Saturday, October 20, 2007

Blues Break: Allen Ginsberg - "Father Death Blues"

From an interview with Ginsberg on the BBC's Face to Face (date unknown, but probably not long before his death in 1997) . The poem, which is Part IV of "Never Grow Old," appears in Plutonian Ode: Poems 1977-1980. Here's the full text:
"Father Death Blues"
Hey Father Death, I'm flying home
Hey poor man, you're all alone
Hey old daddy, I know where I'm going

Father Death, Don't cry any more
Mama's there, underneath the floor
Brother Death, please mind the store

Old Aunty Death Don't hide your bones
Old Uncle Death I hear your groans
O Sister Death how sweet your moans

O Children Deaths go breathe your breaths
Sobbing breasts'll ease your Deaths
Pain is gone, tears take the rest

Genius Death your art is done
Lover Death your body's gone
Father Death I'm coming home

Guru Death your words are true
Teacher Death I do thank you
For inspiring me to sing this Blues

Buddha Death, I wake with you
Dharma Death, your mind is new
Sangha Death, we'll work it through

Suffering is what was born
Ignorance made me forlorn
Tearful truths I cannot scorn

Father Breath once more farewell
Birth you gave was no thing ill
My heart is still, as time will tell.

(Over Lake Michigan)
In loving memory of Elliott Smith
Friend - Songwriter - Musician
(August 6, 1969 - October 21, 2003)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Graduating from the Electoral College

Republican efforts to "reform" how California casts its votes in the Electoral College have quietly, and deservedly, collapsedfor now. A group called "Californians for Equal Representation" (CFE), led by a Republican lawyer and supported by Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, failed to collect the 434,00 signatures they needed to place it on the ballot. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Presidential Election Reform Act
...would have changed the state's winner-take-all means of awarding Electoral College votes to a proportional system that would have awarded 53 of the state's 55 electoral votes - one by one - to the popular vote winner of each of the state's 53 congressional districts. The other two electoral votes would have gone to the statewide popular vote winner.
The Electoral College may be an
antiquated and antidemocratic institution, and its abolition is long overdue, but the CFE's campaign was a brazen attempt to weaken Democrats' hold on the largest bloc of electoral votes in the country. If passed, it might've given Republicans 20 electoral votes (about equal to Ohio or Pennsylvania) that otherwise would've gone to Democrats.

Not surprisingly, the "Equal Representation" effort focused only on California, ignoring the electoral votes of Texas
with its 34 Republican votesand all other states.

The need for serious reform seems clear enough. For example, a Wyoming voter has about four times the clout in the Electoral College as voters in the largest states. As our smallest state in population, Wyoming has one vote for every 171,668 residents, compared to one vote per
662,865 Californians or 691,405 Texans. (My own state, Oregon, casts one vote per 528,680 residents—giving each of us just 1/3 the impact of a Wyoming voter.)

Despite these disparities, outright abolition of the Electoral College, through a constitutional amendment, simply ain't gonna happen. The legislatures of the fourteen smallest states could easily block, forever, an amendment that would end a system that gives them a disproportionate influence on presidential elections.

An intriguing alternative, of uncertain constitutionality, has been advanced by
two law professors (and brothers), Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram Amar. Under the Amar Plan for an interstate agreement, participating states would cast all their electoral votes for the candidate who won the national popular vote. This National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would go into effect when enough states had accepted it to determine the result of the election. Once the members of the compact could command 270 votes, in other words, they could swing the election to the winner of the national popular vote no matter how the other states cast their electoral votes.

National Popular Vote has begun a campaign that is sure to encounter resistance from smaller states and those who fear the domination of national politics by the eleven largest states, who between them could control the 270 votes needed to elect a president.

How would courts rule on the constitutionality of the Compact, if it is ever adopted? States can determine their own methodologies for casting electoral votes, and there's no constitutional provision that specifically conflicts with the Compact. In fact, the Constitution provides that
"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors..." [1]

Republicans will oppose the Compact, for obvious reasons.
If it had been in place in 2000, Al Gore's narrow victory (by half a million votes) in the popular would've changed the result. Instead, he lost in the Supreme Court by one voteand by 271 votes to 266 in the Electoral College.


[1] Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already allow for split votes in the Electoral College.

GRAPHIC: 2000 election results in the Electoral College, with each square representing one vote (click for larger version).

Friday, October 12, 2007

Keeping the faith

Back to a topic from couple weeks ago...

During the White House Press Correspondents' dinner in 2006, Stephen Colbert famously described George Bush, who was seated nearby, as follows:
"The greatest thing about this man is that he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will."
This concise description of Bush's dogmatism conveys something basic (and disturbing) about him. Nothing has changed, at least outwardly, in the last year. George Bush seems more convinced than ever that he will be vindicated by history, or at least that no one will be able to form conclusive judgments about his administration during his lifetime.

But if history finally condemns him, as seems inevitable, Bush has staked out an unchallengeable backup position: god speaks through him, so he is forever immune from the judgments of mere mortals [also here].

Bush's rigid faith in his United Methodist god places him beyond doubt and critical reflection on his own limitations, which are painfully obvious by now to most of the world's population. In a 2004 article for the New York Times Magazine that included an interview with a prominent old-school Republican, Ron Suskind described Bush in term that are just as telling today as they were three years ago:
''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . . ''

This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''
For Bush, faith and dogmatism provide a convenient rationale for avoiding accountability for the horrific errors of judgment that have caused massive suffering and taken countless lives. As the philosopher David Hume wrote (in a 1751 letter to a friend):
The worst speculative Sceptic ever I knew, was a much better Man than the best superstitious Devotee & Bigot.
Or, as Mark Twain wrote in Following the Equator ("Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar"):
There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
Is Bush truly immune from doubt? Perhaps he is beyond conscious doubt, but he is in such constant conflict with the "reality-based community" that he must, on some level, have at least a vague sense of uncertainty. [1] But he has learned to overcompensate for it with arrogance and a tendency to demean those around him. As Pudd'nhead Wilson wisely observed:
When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet deep down in his private heart no man much respects himself.

[1] As the end of Bush's term nears (though to many it seems impossibly distant), the attempts to psychoanalyze Bush seem to be multiplying. For example, one commentator argues in WaPo:
But to me, it sounds like Bush is looking not for answers -- but for rationalizations for his behavior. There is no sign of genuine introspection, no sign of acknowledgment of mistakes, no sign of any significant change of course. In a pattern familiar to anyone who has ever had a drinking problem, Bush appears to be engaged in a furious effort to persuade onlookers that he's fine -- even if he isn't.

In fact, one could even argue that Bush's search for "answers" from a parade of easily cowed visitors allows him to avoid a hard look at the one place he is most likely to find an explanation for his predicament: Within himself.

GRAPHIC: Portrait of Mark Twain (1890) by James Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917). (Wikimedia)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The new dynastic politics

Following allegations of fraud during the last two national elections, deeper questions have been raised about whether the U.S. can still pretend to be a functioning "democracy." Some conservatives have long insisted that the U.S. is a "republic, not a democracy." Now there are reasons to question whether the U.S. can even claim to be a "republic."

If Hillary Clinton is elected president next year and serves two full terms, someone named Clinton or Bush will have held national office (as POTUS or VPOTUS) for 37 consecutive years. Conveniently enough, Chelsea Clinton will turn 35 and become eligible in 2015, two years before her mother would leave office.

This isn't unprecedented in U.S. history. Twice before, two members of the same family have assumed the presidency: John Adams (father) and John Quincy Adams (son), Teddy Roosevelt and (fifth cousin) Franklin Roosevelt.

Politics in the U.S. has been dominated by a de facto landed and propertied aristocracy that has been in place since its founding, though membership in that group has tended to be fluid and not necessarily fixed by ancestry. But the two competing dynasties of the last fifteen years are caught in an electoral dynamic that's unique in U.S. history.

After eight years of contrived "scandals" involving Bill Clinton, Dubya became the nostalgic choice of a significant percentage of voters who yearned for qualities that his father, at least in their fantasies, represented: the
integrity, stability and moral righteousness of the Reagan/Bush years. Dubya's appeal was undoubtedly enhanced by his fraudulent claim that he was a "compassionate conservative," implying that he would supply a needed corrective to the harsh economic and social policies of the 80's.

After the devastating rejection of the elder Bush in the 1992 election, it's hard to imagine that anyone would be "nostalgic" enough to vote for a proven mediocrity from the same family
the first president in U.S. history who has ever been convicted of a crime. Dubya's appeal based on his ancestry was more subliminal than overt, but it may have had an effect by keeping him close enough in the vote count that he could steal the election in Florida.

After six and a half disastrous years, are we now witnessing the opposite dynamic
a kind of "Clinton nostalgia" that could help to propel Hillary into the White House? After all, she seems to offer the best of the Clinton legacy without the personal, ah, foibles that Bill brought to the office.

To many voters, at least by contrast with the Bush debacle, the Clinton era was a time of peace, prosperity, optimism and stability. The U.S. had emerged from the Cold War triumphant, at least in the popular imagination, and unchallenged. For all his obvious personal failings, Clinton was perceived as brilliant, competent and in control of his administration. As an added bonus, he speaks in complete and coherent sentences, a quality that radically distinguishes him from both his predecessor and successor. Hillary may be a less compelling speaker and presence, but she shares most of Bill's strengths and few of his vulnerabilities. A few political weaknesses are unique to her, primarily the high negatives that come from years of vicious personal attacks by the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that she has accurately described.

So are voters, after a catastrophic attempt to return to the perceived golden years of the Reagan/Bush administration, yearning to somehow replicate the 90's? Clearly we could, and did, do a lot worse.

The Bush brand has become so devalued, of course, that no one with that name is ever likely to get elected again. If daughter Jenna Bush thinks she can promote a political career by simply rebranding herself with her new husband's last name, I suspect she's sadly mistaken. And she, like her sister, also shares her father's reputation as a party animal.

If Seymour Hirsh is correct about the Bush/Cheney plan to launch a limited war against Iran, Republicans could be faced with an electoral fiasco in 2008 that could rival 1964. The end of the Bush dynasty could be the beginning of another.


George Bush has as strong a claim to membership in the hereditary U.S. elite as any president.
The Bush family has been described as "the most successful political dynasty in American history" [a claim which, if true, suggests that dynasties haven't served us very well]. In fact, Dubya is a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth II. By contrast, Bill Clinton's background seems downright lumpen. Hillary's father worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania before he moved to Illinois and began a successful career in the textile supply industry. The Clintons' claims to membership in the national aristocracy are founded on their educations (Yale and Wellesley) and political success rather than an accident of birth.

Now isn't the time to attempt an analysis of whether the U.S. can best be described as a democracy, republic, oligarchy, plutocracy or kleptocracy.

PHOTO: Samuel Prescott Bush, patriarch of the family and great-grandfather of George W. Bush. (Wikimedia)

Blues Break: Dirty Mac - "Yer Blues"

John Lennon is joined by Keith Richards (bass), Eric Clapton (lead guitar) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) in a 1968 (or maybe 1969) performance of this song from the White Album. (YouTube has a 4-screen version online.)