Friday, October 30, 2009

Fair and balanced

In the interest of fairness, since I posted a clip a couple of weeks ago in which Jon Stewart took apart CNN, here is Jon Stewart viciously dissecting Fox News. He also gets in a little dig at MSNBC (and Valerie Jarrett) at the end, which might make conservative readers of my blog feel a little better. Enjoy:

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Leadership

The Huffington Post's Sam Stein and Ryan Grim are reporting that President Obama is now actively opposing the idea of a public option with an "opt-out" provision, favoring instead the idea of a public option with a "trigger," because the latter would more likely attract the support of at least one Republican in the Senate, as well as provide political cover for more conservative Democrats. Because the story relies on anonymous sources, it is hard to assess its accuracy. Perhaps it reflects the fears of some administration insiders; perhaps it reflects actual administration strategy. Who can say for sure at this point?

More than this kind of rumor-mongering, however, what I object to is the tone of Stein and Grim's piece, which follows the Huffington Post's sometimes alarmist portrayal of the Obama administration. The idea that the White House is "leaderless" because its position may at the moment appear more centrist than the evolving position of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is said to favor a stronger version of the public option, seems to reflect more dismay that the President may not be advocating the version of the bill that the Huffington Post writers support, rather than a fair assessment of whether the President is acting as a leader.

More charitable interpretations should be considered. If the White House has arrived at a different calculation of the possibility of passing a health insurance bill with a strong public option in it than has the Senate leadership, that does not make the White House leaderless. That could merely mean that different people are counting the votes differently. Or it could mean, as suggested in the article itself, that the White House is concerned about protecting the seats of certain Democratic Senators in future elections That strikes me as a legitimate concern. Harry Reid right now only has to worry about passing this bill, and getting himself re-elected. The White House has a longer time horizon than the passage of this particular bill, important as it is. Preservation of a working majority in Congress is certainly important to future administration initiatives. Even if the White House were favoring a slightly more conservative version of health care reform for substantive as opposed to merely political reasons, that still would not make it "leaderless." The president is supposed to consider a much broader constituency than any individual Senator or Congressman, namely the entire country. So if the President positions himself to the right of Harry Reid on this particular issue at this particular time, that might be not only politically smart, it might also serve his broader constituency as well as Harry Reid is serving his.

Stein and Grim's statement that the President's current position "runs counter to the letter and the spirit of Obama's presidential campaign" is just flat-out false. During the campaign, the debate was about individual mandates and about health insurance affordability. The idea of a public option was barely mentioned. People should remember that the public option, which I happen to think is a good idea for a lot of reasons, and which the President has repeatedly supported, was never intended to be the centerpiece of health insurance reform, and only makes sense in the context of other necessary reforms: cost controls, subsidies, and regulation to attain near-universal coverage, to take just a few examples. So while supporters of the public option should be cheered that the debate has moved as far as it has toward the embrace of that position, they should not view the public option as a litmus test. Many other important pieces of the puzzle need to be put into place. There are also a few more steps in the legislative process to go before a final bill is enacted.

So as usual, my pitch to critics on the left is to give the President a break, and stop being so quick to cry betrayal. I believe his team is already looking ahead to the end game and beyond, while critics may be unduly worried about an interim step in a long process.

Sunday night update: According to the White House, the rumors reported in the Huffington Post article and elsewhere are "absolutely false." (White House blog) So the White House at least officially says that they and the Senate leadership are all on the same page.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dick Cheney should shut up.

It has been my goal in writing this blog to try to keep the tone always civil, respectful and positive. Feeling that there are already plenty of critics out there, I decided back when I set up this site just before last year's election, to offer only support for the new administration. I also try to echo President Obama's post-partisan, inclusive tone. Sometimes, however, a bit of rudeness may be called for. At least that is my reaction to the comments of former vice-president Cheney as reported in this morning's paper. Where does Dick Cheney get off complaining that President Obama is "dithering" in Afghanistan, and insinuating that he is putting troops in danger by undertaking a careful study of our aims and strategy in that country? There are so many ways in which this statement is inappropriate I don't have time to list them all.

First, wasn't it the Bush administration, while supporting the initial invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the Taliban in a very expeditious manner, that then became distracted by Iraq, and dithered itself in Afghanistan for more than six years? Isn't it the Obama administration that has already committed substantially more resources to Afghanistan than did Bush and Cheney? So who was dithering? Who was putting an inadequate number of troops in harm's way? Who was not trying to "win"? Who took their eyes off the ball, allowing Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts to escape to the mountains, probably in Pakistan, while they launched a poorly-planned invasion of Iraq?

Second, let's remember Dick Cheney's response when critics of the Bush administration's war policies questioned his strategy. He either told people outright to shut up because they did not have access to the information he had, or he questioned their patriotism or resolve. So perhaps Dick Cheney ought to take his own advice and allow the new administration to have a chance to implement a new strategy.

Third, what is wrong with taking the time to get this problem right? Not only are there domestic political considerations that must be taken into account in deciding whether to risk substantial American resources and lives in a protracted struggle in Afghanistan, there are also real military and political considerations in Afghanistan itself that must also be addressed. For one thing, we want to make sure we are supporting a legitimate government in Afghanistan, not one that appears to have rigged an election and engaged in other forms of corruption. We have seen what happens when an outside power tries to prop up a government that lacks popular support. Such efforts are doomed to failure regardless of the resources committed. We have also seen what happens, as Bush and Cheney so beautifully demonstrated in the poorly-implemented occupation of Iraq, when we try to meddle in the affairs of another country in too heavy-handed a manner. We end up fomenting an insurgency, instead of creating a stable government, and creating more problems for ourselves than the ones we tried to solve.

Fourth, it is downright unpatriotic and subversive to suggest that undertaking a careful study of our objectives in Afghanistan could be dangerous to the troops. What purpose can someone have in making such reckless comments other than to encourage those who lose relatives or friends to this struggle to blame the new administration's policies for such deaths? Dick Cheney should know better than that. He knows that the foremost objective of our military has for years been what they call force protection. Whether we have 1000 or 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, Dick Cheney knows that our commanders' first goal is to try to keep casualties to a minimum. Dick Cheney also knows that increasing the commitment of troops is not likely to reduce the number of casualties.

I am not one of those who advocates simply pulling the troops out of Afghanistan. I think it could be disastrous if the Taliban were to return to power, and I think we are right to try to prevent that from happening. But I also think the Obama administration is absolutely right to take the time necessary to re-assess our strategy carefully, and make sure we are not engaging in an unproductive mission. For critics like Dick Cheney to argue that what we need to do is to commit blindly to massive increases in war-fighting capability in Afghanistan without taking the time to explore alternatives, and find out whether such an effort would be feasible or effective, just reveals his own failure to learn from his own mistakes, as well as his own insecurities about being questioned about those mistakes. Dick Cheney kept himself insulated from most questioning during the years he exercised a great deal of power running the government. He has no business trying to create the kind of dissension and trouble for the new administration that he would never have tolerated when he was in power.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hope in Sudan

Yesterday, the State Department announced a new U.S. strategy toward Sudan, the culmination of months of review. The idea seems to be something of a carrot and stick approach, perhaps less punitive than might have been suggested during the presidential campaign, but still containing elements of coercion and rewards. The idea of some form of engagement with the government in Sudan actually sounds more in line with President Obama's general foreign policy approach of willingness to talk to unfriendly regimes, than does the idea of escalating sanctions.

The participants in this policy review seem to have discarded as unworkable the alternative of more draconian sanctions without engagement. As long as China and other countries support the government in Sudan, sanctions seem to be relatively ineffective. Instead, the prospect of rewarding the government of Sudan for cooperating with the peace process may hold greater promise toward attaining the goal, as Secretary of State Clinton stated, of either "a united and peaceful Sudan after 2011, or an orderly path toward two separate and viable states at peace with each other." The 2011 referendum process no doubt needs to be supervised closely. Creating and maintaining peace in Darfur will also obviously require continued vigilance by the world community. The administration's announcement yesterday may offer some hope that the United States is paying attention and will play a constructive part in achieving these goals.



I feel as though I've been living in Sudan recently, as I just finished reading Dave Eggers's book What is the What, an amazing and heartbreaking story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, as told by one of the survivors, Valentino Achak Deng. So it comes as a relief, and a surprising coincidence, to read the news that the State Department has also been busy studying the problems of Sudan, and has announced new efforts to improve the situation there. We probably needed to have a healthy debate in the State Department about the best strategy for the region, but it may be more important simply to decide to pay more attention to the problems of this troubled country. When the world shines a spotlight on the parties involved in ongoing conflict, genocide and other human rights abuses are probably less likely to take place.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Not another hoax!

It's just getting harder and harder to tell real news from news that is staged. Today the U.S. Chamber of Commerce retracted its previous position on global warming, and announced that it was supporting strong legislation to reduce carbon emissions. Wait a minute, did they actually do that? Reuters seemed to think so. But then some guy purporting to represent the actual U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the whole thing was a hoax. I think we need a six year old kid to tell us that it was all done for the show.

Interestingly, after all the public attention the last few weeks to the organization's position on climate change, including the defections of a number of prominent companies, it appears that their position may in fact be shifting somewhat. Perhaps continued repetition of the fake news announced today can make it real. Or as Andy Bichlbaum says at the end of the video below, all he was representing was the position that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce MUST take. Perhaps he is not a fraud but a prophet?

The Pitcher's Game


My cousin who was visiting last week told me that she has never understood the appeal of watching a professional baseball game. We figured out that her difficulty in appreciating the game may come from her belief that if the batter does not hit the ball, the batter must be doing something wrong. This view could reflect an underlying, somewhat optimistic philosophy, that one should be able to make something out of whatever life throws at you, and that if you can't do that, you have failed. I had to explain to her that in baseball at least, if not in life, every one of those hitters is extremely capable, but that it is still almost a miracle if they can get a hit. That is because the batter doesn't really have enough time to judge a pitch after it is thrown. He has to intuit where the ball is going before it is thrown. And if the pitcher is throwing well, and out-thinking the batters, even the best hitters in the league have almost no chance.

Last night's Dodger/Phillies game proved my point, as the Phillies' ace Cliff Lee shut down almost every one of the strong Dodger hitters, while awful pitching by a series of Dodgers' pitchers allowed the Phillies to score run after run seemingly without effort. It is interesting that this most American of games can be so grim and difficult. And without an ace pitcher, it is going to take hope and probably a lot of luck also to get the Dodgers into the World Series this year.

(LA Times photo)

Balloon boy secrets revealed!

It is sometimes disheartening for serious news aficionados to watch the public being consumed with interest in a non-story, or to see supposedly serious news outlets pandering to this interest. One way to deal with this problem is to give in to it, by using stories and pictures filled with gossip and sex as a means of luring readers to one's magazine or website.  The hope is that they will stay and read the serious articles as well (or at least that these readers will be able to claim, like Playboy readers, that they are only interested in your blog for the serious articles).  The Huffington Post is shamelessly good at this technique, hosting a surprising amount of fluff on its site, including lots of fashion photos, entertainment news and stories about naked celebrities. I am not knocking it, as Arianna has succeeded in gaining many readers. (I only criticize her for her sometimes harebrained ideas.) Seeing how well this method works, I sometimes wonder if I should link to more sex, gossip and sensationalism to boost my readership. Or post more pictures of scantily-clad women. (Here's another example to show that I'm not above that sort of thing.)

Rather than go full throttle down that route, which might be too distracting for me and the legions of readers whose interests I must consider, I think instead that it would be best to stick to my serious purposes and take this opportunity to remind you readers that you must turn to this blog regularly not because it offers the most titillating content (how could I possibly compete with the abundance of such material on the internet?), but rather because this site offers information that can be found nowhere else. What is that information, you may well ask? Well, obviously, this is the only site where you can find out what Joe Markowitz thinks about anything. Anytime you are wondering what Joe Markowitz thinks about a particular issue or event, you need to turn to this website. If you can't find information on a particular topic here (for example, balloon boy), that is probably because that topic is one that Joe Markowitz has not deemed worthy of comment, and maybe you should not be concerned about it either. But if something noteworthy occurs anywhere in the world that merits commentary by Joe Markowitz, you will find that information here (or on my mediation blog or my litigation blog), and perhaps no where else. Surely that is reason enough to keep visiting.

. . . We interrupt this post to advise you that police suspect that this entire post has been a hoax! Details at 11! . . . .

(American flag photo from Chive)

(balloon illustration by Irisz Agocs)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Haters should watch this:

Maybe some of the people spreading hate would feel a touch of shame if they saw this kid ask why so many people hate the president. Maybe hate-mongers would also wonder about the effectiveness of their tactics if they saw how well the president understands, accepts and then deflects criticism.


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This clip also made me think that if Barack Obama had not gone into politics, he could have had a good career hosting a tv show featuring children, like Art Linkletter.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dealing with good news

Today the Dow Jones Industrial average broke 10,000. Banks are reporting healthy profits. As of yesterday, five committees in Congress have reported out landmark health care reform legislation. And last week, the President of the United States won the Nobel Peace Prize! How are people reacting to all this good news? On the right, the only recent news that many conservatives seemed to have cheered was the news that Chicago lost its bid to host the 2016 Olympics. Even though they were quick to blame Obama for the sagging stock market after his election and for the first couple of months after his inauguration, you don't hear many business reporters or Republican politicians giving the president credit for solid signs of recovery. And on the left, you see the usual hand-wringing about Wall Street making too much money, or about the health care legislation containing too many compromises to win conservative votes.

What is wrong with us? Are we so awash in negative feelings that we can't simply feel a bit cheered up by good news? Last night I heard an interview with Michael Chabon in which he was waxing nostalgic about the 1970's, of all times. I don't remember the 1970's as such a great time: I was a college student in New York City when the economy was stagnant, the city was going broke, crime was rampant, the subways were covered with grafitti, and garbage was piled high in the streets. People were still fighting the political battles begun in the 1960's, and the president was being impeached. Maybe since Michael Chabon was only a teenager during those years while I was in my 20's, he has a more romanticized view. But he still reminded me that there was a feeling, even during those years of pretty dismal economic times, of freedom and possibility and experimentation. As Chabon described it, this was a time when a guy could wear platform shoes, eye make-up and a ridiculous haircut, and still expect to get laid. From my experience, I would not say that the 1970's was quite that tolerant or free-spirited, but that is still a good description of the idea of the 1970's. In more recent times, even when things are going well economically, there seems to be much more of a tendency to get snarky when anyone steps out of line. We feel less free, and perhaps that is why we are so quick to criticize. Maybe we ought to chill out, relax, be thankful that our economy seems to have pulled back from the brink, and try to move forward with a bit of hope.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stewart skewers CNN

There is a reason why people who watch the Daily Show are generally better informed than people who watch cable news networks. Jon explains why CNN does not do real journalism here:

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The clip is hilarious, but makes a serious point. We take the most ridiculous statements by politicians or pundits at face value, but we make sure to fact check everything that is said on Saturday Night Live, because we would not want satirical programs to get away with being unfair. So if you want to spread misinformation, all you have to do is get a senator to say it, because you'll never get away with telling falsehoods on a comedy show.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

More Peace Prize Reaction

The surprise award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama has touched off an interesting debate on his accomplishments. There is no real dispute that it is still early in President Obama's term, and that he cannot claim any solid, completed achievements such as a treaty or other resolution of an international conflict. Nevertheless, there is significant disagreement, largely on partisan lines, as to whether Obama deserves the award. That suggests that people are using different criteria for determining who is deserving of a peace prize. This disagreement also suggests that many people still do not understand or appreciate the nature of Barack Obama's achievement, and the transformation he has already effected in the course of being elected president.

Whether one supports or is hostile to Obama may spring from two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. The first way is to view the world as comprised of a number of hostile forces that must be overcome. Your mission in this view of the world is to defeat these hostile forces, usually by demonstrating your own superior power. The second way is to view the world as comprised of a number of problems that must be solved. In order to solve those problems, you need to bring together the competing forces that view these problems in different ways, and attempt to find common ground with these differing views. What Barack Obama achieved even before he became president, was to persuade the voters of America that they ought to try viewing the world in a more problem-solving way, instead of an adversarial way. The world view of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, the two candidates he defeated, comes from the more traditional, combative approach to politics and to governance. Because Barack Obama has been able to bring America around to a more problem-solving, and unifying vision of the future, he has already changed the image of the United States around the world. Note that I am not suggesting that Barack Obama is a pacifist. He has already decided to wage a more vigorous war in Afghanistan, and he also doesn't shy away from fights with political adversaries at home. What I am saying is that Obama's instincts are more conciliatory than adversarial. He would rather bring parties together than try to find ways to divide them.

I think the main reason Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was that he already been able to transform the way Americans view the world, which has in turn changed the way the rest of the world views America. That is not an insignificant accomplishment. I also think that people who feel Obama is undeserving of this award are mainly people who are fundamentally opposed to a problem-solving, unifying vision of the world. They believe that attempting to find common cause with one's adversaries is dangerously naive, that compromise should be scorned, and that the only proper way to deal with opposing views is to fight and defeat them. In other words, people who don't think President Obama deserved the peace prize could be people who are not really on board with the whole peace concept, or who think that the only reliable way to achieve peace is through strength.

My conclusion as to the reasons behind the hostility to the peace award is in part based on comments to my previous post on this topic below, as well as reaction I provoked to comments I made on the Common Sense Political Thought blog, as well as reading the reactions of a number of prominent conservatives. I should note that there are quite a few Obama critics on the left who also view the world in an adversarial manner (for example critics who advocate fighting harder to ram the liberal agenda through the Congress). It is interesting that some of those people also seem wary of embracing the President's receipt of the Peace Prize. (another example here)

Finally, I think that whatever one's degree of skepticism of the Obama approach, people should remember that we are talking about a peace prize, after all. Peace prizes are not generally awarded to successful generals, or others who advocate vanquishing one's enemies on the battlefield, even when those enemies are real and need to be vanquished. There are other awards for recognition of bravery in battle. So whether one fully supports President Obama's transformative vision of the way politics should be conducted, or whether one believes that the president is hopelessly out of touch with reality, maybe we could find some common ground in agreeing that the qualities that the Nobel committee might have been seeking to reward do seem to fit in the peace category.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Prodigies

Last night the 28 year old prodigy Gustavo Dudamel made his triumphant debut as the new director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and I have tickets for the same program tonight), with giant screens set up on the street so more people could see it. The Dodgers won game 2 of the Division Series after being down to their last out in the bottom of the ninth (after strong pitching by their 21 year old prodigy Clayton Kershaw). And to top it off, this morning, 48 year old prodigy Barack Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize! I'm not sure I could stand any more good news.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Making Science Exciting for Middle Schoolers

T-ball on the White House lawn was a great innovation by the last administration. But how about inviting 150 middle-schoolers for an astronomy demonstration, hosted by Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride and other astrophysics luminaries? The students got a chance to peer through telescopes, touch a moon rock, and meet actual astronauts and amateur and professional astronomers. Instead of fearing or censoring science, we are now embracing science, while at the same time promoting education and American competitiveness.