Archive for September 2012

For Your Reading Pleasure (TL;Ta-Nehisi edition)

September 29, 2012

[BTW:  Self-aggrandizement alert]

I believe many reading this site will have already checked out Ta-Nehisi Coates much discussed “Fear of a Black President,” the cover essay in the September issue of The Atlantic.  If not, go check it out, it is smart, rich, and a fine piece of prose style.

As some of you may know, I have the pleasure of calling Ta-Nehisi my colleague this year — he’s teaching at MIT as a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor.  Better yet, his office is literally across the hall from mine, so we chat fairly often.

On the matter of “Fear of a Black President,” that exchange became more formal.  I was struck when I first read the piece by some the craft choices Ta-Nehisi and his editors had made in putting together that long and complex piece of writing.  So I asked Ta-Nehisi if he’d be willing to talk about the writing choices he had made, questions of structure and approach.  He was, and we had two sessions with a digital recorder running.  Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t confine ourselves to technical writing issues:  you make choices about how to write something based on what you’re writing about and what you intend your words to do.  So we talked about the evolution of the themes and meaning of the piece as well as questions of approach or organization.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and, as you can  now check out the edited outcome of all this over at the Nieman Storyboard site.  (The Nieman site is a great resource for both aspiring and established journalists and writers btw, if that’s where your interests lead.)

And with that, how’s the weekend shaping up?

Pieter de Hooch, Conversation, 1663-1665.

Reality, Meet Conor. Conor, Meet the Real World.

September 27, 2012

As Mistermix has already discussed, the young, and earnest Conor Friedersdorf  wrote this yesterday:

The whole liberal conceit that Obama is a good, enlightened man, while his opponent is a malign, hard-hearted cretin, depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans — along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers — just aren’t valued. Alternatively, the less savory parts of Obama’s tenure can just be repeatedly disappeared from the narrative of his first term, as so many left-leaning journalists, uncomfortable confronting the depths of the man’s transgressions, have done over and over again.

Keen on Obama’s civil-libertarian message and reassertion of basic American values, I supported him in 2008. Today I would feel ashamed to associate myself with his first term or the likely course of his second. I refuse to vote for Barack Obama.

I and lots here agree, I think, that Obama’s record on civil liberties, the use of military power and so on is hardly perfect — not what many of his supporters hoped for in 2008.  I’d disagree with Conor on the weight I’d assign to different counts in his indictment, and it does seem to me important to recognize that presidenting is much harder than it looks (and it looks damn difficult).  Some of the choices Obama has made, as Michael Lewis makes clear at that link, have involved actions Friedersdorf deplores for reasons that nonetheless have a direct moral calculus of their own.  (See especially the discussion of whether and how to intervene in Libya before Qaddafi’s forces got to Benghazi.)

That said, and acknowledging that Friedersdorf has both reason and the right to feel moral revulsion at some of the acts of the Obama administration, in this fallen world you don’t get the choice of the perfect man or government.  Friedersdorf acknowledges the “lesser of two evils” argument with a faint sneer:

If you’re a utilitarian who plans to vote for Obama, better to mournfully acknowledge that you regard him as the lesser of two evils, with all that phrase denotes.

But moral relativism is not for the stalwart Friedersdorf:

Today I would feel ashamed to associate myself with his first term or the likely course of his second. I refuse to vote for Barack Obama. Have you any deal-breakers?

Ahh, the eternal righteousness of the resolutely disengaged.

Much of this is down to the dangerous folly of true single-issue voters.  Friedersdorf ridicules what he sees as the liberal caricture of Mitt Romney as “a malign, hard-hearted cretin,” which, he argues “depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans — along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers — just aren’t valued.”  In the reduction of Obama and Romney to the one issue of the exercise of state violence, Friedersdorf fails to value the old, the young, the sick, the uninsured and so on…but let that slide, as part of the necessary pathology of someone for whom the complications of living in the world are too much for the enduring sunshine of their spotless consciences.

But the problem for Friederdorf is more basic.  His argument rests on the claim that on the crucial matter Romney and Obama are the same.  Which is why this report in today’s New York Times is such a firecracker up his rhetorical butt:

In one of his first acts, President Obama issued an executive order restricting interrogators to a list of nonabusive tactics approved in the Army Field Manual. Even as he embraced a hawkish approach to other counterterrorism issues — like drone strikes, military commissions, indefinite detention and the Patriot Act — Mr. Obama has stuck to that strict no-torture policy.

By contrast, Mr. Romney’s advisers have privately urged him to “rescind and replace President Obama’s executive order” and permit secret “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives,” according to an internal Romney campaign memorandum.

While the memo is a policy proposal drafted by Mr. Romney’s advisers in September 2011 — not a final decision by him — its detailed analysis dovetails with his rare and limited public comments about interrogation.

“We’ll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now,” he said at a news conference in Charleston, S.C., in December. [mp3 at the link]

The shorter:  there are still lives and deaths in the balance even in the face of imperfect alternatives. Symbolic gestures can kill just as surely as sword (ask a Ralph Nader voter).

One last thought.  Memory that extends past the last election can help grasp the catastrophes that can attend principled disengagement.  The historian Peter Gay has written of the “rational republicans” who so honorably undercut the German revolution and the Weimar Republic that emerged from it:

The Vernunftrepublikaner [rational republicans] were reasonable men who had been willing to learn the first lesson of modernity but not the second:  they acknowledged that nostalgia for the Empire was ridiculous, bu they could not see that the Republci might deserve wholehearted support–or, rather, that it might become deserving if enough deserving persons supported it.¹ [italics added]

So it is with Friedersdorf, and with all those who pine for the second coming of whoever.  No doubt we need to keep pressure on both the president and congress to walk back the assault on life and liberty that has taken place in American politics after 9/11.* But to assume that a holy vote for Gary Johnson is somehow going to advance either that cause or make a material difference in the life of a US prisoner under the tender mercies of a Romney administration…that’s worse than foolishness.  It is a cowardly abdication of a basic human responsibility:  the necessity that we make choices where no alternative is without cost.

Or, shorter: Friedersdorf = Wanker!

*And before, of course — but what Conor’s complaining about has a pretty straight line of descent from that moment.

¹Peter Gay, Weimar Culture, Harper Torchbook edition, 1970, p. 25

Image:  Nicolaes Maes, Christ before Pilate, mid 17th century.

Samuel L. Jackson Calmly Discusses The Issue Of Democratic Voter Lassitude

September 27, 2012

One more celebrity weighing in on the imperatives of this election: (Bleeped, but not entirely SFW)

(Non-bleeped, unequivocally NSFW original here.)

In other news — I just this moment received an email from one Barack Obama, asking me to send money…to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  I know this is pretty close to routine, but still, I take it as a good sign for both the presidential race and what’s happening down ticket that he’s extending the use of his network to support the rest of the party.  It isn’t a big thing, of course, but still a positive.

And yeah, I know this is another drive-by post, but work is still brutal.  TL;DR posting to resume…but when? I dunno.

The Right Question

September 20, 2012

Charles Blow, today:

Mitt Romney keeps showing America who he is. When will we start to believe him?

Mitt’s reveal, illustrated:

(PS:  I’m deeply under the gun with work these days, so despite the target rich environment, I won’t be able to get back to my TL;DR kind of posting for a while.   Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing but its my thing.)

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Saturn Eating His Son, 1819-1823

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes Boing Boing Edition/Self Aggrandizement Alert

September 19, 2012

Late in getting this note up, but at 5 p.m. EDT this afternoon — less than an hour from now — I’ll be talking with Maggie Koerth-Baker on my monthly gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  That link takes you to the audio stream (and later the podcast, also available on iTunes) and this one will bring you to the spot in Second Life where you can heckle us in the “live”(ish) studio audience.

Maggie, as many of you may know, is the science editor at Boing Boing, and hence the ringleader and major producer of much that is wonderful in web-based science news, analysis and the odd oddity as well. She’s also just started a gig as a monthly technology-and-its-culture columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Her first column picked up on a subject near and dear to this blog’s community — what makes it possible for facts to matter in a political conversation.

We’ll spend part of the hour talking about her next column, on the concept of technological momentum, or why some seemingly great ideas do or don’t make it in the real world.  We may also get to some of the issues in science writing on the web raised by some of the troubling events of the last few months — think Jonah Lehrer, for one example, and the hype that overwhelmed much of the real science in the ENCODE story for another.  But the major topic will be energy, drawing on Maggie’s  wonderful book from earlier this year, Before the Lights Go Out — which is simply the sanest popular work on energy and paths to a non-disastrous future that  I’ve seen in many months of Sundays.

I’ll leave it there to give this post a chance to catch eyeballs before we go live.  Stop by if you’ve inclination and a moment.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Vegetable gardens and the Moulin de Blute-Fin on Montmartre, 1887.

Randy Newman Creates The Last Romney Campaign Reboot Ad

September 18, 2012

Randy knows how to write till it hurts:

(Via Greg Mitchell.)

I liked the Taft tree climbing line best, meself.

Blunt Clarity (From A Source Not Often Cited In This Space)

September 13, 2012

Via Ed Kilgore, I came across this from frequent blogosphere object of scorn, William Saletan.  He first makes clear exactly what it was the US Embassy in Egypt said in its tweets and other communication through the critical period leading up to and during the attack on the compound:

When you read the tweets alongside the initial statement, the message is clear. Free speech is a universal right. The Muslim-baiting movie is an abuse of that right. The embassy rejects the movie but defends free speech and condemns the invasion of its compound….

He then lines that up against Romney’s disastrous and deeply corrupt performance, stating at one point:

Romney’s description of the embassy’s initial statement—“sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions”—was blatantly false…

And at another:

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Romney escalated his assault: “The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”

Until, the ground prepared, Saletan offers this blunt exegesis of that sorry text:

At his press conference, Romney accused Obama of “having that embassy reiterate a statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech.” Romney claimed that the embassy had said, in his paraphrase, “We stand by our comments that suggest that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.” This, too, was a Romney lie. The embassy had declared five times in writing that free speech was a universal right.
What made Romney’s statement and press conference disturbing, however, was his repeated use of the words sympathize and apology to conflate three issues the Cairo embassy had carefully separated: bigotry, free speech, and violence. The embassy had stipulated that expressions of bigotry, while wrong, were protected by freedom of speech and didn’t warrant retaliatory violence. Romney, by accusing the embassy of “sympathizing with those who had breached” the compound, equated moral criticism of the Mohammed movie with support for violence. In so doing, Romney embraced the illiberal Islamist mindset that led to the embassy invasion: To declare a movie offensive is to authorize its suppression….

Exactly so.  And to my mind Saletan here has expressed as well as anyone yet exactly why Romney’s statements over the last couple of days were more than just grandstanding — a case of shoot first and aim later as our President put it last night.  And it’s certainly more than the Smirk, no matter how bizarrely revealing it was to see Romney grin at the thought of having politicized (successfully, he seem to have thought) the deaths of four Americans.

What Romney’s words actually mean, Saletan says (and I agree) is something profoundly un-, even anti-American.

Which is to say that Romney’s behavior over the last couple of days disqualifies him from the job he seeks both because he’s shown he lacks the basic temperament and analytical habits to do the job, and because what instincts he does have are at war with the values of a small “l” liberal polity.

Or, as Saletan concludes:

I don’t know where you were born, Mr. Romney (just kidding!), but where I come from, there’s nothing more American than recognizing the idiocy of a man’s views and, at the same time, his right to express them. If you can’t tell the difference between those two things, the main threat to our values right now isn’t President Obama, the Egyptians, the Libyans, or our diplomats in Cairo. It’s you.

Yup.  Go read the whole thing. (Or at least that rump I haven’t already lifted…;)

Image: Circle of Rembrandt, Bust of a laughing young man, c. 1629-1630

Department of Really Stupid Analogies, GOP Fail Edition

September 12, 2012

You remember those tweets from the US embassy in Egypt suggesting that religious intolerance is not, in fact, an American value?  This is what Republican Senate number 2 and all-round waste of carbon John Kyl had to say about them:

“It’s like the judge telling the woman who got raped, ‘You asked for it because of the way you dressed.’ OK? That’s the same thing. ‘Well America, you should be the ones to apologize, you should have known this would happen, you should have done — what I don’t know — but it’s your fault that it happened.’ (via TPM)


That’s a pretty impressive statement, taken all in all.  Economical. In just two sentences it manages to sideswipe rape victims* while asserting that US personnel in the midst of a street riot were actually complicit in their own vulnerability — all from the enviable safety of a seat in the Senate.

What’s worse — well not quite, because telling our diplomats in the midst of conflict that they’re craven wussies is pretty far down the WTF scale — but what’s further proof of Kyl’s unfitness for the job he holds is this sentence, which immediately followed the nonesense above:

You know, for a member of our State Department to put out a statement like that, it had to be cleared by somebody. They don’t just do that in the spur of the moment.

Uh, no, as Andrew Sullivan pointed out earlier today, quoting emails from readers in the diplomatic world:

I work in [a State Department office] where we deal with information security directly. (Please don’t name that office, but it just goes to show Kristol’s completely random Hail Mary on this one.) Do you know how many tweets there are from diplomatic missions? Almost all posts have a Twitter feed now, and they are most likely only cleared by public diplomacy Foreign Service Officers. That means it’s a local issue, has nothing to do with “State Department” officials in charge at home. I know for certain we do nothing of the sort, clearing them in this office…


I’m a former US Foreign Service officer and can tell you that the statement by the US Embassy in Cairo – which, frankly, seems perfectly OK to me to begin with; what’s really so offensive about it that the Obama administration has to “distance” itself from it? – almost certainly wasn’t cleared with DC, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been issued for another day or two! It would have spent that time bouncing back and forth from the Egypt desk up to the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and over then to Public Affairs and God knows who else getting massaged, tweaked, edited and finally OK’d. The reason embassies have Public Affairs officers is so they can handle this sort of statement on their own….

To recap:  Kyl blames the victim, then tries to expand the indictment to the Obama administration in a charge that cam be immediately shown to be a lie.  Proof, yet again, that the Republicans are no longer a political organization.  They are a claque of power-seekers attempting to complete the coup-under-the-cover-of-law that has been slow rolling through our government since Bush v. Gore.

Kyl himself is a small man in a job way too big for him.  But he’s merely echoing Mitt Romney-the-Unready, another small (and shrinking) figure who, nonetheless, retains a better-than-I’d-like chance at the top job. Which would, on the evidence of the last 20 hours or so, be even worse for the country than it had formerly appeared.  And even if (when) Romney loses, the GOP will remain a party-against-country ball-and-chain on the Republic.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*You can read his statement as saying that the judge is committing a wrong in saying “you asked for it” — but the framing evokes the opposite.  It’s a variant on the old rhetorical trick “I would never say that my opponent enjoys the carnal knowledge of his barnyard animals — but I do believe those are hog swill stains on his overalls bib….”  John Kyl would never say that a rape victim deserved what she got, but my oh my was that a short skirt….”  Perhaps I’m being unkind. Don’t think so.

Image: William Hogarth, The High Court, c. 1758 — and yes, I know I’ve used this before, but it just works here, alright?

Instrumental, With Words (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

September 9, 2012

Just in case any of y’all might be interested, I’m going to be talking with the really wonderful interviewer, Desiree Schell, about my almost twenty year old book, Measure for Measure, my attempt to retell the history of science through the stories of a series of musical and scientific instruments — from the pipe organ to the digital synthesizer, with stops along the way at the microscope, the scale, chimeric mice (sic!) and the ‘cello:

The conversation will take place on Desiree’s Skeptically Speaking radio show, and can be heard live there at 8 p.m. EDT, 5 p.m. PDT.  It’ll be archived and podcast later too, of course.  (If you are a glutton for punishment, you can catch my earlier chat on the same program with Desiree’s guest host, Marie-Claire Shanahan, on my more recent book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying the first full day of NFL football (Patriots begin as I hope they go on…), and that’s about it.

Image:  Amedeo Modgiliani, Cello Player, before 1920.

(Democratic) Party Like It’s 1936!

September 8, 2012

Two days now after President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, and the conventional wisdom among pundits has now pretty much set the narrative: OK, not great, overshadowed by Clinton and Michelle Obama.* [Warning, or perhaps merely, alert: both of those are Sully links.]

One frequent strand of criticism is that in the midst of the predicament that continues to bedevil the United States now in its fourth year or so of too damn many people out of work, Obama went small, talking incremental solutions in times that demand transformative policy.

David Brooks, for one, had a terrible sad immediately after Obama finished despite the obvious howling enthusiasm of those in the hall.** His first reaction, delivered with the kind of grey pallor you get when you’re still trying to grab your senses after being whacked in the gut, was swiftly echoed in the column he posted shortly thereafter:

But what I was mostly looking for were big proposals, big as health care was four years ago…At its base, this is a party with a protective agenda, not a change agenda — dedicated to defending government in all its forms…Worse, the speech was dominated by unexplained goals that were often worthy, but also familiar, modest and incommensurate with the problems at hand….The country that exists is not on the right track. It has a completely dysfunctional political system. What was there in this speech that will make us think the next few years will be any different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate. Romney is unlikely to do that, and Obama’s speech didn’t offer much either.

Leave aside the nonsense and the sleight of hand on display here and throughout this particular column.  Brooks has a genuine sense of disappointment because, as in the passage quoted above, he knows that Romney and the current Republican party is hopeless — and he loathes his fantasy of what Democrats actually aim to do (that “protective agenda” and “defending government in all its forms” BS).  In particular, he feels that in these terribly parlous times, we need audacity above all else — and that President Obama’s speech lacked the necessary vision to accompany what he concedes is this President’s impressive character. (Again, leave aside the question of what “audacity” got is into during the previous administraton

Well, all that — the general sense of disappointment at the lack of orgasmic moments in the speech plus Brooks (and others) seizing on the “too small for the times” meme made me think.   Is there any historical reference for what someone in such circumstance might say that would shed light on what Obama was trying — and in my view, successfully — to convey.

Why, yes there is.  Remember how so many speakers termed the Bush collapse and its consequences the most disastrous since the Great Depression?  Well, y’all may recall that we had a President elected to deal with the mess the Republicans had left him back then, and four years later, he had to make the case for re-election in times of economic hardship.  To be clear — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (or New Deals) had a major impact on the economy in his first term, during which unemployment fell from 25% to just over 14%.  You may note, however, that as the campaign in 1936 took place, that still represented a load of misery.  So what did he say to the 1936 Democratic National Convention?

This, from the amazing finish to FDR’s speech:

The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.

Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.

But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them.

For more than three years we have fought for them. This Convention, in every word and deed, has pledged that that fight will go on.

The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our Government and of ourselves. Never since the early days of the New England town meeting have the affairs of Government been so widely discussed and so clearly appreciated. It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle.

We do not see faith, hope and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a Nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.

Faith— in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorships.

Hope—renewed because we know so well the progress we have made.

Charity— in the true spirit of that grand old word. For charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.

We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.

We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.

In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.

It is a sobering thing, my friends, to be a servant of this great cause. We try in our daily work to remember that the cause belongs not to us, but to the people. The standard is not in the hands of you and me alone. It is carried by America. We seek daily to profit from experience, to learn to do better as our task proceeds.

Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.

Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.

I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.

I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war. [full text here]

Altered for changes in idiom, the oratorical style of the speakers, and the fact that the economic royalists that vex us so no longer concede even political freedom to those who have won it so recently and at such cost, and this maps onto to President Barack Obama’ s understanding of the task before us almost eerily perfectly.  Here’s his last few sentences:

If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election.

If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election.

If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape, that new energy can power our future, that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers, if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November.

America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place.Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together.

We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind.  We pull each other up.  We draw strength from our victories. And we learn from our mistakes. But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.

Thank you, God bless you and God bless these United States.

Throughout his address, Roosevelt offered no grander vision than Obama’s, at least in part for the same reason:  he knew what needed to be done because he’d been doing it, even if the job wasn’t finished yet.  He understood, as does President Obama, and President Clinton, and Joe Biden and many, many others, that what’s in play this election is not change, but freedom — the question of whether that much abused word must be construed only in it’s narrowest sense, or in a way that actually enables members of a free society to act freely.  The alternative, as both Roosevelt and Obama warned, is that the opposing forces — those that in both 1936 and 2012 had presided over the disaster it was left to Democratic presidents to repair — get to reverse the unfinished business of creating a society both more just and materially successful?

The question answers itself — or should, and will, if we get the job done between now and November 6.

One last thought:  I usually ascribe to Brooks malign motives.  Here, while the usual writing to a preordained conclusion (Obama is too small for the office), I think this is less a rational act of dishonesty and much more a fundamental inability to hear what was being said.  If I’m right in the parallel I see between FDR and BHO, then there really is a radical claim being made, a demand that the economic oligarchs recognize and act on responsibility to society, and not just shareholders or individual self interest.  That’s the vision.  It’s not about policy; it’s about the template of human relations and obligations from which policy will flow.  And little Brooks — small in mind and emotional range — doesn’t seem able to process that thought.  Which is, in this one instance, more sad than evil.

*Not me, BTW.  Like a lot of folks, I thought the speech started at relatively low volume, and it may be that Obama took a moment to find the music in the words on the page.  But I thought the speech was intricately constructed and that on the night, it built beautifully to an unexpected climax:  that the choice isn’t simply between vampires and competent, if fallible, human beings, but between Hobbesian wolves and citizens, members of common enterprise, what the founders might have called our commonwealth. That is, Obama’s use of the word “citizens” over and over again seemed to me a moral exhortation, a call to do not simply what is necessary or rational or in some limited interest, but what is right for the polis of which he reminded us we are all members, citizens.  Damn fine speech writing and delivery if you ask me, which  you didn’t.  See Fallows for an interesting assessment of the speech, complete w. two reader emails that describe pretty much the speech I saw.

**That last section of the speech really was a grand example of using a sense of dynamics (in the musical  sense) to lead your audience to the emotional conclusion you want them to reach.  A textbook demonstration of applause surfing, as I think someone said on the night.

Images:  Titian, The Marquis of Vasto addressing his troops, 1540-1541.

Hendrik Gerritsz. Pot, The Miser, 1640s