“Free Sarah Palin!”

With the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin only days away, many Republican pundits have adopted a new theory for the reason Palin has floundered in recent interviews.  It isn’t because she is not knowledgeable or ill-equipped to hold executive office, but that the McCain campaign has not let her “be herself” since the Republican National Convention.  Some conservative spokespeople have even put forth the idea that Palin is being held in a kind of political captivity, being forced to say and do things that she doesn’t believe in or know anything about.  I’m sorry, but wasn’t that obvious?  And how is that a problem for John McCain?  Shouldn’t he be trying to keep her from saying horrendously inflammatory things?  Do conservatives really want Palin to accuse Joe Biden of being a witch during the debate?  I thought that it was called “damage control” for a reason.

William Kristol even supported the “Free Sarah Palin!” claim in his recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, “How McCain Wins”.  Apparently, Kristol wants to play the Dr. Evil to Kathleen Parker’s Austin Powers.  In the article, Kristol argued that, “…McCain needs to liberate his running mate from the former Bush aides brought in to handle her — aides who seem to have succeeded in importing to the Palin campaign the trademark defensive crouch of the Bush White House. McCain picked Sarah Palin in part because she’s a talented politician and communicator. He needs to free her to use her political talents and to communicate in her own voice.”  Kristol is in such a painful state of denial that he cannot see how his own words work against the candidate he is still so strongly in support of.  Why on Earth would John McCain need to “[bring] in” the same “former Bush aides” to “handle” Sarah Palin in the first place?  Why would those former Bush aides adopt their empirically “defensive crouch” with regard to their new candidate?  Let’s think…oh, I know.  It’s because Sarah Palin has the same, if not a far worse, grasp of the world as George W. Bush.  What else can you do but play defense around a politician who thinks that seeing Russian land makes you qualified to deal with Vladimir Putin?  The wonderfully amusing website 236.com had an excellent point here: “You can see the moon from Alaska too.  Does that make you qualified to be an astronaut?  Cause I’d love to be an astronaut.”

[ On a side note, Kristol’s own political buffoonery has gotten so bad that he is openly admitting things like: “The core case against Obama is pretty simple: he’s too liberal. A few months ago I asked one of McCain’s aides what aspect of Obama’s liberalism they thought they could most effectively exploit. He looked at me as if I were a simpleton, and patiently explained that talking about “conservatism” and “liberalism” was so old-fashioned.”  When a John McCain adviser and Sarah Palin handler looks at you like a “simpleton”, you know that you’ve really let yourself go.]

The “Free Sarah Palin!” sentiment is beyond comprehension – she is the worst interview I have ever heard, let alone debater.  Even Bush, who immediately gained notoriety as a poor public speaker during the 2000 presidential election, could still complete a sentence.  When he famously said, “I know how hard it is to put food on your family,” I still empathized with the sentiment that he was expressing.  I still knew what he was talking about.  Listening to Palin’s interview with Katie Couric last week on CBS News, it became obvious that she could not even finish a thought, let alone express a “Bushism”.  How is that an issue of too much “handling”?  McCain’s advisors could keep me in a locked cage in Pat Buchanan’s basement and I could still speak coherently when asked questions.  For instance, I could say things like, “Help me! The Republicans have locked me in Pat Buchanan’s basement!”

The term “handlers” used to refer to the people who kept incompetent celebrities from harming their public relations.  Hmm.  Could it be that Palin is nothing more than an incompetent celebrity, brought on to sell a political platform as worthless as an infomercial cutting board set?  Why else would John McCain and Steve Schmidt feel the need to “handle” Palin in the first place?  Kristol does a great job of transferring the blame to “former Bush aides”, without any consciousness of the fact that McCain is intentionally hiding Palin with good reason.  Republican pundits are acting as if Katie Couric was bullying their VP candidate and Palin could not respond because McCain had tied her hands behind her back.  Does anyone remember the questions she was asking?  “What are the pros and cons of it, do you think?” It was only a slightly more difficult interview than Sean Hannity’s.  Okay, well, that’s not fair – Hannity at one point asked her, “So if everyone was a citizen of Alaska, they’d get a check for twenty-three hundred dollars from you every year, right?”

I understand the desire to support a candidate whose fundamental policy positions concur with your own, almost regardless of how they can present themselves to the public and the media.  There has to come a point, however, when the candidate you are voting for can lose your support.  If that point does not exist, which is clearly does not for Kristol and his ilk, does it really count as political support anymore?  Or is it something else – like fanaticism, for instance.  I promise you that if Barack Obama got up during the first presidential debate or if Joe Biden said anything in a public speech that was anywhere near as incoherent as what Sarah Palin said to Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, then I would seriously consider not voting for them.  Period.  I do not unequivocally support politicians, but there appears to be an increasing amount of conservatives who do.  Unquestionably, there are some Obama supporters who would rightfully fall into this category as well – the only problem is that Obama has not done anything nearly as idiotic as Palin, so they haven’t had the opportunity to be fanatical.

The only logical conclusion behind all of this political posturing is that Palin is hiding a scarier, darker conservative side that even Bush-McCain advisers are afraid of.  Pundits like Kristol want to unleash that monster on the American people Friday night, because it will allow Palin to complete her sentences.  I am inclined to agree – if given free reign to say whatever she thinks, Palin probably could speak much better.  The problem is that, when she does, almost no one, Kristol included, is going to like what she has to say.

So bring on the second debate and “Free Sarah Palin!”  I could not think of a better way to get Obama elected.

Remembering Levinas

In one of my recent articles, “Objectivism Revisited”, I criticized the underlying philosophical justifications behind Ayn Rand’s epistemological theory and its support for unfettered free-market capitalism. My motivation for this piece came from the recent Congressional battles over support for the $700 billion economic bailout plan, which House Republicans strongly derided on the grounds that any and all governmental encroachments into the market would cripple the contemporary American business ethic. Pundits on television and in the print media engaged in a war of words over the theories of Objectivism without realizing where their ideas were coming from or the long-standing philosophical debates intrinsic to their discussion. I wanted to invoke that intellectual history in relation to the current American fiscal crisis in order to shine some additional light on the barrage of unjustified claims waged by both sides of the economic debate. In the ensuing point-counterpoint that followed on questionablesource.com, I remembered an often forgotten intellectual giant, who also attempted to move beyond the war of ideas in a unique and unquestionably brilliant fashion. Before I introduce his thought to this forum, I think that it is important to summarize where the discussion has taken us so far.

Indeed, there are variety of justifications for free-market capitalism, many of which I strongly agree with. Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom”, now somewhat of a Cold War relic, correctly points out the variety of benefits that capitalism has bestowed upon the human population, from increased food supplies to structural insurance for individual freedom to the global stability that comes with economic interdependence. Life expectancies are longer and the quality of life has been better for more people in a world driven by capitalist logic than the regulatory paradigm of statism. All of these benefits are nothing short of historical facts. Capitalism has been a positive development in many regards for human beings. Objectivism, however, takes a step further in its justification for the historical phenomenon of capitalism that I consider to be philosophically violent and a continuation of the same dangers she rejects.

In Rand’s attempt to construct an unwavering and eternal justification for the free-market, she developed a theory of knowledge – an epistemology – that gave credence to the idea of objective knowledge, otherwise known as “truth”. Objectivism claims that there is objective truth for any individual based upon what their survival, purpose, and rational self-interest require, albeit relational to society. If I am hungry, then, “objectively”, food is of value to me – it is “true” that I need food, even though the words/concepts I use to describe this need, given to an individual by society, are arbitrary. From this position on the nature of knowledge, Rand argued that protecting these individual declarations of “truth” was the essential task of both government and any system of morality. Rand believed that the only regulatory regime capable of sustaining the freedom necessary to sustain these expressions of truth is free-market capitalism. Capitalism allows these desires and needs to be weighed justly, she contended, because the free-market never marginalizes the claims of an individual or intervenes on behalf of some greater philosophical principle. For Rand, the free-market is an expression of perfect justice – it assigns the proper value to all things. Therefore, interventions into the market, like the proposed economic bailout package in Congress, are always detrimental to individuals, because they infringe on the neutrality and justice of the system.

Rand constantly criticized the monotheistic religions for their construction of moral systems that did not have a basis in the needs and desires of the individual, but in a higher authority. She saw their ideological power as only destructive of the true potential of human beings to ascend through motivated action and sustained purpose. From this existentialist rejection of religion, Rand denied the possibility of altruism – a purely unselfish act towards an other – on the grounds that all actions were inherently self-interested. This impossibility, she argued, was because of the fact that all people ever express is their objective demand towards attaining what is in their rational self-interest. Even if you help someone, it is because you wish to express your benevolence and the benefits of doing so will reflect on your social capital, et cetera. I was previously criticized for portraying Rand’s Objectivism as Rationalism – the belief in the ability of the individual’s rationality to solve any problem – so I hope that this description of her epistemology and moral justification of capitalism gives better weight to the pluralism that Rand endorsed. In any case, it does not really matter what I portray Rand’s ideology as, because it is still ideology and that is what I ultimately want to tear down, not just Objectivism.

At a first glance, Rand’s epistemology and ethical/moral justification for free-market capitalism seems quite legitimate, if not obvious. Freedom is unquestioned in her paradigm and she advocates a system of political, economic, and social regulation that maximizes the rational self-interest, purpose, and esteem of a population. The problem with an epistemology that allows for the existence of human truth, however, is actually quite severe. Just like the monotheistic religions that Rand so viciously assaults, Objectivism takes the instances of objective truth tied to individuals and places it in the hands of a supervenient knowledge device – in this case, the free-market. The free-market becomes God for Rand, a perfect arbiter of justice and interest. The free-market, however, is no more godly than the textual contentions of the monotheists – it is entirely the production of human thought and action. That is ultimately my criticism of Objectivism. In its attempt to eternally justify capitalism through objective value and its denial of authority, it constructs an ideology that gives preference to capitalism and reason, rather than highlighting the responsibility we have towards other human beings. Ethics – traditionally defined as societal rules of conduct – for Rand, is brought about through the active construction of reasoned thought. This active construction of ethics is what makes her thought ‘just the same’ as everything she tears apart throughout intellectual history.

In my opinion, there can never be any objective truth in our plane of reality. There are only subjective knowledge claims, always open to interpretation and reevaluation dependent upon contingency and time. In this regard, I want to highlight Rand’s conclusion that altruism does not exist using the example of hunger and food. While it may be true that you need food to survive and it is of value to you, it is still a subjective choice to eat food. Let’s say that a mother and son are stranded on a desert island. They know that help is coming, but it won’t be there for one month. There is only enough food for one of them to survive in that time. The mother, acting against her self-interest, may declare to her son that he should eat the food, because she loves him and would rather die than see him do otherwise. Rand denied the possibility of such an event, an altruistic action by the mother, because she thought that any action is inherently self-beneficial. Clearly, as this thought experiment shows, that is not the case. The mother sacrifices herself for her son in a way that is entirely to her detriment. Rand is missing the point with her definition of ethical/moral conduct. There are other obligations that exist prior to reasoned thought and self-interest, as demonstrated by the mother-son example.

Rand, in many ways, is tied to the rise of existential thought, brought to bear by authors like Jean-Paul Sartre, Soren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger. Sartre and Kierkegaard wanted to tear down the idealism of truth long entrenched in the Western tradition since the seminal thought projects of Plato and Aristotle, much like Rand. Sarte, however, was motivated by the linguistic/phenomenological turn of French thought to argue that values and ideas exist only in the vacuum of what an individual decides to give preference to. Language, and all structures within society, are arbitrary and relational. Kierkegaard had similar goals, but sought to define the meanings held fast by an individual in relation to a personal conversation with God. The danger in Objectivism and existentialism, something that I failed to effectively grapple with in my last article, is that both prioritize thought and reason instead of actual instances of dealing with people in a face-to-face manner. For Rand, this ended up with her denying the possibility of altruism and seeking God in the free-market.

With this brief background completed, I want to progress onto the real subject of this article – the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas is an extremely complicated thinker and, admittedly, my grasp of his work is probably juvenile. Much of my understanding comes from a wonderful article written by Professor Anthony Beavers at the University of Texas-Austin entitled, “Introducing Levinas to Undergraduate Philosophers” and I must give credit where it is due. That being said, I think that Levinas’ conceptualization of ethics is the most advanced I have ever heard and I thoroughly believe that engaging his work is essential for humanity to progress beyond the violence of the past. Please bear with me while I try to elucidate his work, it’s quite complicated, but highly relevant to our discussion of Rand and ethics.

Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew, whose family was expelled to the Ukraine, because of their religious beliefs. Pursuing a higher education, Levinas moved to France to study phenomenology under the eminent Edmund Husserl and from there, he moved to Freiburg, Germany to study under Martin Heidegger. Levinas, unlike many philosophers in his tradition who turned to existentialism, turned to Judaism and Talmudic interpretation. He sought a basis in morality through the most ancient collective study of morality available. During World War II, Levinas enlisted as a translator in the French army and when it fell, he was captured and sent to a labor camp. There, he dealt first hand with the horrors of ideological power made manifest through Nazism. His own former teacher, Heidegger, came to embrace Nazism, which he retroactively justified through existential thought as the action of the heroic Being of Dasein. How could this wonderfully intelligent rationality and exploration of Being could justify or even culminate in Nazism was beyond Levinas. The meaninglessness and alienation inherent to existentialism and its allowance of the individual to define their own meaning in regard to their own self-interest led him to question the basis of reasoned thought as a basis for ethical action. There was something entirely unethical for Levinas about using your ideas to define the “other” – the other person, the ‘not same” – before contact with the other was even established.

With this background, Levinas spent the rest of his life trying to answer the question of the moral “ought” – in other words, why be good? For Rand and other existentialist thinkers like Sarte, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche ethics – the conduct of the individual towards the other – comes about through reasoned thought. However, the “active” construction of ideas, Levinas argues, in the tradition of Descartes, is an entirely individual production. If ideas are only productions of the mind and ethics refer to your actions in regard to real people, then reasoning and thought cannot found the basis for ethics. Beavers explains:

“If we can accept this notion that ideas are inventions of the mind, that ideas are, when it comes down to it, only interpretations of something, and if ethics, in fact, is taken to refer to real other persons who exist apart from my interpretations, then we are up against a problem: there is no way in which ideas, on the current model, refer to independently existing other persons, and as such, ideas cannot be used to found an ethics. There can be no pure practical reason until after contact with the other is established.”

Therefore, when you construct another person through your ideas, you cut off the “connection” to the other. Levinas calls this process of shutting out the other “totalization” and it occurs whenever you reduce someone to rational categories, “racial, sexual, or otherwise.” Levinas believed that Nazism, and indeed all violence, comes about from totalization. Totalization is unethical, because it denies the otherness of the other by reducing the other to your own ideas without regard for the real contact between persons that is the basis for an ethics in the first place. Therefore, in order to construct an ethics, one cannot turn to ideas about the other, but instead must turn to “sensibility”. Sensibility exists prior to thought – it is the “passive” nourishment of the self by the environment. Beavers uses the examples of food and music in order to explain what nourishment through sensibility refers. When you eat, you actively make the food part of your body. When you listen to music, you “digest” it and it becomes part of you. Living and sensibility are matters of “consumption” – you take what is in your environment and make it a part of you. Levinas explains further, “Nourishment, as a means of invigoration, is the transmutation of the other into the same, which is the essence of enjoyment; an energy that is other, recognized as other, recognized … as sustaining the very act that is directed upon it becomes, in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me.”

The act of nourishing your “self” is pure enjoyment; it is the source of the joy of life. Before you enjoy something, however, you must distance yourself from it and comprehend your own independence from it. In doing do, you construct the egoistic self. Beavers explains, using the example of food, “I can represent the bread, but this will not feed me. I must eat it. But then in eating my bread, the memory of hunger, evinces a separation between the bread and me. Thus, in enjoyment, the self emerges already as the subject of its need.” Thus nourishment is happiness, but selfish happiness. This selfish happiness through environmental nourishment is the “flux” that is “subjectivity”. Sensibility is the foundation of the subject, for Levinas, not rational thought, and, as such, it achieves an extra-mentalism that rationality lacks. Therefore, the foundation of the subject is not active, but passive. With this, Levinas comes to the “ethical moment” – when the egoistic self encounters another person and it wants to nourish itself with that other person, but it cannot. Indeed, “The other resists consumption.” The other “pushes back” and denies the egoistic enjoyment that the “I” desires with the initial encounter. The other has power over you, because it is “transcendent” and beyond the rational capabilities of your intellect to digest it – it is from the “other side of Being.” This encounter is most expressly manifested in the “face-to-face” with the other person. Your passivities intersect in the dual attempt at nourishment when the “ground of interpersonal contact” – the face – is measured through sensibility. Levinas calls this imperative moment “proximity”:

“…the proximity of the Other is not simply close to me in space, or close like a parent, but he approaches me essentially insofar as I feel myself—insofar as I am—responsible for him. It is a structure that in nowise resembles the intentional relation which in knowledge attaches us to the object—to no matter what object, be it a human object. Proximity does not revert to this intentionality; in particular it does not revert to the fact that the other is known to me.”

At this moment of proximity, the critical distinction that I want to invoke between existentialist authors like Rand and Sarte becomes tantamount to my writing. Where Rand sees the active process of illuminating the other as a method of rationality, purpose and esteem and Sarte sees the alienation and “antagonism” of the other, Levinas “finds the ground upon which ethics first shows itself.” Your very subjectivity is determined in this moment, where neither of the two people can lay claim to the other or reduce each other to the “same”. Your subjectivity is literally held “hostage” by the other. Beavers explains again:

“The self is subjected to the other who comes from on high to intrude upon my solitude and interrupt my egoist enjoyment. The self, feeling the exterior in the guise of the other pass through its world, is already obligated to respond to the transcendent other who holds the self hostage. In turn, this means that “the latent birth of the subject occurs in obligation where no commitment was made.” I do not agree to live ethically with the other at first, I am ordered to do so. The meaning of my being a self is found in opposition to the other, as an essential ability to respond to the other. I am, above all things, a social self indentured a priori, made to stand in the place of the other.”

This standing-in-the-place-of-the-other is deemed “substitution” and it is the crux of Levinas’ construction of ethical responsibility. When you are held hostage by the other, in the face-to-face, your identity is defined. This moment of substitution is the ethical moment. “In substitution my being that belongs to me and not to another is undone, and it is through substitution that I am not ‘another,’ but me.” Please read that sentence again, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. Substitution is the “sacrifice of self” and stands exactly contrary to Rand and the existentialists. Where Rand sees the moment of self-interest, Levinas sees the moment of other-interest. In an almost direct response to Rand, Levinas says, “One is held to bear the burden of others: the substitution is a passive effect, which one does not succeed in converting into an active initiative or into one’s own virtue.”

The virtuous action of the Objectivist is secondary to the passive substitution inherent to Levinassian thought. You have to stand before the “other” before “freedom and reason” even enter into the equation. As such, the ethical responsibility that you have towards other people is a priori to the individual freedom and rationality inherent to Objectivism. The conceptual science of Rand falls to the wayside in the face-to-face – your own subjectivity is secondary to the other person. Levinas explains, “Ethics, here, does not supplement a preceding existential base [as Heidegger would have it]; the very node of the subjective is knotted in ethics understood as responsibility.”

Thus, the responsibility to substitute your own existential Being for the other’s is the foundation for the moral “ought” when engaging the proximity of the other. Wow. Clearly, Levinas’ conceptualization of ethics is difficult, not only because of its verbiage, but because it requires the same active thought, reason, and engagement with language that he denies is the foundation for ethics. As such, Levinas is full of contradictions – something that Rand explicity denies legitimacy as something that we “wish” to be true, but isn’t. This is where Rand falls apart – she gives greater credence to the logical than the real person standing before you. In doing so, she ends up creating an entire epistemology and morality of capitalism that is more important than the actual responsibility we have to help other people. Levinas gives the best Western (not the hotel) intellectual justification for the Buddhist/Taoist belief in practicing kindness as the fundamental ethical philosophy of action that I’ve ever heard. I find that in philosophy it is hard to traverse the gap between words and action, because the words necessary are so difficult that you get lost in them. That is, in my opinion, precisely what happened to Rand. She lost sight of, what my colleague Walther calls, the “practical.” With respect to the initial problem of the economic bailout that I posited at the beginning of this essay, it would be most ethical to disregard the complex ideologies of Objectivism and simply consider what, right now, would help the most people. It appears that, of all people to act Levinassian, Warren Buffett has accomplished that with his words to the Congress yesterday. A bailout, instead of the war of words, will come and hopefully the suffering of the American people at the hands of the free-market ideology of the Bush administration will cease.

Levinas provides a unique and brilliant path from the words to the actions, without falling apart intellectually, and that is precisely why we must remember him. If you remember one thing from this article, remember this: Levinas advocated the “wisdom of love” instead the “love of wisdom”. I know I always will.

Just Like Palin, McCain Not Doing Well In “College”

As Al Gore would begrudgingly remind you, there is only one way to the White House and it is through the Electoral College. That is unfortunate news for the McCain-Palin ticket, because recent polls in important battleground states are showing voters move in an Egyptian-style exodus towards the Promised Land of Obama-Biden. Short of McCain parting the economic Red Sea or raining national security locusts down on liberal activists, a win for him in the election is becoming a mathematical improbability. Postponement-gate is looking like it will be a disaster for McCain, whose aides issued a statement today saying that he will participate in tonight’s debate, despite the fact that consensus on an economic stimulus package for Wall Street has fallen apart. This is not to mention Palin’s Titantic-sized collapse on CBS News at the behest of the huggable Katie Couric, who gained my respect as a prime-time anchor by calling Palin out on her inability to construct a sentence in the English language.

According to realclearpolitics.com, which averages all available polling data to create a fairly accurate index of where voters stand, the Democrats are starting to run away with the election. Intrade market odds – created for compulsive gamblers who could not confine their betting to the ponies – have spiked in Obama’s favor, 56.8 to 42.3. Further, McCain’s averaged favorability ratings, an excellent indicator of how independents plan to vote, has fallen 3% this week alone. I am sure that many of you think these numbers are less scientific than the Wassila Assembly of God, considering the variety of poll data that has been released this week. In my defense, I would like to turn to the Electoral College for a moment, to remind you all of the uphill battle that McCain faces. One would think that this exercise should be positive for a ticket including Palin, who has a great deal of experience in college, as she attended six colleges in as many years. Unfortunately, unlike the many schools that Palin attended, this “College” is a little bit harder to pass.

As it stands right now, Obama-Biden has 171 solid electoral votes in the bag, while McCain-Palin has 158. States that are considered “solid” for either candidate are leaning more than two statistical deviations, or about +8-10%, in a candidate’s favor. These include states like California, New York and Illinois for Obama; Arizona, Alabama and Texas for McCain. Obviously, thirteen electoral votes is not much of a lead when a presidential candidate needs to hit 270 (or win a Supreme Court case about hanging chads and engage in massive voting fraud) in order to be elected. But, factoring in states that are “leaning” towards one candidate or the other with greater than one statistical deviation, or about +4-5%, portrays an entirely different story. Here, Obama has Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, and New Jersey, which total fifty-seven electoral votes. That puts him at 228, just forty-two away from the Presidency. McCain, on the other hand, has only five electoral votes “leaning” in his favor with less than forty days left on the campaign. What state is leaning in McCain’s favor, you ask? West Virginia, which should have been a lock for the Republicans a long time ago, but, with the events of the last week, has unexpected moved away from McCain.

When comparing Obama’s 228 to McCain’s 163, one could rationally conclude that these numbers do not mean much, considering the hefty 147 votes still up in the air and the possibility that states currently “leaning” in Obama’s favor could defect. Polling data and recent presidential selections in these states, however, tell a darker story for the hopes of McCain’s campaign. In Colorado and New Mexico, states that were widely considered to be toss-ups only a couple of weeks ago, are now an average of +5.4% and +6.0% in Obama’s favor, respectively. Both of those states went to Bush in the last election, but Obama is polling at over fifty percent – a fairly impressive “mandate”, to borrow a phrase from Dubya. Washington state is currently an average of +6.0% for Obama, while New Jersey is a pretty solid +7.0%. Michigan, which the McCain campaign thought they could realistically seize, is now an average of +5.2% in Obama’s favor. The economy really hurt McCain in the heart of the Rust-Belt, where economic difficulties are nothing new. Worse for McCain, Washington, New Jersey, and Michigan were all strong supporters of both the Kerry and Gore tickets, making it pretty easy to see that they aren’t going anywhere for Obama. That being said, without any defections, McCain would have to win 107 of 147 of the remaining electoral votes in order to just clear the 270-election hurdle. So, what about those “toss-up” states? Let’s have a look.

The critical toss-up states are Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina, with each holding at least fifteen electoral votes. These five battleground states compose ninety-six of the remaining electoral votes, which means that McCain has to win just about all of them to have a chance (remember, he needs 107 of 147 to win). Pennsylvania is almost a lock for the Obama campaign. He is polling at +3.5% and it went to both Kerry and Gore in the last two elections. If you give Obama Pennsylvania, at twenty-one electoral votes, you start to see just how dire McCain’s position is. He would have to win 107 of the remaining 126 to just barely win the election. Clearly, Florida and Ohio could go either way, but both went to Bush in the last two elections. So, for argument’s sake, I’ll give them to McCain. That would put his total up to 211. Not bad, but we are running out of states.

Virginia is one of the most interesting states in this election, because it is demonstrating that the urban sprawl of D.C. is finally having a significant impact on presidential politics there. Obama has a very slim average lead of +0.3%, making it statistically impossible to tell who is actually ahead. McCain, however, if he was doing anywhere near as well as he needs to, should have locked this historically sanguine-red state down a long time ago. The same goes for North Carolina, where McCain is polling at an average of +3.5%. This is not nearly as strong as Bush, who took the state by a double digit margin. Giving McCain every benefit of the doubt, I’ll give him both Virginia and North Carolina, despite the statistical vagueries of their polling data. That puts McCain at 239. If Obama wins the traditionally blue states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he is significantly ahead in the polls, then he finds himself at 269. Obama would only have to win either New Hampshire or Nevada, both of which are statistical toss-ups, to clinch the win. Even if he failed to do that, he would still win the election. How? Because 269-269 ties go to the House of Representatives to be broken by a simple majority – and we all know who controls that body of government.

My point in performing this long numbers game is to show that even in John McCain’s dream scenario, he would still lose. Moreover, I cannot imagine that Obama won’t pick up at least one of the following states: Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, or Virginia. Indeed, as Karl Rove pointed out in the Wall Street Journal this week, the first debate will be decisive. If McCain does anything less than clean the floor with Obama, it’s safe to say that this election is just about over.

End Game McCain

John McCain he has proven he will do whatever it takes to win.

We has one final card in the deck: Declare war against the media.

The Couric interview of Palin is nothing short of amazing.  It revealled the logic behind her selection for VP.  The Republicans thoguht that since beautiful women sell everything to Americans; they might be able to sell a president.  Couric made Palin look foolish simply by reading, line for line, questions any mediocre journalist would ask.  This was a sad day for America. There will be much denial on the part of conservatives who invested in the McCain-Pailin ticket, but as the interview sinks in, many conservaticve media commentators will have to turn on the McCain-Palin ticket to save their own respectability.  Palin was so bad that one gets the sense Palin was angry she had to defend Rick Davis and answer questions she wasn’t prepared for.  She knows the Republicans used her.  She couldn’t perform.  Very, very few people could have in this situation.

As the final wave of media personalities flee McCain, his only move is to talk to the American people directly and say: “The media has lied to you.  They hate me because I will defeat them and they will try to convince you I’m not worth of being president.  They’re wrong: just like they were wrong about Iraq, the state of the economy and your level of intelligence.  Don’t listen to them now.  Let’s take our country back.”

Unfortunately for McCain, he cannot escape his own decisions.  He cannot escape Rick Davis, Sarah Palin or his 26 years in the Senate.  Obama has enough money to remind Americans McCain supported the invasion of Iraq and deregulation on Wall Street.  Sarah Palin has taken care of herself.

The game isn’t over.  Republicans are going to engineer a situation in which McCain saves the bail out plan  that has been temporarily put in jeopardy by a gang of Republicans who are waiting for McCain’s signal.   The media won’t buy this silly ploy and neither will the American people.  If McCain is really desperate, he’ll skip the debate, effectively declaring war on the press as they broadcast Obama waiting for an opponent who does not come.

McCain’s plan might have worked if there were only a few days left to the election, but with 40 days left, there’ll be more than enough time to sort through the wreckage.

What Is The Deal With Sarah Palin?

Several excerpts from Katie Couric’s interview with Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, which will air in full tonight on CBS, have been released on the internet.  During the interview, Palin appeared to consistently repeat talking points and express vague generalities without much evidence or justification for her claims.  Palin’s flawed preparation was so obvious that Couric, considered a fairly reputable and non-partisan news anchor since departing the three-hour playdate known as “The Today Show”, explicitly pointed out her gaffes on CBS’ own morning news program.  Even the Kansas City Star ran a front-page article saying, “Couric Carves Up Palin.”  When local newspapers in the reddest of the red states use language like that, you know it didn’t go well.

The Alaskan Governor’s almost complete lack of knowledge on issues like the economy and the distinctions between the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, while disheartening, did not upset many Republicans a month ago, when she was pulled out of thin air by the McCain campaign to join the ticket.  Palin had little to no economic or foreign policy experience as the governor of a sparsely populated non-continental state, but she was resolute and confident in her socially conservative rhetoric.  Republicans were galvanized by her Reagan-esque fire and assumed that by the time the debates rolled around, she would be a steamroller for McCain.  But now that some time has passed and that has clearly not happened, one is left to wonder what has happened since that fateful night in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Upon examination of this latest interview, of which there have been few and far between, the only thing that has changed from the Republican National Convention is that now Palin looks like a deer in the headlights.  When pressed by Couric on the controversy over McCain adviser Rick Davis’ ties to Freddie/Fannie Mac, Palin began the stumbling that would persist throughout the interview.  Palin did not know whether it was “a year or two” since Davis had last received funds from the troubled loan giants and looked visibly upset that she could not answer the question more appropriately.  At one point, Palin paused for several seconds and broke eye contact with Couric, unable to find her words.  In all fairness to Palin, I’m not sure what anyone could honestly say about this clear conflict of interest, but she should have at least been ready for such an obvious question.

The vice-presidential candidate’s confusion did not end there, as Couric pushed for details on the $700 billion economic bailout plan working its way through Congress.  Following her statement that another Great Depression was “a road that American may find itself on,” Palin’s ineptitude, not as a person, but as someone trying to retain the second-highest office in the United States Federal Government, became nothing less than obvious.  Here is a transcription of what followed:

Couric: Would you support a moratorium on foreclosures to help average Americans keep their homes?
Palin: That’s something that John McCain and I have both been discussing – whether that … is part of the solution or not. You know, it’s going to be a multi-faceted solution that has to be found here.
Couric: So you haven’t decided whether you’ll support it or not?
Palin: I have not.
Couric: What are the pros and cons of it do you think?
Palin: Oh, well, some decisions that have been made poorly should not be rewarded, of course.
Couric: By consumers, you’re saying?
Palin: Consumers – and those who were predator lenders also. That’s, you know, that has to be considered also. But again, it’s got to be a comprehensive, long-term solution found … for this problem that America is facing today. As I say, we are getting into crisis mode here.

It’s one thing to not know whether to support a complicated economic stimulus package, but it is entirely another to be unable to recite even the basic pros and cons of the debate.  Saying “multi-faceted” does not indicate you know what those multiple facets are, which Palin clearly did not.  Oh, and by the way Sarah, it’s “predatory lending”, not “predator lenders”.  You aren’t – in fact – hunting large game.

The most perceptually embarrassing moment, unfortunately for Palin, was still to come.  Couric, becoming visibly annoyed at Palin’s inability to respond in a satisfactory way (much like Charlie Gibson’s “angry professor” moment over Palin’s inabiity to provide a definition of the Bush Doctrine), started to repeat her questions. Once again, the transcription tells the story better than I:

Couric: You’ve said, quote, “John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business.” Other than supporting stricter regulations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac two years ago, can you give us any more example of his leading the charge for more oversight?
Palin: I think that the example that you just cited, with his warnings two years ago about Fannie and Freddie – that, that’s paramount. That’s more than a heck of a lot of other senators and representatives did for us.
Couric: But he’s been in Congress for 26 years. He’s been chairman of the powerful Commerce Committee. And he has almost always sided with less regulation, not more.
Palin: He’s also known as the maverick though, taking shots from his own party, and certainly taking shots from the other party. Trying to get people to understand what he’s been talking about – the need to reform government.
Couric: But can you give me any other concrete examples? Because I know you’ve said Barack Obama is a lot of talk and no action. Can you give me any other examples in his 26 years of John McCain truly taking a stand on this?
Palin: I can give you examples of things that John McCain has done, that has shown his foresight, his pragmatism, and his leadership abilities. And that is what America needs today.
Couric: I’m just going to ask you one more time – not to belabor the point. Specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation.
Palin: I’ll try to find you some and I’ll bring them to you.

In another clip from the interview, released early this morning, Palin responded to Couric’s questions about Iraq and Afghanistan.  I’ll spare you all the transcription for this one, but suffice it to say that Palin’s understanding of the two conflicts is tantamount to skimming a Rand McNally atlas.

Palin has had weeks to review and prepare the Republican case, so her inability to respond to these basic questions has got to be troubling for her once faithful Republican-backers. Especially considering the dearth of materials probably put together for her by Steve Schmidt, McCain’s top campaign advisor.  A high school debater that was given flash cards to study would have had better answers for Couric than Palin did.  Literally – I debated in high school for four years and I promise you that we had a better understanding than Palin on every single issue.  Despite what some Democrats may say, the Republicans do actually have arguments that can be sustained with proper justification.  There is logic, albeit flawed, behind the free-market non-regulatory paradigm that has shaped Wall Street and the various conflicts that the United States is engaged in abroad.  There are legitimate sounding answers to these questions and I was quite nervous about Palin spouting them out.  I’m not that worried anymore.

So, Couric’s interview forces the question: what is the deal with Sarah Palin?

What is becoming clear is that Palin simply cannot understand what is going on.  There are clearly too many voices coming from the McCain camp – telling her what to say, do, and think – for her to know up from down.  Her “Thanks, but no thanks” line about the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, which she relied on over and over again in her pubic speechs, has become the subject of cultural mockery.  Palin appears on the verge of collapse.  To her comfort, so does John McCain.

I’m starting to think the “next Great Depression” won’t refer to the American economy, but McCain and Palin’s sad walk into obscurity and irrelevance.

Dear John: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

As many of you already know, John McCain has attempted to cancel/postpone both his first presidential debate with Barack Obama as well as Sarah “Putin Talks To Reporters More Than Me” Palin’s vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden.  McCain’s justification for the move, issued during a brief press conference earlier today, was that the United States needed to pass “bipartisan” legislation as soon as possible and his presence was required to end the debates over the economic stimulus package proposed by Fed Chairman Paulson.  Obama immediately responded in a televised statement, “Part of the president’s job is to deal with more than one thing at once. In my mind it’s more important than ever.” I could not agree more.

There is no doubt that McCain’s move to halt his campaign temporarily is a purely political move to restore his plummeting approval ratings on his economic experience, with a consensus coming from both Republican and Democratic strategists.  What they disagree on is whether or not this was a smart political move.  In a frenzy of activity on political websites, Republican pundits have declared that McCain’s move is tantamount to “leadership”, while Democrats have countered that this isn’t “surprising at all.”  Liberal strategists have said that the cancellation attempt is simply another piece in McCain’s attempt to bypass the media as well as the issues.  Despite the show of “bipartisanism” by McCain, his intended visit to Washington has been received by Capitol Hill with almost bipartisan derision.  Most lawmakers responded that they simply did not need this already extremely intense debate injected with presidential politics.

After reviewing a wide variety of interpretations about McCain’s decision, I personally am very disappointed.  I mean, I understand the whole “maverick” thing and the need to “shake things up” on a campaign that is clearly falling behind in the pools.  But, really?  The first presidential debate?  At what point does Mr. McCain intend on proving his policy arguments?  If I was still a Republican – if I hadn’t come out of the whole stick-it-to-my-liberal-parents ordeal about four years ago – I would be even more angered.  It’s one thing to have a meaningless back and forth in the media about policy proposals; I get it, it’s politics.  But you still have to at least try to debate about it at some point.  Between Palin and McCain dodging anyone with so much as a pencil and pad of paper, I cannot imagine that the eighteen-year-old-Republican-me would not flip out.  So, what will voters think?

The decision to halt his campaign will either be received in one of two ways:

(1)  The debate is cancelled and McCain is viewed as bipartisan and gains economic respect in the polls.

(2)  The debate is not cancelled and McCain looks like a coward, who tried to run to Washington to hide.

I’m sure that among strong conservatives, it won’t matter much either way.  They will race to declare John’s senatorial experience and independent leadership.  I’m just as sure that among strong liberals, there will be a resounding consensus that Obama has continued to remain professional and has integrity intact.  Both of these groups will live and die by their candidates.  But what about the independent voters who have not yet made up their minds?  According to the CBS/Washington Post poll that was released today, about 2 in 10 voters are still undecided, with most of those same voters declaring they “don’t know enough” to make a decision.

With the economy in a backslide and Palin “The Economist” saying that the US is on the verge of a “Depression”, independents cannot be viewing McCain’s declaration positively.  The economy has taken a very strong position as the most important issue to Americans and McCain admittedly looks weak on the whole debacle.  His almost asinine flip-flopping, from “The fundamentals of the economy are strong” to “We are in an unprecedented crisis” in a mere ten days is simply too short of a time period for independent voters not to notice.

McCain is starting to remind me a lot of Barry Bonds.  If all of the steroids trials have taught me anything about the American people and the media, there is one thing that Americans dislike and it is cowardice.  You cannot simply avoid talking about it – they will come after you like wolves.  Barry learned that the hard way. As small town voters in swing states sit down tonight for dinner with their friends and families, perhaps today’s political turmoil will come up.  And when it does, I am confident that most people will see McCain’s postponement for what it is: a desperate move by a desperate man.

The American people will find you John; ask Barry Bonds. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Objectivism Revisited

I would like to respond to a recent comment by The Write Wing, posted underneath his article, “A Tale of Two Republicans”.  I have decided to write this as a separate article, because I think that this comment, as well as the ideology that it touts, describe one of the most fundamental philosophical divisions of our time.  Many people, regardless of party affiliation, routinely use the logic underlying this comment to justify a variety of policies and platforms without considering the basic social effects of its ideology. I think that unless this division is resolved, violence and imperialism will continue to reign as legitimate methods of action.  With that said, here is the comment by The Write Wing:

“I am an objectivist. Atlas Shrugged is my favorite book. This is what I believe. Self-sufficiency is what get people out of the bed every day to go to work and produce something. Too much redistribution causes laziness.”

Objectivism is a totalizing philosophy of human existence composed by the literary giant Ayn Rand.  Rand did not approve of the history of philosophy and thus endeavored to create, from the ground up, a new understanding of reality.  This new view of reality centered around an “Objectivist epistemology” and the moral/ethical framework of “rational self-interest.”  Given these insights, which I will detail below, Rand concluded that unfettered free-market capitalism is the only moral system of political, economic, and social structure.  I think that there are glaring errors and misjudgments in both the “Objectivist epistemology” and the morality of “rational self-interest” that make any understanding of free-market capitalism as panacea completely defunct.  To understand why Objectivism is such a critically flawed system, we must logically detail Rand’s argument and understand how each part feeds into the next.

A Brief History of Objectivism

Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  What knowledge is, how human beings construct it, and what constitutes legitimate knowledge compose perhaps the greatest and longest running philosophical dialogue in history.  Plato, Kant, Hume, Berkeley, Foucault, Derrida – indeed, anyone deserving of the title philosopher over the last two millennia – have all weighed in on the questions of epistemology.  Rand’s primary epistemological contention was that there is an objective order to reality apart from our consciousness.  As such, there is truth about the universe that we inhabit, but it is obscured to us by the complications of perception.  What we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch confuse us into believing, what Rand called, “illusions”, or misconceptions about reality.  These misconceptions occur because the mind/consciousness/ego exists apart from the reality that it attempts to know.

People can, however, overcome these “illusions” by unquestionably embracing “reason”.  With a focused mind, you can, according to Rand, know all of the Objective Truth of the universe through entirely “rational” thought.   For Rand, the purpose of existence is not to think about philosophy, to build a government or community, or to have peace and stability.  Instead, the only goal is an individual one – to unravel the mysteries of perception to receive the Objective Truth.  Whatever you need to do to achieve that, for that is true happiness in Rand’s eyes, is considered “rational self-interest.”  For Rand, therefore, there is no such thing as altruism – the helping of an other for his/her sake and not your own.  There is only the realization that by helping them you are helping yourself to receive the Truth.  Rand would argue that environmental destruction should be solved by the realization of people that it is in their own rational self-interest to stop others from creating CO2, because you can’t learn about truth when the oceans eat your city.

With this understanding of rational self-interest, Rand left the world of epistemology and entered the world of political thought.  Rand believed very strongly that the only system of governance that could ensure this paradigm of rational self-interest was unfettered free-market, or laissez-faire, capitalism. In other words, the only system of governance that could permit her “rational self-interest” to exist is free-market capitalism.  (This is extremely important, because it highlights precisely what all of this free-market capitalism is enabling.)  She thought that by leaving governmental or legal regulation out of the political, economic, and social picture, people could finally be free to discover the Objective Truth through reasoned thought.  Indeed, most people know of Objectivism because of its strong defense of free-market capitalism.  It is critical to note, however, that Objectivism is a very different animal that just an advocacy of free markets.

The Moral and Economic Disaster of Objectivism

Rand’s literary flow can be alluring at times – who wouldn’t want to ensure that everyone can receive the Objective Truth?  That being said, here are what I consider to be the biggest problems with Rand’s ideas.

(1)  Objectivism’s belief in “Objective Knowledge” i.e. Truth is otherizing and violent, because it privileges Knowledge over Being.

There is no access point to transhistorical, transcendent truth.  The Jews claim they had this access point through Moses, the Christians claim they had it through Jesus, the Muslims claim they had it through Mohammed, and the Objectivists claim they had it through Rand.  Just because someone wrote a text saying that something is unequivocally true does not make it unequivocally true.  Rand attempts to argue, like all of the monotheistic religions she attempts to destroy, that there is “Objective Truth” in the universe, like her unquestioned acceptance of free-market capitalism.  No, there is not – there is only knowledge through time; otherwise known as history.  Knowledge is always relative to society: its language, its culture, its everything.  What was truth in Alexandrian Egypt is not necessarily truth in contemporary New York.  This position is known as epistemological relativism and it holds that all knowledge is socially constructed.  I am strongly inclined to agree.  You may disagree, but that proves my point about ideology claiming access to truth.  We can all disagree about the fundamental nature of everything and that should be okay. Objectivism, to the contrary, like all proselytizing faiths and belief structures, says that this is not okay.  There is Truth and you can know it and the Way and the Light is Capitalism. These kinds of totalizing statements, while engaging in ideological exactitude, promote the intolerance and violence that result in real world suffering.  People first, ideology second.  As the Dalai Lama says, the best religion is also the simplest: practice kindness.

The inherent violence of the ideology of Objectivism a.k.a. any privileged Truth-claim comes about because it privileges knowledge above being.  What you know, as an Objectivist, is more important than what you are.  What they know, as an Objectivist, is more important than what they are. When this kind of identity-politicking occurs, it almost inevitably result in violence, because the Other person becomes a threat to your knowledge-claim (See: All structured religion, ever.)  This is what Rand simply does not realize – if two people are Objectivists and they have two competing knowledge claims, they have the “rational self-interest” to eradicate each other’s idea by eradicating each other.  Rand ties this all to happiness, but that is bullshit.  Happiness, like knowledge, is entirely relative.  I am perfectly happy not endorsing free-market capitalism, but my knowledge-claim is a threat to the Objective Truth of Objectivism.  Therefore, in order to “ensure individual rights”, my knowledge-claim should be destroyed with “reason”.  But reason led me to my claim as well, not just Rand’s.  That’s the funny thing about “reason” and “rationality” – they are tools for our minds like a paintbrush is a tool for an artist.  We may both have paintbrushes, but that doesn’t mean we are going to paint the same painting.  Telling another person that their artwork is “wrong” is essentially what Objectivism is asking you to do.  By the way, does this sound familiar?  It should. Think President of the United States from 2000 to 2008.

(2) People are not rational most of the time; therefore, a device created to rely on rational self-interest is not a good governing principle.

A variety of “behavioral economics” literature has become very popular recently, most notably the book “Freakonomics”.  I find the field of behavioral economics pretty amusing, because it acts under the guise of free-market capitalism while simultaneously rejecting everything it stands for.  Let me explain.  The primary assumption of free-market capitalism is that people act rationally in a self-interested way to secure their desires.  Empirically, however, this is clearly not the case.  People do not know what is best for them most of the time, and sometimes when they do, they still act differently.  This is not “Freakonomics” – this is society.  Economists are finally realizing that “the invisible hand of the market” is just as stupid as any human institution. There are tons of market-failures, but most notable are the tragedy of the commons and greed/Lehman Brothers.  The tragedy of the commons, a situation in which a common area becomes destroyed through use by all and care by none, describes the atmosphere, the oceans, rivers, and pretty much anything else that can’t be easily monetized.  If you can’t invest in it, free-market capitalism cannot save it.  Free-market capitalists would respond in favor of privatizing the ocean and the air.  That would fail as well and its simple to understand why.  There are people who don’t give a shit about being rationally self-interested, they’re just self-interested.  Those people make free-market capitalism not work. There have to be protections for the commons that go beyond the market and into the world of law.  Yes, regulation is always better than unfettered markets, because the law at least recognizes that “rational self-interest” is a fallacy and a myth.

(3) Altruism is Real

This one is probably the worst, but it in many ways feeds on the claims of otherization and violence from Problem #1.  Rand straight up denies that altruism exists.  WHAT?  I promise you that when I give a homeless person a sandwich, that in no way whatsoever helps me.  Rand would say that it helps my self-esteem and my community, but that’s not always the case.  What about Doctor Mudd, who assisted John Wilkes Booth?  That was neither helpful for him or his community, but an act in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath – an altruistic document.  It all ties back into Rand’s privileging of knowledge over being.  For Rand, even though you can help someone substantively, that is trumped by the fact I “cheated” and felt good about it.  That argument demonstrates a poor understanding of causality and there are millions of examples to the contrary.  If the markets cannot factor in either the supply of or demand for altruism, it has no hope as a governance mechanism.

Some Concluding Remarks

The effects of the free-market are certainly up for debate and I’m not going to claim to know everything about capitalism.  There are an infinite number of forms for capitalism to take on – we all need to use money – and whatever you want to call the version that is substantively best for everyone, that is what I endorse.  That being said, I wanted to make it clear that Objectivism is to Capitalism what any Monotheism is to God.  It isn’t an argument, it’s a religion.  Rand, Greenspan, and their various disciples were/are extremists and look where it has gotten us.  The me-first thinking of Rand is echoing everywhere in our society, from foreign policy to economics.  Reagan started the deregulation program, Bush finished it – and who can say that Ayn Rand isn’t just a little bit to blame.

Would You Fight for President Palin? (Or WWPD)

Let’s imagine for a moment that John McCain, a 72 year old with a history of lethal skin cancer, wins the election and then dies while in office.  Sarah Palin becomes president.  We need to start asking the question: what would Palin do (WWPD)?

Due to her limited foreign policy experience, Palin doesn’t have many (if any) trusted, experienced foreign policy advisers.  She will be extremely vulnerable to influence, and considering her lack of intellectual curiosity, I guess that’s some type of relief.  Unfortunately, the neocons (Cheney and friends) have a track record of influencing Evangelical presidents and, despite their massive failures, they’re eager to continue to use our military to achieve their imperial objectives.  Would Palin resist neocon influence?

Let’s assume Palin avoids the neocon pitfall and, instead chooses the somewhat less frightening McCain foreign policy team or, better yet, a team of experienced moderates like Colin Powell.  The nascent Palin presidency will have to face their next great challenge: a world that thinks she’s weak.

The world follows our election and they know that Palin was chosen for political expediency.  I think we can safely assume that a Palin Presidency will look weak in the eyes of our adversaries in Iran, Russia, Iraq and along the Afghan border.  They will test her administration, and the American people’s confidence in her presidency, by becoming more beligerent and aggressive.  It will take extremely skilled manuervoring to show the world that Palin is a competant leader.  Let’s hope she is.

The biggest challenge to a Palin Presidency is how the American people would respond to a crisis during her tenure.  Imagine, for a moment, that you’re watching CNN in a year or two and President Palin has just sent US bombers into Iran to destroy some piece of nuclear equipment.  How will you feel knowing that our nation’s favorite ‘hockey mom’ started a war?  How will you feel if she tries to send you to fight?  You’ll probably be angry McCain never took the WWPD question more seriously.

Start Listening to Joe Biden

While talking points in the media have focused on Sarah Palin’s numerous political gaffes and how Barack Obama is too polite and well spoken to win the presidency, perhaps the most experienced and politically saavy candidate for office has been largely ignored. I am speaking about Senator Joe Biden, who has continually impressed me with each speech that he delivers.  Biden offers not only an extensive grasp on the realities of the challenges facing the United States, but also the rhetorical cadence required to convey intensely complicated issues of foreign policy and economics to ordinary Americans.  If Biden continues to be as brilliant on the ground as he has been in recent weeks, his selection for the vice-presidential slot on the Democratic ticket over Hilary Clinton could provide to be decisive.

Today Biden spoke from the battleground state of Ohio, where he addressed a moderately sized audience in Maumee.  Using the disastrous performance of Wall Street as ammunition, Biden took on the vagueries and double talk of McCain’s financial rhetoric.  He succintly explained that the philosophy of economics that both McCain and the Bush administration rely upon, unbridled free-market capitalism, is untenable and will destroy the middle class.  He outlined specific legislation that would prevent investment banks and hedge funds from engaging in leveraged debt without transparency and oversight.  Biden also, unlike anyone I’ve ever seen give a speech, quickly and clearly explained the implications of the Chinese and Saudis purchasing American debt through treasury notes.  He didn’t stumble like Gore or chastise like Kerry, but confidently espoused policy proposals with good old fashioned oratory.

More than anything, Biden demonstrated once again that humor and ironic disbelief go a long way in holding political discourse to some standard of accountability.  Making frequent jokes and mocking the obvious inconsistancies of McCain’s campaign, Biden made the Republican ticket look foolish.  With respect to McCain’s recent flip-flopping on the question of government regulation on Wall Street, Biden chided, “Ladies and gentlemen, at 9AM yesterday, John McCain had stated again that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. Two hours later, literally, at eleven o’clock, I’m not making this up, John had, as we Catholics say, an epiphany.  At eleven o’clock, John McCain said we are in a deep financial crisis!…If you asked anyone between here and Cleveland, you wouldn’t find a single person who said the economy is doing well right now. That is, of course, unless you bumped into John McCain.”  At this moment, Biden reminded me not of an experienced Senator but of John Stewart, Trey Parker, and Steven Colbert.  Finally – a Democratic politician who sees the necessity of informed mockery.  That is precisely what Obama needs in counterbalance to his professionalism and quiet dignity to win this election. I’m so tired of Democratic candidates skulking to the media that the bullies aren’t playing nice on the playground.  Biden knows how to deal with lying, cheating bullies.  And he is.

Biden has shown that he is not afraid of the culture war politics of Karl Rove by rejecting outright the contention that Democratic ideas are incommensurable with small-town values.  He has shown a contempt for the Republican Party that is nothing less than a breath of fresh air.  Drawing frequent applause for Obama and boos for McCain, Biden has succeeded in delivering the kinds of speeches to change and create votes for his ticket. I have been waiting for three elections to see someone who has the candor to take up a popular vernacular and use it convincingly to explain the actual policy stances of the Democratic Party.  Start listening to Joe Biden, he is the voice you’ve been waiting to hear.

You can find a partial tape of the Maumee gathering here:

Biden Speech, 9.17.08

The Issues at Hand, #3 – American Democracy

Well, today we are in for a good one. In this third installment of The Issues at Hand, I would like to focus on something that has remained as unquestioned as hugging your mother – support for our current system of democracy.  Perhaps culminating in academia with the article, The End of History, University of Chicago professor and democracy enthusiast Francis Fukuyama exclaimed that democracy was the final form of government and the end of political history.  Sentiment among the American population seems to either strongly or very strongly agree, particularly with respect to our own brand of democracy.  In our current political election, questioning American democracy would receive a reaction nothing short of walking into St. Peter’s Basilica and running around with a devil mask on.  Amidst the screaming, two Swiss mercenaries would come over and chop your head off with a battle axe; something that statistics have shown highly detrimental to your electability.

There is a reason those big red, white, and blue “A-MUR-ICA!” banners work at conventions and it’s the same reason why Republicans love wearing cowboy hats and dancing in balloons.  Americans love being nationalists that never question any aspect of the structure of their governance system.  In our search for meaning, we hold fast to the most stable of identites – our race, our sex, our nationality, our government.  (Note: Texans are doubly nationalist because they not only rep America, but also Texas.  Does this explain their political love for the death penalty?)  I would like to reopen the discussion on alternative governance theories.  And this is in no way impacted by the election and re-election of George W. Bush or the possible election of McCain/Palin.

“That’s not patriotic!” “You hate America!” “Oh shit, my colostomy bag!”

I’m not saying there is a better governance system than one that gives power to the people, I’m just saying the social discussion should not have ended with the current American incarnation.  “Power to the people” can mean a lot of very different things.  For some reason, the liberals who immediately decry the social conservative Christians for believing in a transcendent text, somehow exempt that criticism from the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.  Both are subject to critical inquiry – in the same way that you do not think that stoning women is acceptable, perhaps one day people will look back at the moral framework of our Constitution and cringe as well. Philip Pettit, Professor of Political Science at Princeton University, suggests that the key to democracy is that it is an open system.  Its structures must be able to change in order to reflect the demands of statehood, while minimizing violence and domination. Our system is closed, because many of our citizens are close-minded.

“But there are amendments!”

Amendments require that people either are active enough to initiate referenda or elect someone smart enough to formulate a progressive amendment in Congress. In my opinion, the knowledge that it takes to know yourself or even knowingly elect what I would consider to be a good Congressman or President/Vice-President is a burden that cannot be met by the current American education system or biology. The unobservable social forces that shape our world continually appear to be outside of the grasp of the general population. This is not meant to be a slight on the vast majority of people – they simply do not have the time to sit around reading every necessary document to make informed policy choices.  They have jobs, children, debt.  If we all can admit, at the start of this discussion, that even with our fancy college educations we still know not nearly enough about economic, health, or foreign policy issues to make an informed decision, then we can go somewhere.  Because if we admit that, then we can see that statistically the burden of a majority decision on the American population is too high in our overly complex era of technological progress.  We need to slow down and think about a better distribution of domestic power.  Here are some of my thoughts, not necessarily mutually exclusive with one another:

(1)  Reverse Federalism

If the recent collapse of the economic system in the United States has shown anything, it’s that the government has become too bloated to predictively manage large aspects of itself.  The investment banking paradigm is a disaster, but people simply do not have access to change.  The social forces necessary to sustain the United States are perhaps too large to bear – perhaps we need to revert back to a focus on individual states.  State governments that have taken initiative like California, Massachusettes, and New York to make state law tailored to local demands have shown marked success in environmental, social, energy, and economic policy.  Perhaps the resources allocated to the federal government in such excess should be given to the states.  The amount of money in play is too great to have fall into the hands of a select few.  The growing class of super-elites that decide the fate of large populations cannot have this kind of access to federal cash.  Should the income tax be given to state governments?  Would that not cut off the power to Washington and allow for real welfare for American citizens at home?  Our military would still be federal, but it would not have the power to do what it does now at the behest of a President.  If social issues like abortion are so divisive, leave it up to the states. Why should the politics of Alabama run the politics of Vermont?  They shouldn’t and vice-versa.  All of the universalism inherent to the national state has divided us and made us all spend too much energy on combatting each other’s worldviews.  People will come along as they come along, and screaming at them isn’t worth it.  In the mean time, let’s just fall back to our states.

(2)  An Elected Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, in my opinion, is the true seat of American society.  It is, by definition, a counter-majoritarian institution that puts the fate of law in the hands of nine people.  These justices are appointed by the President with oversight from the Senate, without so much as a wink from the population.  A man who is elected by someone I elect is not elected by me.  I do not think that this is acceptable.  What if we tossed the President out and elected the Supreme Court?  This could solve social strife by having a diverse panel of justices, each representing a large percentage of the population, discussing socio-legal problems in an intelligent fashion.  The House would still function as a directly proportional representation body and the Senate could probably go bye-bye as well.  Or not.  I don’t know what to think about the Senate.  We do at least need to elect the Supreme Court.  Lifetime seats?  What is this, seventeeth century France?

(3)  Congressional Solo-Op

Toss the anti-democratic Supreme Court and the too powerful President out the window. If we really want to give power to the people, this is how to do it.  The Brits have had this one down for a while now – phase out the royalty, phase out the House of Lords, get down to business.  I really enjoy the British democracy and think that it would do wonders for the responsiveness of American government.  A Prime Minister would handle executive business like the President and legislation would dictate social change, not the Supreme Court.

Lemme know what you think.