Saturday, December 27, 2008

A stumble for the Republican Party

A recent story about four of the candidates vying for the Republican National Committee chairmanship indicates the troubles that may lie ahead for the GOP in its attempt to rebuild itself after its stunning electoral defeat this year:
Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee, sent committee members this month a holiday music CD that included "Barack the Magic Negro," a parody song first aired in 2007 by talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Created by conservative satirist Paul Shanklin, the song puts new lyrics to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," and it is performed as if black activist Al Sharpton were singing it. Limbaugh played it after the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece with the same title, arguing that a vote for Barack Obama could assuage white guilt.

"A guy from the LA paper said it made guilty whites feel good, they'll vote for him and not for me cuz he's not from the hood," the song goes. "Oh, Barack the magic negro lives in DC, the LA Times they called him that because he's black but not authentically."
I'm sure Limbaugh thinks that Democrats who take offense at this ditty are simply proving the age-old truth that liberals have no sense of humor. (You won't get much argument there from Stephen Colbert.) And it is worth considering Clarence Page's defense of the song.

Still, I'm not sure that Republicans have earned the right to be hip and ironic on this subject. I found Sacha Baron Cohen's "Throw the Jew Down the Well" routine very funny, but I wouldn't feel comfortable if an Arab American organization began playing it. Sometimes you're just not in a position to be making certain kinds of jokes.

Another candidate for RNC chair is Katon Dawson, who recently resigned his 12-year membership in a whites-only country club.

When I read about these incidents, I have to think: are the Republicans out of their heads? They just lost a presidential election to a black man who received 96% of the African American vote. They know they cannot go on forever being the party of whites. If current projections are accurate, white Americans will be a minority less than half a century from now. To survive electorally, the Republican Party must make inroads into the African American community.

Unfortunately, a situation like this may drive them toward careless tokenism, as it has in the past. There are currently two African Americans running for RNC chair, Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell. As a Marylander, I am all too familiar with Steele. He may pass the Joe Biden test for black politicians--he is "articulate and clean and a nice-looking guy." The trouble is, he's also a bit of a nitwit.

I will mention one anecdote from his unsuccessful Senate run in 2006. A Roman Catholic, Steele was talking before the Baltimore Jewish Council when he was asked about his views on stem-cell research. His answer became the most notorious remark of his campaign: "You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool. I know that as well in my community, out of our experience with slavery, and so I'm very cautious when people say this is the best new thing, this is going to save lives."

Jews did not take kindly to that remark. Somebody, somewhere along the line, should have informed Steele that Jews, unlike Catholics, overwhelmingly support embryonic stem-cell research. I think most Jews would respect any Catholic politician who took a principled stand on the issue. But if there is any sure way for a non-Jew to irritate a Jewish audience, it is by making an inappropriate Holocaust comparison. What was Steele thinking?

Still, I was willing to cut him some slack. Many capable politicians have said dumb things from time to time, and I don't like our gotcha culture where one regretful remark follows a politician around for the rest of his career. But I was not impressed by how Steele handled the aftermath. He quickly apologized for the remark, but he then proceeded to make an incoherent flip-flop on the issue. He stated that he actually supports embryonic stem-cell research--just so long as it doesn't destroy the embryo.

The rest of his campaign ran along similar lines. Maybe he didn't stand a chance: he was in an uncomfortable position as a conservative in a very liberal state. But Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, managed to win one term as governor with a good triangulation effort that attracted many Democrats. Steele didn't have that finesse. He seemed to lack both vision and leadership.

As for Ken Blackwell, the other black politician running for RNC chair, I know nothing about him. But the name! I mean, can we get any more subtle? I can imagine it now. "Meet our new token black, Mr. Blackwell."

If Republicans can find someone with the stature of Colin Powell or Condi Rice, they might be in good shape. But their credibility problem among blacks cannot be solved just by having blacks in prominent positions.

After all, polls show that African Americans tend to hold some conservative views, yet they continue to vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Though they aren't uncritical of the Democratic Party establishment, as the Clinton-Obama fight earlier this year demonstrated, they see the Republican Party as an old white boys' club. If Republicans want their votes, the first thing they're going to have to do is purge their party of any hint of racism. Since blacks are the future, a party that continues to alienate them will have no future.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The virtues of pluralism

Grammar books tell us that the word media should be treated as a plural. You're supposed to say, "The media are covering the story," not "The media is covering the story." Nobody can explain what "a medium" is in this context, and the media people themselves often do not follow this rule, or they follow it inconsistently. I've read articles and even books where in one paragraph it's plural, in the next it's singular, and in the next it's plural again. It's beginning to take on the qualities of a noun like sheep, which can be either singular or plural.

The word is actually one of several Latin-derived plurals that have gradually become singular in English. Another example is data, which is a shibboleth among techies. You're supposed to say "The data are misleading" rather than "The data is misleading," and you'll get a stiff whacking if you get it wrong, even if hardly anyone uses the singular datum.

Of course, there are other examples that not even the pickiest of grammar cops treats as plural. You never hear anyone say "The agenda are ready," even though agenda is as much a Latin plural as media and data. Then there are Italian plurals like opera and spaghetti that English speakers have always treated as singular. If you heard someone say "The spaghetti are cooking," you'd give that person a stiff whacking!

But unlike any of those examples, the plurality of media is more than just a grammar issue. People almost always use the word to suggest that news coverage is distorted, slanted, or subtly manipulated. This connotation does not exist in terms such as "the newspapers" or "the networks." Although by now the plural use of media is mostly a formality, its transformation into a singular noun contributed to the popular image of the news business as a single unified entity conspiring to present the news in a particular way. All the critics left, right, and center talk about the media this way, even when they attach the term to a plural verb just to show what a smartypants they are.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Religion and influence

There is a school of thought suggesting that atheistic Jews like Marx and Freud were creating essentially surrogate forms of Judaism. I was intrigued to learn that James Joyce's novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man suggests a similar thing about lapsed Catholics. The protagonist Stephen Daedalus rejects the Catholicism of his upbringing, yet as he is explaining his philosophy of art to a friend, the friend coyly observes, "It is a curious your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve."

When I had to do a paper on the novel in college, I seized on this idea. I posed the question of why Stephen abandoned his Catholicism, and my answer was that he found in art what he had been seeking in religion, namely a way to transcend the temptations of the flesh. Stephen's philosophy is that when examining art, a person should separate his impression of a piece from any physical or emotional reaction it may provoke. Superior art, according to Stephen, is created through a detachment between the artist and his work, whereby the artist's personality "refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself."

I traced the development of Stephen's philosophy throughout the novel. As a child and teenager, Stephen reacts to artistic pieces---books, poems, and the like--by letting himself be overcome by them. Conflict arises one day when he wanders into a bad part of town where he has his first sexual encounters. He knows he faces eternal torment for his actions, but at first he feels "a cold lucid indifference." Then his school has him attend a three-day retreat by a priest who gives a harrowing description of what Hell is like. Here is a brief excerpt from the priest's vivid speech:
In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, Saint Anselm, writes in his book on Similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it....

The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench.... Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.
For all its raw emotional power, the speech has an important limitation. The priest describes the speech as being about "death, judgment, hell and heaven," but it is almost entirely about Hell, with scarcely a word about what Heaven will be like. Stephen becomes a fervent worshipper, but soon doubts begin to surface, and he wonders if his new devoutness is driven more by fear than by sincere belief. He has trouble finding a more positive basis for his faith.

What he gains most from that period of atonement is considerable practice at inhibiting his physical reactions. He walks with eyes to the ground; avoids eye contact with women; subjects himself to loud noises and unpleasant smells; and refuses to make himself comfortable in bed. By quelling his receptiveness to sensory experience, however, he undermines the very quality that allowed the priest's speech to influence him in the first place. He ultimately leaves his Catholicism behind when he satisfies his need for a chaste vantage point from which to observe life, without the "chill and order" of the priesthood that first attracted him. And he achieves that purpose through his newfound appreciation of art.

When I looked back on my essay later, I noticed a curious irony. Stephen's philosophy of art was almost the polar opposite of mine. Whenever I'm examining a work of fiction, or film, or music, the first question I ask myself is, "What effect did it have on me?" That question leads me to the most sincere and, hence, authentic, answers. Depersonalizing the process only leads to an artificial response, in my view.

In fact, that's exactly how I approached Joyce's novel. I wasn't sure what my paper was going to be about. But the point in the novel that had the most immediate impact on me was the priest's description of Hell. I knew I had to pivot my reaction to that scene into a larger thesis, and that's exactly what I did.

I wonder if my approach to art has something to do with my Jewish background, just as Stephen's has to do with his Catholic background. Judaism emphasizes the idea of a person being transformed through his actions. That's why Jewish thought is relatively weak on theology. Even Torah study is viewed in this light: you're encouraged more or less to lose yourself in it and then see how it affects you.

Then again, I could be totally off about this theory. I'm generalizing based on two limited examples, my own personal philosophy and that of a fictional character (albeit one based on Joyce himself). But I do believe that it is hard for people to escape their initial influences in life.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Opinions with results

On August 11, 2008, writing for the ironically named conservative publication The American Thinker, Steven M. Warshawsky proclaimed, "As I wrote last December, '[t]he pundits can talk until they are blue in the face about Obama's charisma and eloquence and cross-racial appeal. The fact of the matter is that Obama has no chance of being elected president in 2008.' I am more convinced of this conclusion than ever."

On October 9, shortly after the second presidential debate, Warshawsky wrote, "I have received numerous emails from Republicans and Democrats alike, asking whether I still think Obama will lose the election. Yes, I do. But what about the polls, they ask? The polls show that Obama is winning. No, they don't, as I will explain." And he did.

Even by October 25, he did not back down: "In a few more weeks, the political environment in this country is likely to become a heckuva lot nastier. For there are real signs pointing to a McCain victory this year, whether or not the mainstream media wants to acknowledge them."

Needless to say, after Election Day he was shocked: "I cannot understand how a man like Obama became president. It contradicts everything I know, or thought I knew, about American history, culture, and politics." But he didn't conclude that his own thinking was at fault. He acted as if the country had pulled a fast one on him. He even made a whole new set of predictions about the damage that Obama and the Democratic Congress would do, and he ended by saying, "I hope that the Democrats will prove me wrong again." Judging from his track record, his hopes will likely be fulfilled!

He is hardly the only commentator to have underestimated Obama. But unlike any mainstream pundit I'm aware of, he continued to predict Obama's demise after primary season, and with firm conviction ("no chance of being elected"). To suggest as late as August that Obama might lose was reasonable, but to suggest that he definitely would lose was insane.

The sheer insularity is striking. Not surprisingly, The American Thinker has also been a repository for wild conspiracy theories about Obama, from the birth certificate business to the claim that William Ayers ghostwrote Dreams from My Father. I have no doubt that the people who believe these things will continue to believe them in the years to come. That's the beauty of having opinions: nothing can shake your belief in them, as long as you choose to consider them true. Making a specific, concrete prediction about the near future is another matter. Once you expose yourself to objective reality, you can't hide from it.

The fallacies in Warshawsky's analysis weren't hard to spot. His most telling statement was, "Why am I so confident that John McCain is going to win the election? In short, because Barack Obama is not an acceptable choice to lead the country." It didn't seem to occur to him that the American public might not share his standards of what is acceptable.

His refusal to believe the polls was also notable. The success of polls at predicting presidential winners has increased dramatically since the days of "Dewey Defeats Truman." In a very close race, there may be uncertainty. But by mid-October this year, McCain was consistently trailing Obama by at least five points, and the electoral map looked even worse for him. It was conceivable that public opinion might change before Election Day, but there was no reason to believe he was already in the lead.

Warshawsky may be an extreme case, but the punditocracy is littered with erroneous forecasts, and the pundits are rarely taken to task for them. I believe that the quality of prognostications can be a gauge of a commentator's analytical skill. We should pay more attention to them.

Let's consider some of the factors that inspire bad political predictions. One is wishful thinking. Another is projecting one's own outlook on the public. A notorious example of the latter was the title of conservative columnist Shelby Steele's early-2008 book A Bound Man: Why We are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win. Steele later apologized for the "stupid, silly subtitle that was slapped on to the book" and claimed it did not represent what the book was arguing. Not having read the book, I'll take his word for it.

Some people will predict a candidate's victory in the hopes of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why candidates themselves rarely admit they're losing even when it's obvious they are. The final nail in the coffin of Fred Thompson's candidacy may have been when he admitted to the press that he wasn't likely to get the nomination. For a politician in those circumstances to lie is understandable, but we expect more honesty from commentators, who should always tell at least what they believe to be the truth.

None of the aforementioned factors explain why many Democrats doubted Obama would win, even days before the election when he seemed practically unbeatable. The crucial factor here was paranoia, inspired by past defeats. They felt their own party had a knack for "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," and they believed that Republicans might steal the election again. (To this day, there are liberals who think even the 2004 election was stolen.) They also worried about the Bradley Effect, the alleged phenomenon that public opinion polls overestimate a black candidate's support because some respondents are afraid of revealing racist motivations.

One Democrat whose predictions were spectacularly vindicated was Nate Silver of A baseball statistician by trade, Silver developed a unique method of averaging together the presidential polls to determine the winner. His final estimate had Obama beating McCain by 52.3% to 46.2%. The initial results on Election Night were 52.4% to 46.3%--within a tenth of a percent of Silver's predictions. (Subsequent counting, however, has widened Obama's lead by a whole percentage point, making Silver's estimate less accurate.) He also correctly predicted the winner in every state except Indiana, which Obama won narrowly. It's worth asking whether Silver would have been as accurate in a year that was bad for Democrats. My impression is that he doesn't let his biases interfere with his mathematical estimates.

Sometimes good predictions come from unexpected quarters. During the 1996 primary campaign, liberal comedian Al Franken correctly predicted that Dole's running mate would be Jack Kemp. He based his conclusion on a quip by Newt Gingrich that Kemp (a former NFL player) has showered with more blacks than most Republicans have shaken hands with. Franken followed this quote with a list of "Politicians Who Have Showered With Blacks," consisting of former athletes who went into politics.

In 1999, Franken released a book describing a bizarro version of the upcoming 2000 election in which Franken himself becomes the Democratic nominee, with an all-Jewish staff. And guess who his running mate is? Why, Joe Lieberman, of course. His stated reason is that he wants to balance the ticket because "I'm Reform and he's Orthodox."

After these two episodes, I began to pay more attention to Franken's musings. Maybe buried beneath the comedy was some sound insight, I figured. That's why I was puzzled when his 2005 book hinted that the next president would be Barack Obama. At the time, Obama had told the press "unequivocally" that he would not run in 2008. I thought to myself, "I guess Franken is finally wrong about something." Hmmmph. (To be fair, I should mention that the book also predicted that the Republican nominee for 2008 would be Bill Frist.)

What's Franken's secret? Good instincts, or dumb luck? You be the judge. Nobody can know with certainty what the future holds. But I value predictions, because they are opinions with results. They test a person's capacity to think objectively, without letting wishes or fears get in the way. They also tell us something about the quality of the person's reasoning. And they help us weed out the shills.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The cartoon that made science cool

Stephen King and Stephen Jay Gould each wrote a foreword to a Far Side gallery, and they had such opposite perspectives on a comic they both praised that it illustrated different approaches people can take toward humor.

King, in his foreword to The Far Side Gallery 2, refused to explain what made Larson's cartoons funny. He wrote that The Far Side was a "uniquely unique" comic that "will make you laugh your butt off," but "I can't tell you why," because "There's no way to explain humor any more than there is a way to explain horror."

Gould, introducing The Far Side Gallery 3, apparently disagreed. His essay, which was twice as long as King's, examined various Larson cartoons to give a sense of why The Far Side was especially popular among scientists. According to Gould, Larson (who never worked as a scientist) understands "the intimate details of our lives and practices." As an example, Gould points to a Far Side cartoon showing astronomers fighting over a telescope, and the caption says "All day long, a tough gang of astrophysicists would monopolize the telescope and intimidate other researchers." Gould claims that this cartoon resonates with scientists because "telescopes are in desperately short supply, and...scientists (particularly Ph.D. students low on the totem pole) often wait months for a few hours of evening viewing (tough darts, and back to 'go,' if it's cloudy)."

Another cartoon showed an "average size" American family consisting of two parents, a whole child, and, literally, a half-child sitting in front of a TV set (alluding to studies that say things like that the average American family has 1.5 children). To Gould this illustrates that "language is not a neutral medium of optimal communication, but also a reservoir of illogic, cultural chauvinism, and literally senseless cliché."

Gould also talks about how Larson "places animals into human situations--using the differences to show how less than logical or universal our unquestioned practices can be." One recurring theme he sees in Larson's cartoons is the idea that "Animals have intelligence different from ours; they are not just primitive models of our achievements."

I prefer Gould's perspective to King's. Of course King is right that you can't rationalize humor. Either you laugh, or you don't, and nobody can persuade you to laugh at something you don't find funny. But Larson's cartoons are more than silly diversions. They have a point of view that resonates with people.

Larson's own thoughts on the matter can be found in his 1989 book PreHistory of the Far Side, a behind-the-scenes look at the process he goes through as a cartoonist. Among other things, he shows the doodled cartoons in his sketchbook alongside the final published versions. For example, a sketch of "If dogs drove," in which dogs are seen driving cars while hanging their heads out the window, was made into a cartoon called "When dogs go to work," in which dogs are sitting on a bus hanging their heads out the window, and the driver is also a dog doing the same thing.

Larson claims that he doesn't know where he gets his ideas: "Some cartoons spring forth from just staring stupidly at a blank sheet of paper and thinking about aardvarks or toaster ovens or cemeteries or just about anything" (p. 42). But in the process of developing an idea, he can be pretty analytical. He deals at length with how the subtle features of his cartoons--a character's facial expression or clothing, or something in the background--can have an effect on the humor.

Unlike the slightly conceited Bill Watterson in his annotated Calvin and Hobbes book, Larson is charmingly self-effacing. He kids himself a lot and never seems fully aware that he rules the field when it comes to single-panel cartoons. If you think what he does is easy, I'd like you to name another nationally syndicated single-panel cartoonist who even begins to approach Larson's mastery of the genre. I've seen plenty of comics try, but come up short.

One such comic is Mother Goose and Grimm. What struck me about Larson's sketchbook was how many of his initial ideas were at about the level of published Grimm cartoons, then he'd improve them. In one of his doodles, for example, two spiders are standing by a web and one of them says, "Nice threads." That's the sort of dumb pun I've seen in Grimm many times. But the final version is almost unrecognizably different. Four spiders are sitting around a little table next to a web that appears to have flowers stitched into it. The caption goes, "You and Fred have such a lovely web, Edna--and I love what you've done with those fly wings."

While he often starts with a simple gag, the cartoons he develops are usually more complex. They typically tell a little story that we are expected to unravel. I think of the one in the pet shop, where we see a piranha on display, and at the far end of the shop is a cat with wooden forelegs. This cartoon has no caption; it doesn't need any. The picture speaks for itself.

As Gould discerned, Larson's most frequent conceit is putting animals into human situations in order to comment on human behavior. In one cartoon, we see a mother chicken feeding a bedridden chicken a bowl of soup and saying, "Quit complaining and eat it!... Number one, chicken soup is good for the flu--and number two, it's nobody we know." The absurdity of the situation is what creates the humor, but we also end up thinking a little about human morality.

Larson admits to being flattered by his popularity among scientists, but he says it has its downside: every time he makes a scientific error, he receives a flurry of letters correcting it. For example, in one cartoon a husband mosquito walks into his house and sighs that he has been "spreading malaria" across the country. Numerous readers pointed out to Larson that only female mosquitos bite. Larson's response: "Of course, it's perfectly acceptable that these creatures wear clothes, live in houses, speak English, etc." (p. 124).

One often overlooked point is that The Far Side appealed not just to scientists but to scientifically informed laymen. Gould's favorite Far Side features a group of Protozoa watching a slide show, when one says, "No, wait! That's not Uncle Floyd! Who is that? Criminy, I think it's just an air bubble!" Scientists get the joke, but so does anyone who has ever operated a microscope.

In many cases, Larson takes a familiar biological fact and mixes it up with a stereotypical human situation. In one cartoon, an insect couple are sitting on a sofa in their house. Dad is reading the newspaper, and Mom is yelling to their daughter, who is walking out the door: "Hold it right there, young lady! Before you go out, you take off some of that makeup and wash off that gallon of pheromones!"

Larson did for cartoons what Douglas Adams did for fiction: take scientific ideas and derive humor from them that general audiences could understand. Even nonscientists appreciate Larson's attention to detail. His drawing ability is underrated, perhaps because of the crude, broad style of his faces and bodies. But when he draws animals, even highly anthropomorphized ones, the details are far more authentic than you'd expect from a syndicated cartoonist.

Larson also explains how he came up with some of his worst cartoons. A notorious example is "Cow tools," which features a cow standing by a table on which rest four oddly shaped objects, one of which looks like a saw. He admits the cartoon simply didn't work, but he explains what he intended it to mean, and while his explanation doesn't make the cartoon funny, we do get a sense of his thought processes that usually lead to better cartoons.

I've never thought of The Far Side as subversive, but a few of his cartoons have provoked controversy. Some readers are put off when he shows animals being hurt. None of these cartoons ever bothered me in the least, and I'm an animal lover. I love cats, but I was always amused by the cartoon where two dogs are playing "tethercat." As Larson points out, dogs beating up on cats is just an old cartoon convention: "I could understand the problem if these were kids batting an animal around a pole, but the natural animosity between dogs and cats has always provided fodder for humor in various forms" (p. 158).

On the other hand, when he shows some cartoons of his that his editors refused to publish, I admit he did push the boundaries of good taste. In one of them, a snake is crawling through a baby's crib and has a lump in the middle of its body at exactly the place in the crib where the baby should be. According to Larson, "editors, I'm convinced, have saved my career many times by their decision not to publish certain cartoons" (p. 176).

Other aspects of the book include the somewhat inspirational story of how he got into cartooning; examples of his first comic, Nature's Way; cartoons he based on personal experiences or short stories he wrote; some of the embarrassing mistakes he and his publishers made; and a lengthy gallery of his own favorite Far Sides.

Lastly, I should mention my own personal favorite, which happens to appear in the book. A dinosaur is standing behind a podium, speaking before an audience of dinosaurs. He says, "The picture's pretty bleak, gentlemen.... The world's climates are changing, the mammals are taking over, and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut."

I won't try to analyze it for you.