N word

No, not that one– “Nazi.”  Diane McWhorter has a very provocative article in Slate about how the term “Nazi” has become political anathema– you are guaranteed to set off a firestorm by making any comparisons to the Nazis.  Yet, there are certainly places where the comparisons may be apt and she argues that these are among the greatest failings of the present administration.  The highlights:

For some reason, I keep thinking about an observation Eleanor Roosevelt
made in an unpublished interview conducted in May of 1940, as the
German Wehrmacht swept across France. She expressed dismay
that a “great many Americans” would look with favor on a Hitler victory
in Europe and be greatly attracted to fascism. Why? “Simply because we
are a people who tend to admire things that work,” she said. So, were
the voters last month protesting Bush's policies?or were they
complaining that he had not made those policies work? If Operation
Iraqi Freedom had not been such an unqualified catastrophe, how long
would the public have assented to the programs that accompanied the
“war on terror”: the legalization of torture, the suspension of habeas
corpus, the unauthorized surveillance of law-abiding Americans, the
unilateral exercise of executive power, and the Bush team's avowed
prerogative to “create our own reality”?…

The extent to which it is verboten to bring up Nazi Germany has now
become a jape. “Can't pols just have little Post-its on their
microphones reminding them not to compare anything to the Nazis?”
Maureen Dowd wrote in the Times recently, after yet another off-message senator was taken to the woodshed…

The taboo is itself a precept of the propaganda state. Usually its
enforcers profess a politically correct motive: the exceptionalism of
genocidal Jewish victimhood. Thus, poor Sen. Richard Durbin, the
Democrat from Illinois, found himself apologizing to the
Anti-Defamation League after Republicans jumped all over him for
invoking Nazi Germany to describe the conditions at Guantanamo. And so
by allowing the issue to be defined by the unique suffering of the
Jews, we ignore the Holocaust's more universal hallmark: the banal
ordinariness of the citizens who perpetrated it. The relevance of Third
Reich Germany to today's America is not that Bush equals Hitler or that
the United States government is a death machine. It's that it provides
a rather spectacular example of the insidious process by which decent
people come to regard the unthinkable as not only thinkable but doable,
justifiable. Of the way freethinkers and speakers become compliant and
self-censoring. Of the mechanism by which moral or humanistic
categories are converted into bureaucratic ones. And finally, of the
willingness with which we hand control over to the state and convince
ourselves that we are the masters of our destiny.

It is a powerful and thoughtful essay.  It was tempting to just paste the whole thing.  Just read it.

Withdraw from Iraq

I thought this screenshot from today's Washington Post was quite interesting:

So, it would seem that the “unrealistic pullout” is what the vaunted Iraq Study Group is prepared to recommend.  Makes for a nice juxtaposition at the Washingtonpost.com, but the drawdown recommendations does not seem to recommend all that much of a withdrawal:

Under the recommendations of the commission, led by former secretary
of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton
(D-Ind.), the emphasis of the U.S. military presence in Iraq would
shift from fighting the insurgency and containing sectarian violence to
backing up Iraqi security forces dealing with those problems.

approach would place less emphasis on combat operations and more on
logistics, intelligence and training and advising Iraqi units. Also, a
large residual combat force would be required to protect all the
personnel involved in those operations and to provide a security
guarantee to the Iraqi government.

Thus, even if the combat
forces were withdrawn, the person familiar with the group's thinking
noted, the recommendation envisions keeping in Iraq a “substantial”
U.S. military force.

It will be quite interesting to see what the various responses are to this when the report is officially released next week.

What’s your accent

A friend and reader sent me a link to a very cool on-line quiz that places your geographic origin by how you say certain words, i.e., do “pen” and “pin” sound the same or different.  I had no idea people said these particular words the same way until I had a particuarly amusing conversation with my wife many years ago. 

As I expected, I was classified as being entirely accent free– though the geographic basis of “Midland” does not exactly apply to my Northern Virginia upbringing.  But I always felt like the NoVa burbs had an Anytown, USA feel to them.  

(Another) stolen election in Florida?

If an election is stolen in Florida and nobody hears anything about it, did it really happen.  Even more shameful than the Republican-controlled election administration certifying the election of a Republican member when there were clearly huge problems with electronic voting machines that very likely affected the result, is the fact that the national media is completely ignoring this story.  Here's a nice summary of the key facts from Paul Krugman:

Florida's 13th Congressional District is currently
represented by Katherine Harris, who as Florida's
secretary of state during the 2000 recount famously acted as
a partisan Republican rather than a fair referee. This year
Harris didn't run for re-election, making an
unsuccessful bid for the Senate instead. But according to
the official vote count, the Republicans held on, with
Republican Vern Buchanan narrowly defeating Democrat
Christine Jennings.

The problem is that the official vote count isn't
credible. In much of the 13th District, the voting pattern
looks normal. But in Sarasota County, which used
touch-screen voting machines made by Election Systems and
Software, almost 18,000 voters – nearly 15 percent of the
total – supposedly failed to vote for either candidate in
the hotly contested race. That compares with undervotes of
2.2 to 5.3 percent in neighboring counties…

Although state officials have certified Buchanan as the
victor, they've promised an audit of the voting
machines. But don't get your hopes up: As in 2000,
state election officials aren't even trying to look
impartial. The state has chosen as its
“independent” expert Professor Alec Yasinsac of
Florida State University – a Republican partisan who made
an appearance on the steps of the Florida Supreme Court
during the 2000 recount battle wearing a “Bush
Won” sign.

A recent article in Salon.com gives a thorough accounting of this travesty:

The fact that both Democrats and Republicans reported the problems with
the machines suggests that the problems were not partisan. “It
indicates that this was not some carefully targeted bit of hacking,
which only adversely affected someone who was trying to cast a vote for
Christine Jennings,” says Lowell Finley, attorney for Voter Action, who
is representing the voters in their lawsuit. “With these systems, it's
always important to recognize the possibility that there could be
malicious action involved, but the evidence so far points to a
malfunction that is attributable to software errors or errors in the
way in which the layout of the ballot was entered into the machine —
but something had a terribly harmful effect on the integrity of the

Krugman concludes his column:

As far as I can tell, the reason “Florida 13”
hasn't become a major national story is that neither
control of Congress nor control of the White House is on the
line. But do we have to wait for a constitutional crisis to
realize that we're in danger of becoming a digital-age
banana republic?

Ummm, yes? 

Violence and culture

Well it seems that major news outlets have decided to call a spade a spade and refer to the “civil war” in Iraq– much to the chagrin of the Bush administration.  Anyway, I was reading a very disturbing article in the paper over Thanksgiving break about a recent Shiite attack on a Sunni mosque where the victims who fled the building were burned alive.  The story went on to detail the fact that it has also become quite common for the fighters in this civil war to torture people with drills before killing and beheading them.  Unfortunately, I am not surprised that such human brutality and savagery exists.  What disturbs me, though, is that such behavior has at least implicit support from the larger communities represented by these combatants or they would not be engaged in it.  Here's one of those areas where I am a cultural relativist.  The American people saw the results of napalm in Vietnam and we were horrified by it.  Surely, many decent Iraqis are horrified by the action of their countrymen, but too many must be giving silent assent in order for such actions to continue.  We can certainly do some awful things in America and other first-world countries, but I'd like to think that under no circumstances would the barbaric actions being undertaken in Iraq be met with any popular support whatsoever.  As to why this difference, there are very many possible social and cultural factors.  I'm not going to pick one. 

“Democrat Party”

Ruth Marcus had a nice column in the Post last week about Bush's continued intransigence despite speaking the rhetoric of bipartsanship.  One particularly annoying feature of President Bush's public statements recently has been his continual referral to “The Democrat Party.”  Alas, Bush continues to be a divider, not a uniter:

If he wanted to, President Bush could change the tone in Washington
with a single syllable: He could just say “ic.” That is, he could stop
referring to the opposition as the “Democrat Party” and call the other
side, as it prefers, the Democratic Party…

Democrat Party was used, pardon the phrase, liberally by
Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. According to the Columbia Guide to
Standard American English, ” Democrat as an adjective is still
sometimes used by some twentieth-century Republicans as a campaign tool
but was used with particular virulence” by McCarthy, “who sought by
repeatedly calling it the Democrat party to deny it any possible benefit of the suggestion that it might also be democratic.”
The word also achieved a prominent run with Bob Dole's especially ugly
reference to “Democrat wars” during the 1976 vice presidential debate.

But as a matter of simple politeness — something the Bush family is
famously good at — it's rude to call people by a term that makes them
bristle, even a seemingly innocuous one.

I am pleased to say that my students have more decency and good sense than our president (though, that's sad).  I cannot ever recall hearing one of them say “Democrat Party,” even those that get their news from the right-wing noise machine.  Should I hear it, they won't be happy with the mini-lecture they will receive. 

What to do about Iraq

Former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, has a very nice essay (subscription site) over at The New Republic about what to do in Iraq.  What he does most effectively in the essay is poke substantial holes in most of the rationales for a fairly open-ended commitment.  Here, I think is his best argument:

A similarly illogical argument for staying
in Iraq is that chaos will follow any near-term U.S. withdrawal. The
flaw lies not in the concept that chaos will happen, but rather in
thinking that chaos will only happen if we withdraw in the near-term. Chaos will almost certainly follow any U.S. withdrawal, whether in 2008 or 2012.

A more refined argument to extend our stay
is that the calamity following a 2008 withdrawal would be worse than
the chaos after a 2012 departure. But how can we have strong confidence
in such a prediction–which assumes that more time means progress–when
the United States and Iraq have produced so little in the way of
progress thus far? Even granting that chaos after a 2008 pullout may be
worse than what would follow a 2012 withdrawal, is the difference
between those two levels of disaster worth the cost? This cost comes in
American dead and wounded, Iraqi dead and wounded, billions of dollars
in military expenditures, the continued damage to U.S. influence in the
world, and the further strengthening of radical Islamist terrorists
everywhere. We cannot have high confidence that the cost is worth
whatever improvement there would be in the two levels of
post-withdrawal chaos.

After briefly laying out a plan for withdrawal, Clarke offers this conclusion by putting Iraq into a larger historical context:

Are there problems with this plan? Of
course. But our current approach–maintaining that we can fix Iraq if
we just try a bit harder–is likely more seriously flawed and more
costly than the alternative. Still, President Bush insists on staying
in Iraq, and it is easy to understand why. In The March of Folly,
Barbara Tuchman documented repeated instances when leaders persisted in
disastrous policies well after they knew that success was no longer an
available outcome. They did so because the personal consequences of
admitting failure would be very high. So they postponed the disastrous
end to their policy adventures, hoping for a deus ex machina or to
eventually shift the blame. There is no need to do that now. Everyone
already knows who is to blame. It is time to stop the adventure, lower
our sights, and focus on America's core interests. And that means
withdrawal of major combat units.

Maybe I'm missing something, but Clarke has proven himself a shrewd analyst in the past and I'm with him here. 

What to wear when practicing medicine (or Political Science)

A very interesting article in the New York Times today about the often risque fashion choices of young doctors and how that affects their interactions with patients.  My favorite anecdote:

One colleague commented that a particularly statuesque student ?must
have thought all her male patients were having strokes? when she walked
in their exam room wearing a low-cut top and a miniskirt.

The central issue, though, is that patients just do not respond as well to doctors who are not dressed professionally…

In a study published last year in The American Journal of Medicine,
patients surveyed in one outpatient clinic overwhelmingly preferred
doctors photographed in formal attire with a white coat to photos of
doctors in scrubs, business suits and informal clothes ? jeans and a
T-shirt for men, an above-the-knee skirt for women. The patients also
said they were more likely to divulge their social, sexual and
psychological worries to the clinicians in the white coats than to the
other doctors.

Honestly, this is one of the reasons I always wear a nice shirt and tie when I teach.  As I tell my students, my teaching style and personality are already plenty informal, if I don't at least dress the part, I can forget about any professorial respect. 

Should Democrats forget the South?

Tom Schaller, a political scientist I truly admire for his ability to try and really affect politics, rather than just sit back writing obscure research articles (i.e., like me), had a nice article in Salon.com recently which basically summarizes his recent book, Whistling Past Dixie, and places it in the context of the 2006 elections.  His basic thesis: Democrats should stop investing so many resources in a doomed effort to win in the South and instead focus their efforts on much more favorable geographic terrain, e.g., the Southwest.  Like a good empirical political scientist, he backs this up not with anecdotes and empty theories, but good hard evidence from national political surveys.  The results from the 2006 elections would seem to further vindicate this basic hypothesis:

Democrats flipped
about 30 percent of the GOP-held House seats in the Northeast, about 15
percent in the Midwest, and 10 percent in the Far West. In the South,
their “flip rate” was just 6 percent. After last week, Connecticut's
Chris Shays is the only Republican among New England's 22 seats.

Here are the key nuggets from the article in Schaller's own words:

If you look at a map of the 2006 election, you'll notice that the blue wave actually has a huge red Southern hole in it.

Five of the six Senate seats the Democrats picked up were outside
the South. Five of the six new Democratic governors are from outside
the South. Of the 30 or so House seats that Democrats wrested from
Republicans, only five were Southern — and two of those were gifts.
Both Republican candidates were defending seats that had been held by
disgraced pariahs ?- Mark Foley and Tom DeLay ?- and both were forced
by the quirks of electoral law to run as write-ins. They still almost

The most telling races, however, were those in Tennessee and
Georgia. In Tennessee, the Democrats fielded a nearly perfect Senate
candidate, a smart, seasoned, well-financed congressman with strong
name identification. Harold Ford Jr. ran hard to the right, talking
incessantly about how powerful “my Jesus” was, filming a campaign ad in
a church, boasting that he was pro-life, denouncing the New Jersey
same-sex marriage ruling, and wearing a camouflage hunting cap on
Election Day. He lost. In Georgia, in a year when Democrats enjoyed an
advantage of more than 7 percent in the national vote for all House
races, the Democrats in Georgia's 8th and 12th districts were only a
few hundred votes away from becoming the only incumbents in their party
to lose their jobs on Election Day…

For the first time in 50 years, the party that controls both chambers
of Congress is a minority party in the South. And in the last four
presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has either garnered
270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to win, or has come within one
state of doing so before a single Southern vote was tallied. Outside
the old Confederacy, the nation is turning blue, and that portends a
new map for a future Democratic majority…

In perhaps the most provocative part of his explanation (and not too surprisingly given we are talking about the South), Schaller brings it all back to race:

As to why Democrats in general struggle, and how the state and region
became so Republican and conservative, there are five answers. First
and — sadly — foremost, as it may have been in Tennessee, is race.
Analyses of the National Election Study data from 2004 show that the
attitudes of white Southerners on national defense and even abortion
fail to explain their preference for Republican presidential
candidates, but attitudes on race do. Anyone who needs proof of the
power of racial polarization in the South need only look at the
blackest state in the union. Mississippi is 38 percent black, yet has a
Republican governor, two Republican senators, and delivered its
electoral votes to George Bush without a fuss twice. Southern whites
vote as a racial bloc for the GOP. Statistics seem to show that loyalty
to the Republican Party is at its highest among voters in Wyoming,
Idaho and Utah ?- until you start crunching the numbers for white
voters only, and realize just how solid and white the GOP's solid South

Apparently, Schaller's argument that the Democrats need to look past the South really drives some people crazy– especially Southern Democrats.   Over at the gadflyer, Schaller has some pointed rebuttals to those who have disputed his hypothesis. 

Dolphin Hunt

Really disturbing article in today's Washington Post about a traditional dolphin hunt in Japan in which bottlenose dolphins are rounded up by the thousands and killed with knives and clubs, turning the water around them completely red.  Apparently, this has been a long-time tradition in Japan, but know scientists are trying to fight back by emphasizing the intelligence of dolphins.  They are even making arguments based on dolphins' self-recognition in the mirror (a subject I clearly find quite interesting).  Alas, the fact that dolphins are complex, intelligent, social beings carries no weight when faced with “tradition.” 

Takumi Fukuda, the fisheries attache at the Japanese Embassy in
Washington, defended the event as a centuries-old national tradition.

“It is kind of our cultural activity,” he said. “We think it is important.”

Just another example of why arguments based on variations of “we've always done it that way” are intellectually weak and morally lazy.  Save the dolphins!  (Here's the site for the petition mentioned in the article). 

NC Baptists and Gays

It used to be that so long as a North Carolina Baptist church paid its annual dues it could be a member of the Baptist State Convention of NC.  No more.

In addition to contributing financially, churches in “friendly
cooperation” with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina must
reject unrepentant homosexual behavior, according to an amendment
passed Tuesday by a two-thirds majority of delegates to the annual
meeting of the state convention. The amendment would allow the
convention to investigate churches suspected of countenancing active

Basically, they are saying that the single most important belief for a Baptist church, the only one worth having a membership requirement on, is not being nice to gay people.  Amazing.  I wonder what Jesus would make of that.

I'm also a little curious about what this may mean for my adopted Baptist Church that my wife attended while growing up (who I wonder if need to not name to protect them).  They are not exactly performing commitment ceremonies for gay couples, but there is an open same-sex couple in the church choir.  I guess we'll have to see just where that falls.

On Murtha and Democratic divisions

It is really something the amount of coverage the fight over who will be the Democrats' new House Majority Leader there has been (Steny Hoyer ended up trouncing John Murtha yesterday).  All of a sudden, the unity the Democrats in Congress had shown in recent years was completely thrown out the window and didn't count for anything, as far as the media was concerned.  Newspapers and TV have been filled with stories about the “bitter divisions” among Democrats.  The Today show ran a story this morning with the phrase “Democrats in Disarray” on the screen the whole time.  Their evidence for the disarray?  Joe Lieberman a man who lost in the Democratic primary for being too out of step with his party (and was re-elected to his seat only due to massive Republican support) disagrees with the rest of the party on Iraq.

What about bitter divisions among Republicans, who split 25-24 in re-instating proven racist Trent Lott to the Senate leadership?  Not so interesting.  The simple explanation is that the media has a number of political narratives that they always fall back on.  Among the most prominent is the one that Democrats are divided and just cannot get along.  Whenever an event can be placed into this narrative, the media is more than happy to do so.  Another example would be how in 2000 when Bush and Gore would both say something clearly false, Gore was lying/exaggerating while Bush was too stupid to tell the truth.  The “Conventional Wisdom” is a very powerful shaper of how the media covers politics, and when it comes to the new majority party in Congress, expect continuing stories about how divided they are, regardless of reality.

I should also point out, on a substantive note, that Democrats are doubtless less divided than when they last had majorities in both houses prior to the 1994 elections.  At that time, the Democratic advantage still depended upon a number of Southern Democrats who really were conservative.  Most of them lost in 1994 and subsequent years.  The Democrats from the South now, yes, even Heath Shuler, are much more ideologically similar to the national party than Democrats of an earlier generation.  Democrats simply are a less divided group than in earlier eras.  Will the media realize this?  I doubt it.

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