20 January 2008

Fear And Cynicism

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Appealingly, it seems we might be balanced between a moment of great hope and another lifetime of fear, and tilting towards hope. Appallingly – and with all due respect to Senator Barack Obama – we are more likely teetering between another lifetime of fear and an even more problematic, fearful cynicism.

Ever since the Democratic field of candidates began to look strong enough that one of them just might beat a Republican opponent in the November 2008 election, my cynicism started to engender fear. I cannot shake the admittedly cynical sense that our incumbent administration will engineer an October surprise in order to frighten the nation into electing the GOP candidate – the one who will undoubtedly be cast as the law-and-order choice to save our nation. While only one candidate is running explicitly as Mr. 9/11, the others GOPers don’t shy away from proclaiming how tough they would be against any threats, even those poorly imagined.

Since that terrible day in September 2001, I have written a few times that living in fear is no way to live. I still believe that wholeheartedly. (Just as I think that an increasingly risk-averse society means we change for the worse our sense of what in our lives might be worth risking.) In a recent blog post for The New York Times, John Tierney explored a similar issue in “The Endless Fear of Terrorism,” and expressed clear concerns at the end: “... It means (to quote the common phrase after Sept. 11) that ‘the terrorists will have won’ even if they never pull off any larger attacks in the future. But is there any way to avoid decades of angst? ...”

Unfortunately, so long as such visceral fears plays a role in American politics, the answer is likely to be no. So, it seems an all-too-easy leap to make that an October surprise might be enacted – or should I say “permitted” – in order to push the GOP candidate over the top. The worst-case scenario for such a “surprise” is all-too-easy to imagine. It is also easy to imagine that the Bush administration would, in its waning days, allow this terrible event to occur through the same slipshod management that permitted the September 11th attacks to occur in the first place.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the president would engineer an attack his own nation. Absolutely not. But in a cynical view of this (very cynical) administration, it is not inconceivable that he would permit others to attack the United States because of what an attack would mean for his party. Another security brief conveniently overlooked, or a failure to translate properly an intercepted message that could tip us off, and the whole election 2008 game plan would change. Even if nothing happened, the carefully timed revelation of a near-miss attack or the arrest of a group of alleged plotters might be enough to push our fearful citizenry into an election day response in the GOP’s favor.

Whether you believe this is a real possibility depends on a few things. Your tolerance for conspiracy theories. How cynical you are. How fearful you are. And how much you believe that the Republican establishment is afraid of losing power, particularly in the wake of almost eight years of incompetent governance by President George W. Bush, his über-Machiavellian Vice President Dick Cheney, and (for six of those years) a corruptly complicit Republican-led Congress. Such predictions have been wrong before: former Senator Gary Hart (among others) thought Bush would declare war on Iran before the 2006 elections, when it was becoming clear that the Republicans would lose control of Congress.

For the sake of the lives that would be lost in another attack on the United States, for the sake of the lives that would be lost by our retaliation, for the sake of our country and its future: I hope I am wrong. That is not the kind of hope Senator Obama talks about, but it feels no less important at this moment in time.

10 January 2008

Not Just Baseball

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

On Monday morning, 7 January, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story about the controversy and allegations regarding the use of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs by baseball player Roger Clemens. NPR’s story took an important but all-too-rare step: it criticized the nature of a particular piece of journalism, an interview of Clemens by Mike Wallace. For commentary on this issue, NPR reported as follows:

John Sawatsky, a professional journalist who teaches reporters how to do interviews, says he was disturbed by Wallace’s lack of follow-up questions with Clemens.

For instance, Wallace brought up the fact that Clemens’ buddy Andy Pettitte admitted McNamee had injected him with steroids, just as McNamee had testified in the Mitchell Report.

“Andy’s case is totally separate,” Clemens responded.

Sawatsky said Wallace should have asked why it was separate.

“Wallace never asked, ‘What is separate about it?’ He just dropped it,” Sawatsky said.

Of course, this is baseball, not politics – so it’s much easier to ask such questions in that context. For a countervailing example, NPR also ran a story yesterday, 9 January, about the upcoming primary in South Carolina, talking to two local people about the challenges candidates will face in that state. One issue in particular caught my attention: commentator Scott Huffmon’s remarks that South Carolinians are very concerned about illegal immigration – an issue that may negatively affect the chances of Republican candidate Senator John McCain, who is seen as too liberal on this matter.

And so you say: South Carolina is concerned about illegal immigration as a priority issue? According to StateMaster.com, South Carolina ranks 29th in estimates of illegal immigrants per capita – lower than Arkansas and just ahead of Iowa. (Looked at in total numbers of people, it remains 29th, too.) Even NPR, in a story they ran in June 2005 about illegal immigrants in the United States, did not list South Carolina among the top states facing this problem, although neighboring North Carolina is mentioned. NPR did not pursue this line of questioning, did not ask Huffmon why illegal immigration is a hot-button issue there, and did not push back on the idea that a state with little in the way of an illegal immigration problem finds this such an animating political issue.

It is a shame, because it would have been more than just interesting: it might have provided genuine insight into McCain’s chances in South Carolina, or might have helped explain a subject that has been a consistent feature of the race thus far, despite being an issue of great consequence in only a few states. Are South Carolinians more fearful for their jobs – and are illegal immigrants the people to fear? Is concern about illegal immigration code for NIMBY-type race and class issues – and have the demographics in South Carolina shifted enough to make these concerns well-founded? It seems crucial that we understand why people believe any issue to be so important to their lives, and that journalists push back on and explore the underlying facts in order to understand voters’ motivations. Doing so would give all the candidates – not just John McCain – opportunities to address issues more substantively (rather than just emotionally) and in a way that reflects the concerns of the voters of South Carolina and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that such statements go unchallenged is consistent with the general nature of coverage of the political process and the primaries (and caucus) thus far. As always, we face a reduction to very basic issues and themes, combined with a simplistic flip-floppery from one candidate to the other in response to the prevailing winds. Nothing expresses this more than the wide coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton’s very narrow victory in New Hampshire. This was hardly an upset, as the New York Times called it – an upset of what, exactly? – any more than Senator Barack Obama’s victory in Iowa meant he had sewn up the Democratic nomination or conclusively beat Clinton for the nomination. As for the coverage of Clinton’s teary, emotional plea, well: it’s a legitimate news story, but should not be allowed to crowd out the bigger need to explore the underlying concerns of voters and the philosophy that underscores the plans of the candidates.

If we are to elect a new president who will truly lead our nation to a better, peaceful, prosperous future, we need a journalism, and a citizenry, capable of looking beyond the obvious. Beyond a candidate’s cry. Beyond the simplistic evocations of “hope.” We need journalists – and an electorate – who can, yes, “connect” with the politicians, but who can carefully (re)examine their own fears and expectations, too. Because we need to keep reminding ourselves that the 2008 election is as much a referendum on us – on who we are as Americans, and what we believe in for ourselves and the world – as it is about the person we choose to fill the office of President of the United States of America.

04 January 2008

Some Small Hope

You might be inclined to say that the good news is that Senator Barack Obama won the biggest majority of the delegates in the Democratic Iowa caucuses. Fair enough.

But the better news is that Senator Hillary Clinton didn't win. Despite the money spent, despite the hours invested, despite all the glad-handing, Clinton didn't win. Not only didn't she win, she placed third, after John Edwards. All of this suggests that there is a glimmer of hope, however small, that she can be prevented from securing the Democratic nomination. I've written it before, and I'll write it again: I do not believe Senator Clinton stands for anything except her own self-advancement. That is not the kind of person we need as our next president.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee's victory indicates that the GOP seems set to continue it's morphing into the POG: the Party of God. That's a shame for Ron Paul, who secured a respectable 10% showing in Iowa -- and who might do well in New Hampshire -- but faces an increasingly religiously-deterministic crowd of Republicans. At least Paul can always decide to run as a Libertarian.

I am tired of this process, and we've barely begun. I can't wait for New Hampshire, if only for the sense that it means we are one step closer to ending the misery of this interminable campaign "season." Nonetheless, Senator Obama likes to point to the importance of hope - and Iowans have just offered us a tiny little bit of a reason to hope.