Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Diagnosing the Democrats

The New York Times has an interesting pair of op-eds today in which a prominent Republican and a prominent Democrat offer constructive criticism of their own parties. For this post I'll be commenting on the Democrat's op-ed which was written by Bill Bradley. The Republican's op-ed was written by John C. Danforth and might get a post later this week.

The first part of the op-ed is an analysis of the Republican Party based on the metaphor of a pyramid:
You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.
This is actually a pretty reasonable metaphor. After all, the combination of secure funding, innovative creative design, efficient concept-to-product development, and a long-term advertising campaign sounds like Management 101 to me.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is described as an inverted pyramid:
To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.

Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.
This also seems like a reasonable analysis to me, since it correctly identifies President Clinton as both as a strength and a weakness of this inverted pyramid structure. You have to admit that President Clinton successfully assimilated a huge chunk of the Democratic party into his pyramid during the 1990's. The massive list of Right-Wing best-selling books expressing their impotant rage about the Clinton scandals also attests to the strength of President Clinton's efforts to keep the structure intact. The real problem that developed was Vice-President Gore's dilemma about whether to run on the Clinton record or in contrast to the Clinton record: the favorable media attention needed to keep the Clinton administration in power through the impeachment hearings also made it more difficult to make a realistic assessment of the liabilities of associating oneself wholeheartedly with the Clinton administration.

Thus, one obvious advantage of organizing a party around a single individual is the unity of command that such a structure provides. For a Presidential candidate who is amazingly charismatic and who is notorious for innovating the "never let a charge go unanswered" style of information management, unity of command seems necessary for winning an election. The obvious drawback of organizing a party around a single individual is that it also risks institutionalizing the negative aspects of the person in charge. I used the Clinton scandals as an example, but if you prefer, just look at the horrendous consequences of putting Senator John Kerry at the apex of the pyramid in 2004: a party organization based around unity of command is probably destined to lose when its leader can't even establish unity of command over his own public opinions.

Unfortunately, the problems of the Democratic party are also dramatically understated by this article, because the contemporary Democratic party is a lot more than just a traditional domestic political party of the United States. For many Democrats, the Democratic party is also a leading advocate for a just global politics, multilateral institutions, and an international rule of law based on a consensus reached by a global public opinion. A Democratic presidential candidate must be able to assemble elements of domestic politics and international projects such as the Kyoto treaty into a winning campaign while a Republican candidate is presumably less burdened in this respect. If you believe that the Kyoto treaty cost Vice-President Gore the electoral votes of West Virginia (due to its prominent coal production) in the 2000 elections, then this type of instability of the Democratic Party may already have cost it at least one presidency.

Mixed messages in the media reported today on Senator Clinton's outrage at being selected as the #1 Republican target in 2006:
"You won't be surprised to learn that Republicans have named me their "'#1 target' in 2006," [Senator Clinton] says in a mass e-mail this week.

"The right-wing attack machine is already warning that they will use the same smear tactics against me that they have used against other Democrats who stand in their way. "

In other news, also reported today that Democrats have targeted Senator Santorum for defeat in 2006:
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean says his organization is willing to do "anything" to defeat conservative Sen. Rick Santorum in his bid for reelection next year, even as the GOP hierarchy pledged to make the Senator's re-election a top priority.
How dare the Republicans do to Senator Clinton what the Democrats are planning to do to Senator Santorum!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Another lost clause

It's a strange fact to behold, but it appears that contemporary liberalism has set its sights on erasing another clause from the Constitution.

The example is the legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Bush to give Terri Schiavo's parents, and only her parents, the standing to sue in federal court to further their effort to keep Terri alive. The response of the New York Times editorial "A Blow to the Rule of Law" was that "The new law tramples on the principle that this is a 'nation of laws, not of men,' and it guts the powers of the states." The editorial also expressed the fear that "the right to bring such claims in federal court is reserved for people with enough political pull to get a law passed that names them in the text."

The principle that the United States should be "a nation of laws, not of men" is, of course, a noble sentiment for a nation to apply to its government. We certainly expect everyone who holds a grant of government power to exercise it for the public good, not for their own good. But in the sense of the editorial, this principle seems to be applied to the individual citizen who should therefore have no right to expect Congress to pass a law solely for his or her individual benefit. Or in other words, the United States becomes a "nation of men" when Congress benefits only a single person through a use of its power that would otherwise be constitutional and legal when benefiting, at least in principle, a class of persons.

I think that extension of the principle is not quite correct. First of all, Senators and Representatives use their offices in ways that benefit the individual all the time; it's called constituent services. Secondly, I don't remember seeing liberals publically insisting that the "Robert C. Byrd turnpike" or the "USS Jimmy Carter" be renamed to avoid the United States becoming "a nation of men". But my main argument is that this principle of "a nation of laws, not of men", as expressed by the New York Times, seems to run headlong into the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Insofar as the First Amendment protects the right of an individual redress of grievances, the argument that Congress cannot act on behalf of an individual by otherwise constitutional legislation seems to be incorrect. In reality, it is only as a defense against the abuse of this right by an unscrupulous citizen or a corrupt action of Congress, and not as a prohibition of the exercise of this right or the granting of redress, that the principle of "a nation of laws" should properly be applied.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

It's hip waders time in Washington D.C. again

Its amazing how fast the caca can pile up in Washington D.C. Here are a few examples from a Fox News Article entitled Dems Launch Pre-emptive Strike Before Myers Vote. The Myers vote refers to the fact that Senate Judicary Chairman Arlen Specter selected Bush judicial nominee William Myers for the first confirmation vote of the full Senate.

The first paragraph that caught my attention seems like a Democratic trap for the President:
Democrats have told the president to make a choice — an up-or-down vote on a handful of blocked judicial nominees or blockage of the rest of his agenda.

Bush said he doesn't want to make that choice.

"Hopefully, the Senate will be able to conduct business and also give my nominees a vote, an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate," the president said during a morning press conference.
The so-called nuclear option, which is the up-or-down vote on a handful of judicial nominees which will prompt Democratic Senators to block the rest of Bush's agenda, is really a procedural option relating to the Senate rules. As much as President Bush wants his judicial nominees to be confirmed, the fact that he is a President and not a Senator means that he doesn't have any authority at all over the Senate rules. Technically speaking either choice, if President Bush were to make a choice at all as the Democrats asked, would be interfering in the perogatives of the Senate. Given the passion with which the Senate has guarded it's perogatives in the past, Bush's position as stated in this article seems entirely reasonable.

Another thing that I noticed is a contradiction in what the Democrats are telling the public. The article states:
"The news reports today said we want to shut down the Senate. That couldn't be anything further from truth," said Reid of Nevada.
and also states:
"The ideologues in the Senate want to turn what the founding fathers called the 'cooling saucer of democracy' into the rubber stamp of dictatorship," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Think about this for a few moments. If you were a United States Senator and you discovered that the Senate ideologues were launching a coup against the lawful government of the United States, what would you do? Would you promise to make everything happily bipartisan again if only those nasty proto-dictators would just promise on their word of honor to be nice from then on? Or would you declare your undying opposition to the fascists and do everything in your power to defeat their plans and drive them from office?

If we assume that Senator Schumer is speaking literally, it appears that the Senate Minority leader is taking a shockingly indifferent stance to the incipient fascist takeover. On the other hand, if we assume that the Senate Minority leader is reasonably defending his party's legitimate political interest against an opposition party that is reasonably attempting to advance its legitimate political interests, then it appears that Senator Schumer has done what Democrats consider the most heinous of political crimes: unfair challenging of an opponent's patriotism.

Monday, March 14, 2005

A thought about the new Biblical translation

The Telegraph online site is reporting on a newly published translation of the Bible with the headline "Rewritten Bible banishes saints".

Unfortunately, this isn't a story about a dark anti-Bible that projects an impenetrable, anti-Christian no-go zone. The news report is actually about a controversy that has erupted over some aspects of the revised translation published as Today's New International Version. The report mentions a few examples such as:
Gone is the word "aliens", which the academics thought was invariably associated in the minds of the younger generation with extra-terrestrials. It is replaced with "foreigners".

Even the term "saints" is deemed to be too "ecclesiastical" and has been banished, to be replaced with "God's chosen people". The Virgin Mary is no longer "with child"; she is "pregnant".
This last alteration is presumably especially sinister since it could be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the Bible for the contemporary pro-choice position on abortion.

From an athiest's point of view, the argument that this revised translation substantially alters the meaning of the older, proper translations could be seen as evidence of macroevolution.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Science Fiction Heresy, Part II: The Matrix

Everyone who knows me personally knows that I love inventing unorthodox interpretations of a popular film, especially if it contradicts a relatively lame interpretation being offered by the director. The first part of this series, Vacuum Energy and the Star Wars saga? Heresy!, gave some criticisms of the new Star Wars trilogy that are not going to ascend to canonical status within George Lucas' lifetime. The next installment is a look at The Matrix trilogy, which still seems to have some confusing, unresolved points.

First of all, it seems to me that there is a parallel between the Matrix trilogy and the Dune Chronicles. In this analogy, Neo is the obvious counterpart to Paul Atreides with several points of similarity:

  • They are both associated with messianic roles (The One vs The Kwisatz Haderach) that they are fated to discover as they contend against their opponents.

  • Both Paul Atreides and Neo pass through an extended period of near death before their final climatic battle. For Paul Atreides, this was when he drinks the Fremen water of life and lapses into a coma which the Fremen interpret as a gathering of power within a spriritual realm. For Neo, this is the interval in which he has somehow transferred his mind into the Trainstation, leaving his body inert.

  • Paul Atreides is blinded near his (presumed) death at the end of Dune Messiah, but still has his oracular vision. Neo is blinded in Matrix Revolutions before he sets out for the Machine City, but he can still see the gold code.

  • Zion, which becomes Neo's place of refuge after the events of The Matrix, seems to be a parallel of Sietch Tabr, the Fremen desert base that harbors Paul Atreides after the reconquest of Dune by the Harkonnens. This seems to explain the rave in the Matrix Reloaded, which comes across as a watered-down version of the Fremen sietch orgy.

Extending the Dune analogy a bit farther gives an answer to one of the hotly-debated mysteries of the Matrix Reloaded, Neo's real-world ability to disable the Sentinal machines. The Dune parallel suggests that Neo posseses this ability in the same way the Paul Atreides possesses his oracular vision: each is the product of a long-term breeding program instituted for the express purpose of creating human offspring with certain advantageous traits. Neo is thus able to remotely disable sentinals, remotely transfer his mind into the Matrix, and other things because he was genetically engineered to be the next step in human evolution: a human who can mentally interact with machines without requiring the complicated architecture of the Matrix's life-support pods. In religious terms, the Matrix Trilogy seems to resemble something like a step towards The Omega Point in this interpretation.

My guess about the destruction and recreation of Zion with each iteration of the matrix is that it plays a role in advancing the goals of the machine's breeding program. In Dune, it is the Bene Gesserit school that is responsible for the breeding program that produces Paul Atreides. But another program of the Bene Gesserit is the covert manipulation of the religions practised on numerous planets throughout the galaxy. As the book reveals, the Bene Gesserit were planning to use control of the (necessarily male) Kwisatz Haderach as their means of gaining immense power and possibly control over the galactic empire. In order to prepare for this, the Bene Gesserit deliberately cultivated messianic imagery within the religions of the empire in order to manipulate the followers of these religions once a candidate for the messiah was ready.

In a similar way, Zion could be a convienient place to for the machines to deposit their candidate for "The One" and Zion's guerilla war against the Matrix could serve as the backdrop for testing "The One" to evaluate the extent to which the breeding program has succeeded or failed. The cultivation of messianic expectations for the Matrix within Zion's population would serve the purpose of protecting The One, and getting him jacked into the Matrix on a regular basis for closer observation, until his genetic potential could be fully evaluated. The necessity of destroying Zion with each iteration of the Matrix could be essentially cosmetic; leaving alive witnesses of failed messiah n is probably a really good way of destroying their confidence in the newly arrived messiah n+1.

For a final point, as of this writing I'm starting to doubt that the Architect was really being serious about all of humanity being extinguished if Neo made the incorrect choice. It seems very short-sighted of the machines to put "all of their eggs in a single basket", so to speak, and it also seems very self-serving of the machines to make sure that each Choosen One faces an inescapable, irresistable moral dilemma that practically forces each Choosen One to acquiesce to the machine's design. It would be pretty stupid of the machines not to keep some spare human genetic material lying around to repopulate humanity in case of emergencies. So I'm beginning to think that the Agent Smith virus was in some sense a bluff, and that all the machines really cared about was getting hold of Neo's DNA once they are certain that Neo had the genotype they've been trying to produce. Neo's resolution to reach the machine city, which would practically guarentee that the machines could grab his DNA once he died, seems to lead some credence to this view.

Once the machines were satisfied that Neo really was their desired end product and they obtained his DNA (since they carry off his body at the end), Zion would be purposeless for the machines and peace could break out. Similarly, there would be no more need to keep people trapped in the Matrix either; the next step in human evolution as planned by the machines was to free people from the physical Matrix all along.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Bush's second term score: Specter 2, conservatives 0

According to Robert Novak, Senator Arlen Specter has undermined the nuclear option (i.e. a Republican appeal to the rules with the intent of allowing cloture on judicial nominations by a majority vote instead of a 3/5ths vote), apparently by reporting judicial nominations out of his committee in the wrong order.

I don't view this as necessarily being the setback for conservatives that Robert Novak considers it to be. Assume that Senator Specter is correct in assuming that Democrats will drop their filibusters in order to avoid the execution of the nuclear option. The Republicans in this case will have won the substance of their claims even without making their challenge. If Senator Specter is wrong and the Democrats remain committed to their filibusters, then even he may come to defer to the Republican leadership on the use of the nuclear option. Given the stakes involved in the Senate's judicial confirmation wars, it would be better for the Republicans to reduce the risk of defections to the Democrats before putting the nuclear option into play.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Extracurricular Evolution

Yesterday at Syracuse University there was a lecture about scientific evidence for intelligent design. I attended hopefully to give the evolutionists at Syracuse University a respectable showing, since the debate was sponsored by the "Campus Crusade for Christ".

One aspect of the lecture that surprised me was a quick flash of some kind of Intelligent Design version of the Drake Equation. The conclusion was that the probability of some kind of life (I can't remember if that argument was for intelligent life or not) arising in a solar system in our galaxy was 1.0e-15, and the number of stars in our galaxy is 1.0e11, so it is highly improbable that that type of life would have occured without God's intervention. Of course, what the speaker didn't mention is that this argument only works if the Universe contains less than 10,000 galaxies. The current value number of galaxies in the observable Universe is on the order of 1.0e11, so by this argument, the natural occurance of that form of life in the Universe is practically guaranteed.