Some reflections on John McCain

It looks as if John McCain will be the Republican nominee. He has fewer than 100 delegates at this point, out of the 1,191 he needs to win the nomination. But McCain looks likely to emerge from Super Tuesday with approximately 750 delegates to Romney’s 325. (The source of the calculation is a Romney supporter.)

McCain_flight_suit.jpg  On the war in Iraq, McCain comes out as the obvious successor to President Bush:  he claims that America should stay in Iraq for as long as it takes, even if that means 100 more years.

But McCain is hard to pigeonhole. He adamantly opposes torture. He is extremely compelling on this topic because he speaks from personal experience:

“One of the things that kept us going when I was in prison in North Vietnam was that we knew that if the situation were reversed, that we would not be doing to our captors what they were doing to us,” he said.

When Mr. McCain brings up the issue of torture, he is often met by a complex response. Many of the Republican voters he courts do not agree with his opposition to aggressive interrogation techniques that many have condemned as torture. But they are often captivated by his discussion of the issue, in some cases even moved to tears, as was the case in Boone.

On the campaign trail, Mr. McCain does not dwell on the personal details of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war, the “torture ropes” in which he was bound day and night, or the beatings he endured. But as he speaks, the physical reminders of his wounds are there for all to see, from the stiffness of his arms, which to this day he can only painfully raise above his head, to the shortness of his stride, a result of injury and subsequent beatings.

(Note, in passing, how mealy-mouthed the New York Times is on this issue: “aggressive interrogation techniques that many have condemned as torture”. The USA is doing worse things to detainees than the “torture ropes” and beatings that McCain endured. Does the Times seriously deny that McCain was tortured? But I don’t mean to pick on the Times, because the US media in general equivocates like this.)

The other shocker is McCain’s position on climate change. He’s a believer:

He was co-sponsor of the 2003 McCain-Lieberman legislation, a failed attempt to achieve a cap on U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. And there’s no doubt that McCain is much more serious about taking mandatory action than other Republican hopefuls, like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney–who has been bashing the Arizona senator repeatedly for being too strong on the climate issue.

Imagine John McCain vs. Barack Obama in the presidential campaign. Both candidates will be committed to end torture and to take real action on climate change. No matter who wins, we’ll see an end to American torture.

On climate change — I’m not so sure. The US economy is tilting toward recession, and both McCain and Obama have other spending priorities. McCain will continue to finance American military operations in Iraq; Obama has promised to introduce a universal health care program. If the economy continues to stutter, action on climate change may be deferred, yet again.

How likely is a Republican victory at this point? Not long ago, I would have said it was extremely unlikely. But with McCain as the Republican nominee?

I’m convinced that McCain would beat Clinton. McCain can appeal to the right on military issues, and appeal to moderates on torture and climate change. Meanwhile, nearly 50% of Americans will never vote for Clinton under any circumstances. She can’t afford to bleed many votes to her Republican opponent.

And what would Clinton’s platform be? “I voted for the Iraq war, too”? “I’m enough of a hawk to stare down the terrorists”? “I am the candidate of experience”? Those have been the main planks of her campaign against Obama. But Clinton stands in McCain’s shadow at all three points.

Clinton can’t even reach out to immigrants, because McCain is to her left on that issue. Her appeal will be limited to core left-wing issues like abortion and health care.

Whereas Obama will present a clear contrast to McCain. One is pro-Iraq; the other has been outspoken in his opposition to the war. One represents experience and continuity with the Bush administration; the other represents a new generation and a dramatic change of course. And McCain’s “straight talk” will be a foil to Obama’s soaring rhetoric.

Andrew Sullivan is confident that Obama would beat McCain. I’m not so certain. McCain’s appeal is obvious to me, and a downturn in the economy may work in his favour. But Obama can successfully appeal to moderate, “swing” voters, and that may be enough to put him over the top.

I wouldn’t venture any rash predictions. The Republican race has been fascinating. The Democratic race will continue to be fascinating, even after Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Tuesday. And the presidential race itself may be just as compelling.

This is quite a year for anyone who enjoys politics! (I extend my sympathies to the rest of you.)

A Daily Transformation

John Stewart Lean

It’s been interesting keeping up with the Daily Show and the Colbert Report as they have progressed sans-author. I tend to agree with the previous assessment that Stewart is a better watch without his writers, mostly due to consistency: Colbert often struggles to maintain his in-your-face composure that makes the show so very potent, while Stewart’s persona — admittedly easier to maintain — still feels entirely intact.

However, there’s been one interesting fact to note. Though the Daily Show is recognized for its role as a parody, it seems to be changing, particularly since the strike. While before, the staff simulated a news program, Stewart seems more set of late to openly poke fun at the issues within the media, and, as it were, at the media itself.

This episode — a little dated now — is the best example, by me. It’s hilarious… but nonetheless, not parody! No news program really looks and feels quite like this sketch plays out. For some, it may seem a little less intellectual a pursuit, but openly mocking the media may have its own positive effects, and certainly lends itself well to humour! Much like the Colbert Report, there’s something that’s lacking without the writers.

Will the two shows return to their previous state when the strike is concluded? Quite possibly. It’s been good fun during this stretch, but one has to wonder if the audience they attract will shift if they continue along this path too far. MacLean’s magazine, which has openly suggested that parody is too “upper-brow” to appeal to audiences for long periods of time, would likely suggest that the viewership would, in fact, increase with a reshaping of the humour. But would it taint it?

I can’t really say anything but yes, since I enjoyed the shows so much before!


Pessimistic about the future of the United States of America? Think democracy is sometimes overrated? Well apparently the majority of South Carolina made it their goal to prove those naysayers wrong!

Despite the Clintons’ best efforts to play down a loss they knew was coming, analysts continent-wide are blazing out shocked reports. Why? The sheer scale of Barrack Obama’s victory in South Carolina was as optimistic a statement about this race as you can get! Take Andrew Sullivan’s comment, for example:

Sorry, but the Clintons were just destroyed in South Carolina in an unprecedented turnout. This was a butt-kicking of massive proportions. How else do you interpret a 28 point margin? It’s staggering.

Perhaps it’s a revealing sign that America has reached a new age of politicking. I believe it has more than a little to do with the onset of blogging as a mainstream Media form, since it really permits the spread of emotions over issues such as the Clinton-Obama war. For example, polls were reporting that “Fifty-six percent of those voting so far think Obama attacked Clinton unfairly, and while that is a high number, more people thought Clinton unfairly attacked Obama — 70%.” This type of emotion would likely have been downplayed, if not nonexistent, were it not for the rise of blogging. Major media buffs like Sullivan have been able to insert more personal opinion into the reports about these events, and more reader debates have allowed casual followers to follow logic outside of the showy electoral debates.

Regardless, there’s no question that democracy is working this time around, despite some early fears that it would not. And that has to count as an optimistic note for our countries, our voters, and our age. In the States, at least, we are now beyond the stage when 50% of voters didn’t bother turning out. Individuals are pouring forth to meet the challenge of improving politics in their nation, particularly in light of the Clintons’ oldschool tactics. Americans, fueled by new information and new options — where was Obama back in 2004? — are standing up to the image they have been cast as violent and ignorant.

Now that’s a major blow in favour of democracy!

Obama’s share of the white vote in South Carolina

Barack Obama received 55% of the votes in South Carolina yesterday — doubling Clinton’s share of the vote (27%). Here’s how the Washington Post described Obama’s victory:

CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 26 — Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois won the South Carolina primary in a landslide Saturday, attracting a biracial coalition that gave his candidacy a much-needed boost as the Democratic presidential race moves toward a 22-state showdown on Feb. 5. (emphasis added)

Obama also claimed to have put together a biracial coalition. Here’s the LA Times report:

“The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders,” Obama told a boisterous crowd in Columbia that repeatedly interrupted his remarks with cheers. “It’s not about rich versus poor, young versus old, and it is not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future.”

The outcome of the Democratic contest, after a week of racially charged campaigning, also suggested divisions that flew in the face of Obama’s message of unity. The Illinois senator won 4 out of 5 black votes in the state Saturday versus 1 out of 4 white votes, according to exit polls. (emphasis added)

So which is it? If Obama won only one of four white votes, does that mean he failed to elicit biracial support?

Bear in mind that there were three strong contenders in this campaign. In fact, Edwards (39%) received a larger share of the white vote than Clinton (36%). If the white vote had been split evenly between the three candidates, each would have received 33% of the vote.

So there is a gap, but not such a large one. Obama received 25% of the white vote when he might have expected a 33% share. And, as Noam Scheiber points out, Obama tied Clinton among white men. So his claim is still accurate:  he appeals to both white voters and black voters.

As Obama put it in his victory speech:

We have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans that we’ve seen in a long, long time.

Obama and Michelle Obamaphoto credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

I think this was John Edwards’s last gasp. He received 18% of the vote in South Carolina. That counts as a disappointing finish for him:  South Carolina is his home state, and he won the state in 2004.

The key figure is 15% in Democratic primaries:  if a candidate attracts less than 15% of the vote, s/he receives zero delegates. My guess is, Edwards won’t reach the 15% threshold in any state on Feb. 5.

If so, the big question is, where will Edwards’s share of the vote go:  to Clinton or to Obama?

Democracy’s Achilles’ heel

A demoralized Andrew Sullivan reader:

For the last six years, I’ve watched a fear-mongering fool manipulate us, ruin our standing in the world and abuse our principles. It’s been hard to feel good about our country. But when Obama won Iowa and surged in the New Hampshire polls I thought I’d underestimated us. For the first time in my lifetime, my cynical generation was turning out heavily to vote. We were choosing, above all else, to be inspired.

Now, the Clinton campaign has gradually and expertly eviscerated him, and it turns out we’re not that country. We’re still easily manipulated; we’re still scared; and we’re still a little racist. It’s hard not to resent her for that.

I’m not an American, but I feel just as demoralized at present.

Another quote. This time from Dick Cheney, as White House Chief of Staff, in 1976:

Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.

Are the Clintons likewise unprincipled? Sam Boyd asks the right question, and supplies the right answer:

Does Clinton really think Obama is a corrupt Chicago pol who secretly hates abortion and wants to cut social security and Medicare? No.

This is exactly what I’ve been thinking. I asked myself:  Do the Clintons really believe that Obama waffled in his opposition to the Iraq war? Of course not! They know this is a clear point of differentiation between Hillary’s candidacy and Barack’s:  Clinton voted for the Iraq war while Obama stuck his neck out by opposing it, at a time when that was a politically unacceptable position. The principled and far-sighted stand which Obama took at the time had emerged as one of the key strengths of his campaign. The Clintons knowingly — cynically — distorted his record to take that asset away from him.

Do the Clintons honestly believe that Obama approves of specific Reagan-era policies:  on Social Security, minimum wage, and Medicare? They are perfectly aware that Obama said no such thing but they’re eager to put those words in his mouth.

Democracy relies on the good faith of those who campaign for public office. Democracy cannot prosper if politicians are cynical enough to misrepresent the facts for the sake of electoral advantage.

It’s as simple as that, and it matters that much.

Hilzoy argues that the Clintons are displaying contempt for voters:  “manipulat[ing] them into casting votes they might not cast if people were not telling them lies.”

The Clinton campaign apparently thought that presenting Hillary Clinton herself, and saying true things about Obama, might not be enough to convince people to vote for her. …

Lying in an election is basically a way of saying:  we know how you ought to vote, and if we can’t get you to vote that way by presenting you with facts and arguments, or even with truthful but emotionally shaded appeals, then we will get you to vote our way by telling you things that are not true.

This is democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Democracy cannot prosper if those who campaign for public office subscribe to Cheney’s dictum:  “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”

Hilzoy continues by presenting an important thesis:  lying to voters “undermines democracy by placing intolerable burdens on citizens”:

I think that it is our duty as citizens to learn enough to cast informed votes, and that this requires both following the news to some extent and also acquiring enough background knowledge (e.g., of economics) to be able to assess what people say.

However, I do not think that it ought to be our duty as citizens to become complete political junkies, the sorts of people who follow each and every twist and turn in a Presidential campaign. Some of us are like that … but I cannot see any reason at all why everyone should be.

But when candidates tell the kinds of lies that the Clintons have been telling, they place citizens in a position in which the only way to know what is going on is to become political junkies. Being merely informed is not enough:  you have to be the sort of person who actually remembers the article from 2004 that Bill Clinton was referring to when he said that Obama had changed his position on the war, and so forth.

It’s like the tobacco companies’ attempts to confuse people by coming up with research that seemed to show that smoking was harmless. The strategy is to sow enough doubt that people who are not willing to slog through the science, the interminable debates about the methodological deficiencies of this or that study, etc., etc., etc., are likely to come away with a vague sense that the case that smoking is bad isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It is designed to leave people with two options: either spend an awful lot of time working through the science, or be misled.

In so doing, it asks a lot of ordinary people who have lives to lead: it prevents them from just reading stuff, forming a more or less correct view, and acting accordingly.

That’s a brilliant analysis. And the tobacco company illustration is a good one. But in fact, we’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing in recent years.

Climate change is a parallel issue. Our society places great trust in the scientific method of separating fact from prejudice. Now we have a clear scientific consensus with respect to climate change:  but for some unaccountable reason, the public remains confused and sceptical. I wonder how that happened? Could it be that people with a vested interest have engaged in a disinformation campaign, just like the one previously carried out by the tobacco companies?

Likewise the invasion of Iraq. Did the Bush administration invade Iraq because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction? Or was it because of Saddam’s close ties to al Qaeda? Or was it because of his horrific human rights abuses? Or was it for some other, undisclosed motive? The strategy is obvious:  Sow plenty of confusion about your motives, and do whatever you will.

Again with respect to torture. Pretend that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were committed by rogue soldiers. Euphemise torture as “enhanced interrogation”. Talk about the ticking time bomb scenario a lot, even though it is irrelevant to the actual practice of torture. Gloss over the fact that you’re torturing suspects; refer to them all “terrorists”. (Guilty until proven innocent, by which time they’ve already been tortured.) “Lose” videotapes of “interrogation” sessions.

First they said, “We don’t torture.” Then they said, “We do those things, but those things aren’t torture.” Then they defended torture as a necessary evil. Then they rebranded torture as a good.

Hilzoy is right:  the strategy is to place an intolerable burden on voters. Keep the people so confused, so off balance, that they can’t separate the facts from the lies. Reduce voters to ignorance and thus impotence.

But the only people who do such things are the dirty Republicans, right? And not just any Republicans, but the discredited administration of Bush, Rove, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.

That’s why I began this post with the quote from Andrew Sullivan’s demoralized reader. It isn’t just the Bush administration anymore. It’s the Clintons. And the Democrats in general, if they are manipulated into nominating Hillary, which is now the likeliest outcome of the primaries.

Democracy cannot prosper if politicians are cynical enough to misrepresent the facts for the sake of electoral advantage.

Democracy cannot prosper unless voters are clever enough to see what’s happening — and reject the politicians who play these corrosive games.

Laying it on [the gangs] thick


Part of my time the last couple weeks has been spent updating my list of podcasts. Though I don’t always check them daily, I tend to tune in to a variety of shows as I go about blogging or chatting to friends. But I found out recently that my list of subscriptions was sorely lacking, as CBC’s podcasts were completely absent from my list.

If you’re interested in great content, or simply don’t want to tune in to the television to catch the news, has got a huge amount of content for free! Though some items, like The Hour, are not complete and serve as a grab for their television program as much as anything, others like the At Issue panel are full of potent newscasting without the inconvenience of tuning in at a specific time of day!

And it is, indeed, the most recent At Issue that has me posting today! First, for those of you not familiar with the Hou Chang Mao shooting, read the story here. Then, check it out the At Issue video yourself here, or subscribe to the podcast feed here, and take the 5 minutes to watch the panel.

Although Rex waxes poetical a bit too much for my tastes (I’m pretty sure the first line about Dickens is his motivation for doing so, but it’s still hard to bear 😛 ), he makes a very important argument, and the pathos really starts to hit you by the end. Though at first you groan in exasperation at the fact that he sounds so pretentious, it becomes clear that he’s talking about an issue that really requires some thought and sensitivity. The fact that he ends by calling out the gang members responsible for the killing is both necessary and sadly ironic; After all, those very people are the ones least likely to watch such a show.

I encourage you again to check out some of the podcasts, including the At Issue panel. That was an irregular feel for the show — the Point of View segment is arguably less intriguing than the normal “round table” feel of the program — but it still gives you a good feel for the type of issues confronted.

Welcome to the 21st century. Let’s do away with TVs forever!!!

Science is subjective … but peer-reviewed

An interesting description of the scientific method, from a cognitive neuroscientist:

Our field is one with many open questions, many confusing and apparently mutually exclusive data points, not to mention a dizzying array of theoretical perspectives to consider.

As scientists, we learn to live with the fact that much of our work is highly subjective. There is actually very little that any two people who call themselves “cognitive neuroscientists” are guaranteed to agree on. Mostly we make progress by choosing the side of an argument that seems most plausible given our pre-theoretical commitments, and trying to provide data that would convince someone starting from the other side. [emphasis added]

We depend on the people who disagree with us to keep us honest when our imagination or our capacity for due diligence fail us. Any published work has to survive a process of peer review in which researchers working on similar topics evaluate whether our data mean what we say they mean. Empirical evidence is always reported along with a description of the methods used, which should, in principle, be enough to replicate the result. In other words, there is a system in place that is designed to rein in our impulses to put our thumbs on the scale when weighing the merits of our arguments and the data that support them.

But what if the peers to whom you turn for a supposedly objective review share many of your subjective “pre-theoretical commitments”?

It’s not easy to eliminate subjectivity from any human endeavor. The postmodernists are right on this point. (Go here and search for the reference to Kuhn.)

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