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.