Thursday, October 28, 2004

Donnie Darko, Michael Badnarik, and Democratic Party Shenanigans

It's been so long since I've made a proper blog entry that wasn't just a link to something else. And to be honest, I should be grading right now, or else my students in tomorrow's sections could revolt.

But I wanted to mention that not only did I randomly happen to bump into Jake Gyllenhaal, who was here at UW to campaign for John Kerry (surprise, surprise), that I helped to organize and of course see a Michael Badnarik visit.

The first was a random thing. I was out putting Badnarik flyers up, and there was a large group (20-30) of students all encircled around someone with camera crews and the whole bit in front of the Memorial Union. He looked familiar – at first, I thought he was one of my students. But then I realized that none of my students would have camera crews follow them and autograph-seeking fans, and then I realized who he was.

That I got to talk with him at all was sheer luck. I snapped two photos of him, and managed to get an autograph out of him for Diane Court. What was truly ironic was that I didn't have anything really handy for him to sign... except for the Badnarik flyers. So folding one in half, I handed it to him, asking him to make it out to Laura. I doubt he even noticed what was printed on the other side. He asked me if I was going to vote, urging that I join the waiting Democrat van. (That van, decked out with Kerry, Feingold, and Tammy Baldwin signs, has been busing students to the city clerk's office, where you can vote early.) I told him that I had class in 20 minutes, and he was dismayed by this excuse. I explained then that I was the TA, and it would be bad form for me not to be there. He accepted this. (To clarify – it wasn't clear that he was actually going over with the Democrats and would-be voters. It might've been worth it if he was.)

I probably should have told him that I'd go, but I'd be voting for Badnarik, and show him the sign. I wonder how he would've reacted – like a Republican who hears that someone is supporting Nader, I wonder? Or with dismay that I wasn't supporting Kerry outright? But he was an awfully nice guy, and I didn't want to engage in a confrontation. The whole thing sort of reminded me of the time when my friend Sam Dangremond, the then-editor of the Primary Source, met Al Gore at a Tufts speaking engagement, and offered the ex-VP a Source to sign, which he did. Only after he signed it did he realize it was a conservative publication, got this flushed, annoyed look on his face, and rolled it up tightly before returning it to Sam.

Would that poor Michael Badnarik, an actual candidate, get half the attention of Jake Gyllenhaal. True, Jake was sort of the advance guard for Kerry, who will be speaking here tomorrow with none other than Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen at his side. (Speaking of which, the man won't be here until tomorrow, but they already have huge segments of Washington Ave, one of the chief arteries out of the isthmus, blocked off. Nothing too good for His Imperial Majesty).

I should also mention, as an aside, that the Democrats here in Madison are really pushing the envelope of the law. Diane Court and her friend Amanda arrived on campus in time to hang out with Badnarik, assorted Libs, and myself, only to be accosted by the same Democrat activists that Jake was hanging out with earlier. They tried to get both Diane and Amanda to get into the van with them to vote. You'd think that Amanda informing them that she resides and votes in another state, and that Diane lives in another county, would be enough to tell them to move on to other prey. You'd be wrong. They insisted that it would be alright if the two of them voted here today, and strongly implied that they could get them both registered here in Madison.

Amanda's boyfriend actually works for the Kerry campaign here in Madison. We met up with him after the Badnarik talk, and he arranged for the two of them to get better tickets for Kerry's talk tomorrow. (I was offered, but declined because I'll probably still be grading.) He mentioned that he had already voted, just this morning. Not a big deal, until you consider that her boyfriend actually lives in Texas. It's appallingly easy to register to vote in Wisconsin, and if it's same-day registration, all you need is a drivers' license or utility bill with your name on it to register. I suspect her boyfriend and many other party activists are becoming temporary Wisconsin voters.

Keep in mind, this was all stuff out in the open. I have to wonder what happens and what is said behind closed doors, of either party.

Anyway, Badnarik. His talk wasn't until 3:00PM, so he hanged out with me, Diane, Amanda, and several other assorted Libertarians in the Ratheskeller. After meeting him again in person (I first met him when I was still living in Austin back in 2000), I was reminded brutally of his greatest strength and his greatest weaknesses. Badnarik is passionate and consistent (in a way) about his ideals, and why he's running for President. But what could be persuasive in some audiences won't be in others. While we were hanging out, an unearthily young 40 year old theatre grad student, who had the mistaken notion that somehow Libertarians were kind of like socialists sat at our table and chatted with Michael.

It's refreshing that Michael doesn't equivocate the way politicians do, but Jesus, there's also the fine art of diplomacy. He came close to insulting our poor deluded theatre socialist, at one point saying that Donald Trump was smarter than he was because Trump had so much more money than he did. Michael also really likes talking about guns, and about how whenever someone attempts to degrade his liberty, he will respond with his 44. The theatre guy finally left, appalled, though he stayed a lot longer than I thought he would – maybe close to an hour? Michael's way of breaking issues down was a bit disconcerting to me, largely because so much of his rhetoric confirms the worst stereotypes people have about Libertarians. It didn't help matters that Diane and Amanda are both dyed-in-the-wool liberals who voted for Nader in 2000, though they are breaking for Kerry this time around. It was all they could do, they both told me, to bite their tongues.

(Before that exchange, he also told me that he used to belong to a philosophy reading club, which basically became for all purposes an Ayn Rand club. Rand, he said, taught him to think in terms of essentials, and that everything could be traced back to philosophical routes. So far so good. But he also compared himself to a brain surgeon, saying that what he does, by “lighting the fire of liberty one heart at a time” is analogous to a brain surgeon's cutting away damaged tissue. You have to be careful, he said, because if you do it wrong you can do a lot of damage. I was both impressed, and aghast, that he considers himself a philosopher.)

The talk that he actually gave in the reserved room was a lot better, at least at the beginning. As far as stump speeches go, it was easily on par with the best that Bush or Kerry muster, going into substantial reasoning instead of remaining mired in typical political spin and hyperbole. Not that there was none of that: he said, for example that the Patriot Act was the most anti-Constitutional law passed since the 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts (really? worse than the Japanese internment camps?), and violated the Godwin proviso during Q&A. (The actual argument, I believe, was that just as Hitler passed laws allowing him to put people into ovens, our government frequently passes any number of laws allowing them to do whatever they want).

I regret that I didn't actually take notes. Indeed, I felt weird being at a talk where I wasn't trying to get everything down. But there wasn't a whole lot that I could've missed. One student, who apparently knew something about Badnarik, asked him about why he refused to get a drivers' license, and Badnarik gave a surprisingly good answer by my lights, though it didn't pass muster with Diane's BS detector. I still think that although a libertarian society will ultimately not have drivers' licenses, in 2004, in this universe, it's such a trivial problem. Bigger fish to fry abound, and he has to make such an issue of this, to the exclusion of far more weighty struggles.

I asked him about the divided government argument, why one should vote, say, Democrat for President and Republican for Congress. He gave me an answer I didn't find terribly satisfactory – something about driving halfway over a canyon, and that by doing so, you'd still fall in. I had hoped to push him on his Constitutional prowess, pointing out that many Founders imagined that there would be factions and disputes, and that the best way to secure liberty from their stratagems would be to divided their power and influence so that they effectively cancel each other out. (I'm not convinced that this argument is worthy a Kerry vote – perhaps if the candidate were Joe Lieberman or a properly medicated Zell Miller or a Democrat who actually cared about civil liberties, it'd be different – but it's a respectable reason to vote major party for a libertarian.) But instead, I get a weird analogy about driving off a cliff.

I don't mean to obscure the good points he made, but the negative parts sort of stick out. The last thing we need, as libertarians, is someone who makes us sound crazy. I worry Badnarik does just that, far better than any of libertarianism's detractors. Still, all in all, I'm going to vote for him, and even put a sign up for him in my apartment, because absent some major moral problem, the candidate who gets my vote is almost always whichever candidate shares the most positions with me. Of course that's almost always the Libertarian, though I made an exception in 2002 for a Republican, Mitt Romney, the now-Governor of Massachusetts. The divided government argument made sense then, and Carla Howell, God bless her, was proving to be sort of embarrassing as a Libertarian.

Diane Court observed that Badnarik's talk revealed him to be very, very angry. So I had thought that perhaps Badnarik is the Libertarian Howard Dean. A pity that we didn't nominate Gary Nolan...

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander

I wonder: Will all the people who blamed Fox News and the Bush administration for the widespread belief that Saddam Hussein had a role in 9/11 also blame MTV and the Kerry campaign for the widespread belief that George Bush wants to revive the draft?

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Dirth of Blogging Time, the Hell of October, and Did Kerry Break the Debate Rules?

If you've kept up with my blog this far, you've probably noticed that the regularity of my posts has dropped significantly. I can't even keep up with comments half the time - Majikthese and Thad made some well-placed objections to a post I made a few weeks back, and if I had just a little more free time, I'd be able to give them answers worthy their remarks. But for the meantime, my blogging time will be taking a serious crunch for several reasons I've already mentioned - two graduate seminars, one TA-ship (with responsiblity for 80 students and 4 discussion sections), a part time job of 20-25 hours a week. And a girlfriend. :)

But the month of October, and possibly November, may be even worse. Although with the election, there will be tons of stuff I'd love to comment about, I'll be taking on the additional burden of beginning, crafting and completing a term paper on Philosophy of Mind, so as to complete an incomplete that should've been taken care of ages ago. If you believe in the supernatural or a deity of any flavor, please pray for me, and apologize to that deity on my behalf for my lack of belief. And check here maybe once a week - that's probably about how often I'll post. And if you know my other more personal blog, check there more often, since that's updated more frequently with slice of life kind of stuff.

Before I crashed tonight, I wanted to comment briefly on a new brouhaha developing about Thursday's debate between Kerry & Bush. If the charges are true, Kerry is guilty of breaking the debate rules by using a prepared notecard to guide his speeches during the debate. See the video here.

For the sake of the argument, let's assume the charges are 100% true. (I'm not actually committed yet. It looks bad from the evidence that I've seen, but that could be because I'm seeing what my mind wants to see - the way people see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in tortillas. I also find it hard to believe Kerry would be dumb enough to pull something like that knowing that a huge national audience was watching him, scrutinizing every detail for something they could blog about. How long ago was Rathergate?)

I would advise Republicans to stay away from this charge, basically. It's small potatoes. It goes back to the same rule of thumb that I would've insisted for Republicans and Democrats alike months ago when various inconsequential, stupid controversies dating back to the Vietnam War arose: "Even if the charges are true, do they really matter in whether we should vote for this person?"

To flesh this out: if Kerry lied about his experiences in Vietnam so as to qualify for medals that he didn't really earn, that might've made him a bastard back in the day, but in 2004, the two things that should matter most are 1) his record, and 2) his positions on the issues, and how close they come to mine. Yes, as conservatives argue, character does matter, but character is demonstrated primarily by one's record, judgment, and one's leadership, or lack thereof, so character fits under #1.

One could argue correctly that Kerry's misadventures speak poorly of his character. Fair enough, but we're considering Kerry 2004, not Kerry 1971. Character is holistic, and it would be myopic to pick one event from so long ago and make it definitive over everything else he's done. One caveat here - the degree of the wrong the candidate committed could outweigh the passage of time. If Kerry or Bush were guilty of murder or war crimes, for example - if Kerry participated in Genghis Khan-type atrocities against civilians - then the issue would only be evidence, not relevency.

And needless to say, this same rule of thumb would cover the Bush National Guard controversy. Let it be true (I'm actually quite skeptical on that count, forged documents or not) - presumably the best reasons to vote for or against him would be record we have of his tenure as President, and platform he's put forward as the agenda he offers to implement if reelected. Even if true, the charges against Bush are about as relevent as Bill Clinton's draft dodging as a disqualifer from the Presidency. Liberals who supported Clinton and yet think Bush's National Guard controversy should play a meaningful role in the election are in a deep case of bad faith.

Back to the broken debate rules. Applying this same rule of thumb to the debate, let it be true that Kerry broke the rules. There comes a point where even if someone's guilty of something, making a big deal about it makes you look even worse than the guilty party. If, say, I take a cheap ball-point pen from the supply closet in my office that's worth 10 cents without getting permission, and a co-worker alerts my boss, the co-worker looks far more petty than I would look bad.

While breaking the debate rules would be far more serious than the pen example, a similar principle would be in effect. Right or wrong, Kerry is popularly perceived as the winner of the debate on Thursday. (I agree with this assessment, though it was a victory more of default and performance than of superior ideas). If Bush's camp, or even loosely affliated allies, try to make a big deal of this, Bush will look petty, guilty of sour grapes over his lost debate. Even the bloggers that broke story aptly point out they'd prefer not to "hyperventilate and claim that this violation influenced the outcome of the first debate, but it's certainly reasonable to request that the rules are followed by the Kerry Campaign and enforced by the Debate Commission for the remaining two contests."

Instead, Bush should lick his wounds, maybe take a moment to feel better about his loss knowing that Kerry's strength, at least in part, came from a violation of the rules, and put in more work on his own weaknesses. A) Drink some coffee before the debate if he's such an early to bed/early to rise kind of guy. Coffee is the Nectar of the Gods, I would assure him. I know from experience. B) Get an hour and a half worth of material instead of the 30-40 minutes he had to stretch out. Yes, perhaps Bush and Rove had a method to their madness, thinking "less is more" works better for middle America, and that repeatition plays a huge role in persuasion. And maybe it's only that I'm a former debate nerd and aspiring philosopher that this technique bothered me. But from the look of things, I wasn't the only one who thought this repetition looked like crap.

Otherwise, the only other thing I'll say about the debate is that it depressed me me about as much as the 2000 debates and the 1996 debates. Where, dear god, is the candidate I can root for? This time, I think he was across the street, debating David Cobb, languishing in obscurity and irrelevence, and even wrong himself about the issue he's making the centerpiece of his campaign. Given that politics are usually so depressing, I don't know why I bother sometimes...

Anyway. If you've read this far, I'll end by assuring you that by Wednesday, I should have something about my take on the "Iraq is wretched vs Iraq is peachy" debate, and why both sides are wrong.