‘Nother Salon Piece

by Erik Kain on August 2, 2013

This one on redistricting and Congress:

With its current approval hovering around 14 percent, it’s a fair guess that nearly everyone across the entire political spectrum would like to see a change in Congress. The good news is that in a country as politically divided as ours, where basic, seemingly easily verifiable facts are often in contention, there appears to be at least onekind of change everyone can believe in. But here’s the bad news: this Congress, the one everybody hates? It ain’t goin’ nowhere.

To read the rest click here.

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‘Nother Salon Piece

by Erik Kain on August 2, 2013

This one on redistricting and Congress:

With its current approval hovering around 14 percent, it’s a fair guess that nearly everyone across the entire political spectrum would like to see a change in Congress. The good news is that in a country as politically divided as ours, where basic, seemingly easily verifiable facts are often in contention, there appears to be at least onekind of change everyone can believe in. But here’s the bad news: this Congress, the one everybody hates? It ain’t goin’ nowhere.

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my name dot com

by Elias Isquith on June 6, 2013

Just wanted to let you guys know that I’ll be posting to eliasisquith.com again. So now you know. Thanks.

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How Not to Watch Game of Thrones

by Elias Isquith on June 3, 2013

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Warning: Spoilers are coming.

I’m not a big Game of Thrones fan, mainly because I think the show runners too often trip over the line separating realism from exploitation; but I still ultimately watch most episodes — or at least most of most episodes. (I could quite happily never spend another moment of my life watching the fat guy or the little kid who can’t walk and sees visions.)

But you best believe I was watching the end of the most recent chapter, as two major characters (Robert and Catherine Stark) and one secondary character (Robert’s wife) — who, incidentally, was visibly pregnant — were slaughtered in cold blood. The sequence was definitely a striking (and I’d lean toward saying exploitative) whirlwind of cruelty and gore. But it was the emotional ruthlessness of suddenly whacking major characters, characters viewers had come to trust and almost feel safe with, that resonated — not just the blood.

Anyway, people were understandably worked up after the show was over. In fact, I don’t think I can recall people online and in my day-to-day expressing such an emotional reaction to a death in a show since Adriana in The Sopranos met her ignominious (and fucking shattering!) end. Everyone seemed to agree that The Red Wedding was intense, horrifying, depressing, bleak. All of this could only mean, of course, that a Slate pitch was soon to descend over the land, making sure everyone understood just how clever Slate truly is.

Enter Matt Yglesias, with a post going on about how Robert Starks’ earlier reneging on a promise to marry his future murderer’s daughter was, in the world of Game of Thrones, a more serious crime than contemporary viewers appreciate. Yglesias wrote this in about as obtuse a manner as possible, because that’s how you get page-clicks, as this link here can attest:

Walder’s decision to respond to [Starks'] betrayal in kind is extreme. But tit-for-tat is a viable strategy in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma and arguably represents a reasonable approach. We, with direct access to Stark/Tully perspectives, know that the Edmure Tully fallback marriage is a perfectly good-faith arrangement but the view from the Twins is not so clear. You really wouldn’t want to elevate a new King who right from Day 1 is betraying not only the Iron Throne but also his own bannermen. If you squint at it right, you can see what Walder was thinking.

Just one quick response — and, again, I say this as someone who is not a big Game of Thrones fan and who has not read any of the books the series is based on. But a big honking chunk of the point of Game of Thrones, as I understand it, is to deromanticize the Middle Ages, to reveal the time period being depicted as not one of chivalry and honor and bravery, but rather pure animal cruelty. So, y’know, belaboring the logic of a savage, ruthless, and inhumane system is, um, actually not so clever.

It’d kind of be like writing a post in defense of Southern plantation owners during the antebellum era by noting that said slavers did not see their oppressed subjects as humans at all, so that makes it OK, sort of. Now that I think of it, however, I bet that would get pretty good traffic too…

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Torture at Guantanamo

by Elias Isquith on June 2, 2013

Hunger strike

I think she goes a little too far in saying that President Obama is “in great danger of being remembered as a ‘torture president’” on the scale of his predecessor; but Digby is fundamentally correct in describing the forced-feeding of Gitmo detainees as barbaric and unacceptable. And I’ll defer to Joe Nocera, who believes the practice — unlike the continuing operation of Gitmo itself — could be stopped with one phone call from the Commander-in-Chief.

But this much I know: the detainees at Gitmo are living in the kind of hellish legal abyss that Hannah Arendt — writing about refugees before, during, and after World War II — identified as a key step in the process of dehumanization and, ultimately, obscene political crime. Indeed, many or most of those still being held at Gitmo are de facto refugees, either because their home country won’t take them back or, more often, because US agents are too terrified of possible future blowback to send them home, anyway.

Whether it’s due to bureaucratic cowardice or self-conscious cruelty, however, is only important in the abstract. Either way, the result is a group of human beings who nominally have rights — human rights — but in effect are completely at the mercy of an unaccountable state. This makes the reality of Gitmo a difference of degree, not kind, from the worst practices of the most authoritarian and lawless governments.

If the current political class’s record on civil liberties weren’t already so thoroughly regrettable, it would be shocking. As it is, it’s merely a wearying affirmation of a depressingly cynical and dysfunctional status quo.

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How to Respond to Erick Erickson

by Elias Isquith on May 31, 2013

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Erick Erickson said something offensive and stupid, which is usually not the kind of thing I’m inclined to write about, because no one much will be surprised to hear I find the sentiments of a southern reactionary contemptible. But for the sake of setting the table, here he is, dropping science:

I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology — when you look at the natural world — the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.

The stupid kind of stands on its own, but for further context: this happened during a roundtable discussion (of which there were no women members) on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business show. Lou and the gang were freaking out over a recent Pew report finding that around 40 percent of households have a woman as the sole or primary source of income; this, apparently, was a sign that America is not only on the Road to Serfdom but is also on the Road to Matriarchy, which would be bad because science.

Anyway, Erickson’s comments about the natural order of things sound too much like a lazy liberal’s parody of conservative thought to not be willfully constructed to troll. And troll they did. But in the midst of all the outrage and snark, Will Wilkinson managed to write something a bit more substantive than, “That thing you said? I hated it.” Primarily, Wilkinson made note that there’s no scientific basis, at all, for Erickson’s statements:

Actually, human hunter-gatherers don’t participate in modern economies, either, so it’s hard to know how to use even the primeval behaviour of our own species as a norm for evaluating the alarming trend in the earning power of moms. In any case, my understanding of the relevant bits of anthropology is that hunter-gatherer women generally specialise in reliable food-gathering, while men generally specialise in unreliable hunting, and it is by no means unusual for women to contribute more than men to their group’s caloric budget. According to one theory, hunting gives men an opportunity to display their genetic mettle, so they do it to attract mates as much as to bring home the wild-boar bacon. What’s natural to men is not a “dominant” economic role within the modern, nuclear family unit, but a habit of posturing—often wastefully, often pathetically—meant to secure social status and impress women. In this sense, Lou Dobbs and his guests defend through their manner more than their words the prerogatives of men.

I’ve read barely anything about early humanity, so I’ll defer to Wilkinson when it comes to the empirical basis, or lack thereof, for Erickson’s pronouncement. But science aside, I’d like to question whether we need turn to the historical record to rebut Son of Erick. I mean, let’s just say, what if, that double-E is right, that the natural world is defined by males dominating females. My answer would be, so fucking what? It’s also common in some areas of the natural world for mothers to kill and/or eat their babies; does that mean we give a free pass to anyone with a particularly carnivorous form of postpartum depression? Not very pro-life, that.

If you look to the right side of this here blog, you’ll see a quote from Robert F. Kennedy that I quite like. For those of you on mobile, here it is:

Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. 

You see, that’s the thing about civilization: at some level it’s an attempt to curb what can be understood as the “natural” impulses of humanity. In fact, in other contexts, this is an argument you’ll often hear from conservatives: humanity is wicked and selfish and destructive and in need of control. That’s why we need a strong military, a strong Church, strong families, whatever. I mean, Thomas freakin’ Hobbes, am-I-right?

So let’s not even waste our time delving into the questionable empirical veracity of Erickson’s trolling. That’s rhetorically defensive, it makes us sound like whiny eggheads — and it concedes that the natural world should be the template from which we build our society, an absurdity. Instead, let’s applaud the growing economic power of women in America and cheer on heartily our society’s ongoing project to make of life something more worthwhile than surviving in the wild.

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Liberal NIMBYism

by Elias Isquith on May 30, 2013

Via Grist’s Dave Roberts, I came across this piece from The Stranger on micro-housing in the city, which you might think sounds rather prosaic…until you remember the awesome and hideous power of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard, for the uninitiated).

The very quick and dirty version of the story is that Seattle is facing a demographic boom and a housing crunch, and that these micro-apartments offer a way for the young and the not-rich to live in the city in an affordable way. It sounds pretty good, right?

A significant number of locals disagree. They’re worried that these housing complexes will change the character of the neighborhood, that they’re a financial windfall for dishonest developers, and that, well, the wrong kind of people might move in. And what kind of people are the wrong kind of people? 

“Anyone who can scrape up enough money to live month-to-month can live there,” [one neighborhood activist] said, worried that low-income interlopers would jeopardize his chances to sell his own house. “I don’t think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it.”

Now keep in mind that this is in Seattle — not exactly a place you’d mistake for the Deep South or some other hotbed of conservatism. But just like Boston in the early 70s, when outrage over busing and school integration caused an extreme amount of social disruption and controversy, we see that a lot of otherwise progressive people become downright reactionary when they’re forced to actually live their principles. It is, in a word, gross.

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How to Write About Michele Bachmann

by Elias Isquith on May 29, 2013

Bachmann rect

Michele Bachmann is retiring, which is the kind of thing that makes me feel weary just thinking of writing about. What’s there to say about Michele Bachmann, after all? She’s crazy. OK, sure. She’s bigoted. OK, sure. She’s weird. OK, sure. But unless you’re a ThinkProgress worker who lives off of the self-satisfied liberal traffic bait that is Michele Bachmann, that doesn’t give a writer much to work with.

But Jamelle Bouie is better at this stuff than me (he gets paid for it, after all!) and has found the way to write about Michele Bachmann not-stupidly. Shaking his readers out of their left-of-center cocoons, he reminds us that, as the 2012 GOP primary showed, a lot of people like Michele Bachmann! And thousands — thousands! — of people really liker her. Like, enough to vote for her for President of the United States-level like her. So, yeah, go read Bouie and pray for the republic.

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There Is No Conservative Reform Movement

by Elias Isquith on May 29, 2013

2009703I think it’s fair to say that, excepting those conservatives with a passion for solitude, these are not halcyon days for members of the center-right. On the political end you’ve got guys like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul that non-crazy cons have to passive-aggressively half-defend; and on the policy side you’ve got…well, it’s not so clear, really.

Some right-wingers and non-partisan media lights like to claim that, within conservatism, there’s a nascent reform movement struggling to break free and personified by folks like Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin and other very serious gentlemen. Others, usually left-wingers, are not so sure.

Responding to the doubters, Reihan Salam, the reform-ish rightwing intellectual who is probably second only to Ross Douthat in prominence, insists that there is indeed a conservative movement — just so long as we use a definition of movement that no one would use, ever (emphasis his):

[I]f the question is whether or not there really is a “conservative reform” movement in policy, the answer would have to be no under a stringent definition of a movement. It might be more apt to refer to a reformist tendency, which doesn’t so much represent a dramatic departure from U.S. conservatism as it’s been practiced in recent decades but rather a shift of emphasis.

Movement, tendency, gesture, feint — whatever you want to call it, the question remains: is there any “there” there? Are these soft apostates actually challenging their colleagues’ ideas not only on means but also ends?

Because it’s worth keeping in mind that the Democratic Leadership Council — which I’m using as something of a synecdoche for the overall rightward shift of the Democratic Party 20+ years ago — was offering policy ideas that actually cut against the ideological grain. De-regulation of Wall Street, in other words, didn’t represent a “tendency” or a gesture. It was an honest-to-god change in philosophy and policy.

Do we see the same from this group of conservatives? I think Mike Konczal makes a persuasive argument that the answer is no, and that the (mild) intra-conservative conflict we’ve seen thus far is about reformers pushing against ideas from the right — like a return to the Gold Standard — rather than pushing their fellow conservatives in a genuinely new direction.

Salam waves this critique away by claiming, more or less, that Konczal won’t be happy until we’re all singing the “The Internationale”. But that’s a cop-out,  and one of the older ones in the cop-out catalog, too. The essence of reform, after all, is to change — not eradicate, but change — what or who you are. Reform means difference. Therefore, any proposed shift can be argued against as a betrayal of identity or principles.

I was going to point to an example in Salam’s recent history of his encountering this very same response from his rightwing critics — but truth be told, for all his reputation as a different kind of conservative, Salam has precious little in his career for a purge-mongering right-winger to seize upon as evidence.

Grand New Party, the 2009 manifesto of sorts he coauthored with Ross Douthat, didn’t inspire much one way or the other, probably because its ideas were “suggestions rather than concrete proposals” and because those suggestions, flimsy as they were, never actually stepped on any conservative toes; expanding tax credits is an idea everyone likes without wanting to think much about; focusing more on the working class is similarly anodyne.

Salam, then, is not the best messenger. But besides David Frum, Bruce Bartlett and Josh Barro — all well-past or in the midst of becoming persona non grata on the right — he’s all conservative Republicans have got. And until these people come to understand that calling for more direct appeals to the white working class is, to put it mildly, not such “new thinking,” then conservatives with a “tendency” to politely and quietly disagree with Michele Bachmann’s loonier pronouncements is as reform-minded as it’ll get.

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Jacobinning

by Elias Isquith on May 28, 2013

I’ve got a new post up at Jacobin that y’all should check out. It’s a breezy piece on conflict-averse liberalism and its manifest shortcomings.

A taste:

I’ve never been in a real-deal, legit fight. I’ve seen a few, but I’ve never been in one myself. The ones I was witness to didn’t look particularly enjoyable, though, so it’s not like I look back regretfully on all those times I could’ve punched someone in the head. I long ago learned that I would have to make peace with my pacific nature.

All of this is to say, I empathize with the urge to duck a fight. They’re ugly things, fights. But despite what you’ve heard, there’s the personal and then there’s the political, and they’re not always one in the same. A conflict-averse person is OK; a conflict-averse politics is not.

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