Tuesday, August 31, 2010


A lot has been made of the manufactured controversy surrounding the "Ground Zero Mosque;" the name given to the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center by the Right end of the American blogosphere and other critics of the project. For a while it was news that while any number of Americans had gotten themselves into a tizzy over the project, people throughout the rest of the world really didn't seem to know or care about what was going on, and that included the Islamic world. Well, that's no longer the case. People from around the world have now started to sit up an take notice.

It's a truism that when your local area makes the national news, it's never anything good. Well, the same is true on an international level. Mainly because of the nature of the news media. Very few people pick up a newspaper simply to read that everybody had a party and sang Kumbaya.

So when I read an opinion piece in Al-Jazeera that asked: "What if Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan (ground-zero mosque) was given the green light? Would not that ‘single building’ have done wonders to the repair of seemingly irreparable US-Islam relations and to the US’s own image in the Muslim World?" I immediately knew the answer. No.

Mainly because of the simple fact that if a conservative blogger in New York hadn't managed to get their one-person hate train out of the station, no one else would have cared one whit about this place. Despite Fox News now officially being in a lather about the project, when they initally covered it back in December, they apparently thought that it wasn't a half bad idea. Didn't catch that December interview? Well, no one else did, either. It just wasn't a big deal at the time.

And if the cultural center had sailed through to completion, with the only voices against it being a couple of random cranks, it would have never have become a big deal. Especially not a big enough deal to change opinions towards the United States in the rest of the world. Given that, it seems logical that the only way that the proposed center could have had ANY effect on the way Muslims see the United States is through what actually happened - a huge controversy erupted, and stayed on the front pages long enough that people in the rest of the world had time to ramp up on what was going on. And that only way for that to have happened was for the opposition to be strong enough, vocal enough and well-connected enough to keep the issue alive.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


What Tocqueville underestimated was the power of money in modern politics and the marketing genius of modern politicians, which have freed democratic politics from the constraints of the actual interests of the majority.
James Kwak "Democracy in America"
I understand this to be more or less an article of faith in progressive and liberal circles and I understand the sentiment. But I feel that it's slightly incorrect. I'm of the opinion that Tocqueville overestimated the willingness of the modern American to be an active participant in the political process, and their willingness to expend effort and resources on oversight. It is a lack of public oversight, more than anything else, that has "freed democratic politics from the constraints of the actual interests of the majority." Money and marketing genius may count for a lot, but they can't save you when you're actually called upon to produce results by someone who understands what results they're looking for and is willing and able to punish you for not providing it.

No government can routinely be trusted to look out for the interests of people who do not participate in it. True, there have been instances where there has been active protection of a non-participatory group, but those are exceptions, and notable ones at that. The American political Left tends to focus on the corrosive effects of money and effective marketing, because, in my opinion, it has bought into the idea of political "noblesse oblige;" the idea that the politically savvy have an obligation to look out for the interests of their fellow citizens, who cannot be expected to look out for themselves. (When the Right uses the idea of a paternalistic elite that dictates policies to the masses as a bogeyman, they're trotting out an only slightly exaggerated caricature of Progressive thinking.) But there is a problem with the constant search for a Good Shepherd. Shepherds wear wool and (along with sheepdogs) eat mutton, too.

Friday, August 27, 2010


It's hard to be afraid of the dark, when there isn't much dark left. (Check out the map... the line that runs from Texas to western Minnesota is just amazing.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fear Fatigue

Sometimes, I wish that we, as a nation, would become as tired of constantly being afraid of the rest of the world, as I am of living among a people whose primary driving factor seems to be fear.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Political Outsider

"Let's meet the knucklehead Americans who think Barack Obama is a Muslim."
Gah. There are times when I think that phrase "deep-cover conservative" is more accurate that it's given credit for. Whoever wrote that subtitle to Jack Shafer's "Greetings, 18 Percenters!" seemed to be dead-set on perpetuating the conservative stereotype of liberals as obnoxious know-it-alls. Of course, Shafer himself seems pretty keen to hype the stereotype himself, and wastes no time getting to it.

Much has been said about the tendency of those on the American political Left to place their faith in well-reasoned arguments as to why they are objectively and self-evidently correct, and then be shocked/angry/disappointed when their audience doesn't bow to their clearly superior grasp of the facts. One of the more recent issues that the Left has been having with this is the idea that President Obama is secretly a practicing Muslim. (We'll leave aside, for the time being, the biggest problem with this theory - the idea that in an organization as large as the White House, not to mention anywhere else that he might go - that the President of the United States of America can engage in the required rituals of Islam without ever being observed by a single person who would attempt share word or evidence of it - despite the fact that most administration officials can leak six things before breakfast, if it suits their purposes.) "Everybody knows that the President is a practicing Christian," they say.

But that presupposes that this the "debate" over the President's religion is what it purports to be - namely, a debate over the President's religion. But it isn't. The set of people that have allowed themselves to be convinced that President Obama is a Muslim don't think that because they don't have access to the facts about him. They think that because they don't understand him and to a degree, they don't like him. Part of this is simple partisanship. For a certain segment of Republicans, no Democrat would ever be an acceptable President these days. He or she could be THE President, but they wouldn't be THEIR President, and that hostility would make itself known in whatever way would stick. Part of it is the failure of Obama Administration policy to make the bad times of the "Great Recession" go away. Part of it is a dislike of activist government, a standpoint that the President espouses. I think a lot of it has to do with a certain conspiratorial mindset that many Americans have cultivated and manifests itself in the idea that government rarely ever fails - rather everything goes according to plan, and sometimes those plans have the injury of the public as their goal. Whatever the reason, there are people in this country who understand the President to be, for lack of a better term, a hostile outsider.

And for some time now "Muslim" has, to a degree, taken on that same meaning of hostile outsider. And often to the same people. Couple that with the fact that the President's father was an African Muslim, and you have a convenient shorthand in which people can succinctly wrap their concerns, insecurities and fears. The label "Socialist" is a similar shorthand, but the loading is different, since there haven't been any violent socialist revolutions recently to carry a connotation of potential violence.

This goes beyond the idea that the President's approval numbers aren't very high at this point. This is about that group of people who are of the opinion that the current Presidency is illegitimate, either because the President is not whom he purports to be or because he's basically shown himself unwilling to deal with them and their problems in a serious and effective manner. No facts are going to change that.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Linda Holmes on the tendency of movie reviewers to go after the target audiences of movies they dislike. A must-read.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pop Quiz

Fill in the blank.

"But [the bad feelings Americans have towards Islam a]re like the bitterness that Americans feel about ____________, which was oversold and has become politically toxic because its success is hard to measure."

a) the invasion of Iraq
b) the 2009 economic stimulus
c) tax policy
d) the invasion of Afghanistan
e) hope and change
f) the Middle-east peace process
g) just about any big federal government initiative or campaign promise you care to name
h) all of the above
You would think that the collective "we" would have learned by now.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Playing Defense

Every so often, in different places, I'll come across an article that can be construed as being critical of China, its government or media, in one way or another. Nothing out of the ordinary there. What struck me as interesting, when I first encountered these articles is that there were pro-China comments being made about them (sometimes with Chinese names attached), and in situations where people can vote their approval, there are always a number of recommendations, sometimes way more than one would think for such an article.

Now, I'll admit to not spending much time reading offshore news sources, and I've only looked at Xinhua once or twice. When I look to find out what's going on in the rest of the world, I usually check out the BBC or sometimes Al-Jazeera, and I don't often delve into their comments sections. But I wonder - do Americans go trolling the international internet for critical pieces and either defend the nation or attack the author/outlet of the piece? Part of me suspects not - I don't think that Americans are as invested in what people in other countries think of them. Now, it does seem that we do this to one another. Most of the news sources I read most often tend to be somewhat left leaning, especially the local ones (unsurprising, given that I live in Seattle), and every so often it seems that hundreds of conservatives log on for no other reason than to condemn what they feel is a liberal screed that a biased media has presented as news (and to give each other virtual thumbs-up). And again I wonder - do liberals do this? Are the comment boards of Fox News jammed with loads of left-of-center complaints about this article or that correspondent?

It's an interesting phenomenon, especially when the complaints turn conspiratorial.

Why is the media trying so hard to get the American people to distrust China. Is another baseless war approaching and they are just making sure the US will be on board?
Of course, it's only natural for people to defend themselves when they feel attacked. What always struck me as strange about these situations was the fact that it seemed to be coordinated, in a way. As a general rule, the China effect only shows up in sites that you expect would have a national following - despite the relatively large population of Chinese in the Puget Sound area, this doesn't seem to appear at all in the local newspapers, even when articles on hot-button topics are brought up. Conversely, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer runs an article that gets conservatives worked up, you suddenly get writers from all over the country logging on to complain (many of whom, judging by their comments are completely unfamiliar with the piece at hand).

I don't know that it's changing anyone's minds. But it's an interesting effect to observe.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Nanny Wears Purple

There are few things that get the stereotypical conservative into a lather faster than paternalistic liberal nanny-state proposals, like this idea in San Fransisco to ban restaurants from giving away toys with meals "if the food contains too much fat, sugar or salt." But, of course, they have paternalistic nanny-state tendencies of their own, such as:

But for what it’s worth, here’s what I would ask of America’s highly-educated mass upper class (more than top third of America than the “upper half,” I think): A kind of noblesse oblige on some issues related to sex, at least; on others, a moral reckoning with the cost of the new equilibrium they’ve achieved; and on still others, a willingness to translate some of the more conservative habits they’ve embraced (or partially embraced) in their personal lives into law and public policy.
I've never cared for accusations of "institutional hypocrisy," so my point isn't going to be that "Conservatives," given their dislike of nanny-state lawmaking from liberal sources, must denounce such ideas from conservative ones. I will make the point that thinking: "I'm smarter/wiser/more moral than you, so if you won't follow my lead voluntarily, I would be remiss not to try to write my superior standards into law" isn't confined to either side of the ideological aisle, as each side has its own particular streak of the same elitism that it so derides in the other camp.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lingua Franca

The documentary "Speaking in Tongues" came on PBS this evening. The single most depressing thing about it is the idea, stated by and attributed to America parents, that children can only learn a single language - any new language that they learn must damage their understanding and facility with English.

I understand why language is so important to people, and why it's such an issue in the United States - for Americans, there is an undercurrent of resentment of the perceived rejection of America and American culture that learning other languages represents. This is sometimes semi-diplomatically couched in the need for a common language, but the old joke: "If English was good enough for the Baby Jesus, it's good enough for you" is never far from the surface. By the same token, many immigrant families see preservation of the mother tongue as an essential part of resisting overall homogenization, and see the American desire for everyone to speak English as a continuation of a program of cultural extermination dating back to colonial times. These were concepts I was well aware of. But the idea that children must learn a single language exclusively in order to reach maximum fluency is a new one for me, and it's bothersome, if for no other reason than it seems to be little more than a cover for a yet another variety of pride in ignorance - especially given the generally poor fluency that many Americans demonstrate with English.

But no matter what the reason, it's a problem that needs a solution. On the one hand, it is a lot easier to communicate with people when you share a common language. On the other hand, the United States is one of the few nations on Earth where one can be considered highly educated, yet not speak a second language, and being able to communicate with others in their own languages (or simply understand them) is becoming more and more important.

Right now I often think that Americans are convinced that the rest of the world needs us more than we need them and so they should have to learn our language. If that's true, there is a rude awakening in store, because even if they need us now, they won't need us forever.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Psst... It's All An Act

To Sarah Palin's detractors, she's a moron. And I suspect they mean that in its long-lost "technical" sense of someone with an IQ significantly below the norm. Over on Slate, a lively "debate" (so THAT'S what they're calling them these days) is raging over whether or not Sarah Palin actually is Stupid, or if her critics just don't like her because they're afraid that she'll lead a movement to kick their butts. This was sparked by Jacob Weisberg logrolling for his new book Palinisms: The Accidental Wit & Wisdom of Sarah Palin in an article entitled: A Grand Unified Theory of Palinisms and subtitled: "Why Sarah Palin says all those stupid and ridiculous things." (I see they went for the low-key approach.)

As I said in the comments section for the piece (pretty much word-for-word, except for the end): I've never been a fan of Sarah Palin, mainly because I'm not a fan of Populism (any political movement that's predicated on Us vs. Them is Bad News from the outset, and I make sure to stay FAR away). But I've also never considered her as stupid as her public persona suggests to her critics. Like President George W. Bush before her, she's playing a role for the benefit of a particular audience, and (as Hollywood types would likely put it) I'm not in the target demographic.

There seems to be built into the fabric of America a certain level of distrust for royalty and aristocracy - all that's ever really changed are the definitions of royal and aristocratic. For the left, it's the privileged wealthy - those people who were born into (or hatefully expropriated from the desperate masses) scads of money and due to the deference that money (or at least a willingness to share it) tends to create, seem to live under a different (and easier) set of rules than the rest of us. For the right, it's the "elite," an amorphous collection of liberal thinkers who they perceive as being hell-bent on making the lives of average people difficult in the name of whatever greener, social justice-ier or spread the wealthier-than-thou cause they've come up with this week, and are willing to use jargon and technobabble to obscure blatant falsehoods.

Not being idiots, politicians pander to their potential constituencies along these lines - they can't afford not to. You'd think that John Edwards was born in a workshop floor somewhere, there way he continuously invoked his working-class parents. By the same token, President Bush played up his "folksiness" in a way that made one question the competence of his teachers.

The message is always the same: "Like/Respect/Vote For me... I'm the exact opposite of those people whom you (and by extension, I) think have screwed up the entire nation, and when push comes to shove, I will lead you in the glorious War Against the Aristocracy, where we'll fix everything (and if there's any pain to come of it, They will be the ones to suffer it)." Like I said, I'm not in the target demographic for this message, from either side. But I still appreciate the actor's craft that goes into it.

But when I say this, I realize that I'm also saying that even a politician who speaks like an imbecile can convince large sections of the public that they should be in rather powerful public office. But isn't that the power of saying what people want to hear and presenting oneself as the person that people want one to be? It's difficult to acknowledge that we're susceptible to trickery. The desire to want to go back and "fact-check" (or sense-check, for that matter) things that resonate with us requires an understanding that we can resonate with falsehood, and few of us revel or find comfort in self-doubt.

For me, the answers to America's problems are going to lie in a certain amount of shared sacrifice (and likely hardship). Given this, I know that I have to be careful of anyone who comes by preaching that, and be ready to critically evaluate what's being said, rather than taking it at face value, simply because I already believe it to be true. It could all be an act, and the only way to guard against it, is to realize that I can be fooled, too.

Oh... NOW I Get It...

One of the tricky things about being a layperson when it comes to a number of politically significant topics is that the people in the know often talk about them in ways that seem deliberately designed to prevent laypeople from understanding and evaluating them.

The detonation of the American financial system has heightened a number of people's interest in economics, myself included, and I've been spending some time doing a little reading here and there, attempting to get a handle on the inner workings of money and the exchange of goods and services. (Whee!) I'd been hoping to avoid some of the more ideological aspects of the discussion, but with Democrats and Republicans having staked out different people's theories to follow, that's harder than it should be, mainly because the people who talk about these theories often have an ideological bent of their own.

The most recent topic that I've been trying to understand is Supply Side Economics, which is often boiled down to the saying: "Supply creates its own demand." Short, simple, sweet and nowhere near accurate - unless you're willing to monkey somewhat with the definition of "demand." After beating my head against a wall for a while, I finally had something of a Eureka moment; and I think that with it came a semi-clear understanding of the concept, why it was so attractive to the Reagan Administration and why, ultimately, "Reaganomics" didn't work (and why George H. W. Bush was dead on when he termed it "Voodoo Economics"). Sorting out enough information to really make sense of it from all of the chaff is a somewhat more difficult task than it needs to be, because so many people who talk about such topics do so with a particular purpose in mind (to either support or debunk the theory) thus requiring that information and ideology be separated out. If you don't realize that, you wind up with a skewed understanding of the topic, which makes it difficult to make informed decisions.

Which I guess is sometimes the point.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My Content! Mine!

So I decided, once again, to click on the Next Blog>> link, to see what kind of company Nobody in Particular is keeping these days. It's quickly becoming something of a guilty pleasure of mine, randomly wandering through the pages that Google, in its rather unfathomable wisdom, decides that I, and perhaps you, should want to read, given what I've written here.

This time out, it was a short trip. The first blog that I came across was about advertising law: Rebecca Tushnet's 43(B)log False advertising and more. It's another one of those things that makes perfect sense (After all, there's at least one weblog for everything under the sun, right?), but wouldn't have occurred to me. From there, I found myself at Caravan Hound, a dog weblog. Once again, file under Learn Something New Every Day, since I'd never encountered the Caravan Hound breed before. But I figured that things had changed in the neighborhood - I wasn't wandering through random political weblogs, sprinkled throughout the English-speaking world. But I'm not really an animal person, so I clicked the "Next Blog" link again, to see where it would land me. And I found myself at Wiping the Crazy Off My Face which is, I gather, basically an online diary. My journey ended here, because Wiping the Crazy Off My Face doesn't display the "Next Blog" link.

But I was kind of surprised - three blogs, and little, if any connection to one another. Until I noticed the little graphic at the end of each WtCOMF post that read: "Those who STEAL my work shall suffer my PUBLIC WRATH." I stepped back, and found that repeated over and over on Caravan Hound was the warning: "All images here come under COPYRIGHT laws. Do not copy." And the most recent post on Rebecca Tushnet's 43(B)log? Yep. It dealt with Copyright.

Which has me wondering if Nobody in Particular has been suing people behind my back.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Executive Wisdom

President George W. Bush was often characterized anywhere from no smarter than the average bear to a complete idiot, depending on which side of the political spectrum someone happened to be on. For his supporters, he wasn't some sort of eggheaded brainiac, out of touch with the "average Joe six-pack." For his detractors, he was barely a step up from a drooling moron. As far as I'm concerned, both of these pictures are wrong. Average Joes don't manage to be President of the United States of America, and I'll believe an idiot, no matter how well guided and coached, can pull it off only when I see President-Elect Alvin Greene take the oath of office.

But because no-one seemed to respect the former President's intellect, it didn't attract much of the right kind of notice when he actually made a very good point. To wit:

"I don't think you can win [the War on Terror]. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
President George W. Bush. (NBC's "Today" show, 30 August, 2004.)
I bring up this particular piece of genuine Presidential wisdom because we tend to think that somehow we can alter the laws of the Universe when it suits us.

One of the big stories in the news recently is yet another workplace shooting. Now, as pretty much every time there's a workplace shooting, there is an outcry to ban the personal ownership of firearms. And that what brings me to the President Bush quote. To re-cycle his logic, the "War on Violence" is more or less unwinnable. But creating a society where the use of violence as a tool strikes me a being an achievable goal.

Which makes it kind of a shame that the President never really got any traction with that quote - Democrats immediately accused him of being "defeatist." Because even if you do manage to somehow ban people from having weapons, they will still find ways to hurt each other. (And often with weapons - no ban yet has ever been able to simply banish an item from existence. And if you think that a ban will completely halt the illegal trade in guns in the United States, I'll bet you 20 pounds of cocaine that you're wrong...) So it seems to me that making violence less socially acceptable is really the way to go. Easy? No. But I think that it will pay off, and to a much greater extent than the idea that you can simply outlaw the tools that people use to hurt one another, and see real results.

Black And White

One of the strangely enduring facets of the black community in the United States is an endless argument over who is more racist - white liberals or white conservatives.

It's a heated topic, mainly because black people tend to be very keen on casting those among themselves that they don't like as "confused." Now, this term has a few different meanings. The important thing is that none of them are compliments. For this particular dispute, the label "confused" is simply a shorthand way of saying "pawn of racist white folks." This topic occurs to me because of David Weigel's piece on Slate, which reminded me of many fruitless debates. Not only could no-one ever win them, but they proved impossible to diffuse. Contrary to what you might expect, they didn't cause much in the way of hard feelings, given the level of animosity between the sides to begin with, making them dislike each other any more would have been a rare feat.

What's odd is the inability to realize that no matter which side of the debate one might argue, it's pretty much the same argument - white people are the source of the black community's problems. Either it's conservative whites who are caricatured as longing for the days of Jim Crow, when they ruled the roost and had dibs on the front of the bus, or it's liberal whites, parodied as the latest group to pick up the White Man's Burden of looking out for poor, stupid Negroes (and, while they're at it, making sure that said Negroes are always, poor, stupid and reliably Democratic voters). In either case, the solution is for Black America to kick these guys to the curb, and vote with the other guys - who have only their best interests at heart, and don't see skin color. I think you can see now why this never goes away.

And it's unlikely to, unless and until there is a general sentiment of "we don't need these guys - at least not any more than they need us." Now, I don't know that this will ever come to pass. For the time being, too much of what it means to be Black in America is linked to the nature of the relationship with White America. Which simply fuels the debate over which part of white America can be trusted.