Taking a chomp out of the mess that is US politics, one issue at a time...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Props to Sarah Marshall

I just have to commend Universal Pictures on their advertising strategy for the new movie, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Due to the elementary-type slogans, such as "My mom never liked you Sarah Marshall", my boyfriend and I braved opening night last night to go to the Grove and see it. The unique advertising strategy has caused quite a stir in Los Angeles this past month and the movie definitely lived up to the hype. It's hilarious! I'd recommend it to everyone.

On an even cooler note, the director and main actor came to the theatre before the showing, wasted and taking pictures of the audience. It as quite a night!

The advertising strategy is the most interesting aspect of the movie for me. Recently I was talking with a peer about the need for unique and outlandish advertisements in our current society where we literally are bombarded with ads every second of the day. The Figueroa Post goes on to say that Universal Pictures hoped that this innovative strategy would leave LA and the rest of the country scratching their heads, wondering "who the f$%& is Sarah Marshall". And it did just that. Kudos Universal Pictures!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Vogue Racist? I think not...

Controversy hit the fashion world this month when Vogue released it's April cover: Lebron James striking an animalistic pose with a basketball in one hand and model, Gisele Bundchen, in the other.

Critics have likened the pose to King Kong, claiming that Lebron James is purposefully portrayed as a crass black man, lusting after a white woman. (NBC Sports) The blog, Of Ignorance, sites some comments written condemning Vogue's choice of cover. One commentator states, "Lebron is straight up perpetuating a stereotype (that of the brutal, wild savage)". Another commentator goes on to say that there are plenty "of black high fashion models" that could have been pictured next to him instead of the white Gisele. What?!?! The same people who are claiming that Vogue is racist are not OK with cross-cultural photographs? If that's not racist I don't know what is...

With the exception of the previous critique, I'd have to admit that commentators are expressing their outrage at the cover because they are genuinely concerned with the possibility that it was intentionally published to be racist. Unfortunately, I think their concern is only stirring up controversy where there should be none. I genuinely do not think the cover was shot to be racist; I actually appreciate the rugged athleticism of Lebron next to the strong, beauty of Gisele. They are both amazingly successful in their respective fields and a perfect mix and match of athletic bodies for the "Shape Issue".

So what exactly does this have to do politics?

The controversy that Lebron and Gisele's differing skin colors has created can be likened to the race aspect of the current fight for the democratic nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Both have faced good and bad publicity based on their skin color; it has gone so far as to have determined Democratic votes in some primaries (or at least appeared to based on exit polls). However, like the Vogue cover, I think it is not their skin colors that should be analyzed and compared. I will only go so far as to say that electing Barack Obama as our next president would be a positive sign that our nation as moved passed the atrocious time when African Americans were slaves and not allowed to vote. Beyond that (and I don't think that should be the deciding factor for any voter, I mean Hillary would represent immense steps forward in the feminist movement), I see no reason to even recognize the different ethnicities of Barack and Hillary. Unfortunately our country is no where near the point where we can turn a blind eye to skin color and acknowledge a human being for their accomplishments and beauty outside of race.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Controversy Stalemate

Reviewing the past week and the democratic primary battlefield brings little excitement.  There were no primaries, no heated debates, no groundbreaking sex scandals, or NAFTA conflicts.  On the whole Barack and Hillary are at a controversely stalemate, not necessarily a good thing in this drawn out primary race, where holding voters' interest may be just as critical as staying in the race.

But wait, Obama said what?

At a fundraiser in San Francisco last week, Obama attempted to describe the plight of blue collar workers in bible belt states to "latte-sipping" Californians.  He said that "jobs have been gone now for 25 years".  He said that as a conseqence they've gotten bitter and turned to "guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentimant". (ABC News

And, in the midst of a "dirt-less" week, Hillary jumped on this right away, claiming that everyone she encountered in Pennsylvania was "resilient", "optimistic", and "positive".  In essence, she twisted Obama's words from one's that were meant to inspire to words that critique blue-collar workers.  And the funny thing is, Obama is right.  Blue collar workers have seen a dramatic decrease in available jobs in the last 25 years and the government has been hesitant to offer any assistance to laid-off factory workers losing their jobs to 3rd world countries because it's in the interest of big business.  And there has been a corresponding increase in "the recruitment of hate groups such as KKK" (The Rail-Splitter).  

Hillary's accusation of Obama's elitism is coupled with her announcement this week that the Democratic candidates in the past election (i.e. Gore and Kerry) were out of touch with their constituents.  The Democrats lost in 2004 because they couldn't relate to voters?  I find that hard to believe, considering the white-collared, Texan who did win.  

Basically, Hillary claims to relate more to blue collar workers and the common man than Gore, Kerry, AND Obama.  In the words of The Rail-Splitter, "Give me a fucking break".  This, coming from the woman with +100,000,000 in taxable income (The Rail-Splitter).  The same woman refusing to show tax records and ready to invest millions of her own money in a faltering campaign.

So congratulations Hillary.  Way to stir up the pot and get people talking.  Let's see how far this ludicrous accusation gets, how far the media blows up a simple speech to condemnation of working class families.  If anything it's entertaining, right?

Friday, April 4, 2008

2008 Olympics: Supporting Inhumanity in Beijing?

Bush is arguably facing his last major, controversial decision as President of the United States:

Do we attend or boycott the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China?

On one hand, we need to protest the lack of human rights and absolute contradiction to democratic values that China represents. And unfortunately, contrary to guarantees that China would be gladly open their doors and use the 2008 Olympics to end hundreds of years of injustice and intolerance, China seems to if anything have worsened its religious and cultural intolerance as the games approach. Luke Thomas, an active member of the China Freedom Blog Alliance and supporter of Olympic Watch, warns Americans about participating in the 2008 Olympics in the current state of China:

"Please be aware that the Olympic Games will be held in a country where there are no elections, no freedom of religion, no independent courts, no independent trade unions; where demonstrations and strikes are prohibited; where torture and discrimination are supported by a sophisticated system of secret police; where the government encourages the violation of human rights and dignity, and is not willing to undertake any of its international obligations.

Please consider whether the Olympic Games should coexist with religious persecution[,] labor camps, modern slavery, identity discrimination, secret police and crimes against humanity."

Thomas goes on to summarize the countries where China has been responsible for the genocide of entire nations of people. Some of these include Burma and Darfur, with the most recent atrocities being seen in Tibet. And while the Olympic Charter approved Beijing as the home of the 2008 Summer Olympics, they did so with the understanding that China would live by the self-created slogan, we live in "one world" with "one dream". However, Of Ignorance recently posted that China has officially banned filming from the infamous Tienanmen Square due to recent social unrest. This comes as a blow to many foreign activist groups who planned to make the Olympic games their stage in a quest for equality and humanity.

So the pervading question remains, do we attend the 2008 Olympics and indirectly support China's inhumanity? Or do we boycott them, breaking ties with a country avidly buying up our debt and crushing hundreds of young athletes dreams of a gold medal. Nancy Pelosi offers her advice in an interview with ABC, "I think boycotting the opening ceremony, which really gives respect to the Chinese government, is something that should be kept on the table."

And I agree with her. Looking past our financial dependence on China and boycotting the Opening Ceremonies sends the message that as a country who embraces democracy and touts tolerance of all, we do not tolerate the injustice that currently defines the domineering Chinese government.  However, when it comes to the actual sporting events, that's all they really are. Having American athletes compete in events against other countries is simply a competition, not a symbol of unification and support. We don't need another Moscow. It is unnecessary to ruin the years and decades of hard work that Olympic athletes have put into the upcoming summer simply because the International Olympic Committee had overly optimistic reformation dreams for China.

This idea of a partial boycott seems to be rippling throughout democratic nations around the world.  The question in most of the European Union is not whether they will boycott the Olympics, but how far they will take that boycott. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has already asserted that she will not be attending the Olympic Games and I'm sure many leaders will follow in her footsteps. (ABC)

Bush's upcoming decision is going to be extremely controversial, and probably more than some realize. Already over the weekend there were demonstrations in San Francisco, most notably the continuation of the Human Rights Freedom Torch Relay, a peaceful protest started in Greece to protest the lack of human rights in China. It will be interesting to see where America falls on the boycott continuum and whether or not Bush attempts to make a stand for human rights and justice.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Jason Rae: A Role Model for All Young Politicians

I though it worthwhile to note that Jason Rae has made history as a 21-year-old superdelegate in the current democratic presidential primary. (LA Today) An interview with Kris Kitto is posted on The Hill and Rae seems like a level-headed, intelligent young man.

My pleasant surprise at his nomination seems to fly in the face of my previous post, An Undemocratic Democrat Candidate? In it, I strongly argue for the hypocrisy that the idea of superdelegates espouses. Basically, the idea that ultimately the party elite should control the democrat presidential nominee. And while I understand the argument that leaving such an influential decision in the hands of ignorant, uncaring voters is risky, I have to protest at such labels. True, many young voters (such as myself) have little knowledge of the different ideologies of each candidate, mainly a result of a lack of energy and time spent on the subject.

However, Jason Rae seems to be an exception. Here is a college student who has not only spent the time to become knowledgeable in politics and our government, but he has been elected to this "elite" position within the Democratic Party. And with his election comes hope for young voters, the future leaders of our nation. I only hope that he is the first of many to set a positive example for my contemporaries. We need more interest and activism in politics from college-age voters on both sides of the aisle. In this respect I find it fitting that Jason Rae has pledged his support to Obama, a man he describes as having "a drive and enthusiasm...that I don't see in very many people." (The Hill) Together, Jason Rae and Barack Obama symbolize the change that this country needs and I expect they will both be pivotal players in shaping the future of our national government.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

I'm Sick of Paying $3+ For A Gallon of Gas!

Strictly speaking a recession is defined by economists as two consecutive quarters of declining GDP (or negative growth). So by definition, the United States has yet to enter a recession, technically it has yet to even enter the first quarter of a recession. However, the numbers tell a different story.

The average consumer is experiencing a substantial rise in commidity prices due to inflation. And this inflation has extended beyond luxury commidities to items like gas, food, and medicine. Coupled with stagnated pay (when 85,000 people have lost jobs in 2008 alone, it would be foolish to expect a salary raise), this inflation creates a significant problem for low to middle class consumers. The practical side of this can be seen in the dramatic decrease in spending for the average American. (CNN)

And interestinly enough, this idea of inflation spurring a lack of spending can cause a cyclical pattern, entrapping our economy in borderline recession. A rise in prices in the food and oil industries cripple spending not just in those economic realms, but in luxury goods as well. Because the average American is spending more money on gas, they are spending less money on games, large cars, and traveling. This in turn continues to cripple any possible economic growth as a result of increased consumer spending. Hence the advice that Americans continue to spend even while in a recession.

The housing market is another large part of our current virtual recession. Because the economy is doing so poorly and inflation is on the rise, less families are purchasing homes. This leads to a decrease in value for houses currently on the market because there is less of a demand. And the decrease in value leads to an increase in foreclosures. Basically, home owners go into debt like this; they originally take out a loan for lets say 75% of the total price of the house. However in the current housing market, that original value has dropped by 30%, making that original loan now more than the actual value of the house. So if a person in this situation was forced to sell their home, they would owe the bank money even after the sale.  As Frankly My Dear says, this whole idea of sub-prime loans is a "fall-out" from "the burst of the housing U.S. market" in 2006.  Unfortunately, the dramatic decrease in house values that this fall-out created as perpetuated the problem two years later.

So what does our declining economy have to do with politics? Everything. This "recession" is not affecting the upper class. While their monthly bills may be tallying up to a higher dollar amount, they continue to drive Hummers and large SUVs without having to worry about the affordability of gas prices. Taking this into account, how much sense does the Republican trickle down theory have in our current situation? Tax breaks for the wealthy may spur spending in the upper crust of society, but eight years of this has obviously not led to a trickle down of wealth to the lower classes. If anything, it has only served to widen the gap between the rich and poor and we obviously need to approach this national problem from a different angle. The economy should be a major battleground in the presidential campaigns of both parties and I look forward to hearing some solutions and changes that will aid the average man of achieving the "American Dream".

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Barack Obama Goes To Church, Have You Heard?

Heaven forbid Barack Obama goes to church.  A church with a black Reverend no less.

Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his black rights activist speeches have made headline news recently.  Because his sermons are something new?   Or untrue?  Or especially decisive?  No; Rev. Wright has been publicly scrutinized because he is the spiritual leader of presidential hopeful, Barack Obama.

And on to the age-old argument of Church vs. State.

The sermons most scrutinized of Wright’s are those publicly supporting Obama and denouncing Hillary Clinton and her easy life, “Hillary Clinton was not a black boy raised in a single parent home.” (CNN)  In addition Wright has been recorded criticizing America’s actions regarding terrorism and our country’s racist history.

But Jeremiah Wright is certainly not the first American to speak out against the hypocrisy that has ruled our nation for years.  And he is definitely not the first religious leader to push his political views on a congregation.  (Four years ago, my church handed out pamphlets reminding the community how “good Catholics” are supposed to vote.)

The issue is that Barack Obama has admitted his devotion and following of Wright’s church.  He even went so far as to credit one of Wright’s sermons for the title of his novel, The Audacity of Hope. (CNN) And as a presidential hopeful, Obama’s religious affiliations are everyone’s business.  No one claims to separate every action and decision from their values and we can only assume that Obama has shaped some of those values by the words of Jeremiah Wright. 

So what does this mean for the future of our country?  If elected, is Obama going to shape public and foreign policy around the notion of black supremacy?  Denounce the founders of our nation because they were rich white men?  I doubt it.  Despite some of the more controversial beliefs of his Reverend, Barack Obama is still the levelheaded, inspirational leader he has been since the beginning of this presidential campaign.  And in his defense, he has announced his disagreement with a number of Wright’s beliefs, including Wright’s political advocacy of Obama in his sermons.

All of this being said, it now resides in the hands of the voting public as to whether Obama’s “spiritual guide” remains a news headline and an influential factor in this primary campaign.  People have to decide if they believe that Obama can differentiate between the radical religion and rational beliefs. 

I, for one, don’t know anyone who agrees full-heartedly with his or her religious leader.  I go to a Catholic church that believes abortion is murder and the Republican Party part of the religious right.  On the other hand, I am very much pro-choice and a full-fledged, liberal democrat.  And as much as I enjoy attending church, I remember to take everything my priest, and the man who baptized me, says with a grain of salt.

It is undemocratic that Reverend Jeremiah Wright touts his support of Barack Obama at religious gatherings.  By doing so he crosses the line between religious leader and political advocate and for that, he deserves the scrutiny of the people.  But Obama is not at fault.  He has maintained the wall between Church and State throughout his campaign, mentioning religion only when it comes to his values and inspiration.  Not once has Obama used religion as a reason or as a means for pulling out of Iraq, for remodeling our nation’s health care, for revamping our education system.

The backlash that Obama has suffered because of Wright is unjustified.  And this recent attack appears to be more of a strategic political move against Obama than a valid critique of his character. 

I have no doubt that an investigation into the religious leaders of past and present politicians would reveal some startling and radical beliefs.  And know that every Catholic politician has listened to countless sermons classifying abortion as murder and the use of contraception as sinful.  However that does not mean that every Catholic yearns to see Roe v. Wade overturned.  And certainly the majority of American Catholics use some form of contraception in the current day and age.

And so, ultimately the State wins.  Religion, while important to one’s belief system, cannot govern a country so racially and culturally diverse as ours.  Any politician who attempts to use religion has such will commit political suicide.  And while Barack Obama is free to attend any kind of spiritual gathering he so desires, people can be comforted in the fact that he is not an idiot.  Obama will not run our country from a pulpit. 


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Perpetuating Terrorism By Waging George Bush's "War on Terrorism"

John McCain has only two hopes in this presidential race – capitalize on our fear of terrorism or pray that the fight for the democratic nomination becomes so nasty that the American people become disheartened with the Democratic Party in general.

Due to the fact that he has little influence in the latter, we will focus on the former. And in this vein, McCain has already started baiting his opponents on the all too familiar partisan debate centered on our presence in the Middle East. In response to criticism last Thursday, Barack Obama was quoted in a CNN article:

“John McCain may like to say he wants to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but so far all he’s done is follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq.”

The GOP has a fine line to walk between standing by our presence in Iraq and responding to the general disapproval of the Bush administration and everything it stands for. McCain has taken the line that American safety comes first and our continued presence in Iraq is necessary to assure this safety. Democrats on the other hand have numerous proposals of exit strategies, claiming that Bush’s “war on terrorism” has already gone on too long.

Obama goes so far as to say, “There was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.”

But this war did not start with George W. Bush and his generation of party supporters. We can thank the beloved Reagan Administration and George Bush Sr. for planting the seeds to this drawn out battle. Weren’t they the ones who knowledgeably armed Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980’s? Before there was a threat to homeland security we supported the Taliban, despite the terrorist attacks they continued to make on their own people.

So we sent weapons. And money. And trucks. And chemicals. All of which were used to force a peace with Iran. Oh, and annihilate their own people, the Kurds in the North. We refused to sign international treaties condemning Iraq as a terrorist country. We supported Saddam Hussein and the tyrannical government he represented, until the terrorism turned on us.

No one will deny that George Bush was put in an impossible situation after September 11, 2001. He had to watch as the twin towers fell, as the people that he was appointed to protect were killed by the thousands. And after intelligence was released pointing the origin of the attacks to the Taliban, it was inevitable that we had to attack.

But the infidel presence we created in the Middle East created an entirely new type of terrorism. Seven years later, we are no closer to making this world a safer place. Suicide bombings and attacks continue to litter news headlines on an international scale.

As for Al Qaeda in Iraq? It is undoubtedly a sign of naivete to assume that they were nonexistent before our military presence in Iraq. And just as naive to think that our presence hasn’t heightened their hatred of America and everything we represent. Obama refers to George Bush and John McCain’s creation of the Al Qaeda we know today. The Al Qaeda that continues to terrorize the world and the minds of Americans just waiting for the next attack.

We went in with force, but forgot to look for an end. We started a war to stop terrorism and instead smashed a relationship that becomes more and more irreparable each day.
The solution to our current situation is obvious – slowly yet methodically remove American troops from Middle East in such a way as to create the least turmoil, salvage any type of representative government we can and then get the hell out.

But John McCain has other plans. He believes in our continued involvement in Iraq. He says it’s necessary for our security and economy. And he will use the fact that situations have improved as of late. He will claim that the daily news reports of American troops dying have stopped. He will play to our fears and show “evidence” that terrorism is still alive and rampant.

John McCain cannot protect us by continuing this war though. Obama was right; McCain has not gotten anywhere near Osama bin Laden by blindly following George Bush into Iraq. It’s time for the American people to take control of their own safety, to elect a leader who wants to withdraw this never-ending “war on terrorism”.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Obama: Apple's Newest Gadget?

A recent article in the New York Times compares Barack Obama to a Mac and Hillary Clinton to a PC. They reference both of their websites as examples, claiming:
"Mr. Obama's site is more harmonious, with plenty of white space and a soft blue palette. Its task bar is reminiscent of the one used at Apple’s iTunes site. It signals in myriad ways that it was designed with a younger, more tech-savvy audience in mind — using branding techniques similar to the ones that have made the iPod so popular."
This analogy can obviously be extended past their respective campaign sites. Clinton represents the older, more reliable PC. We all know what to expect if Hillary Clinton leads our country for the next four years. Democrats will be unyielding on policy decisions and unwilling to collaborate with the other side of the aisle. They will attempt to remodel the deteriorating health care and pull out of the Middle East. The fact that Clinton's election would symbolize leaps and bounds in women's rights is the only difference between Hillary Clinton and every other past Democratic president.

On the other hand Barack Obama will the be Mac of Democratic Presidents. Like Hillary, he will be steadfast on his policy positions, attempt to end Bush's "War on Terror", and focus on issues like health care, that have been largely ignored in the past eight years. However unlike Clinton, Obama's inspiring style and ideological politics hints at an eventual blurring of party lines, past politics and on to ideologies. This trend can be seen with the recent surge of "Obamacans", Republicans who support Obama over McCain. (Stephen Mack) And to really change our country and fix the major problems that have become inherent in our democracy, republicans and democrats will be forced to work together.

All of this being said, like a Mac, Barack Obama is new, innovative, and unfamiliar. People used to the comfort Clinton politics are scared of change and unconvinced of the benefits of a younger, more inspiring leader. I only hope that like the recent surge in approval and appreciation of Mac's innovation, Americans will hop on board the new Obama politics before the end of the democratic primary.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Last Farewell to Mitt

Stephen Mack's assertion that "religion makes a virtue of alienation" (Stephen Mack) can't be more true in the wake of Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the Republican primary. A successful businessman attributed with saving the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002, a moderate and relatively well-liked member of the GOP, the governor of the typically "blue" state of Massachusetts, and an all-around good-looking guy, Mitt Romney seemed to be the perfect Republican nomination for the next US President. (Wall Street Journal)

But then there's the fact he's Mormon.

According to the Washington Monthly, "We would all like to believe that a politician's religious affiliation isn't an obstacle to higher office." But of those polled, 17% of Americans admit to having qualms electing a Mormon to the white house, compared to the substantial yet significantly lower 4% of people who found electing a Catholic to the white house unacceptable before John F. Kennedy. This, coupled with the composition of the Republican voting block (30% are declared evangelical Christians), Mitt Romney's religious affiliation seems to be his Achilles heel. (Washington Monthly)

Romney's forced withdrawal from the presidential race ultimately raises an age-old question, how separate are church and state? This question was first posed by Roger Williams, a dissenter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and subsequent founder of Providence. He argued that our democracy requires a "hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World". (Stephen Mack)

However, this separation can hardly be absolute when it comes to political public intellectuals or figures, and I argue that all politicians are public intellectuals. (see Public Intellectual? Who, Me?) Religion undeniably forms who we are and how we view the world. It is an institution partially created and spread to enforce moral codes and respect that are required in civilized society. Essentially, a good afterlife is the reward for showing kindness to your neighbors. But, one must argue the extent that a public intellectual can use religion as a communication or even unification tool. Edward Said of Columbia University defined a public intellectual as someone who has "personal commitment to an ideal". However, that ideal "must also have relevance for society". Applying this notion to the political public intellectual, one should keep in mind that religion can be central to one's outlook and attitude. However, "when you make public arguments, you have to ground them - as much as possible in reason and evidence...otherwise you can't persuade other people". (Peter Beinart as rephrased by Stephen Mack)

Essentially, a politician cannot be expected to deny the part of his character that is formed by religious affiliation. However, if he expects to lead such a diverse country, he must be able to communicate in a universal language to the people; a language that cannot be religious. He must "communicate his ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals" or people of the same faith. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

And to be fair, Mitt Romney made no attempt to hide his religion, nor any to advocate it. He honestly admitted, "The respect I have for American values flows from the faith that I have." (Wall Street Journal) But also squelched fears saying, "No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths." (CNN)

Stephen Mack summed up the argument of the religious aspect of public intellectuals when he said, "A more important challenge would center on how religion is being used, not whether it is used." It is absurd to ask public intellectuals to ignore, or at least appear to ignore, their religious affiliations in the same way it would be absurd to ask the American people to completely disregard a presidential candidate's religious background. But there should be boundaries. A politician cannot base public policy on the religious doctrines of his church. It would be unethical to attempt to outlaw abortion based on the fact that one's personal faith does not support it. And while the American people have the right to analyze the effect that one's religion will have on their governing practices, that should not be the sole qualification for a presidential candidate. Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, I believe it was a deciding factor for some Republican voters. It certainly seems to be the case for that block of evangelicals who are now unhappy with the relatively moderate McCain. Mitt Romney was obviously the greater of two evils. And while I find fault in his policies and the Republican party in general, I find fault in the American public for continuing to headline his religion throughout the the primaries, at a time when there are arguably much more important topics to be discussed.

Public Intellectual? Who, Me?

Ralph Waldo Emerson described the public intellectual as an active force in society. They should be knowledgeable in history, but only because of its relevance in today’s world. “Emerson’s intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action. Inaction is cowardice.” (MIT Communications Forum) Regarding the “public” aspect of the public intellectual’s career, Emerson elucidates, “He communicates his ideas to the world, not just his fellow intellectuals.” In affect, an intellectual can be relatively ineffective on a widespread scale regardless of the level of their expertise or knowledge. They can only reach the elevated status of a public intellectual once they have the skills to present that material to the public, or as much of the public as possible.

Alan Lightman of MIT, a physicist and self-proclaimed public intellectual, takes this definition one step further and classifies public intellectuals in today’s world according to a three-level hierarchy. At the broadest level are the academic intellectuals. These individuals are extremely knowledgeable in one area of expertise and stick to it. And they communicate this expertise exclusively, without excess commentary on areas out of their comfort realm. One example of this academic intellectual would be Brian Greene, author of the popular book The Elegant Universe. In effect Brian Greene took string theory, easily one of the most difficult and obscure scientific postulations, and formatted it into a novelesque piece of writing that has garnered mainstream media attention and respect from members of all sects of our society. He is a public intellectual because he is able to communicate the complexities of his chosen discipline to the average Joe.

The second level of Alan Lightman’s definition of a public intellectual adds another dimension to the first-level academic intellectual; these individuals don’t just write about their disciplines, but attempt to relate that discipline’s relevance to the “social, cultural, and political world around it” (Alan Lightman). An example of this would be James Watson and his detailed account of discovering the structure of DNA in his novel, The Double Helix. And note that I say novel, not scientific paper. The piece of work is complete with a forward by Sir Lawrence Bragg, 29 chapters, and an epilogue. In addition, the novel moves beyond the technical aspects of the double helix discovery to the moral issues and boundaries involved in scientific research and the cultural implications of such boundaries.
“The Double Helix is also an exceptional piece of writing. It is lively, engaging, and even scandalous in parts, shattering the myth that great science is done in an atmosphere of dispassion and objectivity” (Kenneth Miller of Brown University).

On the third and most exclusive hierarchical level of public intellectualism sits the public intellectuals written about in our history books, those individuals who have been “elevated to a symbol” in our society.
“A level III intellectual is asked to write and speak about a large range of public issues, not necessarily directly connected to their original field of expertise at all” (Alan Lightman).
Lightman goes on to give Albert Einstein as a famous historical example. I would consider a more current member of this elite group of intellectuals to be Al Gore. With a B.A. from Harvard in government, a long career as a U.S. representative, member of the U.S. Senate, and Vice President to Bill Clinton, one could argue that his field of expertise is most definitely politics. However, in the past eight years Al Gore has moved beyond his direct area of expertise to become a very public advocate for environmentalism. His documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, effectively communicates “the climate crisis” to the world. Winning multiple awards, this documentary elevated Al Gore to the status of a public symbol. Recently he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for all of his efforts in bringing the dangers of climate ignorance to the public. He has been subsequently asked to lecture throughout the country on the moral, cultural, and scientific aspects of our “climate crisis”, three areas that are relatively removed from his previous life as a politician.

Alan Lightman’s hierarchy of public intellectuals seems to make sense at a cursory glance, but one wonders, how do you even enter the pyramid of public intellectualism? I’d like to consider myself a self-proclaimed expert on politics, specifically the current presidential election, and by creating this blog for everyone to read and learn from, I’m positioning myself as a public intellectual, right?


As Einstein would say, by doing some research and writing social commentary about it, I am not practicing public intellectualism. I am not reaching out to a widespread audience or acting any further than my desk. A public intellectual is expected to take action, public action no less. Writing a blog simply doesn't cut it.

On the other hand, Stephen Mack of the University of Southern California, takes a different viewpoint on the stigma of a public intellectual. He quotes Jean Bethke Elshtain: "So the public intellectual needs, it seems to me, to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it's those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers."

"Elshtain's point is that the public intellectual function is criticism...It is only because learning the process of criticism and practicing them with some regularity are requisites for intellectual employment." (Stephen Mack)

Basically, the public intellectual makes a career of opening out eyes to the faults inherent in our society. This definition does not contradict Lightman's but rather expands on it. To intelligently criticize some aspect of society, one must have a certain level of expertise. In addition, to be effective they must widen that area of expertise to include the relevance their criticism has on the social, cultural, and political aspects of our everyday lives. And finally, to be a public intellectual, one must communicate their viewpoints and/or critiques to a receptive audience, outside of their professional colleagues.

I'd say that technically, this doesn't make me a public intellectual. For one, my experience in the political realm extends only as far as being a grassroots campaigner and active voter. And probably most importantly, while probably not professional colleagues of mine, my audience falls far short of some magic number that I can imagine must define and legitimize a public intellectual.

However, Mack goes on to say that social criticism and therefore public intellectualism is "the obligation of every citizen in a democracy. Trained to it or not, all participants in self-government are duty-bound to prod, poke, and pester the powerful institutions that would shape their lives." It is my job and right as a citizen of this country to criticize contemporary politics and the election process. By analyzing and finding fault, I am simply paving the road for a better tomorrow in the saga that is American Politics.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

An Undemocratic Democrat Candidate?

The Democratic Party recently instituted the notion of superdelegates, a term largely overlooked and undervalued before the current democratic primaries. With the neck and neck race between Clinton and Obama, it seems that superdelegates may make their mark on this nomination process, whether the majority of voters agree or not. So what exactly is a superdelegate?

Superdelegates are high ranking members of the democratic party, like senators and governers, who do not represent specific states. And unlike pledged delegates, they are not required or expected to vote for the winner of their state's primary vote. While they can pledge support for certain candidates, they can also change that vote up until the minute they actually place it.

As of the February 12th primaries, Barack Obama has a total of 1,262 pledged delegates compared to Hillary Clinton's 1,213. (cnn.com) To win the democratic nomination, a candidate is required to win 2,025 of the delegate votes. Despite Obama's overwhelming victories in the last eight primaries, Clinton and Obama are within 50 pledged delegate votes and it looks like the race will continue to stay close, with the possibility that neither will win the necessary 2,025 votes before the convention. If this is the case, the responsibility to choose the democratic nominee will fall to the party elite - the superdelegates. A recent article in Fox News made the claim:

"A top Hillary Clinton adviser on Saturday boldly predicted his candidate would lock down the nomination before the August convention by definitively winning over party insiders and officials known as superdelegates, claiming the number of state elections won by rival Barack Obama would be “irrelevant” to their decision." (Fox News)

This particular aspect of the democratic convention could be deadly for the current overwhelming favorite, Obama. Harold Ickes, part of the party elite for over 40 years, "said superdelegates — who “have a sense of what it takes to get elected” — would determine the outcome and side in larger numbers for Clinton." (Fox News)

But how democratic would this be? Would the democratic party be gutsy enough to essentially throw out the results, and thereby the entire primary election, and vote in favor of the unfavored candidate? I doubt that the political momentum Obama has gained in the past eight primaries with the possibility of two more in the next three days can be completely ignored. I will be personally outraged if the party that ideally represents the common man in America turns to the politically elite to choose their candidate. And if they do vote against the winner of the popular vote, they obviously do not know "what it takes to get elected" in this country and we could very well end up with a Republican president yet again.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why We Don't Care

In 2004 “students went to bed November 2 not knowing who the next president would be.” (Arizona Daily) And while John Kerry was actually victorious among those same 18-24 year olds, they only constituted 9% of the voting population, much less than would be required to get their presidential hopeful into office (Arizona Daily). [The age bracket 18-29 was actually the only bracket that Kerry won.] So why with such a potential for impact and obviously unique political views, do we see such disinterest among the younger demographic? There seems to exist an apathy stemming mainly from the fact that political “hot spots”, especially in the current presidential election, seem to have little direct effect on our adolescent lives. In short we don’t vote because politicians don’t speak to us. Politicians don’t speak to us because we don’t vote. Can you say Catch-22?

Despite efforts by youth-targeted organizations, like MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign, voter turnout in the younger generation has continued to remain the lowest in the nation. This, in a nation where only 54% of the voting age population (infoplease) votes in presidential elections, with an even lower percentage in midterm elections. This dismal percentage places US voter turnout at the bottom of the international scale of democracies, ranking only slightly above Poland and Switzerland (California Progress Report). In Los Angeles Country alone in 2006, out of 3.8 million registered voters, only 1 million showed up at the polls (California Progress Report). So to say that the youngest age bracket of the voting age population has the lowest turnout in our country is comparing them to the low of the low as far as voter turnout demographics is concerned.

Stimulating the younger demographic to vote in US elections continues to be an ongoing issue because in short, we simply don’t care enough. With current presidential debates centering on issues like Iraq, foreign relations, and a declining economy, I find myself flipping from televised debates to the much more exciting Lost season premier. I fail to be interested in the fact that average wages are at an all time low because frankly school is, and will be for the next couple of years, my primary focus. Furthermore, studying for an upcoming exam ranks much higher on my agenda than does researching the increasingly complex propositions so that I can knowledgeably vote on them.

Whether or not this apathy is substantiated is debatable. After all in two short years I will be searching for a job in our currently depleting job market and looking to obtain a reasonable salary in this declining economy. But two years is not right now, and we have been raised in a society that values instant gratification (Can you say drive thru Starbucks?) Right now, I want someone to address the fact that I’m paying close to a quarter of a million dollars for college, four short years of higher education that without, I’m most likely resigned to the bottom tier of the workplace hierarchy. I want to know why I’m weary to commit to any function over 20 miles away because I don’t want to pay $50+ dollars for a single tank of gas. I’m worried about the world that my parents are leaving my children and me; I want to hear about solutions to global warming, not sidestepped answers and more strategies on how to exit the Middle East. It would seem that I’m currently disproving my previous argument of apathetic young adults. Obviously I do care about some current issues, they are just different from the ones that politicians tend to elaborate on.

So how will the next president of the United States affect my life? Will a republican or democrat be more conducive to my attending and paying for college? Who will improve the economy to the point that in two years when I am scouring the job market for a career I will find something I want to do and get paid well for it? While these questions are debatable, presidential candidates fail to spend much of their time actually debating them. The few candidates who do campaign at universities obviously structure their speeches briefly toward issues that the average college student would be interested in, but these issues tend to fly out the window during important, televised debates. This brings us back to the Catch 22 – with limited on-air time the presidential candidates need to focus on older age brackets because they will be the majority of the voters. Just as 10 years ago, paying for a college education was a major issue for the large Baby Boomer generation, this election Universal Healthcare and Social Security are frontrunners, programs that frankly I have little faith will be around by the time I am ready to take advantage of them. So while candidates continue to appeal to the older and larger age brackets, I continue to grow dissatisfied with their platforms.

Other than policy and lifestyle differences, the younger demographic has to cope with the fact that many of them attend school or have started new careers away from their hometown. As I sit here ready to slam my peers for not having the foresight to vote absentee, I realize that I, myself am unsure of how to vote. As a typical college student, I procrastinated applying for a mail-in ballot and now have the option of not voting or attempting to brave rush hour traffic to get home to San Diego and vote at the polls. While the two-hour drive seems like nothing compared to what the forefathers of our nation did to create this democracy, I see how it would pose as a legitimate barrier to many of my peers. Our voting process takes effort, and in elections involving “choosing between two evils” and an array of public policies that will probably not affect my life at college, is it worth it? Will my one vote make the difference between Barack Obama getting the democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton? Probably not. And I’m not alone in my thinking. College students have been quoted saying that they didn’t vote because they just “never got around to it.” (Arizona Daily Wildcat) On a college campus where everything moves at a hundred miles a second and most of us don’t have Mom or Dad holding our hands and telling us to be active citizens, voting just isn’t a priority. Couple this with the common viewpoint that one vote doesn’t make a difference in our complicated voting system, and voila – dismally low voter turnout. This cynicism is further reinforced by the past two presidential elections. The Florida scandal and ballot recount in the 2000 election and again with the difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College in the 2004 election.

Joe Lieberman gives additional reasons for the cynicism that has become inherent among our younger voting population in his book, In Praise of the Public Life. He says that cynicism is a “by-product of sensational politics”. In reference to this he mentions his fellow democrat, Bill Clinton, and the Lewinsky scandal that captured our nation’s attention for so long. With the amount of campaign fundraising and spending that occurs, and accusations that candidates sling at each other, politics has become similar to action movies – fake, expensive, and nasty. Another reason he gives for the marked disinterest in politics is the exaggerated partisan aspect of our current political scene. (Newshour Extra) This can best be seen in Congress during Bush’s last State of the Union address. (The Whitehouse) When you repeatedly see only one side of the aisle standing and clapping at his proclamations, it is apparent that fundamental differences reside in Congress, differences that are impeding any real betterment of our nation. Instead of cooperating, the republicans are struggling to get everything done they can to cement their policy favorites before they are voted out. Likewise the democrats are just sitting and biding their time until they can undo all the measures that the republicans are trying so fervently to get passed. With such a divided political system, it seems almost impossible that we could ever present a united front on issues like education and foreign relations.

It is an undeniable fact that US voter turnout is at an all-time low, which can't be good in any representative democracy. Furthermore, voting among the younger generation remains consistently behind the averages in other age brackets. While this is the result of a multitude of characteristics of current politics, including the fact that most young adults attend school away from their hometown, the obvious disinterest is mainly due to the fact that candidates and public policies tend to cater to older generations because they are guaranteed voters. It would frankly be suicide for any politician to focus too much time and energy on us because undoubtedly our turnout would remain low. The main message? We have to vote if we want to get noticed and respected. Only once we start voting, will politicians start creating platforms that we can appreciate as well.

This need for change on the political scene is embodied best by the man all about "change we can believe in"- Barack Obama. And it is obvious the younger generation has seen this potential for change as across the nation students have been grass roots campaigning for Obama. It will be interesting to see if the voter turnout numbers increase with this presidential election. I believe that simply by increasing the number of voters who go to the polls on election day, we will see a drastic improvement in our government and national pride.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Obama Wins Over the South

As the South Carolina primaries draw to a close tonight, exit polls show Barack Obama defeating Hillary Clinton in a landslide, with a projected twice as many votes (CNN). So what does this mean for democrats? Certainly with polls showing Obama garnering 81% of the African American vote (The Hill), race, like gender in New Hampshire, became a significant dividing factor within the party today. Which leads to the question - Are my fellow democrats voting with their heads or their hearts?

As a young white female, I am confident in the fact that my support for Barack Obama comes mainly from my belief in his ideals and political stances. If not for the needed change and inspiration I believe he will bring our federal government, there is not a doubt that I would relish in the opportunity to have our first female president. But the fact of the matter is that Hillary is no Barack. The hardened politician, regardless of experience, does not hold a light to the charismatic young senator from Illinois. I want change, and the "Audacity of Hope" draws me to Obama more than any female commiseration I would have for Clinton.

But I don't seem to be in the majority. With each candidate receiving a majority of support from their respective demographics, Clinton from females and Obama from African Americans, the Democratic party is divided and tension is in the air between the democratic candidates. Their tightrope walk of wanting to appeal to certain demographics while downplaying the impact their inherited traits have in this neck and neck race can only get more difficult as the campaign toward Super Tuesday continues on. And Obama's decided win tonight only makes February 5th more of a milestone in the democratic party's search for a candidate. I urge you all to make your voice heard and at the very least take an hour out of your day on February 5th to vote with your head and not with your heart.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Primary Outcomes as of January 15th

Iowa Caucus (January 3):
Democratic Winner = Barack Obama
Republican Winner = Mike Huckabee

Wyoming Caucus (January 5):
Democratic Winner = unknown before March 8
Republican Winner = Mitt Romney

New Hampshire (January 8):
Democratic Winner = Hillary Clinton
Republican Winner = John McCain

Michigan (January 15):
Republican Winner = Mitt Romney
Democratic Winner = Hillary Clinton [default win; due to Democratic Party's refusal to recognize Michigan delegates due to primary election schedules]

A look ahead:
January 19: Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primaries