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The more I look at this, the more apparent it is that the talking heads of cable news totally missed the point on the New York Times article on John McCain. Sure, any whiff of a sex scandal is like blood in the water, but I think a far bigger problem is that they were unable to separate themselves from the story. Worked up about the ethics of the issue, they were unable to address the news element.

Writing at Democrats.com, David Lindorf hits the nail on the head

But really, who cares whether they were shacking up on the campaign trail? McCain, after all, already double-timed his starter wife and dumped her for a trophy wife, the statuesque and wealthy beer industry heiress Cindy Hensley, so it’s not as though he is campaigning on a strong pro-family platform.

No, the reason his aides, back in 1998-2000, started working behind the scenes to keep Iseman away from McCain, and confronted McCain over his dalliances was because McCain, who had a history of corruption, most notably his card-carrying membership in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal, couldn’t afford to appear to be backsliding.

McCain was against torture before he was for it. McCain was against Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy before he was for them. McCain was against Bush’s war (or at least the way Bush wanted to carry it out) before he was for it. And, most importantly, McCain was against election campaign ethics before he was for them. From the Wikipedia article on the Keating Five:

After months of testimony revealed that all five senators acted improperly to differing degrees, the senators continually said they were following the status quo of campaign funding practices. … The committee recommended censure for Cranston and criticized the other four for “questionable conduct”.

Still, people can change. It’s reasonable to believe that McCain is now a supporter of tax cuts for the wealthy, torture and clean politics. The problem is that the evidence isn’t there.

As I mentioned previously, McCain made some bold statements in his press conference. Up until that point, the sex stuff was irrelevant. But the other stuff is murkier. Writing at TPM Muckraker, Paul Kiel point out that McCain distorted the facts – rather than being totally aboveboard, letters written on behalf of one of Iseman’s (the lobbyist at the centre of the Times article) clients prompted an objection from the head of the FCC:

As The Boston Globe reported way back in 2000, William Kennard, the FCC chair at the time, had immediately objected to McCain’s December 10, 1999 letter, replying four days later that it was “highly unusual” and that he was “concerned” at what effect McCain’s letter might have on the decision process.

If the head of the committee was concerned, I’d say there’s the appearance of impropriety. Sure, it was “business as usual”, but so, said McCain, was the Keating scandal.

There’s another part to McCain’s denial that rings a little hollow as well – the issue of his contacts with the New York Times over the story. Last night Pat Buchanan said that McCain’s lawyer convinced the Times not to run with the story in December because it was too close to the start of the primaries. David Kurtz at TPM discusses this. The wingnuts have been whining that the Times ran this story just to hurt McCain, but as Cenk Uygar points out, it really looks like they did everything to help McCain (including, of course, endorsing him while sitting on the story). If they had run the story in December, it would probably have changed the outcome of the Republican primary. If they had waited to run it in October, it might really have hurt him. Instead, they did him the favour of running it at a time when it’s least likely to do him any damage. Uygar says

I think the far simpler answer is the correct one. The McCain campaign threatened and intimidated them as the Bush team has done on countless occasions and they gave in until someone else was about to release the story. The only thing worse than being bullied by Republicans is getting scooped by your competitors.

Oh, and worse than all that – ScienceAvenger suspects that McCain is a creationist

Is John McCain a creationist? It sure looks like it from this article:

McCain told the Star that, like Bush, he believes “all points of view” should be available to students studying the origins of mankind.

H/T to Mahablog for the Cenk Uygar material.


Proposal to combat illegal logging

Logging is a major threat to tropical forests. Logging roads and clearings allow more light into the forest, resulting in a proliferation of undergrowth, and allows more desiccation during the dry season. Logging slash – large branches and the crown of the tree – are also left behind to dry out. All this makes logged forests far more fire prone, and allows fire to be transmitted further from the edge into the forest. Logging roads can also be a conduit for settlers into the forest.

Illegal logging has all these problems plus others. Legal logging results in royalties paid to local landowners or the state. There are often limits on the size of trees you can cut, and in many cases there are protected species. As with the drug trade, it’s very hard to police the trade in illegal timber at the source. Fines tend to be small, and it’s difficult to police the remote areas where the trees are being cut. It’s far easier to regulate consumers. When Western countries pontificate about tropical deforestation while still buying illegally cut timber, it ends up as nothing but pointless hypocrisy.

The BBC is reporting that a move is underway to allow people to be prosecuted for illegal logging in the countries where the logs are being sold. Continue reading

McCain scandal

I have a hard time figuring out what to make of the McCain scandal. If it’s about sex, then it’s really not that big a deal. In fact it’s very like the Clinton scandal – there was a sex scandal during his primary campaign, and for those who dug deeper, there were more rumours. Not only had McCain never claimed to be a paragon of virtue, but according to his Wikipedia article, McCain was still married when he got involved with his second wife (who is 17 years his junior). Sure, if he had an affair with this woman, it would reflect badly on his character, but we already know what kind of person he is.

The second leg of the story is the implication of either wrongdoing or the appearance of wrongdoing. Being that close with a lobbyist certainly raises the appearance of a conflict of interest. McCain’s association with lobbyists makes his claims of being “clean” ring a bit hollow. Even if there was nothing going on between the two of them, it isn’t ethical behaviour. McCain says “I did nothing to betray the public trust”. And we are supposed to take his word on it? The word of a politician? How stupid does he think people are? This is someone who has suffered torture, who because of it can’t raise his arms above his shoulders, but who is willing, for the sake of political expediency, to sign off of a pro-torture law.

McCain’s unequivocal denial of both implications raises the stakes. The cable news anchors commented on his lack of apparent anger – is he trying to counter his reputation for being short tempered, or is it just that, unlike Bill Clinton, McCain finds it hard to summon righteous anger in a situation like this? Anyway, his outright denial forces the New York Times to either defend or retract their story. The Times‘ publisher has said “the story speaks for itself”…does this mean that the implications of an affair and of wrongdoing (that are in the article) “speak for themselves”? It doesn’t sound like the Times is about to back down on the story.

To me though, the most remarkable thing is the reaction of the news anchors and commentators. Rush Limbaugh’s reaction lacks outrage or his usual hyperbole – his reaction was “I told you so” and “you should know who your real friends are” (apparently his “real friends” are the people in right wing talk radio who have been attacking him throughout the campaign). But it’s the shocked reaction of people in the mainstream media – Chris Matthews and the like – that’s really interesting. They are assuming that this is a breach of journalistic ethics by the Times, and working from that assumption, they seem to be saying “how could you do this to us?” They have injected themselves into the story, and they seem to be unable to step outside of the story. In other words, they utterly fail to do their job. There are exceptions – I think that Keith Olbermann and Dan Abrams managed to keep a little distance from the story, although they gave too much time to people who couldn’t – but overall it seem like the media failed to keep a sense of perspective.

At least they now have rioting in Belgrade to distract them…

Update: Many people were saying that a story by The New Republic on the failure of the Times to publish the story in December was what prompted the Times to run with the story. TNR has now weighed in on the story (although, as David Kurtz at TPM points out, it doesn’t answer the story of why the times published the story now).

Update II: Kagro X at dKos has a good article on the reaction of “wingnut mouthpieces” to the story (in short: shoot the messenger).

Florida science standards

The Florida Board of Education eventually adopted the science standards with “evolution” in them (details here, here and here). Their compromise to the creationists was to preface the word “evolution” with “scientific theory of”; the good thing about that was the decision to preface evolution and other concepts with the phrasing “scientific theory”. As PZ says, the creationist may have scored an own goal. He writes

Well, the word is out that the creationists screwed up big time, and their own ignorance has turned around and bit them on the ass. They really did think inserting the word “theory” would help discredit evolution (it may still do so, as they try to frantically spin it in their church newsletters, but it’s only going to work among their true believers), but it’s going to have the opposite effect in the public schools.

Creationists love to spit the epithet it’s just a theory at evolution. Obviously evolution is both fact and theory, but it’s the theory that’s the interesting bit, because a theory allows you to make non-trivial predictions in a way that observations (“facts”) do not. There’s no slur in calling evolution a theory in a scientific context – a scientific theory is a very well supported hypothesis. The creationists’ point, of course, isn’t to call evolution a scientific theory, it’s to call evolution an unsupported conjecture. It amounts to playing games with language. Continue reading

When preconceptions fail to match reality, reality is discarded

On Monday I discovered “wholinkstome“, a website that finds links to any given webpage.  I saw an incoming link from it, and felt the need to investigate.  Tuesday I used it to look links to saveboissierehouse.org, which is the url to which the button on the side links.  Poking around the Caribbean Beat blog, I saw this post:

Jamaican poet and activist, Staceyann Chin – who we interviewed for the upcoming March/April issue of Caribbean Beat – has a piece today in the Lives section of the New York Times about her troubled childhood in Jamaica. Click here for more.

A New York Times article about a Caribbean poet?  I felt I had to take another look.

Her story reminded me of the excerpt from Norman Manley’s autobiography that I read in primary school.  (I have wanted to get my hands on that book ever since).  Born to a black mother (who abandoned her) and Chinese father (who never acknowledged her), Stacyann Chin grew up poor, first in the care of her grandmother, and later, her great aunt.  And when they moved from the country to Bethel Town, she dealt with a certain culture shock

When I was 6 my grandmother moved my brother and me from the deep rural district of Lottery to Bethel Town to live with my policeman uncle and his teacher wife. My cousins spoke in clear Standard English sentences, while my classmates laughed at my dropped H’s and widened O’s. They told me I looked funny, they called me “red mongoose” and “dirty half-Chiney” and they hit me with green strips ripped from the hanging coconut boughs.

I realise that I may be reading my own experience into things, but if Jamaica is anything like Trinidad (and I know it is), she conflicted with the stereotypes of the other children.  “Chiney” are supposed to be rich, or at least have more money than ordinary black people.  Race correlates with socioeconomic status.  A half-Chinese child who is not only poor, but rural poor.  Her solution is to raise her status:

One day, to save myself, I blurted out that my mother had sent for me and that they had better be nice so I would mail them presents from Canada. They immediately began vying for my affections. Everyone gave me an offering at lunch — a June plum, an icy mint, a Minnie Mouse pencil. …The children soon forgot about my leaving, but they never teased me again. The tale stood as some sort of truth because my aunt never did refute my version at school.

Once she raised her status, the dynamics changed.  There is, of course, the simple mercenary nature of children – if we’re nice, she might do something for us.  But I wonder if there wasn’t more than that – with the “natural order” restored (the “Chiney” has more than we do), they were once again comfortable.

At Michigan State I met a visiting scholar from Jamaica – a social scientist who was interested in perceptions of race and class.  I learned that while “high colour” meant something in Trinidad and Jamaica, it didn’t in Grenada, because Grenada had not been a socially stratified society.  As Brian, the social scientist, said – in Grenada there were poor peasants and rich peasants, but everyone was a peasant.  In Trinidad and Jamaica there were real class differences, and those class differences coincided, to a remarkable extent, with skin colour.

People always expected that we had money.  Being half white (and able to pass for white, or at least “Trinidad white”), people made assumptions and they were unlikely to be dissuaded by mere facts.  It didn’t help matters that my father was better educated than the parents of my classmates – few of them had parents who had gone to university.  Several had parents who hadn’t gone beyond primary school.  I was two three generations removed from cane, many of my peers were the grandchildren of people who had grown – or cut- sugar cane.  Having lived in Canada and having a bit of a funny accent didn’t help either.

There were many reasons why it took me a long time to be accepted by my peers.   But I believe that part of it was that I didn’t match their preconceptions.  Long after they had accepted me, my peers didn’t believe that I was not better off than them economically – in truth, we were worse off than many of my peers.  You’re high colour, your parents are educated, your relatives are prominent people.  How can you not have money?