Archive for November 2012

Eye Candy Is Bad For You…

November 25, 2012

…But Oh. So. Tasty.

I’ve been conspicuous (or not) by my absence, I know, and will probably continue to be so for a while, as daily life does what it does so well.

But I’ve been collecting a few odds and ends that this crowd might enjoy, so I thought I’d offer them up as a peace offering until I can post something that actually has some substance to it.  Think of this as the third cotton candy stick you got as a kid, just before it all went pear shaped at the top of the Tilt-O-Whirl.

First up, via DKos, a truly delightful take on a song that my son has not let me escape in months (Ah, the joys of being well into middle age, and being schooled by your 12 y.o.)  Apparently, the thing is authentically what it alleges itself to be, the Royal Engineers living the pop life in somewhat forbidding circumstances:

watch?v=K-ZFKU2O1Zk

Via Daily Kos, here’s a US Army version, equally…how to put it…charming:

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I’ll leave it to y’all to decide which side of the Atlantic wins this battle of bands.

But I can say that my beloved uncle, a career officer in the Royal Artillery, warned me about those engineering boys.*

Which advice allows me to partake of the “not-quite-500-miles-away”** school of segues to take you to one of the latest effusions  from a noted engineering school — one that produced what, to my admittedly biased view, is the best of the exploding universe of Gangnam Style parodies.

Which is to say, here is the MIT version.  Watch for the cameos — I’m not sure I’ll ever think about genomics in quite the same way after seeing Eric Lander’s performance.  But the capper is one  I’ll let you discover, if your eyeballs aren’t already bleeding at the thought of yet more PSY coming your way.

watch?v=lJtHNEDnrnY

Oh, and open thread too.

*not intended to be a factual statement

**The not-quite-500-miles-away” segue was the term of art applied to the habit of the BBC programme Panorama to feign a link between two segments by saying something on the order of “Not 500 miles away from where Joe Bloggs was trapped in a death embrace with his pet python, Mary Scroggs paused, startled, while watering her petunias.”  Or some such.

Chris Hayes And Ta-Nehisi Coates In Conversation

November 20, 2012

Just to deliver on a promise made in a thread last week, here’s the video of Hayes and Coates talking about Twilight of the Elites at MIT last week.

The whole evening was great, but I have to confess that while I have very little of the fan left in me at my doddering age, it was a true thrill to meet none other than Charles Pierce after the show. This just about captures my reaction.

We only had a few minutes to chat, but I can tell you that his gift for ornate invective is as present in conversation as its is on the page; I wish I could recall his crack about Eric Fehrnstrom (whom he knew when they were both reporters at the Boston Herald) well enough to transcribe it for you.

You shoulda been there.

For a Good Time in Cambridge: Ta-Nehisi Coates/Chris Hayes/MIT Edition

November 12, 2012

Hey Boston-area Balloon Juice folk.  Tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m., Ta-Nehisi Coates will be talking with MSNBC host Chris Hayes, author of the highly recommended (by me!) Twilight of the Elites.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the event is titled “The 2012 Election and the Twilight of the Elites.”

 

 

It’ll all be happening at MIT’s Simmons Hall, W79 in TechSpeak, 7-8:30, free and open to the public. Simmons Hall is on Vassar Street in Cambridge, opposite the MIT playing fields.  Interactive map here.

Event description:

In his new book, Twilight Of The Elites, journalist and MSNBC host Chris Hayes poses a challenge with special resonance for the MIT community — Are the institutions which foster America’s leadership class working as intended? Hayes’ book covers ground as diverse as education, the financial sector, our political system and the Catholic church in an attempt to understand whether the American elite truly upholds the values of competition and meritocracy which it claims to espouse. His conclusions are troubling.

Join Chris Hayes in conversation with Atlantic Senior Editor and Dr. Martin Luther King Visiting Scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates on Tuesday November 13 at Simmons Hall for an election year discussion on the future of our country and an assessment of its institutions.

Should be fun.

Image: Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Fall of the Titans(alt: Fall of Satan), c. 1588

 

More Geekenfreude

November 9, 2012

Adding to the picture of the Obama tech-group’s cyber-campaign edge over Romney’s people, here are a few more details on the GOP’s Project ORCA  — you know, the GOTV system that failed more or less completely. From  Commentary:

The system had never been stress tested and couldn’t handle the crush of traffic all at once. Thousands of man-hours went into designing and implementing a program that was useful on one day and one day only, and on that day, it crashed. My source familiar with the campaign described it this way, “It was a giant [mess] because a political operative sold a broken product with no support or backup plan…”

Just to belabor the obvious.  Big data and robust software take a lot of time to get right…

…but the Romney side began only began to grasp the need for such a system well into the heat of the campaign [Powerline link]:

In the primary, we learned it was difficult to be working from Boston and really affect voter turnout in the states. It was disappointing to receive data later and realize if we had access to that data earlier, we could have done something differently and affected the outcome.

We have tweaked and improved Project ORCA throughout primary, so going into the general, we had several ideas and more time to incorporate those ideas into a system that would work nationally.

(Via Ars Technica, building ORCA took place over just seven months, leading up almost to the point of the general election)

By contrast, as the Michael Scherer’s piece I quoted yesterday describes, the Democratic cyber-team spent 18 months just to build the essential infrastructure of a usable meta-database and developing the software tools that would allow the Obama team to exploit that information for use in different settings throughout the active campaigning season.

And then there’s this, by Steve Lohron the NYT’s Bits Blog:

Another truly important change was in the technology itself. “Cloud computing barely existed in 2008,” Mr. Slaby said.

This time, the Obama campaign’s data center was mainly Amazon Web Services, the leading supplier of cloud services. The campaign’s engineers built about 200 different programs that ran on the Amazon service including Dashboard, the remote calling tool, the campaign Web site, donation processing and data analytics applications.

Using mainly open-source software and the Amazon service, the Obama campaign could inexpensively write and tailor its own programs instead of using off-the-shelf commercial software.

“It let us attack and engineer our own approach to problems, and build solutions for an environment that moves so rapidly you can’t plan,” Mr. Slaby said. “It made a huge difference this time.”

By contrast, the Romney development process, again, as reported by Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher [h/t commenter dmislev]:

To build Orca, the Romney campaign turned to Microsoft and an unnamed application consulting firm..

[But there were] a series of deployment blunders and network and system failures. While the system was stress-tested using automated testing tools, users received little or no advance training on the system. Crucially, there was no dry run to test how Orca would perform over the public Internet.

Part of the issue was Orca’s architecture. While 11 backend database servers had been provisioned for the system—probably running on virtual machines—the “mobile” piece of Orca was a Web application supported by a single Web server and a single application server. Rather than a set of servers in the cloud, “I believe all the servers were in Boston at the Garden or a data center nearby…

Open source.  Build it yourself.  Don’t had over your wallet to a consultant and take (allegedly) turnkey delivery days or weeks before chequered flag goes down.

Lots of folks here have more experience with this kind of work than I ever will, but my friends in the open source camp always emphasize:  if you build the tool and know the tool, and do so in an environoment that’s easy for others to inspect, critique, and improve, you get good software.  You certainly can get fine software from conventional proprietary approaches — but not always, and you suffer most when you have a glitch:  fewer people know what’s going on, and the code itself can be much more opaque.  Commenters here can flesh that cartoon out with much more bitter experience, I’m sure — but I think we all know the eternal truth that you really, really don’t want to be testing critical new components on the night.

A last point:  One of the benefits of demanding extreme effort in our Presidential campaigns is so that they can serve as stress tests, a way to see how well each side handles pressure and complex tasks.  And here,  you can see a lot in the different approaches the two teams took to building technology intended to address essentially the same problem.  You get a sense of their respective management cultures, their analytical skills, their capacity to master their emotions and organize themselves against the specific tasks they face.

Or, as our friend John Hindrocket asked just a week ago,

Whom would you count on to organize anything, Mitt Romney or David Axelrod?

Heh.

Image:  Titian, Allegory of Time Governed By Prudence, c. 1565.

I’m Still Loving The Smell Of Schadenfreude In The Morning: Geek Edition

November 8, 2012

A tale of two campaigns:

First, Obama, as reported in a fascinating and tantalizingly brief piece by Michael Scherer over at Time.com:

For all the praise Obama’s team won in 2008 for its high-tech wizardry, its success masked a huge weakness: too many databases. Back then, volunteers making phone calls through the Obama website were working off lists that differed from the lists used by callers in the campaign office. Get-out-the-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. It was like the FBI and the CIA before 9/11: the two camps never shared data. “We analyzed very early that the problem in Democratic politics was you had databases all over the place,” said one of the officials. “None of them talked to each other.” So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over, creating a single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states.

The new megafile didn’t just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals. Call lists in field offices, for instance, didn’t just list names and numbers; they also ranked names in order of their persuadability, with the campaign’s most important priorities first. About 75% of the determining factors were basics like age, sex, race, neighborhood and voting record. Consumer data about voters helped round out the picture. “We could [predict] people who were going to give online. We could model people who were going to give through mail. We could model volunteers,” said one of the senior advisers about the predictive profiles built by the data. “In the end, modeling became something way bigger for us in ’12 than in ’08 because it made our time more efficient.”….

The magic tricks that opened wallets were then repurposed to turn out votes. The analytics team used four streams of polling data to build a detailed picture of voters in key states. In the past month, said one official, the analytics team had polling data from about 29,000 people in Ohio alone — a whopping sample that composed nearly half of 1% of all voters there — allowing for deep dives into exactly where each demographic and regional group was trending at any given moment. This was a huge advantage: when polls started to slip after the first debate, they could check to see which voters were changing sides and which were not….

“We ran the election 66,000 times every night,” said a senior official, describing the computer simulations the campaign ran to figure out Obama’s odds of winning each swing state. “And every morning we got the spit-out — here are your chances of winning these states. And that is how we allocated resources.”

…The numbers also led the campaign to escort their man down roads not usually taken in the late stages of a presidential campaign. In August, Obama decided to answer questions on the social news website Reddit, which many of the President’s senior aides did not know about. “Why did we put Barack Obama on Reddit?” an official asked rhetorically. “Because a whole bunch of our turnout targets were on Reddit.”

And now the Romney approach, from reporting at Politico:

A much-touted mobile app used by Romney campaign poll watchers to track voters faced hiccups across the country Tuesday that left one prominent conservative Romney critic declaring it on Twitter “nothing short of a failure.”The system, known as the ORCA Project, was intended to give the Republican challenger’s team real-time information so campaign workers could call, text or visit people who hadn’t yet voted in attempts to corral them before polls closed.

Yet dozens of Romney poll workers across the country took to Twitter throughout the day to gripe that they were unable to log in, lost data they had inputted or found it moving slower than they needed to keep up with poll traffic.

Jeffrey Cook, a Romney poll worker from Fort Dodge, Iowa, gave up after eight hours of being unable to log in and tried to provide his data over the phone after the campaign sent out information about a telephone helpline….

“This looks like hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Akbar, whose popular Twitter handle @ali became a central repository for ORCA complaints. “Something’s going wrong. More people are experiencing problems than are saying it’s working.”

That’s damning for a feature of Romney’s digital campaign that was expected to be a blockbuster. Earlier this month, in fact, Romney deputy political director Dan Centinello was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying of ORCA, “There’s nothing that the Obama data team, there’s nothing that the Obama campaign, there’s nothing that President [Barack] Obama himself can do to even come close to what we are putting together here.”

The Obama campaign has a similar app, Mobile Pollwatcher, which had no reported problems on Tuesday

Ahhhh. This isn’t getting old, is it.

One more thing.  As ever, it’s never their fault.  Conservatism cannot fail. It can only be failed — or betrayed:

In the heat of the election, some pro-Romney tweeters blamed the press for suggestions that ORCA wasn’t working quite right.“Media stories reporting ORCA efforts shut down by hackers are false,” wrote Tommy Duggan, publisher of The Valley Patriot newspaper in Massachusetts. “We just got first-hand confirm[ation] that system worked brilliantly.”

As we might say in the framing familiar to this blog:  Continue acquiring intimate knowledge of Colonel Sander’s best friend.
Images:  Vincent van Gogh, The Blue Train (The Viaduct in Arles), 1888.
Hendrik Gerritsz. Pot, Flora’s mallewagen. (Allegory of the Tulip Mania.) 1640.

November 7, 2012

I’m still grinning ear to ear.

My voice is hoarse from all last night’s howling at the moon with 1000+ of my suddenly dearest friends (MA Democrats do know how to party….).  All day I’ve failed to recover (old man!) from the resulting 3:30 a.m. bedtime, followed by that all-to-familiar 6:45 alarm that begins the process of getting Blessed Increase off to school.

But by damn, I’m still smiling huge.

What’s more, sometime last night — after the fourth scotch I think, or maybe the first bourbon I had to follow those wee drams — it came to me:  years of GOP obstruction had one limpidly clear consequence last night.

A while back, the Senate had a choice:  entertain the nomination of a grandmotherly law professor to serve as the first head of a novel Consumer Finance Protection Bureau — or to send Elizabeth Warren packing as part of a larger campaign to prevent that new body ever taking action.

We all know what happened:  the Senate’s Republicans told President Obama they would never confirm Warren (or anyone) for the job.  The recess appointment that followed provoked controversy enough, and whether by her choice or Obama’s, the administration decided not to toss gasoline on the flames by placing Warren at the head of the agency she had (with others) built.

Instead, she was told to pack up her marbles and go home, with the GOP celebrating her return to the safely (they thought) isolated groves of academe.   As it happens, Warren made her way back to the  Massachusetts just as our accidental senator, Scott Brown was showing all the signs of being a lock to extend the wild ride he’d begun by defeating the single worst political candidate for whom it’s been my misfortune to volunteer.*

Sure, there were other Democrats already aiming at Brown, at least a some of them good people who, I’m sure, would make solid legislators.  But to be blunt:  they were second and third tier candidates.  Brown had a ton of money, and — as the actual race that followed demonstrated — no worries at all about being able to attract much, much more.  He had the image stuff down:  he was a good guy with the truck who managed to (seem to) be as independent of his party as every Massachusetts Republican needs to be.  He was nice looking (if you like that sort of look), well known and mostly liked state-wide, with a campaign organization already in place that non of the Democrats in the race could begin to match.

Yes, this is a Democratic state, and yes, it was a Presidential year — but no one with a finger in the wind thought that Brown was seriously at risk.  The tell:  not one of the ten Democrats from Massachusetts serving in the House  chose to risk their safe seats for a run at the upper chamber.

Enter Elizabeth Warren.  She arrived preceded by at least some fame.  She proved able to draw money as no other MA Democrat this year could have.  And she turned out to be a genuinely talented campaigner.  She wasn’t perfect — but as a rookie from out of town in a state that has historically been deeply unfriendly to women chasing the top jobs, she started out good, learned fast, and became truly impressive by the end of the race.  She hit all the notes, playing beautifully to the better angels of our natures, while, as her  scorched earth counterattack on Brown’s unbelievably feckless asbestos attacks demonstrated — she managed to  master all the necessary lessons of the gut-punch school of Massachusetts politics.

And yesterday, she won.  Decisively.  The invincible Senator Brown ended the night as roadkill squashed by a juggernaut no mere pickup could dodge.

Counterfactuals are never certain — but I can’t come up with a scenario that has Brown falling to anyone in the original list of Democrats seeking to oppose him.

I can’t see Elizabeth Warren running if she were in her first year or so shepherding a new agency she’d worked so long and so hard to establish.

If the minority in the Senate had merely behaved as virtually every prior caucus of both parties had done, allowing the confirmation relatively routinely of a qualified executive branch nominee, I can’t see anything but re-election and a full six year term for the Republican who took Ted Kennedy’s seat.

And yet, on the 50th anniversary of Ted’s first senatorial election victory Warren and not the incumbent  will be heading back to Washington.

All because the Republicans made a decision to oppose literally everything the President proposed.  I’m not saying that they could have anticipated the consequences that flowed from the decision to try to end every Obama initiative in failure…but there are indeed outcomes that flow from their actions.  What caused once  sure-things like Akin and Mourdock to fall was more explicit, more obvious, clearly the result of the long process of radicalization that has wrecked the Republican party.  But don’t let the self-destruction of the crazies fool you.  They and Brown all lost for overlapping reasons — and the biggest of them is that the GOP has doubled down on the belief that if they wreck the country they will be rewarded with power.  Brown can be seen as collateral damage — or perhaps a victim of Republican friendly fire.

He won’t be the last one.

In the meantime, I get pleasure every time remember this: all those GOP senators who swore never to permit Warren anywhere near actual power have got a problem.

Q:  What do you call that nice lady from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?

A:  Senator.

May they choke on the lesson.

*Losing is no fun, and those last few days of working when you know that the face of the campaign simply never grasped the basics of the job — those final shifts really, really suck.

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Incendio, fuego de noche, 1793.

Have You No Sense Of Decency, Sir?

November 5, 2012

That was the question Boston attorney Joseph Welch put to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.

I ask it now, as rhetorically as Welch did then, of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

Why?

The “revenge” nonsense of course:  McRomney’s last-ditch, last moment attack on President Obama for having asked his supporters not to boo Mitt Romney, but to vote, because, as the President said living well voting is the best revenge.

Every sane American knows that joke; Mitt Romney does too.  But to Romney the candidate, suddenly, this is a sudden moment of clarity about the President.  Obama’s voters seek revenge!

It’s hardly a dog whistle anymore.

Rather, the message comes through loud and clear to anyone who cares to listen.  Romney’s crowds know what is being said:  there’s an angry black man over there exhorting his angry black voters (and their fellow travelers) to seek revenge on proper Americans.

A digression — but not really.  I’ve just started to read Gilbert King’s harrowing new book, The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. It tells the story of four young African American men, falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949, and the terrible events that flowed from that lie.  One lesson to draw from that story:  the civil war between white Americans ended in 1865.  The civil war that pitted American whites — under the cover of law, often prosecuted by uniformed agents of the state –  against American blacks did not cease until the early 1960s.*

Mitt Romney was seventeen years old when the Civil Rights act was passed.  He was thirty-one when his church finally abolished its race-based restrictions.  He was a young man through the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s.  He knows — or should — the consequences of racial hatred and division.

Another digression:  I don’t have a lot of time for John McCain.  He’s responded to his defeat in 2008 with none of the honor, gravity or dedication to country that men like George McGovern or Jimmy Carter displayed in like circumstances– or as George Romney did, for that matter.  But I’ll give him this:  to a great extent he resisted the pull of race-baiting in the last presidential campaign.  His running mate wanted to go there, and so did much of his party, but he didn’t.  And that’s something, and not a small matter either.  So:  compare and contrast.

On the Republican side this year there has been an almost ceaseless background drone:  Obama is not quite a “real American;” he apologizes; he doesn’t get what this country is about.  The theme, blunt and gross at the Limbaugh end of the GOP noise machine, modulated and disguised just enough when it’s Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, is clear enough to anyone who’s lived in these United States long enough to reach the age when it is possible to buy a drink legally, or vote.  And I guess I’ve experienced what happens with any kind of constant white noise:  it kind of fades into the background, neither (quite) unheard nor consciously noticed.  That’s how it works best — a constant presence that never rises to the level that draws a direct reply.

But this last, this “revenge” idiocy, is one provocation too far, at least for me.  Mitt Romney knows what he is doing.  He’s telling this country that there is a guy over there, the President, who does not legitimately hold his office, who seeks not the best for America, but the revenge of some Americans on others.  It doesn’t matter that the claim is risible on its face, that it clearly morphs beyond recognition the actual meaning of Barack Obama’s words.  The trope sends a message that Romney wants to deliver.  It’s what you say when you can’t shout Ni-Clang! anymore; it’s how you play on the notion — as Politico would have it — that only white Americans can confer– or enjoya true mandate to lead.

Here’s the thing:  the easy path is to say that this is just what they do.  It’s been the GOP line since 1968, and it will continue to be so until we finally salt the fields of that no-longer-Grand, way-too-Old Party.  But I can’t leave it there, however much I understand that the hunger for power trumps all else.  Mitt Romney isn’t a party.  He isn’t a movement, or an institution, or anything but one man.  He owns his acts, his words, his choices.  And he has chosen to close out his campaign with a moment in his stump speech that plays on the worst impulses in American history.

Has he no shame?

At this sorry end of a seven year pursuit of the White House, the question answers itself.

*You could argue that it hasn’t ended yet — but I would say that there is a difference between sporadic acts and the sustained and legally protected violence of the pre-1964 era.  But even so, the fact that this is still even a discussion is something to fuel both anger and despair.

Image: Alfred Dedreux, Pug Dog in an Armchair, 1857 (Yeah.  I do know I’ve used this before.  But it works, OK?)

To Moscow With Love

November 2, 2012

Mitt Romney, interview with Wolf Blitzer, March 26, 2012:

I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors, of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran, and nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough, but when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when [Syrian President] Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go to the United Nations and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside, and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council, and is of course a massive security power — Russia is the geopolitical foe.”

Mitt Romney, Republican National Convention acceptance speech, August 30, 2012:

President Obama … He abandoned our friends in Poland by walking away from our missile defense commitments, but is eager to give Russia’s President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election. Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone.

Mitt Romney, final presidential campaign debate, October 22, 2012:

“I’ll respond to a couple of things that you mentioned. First of all, Russia I indicated is a geopolitical foe. Not … Excuse me. It’s a geopolitical foe, and I said in the same — in the same paragraph I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election.

Matt Romney, as reported by Peter Baker in The New York Times, today, November 2, 2012:

…While in Moscow, Mr. Romney told a Russian known to be able to deliver messages to Mr. Putin that despite the campaign rhetoric, his father wants good relations if he becomes president, according to a person informed about the conversation.

The rest of this post, I think, writes itself.

 

Images:  M. Minard, Chart depicting the change in size of Napoleon’s army during the Russian campaign of 1812-13, 1869

Caravaggio, Christ Expels the Money Changers from the Temple, 1610.

Dessert Topping or Floor Wax?

November 2, 2012

Yesterday, Bernard Finel attempted the valiant intellectual feat of trying to get inside the mind of one W. Mitt Romney.  The question:  what lies behind his pre-Sandy hate on FEMA?  His answer:

When Romney talked about killing FEMA it wasn’t because he really thought the states could or should do it, nor did he think the private sector could or should. When Romney went after FEMA in the primary debates, it was all about letting GOP voters know that he sees the Black Helicopters too.

That’s plausible, certainly, and I’ve no doubt that when you’re betting on Romney’s combination of cynicism and opportunism, you’ll never lose taking the over.  But at the same time, I think this particular stance was overdetermined — and that it’s worse, not better, that Romney’s views on federal involvement in any social good derive even in part  from remnants of genuine belief.

Here I have just a hint of (one remove) personal insight to share.  Y’all recall that among the Romney “home states,” Mitt and his family did in fact live in Massachusetts for a lot of years.  Which means he had friends here, people who knew and liked him before ambition consumed his soul.  As it happened, I had dinner with a couple of those folks last week — people who had  met him in the context of (non-sectarian) social action and who had become personal friends over the years the they knew each other, beginning well before Romney embarked on his political career.

My friends barely recognizes their friend any more, which saddens them, but in talking about Mitt’s charitable interests, our dinner companions emphasized two things:  the first is that Romney does recognize that there are people in need, those for whom a helping hand is both needed and likely to be effective.

The second: Romney possessed then, and presumably does now, an enduring commitment to the Mormon church — not just to the formal tenets of the faith, but to the institution as it saw itself, a kind of corporate entity integrated into all facets of its members’ lives.  That’s the context in which Mitt had no problem with the idea of a group responsibility to ensure individuals’ well-being-in-extremis.  But such social service properly takes place (in my understanding of my friend’s gloss on Mitt’s views) within the private sphere, in the settings that Mormons or others find themselves.  The idea of state intervention was not just unnecessary; it was an unwarranted intrusion.

The virtue of such an approach is obvious, I think:  within specific communities, there are real, kept, mutual guarantees.  Its defects are equally plain:  for one, the price you pay for such common cause is that the gentile — and we’re all gentiles to somebody — is not part of the deal; and for another, there’s the problem of scale.  In a country of 310  million-plus folks of all kinds of origins and destinations, the moral and practical implications of that kind of approach are catastrophic.  As Sandy illustrates with brutal clarity, if your approach to the problems of society within the nation we actually inhabit is a canned goods drive…well, were he actually in charge, the consequences that would flow from what at least were once Romney’s beliefs would be pretty certainly disastrous.

And hence the real problem, IMHO.  Throughout this election season, plenty of folks who should know better have floated the notion that the GOP candidate seen on the stump is a fake Mitt — thus enabling the fantasy of some pragmatic, moderate Mitt who would both seek and be able to govern from the sensible center.  I think that’s pretty certainly hogwash on the face of it; the running mate choice, if nothing else, is the one actual Presidential decision a nominee gets to make before the election, and I think Mitt’s shows the direction of a putative Romney presidency pretty clearly.

But even if there still survives some real Mitt behind the facades we’ve seen to date, here’s the rub:  to the extent that the archaeology of friendship exposes that person, we find a man who does not accept the implications of what it means to live in a heterogeneous nation and a pluralistic society.

So, that’s what you have to ask yourself: is it better if Mitt didn’t care what he said about FEMA before it became inconvenient to have uttered his wingnut-bait?  Or should we prefer that he actually believed in the proposition?

To me, it’s the second option that truly terrifies.YMMV.

Image:  Egbert van der Poel, View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654,  1654.


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