Mar 31, 2009

The Idiocy of the Politicos

Most people have no idea that today a special election is being held in the 20th district of New York to replace Kristin Gillabrand, former Congresswoman, now Senator, who in turn replaced Hillary Clinton when she became Secretary of State. It has been said on both the right and the left that this race is a 'referendum' on Obama's policies and that a Republican victory will mean the nation doesn't so much support him and a Democrat victory will mean there is no stopping the President.

That's all a bunch of bull.

Every time an election--special or not--is held in this country, we treat it as though it is the beginning of a new era. Rarely does that forecast prove prescient. FDR certainly heralded something new. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan did as well. Barack Obama trumpets as though he has; time will tell. Clinton's defeat of George H.W. Bush? It didn't mean much--the country was still in a generally center-right mood, as it proved in 1994. George W. Bush's defeat of John Kerry in 2004? It was considered by some on the right to be the beginning of a new conservative dominance. That never materialized, and, in fact, it was the exact opposite. We all know the story: Democrats retook Congress in 2006 and expanded their majorities in 2008, leaving Republicans as effective as snot.

The fact is, the world changes too rapidly in this day and age to be able to predict anything--political or otherwise--with any real certainty. Many have postulated that it was Hurricane Katrina that proved to be the undoing of President Bush. After the tepid and flubbed response of the feds there, people wondered how he could be trusted with something as challenging as two foreign wars. For the next three years, he was not to ever receive the benefit of the doubt, and his poll numbers showed--never recovering to pre-Katrina levels. A week before that happened, Bush was flying high. He never knew what hit him.

Today, we have a resurgent Russia that would like nothing more to kick us in the crotch, a nutty Iran (making nice with Russia) that would like nothing more than to obliterate both the big and little Satans, an angry and growing China--which apparently can now destroy one of our aircraft carriers with a single missile, a frozen credit market, and two ongoing wars. Don't even mention that we have huge (and growing) deficits, unfunded entitlements whose real costs are hidden away through all-but-fraudulent congressional accounting, and a majority with an eight-year deferred wishlist that is literally trillions of dollars long. Joe Biden was excoriated for saying that even if the Obama administration did everything right, there was still a 30% chance they'd fail. Unfortunately for the idealists out there, that's all-too-true. Crises come often to a president, and one mess-up can doom the entire agenda. Poll numbers in the 80's can drop to the 40's in a few short weeks. Just ask John Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs or Bill Clinton after the health care fiasco or George W. Bush after Katrina.

The race for the NY-20 is important, mostly for Republicans, since a win would give a much-needed morale boost. A loss, however, isn't that big of deal for either side. Democrats will still have a 78-seat majority; Republicans will still just need to wait a little longer for Obama's poll numbers to drop before coming out of the wilderness. And believe me, if history is any guide, they will most certainly drop.

Mar 30, 2009

Guns...Are...Awesome

I've been Civil War reenacting for some time now. In fact, I'm about to begin my seventh season on the field. It's strange to believe that it's been that long; it seems like just yesterday I was in Florida, reading The Killer Angels and trying to convince my dad to do it. In all that time, however, I have never done one thing that I've really, really wanted to try: actually shoot a Minié ball from a Civil War era rifle.

That is, I never had done it.

This weekend was the annual Spring Drill, where we all come out of our holes and remember how to march. We had about 12-15 guys on Saturday, which was a great turnout. My group is the 44th Tennessee, Company K, though we have a sister company on the Yankee side that we like to fall in with--the 49th Indiana, Company F. This year's drill was held at the 49th's Captain's home in Brownsburg, Indiana. For most of the day we were separate, though we spent some time combined on bayonet drill (more on that in a future post) and did a squad competition to see who remembered commands the best. Near the end of the day, one of the guys from the 49th said that they'd be doing some live firing and that if anyone wanted to try it out, he'd be happy to let them use his gun(s). How, I ask, could I resist that kind of opportunity?

Some people set up targets and hay bales about 25 yards away from where we'd be shooting from. I watched for a bit before gathering the guts to ask if I could go next. The guy was really nice and asked if I'd like to shoot both guns. "Both?" I inquired.

Apparently, he owned not only an 1853 Enfield rifle (.577 caliber, the second most common gun in the Civil War, behind the 1861 Springfield, which I own; see photo below for the Enfield):


But also an 1842 Springfield (probably the prettiest gun of the war, and the last .69 caliber rifle ever made--see below):


The Enfield shot your typical Minié ball. It is easier to aim, since there are two sights--one right past the hammer and one at the end of the barrel. I hit the bales pretty easily (by then, the targets had been blown away). It also has a relatively minor kick.

The 1842 Springfield, however, was a knockout. It is smoothbore, so not rifled, which means that it becomes very inaccurate very quickly. Additionally, it uses the 'buck and ball' round--one .69 caliber lead ball with three .40 caliber 'bucks', or smaller balls. The effect is similar to that of a modern shotgun: deadly at close range, though increasingly useless further away.



Using these weapons, you suddenly realize how horrifying the experience of a soldier must really have been. The shots have more of a delay than modern guns, meaning that there is a noticeable time lapse between seeing the smoke come out of the barrel and seeing the effects of the bullet. To imagine a literal torrent of lead is awful. It turned out not only to be a fun time shooting cool old weapons. Instead, it led to a realization and a greater respect on my part for what a man in the Civil War had to expect. After all, that is one of the main reasons to be a reenactor; you want to be able to vividly relive at least a bit of what your ancestors went through, and, ultimately, you want the public today to undertand what kind of pains and sacrifices were made almost 150 years ago.

We're coming up very soon to an important anniversary. On April 9, we commemorate the 'traditional' end of the war, with General Lee's surrender to General Grant at Appomattox. Soon after, on April 15, we remember the first--and probably most profound--assassination of a president in U.S. history. It's good to take some time to reflect on how important that era was to what we are today.

Will We Soon Have a Vacancy on the Court?

Dahlia Lithwick (with whom I rarely agree and for whom I rarely oft provide a link) ponders that very thing in an excellent article.

My only issue is that he thinks Obama will appoint a "like-minded liberal centrist" to fill the next spot. Now I agree that Obama will certainly find someone who is like-minded (especially to Ginsburg--the only Democrat-appointed member of the liberal wing who may be retiring soon), but not that the person will be a 'liberal centrist'. Lithwick would contend that there is no Scalia of the left--the progeny of a William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall--but that doesn't mean the liberals on the Court are centrists. The difference between Brennan and Ginsburg is that Ginsburg doesn't make a big production out of it when she shreds the Constitution to fit her politics.

Anyway, it's worth the read.

Mar 29, 2009

Reynard the Fox

It's been a while since I posted anything about puppets. I had been working on a triceratops puppet to match Schubert the T-Rex, but I've put that on hiatus for the time being. In its place, I've begun working on a fox puppet named Reynard. He's a takeoff of the medieval fable, which I've recently discovered and become very interested in.

Below are a few sketches that I've made of how I'd like him to look. I'm attempting a resin casting for making his eyes (it's what they do for taxidermy; I'll blog it soon), and I'm slowly getting the foam together. As per usual, I don't use patterns (which is stupid if I ever want to recreate anything, but c'est la vie). I did use a variation of my sphere tutorial. See? These things come in handy all the time.


Mar 24, 2009

The Fraternity, Barely Holding Together

Richard Reeves has a pretty insightful article in the New York Times today, which I think is worth a read. He mentions former VP Cheney's critical remarks about President Obama's policies, and then he places them into the context of American history, comparing them to the fallout from the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

You see, looking back at those supposedly halcyonic days, we imagine a world in which former leaders did not criticize current leaders for the rest of the world to hear. They did it behind closed doors or to the current leaders' faces instead. The mantra was 'politics stops at the water's edge'.

Now, I don't seek to excuse Mr. Cheney's remarks, since I think they were honest, but ill-advised. I must, however, view them in through the modern lens. I wish that former leaders didn't criticize current leaders. Presidents have enough on their plates to worry about--they should be seeking advice from those who came before, not covering their butts in fear of them. However, Dick Cheney is not even close to the first to break the established tradition.

Knocking current leaders has been happening for years.

Doing some research finds that some presidents are better than others at keeping their opinions to themselves in public. Truman and Eisenhower notably were subdued in knocking their successors (though poor, poor Truman lived to see Richard Nixon--whom he loathed--elected twice). Nixon and Ford kept their mouths shut, both privately advising other presidents until they passed away. The one who really broke the mold to all hell? Jimmy Carter.

Say what you will about his humanitarian work (which is certainly noble), but if there is one person who has disgraced the office of 'former president' by mouthing off to the press about everything he thinks the current White House occupant is doing wrong, it would be former president Carter. You'll notice that most of my links are about him. It's not because I particularly dislike him (he was long gone by the time I was even born), but in searching for examples of ex-presidents criticizing the current one, he showed up constantly. Some--Reagan and George H.W. Bush most notably--seemed to disappear. Bush disliked Clinton's Monica deal, but he didn't go wailing to the Times about it. They both understood that the job is difficult and that you only can understand it when you've done it and, most importantly, that you deserve to be left alone, at the very least, by those who experienced it, too. Carter still doesn't get that.

It's a shame that Mr. Cheney couldn't keep what he thought in private. What is great, however, is what George W. Bush said when prepped to criticize Obama:

“He deserves my silence. I love my country a lot more than I love politics. I think it is essential that he be helped in office.”

I hope that this is a sign that 'The Fraternity' will continue. As long as ex-presidents Carter and Clinton (who I failed to mention but is obviously guilty of it, too--the guy wouldn't avoid cameras if Hillary's life depended on it) keep their mouths shut, it may turn out okay. In the future, their successors will call on former presidents Bush and (hopefully) Obama, knowing that even if in private they are excoriated, in public, they will earn a reprieve.

UPDATE: Condi Rice is, and has always been, a class act. On Jay Leno last night, she said that:

"I know what it's like to have people chirping at you when they perhaps don't know what's going on inside. These [in the Obama administration] are quality people. I know them. They love the country. And they won't make the same decisions, perhaps, that we did. But I believe they'll do what they think is best for the country and I'll give my advice privately and keep it to myself."

Mar 23, 2009

The Geithner Plan: A Primer


So, it's finally arrived: Tim Geithner delivered a new baby plan via The Wall Street Journal, presumably because last time he tried to give a speech all hell broke loose.

Some are cautiously optimistic, while others think it is dead on arrival.

So, what is the plan? I, here, will attempt to explain, as I understand it now.

We all know that there is a credit crisis. This is caused by bad assets (mostly bad mortgages) being spread throughout the financial sector in the form of securities. The problem? No one knows exactly where they are, since when they were securitized, they were all chopped up into little bits. Because they are who-knows-where, banks aren't willing to lend, since they don't know when the next shoe will drop and another investment of theirs will collapse. The entire credit system comes to a standstill.

Enter the Geithner plan:

  1. Lend money, through TARP and the FDIC to investors (mostly hedge fund managers) for the purchase of bad (and potentially bad) assets. Lend 85% of the purchase, expect 15% to be paid by the investors. The 15% gives them a stake in the success of the enterprise.
  2. Give management of a "Public-Private Investment Program" (P-PIP?) to the hedge funders.
  3. At the same time, the Federal Reserve will join with the Treasury Department to expand the lending that they can.

OK--that seems simple enough. What the administration is hoping is that:

  • First and foremost, the balancing sheets of banks will be cleared of crappy assets (I keep trying to get people to call them 'crapssets'). This (hopefully) will make them healthy and happy again, lending as carelessly as in days of yore, like 2006.
  • The banks will make some money from the sale of the bad assets, though they will still take a significant loss. Currently, since no one is willing to buy them, the assets sit on the books at no cost (thanks to mark-to-market accounting). With the new P-PIP (what a lame acronym), there will be a separate market for bad assets, away from the banks' coffers.
  • Hedge fund managers will invest in these bad assets, paying little for them (but more than zero), hoping to make a veritable fortune when (and if) they reach maturity.
In the end, it means that banks will be cleared of bad debt, taxpayers will be recouping a portion of any bad debt that survives to maturity, and--most importantly--the credit markets will start moving again.

However, as Paul Krugman notes in his New York Times editorial (linked above), Geithner is banking (pun definitely intended) on one thing that no one can guarantee, and that is that the bad assets (crapssets) will actually end up being worth more in the end, and not simply remain as the worthless sheets of paper they are now. Christina Romer thinks that the market will determine that the bad assets are undervalued. Krugman's point is that that assumption may not be true, and if it isn't true, there will be major consequences, since no one will pay for the assets, they will stay on the banks' books, and taxpayers will be out a few more billion dollars. Additionally, the Obama administration will be out of political capital, and a second try may not be possible. He says:

"The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system -- that what we're facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved.... What an awful mess."

We shall see what happens, since a large part depends on investors. Are they willing to buy into the idea that these crapssets are worth more than everyone thinks?

Unrelated: the New York Magazine has a great article on "Obama's Brain Trust" of economic advisers.

Mar 22, 2009

AIG Is Paying Out Its Bailout Money to Investment Banks?!?!??1!?!! Uh...That Was the Point.

In all the populist fervor surrounding the AIG debacle, one argument is being shuffled around the media. AIG, it seems, paid out their share of the bailout money to (*sarcastic gasp*) Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and other investment banks! Frank Rich at the New York Times and Eliot Spitzer (reminder again: how did he leave office? Oh, yeah--in disgrace after cheating on his wife with hookers.) at Slate have both pushed this line of reasoning.

Uh, guys? Am I missing something? AIG paying out to these banks is the whole point of the bailout.

AIG, you see, is an insurance company. That means they sell insurance policies, and many of those policies were bought by major financial firms.

Finance, you see, is the business of risk management. We can see from the current debacle that financiers didn't manage their risk particularly well. Their firms are now hemorrhaging money. One reason for that is because even their safety nets have collapsed. AIG was one of the main safety nets.

When firms were chopping up subprime mortgages into little bits and selling them as securities, they were at least smart enough to try to insulate themselves from loss by buying insurance policies from providers like AIG. The problem with AIG is that it sold too many of these policies. Now, when everything is going to hell in a handbasket, the firms with the policies are calling them in. AIG ran out of money to pay. That is whey it needed a bailout.

(NB: I'm not discussing whether the bailout was a good or a bad idea, but only that the money was supposed to go to other firms.)

Imagine if suddenly, everyone with a car insurance policy got into a major wreck at the same time. State Farm, Geico, and all the other insurers would struggle to pay everyone back because there would be more demand for payment than actual cash available. Insurers like them bank on (and use actuaries for) figuring how much they should expect to be paying in any given time period. They use that to figure how much cash to have on-hand. AIG did the same thing but on a much, much larger scale. It just didn't expect the maelstrom.

So, what happens with the money from the bailout? When it is not being spent on executive bonuses, it is being paid out to the holders of policies. The government decided AIG couldn't fail--and this is something people don't tend to understand in this whole financial mess--because if it failed, the financial firms would have no safety net, and they would lose even more than they had already. Imagine you wrecked your car, but the insurance you had bought no longer applied because the insurer couldn't pay you. Suddenly, instead of being responsible for a few hundred dollars in repairs, you are liable for thousands. The government didn't want the same thing to happen in the financial world; banks couldn't pay the 'hundreds' (of billions), let alone the 'thousands', and bailing out the insurer costs way less than bailing out the policy holder.

Though, then again, we bailed the banks out, too.

Mar 21, 2009

Wow.

Wallace Stevens said that "the imagination is man's power over nature."

Sometimes, however, nature's power is difficult to imagine:

The Return of Bush v. Gore

[[Warning: Long, involved post]]

You thought it was over. You thought that Bush v. Gore had been relegated to the history books.

Well, I'm sorry folks. It looks like it may once again rear its ugly head in a far less publicized (and, for that matter, far less important) manner.

Remember way back when George W. Bush was president and those two guys, Barack Obama and--what's his name--oh, right--John McCain were running for something? You may not recall, but at the same time, some senator named Norm Coleman was trying to stop comedian-turned-politician Al Franken from taking his seat. On election day, Coleman was ahead by roughly 200 votes.

Then happened the recount (*exasperated sigh*). Franken ended the recount ahead by 225 votes. (Quick aside: does anyone else have very, very little faith anymore in our ability to accurately count votes? I mean, I guess only screwing up 400-something votes out of a few million cast isn't that bad, but still...that tiny difference can alter U.S. history, e.g. this entire post)

Now, Minnesota law says that no certificate of election shall "be issued until a court of proper jurisdiction has finally determined the contest" (Minnesota Statutes §204C.40 Subd. 2 (1999)). That means Minnesota won't have a senator until a court determines a winner. It is silent about appeals, but the state is seemingly interpreting the statute broadly to say that until the final possibility of appeal is exhausted, there won't be any issuance.

So here we are, in March, and Minnesota still has but one senator. Coleman and Franken are in a protracted legal fight. Republicans are encouraging Coleman to go to the Supreme Court (assuming, of course, that they grant certiorari). First, he'd have to go through the Minnesota Supreme Court, though.

Coleman's lawyers are indicating that they would try to use Bush v. Gore as the crux of their argument. This raises a few interesting questions:

  1. Can the Supreme Court determine, through the wording of an opinion (not from a different, overriding case), that a certain legal question, once decided, does not hold precedent, even though a majority settled that matter of law within said opinion? (This is a fancy way of asking: Does Bush v. Gore have precedential value?)
  2. Assuming precedent does exist, do the issues in the Minnesota recount amount to a similar enough violation of equal protection to make Bush v. Gore apply in this case too?
  3. Assuming that it is an equal protection violation, what is the remedy?

I'm going to start with the first question.

1.)

Many people don't realize this, but the substantive legal decision in Bush v. Gore wasn't even close--the justices decided in a 7-2 majority that the recount violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The reasoning was simply that: different precincts in Florida were counting votes with different standards, meaning that a vote considered valid in one place within the state may not be considered valid in another. This meant that different people's votes were given precedence over each other, violating equal protection. Follow me?

The political issue, decided by a 5-4 majority (and still controversial today), was that Florida didn't have time to correct its methodology before the electors were to meet on December 18, 2000. Therefore, the recount must be stopped and whoever was ahead at the time must be declared the winner. That was George W. Bush, so he effectively won the election.

Here's where it gets even more fun, though. You see, the justices in the majority were aware of the very specific and time-barred nature of this case. They say, in effect, that the case shouldn't have precedential value.

Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.

The principle of stare decisis (or, precedent) has a long and varied history, deriving from English common law (in which there is no 'constitution', per se, but only a body of previously decided legal cases that give succeeding jurists an outline from which to view disputes). However, a statement made by a justice in an opinion (obiter dicta), is not necessarily binding. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals determined that:

Stare decisis is the policy of the court to stand by precedent; the term is but an abbreviation of stare decisis et quieta non movere — "to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled." Consider the word "decisis." The word means, literally and legally, the decision. Nor is the doctrine stare dictis; it is not "to stand by or keep to what was said." Nor is the doctrine stare rationibus decidendi — "to keep to the rationes decidendi of past cases." Rather, under the doctrine of stare decisis a case is important only for what it decides — for the "what," not for the "why," and not for the "how." Insofar as precedent is concerned, stare decisis is important only for the decision, for the detailed legal consequence following a detailed set of facts. United States Internal Revenue Serv. v. Osborne (In re Osborne), 76 F.3d 306, 96-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 50,185 (9th Cir. 1996)

The Supreme Court itself, in fact, determined in Central Green Co. v. United States, 531 U.S. 425 (2001), that "[obiter] dicta may be followed if sufficiently persuasive but are not binding."

That means that the statement by the justices that Bush v. Gore not have precedential value is not necessarily binding. In fact, it is only binding if the justices of the current Court say it is. However, the substantive decision--that different ballots counted differently violate equal protection--is binding.

Given that five of the seven who concurred with the majority opinion are still on the Court (Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg) and that the two who replaced the others (Roberts and Alito replacing Rehnquist and O'Connor, respectively) will likely decide in favor of upholding the precedent of Bush v. Gore, I would guess that they would grant its use as precedent.

2.)

In Bush v. Gore, the issue was with punch ballots and 'chads' (a word that, sadly, is now inscribed into the English lexicon forever). In Minnesota, the issues are a bit more convoluted. However, some are arguing that the substantive issue (votes being counted under different standards), is the same. There are many, many inconsistencies in the Minnesota recount. Do they amount to an equal protection violation? This is the meat of the case, and it will need to be decided by the justices.

There are other substantive issues that won't be able to use Bush v. Gore, like the fact that Hennepin County (Minneapolis's votes) ended the recount with 25 more votes than voters who signed in. Clearly, in a perfect world, those 25 votes shouldn't be counted; the question, though, is whether you even can determine which 25 they are. To me, issues like that are substantive enough to at least mandate reconsideration.

3.)

This question is less substantive, though nonetheless important. Assuming that the Court determines an equal protection violation, what is the remedy?

The controversy, as I mentioned earlier, with Bush v. Gore, was that the justices were split as to whether Florida had the time to correct the equal protection violation. The majority said no--mostly because having a president is so manifestly important for the nation--while the minority said yes. In this case, I would presume that the decision would be 9-0 in favor of allowing Minnesota to have another recount with a uniform standard for counting or in favor of a second election. The presidency is time-barred and necessary; Bill Clinton was going to leave office at noon on January 20, 2001 and there had to be a replacement. A senator is one in 100, and it is clearly unneccesary to have one now. I won't go so far to guess which way the Court would go--recount or revote--but it seems highly unlikely that they would order a cessation of counting as they did in Bush v. Gore.

Conclusion

All in all, Democrats are acting like Republicans are just playing politics. Well, I agree. They are playing politics. But, you know what? This is politics. I give little empathy to Democrats, since they would do the exact same thing. Oh, wait--they did. Having a fair election is a hallmark of our system. In this election, time is not an issue as it was in 2000, meaning that we can and should take the time to be sure of a correct outcome, even if that takes many months. The winner will still have five years left of a six year term.

It's interesting to see the roles reversed here; Democrat ahead, wanting recounts to stop and litigation to be put on hold, Republican behind, wanting recounts to continue and litigation to continue. Al Gore won the merits of Bush v. Gore, but he lost the presidency because of the time issue. Wouldn't it be just a shiv in the side of Democrats if the case they loathe the most came back and beat them again?

Mar 17, 2009

Happy St. Patty's Day!

Slate has an article about St. Patrick and the historicity (and veracity) of the claims made about him. Sure enough, like most early-church saints, we don't know too much about him, though we have many, many legends.

Those legends have become an intergral part of Irish culture. Below, for your viewing enjoyment, is one clip from the Oscar-nominated "Give Up Yer Aul Sins"--the story of St. Patrick as told by a young Irish schoolgirl:

Mar 15, 2009

New, Kind of Random, Pencil Test

This pencil test has nothing to do with the last post about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution; the fact they've come on the same day is entirely coincidental.

However, I have been for some time working on a comic strip/animation idea about a farm which has a bunch of communist pigs (a la Animal Farm). Here's a talking test for the Lenin Pig using none other than a clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The Epilogue, Confirmed


4,300,000,000,000:1

That is the chance of the remains of two children found in 2007 in a mass grave in Russia being from a random family and not Tsarevich Alexei and his sister (either Maria or Anastasia).

So, with all but total certainty, the sad chapter of the Russian Revolution can be closed. The Tsar and his entire family were, on the orders of Vladimir Lenin, brutally murdered, their bodies burned in acid and disposed of in the woods outside of Yekaterinburg.

Mar 14, 2009

Why Political Rhetoric is Awesome, Part I: The Greeks

"Rhetoric" as a subject first came into existence in, go figure, Ancient Greece. The Sophists sought to perfect their use of language to convince others of their opinions, calling themselves ῥήτωρες ('rhetores', public speakers). Aristotle wrote his Art of Rhetoric, in which he gave three different types of rhetorical proof: ethos, pathos, and logos.

  • Ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker--the greater the credibility, the more people are willing to believe.
  • Pathos refers to the emotional tools that change the audience's opinions--personal stories, anecdotes, or aggrandizement.
  • Logos refers to (you may guess) logic--persuasion through reason.

There are also three genres of public rhetoric: forensic, epideictic, and deliberative.

  • Forensic refers to using facts to discover the truth or falsehood of past events.
  • Epideictic refers to celebration, praise, blame, and other dealings with current events.
  • Deliberative refers to the prudence of choosing certain courses; future events.

Aristotle's writings were the primary source for the teaching and understanding of rhetoric for hundreds of years, up until the Renaissance.

We can see the uses of these types and genres within one of the earliest and most famous pieces of civic rhetoric: Pericles' Funeral Oration. The speech was given at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, in memory of those who had died in the conflict.

In the Perooemium (introduction), Pericles, through epideictic use, praises the custom of honoring the dead. In an interesting twist, he establishes his own credibility through humbling himself: "the reputation of many [sh]ould not [be] imperiled on the eloquence or want of eloquence of one, and their virtues believed or not as he spoke well or ill." This automatically accomplishes the point of the entire speech by honoring the dead above all, especially above himself, their leader.

Pericles then spends most of the body of the speech explaining the political history of Athens, logically (inductively, in fact) tracing the path of a free society to power through virtue. Athens opens its doors wide to foreigners, but it doesn't dilute the culture. They also, he notes, allow anyone to do whatever he wants in private but are sure to remain vigilant to maintain public decorum. "While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws."

Here is where he makes the rhetorical connection. In a bit of pathos (exaggeration and emotional pull) and logos (seeking to make a deduction), Pericles shows that the war dead are but an outward manifestation of Athens itself. "[F]or the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her...none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk... Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor."

Now, he deliberates. The future, he reminds the gathered Athenians, is for them: "So died these men as becomes Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier outcome." It reminds any American student of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government : of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Next: The Romans--Caesars, Catos, and Cicero


Why Political Rhetoric is Awesome, Intro

Since man crawled out of the cave (and probably before), he was organizing himself into some primitive form of society. Early on, surely those who could communicate the most effectively (whether through brute strength and body language or through a well-ordered and inspiring series of grunts) found their way to the top.

Political rhetoric has been the lifeblood of electoral systems for millennia. I think it's fascinating. You'd think that we, by this point, would have managed every permutation of words possible. However, that's not the case.

I'm going to write some posts about political rhetoric, including some of (what I believe are) the best examples. It will be skewed heavily American, since that's what I know, and since--let's face it--whatever presidents have said in the past hundred years has meant something to the world.

In The West Wing, Sam Seaborn, the Deputy Communications Director says that "[o]ratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place. We should be talking about not being satisfied with past solutions. We should be talking about a permanent revolution." I agree. So, on with the show.

Mar 13, 2009

CNN Tries to Bully Mark Sanford Into Accepting Stimulus Money

It is politicking on his part, certainly, but Governor Mark Sanford is acting responsibly. He was elected by the people of South Carolina to act prudently and to spend their money wisely. His entire career has been spent in an effort to reign in ridiculous spending of legislatures.

Now, CNN is trying to use the story of one decrepit school to give him grief about refusing South Carolina's share of the $787 billion 'stimulus'.


Sanford responds correctly: "You know, you could pass a bill that spends money that we actually have, specifically to fix up schools."

The fact is, the state of TySheoma Bethea's school is horrendous. No one argues about that. The fact also is that the South Carolina legislature has done nothing to fix it for years. Now, the President of the United States has chosen to spend almost $1,000,000,000,000 of money that the U.S. doesn't have for a P.R. stunt. Mark Sanford believes in delayed gratification: if you can't pay for it, don't buy it. I'd personally like to see a lot more money go to education, but I don't want to see it happen if we don't have the money.

Last time I checked, one of the big reasons that we got into this economic mess was because too many people got credit too easily and spent on things that they couldn't afford. Now the United States has decided to fix that problem by doing the exact same thing on a more massive scale.

When you don't have the money, you shouldn't spend the money you don't have. It's as simple as that. We elect politicians with the hope that they will make the tough decisions. Governor Sanford has; he wants the federal government to act responsibly. President Obama has not; he wants to win the next election by paying off everyone that he can. It's shameful.

But Josh, you say, we can sell debt to China to fund this. Yeah, but what happens when China decides it's no longer worth it? You should always anticipate the worst and act accordingly--especially when you've been given the trust of the people.

I hope that the U.S. government or the legislature of South Carolina will alter their priorities to fund TySheoma's school's renovation with money that they have. Certainly they can find a few thousand dollars in cuts. I doubt they'll do that, since it's a lot easier to whine about how the responsible politician doesn't have a big enough heart, all the while stealing from the future to earn political capital now.

Will Big Bird Soon Be in the Unemployment Office?

I was disheartened to read that the Sesame Workshop will be laying off 20% of its workforce. Apparently, in tough economic times, even fuzzy inner-city monsters can't quite handle the strain.

Maybe some of them can find a job at Wal-Mart; especially the multi-lingual ones.

Mar 10, 2009

Does This Look Like Richard Nixon?


Earlier today, I was on an exceedingly boring conference call, and, as per my convention, I began doodling. I've been reading Anna Karenina, and I just finished the part where Anna and Vronsky go to Italy and visit a Russian artist there. The artist has just completed a work of Pilate and Christ. I thought, "Why don't I try to draw what I imagine that painting to look like?" The result? You decide. In my opinion, Pilate appears to be a zombie-looking Richard Nixon. I drew it on the fly, with nothing to use as a model. I really hope I don't have our 37th President on my mind...

Any thoughts?

In Which I Struggle to Understand Why Daniel Gross Is So Stupid

I should apply for a job as the economics writer at Slate magazine, given that their two biggest contributors are Eliot Spitzer, disgraced hooker-loving former governor of New York, and Daniel Gross, Harvard history MA holder with no basis for writing on economics. Eliot Spitzer's ideas sometimes have some merit. Daniel Gross's are simply idiotic.

Today, he writes a column about how there is a 'war on the rich', but that it's actually a civil war between rich people. His logic follows thusly:

  1. Rich people are investors.
  2. Investors have taken a hammering because of this economy.
  3. Therefore, rich people are battling and destroying each other.

Certainly, a large part of this financial calamity was the fault of unscrupulous bankers packaging toxic mortgages, chopping them up, and selling them as securities (when, in fact, they weren't very secure). That would mean that some rich people are cumulatively responsible for some of the issues we face. How that can be construed to mean that all rich people are ripping each others' assets to shreds in maniacal glee makes no sense in the least. What makes even less sense is how he tries to use that 'fact' to justify Obama's desire to raise the marginal tax rates of higher-income earners, lower deductions on charitable giving, and remove the ability for American corporations to remain untaxed on overseas holdings.

Whether or not you like the fact that rich people are rich (which certainly doesn't affect you; the guy in Newport, RI owning a mansion and a yacht doesn't mean a thing to anyone else), what they do with their money can work to the benefit of society as a whole. The fact is, richer people invest more. Investing more means that companies can grow more. Growth means jobs--jobs for the not-rich. Investing also fosters innovation. When you have money, you can develop new technologies and products. When the government takes more of those dollars, due to bureaucratic costs, it automatically becomes less efficient. One dollar transferred from direct-injection in the private economy to eventual-injection by the public economy is worth less by the end because the costs of labor and time and so much more.

What I'm saying is this: the notion of class warfare is outdated and ridiculous. There is not some coherent group of 'the rich' whose purpose in life is to take, take, take from everyone else. Economies grow and expand with investment. The pie gets bigger. When it grows, it grows for everyone, even without governmentally-approved redistribution. Those with more, in the past decades, have gotten even more at a greater rate, creating a larger wage gap between 'rich' and 'middle class'. Those in the middle, however, still have more as well. Arguments against 'the rich' are fundamentally tied up in an old-fashioned, European-style, class-envy framework, based on nothing more than jealousy of those who don't have as much and presume, irresponsibly, that those with more only gained it through illicit and nefarious means. That is simply wrong. And Daniel Gross writes with the logic of a kindergartener.

Mar 9, 2009

Even the Hippies in Boulder Think This is Weird


FROZEN DEAD GUY DAYS

Yes, you read correctly. Nederland, Colorado, host of the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days just finished its seventh year of celebrating, well, a frozen dead guy

The year is 1989. The place is Nederland, Colorado. Trygve Bauge decides it is a good idea to bring the corpse of his recently deceased grandfather, Bredo Morstøl, to America. He puts it in dry ice to preserve it. Bredo was transferred to a cryogenic facility, where he resided until 1993. However, when Trygve was deported from the United States for overstaying his visa, his mother, Aud, continued keeping her father's body frozen in dry ice in a shack behind her unfinished house. Eventually, Aud was evicted from her home because it had no electricity or plumbing, which was in violation of city ordinance. She was afraid, of course, that upon eviction, she would no longer be able to keep her father's body frozen. Word spread, and created a 'sensation'. The city passed an ordinance on the keeping of dead bodies, though because of public outcry, they made a special provision allowing Bredo to continue to be held in dry ice. In 2002, some brillian tpeople decided to turn the weird story into a celebration, and it has grown in popularity since.

The actual celebration includes a parade, a costume ball (with prizes awarded to the best frozen dead guy and frozen dead girl costumes), a coffin-carrying race (six pallbearers per team), a freezing water plunge, and a dead fish throwing contest (see the entire schedule here). The party has become a cult, bringing people from far and wide, and inciting new and exciting activities (some events that are held, like the fish throwing, are not official).

It's held every second full weekend in March, so just ended this past Sunday. I may try to check it out next year. You should, too.

Mar 6, 2009

I'm In Love With PMQ's

What? You've never heard of it? What? You have no idea who these two fine chaps in the above picture are? Well...let me enlighten you, my fellow American. I, too, didn't know who they were not long ago. Now I do, and I must say, I am in love with the United Kingdom's Prime Minister's Questions.

To the left is Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister and member of the Labour Party (a Labourite). To the right is David Cameron, the Opposition Leader and member of the Conservative Party (a Tory). Each Wednesday, they do battle in the chamber of the House of Commons in London for thirty minutes, and it is awesome.

The tradition first began at regular intervals in the 1950's, though before that, the Prime Minister would take questions off and on. Today, it works like this:

  1. Before PMQ's begin, backbenchers with questions submit them to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
  2. The Speaker chooses the names of those who want to ask a question randomly, separated by party, and keeps that list with him.
  3. The first question is traditionally given to someone who will simply ask "Number One, Mr. Speaker," which references the typical first question: "What has the Prime Minister been doing?"
  4. The PM responds, usually, with something on the order of "This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today." Now is when the fun begins.
  5. The first actual question is given to the Leader of the Opposition (currently, David Cameron). He will ask a series of questions and follow-ups, to which the PM must respond on the fly.
  6. The minority leader in the opposition (currently Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, or Lib Dems) will ask a few questions and follow-ups.
  7. The Speaker calls on the backbenchers from his list, and they will ask their questions. He alternates by party. If a Member of Parliament (MP) who is not on the list wants to ask a question (usually, a follow-up that is germane to the subject at hand), (s)he will stand up as the PM begins his answer to the previous question and will try to catch the Speaker's eye. If he so chooses, the Speaker will call on that MP next.
  8. The gibing goes on for thirty minutes, when the Prime Minister basically says "Thank you" and leaves.

The big table in the center of the commons has two ornate boxes, known as the 'Dispatch Boxes' (see right). This is where the PM and the Opposition stand and face off. To the right, you can see two holders for the ceremonial mace. It is brought in by the Serjeant-at-Arms when the House is in session and symbolizes the power of the House as the representative body of the people and of the Sovereign as head of state. There are two lines drawn parallel to the benches, supposedly set two sword-lengths apart. Members are not supposed to cross the lines (and will be ridiculed by the other MP's if they do), out of a tradition that debating members should stand far enough apart that they cannot duel. Sometimes, listening to PMQ's, you're convinced that they're about to wring each others' necks.

The best part about PMQ's, from an entertainment standpoint, is the way that you see the raw disagreement pouring forth. Unlike the U.S., where our members of Congress snipe at each other through newspapers and give speeches to empty chambers, the House of Commons seems engaged in the day-to-day operations of Britain. This isn't just fun to watch, but it's important as well. Real debate is vital for a democracy to flourish. We don't get that very often in America, since there is a systemic flaw: members rarely, if ever, need to interact with each other in public. We then feel like everything is happening behind closed doors (which it is, in committee meetings), breeding resentment against the politicians.

John McCain said on the trail last year that he'd institute a "President's Question Time" similar to the Prime Minister's. I'd love to see something like that happen, though I worry that it may pull something from the aura of the Presidency. Unlike the UK, where the State is represented by the officially non-partisan Sovereign, who is 'above politics', our head of State is intimately involved in the process. There remains, however, a majesty to the Office of the Presidency. We are protective of the President in a way that we aren't of Congress. We like the pomp of state dinners and of the State of the Union and of Air Force One and the White House. Perhaps it would be best to see a representative of the President go at it with the Opposition. Then the President would be called a wuss, though, and would be forced to show up in person to defend himself and would be lowered into the fray. Maybe it's a lose-lose with our system.

In the meantime, I will continue my infatuation with the Brits' PMQ's.

Vive le vin!

Oh, wine, that all-Amer...uh...all-French drink: delicious, complex, and too-often-expensive. For thousands of years it has been drunk across the world. Early on, it was a way to protect oneself from all the critters infecting water supplies. Now, it exists for pleasure.

Mike Steinberger, then, raises an excellent question: why do Americans care so much about justifying why we drink wine with its health benefits? Can't we just say that it tastes good and be done?

Wine is delicious. When I was younger, my parents had some relatives over, and they busted out a bottle of Merlot. As with anytime my parents pulled out alcohol (which wasn't that often), I asked for a sip. A sip I received. And, as much as I would like to say that I fell in love with the stuff then and there, it would be a lie. I hated it. It was dry and gross and inspired me to spit it out. I asked my mom if all wine was like that. She said yes, and I purged myself of all desire for the stuff.

Flash forward to college. I had but recently turned 21, and I was attending a dinner at the Quad Club at the University of Chicago, in honor of Harvey Mansfield and his book Manliness (I know, right?). The Quad Club is pretty swank, and, naturally, there was but one choice of beverage besides water: wine. My choice was white or red, and, remembering my mishap with Merlot, I chose the white. It was a good--very good, in fact--Chardonnay. I enjoyed it, but since our dinner was pork, I needed to try the red. For the life of me, I don't remember what it was (looking back, though, I'd guess a Zinfandel, since it was not particularly dry), but it was excellent. I spent the dinner talking with a professor of mine and listening to the Committee on Social Thought debate...and drinking wine. I have no idea what the conversation was about; I remember wanting to know more about wine.

I've since grown more and more to enjoy its subtleties. I am far from a connoisseur, due to both money reasons and the inability to justify becoming a sommelier when there are so many other worthy and less hedonistic things to spend my time on. However, I am an evangelist for wine. It tastes delicious (usually), can sometimes give you a bang for the buck, and--I'm loath to forget--has some positive health effects. So, people of the world, go, be merry. Remember the words of St. Paul and "do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery," but do enjoy it in moderation, for it is very good.

Mar 5, 2009

Postcards: Uniquely American Art

Slate has a neat slideshow/article about postcards. I've never thought about it, but postcards are a surprisingly unique artform. Sure, they are mass-produced. Sure, they tend to be boring views of streets or uninteresting pictures of towns and events. However, postcards have that added layer--they aren't only a boring picture; they're also personalized letters. On the town square in Crown Point, there are many shops that sell old postcards. Most already have writing on them, which is the best part. You can see what people had to say a century ago. My family has one postcard from my great-grandfather when he was away from home. It simply says that he'll be catching an evening train back to Indiana. There are postcards between my parents and friends, however, that betray a deep longing to see or hear from each other. Postcards, taken by themselves, are only notorious for their blandness. Add what people have contributed to them, however, and you gain a remarkably interesting and complex artform.

Mar 3, 2009

Thank Heavens

The Democratic House leadership has pulled the patently unconstitutional DC Voting Rights bill from its calendar. Thank goodness.

Weirdly enough, the reason appears to be that the NRA was threatening the Blue Dog caucus that it would use the vote in its calculations of which members of Congress were pro- or anti-gun. That scared enough of them away from voting for it.

It's about time the Blue Dogs got a spine. What's funny, however, is that the issue that gave them said spine was not anything to do with 'fiscal responsibility' (their supposed raison d'etre, though for the massive hypocrisy of most of the coalition, look under "Stimulus Bill of 2009, The"). Guns and the gun lobby apparently still have massive influence--even in this Democrat-dominated government. Go figure.