Wednesday, February 28, 2007

hillary in the crosshairs

This first in a series of posts on the 2008 Presidential campaign concerns Hillary Clinton. I'd like to begin by saying that I will not be actively supporting Senator Clinton in the primaries; her vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2002 -- and her subsequent failure to acknowledge that her vote was a mistake -- suggests that she lacks the judgment necessary to make a good President.

That said, I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss the way Hillary Clinton is being treated by the mainstream media. I'll try to analyze what seem to be the chief complaints about Clinton. They seem to be roughly as follows:

1. Hollywood mogul David Geffen, among others, complains to New York Times gossip merchant Maureen Dowd that Clinton is too "ambitious." Does this mean that we should want a Presidential candidate who is not ambitious? I myself wouldn't deny that Clinton is probably ambitious -- she obviously wants to be President, or else she wouldn't be running -- but in what way is she demonstrably more ambitious than, say, John McCain, who is running for the second time? In what way is she more ambitious than Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who changed their positions on abortion to appeal to the religious conservatives in their party?

2. Ana Marie Cox, writing for Time, says that Clinton "may be the most polarizing figure on the current political landscape" and wonders whether Clinton will "figure out how to get red America to see her softer side." The numbers tell us that Clinton is indeed polarizing: most liberals and independents like her, and most conservatives loathe her. The question is: does this have to do with anything intrinsic to Hillary Clinton's personality or her record? Or does it have more to do with the fact that, for example, prominent conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Jerry Falwell have been baselessly suggesting, for the past 13 years, that Hillary Clinton murdered her friend Vince Foster? What's miraculous to me is that after almost two decades of relentless attacks from the right-wing noise machine, Hillary Clinton still has a job approval rating of over 70%.

3. A Slate column by Jacob Weisberg makes the argument -- using Clinton's iPod playlist and comparing it to those of George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice -- that Clinton is calculating, that she is "the least spontaneous of politicians." Again, I ask: in what way is Clinton demonstrably more calculating than other politicians such as McCain, Giuliani, Romney, and John Edwards? If you believe, as Weisberg apparently does, that Clinton's appreciation for both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones is clear proof that she's more calculating than other politicians, then you're probably dumb enough to see everything she does through that lens. I'm not ruling out the possibility that Clinton is, in fact, unusually calculating -- but rarely have I seen that case made in a rational or intelligent way.

4. Finally, the obsession with her sex life. This montage of video (thanks to Think Progress for assembling it) from MSNBC's Hardball highlights the bizarre fascination the media has with the Clintons' sexual behavior. It has to be seen to be believed, but here's a sample:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): Is Bill Clinton going to be a problem in this campaign?

ANN LEWIS (Clinton political strategist): Absolutely not.

MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself?

LEWIS: Bill Clinton has been around — in the first place, he’s been around the world saving lives.

MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself?

LEWIS: He’s going to do what he does best.

MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself—

LEWIS: Yes, he is.

MATTHEWS: …not cause publicity that gets her embarrassed?

LEWIS: There’s no there there. No. I think Bill Clinton is going to continue doing his work, going around the world, saving lives.

MATTHEWS: So he’s going to behave himself?

LEWIS: He’s going to be out on the campaign trail.

MATTHEWS: And he’s going to behave himself so Hillary can be the first woman president?

LEWIS: You’re all going to be applauding.

MATTHEWS: I think it’d be great for the country if we were not once again distracted—

LEWIS: So do I.

MATTHEWS: …by what you call private life. And I think the way to avoid getting distracted is to have nothing there to distract us.

LEWIS: Well, I agree with that. But we just spent how many minutes of this segment, three minutes, talking about how there should be nothing to distract us? Why don’t we stop talking about it and talk about the issues?

Good grief! Yup, for those of you keeping score, that's five times Matthews asked if Bill Clinton is going to "behave himself." Nothing about Hillary herself, mind you. All about whether Bill is going to "behave himself." (An appropriate response from Lewis would have been, "How the hell should I know?") So how is Matthews handling the marital hanky-panky on the Republican side?

Rudy Giuliani informed his second wife, Donna Hanover, of his intention to seek a separation in a 2000 press conference. The announcement was precipitated by a tabloid frenzy after Giuliani marched with his then-mistress, Judith Nathan, in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade, an acknowledgement of infidelity so audacious that Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer compared it to "groping in the window at Macy's." In the acrid divorce proceedings that followed, Hanover accused Giuliani of serial adultery, alleging that Nathan was just the latest in a string of mistresses, following an affair the mayor had had with his former communications director. Here's what Matthews has to say about Giuliani:

Who's going to protect this country against the bad guys? Everybody agrees that's the number one concern in the country today, and everyone agrees that Rudy has street cred on that issue. He can protect us. That's the image he conveys.

He acts and talks like a president.

How did he get the pee smell out of that subway?

Some trenchant analysis by Matthews. You can see why his show is called Hardball.

How about John McCain? McCain was still married and living with his wife in 1979 when he began aggressively courting 25-year-old Cindy Hensley, heir to Hensley & Company, one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributors in the nation. McCain divorced his wife (who had been severely injured in a car accident a few years earlier), and then he launched his political career with his new wife's family money. Here's Matthews on McCain:

A lot of people there are sort of Reagan Republicans, who like the cut of John McCain's jib, his independence, his maverick reputation.

He is a firm man.

He's kind of like a Martin Luther. He's going back and reforming and finding the pure conservative movement.

We'll get the straight talk from Senator McCain himself in just a moment, but one of the lessons here might be: Don't mess with John McCain.

I don't care about McCain's marital infidelity, or Giuliani's, or Bill Clinton's. (Never mind that Hillary herself has never been suspected of cheating on Bill.) But if Matthews is still "distracted" by Bill Clinton's behavior in the 1990's, why isn't he too "distracted" by Giuliani's philandering to notice how America's Mayor miraculously cured the "pee smell" in New York's subways? Partly, there's the obvious gender issue: different standards for men and women. Even more pronounced, however, are the different standards for Republicans and Democrats. Especially if you're a Clinton.

One alarming trend I have already noticed is that not many liberals are rushing to Hillary Clinton's defense. I suspect this is because a lot of liberals and Democrats aren't sold on Clinton and might be supporting another candidate: Obama, or Edwards, or Richardson, or someone else. They're relieved, in other words, to see the right wing systematically destroying Clinton and not their candidate. I think this is the worst thing liberals can do. Because once the media is through pelting Clinton with lies and smears, they'll come for the next leading contender. (Witness what happened to John Kerry after Howard Dean was forced out of the 2004 race.) A much wiser and more ethical strategy would be to denounce this freak-show style of reporting and commentary -- no matter whom you're supporting -- and insist that the media do its job responsibly. Otherwise you're helping to ensure that our next President will be named McCain, Giuliani, or Romney. See the Daily Howler for much more detail on how this happened in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) opens with the narrator, a black man, living for free in a closed-off section of a basement in a New York apartment building reserved exclusively for white tenants. According to the narrator, he "did not become alive until [he] discovered [his] invisibility.
That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. I also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I’ve already begun to wire the wall. . . . Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth. When I finish all four walls, then I’ll start on the floor. Just how that will go, I don’t know. Yet when you have lived invisible as long as I have you develop a certain ingenuity. I’ll solve the problem. And maybe I’ll invent a gadget to place my coffee pot on the fire while I lie in bed, and even invent a gadget to warm my bed—like the fellow I saw in one of those picture magazines who made himself a gadget to warm his shoes! Though invisible, I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a “thinker-tinker.” (7)

Douglas Ford argues that for Ellison electricity is "more than a prop or a morally neutral force. Rather, it functions as a trope that provides new aesthetic possibilities, as well as a means of accessing discourses of power and productive strategies of resistance" (888). That's true. But electricity also appears -- to the narrator, at least -- as a limitless resource that can be squandered with impunity, with the power company the only loser. We know, and I think Ellison knew, that the narrator's passive-aggressive method of resistance harms not just the power company, but his own spirit. This is why Ellison chooses not, for example, to have his narrator go off the grid entirely. That would be a kind of anarchic civil disobedience; his installation of 1,369 light bulbs actively participates in an extreme form of capitalism that espouses taking all the (literal) power and resources one can get, even if it leads to wildly irresponsible and wasteful behavior. All in the vain hope of somehow beating the societal order. It is the acquisition of power for power's sake.

Rush Limbaugh bragged on the air the other day that to protest what he labels the "hysteria" over global warming, he was going to refuse to buy energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs, preferring instead to stick to the "old-fashioned Thomas Edison-style" incandescent bulbs. An almost hilariously pathetic attempt at nonconformity. Like Ellison's narrator, Limbaugh is ignorant -- willfully so -- of the consequences of his actions. The difference is that while the so-called invisible man at least thinks he is fighting the system, Limbaugh -- the nation's #1 radio talk show host -- knows perfectly well, despite all his rhetoric to the contrary, that he is the system.

Monday, February 26, 2007

snow water

Chinese poet and essayist Wei An (1960-1999) bases much of his material on the traditional East Asian calendar, which divides the year into 24 solar terms. Currently we are in the second pentad (次候) of Yǔshuǐ (雨水), which translates as "rain water." Yǔshuǐ begins when the sun reaches the celestial longtitude of 330° and ends when it reaches 345°. As the name implies, this is the time of year when the temperature is said to have risen enough to make rain more likely than snow.

Based on my experience living in Reno for the past two years, I think we would do well to name this particular period -- February 24-28 -- "snow water" (雪水). A nonsense phrase in Chinese. But I suspect it would make sense to Nevadans. It's still cold enough, and Reno is at a sufficiently high altitude, to make snow more likely than rain. But it is a wet rain: fat flakes, spitting more than drifting, melting almost instantly upon meeting the ground. It's been flurrying almost all day, and now with some intensity. But there's been virtually no accumulation. A time of gray skies, pink light at sunset, and the season's first phlox worming up through the ground.

The most appealing aspect of Wei's work is the patience with which he observes the natural world. He was never a productive writer; he believed that the pace of his writing process should mirror the gradual changes of the seasons. My chosen profession may never allow me to adopt such a practice, but surely there are small ways to slacken the tempo of the world. Watching snowflakes must be one.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

snow in the truckee meadows

Finally the snow has stopped. The backyard, and all the fence-building materials -- the two-by-fours, chicken wire, wheelbarrow, and cedar slats -- are blanketed with wet snow. Looks like I'll have to wait a while to resume work on that project. The streets in the neighborhood glisten under the streetlights. The university quad, which the school was inexplicably watering less than a week ago, is buried. It was really just a few inches here in Reno, even after snowing all day. Seems like a lot of effort for only a little reward. The Sierras, though, are claiming they got two feet.

A first post on this new blog seems to demand some sort of mission statement. So I'll say a little bit about that. I hope to entertain, to provoke, and to occasionally inspire whomever happens by. I envision an audience mainly of people who stumble their way here, as well as a few friends and family who have time on their hands. I'll discuss politics, art, music, books, mountains, rivers, and people. The things I love. But something more than a public diary. I'll say more later. For now it's time to get back to Ralph Ellison.