Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin, Take Two

I have a slightly different take on the Palin nomination. I think that it was actually a really good choice for McCain, under the circumstances. The other top choices (Romney, Pawlenty, Ridge) do not have much upside from a Republican perspective, and McCain needs upside because he is losing. Palin is a risk, but she shakes things up and could help McCain in key states. I don’t think she will have much pull with disaffected Clinton supporters. But I do worry about her “hockey mom” appeal in Minnesota and Colorado. I think that persona has real traction amongst independent female voters in those states. The evangelical angle also helps a lot in Colorado, some parts of Virginia, and with the Republican base everywhere. After reading this article in the New Yorker, I thought for a second that Colorado could actually go to Obama. But now I think that is highly unlikely.

I also think Palin’s lack of experience is really not that big of an issue for most voters because McCain’s age is not that big of an issue for most voters. The chances of McCain dying in office are not large. And would the country really fall apart if Palin were in the Oval Office? Probably not. The risk for Republicans is that Biden trounces Palin on foreign policy issues in the debate. Then experience would come into play. But if she holds her own, I think experience is not a deal-breaker and she turns out to be a good pick.

I was feeling pretty confident about a solid Obama victory after the impressive Democratic National Convention. Now I'm feeling like it’ll be a barn burner.


I’m finding it very hard to be worried about this. There are a few candidate worries, sure. There is the direct appeal to Hillary supporters. There is the fact that, as one friend-of-pickle pointed out, she self-describes as a “hockey mom,” which helps in such hockey playing states as Massachusetts and Minnesota, and more importantly, this particular friend-of-pickle’s home state of Michigan. And there is the fact that she appears to have a chance of rallying some conservatives for whom McCain’s pledges to appoint pro-life justices and to rattle the saber at every opportunity haven’t quite done the trick. But do any of those worries really worry me? Do they worry you?

This just strikes me as classic can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees thinking by the McCain campaign, and so a bad strategic blunder. The selection of Sarah Palin seriously undermines the only criticism of Obama that has really stuck – that he has too little experience to be President, that he is a lightweight, that he is not ready to lead. What is plausibly true about someone with Obama’s CV but false in his specific case appears to be very true in her specific case. I can’t believe how unqualified she is to be President. McCain is 72 years old. It’s a shockingly irresponsible choice. There may have been good strategic arguments for picking her, but the idea should have been rejected on its face. I trust that most Americans will see that, and that not only will her presence on the ticket cause them to think twice about voting for McCain, but that his decision to pick her - this mayor of nowhere, this sports journalist, this woman who would have to be something really special to elevate this quickly, but who he appears not to have taken any time at all to get to know - reflects very poorly on his judgment.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I have good news and I have bad news

The good news is that Hillary Clinton gave a great speech at the DNC tonight. I fully approve. My favorite part – everyone’s favorite part, I’m sure – was when she directly addressed that recalcitrant group of holdouts who, like my friend’s friend, are considering giving money to John McCain.

(That is not a joke. You read that correctly. I have a friend who has a friend who is considering giving money to John McCain. When she said this to me, I did a quintuple take, each take getting me further and further into the question caught between pursed lips – “W…w…w…wh…wh…why?!?!” – like I had to shake it out of my head past my disbelieving face. She responded, vituperatively, “He hasn’t given us anything we’ve asked for! What has he done for us?!” Well, luckily we got interrupted at that point, which is to say I practically tackled an innocent bypasser.)

What was I talking about? Oh, right, unity. My favorite part was when she asked her supporters to ask themselves if they had done it for her, or for...whew, this just got a lot harder after writing that parenthetical paragraph. Neverthless, I thought her speech was spot on. There can’t be too many friends of friends left, right? Right?

Now the bad news. The LPGA just announced that it will require all its players to speak English. In other words, in order to be among the best female golfers in the world, you have to be able to speak English. See, time was, the whole point of America was that we could get the best of everyone at everything to want to come here because we were a nation of immigrants that welcomed people from around the world who wanted to work to succeed and make a better life for themselves and others. Here at the Pickle, we just try to do our best to make you aware of the little noises that that idea makes as it dies.

Finally, back to the good news part, because I just saw Peter’s post: Peter, why do you respect their desire to hold out? You can respect their prerogative, I guess, though not their judgment, and I don’t understand why their desire…

Don't Dismiss Those "Crazy Feminists"

One of the big stories at the Convention this week is the ongoing rift within the Democratic Party between the House of Clinton and the House of Obama. Adding fuel to the fire is a recent CNN poll showing that 27% of Hillary Clinton supporters plan to vote for John McCain in November. The default interpretation of these numbers is that they show the stubbornness of die-hard feminists who are planning on voting for McCain simply to vote against Obama. I find this hard to believe. My sense is that feminists are only a small fraction of the 27%; most, I believe, are folks who simply prefer McCain to Obama for reasons that have nothing to do with Clinton. But let’s assume for the moment that the pundits are correct, and that this poll highlights the bitterness of feminist Hillary supporters, who certainly are out there and certainly are vocal.

What is to be done about these seemingly “kamikaze” voters? Many Democrats believe they should simply shut their traps and get their butts in line. And if, heaven forbid, Obama were to lose the election by a thin margin…well, then these crazy feminists should be blamed for the loss and excommunicated from the Party! It would be a replay of 2000, when Nader voters were blamed for losing the election for Gore.

I do agree that the “cut off your nose to spite your face” strategy of voting for McCain in order to exact revenge upon Obama and our sexist world is pretty much total insanity. But blaming feminists for voting this way would be unfair and undemocratic. I believe it is impossible for someone to vote “incorrectly.” Your vote is your voice, and you can (and indeed should) use your vote to give expression to whatever message, cause, stance, or policy you deem important.

Back in 2000, the received wisdom was that Nader voters “lost” the election because they didn’t vote for Gore, the candidate they “should” have voted for. Many Democrats felt that, because Bush was so clearly an evil conservative, Gore deserved the votes of all liberals simply by default. But this is nonsense. The real story was that, by tacking hard to the center, Gore lost the support of those liberal voters who, by voting for Nader, wanted to give voice to their reservations about Gore and his centrist policies. Instead of respecting this voter expression and adjusting policy and rhetoric to appeal to this liberal constituency, the Democratic Party dismissed these voters and blamed them for voting “incorrectly.”

A similar scenario is playing out with Clinton’s feminist supporters today. By saying they will vote for McCain, these voters are quite clearly giving expression to their anger. They are saying that Obama has failed to address their concerns. This, in my mind, is the beauty of democracy in action. Politicians must earn each vote. But instead of hearing what these voters are trying to say, many Democrats are dismissing them as “crazy rabid feminists.” While I’d certainly prefer that Clinton supporters express their discontent in a way that doesn’t require them to vote for McCain, I have absolutely zero say in the matter. It is their vote to cast for whatever reason makes sense to them, however crazy that reason may be. Obama missed a chance to earn their vote when he chose not to put Hillary on the ticket. He must now try to earn their vote some other way.

P.S.: after watching Hillary’s speech tonight, I imagine most of her feminist supporters will now vote Obama or at the very least won't vote for McCain. But for the few still left out there who are thinking about voting for McCain, I respect your desire to hold out. I’m sure Barack will find a way to bring you on board by November.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Write Your Own Ticket!...Reality TV Style

As an actor who hasn’t made it yet, you often hear the following advice from those who are familiar with the long-shot odds of the entertainment business: “Write your own ticket, kid. You have to create your own work. You can’t rely on others to cast you. You have to make it happen yourself.” This is good advice. The odds of making it (if you haven’t already made it by age 20) are brutal. And the inspirational stories of the trailblazers who wrote their own ticket are familiar, if not numerous. The most famous, perhaps, is Sylvester Stallone, who, more or less broke and unknown, refused to sell his screenplay unless he was cast in the lead role in Rocky. The other well known example is Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who supposedly pulled a similar maneuver with Good Will Hunting.

The truth about the do-it-yourself fairytale, however, is that the odds of pulling it off are about as grim as the odds of making it by pounding the pavement year after year. The actor/writer inevitably bumps up against the realities of finding financing and backing for a project without a star in the lead role, which these days is arguably even harder to do than it was in the past.

But thanks to two recent projects—one an indie movie and the other a Broadway musical—the dream of writing your own ticket lives on! Well, sort of.

I grant that the first project I’d like to mention—Baghead, a movie directed by the Duplass brothers—has not been all that successful in the marketplace. You may not have even heard of it. But it did have some measure of success. It went to Sundance and got a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classic, no small feat. It has no stars to speak of and a small budget. And it’s a good movie, too. (Full disclosure: two of my friends, Ross Partridge and Jennifer Lafleur, each have a role in the movie, one a lead. So go see it if you haven’t already!) The plot of Baghead is as follows: after seeing an indie film made on no budget, four actor-friends sit around complaining that their careers are going nowhere and, on a whim, decide that they, too, can write a film, cast themselves in the lead roles, and shoot it with no budget. They retreat to a cabin on Big Bear Lake to write and shoot. Romance, humor, and a suspense-horror movie ensue. It’s a clever idea. The Duplass brothers have made a movie with four unknown actors and no budget about four unknown actors making a movie with no budget.

The second project I’d like to mention is called [title of show], written by and starring two unknown actors named Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell. Stop me if this sounds familiar. It begins with four actor-friends sitting around complaining that their careers are going nowhere and, on a whim, they decide to write a musical, cast themselves in the lead roles, and produce it with no budget. Both the show as well as the show within the show start out with an off-off broadway run and make it all the way to the big time. The autobiographical musical is winning and entertaining. Its message is: “Look at us…we did it! And so can you! Follow your dreams because anything is possible!” Again—it is a clever idea. The creators have made a musical with four unknown actors and no budget about four unknown actors making a musical with no budget.

Hmmm….these two projects, each in a different medium, have virtually identical plots. What is going on here?

After leaving [title of show], I turned to my Mom and asked her what she thought about this coincidence, and what she said, I think, is absolutely right. She said that these two projects show how reality TV has cross-pollinated with (or infiltrated, if you prefer) “serious” art. Both of these projects are definitely many cuts above reality TV. But their appeal and the appeal of reality TV have similar sources: spontaneity (the dialogue in Baghead was mostly improvised, as is reality TV, of course), authenticity (the unknown actors in each story are played not by Tom Cruise but by actual and authentic unknown actors), and real-life success (both projects, each with virtually no budget and created by virtual unknowns, made it all the way to your mass eyeballs!)

So the question remains: in this day and age is it possible to write your own ticket? Thanks to reality TV, the answer is yes! But only if you write a [insert media] about yourself and three friends writing a [insert media]. Otherwise, you're sh*t out of luck and “we’ll have to get Tom Cruise on board to make this thing fly. But thanks for playing and we really love the screenplay…”

Crying Over Spilled Beer

Yesterday, I was at Sunset Junction, a street fair/concert held every year in Silverlake here in LA, and, in keeping with my typical concert experiences, it was jostle city. The worst offender was a girl who knocked directly into my beer hand - actually my beer elbow - when I was mid-sip. She did apologize profusely, but the damage was done.

I was there with a friend who remarked that he felt like a magnet for the walking routes that spontaneously develop in crowds - I felt (and feel) the same way. I wonder what percentage of people feel this way. While that kind of poll would be susceptible to distortion - people tend to overreport complaints, for example on review sites like - I don't think everyone feels this way. So I think you can make a case that MWR (magnets for walking routes) really do exist.

A brief survey (i.e. a half hour of googling) tells you that while there is quite a bit of scholarship devoted to what's called "self organizing" among pedestrians, there isn't much about the spontaneous development of pathways through a stationary crowd. There are, however, a couple vocabulary words/phrases from this research that may bear on concert crowd issue. The predicted disutility of walking is sort of a governing principle of pedestrian behavior. It's a fairly simple cost-benefit idea - things like acceleration and collisions are assigned a negative value, and pedestrians tend to literally take the path of least resistance. Lanes of more or less fixed speeds are spontaneously generated and get layered together. If you want to switch lanes, you weigh the lateral acceleration you'll have to make, and the risk of a collision, against the annoyance of being stuck behind a slow person. (Interestingly, in cross-directional traffic, lateral acceleration is penalized more heavily than longitudinal - this means if two pedestrians are on perpendicular paths, they'd rather slow down than veer to avoid a collision.) The other useful vocab is empty zone. This is the amount of space you prefer to have between yourself and the walker in front of you. Empty zone is affected by speed, of course, but also personal preferences about closeness to other people. The mean empty zone is 1.4 seconds (they try to factor out speed, I guess).

These two concepts can explain MWRs at concerts. First, an MWR probably has a relatively large empty zone, due to an overall unwillingness to be too close to people. If someone is too close an MWR, s/he will tend to shift away. And once you shift, it's on - especially if the destination of the Aggressive Concertgoer is a popular one, like "close to the stage" or "port-o-potties," because there will be other people trying to get through the crowd to get to those destinations too, and by shifting and letting one guy go by, you've now presented them with a low acceleration option. Their alternative - trying to forge their own path through stationary concertgoers, who perhaps feel they have nothing to prove by going "up close" - is costly in terms of acceleration and risk of collision.

If you are an MWR, you could try not shifting, or maybe some aggressive eye contact. I hope there is an enterprising Pickle reader who conducts this experiment. As for me, I'd rather shift.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

I like it!

I would characterize the choice of Biden as another example of sound, responsible judgment from our nominee. David Brooks got to me. I think Biden is a great choice. What do you think?

Friday, August 22, 2008

How do we even let things like this become a debate?

Three years ago today, the seed of Hurricane Katrina was gathering strength in the Caribbean. Six days later, when it slammed into New Orleans, it killed almost 2000 people, destroyed almost $100B of property and tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives, and blasted away whatever thin veneer of competence, whatever mirage of tough-minded judgment had somehow convinced just over half of all voting Americans to give President Bush a second term not ten months earlier.

There’s no sport in picking apart the administration’s failure of that week – a failure that, because it was principally one of preparedness, in fact goes back for months and years. They were caught with their pants so far down – off, gone – that of all the lessons that the Bush administration has taught us about what not to look for in a President, this was the one that seems to have stuck with the most of us. This was the point after which Bush could not have won another election.

Kanye West said it simply and memorably: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Another friend put it this way: “No one in that administration has ever known anyone who has ever been unable to afford a bus ticket.”

Hurricane Katrina had the political virtue of being sudden and violent, so when our current President and his orbit failed to protect those in their charge, it was obvious. The crises that our next President will inherit have, by contrast, simmered for long enough that they are far less apparent and vividly cruel, but they exist because of the same wanton disregard for the middle class and the poor; a disregard that, in turn, is born of the failure to relate when too many of those who govern come from a class that has never been unable to pay a health insurance premium, never sent its children to war because the armed forces was the best or only ticket, never juggled credit card debt, and never been trapped in a failing school.

All of which is to say, God help us if enough Americans haven’t figured out how to tell the difference between someone who understands where they are coming from and someone who doesn’t. Watching this slap-fest about how many houses McCain owns makes me want to toss my cookies, but Obama cannot allow McCain to define himself as a man of the people, in contrast to Obama as narcissistic celebrity. So I welcome the new, tough, shin-kicking tone of the Obama campaign in recent days. (Though I cringe when this ad says that McCain said anyone making below $5M is middle class – it’s true he said that, but he didn’t mean it, and it puts me in mind of Obama’s great moment in one of the later primary debates when he said he remembered watching Hillary get flayed over her “I don’t make cookies” business and thought to himself “Well that’s not what she meant. That’s not who she is.” I do miss that Barack. Sigh.)

I’m sure most of Pickle Nation is conscientious enough to know this already, but I’m going to repeat it anyway, as a sign of how dispositive I think it is: Obama spent the years before law school organizing Chicago public housing projects, helping poor black communities figure out how to use their collective power to ensure basic health, safety, and employment opportunity. You can’t fake that. Of course, of course, ad nauseum of course John McCain has served his country and probably believes himself to be doing what he thinks is best for America. But over the next four years, when our government is called on to perform its most critical function – when it must be the arm of our community coming to the aid of those in need – of the two, only Barack Obama will be able to remember real people who can’t afford a bus ticket.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The perfect follow up

In the perfect post-script to my last post, many of you probably saw Usain Bolt follow his Phelpsian 9.69 world record 100m performance with another gold and another world record in the 200m this morning, in 19.30 seconds. As amazing as his 100m run was, the 200m was probably the more impressive of the two.

I have a crystal clear memory of Michael Johnson running his 19.32 in the Atlanta games in 1996, and the staggering thing about that performance was that the world record that he broke was his own, of 19.66, and the fastest time before that was 19.72. That just doesn't happen. World records at these distances fall by 1, 2, or 3 hundredths of a second. Johnson set the mark by 34 hundredths. It was an incredible sprint, and a record that I'm sure anyone who knew anything was sure they would never see broken.

Since Johnson's run in '96, only three men have bested his previous mark of 19.66 - and they ran in 19.65, 19.63, and 19.62. 19.32 was simply completely out of reach for a long, long time. And then Usain Bolt beat it.

No one has ever set both those world records in the same meet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

So good you can tell

A few years ago, before Barry Sanders retired right smack in the middle of his prime, I watched the New England Patriots play the Detroit Lions. On one play, Sanders caught a pass in the flat and squared up facing a Patriots defensive back who was closing quickly. Over the course of the following second – and I have no idea now nor did I have any idea at the time exactly what Sanders did to make this happen – the Patriots DB turned 360 degrees trying to get a handle on (perhaps more like trying to find) his quarry, who, at the end of that second, was past him and racing for the end zone.

When an athlete is the best at his or her sport, most people usually can’t tell. To anyone other than a student of the game, watching Mariano Rivera throw a cutter is not terribly notable; the Yankees just usually win shortly after he’s in the game. Watch Tom Brady play a quarter of football and you aren’t likely to come away amazed, even though the Patriots are far more likely to outscore their opponents than if he wasn’t their quarterback. And to take the best example of an enormously popular sport that I don’t happen to understand very well, I’ve really never seen a soccer player do something that made me say “oh, that guys is better than all those other guys.”

Very occasionally, though, an athlete is so head-and-shoulders better than everyone else that you can count on seeing it the moment you start watching. Barry Sanders was like that to me. Michael Jordan is the standard example. Barry Bonds from 2001-2004. Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000. Tiger Woods. Who else, Pickle Nation?

I bring all this up because, while I’ve never been a big aficionado of the Olympics, I’ve been pretty into it this time. On Saturday night, we got a double-dose of human evolution. To see two human beings – Michael Phelps, and then, an hour later (on tape delay) Usain Bolt – turn all the other fastest people in the world into averagely fast people was a real privilege.

Of course, Phelps’ dramatic accomplishment was spread over a week, but you could see everything you needed to see in the 51.0 seconds it took him to swim the fly leg of the 4x100m IM relay, in which he took the US from a healthy 3rd place to a commanding 1st place. In fact, you could see everything you needed to see in the 2 or 3 seconds he spent underwater at the turn – he went into the wall behind, and came up ahead, and the rest is history. It’s a good thing he ate his wheaties; or, rather, his 3 egg sandwiches, 3 pancakes, French toast, 5-egg omelette, grits, 2 pounds of pasta, 3 ham and cheese sandwiches, large pizza, and energy drink after energy drink. For those who are counting, that’s 10K to 12K calories per day. My sister’s boyfriend and I spent 5 hours cycling Sunday, and as far as we can estimate, we burned the same number of calories during that time as Michael Phelps burns sitting as still as he possible can. For real.

Then came Usain Bolt, who only just started running the 100m after focusing on the 200m, and who broke the world record the second time he ran it. If you missed it, watch this, and remember – those are the 2nd through 8th fastest people on planet earth.

To Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, taking it up a notch.

Marginal Racism

By all accounts, we'll soon find out who Barack Obama's running mate will be, so this post will be best if consumed by Wednesday. This morning on the radio I heard it suggested that Colin Powell could make for a very appealing running mate. The commentator praised his military and foreign affairs experience, the "post partisan" nature of the idea, and even contended that Powell's pro-Iraq invasion may not be that problematic because general impression seems to be that his public position in favor of the war was taken reluctantly (and contrasts with his private, genuine position). Of course, as room elephants go, this hypothetical has an awfully big one. Would a ticket of two African-American men be "too much"? This morning's commentator suggested that it may not be - if you don't like Powell because he's black, you probably didn't like Obama in the first place.
I'd like to call this the marginal racism theory, and I used to believe it. In casual veepstakes conversations, I would advocate for Bill Richardson - you gain foreign policy experience, executive experience, and appeal to a large up-for-grabs demographic, while probably not giving up too much because of the marginal racism thing. Moreover, I would argue, anyone who really includes race in their voting decision is probably voting for the other guys anyway.
Well - I would make this argument fairly in the primary; the Clinton campaign pretty well disabused me of it. I don't believe in the marginal racism theory any more. I think its fatal flaw is that it ascribes too high a level of internal logic - and of all human attitudes to try to ascribe logic to, racism might be the biggest waste of time.

Postscript - I wouldn't mind a Republican running mate if it's Chuck Hagel - I think he would absolutely help land the security paranoiac demographic. If the biggest knock against him is that he's pro-life, well, I'd say as VP there's not much he could do to act on that position, however deeply held it may be (and he doesn't seem to be at Brownback level, does he).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Trying to Make Sense of the War in Georgia

The first rule of thumb when trying to make sense of the fighting between Russia and Georgia is: don’t listen to any of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow, Washington, or Tbilisi.

The official Russian storyline is as follows. The largely ethnic Russian populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—the two breakaway regions of Georgia—suffer terribly under Georgian rule. Therefore, Russia must step in to “protect Russian citizens and their dignity” by guaranteeing regional sovereignty within Georgia or perhaps, at a later date, independence from Georgia. Ironically, this storyline is modeled closely on how the West framed the debate over Kosovo independence, only this time the roles are reversed. Instead of Putin renouncing independence and defending Serbia’s “just demands to restore the country’s territorial integrity,” we have Bush saying, “Georgia is a sovereign nation, and its territorial integrity must be respected.” In Kosovo, America framed the intervention as a humanitarian action, whereas in Ossetia, it is Russian president Medvedev who recently declared "Our task is to help overcome the consequences of the humanitarian catastrophe." By co-opting the Kosovo storyline, the Russians are hiding the true motives behind their actions while simultaneously sticking it to the West, giving them a taste of their own (bulls**t) medicine, so to speak.

The American storyline for the recent fighting in Georgia is equally bogus. As the Bush Administration would have us believe, Georgia must be defended against an expansionist Russia because it is a pro-Western democracy, which emerged out of the “flower revolution” movement of the early 2000’s. But after the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia did not become what any objective observer would call a stable or respectable democracy. By the end of 2007, Georgia’s president Saakashvili was acting like all the other authoritarian thugs in the region when he violently suppressed a 500,000-person opposition demonstration, shut down two opposition TV stations, declared a state of emergency, and then “won” a tainted election a few months later. Predictably, there was little grumbling about any of this from the White House. Mirroring its attitude towards Musharref in Pakistan, the United States was willing to overlook Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies in order to move forward with its hawkish Russia policy. Rather than being the model democracy the West must defend against the Russian bear, Georgia is exhibit A for why any talk of “democracy promotion” as a goal of U.S. foreign policy is a total joke.

So if both of these narratives don’t check out, what is really going on in Georgia?

The only way to make sense of the situation is to view it through the good old fashioned lens of great power politics. Georgia is a pawn in what has quickly and quietly become a low-grade cold war between Russia and the United States. Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. But thanks to the hawks in both countries (with the U.S., I think, bearing much of the blame), the two sides have saber-rattled and provoked their way into a self-fulfilling antagonistic relationship. Oh, and by the way, Georgia is a key transit country for oil flowing from the Caspian region to Europe. So that makes it an even more important battleground.

Under Bush, the hawkish U.S. attitude towards Russia has led to the following policies: bowing out of the ABM treaty, pursuing missile defense in Europe, declaring independence for Kosovo, building oil pipelines that bypass Russian territory, aggressively seeking NATO expansion to Russia’s doorstep, promoting anti-Russian candidates in Ukraine and Georgia, setting up military bases in Central Asian “-stans”, and criticizing human rights and authoritarian drift in Russia. Russia has obliged the American hawks by obstructing sanctions against Iran, opposing Kosovo independence, and by increasingly teaming up with China to counter American moves throughout the world.

But the American hawks have typically overestimated U.S power, underestimated Russian power, and overplayed their hand. They still can’t get the cold-war-losing, dysfunctional, poverty-stricken version of Russia out of their heads. But a newly confident and energy-rich Russia is beginning to seriously push back against American interests. Sending tanks and warplanes into Georgia is the first step in Russia’s attempt to re-establish its traditional sphere of influence in the former Soviet Republics. And they will probably succeed in due time, at least in Georgia and Central Asia.

As for what happens in the immediate future, there will be no cease-fire in South Ossetia until Russia has firmly established itself as the dominant military force in both breakaway regions. Russia, however, is unlikely to push forward into Georgia proper, unless they want to make things really ugly. As a result of the violence, NATO membership for Georgia is now unthinkable, Saakashvili will be seriously weakened, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia are on their way to becoming de-facto territories of Russia.

Let’s just hope the parties agree to a cease-fire soon and there aren’t too many more innocent victims of the violence. And let’s hope our next president has a more sober understanding of America's relative power and pursues more realistic policies towards Russia.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A sad posture towards a sad anniversary

Today is the 10th anniversary of the Pepsi-Cola of modern American terrorist attacks, the simultaneous bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. To mark the occasion, US Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger has said two things in particular that ably demonstrate that just because English words are coming out of someone’s mouth doesn’t necessarily mean he is saying anything.

Kenyan victims of the attack in Nairobi on August 7, 1998 were given aid for three years – money for health care, chronic care, school, etc – and then nothing. It’s not 100% clear to me that the US government has an ethical obligation to care for these people for a long time. I think it does – especially for Kenyan embassy workers. But every day, all over the world, people without the means to care for themselves or their families are innocent victims of violence, and though I fundamentally believe that we all together share a responsibility to provide for those who are unable to provide for themselves, I’m not sure that proximity to a US embassy when victimized gives one a senior claim.

But Ranneberger doesn’t engage that question. His answer to destitute Kenyans crying for help? "We simply don't, as a matter of policy, provide compensation. This is not something we've done anywhere in the world."

What is he, an AT&T operator? Oh, oh, it’s your policy. Well, I guess that settles it. If it’s your policy, there’s really nothing that any of us can do, huh? We’ll just have to make do with the tools that are available to us within the existing set of policies, just like everyone else. We’re not special, after all. No reason we should get treated any different from anyone else. That wouldn’t be fair at all. You know, fair. Like getting blinded by my exploding plate-glass window while I, an impoverished single mother, try to make breakfast for my kids before sending them off to a school that they are allowed to attend only because every other day I take the money I would have spent on food and put it into a jar the contents of which I use to pay school fees. But if it’s your policy, America, maker of rules, I totally understand.

Second, when Ranneberger was interviewed at the ceremony, he said, talking about the victims, that “the best way that we can honour them is to look forward and to look at what we've achieved over the past 10 years, to strengthen democracy in both the United States and in Kenya.”

Wh…What?! Like expanding and improving access to the polls? We face the most exclusionary, discriminatory voting climate in the US since the Civil Rights Act, and December’s presidential election in Kenya ripped that country apart at the seams, along tribal lines. Like ensuring due process and an independent judiciary? Now seems like a good time to mention that the first Guantanamo conviction was handed down yesterday by a panel of six military officers – a secret panel of six military officers. Like investing all in our communities with the rights and responsibilities of citizenship? The current immigration climate is an embarrassment, to ourselves and to our heritage.

No, Ambassador, not one of the finer uses of language to mean things…

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Maybe I'm just afraid to be a winner

My father just suggested to me that Barack might need Hillary on the ticket, and I realized something – I think I agree with him.

Now, regular Pickle readers would be well justified in offering a mammoth Wait A Minute right now. For those who are new to the Pickle, welcome. If you want to understand what the regulars are so aghast about, see my post of May 31st, in which I wrote, and meant “I don’t trust her. I don’t want her anywhere near the ticket.”

I need to work this through a bit more, but when my father made that suggestion, it offered some shape to a vague dark cloud that had been gathering in my sense of this race. The Obama movement is powerful, large, meaningful, and grown from a real and, I think, perceptive conception of what we need in American democracy today. A dash of reason, a sprinkling of vision, a progressive heart, and a Reaganesque ability to talk about it. But you know what? I haven’t seen one poll – not one – that puts Obama over 50%. He’s almost always ahead of McCain, but he’s never at 50%.

With 3 months to go, I think there are possibilities that must be countenanced: that he has a ceiling, because people like to know what they are going to get; that small c conservatives plus big C conservatives plus good old fashioned racists might get McCain over the top; that people don’t want to vote for someone with whom they are infatuated; or (and I’ve really been a huge doubter about this) that too many Democrats and Independents – people he needs in his coalition – are embittered by the primary. And then you realize this: Hillary helps him with all of those. She is a measure of security, of familiarity, and maybe she puts the pieces back together.

One thing she isn’t, of course, is the Obama brand. It’s hard to find anyone who fits the mold of Washington status quo more than Hillary Clinton. But I have to be honest. I’m worried. I admit I haven’t quite given voice to my worry – hopefully I’ll be able to share that with Pickle Nation soon; or, better, hopefully I’ll be able to expose my worry as typical over-the-shoulder looking. But for now, I’m surprised to say it. I think Obama might need the kind of help that Hillary can provide.

That being said, my money is on Tim Kaine.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Bush Goes to China

It’s hard to believe I’m about to say this, but…I agree with Bush.

Yep. It’s true. I think he’s right to go to the Olympics and not make a big issue of human rights. Here’s why:

1.) This is the Olympics, after all. It’s a sporting event that is supposed to bring the world together. Ideally, it should not be politicized. Yes, sometimes it is necessary and appropriate to inject politics into the Olympic Games. But let’s be honest: Beijing in 2008 is not Berlin in 1936, or even Moscow in 1980.

2.) When it comes down to it, the United States has very little leverage over the Chinese government on the human rights issue, and especially at this particular moment in time. The Chinese are hyper-focused on having the Games run smoothly. The Games are, in a sense, their coming out party, and their pride is on the line. The Chinese will deeply resent any serious political moves on the human rights front and their response will likely be more crackdowns. This is the opposite effect desired.

3.) Our protestations ring pretty hollow, given our own poor human rights record of late. I find it rather embarrassing that the American human rights community feels more compelled to pressure Bush to pressure China on human rights than it feels compelled to pressure Bush to stop torturing prisoners or to shut down Guantanamo. I suggest we focus, first and foremost, on getting our own house in order.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Two Obamas, Revisited

Surprise, surprise! Obama has shifted his stance on yet another issue. This time it’s oil drilling off our coasts. My initial thought was: here we go again, another cave! And it does appear that Obama is responding to the political heat he is feeling from McCain and, more importantly, from the American people on this issue. Polls show that having a rigid stance against drilling is a vote-losing position. So yeah, there is definitely some spineless backing away from his original position going on.

But that’s not the whole story this time. Obama hasn’t really changed his attitude towards drilling; he still thinks it’s a pretty poor idea. So his shift isn’t technically a flip-flop. All he’s saying is that he is willing to use his original position as a bargaining chip (read: throw the environmentalists under the bus) in order to “get something done.”

This is Barack “I will reach across the aisle” Obama in action. And if his idea of what a comprehensive energy bill should look like were stripped of the silly talk about energy independence and biofuels, then I would agree with him. Energy is a pretty good issue on which to compromise in order to get something done.

But I still have trouble reconciling the compromising/backpedaling Obama with the Obama who said this:

I am standing here because somebody somewhere at some point in time stood up when it was risky, stood up when it was hard, stood up when it wasn't popular. We have to stand up on behalf of future generations. And if you join me I promise you we can change America.

Is it possible to be (and market yourself as) both a compromiser and someone who stands up when it isn't popular? Well, you certainly can’t do both on the same issue. But what if he could be that perfect mix of a politician who compromises on the relatively minor stuff (like oil drilling) in order to get stuff done, and then stands up and refuses to compromise on more important issues (like getting out of Iraq, or not bombing Iran)? That sure would be swell.

Alas, I’m not convinced he can do it. When push comes to shove, I think he will act the part of the compromising facilitator rather than the principled leader. Obama wants to be all things to all people; a president the whole country can rally around. And I fear that, in order to be that guy, he will compromise on issues of all stripes—both the trivial and the consequential. He might end up getting a lot done, but I’m not sure we’ll be happy with the results.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bouldin Abroad

Buckogirl reports on an incident on a Sydney bus that is more complex than it seems, and has some lessons for us all...