Liberal Astonishment

Between the comments of Senators Webb and Bayh and Representative Frank, the left-wing partisans are shocked right now at how quickly the Democrats are leaping over one another to lie down and play dead.

Josh Marshall calls Representative Frank’s statement the,

embodiment of fecklessness, resignation, defeatism and just plan folly.

And concludes, “Amazing. Just amazing.” Kevin Drum tweets,

WTF? Has Barney Frank gone nuts? Was it really so pressing to say this? Do Dems *enjoy* rolling over and playing dead?

Even indefatigable partisan Ezra Klein is going Leninist on this, writing,

a Democratic Party that would abandon their central initiative this quickly isn’t a Democratic Party that deserves to hold power.

For my part I list Leninist: it would be worth losing some seats, both in the hope of reacquiring it with someone more reliable down the road (I wouldn’t mind seeing Harry Reid go one iota), but also to instill some fear in those that remain. And also with regard to healthcare: we won’t get the right reform so long as it remains the widespread belief among Americans that U.S. healthcare is the best in the world. Another decade of continued crumbling of the current system are apparently required.

New York Bagels

I see that over the weekend there was much consideration of the issue of New York and Bagels. Matthew Yglesias comments (“The Stuff that Matters,” ThinkProgress, 28 November 2008):

I’ve now lived in DC long enough that I forget how much I like real bagels. But then I come back to New York for Thanksgiving and the whole sad little fantasy universe I’ve constructed for myself in which DC’s bad bagels aren’t a big deal collapses.

Kevin Drum does a little wondering as well (“Bagels!,” MoJo, 28 November 2008)

It’s hard for me to remain on topic here because Washington, D.C. is such a miserable hole of a city. It would be hard to come up with a single factor in which New York was not vastly better of a city. The only reason that anyone tolerates D.C. is that it’s the political and intellectual capitol of the country.

That said, whenever I go to New York I have a list of things that I want to do and every time it includes bagels. This visit included bagels on two out of three mornings. My friend has been living three blocks from Tal Bagels so it has been pretty convenient, but on other visits I have commuted for bagels.

I’ve heard a number of the theories (the municipal water), but I’d have to say that I think it’s a gestalt. The bagels themselves are better: crunchier on the outside, chewier on the inside. But the schemers are better too (we brought back a tub of the olive cream cheese and another of the tofu, which rather than being some vegan concession has a flavor zestier and brighter than the cream cheeses). And most important is the ambiance. Woody places with a bunch of working-class artisans in black pants, white t-shirts, white aprons, and white paper hats, with a lot of hurry and attitude is different than the hired gun Ethiopians at Au-bon-Pan. A bagel shop is a stylized thing in New York. The cream cheeses are arrayed in gigantic bowls under glass, along with a host of other Jewish foods: smoked fish, knishs, couscous salads.

My favorite bagel places in New York are Ess-a-bagle (359 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10010, official site here) and Tal Bagels (977 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10022), both very Jewish, and The Bagel Store (247 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211), a Williamsburg hipster joint, but still unbelievably good.

Voting Your Anxiety

In light of recent debate surrounding Barack Obama’s comments about rural bitterness being the cause of gun culture and fundamentalist religion, I have been wanting to locate a certain passage from an article and fortunately Kevin Drum turns it up for me (“The Culture Wars,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 15 April 2008). Turns out it was Garance Franke-Ruta (“Remapping the Culture Debate,” The American Prospect, 16 January 2006):

Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.

We’re still in the realm of arguing that ideology follows material circumstance. People vote their confidence and their insecurity. I loved Thomas Frank’s book, but have had reservations that it’s too facile. He argues that people don’t vote their material interest owing to effective right-wing propaganda, but he fails to take into account certain aspects of people’s material situation.

This also sweeps in the George Lakoff-type point insofar as this interpretation poses problems for the model of liberals chafing for the nanny state and always eager to swoop in and save everybody from everything versus strongly independent conservatives just wanting to be left alone to live their lives. People on the right socially are every bit as eager for the government to prop up their lives and communities and offer all sorts of inducements, it’s just that they want their government support to be punitive and compulsory.

Swords Need No Demonstration

Kevin Drum has a post on right-wing anger over a Pizza Hut delivery guy who was fired after he shot an armed robber. Pizza Hut fired him because corporate policy prohibits employees from carrying weapons on the job (“Guns on the Job,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 2 April 2008). This seems like the opportune occasion to break out another passage from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway — might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aero-styled, lightweight, the kind of gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.

The Deliverator never pulled that gun in anger, or in fear. He pulled it once in Gila Highlands. Some punks in Gila Highlands, a fancy Burbclave, wanted themselves a delivery and they didn’t want to pay for it. Thought they would impress the Deliverator with a baseball bat. The Deliverator took out his gun, centered its laser doohickey on the poised Louisville Slugger, fired it. The recoil was immense, as though the weapon had blown up in his hand. The middle third of the baseball bat turned into a column of burning sawdust accelerating in all directions like a burning star. Punk ended up holding this bat handle with milky smoke pouring out the end. Stupid look on his face. Didn’t get nothing but trouble from the Deliverator.

Since then the Deliverator has kept the gun in the glove compartment and relied instead on a matching set of samurai swords, which have always been his weapon of choice anyhow. The punks in Gila Highlands weren’t afraid of the gun, so the Deliverator was forced to use it. But swords need no demonstration. (pp. 1-2)

Note this is from pages one and two. I have a minor interest in how authors begin a book and so occasionally will pick up a book and just read the first few sentences or paragraphs. This is the most memorable book beginning I have ever encountered. What follows is the text that, not having read it, you have not fully claim to have joined the ranks of geekdom.

Elections as Signal II

I realize that there is a significant debate around whether Bob Kerrey is a cat’s paw for Clinton campaign race bating directed at Barack Obama — and the Clinton campaign has had some perfidious truck with the right-wing sewer. But again, there’s debate about whether what he said was sincere or really a backhanded compliment (see e.g. Kleiman, Mark, “Kerrey and ‘Barack Hussein Obama’,” The Reality-Based Community, 16 December 2007). I think there’s reason to think that he’s sincere, but whatever the case, since he expresses the internationalist potential of Obama qua icon — or as Frank says, as signifier — so well, I’m going to excerpt it at my own risk:

I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal.

Kevin Drum wrote a very well expressed explication of this sentiment at the time (“Fighting Terrorism,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 17 December 2007):

Kerrey wasn’t suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn’t. But terrorists can’t function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao’s sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don’t have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It’s why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

For today’s jihadists, the answer is hard power. There’s no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow’s jihadists, the answer is soft power. As long as a substantial fraction of the Islamic world supports or tolerates jihadism, we’ll never stop the production of new terrorists or seriously reduce their effectiveness. But if that support dries up, we can win. This is where our foreign policy should be focused, and the fact that it hasn’t been for the past six years — that, in fact, we’ve gone backward on this score — is by far the most calamitous aspect of George Bush’s disastrous war on terror.

One of the amazing things about the six years since 11 September 2001 is that the importance of tamping down support for extremists among moderate Moslems is something that George W. Bush, at least in speech, understands. When it comes time to execute policy, it all goes out the window — actually a common feature of the Bush presidency. It’s time to address this central shortfalling.

The Myth of the Rational Voter

Kevin Drum on the “bump” phenomenon (“The Pack,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 6 January 2008):

… apparently the flinty-eyed independents of New Hampshire aren’t quite as flinty-eyed as they’d like you to believe. After a solid year of town halls, coffee klatsches, and early morning doorbell ringing — because, you know, New Hampshirites take their electoral responsibilities so much more seriously than the rest of us — all it took was a few thousand Iowans to flip them from one side to the other in less than 24 hours. Feh.

This country constantly claims the world’s greatest democracy, yet on the systematic side is so riddled with anachronisms (the electoral college), half-functioning institutions (the electoral college again) and just plain bad ideas (the staggering of the primaries) and on the individual side so populated by villainy (the commentariat) and the easily led, that one wonders how we persist in our tolerance of it.

Update (9 January 2008): After the outcome of the primary, Kevin Drum retracts (“Flinty-Eyed Independents,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 8 January 2008):

By the way, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the state of New Hampshire for this post on Sunday. Obviously I spoke too hastily.

Whatever the people of New Hampshire did, the system is still considerably less than one would aspire to in a decent system of governance.

Soft Balancing on Iran

A few days after the key findings of the Iran NIE were released Kevin Drum suggested that with the war hawks’ position so heavily damaged and the policy danger that they pose having been diminished, many, including some countries, might feel freed up to take a more hardline position now that they no longer have to tread between the Charybdis of Iran’s nuclear program and the Scylla of the Office of the Vice President (“Counterintuitive Thought for the Day on Iran,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007). He even speculated that that the continued progress of a U.N. sanctions resolution might confirm this theory (“Sanctions and the NIE, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007).

But what would this mean, that countries slow-walk actions to constrain a potential Iranian nuclear program out of fear of becoming a party to a larger U.S. plan against Iran? It would mean that a group of countries have formed a tacit — or perhaps not so tacit — agreement to impede the United States. Wouldn’t one have to admit this as a sort of primitive soft balancing against the United States. I don’t think that the case is exactly strong here. This is probably no different than the sort of actions that one could point to probably dozens of instances during the Cold War where U.S. alliance partners felt the need to mitigate some particularly egregious U.S. policy position. States engaging in minor acts of diplomatic defiance is nothing new.

On the other hand, when you consider that there have been some more hard balancing-like actions (“A Caspian Balance?,” 23 October 2007), it seems like there is a context where this doesn’t look like diplomacy as usual. Perhaps there is a slowly building effort to constrain the U.S. in the Middle East.

It’s also disturbing that the U.S. is considered a threat to stability of such a scale that states find themselves having to stake out some middle ground between us and Iran.