Saturday, October 25, 2008


I saw Oliver Stone's W. the other night. I don't have a whole lot to say about it--it's actually a pretty straightforward movie--but I do have a few thoughts. First, I thought the worst parts of the movie were when Stone and the screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, attempted to hit the cliches--"axis of evil," "shock and awe," the pretzel choking incident, etc. It just seemed like they were trying too hard.

In general, I thought the movie was most successful when Stone and Weiser got more creative and went beyond the bare story. The secrecy of the Bush administration means that it's in the final third that the movie gets really good, as Stone and Weiser find themselves forced to speculate on what might have gone on in some of those meetings. But once Stone and Weiser start getting creative, they don't stop; thus, the final third also includes a clip from a fake news show called Spinball, featuring an Ann-Coulter-lookalike, and a dream sequence with Dubya and his daddy.

Speaking of Bush, Sr., I should add that James Cromwell's performance is quite compelling. He often carries the movie. The scenes with him and Josh Brolin are fascinating.

Before I saw the movie, I suggested to a friend that David Cross should have been cast as Ari Fleischer. I didn't yet know that Rob Corddry was playing the role. It's the same effect, but he's underused anyway.

I stayed to see the ending credits, as I always do, and was pleasantly surprised to hear Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side" used as backing music. It was interesting, though, that almost all the verses dealing with previous wars were edited out of the song. It didn't seem to be a timing issue; the song ended long before the credits did. Maybe the filmmakers didn't want the movie to end with such a strong pacifist message (though they did let Dylan's last lines stand: "If God's on our side / He'll stop the next war"). Or maybe they thought it would lessen the impact of this particular movie if they allowed Dylan's lyrics to stay, reminding us that other leaders have made questionable political decisions regarding war and peace. Either way (and it's probably a combination of these two anyway), it seemed like a bad move.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another Story...

...of a proud Nader supporter.

The article contains an excellent description of Nader: "To me, Ralph Nader is a great American — a thinking man’s thinking man, with the brass parts a plus."

And a great Nader response to the question of why he keeps running: "Because I want to improve my country. I see these giant corporations tearing the heart and soul out of America. No more do they have any semblance of allegiance to our country, other than to dominate it, or ship its jobs and industries to fascist and Communist dictatorships who know how to keep their workers in their place."

TV Time

The best interview I’ve seen with Nader is the one he did with Tabitha Soren at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. It lasted about an hour. Soren spent about forty-five minutes asking Nader pretty much every question she could think of, then Nader took audience questions for about fifteen minutes. If you have an extra hour, I really recommend watching it, especially if Nader comes across to you as sort of an angry, bitter guy; when he doesn’t have to stress about cramming his entire message into thirty-second sound bites, then of course he seems friendlier and more relaxed. Here’s the video:

I mention the Soren interview because Nader is finally getting network media time; he was on the NBC Nightly News last night. The video of that segment is at the end of this post, but I really recommend you watch the full interview he did with Ron Allen, especially if you’re confused about why Nader’s running, what he stands for, and what separates him from the two major-party candidates--and if you don’t have an hour to spend watching the Soren interview. Allen asks Nader some tough questions, and Nader gives completely honest answers. It’s about seventeen minutes, which may seem long, but it’s a lot shorter than the Soren interview, and when you think about it, everyone’s probably spent way more than seventeen minutes watching Obama and McCain on TV. So, it’s not the best Nader interview out there, but it is fantastic, especially considering that it’s “only” seventeen minutes.

Here’s the full Allen interview:

And here’s the two-minute segment that was shown on TV:

Coming up in future posts: my thoughts on W., and why I respect Obama supporters.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I liked this article. I never miss an opportunity to say, as this man does, “You should be proud of who you’re voting for.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Computers Is Hard


I've noticed that a couple of links in previous posts are messed up. I think I know how it happened. I've fixed the links and I'll be watching out for the problem in the future.

Thanks for reading.

The Sound of Freedom

Here’s an article that got sent to me by Nader’s email-list folks. It seems to be a transcript of a talk that some guy named Mickey Z. gave, so it lacks a little bit of focus. For example, Mickey goes off on rants about cellphones and about the US military, but it’s not clear what these rants have to do with his larger anti-US-government message. Also, he can be infuriatingly brief; he implies that the New York Times regularly prints lies, but then he doesn’t give any examples and instead seems to think the problem is bigger than the Times. Worst of all, he can be downright misleading, as when he says (correctly) that John Kerry wrote part of the Patriot Act but doesn’t mention that the part Kerry wrote just involves stricter penalties for terrorists’ money-laundering.

But I don’t think Mickey’s really trying to persuade readers of a specific political position or point of view; he’s just trying to get people to think. It’s unfortunate, though, that he has to resort to a little bit of deception and exaggeration to do that. It’s also particularly disappointing that he ridicules traditional methods of protest (petitions, letters to Congress, charitable donations, etc.) without suggesting any solutions of his own (although it does prove the point that he’s mostly interested in just getting some critical thought going). At a couple points he actually seems to suggest terrorist acts as a solution, but he’s pretty indirect about it; he’d probably tell me I’m reading too much into his words. I hope so, since he unsurprisingly criticizes the US military for what he calls terrorist actions.

The article’s a good read despite its problems, with lots of food for thought and a lot of good material on that dreaded two-party system I’ve been criticizing (I particularly liked the “reasons you shouldn’t vote for McCain”). It’s kind of long, but I found it to be light, quick reading. It’s pretty cleverly written, for better or worse. Just keep an open mind and a grain of salt.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

For the YouTube Generation

Hey, guys. Some videos for you today.

Here’s one of Ralph Nader getting interviewed right after the last debate. I really urge everyone to watch it, especially those who don’t know much about Nader or remain uncommitted. If you only watch one of Nader’s YouTube videos, this should be it:

That’s the first of three parts. Here’s part two. It’s a little more policy/detail oriented, so it’s not a “must-watch,” but it’s still pretty good:

And here’s the last part, which is a must-watch just for Nader’s closing statement (skip to about 4:20 if you just want to hear the closing and don’t want to hear Nader talk about his tax plan):

All right, see you next time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Late Reminder

Short notice, but I should probably call attention to Nader’s TV appearances Tuesday (later today).

Good to see him finally getting a little bit of media. I guess the Democrats are breathing a little easier with Obama’s double-digit lead.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bread and Circuses, Part 5: Not You, Tom

My friend who said it was silly to call the debates a circus defended himself by saying, “It’s what we have to go on besides their records, and we are all smart enough to sift through the BS.” Obviously he didn’t mean by that first part that the debates are all we have to go on, since we also have campaign speeches, for example. But just because it’s one more piece of propaganda the two parties are giving us doesn’t mean it’s worth anything. The debates are much less significant than candidates’ records, and they’re totally unworthy of the weight that’s put on them by people who don’t know any better.

That leads us to the second part of my friend’s argument. I agree that people should be, and most people are, “smart enough to sift through the BS” in the debates themselves. But I hope I’ve shown that the BS goes deeper, to the debate system itself. And I’m not blaming people for being unaware of the BS in the system--the CPD has been pretty successful at remaining in the background. Even Bill Maher, whom I applaud for devoting his closing monologue this past Friday to criticizing the debates, failed even to mention the CPD and instead put the blame on the debate moderators and the choice of questions.

Well, the moderators are chosen by the CPD. It’s the moderator’s job to choose the questions for the “town hall” debates, but of course they’re going to make the choices that are going to get them invited back to moderate another debate four years later--it’s a big deal for a journalist to do one of these things. So Maher’s problems really begin with the CPD.

And that’s what I mean when I say that the debates are a circus. Now, by that, I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t care how a potential president handles himself in a circus. But you should know that that’s what you’re getting. It’s just a play. There’s no accountability; the two parties have teamed up to make sure of that.

Someone asked me the other day why some other organization doesn’t just take it upon itself to organize a debate and invite more than just the two major-party candidates. Four years ago, the answer to that question would have been that the candidates were under contractual obligation not to participate in non-CPD debates. This time around, that’s apparently not the case, as McCain has agreed more than once to participate in debates that various groups wanted to organize involving more candidates than just him and Obama. Obama, however, despite having expressed his willingness to debate any other candidates in the past, has turned down the opportunity every time. We can’t be sure that McCain and Obama aren’t just playing politics, though, because the CPD refuses to make public the debate contract signed by the candidates.

In closing, I want to mention a point I heard Matt Gonzalez (Nader's running mate) make recently. He pointed out that Joe Biden's poll numbers when he was seeking the Democratic nomination were lower than Nader's are now, but apparently Biden was still considered a "viable" candidate and he was allowed to take part in the primary debates. Still have any doubt that the two-party system is at fault here?

Bread and Circuses, Part 4: You Can Be Anything!

That’s what they tell us when we’re kids. And in the spirit of idealism, I want to pretend it’s true--well, in a way. So let’s pretend there are two candidates running for President of the United States. One endorses commonsense positions on political issues. The other “plays politics,” saying and doing politically what he thinks will get him in office and keep him there. You have to choose which of these two guys you want to be. What’s your answer?

Oh, did I mention that the first guy is running for the Green Party, while the second is running for the Democrats or Republicans (take your pick)? Does that change your answer?

What if I add the following? The first guy is honest and cares about people. He got into politics to help people. The second guy isn’t downright evil, but he’s not above using deception to achieve political goals. And he doesn’t really care about people; he just got into politics because he likes power. You’re probably more inclined now to say you want to be the first guy, but I bet there’s still a slight inclination to go with the major-party guy. Otherwise you probably feel like you’re wasting your time.

Doesn’t that show that there’s a problem with this system? I mean, it’s no wonder most politicians act the way they do. They’re always up against choices like the one I just gave you, and often political expediency trumps personal values. Now, I know that there are a lot of reasons why someone might sometimes compromise values for a larger political goal. I get that. But why should the two-party system be that kind of goal, that kind of reason? What is it that’s so inherently great about having two parties that makes it OK to play politics like that?

Coming up next time: the final installment of the “debate circus” series.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bread and Circuses, Part 3: How (and Why) to Give Third Parties a Chance

And that's the problem with the two-party system: it's self-sustaining. People won't vote in large numbers for third-party candidates because "they can't win," but they can't win because people won't vote for them. They don't let third-party candidates debate because "they're not viable candidates" (the CPD isn't as open as it once was about its aversion to third-party candidates), but they're not viable candidates because they can't debate.

Let's remind the cynics that there was a time when the Republican Party was considered a third party, and it was just a little more than a century and a half ago. And how did our first Republican president get his name out there? By participating in debates! Now, they weren't presidential debates; Lincoln was running for Senate. He didn't even get elected to the Senate, but the notoriety he gained as a result of debating was enough to allow him to run for president and win. Yes, it helped that the Whig Party had self-destructed a couple of years before. Yes, it helped that the Democrats split over the slavery question and ran two candidates. But still, the case of Lincoln shows how a third party can become a major political force pretty quickly with media attention and a bit of luck. It also shows how, when you get more than two candidates (there were four in the 1860 election), it's almost counterintuitive how easy it is for the unexpected to happen. It would sound bizarre nowadays to say that the winning candidate for President got less than 40% of the vote, but that's how it happened then.

And when we hear the cynics dismiss third-party candidates as appealing to idealists and dreamers, let's remind them that the Republican Party was basically created as an antislavery party. Let's ask the cynics whether they would have criticized the abolitionists for being idealists and dreamers. Let's ask whether the cynics would have discouraged abolitionists from voting Republican.

The two parties have become more and more similar, for two reasons. First, because they still have to appeal (in most cases) to a majority of voters, and most voters are centrists on most issues. Second, because there's no accountability to the base. If more people seem to be voting Republican (as in recent times), then the Democratic leadership encourages its members to shift to the right. They assume that their traditional liberal base will still vote for them (so far they've been correct, but just barely), and in fact the base doesn't even really complain because they're told that the Democrats are at least better than the (one) alternative, and they're threatened that going elsewhere (i.e., voting for a third-party candidate) will lead to an even worse situation in which the Republicans win.

It's not true, though, and I'll tell you why. Say you're one of these people, folks I like to call "Obama cynics." How can you vote for a third-party candidate without giving up your cynicism? Simple--make a vote pact. The hard part is finding a "McCain cynic"--someone who doesn't really care for McCain but definitely doesn't want Obama to win. (It strikes me that there might actually be a good number of "Palin cynics" out there.) Once you find one, though, all you and your new friend need to do is agree that each of you will vote for a third-party candidate. (It doesn't have to be the same candidate, of course.) By making the vote pact you've canceled out the effect of Obama losing your vote, since McCain's losing one as well.

You'll want to trust the person you're making a pact with, so they won't go back on the pact to try and screw your guy. Some jurisdictions do allow mail-in voting, so maybe that's an option to keep you and your pact partner honest.

Coming up in part 4: a few more remarks on the dominance of the two-party system.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bread and Circuses, Part 2: A Giant Sucking Sound

OK, now we're going to fast-forward to 1992. Ross Perot comes in and wants to debate Bush and Clinton. Bush thinks Perot's just antiwar enough, pro-choice enough, and environmental enough to steal votes from Clinton; Clinton thinks Perot's fiscal conservatism and views on drug policy will lure Bush supporters. It turns out they're both right, but of course Republicans feel burned more by the loss. When Perot runs again in 1996, Republican Bob Dole insists Perot not be allowed to debate; the Clinton camp agrees, as long as they're allowed to set other key terms of the debates. So the CPD creates this stipulation that candidates must show at least 15% in the polls to be allowed to debate. Perot doesn't have that, so he's out of luck.

Now, Perot wasn't even polling 15% back in 1992, before the debates started, but he ended up getting 19% of the vote and being a factor in the election (even though he didn't really affect the outcome). Jesse Ventura wasn't polling that high in Minnesota before he was elected governor; fortunately for him the CPD wasn't in charge of organizing the gubernatorial debates. Nader's doing almost as well in the polls as Perot was (better, in some places), but he almost got arrested last time he tried just to watch one of the debates!

Usually, "bipartisan" has a positive connotation in politics, but even the CPD realizes that when the majority of people want to see third-party candidates debate the two majors, it's best to call your organization "nonpartisan" instead. So that's what the CPD calls itself, but it really means bipartisan--which, in this context, of course, means "partisan."

Well, there you have it. I know I've been a little longwinded, especially in the previous post, but it's fascinating in a way to see a system corrupt itself. There's a kind of perverse satisfaction in watching something inevitable happen, even when that inevitable thing is awful. When you look at it, it seems as if it couldn't have ended up any other way; once the two parties had enough power between them, they were naturally going to work to consolidate it.

Coming up in part 3: what this means and what we can do about it.

Bread and Circuses, Part 1: I Am Paying for This Microphone

A friend of mine recently told me, "Dismissing the debates as a 'circus' is kind of silly." Well, the debates weren't always a circus. How did they get that way?

Let's go back to when the presidential debates were organized by an independent, nonpartisan group, the League of Women Voters (LWV). That started in 1976.

In 1980, this guy named John Anderson challenges Reagan for the Republican nomination in the primaries. He looks threatening at first, but eventually it looks like Reagan's got it in the bag, so Anderson decides to run independently.

Meanwhile, President Carter is struggling. He's got a fluctuating approval rating and a citizenship about ready to lay into him for a poor economy. And what with Ted Kennedy taking his pursuit of the Democratic nomination all the way to the convention, Carter's tired of fighting. He's not looking forward to debating a populist like Reagan who says he'll lower taxes, and he damn sure doesn't want to have to debate a real conservative like Anderson who has the support of a lot of the intellectual Democrat base.

But Reagan is betting that Anderson will do more damage to Carter than to Reagan, and says he won't participate in a debate without Anderson. The LWV invites all three candidates to the first debate anyway; predictably, Carter declines and the debate becomes a Reagan-Anderson contest.

The debate gets unimpressive ratings, partly because of Anderson's disappointing performance, and partly because of a feeling of pointlessness about the debate since the president wasn't involved. This puts pressure on the LWV to include Carter, and maybe to drop Anderson, whose poll numbers start slipping from his 25% high.

Reagan's treading water at this point; everyone agrees he handled Anderson well, but there are concerns about how well he measures up intellectually. In addition, there's that common apprehension about changing leadership in the middle of a crisis. Seeing himself behind in the polls, Reagan figures his only option is to try and kill two birds with one stone: by debating Carter, he can prove himself an intellectual match for Carter, and he can turn conventional wisdom on its ear by suggesting that a time of crisis is exactly the time for a leadership change. So the Reagan camp expresses to the LWV that they're OK with not inviting Anderson back for round two, if that's the only way Carter will participate.

So it's Anderson out and Carter in, but Carter still gets blindsided by Reagan's "are you better off now" bit and goes on to lose the election (which happens just a week later). Not the first or the last time that major political events in this country have turned on details, but Carter at this point has to be thinking what might have happened if he'd have taken on Reagan earlier, instead of waiting until the week before the election. And the Reagan guys--sure, they're feeling lucky, but they don't want to leave it up to chance next time.

Well, "next time," of course, is 1984, and there's no third-party candidate to worry about, but the Democrats and Republicans are already teaming up behind the scenes against that common enemy they know is coming. In 1985, Paul Kirk, the chair of the Democratic Party, and Frank Fahrenkopf, the chair of the Republican Party, get together to discuss the benefits of having the two parties in charge of future "debates." That's in quotes because, tellingly, Kirk and Fahrenkopf (KF) call them "joint appearances," not debates. A couple years later, KF officially form the Commission on Presidential Debates (because that sounds more substantive than "joint appearances," of course) and become its first two co-chairs. (They're also the last two co-chairs--they're still in charge of the CPD.) KF are surprisingly open about what they think future third-party candidates can go do to themselves. "Look, we're chairmen of the two parties--of course we're going to favor the two parties!" is basically the CPD line.

So in 1988 the shoe drops. The CPD basically takes it upon itself to arrange the debates--who's asking the questions, who's in the audience, which members of the press can cover it, etc.--and says to the LWV, take it or leave it. The LWV objects, of course, fearing that the debates are about to become charades. The CPD maintains that it's now the only group with the authority to guarantee the participation of Democratic and Republican candidates. The LWV counters that only it can ensure the participation of third-party candidates, but no one really cares about that at the time, and the League's credibility is a little tarnished anyway after they were perceived as backing down to Carter's demand to exclude Anderson from the debates back in 1980. So the LWV issues a press release saying, basically, this is bullshit and the LWV isn't going to be a part of it. So the LWV gets out of the debate business, but they're not really missed.

OK, this is getting a little long, so I'll hold off on part 2 until a little later. You won't want to miss it: the two parties' common enemy shows up, and he looks like a friend! Stay tuned.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Is it wrong of me to feel just a little bit comforted that Blogger apparently has "Nader" in its spellcheck dictionary but not "Obama"?

Cynicism and Idealism

Someone has to say it: Obama's not the guy who's going to help the middle class. Look at the bailout plan he's been busy pushing--a pile of money and tax cuts for Wall Street, barely any help for struggling homeowners. And despite what Obama said during his primary campaign, lately he's been saying that he doesn't intend to stop the war in Iraq anytime soon.

That's not to say that I support McCain, though, not at all. But sometimes my friends puzzle me. Most of them seem to lack cynicism; many seem genuinely inspired by the "change" message Obama's been repeating. Some folks might call that naive, but I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to feel inspired by the person you're voting for, especially for president.

It's true on both sides, though--Obama's biggest supporters (at least among middle-class voters) are idealists, and so are McCain's. Sometimes I hear Obama folk express disbelief that someone could vote for another Republican at this point. What these people don't realize is that McCain's supporters are just like them. They like McCain because of what he stands for, or what they think he stands for.

Now, it's commonplace among Obama supporters to suggest that McCain doesn't really stand for what many of his supporters think he does. And I agree that he doesn't. But sometimes I find it hard to believe that these same people are willing to ignore Obama's highly publicized "flip-flops" on issues that are supposed to be important to these people. These include rejecting public campaign funding, supporting Bush's "Patriot" Act, giving immunity to the telephone companies that participated in unconstitutional surveillance of American citizens, and promising to continue the Iraq war.

I do not consider myself a cynic when it comes to this election. I relish the opportunity to vote for someone who has spent decades working to defend the common people against corporate interests. So I say to my friends, if you really are idealists, if you really want to be inspired by your candidate, what about Ralph Nader?

If you are serious about voting for someone who represents the interests of the middle class, someone who does not take campaign contributions from political lobbying groups, someone who has been talking explicitly for years about how to reform Wall Street, someone who has pledged to end the Iraq War and get the troops home, and someone who will work toward a single-payer health care system (the most proven health care system worldwide, and the one supported not only by the majority of doctors but also by the majority of Americans), I encourage you to take a look at Ralph Nader.

I mean, at least give him a fair chance. I haven't even listed half of the great things about him in the above paragraph. Give his website a look. The Republicans and the Democrats have had plenty of chances in government so far. If we all agree on the value of "change," doesn't it make sense to give an independent candidate like Nader the chance to make some real change happen?

But this is where it gets puzzling. Many of my Obama friends would have stopped me by now to suggest that Obama is at least better than McCain, and since Obama has a better chance than Nader of winning the election, we all ought to vote for Obama.

I could say a lot of things here. I could point out that what my friends are saying here is self-fulfilling prophecy, since obviously if I believe them, I'll vote for Obama instead of Nader, thus making it true that Nader has less chance of winning. Or I could use the line made famous by Nader and his former supporter Michael Moore, "The lesser of two evils is still evil." I could say that maybe I was wrong and that my friends really are cynics.

But I'd rather appeal to the idealism that I think is there, even if it's hidden under the veneer of cynicism that all of our political observations seem to force on us.

So, friend, if you really are an idealist and believe in the "change" that Obama preaches, why not vote for someone like Nader, who will put that change into practice? And if you really are a cynic, well, then it's hard to see how you can think Obama is any better than McCain just based on his words, and you may as well vote for someone like Nader with a PROVEN track record of standing up for the little guy.

Just don't tell me you're an idealist and then turn around and vote like a cynic. I mean, imagine what would happen if everyone voted for the BEST candidate.

Thanks for reading.