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Being There, Elena Kagan edition

[ 8 ] May 8, 2010 |

Some thoughts on the impending nomination.

The wildly contrasting impressions about Kagan can be easily reconciled if one assumes that people who know Kagan are simply projecting their own political inclinations and commitments onto her. This is an extremely common phenomenon: if you like someone and believe she is fundamentally a good and fair-minded person, while at the same time knowing nothing about her own politics, it’s the most natural thing in the world to attribute your politics (for after all, are you not eminently “fair-minded” on all sorts of difficult political questions?) to her. Thus naïve progressives assume a Justice Kagan would be lion of the left, despite the profound affection she elicits among establishment and conservative figures (and the checks she’s cashed while consulting for Goldman Sachs), while conservatives assume she will be a “good” liberal” (which is to say not very liberal at all).

In this sense, Kagan is a much more extreme version of her former University of Chicago colleague, Barack Obama. As an elected politician, Obama has not of course been able to go to anything like Kagan’s lengths in avoiding public positions on controversial issues. Still, a year and a half into the Obama administration, progressives continue getting a rude surprise every time Obama does something profoundly objectionable to the left wing of the Democratic party – even though evidence of Obama’s supposedly progressive political agenda has always tended to consist of little more than wishful thinking.

In some ways, nominating Kagan to the Supreme Court would be the ultimate expression of this trend. Armed with a nearly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and poised to replace the most “liberal” (sic) member of the Supreme Court, Obama seems ready to nominate someone whose progressive legal credentials are basically invisible.

Progressives – and indeed people of all political inclinations – should demand more. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with nominating someone to the Supreme Court who has never been a judge. And I have no reason to doubt that Elena Kagan is as fine a person as all her friends say she is. But in practice, a lifetime appointment to the Court should require more than having lots of friends in high places. Meriting such a position should involve clearing a very high evidentiary bar. In Kagan’s case, that bar seems to have been placed on the ground.

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Robin Roberts and the Whiz Kids

[ 34 ] May 7, 2010 |

Another great tribute from Posnanski. Roberts was just a tremendous pitcher for his first 8 years (and had a second wave of very good pitching after joining the Orioles in the 60s), although because of the relative failure of his teams doesn’t seem to get discussed in that light as much as he should. R.I.P.

As someone who cut his baseball fan’s teeth on the Dick Williams Expos, and then became a follower of the Mariners (along with the 60s Giants, one of the few teams to squander even more front-line talent) from watching a wave of exciting prospects in Calgary, for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the Whiz Kids. The 1950 Phillies won the pennant with a very young team whose young core went on to long, productive careers — and yet never came close to winning again. On an interesting recent discussion on his pay site, Bill James argues that this was a product of lazy roster construction: the Phillies kept falling behind because they didn’t care how good the supporting cast was, and especially faced with two outstanding organizations in New York City this wasn’t going to cut it. This is, I think, an important lesson: while a team’s best players are often blamed for a team’s disappointing performance, the disappointment is much more likely to result from the surrounding talent not being good enough. Since I’m not sure about lengthy quotes of stuff from behind the paywall, a couple of relevant classic quotes about my beloved dead team, from the 1984 and 1985 Abstracts, respectively:

To put this in plain, unmistakable English, Doug Flynn does just as much to destroy the Montreal offense as Tim Raines can do to build it. If you give him the opportunity, Doug Flynn can do just as much to lose games with his bat as Tim Raines can do to win them. And Bill Virdon chose to give him that opportunity…My point is that the Expos’ problems, while they may very well have their origin in some aloof, distant intangible, do not find their way into the loss column by some mystical route. The Expos lose games because specific ballplayers fail to do specific things. The Expos have the core of a great team, but they are not ever going to win as long as they surround that core with Doug Flynns and Ray Burrises.

The 1984 Expos, not meaning to slight Charlie Lea or anything, had essentially two strengths. In Gary Carter, the Expos had one of the greatest catchers in the history of baseball. In Tim Raines, they had the outstanding leadoff man in the history of the National League…so what do they do? They trade off the catcher and worry about the center fielder’s throwing arm. It’s crazy, but if you’re losing and you’re frustrated, it seems logical. Losing teams focus their frustrations on their best players…

These remain important insights, I think. In some way, it’s a tribute to Roberts, Ashburn at all that today’s Phillies have taken over their division by learning this lesson: they’re actually supplemented their impressive core with some care and attention rather than (with the exception of the idiotic Abreu trade) taking out some early disappointments on their core players.

Random Airport Blogging, PDX Edition: Britain Votes, I Fly

[ 4 ] May 6, 2010 |

I board the first of two flights on a PDX-AMS-BRS itinerary in 90 60 minutes (which means I am safely ensconced in an airport bar).  I am missing election day, which suits me fine, because in this election the real drama should be what follows the voting itself.

Where does that stand?  First, turnout is reported to be relatively high.  This is not surprising.  This election has been predicted to be close (at least in terms of the distribution of seats in the new parliament), and most (not all) empirical research demonstrates that competitiveness is one (of many) explanatory factors in explaining variance in turnout.  Shorter: the more competitive the election and uncertain the outcome, the higher the turnout.

The final predictions are out.  BBC: C 284 L 257 LD 80.  Fivethirtyeight: C 312, L 204, LD 103.  The LSE have a tactical voting model that when incorporated predicts C 251, L 286, LD 81; with a bog standard uniform national swing, C 275, L 264, LD 79; alternatively, with a model predicting Conservative success in their strategy of targeting Labour marginals, C 310, L 211, LD 97.  Finally, UK Polling Report has the Tories the plurality in seats but short of an overall majority by 52 seats: in other words, 274.

Aside from the outliers of 538 or the LSE model predicting enhanced Tory success in the marginals, it is looking like a “balanced” parliament that creates the conditions for the sort of negotiations that I suggested a couple days ago.  Basically, missing election night (aside from not watching my colleagues Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher pontificate on national TV, ITV for the former, Sky News the latter) isn’t that important: the big stories will emerge in the days that follow.  Do the Tories try to usurp existing constitutional practice?  Does Gordon Brown do what’s best for both the Labour Party and the country and stand aside as part of a Lib-Lab coalition, or will his stubborn pride prevent this from occurring?  Do the Liberal Democrats, likewise, do what’s best for both them and their long standing dream of electoral reform and have an open mind in any negotiations with Labour, or do they take the easy path in supporting a minority Tory government . . . do what end?

Of course, I may just return to a UK governed by a strong Conservative majority who will slash public spending, severely restrict the BBC so as to allow Murdoch greater control over the British media market, cut the NHS, and accelerate Labour’s cut back of university funding such that universities in the UK will be forced to adopt entrench their corporate models of organization and invest a large amount of time, effort, and creative energy reconceptualizing themselves as brands, not universities (though this itself comes with some degree of risk).

In either event, I’ll be between 35,000 and 40,000 feet on a 767, hoping that my pilot has become adept at dodging volcanic ash.

Broder/Snowe ’12!

[ 6 ] May 6, 2010 |

I’m not sure which of the many obviously idiotic arguments in the latest demonstration of utter cluelessness by Mark Penn, Union Buster (TM) is the very dumbest. But I think I’m going to have to go with his assertion that the socially liberal/fiscally conservative view is underrepresented in American politics. How a pollster who seems not to know anything about public opinion or the structure of American political institutions manages to get one extremely high-paying gig after another is an even better example of the consultant racket than Bob Shrum.

The most amazing thing about Penn’s performance as he torpedoed the Clinton campaign is that his strategy of relentlessly insulting people’s intelligence didn’t seem to be pure spin — to a large extent, he seemed to believe his own bullshit.

Némirovsky and Anti-Semitism

[ 6 ] May 6, 2010 |

This rather odd recent article about the novelist Irène Némirovsky is a good example of a journalistic technique I can’t stand: allowing people to respond to uncited “critics” without linking to their arguments, describing them in sufficient detail, or giving them a chance to respond. Némirovsky, as some of you know, was the author of the recently discovered and translated Suite Francaise. What makes her story especially compelling is that she was a victim of the Holocaust — but had previously been known for anti-Semitic novels and was a darling of the French far right. The claims made by the biographers discussed in the article appear to be largely a response to Ruth Franklin’s article about the vile anti-Semitism of Némirovsky’s earlier work. (Franklin confirmed to me that she wasn’t even contacted for the Times story, although the biographers directly responded to her article, a response that was quite convincingly rebutted.) Franklin’s case is well-supported:

From the start, her fiction incorporated the anti-Jewish stereotypes that would become something of a trademark. In an early novella called Le Malentendu, or The Misunderstanding, published in 1926, an aristocrat consults a Jewish co-worker for financial advice: a “typical young Jew, rich, elegant, with a long pointed nose in a narrow, pale face.” And the Jew takes advantage of his colleague financially.

In David Golder, an appalling book by any standard, Némirovsky spins an entire novel from that stereotype. The title character is an oil magnate who has sacrificed his life to his business and has nothing to show for it but money–money that his wife and daughter are constantly bleeding from him. His wife, Gloria, openly cuckolds him while expecting him to support her extravagant lifestyle. (When he enters the room, she hides her checkbook “as if it were a packet of love letters.”) Their eighteen-year-old daughter, Joyce, forces him to gamble until he collapses to win her money for a new car. “It’s just that I have to have everything on earth, otherwise I’d rather die!” she tells him. Golder, for his part, is alternately cruel and pathetic. In the novel’s first scene, he mercilessly refuses to cut his own partner a break on the sale of some oil shares, showing no pity and offering no explanation: “‘Business,’ was all he murmured, as if he were naming some terrifying god.”

In the hands of Edith Wharton or Ford Madox Ford, these characters might have acquired some complexity–perhaps a redeeming quality, or just a kind word at some point to someone. But Némirovsky’s portrayals are relentlessly one- sided. The women come off particularly poorly. After the partner’s suicide, Golder overhears his wife, wearing an enormous pearl necklace, negotiating with the undertaker to downgrade the quality of his coffin. Gloria, too, will pursue a bargain at any cost: she haggles with a woman trying to sell a fur coat to help her boyfriend pay off his debts, but while she is waiting for the woman to agree to a better price, the boyfriend kills himself. (Gloria sees herself as the loser here, because now “of course she’ll keep the coat.”) In the novel’s cruelest moment, Gloria mocks Golder for his devotion to Joyce, revealing that she is not really his daughter.

Were it not for the Jewish dimension of this lurid plot, David Golder would be only a semi-tragic tale of money-lust and family cruelty. The racial component transforms it into something uglier. The Jewish caricatures are, frankly, shocking. Fischl, a business associate of Golder’s, is described as a “fat little Jew. He had a comical, vile and slightly sinister air as he stood in the doorway with his red hair, ruddy complexion and bright, knowing eyes behind thin gold spectacles. His stomach stuck out, his legs were short, skinny and misshapen. In his killer’s hands, he calmly held a porcelain bowl of fresh caviar.” Golder’s nose, Gloria muses at one point, is “enormous and hooked, like the nose of an old Jewish money-lender.” During the final oil-company negotiations, which help to bring about Golder’s demise, another man at the table, holding Golder’s hand, “vaguely remembered how he had once held the fractured, bleeding jaw of a dying Irish setter in the same way. Why did this old Jew so often remind him of a sick dog, close to death, who still bares his teeth, growls wildly and gives one last, powerful bite?”

Having not read David Golder, I can’t judge the accuracy of these arguments. But what’s strange about the attempt in the Times to defend Némirovsky against the charges of anti-Semitism is that they don’t really dispute this characterization of the novel. The defense doesn’t even take the potentially reasonable form that the novel was anti-Semitic but not without its aesthetic merits. Rather, the argument seems to be that, sure, David Golder was full of grotesque anti-Semitic stereotypes…but this was motivated primarily by Némirovsky’s “overwhelming loathing for her mother.” Oh. (In what sense anti-Semitism and hatred for Némirovsky’s Jewish mother are mutually exclusive is not explained.) Even more bizarre is the claim by the biographers that “[h]ad David Golder been written in 2009 by Bernard Madoff’s daughter, who would dream of accusing her of anti-Semitic views?” Strange — last summer I read Erin Arvedlund’s book about Madoff, which managed to discuss his fraud in exhaustive detail without engaging in anti-Semitic stereotypes. So I don’t see how writing a specifically anti-Semitic novel about Bernie Madoff wouldn’t be evidence of anti-Semitism. The fact that her apologists seem to think that this is a good argument doesn’t say much for their credibility.

This credulous article, in other words, doesn’t even rise to the level of “shape of the earth: views differ.” It’s more like “two authors assert earth is flat, nameless critics say otherwise, but we can assure you they’re wrong based on these transparently specious arguments.”

Welcome To My Life, Taboo

[ 59 ] May 5, 2010 |

Although Brian Leiter beat me to it, this David Bernstein post is such a remarkable piece of work that I can’t resist piling on.    Angry about the possibility that someone might be criticized (with, properly in my view, no other consequences as far as I can tell) for expressing racist views, he provides a list of people that are not “taboo” in American universities despite their having done bad things or expressed political views that David Bernstein disagrees with.   It’s not surprising that Walt and Mearshimer pop up, but it’s not clear what the point is; like the HLS emailer they’ve been subject to some harsh criticism (some of it, in my view, justified) and haven’t suffered any employment consequences — so what?    But it gets much better — in his list of six examples of how left-wingers can say anything they want, he manages to cite one example where a professor was denied tenure for his political views, and another example where a professor was fired for apparently legitimate reasons, but through a process put in motion only after he had expressed unpopular political views.

In an attempt to skate over this inadvertently convincing demolition of his own argument, Bernstein concedes in nicely Orwellian phrasing that Finklestein and Churchill “don’t teach at elite universities,” but asserts that this doesn’t matter because they  “have plenty of defenders and apologists at such universities.”    This argument is both dumb in principle (I dunno about you, but I’d have to say losing your job trumps having hypothetical “defenders” at unamed “universities”) and fails even on its own terms (who, exactly, has defended Churchill’s comments, as opposed to his right to say them?)    You may wonder at this point if Bernstein applies this ad hoc “losing your job is no big deal” standard to History’s Greatest Martyr, Saint Larry Summers.    Well, you won’t be surprised by the answer.   And the last time I looked, neither Churchill nor Finklestein occupied powerful, highly-compensated positions in the United States government…

Authoritarian Who Despises American Constitutional Values of the Day

[ 3 ] May 5, 2010 |

Holy Joe Lieberman, America’s last honest man and second most important arbiter of National Integritude after Bill Bennett.   (See also here and here and here.)

He’s No Lewis Sorley, But…

[ 1 ] May 5, 2010 |

Congratulations to George Herring!

Vietnam War historian George C. Herring, Alumni Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Kentucky, is the 2010 recipient of the Medallion for Intellectual Achievement. The UK Libraries Medallion for Intellectual Achievement recognizes high intellectual achievement while encouraging education and promoting creativity throughout the Commonwealth. The award may be given to a person or group of persons. Candidates must be native Kentuckians or have studied, worked, or lived in Kentucky for at least three years and demonstrated intellectual excellence in a scientific, artistic, literary, social, or humanitarian venue or have produced some original work or contribution of lasting value.

A native of Virginia, Herring earned his bachelor’s degree from Roanoke College. After service in the U.S. Navy he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in history from the University of Virginia. He joined the UK faculty in 1969 after four years at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

A popular teacher, Herring taught classes at all levels, from introductory survey courses in U.S. history to graduate seminars. He directed the work of 35 doctoral students and more than 50 graduate students pursuing master’s degrees. Herring is a recipient of the UK Alumni Association Great Teacher Award and the Sturgill Award for Excellence in Graduate Education. He served three terms as chair of the UK Department of History and was acting director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce in the spring of 2005.

A specialist in the history of U.S. foreign relations, Herring’s writing has focused on the Vietnam War and includes most importantly, “America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975,” now in its fourth edition.

Robert Gates Gave a Speech…

[ 0 ] May 5, 2010 |

I have some thoughts on Gates’ Navy speech over at ID.

The Would-Be Facebook Refugee’s Dilemma

[ 42 ] May 4, 2010 |

Dan Yoder is leaving Facebook, and implores us to “join him.” He has almost a dozen reasons why. Some of them are even good reasons. He’s not alone. And more and more of us, disenchanted, disenfranchised Facebookers know it.

But here’s the rub, Dan. A lot of us can’t just decide to “leave” without having somewhere to go. That’s because Facebook has become not just an extension of our offline networks, but to some extent, a space in which our virtual identities live – our most important semi-imagined community. The decision to leave such sites is usually agonizing and isolating, because we are deeply committed to what Facebook has to offer, even as many of us abhor on principle what Facebook is becoming. You offer us not a chance at diasporic exile, Dan, but rather a path to online death. We seek instead a better life.

In short, Facebook is like a beloved national homeland poisoned by a corrupt and unyielding government. As in real life, a few people like Dan will respond to such a situation by ritual suicide. Others will choose to exercise voice and or soldier on with resigned loyalty to life under the boot. But in real life, a significant number of people choose to defect, to flee. That’s different from just “deleting” yourself. And to do that, you have to have somewhere to go.

Plenty of us would choose such an exile from the dictatorship of Facebook were there a welcoming neighbor nearby to which we could escape with our friends and families. The latter is crucial: since the “space” of social networking sites is constituted both by the platform and by one’s social network, we need a way to convince people in our Facebook networks to join us in exodus. That requires a social networking utility as cool and functional as Facebook, with none of its privacy-violating nonsense. Not just any country, but a country where we and our friends would actually want to go.

What’s out there? Read more…

The Great One Goes To The Great Tiger Stadium In The Sky

[ 10 ] May 4, 2010 |

Ernie Harwell, R.I.P.

May 4, 1970

[ 19 ] May 4, 2010 |

Kent State