Fascination with fame

At one point in the 2008 United States presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) gave a speech before a massive crowd in Berlin. Shortly thereafter, his opponent, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) released an advertisement bemoaning the Democratic Senator’s celebrity.

I remember thinking that this was an interesting tactic, especially considering nobody outside of the state of Illinois had even heard of Obama prior to 2004, and considering that McCain was as much of a celebrity as anyone in politics at the time.

But one other thing that I thought — and was surprised that I didn’t see this coming from any other pundits — was that McCain might have done Obama a favor by running that ad. After all, if there’s one indisputable truth to American history, it’s that (with apologies to Carl Sagan) we are starfuckers.

It kind of goes without saying, that there is a degree to which a presidential election is a popularity contest. While the calculus of either the apportioning of delegates to a nominating convention or the electoral vote, does not correlate exactly to the popular vote counts, a candidate still needs large numbers of people voting for him or her in order to win.

But if you look at the history of the American presidency, it’s clear that the winners more often than not, were able to exploit their celebrity and turn that into votes.

We can start with George Washington. Celebrated General from both the French-Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Probably the biggest celebrity in the 13 colonies. And the voters who elected him, were starfuckers.

His four immediate successors were founding fathers who helped shape the country in the run-up and follow-up to the revolution. One of them wrote the Declaration of Independence and another wrote the Constitution.

By the time we elected John Quincy Adams (the son of a prior president) in 1824, our reputation as starfuckers had been fully grounded in reality.

Of course, over time and especially with changes in technologies, what makes a person a celebrity has evolved. But it’s safe to say, for example, that the election campaign of 1840 was won at least partially because of the victor’s celebrity from the Battle of Tippecanoe. After all, William Henry Harrison’s slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”.

We are starfuckers.

You can sift through all American presidents and find what made them famous enough to be victorious. Lincoln became famous because of his debates with Stephen Douglas. Grant was a celebrated Civil War general. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of Tippecanoe. FDR made a name for himself with a long political career and being related to Teddy Roosevelt didn’t hurt. Eisenhower was a celebrated World War II general. Kennedy followed Lincoln’s path to celebrity. Ronald Reagan was an actor. George W. Bush’s father was president. And that’s not getting into the people who had already served as vice president (like Nixon or George H.W. Bush) or who ascended to the presidency after the sitting president died (like Teddy Roosevelt).

We are starfuckers.

I bring this up because of the blindness of the punditocracy to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, the business mogul seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency in the 2016 campaign. More than two years ago I posted about how Hilary Clinton’s pre-existing fame could be a problem for her if she should secure the Democratic nomination for the election. That was before I knew that Trump would be saying and doing what he’s saying and doing.

Donald Trump has long been a symbol of the powerful businessman-as-celebrity. A lot of extremely wealthy individuals have large-scale name recognition because of the companies they lead. (Or at least used to lead. I’m sure everyone knows of Bill Gates, but how many people can name the current CEO of Microsoft? Hint: it’s Satya Nadella.) Trump may be one of the first moguls to turn his wealth into celebrity, back in the 1980’s.

And he refined his talents at playing the media when he became a reality television star. I even admit it: I enjoyed the first few seasons of The Apprentice, but I stopped watching it when it became Celebrity Apprentice. It felt better watching ordinary people use their skills to get powerful jobs within the Trump organization. And I’ll even admit it: someone watching the show could have walked away with some pretty decent business skills if they paid attention and made notes of it.

I’m not saying that he’d be a good president or a bad president. And I don’t fault the leaders within the Republican Party who thinks that he’s doing more harm than good to their brand, so we can’t be surprised that they’re scared of him and the way he’s polling right now. But we are starfuckers.

For voters that don’t pay close attention to the issues — and there are too many of them in each election cycle — the fallback is voting based upon celebrity. And that absolutely could be Donald Trump.

I’ve said before that I haven’t been able to vote for the Republican Party in good conscience since 2003. And I do consider that a damn shame. The party needs to wrest control away from the evangelicals and the Tea Party, and I don’t know what it would take to do that.

As someone not beholden to the money the party spends, maybe Trump could do that. Even if — as many people who care about the issue will attest — he would probably lose the general election. So even if he himself doesn’t become president, I do see him as having a net positive impact on a political party that, for the better part of the last half-century, has spent too many resources by being regressive and antithetical to the things that makes America great.

Including the fact that we are starfuckers.

This might be my oldest blog entry

As an undergraduate, I attended Georgetown University, from 1990 to 1994.   I spent one semester abroad, in the fall of 1993, at the St Petersburg (Russia) Gorny Institut.   

This past weekend I was looking through some of my stuff that still remained in my parents’ house and took two overflowing boxes of books, papers, and other things home with me.  One of those things was a copy of the campus newspaper, The Hoya, dated March 4, 1994.   

As soon as I saw it, I knew why I had kept that paper.  I had an op-ed piece in there about what was at the time the emerging situation between Russia and Ukraine in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  I think that this 21+ year old article provides more than a little bit of insight into events in that region over the past couple of years.   Enjoy!

Russian Nationalism in Crimea Threatens Ukraine

The small, semiautonomous republic of Crimea has become the focal point of a debate between Russia and Ukraine.  The republic held elections on Jan. 30, in which Russian nationalist Yuri Meshkov won about 75% of the vote.  While a three-fourths majority may seem high to Americans, it comes as no surprise to those familiar with Crimean politics and economics.  

The United States recently convinced the Ukrainian government to begin dismantling the nuclear arsenal it inherited after the break-up of the Soviet Union and promised financial and military protection for Ukraine. Despite U.S. promises of protection, Ukraine is in a precarious situation: it faces the potential threat of a Russian invasion, which, under the leadership of recently elected ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, seems quite possible. 

Crimeans feel few cultural ties to Ukraine, and therefore, with reason, would prefer to be part of Russia.  Although most Crimeans agree unification with Russia would improve their situation, Ukrainian opposition to such a union is fierce. 

I visited Crimea last September as part of a study-abroad program in St. Petersburg, Russia.   I was initially afraid to speak to the citizens: I speak Russian, not Ukrainian, and resentment among the Ukrainians towards their Russian neighbors runs high.  I soon discovered almost 80 percent of Crimea’s residents are ethnic Russians, and so my fear of speaking in that language dissolved quickly.  Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as a goodwill gesture following Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and 1940s.   Despite 50 years under Ukrainian rule, most Crimeans still feel strong ties to Russia. 

Ethnic ties, however, are not the only reason many Crimeans support reunification.  Ukraine’s economy is, simply put, a mess. When I arrived in Crimea on September 27 of last year, the exchange rate was 14000 karbovanets (commonly called the coupon) to the dollar.  When I left a week later, the rate was 16000 to the dollar.  It doesn’t take an economics major to realize the situation is disastrous.  

When the Ukrainian government first minted coupons in 1991, one coupon equaled one ruble.  The week I was in Crimea, the Russian ruble was more-or-less stable at 1140 to the dollar.  A loaf of bread cost about 1000 coupons.  Although bread is less than a dime, the average pay for Crimeans was 50,000 coupons a month.  A cab driver told me that he gave some of his pay to his parents, who are pensioners, because they only receive 30,000 coupons a month.  On Feb. 23, 1994, the Washington Post quoted the exchange rate at 36000 coupons to the dollar.  Anyone with dollars feels like a millionaire in Crimea. 

I asked the Crimeans I met what they thought of their peninsula’s future.  Most of them expressed a desire to rejoin Russia, to increase both political and economic stability, as well as to regain cultural unity.  

Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are now in an interesting diplomatic position.  With nationalism on the rise throughout Russia — as evidenced by the overwhelming victory of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, led by Zhirinovsky, who has talked of reclaiming lost territories including Poland, Ukraine, and Alaska — Ukrainians should be concerned about their own sovereignty. 

Ukraine has only been independent from Russia for part of this century and if one looks at a map of this area and imagines Crimea as a part of Russia, the image bears a striking resemblance to the map of Germany and Czechoslovakia before Germany’s 1938 invasion.  Russian territory would completely surround Ukrainian territory.  Without nuclear weapons, Ukraine would be powerless to protect itself against a Russian invasion. 

At this stage in the development of the former Soviet Union, the wisest move is to allow Russia and Ukraine to chart their own respective courses on the sea of change.  It appears to me that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with his overtly nationalistic talk, is bluffing.  Part of the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement would be that Ukraine would be protected in the event of a hostile invasion. If nobody calls Zhirinovsky’s bluff, should be prepared to react with whatever means are necessary.  To avoid creating conflict where there is none, all Western actions in the area should be reactions. 

A Serious Need for Critical Thinking

I have considered myself a skeptic for probably longer than I truly understood what the word actually means.

Of course, the most common career one can pursue, if one wishes to put their skepticism to use, is a career in the sciences. And I’m not a scientist. So my skepticism is more of a hobby or a pastime. I apply it when necessary and am more than willing to acknowledge that there are times when I choose not to act skeptically. (I have two stories about my ancestry where I readily concede that I don’t know the exact truth, but the stories are just too interesting to want to pursue the possibility that they’re not. So I’d prefer to talk about how they’re possible, than lose the narrative if it turns out that they’re not the exact truth.)

Of course, we should all recall HL Mencken’s statement about how no one has ever made any money overestimating people’s intelligence. So there’s always room for being skeptical when the opportunity arises. It’s why I’ve been blocked from posting on the Food Babe’s facebook page.

What’s really surprising is that in recent weeks, I’ve had two very visible places, where a healthy dose of skepticism are warranted.

First is what’s becoming a political matter in the town where I live. About a year ago, two wells in my township were closed due to elevated levels of some contaminant, partially due to changing standards maintained by the EPA.

In the past two weeks, I have received no fewer than five slickly-designed mailers trying to turn that fact into a political issue. Selective quoting of news items and declaring that a polysyllabic chemical name has been “linked” to cancer. No statistics, no nothing.

I’m not trying to say that I’m not concerned about the safety of the local water supply, but you’ve got to give me something more than “linked” to cancer before I think that — in the words of one of the robocalls I’ve gotten — a bunch of concerned local residents of all political persuasions know more than the experts in the field.

Election Day is coming up. And I recognize that there are legitimate reasons to vote either for the incumbents or their challengers. The conditions of the water, however, are neither.

The other place where a little bit of skepticism is warranted, is that I’ve been seeing a deluge of posts on my facebook feed, trying to sell some kind of wrap that is ostensibly designed to help a person lose weight and wear off age lines.

These posts all follow the same pattern: they show before-and-after pictures (some of which are minimally different) with an exclamation of how well it works and then to send a private message to the poster for more details.

The people selling this product are apparently running a business loosely modeled after what Amway does. One post that I saw was very telling in that someone attempted to criticize the product and rather than address the criticism, they chose to ask that people not complain because they’re trying to run a business.

Let’s ignore for a moment that if you’re running a business of any sort, you need to expect complaints, and alienating real or potential customers is not the way to do it.

I did a google search of the product in question and there has been no rigorous scientific study on the efficacy of these wraps or related products. That just leaves user testimonials as the entire basis of the information we know about the product. Which puts this product — if we’re being our most polite — a form of “alternative medicine”.

And remember what Tim Minchin said about that: you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been shown to work? “Medicine”.

Personally, I love the user review that said that the product is effectively a wet paper towel for $100 / month.

Of course, from what I’ve read of this, it’s the perfect Amway metaphor. The product apparently works as long as you continue using it and spending the money on it, so that would give a nice stream of income to the people selling it to you. So you’re really just better off not starting.

I really think that everyone would be well-served to pay attention to the song “Skeptic” by George Hrab. It would benefit anyone who might consider paying attention to the people who want to sell us some snake oil or upset local politics based upon nonexistent problems.

Planned Parenthood

I admit it.  I sometimes enjoy trolling fundamentalist Christian websites. Okay.  Maybe “trolling” isn’t the right word since I don’t actually inject myself into their conversations (much less try to goad them into anything) but you get the point.  It’s absolutely important to know what they’re saying even if you disagree with them.  

It’s not news that an organization known as the “Center for Medical Progress” (considering that the only thing they stand for is opposition to reproductive health care, I’d be hard pressed to find a less accurate name for this group, assuming Pigfuckers of America is already taken) has been publishing slickly edited videos in which they allege that Planned Parenthood illegally sells body parts from aborted and miscarried embryos and fetuses. 

Legitimate political debate depends at least partially on being well-informed and you can’t be informed if you’re being misled.  It’s not a new phenomenon to try to demonize those with whom you disagree, but to the uninformed or underinformed, this is where critical thinking skills are necessary.  

I admit it: I couldn’t watch much of the videos (I made it about fifteen minutes into the first one). I had to turn it off not because of what they were showing, but instead how baldly the producers of the movie were lying to make their supposed points.  

Let me ask a simple question about these videos: if Planned Parenthood is really doing illegal activity as presented therein (and openly admitting to it), why would the producers of the videos sit on the evidence for over a year, and then release it not to the proper authorities but instead to the public?

When historians look back on the presidency of Barack Obama, I suspect his legacy will be more positive than negative, especially in light of the opposition he faced at literally every turn. If his two immediate predecessors could be criticized for conduct unbecoming of the Oval Office (with Bush’s lies being far more devastating than Clinton’s), Obama definitely brought class, dignity, and honesty back to the presidency.   One of the negatives of Obama’s presidency, though, is the fate of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.  (There are others but they’re not relevant to this essay.). This is (or rather, was.  It was liquidated in bankruptcy proceedings in late 2010) an organization that helped motivate countless inner city youth and give them leadership skills.  Who knows how much worse off our cities would be without groups like this?

You may recall the similarly edited — and equally dishonest — videos created by people on a mission to discredit ACORN.  And I do fault Obama for not defending the community organizers more vigorously.  And I wonder if the success (at least in the eyes of the video producers) of that campaign at least partially emboldened the Pugfuckers of America.  I mean the Center for Meducal Progress.  I wonder if there’s any overlap between the producers.  

Some antiabortion activists are finally starting to show their hands.  They don’t want to just ban abortion.   They want to control all human sexuality.  This explains their vehement opposition to the so-called gay agenda because whatever else is or isn’t true, when you’ve got two or more people with the same sex organs grinding those organs together, lots of things can happen, but a pregnancy isn’t one.  

I do find it strangely ironic.  These are the same people who continually proclaim that our species is somehow superior to other animals.  Yet when it comes to sex — which, when you think of the myriad reasons why we choose to have it, actually is and can be a difference between us and most other animals — they’ll tell you it’s bad unless it’s to achieve a pregnancy.  Just like so many other animals.

I’m hard-pressed to come up with any organization that has done more to improve people’s lives, keep them healthy, and encourage responsibility in having a family, than Planned Parenthood.   Not only do they deserve praise, and more money than they currently receive, they deserve not to be harangued by these misinformed ideologues who want to roll back the clock to times when our lives were significantly harder and less healthy.  

Greatest Year in Music

I’ve written before about how my favorite radio station, WXPN, has been taking novel approaches to their programming for watch of the past eleven Octobers by conducting specialized countdowns based upon listener votes.   

This year, they’re doing something different.   While I don’t know exactly how they’re going to do it this year, the topic of discussion is the greatest year in music.

I have a problem with this idea at its most basic level.   In any given year, there’s bound to be good music and bad music, but there’s something more important than that.   If you look back to the ten albums that I voted for in the countdown for the greatest albums in 2005, for example, two albums on my list were all released in the same year: Tori Amos’s Under the Pink and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral came out in 1994 (and Portishead’s Dummy nearly made my final list, also from the same year).  

So that’s at least an argument for that year, isn’t it?

The problem is that the big event in music from that year, is the suicide of Kurt Cobain, the frontman for Nirvava.  And the sadness from the death of a highly regarded musician can be a stain on just about any year for which we might otherwise vote.   A lot of great music came out in 1970, the year Jimi Hendrix died.  You can say the same thing about 1977, tempered by the death of Elvis Presley.  Ditto for 1980 with the tragedy that was John Lennon.  1981?  Harry Chapin.   1984?  Marvin Gaye.   2009?  Michael Jackson.   2011?  Amy Winehouse.  

The loss of a talented musician is a tragedy, and it happens every year.  (This year alone, we’ve already lost Lesley Gore, Percy Sledge, Ben E King, and B.B. King).   

So I can’t do it.   At least in the era of rock music.  

It’s not really subject to a vote like in past years, but in order to ease myself of the sorrow of the death of important musicians, I’m going to say that the greatest year in music was 1786.  Mozart first performed The Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven was starting to make a name for himself, and baroque music was on the rise.  

But there really was no “greatest year in music”.   You can find good and bad music in any year.   And if you look at the people who created it, there are real triumphs and tragedies each year, too.  

Still, if you want my guess as to which year is going to end up being declared the greatest year, it’s not very hard to predict.  Just look to the year in which the album that placed at number 1 back in ’05 for the greatest album countdown, and the year of the number one most memorable musical moments from the ’07 countdown: 1969.  

Just look away from the deaths of Brian Jones, Judy Garland, Frank Loesser, and Pee Wee Russell that year. 

If you can stand yet another essay on it…

I’m hesitant to add to the mountain of words being written and spoken about Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk Kim Davis, who now sits in a jail cell on contempt of court charges for her unwillingness to sign marriage licenses for same sex couples.   According to her, doing so would be tantamount to her approval of the union, which, in turn, would violate her “sincerely held religious beliefs”.

Never mind that signing a marriage license for an otherwise lawful marriage is no more a statement of approval of something, than paying your monthly cable bill is approval of any channel you don’t actually watch.   Why bother with facts when it comes to your sincerely held religious beliefs?

It’s what enabled the Hobby Lobby retail chain to refuse contraceptive coverage because they believe — incorrectly — that some oral contraceptives induce abortions.  This is what the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has wrought: the right to look away from actual facts or evidence because of beliefs.

But even more interesting than that, though, is Mrs. Davis’s résumé.  She has worked in this office for nearly three decades and only sought the elected office in the November, 2014 polls.   Her job is to uphold the law in carrying out her elected duties.   And that’s one thing I haven’t seen much written about: laws change, sometimes through local venues, sometimes statewide, and sometimes on a federal level.  Sometimes the changes are the result of legislation and sometimes he changes are the result of courts interpreting existing laws.

Obergefell v Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that same sex couples have the same right to marriage as opposite sex couples, was on the docket for the 2014-2015 court season.    And it was announced that it would be part of the docket in August, 2014.   (Oral arguments were in March, 2015.)  The very fact that it was on the docket meant that a change to marriage law at the time of last November’s election — while by no means a certainty — was certainly a possibility.

If Mrs. Davis is that steadfast in her beliefs about same sex marriage (or as we now should call it, “marriage”), why did she even seek the elected office?  If she feels that strongly about it, shouldn’t the possibility of having to sign licenses for same sex couples have at least given her pause about running?

The 2016 Election

As the election season that culminated in the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was getting underway, a lot of pundits started talking about which historical election 2008 would most closely resemble. (This was before the financial meltdown that would occur about a month before the actual vote.) Widespread dissatisfaction with the party in the White House led most people to compare it — with a moderate degree of accuracy — to 1968.

In hindsight, we can argue that two separate elections of the twentieth century can be described as “the incumbent president sailed to an easy re-election by campaigning on a platform that he had kept us out of rapidly escalating European Wars, despite repeated requests for help from our allies. Under the lens of history, barely a year passed between that re-election and our entrance into those wars.” I’m talking, of course, about the elections of 1916 and 1940.

So even though each election is certainly unique and has things that defy conventional wisdom (as illustrated beautifully by this XKCD comic strip from four years ago, even though the item for 1984 is questionable at best. (Reagan wrote with his right hand; there are plausible stories that speak of how, as a child, he was left-handed but forced to write right-handed, but they’re far from definitive.)

So, as the campaigns are starting to gear up, it’s fair to ask the question of which historical election year 2016 will most closely resemble.

Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, 2016 will mark the fifth time that an incumbent president will be constitutionally ineligible to seek re-election. (The previous four were 1960, 1988, 2000, and 2008.) I don’t want to delve too much into the implications and nuances of the 22nd Amendment, it’s probably fair to say that, without the 22nd Amendment, the incumbent president in three of those four past years, was popular enough to win again had he been legally permitted to do so. (George W Bush would not have had a chance at re-election in 2008. Eisenhower in ’60, Reagan in ’88, and Clinton and ’00 probably could have at least put up strong campaigns.)

I say this not to make any arguments about the merits or demerits of the 22nd Amendment but instead to call a parallel to Obama’s recent off-the-cuff statement that Obama probably could be re-elected again if he were constitutionally eligible. I agree, considering the state of the electorate. Indeed, he probably would stand a better chance at it than any of his four constitutionally ineligible predecessors if for no other reason than the relative lack of political scandals at comparable points in their presidencies.

But the 22nd Amendment has had an influence on the way second-term presidents have governed. Even though there were only four elections prior to the 22nd Amendment in which a sitting or former president sought a third term (1880, 1916, 1940, and 1944), second terms of presidents unencumbered by the constitution governed differently from second terms any more.

It’s therefore fair to say, at least at this stage, that 2016 will resemble one of the previous elections where the president was constitutionally ineligible.

And I think we can immediately factor out 2008 as the comparable election, for reasons mentioned above.

This comparison should center on the candidates for both parties. In 2016, there are a small number of candidates seeking the nomination of the party that currently holds the White House, although one candidate is clearly favored by the party establishment over the others. In this regard, 2016 could resemble 1988 or 2000. (While technically true in 1960, too, Nixon’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the presidency was less certain than Bush’s in 1988 or Gore’s in 2000.) Despite the numbers of people showing up to Bernie Sanders rallies now, it’s pretty clear that the Democratic nomination will go to Hilary Clinton unless she completely self-destructs. (Nothing against, Sanders, or Martin O’Malley, or Lincoln Chafee, or Jim Webb.)

But what of the party not in the White House. There are seventeen plausible candidates (and counting) seeking the Republican nomination. And although the odds are that within the next couple of months, several of them will drop out for money reasons. (If you were wondering who I think will be first, I’d bet on Rick Perry…) This is a field so large, the first debate had to be split into two smaller groups based upon polling numbers.

Side note: Rick Santorum isn’t wrong for criticizing the process by which the groups were divided, especially since he got the proverbial short end of the stick, I would like to know how he would propose doing the debates, considering that having all seventeen candidates on the stage at once is a logistical nightmare, if not an outright impossibility.

When you look at the vast number of candidates, I’m reminded of a political cartoon from 1988, which posited that all of the Democratic candidates could stand side-by-side humming the national anthem and completely overpower Vice President George H. W. Bush.

There were a few democrats in ’88 whose candidacies created media circuses (Gary Hart comes to mind), not unlike Donald Trump today, but there were a boatload of them with no clear front runner (Donald Trump won’t be the GOP nominee) and a damaging primary season ahead.

So that’s my prediction. I realize that it’s nearly six months before the first caucuses and primaries and a lot can change between now and then, but I think it’s fair to say that if we want to look to a historical precedent, then 2016 will most closely resemble 1988.