Category Archives: Politics

John Kerry and ‘you’

Senator Kerry and the GOP machine is making my life as a teacher easy. I just talked about unidentified antecedents in class Monday, and here he is, getting in huge hot water over the same thing. It’s language in action. I have a great real-world example for next class.

The NYT, as usual, completely botched explaining the quote in its eagerness to look fair – actually, they didn’t even bother trying. They need someone sharper on staff.

It’s always worth it to go and look at a transcript or video to make a real judgment based on context rather than secondhand rumor. This is the original news article, I believe, suggesting his comment was part of a warm-up act of bad one-liners, including Bush living in a “state of denial.” This video clip gives the actual quote, but very little before or after. Inconclusive so far… but Chris Matthews of MSNBC appears to have read a transcript or seen unedited footage that has yet to appear online. He may be alone – I can’t find anyone else who even claims to have seen one. But he references the “state of denial” joke and opines that Kerry is talking about Bush:

MATTHEWS: [I]f you listen to the transition of words there, it clearly looks like he was talking about President Bush being in a state of denial, not realizing when he took us into Iraq what he was going to face because he didn’t study hard in school.

Now if you take the quote out of context and leave it by itself (as nearly every news source has parroted) then the ‘you’ is left to the imagination:

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Bush is not mentioned in this sentence, and the connotation shifts to a generic ‘you’ without the explicit understanding that ‘you’ is Bush, getting stuck in Iraq because he didn’t do his homework in gathering good intelligence. It’s a vague or unidentified antecedent – in this case, the identifier is in previous remarks that go unquoted. Kerry’s own defense of the quote is consistent with this – the joke was for Bush.

So Kerry is guilty of nothing, alas, but leaving his pronouns without support. The media couldn’t follow this, probably due to lack of a good transcript, apparently, though Matthews was on his toes. The heavily cropped video on Google and YouTube, too, avoids the context. But the damage, of course, has been done… a classic case of a sound bite that in turn bites the speaker.

More interesting than Kerry’s poor pronoun usage, though, is the automatic assumption of who the ‘you’ was. Almost universally, the news, the politicians asked to comment, etc, upon hearing or reading the quote knee-jerk assume that soldiers were being maligned as uneducated slackers and that smart students can avoid going to Iraq, yadda yadda.

I suspect there is a stereotype of members of the military that lies at the root of this knee-jerk interpretation. In searching for the transcript or a video, I saw a lot of military members defending themselves against this perceived ‘attack’ – and all quite unnecessarily. Think for a second. Kerry is a vet. A decorated one, no less. Reason would suggest that in all likelihood such a quote is out of context. No American politician, not even Dan Quayle at his dimmest (there’s a stereotype for you), knowingly or unknowingly insults the troops. But, of course, the GOP is awfully good at tarnishing war heroes that don’t share their politics.

Maybe he did know what he was doing

After reading this article, and doing some poking around in regards to Oriana Falluci, I am much less certain now the Pope was being merely excessively academic. His boo-boo of a citation now takes on a sinister and calculated aspect – reminding me of GWB, even, in the sense that his rhetorical goal is often no more complex than polarization of the world and the consolidation of his power structure.

Maybe we need to add another amendment to the Constitution, just in case, that actually says “seperation of church and state” rather than the mere implication in the 1st. The Pope’s view, hidden behind a facade of embracing reason, is that there is an acceptable middle-ground between the two, and that must not ever take a good grip here. Not that it hasn’t already…

The Pope, mistranslated

I find this brouhaha over the Pope’s recent remarks fascinating in the context of scholarly citation and popular mistranslation.

I have no real interest in defending/attacking him, Christianity, or Islam, but I do have an interest in what he said as opposed to what it was taken as.

My gut instinct, initially, was that he had offered a quote to illustrate some point, being the ex-professor he is, and this was mistranslated or crudely summarized into being his own remarks or even that he agreed with the gist of the quotation.

After a brief search, I found the text of the speech and proceeded to read it instead of sorting through conflicting and oft biased news accounts.

Assuming that the English within is accurate, I would say my initial guess was correct. I was actually impressed by the smooth flow of the speech, though you’re not going to find me agreeing with faith/God and reason being compatible, which is a large part of his argument.

A very simplified summary of the speech’s thesis would be that God acts rationally and this is a key tenet of Christianity. The infamous quotation in particular offers a theological debate between a Byzantine (and Christian) emperor and a unidentified Persian (and assumed follower of Islam) in 1391. The emperor states God is bound by reason, and that he believes spreading faith by war and violence are not reasonable activities; he goes on to question how Mohammad or the Koran address this issue, as much of Islam was, admittedly, spread by holy war. The Persian’s (Ibu Hazn) remarks are paraphrased through another author, but the response seems to be that the God of the Koran is “transcendent” and thus beyond rationality, is free to disregard even his own statements on violence and such.

The rest of the Pope’s speech drops the Christianity/Islam context and focuses instead on the “Must God be bound by reason?” question, the role of reason in Christianity, and in particular how Greek philosophy intersects.

I would have extreme difficulty calling this an attack on Islam. The Pope does not use the quote to even denounce the use of war or violence to spread religion (though I’m sure he agrees with that position); his focus at that point in the speech is the differing view of God’s rationality between the two religions, and he then moves quickly on to Christian-only concepts. In the preceding paragraph, even, he explicitly states he is only using the quote as a “starting-point for my reflections on the issue,” which is the issue of “faith and reason.” I think he wanted an equally scholarly response from an Islamic scholar, as the Persian responded to the emperor. But in today’s supercharged, simplified media…

Ergo, I think the Pope got mistranslated, but he left the opening.

His choice of quotation is airtight from an academic perspective, but politically poor. This is rhetoric that fails on a worldwide stage. Surely there are dozens of other theological quotations that he could have used to introduce the same God/reason thesis without juxtaposing Christianity and Islam so sharply.

But I can’t give that approach much weight at all, personally, as I have little patience for burying history to make people happy. There is a sharp divide between the theology of the two religions. From what I know of Islam (I took a course as an undergrad) he did not misrepresent its conception of God, and if the Pope – and a very educated Pope we have, for better or worse – doesn’t know Christian theology, I’m a saint.

It would be really, really easy to mistranslate or misquote that speech and turn it into an attack on Islam rather than a scholarly debate with, perhaps, a mild implication that Christianity and Islam should have theological rap sessions on occasion. I might even say that the Pope, eager to deliver a thoughtful rumination, accidentally left an opening that was exploited.

By the way, even English-speakers didn’t understand the speech. The NYT said today, “The speech was largely a scholarly address criticizing the West for submitting itself too much to reason, walling God out of science and philosophy,” which is a so-so summary of just one point of the speech.

I’d like to see an Islamic scholar write a good rebuttal to his speech, in a polite manner. The obvious counteragrument to the Pope’s speech is that Christianity may talk the talk of rationality and borrow the Greeks for backing, but there is no shortage of religious warfare done in the name of Jesus. The Crusades ring a bell. And why, there’s an overtly Christian nation right now waging war to make the world safe for Judeo-Christian Western civilization. You get one guess which one. The ‘war on terrorism’ is not eligible for a secular sticker.

Objectivity – yeah, right

My stomach churns when I read newspaper articles like this one, where the NYT continues its never-ending slide into squirrelly neutrality. They’re so obsessed with putting up a detached, professional front when they’re players in the political game, too. The end result is the default “Paid for by the RNC” sticker, which they never bother to attach.

C’mon. Either don’t bother reporting on what amounts to knee-jerk spin-doctoring, or properly paint Bush and the GOP as shallow opportunists that enjoy taking credit for “good news” that they’re not even remotely responsible for. Both options have more journalistic spine than this article’s lofty hand-wringing, which shamelessly front-loads the Republican position and basically hands them a free breather without having to work for it.

I’ve never trusted newspapers much by themselves (and especially the NYT, ever since they used Chalabi as a source for WMD info) Something resembling truth only emerges after reading many different takes on the same subject, which is the reason I like Google News.

But I think my disillusionment really stems from politics always coming down to “politics,” rather than useful, constructive debate or the execution of careful, thoughtful planning. I used to be fascinated by all the mudslinging, the candidate handling, the canned speeches and the widespread hypocrisy that makes up American politics.

I guess I’m not as easily entertained anymore, and my concept of rhetoric as a neutral tool has lead to dark thoughts. Do the writers and editors at the NYT know what their precious objectivity costs at the end of the day? Probably so, which makes the entire arrangement even worse.

Am I saying the old wall between the editorals and the news should just be torn down already? I don’t know. The web has certainly given advocacy journalism a boost in the last 5 or 6 years, showing that a concerned citizen with a blog can make a difference, and that one can “serve the public interest” without having to be neutral.

Perhaps newspapers still hold on because of the false comfort zone that being a “paper of record” creates. I personally think all journalists should feel free to advocate and editoralize. It might not improve reporting much, but it would at least demolish the facade of objectivity. Then again, if papers lose their “authority”… but that’s something that I, at least, don’t see them as currently possessing.

Gibson

I’m not in the mood to make a long formal agrument. But I thought I should write something briefly about the bruhaha around Mel Gibson.

I am puzzled over the media fascination with Gibson trashing Jews while stinking drunk. I bet several hundred other intoxicated individuals in North America did exactly the same that night and with greater pseudo-eloquence. Does the ADL really need to issue a press release?

Good grief. I haven’t seen the NAACP issue a press release decrying Steve the Drunk’s racist monologues on Deadwood, which are 20 times more nasty than anything Gibson said while plastered, not to mention E.B. Farnum’s even worst racism and anti-Semitism from the same show. They crank out vitriol every week and get paid for it; historical bigotry is subsidized for your entertainment. Not that I’m complaining – it’s educational.

Now, in the last few days I’ve seen a little more John 8:7 than the initial stone-throwing. That’s good. But I’d still like to see more attention to the DUI than the inane jabbering afterward, though. Drunk driving kills over 16,000 people per year and injures over 300,000 in the U.S. alone. That’s worthy of media scrutiny.

There’s real anti-Semitism in the world. A lot of it. But even if Mel Gibson thinks Jews blew up the Twin Towers on the Day That Will Not Be Mentioned, he’s still not even on the radar of people worth worrying or thinking about. He’s just an easier target than America’s various allies of convenience, which have populations teeming with such inane assessments – Saudi Arabia and Egypt, please stand up.

My impression of Gibson is that he’s had some indoctrination from his dad (whose bizarre beliefs are well documented) that fortunately didn’t take; but it’s still there, a poison simmering just below the surface, waiting for a lack of inhibition – a poison that will take another generation or two to disappear. I hope his kids are ok.

As for the Passion movie… one of the more regrettable aspects of Christianity is that it has a certain amount of latent or at least suggested anti-Semitism that can be read into it – especially in John. This is tempered, at least in the gospels, by the stressing of Jesus and his disciples’ innate Jewishness.

But any movie made about Jesus’ death is going to have to include that a Jewish prophet, false or not, was crucified and no one stopped the Romans from doing it, including the apostles and the Temple – and also that Jesus’ thinly veiled anti-Roman rhetoric was a huge political problem for an occupied Jerusalem. Killing Jesus prevented (or, rather, post-poned) a revolt that would have been ruthlessly crushed, as the one in 66.

But there’s also the point that Jesus, in stating over and over that the events surrounding his death were already determined, essentially absolves anyone from wrongdoing as they had no free will. If it was all meant to happen, and he did die for humanity’s sins, then it’s more than a little hypocritical for a Christian to blame the Jews present for something they had by definition no control over and are forgiven for anyway, as necessary actors in a deity-ordained play. And of course, by extension, it’s even more ridiculous to blame people who just share the same religion, or descendents.

Is it clear that I don’t grok anti-Semitism?

Bad President! Very bad!

Five Supremes shook a stern finger at Gitmo yesterday, a good three years after the camp’s genesis. I earned my master’s degree faster than it takes this court to clear its throat.

I don’t understand all the press excitement. The suspects won’t get drumhead trials, sure, but they still don’t have fair trials. Their limbo continues unabated. The SCOTUS effectively took a pass.

Frankly, this ruling is going to have as much practical effect as Worcester vs. Georgia in 1832, which Georgia and Andrew Jackson simply ignored. Oh, how beautifully the system of checks and balances functions! It’s America, all right – old school. The Supremes can settle a presidential election but not call for a criminal or POW trial? You better believe it.

Power

I don’t listen to BBC radio as much as I’d like, but a common theme in their coverage is the lack of electrical power in Baghdad. This got me to wondering earlier today why there are still power issues after three years of occupation. I remember when most of the power in Memphis was knocked out a few summers ago and how a lot of people had to wait a month or so to get their power restored (I was lucky and never lost mine; I believe because I’m close to the university’s grid). Can you imagine intermittent service for three years?

The current situation appears to be a combination of widespread corruption, a lack of skilled workers, a modest increase in megawatts at great cost coupled with a huge increase in demand via vast importation of heavy appliances such as air conditioners since the invasion, and of course the relentless insurgent attacks that require constant rebuilding of existing equipment and huge security measures for any construction.

The best account of the mess I’ve found is in this eye-opening IEEE report. Crack engineers are on the problem of the missing 4000 megawatts, but it appears to be as daunting an engineering task as any ever undertaken.

While the report is refreshingly explicit on the enormity of what must be done, it makes an interesting point when it details how the new political balance in Iraq, with the Shiites on top, has resulted in Basra getting 15 hours of power a day where Baghdad is lucky to get half that – a total reversal of Saddam’s day. And I think it’s safe to assume that American military bases get even more priority on the grid. Couple this with the electricity available being ridiculously cheap and politically impossible to raise the cost of (as after all, the service is pretty lousy) to fund new construction, and the situation seems to be only getting worse.

What a bloody mess – and something to think about when the President talks about measuring the progress in Iraq by megawatts. There are more megawatts, true, but the demand is far beyond Saddam’s day. If Iraq is to transform into the docile puppet state that Bush & company imagined, it’s going to need a solid power grid. I failed to find anything resembling optimism about this in the IEEE report.

The personification of this site’s title…

…would have to be Karl Rove, who has just escaped prosecution for the five billionth time.

I remember the 2000 election like it was yesterday – in particular the South Carolina primary. Rove & co threw everything and the kitchen sink at McCain – push polls, rumor mills, crazy smears about illegitimate black children, ties to gay groups, an explosive temper, cowardice under fire… and it worked. It was there that the nomination was won, in the land of Bob Jones. I remember thinking that a man who would employ such a man as Rove… well. Everyone’s learned that part by now.

It’s too bad we can’t at least arrange a cell at Gitmo for this guy. It would be appropriate. He’ll just retire and enjoy what’s left of the world that he helped ruin further.

Catching up, Part III

It has also occurred to me that I should state my opinions on the current political climate. After all, that is what I used to do with this site, and what I intend to do so again.

The 2008 election is beyond commentary until the primaries begin. The 2006 elections will result in a Democratic pickup of seats in both houses, but it’s not a sure thing about either house switching control. There’s just not a lot of open /and/ vunerable seats. As unpopular as Bush is, and as bad as sixth-year elections tend to be for the party in power, I’d say GOP is probably going to escape with a razor-slim majority in both. I’m not as cheerfully optimistic as I used to be. Then again, I’m not a Democrat anymore, either.

Iraq is actually a little worse than I’d predicted. I remember making a huge fuss when the fatalities went over 1,000. Now we’re at nearly 2500. The rate is rock-steady above 2 a day. Nothing good there. I think I said a year ago that there would be no major troop reduction for at least two years. I don’t think we’re in any danger of that changing until a new President arrives. There’s just too much blood and institutional investment to stop, just as there was in Vietnam. President Howard Dean would have trouble even starting a pullout at this point.

The death of Al-Zarqawi is only of historical interest. The US did not kill a top leader as much as create a martyr. He is as effective dead as he was alive – maybe more so. Given, there are no shortage of martyrs on either side at this point, but a martyr that everyone knows the name of is better than a local one.

If there was something telling about this particular assassination, it is the downplaying of the other people that died in the bombing. It’s hard to say from all the different media accounts, but apparently at least one child and perhaps two were killed of the 7 people in the house when it was bombed. Most of the time, the articles and news reports don’t even mention it.

This is a particularly good example of the monkeysphere; we care about Zarqawi because the press and the government has told us his name and told us to hate him – he has personal qualities – but the other people that die remain unnamed and faceless. Insurgents die all the time in Iraq, in droves, apparently, but one man in an elaborate cell structure, where leaders are by definition de-emphasized, is magnified for drama.

I wonder if the other people in the house were hardened Al-Qaida, or he was just using a family’s house for cover. Perhaps only the father or head of household was sympathetic and part of his safehouse network, and the rest of the family oblivious, frightened, or see-no-evil.

We’ll never know, I guess. The news cycle has driven its point home – the US killed a major terrorist. Progress has been made, allegedly. Too bad, of course, that there are an unlimited amount of “major” terrorists, and they have a great training ground.