Sunday, August 31, 2008

Give Props to "Sarah Barracuda"

Republican operatives can always lean on the penchance of Blue America (not necessarily liberal) to mock working class people and norms. The R's have mastered the art of "you think you're better than me" politics. It's the worst form of demagoguing, although the Democrats economic populism is a pretty close second.

But the Democrats are complicit in the Republican's gambit. The Obama camnpaign's initial response to the Palin pick smacked of "liberal elitism." Criticising McCain for picking a candidate that was mayor of a town of 9,000 may be rational, but it also signals to people in small towns that they are inconsequential. Are they saying that small town mayors are incapable of being effective administrators? Are small town people in general to stupid to govern?

Case in point, a new CNN poll has the election tied even after Obama's spectacular acceptance speech. While Galup saw an 8 point lead in its tracking poll on Saturday, that number is down to six today and will probably fall to 2-3 as the Thursday and Friday polling falls out of the three day average. This is all due to the popularity of the Palin pick among a god chunk of the public. According to the CNN poll, 38% view her favorably, while 21% view her unfavorably.

Why in heaven's name would 38% of people be excited about picking a candiate with 18 months of experience governing a state. Because she doesn't appear to be "better than" people in small town America. Obama with his fancy lettuce and fruity teas may not think he's better than those in smal towns, but he certainly exudes that vibe.

It would seem to be a tired trope. Like anyone could see that you shouldn't reward poor governance in one party with another chance to govern. But presidential politics is intensely personal. It's a symbolic decision about who represents me to the world and to my peers. For whatever reason, the Democrats are incapable of understanding that. If they would, they would pay all due deference to Sara Palin, celebrating her small town values and her personal story, and then go after how her and McCain's policies would be destructive to small town America.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Hey, We're About Change Too!

What's the over/under on how many days it will take before we hear this:

"I know Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is a friend of mine. You ma'am are no Hillary Clinton."

Update -- Palin analysis potpourri:

McCain's Sexist VP Pick

McCain's Dangerous Folly

National Review Editors on the Palin Pick

The Most Popular Governor

From a quick blog-o-scan, it looks like the both the Right and the Left are estatic. I find it to be further evidence that the right are eternally done with a "run to the middle" strategy. They've decided to go "base vs. base" against the Obama juggernaut. I wonder if this is an effective strategy in a year where the Republican brand is damaged.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Best Convention Speech No One Heard

John Kerry was mad and he wasn't going to take it anymore! Wow! Yesterday's speech at the Democratic National Convention was a barn burner! Where was this guy in 2004? Ya think he feels a bit responsible for the last four years?

For someone who was supposedly entertaining the idea of selecting John McCain as a running mate in 2004, he sure lit into him. I think drawing the distinction between "Senator McCain" and "Candidate McCain" was something the Obama people better insert into his stump speech right away.

Kerry was brilliant (I never thought I'd ever utter those words). And he actually showed passion and humanity. He was even self deprecating about his 2004 defeat by ending his attack on McCain with "Talk about 'I voted for it before I voted against it!' Give me a break"

Of course, CNN decided that Wolf Blitzer's blabbering on about the "best team on television" or how you can get all the speeches on was more compelling television, so only the voluminous C-SPAN audience got a sniff of the red-meat.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Quick Convention Thoughts

A month ago, I posted that the Democratic convention had a great story to tell in Barack Obama. But two days in, where's the story? I imagine political consultants earn a great deal of money, but I am amazed at the undisciplined, uncoreographed nature of this convention. Where are the anecdotes from his youth? Where are the connections to the progressive tradition? Hillary Clinton's effective but bloodless support for Obama is a great example of the Democrat's opportunity squandered. She hit all the right notes, but said nothing about why this Democratic nominee is distinctive.

Conversely, where are the efforts to define McCain? Why shouldn't I vote for this guy? If this framing process doesn't happen soon, the Republicans will get a free shot to continue to define Obama and they will, and should, paint him in a way that will guarantee them the election.

It seems that Democrats, for whatever reason, fail to take power seriously and as a result, lose. I'm afraid that we're headed down that track again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michelle Obama's Speech

There can be no doubt that Michelle Obama was able to display the warmth, grace and intelligence that would make her a laudable first lady if elected, but was it enough to get her husband into the White House?

Today's Gallup tracking poll showed a McCain lead against Obama since May of this year. The cause of this sliding is unclear. Perhaps a combination of celebrity ads, external conflicts and flat footed-ness on the part of the Obama campaign.

Several members of the pundi-tariat speculated on whether the Democrats had squandered the first night of the convention by not framing a stark distinction between McCain and Obama. But the reality is that if your boat has several leaks, you can't fix them all at the same time.

The improbability of Obama's run was evident last night. I watched Michelle Obama's speech with a hint of sadness. Why does this accomplished American have to plead with America to see her and her husband as "normal." This sneaking suspicion that anyone of color is "un-American" until proven otherwise is a steeep hill to climb. It seems impossible to both defend yourself against this absurd charge, stake out an agenda for the future and attack your opponent at the same time. But this is the needle the Obama folks have to thread for the next three days.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Power of Placeblogs

I'm working on an article revision that examines power in the city and my short academic attention span has wandered over to the phenomenon of placeblogging as a potential challenge to established centers of power. The traditional debate in the literature on urban power centers around whether power is mostly hegemonic (power over) or transactional (power to).

I'm interested in the role that placeblogging might play in challenging both hegemonic and transactional power, but particularly the latter. A transactional view suggests that power is forged through the process of social production. Social production is the process of pooling resources to achieve a desired goal. In the urban context, important resources like wealth, knowledge and political power are seen as narrowly controlled.

However, placeblogs have the potential to redefine the social production process. While there aren't many of them, they are growing. Lisa Williams describes placeblogs as focusing on:

the lived experience of a place. That experience may be news, or it may simply be about that part of our lives that isn't news but creates the texture of our daily lives: our commute, where we eat, conversations with our neighbors, the irritations and delights of living in a particular place among particular people. However, when news happens in a community, placeblogs often cover those events in unique and nontraditional ways, and provide a community watercooler to discuss those events.

In their intent, these blogs are designed to reduce the costs of social production. One example comes from a website called Clever Commute in which transit riders on the Baltimore Washington corridor alert each other of delays and cancellations. The Baltimore Sun reports that the website has partnered with the placeblog to expand the service's reach.

In this case, if the end goal of social production is to gain greater information about commute delays, "the crowd" is a much better gatherer of knowledge resources than traditional news sources. The placeblog provides a convenient way to aggreagte information of interest to residents in a neighborhood. Recent development have made it easier to aggregate individual placeblogs. Type in zip code) and you will get an page that collects placeblog postings about your neighborhood. For example, here's the page for my neighborhood.

My interest is in the potential for these networks of placeblogs to engage in social production that challenges power. Have placeblogs been used to stop development or to get a pothole fixed?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biden's Transformation from Gaffe Machine to Statesman

Mark Schmitt in the American prospect paints a fairly favorable potrait of Joe Biden. He casts Biden's famous tendency to bloviate as evidence of his passion for issues. I'm amazed at the transformation of Biden from blowhard to statesman. Just a few months ago, the media was having a laugh over Biden penchant for gaffes. Remember the "clean" comments toward Obama on the first day of Biden's campaign?

Why the rehabilitation of his image? The "gaffe machine" framing of Biden was never fair. There was always a more compelling story behind his wordiness. Listening to the Sunday talk shows, the reviews have been almost all favorable. There's no digging into Biden's past to pull out embarrassing quotes...yet?

Obama's selection of Biden and the subsequent coverage might signal that we're coming to the end of the era where "gotcha" politics plays a central role. The era of constant scrutiny makes gaffes part of the everyday stuff of politics rather than something unusual. In this climate, everyone will slip up, so why focus on that aspect of a candidate. In this case, Obama's campaign has decided to go with someone who can respond to attacks rather than someone who is restrained in speech. What this might mean is that the ability to respond to attack or to reinforce the larger frame you want to construct for your opponent is more important than the occasional mistake. It will be interesting to see his Wednesday night speech.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Campaign Convergence Culture

MIT professor Henry Jenkins has a post on his blog that does a good job of deconstructing the anti-populist rhetoric of the McCain campaign's recent "the one" ads against Obama. He argues that the ads mock the trend towards what he calls convergence culture, in this case the blending of politics and popular culture. He points out that the ads ridicule the enthusiasm of new voters by inferring, like Hillary Clinton did, that their support is superficial and not informed by policy. Why has Obama not countered this charge the way he did Clinton's similar charge? He could use it to re-energize his base by saying "McCain is making fun of you."

Jenkins also points out the effectiveness of the Rovian strategy of taking a strength and making it a weakness. The McCain campaign has effectively neutralized Obama's enthusiasm gap against McCain. The Democrats have squandered a summer by not turning any of McCain's strengths into weaknesses. If McCain wins this campaign, it will be yet another object lesson in the importance of social construction over empirical facts. It is impossible for economists and political scientists to model a clever framing like the "Obama as Messiah" effort. But it very well might be that these factors, and not economic indicators are the true determinants of campaign success.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Democrats Going to the Class Resentment Well One More Time

Obama's newest line of attack is that McCain is so wealthy he can't remember how many houses he has. The Chicago mothership has apparently decided that the economy is the major issue and that Obama has to hit McCain hard on the economy. But like this? Did Bob Shrum join the Obama team when no one was looking? Do the Democrats really want to play the "class resentment" card one more time. Pavlov anyone?

The class resentment angle does not work for Democrats because recent Republican candidates have not presented themselves as patrician snobs. If Mitt Romney had been the nominee, maybe this line of attack would have a chance. But how are you going to convince the public that a former Navy pilot with a penchant for dirty jokes is an elitist. The Republicans are rightly going to eat Obama's lunch if he tries to make this the central frame for the campaign, and they should.

What the Obama team needs to do is frame his opponent in a way that reinforces the way McCain presents himself. They need to make him an impulsive, Dr. Strangelove-rocket-riding, Barry Goldwater loving, loon, whom you don't want near the nuclear button. And they have to do it every day, not just by sending Susan Rice out to infer he's a hothead.

This is not fair, but it's not impossible either. The Obama campaign can draw on the many stories about his short temper and his reputation in the Senate for being a disliked hothead (remember how few senators supported him over Bush in 2000?) It would be rather easy to draw a line between his history of "anger management" problems and his attitudes towards foreign affairs (Iraq, Georgia, etc.). Once you've locked in a frame of the cool, rational Obama vs. the impulsive, tempermental McCain, you can use McCain's past failings and present foreign policy positions to say he's impulsive, he makes bad decisions, he makes enemies and you can't afford to elect him.

Right now Mccain is getting a shameful free pass to define himself. His favorite line is "I am a Maverick, and that's why my Republican colleagues don't like me." Any studious observer of Washington knows that he's not liked by many of his colleagues because of his arrogance and temper. When your own Republican colleagues are questioning your fitness for the presidency, you have to pause.

Why the Obama campaigns is not setting up the frame that this guy is a "loose cannon," is beyond me. But if they did start to consistently paint him as such, then these "tough" attacks on Obama's patriotism and character would look like irrational, impulsive missives rather than some show of strength. All the other attacks of him being "out of touch" are not going to work because McCain is not George Bush 41. He's not going to play into that framing by appearing elitist. Here's hoping the Democrats get that.

Coming out of the Soccer Closet

Black Political Analysis' outing of himself as a soccer fan has inspired me to post about my own love for the sport. Last night the United States defeated Guatemala in Guatemala City 1-0 in the first game of World Cup Qualifying from the CONCACAF region.

This event signals the only occasion I can think of where Americans travel to Latin America, or any part of the developing world, to engage in a meaningful athletic contest. This exposes them to a good deal of Anti-Americanism when they play Central American teams. This amazing Gatorade video from 2006 captures the surreal experience of CONCACAF qualifying for the United States. I particularly like the look on U.S. player Santino Quaranta as the roof above him is vibrating from the crowd noise.

This animosity the U.S. players deal with often takes the form of batteries and urine bags tossed at the American players. It also makes for particularly intense games on the field. Here are the highlights of yesterday's game with Guatemala. The do not include the chippiness with which the contest was played.

This qualifying process is an open invitation for jingoism -- our boys having urine bags tossed at them by "foreigners." But we collectively ignore it. Heck, ESPN couldn't be bothered to start showing the game until the 12th minute, not only to wait for a baseball game to end, but to show Sportscenter highlights.

Why do Americans have little interest in these matches? Does is say something about our continued embrace of Manifest Destiny. After a century and a half of a paternalistic attitude towards Latin America and its cultures, does the idea persist in the American collective that Latin America is of little value?

I don't think it's simply an xenophobic hatred of soccer. America has become a soccer nation. The 2006 world cup final drew a 7.0 television rating. While these aren't quite super bowl ratings, they are competitive with the NBA finals and not too far from World Series ratings. The ratings for the final game of the 2008 European Soccer championship (3.1), an event in which no American team or player was participating, matched that of the average for the Stanley Cup finals (3.2).

However, this has not translated to fervent support of the American team as they engage in a competition with unrivaled passion and intensity, except when countries come to the United States to play. As the United States become more Latinized, it will be interesting to see whether the national imaginary embraces rivalries with Latin American countries and pays attention to them.

Our currrent rivalry with Mexico is perhaps one of the best in the world. After the Americans beat Mexico 2-0 in the 2002 World Cup, it has become a national obsession to best the United States. What irks Mexico most, I think, is that the U.S. consistently beats them and doesn't seem to care. There is a deep seated sense, in my view, that America has no respect for Mexico. Would a losing streak to Mexico make Americans more interested in the rivalry? Given the current squads, Mexico has far more exciting young players than the U.S. (Giovanni Dos Santos, Carlos Vela, Andres Guardado, Guillermo Franco, etc.) so it could happen.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Big Bad Google

David Smith in the Guardian gives pause to Google-philes by inviting us to think of what our favorite corporate behemoth with look like in 10 years. As an avowed Google devotee, even I have to pause at the company's reach:

Google's tentacles are everywhere. It runs services for blogging, email, instant messaging, shopping and social networking. It offers a suite of word processing, spreadsheet and other tools to rival Microsoft's products in the workplace. It is building a software platform for mobile phones that may challenge Apple's iPhone and others. It has just launched Knol, a peer-reviewed encyclopedia to take on Wikipedia. In America, Google Health enables users to maintain their own medical records. The company is also working on language translation, speech recognition and video search.

The bulk of the article covers familiar ground: is Google a friendly giant helping us manage our lives or is it a gathering dark force poised to hurl us into a police state of our own creation? I remain strangely untroubled by Google's data sweep, despite the dangers of Google's uber-data collection and the warnings of Internet critics, like this one by Andrew Keen:

They have amassed more information about people in 10 years than all the governments of the world put together. They make the Stasi and the KGB look like the innocent old granny next door. This is of immense significance. If someone evil took them over, they could easily become Big Brother.

What explains my calm? Our YouTube culture provides numerous examples of people in public live who's impressions of them have been forever shaped by a snippet of their lives posted on-line. Poor David Hasselhoff will think twice about getting drunk in front of his kids.

Perhaps it is the element of consent involved in the surrender of data. As someone who blogs, e-mails, writes, and reads using google's products, I've willingly entered into an agreement to place parts of my life into the cloud in exchange for convenience. This consent either justifies their collection of data or is an example of my inability to properly assess risk. Google's narrative, perpetuated by the media, probably reinforces a sense of security. Undoubtedly, the broad swath of cyberdata that Google collects, in the wrong hands, could be uses as a tool of repression.

But despite these looming fears, hundreds of millions willingly submit information. At the end of the day, we have to conclude that for most people, convenience trumps privacy. I don't agree with this characterization:

It is true that Google doesn't force anyone to reveal anything. But to quote a book currently popular among politicians, its users are 'nudged' towards entering more and more information about themselves in exchange for personalised services. Google can save you time and money, find a restaurant to your taste or a chemist to cure your illness, but only if it knows you well enough. Help it to help you; that is the siren song... The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask questions such as "What shall I do tomorrow?" and "What job should I take?" This is the most important aspect of Google's expansion.'

"Nudging" suggests a form of coercion rather than a consensual exchange. The idea that any surrender of information to an entity is heresy and only done is the person is somehow coerced into giving it, strikes me as overly individualistic. Ultimately, we are social beings and we want the opportunities for sociality the web provides. It does, of course, come laden with a political ideology that promotes connection over individualism, but that's for another post :-)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Obama's Party

Interesting article in the American Prospect by Dana Goldstein and Ezra Klein on Obama's efforts to remake the Democractic party. The gist of the article is that Obama differs from Bill Clinton is his emphasis on grass-roots party building over shifting the party's ideology to the center. Here is the key quote from the article:

If Bill Clinton's project for the Democratic Party was mostly ideological, Obama's is mostly organizational. Clinton sought to change the party's ideas; Obama is more interested in building its infrastructure. But for what?
The "what," Goldstein and Klein suggest, is to build a party that can more effectively govern down the line. They cite a number of examples of Obama's embrace of a "50 state strategy." Here's an interesting one from Texas:

The Obama campaign had decided, Axelrod announced to a crowd of 250 at the downtown Wortham Center, to send 15 paid staffers to the state and organize thousands of volunteers to get out the vote, an unprecedented commitment of resources to the Lone Star State from a Democratic presidential campaign. The goal isn't for Obama to win Texas' 34 electoral votes. Rather, by registering Democrats, Obama hopes to help the Texas Democratic Party regain control of its state legislature, which would allow Democrats to redistrict the state's congressional delegation for 2010, potentially winning House seats in the process. That's not simply down-ballot organizing--it's way down-ballot organizing, reaching into state legislatures to influence coming congressional reapportionments in order to create large national majorities years down the line.
This grand strategy of course may explode in the Obama campaign's face, but the upside has the potential to be transformational. In a year where the Republican brand is in disarray, an Obama who just gets past the finish line might not have a personal mandate, but he may have close to veto proof majorities. The suggestion in the article is that Obama's empahsis on party building is an effort to create an entity that can deliver legislatively.
At the time, observers focused on Obama's promised outreach to independents and Republicans. His rhetoric has often signaled an appetite for compromise that has left some wondering about what, exactly, Obama's core policy commitments would be in office. But less attention was given to what Obama seemed to think would attract folks from across the aisle: real policy-making, which Obama's campaign believes requires a Democratic Party infrastructure strong enough to pass the president's priorities.

It's a "grow your tribe" approach that served the Republicans well since the 1980's. The article highlights for me the potential for a massive realignment in party politics the likes of which we haven't seen since the early 1970's. The question is whether it can produce the desired results in 80 days it needs to sustain itself. If Obama loses this election, the 50 state strategy might go with him. On the other hand, if he wins, will be be able to bring along enough congressional seats to have success governing. If he can't then those Red state electoral seedlings will be choked off.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Obama and Borderlands

Fellow political scientist Renee Cramer at Girl with Pen (new blogroll member!) had an interesting post a few months back drawing linkages between Gloria Anzaldua's work and the Obama candidacy. Cramer quotes Anzaldua's definition of borderlands:

the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.

This is probably what draws me so strongly to the Obama candidacy. I grew up in a Cuban-American community in South Florida, went to college in Tallahassee, Florida (10 minutes from the Georgia border), graduate school in Boulder, Colorado, lived in central Maine for two years and finally settled in suburban Southern California. The need to negotiate a number different cultures (deep South Tallahassee, hyper-progressive Boulder, parochial central Maine, and now polyglot Southern California), has been a great learning experience but also a challenge.

The great strength of living in the bordelands is the ability to be comfortable in a variety of different settings. The challenge is the feeling of never being comfortable in any one place. This is where I am most empathic towards Obama. As the first truly "borderlands" candidate, he has a great facility with a diverse range of audiences. But the flip side has been this lingering sense among vast swaths of the American public that he is not "one of us." The McCain campaign tapped into this back in February when they ran an ad calling McCain "The American President America has been Waiting for." It is this sense of otherness, of the stranger among us, that jeapordizes the Obama candidacy.

The anti-Obama "celebrity" ads, I think, reinforce this idea of Obama as "not one of us." There is a subtle layering of messages in this recent wave of attacks. At first, I posted that the ad was tapping into "white grievance" over the perception of Blacks receiving undeserved benefits via affirmative-action. Now I think there's something more subtle going on. The ads, tap into this idea of stranger. The notion that you can't trust the "borderlands" candidate because his loyalties might lie elsewhere. The idea of celebrity adds one additional layer of otherness. He's a star. he's exotic. He can't relate to your problems because he's not you.

This casting of Obama as "other" seems to hit me personally. My wife and daughter are in for 80 days of me griping about this. I take it so personally because I am this "other" who is constantly negotiating with difference cultures. The rejection of Obama as a presidential candidate, suggests a fundamental rejection of me and others who live in the "borderlands." Obama, I think, intuitively understands this risk, and has been running to the center to stave off this notion of "the stranger." I am pessimistic that it will have the desired effect.

The "bench" of borderlands candidates in either party is thin. If Obama doesn't do it this time, the change for a president like this might not come for decades. That would be a shame because I fundamentally agree with Andrew Sullivan's piece, which Cramer references, that we sorely need a "borderlands" worldview in our engagement with the rest of the world.

BTW, I'd be a bad husband if I mentioned Girl with Pen without promoting my wife's, Adnia Nack's, own guest post on that blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

When Two Tribes Go to Polls

After the 2006 midterm elections my department put on a post-mortem where my colleagues and I discussed the ramifications of the elections for American politics. I was in the minority among my colleagues in thinking that the era of the median voter theory in American politics was over. I thought Roveism, or the idea that the middle doesn't matter as much in American politics as mobilizing the bases, was in acsendance. I expected a politics of polarization where "tribes" on either side would dictate the outcomes in presidential politics for the forseeable future. What that meant is that as long as the tribe of people who identified as conservative is larger than the tribe of people who identify as liberal, that group will win regardless of objective factors like economic indicators or performance of past administrations.

Initially, the Obama campaign made me rethink my initial view. His call for "bringing people together" seemed to have struck a chord in the American electorate. But 80 days from the election, I'm starting to settle back into my initial view that strong party identification will win out over facts on the ground. I was struck watching the Saddleback Forum yesterday at Pastor Rick Warren's church that voters are beginning to sort into their tribes. For all the talk of new, young evangelicals giving Obama a chance in November, it was apparent from the difference in responses given to the two candidates that Obama stood no chance of connecting with this group of potential voters. Indeed, among White evangelicals, Obama is faring no better than John Kerry did in 2004. That is stunning given that Bush is widely regarded as the "evangelical candidate" and Kerry was viewed as a largely secular figure.

Now the table seem reversed, Obama is an avowed Christian, albeit at one of those "liberal" churches and McCain is a traditional Western Republican who is reticent to talk openly about his faith. But it hasn't moved the needle one inch. I think this is because we have two core constituencies on either side of the political divide that have starkly different world views. I'll be interested to see if his "change" theme works in the face of this continued polarization.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Internet, Memory, and Pedagogy

Evan Ratliff at Salon's Machinist blog asks if the Internet is making us lose our memory. Building off of Nicholas Carr's provocative Atlantic article entitled Is Google Making us Stupid and the discussions that have resulted and here, Ratliff wonders what happens to our brains when we never develop the need to remember certain items, like remembering phone numbers, an task that online personal databases has rendered obsolete.

My interest is in whether memorization is a skill we should be teaching our undergraduates. If facts are readily available, should our student assessment consist of testing the retention skills of our students? Should our role be to help students develop the memorization skills they might not have learned beforehand?

Anthropologist Michael Wesch has an interesting take on this question. In this wonderful lecture from the University of Manitoba, Wesch makes the claim that most university classrooms are designed with the assumption that knowledge is limited and the expert at the front of the room is its main disseminator. The result is that the professor is competing directly with the web as a disseminator of knowledge. Speaking for myself, that's a battle I can't win. I agree with Wesch that our job is not solely to disseminate information, but to help students use the tools of knowledge aggregation to address problems. In Wesch lecture, he talks about how he poses a "grand narrative" question at the start of his course and the students structure the types of materials they need to address the question they are addressing.

The problem is that many of us in academia treat the web as the enemy. I've had countless conversations about the evils of Wikipedia. Much of this is a natural reaction on the part of "experts" whose authority is being challenged by "the crowd." Unfortunately for us, the information produced by "the crowd" is more accessible, and therefore potentially more influential than that produced within the ivory tower. Since the majority of our students will not live in the ivory tower, I'd rather they learn to marshal "the crowd" rather than ignore it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Racial Code Words

I’m confident this article from Reuters by Matthew Bigg on "racial code words" is going to have the right-o-sphere up in arms. I have to say I am sympathetic to their plight. How do you attack a relatively young, relatively inexperienced, African-American presidential candidate without being tagged with the racist label? Even for academics who think about this stuff for a paycheck, finding a "bright line" definition of what is "code" and what isn't is challenging. For instance, Was this "code" or a slip of the tongue?

In May, Hillary Clinton said Obama's support was weakening "among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans." Her comments were read by some as implying that blacks were lazy but also as a subtle appeal to white racial solidarity.

What about this?

An advertisement run by McCain's campaign this month, which portrayed Obama as a celebrity who was not ready to lead, sent a subtle racial message by flashing images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, according to Ronald Walters, professor of politics at the University of Maryland.

Walters said the ad played on deep cultural fears about inter-racial dating and marriage, which was illegal until the 1960s in some U.S. states.

One obvious difference was that Clinton's statements were in response to an interview. The words were uttered in the moment and thus probably the result of a really bad juxtapositioning of words.

The McCain ad, on the other hand, wasn't an impromptu response to a reporter's question. The ad might be trying to tap into these fears of miscegination. But that doesn't pass the logic test. Polling suggests that very few people are against interracial marraige.

Those for whom that message would be salient are concentrated in the 65+ demographic. In 2007, 75% of people over 50 years of age approved of interracial marriage as opposed to 90% of people under 50.

Personally, I think that anyone with qualms about voting for a black presidential candidate has already made up their minds to vote for McCain. So if there is an appel to miscegination going on, it's probably a wasted effort to convert people who are already on your side.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

University Presses Enter Web 2.0

A number of university presses have recently created blogs and podcasts to feature their authors. These podcasts and blog entries have the potential to deepen the interaction that students have with the ideas promoted by these university presses. I'm planning on assigning some of the podcast entires in my race and politics class this coming semester. I'm also thinking about having my students track author blogs and respond to their posts. I wish that academic journals would follow suit and expand the range of media they use to communicate ideas. Listed below are some of the major university presses in the United States and their presence on-line. If anyone has a link to a university press blog or podcast, let me know.

University of Chicago Press Blog

Yale Log (Yale University Press Blog) and Podcast

Harvard University Press Publicity Blog, Author Blog and Podcast

University of California Press Blog and Podcast

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Obama "clinging" to a 14 point lead among hunters

From Glenn Thrush in Politico:
According to a Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation poll to be released Wednesday, John McCain leads Obama by a 45 to 31 percent. That’s only about half the 27-point edge respondents say they gave George W. Bush over Kerry four years ago and far short of the 65-to-15 percent margin gun owners gave to Bush over Gore in 2000.
What gives? Isn't Obama the guy who thinks central Pennsylvanians "cling" to guns? The explanation from the foundation that sponsored the poll:
I don’t think John McCain has really made his case to hunters and anglers,” says Melinda Gable, communications director for the foundation, which advocates gun rights and expanded access to federal land for hunters. “Things were very different in 2004. Everybody knew that George W. Bush was from Texas, he was a rancher and that he went hunting. We haven’t seen that from McCain yet—there’s the unknown—he really needs to come out as a sportsman. Neither candidate has talked a lot about the issues that are important to us.
Of course, this is the framing that this particular group would like to place on this data. This would force McCain to focus more on issues that pertain to sportsmen. What really stands out from that data is the drop from a 50 point gap between Bush and Gore to a 27 point gap between Kerry and Bush. This is either the fruits of the hard work the Democratic part has put in to be competitive in rural America. It could also be that post 9-11, hunter and fisherman/person are not as salient to voters as issues of national security or economic stability. What do you think?

HT: Ben Smith

Monday, August 11, 2008

October is Gratuitious Racialization Month

Keeping with the littany of race-related articles on the presidential campaign, New York magazine has a series entitled Race: The Impossible Conversation. The series kicks off with a John Heilemann article that looks at why Obama's lead isn't bigger that a few points. He thinks race has something to do with it.
Call me crazy, but isn’t it possible, just possible, that Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he is, you know, black? “Of course it is,” says another prominent Republican operative. “It’s the thing that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s obviously a huge factor.
He doesn't provide much demographic evidence to support his point other than to note that Obama is under-performing among Whites. Perhaps this is all the evidence he needs. Currently Obama is running in the mid-thirties with this group. This is low even for Democrats. Heilemann points out how valuable this paleface (don't ask me why he uses this term) demographic:
The pollster Thom Riehle, who founded the AP/Ipsos survey and is now a partner at the firm RT Strategies, calculates that even if black turnout rises by 25 percent from 2004 (and Obama wins 92 percent), if Hispanic turnout holds steady (and Obama wins 60 percent of it, seven points better than John Kerry did), and the under-50 vote rises by 5 percent (and Obama wins half of young white voters), the Democrat would still need to win 40 percent of the overall paleface vote to prevail in November, one point less than Kerry garnered and two points less than Al Gore did in 2000.
First off, I think this pollster's estimates are way too conservative. I'm not sure why Hispanic voting would only "hold steady." Doesn't he know that Salsa has replaced Ketchup as a America's favorite condiment? If the youth vote only increases by 5% then Obama has a problem. Heilemann concludes from this that Obama is not going to be able to win by "changing the map." I suggest that it's his only choice. Particuarly because of this nugget:
In October, Obama’s former pastor, Wright, will publish a new book and hit the road to promote it, an occasion that might well place the topic of Obama’s blackness (along with his patriotism and his candor about what he heard in the pews in all those years at Trinity Church) squarely at the center of the national debate.
Thanks to our inability to place people in their specific historical and cultural context, October will be "gratuitous racialization" month. This suggests to me that Obama's bounce out of the convention better be a big one. He's going to need a bit of padding when Sean Hannity resumes his scholarly interest in Black Liberation Theology.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The End of Black Politics?

There are qualms I have about Matt Bai's long piece in the New York Times magazine that speculates upon whether Obama's emergence means the end of "black politics." It does however, articulate something I've been feeling for a while about the discussions of race during the campaign. Bai points out that the new generation of black politicians have endured a different form of racism than their predecessors. This quote from Corey Booker, reflecting on the similarity between his youth experiences and Obama's, highlights the changing experience of racism for a set of thirty and forty something blacks.

You know, what it’s like growing up every single day and having people ask to touch your hair because they’ve never seen hair like that,” Booker said. “To have the entire class laugh and giggle when somebody pronounces ‘Niger’ as ‘nigger.’ The constant bombardment of that kind of thing really affects our spirit, and it’s every single day. Like when people want to come back from a vacation and compare their tan to yours and joke about being black.

This is a racism of nuisance and the struggle to be seen as a whole human being rather than a racism of formal exclusion and violence. Whereas the previous generation had to endure racism in all its forms, the struggle for this group is less about breaking barriers and more about struggling to be accepted as a multidimensional person. This comes across in Booker's answer to Bai's question about whether he sees himself as a leader in the black community:

I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he said. “I don’t want people to expect me to speak about those issues.” By this, presumably, he meant issues that revolve around race: profiling by police, incarceration rates, flagging urban economies. “I want people to ask me about nonproliferation. I want them to run to me to speak about the situation in the Middle East.

This seems to be Obama's struggle. A person who wants genuinely to be seen as a whole, but is repeatedly dragged into a civil-rights era, conversation about race and structural inequality. This conversation still needs to be had. The fact remains that for all the gains of the black middle class, a sizeable black underclass remains, hate crimes are on the rise, and the black incarceration rate is several times that of other groups. This is probably what drove Jesse Jackson to make his unfortunate comments. I can understand his indignance at this "upstart" who seems to be leapfrogging what he sees as the unfinished business of the civil rights era to attack black fathers who are already beleaguered by societal stereotypes and institutional racism.

Therein lies the problem...the shift in racism from the formal and overt to the subtle and personal for many in the black middle class. Your politics derives from where you stand. It's telling that Obama sought out the experience of black inner-city life by moving to Chicago to become a community organizer. His is a politics of searching, of constructing identity from a pastiche of experience. This is the stuff of novels, but not necessarily of politics. This might be what the "new black politics" turns out to be. A politics that is rooted more in identity and recognition rather than challenging structural inequalities. If you listen to Obama's recent rhetoric, he doesn't strike me as one who is relishing the opportunity to get in there and "stick it to the man."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Felon Spy

Sociological Images links to a wonderful hoax site called Felon Spy.

It purports to help you find felons in your area using a "patented Felon Search technology." The only tip off to being a hoax is the hilariously funny terms of use which includes such gems as:

The Company may terminate your marriage; delete your bank accounts and any content or information that you have ever collected over the entirety of your life for any reason, or no reason, at any time in its sole discretion, with or without notice, including if it believes that you are under age 96. When we are notified that a user has died we will not send flowers but rather say a small prayer and fire our AK 47s into the air. We will generally, but are not obligated to, keep the user's account active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by a custom magic 8-ball.


FelonSpy Pages are completely random and fake. They are used solely to critique the sad state of our commercial, political, realities. You may not search FelonSpy on behalf of another individual or entity unless you are authorized to do so in writing (triplicate form). This includes fan FelonSpy Pages, as well as FelonSpy Pages to support or criticize another individual or entity including local county Sheriffs, other than Boss Hogg and Barney Fife. Sheriffs in New Hampshire, and Georgia should learn the term "to Google" 
FELONSPY DOES NOT PRE-SCREEN OR APPROVE FELONSPY NAMES, AND WILLNOT GUARANTEE ANYTHING AT ANYTIME AT ANYPLACE. Terms of Use, FelonSpy Pages are subject to and governed by certain laws that go beyond the galaxy most humans and similarly primitive life forms are aware of.

Hoax sites like these are the new vanguard in political and social activism. With so much of mass culture oriented towards a hyper-vigilance that primes a basic human response, the only ammunition left is to mock our own human failing. As a resident of and college professor in,Thousand Oaks, California, I live in what should equate to a "fear-free" zone. However, I've observed that conversations around crime are more pronounced here than in other, less safe, places in which I've lived. Why do low-crime areas obsess about crime? Is there a base need for us to experience a measure of fear, even if it's fabricated?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

volunteering in America

Social capital blog posts on the new rankings on volunteering from the Corporation for National and Community Service. They find that, not surprisingly, racially homogeneous cities like Ogden, UT and Iowa City, IA, have the highest rates of volunteering while Miami, FL, has the lowest rate of volunteering in the nation at 14.5% (my hometown represents!)

A quick look at the rankings highlights low rates of volunteering in California, Texas, and Florida. Not coincidentally, places with high numbers of Latinos. What do we make of this? Does it mean that Latinos do not volunteer? Can low volunteering rates be explained away by other factors that correlate with high Latino populations? Income? Hours worked?

I think one of the issues is the way this study defines volunteerism. What it doesn't show are more informal ways of community building. Where does helping a neighbor or family member move a dresser or helping put together a family bar-b-que fit into the larger scheme of volunteerinng? From my experieince growing up in the Cuban-American community in Miami, it seems that lots of things that Anglos might do through formal institutions like the Church are done informally through extended family networks. The larger question then become whether those informal activities are "civic" in the same way that formal volunteering seems to be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Obama's Jockey Syndrome

Adan Serwer has an interesting article posed Monday in the American Prospect on "Obama's Racial Catch-22." He makes the case that instead of emphasizing the juxtaposition of young white women and a black male candidate in the latest McCain attack ad, we should be focused on how the ads prime the "jockey syndrome" New York Times journalism William Rhoden wrote about in his book 40 million dollar slaves. Serwer explains:

He defines Jockey Syndrome, as what occurs when "the establishment attempts to change the rules when the competition begins to gain ground." It refers specifically to the phenomenon of changing the rules in certain sports to end black American dominance, which began with the expulsion of black jockeys from equestrian sports at the turn of the century. Once white athletic dominance was re-established through changing the rules of the game, declining black prowess was held up as proof of black inferiority.

He pretty effectively applies this phenomenon to the presidential race where he claims Obama is subject to multiple tests (is he presidential? is he "too presidential"? Is he a light weight? Is he too cerebreal?) Some of these tests are the natural result of his newness on the political scene. But undoubtedly this "newness" would be less of an issue if he wasn't a racial "other."

The "jockey syndrome" analogy doesn't entirely apply. No one is "expelling" Obama from the presidential race. Indeed he won a major party's nomination. And as many conservatives are ready to point out, there may be a percentage of Americans that are bullish on Obama because of what his candidacy might mean for race relations.

But thinking about the campaign in these terms does shed light on a recurring problem in Black-White relations, the idea that Black success must come at the expense of whites. As Serwer explains:

By comparing Obama to Paris and Britney, McCain's latest ad implies that the attention given to Obama is undeserved, the result of "natural" assets rather than hard work, much like these "spoiled" athletes who "get paid too much."

This is a dangerous meme for Obama and it poses siginficant challenges for him, as the article suggests. How do you reinforce the notion that you've earned your position when there are a majority of people who have a "possessive investment" in believing that you haven't earned your place at the table?

Two things might work against him. First, being a bi-racial candidate might buffer him from this framing. Although history would suggest that you don't get to choose your racial designation if you are bi-racial. The other is that the grueling fight with Hillary Clinton allows him to pretty effectively argue that he's earned his way to the table.

Whatever the outcome, this discoure is far from the halcyon days of Spring when we were going to have a long awaited "conversation" about race.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Invisible NYPD Race Problem

I often find it difficult to convey to my students why data matters. "They're just numbers" is a common refrain. Racismreview has a good post on the elimination of racial data from reports on NYPD police shootings after 1997. Pre-1997 the NYPD did keep these records. The New York Times speculates that the move to stop collecting this data by race was done during the Amadou Diallo controversy. The key passage from the post:

if you bury knowledge about racism and racist practices (such as the NYPD’s abysmal record), then you effectively subvert efforts to combat racism.

I frankly have never understood arguments in support of colorblind policies. Societies can recognize race and racism as distinct realities of social life without descending into tribalism. There are times in my life where I want to be color blind and times when I want to be color (read - group) conscious. What would art or music or literature be without color consciousness. The Invisible Man would become the Just as Visible or Invisible as the Next Guy?

Monday, August 4, 2008


Ok, the first sharp, sustained attack against Obama by the McCain campaign is coming into focus and I'm starting to think that it might be effective. This latest ad mocks the "Obama as a the messiah" theme. I originally thought that this criticism had no legs. The public thinks all politicians are arrogant and that first ad with images of Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton was not effective. But if you see that ad as setting the table for what's to come, it looks much more intriguing.

This "Obama as Messiah/celebrity" opens the door for a whole host of other criticisms. Take the shift in rhetoric towards calling Obama "fussy" as an example. This line of attack is deviously brilliant. It links him to a "culture of celebrity" that most voters find troubling and a preening petulance that celebrities on reality shows seem to exhibit. It is also a perfect word that can conjure up all sorts of homophobia without directly attacking him on those grounds. Now Obama is Oscar Wilde! This I find morally offensive, but of course I'm not the target market for this ad.

The Republicans are using the snarky tone of the Daily Show and Colbert Report against the Democrats. I find this fascinating. You can argue that satire and sarcasm have been instrumental in the re-emergence of the Democrats in the past few years. The ability to effectively poke fun at the president and the Right wing media apparatus through satire has provided the Democrats the window they now hope to pass through into the White House.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The stereotype is that "Red America" doesn't do satire (just listen to when the audience applauds at the Daily Show). If I were Obama, I might try to respond by taking the McCain team to task for trivializing the serious issues facing the country and world. But the McCain people are setting up a framing where such chiding can be seen as "elitist" and of course "whiny" and any other terms you can use that reinforces the idea of Obama as an effete (read: possible gay), elitist with a "God" complex. At least they're not calling him a "Muslim Manchurian Canddiate."

Think it won't work? McCain has closed a nine point gap to one point in the Gallup tracking poll and has taken the lead in the Rasmussen tracking poll. Some might think this is too early to be concerned, but campaigns are won and lost in the August framing wars. I'll be curious to see how the Obama campaign hits back in the coming weeks.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Drop the "Dollar Bill" Thing

Obama's latest flap about McCain's intention to remind voters that he does not look like all the other presidents on the dollar bill is something he's repeated a few times to audiences. A few weeks back I posted about Obama having to worry about having a grievance frame attached to him. Apparently the "dollar bill" thing is being framed in terms of grievance. Rassmussen found that 53% of voters thought that Obama's dollar bill comment was racist. Obama has done a heroic job traversing the racial minefield in the campaign thus far, but he has to be wary of the road ahead. Especially as quotes from his book begin to appear out of context in 527 ads or as Jeremiah Wright makes his re-emergence onto the public stage.

As an ardent Obama supporter, I find it depressing that he seems to be tying himself up in knots rhetorically over issues of race. Having just read Dreams From my Father, I marvel at the depth and sophistication with which he reflects on his own identity and race in America more generally. Of course I'm a latte liberal whose supposed to be gushing over the book. How predictable!!!

Back from Decorah

Fun filled day and night driving through Minnesota and Iowa and getting to explore Decorah, Iowa, and Luther College. I gave a presentation on “Diversity in the Cloud” and received some great feedback from a crowd of about 80 faculty and staff from the 28 colleges and universities affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Here are the slides that accompanied the talk for those interested.

I won't go too much into the talk other than to say that it presented utopian and dystopian views of how the web changes inter-group relations. I was struck by how many faculty are grappling with the larger question of whether the web is friend of foe or both. One interesting assignment that came up during the Q and A was from a Religion professor at an ELCA college who requires his students to unplug from the web for 48 hours. He reports that students are frustrated by the assignment initially but are ultimately grateful for the chance to reconnect with their inner selves. It's an interesting assignment worth doing myself, let alone assigning it to students.

Denver Airport Blogging

Greetings from Denver International Airport. I've spent the last two hours reading the first 100 pages of Barack Obama's Dreams From my Father. As a political scientist (and junkie), I was reading the book picturing the bio pic they will run during the Democratic Convention. I'm obviously not the first person this has occurred to, but this is one heck of a life story to have to contend with. The McCain people are going to have quite a time putting him in the traditional democratic boxes that worked so well against Al Gore and John Kerry. This current democratic candidate has spend a lifetime moving in and out of boxes. This is why he can speak to conservatives and progressives alike and seem so compelling. He's had a lot of practice.

This is also why the attacks heretofore have been so muddled and strange. The “Obama is a celebrity theme” is not only a strange attack, but one that I think the Republicans might look back on in regret. It reinforces the idea of Obama as extraordinary, almost mythic. The arc of his story is going to make for an interesting convention Thursday (The grasping Kansas grandfather, boxing with his Indonesian stepfather, a Christmas rebuke from his absent Kenyan grandfater, etc.). Why the Republicans want to reinforce this is beyond me.

Update: I'm starting to think the mocking celebrity approach might be having an effect. Perhaps it is a riff on the Daily Show style of skewering politicians that has become normalized. The gap is closing in the campaign, so maybe these attacks aren't so muddled after all.