Friday, June 02, 2006

Electoral College 3

Hi there.
I know a lot of you read this on RSS, or blow through here looking for screenwriting tips. I even know a fair number of political conservatives read us, thanks to the old "I Miss Republicans" bit. I know you have other things to do.

Take five minutes. Screenwriter or satire junkie, progressive or conservative, read the Robert Kennedy Jr. article on the 2004 election. Don't pull up short at the headline. Just read it through. I don't care if you're spitting epiteths at the hated liberals the entire time. Just read it. Feel free to read the Salon counterargument here. I agree with Farhad Manjoo of Salon in one important respect -- RFK JR's bizarre reliance on the "science" of exit polling. Like Ken Blackwell issuing a long series of completely illegal rulings right before the election, tampering with voting machines and lying about terrorist plots in order to hide the vote count isn't enough. Giving such weight to the polling angle actually softens up the article, and indeed is the subject of most of Manjoo's counter-strike.

You will notice, however, Salon lightly skipping over big chunks of Blackwell's actions, whistling and waving over yonder. No mention of the paper-weight registration trick or the multiple judges who found that Blackwell was interfering, repeatedly, with the election. It is a sad day when Salon's rejoinder in defense of the republic is "Sure, Blackwell was plainly a partisan bastard who betrayed the public trust, broke the law, and stole votes. But did he actually steal enough votes to swing the election? If not, no foul."

I will merely point out a bit of synchronicity as this intersects our current discussion. Perhaps the title "Was the 2004 Election Stolen" can be argued either way -- but a better question is "Was the 2004 Election Fair?" I believe even the Salon article cedes a definite "no."

In order to steal a direct election, you have to steal a million votes.

In order to steal an Electoral College election, you only have to queer the count in ONE STATE.

Let's reason together, lefties and righties. Regardless of how you feel about Bush, in 2000 the man who got the most votes in America did not become President.

And you came damn, damn close in 2004 to giving the Presidency to another man who did not win the most votes -- and this was only avoided by the plainly illegal (go ahead and sue me, and enjoy the discovery process, Sparky) actions of Blackwell. I will argue that giving the Presidency to Kerry if he'd won Ohio -- while technically correct -- would have been equally as wrong as how Bush won the presidency in the first place.

This is ridiculous. It's the 21st Century. Please, go read Edwards' book. There are many, many fixes that need to be made in America's voting system, but I believe that eliminating the influence of the Electoral College will give us the buffer needed to work downward through the system from the top.

Every vote, progressive or conservative, must be counted. Every vote is equal. Every vote must be counted. If we can't even agree on that, then we're already a banana republic. And it's too damn late.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Electoral College 2

On further consideration, I should confess I have an ulterior, somewhat more "meta" motivation for wanting to see the Electoral College gone. Beside its fundamental betrayal of equal representation ...


That winner-take-all electoral map delivers to an incredibly lazy media and pundit class a ready-made narrative. Unfortunately, the Red State/Blue State narrative also happens to be monstrously destructive, culturally. Painting massive swaths of the country one color (be it red or blue), while ignoring the actual number of voters in each state completely distorts the actual political balance in this country -- specifically, how moderate most of the country is.

It empowers fundamentalists of all stripes, because visual cues are enormously powerful and that color dichotomy implants resonances of ideological dichotomy that affect the framework through which the media present information and we to a great degree perceive it, then fix it into our own world-view, our mental operating system.

Mark Newman discusses some more accurate representations here, but there's a problem. While the actual national difference of 3% between the two candidates is public record, I propose, memetically (and I use that word quite precisely) the incredibly distorted original Electoral College map is now the iconograph lodged in most Americans' mind, and is therefore more effective in replicating both itself and other ideas based on the faulty perception it engenders. Newman's maps corrected for population are non-intuitive and therefore memetically useless.

Hell, even setting aside the overall result, just look at how close those state votes were: There was a 5% or less difference in Republican/Democratic Presidential votes in the following states tossed onto that monolithic all or nothing map.

2004 - actual difference vote difference 3%

Colorado 5%
Florida 5%
Iowa 1%
Michigan 4%
Minnesota 3%
Nevada 2%
New Hampshire 1%
New Mexico 1%
Ohio .... okay, 2%
Oregon 4%
Pennsylvania 3%
Wisconsin 1%

2000 - actual vote difference 1%
Florida 0%
Iowa 1%
Maine 5%
Michigan 5%
Minnesota 2%
Missouri 3%
New Hampshire 1%
New Mexico 0%
Ohio 4%
Oregon 0%
Pennsylvania 5%
Tennessee 4%
Washington 5%
Wisconsin 0%
... oh, oh, Ralph. We so owe you a hug.

As we can see, the Republicans ought to be pretty pissed off at the misrepresentation created by the Electoral Map memetic component too -- there are some blue states that ought to read a lot more purple than we assume, the same way that massive swath of red seems to destroy the idea that there are any moderates democrats in the Midwest. Start comparing the populations of those swing states to the smaller states that went hard one way or another, and the lie of perception becomes even more stark.

This is all old, actually ancient ground, of course, but I prefer to tread it before leaping off the cliff. The cliff is this, and it is indeed a little airy-fairy for my usual tone: the Electoral Map on its own is the most destructive memetic component in modern American culture.

Feel free to mock.

The problem is, this:


is not the same as this:

The first is the reality, the second is the perception of reality many people have internalized and are operating under culturally, socially, and politically. It is also a ferociously efficient image, if you get my drift, in the evolution of idea-space. While the Electoral College is simply a bad idea whose time has long passed, weirdly its pictorial representation is a cultural wrecking ball.

Flunking Out of the Electoral College

I recently finished George Edwards' Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, which I dug. In it he uses pretty decent data to demolish the standing arguments in favor of the College, including such chestnuts as defending the interests of small states, empowering minorities, and forcing the candidates to campaign in more states. It is worth noting that Edwards is indeed number crunching here, rather than employing ethereal "feel good" pro-College arguments which often seem to contradict each other (the Electoral College forces the President to truly nationalize his campaign, and not be beholden to the narrow interests of large urban areas -- at the same time, it empowers the narrow interests of some special groups!! It's maaaaaagic.) There's some fascinating historical stuff in here, too, getting into the nasty crevices of elections we tend to skim right over in American History 101. There's a cursory discussion of how much the Founding Fathers really, reeeeally didn't much care for the College themselves, but landed on it as a.) a solution to dealing with the geography and limited communications of the time and b.) a way to get the fuck out of Philadelphia in the summer. Because until you have spent 14 hours 7 days a week jammed up against a sweaty Thomas Jefferson and that goddam "lucky wig" he refuses to get cleaned, you do not know discomfort.

I hope we get an updated edition of Edwards' book soon, with the 2004 election data crunched, but seeing as that election was focused on battleground/swing states even more than the 2000 election, I can't imagine any great variance in the results.

Once I'd finished it, however, it did occur to me: "Hey, I'm out of Skittles." And then it occurred to me: " Changing this is going to be a bitch, it'd probably be easier to do on a state-by-state level, as the Constitution empowers the states with the method by which they distribute their electors."

Luckily, far smarter humans than I not only figured this out quite a while ago, they've acted on it. From the usual suspects, this summary:

Under a bill passed by the Assembly, California would join an interstate compact in which states would agree to cast their electoral votes not for the winner in their jurisdictions but for the winner nationwide. Proponents say that would force candidates to broaden their reach to major population centers such as California.

The bill is part of a 3-month-old movement driven by a Bay Area lawyer and a Stanford computer science professor. The same 888-word bill is pending in four other states and is expected to be introduced in every state by January, its sponsors say. The legislation would not take effect until enough states passed such laws to make up a majority of the Electoral College votes -- a minimum of 13 states, depending on population

[...]In the New York Legislature, Republicans introduced the bill, he said, and they support it in Illinois, Missouri and Colorado.

I believe it's now popped up in Lousiana, and keeps on rolling. Personally, I'd like to see something as important as direct elections enshrining the principle of equal representation dealt with on a Constitutional level, but seeing as the asshats in the Senate are too busy with the Gay Marriage and Flag Burning Amendments right now (get RIGHT ON THAT boys, not like we got a war going on any time soon), we'll have to accept this little jerry-rig until we get something slightly less resembling a clown show going on up on the Hill.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cheap Comic Joke of the Day

Headline, from Comicbloc:

"Alex Ross to Paint Covers for Virgin."

Alex Ross has been painting covers for virgins for a long time.

Thank you. Try the veal.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Lester Dent Pulp Fiction Master Plot

Because you can never link to it enough:

By Lester Dent. (Posted in October 1995 to alt.pulp by Jason A. Wolcott; taken from Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage, by Marilyn Cannaday (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990), a biography of Lester Dent.)

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here's how it starts:


One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

The rest is here.

The Ugly Truth

It's advertising, but roughly the same as working in film. Except it's missing the bit with the screenwriter getting sodomized in the parking lot. Thanks to Andy Cosby of Eureka -- which, by the way, now has its official premier date of July 18.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Lions Led by Donkeys

This post, I will admit, is the awkward collision of passion with the limits of my craft. Please pardon my poor words on a somber day.

Oh, and I am fully aware that 27% of you will think I'm absolutely fucking mad. We at KFM did quantify the Crazification Factor. You 27% can save us both time by not bothering with comments. Or remember to keep the hate in e-mail form. Address to the right.

There is a term tossed about currently: "chickenhawk." It's understood to be a derogatory term for someone who avidly supports choosing war as an option while simultaneously avoiding any risk of personal harm in the ensuing conflict. It is an admittedly fuzzy invective; particularly now when we have a professional Army. I think that in most applications it's lazy. People who support the Iraq War -- it's often couched in terms of supporting the War on Terror, but let's face it, nobody's chasing Bin Laden in the Pakistani highlands, we're talking Iraq here -- have claimed the phrase is meaningless. The quote that brought this attitude into particular focus for me was, unfortunately, written by a casual friend, Warren Bell, over at the conservative website The Corner:

I am going to save you some time. You no longer need to email me every time I take some position in favor of the War on Terror , the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan, or in fact any pro-military stance. I now am completely and thoroughly informed that I am a chickenhawk, that it is "easy" to support a war when I don't have to put on a uniform and fight, and that I am a coward who would only sacrifice other people's loved ones. And to save you further time, I am going to expose myself even more. I am a hypocrite and chickenhawk in the War on Crime, as I continue to avoid donning a badge and a gun and busting down doors to catch bad guys, even though I support sending in real police to do the job. I am a complete coward in the War on Fire, because I have never put on a yellow slicker and an oxygen mask to go stand on the front line in the battle against a burning building. And that's while completely admitting that I would be great at squirting the big hose. Additionally, and this is a little painful, I am a loser, hypocrite, chickenhawk, and barely half a man in the War on Weeds. I tried digging them out of my yard, but found I didn't have what it takes, so now I sit in my comfy chair and watch while other people's loved ones put themselves at risk. I'm sorry.

That is, to be blunt, a pretty spiffy piece of writing. Warren takes a confessorial tone -- always a nice touch -- links several seemingly similar relationships together, then daisy chains them with a nice bit of rhetorical sleight of hand into an almost inexorable ride into absurdity. No one in their right mind would accuse a man who does not do his own gardening as a coward, and look-at-the-queen that's the same as criticizing a man who does not do his own fighting.

I also like the seamless bit of work converting support for the War on Terror, the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan, and a "pro-military stance" into the exact same thing -- a matched ideological set, if you will, in which rejection of any of the first three immediately disqualifies you from the fourth. Despite Tbogg's constant mocking, that is not the work of a clumsy man.

The fact that Warren took this particular tack (and we can toss Ben Ferguson's "I support the Yankees, doesn't mean I wear their uniform" crack in there), however, finally clarifies for me disconcerting problem exposed by many of the hawks' own arguments. It may be arrogant of me -- it can not help but be arrogant of me, I suppose -- to say that they fundamentally misunderstand what their relationship to the troops should be.

There is truth in the idea that soldiers are our designated warriors. But the accidental revelation in these attitudes is the bizarre concept that by soldiers choosing a life of taking risks on our behalf, these war supporters are somehow absolved of any responsibility to them other than emotional support and approval. There is the stink of ... the troops as employees. Like, say, gardeners. Not that I would ever make such a crude comparison.

But the fact is that soldiers make this choice in a specific context. They are not just entering a job. They are, to pull up my Catholic high school education, entering into a covenant with us. They take an oath to sacrifice their lives, if need be. That is, in my faith anyway, the holiest thing a person can do. In return, the civilian side of the covenant is a deep responsibility, a responsibility far beyond the emotional support one gives a sports team, or the minimal responsibility one has with employees. Our oath is simple:

We will make sure you have the equipment you need.

We will make sure have a clearly defined mission.

We will make sure that such missions are as well-planned as possible.

We will take care of your families while you are gone.

We will take care of you when you come home.

That's not a lot to do for someone who's out there getting shot at for you. Even better, rather than the fuzzy "we will support you" standard set by many, these are actionable, definable terms. Is "supporting the troops" just waving flags, writing supportive essays, and arguing for the nobility of their mission? I say no, those actions are laudable but meaningless if they are not backed by these concrete goals. And concrete, plainly spoken responsibilites are exactly what we need: by measuring ourselves against our progress in these arenas we can, if we are honest, meaningfully judge if we are fulfilling our duty.

Now how do we accomplish our side of the covenant in a representative democracy? We do so through the instrument of our will, the government.

But what happens when the government screws up our side of the covenant? That's where we hit the snag. In that case, it is our job, our responsibility -- not our right, our responsibility -- to hold those civilian administrators accountable. To criticize them when their policies fail to uphold our side of the oath. If need be, to remove them and put people in place who will fulfill our very simple side of the covenant with our men and women in the armed forces. To hold these administrators accountable is literally the least we can do. Their accountability is our accountability, and with people dying in our name, WE MUST BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE.

I set forth, as first principle, that this Administration is failing to do its job in fulfilling our responsibilities to the troops.

We will make sure you have the equipment you need.
It is inarguable that the troops were sent into Iraq without the proper body armor or vehicles. Even now we have reports that Halliburton has been providng the troops with contiminated water. (and so imagine the shit they're getting away with we don't know about) * This is the richest nation in the world, and it's not like Saddam went all Pearl Harbor on our asses. We had a fair chunk of time to figure out there'd be shooting in the sand. Hell, it was on our own timetable. This is inexcusable.

We will make sure you have a clearly defined mission.
"Fighting terror" is not a clearly defined mission -- it is a talking point. A clearly defined mission has goals and timetables, and when those timetables are not met, then strategies are revised. "We will stand down as the Iraquis stand up" is not a strategy. What's the timetable for rebuilding Iraqi troop strength? What will we change in our attempts to build up those troops if those timetables are not met? Is our mission to stay until there's a fully functioning Iraqi Army and fully functioning state security apparatus? If so, what are those numbers? Is the training going as fast as we hope, or should adjustments be made? Is our mission to stay until the Iraq infrastructure has been repaired? To what levels? Is our mission to kill Zarqawi? To defeat the insurgency, or just control it? Numbers, dates, plans, percentages -- this is the way grown-ups plan and fight a war. "Stay the course" is not a strategy. If it were, then Macarthur would be buried on a Phillipino beach, George Washington would never have scarpered back across to Long Island under cover of fog, Lincoln would have let McClellan ride out the rest of the Civil War, and hell, Reagan would have let Dick Cheney talk him into never trusting Gorbachev.

We will make sure these missions are as well-planned as possible.
If you can't agree that post-war planning was a joke , you're not even living on the same planet as I am. Go ahead and disagree with the Joint Chiefs. I'll wait here.

We will take care of your families while you are gone, and Take care of you whe you come home.
There are already homeless Iraq War veterans, the VA is underfunded and VA benefits have been if not cut then, ahem, "stop-lossed" at least three times by this Administration. Add to that the Bankruptcy Bill passed without exemptions for troops ...

You can link-hunt all day. The point is by the broadest, most easily agreed-upon standards our side of the covenant with the troops is not being upheld. We are culpable, we are responsible, were are in fact guilty if we do not rectify this situation. And the only way to rectify this situation, in our form of government, is to go chew the shit out of the guys whose job it is to execute our will.

The problem is, these yahoos have managed an ugly trick. They have turned criticism of the policies of Bastards in Suits into criticism of The People in Uniform Getting Shot At. This, of course, is completely wrong, as one can easily tell the difference between the Bastards in Suits and The People in Uniform Getting Shot At. One group is in Suits, and Not Getting Shot At, while another is in Uniform, and Getting Shot At. Please, try to grasp this. Not the same.

There is a flip side. Some people confuse supporting the Bastards in Suits for supporting The People in Uniform Getting Shot At. This is, again, ridiculous. If the history of modern warfare has taught us anything, it's that the Bastards in Suits spend an awful lot of time working the kinks out of plans involving The People in Uniform dying unpleasantly. They often screw that up. When they do screw up, it is incumbent upon Bastards in Suits to suffer criticism and fix the situation, as by comparison The People in Uniform are suffering shattered skulls, missing limbs and death. Which is, on my scale, exponentially more traumatic than criticism.

Some people even seem confused on how we are criticizing the Bastards in Suits. The Bastards have a job to do. They are not doing it. Period. Tommy Franks recently trotted out the classic bit of misdirection, attacking critics of Donald Rumsfeld.

"I don't care about your politics. I don't. Don Rumsfeld is an American patriot."

Yes, well, that's lovely. But we're not criticizing his patriotism. We're criticizing his job performance. One of the great mysteries of the last six years was how and when the Bush Administration turned public policy into Special Olympics. "Oh, I know Donny knocked over all the hurdles, but HE LOVES THE RACE, so you SHUT YOUR FILTHY, CYNICAL MOUTH." Jesus H. Christ.

The first war I read about extensively was World War I, where I encountered the magnificently British term "Lions led by donkeys." If there's a more apt description of our current thrill-ride, I can't think of it. Here's the thing: you folk on the other side of this particular argumentative aisle may like the Donkeys. You may trust the Donkeys. But never, ever forget the goddam difference.

This discussion, these peoples' attitudes, lead to an even darker place. Our relationship with the troops is based on the idea that we are asking them to risk their life. Implicit in "risk" is a ratio of threat to preparation, a judgement of danger to the possibility of a positive outcome. To expand on Warren's idea, it is not wrong in current society to ask a policeman to risk his life, as we provide him with authority, equipment and an infrastructure necessary to ameliorate those risks. The same with firemen, and in theory the same with soldiers. It is only a risk, however, as long as there is support.

I call bullshit if one refuses to pay for bullets, refuses to pay for bullet-proof vests, and then asks a patrolman to run into a blind alley filled with heavily armed bank robbers. The risk changes into something else when we ask others to face danger with nothing from us in return. Then risk becomes blatant sacrifice, sacrifice on an altar of our comfort.

One of the most heartbreaking things I've ever read was the story of the Worcester fire. An ordinary warehouse fire turned into a deathtrap. Some firemen went missing, two went in after them, two after them ...

... and the really shattering moment was when the fire chief, McNamee, said "No more." He had a dozen men ready to charge into that inferno and keep looking. But he said no. He knew they'd reached the point where risk crossed reward. The men before were a risk, to save their brethren. The men after would have been a waste. The plan had to be changed, new goals had to be set. I cannot even imagine the courage it took to make that decision. I do not think, to be frank, I would have had the character to survive it.

To use Warren's metaphor again -- there is no blot on his character because he doesn't put on a yellow slicker and fight the War on Fire. But to claim the right to stand outside that warehouse in Worcester and argue that they should stay the course and keep sending in rescuers ... that is a different thing entirely. He may be right or wrong. But there is no moral high ground to be had there.

This is what is particularly galling. I understand why one would cling to a worldview wherein this Administration has not screwed up both this war and the fulfillment of our duty to the men and women fighting it. But that worldview is there for your comfort, to make you feel brave in demanding action, or secure in the idea that your government is competent, or noble in pursuit of higher ideals of patriotism or freedom. It is our responsibility to be clear-headed, mature, and frankly ruthless enough to discard our own emotional needs and kick the Bastards when they need kicking.

If you fail to even make that tiny effort -- hold the Bastards accountable -- to insure the troops the material, planning and care they need, then no matter what you say, what you write, or how many flags you wave, you are not supporting the troops. I am sure the pfc. with no body armor, no armored Hummer, on his third of who knows how many tours while his family goes quietly bankrupt appreciates your "support for his mission." But the other shit matters more. You are not holding our representatives accountable for their failures. You are not living up to your responsibility. You have broken the covenant. With this relationship broken, the soldiers are no longer your proxies, they are your instruments. You are treating them as tools. You may not feel that way, that characterization may fill you with rage, but how else to characterize such one-sided relationship?

There is a goddam world of difference between asking a man to risk his life to defend the nation and waste his life proving a point.

That these unquestioning war devotees will not sacrifice their lives, their comfort, their safety: that's hardly a sin in modern society. But they are not even willing to risk emotional discomfort by admitting their faith has been misplaced. That they will not even risk this, this tiny, tiny thing ... that is the sin. It is not that that you're not risking your life. It's that you are risking nothing.

The problem is, there is no single word in English for a man risking absolutely nothing, who demands someone else risk absolutely everything. I'm sure there's a word in German -- they are a whizzer with those kicky compound nouns -- but none in English for that precise combination.

So, for now, we must let "chickenhawk" be its placeholder.

the kossacks have arrived, by literally the thousands. If I may, I would remind you that I am raising money for the Fisher House, housing for military families so they can visit wounded veterans in the hospital. The link's to the right. If you found this post useful or interesting, please toss a single buck into the pot. At the volume we're experiencing now, that would mean thousands. If you hate me and want me to die tasting my own blood under a gas truck -- I match all donations, so the best way to shut me up is by bankrupting me by donating as much as possible! )

* (NOTE: the second. There has been an edit here, and something I wish to address. Please hop to the home page and check for the follow-up. Thanks.)