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Obama’s Challenge July 31, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

Despite eight years of Republican government resulting in multiple foreign policy fiascos, economic collapse, the corruption of every government agency, studied indifference toward looming environmental threats-and despite solid voter registration favoring Democrats-national polls show Republican candidate John McCain behind the Democratic nominee Barack Obama by only a few percentage points. Polls this far from the election are sometimes not good predictors of election outcomes, but McCain’s ability to stay with Obama needs explaining.

One might think the close race is testimony to McCain’s visionary policy proposals or political skills. But that explanation won’t fly. McCain has shown himself to be a gaffe machine, stumbling over rudimentary facts about the world that a Senator on the Armed Services Committee should know by heart. His policy proposals and foreign policy vision are so similar to those of the disastrous President Bush that he has earned the nickname “John McSame”. Yet this obeisance to Bush is just one of many incarnations of the real John McCain, who has changed his mind so often on so many issues one would be hard-pressed to say what his core beliefs are or what a McCain administration would actually do. “Political opportunist” fits him to a tee. If that were not sufficient to send his poll numbers plummeting, the key issue of his campaign–achieving victory in Iraq and maintaining permanent bases there–has been undermined by the Iraqi’s themselves who have endorsed Obama’s timeline for American withdrawal.

Meanwhile Obama, whose political skills are obvious, has run a nearly flawless campaign, put together a campaign organization second to none, raised record breaking quantities of cash, while articulating thoughtful policy proposals to address most of the serious problems we confront. So why is McCain still in the game?

Racial bias may explain the reluctance of some voters to vote for Obama, although polling doesn’t yet provide evidence for that explanation.

Obama supporters blame the press for this state of affairs and with good reason. McCain has always used his buddy act to chat up the suck-ups in the Washington Press corps, whose jobs depend on access. The press has soft-pedaled, or failed to report, criticism of McCain while amplifying criticisms of Obama. But McCain’s personal relationships with members of the press can’t explain the extent of their deference to this deeply flawed candidate. This deference toward conservatives has been a fact of American politics long before McCain first stoked a fire in the grill for his fan boys in the press.

The best explanation of whatever success McCain has had thus far is the double standard that has existed in American politics for roughly 30 years. By “double standard”, I mean the tendency of the press and the public to give conservatives a free ride on questions of moral integrity while manufacturing faux moral criticisms of liberals.

Evidence of the double standard abounds. McCain’s confusion about basic facts, his constant flip-flopping on issues, and his persistent accusations that Obama is disloyal to America are never the source of outrage in the press or public, who seem to ignore the trail of lies that daily fall from the straight talk express. Yet, if Obama had been similarly confused, inconsistent, or devious the avalanche of criticism would run him out of the race.

The Reverend Wright fiasco, in which Obama’s former pastor made intemperate remarks critical of American foreign and domestic policy, was treated by the press and public as evidence that Obama harbored Anti-American views, despite Obama’s explicit denounciations of the remarks. No outcry of similar scope or intensity was provoked by McCain’s active pursuit of the support of Christian conservative religious leaders whose bigoted Anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic remarks were far more odious than anything Reverend Wright could muster.

McCain has carefully cultivated his image as a principled reformer who tirelessly wages war against special interests, an image that is never tarnished by his involvement in the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal in 1989, or his on-going relationship with powerful Washington lobbyists, many of whom now run his campaign.

I doubt that most voters know of McCain’s unconscionable treatment of his wives (here and here) or his explosive temper and lack of self-control that many of his own colleagues in the Senate say should disqualify him from the oval office. Yet, we hear endless carping in the press about Obama’s alleged arrogance or indifference, charges that have been thoroughly manufactured out of whole cloth by the McCain campaign team.

This double standard is not new.

John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate, was widely vilified for changing his mind on the Iraq War. The public and pundits took this to be evidence that Kerry lacked principles and integrity and was taking positions for political reasons. Yet, McCain has flip-flopped on almost every major issue in American politics. He was in favor of comprehensive immigration reform until he voted against it; he was opposed to the Bush tax cuts but now wants them to be permanent; he was opposed to the Bush Administration’s refusal to negotiate with enemy states, now he favors it; he claims to favor environmental regulation but has a record of voting against most environmental legislation; he from time to time has spoken in favor of abortion rights and gay rights, but now opposes them; torture, campaign finance, I could go on and on. This is the man who famously called Reverend Pat Robertson and his ilk agents of intolerance in 2000 but who has been kissing their feet ever since. Yet he is never accused of being unprincipled or lacking in core beliefs.

Wholesale flip-flopping by conservatives is considered to be thoughtful, nuanced calibrations of a viewpoint; subtle changes of perspective by liberals are evidence of a lack of principles or backbone.

Military service also receives the double-standard treatment. In 1996, Republican candidate Bob Dole was widely admired as a war hero for his sacrifices during WWII. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was accused of being a draft dodger for taking a student deferment in the Viet Nam War. But in 2000 and 2004 we were supposed to ignore the fact that George W. used his family’s influence to secure a cushy National Guard assignment from which he virtually went AWOL. By contrast, the military service of the Democratic candidate John Kerry, a wounded war hero during the Viet Nam War, was mocked and derided and the legitimacy of his injuries questioned. In similar fashion, we are now supposed to take John McCain’s POW experience as preparation for his being commander-in-chief. No one can quite put their finger on how being a prisoner of war prepares one for the presidency. But when Gen. Wesley Clark, a Democrat and someone who knows something about military matters, made exactly that point, the press and the public caught the vapors, shocked that anyone would question the powerful character-building influence of St. John’s wartime experience.

Apparently, if you are conservative, military service builds character. If you are liberal, military service is infantilizing.

This double standard in fact reaches way back to the beginnings of our current culture wars. Ronald Reagan was famously referred to as the “Teflon President” for his ability to deflect criticism. The public adored him, despite the fact that he was a detached and stubborn ideologue who engaged in mean-spirited attacks on the helpless while presiding over gargantuan budget deficits, economic recession, and multiple scandals. His defeated rival, President Carter, a genuinely good man whose policies, had they been adopted, could have avoided much of our current energy and environmental crises, was vilified by the public, his presidency widely regarded as a failure.

The current right-wing attacks against Obama–that he is a fashionable fop, a preening, vacuous celebrity, the darling of euro-trash, or a smooth-talking dilettante with a fancy college degree, etc.–are cut from the same cloth. The message is that Obama is without moral substance, too detached from the lives of ordinary Americans to battle the evil that stalks America. Somehow, McCain’s millionaire trophy wife, his $500 Italian shoes, and his Senate votes favoring corporate welfare never find their way into stories about elitism.

This background assumption, burnished by the press and immune to evidence, that conservatives are inherently more honest, principled and loyal to American values and liberals are morally suspect is the challenge that Obama confronts. I am not yet convinced that he or any liberal politician can overcome it, because its roots run deep in the American character.

I have some thoughts about those roots. But as this post is already overly long, they will have to wait for another day.

But as we contemplate how McCain, who has carefully cultivated the image of a principled man of honor, could endorse the racist Britney/Paris campaign ad that casts Obama as an uppity, pimped out song and dance man, it is important to remember that this is just page one of the Republican playbook.

John McSame indeed.


Hippie Hermeneutics July 22, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

If you are over 40, or exceptionally musically literate, you will probably find this video hilarious.

If you are under 40, you may not get it; but that will be your loss.

Mandela On Leadership July 20, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
1 comment so far

There has been persistent controversy throughout this election cycle on the proper conduct of foreign policy vis a vis our “enemies”, with Obama expressing a willingness to talk to Iran about common interests in the Middle East and McCain promising to continue the Bush Administration’s policy of moral grandstanding (“they hate us for our freedom”), intimidation, and violence.


Time magazine’s recent cover story on Nelson Mandela’s 8 Lessons of Leadership is interesting for the light it casts on the kind of leader we need in perilous times. Imprisoned for 27 years in a South African prison for violent political activities directed against the apartheid regime, Mandela upon his release led the movement to liberate the country “from a system of violent prejudice and helped unite white and black, oppressor and oppressed, in a way that had never been done before”—through negotiation and reconciliation.


Among Mandela’s “lessons of leadership”, three in particular stand out:


Know your enemy–and learn about is favorite sport


Keep your friends close–and your rivals even closer


Nothing is black or white.


These are important because they encourage both an understanding of the kind of leverage needed for successful negotiation and the trust required to encourage people to take political risks. Most human beings (and nations) share common interests on which they are willing to act if we can get enough of these shared interests on the table, and there are sufficient assurances that they aren’t being suckered.


Mandela’s precepts are a far cry from the blustering blowhard Bush and his little sycophant McCain gleefully singing about bombing Iran. Both have exhibited stunning ignorance about the Middle East, a region that is so central to our interests. Of course, Bush has belatedly begun to change his tune, negotiating (finally) an agreement with North Korea on their nuclear weapons that essentially gets us back to the rapproachment negotiated by Clinton. In addition, the Bush Administration is proposing to open a limited diplomatic mission in Iran and appears to be moving precisely toward Obama’s position (now endorsed by the Iraqi leadership as well) of a phased, secure withdrawal from Iraq and greater attention to Afghanistan.


All this is to the good, but if we elect McCain we will have 4 or (perish the thought) 8 more years of a conservative cock strutting about the world stage trying to prove his manhood, while we wait for him to learn simple lessons about persuasion.

Religious “Ethics” July 13, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

I often hear people claim that religion provides a foundation or framework for morality. Well, it certainly isn’t a sufficient condition.

Army Spc. Jeremy Hall was a practicing Baptist until he lost his faith while serving in Iraq.

“His sudden lack of faith, he said, cost him his military career and put his life at risk. Hall said his life was threatened by other troops and the military assigned a full-time bodyguard to protect him out of fear for his safety.”

I had thought that a good shepherd seeks out and encourages a lost sheep to return to the flock, if only to protect his investment. But I guess I was wrong. A good shepherd just shoots the lost sheep.

And then we have this little gem from the “inflatable crisis doll” file.

“Webster Cook says he smuggled a Eucharist, a small bread wafer that to Catholics symbolic of the Body of Christ after a priest blesses it, out of mass, didn’t eat it as he was supposed to do, but instead walked with it.

Catholics worldwide became furious.   

Webster’s friend, who didn’t want to show his face, said he took the Eucharist, to show him what it meant to Catholics.

Webster gave the wafer back, but the Catholic League, a national watchdog organization for Catholic rights claims that is not enough.

 ‘We don’t know 100% what Mr. Cooks motivation was,” said Susan Fani a spokesperson with the local Catholic diocese.  “However, if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it.”’

Walking off with a symbolic cookie is a hate crime, even when the motivation isn’t clear?

“It is hurtful,” said Father Migeul Gonzalez with the Diocese. “Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family.”

Stealing a symbolic cookie is like kidnapping?

To make matters worse, Catholics are so upset about this that Cook is now receiving death threats. Does this remind you of one of those other religions so often in the news?

But the story doesn’t end here, because inflatable dolls are just so attractive. The master of “inflatable doll outrage”, Bill Donahue President of the Catholic League, has weighed in:

“For a student to disrupt Mass by taking the Body of Christ hostage–regardless of the alleged nature of his grievance–is beyond hate speech. That is why the UCF administration needs to act swiftly and decisively in seeing that justice is done. All options should be on the table, including expulsion.”

Intrepid blogger and biology professor P.Z. Meyers took Donahue and Catholics to task for turning cookie abuse into a hate crime, and now he is receiving death threats, while his university is receiving demands that Meyers be fired.

There are a lot of things I could say about this, but Myers is better at snark that I am, and I don’t want my President to receive demands for my dismissal.

 So let me just make a philosophical point. If a collection of ideas or commitments is to serve as a foundation or framework for moral conduct, it must provide its adherents with the proper motives for ethical conduct and a set of principles or narratives that enable people to make defensible judgments about the treatment of persons. If it doesn’t do this, it really can’t make a claim to be a foundation or framework for moral conduct.

There are some religious perspectives that, as foundations, are developing some very serious cracks.

Ordnung Und Bier July 6, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

My apologies for the lack of blog posts recently. A looming book deadline and a two-week vacation in Germany had me otherwise occupied.


Germany is a beautiful and interesting country—gorgeous countryside, impressive castles and churches that date back to the medieval period, and a 2000 year history well preserved in their museums.


But what Germans like to do most is party. Germany is awash in beer! In Munich at 10:00 A.M, during the week, every café or beer garden will be full of people indulging in their late morning snack—weisswurst ( a veal sausage) and weissbier (a wheat beer, also called hefeweizen). And a 2000 year history provides them with endless opportunities for anniversaries that require celebration. Every city we visited seemed to have an anniversary celebration in their city squares, which were closed to traffic and lined with booths selling—well, more beer.


Our visit coincided with the European soccer championships that they take very seriously and provide an additional excuse for more parties. Imagine the atmosphere of the Super Bowl, except there is a game every 2 or 3 days. So every 2 or 3 days is an occasion for much of the population to gather in brew houses with high definition TV and—drink more beer.


The primary function of beer is to wash down huge portions of as many kinds of animal fats as will fit on one plate. Of course, fat is where the flavor is so the food is delicious and well prepared. (I highly recommend the pig’s knuckle and the boiled beef with horseradish sauce.) But occasionally we had to seek refuge from the lipids in an Italian or Turkish restaurant. (There are many ethnic restaurants in Germany).


Despite the calories they consume, we saw few excessively overweight people. That is probably because there is seldom parking to be found, so any trip requires a good walk.


Of course, we were traveling with beer connoisseurs on a mission (at one point I think we visited 4 brew houses in 2 hours in search of the perfect pils) so perhaps the population we sampled was heavily biased. But the beer culture there is truly impressive.


We caught a break from the beer in Germany’s wine country. I have always enjoyed the countryside in the Napa Valley but it does not compare to the Rhine River Valley—miles of hillsides covered with grapes, gently sloping to the river’s edge, and dotted with medieval castles and quaint villages. The boat trip down the Rhine sipping a fine Reisling spatlese (yes beer was available as well) was one of the highlights of the trip.


One winery we visited (in Franconia) was located in a hospital! As you enter the lobby of the hospital, the first thing to draw your attention is a display in the center of the room advertising the wines available that season. Somehow, I cannot picture that display in the United States.


With all the drinking and celebration, you would think public intoxication would be a problem. But not so.  Despite the thousands of people milling about drinking beer at the anniversary celebrations, and after the soccer games when they were quite rowdy but not at all violent or destructive, we very seldom saw any police. In fact we went days without seeing a cop.


Germany’s reputation for order is well deserved. Even their drunks are well-behaved.