Sunday, December 28, 2008

The test

"Mark my words. Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year old senator president of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. And he's gonna have to make some really tough - I don't know what the decision's gonna be, but I promise you it will occur. As a student of history and having served with seven presidents, I guarantee you it's gonna happen. I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate. And he's gonna need help. And the kind of help he's gonna need is, he's gonna need you, not financially to help him, we're gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him. Because it's not gonna be apparent initially, it's not gonna be apparent that we're right."

Who knew that the test would be launched by Israel?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Purpose-Driven Pastor Selection

Every news source I regularly read or watch has pronounced Obama's choice of Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation as his first real mistake. Gavin Newsom is disappointed; some supporters are going to boycott the inauguration.

Let's take a breath. Obama does not do anything reflexively. He has carefully thought out these first few months. In his economic and defense picks, it looks very much as if he is intent on covering his flank for dramatic initiatives, assigning some of the most dangerous critics of his policies the task of implementing them. It's a pretty neat trick.

With the Warren choice, he has either comitted a grievous offense against several core groups of his supporters, particulalry gays and lesbians--or he has performed another high-stakes flanking maneuver. Thus, here is my prediction: Just as Clinton's first major initiative was the botched, and later compromised, executive order to end discrimination against gays in the military, Obama will do the same--except this time, he will have the blessing of key segments of the evangelical community (Warren and the other younger, less-ideological leaders), as well as military brass who will agree that we can no longer afford the luxury of turning away competent, courageous would-be members of the armed services on the basis of sexual orientation.

Of course, I could be wrong. In that case, I stand corrected.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

RNC still in self-immolation mode

Twelve more months of W? Is this calendar part of the RNC's "comeback plan"?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A more nuanced look at the American Colonization Society

A student cited this link to an essay by Doug Egerton and Judith Mulcahey. The key passage:

"Despite the widespread opposition to the ACS in northern cities, the group was never the planter-controlled organization that Walker and its abolitionist critics claimed it to be, and assertions by modern scholars that proslavery activists endorsed the society in the hope of removing dangerous free blacks like Vesey are largely without foundation. Admittedly, in the border South, proslavery politicians such as President John Tyler and Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur hoped to use the organization to rid their state of free blacks, whom they believed inspired perilous dreams of liberty in those yet enslaved. But despite the racist tone of their public rhetoric, many white colonizationists privately harbored progressive views regarding black capabilities. Society spokespersons insisted that southern poverty was not the result of alleged African American incompetence, but rather that an economic institution based on unwaged labor deprived blacks of both the incentives and the education that made northern free wage workers so productive. Because many border state colonizationists boldly advocated the complete elimination of the African American labor force, slave and free alike, in the name of greater regional prosperity, Lower South planter politicians like Robert Turnbull of South Carolina bitterly castigated the organization as an “abolition society.”

"Modern historians also tend to regard any scheme of mass removal as an impossible one. But the society estimated the cost of sending one black settler to Liberia to be only twenty-five dollars. Since the black population during the early antebellum period grew by roughly six thousand people per year, it would cost Congress only $120,000 annually to remove every newborn or recently emancipated slave. Over the course of two to three decades, the white population would continue to grow, while the proportion of blacks in the national population would plummet, marginalizing unfree labor in the process. ACS defenders observed that a government that could force Native Americans to move west into Oklahoma was perfectly capable of compelling free blacks to sail east toward West Africa. Some politicians even noted that Washington could have conveyed 1.2 million black Americans to Liberia for the same sum that it spent crushing native resistance in the Second Seminole War."

What changes if we have to take the ACS more seriously?

Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Coalition Government

"Abraham Lincoln managed to appoint to his cabinet four of his rivals to the 1860 Republican nomination. Barack Obama has now made one of his, his vice president, another of his, secretary of state, a third likely to become his secretary of commerce. But in our fifth story on the Countdown, as he rolled out his national security team, the president-elect could now out-Lincoln Lincoln. He also has a secretary of defense fresh from the Bush administration, an attorney-general and a U.N. ambassador from the Clinton administration, a head of an economic recovery advisory board out of the Carter and Reagan administrations, and a national security advisor who appeared at at least one campaign event for the senator Obama defeated in the election last month. This is not the dream of Doris Kearns Goodwin"s publishers come true, a Team of Rivals; this is now bordering on a coalition government."

Keith Olberman, December 1, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reincarnation, anyone?

George III (wax model from life mask)
Lawrence Summers

Has anybody else noticed the amazing resemblance between Larry Summers and George III?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bill Kristol: Thinking is hard

"I’ve worked in government. It’s hard to do much thinking there at all, let alone thinking anew."

Working for the Times seems to present the same problem, doesn't it, Bill? Or perhaps the problem is not in the workplaces, but in the worker?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Return to Piracy


PI'RACY, n. [L. piratica, from Gr. to attempt, to dare, to enterprise, whence L. periculum, experior; Eng. to fare.]

1. The act, practice or crime of robbing on the high seas; the taking of property from others by open violence and without authority, on the sea; a crime that answers to robbery on land.

Other acts than robbery on the high seas, are declared by statute to be piracy. See Act of Congress, April 30, 1790.
So says Noah Webster.

Eleven pirate attacks off of Somalia last week. Meanwhile, for the year to date:

A total of 199 incidents were reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in the first nine months of 2008. The third quarter of 2008 saw reported incidents spike to 83, a significant increase when compared to the 53 reported in the first quarter and the 63 reported in the second quarter. The reported acts of piracy committed to date in 2008 have included 115 vessels boarded, 31 vessels hijacked, and 23 vessels fired upon. A total of 581 crewmembers were taken hostage, nine kidnapped, nine killed and seven missing – presumed dead.

So a problem we thought we had overcome 200 years ago is back.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Clinging to "Religion": an open letter to Michael Gerson

This letter was written in response to Michael Gerson's column in today's Washington Post, "Better than the Bitter."

Dear Mr. Gerson,

I think you have correctly identified Barack Obama’s chief flaw, “Obamaism.” I'm not sure, however, that you are correct or fair in your conclusion that Obama's remark about "clinging to religion" indicates that his own religious outlook is inauthentic. Let's stipulate that it was a boneheaded remark--"elitist" if you will. But I think that Obama identified a kind of resort to religion that has existed throughout time: the impulse, when afraid, to construct a golden calf to pray to, or a sword to wield against enemies real and imagined. I submit that it is also true that politicians--from Aaron to Karl Rove-- have taken advantage of this impulse to direct the masses toward their chosen objectives. Not everything that calls itself religion qualifies as a wholehearted commitment to the divine; indeed much of what takes place under that name has precious little to do with the Almighty at all. (Thus Kenneth Copeland's sneering dismissal of rote Christianity with the tart epithet, "That's ‘religion!’”) The problem with such "religion" is not that it marks its practitioners as bitter rubes, but that, as an artifact created by (and manipulated by) humans, it is a hope builded upon sand, and will fail those who resort to it.

Is this what Obama meant in his remarks in San Francisco? I have no idea; if so, it's an almost sure bet that it was lost upon his audience. I raise this subject not for Obama but for you: from your writings, I intuit that you will understand what I mean. There is a core of authenticity in many of President Bush's best speeches that I attribute to you, and that have been the saving grace (well, almost saving) of his presidency for me. Like the New Yorker, I am a frequent fan of the message, and the "Gersonian" tones in which it is delivered, if not the messenger.

That said, I wonder if you will agree that much harm has been done to the message of Christianity in the last quarter-century by those who have employed it cynically as a tool to manipulate that class of voters to which Obama referred to his ill-starred remarks in San Francisco. In a conference on "Race and Religion," Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that it was better to say "race or religion,” because the one excluded the other. By the same token, perhaps we must say "politics or religion," recognizing that both are necessary to the state, but that religion in the service of the party, rather than the nation, can never be other than idolatry.

I believe we share an acquaintance in common; I have worked a good bit with Lew Lehrman, at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale, where I was for seven years the associate director. In that context, I would observe that when Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, perhaps most powerful invocation of religion in American oratory, he did so as the successful candidate of the Union party, and not as a Republican.

All best wishes,

Rob Forbes

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On "Islamofascism": An Open Letter to Paul Berman and Heather Hurlburt

I found your discussion on Bloggingheads both oddly troubling and almost entirely off point. Why move the ground from a highly polemical label, fascism, to the complexities of the term “communism,” without any discussion of whether the first term is appropriate? Surely a key factor in the appropriateness of the term “communism” to describe all of its various manifestations is the fact that all of the groups in question self-identified as communists. If the “Islamofascists” all described themselves as fascists, we could have a debate over whether they really were or not, but at least that would be a useful point of connection. The fact that Mr. Berman makes no effort whatsoever to make a case for the validity of the term in its own right strongly suggests that it is being employed purely for polemical purposes; and Ms. Hurlburt’s failure to call him on it made for a very tiresome seven minutes. Hence my uninvited rant.


Rob Forbes

A thoughtful discussion by Adam Simms of the term "Islamofascism" and of Paul Berman's role in promoting it is at JPF Notes and Comment.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Audacity of Unity

It’s interesting that so few discussions in the media of Obama's Eighteenth of March Speech have focused on its core theme: "how hungry the American people [are] for this message of unity." This story seems significant to me, because for many reasons, Obama is the first presidential candidate who could actually deliver on it.

Obama is calling for the overthrow of the two great binary paradigms of American politics and society--Federalist/Republican (and its successors) and black/white--that have held sway almost continually since the second administration of George Washington. It is clear that the Founders viewed parties as an aberration and an evil--and for reasons that ring true today: the tendency of factions to throw sand in the eyes of the people and manipulate public opinion to hijack government for their own private ends.

The first opposition political party, the Republicans (ancestors of today's Democrats), came together for two reasons. The first, stated reason was to combat the centralization and hostility to civil liberties of the ruling Federalist administration. The second reason, unstated at the time, was to build ties between the "southern planters and plain republicans of the north" in order to forestall northern attacks on slavery by ties of partisan and personal connection. When the Federalist party ceased to be viable after the War of 1812, President Monroe ushered in the "Era of Good Feeling" by promoting the "amalgamation" of parties--the absorption of the former Federalists into the body of the Republican Party, which now represented the nation as a whole. But a generation of Republican officeholders and professional politicians considered this step as anathema--they needed party competition to justify their paychecks and their existence. The professional pols joined forces with frightened slaveholders to destroy the presidency of John Quincy Adams and permanently enshrine the "two-party system" in American politics.

The public has never really liked this binary division into parties, and at moments of crisis--foreign attacks, civil war--has abandoned it and identified as Americans. But because the two systems of division, party and race, are self-reinforcing, efforts to transcend partisan division have always been scuttled by the politicians' strategic deployment of racial division.

What Obama is proposing is revolutionary, while at the same time it is profoundly conservative--it draws on the founding documents and proposes to redeem them by exorcising them of the slavery that disfigured them at their birth. Because he in his own person ("seared in my genetic makeup") reconciles the dichotomy of black/white, he offers for the first time a way out of the dichotomy of Republican/Democrat and an opportunity for America to truly "live out the meaning of its creed."

Even as they applaud his eloquence and courage, the punditocracy have largely ignored this aspect of his speech, which strikes at the heart of the divisiveness that provides them with an audience and a job.

We are challenged as well. We need to take seriously Obama's call to believe in one America, and not be locked into a dichotomy of "them" and "us." We need to view the Democratic Party as a vehicle to restore--or more accurately, to elevate for the first time--the fundamental values of "e pluribus unum," and avoid the trap of regarding our party as an end in itself--thus perpetuating the vicious system of divide and rule that has governed us for more than 200 years.

Cross-posted from Daily Kos

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Gerry's Chutzpah

In 1992, I contributed $10 to Ferraro's senate campaign. Big mistake. Ferraro's people called me more times over the next many months than a telemarketer trying to get me to extend my auto warranty. Not only did I get call after call to make additional contributions to her campaign, I actually got calls asking me to help retire her campaign debt so she could more plausibly qualify for a plum job in the Clinton Administration. It would not have surprised me to be asked to contribute to help her build a deck off her kitchen. Shameless--which is probably why she gets along so well with the First Family of Chappaqua.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Spitzer suspicions

Elliot Spitzer has been such a sanctimonious prig that everybody who has dealt with him is happy to see him go down. Which testifies to the brilliance of going after him--nobody's going to stand up for him, and probably nobody is going to look into how the evidence against him was gathered.

My guess is they were tapping his phone and came up with the calls to Emperors Club VIP, then worked back to the payments, and not the other way around. Can I prove it? Obviously not. And just like the question of how CBS got a copy of the Texas Air National Guard memo on George W. Bush typed on a modern word processor, chances are nobody is going to look into it. Too bab. Somebody should.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Silver lining to a long primary season

Is the long primary going to tear the Democratic Party apart? I really don't think so; the Dems will be united against McCain, even if some Independents are up for grabs, and nobody is going to sit this one out. On the other hand, it's something to see the Democrats in Wyoming (all 16,000 of them!) and Mississippi actually getting excited about a presidential nomination for the first time in more than a generation. If the key to change is personal involvement of individuals in the political system, this is essential.