April 30, 2008

Obama and Lincoln

I'm a bit late in posting this, but I recommend this perceptive piece by Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books comparing Obama's speech on race with Lincoln's famous address at the Cooper Union on race, abolitionists and the Constitution. I especially liked this passage:

"...[If] Obama did not go into the specific outrages of Wright, his criticism of him was profound and instructive. He praised the concern for the community that Wright had shown. That has always been a mark of black religion in America. Unlike the Calvinist stress on individualism, on the private experience of being saved, blacks thought in terms of the whole people being saved—all of them riding on the Ark, all reaching the Promised Land. This journey of the people is deeply embedded in the spirituals. As Jacob wrestled the angel till the break of day, "and never let him go," so:
I hold my brudder wid a tremblin' hand;
I would not let him go!
I hold my sister wid a tremblin' hand;
I would not let her go!

It was this aspect of black religion that impressed Abraham Lincoln, who became an instant friend of the former Sunday school teacher Frederick Douglass. Lincoln's Second Inaugural would eloquently argue that the whole people had sinned in slavery, was being punished together, and would repent and be saved together.

Obama's deepest criticism of Wright was not in terms of personal attack. On that, he would hold his brother with a trembling hand. The problem was that Wright saw the whole people as the black people, while Obama sees the people as the entire nation. Wright did not reach his hand to the wider circle of brothers and sisters. His view of the world was static. He would freeze the Ark's motion, though the spiritual tells us "the old Ark's a-moverin', a-moverin.'"

The Wright stuff

I'm not surprised that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright emerged as a problem for Obama, but I am stunned at the intensity of the furor. Many people have pointed out that even Wright's most objectionable views aren't discernibly worse than those of other public figures who don't prompt this kind of media panic. When, for instance, Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on the sins of gay people, it made headlines, but didn't arouse the same outrage as Wright's suggestion that 9/11 may have had something to do with American foreign policy. To be honest, Wright's claims seem pretty insignificant compared to the far more egregious beliefs about the law and human rights that have been put into practice by the current administration. Yet new revelations about, for instance, the complicity of senior officials in approving torture and abuse of prisoners have been submerged by a 24-7 feeding frenzy over the statements of a lone minister from a Chicago church.

I know that people are saying, yes, of course there are other obnoxious people out there, but most presidential candidates don't ask Jerry Falwell or Michael Moore or whoever to baptize their children. And I don't have a problem with people exploring Obama's relationship with Reverend Wright. It's the hysteria I don't get.

I can't help but think back to the reporting I did on Rudy Giuliani for this Washington Monthly piece. At the time, I was surprised that his relationship with a guy named Alan Placa didn't cause him more trouble. Placa is a priest who was suspended from the Catholic Church after multiple allegations of child abuse. (A grand jury concluded that Placa had sexually abused teenaged boys "again and again and again," but didn't bring charges because the statute of limitations had expired.) Giuliani has been friends with Placa for almost 40 years. Placa was best man at his first wedding and officiated at his second. He baptized Giuliani's children and conducted the funeral for Giuliani's mother. A few months after the abuse accusations came to light, Giuliani hired Placa to work at his consulting firm. After Giuliani started running for president, their friendship was occasionally mentioned on left-wing blogs. But although Giuliani was considered the Republican frontrunner for most of 2007, the story didn't get a ton of media attention. Even after CBS and ABC did reports, Giuliani refused to fire Placa, stating:

"I know the man; I know who he is, so I support him... We give some of the worst people in our society the presumption of innocence and benefit of the doubt. And, of course, I'm going to give that to one of my closest friends."

After that the story faded, and, as far as I know, Placa kept his job.

He'll be back...

the Rev. Wright has a book coming out later this year...

April 24, 2008

The world is splat

For Thomas Friedman, karma comes in the form of pies.

via Matt Yglesias

Cockroach gate II

Ben Smith points out that Hillary has "misspoken" about foreign leaders on quite a few occasions now:

"Along with the New Zealand flap, she's twice created real tension with key heads of state: Putin, who took it badly when she said he "doesn't have a soul"; and Musharraf, whose government reacted furiously when she suggested he might have had Benazir Bhutto killed... These stories haven't really been told as a narrative, because they don't fit the existing narrative. But they are, together, a fairly striking batch."

UPDATE: Also worth reading is this LA Times piece on the international reaction to Clinton's claim that she would "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel. She gets politely rapped on the knuckles by British diplomat extraodinaire Mark Malloch Brown:

"While it is reasonable to warn Iran of the consequence of it continuing to develop nuclear weapons and what those real consequences bring to its security, it is not probably prudent... in today's world to threaten to obliterate any other country and in many cases civilians resident in such a country."


I realize this isn't a foreign policy gaffe of the same proportions as Goolsbee-gate or sniper-gate. But as a native of New Zealand, I feel obliged to draw your attention to an incident in which Hillary Clinton may have gravely insulted this small but very important nation. Asked by Newsweek (seemingly apropos of nothing), if she "had any good jokes," Clinton offered:

"Here's a good one. Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand: her opponents have observed that in the event of a nuclear war, the two things that will emerge from the rubble are the cockroaches and Helen Clark. [Laughs]"

Setting Hillary's sense of humor aside for a moment (the joke doesn't get funnier even if you happen to know something about New Zealand politics) Helen Clark is the current prime minister of New Zealand.

The diplomatic ramifications of this become even more dire when you consider that New Zealanders have been somewhat skeptical about Hillary Clinton ever since she met Sir Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to climb Everest, and mentioned that she had been named after him. It was later pointed out that Sir Edmund climbed Mt Everest six years after Hillary Clinton was born.

It appears that the local press is more indignant about Hillary calling Clark the "former" prime minister than the suggestion that Clark is a cockroach. You can read local press reactions here and here.

Photo from Flickr user lestath_x under a Creative Commons license.

April 15, 2008

McCain and torture

A very fair-minded piece here by Michael Scherer of Time asking whether McCain has flip-flopped on torture, given his recent vote against a bill that would have required the CIA to observe the rules on interrogation tactics set out in the Army Field Manual. Here's the short version:

"A review of the record shows that McCain has neither changed his position on torture nor taken sides with President Bush on the substance of the issue."

It's true that McCain explicitly said that he wasn't in favor of allowing the CIA to use water boarding or other abusive tactics, but that there were non-abusive tactics which aren't in the field manual and which he believes are appropriate for intelligence services to use.

But... a) McCain knows that the current occupant of the White House has fostered a culture in which the wording of the law is twisted far beyond its original meaning to sanction abusive interrogation tactics and b) Bush has dealt with every previous attempt to define acceptable interrogation practices with bad faith.

I'd like to see a reporter ask McCain whether, given his own abhorrence of torture, the better course of action might have been to vote for the bill, to try to prevent the current president from allowing further abuses. Then, if McCain is elected, he could ask Congress to approve the additional, non-abusive techniques he'd like the CIA to use. And if he loses, he could lead a similar effort from the Senate and ask a Democratic president to sign it into law.

Writers vs. editors

I agree with every single word of this Michael Kinsley piece on the ancient animus between writers and editors. The weird thing is that if you do a bit of both writing and editing, you basically wind up with a split personality. For instance, when I'm writing a piece, I pretty much think like this:

"Writers are sensitive souls--generally intelligent and hardworking but easily bruised. Treat them right, though, and you will be rewarded. Writers shape words into luminous sentences and the sentences into exquisitely crafted paragraphs. They weave the paragraphs together into a near perfect article, essay or review. Then their writing--their baby--is ripped untimely from their computers (well, maybe only a couple of weeks overdue) and turned over to editors. These are idiots, most of them, and brutes, with tin ears, the aesthetic sensitivity of insects, deeply held erroneous beliefs about your topic and a maddening conviction that any article, no matter how eloquent or profound or already cut to the bone, can be improved by losing an additional 100 words."

...On the other hand, when I'm editing a piece, then my feelings change completely. Kinsley again:

"Writers, [editors] say, are whiny, self-indulgent creatures who spend too much time alone. They are egotistical, paranoid and almost always seriously dehydrated. Above all, they are spectacular ingrates. Editors save their asses, and writers do nothing but bitch about it. "If anyone saw the original manuscript from ..." (and you can insert the name of your favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning writer here) "... that guy wouldn't get hired to clean the toilets at the Stockholm Public Library. ... Editors are selfless, editors believe. They labor in anonymity and take their satisfaction vicariously. The writer gets all the glory. He gets the big bucks. He gets invited to the parties, the openings, the symposia, while the editors toil at their desks turning the writer's random jottings and pretentious stylistic quirks into something resembling English prose."

April 14, 2008

The death of the American newspaper, in pictures

A heartbreaking photo essay by Martin Gee, designer for the San Jose Mercury News and a photographer who knows how to find beauty in worn telephones and abandoned cubicles.
Flickr page here.

(via Romenesko)

April 10, 2008

Powell and torture

I was surprised not to see more discussion today of ABC's revelation that abusive interrogation methods were approved in extensive discussions by the most senior Bush administration officials, often meeting in the White House. What I found most interesting was the presence of Colin Powell at these talks, in which "some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic."

Up until now, I think most people have assumed that Colin Powell was wholly on the right side of the torture debate. We know that in 2002 he argued that the Geneva Conventions should be applied to prisoners captured in Afghanistan. After retiring, he supported the McCain amendment to outlaw torture in 2005, and in 2006 opposed the Military Commissions Act that denied habeus corpus to Guantanamo detainees.

But according to the ABC piece, "all the Principals present approved" of the techniques under discussion, which included sleep deprivation and water boarding.

April 7, 2008

Wash that mouth

In The Real McCain, a new biography, author and Democratic strategist Cliff Schecter reports:

"Three reporters from Arizona, on the condition of anonymity, also let me in on another incident involving McCain's intemperateness. In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain's hair and said, "You're getting a little thin up there." McCain's face reddened, and he responded, "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt." McCain's excuse was that it had been a long day."

I can't believe he called his wife a trollop!

Expat embarrassments

One of the disconcerting things about living away from your home country for a long time is that you start to forget things that it never occurred to you to put any effort into remembering. For instance, a while ago someone (an American) asked me the name of a popular New Zealand beer. He'd drunk it in Australia but couldn't remember what it was called. Unfortunately, neither could I. To add to my shame, he remembered the name before I did. It was Steinlager -- which is a very forgettable beer, but that's hardly the point.

I had a similarly alarming moment this week when reading a New Yorker story by David Owen on the costly anachronism that is the American penny. Towards the end of the piece, when Owen is marshaling his arguments for abolishing the penny and possibly even the nickel, he writes:

"In 2006, in an initiative called Change for the Better, New Zealand eliminated its five-cent coins, and dramatically reduced the size and weight of its ten-, twenty-, and fifty-cent coins... This total transformation of the country’s currency was received with calm pragmatism by most New Zealanders—even though the lowest-denomination coin in the new system, the redesigned ten-cent piece, is worth about eight American cents at the current rate of exchange."

The last time I was in New Zealand was early 2006, and I had no idea about any of this.

April 6, 2008

And now for something completely different

Taking a welcome break from politics, I recently wrote an article previewing The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, a contemporary opera based on Captain Cook's voyages to the Pacific. That sounds like a rather dreary entertainment featuring a lot of men in wigs and tight trousers singing jolly sea shanties. However, this opera, by the US-based New Zealand composer Matthew Suttor, was based on a book by the anthropologist Anne Salmond, who made a point of exploring both how Cook changed the Pacific, and how the Pacific changed Cook. Rather than merely fetishizing Cook as the model of an enlightenment explorer, she looks at some of the Pacific Islanders who boarded ships for England and did a considerable amount of exploring on their own.

This was a very interesting project to research, because Suttor found a lot of historical documents relating to Cook's travels at the British Museum in New Haven. My personal favorite was A Narrative of the Death of Captain James Cook, to Which Are Added Some Particulars Concerning His Life and Character and Observations Respecting the Introduction of Venereal Disease into the Sandwich Islands. They just don't write titles like they used to.