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Archive for September, 2012

Game of Thrones: “Winter Is Coming” for Will and Bran

[ 39 ] September 28, 2012 |

(This is yet another one of those visual rhetoric posts that’s born of this frighteningly imminent course.)

You’ll recall that according to the first post, Van Patten made Will a sympathetic deserter and oath breaker; according to the second, Van Patten established the family dynamic through Bran’s perspective; according to the third, Bran remained the focal point because everyone believed themselves to be acting in his best interest; and according to the fourth and final post in this series, which would be this one, we’ll finally witness the “punchline” of the preceding scenes. To begin:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00302

The scene shifts from inside Winterfell to somewhere outside it. It’s difficult to tell exactly where because there’s a notched log occupying the majority of the frame. Why the log? Because Will’s world is now the size of its notch. His world closes in on him as his death nears, so it makes sense that his purview, visually speaking, follows suit. It momentarily expands into an extreme long shot when he believes he’s found an excuse that might could maybe save him:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00306

But only momentarily:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00311

Note contrast between these two shots: in the first, the camera is at a distance and captures a large swath of the highlands that are bright despite the mist blanketing them; in the second, the camera tightens in and centers on Will in a medium close-up, and the compositional structure is oppressive: he is flanked on both sides by armed guard and the hill behind doesn’t, as the one in previous shot did, suggest freedom so much as unscaleable-rock-that-might-as-well-be-a-wall. He’s trapped within the structure of the shot, and the medium close-up reminds us of the fear and pain we saw on his face when he was captured:

Games of thrones - winter is coming00131

The irony of being imprisoned on an open field is more apparent in the above because the framing is looser, but it’s essentially the same shot as the one in which he confesses his oath-breaking with one important exception: when he confesses to have broken his oath, he knows all hope is lost. In the shot above, the possibility of escape still exists, if not on that field, then possibly through pardon—hence his mentioning the white walkers two frames previous. But by the time he enters that structurally oppressive medium close-up, he knows his fate.

As do the other characters in the scene, and more importantly, the extent to which they sympathize with is indicated by the distance of the camera from their faces. This may seem like a simple means of identifying a complex emotional response, but it has a long history in film theory, the short version of it goes something like this:

Films used to be silent. Because actors couldn’t tell us what they were thinking and many directors found intertitles aesthetically unappealing, the close-up on actors’ faces became the preferred means of communicating their emotions. The heightened expressiveness evident in the close-up compelled audiences to pay more attention to the micro-expressions written upon the actors’ faces, which made directors pay more attention to directing their actors to wear particular micro-expressions to communicate particular emotions, and so began the vicious cycle that led to the conventions of the modern close-up. Combine that with the fact that we’re so hard-wired to pay close attention to faces that we’ll “see” the face of Satan in a cloud formation, Saint Mary slumming on some toast, or this Martian fellow looking at whatever it is he’s looking at. We want to see faces, and when we see them, we want them to communicate something to us. Just look at my cat. Can’t you see the wonder in his eyes? Of course you can’t. Whatever emotion Finnegan’s feeling might be the feline equivalent of curiosity, but it’s inhuman. Its humanity is merely imputed, drawn on his mug by our brain’s intense desire to find meaning in anything structured like a face.

All of which is a long way of saying that conventional close-ups have been building on extant brain architecture for more than a century now, which is why the simple act of reversing from long shots of some characters to close-ups of others will make it seem as if the narrative’s being focused through the latter. Let’s continue with the scene:

Read more…


[ 389 ] September 28, 2012 |

I really loved reading this Rebecca Solnit article on “leftsplaining” after being attacked on Twitter all day yesterday from self-proclaimed lefties because I suggested that those who urge us to vote for Gary Johnson because of Obama’s terrible drone policies can do so because they are privileged enough to ignore what a Romney or Johnson presidency would do to poor people in this country. Glenn Greenwald has basically spent 24 hours attacking this site on his Twitter feed and essentially claiming that we are mouthpieces of the Democratic Party. Which if so, where’s my paycheck from the DNC? I hope it’s as much as Glenn makes from CATO.

Anyway, Solnit:

O rancid sector of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like a Teletubby. If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears. Because what we’re talking about here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude, and one that is poisoning us. Not just me, but you, us, and our possibilities.

I don’t think we should be grateful to Obama for his successes. But it is OK to recognize them for the limited wins that they are without going completely ballistic about all the bad things in the world. As I’ve been saying a lot lately, we need a smarter left that understands the mechanics of the American political system if we want to create long-term meaningful change at the government level. Like myself, Solnit sees a lot of people who don’t get this:

So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay attention to it and maybe even work with it.

Instead, I constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response began, “Excuse me, she’s anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”

Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?

This kind of response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building. Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm.

As Solnit points out, being yelled at by leftier-than-thou people does not build movements. If you can’t engage a diversity of opinion, forget about making change. It alienates people immediately. Yet, in our atomized and hyper-individualistic modern left, a modern left very much shaped by the fetishization of individualism pushed upon us by the consumer capitalism it theoretically rejects, each individual feels that have the right and responsibility to yell at the top of their lungs about the issues they care about and to personally attack anyone who doesn’t show their commitment to purity.

Of course, there are many, many committed activists who don’t do these things. But it doesn’t take a lot of people to tear apart movements when purity is demanded in loud voices. See the inability of Occupy Wall Street to continue in its present form for example.

Let’s let Solnit close this post with a statement I could not agree with more:

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all US presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.

You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

Bitterness poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive away a lot of people who don’t like poison. You don’t have to punish those who do choose to participate. Actually, you don’t have to punish anyone, period.


Race, Not Abortion

[ 61 ] September 28, 2012 |

I can’t recommend this Amanda Marcotte piece enough. Abortion has no negative net effect on the Democratic Party’s struggles with the white working-class over the past 40 years. Those problems revolve around white people’s racism.

Could Democrats Render President Romney Powerless If They Wanted To?

[ 78 ] September 28, 2012 |

I missed this until it was pointed out by a commenter, but dsquared had actually already addressed Romney’s executive branch powers in a comment:

Nuh uh on anything that requires judicial or regulatory nominations, which are trivially easy to filibuster for a Congressional party that has even a modicum of spine.

This is obviously unworkable, for multiple reasons:

  • Especially with respect to executive branch appointments, a proposed strategy of “stop Romney from nominating anybody he would appoint to the executive branch” founders on the recess appointment power.   Left-wingers won’t control regulatory agencies by default if Democrats systematically filibuster Romney’s nominees.   (Recess appointments don’t replace lifetime appointments to the federal courts, granted.)
  • In addition, Romney doesn’t need any confirmations to just start issuing executive orders interpreting regulations narrowly or stopping the enforcement of laws, and given the even more completely gridlocked Congress Daniel envisions he would have extremely wide latitude to do so.
  • Let’s say Democrats could do what even contemporary Republicans couldn’t and stopped Romney from getting any replacement for Ginsburg and/or Breyer confirmed.   The result would be Court with 7 or 8 justices, fully legally empowered to issue rulings, with five conservative votes.   This does not strike me as something Republicans would be unhappy with.   (It’s true that there are informal norms under which the Court prefers not to issue rulings with temporarily short-staffed courts unless there are 5 votes in the majority anyway; it’s also pretty obvious that these norms would go out the window if the vacancies weren’t actually temporary, and that goes triple if it’s Democrats systematically filibustering the nominations of a Republican president.)   With the federal courts, there’s a similar issue — the result of  a systematic filibuster would be understaffed courts still heavily tilted towards conservative Republicans.  I’m not seeing the win here.
  • As is generally the case when people argue for Democrats adopting maximalist strategies, Daniel also isn’t taking into account that the interests here aren’t symmetrical.   An equilibrium in which federal agencies can’t be properly funded, staffed, and administered because of escalating cycles of retaliation would suit Republicans just fine — they don’t care if the NLRB ever meets a quorum again, if the EPA has any lawyers to file lawsuits, etc.   For progressives who actually want federal laws enforced, this is a rather less good outcome.

No matter how much “spine” the Democrats have, they’re not going to eliminate the after-the-fact powers of the executive branch, and doing as much as they can to do so would be disastrous for progressive interests anyway. It is true that, in terms of both appointments and legislation, that Romney will have a little bit more leeway both in terms of legislation and executive branch powers than Obama does because the Democrats are less disciplined. You can agree with Daniel that this is because Democrats are just feckless and could become a unified social democratic caucus with a little of the ol’ heighten-the-contradictions, or you can agree with me that this is is result of structural factors like the malapportionment of the Senate and the outsized role of money in American politics that can’t be corrected by third party campaigns or whatever, but either way it’s a marginal difference. Romney will have at least as much power as Obama does, and their are distinct limits on congressional power as well no matter how brilliant one’s strategizing.   Use of the filibuster can mitigate the damage of a Romney administration but it can’t come remotely close to eliminating it.

In conclusion, not everyone making a heighten-the-contradictions argument about U.S. presidential elections is a libertarian. But it is true that they only make sense if you’re a libertarian.

Deep Thoughts

[ 35 ] September 28, 2012 |

How did we reach a point in American life where Bud Selig could be the least loathsome of the major sports league commissioners? This thought causes me nightmares.

Social Desirability and Response Validity in Current Polling

[ 22 ] September 28, 2012 |

Several days ago in these very pages, discussion ensued regarding the latest conservative attempt to rewrite reality through re-weighting polls to one guy’s liking.  Of course, polling is not an exact science, but it is a science, and the latest wingnut delusion has no grounding in theory or empirical evidence.  Like any science, survey research continuously attempts to improve upon the validity and reliability of its measures and findings.  While I’m not at all concerned about some nefarious (and successful) attempt by the MSM and that paragon of power, the Democratic Party, to turn otherwise professional and reputable polling houses into duplicitous shills.

However, I have been somewhat interested (note, not concerned) if there might be something else going on that causes the polls to over estimate support for Obama.  Social desirability bias is something I’ve published on in the past (direct link to the paper here).  While that article suggests a contextual effect that causes variance in social desirability across countries (regarding accurately reported turnout in survey research), relevant here is what is colloquially known as the Bradley Effect.  It’s possible (though I consider it unlikely in the specific context of the 2012 Presidential election) that this helps explain Obama’s consistent polling advantage in an election where many if not most structural conditions suggest an incumbent defeat.

It’s difficult with the data I have available to examine this hypothesis to any satisfaction, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.

To begin with, we have the current state of the polls.

Obama Romney Advantage
RCP 28 Sep. 48.6 44.6 4.0
538 28 Sep. 52.2 46.5 5.7
538 6 Nov. 51.5 47.4 4.1


RCP’s running average has Obama up 4 points, Nate Silver’s “nowcast” model up 5.7, and his current prediction for election day 4.1 points.

If social desirability is at work here, a poll respondent will state that she or he supports the President because internally, our not entirely sincere respondent is seeking the socially desirable response, and not supporting the black guy might be racist.  However, this is done knowing that they will ultimately support the white guy.  Practically, this would mean that Obama’s support in these polls is inflated.

I’m approaching this from several directions.  First, I’ve averaged the final month of polls for Presidential elections going back to 1976 (an arbitrary cut off) to examine how accurate the polls were in predicting the final outcome between two white men, with 2008 to serve as a benchmark for 2012.  Shift represents how wide of the mark the final polls were, to the benefit or detriment of the incumbent party.

Poll Result Shift
2008 D 7.6 D 7.3 0.3
2004 R 1.5 R 2.4 0.9
2000 R 3.0 D 0.5 3.5
1996 D 11.0 D 8.0 -3.0
1992 D 12.0 D 6.0 -6.0
1988 R 12.0 R 7.0 -5.0
1984 R 18.5 R 18.0 -0.5
1980 R 4.0 R +10.0 -6.0
1976 D 2.0 D 2.0 0.0


Social desirability response bias in an election can take on many forms, not just race.  To wit, the 1992 general election in the United Kingdom is a good case study (one I lectured on here at Plymouth about six or seven years ago, shame I have no clue where those lecture notes now reside) as the polls largely predicted a narrow Labour outright victory or a hung parliament with Labour having the plurality of seats, yet the Conservatives under John Major easily won by 7.5%.  This is called the Shy Tory Factor on this island, which is simply another manifestation of social desirability.  But in 2012, I’m primarily considering race, and comparing 2008 to past elections does not support the hypothesis that this might be a problem for Obama’s numbers in 2012.

I also considered several of the primary elections in January, 2008.  This was the beginning of a primary where Obama was a somewhat unknown junior senator only four years into his Congressional career, going up against the assumed nominee.  For these data, I average all polls from the last week of the campaign in the given state (there were 20 in New Hampshire alone).

Poll Result Shift
NH Obama 35 37 2
NH Clinton 30 39 9
NV Obama 33.25 45 11.75
NV Clinton 37 51 14
SC Obama 41 55 14
SC Clinton 26 27 1


This evidence is more ambiguous than the examination of previous general elections.  Both Clinton and Obama received shifts in their favor, which isn’t surprising considering the undecideds presumably made a decision of some sort once voting.  However, in both New Hampshire and Nevada, the shift was stronger towards Clinton than Obama: a 7 and 2.25 point advantage respectively.  Both are dwarfed by Obama’s advantage in South Carolina.

These are the wrong data to be analysing this with, of course; ideally we’d have individual level data.  While not individual level data, the following figure, by Greenwald and Albertson, offers a more holistic view of the 2008 primaries.

The above shows that among 32 states where data were available, the “Bradley effect” was only evident in three states, yet 12 states demonstrated what has been termed (erroneously, in my opinion) the “reverse Bradley effect”: states where Obama’s support in the primaries was under, not over, estimated (see South Carolina above).  I consider this an erroneous classification because where the theoretical explanation for the Bradley effect hinges on social desirability, the reverse has been hypothesized as a function of systematic sample bias, through either the under-representation of African Americans in polling samples, or the cell-phone effect.  However, some have hypothesized that “black voters might have been reluctant to declare to pollsters their support for Obama”, and the link above does discuss that

After the Super Tuesday elections of February 5, 2008, political science researchers from the University of Washington found trends suggesting the possibility that with regard to Obama, the effect’s presence or absence may be dependent on the percentage of the electorate that is black. The researchers noted that to that point in the election season, opinion polls taken just prior to an election tended to overestimate Obama in states with a black population below eight percent, to track him within the polls’ margins of error in states with a black population between ten and twenty percent, and to underestimate him in states with a black population exceeding twenty-five percent. The first finding suggested the possibility of the Bradley effect, while the last finding suggested the possibility of a “reverse” Bradley effect in which black voters might have been reluctant to declare to pollsters their support for Obama or are under polled.

There are numerous possible explanations for the “reverse” effect, including faulty likely voter models, under sampling of blacks, sampling bias due to cell phones, to name a few.  There might be some sort of contextual effect at work here, but to ascribe it to behavioural motivations (rather than factors exogenous to the individual, such as sampling bias) such as blacks being shy to state their support for Obama fails the face validity test to me.

Ultimately, given the wide array of mediocre data presented here, I am not concerned about social desirability biasing the estimates of support for Obama in any significant, substantive manner.  However, much as I’d like to, I wouldn’t say that the Republican conspiracy is more likely, if only because that is so creatively ludicrous I initially thought it was an Onion piece.

Rounding Up the Torture Gang Again

[ 103 ] September 28, 2012 |

A typically essential Charlie Savage piece on Romney’s defense policy team:

In one of his first acts, President Obama issued an executive order restricting interrogators to a list of nonabusive tactics approved in the Army Field Manual. Even as he embraced a hawkish approach to other counterterrorism issues — like drone strikes, military commissions, indefinite detention and the Patriot Act — Mr. Obama has stuck to that strict no-torture policy.

By contrast, Mr. Romney’s advisers have privately urged him to “rescind and replace President Obama’s executive order” and permit secret “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives,” according to an internal Romney campaign memorandum.

The lesson here, obviously, is that if you care at all about civil liberties you should be indifferent to the outcome of the 2012 elections.

The Damage Romney Can Do

[ 107 ] September 27, 2012 |

I don’t want to repeat myself and I’m reluctant to engage in further conflict with some of the people on the interwebs whom I most admire.    So I’ll mostly let readers judge for themselves about dsquared’s response, which as always is worth reading.  I do, however, want to address one point to make clear what I’m not arguing.   Daniel argues that I’m probably overstating the effects of a Romney win, because:

Recall, Obama’s whole strategy was based around abandoning all other priorities such as carbon tax, an effective stimulus bill, half his nominations, most of the financial sector reforms and so forth, all to concentrate on passing health care. And he only got about half of that – the version passed was something he’d specifically camapigned against as not being anything like radical enough. So given that, how are we to suppose that President Romney would be able to push through an agenda five times as radical, including the ultimate third-rail issue of abortion?

Well, actually, it’s not hard at all.   Let’s return to what I said Romney could do:

the repeal of the ACA, the overruling of Roe v. Wade, the gutting of environmental and civil rights enforcement, massive upper-class tax cuts, etc. etc. etc.

Most of this list, you’ll notice, addresses this problem in advance by not focusing on things Romney can do that require difficult new legislation. On the first — repeal of the ACA — Daniel has a point; in the event that the Democrats maintain control of the Senate (less likely but not impossible in a context where Romney wins) it would be very difficult; if the Republicans take over the Senate, quite likely but not a sure thing. The next three, though, are issues where the executive branch has substantial control. If Ginsburg (turns 80 next year, multiple cancer survivor) or Breyer resigns, all Romney will need for Roe to be overruled is to get a generic conservative Supreme Court nominee confirmed, and Obama was able to get a generic contemporary liberal confirmed twice. At a minimum, it’s a risk you’d be crazy to take. As long as Republicans have the House or 40+ Senators Romney can gut EPA, civil rights and other enforcement very substantially. (Presidents have limited power to pass new legislation, but after-the-fact regulation and enforcement is a different story.) Tax cuts, I will grant, will require new legislation — but since this is an issue that unites congressional Republicans, attracts a handful of conservative Senate Democrats if necessary, and favors the most powerful interests in American society, this isn’t exactly a heavy lift comparable to passing cap-and-trade. I don’t think my description of what Romney is likely to accomplish is in any way unrealistic, particularly if one considers that while ACA repeal is far from a sure thing we can be confident that the remaining list is far from exhaustive.

Speaking of which, a final point. It could be the primary factor explaining why Democrats find it much more difficult to pass legislation adversely affecting powerful monied interests than Republicans do stopping such initiatives or passing legislation desired by powerful monied interests is that Republicans are much more strategically adept. I can think of another, far more persuasive explanation. As I’ve said before, I thought that at a minimum we could all agree with Schattschneider’s observation that “the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent,” but apparently not.

The Cultural Origins of Green Lanternism

[ 111 ] September 27, 2012 |

I’ve been thinking more about issues surrounding what I see as progressives’ lack of understanding around how to organize for the change they want. See here, but to reiterate, too many progressives see voting for “the one leader who will save us” every four years as a useful strategy, as opposed to the decades-long work of creating real change through organizing on the local level and either establishing a legitimate third party with deep local roots or taking over the Democratic Party structure and remaking it in their own image, i.e., what radical conservatives have done to the Republican Party over the past 50 years.

I started to wonder why so many progressives seem to believe this, whether Nader in 2000 or Obama in 2008 or whatever. I’m sure there are many reasons for this. But as a historian, I wonder if part of it doesn’t have to do with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the past. Traditional teachings of history, as their critics have so long pointed out, have focused on the Great Man. Of course, that was a Great White Man who probably oppressed others or was at least morally compromised in some unacceptable ways (Thomas Jefferson having sex with his slaves, Andrew Jackson and lots of horrible things, etc). That kind of teaching about those kind of people arguably reinforced conservative political values, which is part of the reason that conservatives fight to control local school boards.

But while the Great White Man version of history is rightfully out of fashion for progressives, the Great Person who created tons of change version of history is as strong as ever. By focusing on the Great Person, even as we often tell ourselves that we focus on mass movements when really we don’t, I think we might be creating the conditions for Green Lantern versions of how change happens.

The most clear example of this is the civil rights movement. This story of one of tremendous complexity. It took decades of organizing to make this happen. Yet we tell it as the story of a couple of people doing amazing things. Rosa Parks wouldn’t get to the back of the bus because she wanted to rest her tired feet (a story that actually conflates two different women but one that is commonly told). Martin Luther King had a dream. Then some bad southern white people did bad things and King’s dream convinced the government to do something and the black people could ride the bus and go to school with white people. Therefore, the civil rights movement was a success.

King just had a dream. It was so powerful, look what it accomplished.

Or at least that’s pretty close to the master popular narrative of the movement.

This of course disguises that the civil rights movement was something that engaged tens of thousands of people over a century plus who did amazing actions and still do, even though the master narrative says the movement ended when King was killed in 1968.

It’s not all that different with other movements. The women’s movement is a series of leaders from Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem. Environmentalism is Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and Rachel Carson. Gay rights is Harvey Milk. Labor is Mother Jones and John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther. Note that I have tried to avoid biographical pieces in my This Day in Labor History series. This is a specific choice to counter these narratives, though I may do so in the future.

We say these are mass movements, but we don’t teach them that way. Instead we teach the Dream and the Great Person. If King could change people’s hearts with his Dream, why can’t Obama change it with his supposed vision?

And the answer of course is that a) King didn’t change people’s hearts solely with his Dream and b) disappointment with Obama, while rooted in real reasons, is also a reflection of how the world works outside of myths we tell ourselves about change. A whole lot of civil rights activists called King a compromiser and even a sellout too, not only Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, but everyday people involved both deeply and peripherally in the movement. Whether they were right or wrong is a matter of opinion, but this King-centric Dream story is one that developed after his death, not during the movement’s heyday.

I understand the psychic need we have as people to craft historical narratives to fit our desires for the present. Stories about individual people creating change have a beautiful simplicity to them. But that doesn’t mean they are true. As we see in the present, change doesn’t happen in a beautifully simple and inspiring way. It’s a bloodbath full of power plays, infighting, and knife fights.

And I think if we understood this about the people and movements we revere in the past, we’d do a better job understanding how to organize and what to expect from our leaders in the present.

I don’t want to overstate the case because I am sure it is multifaceted. But I think I am getting at part of the problem.

There Are Many Life And Death Issues

[ 202 ] September 27, 2012 |

Since I’m guessing that Glenn’s tweet is directed at me, I should clarify what I mean in my previous post.    When I said that the issues Friedersdorf focuses on are “pet issues,” I am certainly not suggesting that they are not important.  I certainly don’t believe that.   What I am saying is that the issues that he completely ignores are also extremely important issues.    Let’s be clear, shall we?  We’re not “just” talking about issues of justice and equity here.  The repeal of the ACA would mean that some people die and many others suffer unnecessarily.   Having a Republican-appointed head of the EPA means that people will die and suffer illness unnecessarily.   Having a median Supreme Court vote who has to turn to (most likely) his left to see Antonin Scalia will cause some people to die and many others to have their fundamental rights violated.   Just as a start, overruling Roe v. Wade will mean some women will die or be maimed and many others will have their lives shattered.     These are all life or death issues, and hand-waving about “dealbreakers” that ignores these lives entirely is not any kind of serious argument.  (This analysis obviously doesn’t apply to Jim Henley, who does appropriately consider them.)

And, of course, it’s worse than that.   We could argue about how to weight the relative evils if their was a choice between Obama and an opponent who would be better on some issues and worse on others.  But that’s not the actual choice.  Romney will almost certainly be far worse even with respect to the issues Friedersdorf emphasizes as well as the life-and-death issues he arbitrarily ignores.   Obama has been bad on any number of civil liberties issues.  But he ended the Iraq War,* stopped arbitrarily detaining and torturing people caught under the reach of American authorities, and didn’t invade Iran.  Is that enough?  Not even close.  Is that far better than someone who is likely to bomb Iran and get the torture regime re-started?  Obviously.   Does the fact that Romney makes no pretense of caring about civil liberties somehow make these future victims less dead?

Again, I understand why people who want to make a big show about how they can’t possibly sully themselves a vote for Obama want to muddy the waters.  But nobody’s saying you shouldn’t criticize Obama for his bad military and civil liberties policies, and nobody involved in this discussion would be criticizing him if that’s what he was doing.   People are being criticized for suggesting that progressives should be fundamentally indifferent about the outcome of the 2012 election.   I can understand why one would prefer to defend the former rather than the latter argument, but it’s the latter one that’s actually being criticized.  And it’s being criticized because it’s both irrational and immoral, and incidentally is unlikely to actually start a productive discussion about the underlying issues.

*And as for the argument that he didn’t really want to end the Iraq War but the United States has no choice but to adhere to treaties with its client states, pull the other one.  If you think John McCain would have pulled out of Iraq, I have several nice parcels at Glengarry Highlands to sell you.

Film Genre Over Time

[ 56 ] September 27, 2012 |

Chris Blattman links to this very interesting image, charting film genres over time.

As you can see, this charts some expected but interesting phenomena–the decline of westerns, the rise of pornography, the consistent production of comedy.

There are a couple of problems here though. First, a short is not a genre and it makes no sense to have that as a separate category. Yes, 50% or more of early silents were shorts. But they were short comedies, short westerns, etc. Why are these not included in the other categories? Many of today’s shorts might fall under an “experimental” category, which could make sense. But for silent film, it really undercuts itself.

I’m also curious as to the lack of science fiction in the early years. I know it was hardly the popular genre of today. But a lot of the iconic silent films can be classified as science fiction. Maybe they were just statistically insignificant but culturally influential. I don’t really know.

Purity of Essence

[ 88 ] September 27, 2012 |

This post is going to sound like under-theorized musing not as some sort of rhetorical device, but because I’m sincerely puzzled by the following question (triggered, obviously, by the last several posts and the comments to them):

Why does what any individual chooses to do with his or her vote in a presidential election ever matter in any way?

It’s obvious that at the most straightforward level of analysis my presidential vote doesn’t “matter,” if “matter” means “have an effect on the outcome.” Statements like “voting for Gary Johnson makes it more likely Romney will be elected” are true at the level of individual action in the same way that the statement “if I (Paul Campos) call up the Denver Nuggets today and ask them for a tryout that will increase the chances that I’ll make the Nuggets’ roster.” Probabilistically, this statement is true. Practically, it’s meaningless, since the odds that I’ll make the Nuggets’ roster no matter what I do or don’t do can quite safely be treated as identical to zero with no loss of practical predictive value.

I’ve sometimes wondered if this truth in the context of national elections creates some sort of collective action problem or paradox, at least in terms of any vaguely utilitarian framework of analysis, since the utility of casting a vote to any individual voter is surely negative, unless one starts tacking on caveats about psychic benefits, the potential secondary effects of otherwise completely impotent social gestures and the like.

Following such a line it’s possible I suppose to make arguments about how one’s individual vote, and in particular one’s public posture regarding that vote, could have various ripple effects that went far beyond its immediate practical effect on electoral outcomes, which again is always and everywhere pragmatically identical with “none whatever.”

Indeed without such an argument, it’s hard to see how any individual vote in a presidential election is ever anything more than the kind of “pure” (which is to say in practical terms completely ineffective) act of self-expression which those who self-consciously engage in casting protest votes are often derided for engaging in.

Continuing . . . I personally don’t believe in utilitarianism as either a descriptive or normative matter, so I don’t think a utilitarian justification for individual voting behavior is necessary. But I doubt one can be successfully maintained.

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