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A Nobel Peace prize?

I scanned my RSS reader quickly this morning.  Short on sleep, with at least an hour of work to do to prepare for my morning class, it was meant to be nothing more than a cursory glance.  The story – covered on some blog or other – stood there at the top of the list.  Nobel Peace Prize?  Obama? It didn’t look like a joke posting, but it just looked too unbelievable to be true.  So I scrolled down, saw the story on one, then another.  Then I saw it on Talking Points Memo.  Only then did I accept it as true.  Josh Marshall doesn’t joke around, nor does he print stories based on rumours.  Wow.

My first reaction, once I accepted it as true, was simply ‘wow’.  On one hand, it’s nice to see  a positive take from someone with perspective that isn’t tied up in the internecine struggles of American politics.  Even as you reject the “birthers” and the “deathers”, their brand of outrageous nonsense still colours the discourse.  And, like many liberals, I’m less than thrilled with the way the White House is handling the health care debate, the why the DOJ has handled some civil liberties cases.  So positive news is a breath of fresh air.  On the other hand, it seemed premature.  He’s seriously considering escalating in Afghanistan, while the Palestine seems on smoulder, on the edge of a new flare-up.  But the language of the Nobel Committee’s language spoke of change in the “international climate”.  And as the climate of international relations changes, it creates space for peacemaking.

Later on, I started to think about what people had said, had to say.  And it occurred to me that maybe Obama wasn’t such a bad choice.  Several people said that Obama received the prize “for not being Bush”.  Phrased that way, it seems trite, but that’s actually a pretty good argument for awarding him the Prize.

It’s easy to forget how much things have changed in the last year or so.  It wasn’t that long ago that people were discussing, with straight faces, the question of whether the US should use nuclear weapons against Iran.  Cheney and the neocons were ready to go to war with Iran.  There was also talk about war with North Korea.  Right or wrong, it seemed like the only thing holding them back from getting involved in another war was the fact that the military was strained to the breaking point.  In addition to that, the US wasn’t only using torture, people in the government were defending tactics like waterboarding.  So it’s more than “not being Bush” – it’s a conscious decision to abandon much of the former regime’s rhetoric and a good bit of their actions.  The Obama administration has still fallen short on civil liberties, it still hasn’t ended the wars, it still hasn’t closed Guantanamo…but that doesn’t change the fact that what they have done is huge.

But all of this is still simply a matter of “not being Bush”, right?  Not really.  Obama didn’t defeat Bush in the election last year.  He defeated John McCain.  And John McCain rhetoric was far more belligerent than Bush’s.  Not only was he singing “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran”, he also seemed ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia last summer.  And, of course, a McCain victory would have put Sarah Palin “a heartbeat away from the Presidency”.

Still, it’s easy to say “well OK, but any Democrat would have done this”.  But would they have?  During the Democratic primary Obama was ridiculed by his fellow Dems for his willingness to engage in diplomacy, even with Iran.  More importantly, he showed himself to have a spine when dealing with the right-wing claims that he (or any Dem) was “soft on terrorism” (or international affairs, or…)  Look what happened in the authorisation of the Iraq war.  Dems were cowed into voting for the war.  That’s important, because (as we have seen) the criticism from the far right is unrelenting.  And Congressional Dems have shown that they will cave if the far right gets loud enough.  This was important in the decision to stop the plan for (unproven) anti-missile systems in eastern Europe.  While touted as being defenses against Iran, they were most likely to provoke escalation with Russia.  Again, it takes enough spine to stand up to the far right and do what makes most sense.  Obama also has a proven track record on nuclear disarmament, of course.

Equally important is Obama’s attempts to improve relationships with the Muslim world.  Again, given all the claims that he was a “secret Muslim”, I can see strategists telling Obama “stay away from the Muslim world”, since it will inflame the far right.  It took courage to reach out.  And reaching out matters.  Not only does it create the opportunity to improve relations (and thus improve the global climate), it also may help average Americans begin to get over their Islamophobia.  You talk to Americans, even liberals, and they see Islam as monolithic, and scary.  Muslims were never popular in the US, but over the last few years they were dehumanised to the extent that deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as insignificant or even (horror of horrors) a good thing, in some cases.

Obama’s personal popularity and likability also contribute to the way he – and by extension, the US – is perceived in the world.  Again, this is more than being “not Bush”.  This is being Obama.  National leaders need to work together, regardless of what they think of one-another and regardless of what their people think of the other leaders.  It’s far more popular to negotiate with, to cooperate with a Barack Obama than with a George Bush.  Similarly, if you’re a demagogue trying to work people up against America, it’s easier when the American leader is hated, and much more difficult when the American leader is loved.

It’s more than just “showing up”.  Obama has changed the international political climate, and he’s done so in a way that makes peace more possible.  That doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s also in charge of two wars and is considering escalating in Afghanistan.  That doesn’t change the fact that he must do more for world peace.  It’s one thing to ask whether Obama is the most deserving candidate.  (I don’t know, I can’t answer that question.)  It’s quite another to suggest that he isn’t qualified for the award.  It’s only been a few months, but he has made a real and significant impact on peace.

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Conservatives, liberals and adaptationists

I am always annoyed by the fact that everyone has an opinion on evolution.  Regardless of whether they can explain the first thing about how it works, they know whether they “believe in it” or disbelieve.  Many people, especially in the US, use their disbelief in evolution as a basis for political action.  Others will attack the “scientific orthodoxy” and claim the “evolutionists” are ideologically driven.  The whole idea of the scientific method and the tentative nature of all scientific knowledge escapes these people.  But when it comes down to it, if the average person doesn’t choose to have opinions on real scientific controversies, why jump in about fake ones?

Over the last few weeks it has begun to dawn on me that I should be awfully grateful that the general public isn’t more invested.  I should be grateful that I am not an economist.  Most people can describe themselves in terms of political ideologies, and those political ideologies are usually linked to economic “beliefs”.  Many of the most loudly expressed beliefs are “conservative”…belief in the power of the free market, belief in lower taxes, opposition to redistribution of wealth (except, of course, when it comes one’s own way).  Political parties are based, in a large part, on political ideologies.  Ideologies.  Not scholarly work.  Not data about how the world really works.  Ideologies.

Supply-side economics is a failed idea.  It’s been tested, it has failed.  The unrestricted free market has failed and failed horribly; Enron was one test, the “mortgage backed securities” scam was another.  But political ideologues are unmoved by data.  It was the failure of human nature, not of the system.  Hmm…where have I heard that before?  Oh yeah…communism.  Great idea, if only it wasn’t for human nature.

It’s bad that biology has become a political issue.  People take a biological question like “when does life begin?”, impose an arbitrary answer on it, and use it as a motivation to go and pass laws restricting how doctors can care for their patients.  But at its worst, the political appropriation of scientific ideas pales in comparison to what has happened with economics.  “I’m a fiscal conservative” says the average person who knows little about economics.  “I’m an adaptationist myself”, one might answer.

The first serious crisis since the end of the Cold War…

What was the first “serious international crisis” after the end of the Cold War? Well, there was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait back in, which prompted the first Gulf War. Coming 9 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d say it counts as a post-Cold War crisis. The Yugoslav Wars, which brought genocide back to Europe, were serious crises. The Rwandan Genocide and subsequent wars in the Congo were “serious crises”, which resulted in 5 million deaths. The attack on the US on 9/11, the Afghan war, the Iraq war…all of these are serious crises. The North Korean nuclear test was a serious crisis. The civil war in southern Sudan, the Darfur conflict, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and a host of other natural disasters in the last 18 years all look like good candidates for the descriptor “serious international crisis”.

John McCain, it would seem, disagrees.

And this guy is running on his foreign policy credentials? It’s bad enough that he doesn’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia. It’s bad enough that he can’t remember that Czechoslovakia doesn’t exist any more. But forgetting about the first Gulf War, the Rwandan Genocide, the Congo wars, the Yugoslav wars, 9/11, the Iraq war… John McCain serious scares me.

Update: Something I missed earlier – “Abskya”? Sure, I don’t expect him to pronounce the “kh” right in Abkhazia (I rather doubt I pronounce it right myself), but “Abskya”? The only way you make a mistake like that is if you’ve never heard the word pronounced, only read it. So despite having a lobbyist for Georgia running his campaign, it looks like McCain has never actually discussed the geopolitical issues, just read about them. So very reassuring…

(I also forgot to credit BarbinMD at dKos for the link & much of the list of missed crises.)

Gore for VP…?

Rob Kuttner at TAPPED explores the idea of Gore as Obama’s Vice Presidential nominee. Wouldn’t that be something?

The fact that former Virginia governor Mark Warner is delivering the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention is being taken as a sign that Kaine (also a former governor of Virgina) is out of the running. Apart from the fact that Evan Bayh is about as unexciting a candidate as one can imagine, he’d almost certainly end up being replaced in the Senate by a Republican. On Countdown they seemed to think that this made Joe Biden the front-runner, but others have said that having a white male deliver the keynote suggests that the VP may be a woman (Kansas governor Sebelius being the obvious choice). Of course, this is undercut by the fact that the presidential candidate isn’t a white male.

I like Biden better than Bayh or Kaine, but I’m not a fan, especially after last year’s bankruptcy bill. Sebelius would be a decent choice, but I’m really not sure that adding a woman as VP would do much to reach out to white working class men (who are supposed to be less comfortable with Obama). After all, it would feed the fear that white men have lost control of the country, a popular meme. Including Al Gore wouldn’t solve the “elitist” whine, of course. But Gore does bring a lot of positives. As Kuttner says

  • Stature? Definitely.
  • National security credibility? Check.
  • Believable as president if need be? That, too.
  • Boring? That was the old Gore, not the new one. (And compared to whom? Biden? Bayh?)
  • Help carry a key state? Gore is in own unique state, and the regional effect has been overrated since LBJ.
  • Upstage Obama? Funnily, doesn’t seem so.

Obama-Gore would be my dream ticket.  That’s for certain.

Vote Paris!

Paris Hilton Responds to McCain Ad.

Tim Russert dies

I just heard that Tim Russert died, this afternoon, at the age of 58. Very sad news.

I noticed he wasn’t looking good the last few months. Andrea Mitchell on Countdown was talking about the strains that the campaign puts on reporters…you think about the effects on the candidates, but you really only think about the reporters when The Daily Show does something on the campaign (which is usually all about the reporter).

My condolences to his friends and family.

There’s something about deaths like this that just don’t feel real.  News people are different from other celebrities – they talk to you, so you feel like you know them.  But they are iconic enough that you feel like it can’t be true.  And – you can still see them on TV.  While they talk about him on Countdown you still see video (if not audio) of him, just the same as always…

Gov. Henry vetoed Sally Kern bill

Via the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education mailing list

Governor Henry’s message on his veto of HB 2633:
————
“This is to advise you that on this date, pursuant to the authority vested in me by Section 11 and 12 of Article VI of the Oklahoma Constitution to approve or object to legislation presented to me, I have VETOED House Bill 2633. Under current state and federal law, Oklahoma public school students are already allowed to express their faith through voluntary prayer and other activities. While well intended, this legislation is vaguely written and may trigger a number of unintended consequences that actually impede rather than enhance such expression. For example, under this legislation, schools could be forced to provide equal time to fringe organizations that masquerade as religions and advocate behaviors, such as drug use or hate speech, that are dangerous or offensive to students and the general public. Additionally, the bill would presumably require school officials to determine what constitutes legitimate religious expression, subjecting them to an explosion of costly and protracted litigation that would have to be defended at taxpayer’s expense.”
—————

Henry could have waited a day and let this bill die as a pocket veto. It is important that he decided instead to veto it directly, thus sending an important message.

I would like to extend my heartiest thanks to Governor Henry.