Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others, was stopped when he needed to reload his gun, and more killings were prevented. The people who disarmed him did not have or need guns of their own. The Blacksburg killer, who murdered thirty-two people, knew how vulnerable he was when reloading and took elaborate precautions to protect himself when he did. Giving killers the ability to fire fifty or a hundred rounds before reloading allows them to kill many more victims, and takes away victims’ best and often only chance to fight back or escape. Limiting magazine size will not be enough to end gun violence in this country. But it would allow more of us to survive it. And restoring the assault weapons ban is something we can ask Congress to do right now.

    Why were guns with hundred-bullet magazines allowed to become legal again? They are not hunting weapons. They take the sport out of sport shooting. (No one needs suppressing fire against a skeet.) They are less useful for home defense than a handgun or shotgun. If you cannot defend your home with a handgun and a shotgun, you do not need more firepower. You need backup. And while some talk about gun ownership as a check on hypothetical government tyranny, these weapons could never rein in our national military with its tanks, planes, and guided armaments. These personal assault weapons are grossly inadequate to the hypothetical task of standing off the federal government, but grossly excessive for any legitimate use.

    These guns are sold to collectors. The purpose of owning them is the sheer pleasure of owning the object. It is ultimately no different, and in itself no less innocent, than owning a vintage baseball card or a Model T Ford. These guns are not tools but toys. They provide a perfectly harmless and interesting pastime for most collectors, and an enormously lucrative market for gun manufacturers. Hobbyists buy expensive high-end products and keep buying more. They are where the money is. So it is natural that the gun makers, and the gun lobby they help fund, are bent on keeping that profitable business legal. The result is that we have laws, written at the behest of well-heeled pressure groups, that are more concerned with protecting sellers and collectors from inconvenience than in protecting honest citizens’ lives. Nancy Lanza, who bought and was killed by the guns used in the Newtown murders, was one such avid hobbyist. But the laws that favored Ms. Lanza’s freedom to build her pleasure arsenal must give equal weight to her neighbors’ freedoms to live peaceably, send their children to school, and grow to adulthood. I do not begrudge collectors their hobby. But that hobby cannot take precedence over every other consideration. Children should not lose their lives so that adults may have their playthings.

Friday, December 14, 2012

What You Can Do About Gun Control TODAY

20 children have been murdered in Connecticut. This what you can do about it right now:

1. Write and call your Congressman. Writing to your Congressional representatives is the most important thing you can do, more important than writing to the White House. Write and call your House member first, and then your two Senators. You can find their contact information at and

Tell them you want them to bring back the assault weapons ban from the 1990s. You may want them to do more than that, but getting them to do more than that will take a long time. This is the easiest gun-control measure to vote for, and the hardest to vote against. Tell your House member and Senators that the gun used to kill those children was illegal fifteen years ago, and that it should be illegal now.

Tell them that passing the assault weapons ban is the least they can do, and that they need to show you that they are leading on this issue.

Tell them that you are very, very angry.

2. Write to the President. You can contact the White House here.

Tell the President you want him to bring back the assault weapons ban that President Clinton passed. Tell him that you want him to show leadership on this issue, and that you are very, very angry.

Also tell him that you want Attorney General Holder to enforce all existing gun laws and make firearms enforcement a top priority. The President does not need Congress to do this. He can do it tomorrow. Tell him to do it.

3. Write all of the same people next week and tell them the same thing.

Elected leaders do not do things because voters want them on the day something terrible happens, no matter how badly the voters want those things or how terrible the day. They do things because they know voters want those things every day,  and will not change their minds. Show your leaders that your mind will not change.

Write to your Congressmen and the White House next week and say that you still want the assault weapons ban and strict gun law enforcement. If they have not done anything by next Friday, tell them you are very disappointed. If they have done something, tell them they are doing a good job and encourage them to do more.

Then write to them the week after that. Write to them every time a gun-control bill comes up in Congress.

If you really want to do something about gun violence in our country, it will take a long time and many stages. It will take steady determination even to get the assault weapons ban back. It will take years of effort and determination to do more than that.

Politicians in our country have learned to fear the gun lobby. They will not back meaningful change until they are more worried about angry voters who want gun control then they are about powerful lobbyists who don't. This is going to take us many, many hard days. Today is the day to start.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Reading the Renaissance for Fun (and Profit)

cross-posted from Dagblog

I stopped blogging for a while around Thanksgiving, partly because I was driving instead (I managed to log about 2500 highway miles in a week and a half), and partly because I needed to unplug both from national politics and from the unrelenting dailiness of office politics. (I go to more meetings at work than I used to, and answer a lot more e-mails.) The advent of winter holidays has always been a good time for me to step away from the noisy bustle and think more about what is durable. It's stepping out of the car after miles and miles of highway and looking up at the cold clear stars over New Hampshire.

Now that I've entered middle age, fewer things seem likely to endure. I no longer have the illusion when I walk in the New England woods that the forest is more than a few decades old, new growth over what used to be farmland. And I can no longer pretend to myself that those woods will abide from season to season now that the seasons themselves have begun to change. I know the winter stars will return for every solstice, but I'm no longer entirely sure about the winter itself.

Maybe for that reason, I have begun doing something that I haven't done in years. For the first time since early in grad school, I have started reading Renaissance literature for pleasure.

It's not that I haven't read a lot of Renaissance literature over the last fifteen years. In fact, I read Renaissance literature all the time: I teach it, research it, write about it. And I have always derived real pleasure from that reading, because the books themselves are intricate and beautiful and arrestingly strange. But there is a difference between reading for work and reading for pleasure, no matter how much you enjoy your work. What I had gotten away from doing is reading these poems simply for recreation. And I had not realized how much I missed it.

I've been making or finding time, most days over the last couple of weeks, to read a sizable but manageable section of one long poem or another, generally in a range between four hundred and a thousand lines. Some days that time gets sewn together out of several shorter scraps; on the best days, I have the luxury of sitting down and doing the reading uninterrupted. I respect the units each work is divided into, so that when I come to the end of a canto or a book or whatever, that's it for that day.  If I don't finish a section, I get to it the next day, but I don't plow straight through to the next section of the poem. This enforces a leisurely pace. Reading the two poems I'm currently reading on this schedule would take about three months even if I didn't miss a day here or there, as I inevitably will. That speed is completely impractical if you're reading for work or for school. It's a pace designed for pleasure rather than business, and it works pretty well. In fact, I'm convinced that at least one of these poems was intended to be read at just about this speed.

These are books that I seldom teach, and almost never teach in their entirety. They're also books that I never write about, and have no plans to write about in the foreseeable future. Neither fits into the book I'm writing now, or the book I'll write after this one, or anywhere in the long queue of articles and conference papers I need to finish. I'm not looking for ideas to work into articles. The point of reading these books is that I enjoy reading these books.

That impractical pleasure is deeply necessary. I was in no danger of losing it when I started out in my profession. When I started graduate school I wasn't many years past my first encounter with any of those books, and the excitement of literary discovery was still fresh in my heart. Reading for orals was a stupendous feast, even if it mandated some overconsumption. And beginning my first job required me to think about some famous texts in ways I hadn't before, so that I could teach them. I'm not in danger, today, of losing my love for these works. But I am twenty-five years from the experience of reading them for the first time, and I have at least another twenty-five years of my working life ahead of me. If I spent the next quarter-century reading only instrumentally, in order to complete some task or other, I would risk losing touch with why I am doing this at all. My connection to this material is not a permanent thing to be taken for granted. It is something that I need to leave time and space, something that I need to husband and renew.

But reading very old books for pleasure, unplugged from my various professional tasks and the short-attention-span demands of office life, also reminds me of how very durable literature can be. Not eternal, and not unchanging: these poems change with the years because the years change their readers, and hold the pages up to the different lights of different days. But I am grateful that I can read these words four hundred years later with a full measure of delight and wonder. It's a comfort to be able to turn to those works after years have gone by, and to find them both familiar and subtly changed now that I read them with older eyes.

And I am thankful for the enduring power of the art works that I do teach to puzzle and move, to confound and amuse, centuries after they were first written. I am grateful to make students laugh by reading them a four-hundred-year old joke. I'm privileged to be there at their discovery of these works and these words for the first time, to share the moment when they encounter these books as something new. And I am desperately grateful to teach works so rich and complicated that I can teach them for decades on end without any danger of becoming bored. A book that can reward rereading after reading, years on end, is a gift of humbling artistic generosity. And the past has left us an enormous trove of such gifts, far more than any of us have the time to properly enjoy. At the end of this autumn, I am thankful for art, and for the company it keeps us. As Keats says to the Grecian urn, "Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man." I am counting on that abiding companionship for the many winters still to come.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Humanities as Sugar Daddy

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, the Governor of Florida set up a Task Force on higher education, and they decided that humanities majors should pay more than science majors for a college education. The thinking is that Florida wants more technology grads, and fewer humanities grads, and can get them by making humanities degrees more expensive so that students opt for science, math, and technology instead. They call this approach "market based," but its ignorance of basic economic realities is startling.

One of the hard truths of higher education is that some classes run at a profit and some run at a loss, and that the less-expensive, more-profitable classes are used to underwrite courses that are just as educationally necessary but cost more to run. The larger classes help pay for the smaller ones, the introductory classes help pay for the advanced ones, and the classes in "soft" subjects like English, history, or anthropology help pay for classes in "hard" disciplines like science and engineering.

This seems counter-intuitive to some non-academics who, having internalized the idea that science is where the money is, presume that offering science classes is also more profitable than offering classes on Latin poetry or sociological methods. But it is partly because STEM graduates make more money on average than humanities graduates that teaching STEM courses is more expensive: engineering professors make higher salaries than classics professors. Laboratory science (including computer science, certainly) also requires expensive labs and equipment, while most humanities courses require only a textbook (whose price is borne by the student, not the college). It's true that STEM fields bring in more external grant money, but that grant money largely gets eaten up by the lab facilities you have to build in order to apply for the grants.

The question "how can the humanities pay for themselves?" ignores the fact that the humanities not only pay for themselves but underwrite the sciences too. But ignoring that fact does not make it go away. And if Florida did manage to move a large number of its students out of profit-turning humanities classes into break-even-or-less science classes, it's likely that many public university budgets in Florida will go up in flames pose significant challenges.

Of course, that presumes that they can move students into their math and science classes at all. The "market-based" part of the solution ignores the fact that the Florida schools are actually part of a market. They compete for students with a large number of other schools. Being in a market means that you don't get to set prices unilaterally.

The English majors will simply go somewhere else. This is how markets work. Making a humanities degree pricier won't discourage people from pursuing that degree. It will only encourage them to buy it from your competitors instead of you. If it's too expensive to major in history at the University of Florida, students who want to major in history will either go to a private university or leave the state.

What Florida just decided to do is the equivalent to saying, "I'm tired of customers buying hamburgers instead of lobster. I'm going to make hamburgers twice as expensive as lobster." If you did that, you wouldn't sell more lobster. You'd just lose customers. They would go across the street to a restaurant where lobster was the same price, and burgers much cheaper. On the other hand, the few customers you did have would order nothing but the lobster, which you have to buy at expensive wholesale prices, instead of the ground beef that wholesales for so much less. And your restaurant will go broke pretty quickly, especially if you were already using the profits on all those hamburgers to subsidize the lobster side of the business.

But the Florida idea is ultimately just a newer version of something that's been happening in American universities for decades, as administrators demand a higher and higher profit margin from humanities classes in order to fund other priorities. For at least twenty-five years colleges have been increasing those profits by cutting humanities budgets, trying to spend less and less on those classes while keeping the revenue those courses bring in steady and growing. They shrink the number of full-time faculty in those fields, shift more and more teaching to ill-paid part-timers, and when push comes to shove cut the few subjects in the humanities, such as foreign-language instruction, that require higher overhead. Cutting costs AND upping prices is just an intensification of the normal strategy, busting the piggy bank open at two different ends.

Universities don't cut humanities budgets because the humanities are unprofitable. They cut humanities budgets because humanities are profitable, and schools are trying to squeeze more and more profit out of them. It's one of the few places to make money.  And schools are always hungry for more.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Death of the Dog Whistle

cross-posted from Dagblog

There's been a lot of post-election hand-wringing about how the Republicans can "reach out" to minority voters. If they can't win just by energizing their shrinking base of white people, what's next? Immigration reform? Marco Rubio? What's it going to take?

At the same time, you have former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan blaming the Romney loss on voters from "urban areas." Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Maybe I'm overthinking this, but if one chunk of your party is talking about reaching out to minority voters, and another chunk is publicly talking about minority voters in code, you are on the fast track to nowhere. And if your national candidates are using racial euphemisms in public, don't act surprised when people who aren't white don't want to vote for you.

Filing petitions talking about secession from the Union doesn't help, either. Um, Party of Lincoln? Hello?

The Republicans have made their political living for a generation on the racial dog-whistle, the coded appeal that comes across loud and clear to white racists but not to whites who don't like to think of themselves as racist. Lee Atwater famously explains the procedure:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Couldn't be clearer. But here's the problem for the Atwaters of the world now that more than a quarter of the electorate isn't white:

Racists aren't the only people who can hear the dog whistle. Minorities hear it clear as a bell.

When people say that people who aren't racists don't hear the dog whistle, they mean other white people can't hear it. And that conflation of "other white people" as "people" is part of the problem.

This is where a term like "white privilege" becomes useful. A white person who isn't actively hostile to other races, but has the luxury of not noticing racist hostility is enjoying white privilege in a pretty clear way. Does that make them racist? No. But giving yourself permission to remain clueless does pretty clearly help maintain the problem. And when white people bend over backwards to avoid offending anybody by calling an unrepentant dog-whistler a racist, that's white privilege in a pretty toxic form.

The Atwaterite Republican strategy is to say things that get the racist elements in their base worked up but that other whites will give them a pass on. (And, if anyone tries to call them on their BS, they take elaborate umbrage on cable news, and accuse their critics of "playing the race card." Obviously, white people who don't notice the dog whistle think "playing the race card" is a terrible, terrible thing.)

But getting away with your B.S. on cable TV isn't enough when we're talking about an electorate that's 25%-30% non-white. They won't give people a pass. They know a dog whistle when they hear it. They can't afford not to.

Time to go back to the drawing board, fellas. How about "Party of Lincoln?" It's worked before.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Excusing Petraeus

cross-posted from Dagblog

David Petraeus's downfall at the CIA, resigning after his marital infidelity was exposed, has gotten the kind of press coverage generally reserved for winning the Nobel Prize or becoming the first man on Mars. Story after story about his resignation rhapsodizes about the greatness of Petraeus, his military brilliance, his reputation for "probity and integrity." He is hailed as the model of a modern general, without a whiff of Gilbert & Sullivan irony in that phrase. Some people even single out the resignation itself as a sign of Petraeus's lofty sense of honor, as if why he was resigning had nothing to do with it. Of course, some of this is the standard journalistic fall-from-glory narrative, which needs to establish how high the subject was riding to demonstrate how far he's fallen. But it's peculiarly intense. Petraeus has always gotten idolatrous treatment from the media, and his resignation has become another opportunity to write the man valentines and give him lingering tongue-baths on the front page. What on earth did he need a mistress for?

Meanwhile, his extra-curricular lover gets blamed for seducing him. She "got his hooks" into him. He had a lapse in judgement, or simply "stumbled" in an unaccustomed situation. Virtually everyone agrees that Petraeus was weak and unable to resist, although everyone also agrees that they have no idea how this affair started. That no one knows any facts about whose idea the affair was or who started it is irrelevant, because this isn't about facts. An illicit relationship between a powerful man and less powerful woman is always treated as something that happens to the man and that the woman does.

Paula Broadwell has been hit with the two basic attacks used against every woman in her situation. 1) She is a crazed hussy. 2) It was her idea, and there was no way he could resist her. Never mind that these two lines of attack, which are almost always used in combination, tend to cancel each other out. (Shouldn't crazed hussies be easier to resist? Shouldn't any mature adult find lunatics much easier to turn down?) And while Broadwell has done legitimately reckless and foolish things, like sending the enraged e-mails that started the original investigation, the "crazed hussy" excuse only makes Petraeus's behavior worse. It demonstrates his lack of judgment. That he risked his career on a secret affair with an unreliable and ultimately untrustworthy partner is a sign of his own unreliable decision-making. So please, don't tell me any more about how smart he is. And the "couldn't resist her" excuse is a transparent falsehood. The affair could never have happened if David Petraeus did not want it to. The more powerful person can always resist the less powerful one, simply by using his power. It was not possible for Paula Broadwell to make any advances that David Petraeus did not allow her to make. There was nothing Broadwell could do unless Petraeus decided that she could do it.

If David Petraeus felt that Broadwell was getting too close to him, or that he was having trouble managing his sexual attraction to her, he could simply have closed off her access to him. It's that simple. When women get blamed for seducing powerful men, remember that the powerful man has to deliberately let that woman into a room with him in the first place. Monica Lewinsky and Rielle Hunter could not have gotten near Bill Clinton or John Edwards except that Clinton and Edwards deliberately decided to give those women access that almost everyone else was denied. This even holds true for men who aren't actually powerful, or who only have a little power inside their workplace. Being a college professor does not confer any power or influence. But over the years I've had two students make inappropriate romantic overtures toward me. Neither of those students has ever seen me one-on-one again. One has not been in the same room with me. And it was very easy for me to manage that. It is vastly easier for someone like Petraeus or Edwards or Clinton, surrounded by a constant press of followers and admirers jockeying for place near the great man, to let some obscure young woman (who, truthfully, doesn't have much reason to be there) get crowded out of his entourage. Petraeus didn't need an excuse to get rid of Broadwell or anybody else. Paula Broadwell was only around because Petraeus wanted her around. Anybody he stopped wanting around, anyone Petraeus did not actively invite into his presence, would simply be gone.

Why did he do it, reporters keep asking? Why did he have the hubris to think he could get away with it? But hubris is the point of such a relationship. It's obvious that Broadwell downright worships Petraeus, and her uncritical adoration has to be a strong part of her appeal. Petraeus got to have an affair with a person who saw none of his flaws and more of his virtues then he had, and he got to see himself through her eyes. It is the intoxicating pleasure of having a lover who has mistaken you for someone else, and indulges you in the same mistake. (My inappropriate students were clearly not attracted to the actual me, whom they do not really know, but to some English-professor fantasy that they had constructed around me. My spouse, on the other hand, not only sees my feet of clay but has to remind me twice a week about the clayey footprints I've left on the rug. That is just one of the many reasons I prefer her.) The great appeal of the younger mistress is not sex but vanity; they allow their older, more powerful lover to believe in an idealized fantasy version of himself. It isn't so much that hubris leads powerful men to chase younger women for sex. It's that such men have sex with younger women in order to get more and more hubris.

But Petraeus got more than the gratification of his vanity. He got payment for his favors: a doting, hero-worshiping quid pro quo of a biography. David Petraeus values publicity, and has long used it to advance his career. Sometimes he has even used publicity in an attempt to sway national policy in ways that he thought would benefit his career. And that is where the real moral rot lies here. I am not convinced that Petraeus's illicit sex life was necessarily a scandal in itself, or any threat to national security. I think the FBI investigation may be a legitimate scandal, not because the Intelligence Committees were not briefed but because other Congressmen were, and because no clear reason has been given for investigating anything. (If Broadwell is not being charged for sending the e-mail which began the investigation, why did the investigation begin at all?) But there is a real scandal here, and that scandal is the media itself.

Broadwell is spectacularly unethical as a journalist. There is no honesty in publishing a book about your lover without admitting he sleeps with you. No book published under those circumstances could be truthful. But Broadwell is the only the most glaringly literal example of the way the press has allowed Petraeus to play them. Broadwell's access to Petraeus's bed is not the problem with access journalism. The scandal is that so many other journalists have been willing to pay so much to Petraeus, and to others like him, in exchange for access to him. Granting journalists the privilege of covering him has bought Petraeus the right to control how he is covered. The result is propaganda that lionizes a man at the expense of the telling the truth about vital national concerns. Journalists give Petraeus credit for winning two wars that the United States has not won. That is exceptional and unhealthy. The fawning tone in news stories about Petraeus's resignation is not coverage of the scandal. It is a continuation of the scandal.

Let me spell it out: David Petraeus is a whore. He performed sexual favors in exchange for flattering media coverage. And Paula Broadwell was his john. She repaid Petraeus's sexual attentions and his protestations of love with glowing publicity. (Imagine Petraeus as an actress and Broadwell as a theater critic and the nature of their transaction becomes clear.) That Broadwell fell in love with her prostitute and lost herself in the follies of jealousy only makes her a sadder figure. The rest of the media, with whom David never actually went all the way but whom he has spent years intriguing and rebuffing and encouraging as it suited his purpose, are still willing to cover him any way he likes, just for the chance to get closer to him. David Petraeus may have fallen from grace for a moment, but the press still lusts after him and still woos him. They're just waiting for him to give them a chance.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Vote, Ohio!

If you're voting in Ohio, here's what you need to know:

1. Where should I go to vote?

If you're unsure where your polling place is, go here or here to look it up.

2. What ID should I bring?
The forms of identification that may be used by a voter who appears at a polling place to vote on an Election Day include:
  • A current and valid photo identification card issued by the State of Ohio or the United States government; or
  • A military identification ("military ID"); or
  • An original or copy of a current utility bill; or
  • An original or copy of a current bank statement; or
  • An original or copy of a current government check; or
  • An original or copy of a current paycheck; or
  • An original or copy of a current other government document, other than a voter registration acknowledgement notification mailed by the board of elections, that shows the voter’s name and current address.
For Voter I.D. purposes "current" means the document was issued on a date within one year immediately preceding the date of the election at which the voter seeks to vote, or has on it an expiration date after November 6, 2012.

If your ID has expired AND it is more than a year old, then you need a different ID.

3) What if I don't have that kind of ID?

Voters who do not provide one of these documents at the precinct will still be able to vote using a provisional ballot. Voters who do not have any of the above forms of identification, including a Social Security number, will still be able to vote by signing an affirmation statement swearing to the voter’s identity under penalty of election falsification and by casting a provisional ballot.

4) What if my license has my old address on it? 

A voter presenting an Ohio driver’s license that shows the voter’s former address is permitted to cast a regular ballot so long as the voter’s current residential address is printed in the official poll list of registered voters for that precinct. 

5) What happens if I get a provisional ballot?

Try not to get a provisional ballot if you can help it. If you do get one, you may be asked to fill in the ID information on the ballot that you used. There is a court fight about this, but to be on the safe side make sure to do it yourself.

You have to fill in, carefully, the section on the ballot about the kind of ID you used. Make sure to fill this in carefully. Ask the poll workers for help if you're confused. (They're definitely allowed to help you, even if they're not allowed to fill it in.) Ask the poll workers if you've done it right before you hand in the ballot.

6) What if the line is too long, or the polls close before I get to vote vote?

You must be allowed to vote if you got in line before the polls close at 7:30 Tuesday night. If you get in line before the polls close but don't get to vote before 7:30 STAY IN LINE until they let you vote.

Voting is your right as an American, and it wasn't the people manning the tables at your polling place who gave it to you. They can't take it away from you either. Don't leave until you vote.

7) What if I have trouble voting?

Call the Ohio Voter Hotline: 1-855-VOTE-199

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Predictable Results

cross-posted from Dagblog

The Eastern Seaboard is getting clobbered by a combined late-season hurricane and blizzard, flooding large areas and knocking out electricity in even larger areas. As I write this, the New York City subways are flooded, there has been an explosion at a Con Edison power station, and a large parts of Rockaway are burning while firefighters, trapped by the floodwaters, are helpless to stop it.

Once-in-a-lifetime storms like this one have always existed. But the increasing frequency of massive storms, coming much much faster than only once a lifetime, is one of the results predicted by the standard model for catastrophic global warning. That doesn't mean that Hurricane Sandy (aka the Frankenstorm) is necessarily a result of climate change, the way the shrinking polar ice obviously is. But climate change models do predict that there would be many more storms like this, and the last ten years have certainly had a hell of a lot of fierce weather events. Of course, many people in the media denounce the very idea of climate change as "junk science"

The storm is knock out millions of people's electricity a week before a presidential election. This is largely because we have allowed our infrastructure to age and weaken, until our bridges and roads and power grids are too creaky and brittle for an emergency. The problems with this have been predicted for many years, but those who advocated public rebuilding of our national infrastructure were denounced as spendthrifts, wasting the public's money and "holding back" the entrepreneurial economy.

The election itself is on a knife's edge, largely because the economy is in the doldrums, despite the half-sized stimulus package President Obama passed at the beginning of his term. Some economists, most famously Paul Krugman, predicted at the time that such an undersized stimulus (less than half the size of the demand that the American economy had lost in the downturn) would fail to spur sufficient growth, make future stimulus packages politically impossible (because the first would "prove" that stimulus spending "doesn't work"), and lead the President into an uphill slog of an election campaign in a depressed economy. All of those things have happened. But for saying so in advance, Krugman was widely called unreasonable, partisan, and shrill. He continues to be called those things.

This week, as the election remains close and different approaches to reading polls yield different indications about which candidate is more likely to win, a wide range of media voices ranging from professional conservatives at the National Review to self-described centrists like David Brooks and Politico launched on attack on the poll analyst Nate Silver of for the high crime and misdemeanor of favoring state-by-state polling data over the headline numbers from national tracking polls. What apparently provoked this pack-mentality assault was that Silver did not endorse the idea that Mitt Romeny was continuing to surge in the polls after, well, after Romney ceased gaining in the polls.  Eventually, some of Silver's attackers (some of whom had gotten very personal indeed) realized that nearly every poll-averaging outfit was producing results much like Silver's; this led some of them (such as noted statistical genius Jennifer Rubin) to denounce poll averaging itself.

There's some grim humor in the attack on Silver, such as his critics' displays of colossal mathematical illiteracy (some of his attackers cannot distinguish between predicting that Barack Obama has 70% chance of winning the election and predicting that Obama will win the election in a 70-30 blowout), and their even more colossal displays of hypocrisy (various pundits who have been horribly mistaken over and over, without an ounce of chagrin, have pompously declared that if Silver is wrong about the upcoming election he will be permanently disgraced. Disgraced, I say! Just like Joe Scarborough was that time that he was wrong about every single thing that happened in the Bush Administration.) But there's something simply grim here, too, because the sudden outburst of rage suggests how our media actually works and how they treat the business of prediction.

If Nate Silver's approach to handicapping the election is wrong (and of course it could be), we'll know in a week. And Silver's critics, if they only believed he was wrong, could just wait for him to be proved wrong, the way I wait out loudmouths in sports bars. But simply not predicting that Romney would win after the media storyline had changed to Romney's Irresistible Momentum was enough to provoke a wide-spread attack. To predict something that the establishment finds politically inconvenient is considered an outrage. And to base that prediction in rational analysis of data only makes it more unacceptable. When people like the pundits who attacked Silver this week talk about "facts," they don't mean facts. They mean socially-produced ideas of reality, established by influential insiders and handed down to the rest of us. Anyone who publicly contradicts that socially approved "reality" is disrupting business and inconveniencing the powerful, and that cannot be allowed. Carefully-constructed reality-based models only make the crime worse.

The global-warming hypothesis, based on careful analysis of enormous quantities of data, is not acceptable to the powers that be, because accepting that reality would force them to change the way they arrange things, the way they conduct their business and make their political decisions. Those arrangements outweigh any facts. The reality of our crumbling infrastructure is likewise inconvenient, because it would require sensible taxation and a rational approach to public finance. Paul Krugman's model for the how large the stimulus needed to be was likewise inconvenient, because it did not fit in with existing political agendas. How dare he make predictions without taking into account what K Street considered reasonable?

Our country has allowed the perspective of insiders and elites, a perspective that treats ongoing power games as the most fundamental reality, to crowd out actual reality. When science, mathematics, or simple common sense threatens to interfere with the results of those games, or render them moot, then science, math, and common sense are ruled out of order. But there's a price to be paid for running the world as if Beltway games were more real than physics, and that price is extremely high. The price is that our country fails to deal with easily foreseeable problems, and instead makes them vastly worse than they needed to be. After a while, it means our system runs a danger of failing completely. And that failure is all too predictable.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stand Up for Obama

I don't have anything to say about the election today. It's crunch time.
If you're ready to knock on some doors, makes some phone calls, or dig deep for one last donation, the Obama campaign could use you. Just follow the link.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Reality Is the Enemy: Romney's Foreign Policy

cross-posted from Dagblog

So tonight Mitt Romney is going to try to outflank President Obama on foreign policy. Romney doesn't know much about foreign policy, but both Romney and Obama represent long-standing traditions of American thought on international security. The President represents the practical tradition designed to guide policy by the party in office, whichever party that is. Romney speaks for the strand that is designed only for opposition figures. Romney's tradition was developed not to protect America from foreign enemies but to attack domestic political opponents, and it has no other genuine value.

A quick bit of history on where these two strands of thoughts come from:

After World War II, a bipartisan foreign policy consensus emerged in American politics, and there was never much daylight between the major parties or mainstream presidential candidates. (The previous major foreign policy debate, between the internationalists and the isolationists, was effectively closed by the Japanese in December 1941.) Both the Republicans and Democrats were Cold Warriors, dedicated to a policy of containing the Soviet Union. The containment policy stresses both syllables in "Cold War"; it treated the Soviets as an antagonist to be steadily opposed by every means possible except for an all-out military confrontation which would put our nation's survival at risk. Despite quibbles over details, Eisenhower and Stevenson, Kennedy and Nixon, Carter and Reagan all shared the same fundamental approach to foreign policy. The only apparent outlier to win a major-party nomination was George McGovern, and his outlier status was only apparent. (McGovern wanted to abandon one failed initiative, the Vietnam War, but not the underlying containment strategy.) Neither party was reliably more hawkish than the other. Sometimes (as in 1960) the Democrat ran as the slightly more hawkish candidate.

Starting in the 1950s, conservative intellectuals (as opposed to the Republican Party), began critiquing the bipartisan consensus as Not Tough Enough, arguing for more confrontation with the Soviets. The critique was simple: the United States should take a more aggressive stance (no matter how aggressive the existing stance). Every negotiation was a sign of weakness; trade sanctions were weak and threats of military action strong; threats of military action were weak and launching military attacks strong. If this sounds stupid, it is because it is sheerly intellectual, in the sense that the people peddling these ideas never had to worry about carrying them out, or even worry that other people might carry them out. These "ideas" (which are not really even ideas, but rhetorical stances) were cooked up in conservative magazines like the National Review, not in the Departments of State or Defense. They represent the worldview of William F. Buckley rather than Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon. (Because, really, why would you trust Dwight Eisenhower to win a global conflict with an enemy power when you could have William Buckley instead?) The point was not to come up with actual policies that would work. The point was to argue that the existing policies, no matter what they were, were "too soft."

This purely oppositional foreign-policy "vision" thrived in the Cold War because you could always count on the actual policy-makers using some reasonable restraint, keeping our aggression within some limits, since too much aggression would have provoked a catastrophic thermonuclear confrontation. Some options were simply off the table because they entailed an unacceptable risk (or near-certainty) of disaster. So the Buckleys of the world got a free ride. They could always stake out a theoretical position tougher than any responsible policy-maker would ever take, and they could be sure never to be called on their bluff. This strand of conservative foreign-policy thinking was always completely counter-factual, fixated on alternate histories. (Many such "conservatives" would even blame Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, for not trying to capture and occupy Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The idea that America had missed an "opportunity" to go directly from fighting the Germans to a protracted land war with the Soviets suggests the level of realism we're talking about here. Some opportunity.)

After the Cold War ended, two things happened. One was that the broad realist consensus on foreign policy remained in place. George H. W. Bush, who had been part of the foreign-policy apparatus as CIA chief and who had just seen the containment policy pay off in an enormous jackpot, naturally stuck with what worked. Bill Clinton basically continued Bush's approach. Their handling of Iraq after the first Gulf War is a textbook illustration of containment in action, a combination of international sanctions, daily Air Force patrols over Iraqi airspace, selective airstrikes as needed, and pressure from international arms-inspection bodies. Why roll the dice on an invasion when you can slowly squeeze an adversary into submission? Specific Democrats and Republicans differed over details, but the general foreign-policy approach stayed the same.

The other thing that happened was that the oppositional, tougher-than-thou tradition that had flourished in conservative journals and think tanks forgot that it was an oppositional ideology. Although many of these armchair-general conservatives initially denounced glasnost and perestroika as Communist "tricks" to lull America into a false sense of security, they eventually recovered and began rewriting their private version of history to claim that neoconservative confrontation, rather than decades of steady, hard-nosed containment, had defeated the Soviets. (Part of this was done by systematically ignoring Ronald Reagan's actual behavior in office and selectively focusing on nuances of his rhetorical positions.) And in the process, they forgot that the policies they recommended were never actually meant to be adopted.

This led to disaster after September 11, when George W. Bush's administration embraced neoconservatives' for-opposition-purposes-only approach as the basis for actual policies. Why slowly squeeze an adversary into submission, at minimal risk to yourself, when you could roll the dice on an invasion. The second Iraq War is an illustration of pure neoconservative dysfunction: a disdain for low-cost containment policies, premature abandonment of other policy tools (for example, pulling out the U.N.'s nuclear arms inspectors), and a reflexive preference for risky military action. The entire war was fought, on one level, in the service of a counter-factual claim. Neoconservatives had spent the previous decade carping that George H. W. Bush "should have" conquered the entirety of Iraq in 1991, and rhapsodizing about how well that would have gone. They got away with it for ten years because their claims were immune from any test in reality. By 2003, they had persuaded themselves so thoroughly that they attempted to prove themselves right in the real world. The results should have discredited neoconservatism for a generation, but the neoconservatives themselves have not been deterred.

Romney has no actual foreign policy background, but his advisers and campaign rhetoric all come straight from the anti-realist tradition. His senior foreign policy adviser is one of the most hopelessly unrealistic members of Bush II's Iraq team, Dan Senor. (Taking advice from Dan Senor is an admission of hopeless idiocy, because even a stopped clock is right more often than Dan Senor.)
This is why Romney talks about things like giving up on a two-state solution for Israel and why Romney is likely to declare tonight that we should refuse Iran's offer to negotiate over their weapons program. The neoconservative tradition sees negotiations as a sign of weakness, or even as treasonous: talking with the nation's enemies! The realist tradition sees negotiations as a tool to achieve our national ends: if you never negotiate with your adversaries, they have no way to give in to your demands. Negotiations aren't the primary foreign-policy tool, but they are the forum in which you reap the gains that the rest of your tools have brought you. You apply pressure to the nation's enemies so that they capitulate at the negotiating table later on. It beats attempting to occupy all of our international opponents by force at the same time.

Romney's anti-realist stance also explains why he sets such disproportionate store by questions of rhetoric, obsessing over whether or not Obama said "act of terror." The whole point of neoconservative foreign policy is to sound tougher than someone else. Using threatening phrases like "act of terror" or "axis of evil" is treated as the most important thing, much more important than actual results. This is also why Republicans (including John McCain, who should know better) have taken to complaining that any of Obama's military actions should be even more forceful,  even carping that Obama should have sent ground troops to Libya. That's neoconservatism in a nutshell: what works is beside the point. You should do the "tougher" thing even though it involves paying a higher price for (at best) the same results. And these are the people Mitt Romney listens to.

Barack Obama has a foreign policy that works. Mitt Romney is going to try to differentiate himself from that workable policy. That's really the whole story.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Affirmative Action for Unqualified Whites

cross-posted from Dagblog

The Supreme Court may forbid any use of race in college admissions in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, being heard today, because the conservative wing really wants to overturn previous rulings and because Justice Kagan has recused herself. If that happens, the winning plaintiff will be a classic poster child for anti-affirmative-action litigation: a white kid who got 1180 on her SATs.

Abigail Fisher is suing because she did not get into the University of Texas. Here's how admission to the University of Texas works: if you're in the top ten percent of your class in any Texas high school, you get into the University of Texas. Abigail Fisher was not in the top ten percent of her high school class, and did not get in. Black people are obviously to blame for this.

Fisher did have another chance to get into UT Austin, because the Top Ten program only fills about 85% of the spots in the entering class. The other 15% get picked through a fairly standard but rigorous admissions process which tries to make sure that Texas doesn't lose exceptional or valuable students through the simplistic Top Ten system. This admissions process gives roughly 75% of the weight to "Academic Achievement," meaning a combination of class rank, standardized test scores, and difficulty of high school curriculum. UT uses these stats to estimate an applicant's likely freshman GPA at Austin. Abigail Fisher scored 1180 out of 1600 on her SATs, which would put her somewhere in the bottom half of admitted students. And while Texas at Austin doesn't consider high school GPA, Fisher's GPA of 3.59 would also probably put her somewhere in the bottom half of UT's entering class. Her combined scores and class rank would project her, as near as I can tell using UT's stats, to be a B- student with something like a 2.9 GPA in her first year, which isn't a disgrace but doesn't make her someone to chase after. This, obviously, is some black person's fault.

Fisher's test scores weren't bad enough to keep her out of Texas if her class rank were stronger, and her class rank wasn't low enough to keep her out if her scores were stronger. But neither was strong enough to pull the other up. And the competition for that last 15% of the class is pretty tight. Which leaves us with only one possible conclusion: black people.

But wait! Isn't there some chance for a bright kid who doesn't, you know, test well? Is it all numbers? No. There was one more chance for Abigail Fisher. UT's process also gives 25% of the weight (in that competition for the last 15% of spots), to "Personal Achievement," meaning all those hard-to-quantify things that might make it worth digging a little deeper into the pool to take that particular student. What does UT look at? The student's application essay. Letters of recommendation. Extracurricular achievements in things like sports or student council or (let's face it) sports. Special talents. Job experience. Volunteering for charity. Stories of personal hardship overcome, such as being an orphan or coming from extreme poverty. And, somewhere down there with tales of personal hardship or family circumstance, but behind volunteer experience and special talent as an oboe player, the University of Texas considers "racial or ethnic background."

Aha! Black people! I knew it!

So to recap: Abigail Fisher couldn't get into the University of Texas on the basis of her high school record. She couldn't get into the University of Texas based on her test scores. And her whole ball of possible bonus qualifications, like musical talent or strong recommendations from her teachers, was not enough to raise her application above her so-so numbers. But because one tiny part of the number of factors that might have given her a better chance than her grades and test scores, but did not, was race, young Abigail Fisher has decided that the reason she did not get into the University of Texas was affirmative action. And today the Supreme Court is hearing her case.

Some people who like talk about "white privilege," as opposed to racism per se, throw that term around too loosely and make it confusing. But we have a classic example right here:

White privilege means that you get to decide why you didn't get into college you wanted. And it means that other people actually take your decision seriously.

When people like Fisher or her lawyers bleat about "reverse racism," they are not defending meritocracy. They are defending mediocrities and failures who cannot accept that they missed the cut. Rather than face their own shortcomings and try harder, these people look around for some scapegoat to blame for their own lack of qualifications. And in our country, scapegoating black people requires no special effort or qualification at all.

Abigail Fisher is suing before the Supreme Court to establish her God-given right as a white person to be the final judge of her own qualifications. She is suing for her right to be exempt from competition, for her entitlement to a big gold star and a pat on the back no matter what she's actually accomplished or how her efforts compare to other people's. She is suing to have her kindergarten sense of self-esteem vindicated by the Supreme Court of the United States, because anything Abigail Fisher does must be accepted as good enough. And anyone who says Abigail Fisher was not good enough at something can only be motivated by racism.

Abigail Fisher is not an unusual plaintiff in cases like this. She is a typical plaintiff: a marginal white applicant who demands the rules be changed after she failed to make the cut. The idea that Abigail Fisher should have worked harder on her application essay, for example, or studied harder for the SATs, is clearly an expression of racial animosity. And the implication that she might go to another University of Texas school, rather than the main flagship, is obviously insulting. But notice how things that would be presumed as disqualifications for a black student aren't disqualifications for Fisher. A black kid who misses a numerical cut-off is a kid who missed the cut-off. An affluent white kid who missed that cut-off needs special consideration. After all, she just missed the top ten percent of her class. And her SATs are almost 1200 out of 1600. This is not meritocracy. This is a defense of ethnic privilege, and white kids' entitlement to be graded on the almost standard. Abigail Fisher has a Personal Achievement. She's white. What's the hold-up?

As someone who's succeeded at some moments and failed at others, I've generally had three explanations for rejections I've received: (a) I didn't try hard enough, (b) someone else was better, and (c) I really should have tried much, much harder, considering that someone else was better. Occasionally I've blamed the luck of the draw. But I've tried not to look for scapegoats, because shifting blame and refusing responsibility would change me from a person who had failed in a specific instance into someone who was a failure. Not getting what you happen to want does not make you a loser. Blaming other people because you did not get the job done does make you a loser.

And if I were to claim that the reason I had not succeeded at a particular thing was because I was white, I would be announcing my intellectual as well as my moral bankruptcy, because that is absurd.

Abigail Fisher is not a bad student, and there is no shame in her 1180 on the SATs or her 3.59 GPA. But those qualifications do not entitle her to a place at whatever college she wants. She is not owed a place at UT Austin, or any other competitive campus. Other people with better qualifications than Fisher were surely turned away as well. But those people have the realism and moral character to accept a setback and move on.

Abigail Fisher stands before the Supreme Court today in the cause of mediocrities, losers, and crybabies. She demands her special right to be deemed the Most Special Snowflake. What the Court stands to lose if Abigail Fisher wins is its integrity.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Why Hate PBS? Because It Works

cross-posted from Dagblog

Let's get one thing out of the way. PBS's educational programming is the most successful distance-learning effort in history. Nothing else comes close. Every conservative should love it. But many of them don't. And when a conservative starts hating on PBS, they're telling you why they're a conservative, and it's not because they hate government programs that don't work. It's because they hate government programs that do work.

Charles Blow's column today is a heartfelt defense of PBS from someone who is a more productive citizen today, one of the "makers" in Romney's heartless Randian formulation, because of it:
We were poor. My mother couldn’t afford day care, and I didn’t go to preschool. My great-uncle took care of me all day. I could watch one hour of television: PBS.
When I was preparing for college and took the ACT, there were harder reading passages toward the back of the test. Many had scientific themes — themes we hadn’t covered at my tiny high school in my rural town. But I could follow the passages’ meanings because I had watched innumerable nature shows on PBS.
I don’t really expect Mitt Romney to understand the value of something like PBS to people, like me, who grew up in poor, rural areas and went to small schools. These are places with no museums or preschools or after-school educational programs. There wasn’t money for travel or to pay tutors.
I honestly don’t know where I would be in the world without PBS.
 If PBS's public funds were cut, it would be the poor rural stations like Blow's that went off the air. PBS is decentralized, and its programs are produced by individual stations in the cities rich enough to fund PBS with viewer contributions. Public TV programs are created by the PBS affiliates in New York and Boston and Philly, using the generosity of their affluent urban donors, and then licensed to stations in poorer, less populous areas, like Mississippi and North Dakota. The federal subsidy keeps the lights on in those poorer stations, on the principle that we're all one country. But if you cut the federal funds, it's the kids who need it most, generally in deep-red voting areas, who will lose it. Poor urban kids in blue-leaning cities will still get Big Bird, giving poor children in urban slums at least one educational advantage over poor kids in farm towns.

PBS is an equalizer. It gives poor kids with fewer resources (in their home or their school district) a fighting chance. It doesn't guarantee success, and it's not nearly enough to turn around our abysmal education rates in poor communities. It's still a mass-delivery distance-learning program, which builds in some basic limitations: no individual attention, no feedback, no reinforcement, no way to recapture kids' attention if it drifts, and no way to motivate the kids. PBS is not a substitute for school. It's a supplement: a golden opportunity for kids motivated enough to take advantage of it. But PBS does give those motivated kids a chance they would never have without it.

Mitt Romney should be wildly enthusiastic about PBS. It provides opportunity for enterprising, industrious kids. It gives them a chance to grow up to become more educated and productive citizens, net contributors to the national treasury like Charles Blow. It doesn't promise equality of outcomes, because no distance-learning project could, but it clearly provides equality of opportunity, giving poor and rural kids access to things that would otherwise be reserved for the affluent and citified. PBS, like that other great American institution, the public library, helps bright and hard-working kids rise to the top despite the major inequalities in education spending from school to school.

So why the critiques of PBS from some (albeit not all) on the right? It could be just antipathy to anything funded by the government, and a preference for the free market to provide a better service. And twenty years ago, Newt Gingrich was saying loudly that PBS was unnecessary because the new educational channels on cable (the Learning Channel, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel), would do PBS's job better than PBS. To this I say three words: Honey Boo Boo. It's painfully obvious now that free market competition between cable TV channels has forced them to compromise or simply abandon any educational mission. Meanwhile, PBS has continued turning out educational programming vastly superior to anything the commercial networks have managed. It's not even a contest.

So one reason that some conservatives might object to PBS is that it's nationally-televised proof that government does some things better than the private sector does. PBS puts together long blocks of top-notch educational programming for kids every day, hours of excellent shows in a row, and commercial television can't (or won't) produce even one half-hour of programming that can match any of those shows. Private-enterprise ideologues don't like PBS because its success shows them up. This is a case where free market competition can't compete.

And I'm afraid there is a slice of the right wing that doesn't like PBS because its not in sympathy with its goals. There are people whose real objection is that someone like Charles Blow, a poor black kid from an impoverished small town, grew up to be a columnist for the New York Times. Their objection isn't just how that happened, but that it happened at all.

Some people who talk about equality of opportunity mean it. For some it's a code phrase, and what they're really interested in is inequality of results. They don't want bright, hard-working kids to overcome disadvantages, because that would weaken the value of their own advantages. They want to widen the gap between the rich and poor, because they believe that the gap favors them. What's the point of paying for a house in the best possible school district, or of paying for special lessons or private schools, if public broadcasting is going to let some guttersnipe somewhere cut into your kid's hard-bought advantages? A few people who make this calculation make it cynically; most rationalize and disguise their motivations even from themselves, but they consistently act on those motivations. Those people object to public broadcasting, and to spending upon public education, because they believe it erodes their private advantages.

Mitt Romney's grandkids will do just fine without Big Bird. In fact, in a world without Big Bird, or a world where Big Bird couldn't reach many of the kids in the flyover states, Romney's grandkids and great-grandkids would do marginally better. They will never want for expensive educational resources or attention. But in a world without PBS, the little Romneys will have a few less bright upstarts from poor families equipped to compete with them. That's only a tiny advantage, but Romney and his people are all about marginal analysis, and they want every fraction of a percentage point that they can get. Every little bit helps, and if you view America as a zero-sum game, where we're in it together but what we're in is a struggle for limited resources, then it's in your interest to deny the poor even the littlest bit. It is not polite to express this opinion widely, because it is morally depraved, but the wealthiest Americans are allowed to act on it, and too many of them do.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Romney Stinks, and It's Not Funny

cross-posted from Dagblog

Here's the thing about Mitt Romney: he's a pretty terrible politician, and he always has been. His presidential campaign has verged on malpractice almost every week, and tonight's debate is not going to turn that around in a significant way.

He might get a bump just from being on stage with the President, which automatically makes a challenger seem more plausible, but that's not going win him this election. The frantic spin coming out his campaign reveals they know this themselves. If he were really planning to turn the whole course of the election around with a few carefully crafted "zingers," then (1) that would be pathetic, and (2) he wouldn't be announcing the "zingers" in advance. (It's like saying, "Look out, Roosevelt! We're launching a surprise attack next Sunday!") At this point the Romney campaign has been reduced to spinning the media to keep them from talking about how badly Romney is losing.

As Romney continues to fail, there's going to be a real temptation to treat Romney's political clumsiness as a big joke. I'll confess I was succumbing to that temptation before the campaign even got underway, referring to Mitt as the "Mormon Mike Dukakis." The all-too-obvious follow-up joke, of course, is that the comparison isn't fair to Dukakis. But that's not a joke. It's true. Mike Dukakis had a double-digit lead over George Bush for part of the 1988 campaign. Romney has never had a real lead.

But Romney's ineptitude isn't funny. He's bad for the country. If he somehow slipped into office, he would actually have to deal with the pretty serious set of problems this country is facing, but lack any of the communication and persuasion skills needed to cope with those difficulties. He can't sell the American people on a difficult plan in times of trouble, and even he knows that (which is why he doesn't try to sell the American people on any plan at all). But the President of the United States needs to be able to build public support for his programs, especially when the country faces hard times, and these are most certainly hard times. The President also needs to get his own party behind him, and it's pretty obvious that Romney can't do that. Four years of our ongoing problems, plus any new ones that emerge, with a maladroit leader and mutinous, fractured majority party adds up to nothing good at all.

But Romney's ineptitude will manage to be bad for America even when he loses, because it will serve as one more excuse for the Republican Party to keep ignoring reality. Our system does not work when one party refuses to cope with the world for an extended period of time, and the very best thing that could happen in our political life is for the Republicans to look around and take an honest accounting of why they lost. That won't happen if they have a cheap scapegoat to blame instead, and Romney is a scapegoat made to order. "We just need a better candidate," will be the Republican mantra for the next four years, allowing them to tell themselves that there's no problem with their policies or their ideas. Worse, they will spend four years telling themselves that their policies and ideas would have won, if they had only had a better salesman, that approximately 103% of the American people are natural Tea Party voters who just haven't been given a chance to pull the lever for the right guy. That means four more years of one major party not dealing with reality. And that means four more years of that party not addressing the country's problems, either. That's bleakly absurd, but it's certainly not funny.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Big Keep (or Intellectual Property Blues: Hard-Boiled Edition)

cross-posted from Dagblog

        Raymond Chandler’s legendary private eye, Philip Marlowe, will be back in bookstores next year. Chandler’s estate has authorized a new Marlowe novel from John Banville, alias Benjamin Black. But the real news is not that Banville gets to write the book. It’s that no one else is allowed to write one.

    The copyright laws during Chandler’s lifetime decreed that his first novel, The Big Sleep, would enter the public domain by 1996. When it did the book’s rueful hero, Marlowe, would become public property as well, just like Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn, or Tarzan. But in 1978, nineteen years after Chandler died, copyright terms were extended to fifty years beyond the creator’s lifetime, keeping Marlowe corporate property until 2010. In 1999 another copyright extension lengthened terms to 75 years after the author’s death, so Marlowe will belong to someone else until at least 2035. If today’s laws had applied to Sherlock Holmes, he would not have become public domain in the United States until 2006. Tarzan would not be public domain until fourteen years from now.

    The new Philip Marlowe mystery takes advantage of the extra quarter-century during which Chandler’s heirs will enjoy artistic control and exclusive rights to profit. I don’t grudge Chandler’s grandchildren a few royalty payments, but he has no grandchildren. Raymond Chandler, like so many of his characters, died lonely. His estate went to his agent after a fight in probate court with Chandler’s secretary. Philip Marlowe is Chandler’s only child. Banville and his publisher will have to pay a cut of the new book’s profits to the Chandler estate, but that money won’t go to anyone Raymond Chandler ever met.

    In practice, the publisher is paying the estate to keep other writers from using the character. Banville will definitely write the best Philip Marlowe novel next year, because he’ll have no competition. Banville is a very reasonable choice for the commission, who will turn in painstakingly crafted work, and I wish him success. But we will never know if he was the best choice. He’s surely felt Chandler’s influence, but so has nearly every mystery writer, and his understanding of Chandler isn’t necessarily truer or more authentic than anyone else’s. A lesser writer than Banville might make a better Chandler.

    There’s no way to predict which writer would use Marlowe best. The results can only be judged once they’re on the page. And the Chandler estate is no more likely to pick the best literary successor than anyone else is. Fifty-three years on, his heirs have no exclusive insight into what made Chandler’s writing sing. They’ve never met him. Out among the many readers Chandler has influenced there may be a writer or writers whose intuitive feel for Chandler’s prose and Marlowe’s character could lead to a better novel than anyone has a right to expect. The best way to find such people, if they exist, is to let them pick themselves. If we ever read another great Philip Marlowe novel, it’s more likely to be a personal labor of love than a commission.

    Two of the reasons given for repeatedly lengthening copyright terms is that private ownership maximizes a work’s economic value and protects its artistic integrity. But it’s not clear that one authorized imitation of Chandler, shielded from competition, creates more value than would a marketplace where several “Chandlers” worked to outdo their competitors. Protection from the market does not always spur creativity. Nor would Sherlock Holmes have been better used if Conan Doyle’s estate had kept veto power into the 21st century.  But Chandler’s books have drifted into that period of limbo when an art work’s proprietors have lost any connection with its original creation but the work is still kept out of most living artists’ hands. Our current laws focus on prolonging that limbo, placing writers’ distant heirs ahead of their creative legacies.

    Fifty years after a writer’s death, the free market can make a better protector of their art than inheritance law. Anyone who reads detective novels knows what trouble inheritances can be. The best hope for a great Philip Marlowe novel is a lot of Philip Marlowe novels, by many hands, until trial, error, dedication, and talent can make him live again. We should let Marlowe back out on the streets. He was always too independent to work for a big firm. And Sherlock Holmes is waiting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Do PhDs Expire?

cross-posted from Dagblog

Last week the annual job list for college literature professors went live, in an annual ritual I've blogged about before. And it looks like the worst list for Shakespeareans in history.

Two years ago, I used this space to explain how the 2008 crash had killed the already far-too-small job market for new PhDs, and how poor the rebound was two years later:
When the financial crisis hit in 2008 ... [w]hat had been about five dozen jobs teaching Shakespeare or Milton became four dozen, or less, although there were still the same hundred and fifty or two hundred or two hundred and seventy-five people trying to get them.

[In 2009] there weren't even four dozen jobs advertised in the fall. There were still 200 smart young Shakespeareans, Miltonists and Tamburlaine experts out there looking for work. In fact, there were more, because the forty or so who'd gotten jobs the previous year had been replaced by two or three times that many new PhDs.
 And in 2010 there were only about two dozen entry-level jobs for my younger Renaissance colleagues. Four years on from the crash, it's worse than ever: the initial job list has only 13 entry-level tenure-track jobs teaching Renaissance lit in North America. There were 19 jobs; three are outside the country; three are senior positions for people who are already well-established (as in "full professor at the University of Chicago" established). That leaves thirteen for new PhDs who want to stay in the profession and have a middle-class salary. Thirteen. Some more jobs will trickle in over the next few weeks, and there will be a smaller round of listings in the spring (if the listing can, indeed, get any smaller), but thirteen jobs for a year's crop of Renaissance lit PhDs is a famine. And it isn't just one year's crop of PhDs, but all of the accumulated jobless graduates from the past few years.

As if all this wasn't grim enough (and some other subfields are having better luck than Renaissance is, but not much), this year two universities that are hiring decided to declare that people who hadn't gotten tenure-track jobs during the crunch years were now persona non grata.

Colorado State advertised for a job teaching pre-1900 American literature, but specified that applicants had to have gotten their doctorates in 2010 or later. Their explanation was that it was an entry-level job with an entry-level salary, and they were trying to screen out people who'd already been on the tenure-track for several years. That part is fair enough. But their language obviously ruled out people who hadn't gotten a tenure-track job, and who'd been toiling away as adjuncts or lecturers since, you know, the whole economy cratered. An uproar ensued (see great posts from SEK, Historiann, Dr. Crazy, and what the heck, more SEK) and Colorado State changed the wording of the ad. It further turned out that Harvard's Comparative Lit department had published a job ad asking for PhDs from 2009 and later, and they too changed that wording. But the cynic in me doubts that someone who's been teaching college off the tenure track for more than a year or two will end up with the Colorado State job. (That someone who's been teaching off the tenure track for more than three years would land the Harvard job is out of the question.)

The ugly question, "Does a PhD expire?" has two answers: one for search committees, and one for job applicants. To search committees, I say: it is obtuse and inhumane to screen out job candidates because they've been underemployed in an irrationally savage employment market.  We all know that there are talented and deserving people without steady jobs, because there are many more talented and deserving people than there are steady jobs, so don't turn away qualified applicants for no damned reason. Just read their CVs. Yes, you have hundreds of CVs to read. Screening out the adjuncts and lecturers won't shrink your pile in a meaningful way. It will only shrink your heart, and blind you to potential hires who could help your department enormously.

But for the talented and deserving people working away out there, trying to find a job with a future in our profession, I have hard news.

PhDs do expire. Absolutely. But you have to let them.

I have two graduate degrees, in two related but distinct fields. One of my degrees has expired. I could not get a job, nor apply for a job with a straight face, on the basis of that degree. It is, at best, an interesting thing on my CV, but only to someone who is already interested in me because of my other degree, which I have not allowed to expire. One of my degrees has value as a job credential and the other has not, because I have maintained the professional value of one and not the other.

My first graduate degree is expired because I have not published in that field for years. It had expired by the time I got the second degree. (All my publications in the first field are from the years I was studying for that degree. My last publication is from the year I graduated and switched fields. It couldn't be more legible on my CV.) I no longer practice that discipline. I don't teach it, although I have taken over a beginner's class when the scheduled teacher fell through. But I would not teach an advanced course, let alone a graduate course, or direct even an MA thesis. I don't do that anymore. My qualifications have lapsed. On the other hand, I am working in the field where I got my second terminal degree, and that degree has kept its value as a job qualification because I continue adding value to it.

What about those tenured people who haven't published in years? Why haven't their PhDs expired? The answer is that they have. None of those people could get another job in the field. They can hold onto the jobs they have, but they can't even apply for others. Is it unfair that they hold onto those jobs? Sure. (Although sometimes not; I think that there are sixty-somethings who no longer have the fire in the belly for new research projects but who are nonetheless entitled to a professional autumn as teachers.) But the question isn't what's fair. It's what's best for you. And if you do not yet have a job, you need to keep your doctorate up-to-date by continuing to do work in the field.

In the humanities that means writing and publishing, no matter how heavy your non-tenure-track teaching load is. If you got your degree in 2008 and don't have a peer-reviewed publication since then, search committees won't give you a pass because you've been teaching so much comp. They have plenty of applicants who have been publishing more recently than you have, including applicants who were teaching the same brutal loads that you have. If you haven't published since you got the degree, departments will view that degree as nothing more than a technical qualification. It will no longer be a sign of your actual qualifications, no longer a reliable predictor of success. Not publishing suggests to search committees that you won't publish, and they are not crazy to think that. This isn't a job market where you can get credit for qualifications that are not in evidence. A degree that hasn't been followed up by published research will be construed as a sign that you're finished as a researcher. If that's an unfair assumption, it's also the only assumption that hiring committees can feel confident in making.

Getting your degree is an achievement you can be proud of. But more importantly, it is an indicator of your potential for future achievements as a scholar. And you need to keep demonstrating that potential by achieving more things. Your degree has as much value on the academic market as you give it. Use it or lose it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Romney Meltdown

cross-posted from Dagblog

I was writing a post earlier this week, arguing that Romney was increasingly likely to panic as the election approached, trying to find a "game changer" to help him catch up with Obama, and that these gambles would put him further and further behind. But I held off, because I didn't want to post that kind of political horserace stuff on September 11. Then, before midnight on September 11, Romney had done it.

The truth is, the terrible murder of our ambassador in Libya did present Romney a political opportunity. He just did not understand what that opportunity was. The crisis in Libya was Romney's chance to seem calm, reliable and trustworthy, not to mention patriotic. If he had issued a statement unequivocally supporting the President and standing with him in this moment of crisis, he would have done himself a world of good. First of all, he would have elevated himself to Obama's level, an absolutely crucial thing that Romney apparently does not understand that he needs to do. And Romney would have gotten closer to closing the gaps he needs to close (the national-security gap, the credibility gap, the trustworthiness gap) to let swing voters feel safe enough to switch their votes from Obama.

That Romney, and worse still his campaign staff, did not grasp this just shows how little they understand the challenge, and the opponent, that they are facing.

The Romney camp clearly believe that they can beat Obama because he hasn't delivered on the "hope and change" of 2008. The media are also obsessed with how Obama is "failing" to deliver the outsider-challenger magic from four years ago, as if any incumbent could run on a message of "change." The media and the Romney camp see Obama as a messiah figure who hasn't pulled off the miracle, and think that he can be beaten because he hasn't delivered on the hope thing.

But Mister Hope has never been Barack Obama's only political persona. There's always been another core element to his appeal, which the media has never been interested in, and which I've previously argued is actually the central feature of his campaign personality. Barack Obama projects reliability. He's sober. He's responsible. He communicates his own personal calm to others, calming them. He is No Drama Obama. These traits don't seem sexy to the media, who are mainly interested him as a big-speech orator. They like their candidates dramatic. But No Drama is a big part of what got him elected in 2008, and it's the heart of his appeal to voters now.

Obama got elected in 2008 in the midst of a major crisis. His steadiness during that crisis is what qualified him to be commander-in-chief. No matter how bad things get, Obama does not panic. Never discount the effect that has on swing voters. With Obama in the Oval Office, you know that someone's in charge, and you know you can trust him to keep it together. That is clearly what Obama is running on. His convention speech, which pundits sniffed at as "workmanlike" was in fact geared to making his core No Drama case: I'm the President, you can rely on me, "you hired me to tell you the truth," things aren't where they should be but I'm going to level with you about it. That's an enormously powerful appeal in a country where most voters are still feeling a lot of insecurity.

Romney has never understood the bar he has to clear to win this election. He could not just wait for people to flock to him when Obama the Miracle Worker failed to make manna fall in the desert. I'm not fully convinced that Obama was really campaigning as the Miracle Worker in 2008, but he's definitely not campaigning that way now. He's running as President No-Drama: Barack Steady. Romney needs to talk nervous voters into switching from a reliable and trustworthy incumbent during anxiety-provoking times. To do that, Romney needs to position himself as equally reliable and trustworthy. Then, and only then, he can make a case (based on policy details), that he's a better alternative, with (for example) a better economic program. He hasn't done either of those things, because he doesn't realize he needs to.

A foreign-policy crisis, or any unexpected crisis, is dangerous for Romney because crises highlight Obama's No-Drama credentials, his steadiness. A crisis could also be a golden opportunity for Romney to establish himself as a safe, and therefore viable, alternative to Obama. Of course, having blown his response to this crisis so swiftly and thoroughly, Romney may have no way to recover. But what I expect to happen for the next seven weeks is for Romney to lurch and flail, flail and lurch, trying to make up lost ground. That news-cycle-driven hyperactivity, tactically defensible in a calmer election year, is simply self-destructive in an election dominated by the voters' anxieties, especially when you're running against a steady and reliable incumbent. That is Barack Obama's main promise to voters in 2012: that he's steady as a rock. And Mitt Romney is going to dash himself against him.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Student Loans: Dems vs. GOP Made Easy

cross-posted from Dagblog

One thing that Barack Obama has done absolutely right for education is change the student loan program. Romney and Ryan have made it clear that if elected they will switch things back to the old way. This small policy difference demonstrates the larger difference between today's Democrats and Republicans.

Under the old system, college students took government-backed loans from private banks. When they graduated, they paid back the loan, with interest, to the bank. If they defaulted, the government, and you as a taxpayer, ate the loss and paid back the bank. This means 1) the bankers made all the profits and 2) the taxpayers took all the losses. It was obvious even to me, as an eighteen-year-old kid starting college back in the day, that this is a straight government handout to the bankers. It was like the bank bailout except it happened every day with smaller transactions.

When Obama got into office, this system was replaced with something resembling common sense. Now you take out student loans directly from the government if the government is backing them. This is only reasonable since the government is actually putting up the money. The people who risked their money on the loan (in this case the taxpayer) also get the interest. Last time I checked this was called "capitalism." Risk your capital, collect the return. (There are also still private student loans of course, issued directly from the banks and not backed by the government. That's as it should be; it's the bank's money at risk.) And once you cut out the middleman whose only job was to collect interest on someone else's money, the whole program became less of a budget hole. The new common-sense system, brings in interest from student loans, rather than simply losing money when they go bad. The old system was set up so it could only lose money. I think we call that a "subsidy."

To Romney and Ryan, of course, cutting out the middleman is unacceptable. If elected, they will make sure that bankers get to charge interest on someone else's money again. It's that simple.

Romney and Ryan say that the old, broken system was better because it involved "free enterprise." "Free enterprise" here means "bankers taking a fat cut of a government program for no special reason." The bankers have no skin in the game. All they do is make the system more expensive and inefficient. It's welfare for the wealthy. On the other hand, Republicans call Obama's direct government loan program, where you pay the people who actually lent you the money, "socialism." "Socialism" here means "not giving taxpayer money to bankers for free." We've gotten to the point where the Republicans even call sensible capitalism "socialism."

There are other questions about student-loan policies that are important, and student loans have become a touchy issue as students as public higher education has its funding stripped away and the difference is loaded onto the students' backs. But this difference between Romney and Obama is their whole approach to the economy in a nutshell. For the Republicans, government's role is to provide fat handouts to the rich, who feel naturally entitled to them. Then the recipients of those handouts can shout loudly about how they, the private businesspeople, create all the wealth themselves so why won't the government get off their backs? What they really mean is: "Hey, taxpayer, bend over so we can climb on your back."

Some things aren't complicated.