Thursday, April 30, 2009

Local News Says: You are Going to Die

Well, I was not blogging throughout the winter, when the local news station that I always watch with morbid fascination was setting new lows with its horrendous weather coverage. There was a big blizzard that the station tracked for 800 miles, giving us daily, sometimes hourly progress reports, as though it were an imminent emergency. It's not so much the interruptions of regular programming I object to, as the tone of "panic now!" throughout the coverage. Stock up on provisions, we'll report up to the minute, that, oh wait... no, the storm missed us. We got a fraction of an inch. Sensational stories designed to scare people. Murders, drunk drivers, dirty dining, all the imminent threats that are never quantized because they'd be exposed as trivial.

Well, now it's the swine flu. One night it was, "swine flu is spreading rapidly in Wisconsin" followed by the schitzophrenic allowance that Wisconsin has zero confirmed cases, and its three suspected cases were all people that had recovered. The next night, the line was that "concern about the SWINE FLU IS SPREADING RAPIDLY" -- get that? concern is spreading. They had a demonstration about "how easily the virus could spread" by having the reporter go to the mall and shake hands with strangers and say, "and that's all it could take." Followed by him washing his hands (in a manner that would be a good example of how not to wash hands). They also had a man on the street who said the night before -- without being contradicted -- that he wasn't worried because it's not like you could get it shaking hands. Why do they feature laypeople expressing expert opionions about things they know nothing about? They also declared a pandemic, when the WHO had declared a level three potential epidemic, pandemic being level six. They also show a lot of people earing masks, although experts are dubious about masks. They told people not to go to the hospital, where the professional advise is to call first and then go. (I also think it presumed a lot to tell people to call their doctors -- how many thousands of us in the viewing area have no doctor?)

A list of my general gripes: (1) They use or misuse specialized vocabulary without defining it. (2) They give extremely oversimplified or false information. (3) They use suggestion or innuendo to hype a crisis and create alarm. (4) They solicit or offer unqualified opinions. And (5) they have a lead story that they cover night after night, and spend each night correcting the previous night's mistakes rather than just doing the work to get it right in the first place. Wouldn't it be good to learn the basic facts first, and then worry about clever ways to present them?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Language of Rejecting Torture Prosecution

Recent arguments regarding whether there should be prosecutions of those responsible for officially sanctioned torture during the Bush administration have struck me for their profoundly dishonest use of language.

For example, when David Brooks (whom I like on many things, but I'm going to pick on here, because I just heard him talking like an ass -- the same goes for Obama, who is the other main source of the doublespeak in this comment) talks about "relitigating" the issue, I instantly wonder, when does he think this has been litigated before? Relitigating is not such a profoundly difficult or esoteric concept. It means litigating again. Courts believe in finality, which is why appeals are difficult, and one cannot come back over and over to try the same case. A criminal defendant is protected by the concept of double jeopardy. A civil litigant who won their case is protected by res judicata from having it retried.

Of course there are fine points about where relitigation begins and ends. I have had some legal cases where opposing counsel has argued that a matter was litigated because of some other case where the same party made similar arguments, even though in my view, it fell short of legally precluding the same matter from being argued again. For example, a discharged worker argues that he did nothing worthy of losing his job but was excessively punished because of hostility toward his race. He argues this at an unemployment hearing, in a union grievance hearing, and in an EEOC hearing. In each setting the issues are not legally the same. In the union hearing, the union is the party. In the unemployment hearing, the standards of evidence are completely different. The similarity of the argument makes for a repetitive feel in some cases, but from a legal standpoint, nothing is relitigated.

So in the case of people who tortured, what is to be relitigated? None of these people have ever had to answer for their crimes, or been vindicated of the accusations against them in any legal proceeding. The closest they've had to "litigating" the matter of their having violated the law was that the kinds of actions they engaged in were considered in the abstract in some memos, where no question existed of who actually did what. Those memos were not determinations of a court, of an administrative panel, or an independent arbitrator. They were highly subjective arguments written from the position of one of the parties. It is inane to suggest that presenting them to a court for the first and only time would violate some principle of finality, as though the torture memos, since withdrawn, should be the last word.

Let me note one important point: I am not in the camp that says you must prosecute every single crime that ever occurs. I believe in exercising discretion. So there could be cases where pressing a prosecution would seem like relitigating in some moral sense even though the prosecution was not legally barred. But this is just such a long, long stretch from being remotely close to actual relitigation, that that does not apply.

Brooks also used the word "criminalize", as in, "we should not go back and criminalize this behavior." Again, without saying so explicitly, he is evoking a set of legal principles. Just as we have a principle of finality that says, decide once, we have a principle of non-retroactivity that says, you go by the law of the time. For that reason, you cannot create an ex post facto law, making conduct that was legal at the time a crime.

And just as with the word "relitigate", the word "criminalize" in this case appears to suffer from the phenomenon of the faulty referent -- what is being criminalized? Torture? We have a statute already that makes that a felony. The torture memos addressed the torture statute, as well as other law such as the Geneva Conventions, other international instruments, and applications of Eighth Amendment principles, that also criminalized conduct that, so far as we know from news reports, actually occurred hundreds of times. Of course the memos concluded that some of this conduct was not criminal in the view of the authors, although courts might disagree (as most informed legal commenters have), and although practices straying from those outlined in the memo (reportedly what actually happeed) would likely be criminal.

As above, I don't think it determines the case that from a legal standpoint, this is an extant crime, long on the books, and prosecution does not depend on an ex post facto law. If the law were really unclear, so that a court would be determining for the first time in a U.S. jurisdiction that, yes, torture is illegal, then I could see the point. But I think in this case you have in the torture memos an elaborate effort to take what it clearly the law against torture, and render it unclear such that some further judicial process would be necessary to make the law clear. And I think those memos are a resounding failure. The arguments in the memos are strained as though they were being stretched on the rack. Reading them, one comes away with the impression that they are a sham and that the law is clear as daylight that many of the approved tortures were tortures just the same, and felonies to inflict. Does Brooks or anyone really think that prosecuting these tortures would be the same as going back and changing the law?

So in both these cases, the words used are evocative but completely wrong: prosecutions would not depend on relitigation or criminalization.

"Looking backward" is another lingusitic styling that makes no sense in this context. Our criminal law permits us only to prosecute crimes by looking backward after they have occurred. We don't prosecute future crime. We prosecute conspiracies and attempts, but this we do on the basis of actual conduct that has already occurred, even when there will definitely be no further completed crime in the future. Why would prosecuting these crimes constitute some illicit form of backward-looking while every other criminal prosecution that takes place based on completed offenses somehow would not?

"Good faith" is another usage that strikes me. It's not that I think it makes no sense in this context, but I think that when most pundits talk about interrogators relying on the torture memos in good faith, good faith actually means bad faith.

I don't typically think of torture as being a "good faith" kind of crime. We also don't generally excuse crimes because the perpetrator can present an argument that he acted in good faith. We don't generally ignore crimes because they had a positive motive or even a positive effect. These are issues for sentencing. Ignorance of one's legal responsibilities is no excuse, although I believe there are three very narrow exceptions to this:

One is for crimes of total passivity where notice is lacking. If someone passes a law to make you do something, you actually have to hear about the law before doing nothing becomes a crime. Torture is active.

One is for highly esoteric offenses, like observing certain tax regulations. But torture is a mala in se crime, which is to say that despite its historical prevalence it has always been, when conducted ouside the color of official authority, a crime obvious unto itself. It is not like some kind of economic regulation that requires you to get a license before doing something that presents no obvious harm. It is an activity which one cannot generally commit in good faith. The cries of the victim should tell you that this questionable conduct.

And the last is where the error is one of fact rather than law. If you were to torture someone because you sincerely believed that you were participating in a sociological expermiment, the electrodes were fake, and the victim was an actor, then you would have a defense. If you relied on a legal memo that said torture was really not illegal after all, this would not be a defense. (Since we're in the area of politics, let's just note in passing that when Clinton was disbarred, it was for making statements in a deposition that were not false but misleading, which he felt he could properly make because he relied on bad legal advice.) So "good faith" in terms of relying on these memos, which are so hard for a reasonable person to swallow, that seems like a non sequitur.

Legal defense or not, I could understand exercising discretion not to prosecute persons who did rely on legal advice in good faith. But in my mind this would mean reasonable reliance, not just, "okay, my ass is covered, I don't need to think about this." It already seems like news report suggest a wide range of degrees of culpability. It's hard for me to imagine that the torturer who presses forward with waterboardings every few hours for weeks on end can say he felt any reasonable assurance that the orders he was following were lawful. But I can see people on the fringes, mostly in the dark, being tricked into thinking that someone was looking at this from a legal aspect and doing their diligence.

In this context, "chilling effect" as in threatened prosecution would chill the torturers from proceeding aggressively, seems a perversely misused parlance. The phrase is most famously associated with the right of free speech, which one may exercise without restraint, even when it harms others, because to restrict it would "chill" the exercise of this fundamental right. Now we're speaking of torture as if it were not a debasing crime, but a basic right? Chilling means that people will balk because they are unsure of their justification and decide to err on the side of avoiding liability. This seems like a good thing when instead of speech, we're talking about war crimes. If one is in a situation where immediate action is required and the law is fuzzy, I can see granting a range of discretion as we do when we give officials qualified immunity. But we don't generally offer that immunity when the crime is one of brutality. And in the context here, if you are torturing someone for months, isn't that long enough for someone to get a second opinion on the legality of their orders?

Finally, "Apolitical forum." Brooks gets to the end of his "don't prosecute" argument and says, perhaps he could see prosecutions if there were some kind of apolitical forum. This is an odd expression. What does he mean? I seem to recall the drafters of the Constitution had the foresight to set apart some kind of institution, separate from Congress and the President, where issues could be tested on the basis of the law, rather than on political considerations. One could bring cases at law there, and have them ruled upon by magistrates, protected from influence by life terms. That is where prosecutions would be held. But obviously the courts are not the apolitcal fora Brooks is looking for, because Brooks already knows about those.

So, the common thread in these points is that all six terms are being used in an obfuscatory manner. If they were interpreted according to their regular meanings, they would cause all the arguments against prosecution using them to vanish. Why not just let the legal system sort it out? Which means, where there is a reasonable basis to suspect crime, investigate it. Where one concludes the crime did take place, prosecute it. The legal system already has answers to the questions posed by each of these phrases.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Babylon 5 (and more Sarah Palin)

In 1993, there was a science fiction television show launched called Babylon 5. It ran for five years. The first 4 years I saw when they ran in syndication on a local UHF station. The last season was on the TNT network on cable and I saw one episode when I stayed overnight in a hotel on a business trip. I remembered being very fond of the series and I have been watching the old episodes on DVDs borrowed from the library or as available online.

The show concerned a space station, Babylon 5, conceived as a meeting place for the various spacefaring humanoid races to settle differences. The events of the show mostly contribute to a preformulated 5-year mytharc in which a series of political developments lead to a galaxy-wide war, among other things. Its structure was virtually unique at the time, it was unusual in its prolific historical references, and it had some very compelling drama.

Re-watching it now, I am much more critical. The use of CGI, groundbreaking at the time, now looks in the early episodes a bit too much like a 20-year old videogame. At the beginning of season one, the sets and lighting are lifeless, the dialogue and performances of the human characters flat and unconvincing. The script is full of exposition. The episodes often coast in to anticlimaxes trying to tie up episode storylines after the big moment is passed. Even the historical references that I enjoyed originally seem trite and obvious. What was seen 15 years ago as a dose of realism to correct the idealistic fantasies and gross internal inconsistencies of the old Star Trek, now seem cheap compared to the almost documentary-like reimagined Galactica.

But it improves. After the show gets going, everything improves. The technology behind the special effects evolved. There was evidently a better budget for sets and props. As the story unfolds the characters that were uninteresting develop somewhat, and the stories themselves develop a depth through internal consistency and allusion. The actors settle into more confortable rhythms. The aliens, who were always the most fun to watch (brought to life by stunning makeup and costumes, interesting accents, and broad threatrical flourishes) see their roles get meatier as their races slide into war.

One thing that remains annoying, however, is the show's flavor of minimal administrative institutions.

The B5 station itself begins with a population of 250,000. It has no industry, but has an economy based on trade, tourism (it particulaly becomes a destination for religious after an angelic sighting), and information technology. In season 3 it declares itself independent of its sponsoring government and becomes a state unto itself. Its own taxation system apparently erects and runs itself after state funds are cut off. It has a security chief that personally knows everyone who might be a criminal, like a small town sheriff. Its number two military officer personally commands the station's defensive fighter squadron. It has the flavor of a very small operation, with a shallow command staff that does little delegating and has few meetings or protocols.

In addition to having the government of Earth withdraw all support for the station, its commander becomes the mostly-absentee leader of a fleet of advanced ships that spearheads one side in a war of galactic scale in which whole planets are destroyed and countless billions are affected.

Over and over, the show commits the embarassing lapse of treating serious matters of galactic consequence in this folksy small-institution way. When the consequences grow to a tremendous scale, big-time institutions simply do not follow. There is no apparent second eschelon of leadership beneath the top command staff. Huge operations simply coordinate themselves. None of the top people possesses a personal security force, and remain vulnerable to small bands of unsophisticated crazies and malcontents. They continue to carry out their regular activities, doing everything themselves. The show is incredibly naive about death and torture and the role of espionage, as if none of the characters has any real experience or serious training or anticipates the extent to which people ordinarily go with much less at stake. The heroes develop a fastidiously honest broadcasting operation not as part of a comprehensive set of war operations but because the captain says one day, "hey, I have an idea -- let's do this." Treaties are forged without any concerns over the details. The captain takes command of the warfleet without asking how many ships there are, what firepower they possess, what their crew complements are... There appears to be no understanding of the questions of bureaucracy and administration, of established ways of doing things, and the millions of unpredicted but extremely predictable things that tend to go wrong when ordering levels of management and control do not exist, and everyone is doing everything by ear. Everything that happens requires a support structure, staff must be recruited and trained, materiel must be procured, advantages that present themselves must be exploited, and mistakes that have been made in the past must be prevented in the future.

These mistakes threaten the integrity of the show and infect otherwise exciting storylines with a distracting problem of complete unreality. You do not feel the weight or inertia of tradition, structure, a large body of professional knowledge and experience and layers of management and administration.


Without exaggerating the point, I would contrast the better handling of this consideration by the current Battlestar Galactica series. Galactica is the story of a struggling remnant of humanity which flees in a ragtag fleet of spacecraft after massive nuclear assault by evil God-crazed robots. The fleet has a civilian president and the one surviving battleship itself has a military commander. The two together are responsible for roughly 50,000 souls, a number which is chopped down by nearly a third due to losses over the course of a few years, mostly during a disasterous period of enemy occupation of a large segment of the population. But even with a much smaller body of people involved, institutions feel weighty and resilient. When there is a task to be done, someone must do it. Three episodes in, prison labor must be recruited to mine ice to replenish the failing water supplies of the fleet. Personnel losses must be compensated by recruitment and training. The overtaxing of the workforce erupts into conflict. Attack plans must be developed, presented, and approved. Meetings are held in which problems are quantified and solutions proposed and debated. There is a maturity in recognizing hard choices.

B5's crew managed to avoid total disaster because it had the advantage of being fiction. With good writers, the logistics will take care of themselves. In real life, what you get is more like FEMA's response to hurricane Katrina, or the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, which lost the initiative, credibility, and uts shirt before it knew what was happening. If you buy something without a plan to deliver or distribute it, you waste it. If you distribute something on an emergency basis but provide no security against fraud, it gets stolen. If you fail to think of people staying in their homes because you won't let them leave without their pets, or because you have not secured the streets, or because they are listening to a religious leader whom you did not understand to have any authority, you lose.

Personally, I've been on the executive board of several organizations, but let me mention three: a metropolitan group representing 25,000 people, a state group representing 150,000, and a national group representing 3.5 million. Because these were groups that represented an interest sector and not all citizen concerns, my portfolio at any of these groups was not nearly what would be faced by a mayor or governor. But there were plenty of issues, budgets to develop and debate, staff to hire, legal issues to confront, internal politics, and external relations. The smallest group was something I worked on full time; the others I had a more ancillary role. Still, I have some impression of the effects of scale and how instututions grow more complex, expectations higher, and a more sophisticated set of protocols involved as one moves up.

I have seen people in my institutional adventures who had a big-time mindset, and those whose views refected small-time, small-organization ways of doing things. It's possible to walk out of Supercorp into a mom-and-pop outfit and not get the small scale of things, to expect a proposal to be circulated and go through comments and legal vetting before implementation, while auntie Jo could just do it before dusk. It's also possible for someone unfamiliar with the larger-scale environment to see a proposal enacted by sidestepping the usual regulatory requirements, political ane social niceties, and create a ripple of small problems and risks of larger ones in so doing. When you just call up someone you know and write them a check, instead of soliciting the proper bids, making the proper records, verifying eligibility and compliance, and paying from the proper fund with proper approval.

There are advantages to both the big-scale and the small-scale ways of doing things. That small-scale mentality can be great for getting things done, breaking away from outgrown and unnecssary limits. But...

But it also means turning a blind eye to the reasons for the limits, incurring unknown risks, creating secondary problems and side effects that must be solved, injuring constituencies, and courting all sorts of predictable failures.

Sarah Palin's credientials include representing Wasilla, pop. 5900, and Alaska, pop. 680,000. Her record is one of both corruption and reform: she basically does not conform to institutions, acts in a small-scale way. Hires cronies, ignores conventions, offends bureaucrats and powers that be, and violates the law. It's all part of the same picture. I've seen this person before. I've seen this style. It has its merits for getting a narrow range of goals accomplished, but as the scale and diversity of operations expands, it becomes more and more risky in terms of all the competing considerations that get sacrificed or distorted, and sometimes this leads to complete collapse of the overall ambition, as we saw in Katrina and Iraq.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin's Disclosures

Had a look at Sarah Palin's disclosure forms.

I have seen some commentary on the amount of property she owns. Not much note that her husband's tribe (native corportation, BBNC) collectively made close to 1.3 billion dollars in gross oil revenues last year, which is a significant interest even if she personally doesn't rely on it: it's important to the community.

What strikes me the most, however, is just the sloppiness of it all. Handwritten, often last-minute submissions, with boxes not checked, covered in abbreviations. BP is obviously British Petroleum, but who outside Alaska would guess that SBS stands for? Maybe Spenard Building Supply ("Alaska's choice for building materials and home improvements")? The unchecked boxes may seem trivial, but it says something when you fail to be attentive enough to fully complete the form and follow the rules. The instructions say to list all or check "none." Doing neither arguably means that the information has been withheld.

The officials monitoring the disclosures did not flag that, but they did find other items incomplete and seek further information in response to the Wasilla mayoral annual disclosure in 2002, which actually took more than a year to be supplied. Even when filing disclosures for governor, her October 2005 form generated an exchange about necessary changes and the same form was refiled in May 2006 with a new signature over the old one and new information scribbled in the margins.

This to me elevates the unpreparedness factor. It looks like a half-assed backwater operation when the chief exec is filling out these forms by hand and having them sent back for more work. can't you get someone on staff to handle it and make sure it's done right?

Remember, Alaska isn't Texas. There are five cities in Texas alone with more people than the entire state of Alaska, and El Paso is close.

Recipe for Economic Disaster

Every time I see that McCain ad, I think the same thing. It's one of the ads -- not "Taxman", the other one -- that quotes the Las Vegas Review Journal as saying that Obama's tax policies would be a "recipe for economic disaster." And I think, Las Vegas Review Journal?

This ad exploits "source amnesia." People remember they heard something but they forget where they heard it.

Ever see those film reviews where there are three blurbs and they're all from people and outlets you've never heard of? Random radio call letters and obscure papers and magazines? I always see these and think, boy, how desperate must they be? They couldn't get one good review from a source people have actually heard of?

The Las Vegas Review Journal is not the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or USA Today, not even the LA Times. These are the only four national US papers, the only ones with more than a million circulation. It's not in the top 20 by circulation. Or the next 20. Or the next. Which is not exactly a surprise. You've probably never heard of it if you live outside Nevada.

It's not just small, it's extreme. Its editorial policy is far right on economic issues. Wikipedia describes it as libertarian, but from what I've seen it's not a great fan of civil liberties or social progress. Its editorialists are fully committed behind McCain against Obama and stridently press the partisan line.

So it's a not an organ swing voters would naturally want to follow. And it's probably not what a maverick Republican would consider a reliable source. This may be a foolish mistake, or it may be an appeal to the natural followers of the Review Journal. But not likely. In all likelihood, the ad is effective because it carefully and dishonestly uses a quote from an unreliable and unrepresentative source to plant a point.

Not the biggest thing one can knock McCain on, but I see these things, and they get to me.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Sigh of Relief in Warsaw

It's so nice to know that new missles in Poland will protect it from Iranian agression. Teheran has of course revived its historical threats, and no one could fail to share the apprehension of Northern Poles at seeing the throngs of Polish Shiities in Rzeszow carrying pictures of Khatami and demanding the reincorporation of Southern Poland into Greater Persia, the way things used to be before the shifting of Polish borders west and south in the reconstitution of 1945. This is of course a blow not just to Russia, but especially to the Yushchenko adminstration in Kiev, which has done the bidding of Iranian officials in Lvov by encouraging cross-border agitation. The missle shield is also sure to dampen Iranian territorial ambitions, frustrating their long-term drive to obtain access to the Baltic.

Palin's Selection

There's been a lot of very good instant commentary on the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate. Some of the articles and comments on TPM I think are particularly good at laying out some of her potential plusses and minuses. She is to large extent a cipher, and I would not be shocked if she surpassed all expectations; nor would I be shocked if she were a total disaster. Well, maybe a little shocked: there is not a lot of time for weak spots to show.

Which is an issue in itself.

The most important things about her nomination that we know now are not that she is a woman or that her resume includes more time as a sports reporter, snowmobile seller, and as part of a small body that oversaw her village of 1430 families than as mayor of that village or governor of the 47th largest state (about three times the size of Obama's State Senate district).

Rather, what is important at this stage is the very fact that she is a virtual unknown. And particularly that she is such an unknown even to McCain.

Reports on how McCain made the selection are not impressive. What we have heard is: He's never worked with her. He's met her once. He decided at the last minute. The announcement was clearly designed as an attention-grabber. The The selection is risky, but as Mark Halperin explained, "McCain loves to roll the dice."

Contrast this with Obama: he selected someone wih whom he has worked, and who has a 30-year public record. Biden also was subject to opposition research and media scrutiny while running for the Democratic nomination. He makes numerous public appearances. He is a very known entity and in particular, Obama knows that they interact well. Likewise, Obama went through a very public process of vetting other potential running mates, going on fact-finding trips with them, interviewing, interacting, and observing. They are also well-known public figures and well vetted.

This tells us a little about Biden, nothing about Palin, bust most importantly it tells us something about Obama and McCain. Obama went through a professional orderly process, considered the intelligence, and committed to a course of action. McCain? The clear impression is one of impulsive decision-making based on unnecessarily limited intelligence. If the risk were borne only by the campaign, this might be a plus...

But it won't be if McCain is elected. The other imporant aspect of thic calculation is that not only has Palin apparently not been well vetted by the McCain forces, but it will be very uncertain, if not impossible, whether we can get a good picture of her before election day. If elected, Palin will be in office and standing by to perform as President, whether or not her record would support that decision.

Again, compare with the Obama camp. On Obama's side, the risk inherent from nonexperience is at the top of the ticket. Experience is important for several reasons. One is vetting. We have for Obama several biographies, ranging from excellent to borderline illegal. We have had an extended campaign, with months upon months of investigating Obama as a first-tier candidate. We have a national record.

We have not necessarily had much time to time test whether the policies he championed in the U.S. Senate have been fruitful, but Illinois ain't beanbag. In contrast, Palin is on her second year as governor of a state of 680,000. To go back and see how successful her past actions have been over time, sift through the fallout, one needs to go back before her inauguration in 2006 (statute of limitations is 3 years on state contracts, 6 on torts, for example). That leaves only her mayorship. It's probably safe to say that Illinois faces most (though obviously not all) of the domestic issues the U.S. government faces. Hardly true of Wasilla, pop. 6700.

Incidentally, I don't object to political considerations entering into the selection of a running mate, but the first priority must always be the interests of the country if the nominee is elected. Obama made clear this was his priority, stated so in the face of overbearing media concentration on horserace issues, and selected someone who was credible as a backup president. McCain cannot credibly say that Palin is the best, or second-best, or third-best, or fourth-best, or among the 25 best people for this position. There are too many good people out there, and more importantly, he just hasn't enough knowledge to know how good or bad Palin would be.

McCain bought a pig in a poke, and wants to sell it to America. So the main issue is not whether it is going to turn out to be a good pig. The issue is not the pig but the poke.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Celebrity-Envy

I don't relate to the reaction of some pundits that John McCain's purchasing of ad time on the evening of Barack Obama's nomination acceptance speech as gracious or classy. First of all, the ad has a false, patronizing and at times almost sarcastic quality and most importantly, it seems to say on one level, this is your day, I won't interrupt, while on a deeper level screaming, "Hey, over here, don;t forget about me!"

First an analysis of the text:

1 Senator Obama, this is truly a good day for America.
2 Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed.
3 So I wanted to stop and say, Congratulations.
4 How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day.
5 Tomorrow, we’ll be back at it.
6 But tonight, Senator, job well done.

1a) First of all, it's an open message to Obama, which means, I will direct my speech to you, but rather than speak to you privately, I will pay to show millions of people the image of me talking to you, because it is really a message for them to see me talking to you. We won;t show any images of you in the ad, because it's about me looking good, not you. It's my way of hogging some attention while trying to look superficially like I'm being respectful toward you.

1b) It's a good day for America. I won't be specific why, because I want to claim to care about race relations in spite of my record, and without doing anything, and I won't even mention it because I can't do it deftly enough to not get in trouble, especially since I want to keep the racist vote energized for me.

2a) This is absurdly vague and almost certainly does not say what it means. What it suggests is, too often, we all fail to notice our opponents' achievements. For example, I may might go completely unaware of your obtaining your party's nomination for president, and you might fail to mention repeatedly how I was a POW. But this is not literally what it says. To go unnoticed is not specific as to who is not noticing. Literally, it seems to suggest that everyone regardless of side fails to notice enough. The "our" is ambiguous -- whose opponents? Who is us? We in politics? We on my side? Me and you? And it it each of us our own opponents, or our common enemies? Did we not notice Bin Laden's achievements often enough?

2b) "We" is intended to suggest you and I are in some kind of parity despite this being your day and not mine.

2c) Making it a general statement about not appreciating our adversaries is a vague way of stealing your trademark vision of a new politics, without actually acting that way or committing to do so. (See 5a.)

3a) Way to go kid. I know this will mean a lot coming from me because I'm so much more experienced than you.

3b) By stop, I mean step into your spotlight for a moment and steal a little of your reflected media.

4) Yeah, gee, how convenient that it worked out that way. What an odd coincidence. Smirk!

5a) This is my escape clause to be able to knofe you tomorrow and not look like I went back on my word.

5b) We again. You, ahead in the polls, me behind, really just alike, both alike.

6) See 3a.

What this really makes me think of is 1a/3b: this guy can't shut up for one day, he needs to get the attention. Now this is probably a campaign decision that was done for practical and not emotional reasons: throw Obama off gain, keep your own campaign from being forgotten, score points with key groups. But it also has a look to me of being a purely emotional investment, and it does this not just because that is a dominant vibe of the ad, its timing, its function. It is also because that is part of a pattern and an emerging meme for McCain: McCain the attention-craver who can't get over his envy of someone else's superior celebrity.

I'm not an expert on McCain's bio, but here are some bits that strike me from what I know:

He describes in his autobiography how at age 2 or so he would keep passing out because he would hold his breath until he turned blue. He was a spoiled little kid who wanted attention.

He led a wild life and was a bad boy prior to his military service and period as a POW. Lots of sex and booze and nasty behavior. He was like a spoiled little kid who wanted attention.

He was treated by the Vietnamese as a celebrity POW because his daddy and granddaddy were famous and important admirals. After returning to the US, he enjoyed some celebrity because of being a POW, so for a while he had the fame he wanted.

His military career was okay, but he was never gonna get to be dad or granddad. He loved the legislative liaison work with lots of travel, power, and money closeby, so he got into politics. Public service my ass. He was a nobody on the fringes of fame and he wanted some of the that celebrity for himself as he had had before.

He got into politics. He soon developed a comprehensive media strategy which involved selective brief adoption of populist stands on reform issues to develop a phony reputation as a maverick, being unusually chummy with the press (although still hiding the dirt), and relying on the POW card. He started running for president, writing books, appearing on shows like 24 and SNL, doing more talk shows than anyone else, and grandstanding on selected issues.

His ads have appeared obsessed with griping about Obama being more successful, younger, smarter, and better than him, drawing bigger crowds, mastering issues more easily, quickly gaining access to and praise from national and world leaders. What an elitist, celebrity, hotshot, smartypants -- ooo, he makes me so mad, I could just hold my breath till I turn blue and pass out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Suspect"

In a report on the local news last night on WTMJ, the reporter did something again that I've occasionally noticed, but which freshly struck me when I saw it again: she used the word "suspect" to refer not to a particular person of whom the authorities bore suspicion, but a person acting in a clearly criminal manner, e.g., "So-and-so was at home and heard a noise in their living room. Going to investigate, they saw a burglar in their home. The suspect was stuffing the family possessions into a backpack." Tonight's was a pretty clear-cut case of this.

The ill which this portends, and which I hope comes back to bite these stations in some form of libel action, is that it means they are re-defining the word "suspect" for their viewers to mean "perpetrator" so that when they describe an innocent person as a "suspect," they are in fact stating literally and explicitly that that person is guilty.

I know this seems like an exaggerated claim. Surely, it must be merely implicit that they are being called guilty, right? Wrong. Consider how this plays out in the form of a debate:

P: You ruined my life. You told everybody I committed this crime.

D: No we didn't. We never said that.

P: Well, that was clearly what you meant. That's what everyone understood.

D: We're not responsible for how our reports may be misinterpreted. We clearly stated you were only a suspect. Look it up. It means you didn't necessarily do anything. It means just that some people think you might have done it.

P: But that's not what it means to your viewers. It's not how you use the word yourself. On other newscasts you've said someone definitely did something, and then you call the person who did it the "suspect." When you use the word in that way, you give it the meaning of someone definitely guilty. A reasonable person, familiar with the way you use language, would understand you to be saying that I was definitely guilty. And that includes you: you knew what you were saying when you said it.