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On Events in Ferguson, MO and the Limits of Empathy

August 17, 2014

I can’t understand what’s going on in Ferguson. Oh, I understand that the black citizens of the town are viscerally upset at the unprovoked shooting and killing of an unarmed young man. But however much I may read about the events, the hurt, the feelings of betrayal, I can’t understand it.

You see, I’ve never felt targeted by the police. Despite the odd speeding ticket, I’ve always pretty much known that the police where there for law enforcement, which meant to protect me from those who break the law. I didn’t grow up in world where every interaction with the police included watching someone I care about being arrested or shot. Exerting all my powers of imagination and empathy, I can’t place myself in nearby Southeast DC and conceive of the police not as my protectors, but as my jailors. Placed in a threatening situation, my first impulse would be to call the police and ask for their protection. I would not assume that no matter what was happening outside my door, involving the police would only result in the loss (to jail or otherwise) of someone I care about.

I can know all the facts, all the names, see all the timelines of events and the eye-witness reports from Ferguson, but I can’t understand what’s going on there. Perhaps it’s because I will never, ever, be in danger of being shot in broad daylight by a police officer–no matter how disruptive I am being. I was born with the presumption of innocence, not guilt. Michael Brown was not.

In fact, I could “break bad” today and spend the next five years selling drugs, purse snatching, robbing liquor stores, and then on day 5 years +1 I could decide to stop breaking the law, and from that day forward I could walk down any street in any city in the US in the pure and absolute knowledge that whatever vile things I may have done in the past, the police were there to protect ME. Not just people, ME.

I can’t understand what it is to live life thinking of the police as my oppressor, the judge, jury and executioner who assume from my skin color that I’m already no good–that I need punishment, if not for what I’m doing now, for something that I’ve surely done in the past and will inevitably do in the future. I can’t understand. However much I may want to, and I do want to, I never will, not fully, it’s a bridge too far.

What I do understand is this: however unasked for, I am the beneficiary of this bifurcated police system–a system designed to protect ME from THEM. I can disavow it, decry it, rail against it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is intended to benefit me. Except that I don’t benefit from it, not really. The laws of self-fulfilling prophecy take hold and people told they are the enemy long enough concede and become the enemy, convincing the oppressors that they were right all along–perpetuating a vicious cycle of hate and violence that benefits no one.

I understand that this is where we are now, that we have let generations of young black men grow up knowing that they stand on the wrong side of the ME/THEM police line. Finally, I understand that it is foolish for white America to think that anything will change so long as we are content to sit comfortably on our side of that line.

Dear Supreme Court (who I can only assume read my blog)

March 26, 2013

I have been in a loving marriage for 15 great years. My wife, Diana, is a wonderful person and an amazing mother. Our two beautiful children are blessed by having two parents who love them, care for them, and worry about their well-being and happiness. Marrying Diana was the most important and best decision I have ever made–a decision that has produced tangible material, social, professional, and emotional benefits.

As you consider the arguments for and against same-sex marriage today, please know that my “traditional” marriage is not diminished or threatened by extending the benefits I describe above to those in a committed same-sex relationship that may wish to marry. Quite the opposite is true. We only strengthen the institution of marriage by making available the legal and social benefits it confers to any couple (gay or straight) who wish to commit their lives to each other.

When it comes to marriage there is no such thing as separate-but-equal. Civil unions are not marriage. They do not carry the full social and professional benefits of marriage, and since it is the state (not an ecclesiastical body) that confers marital status, we cannot deny same-sex couples the right to marry and still adhere to our highest ideals of justice for all. By making marriage just, we reaffirm it as an institution that merits its centrality in our social order.

So as you begin your deliberations, please keep in mind that to truly defend marriage is not to make it less accessible or less relevant, but to make it open and available to all couples, gay or straight, who wish to take on the responsibilities and benefits inherent in the institution.

Best regards, yours, etc., etc.

Porter

TL;DR

hulk on same-sex marriage

The Chattering Class: The VP Debate, Cheshire Edition

October 13, 2012

Porter

Okay, Shane, we’re back again discussing another debate. This post comes quickly on the heels of our response to the first presidential debate between Governor Romney and President Obama, so we’ll try to keep it a bit more succinct and just respond to the debate in terms of what we wrote in anticipation of it.

Having now watched the debate, I think my predictions were proven correct. That is, no one “won” the debate. Both men held their own, and I’m sure partisans on each side will argue that their man got the better of the opposition. That said, I think Biden did more to help President Obama than Ryan did to help Governor Romney. As you mentioned, Biden had to come out and (ironically given his age and hair plugs) inject life into the Obama campaign. His histrionics and grins may give Reince Priebus conniptions, but Biden tapped directly into the emotional soul of Democrats by showing indignation and fight when faced with a Congressman Ryan who blasts the stimulus for political points and then turns around and asks for stimulus funds because they’ll create jobs and improve the economy in his district. So while Biden may not have won over any more undecides with this debate than Ryan, he gave his base the sense that team Obama was in it to win. It’s like seeing a linebacker level a crushing hit on on a receiver when your team is getting pushed around on defense; no, it doesn’t change the score and it may not even get you the ball back, but it just feels SO good. And that is exactly what the Obama campaign needed. (Yes, I realize I’m agreeing with your assessment from the last post.)

Click

 

I also wanted to talk about optics. Clearly the story of the night was Biden’s grin, but Ryan has some challenges here as well. Diana, who was walking in and out of the room as the debates progressed, stopped at one point and observed, “man, Ryan’s creepy looking.” And I think I agree. To me Ryan comes across as a mix between the school bully and the bible camp councilor you’re glad you never had. I was hit with this impression most of all when he tried, unsuccessfully, to support Romney’s position on abortion. You could just see the righteous angel of indignation burning behind his eyes as he was forced to say words that offended his soul (“the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother”). Those five minutes cost the Romney ticket some women voters, make no mistake. That said, still on the topic of optics, I was shouting at the screen during Biden’s closing comments, “look up! look at the camera! stop looking at the moderator!!” Biden, apparently, didn’t hear me. Ryan on the other hand looked straight into the camera, spoke clearly and directly, and then asked for America’s vote. Hard not to give him a thumbs up on that one. Oh, and he’s got a great widow’s peak.

Here then is how I score the debate. Feel free to use this scale or come up with your own. (Scores are out of five).

Biden

Ryan

Optics

4*

3

Crushing hits

5

2

Looking like he belongs

4

4

Not being Quayle or Palin

N/A

6

Policy

5

2

Total

18

17

* I think one can rightly criticize Biden’s grins and guffaws, but since they worked exactly how he intended for his base, it’s a net positive for him.

So what’s your take, Shane?

Shane

Yesterday I was excited about posting my thoughts regarding the VP debates, but now I’m a little intimidated. Football analogies? Optics? A graph?!!  I can’t compete with that.  Now you’re inside my head, Porter.  The crafty veteran showing the novice-pundit how to kick it Scranton-style.

It reminds one of the expectations going into the VP debate Thursday night.  Biden, with his years of campaign experience and familiarity with foreign policy was supposed to use his butterfly knife to serve up Ryan’s liver on a plate.  And he certainly tried.

As I read through your post I thought of how people generally approach these debates looking for a particular trend, and (not suprisingly) tend to find it.  I think most Democrats would agree with your assessment of Ryan.  If you already view him as a puritanical budget slasher who wants to steal children’s lunches and force women into back-alley abortions, then his tense smile and steady gaze would come across as creepy.  If, like me, you view Biden as pseudo-populist career politician and back-slapping buffoon, you’re going to be far more likely to interpret his performance as off-putting and rude rather than congratulate him for injecting life into his campaign.

In terms of substance, I thought Biden did extremely well to expose the Romney ticket’s lack of details regarding their plan to somehow cut taxes and reduce the budget. His best moment by far was when he pointed out that Ryan was asking for Badger-state handouts while simultaneously railing against the stimulus.  Ryan did exactly what the Romney campaign needed. He continued the process of humanizing Mitt, exposed the administration’s dishonest/incompetent handling of the Benghazi incident, and convinced everyone that he could handle the big stage.  When Biden tried to push him into a corner, Ryan pushed back.

Last thought: overall I was disgusted by this debate for precisely the reasons I was so impressed with the Presidential debate.  The Romney-Obama exchange was a conversation between two extremely intelligent and articulate men who (I thought) were a credit to the political process.  By comparison, the VP debate was like listening to angry, insecure sports fans call in to the Jim Rome show. Interruptions, put-downs, condescending sighs and tones, it was embarrassing at points.

As much as I want to blame Biden for this (it was the perfect environment for him) I really can’t – he had little choice given the circumstances.  In the end, as much as the media and voters want to complain about negative campaigns and style rather than substance, we get exactly the type of candidates and conversation that we demand.

Porter

Hmm, “disgusted” is a strong word. I’ve been surprised how strongly the right has reacted to Biden’s interruptions, given that Romney employed them so effectively in the first debate. Ah, well, I guess what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

All right, thanks for reading and feel free to disagree with anything Shane said in the comments section. Here’s a little 80′s pop to play us out.

The Chattering Class: Romney in a Knockout

October 8, 2012

Porter

Okay, Shane, the first debate is in the bag, and that gives us, the chattering class, something to talk about. For my part, I thought that on optics alone Gov. Romney won the debate. He looked more engaged, his answers were delivered more clearly, and he had a much better sense of how he was going to answer the President’s attacks. Romney has never had a problem looking presidential, and that presence helped him tonight. He needed to show that he belonged on the same stage (and ballot) as the president, and he did that for sure.

On substance I’d give it a tie, but only because Obama missed every opportunity to call Gov. Romney on his startling reversals. I think the most amazing line in the entire debate was (from Gov. Romney), “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.” How could the GOP presidential nominee get away with saying that on national TV? And more to the point, how could Pres. Obama not come back on him like a ton of bricks for this startling reversal? Obama may have had a more consistent and accurate message, but failure to call out Romney at such obvious moments costs him too many points for a victory.

This leads me to my first questions. I’m going to cheat and ask two. First, what was your general impression of the debate? And second, do you think there will be any push back from the right on Romney’s clear turn to the center? His moderate tone and message seem to be what Mike Huckabee and everyone at the NRO have feared from the start. Could his strong performance last night cost him in the long run?

Shane

Thank you, Porter, for the invitation to chatter away. Second, I apologize for taking so long with my response.  I’ve volunteered for the suicide watch team assembled by MSNBC, which means that I spent the entire night taking sharp objects away from Chris Matthews.

Romney was impressive.  After fifty hours of televised primary debates, he seems to have mastered the ability to make specific points in the allotted two minutes, then look engaged (without coming across as disagreeable or peevish) when Obama was speaking.  His delivery was better, his responses were quicker, He was respectful of the President, contradicting him without being condescending or peevish, and there was even some humor.

It’s also important to note that Romney has the advantage in these debates, because he gets to play the role Obama filled so successfully in 2008 – change.  The incumbent is always less elusive. Obama has to stand and defend his record of the last four years. Romney gets to dance around, saying: ” Change Dodd-Frank, Change Obamacare, Change everything…and make it better.”  Then Obama calls him on it and says, “Okay, you want to change it – why don’t you tell us how to make it better?”  Except, he was never really able to pin Romney down on those points, and not for a lack of trying.

Are conservatives concerned at the sudden appearance of the Massachusetts moderate?  Far from it.  The reaction from media voices and politicians on the right was a collective standing ovation.  And I think the reasons for this are two-fold:

First, the sincerity of Mitt’s conservative beliefs was always a red-herring issue, one that Newt and Santorum used effectively to pander to the Tea Party base during the primaries.  Most thinking Republicans (there seem to be less and less these days) realized that this dogmatic approach to the issues would (and has) hurt the party, and they are happy to move away from it now.  Parties want to be elected more than they want to be right.

The second factor was timing.  These debates couldn’t have come at a better moment for Romney. He’s been hammered for his ’47%’ comments, his polls numbers were dropping, and Republicans were talking in hushed tones about whether he would be drag on the national and state tickets.  Wednesday’s debate hit the rest button on his entire campaign and went a long way towards re-defining Romney as the compassionate multi-millionaire who wants to help unemployed families in the Midwestern Rust Belt.  There are lots of GOP supporters who don’t like moderates or Mormons, but they detest Obama so much more.  The glimmer of hope provided by this debate shelved any serious talk about conservative heresy.

My question for you is the obvious one:  Why did Obama perform (because this is a performance) so poorly?  Why did he hold back on dropping the 47% hammer on Romney?  The President just invited the Republicans to take their narrative – that he’s teleprompter candidate coddled by the media – and hang it around his neck.

Porter

Good points, Shane, and I think you’re correct about the right. Whatever handwringing seeing Moderate Mitt may have caused on the right will be trumped by the “anyone other than Obama” sentiment. Still, I find it a startling reversal that should hurt him, but likely won’t since Obama didn’t call him on it at the time.

Regarding Obama’s poor performance (and it was poor), I’m going to go with hubris in two forms. First, obviously Obama hasn’t had the recent practice debating that Romney has. This is a classic case of the lean challenger punching his way up to a title bout against a champ who has gotten a little soft in the middle knocking out patsies. Here’s where the hubris comes in; everyone in the Obama campaign, including the president himself, should have known this! There’s no reason for them not to say, “Okay, Mr. President, you’ve been out of this game for four years, if you want to win this debate you need more than a 24 hour prep window.” That said, just like the champ that takes it on the chin, expect Obama to come out sharp in the next debate. It will help that the next debate is on foreign policy, in which Romney is a rank amature and can’t even go to England without stepping on his own feet. But that said, Romney’s vulnerabilities don’t mean crap if Obama doesn’t put in the necessary prep time and learn from this pummeling.

I think also contributing to Obama’s hubris is the lead he had going into the debate and the bump he got from his convention that Romney did not. He mistook the two venues and presumed that his convention success meant he was as strong a debater now as he was in 2008. But the truth is that Obama’s performance at the DNC convention was perhaps one of its weakest moments. Obama just isn’t the campaigner her was in 2008, by any stretch. And the only thing that’s worse than losing a step, which he has, is to think that you still run a 4.4 40 when you don’t. (Sorry for all the sports metaphors. The night of the debate Cy had a cold and wouldn’t sleep, so we stayed up and watched Rocky II. True story.)

I think the teleprompter thing has always been wishful thinking on the Right, and part of their larger delegitimation strategy, so I don’t see that narrative having legs outside the NRO crowed. But as I’ve said, the quality campaigner of 2008 didn’t show up for this first debate. If the 2012 Obama wants to win the next debate, he needs himself one hell of a training montage, preferably with Michelle playing Burgess Meredith standing over him yelling “faster! faster!”.

 

Romney’s strong debate showing notwithstanding, it seems like he does worst when he does things that support the public’s preconception of him. Anyone paying attention to the election can’t help but see this as a dramatic flip-flop, an etch-a-sketch moment. He’s undermined the two primary pillars of his campaign: tax cuts and deregulation. How does he square what he’s been saying for the last 10 months with what he said in the debate? Obama has already started hitting him on this latest flip-flop, and you can expect some pointed commercials during the next four weeks doing the same. Given that this plays into the Romney narrative so well (or poorly, depending on your point of view), what does Romney do to convince voters that he’s not the strident, Tea Party conservative he’s portrayed himself as in the past, and is, in fact, the moderate conservative from New England that showed up on Wednesday night?

Shane

I agree that the Right’s use of the ‘telemprompter’ narrative is little more than the right’s delegitimation strategy, but you can’t be too dismissive of it.  These types of attacks can prove very distracting for a candidate.  As you mentioned with Romney, candidates need to avoid anything that confirms negative perceptions. At this point it’s a distraction, but that could change.  As you point out, Obama has a decided advantage in the next debate on foreign policy. If he stumbles, or even if Romney can debate him to a draw, then that narrative will pick up real momentum.  The President needs a win.

And yes, Romney’s debate performance will play into perceptions that he is willing to change his position to suit his audience. But Democrats need to be careful that they don’t overplay their hand here.  I just finished watching an interview with Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia.  When the Mayor was asked why Obama performed so poorly at the debate, he responded that it’s very difficult to engage in a conversation with someone who’s willing to lie consistently about his own position and his opponent’s.

This is poor strategy for two reasons. First, it makes the campaign look frustrated and confused when they should be communicating confidence and resolve.  Romney has been evasive regarding specific elements of his own plan (just as Obama was in 2008) but it’s counter-productive to accuse him of intentionally trying to mislead the American people.  Second, calling Romney a liar leads to an obvious question that is even more difficult to answer:  If he was so clearly lying, why didn’t Obama point this out to everyone?

And we’re right back to the idea that Obama was not on his game.

Meanwhile, there is nothing unexpected or innovative about what Romney is doing.  In the 2008 primary, Obama ran so far to the left that he made Hillary look like Pat Buchanan.  During the general election he moved quickly and nimbly towards the center. During the primaries Mitt presented himself as even more Conservative than Newt and Santorum and got away with it.  I think most of us are relieved to see him re-inventing himself once again.  In the debate he looked like a reasonable person who recognized that government regulation of business is necessary, instead of blaming the failures of the financial world on government interference.

In the next few weeks we’re going to see the kinder, gentler, Mitt that appealed to Massachusetts votes once upon a time.  He’s already admitted the his 47% comments were wrong, blunting whatever effect that issue will have if Obama gets another chance to raise it at a future debate.  Opportunity lost.

So now we look forward to the Vice Preidential debate.  What are your expectations for Biden?  Do Democrats expect him to regain any of the lost momentum?  Or, are you hoping that he’ll avoid setting himself on fire with a ‘put y’all’ back in chains’ type of moment?  Do Democrats have anything to win here or are they just trying not to lose?

Porter

It’s true that in just about every election the candidates pivot to the center after the primary, but this is clearly a special case. Romney waited until very late in the game, this debate, to make his pivot to the center, and all indications prior to Wednesday’s debate suggested that he would ride the Tea Party movement through to November (especially after picking Tea Party-favorite Ryan as his running mate). So I agree that Team Obama have to be very careful not to overplay their hand, but if we’re looking for take-aways from the debate other than Obama’s listlessness, then I think Romney’s reversals should be on the list.

Regarding the VP debate. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine these debates have much effect on the campaign either way. With Romney’s life-injecting performance last week, he doesn’t need Ryan to do much other than not tank. But let’s say, hypothetically, that Ryan did tank the debate (I don’t think he will, not in the moment anyway). So what? No Vice Presidential debate could be more catastrophic than Lloyd Bentsen’s evisceration of Dan Quayle in 1988. That debate, as you know, is where we got the now infamous line: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle looked small and incompetent, but George H. W. Bush went on to win the election handily. True, Quayle never recovered, but even in this extreme case the election clearly wasn’t decided by the VP debate. So no matter who wins or loses on Thursday, I think it’s safe to say that people will ultimately vote for the head of the ticket.

That said, I think these men will debate each other to a draw. Biden will look wise and experienced. Ryan will be energetic, cite facts a lot, and have great abs.But there are two things I’m going to look for, one from each side. First of all, for Biden, I think success will be defined by how well he can tie Gov. Romney to Ryan’s deeply unpopular budget proposal. If he can hang the Medicare voucher system (“premium support,” a misnomer if ever there was one) around Ryan’s neck and then widen the loop to include Romney, he will have achieved as much as is possible in this debate. What he shouldn’t do is try to undo the damage from the presidential debate, which would only make Obama look weaker.

For Ryan, he has an easier task than Palin did in 2008. The Left (myself included) think little of the “seriousness” of his proposals, and I hate the way he uses “oh, it’s too wonkish” as a dodge–as if to say, oh, I’d tell you, but the answer involves pesky details that the likes of you wouldn’t understand. But there can be no doubt that he is a viable candidate for the Vice Presidency, knows his stuff, and, if the worst happened, could lead the country. Without the burden of having to prove he belongs on the ticket, what can Ryan accomplish in the debates? In something of a mirror to my above comment, Ryan needs to promote Romney, and show how Romney is his own man who shouldn’t be saddled with whatever policies Ryan has promoted in the past.

Romney’s campaign is build on vagaries–there’s a reason he’s telling us about the carrots (12 millions jobs! Tax cuts all around! Increased military spending–paying attention, Virginia?!) and leaving out the stick (narry a detail to be found on how he’ll close a 5 trillion dollar budget busting tax cut through closing tax loopholes for the wealthy–though if anyone knows about tax loopholes for the wealthy, it’s Mitt Romney). So Ryan’s detail heavy budget proposals are anathema to the Romney candidacy. If Ryan spends the night defending his budget proposals, then he loses because 1) he will emphasize the glaring lack of details in Romney’s plans, and 2) he will give the impression that this is the Ryan-Romney ticket. If that happens, then it could undo Romney’s move to the middle last week and scare off independent voters. But on the other hand,  if Ryan can keep within himself, remain a team player, and talk about Romney as much as possible, then he’ll come as close to winning as either man can on Thursday.

All right, I started so I’ll give you the last word. Given the debate, how do you see Romney governing? You’ve said in the past that you wish Governor Romney, moderate Republican from MA, was running, and now apparently he is. If Romney were to win the election, what can we expect from his administration? I’m specifically interested how you think he’ll navigate the rock-and-a-hardplace nature of the US congress. If he were to win the White House, he’ll have an emboldened Tea Party pushing him on the Right while at the same time face an embittered Democratic party on Left. A Democratic party, I might add, who will have learned from McConnell, Boehner and company that obstructionism equals good politics.

Shane

Let me start by saying that I continue to be surprised at how much the debate has helped Romney and hurt Obama.  I watched that debate, and while I noticed at the time that Romney’s body language was much more assertive and confident than the President’s, judged solely on the merit of their arguments I would have called it a draw.  I would have expected Romney’s abrupt shifts in policy to have dogged him far more than has been the case.  And for Obama?  The cover of the New Yorker has Romney debating an empty chair!  While it is not a direct allusion, it does remind people of Clint Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair at the GOP convention.  This is the narrative I mentioned earlier, and it is becoming entrenched.

So I would disagree with you slightly regarding the VP debate: I think it does matter more than in years past. The Quayle pick as VP was a Sarah Palin-esque distraction, an attempt to infuse the campaign with youth and vitality, all packaged behind a fresh midwestern face.  When Quayle imploded across from a wily political veteran like Bentsen, commentators enjoyed it but found it neither surprising nor troubling. Bush was the head of the ticket, and nobody would seriously question his ability or experience.

But the circumstances of this VP debate are such that everyone is now questioning Obama’s ability to take on Romney, his lack of preparation, even his interest in the campaign.  Let’s not forget that in 2008, Biden was tapped for precisely this reason.  Grandpa Joe is a savvy political operative with foreign policy experience who could grab the tiller if things get stormy.  Well, I’d say it’s all hands on deck right now for the SS Obama. Biden needs to go out and earn his money. He must look like he’s in control of the facts, take the occasional pointed shot at flip-flopper Romney, but most of all project the confidence of someone who knows they’re only on mile ten of a twenty-six mile marathon.

Ryan has the much easier job: don’t look crazy.  Parry the thrusts against Romney and, at every opportunity, remind viewers that his boss man-handled Biden’s boss in the last debate.

What would I expect from President Mitt? As you point out, I certainly prefer debate-Romney to Republican primary-Romney.  If he wins (and let me say for the record that I still think Obama will carry this election) he will be under immediate pressure to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act.  I like to believe two things about Romney:  1) He secretly realizes the US needs health care reform, approves of the AHA and knows it’s exactly the same as his Massachusetts legislation; and 2) He’s smart enough to realize that there is no chance it can be repealed given the state of the Congress in 2012.

My hope for him is that his completely unexpected election victory would generate enough political capital that he can demonstrate real leadership and say to the GOP, “Look, we’ve got bigger problems than the government getting involved in health care.”  I’d like to see a much more thoughtful approach to immigration, more oil and gas exploration, and most of all – how are we going to reduce spending and stop borrowing so much money from China?

My greatest fear for Romney is that he’ll get crushed between the immovable object of a Democrat party determined to punish him for winning (See: GOP 2008) and the unstoppable force of a Republican congress determined to give the country a Tea-Party enima.  That is the recipe of a failed Presidency.

Bret Stephens Offends Mormons; No One Dies.

September 20, 2012

Every Mormon should be offended by the recent WSJ article titled Muslims, Mormons and Liberals by Bret Stephens; certainly more offended than by the Book of Mormon musical which he cites. How so? Let me count the ways:

1. To the extent that this article is complimentary to Mormons, it is an argument of convenience. Stephens offers a typical “model minority” argument that pits one minority group against another, in this case religious minorities. His is no defense of Mormon forbearance, however. Rather, Stephens uses Mormons as a convenient foil for his misguided attack on the President’s response to the Innocence of Muslims trailer that has caused so much unrest in the Middle East. This type of argument is the intellectual equivalent of a parent asking an unruly child why he can’t be more like his well-behaved older sibling. And as any well-behaved older sibling will tell you, being used in this way is unwelcome praise.

2. Stephens appears to know less about Mormons than he does about Muslims and liberals. Mormons do not find the goody-two-shoes, straight-laced caricature commonly used to depict them offensive. Most active Mormons would probably just shrug and concede the point. If you DO want to offend Mormons, however, just call them a cult and suggest that they are not “true” Christians, as Pastor Robert Jeffress did only last year in a politically motivated speech meant to undermine Mitt Romney’s candidacy. No, Mormons won’t burn your house down nor assault your embassy in response, but you should expect an exhaustive explication of the council of Nicaea and a pointed reading of Acts 7:55. The point being that it’s not liberals who have a history of offending Mormons, it’s evangelical conservative, aka today’s Republican party.

3. Stephens treats all Mormons as if they are one homogenous whole. While it’s true that Utah is among the most conservative states in the union (both politically and socially), it is simply inaccurate and lazy to assume all Mormons hold politically conservative beliefs. At my congregation in Maryland I see bumper-stickers representing libertarian, Republican, Green, and Democratic parties, all happily coexisting in the same house of worship. I would argue that the (unfortunately) strident conservative politics found in Utah has more to do with regional sentiments than religious ones. Lets not forget that in many ways Arizona makes Utah look like the soul of moderation, with Wyoming and Idaho close behind. Attend a Mormon church outside of Utah and you will find a congregation much more heterogeneous than you may expect.  Consider, for example, that Harry Reid, the fire-brand liberal leader of the Democrats in the senate, is a Mormon. Didn’t know that? Yeah, didn’t think you did. Why didn’t you? Because there’s no religious test for office in the Democratic party, unlike the GOP (see #2). Stephens’ argument only makes sense if you see every Mormon as a modest middle aged white man, and every Muslim as radical, violent and angry–conflations that don’t work in either case.

4. This is a general point, but it should still offend any thinking American. No one is bombing Utah. The government of Utah has not been destabilized by an invading force since, well, Mormon’s invaded the territory 150 years ago (sorry Ute nation). How then can it be surprising that, when offended, Mormons roll with the punch? To compare the behavior of Muslims in the Middle East post revolution to Mormons living in stable and staid Utah is simply ridiculous. No one who treats the issue of Muslim violence seriously can divorce the violent and unstable conditions of the region (for which the US bears more than a little blame) from the religious sentiments of the population. That is to say, if you think that anger at America is ONLY because some jerk made an offensive video, then you have no business, Mr. Stephens, presenting yourself as an expert on the region.

5. Related to #2, The Book of Mormon musical is not offensive to Mormons; it is an affirmation of their faith, not a denigration. Yes it’s vulgar, and the theological tenets of the Mormon faith are satirized, but the core of what it is to be Mormon: optimistic, community focused, spiritual, family oriented, and a person of faith, are all championed in this musical (much to several reviewers’ dismay–see the NYRB review for an example). In no way can the trailer for The Innocence of Muslims be understood as anything other than a small-minded screed directly intended to offend members of the Muslim faith. The comparison between The Book of Mormon musical and The Innocence of Muslims, like much in this article, suggests that Stephens knows little to nothing about either.

6. Stephens uses the general mockery of Mormons in popular media as evidence of the so-called war on Christians. He writes, “That it’s okay to concede the fundamentalist premise that religious belief ought to be entitled to the highest possible degree of social deference—except when Mormons and sundry Christian rubes are concerned.” Are you kidding me? Christian faiths that literally give sermons on why Mormons are not Christians are now to be conflated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? I call bull shit.

So, Mr. Stephens, thanks for pointing out that Mormons aren’t violent murderers and can tolerate insults to their faith, but next time you want a patsy for a column that is as lazy as it is uninformed, please choose someone else’s religious community to misrepresent. I hear the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a quirk or two, perhaps try them.

Multiplayer, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kingmaker

April 23, 2012

A few years ago I received a late-night phone call from a friend’s wife. She was calling to let me know that my friend, who was at that moment driving home from my house after a day of table-top strategy game playing, wanted to apologize for the way he behaved at the end of the game and the acrimony with which he had left. She added, with a sigh that implicated both my friend and myself, that he was too embarrassed with his behavior to call and apologize himself. Other than the call from a spouse, this was not an uncommon conclusion to game night, at least not when Twilight Imperium, our strategy game de jour, was involved. And, I should hasten to add, more often than not I’ve been the one offering the apology.

All games offer the occasion for poor sportsmanship, hurt feelings, and acrimony (see this year’s NHL playoffs as exhibit one). But multi-player table-top strategy games (ex: Axis and Allies, Risk, even Settlers of Catan) introduce an element that rarely goes over well: the role of kingmaker. A kingmaker ending happens when there are two or more potential winners with a third player who cannot win herself, but whose actions will determine which of the two leaders will. Some games are better than others in avoiding this kind of end-game scenario, but, if I can make a generalization, the more complex and prolonged the game, the more likely its tendency to end with a kingmaker.  Twilight Imperium (TI), which has both complexity and extensive play time in spades (games can last for 6-7 hours), frequently ends with a kingmaker and thus is a particularly well suited game to consider in this context.

I have some thoughts on the role of kingmakers, but first I want to think about why having a kingmaker is so unsatisfying. A friend, who refuses to play TI after his first game for this very reason, put the complaint best: he pointed out that it’s frustrating to make every right decision, play the game with perfect mastery, and still lose. If we think of games as sets of rules, games that end with kingmakers must, my friend would argue, be flawed because mastery of the rules does not produce a winning result. Contrasted with a game like Chess where a mistake-free game where every right decision is made (thus demonstrating mastery of the game) will necessarily produce a winning result, a game like TI must clearly be flawed (as the argument goes).

But, of course, one cannot reasonably compare TI to Chess because where Chess is played one-on-one, TI is a multi-player game. When I play a table-top strategy game I am not play an opponent, I am playing opponents; I play against every other player at the table simultaneously. The cost of having multiple players in a game is the satisfaction of a clear winner and the potential for a kingmaker ending. Let me be clear: there is no multi-player game without kingmakers. They are a ruleset under a single heading, a die of the same cast.

How then to have a satisfying conclusion (sans threats of physical violence and multi-generational curses) to games other than Chess? The answer comes from, as the alternate title of this post suggests, embracing the kingmaker as a feature rather than a flaw. As a player enters a game, he must realize that it is him against the field, not him against a singular opponent. Floating in the ether above the rule books and game pieces is a network of relationships (a meta game) that must be managed just as carefully as the pieces on the board. The skilled player will constantly be asking himself questions about how his actions will affect the meta game: Will this action produce an enemy? Will this action strengthen an alliance? Will this action come back to haunt me later in the game? It seems perhaps obvious, and at some level it is–you meta game in strategy games whether you know it or not. But what I’m advocating is simply a more conscious awareness of the meta game. If you played all of your pieces correctly, made all the right choices, but critically misjudged an opponent such that she was now content to play to see you lose, then it is not a flaw of the game–you’re just not very good at playing games with multiple players.

There is, of course, good-form and bad-form to be considered here. The player who swears to do nothing but thwart an opponent for this an all subsequent games (including into the next life) early in the game and at the least provocation, will rob any game of fun. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that final end game move where multiple players stand on the verge of victory but the deciding vote come down to the player who has suffered through (in the case of TI) hours of game play with no hope of victory. Indeed, after a player has been eliminated from contention there is naught to play for except the opportunity to have a say in the ultimate outcome of the game.* Games decided by a kingmaker are not random or illegitimate, they’re simply tallied twice: once by the score on the board and a second time by the meta game tracker–the network of alliances, enemies, and other relationships that play out in the ether above any gaming table that seats more than two.

*One very legitimate flaw in Twilight Imperium is that there is no graceful way to surrender. A player effectively spoils the game for everyone if she leaves before it concludes

Dissertation Abstract

February 11, 2012

For the curious and not-so-curious alike, I give you my dissertation abstract:

Hacking the Empire: Reading Virtual Spaces in Postcolonial Fiction

This dissertation examines representations of digital technologies in later twentieth and early twenty-first century postcolonial literature. The role of technology in the process of colonization has been well documented, most recently in Daniel R. Headrick’s Power over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present (2010). What remains to be seen, however, is how the “digital revolution” will play into the narrative of western technologies and the continued exploitation of the global south. Two competing perspectives dominate this discourse: that digital technologies enable the expansion of global capitalism and the exploitation of a global workforce (Hardt & Negri 2001), and that these technologies–the internet in particular–are democratizing, liberating forces, as demonstrated in the so-called Arab Spring. Yet these binaries tend to ignore the complexity of what happens as technologies are adopted and extended in postcolonial spaces. I will argue that in both literature and in the physical world, postcolonial engagements with the digital adopt a hacker ethos which seeks to craft the new out of the old, to redeploy in new and unintended ways technologies once thought the province of the developed north. This hacker ethos–with its practice of constructing subversive spaces within larger networks of power (both digital and political)–can be observed in the way postcolonial authors (including Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Indra Sinha, Bharati Mukherjee and others) deploy virtual spaces within the framework of larger narratives. Learning to read virtual spaces within the standing debates surrounding postcolonial spaces not only provides a framework for reading and interpreting postcolonial engagements with the digital, but also opens up new ways of reading extra-narrative spaces in earlier postcolonial texts.

My chapters trace the deployment of virtual spaces across postcolonial literature in a number of contexts. In chapter one of my dissertation I build on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theories of empire and consider the construction of alternative private networks of power within hegemonic networks. I specifically look at the subversive work of “hacktivists” (those who use digital hacking tools as a form of political activism) and argue that these groups represents an instance of what Hardt and Negri call “counter-empire” and can serve as a useful model for theorizing how virtual spaces can and have been used as sites of anti-hegemonic resistance. I then deploy the concept of hacktivism in a reading of the Midnight’s Children Council in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I further juxtapose against Rushdie’s most recent novel, Luka and the Fire of Life. In chapter two I consider the geographic specificity of internet adoption, with a particular focus on the rise of cell phone usage in Africa. The centrality of cell phones in Africa is played out in Lauren Beuke’s South African cyberpunk novel Moxyland, where civil discipline is meted out in the form of a suspended cell phone contract, conjuring the ghost of apartheid and the non-status of the refugee. In chapter three I consider virtual spaces in postcolonial literature from a ecocritical perspective and argue that digital and textual virtual spaces offer a unique place from which to re-imagine the natural world and the treatment of postcolonized spaces as the toxic dumping ground of the global north. In my final chapter I invert the dynamic above and consider the digital representations of empire and postcolonial spaces in the digital sphere, specifically through a careful reading of contemporary game studies and what are called “empire building games.” My analysis will include a digital project where I will explore the possibilities of what Alexander Galloway calls “counter-gaming” as a way of resisting the internal logic of the game and thus creating a space for critical play within a game genre defined by the strict adherence to the logic of empire. Through my focus on the imbrication of virtual and postcolonial spaces, the chapters of my dissertation will provide a framework for further analysis of the relationship between digital technologies and postcolonial spaces and how the digital is represented in the literature of the global south.

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