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Hack of the Day

[ 5 ] September 15, 2014 |

Stuart Taylor Jr. 

Some bonus hackery from the archives. 

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The Cultural Turn

[ 86 ] September 15, 2014 |

Interesting article on how Democrats are now using cultural issues to hammer Republicans in much the same way Republicans did effectively until very recently against Democrats.

In Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, important swing states, Democratic senators contending with a sour climate for their party have used debates to hammer their Republican opponents on issues related to contraception and women’s rights. Those efforts may carry them only so far in a year when Republicans have more paths to winning control of the Senate than Democrats have to keeping it.

Republicans’ attempts to parry attacks also reveal how the ground has shifted. Their challengers in the three states have fought back with proposals to sell birth control pills over the counter, a pivot that not long ago might have enraged religious conservatives who were concerned about enabling promiscuity. But there is little indication of that now, nor any broader sign that the right is being motivated by Democrats’ push on social issues.

“We cannot assume that we still live in Mayberry,” said Russell D. Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Clearly American culture has changed a great deal.”

Just as striking is what is barely being discussed: same-sex marriage. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, simply changed the subject to the economy when he was pressed about a federal judge’s decision striking down his state’s ban on same-sex unions.

Now Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, who succeeded Mr. Allard in 2009, is running a campaign courting female voters by emphasizing the culture wars. Along with an array of outside liberal groups, Mr. Udall has pounded his Republican challenger, Representative Cory Gardner, on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.

When he had the opportunity to ask a question at the first Senate debate last weekend, there was little doubt about what Mr. Udall would raise.

“When it comes to a woman’s reproductive rights and women’s health, how can women and families trust you?” the senator asked.

Mr. Gardner countered by airing a commercial featuring him speaking to a group of women in which he vowed “cheaper and easier” access to birth control pills.

Mr. Udall narrowly leads Mr. Gardner in polls, and Colorado Republicans say that if Mr. Udall’s cultural assault is successful, it will represent an ominous sign about their party’s ability to win statewide.

“If he can’t win this in this environment and against this incumbent, I shudder to think when we are going to be able to win one,” said Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican chairman. “This election, in many ways, is going to determine whether Colorado has really shifted blue.”

Turns out that taking crazy extremist positions may not be sustainable for long-term political viability. Who knew. And really, if Republicans start losing Colorado consistently, which is quite likely, their political base has really eroded. The only states we can argue are maybe becoming more Republican at this point are the Great Lakes states, but the prediction of them turning to the Republicans permanently is going on 35 years old now. This is why Republicans are so desperate to stop minorities and college students from voting. The only way they can win is to reduce the electorate.

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Scotchtoberfest Revisited

[ 71 ] September 15, 2014 |

Gotta love this:

I particularly enjoy it because I’ve always found the following exchange evocative of the kind of baroque post-nationalism that the Scottish referendum represents:

Groundskeeper Willie: Now the kilt was only for day-to-day wear. In battle, we donned a full-length ballgown covered in sequins. The idea was to blind your opponent with luxury. [Bart ties a set of balloon to his kilt, making it fly off with them and show his buttocks, which makes everyone gasp.] Aah, ’tis no more than what God gave me, you puritan pukes.

Principal Skinner: Congratulations, Simpson. You just fell for our sting and won yourself three months detention. There’s no such thing as Scotchtoberfest.

Groundskeeper Willie: There’s not? Ya used me, Skinner! Ya used me!

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Airpower Over Vietnam?

[ 18 ] September 15, 2014 |

For the National Interest this week, a brief reappraisal of the promise and failure of airpower in Vietnam:

Effectively, the Obama administration has decided to rely on airpower in its efforts to limit the catastrophic, ongoing chaos caused by the Iraq War. Thinking about the operation against ISIS in these terms almost inevitably evokes similar thoughts about previous catastrophic wars. For example, could airpower have won the Vietnam War, or at least limited the extent of our defeat?

Certainly, lots of people believed so at the time. While the United States Air Force may have viewed the Rolling Thunder campaign as sub-optimal, given its desire to attack a much wider range of targets, the commanders at the time viewed it as an opportunity to show that the service could win a war on its own. Taking a look at the strategic, tactical, and joint aspects of the use of airpower in Vietnam, we can get to an answer of “Maybe, but…” with an emphasis on the “but.” The United States could have used airpower more effectively in Vietnam than it did, but even the most efficient plans likely could not have saved the Saigon regime.

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Since the Beginning of Time, Republicans Have Yearned To Massively Expand Medicaid

[ 95 ] September 15, 2014 |

Thomas Frank’s lastest profit-taking Salon column begins with the germ of an interesting argument about the problem of over-reliance on experts.  Alas, from there it follows the typical path straight down Pundit’s Fallacy Gulf. Along the way, he makes the usual historical and empirical errors your really don’t need to be a fancy-pants political scientist to identify:

In 2010, the two parties repeated the act, with D’s embracing the extremely unpopular Republican bailout strategy (and a more modestly unpopular Republican healthcare program) and R’s pretending to be some kind of ’30s-style protest movement waving signs in the street.

Omitted: any national Republicans or state-level Republicans not governing alongside massive Democratic supermajorities who supported a massive expansion of Medicaid accompanied by a much more tightly regulated private insurance industry. I also note the implicit argument that the original Medicaid, which left large numbers of poor people ineligible, was “real” liberalism while the ACA’s version, making a significantly superior program available to everyone within 138% of the federal poverty line, was not. Nor do I think there’s anything particularly progressive about letting the entire financial system collapse in 2008. At any rate, the idea that the Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010 was focused on enacting a “Republican” agenda is simply absurd.

This particular howler is the culmination of the anti-history we’re familiar with:

This approach has had a number of successes. But its limitations are far more striking. I offer, as Exhibit A, last Sunday’s big Upshot piece in the New York Times, “Why Democrats Can’t Win the House” by Nate Cohn, another journalist known for his data-shuffling skills. Cohn asks why Democrats, who are the majority party, have so little chance of re-taking the House of Representatives from the Republicans this fall, despite the Republicans’ extreme misbehavior over the last few years. It’s a good question, and Cohn downplays the usual answer, that it’s all because of partisan gerrymandering. Instead, he points to the concentration of Democratic voters in a small number of urban Congressional districts, which has the effect of leaving the remaining House seats of a given state to the GOP.

Even so, these House Republicans are really, truly awful. Isn’t there a way for Democrats to beat them regardless of the geographic hurdles? According to Cohn, not really. Either Democrats have to appeal to lost voters (like “the conservative Democrats of the South and Appalachia”) by moving rightward, or they will have to “wait for demographic and generational change” to win the seats for them. And maybe that makes sense, given the assumptions of the lame school of political science that D.C. types always gravitate to—the kind in which there are but two poles in political life and politicians of the left party can only win if they move rightward.

It is this kind of strikingly unoriginal thinking, which I am sure is shared by the blue team’s high command, that explains why the Democratic Party looks to be headed for another disaster this fall.

Allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point on this march of science. You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, butthe opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law. Taking economic matters off the table was thought to be the path of wisdom among expert-worshipping Washingtonians, but it had the unforeseen consequence of making culture that much more important for a large part of the population. Democrats were eventually swamped by all the crazy grievance campaigns of the right, which has splashed back and forth in the mud of the culture wars ever since.

First of all, while it’s true that Democrats nominally controlled Congress for most of the period between 1932 and 1976, the implicit argument that it did so through a an uncompromising commitment to economic liberalism is deeply wrong. For most of this period, Congress was in fact controlled by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans. And even during the New Deal, conservative Democrats exerted substantial influence over legislation. (What Democrats had to “offer” the South was plenty of racial discrimination within the new federal welfare state.)  The brief heyday of the Great Society, admittedly, was not similarly compromised, with the result that conservative Southern Democrats permanently exited the party coalition. Frank is obviously getting cause and effect backwards. It is true that the Democrats during the 1990s overcompensated, which is why the Democratic Congress of 2009-2010 was substantially more progressive than its Clinton-era predecessor, something you can get around only if you erroneously label longstanding Democratic priorities as “Republican” despite the total absence of previous or contemporaneous Republican support.

The key point here is that the obvious structural limitation that Cohn is discussing here — the fact that both houses of Congress overrepresent conservative, rural areas — was not absent during the New Deal era. The Democrats were able to control Congress for most of this period, but did so only by having a caucus loaded with members who make Ben Nelson look like Barbara Lee. The idea that these state can be won back by running economic liberals is pining for a past that never existed.  Thinking about this period should also remind us that Frank is very wrong to think that the “crazy grievance campaigns of the right” only became relevant in the mid-1990s (and also wrong, of course, to trivialize civil rights issues, or imply that they’re somehow distinct from economic issues.)

impeachearlwarren3

Above: What Happened When Bill Clinton Took Economics Off the Table 

The structural problem Cohn identifies is a longstanding feature of American politics. There has never been a time in which the Democratic coalition consisted entirely of robust economic liberals. Frank offers, again and again, “solutions” that just wish the problem away. Not only could the Democrats retake the House of Representative in 2014 merely by changing ideological positioning, but miraculously enough “agreeing with Thomas Frank about everything” is in every context a political winner. Again, you don’t have to be any kind of expert to see that this is just isn’t hard-headed political analysis; it’s daydream believing.

…Chait has more.   As does Bernstein.  

…and a slightly more positive Kilgore.

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On Quirk

[ 37 ] September 15, 2014 |

I have a bizarre obsession with the movie “Gentleman Broncos,” because I see it as the ultimate example of wasted potential. The premise–sad, fatherless boy writes good (?) cathartic sci-fi story only to have it stolen by successful sci-fi writer in a creative slump (as played by Jemaine Clement!!!)–sounded so delicious and ripe for comedy to me, I was positively giddy about seeing it. The movie is actually pretty terrible. It didn’t have to be; it was ruined with QUIRK.

Quirk is tricky, but I’d say that if there were one rule regarding quirk, it’s this: Quirk must seem organic. Quirk has to seem like it just appeared of its volition. It can’t be movie icing.–it can’t be something you just slather all over your movie to make it more interesting.

The reason “Gentleman Broncos” didn’t work for me is because I felt like the director was so focused on making the film quirky and weird he got in the way of the story. In fact, the story itself always felt secondary to me.  Actually, it felt buried under layers and layers of awkward weirdness. It looks like it’s 1985 for some reason and the mother has a “talent” for making hideously ugly nightgowns. The small-town auteur is over-the-top freaky in a really mannered way. It’s like the Jared Hess ingested “Napoleon Dynamite,” vomited it up then boiled it down to make a concentrated movie syrup and served it up to us. It’s not good eats.

I think quirk is tricky because it can make a detour into awkward weirdness or saccharine cuteness really quickly. But it can be employed to good use, too: think of the Charlie Kaufman-written gems “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich.” They’re both weird as hell yet incredibly accessible and  better than they have any right to be. I seriously don’t know how “Being John Malkovich” ended up being as organically bizarre and hilarious as it was. But that is QUIRK DONE RIGHT. 

Wes Anderson mostly does quirk really well, too; sweet, artful quirk is just part of his aesthetic.

I just think quirk is a thing best used sparingly unless its in the hands of the truly gifted.

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“Looking Out For No. 1″ Is A Kind of Ethics

[ 234 ] September 14, 2014 |

I’m happy to mostly outsource my response to Bryan Lowder’s trolling to Madeline Davies. I will only add that the increasingly shabby treatment of non-premium customers by airlines is beside the point. The idea that people should sacrifice comfort so they can be better objects for Bryan Lowder’s aesthetic contemplation while engaging in a form of travel that is never going to be comfortable is just deeply stupid and offensive on its face. (And we’re not talking here about choices that tangibly affect someone else’s comfort — saying people should shower and avoid powerful food odors is a different issue.) Nor is self-interest an issue; I generally wear a button-down shirt and slacks while on planes and never wear sweat pants unless I’m exercising. Nonetheless, you’re a decent human being if you want to wear sweatpants while flying, while pissing and moaning that the “swamp of schlumps” aren’t wearing sports jackets during their periods of encasement in flying sardine tins nowadays is something less than decent.

I hadn’t planned to bother pointing out the obvious, though, until someone on the Facebook pointed out this contrarian comedy classic from Lowder’s archives:

He was talking about the stock. Vegetarians were at that moment speeding up the express subway track toward our home, and, despite my efforts to craft a menu that would appease them, I had just failed by using chicken stock in the mushroom risotto … or had I?

I flashed my chilliest Stepford smile at him as I gently stirred the liquid into the hissing pot. “You won’t say a word, will you, sweetie?”

I should probably apologize for this supposedly egregious violation, but for some reason, the words choke in my throat. For starters, the addition of my carefully crafted homemade stock to the risotto was not malicious. In my daily cooking, the ingredient is as basic as kosher salt and freshly ground pepper; I reach for a half-cup of it to thin a sauce or enrich weeknight rice just as I would somnambulistically reach for the AC remote in the middle of a steamy August night. In other words, it was an accident.

But the more I meditate on this issue, the more I think that it is not I who should feel guilty, even for an honest mistake. After all, one version of a saying by none other than famed gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin tells us that “stock to a cook is like voice to a singer.” Can you really justify taking away my voice? When I have vegetarians over for dinner, I’m already making a sacrifice by forgoing a real entrée in favor of a meatless one. Fairness and common sense would argue that, in return, vegetarians shouldn’t make a big deal about some small amount of a near-invisible (if crucial!) liquid. I’ve compromised my culinary integrity enough already—now it’s your turn: Vegetarians and vegans, chicken stock does not count as meat.

Look, part of being a good host is that you should accommodate the dietary and ethical concerns of your guests. If your guests don’t eat animal products, don’t serve animal products. You can make a perfectly good risotto with homemade vegetable stock, or if you can’t make a decent vegetable stock you can serve one of the countless good vegetarian dishes that don’t use it. Your guests shouldn’t be required to compromise their principles because you lack imagination. And if you want to pretend there’s some principle involved in never cooking without chicken stock, don’t lie to your guests about it. I mean, really.

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If ladies burped, farted, or told raunchy jokes, I could see them serving in the infantry. But…

[ 138 ] September 14, 2014 |

Lioness training in Iraq via United States Marine Corps

Of course women aren’t fit to serve in the infantry. Men are pigs who will sexually assault and harass them at the drop of a beret.

[This post is brought to you by a pair of your old friends.]

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Today in Post-Racial America

[ 53 ] September 14, 2014 |

Obviously if a black woman is kissing a white man, she’s a prostitute. There can be no other possible explanation for such deviant behavior. Handcuff her!

And this sort of behavior is directly connected to the institutionalized violence the police commit against African-Americans, in Ferguson and everywhere else. They see black people as criminals and so even the most basic human activities are reason for arrest, intimidation, and violence.

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This Day in Labor History: September 14, 1959

[ 31 ] September 14, 2014 |

On September 14, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Landrum-Griffin Act after actively lobbying for its passage. Officially known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, Landrum-Griffin used union corruption as an excuse for a broad-based attack upon organized labor on issues completely unrelated to corruption. The passage of this bill was another major blow to organized labor in the early years of the Cold War that moved power away from unions and back to corporations.

There is a widescale public perception of union corruption. Mostly, this is false and a corporate promoted narrative to turn people off of organizing themselves to improve their lives. But with some unions, corruption was (and occasionally still today, is) all too real. In general, this corruption was concentrated in some of the AFL trades, mostly the smaller building trades unions but also of course in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Teamsters corruption is largely associated with Jimmy Hoffa. This is not wrong and Hoffa was certainly on the take himself, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated that that. First, the IBT had major corruption issues before Hoffa took power. Second, the corruption reached deep into several sectors of the union. The Teamsters had real problems here and earned their reputation, although the problem is less severe today. The AFL version of the United Auto Workers (UAW-AFL–basically the offshoot of UAW locals angry over internal politics in the real UAW) had real problems. John Dioguardi, a high ranked member of the Lucchese crime family was named head of UAW-AFL Local 102 in New York. Distillery Workers Union executive Sol Cilento was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges.

These sorts of problems got the attention of politicians. It is worth remembering that outside of union-dense areas, organized labor was extremely unpopular in the United States, giving politicians in the South, Great Plains, and West no reason not to go after unions. It also allowed politicians from the union-heavy areas to raise their national profile by showing they would buck unions at some risk to their careers. Anti-corruption hearings in Congress settled in the McClellan Committee, named after its chair, senator John McClellan, a Democrat from Arkansas. The McClellan Committee originally investigated corruption charges against both business and labor but soon shifted to a Senate committee devoted exclusively to digging into the dark side of organized labor. After the 1958 congressional election, in which Democrats picked up large gains in both chambers, conservatives struck back by raising fears of communistic and corrupt unions (never mind that the lefty unions were the ones most likely to not be corrupt and the corrupt unions were largely among the most conservative) would rule America.

Introducing the law was two congressmen–Philip Landrum, a Georgia Democrat, and Michigan Republican John Griffin. This “bipartisanship” that so many Beltway hacks long for today ignores the fact that the real control in Congress belonged to people who shared very similar conservative positions on many issues, regardless of party registration. Among the law’s features were mandating that unions hold internal elections, barred members of the Communist Party from holding union office for five years after they left the CPUSA, required that unions submit annual financial reports to the Department of Labor, and limit power to put locals into trusteeship, which is a way to undermine internal union challenges. Effectively, Landrum-Griffin used corruption as an excuse to extend the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Legislation could have dealt with actually corrupt unions rather than serve as a general attack on organized labor, but that was not the point for the legislators involved. They wanted to bust unions.

Organized labor as a whole vociferously opposed Landrum-Griffin. This isn’t because the AFL-CIO didn’t oppose corruption. As a whole, the federation very much did. It also kicked three particularly corrupt unions out of the federation, including the Teamsters. It’s because the bill’s authors used it as a broader attack upon unions, forcing them into reporting requirements that business did not have to adhere to. In other words, it was a major step in tipping a playing field only twenty years earlier evened for workers back toward employers. What on earth did communism have to do with corruption? Nothing of course, but it didn’t matter.

Politically of course, it was brilliant to force labor to oppose Landrum-Griffin because they then looked pro-corruption to the general public. Some senators who had made their name fighting union corruption were not happy that the bill attacked the heart of unions. That included John F. Kennedy, who had introduced his own anti-corruption bill. Said Robert Kennedy, chief counsel to McClellan, Landrum-Griffin went “beyond the scope of the McClellan Committee’s findings to affect the economic balance at the bargaining table by honest and legitimate unions and employers.” What made Landrum-Griffin beat Kennedy’s bill was President Eisenhower giving a national speech on September 3 to urge its passage. Congress soon did and Eisenhower signed the law on September 14, 1959.

A fascinating side note to the origins of Landrum-Griffin. David Witwer’s recent research that shows the public incident that led to its passage was largely fabricated. In 1956, the anti-union newspaper columnist Victor Riesel was blinded when the mob threw acid in his eyes. The story was that the corrupt unions it as revenge for his writing about the “underworld-Communist combine” in his column and to prevent him from testifying against union corruption. It was this act that led to the McClellan Committee. The FBI arrested UAW-AFL Local 102 head John Diogaurdi for ordering the hit. Dioguardi was absolutely a mobster running a union for personal profit. This general narrative of bad union thugs attacking hero Riesel for his brave crusade has remained largely unchallenged until recently.

However, Witwer shows that in fact, Riesel never wrote about Dioguardi or any of his operations. Instead, it seems Riesel was corrupt himself and had a financial arrangement with Dioguardi so that he would not write about the mobster. Union leaders’ testimony to the FBI shows that Riesel was shaking down the corrupt unions to keep their names out of his columns. Dioguardi and Riesel even partied together at mob restaurants in New York’s garment district. Witwer could not find out exactly why Dioguardi ordered the hit on Riesel. He suggests it may have had something to do with a dispute over the financial arrangements between the two in another shakedown–forcing business to pay up to stay union free.

All the big political players, including the U.S. Attorney, FBI, and the McClellan Committee, found out about Riesel’s double dealings and lies as he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer a lot of questions when they talked to him. But Riesel was too useful in the larger anti-union movement to bother with the truth mattering much. Riesel played the martyr until the day he died. Fascinating stuff.

This is the 117th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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Sledge Hammer

[ 27 ] September 13, 2014 |

One of the first TV shows I ever remember liking was Sledge Hammer, the 80s Dirty Harry spoof that lasted only a season and a half before being cancelled. I don’t know why I liked it then, certainly not because I understood all the jokes, but I remembered some funny stuff all these years later. I figured though that watching it today wouldn’t really pay off. But my brother, who reviews DVDs on the side, watched the series again and immediately said I had to watch it.

And you know what? It holds up pretty well. It has some of the problems of an 80s comedy. Too many episodes per season for one, leading to some bad ones. After the opening episode, at least they didn’t use a laugh track. But for the most part, this isn’t bad at all and some episodes are down right hilarious. It’s really a show ahead of its time. It really trusted its audience with all sorts of movie references, some of which that wouldn’t be all that super obvious to the average schlub watching ABC at 8 pm on a weekday night. Told political jokes. Made fun of other ABC shows. Comedies didn’t do these things in the 80s.

But most of all, it just told jokes that worked pretty well. Such as in “Comrade Hammer,” an episode you should watch. Hammer has to escort a Soviet dissident scientist to a conference. That means lots of Cold War jokes.

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The NFL’s Domestic Violence Equation

[ 75 ] September 13, 2014 |

The NFL and its teams have a simple equation it calculates when players commit domestic violence. If the player is marginal, he’s cut and the NFL can say it doesn’t tolerate domestic violence. If the player is a star, he can do anything short of killing a woman or getting caught on tape beating her. Thus Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald will be playing on Sunday.

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