November 28, 2004

Post-Thanksgiving Links

Posted by Ed

One of these days I'll post something more than just a link--I promise! For now, though, here are some articles that caught my attention:

  • The Boston Globe ideas section profiles Harvey Cox, the Harvard theologian, and asks the question "What would Jesus do at Harvard?"
  • In The London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson looks back at Isaac Deutscher's three-volume Trotsky biography.
  • The new Bookforum features several articles of note, including Bernard Anderson's review essay on "anti-Americanisms" and Marjorie Perloff's look at the late works of Anna Akhmatova.
  • The New York Times asks an intriguing question: as the consumer culture of childhood changes, what's happened to real toys?
  • Fred Kaplan, one of the sharpest foreign policy writers around, has reviewed Kenneth Pollack's new book on Iran for The Washington Post.
  • In The Guardian, John Charmley reviews a new book on how Winston Churchill's arrogance helped shape Iraq after World War I.
  • On a lighter note, Caleb McDaniel blogs about a familiar subject for most grad students: book hoarding.

And some more for Monday:

  • How did livestock help shape the history of colonial America?
  • In The New Yorker, Laura Miller discusses the work of Lord Dunsany, the now-obscure fantasy writer.
  • Christopher Hitchens looks at the "real mystery" of Alexander the Great in Slate.

Posted by Ed at 01:59 PM | Comments (2)

November 24, 2004


Posted by Matt

Comments are back up. Sorry for the delay. [Update: because no weaker filtering seems to get everything, there are some things you may not say in comments. If you find a legitimate comment being blocked for this reason, you'll have to cleverly work around it.]

Posted by Matt at 10:15 AM | Comments (1)

November 23, 2004

Textbook Disclaimer Stickers

Posted by Ed

Via Bookslut, I just came across this website with some nice disclaimer stickers for science textbooks. My favorite:

This sticker covers a pre-existing sticker designed to subtly undermine the teaching of evolution in your class. To see the full text of the original sticker, examine the books of children of school board members, who mandated the stickering.

The page above is on the website of Colin Purrington, a biology professor at my alma mater, Swarthmore. For some more thoughts on the debate over evolution by another Swarthmore professor, see this Cliopatria post by Timothy Burke.

I've been working on a couple of longer posts, including some thoughts on how the recent debate on conservatives in academia is related to the marginalization of academic history, but I've had lots to do of late. I may finish one or more of those posts by tomorrow, but otherwise I may not post again until after the holiday.

Posted by Ed at 06:00 PM | Comments (1)

November 21, 2004

Still More Links [Updated]

Posted by Ed

The evening's link collection:

  • The Guardian discusses "Stasi romeos": East German spies who were sent to the West to seduce, marry, and spy on Western women.
  • Is the sound of "quintessentially English" classical music shaped by its composer's native language? The Guardian reports on new research.
  • This week's Boston Globe ideas section features a Chris Mooney article on the "science wars," a brief discussion of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger's upcoming book on self-imitation, and a quick piece discussing Joseph Nye and other "wonks gone wild."
  • Via Arts and Letters Daily: A Reason columnist asks why some conservatives are beginning to defend McCarthyism and Japanse internment, and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists weighs which terrorist threats we need to worry about the most.
  • Mother Jones looks at the evil empire of Tom DeLay.
  • In the London Times, David Cannadine reviews Bernard Porter's new book on "the absent-minded imperialists."
  • The Independent discusses the historical legacy of Waterloo and the meaning of the battle to both the British and the French.

Another batch for Monday:

  • In Slate, Jeffrey Rosen reviews a new Richard Posner volume on "catastrophic risks" and David Greenberg puts the powerlessness of the Bush cabinet in historical perspective.
  • In The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen has published an odd little essay on Charles M. Shultz and the Peanuts.
  • A New York Times article looks at "computers as authors."
  • The Washington Post looks at the relationship between history and entertainment in Oliver Stone's new movie on Alexander the Great.

Posted by Ed at 09:43 PM | Comments (1)

November 20, 2004

Bookstore Woes Redux

Posted by Ed

Back in September, I wrote a lengthy blog entry about the decline of Harvard Square's bookstores. The post was inspired, in part, by my discovery that one very nice independent bookstore--Wordsworth--had declared bankruptcy and was trying to reorganize. As of November 1, however, Wordsworth closed its doors for good.

Academic bookstores are also having problems on the other side of the Atlantic, it seems. Today's Independent reports that Blackwell's, the venerable Oxford-based chain of academic bookshops, is seriously considering the sale of "some or all" of its 61 stores. I've never been to Blackwell's, but everything I've heard about the store is extremely positive, so it would be a shame to see it go.

Posted by Ed at 01:03 PM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2004

Fun History Links

Posted by Ed

Some history links:

  • Turkey is moving away from the vision of Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, its great secularist and nationalist leader. But the Atatürk cult is growing in intensity and helping to unify the country. The British magazine Prospect describes what's going on.
  • The New York Times looks at the history behind Oliver Stone's new Alexander the Great movie.
  • The Times Literary Supplement reviews two new books on seventeenth-century fun and games.
  • According to Roy Hattersley, the Edwardian era was the beginning of the modern era.
  • Jonathan Yardley reviews a new book on the Lincoln assassination. The Washington Times does too.
  • Legal Affairs asks whether Wyatt Earp was guilty of manslaughter.
  • The Washington Monthly revisits the career of Middle East historian Bernard Lewis.

As always, I may add to this list later on.

Posted by Ed at 09:15 PM | Comments (0)

Paulos on the Election

Posted by Ed

John Allen Paulos, the Temple University professor and author ofA Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, has written a Guardian column about the 2004 election results. His conclusion? "In any case, my meta-conclusion is that there are no very compelling conclusions to be drawn about the electorate. Bush received more votes than Kerry. Period. I don't think this simple fact means the country supports the Bush agenda."

I was underwhelmed with the article in some ways: I think that Paulos may be attaching too much significance to Ray Fair's statistical regression model of U.S. presidential elections, and it's possible to draw useful conclusions about the electorate from exit polling if you don't try too hard to come up with some grand theory. (Paulos himself presumably wouldn't disagree with the second of these comments.) But consider Paulos's conclusion:

Excuse my mathematician’s obsession with coin flips, but consider this. There is a large bloc of people who will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what, and a similarly reliable Democratic bloc of roughly the same size. There is also a smaller group of voters who either do not have fixed opinions or are otherwise open to changing their vote.

To an extent, these latter people’s votes (and thus elections themselves) are determined by chance (external events, campaign gaffes, etc).

So what conclusion would we draw about a coin that landed heads two or three times out of four flips (or about a sequence of two or three Democratic victories in the last four elections)? The answer, of course, is that we would draw no conclusions at all.

Again, this seems slightly simplistic to me, but there's something to it. First the criticism: you can make a strong case that the electorate isn't shifting as far right as analysts sometimes assume, but the country's politics certainly are. That's really significant. (The Senate, for instance, is becoming far more conservative, in part because it has an institutional bias toward conservative states, and Jonathan Rauch has made a fairly convincing case that the Republican party turned farther right than the electorate did in 2004. A backlash may well be coming, though it could arrive too late.) Even so, combine Paulos's argument above with another observation--that a competent but uninspired challenger won 48% of the vote against a war-time president presiding over an economy that wasn't in recession--and the country's electoral future looks more hopeful.

The country's short- and medium-term policy future, of course, still looks horrible. But if the Democrats' electoral fortunes improve, the long-term future might not be as bad as I often fear.

Caveat: Don't read this post as a statement that all is really well in the world (or will be in the long run), or as a call to complacency. Soon after reading Paulos's article, I read one of Mark Schmitt's latest Decembrist entries, which ended with the following paragraph:

Democrats lose elections and comfort ourselves that our views represent a majority and we just have to convey them better. Republicans win elections and comfort themselves that they are still an embattled minority and need to keep fighting like hell -- ends justify the means and all that -- against the entrenched liberal power. We're both a little crazy.

I'm also quite amused by Michelle Cottle's suggestion that, "if the success of George W. Bush has taught us anything, it is that self-reflection is for losers." Looking at exit poll results can help the party figure out how best to connect with voters in the future, but if we're going to be depressed about politics today, it's more sensible to be depressed by what's now happening in Washington than about what happened on November 2.

Tangent: Paulos's website kind of amuses me when it refers to him as "an extensively kudized author". "Kudized" is the sort of word that (the last I checked) doesn't actually exist, but that definitely deserves to.

Update: Actually, it seems that Paulos isn't the only person who uses the word "kudize." You can find it in the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus, it's listed in a glossary of the National Puzzler's League, and the OED claims that it was used as far back as 1799. Even so, a majority of the 34 google hits for "kudized" refer to Paulos, which seems tol confirm my sense that "kudized" isn't a real word. At least not yet! (Then again, "kudized" may be the sort of word that I'd find quite irritating if it actually came into common usage: it may be most charming as a semi-illiterate but amusing bit of wordplay, and not as an actual word.)

Posted by Ed at 11:26 AM | Comments (1)

November 17, 2004


Posted by Matt

Comments are temporarily disabled. I'll try to fix this soon.

Posted by Matt at 08:07 AM | Comments (1)

November 15, 2004

Monday Night Links

Posted by Ed

Some more links:

  • An In These Times article by Rashid Khalidi discusses the history of Fallujah.
  • In The New Republic, Alan Taylor reviews a new book on eighteenth-century Virginia by Rhys Isaac.
  • The Boston Globe ideas section looks beyond the standard red/blue election map and argues that Richard Nixon was the quintessential Hollywood president.
  • If the blue states don't care about values, then why does Massachusetts have such a low divorce rate?
  • The Guardian reviews a new book on German witchcraft.
  • The Moscow Times looks at Russian terrorism, then and now.
  • A historian argues that Harvard's relationship to the Nazis was ambiguous and "shameful."
  • In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell describes a fascinating case involving plagiarism and slander.
  • A former high school counselor has set out to fight the commercialization of college, according to this Chronicle of Higher Education piece
  • The New York Times reviews two new books on Ulysses Grant.
  • In The Columbia Journalism Review, Rick Perlstein discusses Paul Cowan's The Tribes of America. (via Ralph Luker at Cliopatria)

I may add on more links later.

Posted by Ed at 07:44 PM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2004

The Independent on Philip Pullman

Posted by Ed

I'm feeling too tired and lazy to write anything substantive today, but here's a link to a new Independent article on Philip Pullman. A randomish excerpt:

Pullman offers an energetic engagement with the world, of life as a quest for love and truth. We're told in The Scarecrow and His Servant that "although the Scarecrow's heart was broken, his curiosity about the world was undimmed". Insofar as literature offers lessons for life, would he agree this is his central theme? He pauses before replying. "Yes. Curiosity is a great virtue. So is hope. You mentioned optimism," he says. "Actually, the word I'd use is hope. It's not the name of a temperament. It's the name of a virtue."

It is precisely the absence of this virtue that triggers his quarrel with CS Lewis, whose Narnia books are the clear precursor of His Dark Materials. "What I object to," Pullman explains, "is not the presence of Christian doctrine, it's the absence of Christian virtue. If you were an otherwise intelligent person and you knew nothing of Christianity, and you heard that the Narnia books were great examples of Christian fiction, you would never know that the greatest virtue was supposed to be love."

That should give you some feel for what the article says, if you don't feel like reading it yourself.

Posted by Ed at 10:10 PM | Comments (1)

November 11, 2004

Brad Carson on the Blue/Red Divide

Posted by Ed

For a sobering take on the 2004 election, check out this New Republic piece by Brad Carson, the Democrat who lost to the ultra-conservative Tom Coburn for the Oklahoma Senate. An excerpt:

As a defeated Senate candidate in the most red of red states, many people have asked me for insights into the Democratic Party's failure to connect with culturally conservative voters. Much has already been written on this topic, and scholars will add more. But I do know this: The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only "tolerance." These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2.

For the vast majority of Oklahomans--and, I would suspect, voters in other red states--these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren't deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a "false consciousness" or Fox News or whatever today's excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma--and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states--reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.

I wouldn't get too discouraged reading Carson's argument: Oklahoma is almost certainly out of reach for any Democratic presidential candidate in the foreseeable future, and the key to winning the "culture war" isn't for liberals to compete for votes in the church that Carson describes. (The greater challenge for the party might be to appeal to slightly less conservative Christians--to people who may be open to a less radical message, but who aren't introduced to many other viewpoints.) Even so, it's a sobering read.

My biggest criticism of the piece, however, was its conclusion: "And, while the defeat was all my own, the failure was of the party to which I swear allegiance, which uncritically embraces a modernity that so many others reject." That statement seems a little strong to me--and comes dangerously close to hinting that Democrats are on the wrong side in the culture war. That isn't the sort of thing you expect a highly-touted Democratic Senate candidate to tell readers of a center-left magazine.

Update: This Washington Monthly article on Montana Governor-elect Brian Schweitzer is an interesting counterpoint to the Carson piece. Montana--like Oklahoma, Carson's home state--now has a Democratic governor, suggesting that if the circumstances are just right, the party can compete in red states. I'm just afraid that the circumstances won't be right very often...

Don't worry: I plan to start posting less about politics soon.

Posted by Ed at 08:48 PM | Comments (1)

November 10, 2004

Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

Some links for you:

  • The Wall Street Journal discusses the impact of former Nazi rocketeers on the development of Huntsville, Alabama, where Wernher von Braun and his associates helped build the U.S. space program.
  • In The New Republic Online, E.J. Graff asks why nearly a quarter of gay voters supported Bush in 2004.
  • Newsday reviews a new book about "Nixon at the Movies."
  • The Moscow Times looks at a new book by Masha Gessen, a memoir of how her grandmothers survived Hitler's war and Stalin's peace.
  • Chris Mooney looks at the religious right's efforts to combat mainstream science by producing "experts" of its own.
  • Joseph Nye, a former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has written a "a middling novel about power, politics and (oh my) sex in Washington," according to this Washington Post review.
  • In Bookforum, James Surowiecki reviews a reissued volume of A.J. Liebling's columns about boxing.
  • The Economist discusses the archaeological search for what was once Italy's largest city.
  • In The Boston Phoenix, Dan Kennedy describes the five ultra-conservative Republicans who've just been elected to the Senate.
  • People love reading about the Civil War and World War II, so why don't they also read about the military history of the revolution?

If I get sufficiently bored, I'll tack a few more links on to the end of this list.

Posted by Ed at 08:24 PM | Comments (2)

November 09, 2004

It's the Wealth, Stupid

Posted by Ed

Rick Perlstein has written a really nice Village Voice article making a counter-intuitive argument: George W. Bush won the election not through his appeal to "moral values," but by winning a greater share of the vote among the rich. Here's more:

Pundits blow hot air. Political scientists crunch numbers. On his blog Polysigh, my favorite political scientist, Phil Klinkner, ran a simple exercise. Multiplying the turnout among a certain group by the percent who went for Bush yields a number electoral statisticians call "performance." Among heavy churchgoers, Bush's performance last time was 25 percent (turnout, 42 percent; percentage of vote, 59 percent). This time out it was also 25 percent—no change. Slightly lower turnout (41 percent), slightly higher rate of vote (61 percent).

Where did the lion's share of the extra votes come from that gave George Bush his mighty, mighty mandate of 51 percent? "Two of those points," Klinkner said when reached by phone, "came solely from people making over a 100 grand." The people who won the election for him—his only significant improvement over his performance four years ago—were rich people, voting for more right-wing class warfare.

Their portion of the electorate went from 15 percent in 2000 to 18 percent this year. Support for Bush among them went from 54 percent to 58 percent. "It made me think about that scene in Fahrenheit 9/11," says Klinkner, the one where Bush joked at a white-tie gala about the "haves" and the "have-mores": "Some people call you the elite," Bush said. "I call you my base."

I think it's fair to say that the argument made by many pundits in the immediate aftermath of the election--that gay marriage and other hot-button social issues swung the election to Bush--is seriously flawed. (For more, see Kevin Drum's analysis at Political Animal, as well as this Paul Freedman article in Slate and the analysis by Ruy Teixera and Alan Abramowitz at Donkey Rising.) My hunch, though, is that there's more to the "moral values" argument than a lot of pundits now believe. Democrats need to avoid fetishizing the issue and making it the center of their analysis, but a revamped approach to abortion and gay rights will have to be part of the party's vision in the years ahead.

Update: There's some good stuff on Polysigh, the blog Perlstein mentions above. This entry suggests that gay marriage initiatives in non-swing states helped pad Bush's popular vote win this year. ("This probably helps explain why Bush increased his pluralities in Georgia by 243,000, Oklahoma by 186,000, in Kentucky by 121,000, and in Utah by 66,000.") If I'm not mistaken, after all, turnout in non-swing blue states increased by less this year than turnout in non-turnout red states--I believe that turnout actually fell in California. Gay marriage referenda may (or may not) be part of the reason for that.

Update 2: Klinkner himself has now written a New Republic Online article discussing his argument that Bush's margin came from increased support among the rich.

I originally thought that I wouldn't be able to read Klinkner's piece, since I'm not a TNR subscriber. But then I made a fortuitous discovery: you can access subscriber-only TNR articles by using the username and password "guest." I didn't expect that strategy to work, but I'll be sure to use it again in the future.

Update: I've touched on why I have some doubts about this sort of analysis in the comments to this post.

Posted by Ed at 02:49 PM | Comments (3)

November 08, 2004

Bulgakov on Film

Posted by Ed

America, it seems, isn't the only country where organized religion has a problem with the movie business. According to this Guardian article, the Orthodox Church has "reacted with dismay" to a Russian director's plans to film Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita:

A senior Orthodox official told the Guardian that cinema was "not an adequate means of interpreting the Gospel" - icons were more appropriate. Father Mikhail Dudko, head of the secretariat for church and society, said: "We Christians know four gospels, and in Bulgakov's book we see a kind of fifth: a gospel narrated by Satan, [who is called] Woland in the book. And the interpretation is in Satan's favour. Our reaction to such an interpretation can be nothing but negative."

I'm not quite convinced that there's a real controversy here: The Guardian has quoted one prominent church official's ambiguous comments on the movie without showing that there's any larger outcry from Russian Orthodoxy. In fact, The Master and Margarita is such a well-loved book that I don't expect any major opposition to the project.

My main point in writing this post isn't to talk about the controversy, though: it's to draw attention to the movie, which sounds really cool. (Strictly speaking, I guess it's really a ten-part TV series, but it seems to have more of the trappings of a real movie than most American mini-series.) The project has proven controversial in other ways as well--it's being filmed in St. Petersburg, even though the novel took place in Moscow!--and I'll be interested in seeing what Bortko does with the book.

Then again, perhaps I shouldn't get my hopes up. Weird things can happen when directors try to adapt famous novels for the screen!

Posted by Ed at 08:37 PM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2004

Election Health

Posted by Susan

Earlier today, Ed said, "It would be interesting to see if anyone has done studies on the health effects of elections..." Well, to some extent, they have. Here's a few:

  • This article in the American Journal of Community Psychology comes closest to addressing Ed's question. Researchers questioned a group of LBG Coloradoans on their response to the passage of an antigay amentment in 1992 (including a followup study after the Supreme Court's 1996 decision on the amendment). The researchers then identified a set of "stressor elements" ("Felt sad following the election on 11/3/92", LGBs no chance to grieve losses associated with A2", "Disagreements about best strategies for change", "Felt scared of the power of the religious right", "Lost faith that people are good and moral", etc.) and "resilience elements" ("Forced me to look at my beliefs about self community, politics, etc.", "Opportunity for all members of LGB community to work toward a common goal", "Felt supported by heterosexual public figures who came out against A2", etc.). Unsurprisingly, given the source, the data analysis concerns the LBG community more than the emotional response of individual members.
  • Here's a study exploring the opposite question: can the emotional states of voters have a substantive effect on election? The study examined shifts in suicide and parasuicide rates on opposition party victories in Austria, hypothesizing that "on a community level, suicide's aftermath might produce socially and politically alienated survivors of suicide who co-shape swings towards opposition parties in subsequent general elections."
  • This extremely promising-sounding article ("Effects of United States presidential elections on suicide and other causes of death.") is unfortunately not available online, but would appear to address the question.

  • This article ("Sociopolitical events and technical innovations may affect the content of delusions and the course of psychotic disorders.") argues that shared stressors (like elections can play some role int he progress of certain disorders.

Posted by Susan at 11:00 PM | Comments (0)

Florida voting weirdness?

Posted by Matt

Updated again: Ryan Gabbard (of The Audhumlan Conspiracy) has referred me in the comments to this analysis at The Dead Parrot Society. I think they make a good case that this disparity is not really related to the type of voting machine in use -- it existed also in the 1996 and 2000 election results. There's a lot more there, but I think it's safe to say this was a red herring. (I still think it would probably good to have much more done in the future to ensure security of election systems, but it doesn't seem to have been a decisive factor in this election.)

Updated: I've changed the image I link to; this one is only for counties with over 100,000 registered voters. The effect is less striking but still statistically significant. I'm convinced that most of the small-county effect is due to rural voters registered as Democrat who tend to vote Republican in national elections. I'm hoping someone can suggest a similar distinction between the optical-scan and the touch screen larger counties.

Via Sean Carroll:

I also don't like conspiracy theories, and I hate to sound like an alarmist. But something is very weird about the Florida voting data. Unless there's a good reason why registered Democrats voting for Bush would be strongly correlated with the presence of optical-scan voting devices (an effect that, to a statistically significant level, happens in both large and small counties), it looks a lot like some votes could have been tampered with. Not that I'm claiming they were, I certainly don't have enough information for that, but.... Someone really should look into this.

See more explanation here. And check out the graph, for counties with over 100,000 registered voters only:

That looks pretty suspicious to me. Counties with many more Democrats than Republicans go strongly for Bush if and only if they use optical scanners?

(I should note that the percentages of registered democrats plus republicans tends to add up to over 90%, if you look at these data, so one can't explain this by large numbers of independents voting for Bush.)

Posted by Matt at 10:31 PM | Comments (10)

Pixar Reaches Middle Age

Posted by Ed

Last night, in a mostly successful attempt to shake off my post-election blues, I went to see the new animated superhero movie from Pixar, The Incredibles. Odd as I feel saying this, I sometimes had the feeling that this year's election debate had crept into the movie: in one key scene, one of the superheroes warns her daughter that in these troubled times "we no longer have room for doubt," and greedy trial lawyers played a substantial role in the movie's plot set-up. Even so, I suspect that these observations tell you more about me and my state of mind then they do about the movie.

I almost feel a little un-American saying this--since Pixar has a well-earned reputation both for producing wholesome family entertainment and for coming up with dazzlingly creative and technologically impressive films--but I've had a mixed reaction to Pixar movies in the past. I was never a big fan of Toy Story, for example: the plot was dull, the writing was treacly and sappy, the people in the movie seemed creepy and lifeless, and the movie depended too much on familiar guest voices in shaping its characters' personality. (Toy Story was technically impressive, and it certainly wasn't a bad movie, but I found it over-rated and bland.) A Bug's Life, meanwhile, was also visually impressive, but it was just a slightly-better-than-average cartoon in terms of its story. Pixar's next two movies took a big step forward: Monsters Inc., I'd argue, is an under-rated comic gem, especially when compared to the good but over-rated Shrek (which came out the same year), and Finding Nemo did a brilliant job of combining creativity with a mass-market sensibility. It wasn't nearly as quirky or as brilliant as The Triplets of Belleville, but it was still loads of fun.

How good is Pixar's latest movie? The Incredibles, I'd argue, reflects the maturation of the film-makers at Pixar. It's visually spectacular, with a witty and playful script and a decent enough plot; at the same time, it lacks both the self-consciousness of Pixar's initial offerings and the wit of its two immediate predecessors. Pixar's first two movies were a little tentative, with the hesitation of a toddler who's just learning to walk; Monsters Inc. and Nemo were a little better at breaking out of the standard Hollywood mold, demonstrating the thrill of youth at its most exhilarating. The Incredibles, meanwhile, demonstrates the competence and solidness of a middle-aged company in the middle of its career--the movie wasn't quite as impressive as its immediate predecessors, but it's quietly satisfying and has worked out most of the kinks in the system.

The plot of the movie centers around Bob Parr (AKA Mr. Incredible), a one-time superhero forced to retire to a life of quiet obscurity when greedy citizens start suing superheroes for the havoc they accidently unleashed. (Someone has to foot the bill when walls get knocked down and innocent citizens strain their necks escaping supervillains, after all.) Now Mr. Incredible works at an insurance company while his wife Helen raises the kids. (Helen, the former Elastigirl, is as flexible as her superhero nickname suggests; her son Dash can run really quickly, while Violet can produce forcefields and turn invisible at will.) Bob Parr relives his glory days by listening to a police scanner, while Dash and Violet are forced to hide their powers from their classmates and Helen tries to keep the house in order. Eventually, Bob gets drawn back into the superhero business, and the whole family joins in to rescue him from an evil inventor named Syndrome.

One of the movie's biggest strengths is its appearance: The Incredibles looks really cool. The animation is realistic enough to look spectacular, but it's just artificial enough to have the feel of a cartoon. (The animators capture the perfect balance in portraying the villain's secret jungle hideaway, for instance.) Moreover, I've never liked the way that Pixar's animated people looked until this movie. In the past, their movements were jerky and they had an almost creepy look; that was fine in Finding Nemo (where people only appeared briefly and were supposed to have an alien feel), but it grated quite a bit in Toy Story. The people of The Incredibles, on the other hand, move swiftly, smoothly, and confidently, with a liveliness that was missing before. Moreover, they've been drawn with a good eye for both the realistic and the fantastic--a visual twist that fits well with the movie's mid-life themes. (Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are plausible both as middle-aged parents and as crime-fighting superheroes, which is appropriate for people who worry about their weight, their marriage, and the boring trajectory their lives have taken.)

Unfortunately, though, the story and characters in The Incredibles seemed kind of familiar. Finding Nemo featured a lot of unexpected personalities, like a fish with short-term memory loss and a singing stingray school teacher; none of the superheroes in The Incredibles had terribly memorable powers or personality traits. The movie reminded me of the Simpsons Halloween special in which Bart and Lisa are transformed by radiation into superheroes named Stretch Dude and Clobber Girl, and a lot of the jokes seemed exactly the same. (Is it a coincidence that Brad Bird, the director of the movie, used to write for The Simpsons?) Moreover, the idea of children with special talents hiding from their peers and pretending to be normal could have come straight out of the X-Men movies. I overheard a group of college kids complaining that the movie was too derivative as I left the theater last night, and though I think they were exaggerating things, I certainly understood what they meant.

My one other criticism of The Incredibles had to do with the action scenes: they were just a little too busy (with individual witty touches being overpowered by the pizzazz of the special effects), and they seemed like the sort of scenes you could find in any other superhero cartoon. The kids in the theater with me seemed to love them, though, and I think that should be the main criterion for judging the movie. Moreover, it's hard to object too much to the frenetic busy-ness of the action scenes when that very trait is connected to one of the movie's biggest strengths--its attention to detail.

Those details add up to a movie that's consistently entertaining and fun. It may not be quite as unexpected or quirky as Finding Nemo, but when you judge it on its own merits, it's still a fun way to spend two hours.

Update: As it turns out, I'm not the only one who thinks that The Incredibles has a bit of a pro-Bush twist. A couple weeks ago, a New York Times "culture desk" piece suggested that the movie "carries a considerably more middle-American sensibility than the usual fare from Hollywood, where liberal shibboleths often become the stuff of mainstream movies." David Edelstein, meanwhile, suggests that the movie's message "feels a tad out of date: Don't suppress your children's uniqueness to make them fit in, it says: Let them be exceptional! Well, that might have been progressive in the conformist '50s (when The Iron Giant is set), but nowadays parents are inclined not just to let their children be 'unique' but to exploit the hell out of their gifts."

Update 2: David Edelstein has more on the politics of The Incredibles at ReelTime, the blog-like column he's recently begun writing for Slate. Edelstein, in turn, refers to this review of the movie on National Review Online. I think the NRO reviewer is stretching things when she refers to how the movie presents viewers with "a knock against the notion of a right to suicide, of all things," but I think her review shows, once again, that the movie resonates with certain conservative audience members.

Posted by Ed at 08:31 PM | Comments (7)

Fun in the fifth dimension.

Posted by Matt

I've been spending a great deal of time on research lately. We are trying to build a realistic physics model that has no Higgs boson. As I've written about before, the Higgs is a particle in the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics that we have never actually observed in an experiment. Chances are that, if the current Fermilab experiments don't find it (or something very much like it), the next LHC experiments will. But there is always a chance that they won't.

In the case that the Higgs is not found, and nothing looking like the Higgs (what we call a "scalar boson") is found, physicists are going to have a lot of explaining to do. The conventional wisdom is that, since the approximate symmetry of nature called the "electroweak" symmetry is not exact ("broken," we call it), there must be a Higgs at the energy scale the next experiments will probe.

Well, we're putting together a model without any such scalar boson (at least, not at energies where the next experiments will see it). It's not the most aesthetically pleasing model in the world, and the chances that this exact model represents the real world are very small, but it's good to have at least one example as a sort of proof-of-concept. We can hope that the lessons we learn from it might give us a better general idea of what Higgsless models are like.

For those of you who want the details, look at the last paper of the others I am working with (Giacomo Cacciapaglia, Csaba Csaki, Christophe Grojean, and John Terning): "Curing the Ills of Higgsless Models: the S Parameter and Unitarity." As I don't want to talk too much about the details of research in progress before we have written our paper, I'll stick mostly to the outline of future work at the end of that paper. I've drawn a picture to try to get some of the idea across.

Here's a (very schematic) picture of what we're doing:

I apologize for my limited skill at drawing these things on a computer, but maybe the idea will get across. In this model, we have a five-dimensional universe (four spatial dimensions, one time). The new fifth dimension is represented as the horizontal direction in this picture; you should imagine that each slice (such as any one of the parallelograms drawn in blue) has three spatial dimensions. Some of these slices are special; they are the ones shown, and are called "branes." Branes are real physical objects, that are very heavy, which lie in the extra dimension. Particles can either be stuck on a brane, or propagate through the space between branes.

In our model, some particles (the gauge bosons, which carry forces) exist across the entire five-dimensional space. The black and red lines in the picture are examples. Other particles (the fermions, which make up matter) lie between only two of the branes. The blue and green lines in the picture are examples. The green blob on the Planck brane at the end of the green line represents a "brane-localized fermion"; it is stuck on the brane, but it mixes with the bulk fermion represented by the green line, so that in some sense we see them as the same particle. The lines here represent the "wave function" of the particle in the extra dimension; roughly, places where this is peaked are places the particle is most likely to be found. For instance, the red line represents a heavy boson (what we call a "KK mode" or "Kaluza-Klein mode") that tends to be found mostly near the "TeV brane" on the right. The other particles that have fairly flat lines will be found anywhere in the fifth-dimensional space. How strongly particles interact is related to the extent to which their "wave functions" overlap in the fifth dimension. Thus, for instance, the heavy boson marked in red will not interact much with the fermion in blue, which is living in the opposite side of the middle (Planck) brane from where the red wave function is peaked. Similarly, the heavy boson in red will not interact much with the fermion marked in green, because this fermion has a large piece stuck on the brane (the green blob in the picture) and that is far away from where the red line is peaked.

The shapes of all these wave functions are determined by the boundary conditions, which specify what they do on the branes. For instance, on one brane a certain function might be constrained to be zero, which means the line is anchored in place on that brane. Alternatively, the derivative of the function might be constrained to be zero on that brane, which roughly means the line is allowed to slip around on the brane so long as it is flat there.

All of this might look rather ad hoc, but in fact the boundary conditions we have to use for the fields all come from a sensible set of rules that are based on the idea that the symmetries of the theory can be different in different places. On the Planck brane we put the usual "Standard Model" symmetries; on the TeV branes we break electroweak symmetry by boundary conditions, which thus in some sense fulfill the usual role of the Higgs boson. Other parts of the Higgs boson's role are taken over by the KK modes, which can affect the way the gauge bosons interact but which mostly do not affect the fermions, since these are localized elsewhere. Certain effects are also dependent on the size of the "bulk" that is involved, so by making the bulk on the left-hand side of the picture smaller than the one on the right, we can accomplish other important effects.

All this is necessarily very vague, and for those who want details you can consult our paper when we have finished it. I hope that to some extent this picture gives you an idea of how what we're doing works. There are all sorts of related models under discussion in which extra dimensions can have important (and sometimes surprising) effects on physics. One can either take these seriously -- that is, believe that there really are extra dimensions that are within reach of the next generation of colliders -- or take them as tools for building four-dimensional (three space, one time) models with unusual properties that one can see how to arrange in the five-dimensional picture but that are not obvious in the four-dimensional picture. This is the "effective theory" picture (again, roughly speaking; in fact "effective theory" has a pretty precise meaning).

(Is this at all comprehensible? Feedback or questions are very much welcomed. I don't want to discuss details of research on this blog until it's eventually posted on, but queries about extra dimensions or branes or particle physics in general are welcome.)

Posted by Matt at 06:22 PM | Comments (0)

Outrage Fatigue

Posted by Matt

I haven't posted in a long time, have I? I've been really caught up in research, and I'll talk a little about that shortly. But first, a brief and contained rant:

For a while one of Ed's recent posts here was the fourth Google hit for the phrase "depressed about the election," which I thought was great. It's five days later and I'm not getting any less depressed or angry about it. Despite stories like Bush getting over four thousand votes in an Ohio precinct with six hundred voters, I think chances are he legitimately won the election. And it disturbs me. If I thought that people were only voting for him based on some sense that he would make America safer, or improve the economy, I would at least have some sense of where they were coming from even while (strongly) disagreeing. Unfortunately it seems like a sizable percentage of voters were voting based on some misguided sense of "values" that to me seem antithetical not only to reason but to the religion they claim to adhere to. There's plenty of other news to disturb me lately, like a Wisconsin school district that has voted to require the teaching of creationism. But I'm sure you've encountered all these stories elsewhere on the "internets," so I'll cut myself off here and work on a fun and informative physics post.

Posted by Matt at 04:27 PM | Comments (1)

November 06, 2004

Philip Pullman on Democracy and Reading

Posted by Ed

In The Guardian, Philip Pullman has published a lengthy essay on democracy and reading. Like a lot of his essays, it's an odd combination of perceptive and pompous, and it has a condescending strain that bothers me a little, but I still think it's worth a look:

One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever watched, and one which brings everything I've said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he'd been reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

But no. Thanks among other things to his own government's educational policy, the book Bush was reading was one of the most stupefyingly banal and witless things I've ever had the misfortune to see. My Pet Goat (you can find the text easily enough on the internet, and I can't bring myself to quote it) is a drearily functional piece of rubbish designed only to teach phonics. You couldn't read it for pleasure, or for consolation, or for joy, or for wisdom, or for wonder, or for any other human feeling; it is empty, vapid, sterile.

But that was what the president of the United States, and his advisers, thought was worth offering to children. Young people brought up to think that that sort of thing is a real book, and that that sort of activity is what reading is like, will be in no position to see that, for example, it might be worth questioning the US National Park Service's decision to sell in their bookstores a work called Grand Canyon: A Different View, which claims that the canyon was created, like everything else, in six days. But then it may be that the US is already part way to being a theocracy in the sense I mean, one in which the meaning of reading, and of reality itself, is being redefined. In a recent profile of Bush in the New York Times, Ron Suskind recalls: "In the summer of 2002, a senior adviser to Bush told me that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"

The democracy of reading exists in the to-and-fro between reader and text, when each is free to engage honestly with the other. The democracy of politics needs the same freedom and honesty in the public realm: freedom from lies and distortions about other candidates, honesty about one's own actions and programmes and sources of information. It's difficult. It's strenuous. The sort of effort it takes was never very common, but it seems to be rarer now than it was. It is quite easy for democracies to forget how to read.

The "My Pet Goat" comment is a bit of a potshot--I wouldn't be surprised at all if the book was chosen by the school, and not by the president. Moreover, American public schools (like schools everywhere) have always presented children with bad books to read, and the number of good children's book has almost certainly increased over the last twenty years. Even so, there's definitely something to Pullman's main point, that "theocracies don't know how to read, and democracies do."

Pullman's essay also points to something that's been bothering me lately. There are days when I think "Why did I go to history graduate school? I should have gone to law school, as I originally planned, so I could be out there fighting now!" (Being a lawyer might also give me an out if today's anti-intellectual trend is taken to an insane extreme...) In the years ahead, however, the struggle for a decent society won't just be fought in polling booths, courtrooms, and legislatures. We'll need to be out there fighting for democratic values in the more mundane sphere of the everyday as well.

Posted by Ed at 10:57 AM | Comments (4)

November 05, 2004

A Trivial Reason to be Depressed about the Election

Posted by Ed

A few minutes ago, as I was browsing the web over lunch, I decided to check out the website for George R.R. Martin, the author of the most entertaining series of fantasy novels currently being written. Martin's next book in the series has taken a while to write, and he began his note on the book's progress by telling readers that he'd finished reworking some of the chapters he'd already begun. Then he got to the depressing part:

That's done, anyway. A FEAST FOR CROWS will be much better for it, and now I am back at work on new chapters once again... although not today, and maybe not tomorrow, or next week. I am pretty good with words, usually, but no words can express how miserable, angry, and depressed I am feeling this morning over the results of yesterday's election. The exit polling makes it clear: this was a victory for bigotry and fear, a mandate bought with lies. I know from past experience that it is going to take me some time to shake off this depression.

Losing myself in the world of Westeros would probably be the best medicine for what ails me just now, I know full well. There is solace in work, and books -- my own books, and those of others -- have always been a refuge for me during dark times in my life. Today, however, the {fictional} travails of my {fictional} Seven Kingdoms seem pretty unimportant compared to the very real woes that the United States is facing, a future of war and isolation abroad, and division and repression at home.

Winter is coming to Westeros, but it has already come to America.

I feel a little geeky quoting this passage, especially the last line. (Martin's novel takes place in a world with periodic multi-year winters.) Even so, learning that one of your favorite pop culture offerings has been set back by the election just adds insult to a far more grievous injury.

Posted by Ed at 12:13 PM | Comments (0)

November 04, 2004

The Washington Post on Olga Chekhova

Posted by Ed

If, like me, you could really use a change of pace right now, check out this Washington Post book review. It tells the story of Olga Chekhova--Anton Chekhov's niece, Adolf Hitler's favorite actress, and (quite possibly) a Soviet spy.

Posted by Ed at 07:02 PM | Comments (0)

More on Politics, Religion, and Gay Rights

Posted by Ed

If someone held a gun to my head and asked me to name my favorite blogger, there's a high probability that I'd choose Mark Schmitt. Schmitt is a former speechwriter for Bill Bradley who now works for the Open Society Institute. I tend to agree with his political analysis, and he writes with a prose style that sits really well with me.

Earlier today, Schmitt wrote an essay on "closet tolerants" for his blog, The Decembrist. Schmitt begins with an argument that I think is crucially important:

Two points came to my mind thinking about this today. The first is that I don't know many straight progressives who were particularly concerned about these initiatives or the issue generally. I can't think of a progressive organization that was particularly involved in the fight against them. I happened to be involved in a small way in putting together a fund for the opposition to the initiatives in the various states, and quickly became quite passionate about the meaning of this assault on rights but that was almost accidental. (I'm on the board of the foundation that was managing the allocation of funds.)

For the most part, I think straight liberals had the attitude that it was a gay issue and gay people are responsible for their issues. (Perhaps also assuming that gays had chosen to force this issue on the agenda.) We all have the correct views, of course, and may even care passionately about marriage and civil unions as it affects people we love. But we needed a wake-up call that "it's our fight too." Because the issue is not just gay marriage. The issue is the manipulation of hate, discomfort, resentment, displaced anxiety, etc. for political power, which will be used for all sorts of purposes. Let's put it simply: our country will have the foreign policy it does, the economic policy it does, in part because of the skillful manipulation of the gay marriage issue by people who are probably indifferent to the issue.

Schmitt then goes on to talk about "closet tolerants"--people, like Bush and the Cheneys, who probably have no problem with gay people but who are happy to use anti-gay bigotry to win elections. ("Hypocrisy," he says, is "too forgiving a word" for the behavior of people like this.) His analysis as a whole is compelling, and I'd strongly recommend reading it. The most sobering part, however, is the conclusion--which suggests that we still don't understand exactly what happened at the polls this week, and that finding the ideal response would be a challenge even if we did.

I find that conclusion really depressing, but there are ways--I believe--to start thinking about the issue. Here are some thoughts inspired by Schmitt's essay, either directly or indirectly:

  • Early in his blog entry, Schmitt makes the following point: "I'm not surprised that the anti-marriage initiative that came closest to defeat was in Oregon -- 46% no -- because they have had endless experience with vicious anti-gay amendments and groups there have figured out how to reach into rural Oregon and find ways to talk to people about what they mean."

    If I were George Soros, and I were willing to spend as much money on American politics over the next four years as I did in the last election, I'd look into the strategies used in Oregon to try to figure out how best to respond to the political use of anti-gay bigotry. The state's politics are well worth looking at: there's a big (and conservative) rural population, with periodic anti-gay and anti-tax ballot initiatives. Nevertheless, the governor and both senators are Democrats, both Gore and Kerry carried the state, and Democrats just made big gains in the state legislature. (Kerry even outpolled Gore by 5 points--receiving 52% of the vote to Gore's 47%--though part of that differential may have resulted from Nader's 2004 absence from the ballot.)

  • One of the keys to handling this issue, I think, will be to address it head-on, without treating conservatives as thoughtless bigots or acting as if their concerns about the country's values are completely ungrounded. As compelling as I found Schmitt's analysis, I was a little disturbed by the first two comments left on the site by readers. The first declared that "Gay marriage is a dilemma because there is no non-homophobic reasons to oppose it," and the second made a reference to Nazi Germany (noting that "we're at 1933, and if we don't watch it we'll be at 1937.") I don't completely disagree with the viewpoint of either comment--I really worry that the country's government is about to take a dramatic jump rightward--but I don't think this is the way to convince anyone of the rightness of our views.

    It's important to remember, I think, that opposition to gay marriage can't be equated with anti-gay bigotry. (The two are often connected, and there are plenty of gay marriage foes who are bigots, but there are also reasonable people who are uncomfortable with homosexuality but who are generally in favor of treating everyone in our society fairly.) I'm quite liberal on most issues, after all, and I only became a firm supporter of gay marriage over the last year or two: until recently, I supported civil unions and opposed any effort to deny gay couples the rights that married couples receive, but I was wary of the issue of gay marriage itself. For one thing, I don't tend to think of marriage as a state issue--I think of it as a private matter and a religious issue. (Civil marriages don't seem especially real to me.) For another, I was inclined to say that marriage itself wasn't all that important: I know plenty of unmarried couples who live together in supporting, committed, and loving relationships, and I didn't see why calling a gay couple a "married" couple made much difference as long as they were given certain basic rights we afford to married couples. I can also see legitimate reasons to avoid tampering with long-standing social institutions, even though--as a historian-in-training--I'm skeptical of the view that marriage has been a static and unchanging institution for centuries. Finally, and most shamefully, I worried that the issue would hurt progressivism in America.

    Two things changed my mind. First, I saw TV coverage of gay couples in San Francisco and Massachusetts, which made the issue seem more real and more human. Second, I've become more conservative as I've aged and I'm now more likely to see the benefits of marriage as an institution. Right-wingers love to complain that marriage is on the decline in America, due to divorce and cohabitation, but when a group comes along that really wants to get married, social conservatives turn them away. Does that make sense to you?

    I think there are two conclusions to draw from this. First, one of the best ways to win on this issue is to humanize gay marriage and make it seem real. Second, I'm from a liberal background, but I've only lately become a firm supporter of gay marriage, so should we be surprised if people less familiar with gays are less comfortable with gay marriage?

    There are people out there who hate gays, who would never vote for a Democrat who supported gay marriage or civil unions, and who are completely intractable on the issue. There's nothing to do about them: they'll vote Republican no matter what we do. There's another demographic, however, that's potentially reachable. These people might well vote against gay marriage itself, if that were the only issue on the table. You might be able to persuade them, eventually, to support civil unions--and, in the short run, you could probably convince them that it's unfair to deny a gay man or woman the right to visit his or her partner in the hospital. And if you can do that, you might be able to stop the most extreme ballot initiatives, like Ohio's, that would outlaw any state recognition of gay relationships whatsoever.

    The other key, I think, is to make the issue seem less threatening: on the most basic level, marriage has far more to do with religious and personal matters than with the state, and Democrats need to say that publicly. (Most Democrats just try to avoid talking about gay rights--saying they oppose gay marriage, but also oppose efforts to ban it as divisive and unnecessary. That sounds like a cop-out to people who worry that gay marriage will be imposed from above.) One key to this issue is framing: I think it's important for Democrats to make it clear that we support the recognition of gay marriage, but not the imposition of gay marriage. If I were running for president, what I'd say is this: "We will never force any religion to expand the institution of marriage to gay couples, but if your church marries a gay couple, we'll give them the same rights to inheritance, hospital visitation rights, and health insurance that straight couples have. It's not up to the government to decide these questions--it's up to you and your church. We will, however, make sure that gay couples have certain basic rights that straight couples have, whether we call their relationships 'marriages,' 'civil unions,' or something else altogether." That seems a lot less threatening to me, and will also seem far more direct and honest than the current approach. Some people will never be convinced; some people will be won over with time; some people who disagree will at least feel that their concerns are being addressed, and might see supporters of gay marriage as a little less alien.

  • More broadly, I think it's crucial for liberals to humanize the issue of gay rights. If I were a billionaire interested in reshaping the public debate in America today, I'd team up with a group like PFLAG to make it clear that you don't have to be completely comfortable with homosexuality to support gay rights. With time, we can work to make people more accepting of homosexuality in general, but for now, we need both to keep it from becoming a political weapon for the right and to win whatever small victories we can.

  • I'm still feeling shaken that so-called "moral" issues played such a big role in the campaign. One sign of just how low-key the whole "moral values" issue was: according to CNN, 23% of gays voted for Bush. (That's down 2 points from 2000, but it's still higher than it would have been if the anti-gay side of the Bush campaign had been more visible.) Check out the site I just linked to for lots of other fascinating tidbits on the campaign.

    One such tidbit: if I'm reading the poll results correctly, 60% of the population supports some form of legal recognition for gay relationships. 25% of the country supports the recognition of gay marriage, and Kerry won this demographic 77-23; another 35% supports civil unions, and Bush actually beat Kerry 52-47 among these voters. Add these two groups together and you get a majority. I don't know exactly what this means for the debate, since the 37% who oppose any form of recognition of gay relationships seems to have a disproportionate influence on the debate, but I think this finding supports my hunch that a Democrat can address gay rights more directly without suffering a backlash if he or she generally seems to share the values of the country's voters. A candidate who seems too elitist, and who can't connect with the moral concerns of voters, will lose even if he opposes gay rights.

  • Finally, as I've said before, it's crucial for Democrats to make headway on cultural issues in the years ahead, but we need to avoid the temptation either to depart from our core values or to just toss religious phraseology into our standard stump speeches. It's tempting to say that Democrats should just talk about their faith more often, but consider this: after Ralph Nader, the most secular presidential candidate of the last twenty years was probably Ross Perot. (I'm not counting more frivolous third-party candidates or Democrats who never had a shot at the nomination.) Did anyone worry that Perot didn't share their traditional values?

The points I've made above are a little random and underdeveloped, but I hope that a lot of prominent Democrats are thinking along similar lines.

Posted by Ed at 06:43 PM | Comments (1)

November 03, 2004

The Third Debate Revisited

Posted by Ed

One reason I've found the results of the election so depressing is that--as many analysts have pointed out--"moral values" turned out to be one of the deciding issues of the campaign. It's one thing to lose an election because, in a time of uncertainty and international crisis, a bare majority of the people voted to stick with the incumbent; I would have found such an outcome depressing, given how little I think of President Bush's handling of foreign policy, but understandable. It's quite another thing to realize that one of the main factors in the president's victory was his staunch opposition to gay rights.

As Amy Sullivan and other writers have written, the rise of the Christian right has raised an important question: how should Democrats handle the questions of religion, faith, morality, and values? I'm an agnostic on this question, I have to admit. On a purely personal level, I was always impressed by the way Bill Bradley kept his 2000 campaign almost completely secular--he even refused to end his speeches with meaningless phrases like "God bless America." Then again, I think this is a losing strategy for Democrats, and I have no problem at all, say, with the way that Barack Obama used religious language in his 2004 convention speech. The key, I think, isn't for Democrats to toss religious language into their speeches, but to define the party's larger aspirations in moral terms (as Obama did), to frame economic issues as questions of values, to run candidates who are comfortable using the language of values, and to portray issues like gay rights as matters of basic human decency--not as topics to be avoided.

On a broader level, however, I think that a lot of analysts (and candidates) have been blind to questions of religious faith--and that one of the most high-profile events of the campaign may deserve reexamination in that light. Back in October, here's how I would have summarized my thoughts about John Kerry's decision to mention Mary Cheney--the vice president's lesbian daughter--in the third presidential debate:

  • It's a little unseemly for a presidential candidate to bring the child of one of his opponents into the debate, especially if he's discussing her views on a controversial issue without knowing precisely what she thinks.
  • Mary Cheney isn't just an innocent private citizen, however: she's the chair of her father's campaign. And Dick Cheney has been happy to draw attention to his daughter's sexual orientation when it furthered his goal of appealing to GOP moderates. That mostly makes up for the concerns I just expressed.
  • Even so, I'm a little wary of Kerry's motives. The innocent explanation is that he was nervous about the issue--likely to be a net minus for a Democrat these days--and wanted to give himself some cover by mentioning a Republican. The less seemly explanation is that he wanted to remind evangelical voters about Mary Cheney's orientation, which bordered on an appeal to bigotry even if Kerry didn't share in the bigoted views in question.
  • The net result is that I'm slightly uneasy with Kerry's invocation of Mary Cheney, judging it in isolation: in an ideal world, candidates wouldn't do things like that, though Kerry's decision was at worst a minor transgression and--more likely--was handled awkwardly but innocently.
  • The response by the Cheneys, however, was patently offensive. I'd have sympathized with them if they'd said that their daughter was a private cititzen and asked Kerry to leave her out of it. Instead, as Josh Marshall wrote, they denounced Kerry using "criticisms coded in sexual language," calling his words "cheap and tawdry" and attacking him for using "a crass, below-the-belt political strategy to attack the vice president's daughter." The Cheneys, in short, hinted very strongly that homosexuality was a horrible thing, appealing to the worst instincts in potential voters. I thought that they were trying to do damage control in the evangelical community, and that their method was more offensive than anything Kerry had said.
  • My strongest reaction, though, was that the whole issue was a distraction. Kerry cleaned Bush's clock in the debates, so Karl Rove and company decided to create a mini-controversy that would distract the press and the public. The Republicans largely succeeded in this: for a week after the debate, reporters discussed the Mary Cheney incident in far more detail than they recounted the substance of the debate.

I think most of this analysis still stands--for many voters, the Mary Cheney incident was a mini-controversy and a momentary distraction, a triviality which served mostly to throw Kerry off his guard. Looking back, however, I don't think the incident was nearly as peripheral as I'd believed. It wasn't just an attempt to create a distraction or do a little damage control, but part of a systematic effort to keep homosexuality and gay rights front and center in the minds of conservative potential voters, to address the issue in morally indignant terms, and to remind conservative voters of the divide between them and John Kerry. When the Cheney incident was viewed in isolation, it was possible to see the Republicans as some sort of "victim"; combine the incident with anti-gay push polls and rarely reported comments by the Bush campaign, to name just two small examples, and you see a far more sinister pattern.

Kerry, I suspect, was blind to this whole issue, just as most analysts were. I, for one, assumed that religious conservatives were already behind Bush and that a minor incident like this would have essentially no impact; now that the election is over, I see the Cheney incident as one part--not a huge part, admittedly, but a significant one--of an overall effort to keep conservative potential voters riled up on the issue of gay rights.

In an odd way, the rise of the so-called "moral values" issue reminds me of the September 11 attacks. On September 10, 2001, I could have told you that there were radical Islamic terrorists who'd love the opportunity to attack the U.S., but the nature of the threat--and the extent to which war had already been declared--had never really sunk in. On November 1, 2004, I knew that analysts loved to talk about a "culture war," that demographic changes had brought about the rise of a significant voting bloc whose values I didn't share, and that there was a risk that some of the rights and freedoms won since the 1950s would be trimmed back if the right took over the judiciary. I viewed the culture war as a peripheral part of the election campaign, however--something that could tip the scales in a close election, but that wasn't one of the campaign's main fronts. Now I see that the "other side" in this "culture war," if we want to use divisive terminology like this, already knew what kind of struggle it was involved in, and won an important victory in a key engagement while people like me were looking the other way.

I worry a little about using military terminology in this post. In some ways, I think that the country is less divided than it appears and that the ubiquitous dichotomy between red states and blue is both simplistic and artificial. (I also realize that plenty of people would find my September 11 comparison inflammatory.) Moreover, I have a hunch that there's going to be a backlash against the anti-gay, anti-choice right wing: plenty of moderately conservative suburbanites will end up voting against the more radical leaders of the Republican party in the years ahead, even though they haven't before. My biggest worry, however, is that the only thing that can mobilize this backlash is a series of dramatic conservative victories, and that by the time the counter-mobilization begins, there will have been too much damage to set things back the way they were.

Posted by Ed at 09:13 PM | Comments (3)

Well, At Least Obama Won

Posted by Ed

Let's just say that I'm very glad that I won't have to deal with a daily dose of U.S. politics for most of next year, when I'll be in Russia.

Update: For still more on Obama, check out this new Washington Monthly article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. And here's an article on the Kenyan reaction to Obama's win.

Posted by Ed at 07:36 AM | Comments (2)

November 01, 2004

Menand on J.F.K.

Posted by Ed

This week's New Yorker features an entertaining review, by Louis Menand, of a new book on John F. Kennedy's inauguration as president. My favorite passage:

At the inaugural ceremony, Cardinal Cushing, of Boston, delivering the invocation, notices smoke issuing from the lectern. Believing it to indicate the presence of an assassin’s bomb, the Cardinal slows down what is already being regarded as an interminable address, in the hope that, when the bomb goes off, his body will shield Kennedy from the blast. (The smoking stopped when an electrician yanked, more or less at random, one of the wires running under the lectern.)

In other fun New Yorker articles, Meghan O'Rourke looks back at Nancy Drew's "father" (Edward Stratemeyer) and Malcolm Gladwell revisits the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

On a more serious note, Rick Perlstein has launched a new blog--Operation Eagle Eye. I don't know if it's a permanent new feature or just an Election Week look at voting chicanery, but either way, it's well worth a look. The blog's inaugural post explains the website's name and discusses Republican vote suppression efforts in 1964.

Posted by Ed at 12:02 PM | Comments (1)