Tuesday, November 30, 2004


If you were given dictatorial power over the NBA, what would you do differently? Assume that you can't manufacture extraordinarily talented players, but you can change the rules and structure any way you like.

Oh boy. We’re firmly in the realm of fantasy, are we?

The tension between players and fans has so much to do with money. The public resents the huge salaries players draw, but at the same time ticket prices are so high, ticket buyers feel they have a license to abuse players verbally (or worse). So turn down the volume on the bling-bling. Reduce ticket prices by at least half. Fewer corporate skyboxes. More bleacher seats that “regular people” can afford. Reduce the number of games by a third. Reduce TV commercials on the game broadcasts. Reduce or eliminate billboards in the gym. And reduce player salaries commensurate to all this (by 75%?). (I know, it’s un-American to leave money on the table voluntarily, but it’s my fantasy, dammit.)

Guarantee the security of players on the court and fans in the bleachers. More cops, if that’s what it takes. Eliminate alcohol sales, or limit them (say, first half of the game only).

I agree, the NBA should have a developmental league. At the same time, if a teenager has the ability, or shows the promise, to command an NBA contract, it seems unfair to deny them that. Nobody thought it was somehow immoral of Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard, did they? If 18-year-olds want to go pro, let them, but let them play in the “minor leagues” for a year or two. Don’t make them grow up in the glare of the big time. And don’t make them endure a year or more of pauperdom, going through the motions of getting a college education they’re not interested in.

(College basketball will become a second-tier level of play in my scenario. But college ball will become less mercenary. College fans will expect players to stick around for four years, and will believe that the players are real students as well as athletes.)

Link each NBA team more closely to the real basketball culture of its community. Put the arenas where the fans are, and reduce ticket prices to make them affordable to the “average fan.” For instance, and I’m not certain this matters in the recent fight, but the Detroit Pistons play in Auburn Hills, an affluent suburb. Detroit has a great tradition of basketball played by black kids in inner-city neighborhoods. The Pistons should be geographically and financially within reach of the most passionate fans.

If each franchise has a developmental or youth team, that can be a bridge to the community as well. Tickets to those games can be extra cheap, with perhaps some giveaways. Developmental teams could hold camps or workshops for youth players. This could be a recruitment tool for up-and-coming players as well as a community relations strategy.

Less ear-splitting music, please. Fewer dancing girls and cavorting mascots. Let’s be clear that we’re all here for a basketball game.

As far as actual play goes: Expand the court. The players have gotten bigger and faster, and it’s simply too crowded out there. Make the court wider by five feet or so, and maybe longer as well. Expand the three-second lane: perhaps go to the international lane (wider at the baseline).

I like the physicality of the NBA, but I don’t want it to be Worldwide Wrestling. Call fouls a little closer. There ARE such things as traveling and palming, Mr. Referee. And hand out stiff penalties for the most flagrant fouls.

Team play and fundamentals are lacking. Fewer games per season (i.e. more time to practice) and the presence of developmental leagues might improve this situation. Also, there should be more exhibition games between NBA teams and international teams. (Foreign teams are less athletic than American teams, but are sounder fundamentally, they pass better, etc.) All parties would benefit.

** We hashed over the Pistons-Pacers fight at PeoplesForum as well, and I was finally persuaded that it's not the end of civilization as we know it. Nobody was badly hurt, fortunately, and when was the last time people were talking about the NBA in November? But I take it more seriously (and simultaneously maybe less seriously, I dunno) than the Slate writer does. Big time sports matter, for better or worse, as a kind of Kabuki theater where we work stuff out as a culture. I'm in favor of tweaking the conventions a bit to keep the focus on fair play and merit rather than gladiatorial decadence. Yet precisely because sports is NOT curing cancer or housing the homeless, it depends on the public's faith. Pro baseball and football had problems with players involved with gambling and organized crime. Those sports confronted gambling firmly if not brutally (see: Shoeless Joe Jackson) and went on to prosper. On-court violence and the tension between players and fans may be the NBA equivalent of the Black Sox scandal.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Tuesday stuff

More stuff about religion that I was hipped to by The Revealer. Shield your eyes.

The New Pantagruel is a webmag about religion and culture. (Pantagruel is a Rabelais allusion; damned if I know what it means beyond that.) The slant is definitely conservative, but conservative in the best sense (i.e. respect tradition and “do no harm”) and hard to pigeonhole. I was only familiar with “the culture of life” as a catchphrase used by Bush and other pro-life figures, but the New Pantagruel actually fleshes it out as a political/cultural platform. It includes opposition to the death penalty, concern for systemic poverty, and other positions that you’d normally put in the Democratic column.

This piece is a roundtable discussion of the November elections, whose participants really wrestle with which candidate, if any, might earn the culture-of-life vote (Bush obviously wins on abortion, Kerry wins on everything else). My question is whether abortion has to be THE culture-of-life issue or just one of many. (Again, what makes the life of a fetus intrinsically more worthy than that of post-born humans with flaws and actual experiences?) But it’s an informative dialogue. And if you think all Ralph Nader sympathizers are/were post-Woodstock acid casualties, here is evidence to the contrary.

A writer at Daily Kos looks at the growth of the Christian Right somewhat the way I do: as a triumph of propaganda and organization, rather than a spontaneous growth of faith. He talks about the growth of Christian media, including radio stations, overcoming the usual fractiousness among different denominations and traditions:

Furthermore, thanks to companies like Clear Channel, Christians across the country are being exposed to exactly the same political rhetoric. James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" is carried on virtually every Christian radio station across the country, as are many other such programs. And while the protestant wing of Christianity is hopelessly fragmented into thousands of denominations and sects, Christians feel a sense of unity here. The idea here is: We may disagree about the proper way to baptize someone, but at least we can "all" agree on some certain core points. And although Christianity. Inc. is careful to never articulate these clearly, these are the core points around which it is organized. There is no doctrine on "Spirit 95", our local Christian radio station. Instead there are platitudes, feel-good (i.e. non-controversial) Bible verses, and praise songs. Consequently, through this tendency to avoid anything controversial, there is very little discussion of Christianity itself at all! This happens at the local level. But these stations also play the national-level shows distributed across the country. Because of this, there is a hidden implication that the topics discussed by the likes of the Dobsons and the Robertsons must be part of the "safe" topics that we (apparently) "all agree upon".

Monday, November 22, 2004

Teenage Motherhood: Not Just A Good Idea, It's The Law

I was looking forward to reading this piece in The Nation about feminist politics in the South. God knows why I was. Apparently female residents of Tennessee HAVE to be knocked up at age 15.

The basis of a good article is here, but the writer comes off as a liberal Northern anthropologist/spy, slipping into enemy territory with forged papers. She uses the term "religious fanaticism" to refer to people who... I'm not sure, contribute money to the GOP? Buy the Left Behind books? My not-very-rigorous reasoning is that if millions of people do it, it's not fanaticism.

Reporting from a conference on women's issues in the South, Ms. Sayeau writes that "it took one attendee's sister a year to recover from a minor injury because most doctors in her town of 17,000 were incompetent." Wow--I sure wouldn't publish this claim based on an anecdote. It COULD be true. I certainly suspect the quality of health care in small towns is a problem in this country (all regions). But describing the problem as one of incompetent doctors gives short shrift to the systemic nature of the problem, AND it contributes to the unhelpful stereotype of Southerners as ignorant yahoos.

Another thing: My perception is that feminism and women's liberation are tainted terms in our culture, even more so than liberal. Not just in the South, I think young women today live feminism but don't proclaim it. I'm open to being corrected about this, but I think saying "feminist" or "women's libber" without qualification comes off as dated and ivory-towerish.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

I Take What I Need to Live

This week's favorite album is Hey Ho! Let's Go! , the two-disc Ramones anthology. Sixty-some tracks, and extensive liner notes by David Fricke.

In college at some point I decided I needed A Punk Record. My music collection, then and now, ranged in tone mostly from very mellow (folk, bluegrass) to medium hard (Neil Young, The Who), but I decided I needed one really fast thrashing record, to play at maximum volume on the last day of final exams or other times when I needed sonic release. The one I grabbed was Rocket to Russia, and it served its purpose very well. Later I supplemented the one punk album with "Never Mind the Bollocks" and a Clash or two, but all of these are on vinyl, therefore I haven't played them in about a decade.

So I picked up Hey Ho! Let's Go! and feel like I understand the band much better--thanks partly to Fricke's essay. I'm sometimes guilty of taking a condescending view of punk bands as noble savages, untutored and instinctive, but these guys were deliberate in their choices about sound, onstage image, and aesthetic principles. That signature Ramones sound is really quite beautiful, even sweet when they wanted it to be--"I Want You Around" is the song that's earworming me today. And to be honest, part of what heightens my appreciation for that sound is hearing how they strayed somewhat from it late in their career, with overbearing producers and Joey betraying his deadpan delivery a bit.

A great thing about the Ramones is the combination of twisted humor with bubblegum-pop influences. Yesterday was the first time I ever took a close listen to "The KKK Took My Baby Away," and it's a girl-group song, for cryin' out loud. King and Goffin could almost have written it. (And it makes it real easy to hear what attracted Phil Spector to the Ramones.)

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Numbers Are Sapping Our Essence

My friend Naz Nomad provided a link to this story: An Indiana congressman wants to change the number of Interstate 69.
Hostettler, a proponent of the interstate extension, agrees. “Every time I
have been out in the public with an ‘I-69’ button on my lapel, teenagers
point and snicker at it. I have had many ask me if they can have my button. I believe it is time to change the name of the highway. It is the moral thing to do.”

Another data point to support my theory: The entire conservative social agenda is driven by parents being embarrassed to talk to their teenagers.

The Hoosier Gazette offers some pedantic support to Rep. Hostettler's initiative:

As a matter of fact, naming the highway’s extension I-69 is a violation of the
Interstate Highway System’s rules for numbering roads. Interstates numbers
are to increase from west to east. If the extension through southern
Indiana is named I-69, then 69 will be west of I-65, a direct violation.

Forgive me, but this is a case of the media and the congressman engaging in some 69 action on each other. Not even hot paper-on-pol action--I'd call it perfunctory--but still, a surrender of the chaste gazetteering that Hoosiers have traditionally insisted on.

Let me just ask -- Is the ultimate goal to eliminate 69 from the list of whole numbers altogether? Because that seems a little off the wall to me. What if we just tried to be cool and accept 69 whenever it naturally occurs, in highway numbers or street addresses or whatever? The other way to go is to change hundreds of highway signs and have the old ones turn up in college dorm rooms and on eBay. I don't think that's the way to lessen the sexual connotation of old 69.

Doctor Love

James Dobson has been in the news a lot lately. Head honcho of Focus on the Family, Dobson considers himself largely responsible for Dubya's '04 victory, and he's making the rounds of the Washington talk shows, loudly calling in his markers.

When my wife and I announced our engagement, her aunt gave us as a present Dobson's marriage primer Love For A Lifetime. We sat on the couch together one evening and leafed through it, reading bits aloud to each other. And we laughed and laughed. I don't remember all the things we found amusing; one thing was that he spends a couple of pages defending the idea that wives should be obedient to their husbands. Anyway, it was a hoot.

I don't have my Gore Vidal book or notes handy, but he has a good riff somewhere, written during the Reagan years, about the movement in politics toward "strengthening traditional family values," and how when politicians talk about the family, the subtext is the regulation of people's libidos, especially their homoerotic urges. When considering how James Dobson made the trip from family therapist to preacher against same-sex marriage, Mr. Vidal leaps to mind.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The important things

You may have missed it, what with the presidential election and Yasser Arafat and Falluja and all, but the Anaheim Angels have named Francisco Rodriguez their new closer. This is a smart move by the Angels and, more importantly, a terrific development for my fantasy baseball team, Diablos Rojos.

Sorry, once again, this is going to be a boring post for normal people, but I have to let my fantasy-baseball obsession out to stretch its legs.

I complained about my 2003 fantasy season at nauseating length here. Our league has a modified keeper system: each winter, all owners designate four players to keep for the next season.

Diablos Rojos keepers, 2003-4:
  • Orlando Cabrera
  • Luis Castillo
  • Kerry Wood
  • Billy Wagner

Sheesh. Cabrera and Castillo were not much of a foundation for an offense. The best thing I could say about them was that at least they were middle infielders, which simplifies drafting quite a bit. Wood and Wagner were legitimate keepers, although as it turned out they were hampered by injuries in 2004.

But then I had a good draft. Then I made a series of trades that turned out pretty well. Unlike '03, I wasn't aggressively seeking trades, I was letting the game come to me. Oak Park was wanting a shortstop rather badly, so he offered me Bobby Abreu for Orlando Cabrera. That was a slam-dunk win for me (though Oak Park won the league so he can be philosophical about it). Then I got Gary Sheffield and Freddy Garcia in exchange for Adam Dunn. Another bargain: Dunn had a very good year, but he's a wild swinger who's had an inconsistent career, whereas Sheffield is a disciplined hitter and perennial star who had an MVP caliber year. So Dunn for Sheffield was at least a wash, plus Garcia was a useful pitcher for me. Then near the deadline I traded Carl Crawford to Portland for two excellent rookies, Zack Greinke and Jason Bay. Crawford is the best base-stealer in baseball, but I had a huge lead in steals so strategy dictated dealing him. This trade helped both teams. So I finished the season in 4th place, an improvement of a spot or two in the standings, and here's how the keeper list looks:

Diablos Rojos keepers, 2004-5:
  • Bobby Abreu
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Zack Greinke
  • Francisco Rodriguez

Ah, this is better. Abreu and Sheffield are studs. THEY form a good foundation for an offense. Sheffield is aging and he played with a hurt shoulder all year, but he put up killer numbers anyway, and I think the shoulder will be better in the spring.

Rodriguez was a great middle-round draft choice. He's a hellacious young pitcher--the Angels have just kept him in a setup role because of the old rule of thumb, Teams need an experienced closer. Well, the new rule of thumb is, Look for inexpensive guys in their 20s and avoid expensive guys in their 30s. A young guy, with great stuff, on a competitive team, working with a manager who knows him and will use him in a consistent way. This is all shaping up well. It's just like what the Yankees did in the late 1990s, letting John Wetteland go and giving young Mariano Rivera his chance. I'm glad I resisted Cape Fear's repeated efforts to pry Rodriguez away from me.

Zack Greinke: ah, what the hell. There's a good argument for NOT putting a lot of stock into a starting pitcher. They're relatively unpredictable. A good strategy is collecting, say, seven starting pitchers in the late rounds of the draft, expecting four or five of them to pan out well. And even if I was going to make a starting pitcher one of my keepers, there is an argument for Kerry Wood, who has more of an established track record. But I'm going to make a spot for Greinke. People in the sport rave about him. He had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4:1 or 5:1, which is outstanding. He's 20 years old, which means he might be in danger of early burnout, OR he might be very, very special.

I made a cognitive leap forward last winter in evaluating pitchers: identifying guys who are likely to be sound, with decent ERA and WHIP. This winter's challenge: try to figure out some clues as to which pitchers will record Wins. I've been assuming that Wins are largely a matter of luck, and that the best thing you can do is have a bias toward pitchers who are on winning teams rather than losing teams. (In other words, all else being equal, take a guy from the Yankees or Red Sox or Cardinals rather than the Tigers or Devil Rays.) But I must be missing something. How come I led my league in ERA and WHIP and was near the bottom in Wins? How do Cape Fear and Oak Park manage to be near the top in Wins year after year?

If called by a Panzer, here's a good anzer

This is mind-blowing. There was a peaceful anti-war protest in Los Angeles two nights ago, and somebody sent tanks to disperse it. There is video at the linked page.

Nobody is owning up to this move; it sounds like whoever had this idea quickly realized what a fuck-up it was. The military put out some excuses that are patent bullshit. Either the tanks were lost, or they were stuck in traffic, or the company mascot Fido ate their orders.

This fucking country, I'm telling you...

Also, for cryin' out loud, it's Rule #1 for goon squad work in southern California: always take out the guy with the Handi-Cam.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Let me say this once and for all, in a place where I can refer to it and the rest of you will never have to hear it again. I often find myself in the position of apologist for organized religion, to online or sometimes real-life friends who are politically liberal but religiously lukewarm in their personal lives. Is the church a transmitter of division and injustice? It has been at times, no doubt. But I'm learning more and more about the positive contributions the church has made to American history, which we should acknowledge whatever our personal religious beliefs or lack of same.

The desire for religious freedom obviously was crucial to our country's founding and to our tradition of civil liberties. But what's more, in many ways, churches and denominations were transmitters of the institutional habits of democracy. Look at the original Protestant refomers: John Calvin gets a bad rap a lot of the time, and certainly the man was ruthless in attacking religious dissenters, but Calvin was also a proponent of radical equality, of universal education, and of representative government. When I joined my church, I read pamphlets and heard talks of the Presbyterianism-for-Dummies variety, and I heard the repeated argument that Presbyterian church governance was influential in the movement for American independence and the authoring of the Constitution. (Presbyterians are a Calvinist offshoot.) It's a self-serving argument, but not without some weight. The Protestant churches have been agents of enlightenment in America.

The church and synagogue were key institutions for helping American immigrants gain a foothold in their new country. And black Americans--good grief, black American culture is unimaginable without the influence of and sustenance provided by the church. For decades when they completely lacked political power, African-Americans were maintaining the practices of self-government in their churches: electing bishops and other representatives, raising up leaders from the ranks of the community.

There are many more examples. I haven't read it yet, but I understand Tom Wolfe wrote a magazine profile of Robert Noyce (?), the founder of Intel. Wolfe argues that Noyce learned principles as an active member of a Congregationalist church that have been key to the corporate success of Intel.


To me, this sums up the "pro-life" movement. It makes a cult object out of the baby--cute, innocent, full of potential--but gives short shrift to the real, complicated woman who found herself with an unplanned pregnancy.

Who cares about the "pre-born" when they enter the anticlimactic post-born stage of their lives? Are pro-life people working on the needs of unaborted babies and their mothers: things like adoption, affordable child care, universal health coverage for children? Is the Christian right seriously looking at ways to REDUCE unplanned pregnancies? Are they seriously claiming that abstinence-only sex ed is EFFECTIVE, rather than just a way to avoid awkward discussions with their teenagers? A lot of inconvenient facts get glossed over.

A lot of the churchy talk about the "traditional family" is sentimental hogwash that relies on stirring anecdotes. Fallen women who made the brave decision to "choose life." Ex-gays who courageously overcame their sinful urges and took the cure. Ex-drunks who used Bible study to kick the bottle, save their marriages, and in rare cases get elected President. Great, but look at statistics: the so-called Bible Belt region has higher rates of divorce, of domestic violence, of STDs.

Recycled: ~ 80% post-consumer content

Mark Schmitt of The Decembrist grapples with the phenomenon of the Christian Right in this post. A snippet--

[W]hy it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the
first time ever, virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public
phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is
this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a
displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the
factors that might cause it to change?

Here is what I posted in Comments there:

I take issue with the thesis that we are experiencing a period of religious renewal. Rather, I think consumerism is having the same corrupting effect on religion as it has on so many aspects of American culture. Comfort trumps social justice. Knee-jerk secularism and feel-good fundamentalism -- both are easier than thinking.

Absolutely agree that megachurch evangelicalism partakes of self-help ideology and eschews sacrifice. Megachurches follow the logic of the marketplace and entrepreneurism. Many booming churches are non-denominational and so are relatively free to incorporate worship styles and doctrines that are "market-tested" for maximum popular appeal. New church start-ups use the same criteria for site selection that Starbucks or Walgreens uses: they look for emerging suburbs with attractive demographics. These churches promote tenets and practices for their convenience and feel-good quality, e.g. the "prosperity Gospel."

By contrast, the historic denominations (with more nuanced theologies and thoughtful, committted approaches to social problems) are less flexible. They support institutions and doctrinal traditions somewhat without regard to "marketability". They are geographically rooted to long-standing churches/congregations, even to those located in inner cities and rural areas experiencing demographic decline. Their situation is analogous to the Mom 'n' Pop store struggling to survive on Main Street and compete with the new Wal-Mart out by the interstate.

Today I heard a leading scholar of the African-American church express the view that the growth of white conservative Protestantism is simply a backlash against the civil rights movement. I think that's a little too simple an explanation, but there's a kernel of truth there. Mainline Protestant leaders were often outspoken in their anti-Jim Crow views. The mainline denominations are precisely the ones that have been in decline for the last generation while more conservative churches have experienced growth. It's a sort of religious "white flight."

Similarly, I think there's truth to the notion that pro-life, anti-gay, anti-feminist movements are a reaction to the sexual revolution and gender wars of the Baby Boom generation. (By anti-feminist I mean, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention's retrograde decision on the ordination of women. The SBC REVOKED the ordination of clergywomen who had been serving very ably as pastors.)

ADDENDUM: To link this more clearly to Schmitt's original post, the pertinent "trend in the nature of religious worship" is that in many places, worship has become about Me, Me, Me. God, give me comfort and leisure and success AND deliver me from feeling guilty about it. Economic and racial issues are hard to confront, because it's hard to deny one's own place in those hierarchies. People of different sexuality are easier to demonize and feel superior to.

The church is a social and historical institution. Many American Christians, like many Americans in other contexts, have been frightened by change and by social upheaval. I think the Culture Wars are real--there is a deep and acrimonious divide between modernists and anti-modernists. Religion stresses tradition and has pre-modern roots, so it is a particularly intense front in the battle.

I just had a thought: as voluntary organizations, churches may be MORE susceptible to some harmful effects of consumerism (insularlity, cliquishness) than other venues. Workplaces and schools tend to have diversity thrust on them. But churches are largely voluntary and self-sorting, and can be extremely insular.

A side effect is that the Karl Roves and the Rick Warrens have joined forces and found a way to put a religious spin on greed, sentimentality, and self-congratulation. (Insularity works to the advantage of the GOP, which, for example, wants to get a sharp anti-gay message out to the base but show a more gay-tolerant face to the political center.)

Disjointed stuff. More later, perhaps.


I got to sit in on a conference of African-American preachers yesterday. A couple of highlights were hearing a singer who left behind a career as an operatic soprano for the ministry (she has performed at Carnegie Hall, she later told me), and hearing a real black church sermon: a foot-stomping, window-rattling, virtuoso performance. (The preacher took note of me as the uptight white guy off to the side who didn't shout "Amen" even one time. Sorry, preacher, I just thought it would sound fake coming from me, but I did enjoy the sermon.)

The main topic of the meeting was sociological research on the black church: demographic trends, institutional issues. Eye-glazing stuff for normal people, but I found it interesting, and I wanted to report a couple of things I heard. I suppose this must be classed as anecdotal evidence. I trust the sources, but you can judge for yourself.

Most Americans who convert to Islam (and how many there are is a matter of conjecture--some people believe there are a lot) are African-American men who convert in prison. How perfectly obvious (the familiar Martin-Malcolm dichotomy is still alive), and yet perfectly ironic. I remember another factoid I learned a couple of years ago that struck me in a similar way: the U.S. military sends its doctors to inner-city emergency rooms to get training in trauma medicine.

I was surprised at how many different contexts the recent election came up in. These leaders were chastened by the fact that white conservative churches turned their people out more effectively than black churches did. They regarded it as a failure of leadership and of educating their members. However, a few different people echoed this observation: The federal government is using the IRS as an intimidation tool against some black churches who urge members to vote Democratic (with the usual dance of endorsing positions, not candidates). The threat is applied in a curiously selective way, apparently.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I'm a Strict Constructionist

That's right, I believe the Constitution should be interpreted according to the authors' intent, and that includes the Second Amendment. People should have the right to possess as many breech-loading flintlock rifles as they want. Single-ball pistols as well. This should be true throughout the 13 states.

Keep your powder dry and your ramrod ready!

Dixie Liberal Blues

Without meaning to, we had really gotten my kids worked up about the election and John Kerry. They helped us put the stickers on the bumpers, and stake the signs out in the yard. They kept an ear open for mentions of the candidates' names on TV or the radio, and checked the morning paper for their pictures. They spoke Kerry's name with delight, and Bush's name with cartoonish disdain, like a foul substance they were trying to spit out. They drew pictures of Kerry or for Kerry, one of which they insisted I mail to him, which I did, at his campaign office in Washington. My oldest was excited that Kerry won the mock election in her fifth-grade class. (This may be a red state, but by God, my kids go to a blue school.) My youngest, who is four, told me confidentially that she was thinking about marrying John Kerry.

So I was a little worried about how they would take the news this morning. I needn't have been. "Did John Kerry win? He didn't? What's for breakfast?" Having small kids can be great for taking your mind off stuff.

Let me say I feel really fucking stupid about the post below this one, written on Election Eve. I expressed rather nakedly and childishly the hope that America is a liberal country at heart. In 2000 we were indignant--we felt cheated by the Republicans, and ill-served by the media. In 2004 we were mobilized and largely ready for those things. The masses heard the Kerry message and the Bush message, and they chose the Bush message. There aren't many "if onlys" today, mostly just a cold, heavy realization that the problem is with us. Or else it's with them. Or with the fact that there's an us and a them.

In the car, where ALL your heavy duty talks with your children take place, H*****, the fifth grader, asked me about the differences between the parties: Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian (the three on our ballot). My answer rambled on for five minutes or so, talking about the role of government, activist or minimalist and so on. Then I added: "Then there's also the Green Party. They really care about the environment." (Come on, I couldn't let the Libertarians be the only counter-culture party out there.) Anyway, as you might have guessed, I seem to have raised a Green Party supporter.

I think I mentioned I was a poll greeter at my precinct for the Democrats. It was a mixed experience. It's dull work, certainly, but I see the value of it, as well as that of the volunteer poll observers and drivers and canvassers. There were lots of good intentions and energy on display, though organization fell down in some ways. My co-volunteers were nice folks: disaffected Dixie liberals like myself. I see things I could have done better, ways I could have been bolder. There was some gamesmanship by our Republican greeter counterparts, which maybe I should have confronted more aggressively. Guess I shouldn't bear our red state shame entirely on my own shoulders.

I took the signs out of the yard today. I wonder how long I'll keep the bumper stickers on the car.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Voting (3): Low-Information Rationality

I'm going to be a poll greeter at my precinct tomorrow, a Democratic Party volunteer. I went to a meeting tonight to pick up signs and printed materials and find out what I'm supposed to do. Rule 1 on the handout I got: "Attitude is Important!... Be sure to smile, be positive, and be non-confrontational."

One volunteer spoke of his experience as a greeter during the early voting period, and encouraged us to introduce ourselves and be cordial with the Republican greeter at our site. Help voters relax, create a bipartisan spirit. Some folks joked that they'd like to unload their leftover Halloween candy on the voters standing in line. The Party's response is, fine, but hand it out impartially to donkeys and elephants alike.

It was also stressed to us that a key part of our job may be to offer support to the people still in line at closing time. The rule is that if a person is in line at 7:30 pm, he is entitled to vote, even if it takes half the night. We want to help that person to stick it out for that hour or more--to keep his place in line and finally mark that ballot, resisting the little voice that says screw it, let's go home and watch Law & Order re-runs. If I can cajole, cheerlead, run out and buy donuts, whatever it takes to help last-minute voters persevere--it's all good.

Plainly, the Democrats value turnout for its own sake. At least this time around, they do. That seems right to me: the most tentative and marginal voters--immigrants, minorities, poor whites--are ones who belong in the D column. Perhaps that's naive to say, but it sure is borne out by the fact that the GOP obviously hates new voter registration and robust turnout--they keep pulling dirty tricks to try and thwart those things. And the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

I've thought for awhile that lowering voter turnout is a deliberate Republican strategy, and one that is unhealthy for the body politic. One effect, if not goal, of the Lee Atwater - Karl Rove school of scorched earth politics is to breed general disgust with politics-as-usual and politicians as a profession. They're all the same: all liars and crooks and scumbags. Right? Isn't that the common-sense wisdom out of the mouth of Joe Sixpack nowadays? I suppose it's hard to trace causation in this chicken-and-egg relationship between negative campaigning on one hand, and widespread disdain for government and politics on the other. But surely there's a correlation.

The Atwater - Rove approach, and the overall sense of alienation it fosters, leverages the structural advantages the Republicans have. The negative political climate is like a thick smog, blinding and irritating. It discourages the tentative, weakly-committed voters. Why leave the house and breathe that shit if you don't have to? So the contest is between the parties' respective bases, and it's harder to organize the Democratic base, which is like a herd of cats (trust me, I was just at a meeting with them), than it is to organize the Republican base, which is more like a team of sled dogs--hungry blue-eyed purebreds with a narrow field of vision and an authority fetish. Anyway, it's an article of faith with me that being positive and encouraging turnout--more universal suffrage--is a good long-term strategy for Democrats.

A tip of the hat to Phil at Here Be Monsters who got me thinking with this recent post , which is partly about whether voter turnout in this country is an absolute good, or whether it would be better if pig-ignorant citizens (not to mince words) stayed home on Election Day. Further thanks to Phil and Chana for helping me re-discover this New Yorker piece by Louis Menand, a really interesting examination of the cognitive processes of American voters.

Phil bemoans the stupidity of the electorate and its rising stupidity in recent years. Mr. Menand observes the extremely tenuous grounds most people base their votes on, as well as on the fact that even Americans who "vote their pocketbooks" do a piss-poor job of accurately gauging what voting decision would most benefit their pocketbooks. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that most folks hold political opinions that are meaningless.

As a practical matter, of course (and I think Phil would agree), smart people governing dumb people is an unworkable idea--even less workable in this country than giving all the power to the rich and/or high-born, who at least could be easily identified. Menand gives us a glimmer of hope: a theory of "low-information rationality" in which through symbolic and associative reasoning (e.g., use of party labels and other generalizations), even poorly-informed voters can make the "right" choice in the aggregate.

Some of us cultivate our opinions lovingly, while others toss them off casually. But is any political opinion meaningful outside the context of maximizing its influence? A vote is a vote is a vote. As an ordinary voter, how is my opinion more potent than that of my Southern Baptist neighbor who votes however Pat Robertson tells him to? Well, I type my opinions into persuasive posts on this nifty blog... but then I must conclude that Atrios's opinions are about 100,000 times more meaningful than mine.

I don't know quite where I'm going with that last part. I do know that I'm impressed with Menand's conclusion that "[f]or most people, voting may be more meaningful and understandable as a social act than as a political one." And when I ponder the apparent surge in voter interest in the US this year, I can't imagine it is mainly attributable to enthusiasm for Bushism: for straights-only marriage, tax cuts uber alles, and blind loyalty to Dubya's war council. No, I think it's a Bush backlash, and what it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in size and energy.