Archive for September, 2008

A Thesis in Search of Evidence

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

The life of an academic can be very agreeable. The working conditions are pleasant. One is surrounded by eager young minds. There is usually no hard labor involved. Pay is sufficient for a middle class lifestyle, but few academics ever earn enough money to firmly ensconce themselves in the upper middle class. The exceptions come for those who manage to bring in government sponsored research grants or who pen bestsellers.

The material success of some business people and others chafes against the sense of justice of some academics. In school, successful academics widely surpassed most of their contemporaries. By God, they are smarter and more clever than these other people. How can can they be so materially successful? Some deal with this perceived injustice by retreating to a smug arrogance that those successful in a non-academic fields are simple-minded Philistines. There is an acknowledgment that professionals like doctor, lawyers, and dentists achieve affluence, but that is OK because they are degreed professionals. Even academics have to concede the intellectual abilities associated with these professions.

Accents can be a key discriminator. If one does carry an accent from an Eastern school or at best a mid-western standard English pronunciation, there is the suspicion that  that person is from the hinterlands, and not quite up to the intellectual rigors of national leadership. While there are many who might feel comfortable with President George Bush’s Texas drawl, there are others from who this provide evidences of a less than stellar mind.

This snobbishness explains the response by academics on the Left (see Clark Clifford) who laughed a Ronald Reagan as an “amiable dunce.” It even explains the reaction by the Left to Justice Clarence Thomas. It is amazing to read criticisms of the mental capacities of Justice Thomas from some who have never read a opinion by Thomas or even any Supreme Court opinion. Is always comforting to assume a position of intellectual superiority over political adversaries.

What is often missed is that the skills and temperament to be a successful political or business leader to not have large areas of overlap with those skills that make a successful academic, attorney or similar professions. Politicians and wealthy business leaders require an above average intelligence and will benefit from wide experience, but at least as important is an ability inspire confidence and loyalty among subordinates. Successful politicians and business people benefit a preternatural ability to connect emotionally with people and to assess others.

What used to frustrate Liberal academics and pseudo-intellectuals about William F. Buckley and continues to annoy them about George F. Will, is that their conspicuous intellectual ability and academic credentials makes in difficult to lampoon with caricatures of Conservative buffoons.  Nonetheless, when confronted with a new conservative, the Left’s (particularly the academic Left’s) instinctive reaction is to seek out speech or factual errors as certain evidence of lack of intellectual capacity.

This has been the pattern so far as Governor Sarah Paliln has emerged on the national scene after having been selected as a Vice-Presidential running mate for Senator John McCain. First, there was the attempt make fun of her small-town background. However, this did not go over well with many Americans who either live in or used to live in small towns. This  tactic was at least less despicable than making Palin’s unwed pregnant daughter the butt of jokes and the victim of vicious rumors of incest.

Palin’s accent was different. But before that could become an object of ridicule, she delivered a blow-out speech at the Republican National Convention with charisma and an innate flair for comedic timing. This was a woman that could more than hold her own in a public venue.

The notion of mentally inferiority dies hard and surely there would be an opportunity to slip her up. In the interview with Charlie Gibson, Gibson asked her opinion on the “Bush doctrine.” She responded, “In what respect, Charlie?” Gibson had a difficulat time being specific.

The Left touted her unpreparedness. Doesn’t she know what the Bush Doctrine is? Well as it turns out there was not single document or speech that points to a single Bush Doctrine. Rather it is composed of a set not necessarily connected components, including the willingness to act unilaterally if necessary, going after countries that harbor terrorists, and acting preemptively. Palin’s response was not only adequate, but displayed depth of understanding that escaped Gibson during the interview.

No one is perfectly knowledgeable or perfectly glib. Palin will make mistakes. However, consider the following errors:

  • Senator Barack Obama once referred to 57 US states. “Over the last 15 months, we’ve traveled to every corner of the United States. I’ve now been in 57 states? I think one left to go.”
  • Obama clamed that the the Selma March in 1965  helped to bring his parents together. Obama was born in 1961.
  • As an example of the diversion of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, Obama cited the lack of translators, “We only have a certain number of them, and if they are all in Iraq, then it’s harder for us to use them in Afghanistan.” However, in Iraq the primary languages are Arabic and Kurdish, while according to the CIA World Factbook, Afghans speak, “Afghan Persian or Dari (official) 50%, Pashto (official) 35%, Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 11%.”
  • Obama claimed that “I had a uncle who was one of the, who was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps.” His uncle most certainly played an noble role in fighting in World War II, but Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets.
  • In an interview  with  George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, Obama referred to “my Muslim faith.” Obama is a Christian.
  • Senator Joe Biden, Obama’s irrepressible  running mate, “When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.”’ Biden seems to have forgotten that the famous stock market crash of 1929 occurred under President Herbert Hoover’s administration and at the time television was just experimental. The Germans introduced the “first non-experimental public” television broadcast in 1935. Such broadcasts to only a few people began int he US in 1939.

These misstatements are arguably all the result of exhaustion, simple misspeaking, historical sloppiness, or the common political disease of hyperbole. They do not constitute evidence of stupidity or incoherence. However, if Sarah Palin had made analogous statements, they would have received more play in the national media and provided fodder for Left-wind blogs and late-night comedians.

When you hear people make fun of Sarah Palin’s lack intelligence point out that they are nurturing a thesis in search of a evidence, while ignoring evidence that does not support their preconceived notions. People speak with assumed authority on Palin’s lack intelligence largely saying more about their own world view than they are about someone they hardly know.

Deconstruction of Lipstick

Friday, September 12th, 2008

The will come a time when it is impossible to understand how Senator Barack Obama’s reference to the old metaphor of putting lipstick on a pig, as a colorful way to indicate a vain attempt to make something fundamentally unattractive appear beautiful through the expedient of a cosmetic change, caused such an uproar. Perhaps was near contemporaneous exploration of the issue will be of some small future value for all those political science theses that will be written on the subject.

Here are Obama’s words:

“John McCain says he’s about change, too.And so I guess his whole angle is, ‘Watch out, George Bush! Except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics, we’re really going to shake things up in Washington. That’s not change. That’s just calling something the same thing something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink after eight years. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.

Clearly, within the immediate context of the quotation, the “lipstick on a pig” referred to the Bush policies that could not be made to look better. If that same metaphor had been used earlier in the the campaign, it would be impossible to read any different meaning into it. Unfortunately, it was not a metaphor Obama had recently used, but one that unleashed after the nomination of Governor Sarah Palin for vice-president.

Days before, Palin had cited the now famous joke: “What is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull… Lipstick.” The joke became a signature comment and the word “lipstick” was specifically associated with Palin and her feminity. It is in this total context not only the context of his words that day that Obama had made his remarks. Moreover, the phrase “old fish” could be applied to Senator John McCain.

Taken together, the remarks could be viewed as a clever swipe against both halves of the national ticket. Indeed,the smirking laughs that followed Obama’s comments indicate that the the audience got the joke.

Until they changed their coverage to hide this crowd reaction, ABC news reported:

“The crowd rose and applauded, some of them no doubt thinking he may have been alluding to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s ad lib during her vice presidential nomination acceptance speech last week..”

while AP recorded the same impression:

“”You can put lipstick on a pig,” he [Obama] said to an outbreak of laughter, shouts and raucous applause from his audience, clearly drawing a connection to Palin’s joke even if it’s not what Obama meant….”

It is impossible to peer into Obama’s mind and know his intention. There remain a couple of possibilities. The more negative interpretation is that he was making a vaguely misogynistic remark against Palin. The less damning one is that he was unaware of how the remark would be interpreted. This is not quite the image of the clever constitutional law lawyer adept a parsing sentence and interpreting words in the context of the times.

AP in the Tank

Monday, September 8th, 2008

There was a time when one might have considered media bias a subtle thing, difficult to ferret out. That time has past.  Sarah Kugler of AP reported today:

“Sarah Palin criticized Democrat Barack Obama over the amount of money he has requested for his home state of Illinois, even though under Palin’s leadership has asked Washington for 10 times more money per citizen for pet projects”

Note how AP reports on the McCain/Palin statement on earmarks, but immediately, without attribution, cites the Democratic response that “Alaska under Palin’s leadership has asked Washington for 10 times more money per citizen for pet projects.” This argument is misleading in at least two ways.

First, Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens has been securing a disproportional share of earmarks to Alaska for decades. He did not seek or need Palin’s approval. Indeed, Palin has been battling the Republican establishment in Alaska of which Ted Stevens is a key member. To associate her with the earmarks as if they were here responsiblity is false.

Second, if a governor is offered federal money, it would be a abrogation of his or her responsibility to his or her constituency to not use those resources as efficiently as possible.

This is different from a Senator’s responsibility. A Senator his not only represents his or her particular state, but must keep an eye on national interests. Senator Barack Obama has ignored some of this national responsibility by directing earmarks to his state, Illinois.

Further note the phrasing in the AP article that: “The new line of attack [from McCain and Palin] came after Obama made his first direct criticism of Palin over the weekend…” Obama apparently criticizes, while the Republicans engage in a “line of attack.” There is  certainly  a different connotation between a “criticism” versus an“attack.” As Obama has argued, “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.” Indeed, they do and this choice of words reveals something about the character and perspective of the person who wrote them.

“The Speech?”

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

In the latest issue of the Weekly Standard has referred to the remarkably effective speech by Governor Sarah Palin at last week’s Republican National Convention in a headline as “The Speech.” According the Standard, the three salient features of the speech were (1) that it could only be delivered by a genuine Washington Outsider, (2) that its critique struck at Senator Barack Obama’s lack of public accomplishments, and (3) that it offered the prospect of an advocate for special needs children. This analysis is accurate but lost in the details. The real value of the speech was that it introduced an articulate, tough, and likable new political force; a force that could represent a generational change in the Republican Party.

However, the reference to “The Speech” harkens back to another speech that publicly introduced a new political face. In October 1964, Ronald Reagan delivered an impassioned plea for the West to stand up to the Soviets and the Left as he endorsed Barry Goldwater for president. The formal name of the speech was “A Time For Choosing,” but it has come to be known among Reagan acolytes as “The Speech.”

Palin’s speech is analogous to Reagan’s in that we may find in hindsight that it introduced an important political power, but that is the only way in that it is comparable. Reagan, as a private citizen, had spent nearly a decade honing his political philosophy and world view as articulated in speeches to various groups usually under the sponsorship of General Electric. Reagan’s famous speech had actually been delivered various times before, but this particular televised delivery is how the country became acutely aware of Reagan’s ability to communicate his vision and most importantly what that vision was.

Reagan really never had to introduce himself in his political career. His career in the entertainment industry formed that introduction for him. Palin was unknown out of Alaska, so the purpose of her speech had to be different than Reagan’s endorsement of Goldwater.

Palin has the time timing of practiced orator and the temperament of a politician who can read the mood of her audience. She shares this skill with the likes of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. The Standard probably never consciously meant to associate Palin’s performance with “The Speech;” but the term should, like the number of particularly talented ballplayers, be retired. There is only one example of “The Speech.”

The Experience of Obama and Palin

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

It is interesting to examine a time line of the public life of Senator Barack Obama, the top of the Democratic presidential ticket, and Governor Sarah Palin, number two on the Republican ticket.

From 1992 to 1996, Sarah Palin served two terms on the city council of the small town of Wasilla, AK. During the same time, Obama was a lawyer and community organizer in Chicago. The year 1996 was important for both. Palin ran for and was elected mayor of Wasilla, while Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate.

Palin served as mayor for her two-term limit to 2002 and then ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of Alaska. Instead, she ended up serving on the state Ethics Commission and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.  In 2004, Obama was elected to the US Senate where he has served since. In 2006, Palin was elected Governor of Alaska, overcoming the old-boy Republican establishment in Alaska.

Essentially, we have a young national legislator versus an young state governor. While it is legitimate to argue that a US Senator gains experience considering national issues, a state governor gains executive experience managing a large governmental enterprise. Both are important for a President or Vice-President.

If Obama and Palin were not running for national office now, it would be hard to make a case about whom had greater experience necessary to be the national chief executive. However, over the last year Obama has been running for President. This has not so much increased his legislative experience, but it has given the nation an opportunity to listen to him and assess his seriousness on issues. Is not so much that he has acquired experience, but that the country has grown accustomed to him and in some modest way taken his measure.

While Obama has been campaigning for President, Palin has been running the state government of Alaska. Only Alaskans really have had time and exposure to appreciate her merits and recognize her flaws. By the time the election occurs this fall, we will have had ample opportunity to take the measure of Palin. Is not so much that she will gain experience, but we will grow in our experience of her. In any objective office-holding sense, Obama does not have more experience then Palin and arguable less, rather we have more experience of him. This lack is remedial.