Wednesday, May 25, 2011

True Believers

Graphic by Matt Katzenberger, as posted on Flickr

A recent e-mail from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) was penned by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). The e-mail solicits contributions from people on the DSCC mailing list, and begins with the question, “Is nothing sacred to these people?”

It continues…

First, Republicans spent months attacking women and families. Now they’re going after seniors. There’s no end to what they’re willing to destroy to achieve their extremist vision.

Democrats in the Senate stood up and said no when they tried to take away affordable health care, mammograms and family planning. And we’ll do it again for Medicare. But every time we fight for what’s right, a GOP avalanche of lies and attacks will follow.

That’s why the DSCC is launching a Rapid Response Project to fight back – expose the lies, defend our candidates, and hold our majority.
Senator Mikulski notes that Republicans like to portray themselves as “the reasonable ones.” She then goes on to pose a few rhetorical questions:

Was it reasonable to bring our government to the brink of a shutdown so they could attack women’s access to health care? Is it reasonable to threaten the health and well-being of seniors? And what about jobs? Why are they focusing on their extremist social agenda when millions are still out of work?
Senator Mikulski describes the formation of the DSCC Rapid Response Project, which “…will respond to GOP attacks quickly and aggressively. We won’t let a single lie remain unchallenged.”

To better coordinate efforts between the DSCC and the Obama administration, a new position has been created in the White House. Here’s a link to a Huffington Post article by Sam Stein. (Sam is a personal friend of the new director, Jesse Lee.)

Mr. Stein describes the work that will engage the time of Mr. Lee, but he fails to note that Mr. Lee is married to Nita Chaudhary, a director at Ms. Chaudhary is known for her spirited support of the “General Betray Us” campaign. She is also a staunch defender of President Obama’s health care strategy.

The Rapid Response Project, with its close ties to and now with Jesse Lee as the White House Director of Progressive Media & Online Response, is dedicated to exposing the lies of those unreasonable, extremist Republicans who are attacking seniors, women and families.

Senator Mikulski encourages all True Believers to contribute to this worthwhile DSCC project.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barbara Oakley

She had me with this line…

On page 148, in describing the state of teenager Carole Alden's room, Barbara Oakley writes:

“But within a few days it would deteriorate, as if entropy worked double-time around her.”
How can you not like someone who uses the word “entropy” in everyday language?

Cold-Blooded Kindness” is the most recent work of Dr. Barbara Oakley, associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. The book tells the story of Carole Elizabeth Alden, a wife and mother who accepts a plea agreement in the killing of her husband. Ms. Alden is currently serving a sentence of up to fifteen years at the Utah State Penitentiary.

While the story itself is fascinating, Dr. Oakley uses the narrative to give us a glimpse of the behaviors and motivations of people who are caught up in difficult life experiences. We find that we may not be able to fully determine human intent, but we can do research and draw conclusions. We are led on a cerebral “Alice in Wonderland” journey where Dr. Oakley helps us compare what we know about events with what we see in the various human responses.

Our journey comes with a twist: As Dr. Oakley summarizes in the final chapter of the book, “This book really isn’t about gullible Carole. It’s about gullible us.”

Her point is that there is still much we don’t know about human behavior, and we are often misled by studies that employ a dubious form of research; a research energized by people motivated to “do the right thing” rather than go where the science takes them.

Dr. Oakley is not afraid to name names. She takes to task the work of Lenore Walker (pages 47 to 51) and Marc Hauser (295-299), but has praise for Murray Straus (162-163). The openness of her writing is not without cost. She is the target (along with her publisher) of retribution from Carole Alden herself (306) and blowback from at least one former executive at the New York Academy of Medicine (298).

Still, her work is appreciated by people like me (on the periphery), and hopefully by those who perform research in the science and engineering fields. She helps to restore the reputation of the scientific principles that sometimes are abandoned when research has political overtones.

A case in point is a post from this blog about the backfire effect, a term derived from a paper about political misperceptions. The thesis of the paper was that Republicans “dig in” and hold on to misperceptions, even when confronted with facts that prove otherwise. I was disappointed to see how our culture applauded the research used to draw this conclusion.

You will have to review the post to see how it relates to "Cold-Blooded Kindness." Just know that I am pleased there are people in the academic community like Dr. Oakley who foster the integrity of scientific research.

UPDATE 8/17/2011:
Linked by The Other McCain!  Thanks, Smitty.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Terrified of Racism

Civil War 300x222 Why Did the Civil War Happen

The Civil War was instructive for Republicans. It showed the costs associated with standing up for a principle, and those costs were measured in the currency of death.

Painful lessons endure. Republicans to this day are overly sensitive in weighing the costs of their principles. Republicans will compromise when pushed. It is a weakness that political opponents exploit (much to the chagrin of those in the Conservative camp).

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) knows how to take advantage of this weakness. HUD trades in our contemporary political currency: the currency of racism.

This press release is a demonstration of HUD’s technique. HUD has the power to stop a bank from offering mortgage loans. It couches that power in this mission statement:

HUD's mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.
Does that mission statement seem to be wearing a hair shirt? Here is what HUD Assistant Secretary John Trasviña has to say about the action against First National Bank of St. Louis:

Families struggling to get ahead in today's tough economic climate need access to quality banking services where they live.
Do you think Quicken Loans shares Mr. Trasviña’s view? HUD thinks struggling families need a local lender to satisfy their mortgage needs. Is that the direction the industry is headed in the 21st century? What is wrong with this picture?

An agency of the federal government wields power against a local bank and congratulates itself in a press release. HUD is pleased that it has modified the economic model of a bank that has been in business for over 100 years.

HUD flexes its muscle, and underneath the covers is that unspoken charge of “racism.”

I know, “Just compromise and move on…”

UPDATE 5/18/2011:
You might be wondering, “What does this post have to do with anti-Republican culture?” It is just a simple tale of extortion, right?

The issue is the use of racism as a political proxy. Let me provide the context.

Let’s assume that it is important for our culture to have people qualify for mortgage loans. Buying a home versus renting a home creates “pride of ownership” and makes people better citizens.

The only problem is that the borrower must qualify for the mortgage.

Traditionally, lenders qualify buyers based on their credit score (willingness to pay), their income (ability to pay), and their down payment (incentive to pay). Based on the combination of these factors, lenders can accurately predict the security of their loans: the probability that there will not be a default.

What are compelling reasons to adjust the qualifying factors? One is the business climate. If the housing market is robust, home prices are increasing, and the risk of default goes down because collateral (the home) is increasing in value. Qualifying factors can be eased.

The opposite is true in a declining housing market. Qualifying factors have to be tightened.

But should skin tone be a criterion for loosening qualifying standards? Does it make sense for First National Bank of St. Louis to provide $500,000 in subsidies to St. Louis home buyers based on their skin tone? (See Chapter VII, Section F of the HUD Conciliation Agreement.)

It does if you understand that those subsidies will be going to people who vote against Republicans.

Our culture promotes various social initiatives based on their anti-Republican impact. We promote amnesty programs for illegal immigrants, as long as the expectation is that the amnesty recipient will vote against Republicans. We promote programs that benefit people with dark skin tone, as long as we know that 90% of those people will vote against Republicans. We encourage increases in entitlement programs, assuming the recipients will vote against Republicans.

What if it becomes known that illegal immigrants tend to vote for Republicans? What if people with dark skin tone switch back to the Republican Party? Will our culture still find that these groups need special help?

I don’t think so. The need for social reconstruction applies only so long as it increases the power and authority of the Democratic Party.

If people with dark skin tone in St. Louis start voting with the Republican Party, the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council will cease to exist. HUD will be disbanded.

And maybe when it becomes obvious that taxpayer dollars are being used in this simple conduit of political power, Americans will begin to question the validity and fairness of the institutions in our “raaaaacism industry.”

UPDATE 5/21/2011:
Linked by Left Coast Rebel!  Thanks, Tim.

UPDATE 7/18/2011:
Now the Department of Justice is doing the extortion.

UPDATE 8/31/2011:
Mary Kissel in the Wall Street Journal sees the DOJ connection to extortion.  Now if she just begins to see that DOJ is not working to support minorities in general, but precisely those minorities who vote against Republicans, she might glimpse the larger picture.

UPDATE 9/7/2013:
Ed Asner highlights a tactic of the Democratic Party in Hollywood:  "Support the war or you are a racist!"

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Themes versus Facts

Congressman Paul Ryan went through the details of his budget proposal on the Hugh Hewitt Show a few days ago. One of his comments stood out:

And a lot of people just don’t know how messed up the federal budget is, and what it’s going to take to get it under control. A lot of people still believe, and the polls show this, they think Obamacare, you know, lowers health care spending. I mean, so we’ve got a challenge on our hands. The good thing we have with this, Hugh, is the facts.
But isn’t that the crux of the Republican problem? Republicans believe "the facts" will save them.

Maybe a little context is needed.

Yesterday, Mr. Hewitt interviewed Senator Orrin Hatch. Senator Hatch had a rather direct characterization of the Democratic Party:

They play politics very, very tough, they play it well, and they don’t give a damn about what’s right and what’s wrong.
Those are strong words from a person with a lot of political experience. Perhaps we should take note.

Here’s an incident from the other end of the political power spectrum:

Last night, my wife and I watched the movie “Fair Game” starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. It’s the story of the Valerie Plame affair, as told by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Like “The Conspirator,” the movie leaves you with the lingering feeling that Republicans are bad people.

My wife and I debated the format of the film. I brought up the politics of Richard Armitage, the depiction of the Wilsons in Vanity Fair, and the prosecutorial work of Patrick Fitzgerald. I thought I was covering “the facts,” but the theme is what prevailed. The film teaches you that Republicans are bad people, and that’s the impression that dwells with you.

Here’s one more “fact” to keep in mind:

My link to the Butterworths cites their screenplay as being honored by the Writers Guild of America. The Butterworth brothers were the recipients of the 2011 Paul Selvin Award for “written work which embodies the spirit of constitutional rights and civil liberties.”

That’s an institutional award; one that reflects our culture. Can you guess which political group is depicted as being against “constitutional rights and civil liberties?”

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I’m looking for just the right word here.

President Obama gave a speech in El Paso yesterday, at the Chamizal National Memorial. A portion of the speech is posted at Left Coast Rebel.

The full text is here.

The President refers to “they,” in the fashion of, “All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done.” He cultivates an “us versus them” mentality in the audience.

And then he gets my attention:

THE PRESIDENT: But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: They’re racist!

THE PRESIDENT: You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. (Laughter.) Maybe they want alligators in the moat. (Laughter.) They’ll never be satisfied.

The President of the United States enjoys the characterization of Republicans as racists, as does his audience.

It leaves me dumbfounded.

When someone makes light of the scourge of racism, I think of the article by Ayn Rand, published almost fifty years ago. She explains racism at length, and does not look favorably on people who exhibit the behavior “Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.”

Ms. Rand is a hero of the Republican side of the aisle. From my own personal experience, I can say that after I read “The Fountainhead,” I thought I had read the best American novel ever written. (At the time, I had no interest in politics. I was taking a high school course in American Literature, and wasn’t old enough to vote.)

But back to the President’s remarks…

Republicans fought a civil war to end slavery, and fervently believe in equal justice under the law. To joke about them being racists and enjoying the specter of human beings eaten by alligators seems over-the-top.

It is certainly not "Presidential."

I think the proper word is “grotesque.”

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Metaphor

The title of the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, is a metaphor. It uses Atlas (the character in Greek mythology condemned by Zeus to shoulder the weight of the heavens) as a symbol of Americans shouldering the weight of a stifling government. The question is posed, “What if Atlas shrugged?”

There is elegance in this formulation. It is both intriguing and subtle.

If you are looking for those attributes in the recently-released movie, Atlas Shrugged Part I, you will be disappointed. The movie is a different kind of metaphor.

The movie distinguishes itself with its lack of subtlety. Writer and producer John Aglialoro works to stay true to the prose in the novel. While he may have satisfied the Ayn Rand purists, he has failed the rest of us.

Ayn Rand’s book, of necessity, has to use the narrative of its characters to help us understand what is going on. The movie should show us, and should do it with visual creativity. That doesn’t happen in Atlas Shrugged Part I. The characters in the movie are employed as voices of the obvious.

Here are some places where liberties could have been taken…

--The disheveled character coming in for a meal at the diner: The waitress is concerned that he may not be able to pay for his meal, and questions his intent. He angrily responds that he has “plenty of money!” That’s fine, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting (and enigmatic) if he would have thrown down a gold coin in payment, along with that parting shot, “Who is John Galt?”

--Dagny Taggart walking the rails in her high heels, and being told by Ellis Wyatt that she is a good manager: Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to show her engaged with her workers, solving problems, and dressed in a hardhat and coveralls? The audience doesn’t quite see her as an effective supervisor when she’s decked out in stilettos on a railroad right-of-way.

--The final scene of the destruction of the Wyatt mining operation: Is it believable that the first responders would allow Dagny to push past them to get near a dangerous structure fire? Does the final message Mr. Wyatt delivers have to be prominently displayed in large handwritten print and posted on a fence post? It seems cartoon-like.

--Ayn Rand created Henry Rearden and Dagny Taggart in the style of mythological characters: They do incredible things and have heroic accomplishments. Is it uplifting to see them engaged in adulterous behavior and then enjoying orange juice the morning after? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to work the sexual tension as long as possible?

--Being a vegan was probably not a popular lifestyle when Ayn Rand wrote her book, yet we see the film focused on Henry and Dagny relishing meat and potatoes. Is it really necessary to make that point?

--Does high-speed rail have a place on mountainous grades and along a twisting river bank? The thought of the lateral “G forces” on the passengers as they make their 150 MPH journey clashes with reality. A sophisticated audience winces.

The film does have an important message, and its timeliness could not be better. A story in the The Wall Street Journal showcases Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius using the heavy-handed political tactics that are depicted in the movie.

Unfortunately, the distraction of the movie’s attempt to stay true to the novel overwhelms us. The film becomes a different kind of metaphor: a metaphor of Republican incoherence.

Republicans find themselves stung by clichés of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat” and failing to field electable candidates. The construction of this movie seems to highlight those failings.

Ayn Rand’s work resonates in America today, and we are seeing in real time the examples depicted in her novel. Yet this “teaching opportunity” is lost in Atlas Shrugged Part I. Republicans can’t seem to deliver the message.

Samuel Goldwyn was right: “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.”

UPDATE 5/19/2011:
If you wish to see a really well-written review of the movie (as compared to this post), read P.J.O'Rourke's piece in The Wall Street Journal.

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