Recently in politics Category

I'm only slowly re-looping into political discussions, following my summer backlash against all social media (inc telephone and television), but David Weinberger has a succinct account of McCain's technology policy that's worth reading if you're interested in that kind of thing.

Short story even shorter: "the Internet to McCain is a set of tubes for delivering content to an awaiting public."

As if there was any doubt about it, I should say that, yes, it would please me greatly to have a President with some glimmer of understanding about these issues.


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Some miscellaneous reflections upon the occasion of the Iowa Caucuses, during which I had the misfortune of being in Iowa:

It is INSANE to me that we would continue to employ what is basically a 19th century system for choosing our leaders in this the 21st century. Iowa and New Hampshire have, as many many many have pointed out, an incredibly disproportionate effect on the process, and it is a process that is highly susceptible, as a result, to media manipulation.

Nowhere was this more clear to me than at ground zero, where I stopped answering the phone after my second or third day in town. Got to the point where I stopped answering the door as well. Got to the point where I would multiple television shows at once, so I could switch channels when the 5 minute spin breaks interrupted my viewing. There was a tremendous amount of money being thrown at the Iowa voters, and it put me in mind of what Baudrillard said a long time ago about information devouring communication. It was pure white noise after a while.

And yet, it should be said that Iowans take the process about as seriously as anyone could in those circumstances. We/they take an odd sort of pride in their caucus, and in their willingness to talk to anyone who's willing to talk to them. They don't take the national spin (Clinton is unstoppable, e.g.) as gospel, and most of the folks I saw and talked to made every effort to meet and/or see as many candidates as they could. They studied the issues, made their decisions, and as best as I could tell (having not caucused myself), did the best that they could. They turned out in record numbers on a bitterly cold night, showed up in uncomfortable spaces (school gyms, town halls, living rooms, etc.), and participated.

Sure, the bigger states are more important, but Iowa and New Hampshire, for their flaws, are manageable for candidates who don't have all the money of the frontrunners. And until there's a system which doesn't exert a subtle class pressure on the candidates, it could be worse.

And yet, the night before the Caucus, one of our local stations spent 2-3 minutes of the first 10 of its broadcast (you know, the actual "news" part) detailing the travels and thoughts of an area college junior who decided to bring a Mr. Potato-Head with him to meet the candidates, and had each one pose with it for a picture. The only one who refused? Joe Biden.

(That sound you hear is Biden earning my respect.)

The flip side of the pride and gravitas with which many Iowans approach the process is the Potato-Head of it all--the countless number of kooks and jackasses who ask these men and women to humiliate themselves in front of their Iowa audiences for a handful of votes. We don't see much of this in the coverage, because the media is too busy trying to earn their own keep by offering up grave pronouncements and exaggerations. (I refer you to Chris Matthews' WTF Lawrence of Arabia analogy. Nuff said.) They're far too busy trying to influence the process to be able to accurately describe it, unfortunately.

So those are my reflections. I didn't actually attend the Caucus, since I'm registered in NY. But it is all but impossible to be in Iowa during Caucus season and not to be bombarded by the spam that the process generates.

That is all.

For example, trending

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I've seen this link crop up in several places over the last week or two, but you never know who's seen it or not. So...

Chirag Mehta's Presidential tagclouds

Chirag Mehta has generated tagclouds for Presidential documents/speeches (State of the Union Addresses and others), going back to 1776, and offered them for your perusal. (Usability note: I found it a lot easier to use the arrow keys to move the slider back and forth one at a time, but didn't figure out that I could use them until the fourth time I visited the site...)

It's an incredibly cool project, and what we're doing over at the CCCOA is obviously related, although our output is structured in different ways. Although we've got other things occupying our front burners at the moment, this site has definitely got me thinking about how we might build on our work there. More broadly, and perhaps relevantly, it's also got me thinking about how visualizations of trends in language usage might be folded in to some of the work we do in our field.

That's all.

Academies & Publics

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One of the very best thing for me about reading blogs, particularly those from separate contexts, is what Frans Johansson calls the Medici Effect (Amazon), the sometimes productive insights that come when you bang together ideas from different domains. It's also what Greg Ulmer calls conduction. But anyways, I was tidying up Bloglines this morning, and each of the following entries struck me for longer than usual. They're speaking to different issues, but in obvious ways, they started speaking to each other in my head:

First, Ray Cha's discussion of "academics in the role of public intellectual" at if:book. Cha looks at the recent CHE collection of high-profile academic bloggers commenting on the Juan Cole situation, and among other things, writes

I do not mean to suggest that every professor needs to blog. However, on the whole, university presidents and department heads needs to acknowledge that they do have an obligation to make their scholarship accessible to the public. Scholarship for its own sake or its own isolated community has little or no social value.

And then, over at Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke picks up a thread from some discussion of the Ward Churchill controversy, in a post called "Core Truths":

I think it’s worth trying to figure out how intellectuals can operate in multiple arenas or discourses. [snip, with a big However in between these two excerpts]

Quite aside from the problem of assuming the political virtue of doing so, I think it’s anything but clear that legitimating a distinctly non-scholarly epistemology inside academic discourse empowers those that hold to that epistemology: more likely all it does is slightly change the configuration of turf wars for academic resources within universities.

Often, when my wires are crossed as they were by these two entries, I'll try and sort through my reactions to come up with something more univocal. No such luck today, I fear. There are points I agree with in each, but also, as I think these excerpts demonstrate, a fundamental disagreement when taken together. You might say that the two entries, as well as the conversations that they are responding to, are unified by a concern for epistemologial spaces that differ or depart from the space traditionally demarcated (and thus legitimated) by the institutions of discipline and university.

Now, if I haven't confused these posts enough, I can easily imagine careful arguments to be made in opposition to each as well. And rather than try and sort through them here, I'll leave you to assemble your own conversational knot. Neither represents a discussion that a single blog entry is likely to conclude to anyone's satisfaction.

That is all.

The Rhetoric of Rollback

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I don't have a great deal to say about this, but lately, I've been somewhat fascinated by the resignation of Scott McClellan. In particular, I'd like to recommend to you Jay Rosen's analysis of McClellan, whom Rosen sees as a crucial figure in what he calls the "Rollback" of media privileges at the current White House. Let me quote at length (although there's plenty more where this came from):

McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?

You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are so large to start with—then to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw presidential power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.”) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press!

What's fascinating to me about this is how the WH has (successfully) undermined something that many of us in rhet/comp simply take on faith--the value of effective communication. Of course, one could argue that McClellan was wildly successful and effective in his (non)communication. But there's something deeply cynical about this, and directly at odds with the optimism necessary to teach writing (or speaking, for that matter). We have to believe that the skills and talents necessary to communicate well will ultimately carry their own rewards. Goodness knows, it's difficult enough to teach what is perceived as a contentless course without having that fundamental optimism thrown into question.

And I don't mean to suggest that we should all now experience existential crises because of one demonstrable moron, regardless of how centrally placed McClellan happened to be. The larger pattern includes a lot more people who were hired by the current WH not because they were in any way qualified but because they assented. McClellan's just one of many.

At the same time, though, when I think what a blow this administration has dealt to the idea of reasoned discourse, the idea that we can and should communicate with one another, and that we should make a good faith effort to persuade and to be persuaded--when I think of that blow, it makes me a little sad. I know that, as ideals go, this one is pretty impossible, but it's one of the ideals that underlies our society far more than I think we sometimes realize. As we teach our students to write themselves and the world, we do so with an ethic that is undercut both by the idea that "McClellan was there to make executive power more illegible" and by the fact that no one really ever called the WH on it, not the press, not those of us interested in rhetoric, not the general public.

Anyways. Anyone interested in contemporary rhetoric and particularly political rhetoric should zip over and bookmark Rosen's column.

That is all.

Dueling Posters

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As you might expect, the news that Ann Coulter will be visiting campus has stirred the hearts and minds of at least a couple of people here at SU. I submit for your perusal just two of the posters appearing on the first-floor bulletin board. I leave it to you to determine their divergent origins...

Poster 1 (pdf)
Poster 2 (pdf)

I smell Recount!

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November 8 will go down in history as one of the days prompting me to change my 100 things (apparently its obsolete design hasn't been enough to light a fire under my ass): as of November 8, my father is no longer the Mayor of Davenport, IA. Technically, I think his term lasts until the turn of the year when the new mayor is sworn in, but that's mostly a guess on my part.

The new mayor, duly elected and all, is Ed Winborn, one of whose sons I used to play softball with, and one of whose daughters I used to have a crush on. I also used to live a block or two up the hill from him, back in the day. It'd be a more exciting "Brush with Fame" story if he weren't taking over for a direct relative...

But that's not the whole story. Rather than seeking a 3rd term as mayor, my dad ran for City Council out of the 6th Ward in Davenport, and won by four votes, 1483 to 1479. Yes, that's right: four votes. And that was one of four races each of which was decided by less than 50 votes, I think.

So yes, there will be counting, recounting, and rerecounting, I'm sure. All the same, congratulations, Dad!

The P word

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Here's one of the most direct, no-nonsense statements I've seen about what needs to happen in the Democratic party: 3 November Theses. No "coalition of regret, devoid of feck" here, folks.

Never having been especially happy terming myself a liberal, I think that this is the document that convinces me of the need to reframe "liberal v. conservative" as "progressive v. fundamentalist."

[via joho]

The Long Tail of Politics

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Is there an opposite of nostalgia (and by nostalgia I mean its etymological root meaning of homesickness)? I woke up this morning with what I can only describe as post-peripatetic depression. Okay, I could probably think of a better term, but for the last two months, I've had "somewhere to go" even when I was in the same location for a week or two. The prospect of laundry, groceries, undoing the mess I left in my apartment, or even removing the dust from that mess fills me with the will-to-nap.

The blog it eyes me suspiciously, as I owe it rundowns of both days of the conference as well as the final stats on my trip, but it will have to wait. I'll probably predate and put them up in the next day or two.

I stopped by campus yesterday for a faculty meeting on revising some of our grad program policies--figuring that, since I'll be taking it over in the spring, I should keep abreast of exactly what I'll be taking over. Afterwards, I stopped by Steve Parks's office. Steve is in his first year here at SU, having been hired away from Temple, and he's started a blog that more than a few of you will be interested in: it's Right now, it's basically Steve's blog, but he's hoping to build it up into something a little more collective. Take a look, add it to your 'rolls, etc. And be sure to welcome Steve, who's new to all of this.

Steve and I had a nice chat yesterday about all sorts of stuff, but I wanted to jot down a few notes here about something that first occurred to me during Convergences and which I repeated during that chat yesterday. A couple of weeks ago, I posted a couple of entries about Chris Anderson's WIRED article on the long tail (although somewhat obliquely in the third entry). In the meantime, I've been thinking about it some. Here's one of the illustrations to Anderson's article:

long tail graph

The x-axis represents individual titles and the y-axis sales figures. One of Anderson's points is that the next generation of resellers (Amazon, Netflix, Rhapsody, et al) is not constrained by physical scarcity, like shelf space, and can thus afford to set their threshholds much further down the curve, making less popular works available to consumers. As I think I mentioned last week, one of the successes of this strategy is that, since Amazon "stocks" academic press books, I'm loyal, and more likely to order popular press books from them, even when I can get them at Borders. In other words, there's a certain amount of long tail loyalty that persists, and that's where they compete with the bricks-and-mortar booksellers. Amazon's more obscure titles also help them sell the big ones.

So, what if the Republican party is pursuing the same strategy?

I'm no political historian, so I could be entirely wrong here. I know that power law curves have been applied to voting numbers and elections, so try this: treat the x-axis as the various kinds of elections, from Presidential all the way down to local, and imagine that the y-axis is the number of voters. My hunch is that this graph would look pretty similar: tons of folks voting in national elections, with a long tail of relatively low-turnout local elections.

In the 90s (and again with the caveat here), the Reps did the whole Gingrich, Contract with America thing, and I remember hearing about a lot of conservative grass-roots organizing--perhaps you recall Gingrich's "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control"? While we're bemoaning the emergence of Jesusland, I wonder honestly if we're actually seeing the results of that work in the 90s.

Because here's the deal. Unless you're a celebrity (like the Governator or Daddy's little shrub), you work your way up the ladder--you start at the tail and work towards the head. But there are advantages to incumbency--people see your name associated with victory and are more likely to make that association when they vote--so that success in the long tail may gradually trickle a candidate up towards the head.

I've been thinking about this because Steve and I chatted yesterday about this entry of his, wherein the Texas Board of Education embarks on a crusade to purge our textbooks of "asexual stealth phrases." But this isn't happening because Bush was re-elected, or at least, not only because of that. It's too simple to say that this kind of censorship is happening because Reps care about school board elections and Dems don't, but there's something to this, I think, because it's equally oversimplified to lay all of it at the feet of the national polidrama. There are limits to how successful any one candidate can be at reaching individual voters, and I think this election made that painfully clear. As shocking as it may seem, there were an awful lot of people who seemed to think that W was, on a macro level, more representative of their micro interests. Seems to me that one of the potential strategies to combat this, rather than finding more and more conservative Democrats, would be to work in a coordinated fashion at the micro level. Which, unless I miss my guess, is what the Reps have been doing for the better part of a generation now.


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I am deeply, profoundly disappointed. If I have time over the next few days, I'll elaborate. In the meantime, I offer Mark Morford from SF Gate:

It simply boggles the mind: we've already had four years of some of the most appalling and abusive foreign and domestic policy in American history, some of the most well-documented atrocities ever wrought on the American populace and it's all combined with the biggest and most violently botched and grossly mismanaged war since Vietnam, and much of the nation still insists in living in a giant vat of utter blind faith, still insists on believing the man in the White House couldn't possibly be treating them like a dog treats a fire hydrant.

Inexplicable? Not really. People want to believe. They want to trust their leaders, even against all screaming, neon-lit evidence and stack upon stack of flagrant, impeachment-grade lie. They simply cannot allow that Dubya might really be an utter boob and that they are being treated like an abused, beaten housewife who keeps coming back for more, insisting her drunk husband didn't mean it, that she probably had it coming, that the cuts and bruises and blood and broken bones are all for her own good.

I listened to NPR and talk radio today for as long as I could. I got to hear people like George Lakoff, Thomas Frank, and others try to explain yesterday's results. For me, though, it comes down to one thing--the Reps are far better than the Dems at juking the system. I'm not suggesting that's the only reason that Bush won, but the fact that 1/4 of the states had gay marriage bans on the ballot guaranteed a sizable vote from the more intolerant of my fellow Americans. Any guess about which way that vote broke? The amazing thing about that (and I heard plenty of callers today announce that it was one of the reasons they voted for Bush) is that Kerry is no more liberal than Bush on that topic.

And the fact that these referenda were on the ballot yesterday is not an accident. Blah blah blah mobilize the base blah blah blah. The quickest way to get those people to vote is to play on their fear and/or hatred. And it worked again. Hooray for phobocracy.



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