Tuesday, December 26, 2006

reasons to quit

The L.A. Times reported the other day on the response of evangelical church leaders to the recent spate of scandals involving megachurch pastors and same-sex activity. (Hat tip Hullabaloo.)

I think this piece is pretty well done. Isolation is a persistent problem for ministers, because of the nature of the work (embodying virtue and optimism, at least to their flock) and the type of people who go into it (demanding of themselves). The problem will play out in different ways in different kinds of church context. I strongly disagree that gay sex is a sin, but many people do believe that, and the Times reporter takes those people seriously and on their own terms. The story ends with the "ex-gay" minister and his strategies for how not to act on his same-sex desires, as if he were trying to give up cigarettes or trans fats. That gets right to the heart of the matter.

The best bit is right here:

In his 14 years at the helm of a conservative Baptist congregation in Colorado Springs, the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds found it almost impossible to have an honest conversation with his deacons. He set up a monthly "check-in," but everyone responded to his questions with a reflexive "I'm blessed."

"I wanted to say, 'Please! I feel like crap!' " Reynolds said. "I felt like I was not dealing with human beings."

Talking with members of the congregation was even harder, he said; they held him to such a high standard that he could set off a round of gossip just by running out for a carton of milk on a Saturday night — a time they expected him to be home in prayer, preparing for Sunday worship.

Reynolds, 45, struggled for years on his own with the realization he is gay.

That Stepford-like optimism that a lot of evangelicals have--I sure couldn't deal with it every day. Reynolds ended up coming out to his congregation, then resigning his position. I would like to know what he's doing now; the story doesn't say.

Monday, December 25, 2006


Remedial blogging, not especially appropriate to Christmas Day...

Via The Revealer, an article by Warren Goldstein in the Yale Alumni Magazine, about Yale Divinity School. I want to bookmark it. Note to self: update the link as necessary.

The article's Yale-centrism (which was intended, of course) is a little annoying as boosterism within the realm of American seminaries and denominations. But it's also noteworthy as an effort to validate Yale Divinity School's continued existence, to the realm of Yale alumni and the larger Yale community. Warren Goldstein argues that better days are ahead for liberal mainline Protestantism as a force in American society. All I can say is, from his lips to God's ears. Whether the optimism is well-founded or not, the diagnosis of what has happened to the liberal denominations since their peak in the 1960s, is well-stated. In its headline ("What the fuck would it take?") The Revealer highlights Goldstein's account of a 1980 debate, televised on the Phil Donahue Show, between William Sloan Coffin (longtime Yale chaplain, exemplar of theological liberalism) and Jerry Falwell. Falwell eats Coffin's lunch in the debate, largely because Coffin cannot take the Lynchburg upstart and his movement seriously, and perhaps doesn't take the Donahue Show seriously, either, as a public venue. We can read quite a bit about the last few decades in American religion from that encounter.

But there's other good stuff in here as well. William McKinney makes some great points:

Nearly everyone has a theory about what caused the mainline decline; it's the $64,000 question in the sociology of modern Protestantism. One theory emphasizes the mainline's discomfort with emotion in worship, a focus on social issues, and consequent neglect of personal faith. McKinney, of the Pacific School of Religion, cites sociologist Robert Booth Fowler in arguing that however much Americans may like liberalism, they find it "too cerebral" and "spiritually unsatisfying." (Anyone recognize a couple of recent Yale-educated Democratic presidential candidates?) "Americans like liberalism but they don't like liberal religion," he says. "They want it hot, passionate; they want to feel it."

In the sidebar to the story, Lillian Daniel does a great job of encapsulating the problem ministers have when they leave seminary and enter a local church:

"When I graduated I was confronted with hemorrhaging membership numbers. I was associate minister in a suburban church. They were saying, 'How do we grow?' And I had no idea. We never covered that in divinity school. 'How do we attract the kids? Oh, I missed that day. I can tell you about Saint Augustine. I had no idea you would want to grow the church.' It was a huge disservice.

"I liken Yale Divinity School to a liberal arts education. You don't cover the professional and technical skills; the idea is that you will be grounded in the tradition and in learning and reading critically, and the other stuff you'll pick up on the job. The problem with that model, where it breaks down, is that the mainline church is in crisis. There aren't that many healthy, vibrant ministers and congregations to teach you."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Schaller and Perlstein

Two current political writers whose books I've been meaning to pick up are Rick Perlstein and Tom Schaller. Here’s a lazy man’s way out: why not read a short article BY Rick Perlstein ABOUT Tom Schaller?

Schaller’s thesis, crudely stated, is that the Democrats’ surest path to winning national elections is to direct resources everywhere except the South. Perlstein boils Schaller’s insight down to this: Compare white Northern voters to white Southern voters, then look for the factor that explains why the Southerners vote Republican at higher rates. Identifying as a conservative doesn’t explain it. Pro-life or pro-choice? Hawk or dove? These items don’t explain it. What explains it is racial prejudice: whether the respondent believes the proposition that black Americans face systemic inequality.

Tom Schaller is a hot topic among Democrats right now. Greater blogs than mine, like Ed Kilgore and Lawyers Guns and Money and Matthew Yglesias, are batting this around. (Here is Ed Kilgore's Salon review of Schaller's book "Whistling Past Dixie.")

A Southern Democrat like me is naturally somewhat resistant to Schaller's argument. I guess the nub of the matter is that it feels, or would feel, a little pathetic to be attached to a political movement that doesn't consider me worth having as a full member on account of geography. But the argument based on survey data appeals to the amateur sociologist in me. Also, in trying to find a voice for this blog, and figure out where to direct my writerly resources, it would be nice to steer clear of hair-splitting arguments, or matters of semantics and tone. Religion and region are two subjects where I find myself being hyperdefensive, when the fact is I don't so much object to what the secular-liberal consensus says, as to the way it says it. I don't get paid to fight those battles.

(Some people do get paid to fight those battles. Ed Kilgore writes on his blog, "We think the progressive message, presented with sensitivity to regional variations, can create a long-term Democratic majority." I can get behind that statement, and it's interesting that "we" includes Howard Dean. But Kilgore appends a final clause, "and that anything less will likely squander that opportunity." Maybe he's right, I don't know, but that's the statement of a Democratic consultant trying to defend his turf.)


Since the Perlstein piece will retreat into TNR's archives soon, I am going to cut and paste a part from near the end. This is less specifically pertinent to Schaller, but an interesting forensic note about what's wrong with political journalism in the U.S.:

After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, all the top news executives sent a wire to Mayor Richard J. Daley protesting the way their employees "were repeatedly singled out by policemen and deliberately beaten." Such was their presumption of cultural authority they couldn't imagine how anyone could disagree. Then Mayor Daley went on Walter Cronkite's show and shocked the media establishment by refusing to apologize to the beaten reporters: "Many of them are hippies themselves. They're part of this movement." Polls revealed 60 percent of Americans agreed with Daley. For the press, it triggered a dark night of the soul. In an enormously influential column, the pundit Joseph Kraft, shaken, wrote, "Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communication field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans--in Middle America."

That air of alienation--that helpless feeling that we have no idea what's going on out there--has structured elite discourse about the rest of the country ever since. A set of constructs about what "the great mass of ordinary Americans" supposedly believes--much more conservative things than any media elitist would believe, basically--became reified. Pundits like Kraft--a social class that spends much of their time among people like themselves, inside the Beltway--learned to bend over backward to be fair, lest they advertise their own alienation from everyone else. On subjects that chafed them--say, the relevance of certain ugly folkways of the South in electoral politics--they just had to bend harder. Or ignore the matter altogether.

It can produce in today's TV talking head a twisted kind of neurosis: an instinctual distrust of the political appeal of anything that can be categorized as liberal, even in defiance of the actual data; and an inability to call a spade a spade--say, that people shouldn't have been beaten indiscriminately in the streets of Chicago in 1968.

(To finish Perlstein's thought, calling a spade a spade means accepting that in the near term, the Democratic platform won't win in the South.)

I actually did check Schaller's book out of the library, so maybe I'll have something more substantive to say about it at some point.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Obama and Evangelicals

Barack Obama is attracting a lot of press right now as the fresh-faced new entry in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes. His barnstorming goodwill tour hit a bump recently: he was invited to speak at a conference on HIV/AIDS at Saddleback, Rick Warren's Southern California megachurch, one of the capitals of evangelicaldom. But due to his pro-abortion-rights record, Obama's scheduled appearance sparked expressions of protest from evangelical leaders, including Phyllis Schlafly.

My sense is that many Democratic observers are skeptical, right out of the gate, of Obama's attempts at outreach to evangelicals, and were quick to read this as a setback for Obama. My off-the-cuff response when I first saw this news item was, Phyllis Schlafly is past her prime, and in a battle of the titans, my money would be on Rick Warren.

Sure enough, Warren responded politely but firmly, and and the bottom line is that Barack Obama is still invited to Saddleback. This article tells us that while Obama is in SoCal he's going to squeeze in an appearance on the Tonight Show. Rick Warren didn't just fall out of a tree, and he would have to be real afraid of Phyllis Schlafly to diss a Tonight Show guest. He's not that afraid of her.

One of my points here, to channel Amy Sullivan for just a moment, is that your average journalist or Democratic politico has a view of evangelicals that's stuck in the past. Writers like Eric Kleefeld attach a lot of weight to names they recognize: Falwell, Schlafly, and Robertson. None of those three is a heavyweight contender anymore. Rick Warren is a contender, Richard Land and James Dobson are contenders. Ted Haggard was a contender until recently.

Another news story that caught my attention this week is that the president-elect of the Christian Coalition has opted not to take the job, because of the resistance he encountered in wanting to broaden the Coalition's focus:

"My position is, unless we are caring as much for the vulnerable outside the womb as inside the womb, we're not carrying out the full message of Jesus," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "They began to think this might threaten their base or evaporate some of their support, and they said they just couldn't go there."

The Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson's onetime base of operations, is circling the drain. This is because of garden-variety institutional stagnation, and also because (my second point here) pro-life politics are in trouble. (Note the setbacks on Election Day: the abortion referendum in South Dakota, the stem-cell referendum in Missouri.) An overwhelming focus on protecting the unborn and harassing gays, to the exclusion of every other issue, makes the Schlafly types look out of touch and mean. The future of evangelical politics is global humanitarian issues and the environment, and Barack Obama may be onto something.

Update, 12/4/06: The text of Obama's speech at Saddleback

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Midterm Elections Recap

I can't add too much to my friend Snoopy's reaction. I really tried not to make predictions or have high expectations, but it was hard to avoid it. For months Democrats were just aching with anticipation, while cowering in fear of GOP dirty tricks, John Kerry gaffes, and The Myth of Karl Rove's Genius. But I went through the day November 8th tired, but with a smile on my face, which just got bigger with each news update: Don Rumsfeld, George Allen, Conrad Burns...

Here's something strange, though: Bush's postmortem press conference inspired James Fallows to muse, "Has Bush Been Smart All Along?" This is an odd little column, that Fallows half-apologizes for as he's writing it. By way of background, Fallows had written a story in The Atlantic in 2004 that examined Bush's oratory going back to his days as Texas governor, and concluded that GWB's verbal acuity had declined noticeably over the years. Anyway, Fallows listened to Bush in the aftermath of his midterm "thumping" and thought the President sounded eloquent and sure of himself, as if some his rhetorical brain cells had regenerated; Fallows even praised him for pronouncing words like "cumulative" and "nevertheless" without a hitch. (Christ, do our pundits ever grade Presidents on a curve!)

Has Bush been smart all along? The overwhelming consensus is No. (In the days before the election, I savored the fact that while Bush seemed eager to be out on the campaign trail, his party would only send him to out-of-the-way places where they figured he couldn't hurt them. It turned out that he hurt them anyway in formerly Red States like Montana.) I didn't think Bush sounded especially smart on the Day After; he was robotically repeating the phrase of the day, "fresh perspective" (as in, flushing Rumsfeld was not an admission of failure, it was a quest for a "fr...) and his peevishness was competing with the need to extend a hand to Nancy Pelosi.

However, I wonder if this drubbing at the polls was a psychic watershed for Bush. I see certain hints that he is sure of himself in defeat. There's been lots of discussion of the Rumsfeld firing, and its timing, and a tangent about Bush "lying" to reporters about Rumsfeld's job security the week before the election. What I take from the Rumsfeld story is that the President implicitly agrees with the proposition that the 2006 midterms were a referendum on him and his wars. In my view Bush has been a fundamentally weak and insecure leader, urgently trying to puff himself up, surround himself with yes-men and cheering crowds and triumphalist campaign advisors. Now his bubble has burst, and part of him was sure all along that it would, and I wonder if he feels a tremendous relief and unburdening. I think he'll take to being a lame duck better than Clinton did.

One intemperate election prediction I did make had to do with a certain Senate race in Connecticut. I guess I'll never publish the anti-Joe Lieberman post I wrote back in August at the height of Ned Lamont fever. Don't want to make the Independent Democrat angry. (Watch out! He's a maverick! Stand back while he DOESN'T issue subpoenas!)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Right Stuff!

Have you ever met a real-live astronaut? I have, last Saturday night, in fact.

I'm going to struggle to keep the names and places out of this post--This was a guy who piloted the Space Shuttle on one of its early missions. He's retired now from NASA but still does public appearances, for a fee, I am told. (Did he get appearance fees when he still worked for NASA? Is being an astronaut a money-making gig? I wonder.) He gave a talk, with a slide show, at a fundraising event at a science museum in my town.

It was a polished presentation that I'm sure he's given a hundred times. He summarized his career, the selection process for becoming an astronaut, the history and future of the space program. He included some human-interest details about what it's like to spend several days in zero-gravity conditions: for instance, he got about 1.5 inches taller in space, because without gravity your spinal column de-compresses. The Astronaut says it's great if you have back trouble. He displayed some humorous, nonchalant bravado; he said you pull 3 G's during a shuttle lift-off, "no problem for an old Navy pilot like me, a little rough on the Air Force guys." When he spoke of the astronauts who died in the Challenger and Columbia accidents, he was respectful but matter-of-fact and still a little nonchalant. Those men and women understood the risks, and understood that the program was bigger than themselves, he said; words to that effect anyway.

Then there was a brief question-and-answer period, then The Astronaut got a standing ovation. Many people become star-struck little kids in the presence of an astronaut. The Astronaut's talk had been 30 or 40 minutes long, then we moved to the evening's other activities, eating and having cocktails and dancing (there was a live band). The Astronaut stayed for the party. Most men were in dark suits and ties, while the Astronaut wore his bright blue and yellow NASA flightsuit. You could say that he stood out in the crowd.

The Astronaut is in his 60's (a few years younger than my dad; I know this because in chatting with him I learned he went to the same high school as my dad, a few years behind) but ruddy-faced and just a little thick around the middle and thin up top. He invited us to call him by his first name, for which I was grateful because I wasn't sure how to address him (Commander?) Imagine Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff, 30 years older but still the cocky test-pilot: holding court with a cluster of men and even more women hanging on his every word, smiling, winking, NASA patch on his breast, telling stories of missions accomplished and deaths defied. It was a good party, and I for one don't get enough chances anymore to dress up and have a few drinks too many and try to remember how to dance. People were looking their best and the liquor was flowing, and while nobody made a royal ass of him- or herself, I felt it was something of a workout for dormant middle-aged libidos. I don't know if the Astronaut achieved liftoff that night, but it sure looked like he could have.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"a sort of clown"

Gary Wolf, "The Church of the Non-Believers," in Wired magazine. A profile of today's fiery evangelists of atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris).

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Preferring sincerity to reality

A blogospheric efflorescence was sparked yesterday by this Amy Sullivan piece in The New Republic (curiously, two weeks after it was published). Ms. Sullivan was talking up the newly-published book Tempting Faith by David Kuo, a Christian conservative who is frustrated over the Bush Administration's lack of follow-through on its campaign promises to promote evangelical values in national policy.

One might think that evangelical voters would get fed up one of these days with how little bang for the buck they're getting from the GOP, and would kick the tires of the Democratic Party. That's certainly Amy Sullivan's hope, that the Democrats would highlight Kuo's story of Bushian betrayal, but her fear is Dems are in the throes of "theocracy hype." Anyway, it's a relatively minor point she's making, it's a poor time to be making it (one week before the midterms, which are not being fought on social-compassion terms), and some of the bloggers and commenters miss her point anyway. The best takes on Sullivan, I thought, were (1) Matthew Yglesias wondering how you make nice with people who think you're going to hell, and (2) Scott Lemieux wondering what's the payoff: how many evangelical voters are really amenable to a marketing pitch from the Democrats, in the absence of major policy concessions on stem cells, abortion, et.al.

It's a shame in a way, because what people ought to be reading in TNR this week is Alan Wolfe's review of Tempting Faith. Wolfe is knowledgeable about evangelicals and where they fit in the landscape of American religions. At the same time, he avoids mealy-mouthed PC-ness and gives us a really sharp takedown of Kuo and the credulousness he exemplifies:

Tempting Faith is in its way a significant book, not for what it teaches about the Machiavellians in the White House--surely there are no longer any surprises to be had on that front--but for what we learn about young, idealistic, and phenomenally naïve Christians such as David Kuo. It is not an analysis of a mentality, but a documentation of it. To be sure, there is no doubting Kuo's sincerity. His faith in God is unwavering. He is truly committed to good work on behalf of the poor. He did eventually leave the White House, and with the publication of this book he testifies to the cynicism that he found there. But his recovered righteousness is itself a kind of alibi. For people like him served as enablers for one of the most immoral presidencies Americans have ever endured. If we are to know what makes Bush so bad, we need to know more about why people who are so good could ever have been seduced by him.

The way David Kuo was seduced, first by John Ashcroft, later by George W. Bush, was that each leader had a "testimony," a personal story about how he had felt God's power in his life. Testimonialism is a powerful paradigm in evangelical life; having a testimony is considered a mark of sincerity and trustworthiness. These testimonies are often a little too good to be literally true, and besides that, the willingness to be charmed by these heartfelt stories is crippling for a political operative.

If theocracy is not a looming danger to our democracy, bathos might be. For every evangelical leader spewing hate, there are ten evangelical followers who believe that all you need is love. David Kuo is one of them. He brought to the White House neither money nor mission, but only mush. ...His intentions were not malevolent. They were oblivious, which may be worse.

I like me some Alan Wolfe. He is a public intellectual of a high order, even from his perch in academia. If you missed his Washington Monthly piece from a few months ago, "Why Conservatives Can't Govern," do yourself a favor and read it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Now I'm hungry

Anthony Bourdain on barbecue. While barbecue is a Platonic ideal and perennial subject for debate, and THE perfect recipe is unknowable, he writes that the Eastern North Carolina variety is as good as it gets. Woo hoo! Bourdain makes an interesting statement, and I bet it's true, that the fall-off-the-bone character of Southern barbecue evolved thanks to a combination of (1) tough critters that had to be cooked and (2) rotten teeth in the mouths of the settlers.

Anthony Bourdain's travel & cuisine TV show "No Reservations" is fun and thought-provoking. It was actually a kind of good luck that Bourdain and his crew happened to be in Beirut when the Israeli rocket attacks began there this past summer; the end product was an impromptu documentary with a humane ground-level perspective on the attack. But all his shows offer an offbeat sensory experience of a foreign locale.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Bridge Day Tragedy

Fayetteville, West Virginia is home to the New River Gorge Bridge, the highest single-span arch bridge in the world. Every fall Fayetteville celebrates Bridge Day, which is your basic town fair and street festival, but with the added feature that the state closes the bridge to traffic for the day, so people can walk out on it and check out the view from 876 feet above the river.

Bridge Day is renowned among BASE jumpers--people who parachute-jump off of fixed structures (Buildings, Antennas, Spans, and Earth [i.e. a really high cliff] ). Several hundred folks each year make the Bridge Day pilgrimage in order to leap off the thing. In 1984 I attended Bridge Day with my grandmother. I'll never forget watching those men and women, one after another, diving off the railing into the void. As much as their daring, I remember their skill in steering their parachutes: almost every jumper hit the strip of sand, 20 feet wide or so, between the water and the trees.

Fatalities are rare among BASE jumpers, but last weekend's Bridge Day festivities were marred by the death of a jumper named Brian Lee Schubert, who happened to be one of the pioneers of BASE jumping, having leapt off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park 40 years ago. NPR's Noah Adams happened to be present and to have interviewed Schubert a few minutes before he jumped. Schubert was 66 years old and hadn't made a parachute jump in a number of years, and had never used the type of chute he wore that day. An investigation will be made, but one suspects it was a case of overconfidence and human error: Schubert never let go of the pilot chute in his hand. Strange, and very sad.

More pictures of Bridge Day BASE jumpers here.

Riffing on Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel appeared on NPR a couple of weeks ago and got testy with Steve Inskeep--not an easy thing to do in itself (picking a fight with Inskeep, I mean). I've rarely heard an interview, especially with a person whose ideas or work I've been sympathetic to, and come away with such a strong feeling that the person is an asshole. After reading this profile in the Washpot, I have a greater (grudging) appreciation for him. (The NPR-Inskeep piece opened with Emanuel complaining how little sleep he was operating on; I guess he's earned the right to complain. The Washpot quotes Paul Begala comparing Emanuel's work ethic to that of LBJ, who per Begala used to wind up many campaigns in a hospital bed.)

I found the Washpot piece via Neil @ Ezra Klein's place; I enjoyed his discussion of the Democratic leadership in the House. The GOP is trying to demonize Nancy Pelosi as Hillary-gone-to-San Francisco; reportedly more Republicans than Democrats nationwide now know Pelosi's name. I think Pelosi is sharp as hell, and putting Emanuel at the DCCC was one of her best moves to date. I'm less than 100% ecstatic at the thought of Democratic subpoena power, just because I see every reason to think that Bush and Cheney will treat subpoenas as toilet paper. But don't get me wrong: I want the subpoenas sent and the hearings held; I sure would like to see that drama played out.

Read Werewolf Neil's comments on Steny Hoyer vs. Jack Murtha for majority leader. Jack Murtha has been great for the party, but I did not realize he has a 0 rating from NARAL.

I've been struggling for two months to write something coherent about the tensions in the Democratic Party that were on display in the primary contest between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman. Suffice it to say that I was all in favor of an insurgent Democratic campaign to beat Lieberman--though that CT Senate race is a source of worry right now; it really looks like Lamont peaked in August, and some of his foot soldiers had regular jobs or law-school classes to return to after Labor Day.

What grated on me most about Lieberman and his supporters in A-list Washington society, was an intimation that Lieberman's seniority should protect him, absolutely and unconditionally, from primary challenges. You'd think politicians would accept having to run for election as a routine hazard of democracy, but it seemed to me that Lieberman resented having to face the voters. Joe'd prefer to purchase them wholesale via Don Imus and Tim Russert. Rahm Emanuel was one of those in the party leadership who wanted to cushion Lieberman and shoot down Ned Lamont; at the time I was angry at Emanuel's meddling. (Emanuel successfully snuffed a handful of other primary challenges this year, including Paul Hackett in Ohio, a hero of the Left Blogosphere like Ned Lamont.)

Anyway, after reading the Post, I can't charge Emanuel with being a chardonnay-sipping Georgetown idler, or of shrinking from contact with voters and donors, of not doing the hard work of party politics. It's just possible he knows his business better than I know his business. Pelosi is the leader of the party at the moment, the unifying force. Emanuel is not a unifying personality, but he's Pelosi's guy, and so, in my small way, am I. It's humbling, this party discipline, putting one's trust in the brusque asshole from Chicago, embracing someone who's anti-choice like Jack Murtha.

I have no predictions for November 7th--I just hope the Democrats aren't overconfident. All these polls are great that show trouble for Republicans in the generalized aggregate abstract. But that anti-Bush zeitgeist has to filter down and convert into votes for Jim Webb, for Ted Strickland, for Heath Shuler, etc. The filtering-down doesn't happen automatically.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mark Foley, in three movements

I suppose I'll say something about Mark Foley. I got into an online chat Tuesday night that wound up getting a little heated. I've cooled off now, hopefully my friends have as well, and I would like to speak to some of the points that came up at that time.

On Monday, Slate published an article by John Dickerson which cautioned Democrats against overplaying the Foley scandal. “The question is whether Republican leaders were grossly negligent or clumsily stupid,” he wrote, and if it’s only the latter, then for Democrats to press too hard would be to appeal to homophobia.

GOP leaders might not have done the right thing because they wanted to protect a safe GOP seat. But my reporting suggests for the moment that instead of being craven, they were just incompetent wimps. They knew Foley was gay and in the closet, and they just didn't want to get into whether he was following through on his flirting. When he explained that his e-mails were just a part of mentoring, they were probably relieved. Foley had given them an excuse they wanted to believe.... Sure, they could have handled the situation better, but who could know that Foley was going after young boys?


For GOP leaders to pay a heavy political price requires either more evidence that they really knew what Foley was doing or for Democrats to form an alliance, at some level, with people who find homosexuality outrageous no matter what the age.

Let's break this down a little. Theoretically, of course, the Democrats could use the fact that Foley is gay in an irresponsible and incendiary way. However, experience has taught us that the U.S. political party with a penchant for gay-bashing is decidedly not the Democrats. (Notice this week who is actually trying to conflate (1) being gay with (2) hitting on teenagers in the workplace? The GOP, in a campaign to bamboozle us and account for their slow response to Foley rumors. Wouldn't want to be perceived as homophobic, dontcha know.)

(To be fair, Monday was a looooong time ago in Foley-time, and Dickerson might very well revise some of his statements in light of subsequent revelations.)

Furthermore, Dickerson's line between negligence and stupidity is a distinction without a difference. They got a thing in Washington called "plausible deniability." It's a way of eliding the difference between evil and ignorance, to make it okay for "good men" to do nothing. It's kind of silly to apply a negligence test--to raise even the theoretical possibility that Hastert or Reynolds knew for certain that Foley was hustling teenagers, and made a deliberate decision to protect him anyway. No: Despite that there was plenty enough smoke to arouse suspicions about Foley's activities, the GOP leaders passed the buck. They wanted to preserve deniability, they wanted NOT to know to a certainty. "Craven" political considerations (Foley represented a safe seat and a good source of campaign funds) dovetailed with more normal emotions (embarrassment, desire to avoid conflict, whatever), and it was more expedient and comfortable for them not to confront him. Foleygate is a case study of plausible deniability and its shortcomings. On something as straightforward and commonsensical as protecting underage employees, technically-not-knowing doesn't cut it. "Mere" stupidity? No, toxic stupidity, reflecting moral laziness and deficient decency and character.


Okay, is this Foleygate thing the comeuppance that the 2006 Republican Party deserves? Not even close. It's a sad commentary, in fact, that this sex scandal has greater destructive power than Abu Ghraib or the recent NIE--that some upset or offended teenage boys from well-connected families, signify more heavily than senseless loss of life, or the squandering of America's world standing.

Some of the House pages seem to have been discomfited by Foley's come-ons, but I can't tell that anyone was harmed. In our Tuesday chat, my friends and I batted around the question of whether "predator" is an appropriate term for Mark Foley and his behavior. If it sticks, I think it's because Foley was pursuing pages via the Net; when I hear "sexual predator" nowadays, I think of older men deceiving and manipulating young kids online. I don't think it has a gay connotation, necessarily. But "preying" could encompass kidnap and rape and other awful stuff. I find Mark Foley closer to pathetic than predatory.

To me, Foleygate has a certain symbolic weight, because I find it so perversely apt that this chicken-hawk Mark Foley, this trenchcoated stranger-with-candy, chaired the Missing and Exploited Children caucus. That's the Republicans all over--their total cynicism about government leads to these absurd pairings of people and roles: draft dodgers are setting military policy, Luddites are in charge of science and technology, torture-lovers are running the Justice Department, despoilers are running the EPA and Interior Departments. With Hurricane Katrina the anomaly became too glaring to ignore; maybe with Foleygate as well. But this is just me. I doubt whether there's a TV ad or campaign bumper sticker in this idea.

I'm of a mind to exploit the Mark Foley controversy if it's got political legs. Exploit it for all it's worth. Is this playing footsie with gay-bashers? Maybe. Do it anyway, I say, if it'll help win the midterms. Rub the GOP's face in their grotesque hypocrisy, and the way they play "family values voters" for suckers. As I wrote the other night, I don't see it as recruiting homophobes to the Democratic Party, I would see it as trying to depress the homophobic Republican vote. I don't think this is an issue the Democrats could lose their soul over.

Exploiting Foleygate isn't a long-term strategy, and the thought of it doesn't exactly give me a noble feeling. I'm not even brimming with confidence that it will make a crucial difference. (I'm not getting my hopes up this Election Day. My heart hasn't healed from 2004 yet.) But if it kept one gay-hating judge off the federal bench, it would be worth it.


Related to the Dickerson / Slate article, I took a swipe the other night at Slate as an entity. Let me elaborate on my anti-Slate grudge.

Last fall, in the same humble blog template that you now behold, about the time of the Scooter Libby indictment, I wrote this reaction to columns by Jacob Weisberg (Slate) and Richard Cohen (Washington Post):

These guys are geniuses of self-promotion, in their way: calculatedly provocative, they are card carrying liberals who go against the grain of liberal conventional wisdom, in a way that might seem brave to their readers, but keeps them in the good graces of their sources and the Washington social scene. On the very day when anticipation over Plamegate indictments is at its height, both of them come out with columns saying that Fitzgerald's investigation is bad for liberal principles and he should shut it down. They're going for their "contrarian's merit badge," in James Wolcott's phrase.

I perceived similarly fishy timing in Dickerson’s piece this week: as the bad news for the GOP was still in crescendo, he was urging the Democrats to apply some diminuendo. I don’t think it’s intentional on any of these journalists’ part, I think it’s an instinct to calm the waters, and the nerves of their friends and neighbors. Permanent residents of Washington don’t like big scandals, and they’re scared at the prospect of a mid-term electoral tidal wave. So John Dickerson isn’t just making a clever and seemingly counter-intuitive argument in a column. He’s boosting the morale of his colleagues and loved ones at the same time. The falcon can hear the falconer; the center can hold.

The New Republic are the undisputed champs of “liberal contrarianism,” but Slate runs a close second. (I freely admit, I read Slate because it’s free online. I’d read TNR more if all its content were free, but I won’t send them any of my money. Sue me; some people read Jack Chick tracts to get them riled up, but they wouldn’t buy the things.) I think these guys think they are being edgy or at least clever, always zigging when liberals zag, but it gets real predictable after awhile. As I commented once, I’d rather not exert the mental energy needed to hold these people in their suspended state of liberal contrarianism; I’d rather just think of them as former liberals.

Generally, it makes me suspicious when a mainstream (i.e. ostensibly fair-minded) Washington pundit can take a damage-control nightmare for the Republicans and quickly turn it into a problem for the Democrats. It’s an overused rhetorical maneuver, and it’s often unfair or unobjective; it cheers for a particular outcome to an unfolding controversy. The underlying assumption, I believe, is that only conservatives can speak strongly and forcefully, while liberals always have to parse their words, for fear of angering one of their touchy sub-constituencies, or else failing in their role as guardians of fair play and objectivity. Liberals have to be civil. Only conservatives have permission to pop off intemperately. One might respond that this is the way the political landscape really is. I say perception makes the reality, and the media reinforces this habit of perception, one that puts the liberal side in an unequal position. "Strong but wrong" often works in U.S. politics, as Bill Clinton has observed. Liberals should be permitted to be "strong."

Also, it may seem strange to say this about Slate, an Internet-only publication, but they share a little of the print media's fear and ignorance of the online world. Kinsley and Weisberg and Saletan and Dickerson (formerly of Time magazine) are print journalists, pad and pencil men, at heart. The main manifestation of this is in snide remarks about "angry bloggers," but sometimes it shows up in simple misunderstandings of how many people use computers nowadays, how online communications are changing Americans’ lives. Dickerson downplays these “overly friendly” e-mails as flirtation, at least there was no follow-through that we know of. This attitude gives short shrift to the intimacy, or invasiveness, online communications can attain. Again, maybe Dickerson would say something different in light of the newly-published salacious details. But in an important sense, the IM's weren't just the prelude to a sexual encounter, they WERE the sexual encounter. Would that Dickerson were more hip to that fact.


I forgot to mention that I had a fall and broke my left wrist, two weeks ago last weekend.

Briefly, I was out running (for exercise) in the evening, it got dark, and I ran smack into a metal post in the greenway path. Never saw it. I fell forward, hard, and tried to catch myself with my hands. I got up slowly, inventoried all the places that hurt (right kneecap, right shoulder, left wrist) but was able to walk home. I thought I'd gotten away with bruises and maybe a sprained wrist. But the throbbing in my wrist got worse, I couldn't sleep, so after dithering for a few hours (should my wife drive me? who could we call to watch the kids?) I finally drove myself to the ER at 2 a.m. (Steering with my knees, right hand supporting my injured left hand, eyes watering from pain, but I made it.)

As trips to the ER go, it was good. I waited an hour or so before someone saw me, but everybody I talked to was pleasant and soothing and answered all my questions. It took two separate trips to the X-ray room, but they eventually found a fracture: a small crack in the navicular or scaphoid bone.

So I'm sporting a cast, thumb immobilized, though I can make the "OK" sign, which is more than I could do with the splint I got at the ER. The cast is made of fiberglass (the PA who put it on jokes I'm part man, part Corvette), and it's blue. I joke that it's not to honor any sports team (the shade is in between Duke and Carolina colors) but to reflect my renewed love and loyalty toward Blue Cross / Blue Shield. Sorry, I know they're lame jokes.

My kids want me to let them write and draw on my cast. That's not what you do when you're a grown-up with a cast. Is it? I'm saying it's not what you do, but I'm afraid I may be wrong. I'm more of a grouchy spoilsport dad than usual lately.

The scaphoid bone is the most common wrist fracture. It's a little bone near the base of the thumb, but a troublesome little bone: doesn't get good blood flow, so healing is slow and unreliable. I'll be in this cast for 8 to 12 weeks total, if things go well, which seems like a long time for such a little crack in a little bone. I think if I had neatly snapped in half one of the big bones in the arm, my recovery time would be shorter.

I make a lot of lame jokes lately. I'm tired of explaining how it happened to everyone I see--the truth is boring and stupid--so I'll say I was wrestling alligators or leaped from a burning airplane. I'm tired of people asking if it hurts--it doesn't hurt--so I'll complain over-dramatically of the hardships of not being able to tie my shoes or cut my meat.

My pride is bruised. Personal hygiene is suddenly difficult and time-consuming. I shower with a plastic bag over my cast to keep it dry; it seems like the right side of my body hasn't gotten a good washing in over two weeks. The women in my life (wife, co-workers, even daughters) are helping me with simple physical tasks. Bugs the shit out of me. Makes me feel old. It doesn't seem like tripping on the sidewalk should cause this much damage, but I must be more brittle than I used to be. And what I did was pretty doggone stupid, an egregious breakdown of common sense. I was running, hard, in the pitch dark; you wouldn't do that in your own house, much less the outdoors. If I was in the routine of running, or just being outdoors, like I should be, I would know what frickin' time the sun goes down.

I miss my arm. Miss just seeing it. In two weeks I go in to get the cast changed, and I'm looking forward to having no cast for a few minutes, to scratch the itchy places freely, and just to see my arm, to have bodily integrity again.


McKibben, "The Gospel of Green"

Via The Revealer, here is an interesting article by Bill McKibben about the growing alliance, or convergence, between U.S. evangelicals and environmentalists. This convergence could eventually upset liberal/conservatives polarities, in a positive way. Stewardship is a resonant theme in Judaism and Christianity, and may have a special resonance for younger generations.

Disturbing factoid from this story: In a recent poll, three-quarters of American Christians answered that the saying "God helps those who help themselves" is from the Bible. (It's from Aesop and later Ben Franklin--two great pagans.) As McKibben says, the American church has become way too comfortable with the "hyperindividualism" (his word) of American culture.

Occasionally I attend brown-bag lunch discussions sponsored by Duke's Theology and Medicine program; I've mentioned them before on this blog. They can be studies in well-meaning dysfunction: academically sound research projects that fundamentally miss the point; clergy and physicians talking past each other. Yesterday an MD reported on her research about trauma among missionaries, and the effects of religious orientation on post-traumatic stress as well as post-traumatic growth (a novel concept, to me). It seems to me that if you dedicate yourself to a life of religious mission or service to others, and open yourself up to experience, without overlaying expectations on it, embracing the universality of suffering, then the very potential for "trauma" shrinks, if not disappearing entirely. Anyway, several former missionaries attended the discussion, and one of them reported that one of her "traumas" was leaving Africa and returning to the hyperindividualism and isolation of American life.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Roto retrospective

My fantasy baseball team, Hot Doughnuts Now, finished in seventh place, which is disappointing. The most obvious reason for the team's mediocrity was a bad run of injuries. (Second most obvious is that I stole the team's name from a friend's defunct band, without permission, and he stole it himself from the Krispy Kreme Company. Could have resulted in bad juju.) Derrek Lee, whom I was counting on to be a stud, missed most of the year with a broken wrist. Eric Chavez was hampered by chronically sore forearms (a newly discovered medical condition, as far as I know) and had a bad year. Rickey Weeks got knocked out at midseason, and Jim Edmonds was playing at half-strength like Chavez then later was out completely. Scott Kazmir had two stints on the DL. I could name some more names.

But rather than just hope for better luck next year, I'm trying to look and see what I could have done better. The secret of good pitching still somewhat eludes me; I want to study this season's results some more. One thing I've wondered is whether I should use relief pitchers more than I do, but actually I'm in line with the more successful teams. 200-300 relief innings out of your 1500 total innings seems about right. (But I should have had more saves to show for my relief innings.)

I had 15 players on my end-of-season roster that were there all year long. (Roster size is 25.) That is on the high side; most of the more successful teams in our league tinker more than that. The second-place team also had 15 players all year long, but he had an extraordinarily good draft and good crop of keepers. It should have been obvious to me by about May that the cards I was holding were not that good. I should have tinkered a lot more--traded more, actually. I'm chicken when it comes to trades, I tend to just try to fill gaps and get marginally better. You have to trade boldly.

I did the worst job of almost any owner of using my quota of games for position players and innings for pitchers. By my quick count, there were 92 hitter-games that I didn't use, and 270 pitcher innings. I was vaguely aware of this during the season, and tried to rationalize that at least it didn't hurt me as far as rate stats like ERA. But other owners did better on rate stats than me while using their quotas more fully. The remedy is just spending more time and attention.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Contrarians' contrarians

I still check in on Butterflies & Wheels now and then. I occasionally find links to articles that I like, although Ophelia plainly means for me not to like them.

Andrew Brown is a science and religion writer. In this post at the Comment Is Free blog at the Guardian, he's piling on Richard Dawkins a bit (fine, but enough about Dawkins already) but I imagine he's also describing his credo for writing about religion.

No: Marx had that aspect right. Religion is the heart of a heartless world, and the heartlessness of the world is a terrible fact that can't just be wished away. No one gets a wonderful life just by choosing it, unless they are very lucky indeed. But then a decent respect for the role of luck in the world might lead one to sympathise with the believers, some of them even fundamentalists, who are trying to clear up their little corners of it.

If theology is, as Dawkins says repeatedly, nonsense about nothing, then anyone who gives a theological explanation for their actions is either mad or lying. In either case, there is no reason for a scientist to take their explanations seriously. But I think people who talk about God are trying often to communicate something about their own experience of the world, or about their place in it.

In that case, it is more useful to try to understand what they are saying, and why, rather than dismiss them as deluded fantasists. At the very least, the atheist is required to admit the existence of widespread patterns of experience which can reasonably and naturally be taken as the experience of supernatural beings. Gods undeniably exist in this world as they do in Terry Pratchett's: wherever people believe in them strongly enough, they're there.

So the question becomes, what do we do about them? This shouldn't be essentially different, to a thoroughgoing atheist, to the question of what we do about money. Money causes quite as much misery in the world as religion does. People will commit terrible crimes to make or save it and view with the utmost indifference the sufferings of strangers who stand in their way. Yet the way to diminish these sufferings is not to abolish money or to pretend that the needs it serves are unworthy of human beings.

That's been tried. It didn't work. We've learnt, instead, how to make the capitalist system work better: to arrange for self-interest to be, so far as possible, enlightened. Similarly, if we want to diminish the suffering caused by religion we need to make superstition, irrationality and social organisation benefit, so far as possible, the human race. This isn't easy, and it may not be possible. But there really is no practical alternative. Even if God is no more than a word for luck, we should say "There, but for the grace of luck, go I"; and not "I thank you, luck, that I am not as other men." If religion is human, then humanists must try to understand it, to sympathise and not to sneer.

Luck. Loss. Fate. Grace?

Timothy Garton Ash, "Islam in Europe" (NYRB)

Having in her youth been tempted by Islamist fundamentalism, under the influence of an inspiring schoolteacher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist. In a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals, she has gone from one extreme to the other, with an emotional energy perfectly summed up by Shakespeare: "As the heresies that men do leave/are hated most of those they did deceive." This is precisely why she is a heroine to many secular European intellectuals, who are themselves Enlightenment fundamentalists. They believe that not just Islam but all religion is insulting to the intelligence and crippling to the human spirit. Most of them believe that a Europe based entirely on secular humanism would be a better Europe. Maybe they are right. (Some of my best friends are Enlightenment fundamentalists.) Maybe they are wrong. But let's not pretend this is anything other than a frontal challenge to Islam. In his crazed diatribe, Mohammed Bouyeri [the jihadist who murdered Theo Van Gogh] was not altogether mistaken to identify as his generic European enemy the "unbelieving fundamentalist."

Friday, September 15, 2006


I'm not going to track it down, but I think I owe another hat tip to Matt Yglesias. (Fanboy? Me?) Tony Judt in the London Review of Books. He's writing to a European audience about the poor state of liberalism in the U.S. He has some pretty sharp things to say about "liberal hawks" and strong-but-wrong moderates who prefer a tough stance to a thoughtful argument.

I have written a couple of approving words here and there about human rights as an organizing principle for foreign policy. So this quote caught my eye:

In the European case this trend is an unfortunate by-product of the intellectual revolution of the 1980s, especially in the former Communist East, when ‘human rights’ displaced conventional political allegiances as the basis for collective action. The gains wrought by this transformation in the rhetoric of oppositional politics were considerable. But a price was paid all the same. A commitment to the abstract universalism of ‘rights’ – and uncompromising ethical stands taken against malign regimes in their name – can lead all too readily to the habit of casting every political choice in binary moral terms. In this light Bush’s War against Terror, Evil and Islamo-fascism appears seductive and even familiar: self-deluding foreigners readily mistake the US president’s myopic rigidity for their own moral rectitude.

(I didn't realize Vaclav Havel had endorsed the invasion of Iraq. Another hero bites the dust.)


I'm leaving myself a bookmark here. Matthew Yglesias linked me to this American Prospect piece by Peter Steinfels, in which he reviews several books about religion and politics in the U.S.

A couple of these authors, notably Kevin Phillips and Michelle Goldberg, throw around the word "theocracy" quite a bit--to the point of hyperbole. Overhyping the threat of American theocracy is a problem, first because it leads progressives to take their eyes off the ball: corporatism and hard-right ideology. Steinfels writes that it's rather silly to argue that the Bush Administration's policies are driven by Christian fervor. Emotional issues like abortion and gay marriage are wielded as campaign causes to fire up religious-right voters, but once in power in Washington, the GOP has addressed these issues "in cautious, halting, inconsistent, or purely token fashion." Furthermore:

Exaggeration and inaccuracy also matter because they decrease any chance of mobilizing the opposition to the country’s current course, as these writers ardently desire. They draw bold and broad lines between empiricism, science, tolerance, rationality, and democracy, on the one hand, and faith, theology, revelation, persecution, irrationality, and authoritarianism, on the other; and they assign whatever they like or dislike to one side of the divide or the other. This dualism disregards rational dimensions of faith and theology (as well as faith dimensions of science and rationality) and neglects the historical reality that the modern world of empiricism, science, and Enlightenment reason has produced its own irrational nightmares. Treating the moral questions that agitate conservative Christians as obviously settled beyond all reasoned argument does not just target theocrats. It sprays bullets widely into the ranks of moderate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and even many centrist and liberal believers.

I love that paragraph. I'd like to be like Peter Steinfels when I grow up.

Somewhat related, there was a bit of a fuss last weekend at Echidne of the Snakes and Pandagon. Someone at EotS posted about atheists who make online comments offensive to religious people, and that for the sake of their political fortunes, those atheists should cut that out. Amanda Marcotte protested. I commend the Steinfels quote above to her. I can't quantify how many votes are at stake here, but I'm pretty damn sure that there are no votes to be had via entertaining one's fellow hipsters by calling God "the Sky Fairy." That pisses me off, frankly. So do bloggers who wonder why astrology doesn't get the same legal and cultural respect as Catholicism or Judaism (Atrios). So do writers who describe faith as a mental illness or a form of child abuse (Richard Dawkins). I'm not asking anyone to "adopt religious language," or adjust their views on issues one inch.* Just don't be gratuitously insulting. You think it's funny, I say it's not, it's an abdication of your principles in public debate, and it harms my trust in you as an ally.

(* I feel I should give credit here: Amanda Marcotte has influenced my views on reproductive rights quite a bit. I used to toy with various triangulations on the abortion issue, but Amanda has helped me to see that controlling your own body is an absolute.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Soccer Geekery Round-Up

Like I said the other day, I recommend Franklin Foer's Book How Soccer Explains the World. If I were to sum it up in less than ten words, I'd call it Tom Friedman Becomes a Soccer Fan. Soccer is a useful lens for examining the worldwide tensions between tribalism and globalism--rather more useful, I'd venture, than McDonald's franchises or many of Friedman's illustrations.

The book begins with several fairly hair-raising profiles of hooligan subcultures. It opened my eyes quite a bit to read about the rabid Serbian nationalism of the supporters of Red Star Belgrade, and to read that the Serb government actually mobilized Red Star gangs into militias that carried out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The city of Glasgow is home to two world-famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic (identified with Catholics) and Glasgow Rangers (identified with Protestants), and when the clubs face each other, young rowdies cross via ferry from Belfast to press their sectarian cause and keep their street-fighting skills in practice. In other words, one of the hottest fronts in the now mostly cold war over Irish nationalism, takes place in Scotland on the days of key soccer matches.

But the book moves from pessimism to optimism. I find it debatable how significant soccer is as an economic engine, and whether to applaud the flow of young players emigrating from the Third World seeking to strike it rich in Europe. But Foer persuades me that the sport can provide an important means of civic expression, and a valuable safety valve. One of the final chapters focuses on Iran, where the love of soccer is a legacy of the Shah and is one aspect of modernity that the ayatollahs try to control but dare not try to eradicate. Women are known to remove their burkhas and dress as men to attend matches, and Islamic laws against alcohol use are unofficially suspended when Iran's national team records a big win.

Two criticisms of the book. A minor one is the presence of some really stilted sentences; I suspect Foer is reaching for the style of the English sportswriters he admires, but I think he falls short. Second, for all his fine observation and analysis of soccer's intersections with the larger culture, the book is light on discussion of the game itself. The advantage here, I suppose, is that a reader doesn't have to know the sport well to get the book, so on balance maybe this was a smart move. Bryan Curtis had Frank Foer in mind (he says as much) when he wrote this piece in Slate about the attraction some young American intellectuals feel toward soccer. Curtis implies that for many of these writers, it's a deliberate fashion choice, and doesn't have much to do with the game on the field.

Whereas I marvel at what the players can do. Take this fairly routine scenario in the World Cup: a defender chases the ball into his own deep corner, then spins and turns the ball almost 180 degrees, booming it 30 or 40 yards upfield to his attacking teammates. One touch; 180 degree change of direction; an authoritative kick downfield. It would take me three touches to turn the ball, and the resulting pass would be a 10-yard roller. It almost seems unfair to me, like steroids in baseball or graphite rackets in tennis. But these guys are just that good.

Here's a Foer essay that's pretty typical of his approach, discussing what form of government (socialist, fascist, social democratic) is most advantageous for a country's chances to win a World Cup. It's a little cute, it claims more empirical certainty than it has a right to, but it says more about sports and about politics than most writers could manage with this word count.

The New Republic's World Cup blog Goal Post (archived here, at least as of this writing) was really well-done too; I've been reading back over it this week. It was a lively extension of the book: Foer invited some soccer-loving friends and colleagues from abroad to contribute, and even invited Susie Felber, a soccer skeptic but a smart NYC-based cosmopolitan voice.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Zidane Sent Off

I'm still in a daze. It's one of the most dramatic, even tragic, conclusions to a major sporting event, ever. Has anyone ever gone from the heights of hero status to the depths of ignominy in the blink of an eye the way Zinedine Zidane did yesterday in Berlin?

I'm straining for a comparison to Zidane's circumstances yesterday: starring for and captaining France in the final match of the World Cup. He has announced he's retiring and this is his last game, ending his brilliant career with an unforgettable resurgence in the sport's biggest tournament. The match is tied 1-1 (Zidane having France's goal), it's late into overtime, and hundreds of millions of people are tensed and watching Zidane, destiny's man, sensing that in the next few minutes he will write soccer history.

And boy, did he ever. It's hard to find a comparison this side of "The Natural." I recall that in 1969 Bill Russell won an NBA Finals Game 7 with the Boston Celtics in the last game of his career, against the vaunted L.A. Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. Now imagine if in the fourth quarter, Russell had gotten mad, hauled off and kicked Chamberlain in the gonads.

Only Zidane's head butt was bigger, worse: Zidane whaling Italy's Materazzi while play was stopped. Why did he snap? Maybe because he was exhausted and in pain, and Materazzi insulted him in a way calculated to make Zidane snap. That's the only explanation I can bear to consider. (Why a head butt? His shoulder may have been separated, for one thing. Also, Zidane can deliver more force with a snap of his head than I can behind the wheel of my car.)

I'd like to state a couple of things that may go unsaid in the furor over Zidane's gaffe. France outplayed Italy. Granted, it's possible that a bad offsides call cost Italy a goal, but if Italy had won on that goal, it would have been a flukish result. In overtime, both teams were fatigued, but France had made a couple of late subs and seemed a little fresher, seemed to be have the upper hand. Until the moment Zidane was red-carded, at which point did Italy press its man-up advantage? No, Italy stalled, playing for the cheap way out, penalty kicks, where France seemed without hope with Zidane out, and France's Barthez considered a weaker goalkeeper than Italy's Buffon. And not to attack anyone, but Buffon did not win the PK contest for Italy, David Trezeguet lost it for France, and if kicks had gone on more than five deep, France's chances would have steadily improved.

Thanks for letting me get that on the record.

I love the World Cup to an immoderate and absurd degree. I've been sneaking out of the office, watching matches, reading everything I can get my hands on. And much as it pains me to say anything nice at all about the New Republic, given my blogofascist tendencies, I have thoroughly enjoyed the World Cup blog captained by TNR editor Franklin Foer. I recommend reading through its archives, for the writers' various takes both on soccer and on the national cultures of the Cup contenders, notably the aspect of American exceptionalism that makes us uniquely immune, sometimes even hostile, to "the beautiful game."

Even the intrepid TNR bloggers were struck dumb for the better part of a day by the climax or anti-climax of the France-Italy final. This morning, though, they have posted some videographic evidence of what a dirty player Materazzi is, plus some juicy speculation about what Materazzi may have said to set Zidane off. Could it have had to do with Zidane's Algerian parentage, with overtones of postcolonialism, culture clash, etc.? (Late breaking news: Materazzi denies rumors that he called Zidane "a terrorist.") In some part of his heart, Frank Foer sure hopes so, because it would vindicate his 2004 book How Soccer Explains The World. (Not that the book needs lot of help -- I finished it recently and found it enjoyable and informative as hell.)

I think I'm going to break my train of thought and hold some quasi-intellectual soccer geekery for another post. More later.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


In the latest issue of the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes has a slavering love poem to Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. Really an over-the-top performance by Freddie the Beedle. Ed Kilgore comments on it at TPM Cafe.

Barnes remarks, as many have, that in the early '90s Jeb Bush seemed more like presidential timber than his older brother George W., and that it was a curious reversal of fortune in 1994 (Dubya winning the governor's race in Texas that year, Jeb losing in Florida) that gave Dubya the inside track to the GOP nomination for president. The title of Kilgore's post is "Buyer's Remorse," the idea being that given the spoiled legacy of Dubya's presidency, a lot of conservatives are musing wistfully, what if it had been Jeb.


My take is that Barnes is signalling the official adoption of the "wrong Bush" theory by W.'s most devoted followers. ...

To understand the significance of Barnes' column, you have to know that this once-solid-if-conservative columnist has long served as the ultimate hagiographer of W.-As-World-Historical Figure. This epiphany dates back to the 2000 presidential nominating contest, when Fred hedged bets for Bush while the rest of the Weekly Standard crew climbed aboard the Straight Talk Express. So Barnes' buyer's remorse about backing the "wrong Bush" is a big-time sign that even his most loyal supporters are abandoning him.

It's fun to imagine what goes on behind the scenes in Poppy Bush's family. I'm not sure it's a very instructive pastime, but there's something irresistible about it. Barnes quotes Jeb Bush denying that his family sees itself as a dynasty, but that denial is pretty absurd on its face. And I share Kilgore's opinion that a third Bush running for President anytime soon is unfeasible. It's easy to foresee Jeb living out his days in frustration and indignation, feeling he was denied his rightful reign in the White House. Although the Carlyle Group profits will make Jeb's a very comfortable sort of purgatory.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Duke lacrosse

After a few relatively quiet weeks on the Duke lacrosse team rape scandal beat, David Brooks brings it back up again in his most recent column. (It was picked up in the Raleigh N&O, where I read it -- I don't do NY Times Select.) I'll take this occasion to post something here about the scandal--I've been thinking about it quite a bit.

Brooks columnized about the lacrosse rape case once before (on April 9--reproduced here on the Feministe blog) and he set his glib tone right from the opening sentence: "All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels..." He lacks a basic understanding of the nature of rape, calling it a failure of chivalry, or a case of "lust gone wild," and nowhere in the piece do you sense the existence of a flesh-and-blood woman alleging a violent crime.

In the April 9 column Brooks set up a dichotomy between the language of sociology and that of morality; he remarked how the general run of commentary on the Duke case rested so heavily on racism, sexism, and other -isms, and so little on character, will power, and the young men's descent into "depravity" (Brooks's word), abetted by "shock jocks and raunch culture" (also Brooks's words).

Why the problem has to be one either of nature or of nurture, and not both, is a strawman. Here in Duke's backyard, there is plenty of pointed discussion both of the individual lacrosse players and of systemic problems the rape case reflects. But strawman arguments come in handy for Brooks in the May 28 follow-up piece. This column is not glib, but rather full of tender sympathy... for the lacrosse players who may have been falsely accused.

First off, we know that the players are not dumb jocks--in fact, they are honor students. (Who ever said they were dumb?)

We also know that the lacrosse players are not the amoral goons of popular legend. The members of the Coleman commission [internal Duke investigation] interviewed many of the people the players came into contact with and found almost universal praise and admiration. The groundskeeper and the equipment manager described the current team as among the best groups of young men they have worked with during their long tenures at Duke.

Well, the groundskeeper and equipment manager aren't the players' peers. This is a little like getting the butler and gardener to vouch for the character of Richie Rich; it's a curious tack if you're trying to bolster the case for some guys who are thought to suffer from an elitist sense of privilege. But anyhoo.

"The committee has not heard evidence that the cohesiveness of this group is either racist or sexist," the Coleman report says. The current and former black members of the team are "extremely positive" about the support they received. The coach of the women's lacrosse team says relations between the men and women are respectful and supportive. "They are great kids," she has said of the male players.

"The cohesiveness of the group is not racist or sexist" doesn't tell us much, merely that the lacrosse team was not a chapter of Aryan Nations. Nobody said they were constituted as a hate organization. Also, "current or former black team members" in the Duke lacrosse program adds up to maybe three people. But I'll concede the point that many people at Duke like and admire the lacrosse players.

[Coleman report again:] "Their conduct has not been different in character than the conduct of the typical Duke student who abuses alcohol."

Okay. Much greater in frequency (even Brooks admits), but not different in character. Typical of Duke students who abuse alcohol, which is many of them.

There may have been a rape that night, but it didn't grow out of a culture of depravity, and it can't be explained by the sweeping sociological theories that were tossed about with such wild abandon a few weeks ago.

Okay, now I'm confused. Seven weeks ago Brooks said it was one or the other of these: depravity or a sociological explanation. If it's neither, what is it? The reality of rape is strangely absent from this piece; all we hear about is an assessment of the treatment the lacrosse players received.

(You know another word that is absent from this piece? "Indictment." That's a new development in this story since early April that you'd think might rate a mention.)

Here's the nut of Brooks's recent column, howver:

Furthermore, when you look at the hyperpoliticized assertions made by Jesse Jackson, Houston Baker, and dozens of activists and professors, you see how mighty social causes like the civil rights movement, feminism, and the labor movement have spun off a series of narrow social prejudices among the privileged class.

The members of the lacrosse team were male, mostly white and mostly members of the suburban bourgeois middle class (39 of 54 recent graduates went on to careers in finance). For many on the tenured left, bashing people like that is all that's left of their once-great activism.

75% of Duke lacrosse players graduate and go on to Wall Street? Wow. That's how I read it--I don't think these guys are going to be loan officers at your local credit union. Anyway, notice how David Brooks identifies the privileged class in America as "the tenured left," and not these well-to-do Duke students who are future masters of the universe. That's the old conservative switcheroo. And I'm glad our community's pain could be converted for use in Brooks's project.

Brooks thinks he is ratcheting the controversy down by portraying the lacrosse players as typical rather than atypical. I'd feel better if I thought the players under indictment were deviants or bullies, that their presence at Duke was a fluke or an aberration. The more troubling thought is that they are typical of Duke's campus life--are put on a pedestal by many students. The day the first two players, Seligmann and Finnerty, were indicted, a local TV station interviewed two young women students who lived in their dorm. These women gushed over the players, called them the sweetest and gentlest people they knew. Hell, Finnerty has another charge pending against him, for beating up a guy in D.C. last summer. A lot of people express wonder at how the players, seemingly average college students, and apparently on a ladder to success, might commit such an awful crime. I also wonder why this young woman, similarly normal and well-adjusted, views this guy with two violent offenses on his rap sheet as "the sweetest boy she knows." What's going on in her head? Is it self-protective Duke tribalism, or is her self-esteem and judgment of people's characters that shaky?

I will say that the sociological angle has been overplayed in some ways. Does Durham have town-gown tensions? Yes--like many college communities. Racial tensions? Sure--like many cities in the South and in other regions of the country. But prior to the lacrosse story breaking, not many people around here consciously thought of Durham as a place with a race-relations problem. The problems that the lacrosse team scandal exemplifies are predominantly Duke problems, they are not Durham problems. (I commend to your attention this excellent piece in the Independent about the unfair treatment Durham gets in the court of public opinion. I also commend this piece about how the scandal has roiled Duke's campus. It's in the Duke alumni magazine, so there's a certain pro-Duke spin, but it lays out the issues pretty well, and is not blatantly trying to sweep things under the rug.)

I don't expect the lacrosse players to be convicted. That statement probably won't shock anybody. This is our own little Joe College version of the O.J. Simpson trial, with Joe Cheshire in the F. Lee Bailey role, Mike Nifong as the hapless prosecutor... Sorry, now I'm being glib. I really don't know if a rape occurred or not, I just know how hard it is to prosecute rape, the physical evidence seems ambiguous, and the victim in the case will not be a very credible witness. The players will walk. That's my cold-eyed reality-based assessment. (Furthermore, after an acquittal I predict there will be an ugly tendency by Duke students to view the players and by extention themselves as victims, for having allegations thrown about that were ultimately not proven.)

The racial insults, however, almost certainly happened--the players' lawyers don't even really dispute that. I think it's likely that someone threatened to rape the women with a broom handle, as has been reported. The verbal abuse, verbal assault really, ought to be chargeable, as far as I'm concerned. Also, I don't think enough has been made of the fact that the lacrosse players lured the women to that house on false pretenses. They promised that the party was a small gathering of baseball and track athletes--I don't know whether that was to conceal their identities in case of trouble after the fact, or to get past a bad reputation of the lacrosse team's; it's bad either way--and they promised the women money which they don't seem to have intended to pay. They lied; they set a trap; their abuse and humiliation of those women was quite premeditated. To sum up: The things we are pretty certain the players did are disgraceful, and really troubling to anyone who cares about Duke University, and takes it seriously as a place that educates leaders and citizens.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bracket time

I wouldn't bother if the semi-secret forum where my buddies hang out wasn't on the fritz, but I gotta get on the record with my picks before games tip off in a couple of hours.

(Like I posted this time last year, I have a terrible time with my priorities every March. The NCAA tourney! And my fantasy baseball draft! And yet the powers that be at my job have contrived a really busy month of actual urgent work for me.)

Anyway, without further ado:


1. Duke, George Washington, Texas A&M, LSU, Southern Illinois, Iowa, Cal, Texas

2. Duke, LSU, Iowa, Texas

3. Duke, Iowa.

4. Duke


1. Memphis, Arkansas, Pitt, Bradley, Indiana, Gonzaga, Alabama, UCLA

2. Memphis, Pitt, Gonzaga, UCLA

3. Pitt, Gonzaga

4. Pitt


1. UConn, UAB, Washington, Illinois, George Mason, UNC, Seton Hall, Tennessee

2. UConn, Illinois, UNC, Tennessee

3. UConn, Tennesee

4. UConn


1. Villanova, Wisconsin, Nevada, BC, Oklahoma, Florida, Northern Iowa, Ohio State

2. Villanova, Nevada, Florida, Northern Iowa

3. Villanova, Northern Iowa

4. VIllanova

TITLE GAME: UConn over Gonzaga, 78-72.

See, I have three sentimental favorites in the tourney: Davidson, NC State, and West Virginia. I am going against sentiment and picking all of them to lose their first game. (Davidson doesn't really have a chance, NCSU has stunk horribly the last two weeks or more, and WVU is just in that 6/11 slot that is ripe for an upset, plus they had a miraculous run last year and I think the karmic wheel is going to turn against them.) But then I am compensating psychologically by having all three of their vanquishers getting vanquished themselves in the next game. I can live with this.

Then three No. 1 seeds going to the Final Four--that's pretty conservative. And a No. 3, Gonzaga getting through (I like Gonzaga's name and overall gestalt), and No. 1 Memphis getting knocked out (I have an ancient grudge against Memphis from years ago -- I picked them to win the national title one year as a real longshot, and they didn't even come close.)

Fantasy baseball draft on March 28.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Happy New Year! / public editors suck

Via Atrios: The Washington Post's ombudsman is for shit.

So, I've noticed, is NPR's. So is the Raleigh News & Observer's, for the most part. His title should be Chief Flack, not Public Editor. I guess I've gleaned a little bit of insight about the inner workings of the paper from his columns, e.g. what copy editors do, but it's always quite slanted and quite protective of the N&O's staff. He never holds anyone's feet to the fire. One of his recent columns was devoted to why the paper is sometimes wrinkled during the printing process. Hard-hitting stuff!

The NYT's new guy Calame has done some good things; he came down pretty hard on Judith Miller, and he was frank in writing that the Times's managing editor would not respond to his questions about NSA domestic eavesdropping and why the paper held the story for over a year. But Calame's predecessor Dan Okrent was a bit of a disaster.

Fear of the online world, and lack of understanding of it, are the crux of the dilemma for public editors. The WaPo has been persistently nettled by the phenomenon of bloggers, in their guise of self-appointed watchdogs of the establishment media. That's Deborah Howell's problem in the episode linked above. Newspapers are in a difficult and confusing position -- I say confusing because these misunderstandings lead them to commit acts of self-mutilation. Here's John Harris training his fire on the Post's in-house blogger Dan Froomkin. Okrent's low point was when he sided with an Internet troll named Donald Luskin over the Times' editorial page superstar Paul Krugman.

The latest black eye on the news business was the reporting of the mine accident in Upshur County, West Virginia last week. It's A Miracle! // oops, no it's not. West Virginians are marked by religious faith, but they're also marked by a deep sense of stoicism. Being braced for the worst; not expecting the universe to hand them a break. That sense of stoicism deserted some of them on that fateful day. Bottom line, I have trouble singling out the media for criticism. There was a generalized premature delirium, and I don't see why anybody, reporters or family members or CEOs or anybody else, was celebrating until those miners emerged from underground.