Monthly Archives: January 2008

Why Obama?

Christopher Hayes expresses it as well as anyone I’ve read:

The question of who can best build popular support for a progressive governing agenda is related to, but distinct from, the question of electability. Given a certain ceiling on Clinton’s appeal (due largely to years of unhinged attacks from the “vast right-wing conspiracy”), her campaign seems well prepared to run a 50 percent + 1 campaign, a rerun of 2004 but with a state or two switching columns: Florida, maybe, or Ohio. Obama is aiming for something bigger: a landmark sea-change election, with the kind of high favorability and approval ratings that can drive an agenda forward. Why should we think he can do it?

The short answer is that Obama is simply one of the most talented and appealing politicians in recent memory. Perhaps the most. shows a series of polls taken in the Democratic campaign. The graphs plotting national polling numbers as well as those in the first four states show a remarkably consistent pattern. Hillary Clinton starts out with either a modest or, more commonly, a massive lead, owing to her superior name recognition and the popularity of the Clinton brand. As the campaign goes forward Clinton’s support either climbs slowly, plateaus or dips. But as the actual contest approaches, and voters start paying attention, Obama’s support suddenly begins to grow exponentially.

Paean to FlickrFan

I read three newspapers, listen to NPR and read a bewildering variety of newsfeeds every day. I’m a complete information junkie. But I’ve just been utterly captured by a new pathway into understanding the world around us: FlickrFan.

FlickrFan is a program that takes feeds of photographs, like the Associated Press, and serves them up as an ever-changing screensaver (Mac only). Why do I think this is a way to understand the world? Reading about the news is one thing, but actually seeing it is another. I hardly ever watch television news because I find US television does such a piss poor job. The FlickrFan photo stream provides amazing image after amazing image, most of which make me think. “My God, that’s what the Gaza border turmoil looks like.” “I can’t bear to see what’s happening in the Rift Valley.” “Who’s that dead patriarch?” “Romano Prodi is looking very old these days.” If there’s an image of something I can’t figure out, I’d like to know more — and of course the Internet makes that an easy task.

I’d install FlickrFan in every middle school and high school social studies class. I guarantee it would provoke endless discussion and ensure engagement in the issues of the day.

I’m happy to confess that I’m a friend of FlickrFan’s developer, Dave Winer. But that doesn’t take away from the sheer fascination of image after image after image. I can’t tear myself away from looking at the screen across the room. I may never be able to work from home again.

How tos

I like the idea of “how to” websites, where I’ll learn some coveted skill. When do I have time is always a question, but it’s nice to dream.

I’ve never really wanted to be a rock star, but having attended my nine-year old’s rock debut yesterday I was intrigued by the launch of iVideosongs: “we’ll teach you how to play a complete song”. Pity that at this early stage all the instructional videos for keyboard, which I have some competence on, are for pretty lame songs.

Shabbat in Davos

I’m very pleased to see that Robert Scoble went to the Shabbat dinner in Davos on Friday night. That wasn’t part of my informal advice to him as a Davos newbie because he’s not Jewish and I know it’s a reasonably private event. But many of my best Davos memories are of the Shabbat dinner.

It’s ironic for me, because I’m as secular a Jew as could be. I even went to a secular Sunday school: the North Shore School of Jewish Studies, which no longer seems to exist. What does it mean to be a secular Sunday school? We were taught about Jewish history and culture, but we weren’t taught to believe in God or — and this would be unthinkable in today’s America — in Zionism. I’m proud of my Jewish roots and I think I had a good education in my culture, but it never included things like Shabbat dinners.

Until I arrived in Davos. Greg Blatt, who was a macher at the Forum for many years, invited me to the Friday dinner at one of my earliest Annual Meetings and I attended faithfully through to my last “Davos”, the 2002 meeting which was held extraordinarily in New York. Why did a non-religious person like me go faithfully to a Sabbath meal? It provided a warmth and connection that went beyond the ordinary Davos bonhomie. But it also reflected the significant personal journey I had made since my childhood.

Growing up on the North Shore of Chicago there was certainly nothing unusual in being Jewish and nothing particularly unusual about being Jewish and secular (heck, there were enough of us for a whole Sunday school). When I arrived in Oxford in 1978 the situation was very different. There are plenty of Jewish students in Oxford certainly, but equally in the late ’70s in Britain it was still acceptable for a certain strain of right winger to be distinctively anti-Semitic. I remember seeing dinners of the Monday Club — a particularly odious Conservative Party off-shoot — in my college that even to a detached observer really reeked of hatred for anyone who was Not One of Us. (I still remember that one of the members of that young Conservative group was Winston Churchill’s grandson and another became quite a successful diplomat for Her Majesty’s Government.)

Later, living in London, I kept encountering the same sort of thing. I remember even writing at one point to ITV to complain about what I saw as anti-Semitic jokes by Jim Davidson on some woeful variety program. It elicited some dusty reply. From about the same time, I remember the joke told by former prime minister Harold Macmillan. Commenting on Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet, Macmillan said, “There are more old Estonians than old Etonians.” Boom boom. The wicked cleverness of Macmillan does nothing to diminish the clear anti-Semitism.

Perhaps it was all those old Estonians in Thatcher’s circle, perhaps it was change occasioned by time, but by the ’90s I hardly ever encountered the anti-Semitism I’d found in the ’70s and early ’80s. But those years made me far more conscious of being Jewish than I had ever been before. So when the opportunity came to do something that was so distinctively tied up in my Judaism, I was happy to break bread with others in Davos. It’s great that Robert was able to do the same.

California as the decider

I’ve pinned my colors to the Obama mast and I was delighted at lunch last week to hear his staff declare that California would be the crucial context on tsunami Tuesday, February 5. New York and New Jersey, the thinking goes, will almost surely go for senator Clinton. Illinois will unquestionably plump for its own senator Obama (although Clinton is Illinois born and bred, that isn’t much of her biography these days). So California, the greatest delegate prize of all, becomes the decider.

Michael Tomasky provides an analysis in The Guardian which suggests that Clinton is going hammer and tongs for California while Obama is concentrating elsewhere. I hope this isn’t the case, since I suspect such a strategy would be as good as confirming Clinton’s nomination. The latest Field poll makes it look like it will be very tough for Obama to overhaul Clinton here, but surely he has to try.

Incidentally, I haven’t become a total Obama KAD. I think Hillary would make a good and winning candidate and probably a good president. I just believe Obama will be an even better candidate and a potentially transformative president at a time when that’s what the nation needs. As a Democrat, I’m delighted we have two wonderful candidates (who I wish would spend less time trying to cut each other off at the knees) while the Republicans have a mediocre clown show of presumptives.

On language

My wife returned from a week-long visit to England on Saturday with one vocal lament: she misses the richer, more complex language you hear every day in England. She, of course, listens to Radio 4, reads The Guardian and watches BBC Newsnight, not Capitol Radio, The Sun and Coronation Street. But still. She quoted one woman she heard on the radio who was discussing her discovery, relatively late in life, of scuba diving. The wind “wafted” and the water was “turbid”. Two words, the supposition was, that you wouldn’t hear in ordinary discourse even in Berkeley.

Funnily enough, this morning I heard one example that thoroughly confirmed Tracey’s view, and one that demolished it.

Listening to KDFC, the San Francisco classical music station, this morning, I heard the following intro, which must rank as the most dumbed-down ever voiced on a classical station: “He wrote it in 1787 and no one knows why. But we’re glad he did!” That to introduce Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Yikes. (You can get a sense of what a sad classical station KDFC is by their slogan: “Casual, Comfortable, Classical”. But it’s all we have here.) But then I was listening to Michael Krasny on KQED‘s Forum and he described someone’s behavior as eleemosynary. Wow.

The fierce urgency of now

Barack Obama in San Francisco, January 17, 2008

I plunged into modern American politics today. As any reader of Davos Newbies would know, I’ve always been a political junkie, keeping up with the news, the policies, the commentariat. But my hesitations about the money-driven nature of politics has kept me at a discreet distance. I recognize the long historical truth of Mark Hanna’s famous line: “There are two things important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” I, however, preferred to remain unsullied. Until now.

The incompetence and criminality of the Bush administration has really driven America into the depths. Change has become an easy phrase, tossed around by all the candidates, but true change is certainly needed if the US is regain its footing as a country to be proud of. I have no doubt that Barack Obama is the best presidential candidate to bring about that much-needed change. So I ponied up $1,000 to attend a lunch in San Francisco today with the man I hope will be the next president of the United States.

If I had paid $2,300 I would have had the honor of standing in line for at least an hour to shake senator Obama’s hand and get my picture taken with him. For my grand I was consigned to a table in the ballroom of the St Francis hotel with a random group of nine other Obama supporters. And that was the most interesting part of the event.

Sitting two seats away from me was an elderly, retired plastic surgeon, who had moved from Texas to northern California just a few years ago. He told me that the last time he voted for a Democrat was in 1960, for JFK. Since then, he has voted Republican including, two times, for George W. Bush. Like so many people — although until today these people remained the subject of articles or polling data, not an actual encounter for me — this gentleman had finally come to be utterly dismayed by Bush. He felt “betrayed”. As a result, a year ago — at a time when his choice probably seemed quixotic — he  decided to support Obama. All the rhetoric about crossing boundaries and bringing people together was embodied right at my lunch table. I was astounded.

Obama himself came on stage 90 minutes late, which I know is pretty much par for the course in these jam-packed days of campaigning. His events has probably started pre-dawn and you only need a 10-minute slippage for each event before things are running desperately behind schedule. Obama talked about what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now” as the reason why he entered the race almost exactly a year ago. That certainly struck a chord for me. Did I, however, hear the electrifying orator I’ve seen on television? Not quite: the speech was clearly cobbled together from the many bits and pieces he has developed on the stump, and, political junkie that I am, most of it was familiar.

Two moments, however, stood out. First, he was both winning and funny when recounting one of the key moments (in my mind) of the recent Nevada debate. The candidates were asked what their weakness was. Obama answered truthfully: I’m not very organized, I can’t keep my own schedule, my desk is a mess. The other two candidates gave the worst kind of false answers: I care too much about people; I’m too passionate about change. Obama got a deserved laugh. The other moment was his peroration about the importance of hope. I know he uses this passage in just about every speech he gives but when he spoke about hope and the people who fought the key battles of civil rights, who went to jail and even gave their lives, because of their hope I certainly had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.