Archive for May, 2009

Going Back to Old Nassau

The Class of 1980 has what counts as a muted and tasteful class costume, by Princeton standards."

The Class of 1980 has what counts as a muted and tasteful class costume, by Princeton standards, with line drawings of Nassau Hall as design elements.

Today I had the high privilege and distinct honor of fighting the wind with the parade banner for the Princeton Class of 1980, leading a hardy band of quintagenerians in an off-year reunion march at the “Best Damn Place of All,” in the words of the song.

My senior picture.  Sheesh.

My senior picture. Sheesh.

When asked which side of the banner I would like to hold, I promptly said “I should have the right,” as the lovely Web Goddess rolled her Obama-supporting eyes.

The P-rade is an annual pilgrimage for me — since graduation I have never lived more than an hour away from campus, and while I haven’t made it back  every year, I’m sure I’ve been to more than 20 of my 29 reunions.  After the P-rade I always swing by The Daily Princetonian picnic, but this year I was disappointed at not finding any of the folks I worked with when I got my start as a writer.

I did see an old Princetonian friend earlier in the day, when Joel Achenbach ’82 ably moderated a panel titled “Money, Greed and the Economy: Views from the Fourth Estate.”  In addition to his day job as a reporter and columnist at the Washington Post, Joel is the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which sponsored the panel, and where I got one of my first actual paychecks as a freelance (I repurposed my Junior Paper about the arrival of casino gambling in Atlantic City, I think I got $100 for the article, which never ran).

Columnist George Will sat three spots away from tormentor Josh Marshall

Columnist George Will sat three spots away from tormentor Josh Marshall

The panel featured George F. Will *68 (the asterisk indicating a graduate degree) as the headliner.  The advance program advertised Katrina vanden Heuvel ’81, editor of The Nation; she was a no-show, but the Obstreperous Lefty chair was ably filled by Josh Marshall ’91 of Talking Points Memo, who seemed to take delight in sniping at George Will.   After accusing Will of having “an ideological stake” in what he was saying — pot, meet kettle –  he boasted that he was “the only business owner on the panel, I meet a payroll, I don’t just write a column.” Will replied mildly that his GFW Inc. meets a payroll — it appears to have six employees.

The discussion was interesting — Will got a laugh when he said the press generally has not focused on the “300 million real culprits” behind the economic collapse.  Peter Slevin ’78, the Washington Post’s Chicago bureau chief, told of interviewing people with $25,000 salaries who had $400,000 mortgages, as part of a lively discussion on personal responsibility and perverse banking incentives.

All in all, a long and tiring day, under beautiful blue skies, low humidity, and a nice breeze that I enjoyed once I stopped carrying the banner.  Next year is my 30th reunion, and there will be more classmates in attendance.  I’ve heard it said that no other university in the country makes as big a deal about reunions as Princeton, and I think that may well be true.

(Reunions photos by the Web Goddess)

There's a reason for the blindfold

There's a reason for the blindfold

Sonia Sotomayor likely will become a reliably liberal vote on the Supreme Court, replacing the reliably liberal David Souter.  Despite my distaste for identity politics and legislation from the bench, I don’t see this as a disaster — nor do many of the conservative columnists I’ve read.

After describing one of Sotomayor’s decisions, James Taranto writes that he approves of:

“Sotomayor’s instinct to err on the side of protecting speech–an instinct that was a hallmark of “liberal” jurisprudence in the days of the Warren court but really is not anymore. …

If President Obama’s first nominee turns out to be an old-style liberal with a reverence for free speech, the country could have done a lot worse.

Krauthammer notes that “a president is entitled to deference on his Supreme Court nominees, particularly one who so thoroughly reflects the mainstream views of the winning party. Elections have consequences.” Rather than try to sink the nomination, he thinks Republicans should use it as a platform for discussing judicial philosophy, and the proper role for “empathy” in government.

Since the 2008 election, people have been asking what conservatism stands for. Well, if nothing else, it stands unequivocally against justice as empathy — and unequivocally for the principle of blind justice.

Empathy is a vital virtue to be exercised in private life — through charity, respect and loving kindness — and in the legislative life of a society where the consequences of any law matter greatly, which is why income taxes are progressive and safety nets are built for the poor and disadvantaged.

But all that stops at the courthouse door. Figuratively and literally, justice wears a blindfold. It cannot be a respecter of persons. Everyone must stand equally before the law, black or white, rich or poor, advantaged or not.

Obama and Sotomayor draw on the “richness of her experiences” and concern for judicial results to favor one American story, one disadvantaged background, over another. The refutation lies in the very oath Sotomayor must take when she ascends to the Supreme Court: “I do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich. . . . So help me God.”

The day after the nomination was announced, the Wall Street Journal editorialized:

As the first nominee of a popular President and with 59 Democrats in the Senate, Judge Sotomayor is likely to be confirmed barring some major blunder. But Republicans can use the process as a teaching moment, not to tear down Ms. Sotomayor on personal issues the way the left tried with Justices Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito, but to educate Americans about the proper role of the judiciary and to explore whether Judge Sotomayor’s Constitutional principles are as free-form as they seem from her record.

At the Heritage Foundation, Robert Alt illustrates the limitations of empathy as a legal standard:

My late constitutional law professor once offered the following hypothetical about a fishing dispute that made its way to court. On one side were Native Americans; on the other, environmentalists. After a pregnant pause, he mused: “What’s a liberal to do?” Were he to teach the class today, he might well have asked, “What’s an empathetic judge to do?”

As this hypothetical illustrates, empathy, the factor by which President Obama claims that he selects his judicial nominees, is highly subjective, and provides little direction for judges. In some cases, all of the parties are sympathetic. In other cases, none are. In still other cases, the law may be unambiguously on the side of a party who is less sympathetic.

If empathy is the guiding principle, how is a judge to decide these cases? And how do we separate empathy from personal bias?

Here, then, is a modest proposal: In choosing nominees, President Obama should seek judges who would apply the Constitution and the laws as they are written, and interpret them consistent with their plain and original meaning.

Based on some of the available evidence, that doesn’t appear to describe Judge Sotomayor. Also at the Heritage Foundation, Deborah O’Malley notes that Obama pays lip service to rule of law — but actions speak louder than words:

Obama says that an important quality in a nominee is the recognition of the limits of the judicial role. Thus judges should “interpret, not make law” and approach decisions with a “commitment to impartial justice.” With these words, it’s curious he’d select a nominee who disagrees.

Judge Sotomayor has made several public statements denouncing — and even lightly mocking — the idea that courts should be impartial and shouldn’t engage in policymaking.

I join the Journal in hoping that Republicans will keep their criticism focused on Judge Sotomayor’s rulings and statements, and not descend into ad hominem attacks.  I think Thomas Sowell overreaches and does his cause no favor by referring to Sotomayor as “this dangerous woman.”

I’m generally opposed to the idea of judges legislating from the bench — but I’m not an absolutist about it.  Brown v. Board of Education could be described as legislating from the bench, but I think the ruling was necessary and appropriate, and in fact a proud moment in American history.  Over the following decades, judges not only legislated from the bench in support of Brown, they in some cases took over the administration of school districts to enforce integration.  There might be valid arguments against this busing order or that forced redistricting, but in general I think the judiciary was taking (appropriately) extraordinary steps to overcome extraordinary defiance by segregationists.

Roe v. Wade is more complicated for me. I’m in the Clintonian “safe, legal and rare” camp, generally opposing most restrictions on access to abortion — so in that regard, Roe v. Wade has brought America about to where I want it to be.  But I wish we had gotten here through legislation rather than through judicial activism, and the Roe decision is utterly indefensible from a separation of powers perspective.

Via GayPatriot, the half-minute video above tells you all you need to know provides troubling evidence about where Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor stands on judicial activism:  She thinks the appeals courts are “where policy is made.”  She acknowledges that the Framers didn’t see it that way, but she clearly is untroubled by the idea of judges in policy-making roles.

As for identity politics, Obama apparently only considered women for the nomination.  I was rooting for a different Princeton graduate — rather than Sonia Sotomayor ’76, I was hoping for Elena Kagan ’81, with whom I worked on The Daily Princetonian before she went off to become Dean of Harvard Law and now Solicitor General.  But seriously, I’d rather see nominations made on the basis of qualifications rather than identity.  (In that regard, Sotomayor is a stronger pick, with more than a decade on the Court of Appeals.)

As GayPatriot also notes, it would be outrageous for a male jurist to make this statement:

“I would hope that a wise white man with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a Hispanic woman who hasn’t lived that life.”

But Sotomayor has said exactly that — just reversing the roles of the “wise Latina” and the white male.

I expect she’ll get confirmed, unless some skeleton is found in her closet.  But 29 Republican senators voted against putting her on the Court of Appeals, and that number no doubt will rise this time around.  I just don’t understand why it seems to be only Republicans who care about Constitutional separation of powers.

George W. Obama at the National Archives yesterday (AP)

George W. Obama at the National Archives yesterday (AP)

Krauthammer today:

The genius of democracy is that the rotation of power forces the opposition to come to its senses when it takes over. When the new guys, brought to power by popular will, then adopt the policies of the old guys, a national consensus is forged and a new legitimacy established.

Exactly right.  I fear that Obama is busily making a mess of the economy — or rather, more of a mess.  But on national security, it becomes clearer every day that despite Obama’s persistent sniping at his predecessor, we’ve essentially re-elected George Bush, and I for one am grateful.

After starting by retaining Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Obama has begun a surge in Afghanistan, adopted Bush’s timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, authorized repeated Predator drone strikes on al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, affirmed the use of military commissions, and yesterday acknowledged that some terrorists will have to be held indefinitely even though it will not be possible to prosecute them successfully.

Ponnuru:

President Obama and former Vice President Cheney weren’t so much a study in contrast today as a portrait of harmony. Both men agree that the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist policies were largely correct. Cheney signaled his acceptance of this view by vigorously defending those policies. Obama signaled it by largely adopting those same policies and emitting a fog of words to cover up the fact. (See this defense of Obama for a run-down of all the continuities.)

Obama’s fellow Democrats are helping to save him from his ill-advised promise to close Guantanamo within a year — the Senate vote eliminating funding for the closure was 90-6.  On the torture issue, Obama is trying to reclaim the moral high ground for America, and as long as he continues aggressively prosecuting the war, I largely wish him well.  It will give him a means of staking out a genuine policy difference, it may gain us some goodwill abroad, and if a time comes when we once again have a Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in custody smirking that “soon you will know” about imminent terror attacks, I strongly suspect that somebody will find a technique and a justification for doing what needs to be done.

I caught snatches of Obama’s speech yesterday on the radio, and I remember thinking that if I closed my eyes, I could imagine these words coming out of Bush’s mouth:

In the midst of all these challenges, however, my single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe. That is the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It is the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night.

This responsibility is only magnified in an era when an extremist ideology threatens our people, and technology gives a handful of terrorists the potential to do us great harm. We are less than eight years removed from the deadliest attack on American soil in our history. We know that al Qaeda is actively planning to attack us again. We know that this threat will be with us for a long time, and that we must use all elements of our power to defeat it.

Of course he quickly slipped back into campaign mode and blamed every problem on the Bush Administration.  But that will get old quickly, even among his supporters.  Meanwhile, look to his deeds, not just his words.

taranto-wsj-small1I’ve blogged before about Obama Derangement Syndrome, and its more prevalent predecessor, Bush Derangement Syndrome.  But the ODS virus now shows signs of mutating into a subtler strain.

Let’s call it Obama-Euphoria Debunking Syndrome (OEDS).

James Taranto, whose Best of the Web Today is the one blog I make certain to read every day, has always scrupulously resisted lapsing into ODS.  Today, for example, he offers this observation:

Actually, although we oppose many of the administration’s initiatives, we think reflexive opposition is irresponsible and stupid. And, because we love America, it pleases us when the administration does something we think is right.

Well put.  As another prominent blogger put it, “conservatives should support Obama when he gets something right.”

But while Taranto has avoided ODS, today’s column shows troubling symptoms of OEDS, as Taranto takes a swing at one of his favorite punching bags, Reuters.

Some background: Taranto’s scorn toward Reuters dates back at least to September 24, 2001. On that day, with the ruins still smoldering in lower Manhattan, he quoted a Reuters executive who forbade his reporters from describing the recent unpleasantness as “terrorism” because “we all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Ever since, Taranto has been on the alert for signs of hypocrisy in what the news service reports.  (Or as he likes to put it, in what the “news” service “reports.”)  In January, for example, in an item about torture allegations, he noted: “Reuters, which is careful not to use the word terrorism outside scare quotes, has no objection to using torture as if it were a regular, unloaded word.”

At other times he has referred to “the wire service’s odious anti-American bias,” “Reuterian anti-Americanism,” etc.  After an unidentified Reuters editor rewrote a Deanna Wrenn article to turn it into an America-bashing screed, he challenged a different Reuters article by saying “The piece is bylined “Joseph Logan,” but who knows if someone by that name actually wrote it; as Deanna Wrenn found out, Reuters isn’t above fraudulently affixing someone’s byline to its anti-American boilerplate.”

Like other conservative bloggers, Taranto has repeatedly commented about the sharp contrast between the news media’s treatment of Obama and Bush.  A January column was an opportunity for a two-fer: “Reuters’ pro-Obama bias seems to be tempering its usual anti-American bias,” he wrote.

Have I mentioned that Taranto doesn’t like Reuters?

I thought about coining the term “Reuters Derangement Syndrome” for this post, but Taranto is not deranged and Reuters is not that important.  Obama Euphoria-Debunking Syndrome (I’m not sure where the hyphen belongs) is a much less toxic malady.  Here’s the post today that makes me think Taranto may have an OEDS sniffle (emphasis added):

From Reuters:

U.S. homebuilder sentiment jumped to its highest level in eight months in May, a private survey showed on Monday, supporting views that the three-year housing slump might be close to an end.

Now wait a second. Another way of describing this is that homebuilder sentiment remains lower today than it was eight months ago, which was well into the three-year slump. How can this possibly support the view that the slump is close to an end?

Wait, it just occurred to us that something has changed since September that may be affecting Reuters’ evaluation of the housing market.

The change he refers to, of course, is the transition from Bush to Obama. But Taranto, who may be seeing what he is predisposed to see, overstates his case.  The Reuters report seems appropriately hedged, and at worst represents wishful thinking.  To answer Taranto’s boldfaced question: Sentiment generally has been declining for three years.  Sentiment apparently is improving now, and if it continues to improve, the slump will end. The term “slump” doesn’t appear to have a specific definition in this context, but if it’s analogous to a recession, the slump can be said to have ended at the point the sentiment changed direction.

(Pointillist drawing of Taranto is probably originally from the WSJ and may be copyrighted; I found it here.)

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Guantanamo Baywatch – The Final Season
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Jon Stewart is an openly partisan Democrat, and sometimes I find that annoying. But he also is a really, really funny man. And to his credit, he doesn’t shy away from tweaking people on his own side of the aisle when he catches them in hypocrisy.

President Obama’s first executive order, signed January 22, was to close the detention facility at Guantanamo “as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order.”  I wish I had posted what I remember thinking at the time, which was that I’m absolutely confident that on January 23, 2010, there will still be detainees at Guantanamo.

The problem, of course, is that at least some of the Gitmo detainees are extremely dangerous terrorists. Our friends the Europeans are sounding more cooperative now than in the early days after Obama’s announcement, when they tripped all over each other in a NIMBY race.  But so far Europe has shown more talk than action:

European leaders have praised President Obama’s promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo in Cuba by January, but they have been slow to respond to his pleas for help in emptying the detention center. Since Obama took office 100 days ago, Britain has received one prisoner and France has promised to take another, but no other European country has made any firm commitments.

Yesterday I noticed via TigerHawk that Obama’s fellow Democrats are no more willing than the Europeans to play host to terrorists — even terrorists behind bars.   Stewart’s 5:47 video from last night, above, starts out looking like he’s pointing mostly to Republicans as obstructionists, but at the end — after the brain-eating zombie — he shows what happened to the Democrats who literally stood behind Obama as he signed the order.


dick-takes-manhattanThe latest Newsweek just arrived by snail mail, and I have to say I’m lovin’ the new design.  Bigger, bolder photographs… a more elegant (and yet readable!) typeface… informative fun with graphics in the “Back Story,” which Editor Jon Meacham describes as “a visual dissection or explanation of an important issue or phenomenon that will satisfy one’s curiosity or pique interest.”

The redesign is part of a broader effort to find a business model for print journalism that works.  The existing model is in deep trouble, especially with regard to newspapers.  The mighty New York Times saw fit to pay $1.1 billion in 1993 for the Boston Globe. getting-to-know-obamaBut now the entire company — which in addition to those two major dailies includes more than a dozen other U.S. dailies, the International Herald Tribune and a bunch of other stuff  like Fenway Park and the Red Sox — the whole company is worth less than $1 billion, and in recent weeks resorted to threatening to shut down the Globe to win union concessions.

Meacham essentially says that Newsweek is getting out of the business of trying to break news. They’re going to take advantage of the relatively contemplative pace of their weekly publication to pursue “the reported narrative” and “the argued essay.”

What is displaced by these categories? The chief casualty is the straightforward news piece and news written with a few (hard-won, to be sure) new details that does not move us significantly past what we already know. Will we cover breaking news? Yes, we will, but with a rigorous standard in mind: Are we truly adding to the conversation? When violence erupts in the Middle East, are we saying something original about it? Are our photographs and design values exceptional? If the answers are yes, then we are in business.

Print publications that survive will be the ones that find a way to exploit the benefits of the printed medium.  Now and forever, timeliness is going to favor the Internet.  But the web just can’t provide the kind of visual feast that a well-designed magazine can.  The inaugural episode of the aforementioned “Back Story” feature, for example, graphically shows 15 purchases that could all be made with the Obama Administration’s $3.5 trillion 2010 federal budget, starting with “everything produced in Italy in 2008″ and ending with an overpriced $8.50 burrito in Manhattan.

back-story-smallIt’s fun, it’s evocative, it makes a powerful point about federal spending.  But you’re going to have to buy the current Newsweek or squint at the little scanned image at left — I can’t link to Back Story because it’s not online.  An intricate, full-page graphic just can’t work online in the same quick-read kind of way as it works in print.

The print version also makes use of photography in a way that is more difficult online.  Full-page and two-page photos come to life on paper, but photos that large online would load slowly and expose the inherent visual limitations of the web.

For reasons not clear to me, they passed up an opportunity to repurpose at least some of their photos for the web.  The two graphics at the top of the column both click through to the web versions of the respective columns… but on the web, you won’t see the extremely horizontal photographs captured in the screen grabs above.  That kind of extreme horizontal actually does work well on the web.

st_g_homepageAnd here is where I finally get to the REAL point of this post.  J’accuse, NewsweekI know the source of the inspiration for the extreme horizontals.  The lovely Web Goddess posted the updated St. George’s Episcopal Church website more than a week ago — don’t tell me that’s not where you got the idea!

That’s right, this homage to Newsweek is actually an excuse to wander back into the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM and show off my wife’s handiwork.

st_g_social_justice1The Web Goddess created St. George’s website with a handful of pages in March 2001, and has continuously enlarged and improved it ever since. It’s by far the largest church website in the Diocese of Newark, all created by one volunteer who taught herself HTML, CSS and Javascript.

In the process, the Web Goddess amassed a trove of literally thousands of photographs of St. George’s events. Some were taken by other parishioners, but many of them (including the three you see here) she took herself, with the cameras her loving husband bought her.

st_g_ponyIn recent months she felt the existing design was starting to look tired, and she wanted to expand her web skills.  So she recoded the entire site from the ground up to improve performance and make use of all those wonderful pictures. Each of the three screen grabs here links to a different section of the website, and on any page of the site you can scroll through photos with the arrows at the top of the header. All of this she accomplished outside of working hours while working full-time. (Did I mention I’m proud of her?)

So, nice job, Newsweek — but the Web Goddess was out with her redesign first.

(Regarding the horizontal photos, in the interests of full disclosure, the Web Goddess tips her hat to the website of St. Olaf College.)

Who Says Republicans Have No Sense of Humor?

This gem comes from the Republican National Committee (hat tip: Gay Patriot).  It’s the most amusing way you can spend the next 34 seconds.

A couple of quibbles about the execution:  The word “payback” may originally have meant return on investment, but these days I think the more commonly understood meaning is “the act of taking revenge.”  I think “payoff” would have been a better word choice here.

And golly, RNC, if the only way you’re going to distribute the video, even on your own site, is via YouTube, can’t you at least design the ad so that your captions are not obscured by the YouTube logo?

I like the ad because a) it’s funny; and b) it’s a clean hit.  You can disagree with the intent of the ad, but I don’t think you can really criticize it as being outside the boundaries of fair comment.

Or can you?  By celebrating this ad, am I violating my own preaching about the importance of civility to democracy?  Discuss.

May 15 Is Writers Worth Day

statue-money-copyMy friend Lori Widmer is a seasoned writer and blogger, and a tireless advocate of better pay for pixel-stained wretches everywhere.  Five days a week she offers brief, cogent (and well-written!) advice to writers and would-be writers on her blog, Words on the Page.  She has an active commenting community of fellow writers who chime in on a daily basis with encouragement, ideas and horror stories.

Lori has declared that today is “Writers Worth Day,” a day for all of us in the writing “industry” to take a stand against the cheesy job boards and websites that offer, for example, payment of $5 for a well-researched, original blog post of 300 words or more.  “Our careers depend on your turning down bad deals because each time you accept a lousy offer, you validate the existence of people who don’t value writing skills,” she declares, and I say, hear hear!

I quibble a bit with her references to a writing “industry.” I think writing actually is broader and more fundamental than an industry.  Writing is a close cousin to knowledge, and while people speak of “knowledge workers,” I don’t think there’s really a “knowledge industry” — despite 618,000 Google hits for the term.  It seems like an “industry” should be more narrowly defined, and have at least some barriers to entry.

But I certainly agree with her that capable writers should be taken seriously — especially by themselves.  We do add value.  Speaking of which

gerson3Mad props to Michael Gerson, who in today’s Washington Post brilliantly articulates the concept I was struggling to develop in my recent post, “Don’t Blame Me for Rush Limbaugh, I Won’t Blame You for Michael Moore.”  (Disclosure: Gerson did not actually consult with me, and may not have realized he was writing this on my behalf.)

The practice of civility is important to democracy. In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen L. Carter defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together. . . . We should make sacrifices for others not simply because doing so makes social life easier (although it does), but as a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God.”

Respect makes cooperation for the common good possible. Civility acts like grease in the democratic machine; disdain is sand thrown into the gears. But civility is also a direct reflection of our belief in human equality. Even people we vehemently disagree with on the largest issues possess a democratic value equal to our own. Carter argues that this recognition does not preclude “passionate disagreement,” but it does require “civil listening” — and I’d guess it forbids hoping for the death of political opponents.

Read the whole thing.

There’s an old platitude, “I may not agree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it.”  That rings slightly false — although I would verbally defend your right to disagree with me, if there’s a realistic prospect of death, you’re probably on your own. But surely all of us would be better off if more people treated opposing ideas with some level of respect.

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