Friday, September 5, 2008

Somebody made an oopsie!

From TGPW:

"Honestly, I've never paid that much attention to Michelle Obama. Just
what little I've seen of her and Senator Obama, is that they're a
member of an elitist class... that thinks that they're uppity."

-- Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), quoted by CQ Politics.


Ok so this guy isn't a prominent Republican, but he's trying out a few attacks.
We've got the mention of elitism, which is apparently standard and doesn't seem to be that effective against Obama. We've got the dismissal of Mrs. Obama, which is also standard and doesn't seem that effective either.

And then we've got that one word: uppity.

All right then. I don't pretend to know what's going on inside Rep. Wesmoreland's mind, but when confronted with a mental picture of a black woman he would like to see politically defeated, he reaches for the word 'uppity.'

There are two groups of people the word 'uppity' applies to:
  1. African-Americans who don't "know their place"
  2. Women who don't "know their place"
This is what I'd call a political 'oopsie'. It probably won't get wide coverage, but let's be honest - it's not a very common word except in the above contexts. I don't want to argue about whether it's racist or sexist or not. I don't want to argue about whether those features are endemic to Republicans or not (for what it's worth, a large amount of liberal criticism of Palin is transparently sexist: I've heard her called a 'traitor' to her female-ness because she's pro-life). I would hope that Rep. Westmoreland sees he spoke loosely.

[Someday I will give a formal definition of the 'oopsie,' which I plan to make a political neologism just like 'truthiness]

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Because I haven't been able to post anything substantial on the VPs

The following humorous anagrams are taken from The Volokh Conspiracy:

Who's the real secret Muslim in the race?


Who's most desperate to win?


As for Palin, who is more of a 'surprise' than Biden was, her rollout isn't working exactly as her party hoped. Sure she's got the Republicans excited, but when anybody unknown comes suddenly into the public eye there's a huge info-dump. Unfortunately, Palin's info-dump has made the McCain campaign seem...tabloid-friendly.

So all right, McCain picks someone his base loves, and it probably picks him up a couple points among women. But then it also kinda makes his campaign NOT seem like the 'safe' thing anymore. I have no idea whatsoever if this will benefit McCain in the long run.

Polls on RCP show a post-convention, pre-Palin Obama leading in Ohio and Florida. If he wins either, the race is effectively over. There's still room for McCain, but head-to-heads put Obama between 49-51% support. While the Republican convention will probably give McCain some support, will it really drain support from Obama? If he's winning more than half of voters it means that McCain would have to rely on turnout to win the election. The way I see it, the Democrats are the ones with the new turnout advantage in this election.

And let's not forget Barr and Nader. Nader polls at 1-4%. That's bullshit. There's no way that a guy who got .4% last time he ran will do twice to ten times as well in this election, where the nominee is more exciting to vote for than Gore or Kerry was. Barr gets 1-5%, and I think he'll get about 1-2%, basically getting .5% in the coastal areas outside the South and maybe up to 5% in the Midwest. I have no idea how Nader polls so high, but it is literally impossible for him to do as well as he's polling. More people might vote for nearly-crazy-"I'm so entitled I can hit police officers and disregard regulations" Cynthia McKinney, who's the real Green Party nominee this year.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


[ed: Pictures are sort of working now, this is a re-post.]
This is the school building where I've been teaching a group of 8th Graders in Math and English. It's located in Khayelitsha, South Africa. The kids who attend are all native speakers of Xhosa.

I'm working with SHAWCO, through the University of Cape Town. It's a student-run organization for volunteering.

These are a few of the students. You guys will recognize yourselves - leave a comment.

Monday, August 25, 2008

This is hilarious: fun with senate candidates!

Christine O'Donnell

Do you know who this is? This is the woman who was running as the Republican candidate for Joe Biden's senate seat. Her name is Christine O'Donnell. She was going to lose so badly that no one even bothered to do a poll for the race.

Now Biden is VP and the Democrats must find someone who can run in his place to maintain the seat. While it's not likely, there's the off chance that this new person will collapse under the weight of gaffes or scandals or some other unforeseen consequence.

While it's likely that O'Donnell's senate career will end before it has begun, it would be a hilarious bit of political drama worthy of the attempted spin-off of the West Wing if O'Donnell managed to make her way to the senate. At least if she doesn't appear to be a politician, she's not as unsettling as:

Bob Kelleher
Bob Kelleher, Republican candidate for Montana, who loves his kerchief.

Bob Tingle
This man's name is Bob Tingle. Tingle. Would you, as a voter, let him tingle you?[Republican challenger for Rhode Island]

Scott Kleeb
Scott Kleeb, Democratic challenger for Nebraska. Since when did they start casting former stars of Dawson's Creek for unwinnable seats?

Tom Udall
Tom Udall, Democratic challenger and likely winner of New Mexico's open seat, a Nicholas Cage look-alike who thinks that the best photos are always taken in front of pseudo-picturesque mountainscapes.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Black is white, up is down, Francis Fukuyama...isn't a Neocon?

What is going on in this world? An OG of Neocon theory (possibly partnered with Samuel Huntington for this title) and author of a book titled "The End of History and the Last Man," a very 1990s democracy/triumphalism/USA-as-world-police idea, has written, in the Wall Street Journal:

"Iraq may be stable but the war was a mistake"

Fukuyama seems to be good with provocative titles, but his op-ed is nuanced. Here's the money quote, coming from such a respectable voice supposedly in the community of war-supporters:

By invading Iraq in the manner it did, the U.S.
exacerbated all of the threats it faced prior to 2003. Recruitment into
terrorist cells shot up all over the world. North Korea and Iran
accelerated their development of nuclear weapons.
Indeed, Iran has emerged as the dominant regional power in the Persian Gulf once the U.S. removed its major rival from the scene...

Ouch! Those fight-em-over-there-so-we-don't-have-to-fight-em-over-here war supporters must be hurting.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Creepiest drawing of Obama ever...

Apparently it's a big worry in Arabic-language media that the US is run/controlled by Jews. No matter what you think of that idea, it cannot excuse the terrifying thing you see above you, where a disoriented and seemingly underaged Obama emerges from the marsupial-like space in the back of Israel's ill-fitting jeans.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

If McCain has to fight everywhere, he will lose

The advantage in the coming election is with Obama. If it comes down to undecided voters who don't know who to pick three days before the election, Obama will win. This is a time when Americans seem to want an opportunity to reject Bush's legacy, and in a pinch McCain is too similar. That doesn't mean McCain can't win, but it makes things hard.

In the past, Republicans and Democrats have been able to rely on certain "safe" states - Northeast and California for Dems, the South and West for the GOP. When the other party can break these blocs, they win the election.

But this election is slightly different. The same trends are evident - Louisiana won't go for Obama any more than New York will vote McCain. But a few of the more marginal Republican states are being pried away from McCain.

All in all, the only tossup territory McCain's actually secured is Florida. I thought it might be up for grabs, but now I predict it will go for McCain, narrowly but solidly. McCain also puts up a great fight in Indiana, Missouri and Ohio, and possibly in New Jersey. But besides New Jersey, all these states have been Republican once or twice in the last two elections. Bush won Indiana (11 electoral votes) by 15 points and 20 points. Now Obama is even or ahead there. However, these states could still go for McCain if he made a powerful push there and really succeeded. If this happened, he could win.

But another factor will prevent him from being able to make that push. Solidly Republican states from all over the map are being seduced by Obama. Polls have shown the following Republican states within striking distance for Obama: Alaska, Montana, Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Georgia, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico. Honestly, that's a lot of states to hold onto while still making a big push in Ohio.

I personally think McCain doesn't have the power to recover all of these states and also take the few he could steal from Obama. He's got limited time and money, plus everything he says to make Ohio happy could piss off voters in Nevada.

What will happen? The current RCP map shows Obama probably taking Colorado. I think he'll also pick up Virginia and New Mexico. McCain will retain the Carolinas and Georgia, but he'll have to spend a load of time and money to secure them - money that won't be used to help out in Ohio and Indiana. Nevada, the Dakotas and Montana will also likely stay with McCain.

The problem isn't whether McCain will lose those states, it's whether he can afford -in time, money and political capital - to keep them and pick up the swings. For McCain, things look grim.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mugabe wins, or "Why the Big Dogs didn't act"

He wins with 85% of the vote. About a quarter million people voted against him, and there's a good chance these brave souls will be tracked down and maybe killed.

The election happened, and Mugabe bullied people into voting to raise turnout, then forced them to vote for him by basically removing the secrecy from the secret ballot. I continue to support Tsvangirai's last-minute move to pull out of the election, but I feel an opportunity was missed here. The three nations that could have had an effect were China, the US and South Africa. I will explain why none of these acted in a way that made a substantial difference.

China: most people don't know the depth of China's involvement in African politics. While the US is trying to recruit friends in the Muslim world and Latin America, and Russia is slowly reasserting itself over Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the third great power is doing a much better job of making friends. China has buddied up to Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe and countless others. It's a business deal of sorts whereby China 'buys' geopolitical goodwill in exchange for either weapons or clout or cheap goods or other assorted items.
China runs its African associations not like a nation-state but like a business. If you buy, China will be much less likely to allow machinations against you go forward. It is amoral, which from time to time causes China to engage in a bit of immoral dealing. If, bowing to Western pressure, China cut Zimbabwe out of the loop, China would undo the two reasons it supplies Africa:
  • By buckling to 'whiny liberal capitalist imperialists' China would be embarrassed geopolitically, since China had supported Mugabe less than a month ago
  • By making an exception from the apolitical trade every single African country that does major business with China would feel pressure to conform to China's will. If China has to assert its will on any one country, the others will change attitude. They will no longer buy happily and support China happily but will be more like the US - buying because it makes sense and then complaining about it.
The USA: There are two schools of thought on this one: the cynical and the pragmatic. Cynics say that because Zimbabwe is poor or black or African or not in control of any important resources [read:oil] that the US won't have anything to do with it. Some have argued that the US didn't feel pressured to act because there was another competent, liberal democracy in the area to blame: South Africa.
I see more pressing reasons in the pragmatic argument. Even if the US had simply committed itself to supervising the elections itself, it would require troops. Zimbabwe isn't large, but let's not kid ourselves - the US can't spare any troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the US doesn't do much trade with Zimbabwe, so even sanctions wouldn't be that effective. Add to this President Bush's 25% approval rating and a general American exhaustion with new adventures overseas and any concerted action becomes increasingly unlikely.
Those who aruge that a tiny action by the US could 'fix' Zimbabwe are mistaken, and sound surprisingly like those who argued Iraqis would welcome the US with open arms and immediately become a stable democracy. These two groups are generally from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but they both seem to think intervention on their certain terms is easy. It's not. It requires more than just a removal of Mugabe (though he helps it all hang together). He's built a political machine that could either be dismantled, like de-Baathification in Iraq, or turned into a legitimate political party, the way the South African National Party, purveyors of apartheid, turned into the semi-respectable opposition party. In addition to political groups, many militias are loyal to Mugabe. Even if he died and his successor swore off violence, someone from his entourage would proclaim violent revolution and pick up a number of the militias.
The entire enterprise of Zimbabwe would have been a massive job for the US, and there was no political will, logistical understanding or military capacity to take it on in 2008.

South Africa: There are, I think, three reasons Zimbabwe didn't act: solidarity, Mbeki and history.
Solidarity: Mugabe was the guy who kicked the white minority government out, and until about 2000 he was the 'good dictator' of Africa. He plays up his role as Father of the Nation, and South Africa buys it to an extent. And why not? Half the Founders of the USA were slaveowners and another large chunk were abolitionist quakers. What Founders do isn't automatically moral. Unfortunately, by buying Mugabe's Founder status, and by valuing his African-ness over his dictator-ness, South Africa makes the mistake of exchanging foreign oppressors for local ones. It's misguided, but not at all uncommon. The UK and Australia stick by US policy in the War on Terror, even as the majority of their populations dispprove of it. Latin American countries decry US interference as the making of new Banana Republics. It's not only Africa that practices bad solidarity.
Thabo Mbeki: The President of South Africa has decided on quiet, closed-doors diplomacy for his entire career. It seems to have served him well except in the case of Zimbabwe. Mbeki's personality is not confrontational, and his style is not the kind that would intimidate Mugabe. Plus, Mbeki has taken a very hand-off approach to the economy during his presidency, so that he doesn't alienate the whites. The result of this is that any embargo against Zimbabwe would require a huge policy shift. Again, I understand why Mbeki acts as he does, I simply disagree with it.
History: This reasoning may be unfamiliar to Americans, but southern Africans know it well. During white rule in South Africa, the government carried out military operations against each of its neighbors and politically manipulated both the minor white governments and then the black governments that followed them. The number of operations and actions is staggering, especially since a great number weren't even announced. The Apartheid government played its neighbors, without a great regard for national soveriegnty. When apartheid ended, the new government rejected the previous ways of doing things. The white government had rigidly controlled the economy to keep the races separate, so the new government left the economy alone. The old government didn't address the greivances of apartheid, so the new one did. The old government invaded, bullied and sanctioned ruthlessly. I think that a rejection of apartheid-era foreign policy plays a large role in South Africa's inaction. Unfortunately, in trying to be respectful, it has been over-respectful of Mugabe, who does not deserve it.

'Fixing' Zimbabwe all the way would have been a massive job, possibly too much for this time and place. But maybe the first step was allowing a fair election, which I feel could have been done much more easily than a full-scale program. A fair election would have unseated Mugabe and put Morgan Tsvangirai in his place, and also ousted his political party.

As I think I won't be writing on Zimbabwe for a while, here's an index of every post on the elections:
Mugabe will win
Mugabe didn't win
Mugabe admits he didn't win
Mugabe arrests the winner
Mugabe refuses to lose
Mugabe equates voting against him with treason
Mugabe's opponent is bullied out of the race
Why I care about Zimbabwe

Thursday, June 26, 2008

DC v Heller, first thoughts

First, the decision was broadly correct: ownership of arms is an individual right, and it was meant to be one. This means that McCain was on the correct side of this decision (helping him come back from his over-the-top and incorrect opinion of previous cases). Obama was on the wrong side of this; his statement that DC's ban was constitutional is flat-out wrong. I guess this puts the candidates at 1-1 with regards to the Supreme Court.

But I do have a criticism of one small part of the opinion. The majority, written by Scalia, states: "The prefatory clause does not suggest that
preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient
right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense
and hunting."

I'm not convinced of this at all; the founders probably would have seen little difference between militia use and self-defense use, since the guns of their day were slow to load and impossible to reload in a critical situation. The idea of a person carrying a gun on their person to prevent robbery would have been foreign. This doesn't mean it's not protected, I just object to the statement that the Founders would have felt hunting uses more important than militia uses after winning a war for freedom that depended largely on popular militias to win. The Second Amendment was put in place because the Founders felt only an armed population could resist illegitimate governmental tyranny, and that government had to be prohibited from being able to deprive people of the means to resist it by voting, protesting, speaking and writing, meeting with likeminded people, and by force of arms if totally required. A huge bundle of the rights in the Bill of Rights are directed to maintaining the freedom won in the American Revolution by preventing the government from curtailing the means by which people could undo tyranny.

When the Constitution was written, I think the most important meaning was for militias. This in no way means militias only. It simply means that I find it ridiculous that of all the concerns on the Founders' minds, they found time to make sure people would be able to hunt in the future and protected it in a specific right.

Let's not make this decision into a partisan shouting festival. Let's not overreact. There's a lot of moderation and good-sense arguments in the decision, and most Americans broadly agree with it. For the second time in a short while, I have to applaud the Supreme Court for issuing a correct decision to complement Boumediene. In that case, the liberal bloc issued a correct decision. In this one the conservative bloc did. But in both cases, the Court curtailed government overreaching and micromanagement.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why do I care about Zimbabwe?

In an article titled "Who's Africa's Worst Dictator," Slate correspondent Peter Maass argues that Robert Mugabe is not the worst dictator in Africa. That honor belongs to Teodoro Obiang, who has been more ruthless than Mugabe both in crushing opposition and in oppressing the general public of his country of Equatorial Guinea. In fact, reading the article, I agree: Obiang is a master of dictatorship while Mugabe is simply adept at it. Maass compares Obiang's work to the mess that is North Korea, truly the most oppressive place on earth, without exagerating his original case.

If that's so, why do I keep on posting about Zimbabwe and only toss off references to North Korea and don't even mention Obiang? Because, in a world of limited time and political capital, I believe we should do the most good when the situation permits. Obiang's situation still finds him strong. Maass basically sums up my case:
"Obiang's enforcers don't need to club people on the streets. His
would-be opponents are too frightened to openly demonstrate against
him. His is the Switzerland of dictatorships—so effective at enforcing
obedience that the spectacle of unrest is invisible."
That's the difference: situations on the ground permit the democratization of Zimbabwe in the near term. I was surprised at the results of the elections there earlier this year, where Mugabe's ZANU-PF party lost control of the legislature to Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC. The earlier elections weren't free, weren't fair, but still had high turnout and somehow managed to displace the ruling party from at least one branch of government. What's even more amazing is that the legislative results will stand: the MDC will still be in power when Mugabe wins the Presidency on the 27th.

The people of Zimbabwe want democracy, as evidenced by their high turnout (something that was bad for Mugabe, and was not encouraged by him) and their actual legitimate exercise of the right to vote as they pleased. Mugabe controls the executive, the courts, the army and various local militias, but he's lost the legislature. The people of Zimbabwe are practicing democracy, as well as they can under the circumstances.

The most important reason why I write again and again about Zimbabwe and not, for example, Chad or Sudan, where dictators oppress and kill more people more cruelly is that Zimbabwe has a real alternative. The MDC is a legitimate, built-up political party. If allowed to govern, it would be able to do so (though it might not do very well, that remains to be seen). In many countries run by dictators, the opposition is either ethnic, religious or military. If that was the case in Zimbabwe, I wouldn't be talking about it. The MDC is a political group with national reach and appeal. It has regional and ethnic components, to be sure, but so do the Republican and Democratic parties in the US. So while I dislike Chad's dictator Idriss Deby, I don't talk about Chad because there isn't a ready democratic opposition to his rule.

Another country I do not address is Burma, where the military keeps democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi virtually imprisoned for decades. While she is a powerful force for democracy, I'm not entirely convinced her party would be able to exist without her. I may be wrong on this point, but I see Aung San Suu Kyi as the glue of her entire democratic movement, while Morgan Tsvangirai is simply the head of a political party that matured from a democratic movement.

Because I see the opportunity for real and lasting change in Zimbabwe, I write about it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It's officially over in Zimbabwe: Mugabe wins.

Morgan Tsvangirai has pulled out of the run off election. Only the current Dictator Robert Mugabe is left, and he will win the vote, which is still scheduled for this Friday, June 27th.

There are now two major schools of thought: that Tsvangirai should have stayed in, even though his supporters had basically been intimidated into submission, and that he was right to pull out.

I personally sympathize with those who wanted Tsvangirai to become a symbol for Zimbabwean democracy, but I think it wasn't the time and place to stand up and lose an unfair election. Mugabe would have won anyway, and with Tsvangirai no longer in the race his supporters don't have to disclose themselves by voting. Since Mugabe would have won, he might well have tracked down large clusters of MDC supporters and killed or tortured them.

There will be another set of elections in six years, and Tsvangirai will still be alive; since he didn't make non-electoral trouble for Mugabe this time, Mugabe won't have him killed. Zimbabwe can't stand to be that much of a pariah, and the country would take a massive popularity hit if Tsvangirai died.

The best reasonable course of action I can see is that if Mugabe dies before the next elections, his successor might not have the organizational capacity, popularity, power or desire to supress Tsvangirai and his party. In this case, a democratic or nearly democratic election could take place that would allow the people of Zimbabwe to finally be free.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The most important poll, part II

Until today, the electoral map I had been using for the Presidential election was very nearly the one we saw in 2000, except that Obama was making inroads with Virginian and Carolinian voters while picking up a few northwest or Midwest states. However, McCain was solidly in control of three big southern states: Georgia, Texas and Florida.

Now something has changed. McCain still has solid (read: insurmountable) leads in Texas and the rest of the "confederate" South. However, a new poll has Obama leading by four points in Florida. This is the first poll in nearly a month in this state, and the first since Clinton's candidacy was truly put to rest. Florida has 27 electoral votes, the fourth-largest total after California, Texas and New York.

Now what does this mean? There's been a lot of pundit-driven speculation that elderly Florida Jews won't vote for someone named 'Hussein'. But this group does not necessarily decide each Florida election. Obama has been strong recently in supporting Israel, and McCain continues to not convince people his foreign policy is different from Bush's. Maybe this contributes to the swing, or maybe other factors are responsible. It's also possible that this poll could be in error. Four points isn't massive, and with a three-point margin of error, it's possible that Obama's lead is really nothing of the kind. Yet the most recent previous poll (conducted by the same service with the same methods) showed McCain leading by four. This is an eight point swing which cannot be dismissed as an error.

The poll before that, conducted by the reputable Rasmussen service, had McCain up by ten. That's a fourteen-point swing towards Obama since May 19th. What used to be a safe state for McCain now becomes a heated contest for both candidates.

But unlike previous days, it's not all good news for the Obama campaign. A new Minnesota poll shows Obama winning by only one point. Previous polls had Obama up by thirteen and fifteen points. The most recent previous poll had Obama up by thirteen just two days before this newest poll started. This appears to be a twelve-point shift to McCain in just five days. A solid Obama state is now totally up for grabs. I personally think this new poll is an abberation - McCain's probably not that close. But it does notify McCain that the state can be won, and scares Obama into thinking the state can be lost.

Still, things appear in Obama's favor right now, as most poll movement is going his way. I'm not obessing about tiny deviations in polls but rather comparing old and new polls so that the swing becomes significant. For example, the reason McCain closed the Minnesota gap so quickly is not that he took votes from Obama but rather he firmed up his own support. His numbers went from 39 to 46 between polls, meaning a whole slew of previously undecided voters (probably leaning Republican the whole time) decided to tell pollsters that McCain was their man. This leaves about ten percent of voters as 'real' undecideds who can be picked up by either candidate. Plus, good manuevering could steal supporters from a candidate's pool. This race isn't anywhere over, but McCain does start with a disadvantage.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The most important poll, and other election observations

I personally believe that the most highly sought after state in this upcoming election is Virginia. Until this election it was a solidly Republican state for Presidential elections. Now we have a new Rasmussen poll that puts Obama ahead by one point. This is entirely within the margin of error, but means that no matter what, McCain will have to work hard not to lose this state. The easiest state for McCain to steal it New Hampshire, but polls show Obama passing McCain in recent times.

A Virginia VP pick for Obama could basically hand him the state, but the person I thought best suited to the task, Mark Warner, has taken his name out of consideration. I find this a bit strange: Warner was casting about for a Presidential bid in 2006, but took his name out of contention for the nomination before any of the real candidates even announced. Now he has a good chance to be VP, with a good shot at being the shoe-in for the Dem candidate next round, and he turns it down to win a senate seat. Warner's working very slowly, taking breaks in his political career. Why? Does he have some dirt that would cut him out of high offices? Does he have some ten-year plan? Or (I cannot believe I'm suggesting this) is he a principled politician with modest and incremental goals and relatively little burning ambition?

Looking outside America for a second (like anyone cares) we come to Zimbabwe. The run-off election is to be held on June 27th. But first I must clear something up: many (most) news articles I have read about Zimbabwe allege that current Dictator-for-Life Robert Mugabe lost the Presidential election to Morgan Tsvangirai. This is true, but it is always stated in such a way that it seems that Mugabe has already lost the Presidency. In fact, neither candidate gained over 50% of the vote, so there must be a run-off between the two. Except that these results took suspiciously long to come out, so Mugabe probably faked them to cause a run-off and buy himself more time. However, if Tsvangirai had simply tried to move into power he could have been cast as exactly as undemocratic as Mugabe for not playing by the rules.

Now as to the run-off itself, Mugabe has equated voting for the opposition with treason. He has harassed opposition supporters. He has had Tsvangirai arrested again. He had the wife of a local opposition leader burned alive. Barring military intervention by another country (which might backfire horribly and which I don't recommend in the slightest) Mugabe will crush the opposition and remain in power until the next elections. Thus, Zimbabwe has to wait six years (or until Mugabe dies) for its chance to be free. What could other countries have done differently? China could have refused to sell Mugabe weapons. The US could have given a crap about a country where people actually want democracy right now. South Africa could have been more confrontational. The African Union could have demanded to supervise all election proceedings.

All these were unlikely to happen from the start, since they all offer a payoff of nearly nothing in exchange for a pretty large political risk. I never thought Zimbabwe would be handed democracy and freedom on a silver platter by other countries, but it would have been nice if there had been some assistance from the outside. Zimbabwe can't get free by itself, at least not yet. For now, they must wait.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

McCain said what?

"The United States Supreme Court rendered a decision yesterday that I think is one of the worst decisions in history..."

This is not something that needs context. 'Worst ever' means 'worst ever' no matter how you try to gloss it. I could rattle off a bunch more Supreme Court decisions that are worse, but I'd like to point out that this time Sentor McCain is simply wrong. The Supreme Court's decision, or at least the core holding of the decision, is right.

Here is a huge, well-thought out discussion of why. I will simplify it down to bite size:
The Suspension Clause does not require the writ of habeas corpus;
rather, it states that "[t]he Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus
shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

The power to suspend that writ is given to the President (probably) in time-critical situations, such as imminent invasion. Otherwise it is given to Congress. Since these detainees were in US custody for years, it is hard to see how the time-critical factor should even play a role. Congress didn't strip habeas corpus, so the detainees still have it. I know there are a whole number of complicating factors, but this is the base of the situation.

If McCain wants to beat up on a Supreme Court decision, he should pick a fight with Kelo v The City of New London, the taking-for-private-use eminent domain case. I would fully support anyone who wanted to overturn that incorrect, illiberal and undemocratic ruling. However, McCain is now on the wrong side of the law, history and apparently his earlier statements on the subject.

When a politician is wrong, I hope to call them out on it no matter what party they belong to. If Senator Obama had applauded this decision I would be castigating him. That's not the case. This time, Obama is right, McCain is wrong, and that's the end of it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

If not Webb, Warner? The search for the perfect attack dog...

Reading the article Anyone but Webb on Slate has gone a long way towards convincing me that while Webb (a former Reagan Republican with security and military credentials) would add quite a lot to Obama's presidential run, his 'extracurricular' activities might hurt Obama. These include Webb's temper - Obama can't fault McCain for his temper if his own VP has outbursts. Also, Webb has a history of specious statements about women. Right now, the Democratic party is experiencing more enthusiasm than it has in a decade. It's not smart to dampen it by raising Webb to VP where his statements could rekindle the identity politics of Clinton's campaign.

But an angry VP is a good idea. The VP is the hatchet-man for his candidate: he attacks while the candidate sits back and looks Presidential. Then the opposition has to respond and get down in the dirt, looking unPresidential. Cheney was a good hatchet-man. Romney has potential as well. Huckabee has said too many good things about Obama, and made too many jokes on the edge of racism to be an effective attacker for McCain.

But McCain's personality as his campaign crafts it allows him to take Obama on without needing a VP to do it for him. McCain is being presented as the man who speaks his mind; he will challenge the opposition when he feels they're wrong. Obama's campaign personality won't let him do that. He's all about reconciliation and nonpartisanship. He can't attack as ferociously. So what Obama needs is a VP who can and a means for that VP to do it that doesn't contradict Obama's main thrust.

Webb can't deliver that; his attacks would be either partisan or too ad hominem. This election, people don't want character assassination. I also doubt whether Bill Richardson could deliver this as VP. He's not confrontational enough.

But I know who could: Mark Warner, former Virginia governor. Yes, Warner couldn't attack McCain in the tried and true way of saying an idea was outright bad. Warner and Obama have built their images on reconciliation with the opposition; neither can afford to give that up this election. But Warner could do something else. He could attack McCain's positions as being centrist-in-name-only. If Warner expresses disappointment at McCain's failure to live up to a centrist and conciliatory image, if would help undercut McCain's broader appeal. Plus it fits in with Obama's move towards conciliatory politics beyond the usual. In addition, I think that disappointment from Warner would be more damaging to McCain than anger from Webb. Warner could attack McCain in a way that still goes with Obama's "Hope" message.

Of course, there are probably other ways to evaluate VPs but I personally think Obama needs someone to attack for him, otherwise McCain could portray him as a weak candidate. McCain should hope for a VP who won't or can't attack, since a toothless ticket would let him sell the security issue more easily - an area where Republicans usually win the fight but are in trouble this election.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The post-Clinton political roundup

General Info:
Everyone is calling for Democratic unity. Hillary Clinton's supporters are to join Obama against McCain. But the fact is that in polls, the defection of hardcore Clintonites has already been factored in, and Obama is still beating McCain in almost every poll. Put simply, Obama wants Clintonites, but doesn't actually need them.

How to win:
Meanwhile, pundits are trying to figure out how McCain can pull off a win in this most unfortunate of years for the GOP. One suggestion is to frame the Presidency as a job that is mostly about foreign policy and security. Obama has no experience in either of these areas, and so strategists think this would give him the boost he needs. I disagree, since if McCain's own campaign says the Presidency is about foreign policy, McCain will have to give direct, obvious and clear positions on the issue. Unfortunately for him, his maverick foreign policy is pretty well disliked by the public right now, since it's largely the same as Bush's. Given a choice between a policy they hate and a policy unknown, the voters might well move ever further away from McCain.

McCain could also try to pull a Clinton - run a campaign for the 'common worker' and try to paint Obama as an elitist or socialist. Unfortunately, he's not likely to get the union support he'd need to win this way. Also, his pro-immigration and pro-trade positions, while economically better for the country, are very unpopular in this constituency.

What has to happen? If McCain can make Obama fall apart during a debate it will bolster the 'no experience' image and give him an edge. This is a long shot, since Obama is more comfortable in public than McCain. Meanwhile, Obama would score a political headshot if, during a debate on Iraq and foreign policy, get angry and say something like "You're just another George W. Bush!" in a way that made McCain's temper go off. We've heard a few things about McCain's temper, and if it shows up during a debate people will rethink their image of McCain as a sober elder statesman.


Obama needs a VP who can guarentee him a red or toss-up state. Mark Warner (VA) and Bill Richardson (NM) are two candidates who come as a package deal with their home states and either blue collar votes (Warner) or hispanics (Richardson) - both fertile Democratic areas that Obama is weak in. However, Warner is running for the senate now and is going to win. Thinking in a more expansive strategy, does Warner bring more to the ticket than he brings to the senate? Could a quick replacement for Warner actually win? As for Richardson, would his presence make the ticket a bit too...non-white?

McCain needs someone who makes people care about coming out to vote for a Republican in November. With dissatisfaction at an all-time high, he cannot count on people voting against Obama in large enough numbers. A VP pick that excites the religious right would be smart. Could it be Huckabee? Romney? Recent times have heard more chatter about Bobby Jindal. Unfortunately for Jindal, I think he'd actually be a better candidate for the Presidency in 2012 than VP in 2008. If he's on this ticket and loses, it could be like Edwards in the early primaries this year, tainted by defeat. If I advised Jindal, I would tell him not to accept the VP spot. Plus, while he's socially conservative, his emphasis is on economics and he doesn't excite the religious right enough.

A hilarious gay parade float

A pro-gay group wanted to have a parade float. A local government told the group it couldn't display any references to homosexuality on it.

The result?

the restrictions, which resulted in a float bearing a cowboy-and-Indian
diorama, signs such as "Who pays for school supplies?" and a giant
question mark in the middle of it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A good, a bad in Zimbabwe

Morgan Tsvangirai was released today after being held for eight hours without serious charges. Most commentators see this as intimidation and disruption to his campaign. I see it as the first of a series of arrests. Maybe the third or fifth time Tsvangirai is taken in for questioning he'll "resist" and not make it back.

While it's good that he's out, I still hold by my near-alarmist post yesterday. Another unseemly sign has surfaced: [Quoted at length from this post on FP Passport]

Here's James D. McGee, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, describing the incident to CNN:

"Police put up a roadblock, stopped the
vehicles, slashed the tires, reached in and grabbed telephones from my
personnel, and the war veterans (Mugabe's supporters) threatened to
burn the vehicles with my people inside unless they got out and
accompanied police to a station nearby."

McGee added that his embassy felt the orders were
"coming directly from the top." Whoever gave the orders, threatening to
burn foreign dignitaries alive is a step beyond the usual Mugabe
bullying. It's sickening.

Until now, Mugabe had restrained his worst intimidation to Zimbabweans. Now he's messing with countries much more powerful than his own. Let's just say that if Iran threatened to burn US diplomats alive we'd have a causus belli if not a military action. I explicitly don't think military intervention is the right path, but maybe if Mugabe pisses off the US enough someone will take notice and issue an ultimatum. The fact that Mugabe is willing to insult the US like this shows that he takes outside equivocation for granted. Someone please prove Mugabe wrong.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A sad day for Zimbabwe, and no one really cares.

Morgan Tsvangirai was arrested today.

He is the leader of the current opposition party of Zimbabwe, and his party won resoundingly in the recent elections. He got more votes than current President-cum-Dictator Robert Mugabe, but neither candidate got over 50% of the vote. That is if you believe Mugabe's government's count. Tsvangirai claims get got 50.6% and doesn't need to engage in a run-off.

Upon seeing that Mugabe wouldn't just let him take over, Tsvangirai slowly moderated his position from saying that he won and would be denying it by engaging in a run-off versus Mugabe to his current one in which he would probably engage and would definitely win if the vote was fair.

Mugabe's men took weeks to release the election results, which were almost certainly tampered with. Now they have tried to purchase large quantities of weapons from China to enforce their rule. Opposition-friendly areas are being terrorized and community leaders harassed or beaten. The only hope I could see to a quick end was Tsvangirai's return (he was out-of-country to avoid assassination) and election victory.

Now Tsvangirai has been arrested without charges and is being held by Mugabe's government.
This is what happened last time he was arrested (inset of Robert Mugabe)

Zimbabwe is not South Africa, and SA still has its problems. But it is one of the most outstanding countries in Africa and I believe Zimbabwe has such potential as well. The first step to change is the removal of Mugabe and his cronies. The run-off election is scheduled for June 27th. I wouldn't be surprised is Mugabe held him until that date, then declared some bogus charge against Tsvangirai and invalidated the run-off, saying people can't vote for a convicted and imprisoned felon.

Until now, I still saw a way out for Zimbabwe. Now, with this arrest and mounting attacks on opposition supporters (some 30 have been killed) I am saddened to know that Zimbabwe will not be free this year. Its people may have to wait for Mugabe's death or the next election - which is six years away. In my estimation only three countries can truly change the course: South Africa, the USA and China.

China will not act against Mugabe. South Africa is slowly growing more confrontational - a good sign - and the incoming leadership is sometimes openly hostile to Mugabe. The USA does not seem to show an interest foreign policy-wise. This is, I believe, a mistake. If the USA wishes to spead democracy, a little well-placed pressure on China and South Africa could turn the situation around. While Americans bicker about whether democracy can or should be spread by force, they ignore a situation where some diplomacy could depose an illegitimate leader from power without the use of military force. This is, I should hope, something that all Americans can agree on.

I want Zimbabwe to be free - it is a moral good and will also massively increase the living conditions of the population. I don't want to have to wait another five years or more. I have been following the situation closely since before the 2002 elections. Each time, Mugabe hangs onto power because no other country will deal with him harshly enough. I am tired of waiting. If I could ask the Presidential candidates one questions, it would be "How do you plan to uphold democracy in Zimbabwe?"

Friday, May 30, 2008

Why are curses inherently bad?

I was listening to one of my favorite singers - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - when I heard something that made me think. Billy (real name Will Oldham) is a truly crazy man with a Nietzsche beard who creates cavernous and terrifying pseudo-folk music.

He lulls you into complacency with sparse instrumentals and pretty but obvious lyrics about mountains and women and valleys. Then all of a sudden he hits you with the following:
If I could fuck a mountain
I would fuck a mountain
And I'd do it with a woman in the valley
Why is this so jarring? Two reasons: the image of a man copulating with a mountain is strange, and the use of a curse is totally unexpected. It's crazy and startling.

I asked myself why I was startled. The answer is that I was startled because he cursed. Why does cursing startle me? Because I've been taught (by parents, school and general society) that it should. But should it? Taboo words are part of basically every language. Since I'll be talking linguistically now, there will be quite a few curses. You have been forewarned.

I have seen some people - generally conservative Christians - who argue that words like 'damn' are affronts to God, and should not be said for that reason. Yet in common speech, the harshest curse is ususally 'fuck,' which has no blasphemous quality to it. Neither does 'shit' - the other harsh curse. The religiously-derived curses - 'hell' and 'damn' - are actually quite moderate.

Despite what some people may argue, no word inherently means anything at all. All the meaning comes from how people use a word. The situations in which people use words also determine when they are acceptable. A word is only a package of sounds; without society to inform it, the word is useless.

People object to words like 'fuck' because they're sexually explicit. Yet there are now so many ways of using 'fuck' that groups that guard 'decency standards' must grade whether the word was used in reference to sex or just as an exclamation. The former is heavily punished; the latter is punished more lightly. The fact is that almost any word could be sexually explicit in context. A censorious obsession with euphemism is, in my opinion, misplaced.

This doesn't mean that I'm going to go around cursing in front of little kids all the time. It won't change my habits at all to know that the taboo around 'fuck' is just invented. But it should give pause to those who would argue that there are universal laws of correct and incorrect in language.

P.S. Two fun facts about 'fuck':

1) Fuck comes from a German word meaning 'to strike.' It does not come from an acronym for "Fornication Under Consent of the King". It's been in the English language for longer than words like 'fornication' or 'consent'. I have been told this totally false story so often that whenever someone tries it on me now, I start shouting at them: "WRONG WRONG WRONG!"

2) Many languages have a third affix, in addition to prefixes and suffixes. The 'interfix' does not exist in English - except with the word 'fuck,' which is the only word that can use that form. When added, it emphasizes the meaning with a certain enthusiastic edge: in-fuckin'-credible!