Really, a big thanks to Mike F., Bluegal, and all the C&L folks who have shown 'da love to Only Sayin' over the past year.
For today's visitors, some new lovin' from the oven below...
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Hillary Clinton is playing a hand dealt by Obama. And the dealer peeked.
Actually, he did more than peek. He laid out all the cards face up and selected the aces for himself. Aces like hope, freshness, change, and unity.
To Hillary he sent deuces and tres like competence, hard work, reliability and experience.
And now she's cornered. It's clear she's made the decision to play her hand to the hilt, raising the ante round by round. But if she thinks this can work, her naivete is stunning. And isn't Hillary supposed to be the shrewd one?
She should have cried foul the moment he took out the cards and with feathery touch sent them acrobatically arcing from one hand to the other. At the very least, she should have fought for a new deal like it was a matter of survival. Because it was.
Now it's too late. She has a losing hand. And the harder she plays it, the bigger she will lose.
Granted, Hillary entered the game confronting some intrinsic challenges. One is that she's a woman. There are those who would argue that this creates an unfair and impossible obstacle for her. How can any woman display the toughness that makes a credible Commander in Chief without also being pegged as an abrasive shrew?
Before long, a woman will come along who is equipped to use her gender as a point of strength. A woman who taps naturally into all the positive feelings people have towards the powerful and influential women in their lives. Voters will defend this woman when she's attacked as if their own sister were under assault. And they will bend to her will to avoid disappointing her, out of an almost holy respect, as they do for their mothers. Such a woman will come along, but it appears her name will not be Hillary Clinton. Except in a case of monumental coincidence.
You may lament the superficiality of a politics that elevates personality and carriage to a par with policy. But as well to rue inconvenient realities like the need for sleep or ear wax build-up. These things aren't going away either.
And while women have a bigger hill to climb in presidential politics—at least until someone breaks the glass ceiling—gender expectations cut both ways. Dennis Kucinich can never be President. He's short. And those ears! Even his wife, ravishing as she is, cannot restore him to manhood.
So Obama and Clinton are competing for the voters' affections each against a different set of gender expectations, like apples and oranges. But only one of them can be the winner, and Obama is proving that people like his orange more than Clinton's apple.
Some—you?—may find Clinton to be more personally compelling than Obama. You see in her a commanding presence, evoking warmth, loyalty and a host of protective instincts. But if so, you are incontrovertibly in the minority. In a race in which the policy differences between the two candidates are barely discernible, the wave of enthusiasm that is carrying Obama can only be attributed to the impact of his style and personality. It isn't just minorities that gravitate to him. It isn't just men. It isn't just Democrats. His support cuts across virtually every demographic except the sourest of dead-end conservatives. People like him more than Clinton.
She was slow to grasp both the fact and the significance of this. Perhaps she smugly believed Obama's expansive style would be his own downfall, that America had learned its lesson about selecting Presidents for their likeability. Given the experience of the last eight years, we might have come to believe that anyone we like enough to elect president must also be utterly incapable of doing the job. We might have forgotten that a winning personality does not preclude intelligence, and in fact what a powerful aid personal magnetism can be in the pursuit of well-considered goals.
Even if the Clinton team recognized early in the race that Obama was winning hearts, they can hardly be blamed for sitting pat as the candidate for the head. If the utilitarian fluorescence of her personality seems pale in comparison to the radiant aura generated by her competitor, what could she hope to do about it over the course of a few short months, if ever? Politicians make required mechanical adjustments when their pollsters identify negative responses to their bearing or facial expressions. Acting differently is mere stagecraft. But being different is a much taller order. Witness the plasticine smile that John McCain's advisers have hot-glued to his face in recent weeks. We'll see how that works out. The electorate may go slack and numb when confronted with even a glimpse of tax policy detail, but they can spot a phony in a second.
So Clinton stuck to her plan and waited for the Obama brush fire to show itself no more than a flash-in-the-pan.
But she underestimated both the staying power of Obama's talents and America's hunger for inspirational leadership. A preponderance of the electorate has recognized—consciously or not—the staggering scope of the challenges ahead. When in the memory of the living have so many explosive issues—the economy, international relations, energy security, global warming, immigration, terrorism—come to critical mass at the same time? For many years our leaders have denied, ignored, or obfuscated these difficulties. We've pulled the blankets over our head and in the suffocating dark shouted slogans of pride, courage and belligerence. But now we are gathering ourselves to face the onslaught. It's not bravery. It's an involuntary reaction. We are turning to face the wave just before it hits. And we are scared to death.
There is a profound emotional vulnerability that accompanies such an imminent trial. Clinton might argue that this moment should put experience, reliability, and familiarity at a premium. Indeed, those are great qualities to lean on when you spot the storm ahead. And they will be needed when we're tossing in high seas as well. But here, as we stare up into the yawning belly of a breaking mountain of water, what people want is courage. Someone who makes them feel rather than think. Any more prosaic narrative becomes an irritating distraction.
All this was manifest, if still partially obscured, right after the Iowa primary. That's when Obama slid the cards towards her and asked her to cut the deck. Clinton hesitated, her campaign paralyzed by the shock of that first blow. Had she gotten up from the table, insisted they play a different game, there might still have been time to alter the dynamic of the race. But confident in her game plan and her formidable tactical strengths, she took the bait. She hammered on her experience and her competence. She leveraged warm memories of the Clinton years and let her husband share the spotlight. She strode into the Augean stables of policy minutia and valorously wielded her shovel. She misread her victory in tiny New Hampshire as a validation of her strategy.
She was snookered.
Now it is obvious that all the thematic terrain she so triumphantly occupied was willingly ceded by Obama in a tactical retreat. What appeared to be a shining prize when viewed from afar—to command the territory of experience and workmanlike capability—turns out to be dreary and lackluster. Any mid-level brand manager would identify her positioning as catastrophic. The harder she fights, the deeper into quicksand she sinks, building Obama up in the process. If she paints herself the worker, he appears the leader. If she is the manager, he becomes the executive. If she is a return to a safer past, he becomes a pioneer into the future. He owns all the high ground, and he will easily reoccupy her territory after she packs up and goes home.
And in a crowning irony, her struggle for viability compels her to co-opt some of the most distasteful Republican talking points. She is playing the fear card, raising the spectre of the disaster that will ensue if we put an untested Commander in Chief in the White House. It's a cry that might serve to shave a percentage point of voters her way in a tight race, but it will never be heard above the roar of pounding feet as the mob rushes to Obama's banner.
With that play trumped, she is driven to go negative and attempt to sow doubt about the lesser man beneath the soaring rhetoric. Such a blatant appeal to cynicism certainly serves to clarify the stylistic gulf between the candidates. But not to her advantage.
Still, what other cards can she play at this point? If she had locked Bill in a closet in mid-January and remade her message from scratch, everyone would have thought her mad, but she might have a chance in the fight now. Instead she took the safe and ostensibly smart route. Since then she's been outfoxed, out-maneuvered, out-positioned, and just plain whupped. Now, the old expression about playing the hand you're dealt is the only one that applies.
And on March 5th, she will have no choice but to fold.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Barack Obama is all talk. More than an empty suit, he is stupid.
Hillary Clinton is a power hungry shrew who will stop at nothing to gain the Presidency. She will arrange for Obama's assassination if it appears she is destined to lose the primary election battle.
Both of these sentiments are ubiquitous in the discussion threads of political Web sites, staining and obscuring what little thoughtful dialogue can be found there. Even the redoubtable Erica Jong is not immune. In an ill-considered polemic on the Huffington Post, Ms. Jong let her fury cloud her judgment, baselessly intimating that Barack Obama offers no more than "soundbites and attacks on 'the' Clintons." Particularly ironic was that the pitch of her 12-paragraph shriek only served to reinforce the very same false stereotypes about women that she has debunked so artfully over her lifetime.
Was she in this instance a pawn of her own hormones?
Whatever its source, hyperbole about Clinton or Obama arrives always cloaked in terms superlative and self-discrediting. But while we may dismiss the ravings of those intent on instigating discord, it's instructive to consider the role that emotions play in heightening our political enthusiasms and distastes, and eventually turning us all into blathering idiots.
Evolution has equipped the human psyche in wondrous ways. Unfortunately, most of the tools she has equipped us with are designed to protect us from charging tigers, or to assist us to confront feces-flinging upstarts in our clan. We have made successful physical adaptations in civilization's brief time frame. For instance, in a mere few thousand years of bovine domestication we have come to produce the enzymes that digest cow's milk. Meanwhile the kinds of dangers and challenges to our status we must face have evolved as much as our dietary habits. Peril wields carcinogens rather than claws, and every super model that pouts at us from billboards is a seratonin-depressing put-down. These are elements of the new that we have not learned to digest. In fact, it appears that we may require some millions of years to rewire the infinitely multilayered interraleation of our emotions to metabolism and behavior. In other words, we confront the modern world with the emotional equivalent of rocks and pointed sticks.
Make no mistake, the outpouring of bile in this primary process is not the result of conflicting opinions about policy. Its triggers are primitive. Are we being relegated to a second-tier status because we are black, or because we are female? Will we feel personally shamed by a less-bellicose stance towards Iran? Is our place in the social hierarchy threatened when others question our judgment based on our support for one candidate or the other? Who dares affront the tribe of Obama? Or of Hillary? These are the keys to our emotional floodgates. And when the sluice opens, we behave in ways that might make sense when our spouse flirts with another partner, or when there's a burglar in the house, but that are remarkably stupid in the context of a political debate.
For example, when we percieve a danger, we become acutely sensitive to input that we associate with that threat. In the burglar scenario, we become conscious of even the subtlest sounds. Are those footsteps we hear in the hall? In this state, we tolerate a high incidence of false positives--suddenly every creak and clink we hear is an intruder--but our heightened alert might save our lives, and the downside is no worse than a night's sleep lost.
But in the political dialogue, our paranoia is expressed in letters and conversations, and takes on a corrosive life of its own. It evokes equal and opposite defensive responses in others, and is sustained and amplified in the echo chamber of 24-hour news and online social media.
More importantly, as feeling intensifies in response to percieved threats, all our mental capacity is directed towards immediate sef-defense. Our mind gathers itself for an imminent leap, whether to hide, or attack, or to flee. As a result, we reserve little capacity for deliberate and considered thinking. And I'm sorry to tell you that we didn't have much of a surplus in that area to begin with.
So we find ourselves reduced to an animal state. But if we could collect ourselves for just a moment, we would see how ludicrous is most of the shouting. I suppose it's possible that Barack Obama is a dim bulb, but if so, shouldn't he get some sort of credit for slipping under everyone's radar to become an editor of the Harvard Law Review? And perhaps Hillary will take out a contract on Obama's life, but he'll have plenty of warning because someone on the review committee she's sure to convene on the matter will certainly leak their plans to the press.
And it's not just crackpot opinions like these that have garnered unwarranted credibility. Many of the narratives espoused by an enflamed electorate and boosted by a craven corporate media--hungry as ever for the drama that makes advertising gravy--have little grounding in likely reality. I'll go on the record right now to contest each of these memes.
If Obama maintains a solid lead in non-superdelagates after March 4, there will be a tide of superdelegates eager to demonstrate their respect for the popular will by coming to his support.
If Obama is clearly the popular choice, Hillary Clinton will not implement a burnt earth policy and destroy the Democratic party in a fit of pique. Instead she will gracefully and honorably step aside, voice her support for the nominee, and work to ensure his election in November.
If Hillary wins the popular vote fair and square--which is the only way she'll get or accept the nomination--Democrats that supported Obama will rally to her side. Likewise, Hillary's supporters will stand behind Obama if he is the nominee.
And unless there is a sea change in public sentiment before November, the presidential contest will not be nail bitingly close. Voter turnout during this primary season clearly shows there is enormous enthusiasm on the Democratic side, and a significant lack of the same for the Republicans. When you consider how close the 2000 and 2004 contests were, 2008 is looking like a relative no-brainer.
All this will come to pass. Unless some reader has just said "jinx."
One final point about emotion and politics. It is clear that many are attracted to Obama because he moves them, and they have been seeking such a connection. And it is just as clear that many of Clinton's supporters cleave to her campaign because they are wary of good feelings as a substitute for competence. But like it or not, emotion remains a key factor--arguably the dominant factor--in determining how we relate to everyone we encounter. It determines whether we listen to them, whether we give them the benefit ofthe doubt, whether we forgive them when they err, and whether we follow where they lead. The broader the audience, the more important emotional appeal becomes, because while you may be able to get most people to agree they like you, you will never get them to agree on a health care plan. And nobody has to sway a broader audience than the President.
At least, that's how I feel.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Has an American national political contest ever been so utterly transfigured in so short a time as the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
Just a few short weeks ago, we were falling inexorably, willingly into the waiting arms of the woman we knew would protect and provide for us. Sure, we flirted a little bit with the boys at the bar. We felt a thrill when our hand "accidentally" brushed John Edwards' knee under the table. We admired Bill Richardson's Latino éclat. But we were just having a little fun before settling down to eight years of blessed sanity and nutritious policy.
The prospect wasn't exciting, but we'd had enough excitement to last our lives. Our previous relationship left us broke, disillusioned, and inclined to flinch in response to any sudden movement. We had learned our lesson, and we were determined to exercise better judgment this time. Hillary cared for us, we knew. Might not respect and admiration blossom into a warmer devotion in the fullness of time?
And then... There he was.
He had been there all along of course. Why didn't we notice? Was he wearing a new tie? Had he shaved off his goatee?
Or was it the incandescent bolt of heaven's white light that set his chiseled profile aflame?
Our heart raced. Our blood rushed. Our minds went all higgledy piggledy. And we think we might throw up.
Oh my God, we're in love.
Political campaigns pass from phase to phase in ways that often seem predictable in hindsight, and this latest turn of events is no exception. We watched Barack and Hillary debate prior to Super Tuesday and vainly endeavored to detect meaningful policy distinctions. We were like a child trying to choose between two cupcakes in a bakery display. Does one have a more icing than the other? We closed one eye and bent over to get a fresh sight line.
Then there was a flash. And when our vision cleared, it was a new world. And we discovered that our two cupcakes could not be more different.
Obama's astounding Super Tuesday comeback, in which he erased a double-digit deficit to achieve near-parity in a mere two weeks, attests to the sea change that occurred. Much of the credit for the turnaround is due to the man himself and his magnetic appeal. But there was calculation as well. He and his staff envisioned this transmogrification and consciously positioned themselves to reap the windfall of the moment, lighting match after match under the Democratic electorate and praying feverishly that the flame would catch before it was too late.
But if the punditocracy was caught off guard, it was because they were so busy watching the spark that they ignored the tinder. In short, they underestimated the magnitude and intensity of latent emotion in American voters. It seemed that the race would be about a return to competence and stability, that political cynicism was so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it could only be courted, not confronted.
But now it is clear that we were primed for an emotional outpouring. We were a super-saturated solution just waiting for the faintest touch of the catalyst that instantaneously alters everything. Obama is that catalyst, and what is precipitating now is a genuine political fervor. This was supposed to be Hillary's moment. Didn't she check all the right boxes? She's smart, hardworking, right-thinking, and intimately associated with a past that most regard--with their usual selective and myopic recall--as days of wine and roses.
But in the context of this new narrative, the promise of competence and safety is underwhelming, and to wish for a return to the familiar ways and faces of the Clinton years seems an act of cowardice.
Yes, we enjoyed Bill's homespun wit, his studied good-old-boy affectation, and his bedroom eyes. He charmed and soothed us, and he was a perfect match for his time. Oil was at $10 a barrel and the stock market was juiced. Who wanted to make waves?
And he left us with fond memories. That's why when Hillary asked if it would be alright if he lived in our basement for a while after the wedding, we agreed.
But no cabinet post. And he buys his own groceries. And as soon as he gets a job, he has to find his own apartment.
We concede Hillary's impressive resume and talent. But let's not pretend the choice before us is purely one of head versus heart. Obama is not some smooth-talking Lothario looking to seduce an America on the rebound. There's a reason that the most educated segment of voters trend strongly his way, and it's more than his dreamy eyes. But at the same time, it's undeniable that the Obama juggernaut is driven by emotion. Does that mean we are setting ourselves up for disappointment? Is the excitement imbuing us with a fleeting and fickle courage doomed to evaporate in the face of adversity?
This outpouring of faith and feeling does not displace our hopes for administrative success, for legislative progress, for remade international relationships and a thriving economy. Rather it is an indispensable vessel to carry those hopes to fruition. Those who think this enthusiasm speeds us on a fool's errand, consider: For many decades we have repressed all traces of political idealism within ourselves, always seeking safety, predictability and stasis. Doing so has served, at best, only to ensure that as we marched drearily into poverty and disrepute, we did so to a steady beat.
Now, the problems we confront are more daunting than any in our history. Global warming requires an internationally coordinated response for which no prior model exists. Our economic woes are the product of suffocating debt and permanent resource scarcity; if there is a cure, it will not be pleasant. Our relationship with the international community is going through a change more profound than any since the end of the second World War. Policy alone, no matter how brilliant, simply will not bring us intact through the challenges to come. We'll need a leader who knows how to cultivate the qualities of optimism, restraint, and selflessness within us, and how to wring out every ounce when the going gets rough.
That is why this tide of emotion is more than relevant. It is the crucial prerequisite of whatever success can follow.
But the biggest change we will make is the one we've already begun.
You see, Obama doesn't talk about what he is going to do. He talks about what we are going to do. And in that phrasing, he expresses the most frightening truth that any politician can utter. A truth so terrifying that no President has whispered it in almost 50 years. He is telling us that the problem has never been our leaders.
The problem is us.
It's a mortifying realization. But if we broke it, doesn't that mean we can fix it too? So we're going to solve our problem. We're going to say "yes" to the notion that government can be better than it has been. Whatever comes after, we will never regret it. Because saying "yes" isn't the precursor to a triumph. It is the triumph.
So that's it, baby. It's not you. It's us. We're sorry it had to end this way. We never meant to hurt you.
You can keep our CDs. But we want our superdelegates back.
Monday, February 04, 2008
Did you know that for every minute you spend reading this brief note, a puppy slated to be euthanized is placed in a loving home?
As you think about that, let me introduce myself. I am a writer. A professional, just like a doctor or lawyer, but with fewer lives saved and less education. Lately I have become possessed of a great notion: to write a book in which I divertingly anatomize themes in popular culture, politics, current events, science and history, deftly draw novel analogies between seemingly unrelated disciplines, and make fun of cats and foreign countries. All to highlight just how screwed we are.
I don't pretend that I am telling you anything new. By reading this far you have demonstrated discernment and a piercing intellect. So I think you already know exactly how thoroughly and hopelessly you are screwed. I can do nothing to un-screw you, or myself, or the god-forsaken planet we live on. For that you will need the doctors and lawyers. I am just a writer and much too busy to salvage the future of mankind. What I can do however is to somehow make you feel OK about the horrifying fate in store for us.
I'm just that good.
Let me give you an example. Did you ever consider that even though we think of ourselves as individuals, our bodies are really made up of gajillions of cells that are living creatures unto themselves, all rubbing themselves all over each other like a pile of dogs in heat and literally swimming in each others most personal fluids? It's (a) true, (b) disgusting, and (c) pretty funny if you think about it.
No, I am not stoned.
It is well-established that the archetypal ancestors of our cells lived as individuals, roaming free on the primordial earth. At one time there weren't even complex cells with flagellum—those tails that cells whip back and forth to commute to work in the morning. There were some cells that were just whips, thrashing around pointlessly, and other cells perhaps sophisticated enough to invent an instrument like the bassoon and learn to play it brilliantly, but with no means of locomotion. The latter lived their brief lives on the margins of tepid ponds, eating only what was available by delivery, like a person so fat that they will not leave their home until they die and two Mexicans pull down enough of the front door frame to get a forklift into the living room.
But over the eons, evolution grafted the hyperactive tails to the fat asses of their more sedentary neighbors, and then proceeded to snap those new franken-cells together with other cells to create ever larger, more capable and stupider looking composite critters, until she finally—and quite by accident—created a critter mean-spirited and selfish enough to undo all the accomplishments of the previous 500 million years of progress. Which was particularly lamentable, because that was when evolution had done some of her best work.
I think you know what critters I'm talking about. Let's all give ourselves a big round of applause.
Soon it will be all over. We will prod our ecosystem into collapse, be engulfed by our own filth and incompetence, and in the hysterical enthusiasm to embrace our doom display a stunningly shameful lack of dignity and humanity. But of course, we need not feel mortified because no one will ever know we existed, and so no one will ever be flabbergasted by what a bunch of losers we proved to be.
But after we're gone, all the cells that have been rowing us through history like slaves on a Greek trireme will be free to roam those limited portions of the planet with low enough toxicity to support organic life, and they won't have to go to Target with us ever again.
Won't that be nice for them?
OK. See that? That was just off the top of my head. Bam! I can do that like two times a day. And the beauty part is that if you already knew all that I said, it serves as a validation of your own superiority, which makes up for the fact that reading it was a waste of time. And if the information was new to you, did you notice how I taught you something fresh and fascinating without for a moment making you feel self-conscious about your own shocking and unforgivable ignorance?
This is my gift. And I want to share it with the world. For money.
Wouldn't you like to get your hands on some of that sugar? You know you would.
Here's my proposal. I'm looking for someone to sustain me in considerable luxury while I think these ideas through. I'll want to sequester myself in the privacy of a top floor suite at the Las Vegas Bellagio with only a single she-goat for fresh milk and an epic supply of vodka. With God's help, and frequent changes of underwear, I think I can squeeze this sucker out in about six months. Faster if the advance is right.
I know what you're thinking: Where do I sign?
Whoa there, big fella. A girl likes to get to know a guy before she shows him what's under her duvet. However, I am not a girl. I am ready to go RIGHT NOW. All you need to do is respond to this note with one word: YES. And a check so large that it simply blows me away.
Tomorrow you may wake and wonder: what have I done? You might even be inclined to pick up the phone and cancel the payment you sent.
Do not do that.
Think how humiliating it will be if your boss finds out that you nearly bet the entire future of your company on an unknown writer based on a patently manipulative, if brilliantly conceived, one-page email of uncertain origin. Were you on crack? Place the phone receiver back on the hook. Next, visit each of the links below to read some samples of my work, praying feverishly all the while that you will therein find some inkling of the talent that yesterday led you to throw away your career and with it, your family's future.
Be repulsed from the first sentences of my exposé of public servants and role models who cannot keep their pants zipped in restrooms. Then read on, so that their lurid trysts and vile hypocrisy repulses you again and again.
Do your part to defend the institution of marriage. The gays want it all for themselves. Fight for your sense of martyrdom and your tax write-offs!
Quake when confronted with the implications of the coming police state heralded by a regime of surveillance more invasive than anything your parents subjected you to when you were seventeen.
And what's so bad about Jimmy Carter? Do you find peanut farming and Gomer Pyle accents funny, Mr. Tough Guy?
Read them. Then read them again. The second reading will not alter whatever opinion you developed on first perusal, but it will allow a few precious hours more for your check to clear.
There. Now our fates are bound up together. We have both wagered all on my success. Or, actually, you have wagered all. Should I fail, or fail to even try, I will still be one fat book advance richer than I am today. You, however, will be utterly ruined.
So will begin our roller-coaster relationship. In your old age, you will look back on this time with wistful fondness, testimony to the power of senility to replace your actual memories with different memories that have no basis in fact.
Call me and leave a message, asking whether I've begun work. Call me again and leave another message to inquire why I did not respond to your first call. Call me. Call and call and call until my voice mailbox is full. Call a plumber to remove the hair that is falling out in clumps and clogging your shower drain. Phase one of our love affair is complete.
Open the filthy package that arrives at your office. Take the tattered manuscript from the envelope and weep with relief to be holding some physical product of our partnership. Clutch it lovingly in your shaking hands, but do not read it. Why take a chance on extinguishing the only flicker of hope that has illuminated your withered soul in months? Send it to the printer!
Meet me in person at last. Feel underwhelmed. Have one too many mojitos. I'm like a motorcycle wreck. You can't look away.
Send me on a book tour. Christ! What the hell is the matter with me? Why won't I bathe? Do I even own a tie? Field angry calls from your press agents around the country.
A messenger arrives. You have sold four million copies in the Netherlands. Induce vomiting just before the barbiturates enter your blood stream.
Roll out an international marketing campaign. Leverage accusations of plagiarism to generate publicity. Make more money than you know what to do with. Settle out of court. Grace the cover of Publisher's Weekly and be promoted to CEO. Be despised for your success by every single person in the business.
This could be your fairy tale. Call me. Just this once, I will answer.
Your future star client