Google Earthlings

It never occurred to me that Google Earth could alter the course of a young man’s life.

Then again, it also never occurred to me that Twitter could significantly assist a national uprising in Iran.  So what do I know?

In one of the most enchanting, heartwarming pieces of reporting I have read in many a moon, titled, “A Home at the End of Google Earth,” David Kushner recounts in the November 2012 issue of Vanity Fair the true story of an Indian-born man who, having been raised by adoptive parents in Australia, endeavors to find his birth parents and childhood home using only his wits and Google Earth.

The man’s name is Saroo.  He is 30 years old.  Twenty-five years prior, he became permanently separated from his family in a bustling train station somewhere in India.  The train took off, Saroo fell asleep, and when he woke up, he had no idea where he was or how to get home.  He was illiterate; everything he knew about his home was visual.

Get where the story is headed?  You are correct:  Following his natural curiosity all these years later, Saroo reconstructs a few key locales that have stuck in his memory and takes to Google’s repository of satellite imagery to “follow the breadcrumbs” (as he puts it) back to his place of origin.  I wouldn’t dream of revealing the ending to this saga; suffice it to say it would be a mistake to walk out of the theater before it’s over.

What makes Saroo’s tale so charming is its timelessness—the search for one’s home and identity has never gone out of style—yet simultaneously it is very much a comment on modern technology, which, in the wrong hands, can be a profoundly unsexy avenue for a great, old-fashioned yarn.

But this story ennobles the technology, just as the pangs of revolution in Iran in 2009 ennobled Twitter in ways that even Jack Dorsey, the website’s creator, could not possibly have anticipated.  Bill Maher said at the time, “Twitter didn’t save Iran.  Iran saved Twitter.”  Indeed it did.  But is this not a distinction without a difference?  Isn’t all newfangled gadgetry just the newest, shiniest means to the same old ends?

Everyone my age remembers the Hey Arnold! Christmas episode, which originally aired in 1996, whose central drama involves its titular character tracking down the long-lost daughter of a friend through a federal office worker, who cautions that such a search “could take hours—maybe even days!”  I am reminded, also, of the moment in Almost Famous when the Rolling Stone editor marvels at the efficiency of a state-of-the-art transcription machine, raving, “It only takes 18 minutes a page!”

Technology may change, but we humans pretty much stay the same.

Perhaps for that reason, moments like these force one to reflect upon the profound role that chance plays in the positioning of each of us in time and space.  And how for all the dominion we have over our machines, our machines exert an equal force of influence over us.

Had Saroo been born a century (or a decade) earlier, he would not have had Google’s amazing toy with which to retrace his existence from the comfort of his own laptop.  The effort to retrace his steps would involve an exorbitant amount of actual legwork, and most probably would never have gotten underway.

Christopher Hitchens, in writing his 2005 biography of Thomas Jefferson, reflected with sadness and frustration that, for all of Jefferson’s brilliance and curiosity about the natural world, he nonetheless operated in a “pre-Darwinian time,” in which certain assumptions we now take for granted were not yet known or even hypothesized.

Indeed, ponder these things long enough and the entirety of world history seems up for grabs.  Taking all the human knowledge accumulated in the last two centuries, imagine what a figure like Jefferson could do were he to reappear today.

And what delights await our own descendents two centuries hence?  Considering how the way of the world has evolved within our lifetimes thus far, the possibilities for the future are positively awe-inspiring.

We are stardust, as an old rock ‘n’ roller once wrote, and we exist in a web of interdependence with the rest of the universe in ways we do not always appreciate.  But it is worth reflecting upon from time to time, if only to keep us grounded and humble.

The world is a marvelous place, and we didn’t build all of it ourselves.

Gaffes We Can Believe In

I wish there were more people in public life like Richard Mourdock.

In case you missed it, Mourdock is the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Indiana, having defeated six-term incumbent Richard Lugar in the GOP primary in May.  In a recent debate against Democrat Joe Donnelly, Mourdock responded to a question about his abortion views by stating, “Life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

To the surprise of no one, Mourdock’s comments engendered something of a brouhaha, with folks on both the red team and the blue team behaving more or less as you would expect.  Democrats strung together attack ads in the hope of conflating Mourdock with Mitt Romney, while Republicans distanced themselves from Mourdock’s comments, if not Mourdock himself.

In some ways, of course, this latest abortion-related electoral kerfuffle mirrors the one generated in August by Todd Akin, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri, who suggested (erroneously) that it is biologically impossible for a woman to become pregnant from being raped.

What interests me is that in both cases, there has been real confusion about what, exactly, Republicans were distancing themselves from.

Allow me to quote an excerpt from the 2012 Republican Party Platform:  “[W]e assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

This is not an equivocating policy p0sition.  It states boldly and clearly the official GOP stance on abortion, which is that the practice ought to be prohibited in all cases.  Period, full stop.

This being the case, it is curious how every time an actual Republican affirms this view in public, he is roundly filleted not just by his adversaries, but his fellow travelers as well.

The journalist Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” in politics as “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

If Mourdock’s abortion view does not fit this definition perfectly—we might argue whether there is anything “obvious” about it—it is very much in the spirit of the sentiment that a politician is never made more vulnerable than in saying what he truly believes in plain, unambiguous language.  For this—if only for this—Mourdock is to be commended.

However, we are not done with him, as we have still to wrestle with the substance and implications of those very words.

In her most recent New York Times column, Gail Collins rightly observes, “If you believe life begins at conception, then that’s a life, and you should try to convince women not to terminate any pregnancy, no matter what the cause.  Our difference of opinion is over whether you can impose your beliefs with the threat of cops and penitentiaries.”

On this point, I need only add that Mourdock has done his potential constituents a service by making it clear that, in electing him, they would be installing as their representative a person who very much would like to impose his beliefs on life and death upon everyone else.  What could be fairer than that?

It is every other Republican—those who supposedly differ with Mourdock on this matter—who have the explaining to do.  After all, if one is to bestow “personhood” on a fetus from the moment of conception, it becomes very difficult to then issue exceptions.  By not doing so, Mourdock’s crime was political, not logical.

What I have not addressed is whether his views are moral.  There has been much talk that they, along with the Republican Party’s abortion stance in general, are “extreme.”  I hazard to say that I will leave such judgments in the safe keeping of the good people of Indiana.

The point is that voters need to know what they’re voting for.  Nancy Pelosi has been going around the country reminding everyone that issues, not just individuals, are on the ballot this year.  (I’m not aware of an election in which this was not the case, but the point is taken.)  George W. Bush’s entire case for re-election in 2004 rested on his (largely true) appeal, “You know what I believe and where I stand.”

With these two considerations in mind, I humbly request that this year’s candidates meet the voters halfway, following Richard Mourdock’s lead by stating, in no uncertain terms, who they are and what they think.

My advice to these pols:  Gaffe early and often.

Remembering the Ladies

There is nothing a man more enjoys hearing than the assertion that women are better than men at everything.

This obvious fact having been made not nearly enough, we heard it again at the conclusion of this year’s series of presidential debates, two of which (for the first time) were moderated by women.

Following Jim Lehrer’s passive, lackluster refereeing of the first meeting between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Martha Raddatz received high marks for her efforts in the running mate rumble between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan the following week.  She and Candy Crowley, maestro of the second Obama-Romney face-off, seemed to make it clear:  Women moderate debates better than man.

In these waning days of the 2012 presidential campaign, we might reflect that a marked characteristic of this year’s electoral festivities has been the unprecedented ubiquity of so-called “women’s issues” in the national conversation.  Women have voted since 1920—and in greater proportions than men in every presidential election since 1980—but somehow this was the year that many politicians came to appreciate the benefits of broaching subjects, previously ignored, that directly affect this particular half of the population.

Women, for their part, appreciate nothing so much as having their most intimate concerns discussed by a panel of men.  We witnessed such a spectacle in February, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee conducted a hearing about whether contraception should be covered by health insurance, for which not a single woman was called to testify.

A pertinent question we might ask, then:  How much does it actually matter whether the people involved in these discussions are, in fact, women?  Is the existence of female leaders axiomatically good for women?

My short answer I will phrase in the form of a question:  Would women, as a group, be better off under a President Sarah Palin than under President Obama?

As you ponder that little riddle, allow me to issue a couple of useful reminders.

First, women are individuals who do not agree with each other about most issues, including abortion and contraception.  Very few matters divide perfectly, or even mostly, along gender lines.  We would do well not to act as if they do.

On the abortion question, there is a profoundly annoying school of thought roughly founded on the old Florynce Kennedy line, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”—as if the entire anti-abortion argument were reducible to male chauvinism.

On the other hand, the Kennedy quip does offer insight into the role of empathy in this war of the sexes in which we are apparently engaged.

The entirety of this perceived gender divide, after all, is the assumption that men neglect women’s concerns because they are not men’s concerns.  Were men to have less of a policy stranglehold in the halls of power, the argument goes, this would not happen so often.

On this point, I offer a second useful reminder:  Men are individuals who do not agree with each other about most issues, including abortion and contraception.

As we theorize whether male pregnancy would turn abortion into a sacrament, we might recall that female pregnancy did not prevent an all-male Supreme Court from establishing abortion as a constitutional right, in Roe v. Wade.  This, and the existence of “pro-life” women, would seem to make the whole “men are the problem” argument the slightest bit untenable.

The real problem is not a deficit of women, but rather a deficit of empathy—an epidemic of not listening to each other, which has poisoned all levels of government for the better part of the last two centuries.

By way of analogy, consider the gay rights movement.

In the last decade, we have seen, among other things, the repeal by Congress of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the legalization of same-sex marriage in six states and the District of Columbia through a combination of legislative and judicial acts.

In none of these instances did the ruling party include a statistically significant number of homosexuals.  Indeed, the tally of openly gay U.S. congresspeople can be counted on the fingers on one hand.

The fact is that being gay is not required to understand gay issues, and being a woman is not required to understand women’s issues.  The key is for those with a vested interest in the great causes of the day to be effective lobbyists and agitators for them, winning the attention and understanding of those with the power to actually effect change.

Heed the words from a famous old story:  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Losing It All

George McGovern died this past Sunday.  A three-term U.S. senator (and two-term congressman before that), McGovern will forever be known by history as the man who lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon by a score of 49 states to one.

Because history is “written by the victors”—as Winston Churchill had it—we seldom spend much time on the losers.  In the case of presidential elections, we should.

The American presidency has played host to all manner of pop psychobabble over the eons, by professionals and amateurs alike.  While such flights of conjecture can be overdone, the notion of holding the nation’s highest officeholder under a psychological microscope is nonetheless justified by the nature of the office itself, described regularly (and fairly accurately) as the most difficult job on planet Earth.

Almost by definition, then, the presidency attracts individuals with boundless self-confidence and the rawest of nerve—people who are what David Brooks has termed, “emotional freaks.”  These folks do nothing less than put their entire beings on display in front of the American public, and on Election Day are judged as to whether they pass muster.

Most of us normal, emotionally balanced citizens can only imagine the dermatological thickness the whole endeavor of running for high office demands, as well as the inherent neediness of its participants—that is, the need to be liked and approved of, not merely by one’s parents, friends and peers, but by darn near everyone.

My question today is simply this:  How does one cope with being rejected by a majority of one’s own country?

The late Senator McGovern’s one-state wonder of a campaign defeat in 1972 has been matched only once in the history of contested presidential elections.  Walter Mondale, challenging President Ronald Reagan in 1984, also accomplished this dubious feat, losing every state except his own, Minnesota.  (McGovern won Massachusetts; his home state of South Dakota swung to his opponent.)

We are offered a brief insight into the aftereffects of such humiliation in an anecdote involving both of these men.  As Mondale recalled to Politico just this week, “I remember when, after I lost my race for president, I went to see George.  I said, ‘Tell me how long it takes to get over a defeat of this kind.’  He said, ‘I’ll call you when it happens.’”

In fact, McGovern disclosed as early as May 1973 that he and his wife “almost moved to England after the election.”  Considering McGovern remained a sitting U.S. senator (re-elected the following year, no less), we can hardly take these as the words of a man quick to make peace with the American electorate.

If losing the presidential race in a veritable rout is a singular trauma—something the rest of us cannot fully fathom—there is a corollary fate that offers its own psychological fascination:  Losing the presidential race by a hair.

With the 2012 election but a fortnight from today, we are faced with the possibility—however remote—of a popular/electoral vote split, whereby the candidate preferred by a greater number of citizens is proclaimed the loser.  This has happened four times, most recently in 2000, when Al Gore garnered more than 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush.  As the remaining three electoral splits occurred in the 19th century, Gore is the only person now alive who knows how this feels.

And how is that?  In what mind is one put by the knowledge that a plurality of the American public affirmed that you should be the most powerful man on Earth, and then to be denied the opportunity by a 200-year-old system that half the country doesn’t understand?  As Kevin Costner said in Field of Dreams, “It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it.  They’d consider it a tragedy.”

In the long run, most losing candidates seem to adopt the old equation, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” using self-deprecating witticisms to make light of their electoral failures as best they know how.  Gore opened his climate talks by deadpanning, “I am Al Gore, and I used to be the next president of the United States.”  McGovern would regale a 1973 audience at a Gridiron event, “For many years, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way—and last year I sure did.”

Nobody likes a sore loser, and self-pity is rarely an attractive quality, no matter how understandable it might be.  In two weeks, we will add a new name to the distinguished list of presidential also-rans.  In defeat, this man, be it Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, may well reveal the true measure of his character.

Let It Bleed

I am not a good person.  I do not mean people well.  I perform acts of altruism with extreme infrequency, shunning them whenever I can.  What has the world ever done for me, anyway?

Partly as a way to counteract all of this—and after a lifetime of avoiding it—I recently wandered onto the website for the American Red Cross and registered for a local blood drive.  At the appointed time, I strutted into the library where the event was being held and donated a pint of my precious bodily fluids, to be used however the proud organization sees fit.  Finally, a way to put my wretched carcass to good use before it expires.

What strikes one upon giving blood for the first time is the extreme ease and painlessness of the whole ordeal.  I recall myself, as a teen, once saying something to the effect of, “For me, the pain of the needle is not worth helping somebody else.”  It is possibly the stupidest thing I have ever said.

First, and most obviously, it is a stupid comment for its abject selfishness and narcissism; years later, I shake my head in disbelief that I could allow myself to utter such piffle in public.

What is more, the actual experience of giving blood disproves the whole premise.  In point of fact, the donation process itself is little more than a slightly longer version of a routine blood test, which, for the overwhelming majority of us, is the most stress-free chore in the world:  A fleeting burst of pain as the needle penetrates the skin, followed by several moments of extreme tedium as we allow the wonders of science to do their work.

Further still, Red Cross workers ensure your maximum personal comfort at every step of the way.  The background check interview is now self-administered on a computer, allowing you to record the number of times you have exchanged sexual favors for cash in dignified silence.  The needle is threaded as you lie flat on your back, inviting the very real possibility of nodding off before it’s over.  And of course, everything ends at the complimentary snack bar, featuring all the free water and crackers you care to consume.

What I learned—as many millions of my peers have doubtless known for years—is that giving blood is an absolute good.  Performed in the correct way, with all the necessary precautions, it is an act with near-unlimited benefits and practically no drawbacks.

I confess that I merely skimmed the section of the donor handbook regarding what, specifically, might happen to my blood once it left my arm.  I knew the possibilities were legion, and could wager, with reasonable certitude, that washing down Nosferatu’s steak was not one of them.  Assuming my sample proved viable, something good would come of it.  That’s all I needed to know.

What finally convinced me to go through with it—surely you must wonder—was Christopher Hitchens, a fellow atheist who, in promoting his book God is Not Great, cited giving blood as an example of an inherently good deed that requires no religious inducement, and can be done just as well by a nonbeliever as by a believer.  On this, I dare say he was right.

I say it is an absolute good—not merely a nice thing to do—because, as Hitchens reminds us, our bodies can recover that lost pint with all deliberate speed.  There is nothing sacrificial to the act—nothing we give up (other than our time) that we don’t immediately regain.

Accordingly, there is nothing brave or exceptional to it—no measurable risk to assume—and thus no excuse for any qualified potential donor not to seize the opportunity when it arises, which it does with fantastic regularity in all corners of the United States, in every big city and every small town.

More beauteous still, it can be done for any reason.  In its design, it appeals both to our sense of altruism as well as our selfishness.  As with many charities, we do not know (in most cases) precisely who might benefit from our donation, lending an air of abstraction to an exercise that, at the same time, will have a very direct and real effect on a fellow human being.

Taking all of these considerations together, then, the point is not that one should give blood out of the goodness of one’s heart.  It is, rather, that one should hide one’s head in shame for declining to do so.

Third Party Plight

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had their second debate this past Tuesday, but they are not the only people running for president this year.

Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor, is running on the Libertarian Party line.  Jill Stein, physician and former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, is this year’s nominee of the Green Party.  And Virgil Goode, former Virginia congressman, carries the banner for the Constitution Party.

But those are just the candidates who have managed to stencil their names on a majority of statewide ballots.  There’s also the Objectivist Party, founded on the teachings of Ayn Rand.  There’s the Justice Party, the Prohibition Party, the Modern Whig Party, at least five different outfits with “Socialism” in the title, and also the Peace and Freedom Party, represented by none other than Roseanne Barr.

We could go on, but things might start to get silly.

In spite of the paragraph I just wrote—and in spite of recent history—so-called third parties have played a real and sometimes significant role in shaping American politics.  To voters under 30, this impact begins and ends with Ralph Nader and his alleged “spoiling” of the 2000 election for Al Gore in Florida—a tenuous claim, at best.  This is a shame, because it clouds a much more colorful history of various rogue candidates and their disruptions of our otherwise two-party system.

In 1992, for instance, independent candidate H. Ross Perot caused enough of a stir not only to ultimately garner nearly 20 million votes nationwide, but managed actually to involve himself in all three presidential debates—even being declared the “winner” of them by the public and media alike.

Four score prior, Theodore Roosevelt invented a new party, the Progressives (known by history as the Bull Moose Party) to challenge Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Although Roosevelt lost, he did so by splitting the Republican Party—“spoiling” it for Taft, as it were—ceding Wilson a plurality of the vote that he might otherwise not have received.  We can hardly picture world history between 1912 and 1920 without a President Wilson, and it was a third party that made it happen.

Today, for those of us who do not identify with either the Democrats or Republicans, third parties—individually and collectively—represent one tragic, massive tease.

Contemporary third parties exist, after all, on the very assumption that the two Goliaths we have do not encompass the views and concerns of all citizens of these United States.  Gary Johnson speaks about ending the drug war, as Obama and Romney do not.  Jill Stein advocates cutting the defense budget by 50 percent, as Obama and Romney do not.  Ron Paul—perennially pushed, but ultimately resistant, to secede from the GOP—would abolish the Education Department and the CIA, as Obama and Romney most definitely would not.

Conceivably—since the country is divided roughly three ways—an organized, independent third party could pull a TR or better, and perhaps even win a plurality of the vote, rather than simply diluting it amongst the powers that be.

To wit:  A 2010 Gallop poll found 31 percent of Americans identify as Democrats, 29 percent as Republicans, and 38 percent as independent.  That is an awfully large pool of proverbial men and women without a country.

The short answer to “Why don’t third party candidates win?” is easy enough:  We, the 38 percent, are no more in agreement about any particular issue than anyone else—except, I suppose, for the issue of not identifying as Democrats or Republicans.

People have justified figures such as Nader as vehicles for a “protest vote,” and this alludes to the tragedy of the whole business:  Independent voters who detest their two real choices are left with no practical alternative—just a symbolic opting out of the whole system.

What is more, there are institutional mechanisms currently in place that are designed to prevent a serious third party from taking hold in our system, and if you don’t work within the system, you exert no influence whatever.

Except when you do.

I do not expect a third party candidate to be elected president in my lifetime.  Those who run with that expectation are either delusional or pulling your leg.

But it is equally delusional to say third parties are a waste of our time.  At their best, they serve as lobbyists for the people, agitating for causes that never get aired by America’s two partisan wings, but are every bit as important, if not more so, than those that do.  These troublesome gadflies deserve all the support we can muster for them.  To reassert an old cliché:  Do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Questions For the Candidates

This evening, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in Hempstead, New York for a town hall-style debate, in which they will answer questions from members of the audience.  Here are some questions I hope will be asked (but fear will not).

Mr. Obama:  You have cited Republican inertia as the primary reason for various legislative failures in the last four years.  As the incoming class of Republicans promises to contain even fewer “moderates” than the current one, why should we expect congressional negotiations in your second term to yield better results than in your first?

Mr. Romney:  You have stressed the importance of strong sanctions on Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power.  As it stands, the Islamic Republic is subject to sanctions from the United Nations, the European Union, as well as the United States and allies, which have effected a collapse in Iran’s economy and left the country as isolated as it has been in decades.  What manner of pressure would you apply beyond what is already in place?

Mr. Obama:  You have always underlined the necessity in government for compromise, and are fond of saying, “No party has a monopoly on wisdom.”  Name one issue on which the Republican Party’s position is wiser than the Democratic Party’s position.

Mr. Romney:  In his keynote address at the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie intoned, “Real leaders don’t follow polls.  Real leaders change polls.”  On which issues do you think the majority of the public is wrong?

Mr. Obama:  This past May, you announced, for the first time as president, that you think same-sex couples ought to be able to get married in the United States.  In 2008, you said, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.”  You asserted the same in 2004.  In a 1996 questionnaire, you wrote, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”  Does each of these quotations reflect what you really thought at the time?  What led you to oppose gay marriage in 2004 after having supported it in 1996?

Mr. Romney:  In 1994, you said, “I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it.”  In 2007, you said, “I would like […] to see Roe v. Wade overturned” because it “would effectively be returning to the people and the states the ability to create their own legislation as it relates to abortion.”  This month, you assured, “I’ll be a pro-life president.  I will take pro-life measures.”  As of today, do you believe abortion should be a federal issue or a state issue?  Were the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and the Congress pass a bill to outlaw abortion in some form, would you sign it?

Mr. Obama:  You have stressed the importance of transparency in government.  When did you know that last month’s violence in Libya was a planned attack by organized groups, and not a spontaneous reaction to a film?  How long did you intend to keep this information to yourself?

Mr. Romney:  At a fundraiser in May, you remarked, “There are 47 percent [of the people] who are with [the president], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”  You have since called these comments “completely wrong.”  If so, why did you make them?

Mr. Obama:  Next month, voters in Colorado and Washington will decide whether to legalize possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana.  Should these ballot initiatives pass, cannabis would effectively be treated the same as alcohol—including an age minimum of 21—necessarily creating a conflict with the federal government, which is tasked to enforce marijuana’s continued prohibition nationwide, as your administration has forcefully done.  Please explain why marijuana should be illegal but alcohol should not.

Mr. Romney:  You have said there should be “no daylight” between the United States and Israel.  Should Israel launch a surprise unilateral attack against Iran, will your administration claim co-responsibility for it?

Mr. Obama:  As a candidate, you promised, “As president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”  To date, you have not done so, and your administration squashed a House resolution that did.  Care to comment?

Mr. Romney:  You write, “Marriage is more than a personally rewarding social custom. It is also critical for the well-being of a civilization.”  This being the case, why should marriage then be denied to same-sex couples?  What prevents homosexuals from contributing to the maintenance of civilization’s well-being?

Mr. Obama:  Have you ever regretted your decision to run for president?

Mr. Romney:  Same question.

A Case For Romney

The political media sphere can be such an echo chamber of cliché and conventional wisdom that it strikes as a special treat whenever a piece of analysis escapes from it that actually makes one pause and think.

One such truffle from the 2008 presidential race holds particular interest for us today.  Matt Taibbi, the renegade scribbler for Rolling Stone, speaking with Keith Olbermann about John McCain’s many policy oscillations, offered the following perspective:

“The worst thing about George Bush was that he had convictions.  It was the things he actually believed in that got us into the most trouble.  John McCain is a guy […] who will change his mind at the drop of a hat.  He’s a cynic, as opposed to a true believer.  In these times, I’ll take the cynic.”

It is ironic, in retrospect, that McCain’s most formidable primary opponent was Mitt Romney, who today is rewriting the book on not letting conviction get in the way of winning the damn election.

At this late date, it is simply a fact that Romney is prepared to finesse, alter or outright negate his public views about virtually every issue in the electoral bloodstream, if doing so might increase his chance of being elected president of these United States.

So we are led, inevitably, to the $64,000 question:  What happens when he actually becomes president?  Will he finally stick to a set of “core beliefs”—if so, which ones?—or, rather, will his term be ideologically neutral, guided purely by practicalities?

Now that we are tasked to take the prospect of a Romney victory seriously, we are equally compelled to entertain that his nature as a no-looking-back flip-flopper is a good thing.  It just might be.

Taibbi’s point about President Bush was largely about Iraq:  If Bush had not been so ideologically hell-bent on “staying the course,” the reasoning goes, then he would have more clearly seen how badly the war was going and made smarter, more practical decisions to rectify it.  Bush’s certainty of the inherent goodness of the United States’ intervention in Iraq blinded him to the bloody, bloody consequences.

Mitt Romney, for his lack of foreign policy experience, is a much smarter and more pragmatic man than Bush.  It is very difficult to picture Romney plowing ahead with a particular strategy if all the evidence shows it to be a failure.  Romney’s reputation in the business world suggests nothing so much as an utter lack of tolerance for inefficiency, particularly if it makes Romney, the boss, look bad.

On foreign affairs, then, we might welcome a leader whose views will likely be conditional to the facts on the ground—who has nothing in particular to prove, other than his own competence.

Not that Romney’s stated views on the subject could be described as timid.  Speaking earlier this month at the Virginia Military Institute, he asserted boldly, “[I]t is the responsibility of our president to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind.”  This would suggest a foreign policy much closer to the eventual Bush doctrine that promised “ending tyranny in our world,” rather than Bush’s initial promise in 2000 to preside over “a humble nation.”

Nonetheless, Romney speaks of American power in a more inward fashion.  Where Bush’s concern was ostensibly with oppressed citizens of foreign nations yearning to be free, Romney’s focus is more self-serving:  America should assert its military might for its own sake, and not necessarily to uphold some larger ideal.  Those are not the words of a man prepared to be bogged down in any particular foreign hellhole for a decade or more.  Where is the profit in that?

Naturally, this is all speculative.  One of the many lessons from George W. Bush was that a man’s world outlook can change rather dramatically between being a candidate and being leader of the free world.  Further, we have not broached how a lack of ideological conviction might translate on the domestic front, which is no small concern.  Nor have we factored in the residual force of the Tea Party to create mischief against Republicans and Democrats alike.

What we know we have, in any case, is the latest in a long line of Oval Office suitors who believe a good business sense is just what America needs.  In Romney’s case, this would seem to require a degree of non-ideological thinking, which can be a very useful quality in a leader.  A ruthless eye for the bottom line knows no partisan loyalty, and if ruthless efficiency is indeed Romney’s true nature—if he can be said to have a true nature—then he would do the electorate and himself a great deal of good simply to admit it.

Closets Are For Hangers

In the life of every gay man and woman, “coming out” is not a moment—something that happens and then it’s over.

Coming out is a continuous process.  It might have a starting point, but like evolution, Pascal’s triangle or a Bruce Springsteen concert, it never really ends.

I came out for the first time late in the summer of 2009, to my closest and most trustworthy friends, who deserved to know I was gay and who also, I knew, would keep the subject under wraps until further notice.

I came out again the following year, on the sixth of June—D-Day, not coincidentally—in the form of switching the “Interested In” line on my Facebook profile from “Women” to “Men.”  This meant that, at least in theory, practically everyone in my own little sphere of acquaintance was now privy to my most tender of secrets.

In the intervening time, I have more or less handled the matter on a need-to-know basis.  I do not go out of my way to make my romantic inclinations known, but neither do I evade the issue when it comes up.

Until recently, however, I did have one outstanding, massive fact weighing uneasily on my mind:  I still had not told Mom and Dad.  Having run out of reasons to keep this secret from the two people most deserving to know it, I worked up the nerve and finally got the dreadful business out of the way this past September 19.  Demolishing what remained of the closet door seemed a fine way to spend my birthday.

Today, October 11, is National Coming Out Day.  It was created in 1988, on the one-year anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and is now observed in all 50 states and numerous foreign countries.

In some ways, the very concept of a day to raise awareness of gay issues is becoming something of a relic.  After all, the 1987 march was organized in reaction, first, to the Reagan administration’s piddling response to the AIDS crisis, and second, to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick ruling, which upheld the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws.

The world has changed dramatically since 1987.  For my generation, AIDS is no longer ghettoized as a principally gay problem, and the Bowers decision was overturned in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.

Further, when Lawrence was passed, zero states sanctioned same-sex marriage.  Should a trio of ballot referenda pass voter muster next month (in Maryland, Maine and Washington), that number will climb to nine.  Not even the gay rights movement’s most enthusiastic backers could have expected so much success in so little time.

If I began here by talking about me and have somehow wandered into politics, that is always how I have handled the gay question.  Perhaps you are familiar with the old feminism adage, “The personal is political”?  For me, the political is personal.

I cannot remember the exact moment I realized I was gay.  However, I do know the moment I first wanted to come out:  Seeing the movie Milk.  Gus van Sant’s galvanizing biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to citywide office, crystallized the idea that, for a politically-minded person such as me, being gay could be fun and exciting.  It was, in a way, the one time in my life when I was compelled to identify as a member of a team.

Allow me to make one thing abundantly clear:  I am a coward.  Unlike Milk and his minions, I have never put myself at risk—physically or professionally—in defense of what I think or who I am.  I have never needed to, because I had the tremendous good fortune to be born into an epoch in which the fight for civil equality has, in many ways, already been won.  My existence was perfectly timed so I could reap the benefits while having done hardly any of the work.

This is not to say that the act of coming out has, itself, gotten any easier.  There is a word for those who say being gay is “no big deal”:  Heterosexual.

All I can suggest, as a means of solace, is that coming out will always be difficult, and it ought to be.  If it were easy, it would not merit its own day, and it would not be something of which to be “proud.”

Coming out is a personal decision, and not something to be forced upon someone who might not be ready, although I cannot help but echo Rachel Maddow’s formulation, “It is better to be out than to be closeted […] the more people that come out, the better.”

Truth-Seeker’s Lament

Last Wednesday’s first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, coupled with most of the postgame analysis on television and the Internet, demonstrated all that is wrong with presidential debates in the first place.

By now we all know the narrative.  Romney played to win; Obama played not to lose.  Romney showed up armed with spirit and compassion, Obama with mere statistics and tropes.  Romney held his head high; Obama’s tended to droop into his notes.  Romney offered a bold new vision; Obama offered more of the same.  Romney won; Obama lost, badly.

Bill Maher put it perfectly well after the first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, saying the verdict of each contest should be phrased in terms of “Who is right?” rather than “Who won?”  Assessing these events based on the latter, as we do, only begs the question of what “winning” a debate entails.  The answer, alas, only reinforces the shallowness and silliness of our politics.

Real debates—the ones between public intellectuals (a regrettably endangered species in America)—are not viewed in such a flippant manner.  Properly speaking, the essence of a debate is to put an idea, or proposition, on trial, with each side marshaling a cascade of evidence in support of one position or the other, with the “performance” of each side judged not in terms of theatrics, but in the cogency and persuasiveness of the arguments themselves.  The audience might vote on a “winner,” but such a concept only really exists in the mind of each individual viewer.

An underlying assumption here—as idealistic as they come—is that, as in an actual court case, the side that “wins” is not necessarily the team that turns in the most enthusiastic performance, but simply the side whose argument makes the most sense, and is grounded in objective, empirical truth.  A dazzling presentation might be a means to an end, but is never the end in itself.  Remember:  The only reason “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” worked is because the glove didn’t fit.

As you do not need me to tell you, this is not how electoral politics operates.  Presidential debates in the modern era have never been driven or determined primarily by argument or truth.  That is to say, a given candidate’s performance is assessed independent of whether the argument he presents, and the statistics he cites, is factually sound.  Fact checkers and analysts might correct any inaccuracies once the night is through, but rarely, if ever, does this change the picture that the debate itself paints.

This, in short, is the problem.

Forgive my stubbornness, but I still believe in a country in which there is such a thing as objective truth—a truth for which leaders in every political clique are accountable, however inconvenient it might be.  Yet, as things now stand, they’re not.

To wit:  In the days since the debate, one newspaper column after another has asserted, first, that the thrust of Romney’s case to the public contained plentiful false information and outright negations of past Romney positions, and second, that Romney was the evening’s clear victor, hands down.  As if the former had no bearing on the latter.

I sort of wish it did.

Mistake me not.  I do not mean to excuse the president for what plainly was, in Andrew Sullivan’s tart words, “political malpractice.”  Obama well knows how the game of politicking works—that optics matter, that the public responds to razzle-dazzle, whatever its form—and he has, in the past, taken as much advantage of it as any national figure of the time.  Much as he likes to position himself “above the fray,” in his gut he understands that, as former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder put it, “Politics is a fray.”

Nor, frankly, do I particularly fault Romney for intuiting the exact same thing and behaving exactly as one might expect in such a circumstance as his.  His modus operandi is, and always has been, to act in whatever fashion he thinks will result in maximizing his total vote yield, whatever the cost.  He plays by the rules of the game.

My principle indictment, really, is directed toward the enablers of all this unseemly behavior.  Those who allow, and oftentimes encourage, the dishonesty to fester, be it in the interests of partisanship or simple entertainment value.  They are journalists, bloggers, television and media people of every size and shape.  And they are us.