Friday, May 30, 2008

No, Virginia, I Was Lying

White House Family Room (AP)-

This weekend, Scott "Daddy" McClellan announced to stunned members of the press that there is no Santa Claus.

Reaction varied. Many skeptics pointed out that as Daddy had previously claimed that there was, in fact, a Santa Claus, and even appeared to provide corroboration on the questions of Rudolph and the North Pole, he was in no position to deny Santa's existence now. "All this proves is that Daddy is a fibber," one critic said. "How can we be sure there's not a Santa if Daddy keeps changing his story?"

Others noted the suspicious similarities between Daddy's new position and the views previously expressed by various mean kids during recess. Billy expressed his disappointment that Daddy had "accepted the caricature" promulgated by these mean kids, even including extremist claims about taking deliberately misleading bites from Santa's fireside cookies. Other pundits wondered why Daddy would suddenly talk like one of the mean kids, and if that meant that he was mean himself.

Other sources
theorized that Daddy was merely grumpy, did not mean it, or was not really Daddy but only pretending.

However, there was widespread agreement that Daddy's charge about big boys and girls not believing in Santa was inflammatory and ill-founded. All sources remarked that they had accepted the Santa narrative as a result of their mature and professional judgment as big kids, and were certainly not babies.

Babies, according to most authorities, are those too young to properly understand about the Easter Bunny.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Actually, We Do Remember That

So, Hillary Clinton said a silly thing. Not so much funny as peculiar.

Obviously, she was not wishing harm would come to Senator Obama, or implying that it might. The significance of what she said seems to have surprised her.

She was trying to make an entirely different and innocent, if not entirely honest point, that the Democratic primary campaign has not gone on unusually long. And she made a gaffe, because actually the Democratic primary campaign has gone on unusually long and she's tired. She was clearly focused on spinning her main point of the day, which required her to marshal genuine facts into a wildly misleading conclusion without explicitly lying. (She denies that this primary campaign has gone on longer than others because some of the others went on into June, neglecting to mention that those campaigns started in mid-March, rather than the first week of January). And while she focused on not accidentally stating a falsehood or revealing the truth, she said something horribly and shockingly careless.

That said, I don't have much sympathy. Because the gist of Senator Clinton's spin was that something was terribly suspicious about calls for the campaign to end and that we should look for sinister meanings in those calls. The sentence after the "assassination" sentence is, "I don't understand it." What the Senator claims not to understand is why people call for her to end her campaign. The specious claims about June are meant to distort away the basic (and completely truthful) objection that the campaign has gone on a long time and might hurt party unity, leaving the Senator to imply that there can be no reason except ... unless ... do you think that it might be ...?

Here's the lesson: while you're trying to prime voters to hear sinister and conspiratorial undertones in everything your critics say and everything they leave suspiciously unsaid, it would help not to use any words with sinister connotations yourself. It's very hard to encourage people to supply an unsavory context for everyone else's words and then protest that your own words have been misunderstood. It's even harder to do those two things in the other order. Senator Clinton has to protest that she has been misconstrued and that we should not blow her comments out of proportion. But it's going to be very hard, next week and the week after, to urge us to construe her critics' words more suspiciously or to blow them out of proportion.

This gaffe, while surely not malicious or homicidal, pretty much puts a stake in the heart of Clinton's chief rationales for her campaign at this point.

1) Her chief emotional appeal to the voting public is that she's gotten a raw deal, and that people have gotten a free pass for bashing her in subtly and not-so-subtly sexist ways. Whatever the truth of that claim, it's much harder to keep making after Clinton needs to ask for an enormous pass herself. Some of HRC's hard-core supporters will simply consider the reaction to her gaffe more slanted mistreatment from the press, of course, and harden their support, but she could always count on the loyalty of the supporters who believe she can do no wrong, and the rest of her voters will have a harder time arguing for her mistreatment. Senator Clinton just shrank her core of support.

2) Her chief strategic appeal, aimed primarily at the superdelegates, is that she will simply be a more effective candidate than Barack Obama and that she should be nominated because she'll be stronger against McCain in the fall. It's pretty hard to make the case that she's a terrific candidate this morning. You may not take the nomination from a front-runner for a slip of the tongue, but you surely don't take it away from the front-runner for someone who's making those slips of the tongue. The superdelegates are professional activists and politicians. They're going to judge her on her political skills, not her intentions, and she didn't look terribly skillful yesterday.

3) Her claim to first refusal of the running-mate slot, which some of her supporters were pressing yesterday, is now basically doomed. The argument, reported by CNN yesterday is basically that not giving Clinton the Vice-Presidency would so anger her backers that they would wage "open civil war" in the Democratic party. That blackmail ploy relies upon the perception of Clinton as unjustly aggrieved, more sinned-against than sinning. But her ill-chosen words have just handed the Obama campaign the only thing that could get them out of the trap, which is their own grievance. It's very hard to make Obama out to be the villain for not wanting a running mate who throws around "assassination" references while he's dealing with an extra helping of death threats. Obama never needs to mention that. People will supply the explanation. If anyone does need to be reminded, a few leaked stories about Michelle Obama's anxieties will do the trick admirably.

Even if you put the most positive construction on Senator Clinton's remark, they're sufficient excuse not to put her on the ticket. She's made a huge mistake on the trail, which is not a preferred qualification in a running mate, and she's been wildly insensitive about the other candidate and his family. It's difficult to press that person on a nominee.

But in any case, the most outrageous and immoral thing said on Friday was said, of course, by John McCain. About the G.I. Bill.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hillary Clinton, Enemy of Women in the Workplace

When I listen to Hillary Clinton talk about the election these days, I am powerfully reminded of my own mother's career in a traditionally male profession, and how her career was ultimately derailed by what seemed to me fairly glaring gender discrimination. (As a legal caveat, I am asserting nothing about the facts of my mother's case, but only describing my personal impression of it: that is, my overwhelming and inescapable personal impression of it.)

My mother is about Hillary's age. I grew up watching her go to college, enter a profession that is overwhelmingly and traditionally male, and do brilliantly, despite the many, many knee-jerk objections she faced, from both women and men, to a woman daring to enter her field at all. Even entering the workplace late, she would (and should) have reached the apex of her profession before she turned forty years old, had she not been denied one final, moderately historic, promotion. Had her application been decided strictly on her professional qualifications, she would have been the only woman in her state to hold a top position in her field, and one of the first handful of women in the state to ever hold such a position. But her gender mattered more than her qualifications, more than any qualifications, and she was passed over for a palpably less qualified candidate. The men who passed her over got instead a disastrous incompetent, from what I could see, but at least they got a disastrous incompetent with a penis.

Hillary Clinton, trying to become the first women President, should remind me of Mom. But she does not.

When Clinton speaks about the election, she reminds me of the men who discriminated against my mother. I can't tell you how strange a feeling that is.

You see, the first sign of trouble in my mother's promotion case was when the people in charge of it began to change the rules in the middle of the process. There was an established job-search procedure, announced and agreed upon beforehand. But when my mother began to emerge as the top candidate, when all of the objective metrics and all of the third-party evaluations ranked her as the best candidate by a fairly large margin, the rules and procedures suddenly changed. Eventually, the men in charge of the decision passed Mom over for someone who, under the original procedure, would have been eliminated early in the hiring search.

When I hear Clinton and her surrogates talking about changing the rules: seating delegates whose disqualification Clinton herself originally agreed to, retroactively discounting certain states as irrelevant after Clinton has lost them, talking about the popular vote instead of the delegate count (and even inventing her own way of counting the popular vote), she reminds me overwhelmingly of that hiring board, changing the rules to make sure my mother's qualifications for the job would not actually win it for her. Those men never imagined, I'm sure, that a woman actually could emerge as the front-runner for the job in question; I suspect they were convinced, as good sexists, that my mother couldn't really be more qualified than any of the male candidates. But she was. That's when they showed their priorities: gender mattered more than qualifications. Hillary Clinton surely never imagined that she would be losing to Barack Obama. But she is. And suddenly delegates don't matter. Now we see Clinton's priorities. Becoming the nominee herself is more important to her than what the voters actually want.

I understand the urge to cheer for the first woman to ever have a real chance at the nomination. Believe me, I understand. But process matters, even more than gender, because it's by bending process that most gender discrimination actually happens. Discrimination in the workplace doesn't usually present itself as gender discrimination anymore; every sexist boss understands, or should understand, that he can be sued for saying that a woman can't do a job because she's a woman. What happens instead is that a woman with a masters degree is passed over for a man without one, or a woman with the required years of experience is passed over for a man with less experience than the job ad asks for, or a woman with a track record of success managing difficult projects loses out to a less accomplished man, on the basis of some nebulous or "holistic" evaluation standards. The process is changed or set aside, in order to favor a male (or white, or straight) candidate. That looseness and irregularity, the freedom to work the gray areas, will always work in favor of the already-privileged. If you can't have an explicit rule against women, or minorities, or gays, the next best thing is to be able to make up the rules as you go, and to change them when the results don't please you. Before anyone lobbies for the rules to change in Hillary's favor, they should ask how often such improvisatory favoritism has helped women get ahead in the workplace, and how often it has held them back.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Politics of Repudiation

One thing the Jeremiah Wright affair has established is how central calling people names has become in our political culture. And calling people names, oddly, is a sign that one is Important, Serious, and Wise. The ability to scold has become, strangely, an indispensable qualification.

The political media all know this. They are astonished that anyone does not know this. It is self-evident to them that a person in public life, such as a candidate for the Presidency, should be judged fit or unfit based on their skills in publicly upbraiding people. Someone who does not scold swiftly, and firmly, and loudly, is considered green, naive, and insufficiently serious. Because, as is immediately obvious from the world around us, the ability to scold without hesitating for thought is a universal sign of maturity and wisdom. Go to any diner and look for the guy telling off the waitress. You know that's a guy you can trust.

When sound bites of Jeremiah Wright began to circulate on cable news, where the serious issues are pondered, the situation was clear to every pundit in the land: Barack Obama had to scold that elderly minister, as soon and as publicly as possible. And he had to make it sharp, too. It was the only way to establish that Obama really Had What It Takes. That he would hesitate or qualify was a sign that he was just a kid, really, and not serious like the adults, who know how to deliver a good scolding. Then they tut-tutted over his abilities as a scold. He hadn't done it soon enough! He hadn't done it hard enough! He was too gentle, too nuanced! Only when Obama had to deliver a second scolding, harder, were some of them satisfied, although others (such as the genius Dick Morris) feel that Obama needs to keep scolding, in much more detail, and probably do at least a little scolding every remaining day of his natural life:

Of course, Hillary Clinton has known about the importance of scolding all along. She is very happy to prove her qualifications for the Oval Office by telling everyone how much she disapproves of Jeremiah Wright, and many weeks ago she offered a Obama a tutorial in the importance of telling everyone what a very, very bad man Louis Farrakhan is. It is not sufficiently serious, or Presidential, merely to say that Farrakhan is a bad man. One must be like Senator Clinton, and tell everybody, loudly and clearly, that Louis Farrakhan is not only a very, very bad man but also, and this is the important part, a very, very, very bad man. That is how the serious people do it.

This is a strange qualification for chief executive. Denouncing people takes no particular skill, or at least no particularly rare or unusual skill. If it were all about denouncing people, that guy in the diner harping at the waitress would be Secretary of State, and your Great-Aunt Mabel who's been holding certain grudges since V-E Day would be running the Fed. It isn't correlated with other abilities that a candidate, or an officeholder, needs. And, perhaps most importantly, denouncing people doesn't achieve anything productive.

You heard me. Nothing productive. Not a damned thing. We can call Louis Farrakhan a very very very bad man, with a very very bad plan, all day every day, and it will not help anything or anyone in the slightest.

Are Jeremiah Wright's most extreme beliefs, such as the canard about the government creating AIDS, bad and harmful things? Sure. I denounce them. I reject them. Notice how much better the world got just now as I was doing that?

Pundits talk reverently about the so-called "Sistah Souljah moment," which only pundits remember, but which has become a mandatory step on the road to the Oval Office. "Is this Obama's Sistah Souljah moment?" "When will he have his Sistah Souljah moment?" This "Sistah Souljah moment" which has become a fundamental prerequisite to control of the Executive Branch, commemorates the moment in 1992 when Bill Clinton valiantly denounced and rejected a B- or C-list rapper, a black woman no less, and thereby solved all of America's problems with race.

Although Clinton's bold stance ensured racial harmony forever, it must evidently be repeated every generation or so, if by "generation" we mean "every four years, at the latest." So it's incumbent upon Obama, if he's serious about our national destiny, to seek out some African-American who qualifies as a "public figure" for newspaper purposes, but who has no actual power and can do the candidate no conceivable harm, such as a rapper who doesn't sell too many records or a pastor who has recently retired from his ministry. Then, as an example of public virtue, the Presidential candidate must publicly castigate said irrelevant African-American borderline celebrity as an example of all that is wrong with the nation and the world. And that will prove both Seriousness and Moral Leadership.

What better qualifications could Obama show? What else would we look for in a leader?