Monthly Archives: January 2004

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Tolstoy and politics 

The Decembrist: “Tolstoy would not have made a good political pundit: Unhappy campaigns are very much alike, or at least they look alike. Campaigns in their down cycles all tend to look absolutely disastrous. Kerry’s campaign looked like one of the biggest train wrecks in political history back in November. It can be hard to tell the difference between one where the fundamentals are strong but it just needs a fresh face, and a campaign that’s doomed.”


It looks as though Nasa may be reconsidering its plan to abandon the Hubble space telescope. Let’s hope it gets a reprieve.

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On the agenda 

“It’s beginning to set the agenda.” Bill Thompson reports on the blogging and politics discussion held at the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday. Some great stuff from Tom Watson.

A choice 

Jim Moore shines an open an honest light into the Dean campaign: “The Dean campaign, meanwhile, is now either going to become a solid contributor to our political landscape and society — bringing real value and a return to investors who want to make a difference, or the campaign will wither away.”

The model 

As the Dean campaign tries to regain its bearings, Chris Lydon makes the crucial point: “Is there any question that the model of mayor’s races and Congressional campaigns in the future will be found in the citizen spirit that the Deaniacs put to work? This is the point that I believe old pros like Al Gore and Tom Harkin were endorsing. They’ve seen the future of progressive organizing, and they know it works.”

One more 

I found a pointer to Simon Zadek’s Davos diary. Well worth a read for a progressive perspective on the summit:

“What is so astonishing about Davos is that it brought together the best brains and hearts of the world’s business, political and spiritual leaders, covered every conceivable topic under the sun — and yet managed to avoid serious, open debate about what is really happening in the world.

“There was no real debate about how today’s American Dream has established an essentially colonial and destructive attitude towards the rest of us; no real debate about the extraordinary loss of civil rights that comes with this new discipline; and no real debate about the utterly cynical behaviour of many business leaders towards their shareholders, let alone workers and communities.

“There was, moreover, no real debate about how our leaders show neither remorse nor shame as they defy their citizens and the laws of the land in taking for themselves, and leading their countries (against the clearly-voiced interests of their citizens) to war against others, and ultimately against themselves.

“Dick Cheney’s speech spelt it out in words of one syllable. We do it our way, when we want, and how we want. You do it with us, or you are alone, at best. At worst, by abandoning us and making us seem visibly illegitimate, you will earn the status of Enemy — not of al-Qaida, or Saddam, or the evil axis of North Korea or Iran — but of ‘Us’, the United States.”

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Calendar wars 

Jane Galt: “Every year, the Muslims creep forward by another eleven days while we wait, helplessly, for them to overtake us. On May 1st, 20874, the Muslim Calendar will pull even with the Gregorian, and thereafter, the Muslims will be ahead of us. By 20909, the Muslim world will be a full year ahead of us. How can we hope to compete, economically, if the Muslim world is able to tap the technological riches of the future while we remain mired in a less advanced present? The only solution is to act now to preserve our competitive advantage. We must switch to a lunar calendar now, to ensure that Western society will forever be The Society of the Future.”

Please note that the Jewish calendar is already 3,760 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar and the Chinese calendar is 2,698 years ahead. Both are lunar but the Jewish calendar is intercalcated periodically so that it remains roughly a solar year in length.

Weblogs in Hansard 

Tom Watson in the House of Commons last night during the adjournment debate: “Webloggers around the world have raised a specific point about the new wireless technology, which is known as radio frequency identification — RFID. I want to begin by thanking several weblogs for alerting me to RFID technology and its uses in Britain and abroad.”

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Bring back Gladstone 

Edward Miliband, one of chancellor Gordon Brown’s two most trusted aides, visits the New Hampshire primary. “For someone who has been involved in British election campaigns, the contests in Iowa last week and New Hampshire today seem more akin to the Gladstone era than anything we have today.”

What I found most interesting were his comments on Dean. He recognises that Dean has the most committed supporters. But he worries about what will happen to them if Dean doesn’t win the nomination (and Miliband doesn’t think he will).

“Why should progressives care that these people are involved? It is worth caring if you think politics is about more than winning elections and also about winning arguments. To win those arguments, you need committed people who can make your case.

“For 20 years or more, the Republican party has built these networks, in their case through movements such as the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association. The Democrats have no equivalent. As a result, Democratic politics becomes a once-every-four-year moon-shot against significant cultural and political difficulties. Defeat, as with Al Gore, leads to paralysis and depression. But even victory leads to a president who has to wrestle with a normally unfavourable Congress, and powerful corporate special interests. President Clinton had no network to call on when his healthcare plan was challenged in 1993-94.”

The red and the green 

Nazi vote: Map shows the influence of religious conviction on the Nazi vote for the Reichstag election in July 1932

Joerg Wenck on Bonobo Land posts this extraordinary map showing how different constituencies in Germany voted in the 1932 Reichstag elections which brought Hitler to power.

Elevation shows the Catholic/Protestant mix (higher = more Catholics) and colour shows Nazi vote share (more red = higher Nazi share of the vote).

More Davos comments 

Billmon provides his final Davos 2004 notes, and they demand reading.

“The problem in trying to get a read on what’s really going on — and what kind of consensus is likely to emerge among the global power elite about the USA’s vulnerability on the dollar-deficit question — is the same as at every conference of this sort: The Americans say the sky is the limit, the Europeans say the sky is falling, and the Asians, whose views are in many ways the most important, say as little as possible.”

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Changing the rules 

Dave Winer: “Watching Tim Russert interview Wesley Clark this morning, it occurred to me how dysfunctional the system has become.”

British Politics: “I want a Howard Dean comeback in New Hampshire for one simple reason: the media coverage of his Scream has been completely over the top, and has featured pundits, columnists and writers deciding on the basis of 15 seconds of a campaign rally that a serious politician is not fit to be President. I find this kind of coverage distasteful, pointless and irrelevant. Howard Dean may be the wrong man to be President, but it can’t be for that reason. It’s gotcha politics at its lowest, and driven, not by outrage at his policies, beliefs or campaign strategy but on the media equivalent of schoolyard bullying.”

I believe fundamentally that most people would agree with these analyses. My hope is that there is enough time for the backlash to emerge in the face of what is a true media onslaught. The glory of democracy is that voters can make the decisions. But they have to face completely distorted pressures on the way to the ballot box.

Catching up on Davos 

Having stayed away from my computer over the weekend, I have only just caught up with the Davos bloggers. Jay Rosen is good as always, but I hadn’t encountered the pseudonymous billmon before. His account of vice-president Dick Cheney’s speech is a must read.

Billmon’s report on the Davos blogging session is also the only one I’ve seen that doesn’t try to be polite.

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Blogging at Davos  

Joi Ito reports on the blogging panel at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos: “We had a great panel.”


Dave Winer has the story behind Dean’s post-Iowa exuberance.

Right attitude 

It’s probably not the done thing, but I was hugely cheered by an email from the person coordinating Dean fundraising here in the UK.

“We tentatively agreed to have a fundraiser for Howard Dean on Thursday, the 11th of March. This assumes that Howard Dean will be the Democratic candidate, but if someone else is chosen we can shift our fundraising effort for whomever the Democratic candidate is. I think that we can all agree that we believe in ABB – anyone but Bush.”

Absolutely. The priority is to get someone who can get rid of Bush.

Who’d want to do this?  

I watched the Diane Sawyer interview with Howard and Judy Dean. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this kind of cringe-inducing American-style interview (I guess Martin Bashir’s interview with princess Diana was in the same league, but it’s uncommon in the UK).

My principal reaction was, who on earth would want to run for president if this is what you get exposed to? I thought both the governor and Dr Dean came across well, but there was a definite sense of ritual humiliation about the interview: you screwed up with that scream, now I’m going to rub you repeatedly in the mess you made, and you need to come up smiling.

I think Dean’s rallying speech post-Iowa was misjudged. By this point in the campaign he should know that everything he does will be subject to the most intense scrutiny. But it wasn’t much more than a momentary abberation. Is this how we are going to judge candidates? Is it really all that relevant?

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to know quite a few good people. It’s striking to me that none of my civic-minded American friends have ever ventured into electoral politics. Over here, it’s different and I do know a few who have faced the voters. When I watch that Dean interview, I have to question whether anyone who isn’t a bit unhinged would ever dream of entering politics in the US.

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Another problem for GMOs 

This National Research Council report on GMOs will get enormous play in Europe. As The New York Times writes, the report concludes “it will be difficult to completely prevent genetically engineered plants and animals from having unintended environmental and public health effects”.

What I suspect will get lost in the coverage in Europe (where public and media are largely anti-GMOs), is that the report does not deal with whether there are likely to be any serious environmental or public health effects. It’s just about the effectiveness or otherwise of bioconfinement techniques.

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Not outsiders and insiders 

Very perceptive political analysis at The Decembrist: “The problem with the theory is that the whole insider/outsider distinction as it applies within the Democratic party is kind of contrived, and is almost certainly the farthest thing from the minds of most voters. Right now, we’re all outsiders to the power structure of the United States. What makes Tom Harkin a ‘consumate insider’ right now? He’s as powerless as me.”

Another Davos  

Davos starts today. I know these three people have all said they will blog from the Annual Meeting: Jay Rosen, Joi Ito, Loic Le Meur. Should be worth following. I’d love to hear of any others.

For nostalgia buffs, here are my comments on the opening day of Davos four years ago.

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Brad DeLong has found an encouraging analysis at The Decembrist: “I think we’re heading into a period where it will become apparent that there are a number of strong and appealing Democratic candidates in the race — it’s a far stronger field than in 1988 or even 1992 — and their competition will, up to a point, be to the benefit of the eventual nominee.”

Make it new 

Many, many other people are doing a better job at interpreting the runes of Iowa than I, but I have been struck by a few remarks on what it mean for the future role of the Internet and elections.

Ed Cone: “Like the stock bubble, this deflation could obscure the value of the technology beneath the hype. That would be a mistake. The Internet is a critical means of communication and organization for campaigns, cheap and ubiquitous. It took Dean from zero to third place, made him a contender from nothing, and that’s incredible.”

John Robb: “The big loser last night in Iowa (at least to big media — just watch the sniping in the next couple of days) was the Internet and social technology. I think this will be due to a misread of what social tech can do and what it can’t do. It wasn’t a demonstration of the failure of social tech to create an outsider insurgency. It was a demonstration that the power of an Internet run campaign has difficulty moving beyond an insurgency to insider political power.”

And from Dave Winer, an outsider inside: “We all did some fantastic work last night. Together a picture of a diverse event shaped up on the Web, in a thoughtful and interesting way. Excellent work. And we’ll get to do it again next week. We should be able to sharpen our skills and develop some new technology in the meantime.”

It works 

Good news. The indispensible British Spin at last has a news feed that works.

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Channel Dean  

The latest innovation out of Burlington is Channel Dean, a must for your aggregator. Dave Winer explains how it came about.

The morality of thugs and criminals 

A very angry Bruce Garrett, who works at the Space Telescope Science Institute, has figured out why the Bush administration is so woeful when it comes to science (and just about everything else):

“This is exactly why they hate science. Lies are what brought them to power. Lies are what hope will keep them in power. Lies, and whatever fear of their power they can manage to instill in others. Theirs is the morality of thugs and criminals. The practice of science represents everything they loath and fear and resent about the human status, that they themselves have long since renounced. It empowers, because knowledge is power, whereas in their zero sum view of life and existance, any power gained by others, is less for themselves. Science proceeds from the evidence, not the dictates of authority. Science is a noble endevor, encouraging and rewarding the best within us, curiosity, thoughtfulness, a desire to learn, a courage to follow knowledge wherever it leads, a habit of truth. More then the contradictions to their cherished dogmas, it is the vision of the nobility which is possible to the human race, reminding the thugs and cheats of the world of what they sold out, of the empty void they’ve made of their inner selves, that they hate about the practice of science. It’s not just that they want the facts bent to suit their policies, it’s that they want practice of science to be finally regarded as the heresy they have always regarded it as being: the heresy that says there is more to life, and to what it is to be human, then the gutter they live in.”

Stupid space policy  

A lot of people I like were thrilled at president Bush’s plan to send a manned spacecraft to Mars. I hope they’ll see the flip side of his policy now that the death knell has been sounded for the Hubble space telescope. The Hubble is real science being consigned to the scrapheap.

The persistence of paleo-politics 

Chris Lydon on the election:

“We begin to imagine three levels of politics in this final churn. The internet realm is where the self-organized Dean campaign has made a fresh and potentially historic force for 2004. But then there is the media zone that drives the polls, a media zone where Howard Dean has been hammered in debates and in the press for anger, gaffes, shrillness and other mostly invented sins. Third, under everything is a foundation of paleo-politics, the bonds of union hall, farm organizations, and the traditional democratic party forums we’ve been sampling. It’s the mix of these three layers of history and political technology that makes the mystery.”

Three kinds of writers 

Gene on Harry’s Place quotes the non pareil AJ Liebling:

  “There are three kinds of writers of news in our generation. In inverse order of worldly consideration, they are:
  1. The reporter, who writes what he sees.
  2. The interpretive reporter, who writes what he sees and what he construes to be its meaning.
  3. The expert, who writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn’t seen.
  To combat an old human prejudice in favor of eyewitness testimony, which is losing ground even in our courts of law, the expert must intimate that he has access to some occult source or science not available to either reporter or reader. He is the Priest of Eleusis, the man with the big picture. Once his position is conceded, the expert can put on a better show than the reporter. All is manifest to him, since his conclusions are not limited by his powers of observation. Logistics, to borrow a word from the military species of the genus, favor him, since it is possible to not see many things at the same time. For example, a correspondent cannot cover a front and the Pentagon simultaneously. An expert can, and from an office in New York, at that.”

I am a huge Liebling fan. About ten years ago I was on holiday on Nantucket. My wife and I were in a bookstore and I came across a reissue of one of Liebling’s books. I exclaimed about it, saying, “He’s the greatest journalist of all time.” A man in the store overhead me and said, rather petulantly I thought, “Who’s the greatest journalist of all time?” “AJ Liebling,” I replied. “Oh. You’re right,” he said.