Quick Note on Occupy

Like many, I find the Occupy encampments incredibly interesting—if perplexing at times—and I think there’s a lot of merit in the larger “We are the 99 Percent” concept, which will surely last longer than the occupations. I think both efforts have done much to highlight questions of economic inequality, political corruption and collusion, and state power. There’s a good argument that the Occupy message is lately drifting to one of state power at the expense of the economic argument. But I think these messages are all of a piece. After all, it highlights the government’s enforcement priorities (it’s easier to arrest a bunch of tangible protesters standing in a street than a bunch of financial wizards practicing monetary alchemy) as well as a more metaphorical theme of how powerful interests will scramble to retain a status quo that maintains and consolidates their own power.

By resisting or subverting conventional tactics and rules the movement displayed a kind of strategic brilliance. A few examples:

  • It highlights immediate economic problems like the housing crisis and homelessness (they’re living in tents!), spiraling prices (particularly the University of California protests), and, especially, joblessness. After all, who else would have the time for this kind of effort?
  • It is grounded in the concept of the peaceful sit-in, which harkens back to the American civil rights movement and, even before that, Gandhi. So it has that sheen of righteousness, particularly when that sheen is a coating of pepper spray.
  • It promotes overt creativity in the face of opposition, whether symbolic (Cal’s balloon-borne tents; the 99% bat signal) or practical (the people’s mic, which started as a way to get around a prohibition on megaphones in Zucotti Park; the choice of Zucotti itself, whose confusing public-private legal status they exploited to great effect for almost two months)
  • It makes a mockery of the current political system by highlighting how that system has made a mockery of democracy. I’d argue this is the overarching message that encompasses the Wall Street gripes, the fairness issues, the democracy rhetoric, the tension between order and the rights of speech and assembly, etc.  And it’s not even a new idea, really.

As the major occupations seem to be winding down and the movement (possibly) reaches a turning point, it’s that last bullet point that I think of when I hear exasperated observers say this movement is not legitimate until it starts organizing phone banks to call congressman, starts letter writing-campaigns and the like. Those are fine things to do, and if done smartly (targeting the rare undecided, open-minded politician), still have potential. But set aside the occasional Occupier’s rhetoric about starting a true revolution and a new kind of government; by staying outside of conventional political tactics, they sidestep the lobbyists and special interests and the politicians themselves. A lot of commentators says Occupy needs to grow up and get overtly political. It’s the classic “reform from the inside” argument used to justify political expedience. But if the political system is rigged to disenfranchise citizens, as the occupiers convincingly argue, then they’d just be setting themselves up for failure.

Asia, politics

More Korean Political Fisticuffs

As an addendum to the previous post, I discovered that the Seoul city council had a brawl of their own over the very school lunches that triggered the latest political turmoil in the country:

And a bonus example of politicians behaving badly from 2009 when opposition were upset at the GNP’s relaxing media ownership rules:

Asia, politics

Could Lunch Derail the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement?

Probably not, but a controversy over mid-day meals makes it a little more complicated for Korea.

Lee and Obama in Detroit.

Earlier this month, the president of South Korea visited the United States. Remember that? They went to a General Motors plant. They had a state dinner featuring Texas rib eye. Harold (of Harold and Kumar) sat across from Barack Obama.

Just before Lee arrived, Congress had ratified the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement, considered the largest such agreement in the US since NAFTA. Korea has not yet approved it and when a Korean reporter asked Obama if he was concerned given the political opposition in Korea, Obama said he had President Lee Myung Bak’s assurances that it would be passed by the National Assembly. (They don’t call Mb “the bulldozer” for nothing.)

The agreement was set in motion by Lee’s predecessor, but Lee has had his eye on this deal for years. His decision to lift South Korea’s ban on American beef (sparked by the discovery of mad cow disease in the US beef supply five years earlier) is believed to have been a strategic move to make the prospects of a trade agreement more appealing to the US. It also led to the great Seoul beef protests of 2008 and the ensuing political and civil rights fallout. You get a sense of the scale of these protests in the photo of candle-carrying demonstrators below (image from WBUR).

Protest at night

But still, the fractured opposition parties, along with labor, environmental, farming, and other groups are steadfastly opposed to the FTA in its current form. And while Lee’s Grand National Party will almost certainly be able to ram the agreement through parliament over their objections, if need be, they might be a little leery of such a move at this moment.

This is where the lunches come in. School lunches, more precisely.

This summer, Seoul was in the grip of a political firestorm over whether or not the city should provide children with free lunches. On one side was the city council and liberal politicians, who had passed a free lunch program to cover every one of the more than 800,000 primary and middle school students in the city. On the other side was Mayor Oh Se Hoon, a member of the conservative Grand National Party (like President Lee), who argued only the neediest students should qualify. It was an issue that played on concerns over class, economics, and social welfare. Mayor Oh tearfully staked his career on the issue, pledging to resign if voters rejected an August referendum to block the larger plan. They rejected it. He resigned.

Seoul contains about a fifth of the entire population of Korea, so running the city is an influential position. Before he was president, Lee was the mayor of Seoul.

The political gamesmanship in the runup to the election centered mainly on three contenders: Na Kyung Won, the Grand National Party and establishment candiate (who would have been Seoul’s first female mayor); Park Won Soon, an independent, liberal candidate who is a civil rights lawyer and community activist; and Ahn Cheol Soo, an MD/PhD physiologist-turned-software tycoon-turned-professor who is basically every Korean parent’s (or aspiring youth’s) dream-vision of professional achievement. Among his 11 books is one titled “My Mother, Who Fostered My Ability.” He would likely have been the leading mayoral candidate and is considered a viable presidential candidate.

But he didn’t run, and instead threw his support behind Park, who then won last Wednesday’s special election. (The main opposition party failed to muster a candidate of its own, suggesting just how fractured and shambolic the non-GNP political spectrum is, and making the Park victory that much more impressive.) The fallout has been interesting. Mayor Oh obviously hurt his chances for higher office due to his miscalculation. Na, the GNP mayoral candidate, had won the endorsement of Park Geun Hye, a politician and daughter of an assassinated president; Na’s loss is viewed as hurting Park’s chances in the 2012 presidential election. The results are viewed as an expression of disapproval of Lee’s current government (Korean presidents only get a single five-year term). The opposition is feeling emboldened. And Ahn’s own status has obviously been boosted even higher for backing the winner. As the JoongAng Daily notes, it has GNP politicians worried:

The Grand National Party’s defeat in the Seoul mayoral by-election has scared the party off from pushing through the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, and its ratification is more imperiled now than ever.

It’s not clear just how imperiled it is (probably not very much). The opposition itself isn’t new; these groups have been unhappy at the prospects for years, though Park’s victory is a reason to feel recharged. The consensus—among the media, at least—is that passing the FTA is going be a real brawl. Not in some metaphorical way. We’re talking fists, furniture, maybe even fire extinguishers and hammers.

The JoongAng explains:

In Korea, the minority in the assembly resorts to physical brawls when the majority party tries to railroad through bills, using violence as a kind of filibuster. But the brawls are unpopular with the public, which blames the majority party for not trying hard enough to compromise with the opposition.

After losing the mayoral by-election this week, GNP lawmakers are much too fearful of losing their seats in next April’s general election to be seen in a brawl over the FTA.

Reporters are positively rubbing their hands in anticipation. As the lede of a Wall Street Journal blog post says, “The Korean-U.S. free trade agreement started with brawls and protests in the streets in 2006. And it now appears certain it will end with brawls and protests in the National Assembly next week.”

So what does Korea’s physical politics look like? A good example comes from 2008, when the GNP worked on FTA details behind closed doors. Closed doors that they then blocked with furniture:

So we’ll see if any viral video comes out of next week’s Korean National Assembly. As for those school lunches, Mayor Park signed free-lunch funding into law on his first day. And President Lee probably never knew that his visit to America coincided with our own National School Lunch Week.

[Bonus: I just found some old video of Seoul’s city council members pushing each other around over school lunches! I’ve embedded it in the next post, along with video of 2009’s notorious (but unrelated) parliamentary media-law brawl.]

anticipation, dissipation, history, politics

Why Elections Matter

American soldiers in Iraq walk past the word VOTE spray painted on a blast wall. From New York Times.

Apologies to Joao Silva/New York Times for using their photo. But look: American soldiers walking past a
spray-painted blast wall in Al Awad, Iraq, yesterday.

The first time I voted in a presidential election was in the 2000 election. I was a senior in college in New Hampshire. I voted absentee in Alaska. Before election night, the campaigns had seemed like exercises in pure politics. The country was doing well, the government was running a surplus, and the U.S. seemed pretty invincible, in spite of apparent anomalies like the recent USS Cole bombing and the earlier African embassy explosions. Bush was promising humility, compassionate conservatism, and explicit opposition to nation-building. Gore’s posturing, on the other hand, showed up in his physical performance. We seemed headed for a bland, bureaucratic age in which politicians were interchangeable functionaries. In college, we learned about the end of history. My cohort was restless, believing we would inherit a world marked by anomie. Friends were going to rallies for Ralph Nader–Ralph Nader–who gave young people something to rally around, a promise to Shake Up the Status Quo. And then Florida, outrage both real and manufactured, and an election put to rest by a split Supreme Court vote. The age of aimless political gamesmanship was upon us. The next summer we were preoccupied by shark attacks.

All this didn’t last another year.

irony, politics

The Oswald Cobblepot School of Debate

A forward link landed in my e-mail yesterday. It led me to a 13-second lark trying to portray John McCain as Oswald C. Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin, from Batman. You can see it here:

The Penguin is surely one of the more entertaining Batman villains–my favorite, if we’re working from the 1960s television series, where he showcased the talent of Burgess Meredith. Burgess Meredith, sneering behind that cigarette holder, was right on with his swaggering greed, the casual entitlement papering over the insecurities of a truly desperate character. (All the showcase villains from that show were surprisingly good: Frank Gorshin/Riddler, Eartha Kitt/Catwoman, Cesar Romero/Joker.)

The modern iteration of the Penguin in today’s politics has been identified by John Stewart, for the last few years, as Dick Cheney, whose mimicked utterances Stewart punctuates with the occasional side-of-mouth squawk. But the McCain parallel drawn above put me in the right frame of mind to appreciate another bit of Penguin scenery chewing. This video, posted on Marc Ambinder’s worthy politics blog, hits the right notes for the current campaign’s meta-narrative.

Anyway. Watch and learn:

Alaska, politics, really?

Alaska, Factored

When I was in high school, an especially talented teacher brought the hammer down on all of us idealistic almost-voters. Our votes for president, she told us, wouldn’t count.

Easy for her to say. And not necessarily wrong. We were living in Alaska, which holds a whopping three electoral votes. And those three electoral votes are reliably Republican, just like the state. She encouraged us to participate, but when it comes to realpolitik, Alaska doesn’t make the difference. No president-elect or vice-president-elect thanks the people of Alaska on election night.

For the last 28 years, Alaska’s delegation to Washington, D.C., has been solidly Republican. The governors have been more mixed—five Republicans, five Democrats since statehood. The tie-breaker would be Wally Hickel, who was governor from 1990 to 1994, under the Alaska Independence Party banner. He breaks the tie in favor of the Republicans–after all, he switched to the party in 1994. Or, rather, switched back to the party–he was also one of those Republican governors, in the 1960s, until he joined the Nixon administration.

By now, you’ve probably heard of at least two of Alaska’s delegation: Don Young and Ted Stevens. They’ve run successfully on anti-change platforms. That is, you should vote for me, because I’ve been in Congress for such a long time that it would be bad for you to get rid of me. This is why Young, for example, didn’t feel to bashful about admitting, about the 2005 transportation bill, “I stuffed it like a turkey.” That bill included earmarks for the famous “bridges to nowhere” (there were two, technically, including the famous one down near Ketchikan), which the Republicans point out now-Governor Sarah Palin opposed. They don’t mention that it was a Republican’s initiative.

But Young is in a political fight to the death at this very moment. (Let’s save a discussion of Stevens for another day.) Palin’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, challenged the 36-year-incumbent in the primary, held Tuesday, and they’re still counting the votes. Young has a lead, but just barely: 151 votes. (I’ll write more about Young in the future. I need a real reporting budget, too–it’s a great story.)

And now Sarah Palin is John McCain’s running mate. A surprise, but hardly a shock since Palin has been mentioned as a possibility (though a long shot). She is probably a good short-term choice for McCain, but debatable in the long term. She is popular in Alaska, but Alaska only has about 670,000 people. While 60 percent of the population is independent or unaffiliated, and another quarter is Republican, it hasn’t proven to be that politically diverse at core when electing statewide or nationally in recent years. Compared to bigger, more diverse states like Texas or California, or even medium-sized states like Pennsylvania or Ohio, it’s kind of like saying she’s popular in high school.*

She ends up undermining much of McCain’s campaign so far, namely the experience argument. Even though the Republicans can point to her executive experience, once the dust settles, it will be clear that she’s only been governor of Alaska for about a year and a half, and her prior experience is limited, potentially negligible. If she’d been an early candidate for president, she would have been severely criticized if not ridiculed for her presumption to the office. And Obama’s people will focus on her glaring weaknesses while pointing out that executive experience is no guarantee–after all, George W. Bush was a two-term governor of Texas, and a two-term president, and how often do we hear anyone singing his praise anymore?

There are a lot of other Republican women who have longer résumés (including active governors and senators), and from that perspective, choosing Palin is particularly surprising. But she brings advantages. One is that she doesn’t really have a record to run from, though that brings a slim record to point to.

But choosing her also has an effect that Karl Rove would be proud of. The Palin selection is Rove’s base strategy at work–appealing to and drawing out the conservative base, which helped re-elect Bush in 2004. Remember George W. Bush’s perhaps unintentional acknowledgment of the strategy after the election, when he pledged to “reach out to everyone who shares our goals.”

Alaska has a strong libertarian streak (with a paradoxical dose of federal entitlement), which helped Palin’s anti-corruption, anti-waste campaign for governor. All state politicians have to balance that libertarianism with their personal conservatism or liberalism, which means it’s often subverted. It’s clear that Palin’s conservatism will be deployed strategically: evangelical, anti-abortion, promotes teaching creationism in school, grew up around hunting and guns,* etc. Just like, say, Mike Huckabee. But choosing Palin more easily qualifies as historic.

So what does Alaska have to do with any of this? Almost nothing, at this point. Energy and global warming are the obvious issues, and it will be interesting to watch Palin attempt to shut down Biden on these points in debate. But Alaska, like Delaware, doesn’t figure into any key electoral equations. My teacher is still right, and this election won’t be won and lost there.

Plus, if Palin goes to Washington along with Sean Parnell, and they stick to their fiscal guns (the Club for Growth loves them), then Alaska actually stands to lose money. Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska without that steady influx of federal cash.

No, it seems that Alaska’s unique role in today’s decision is that it’s a small state that allows people to make big impressions. Where else can a person come, seemingly, out of nowhere, to make a political name for herself? It’s unlikely, beating a machine, subverting the hierarchies, jumping to the head of the line. Doing that sounds impossible in California or Texas or New York. Except that Barack Obama seems to have done just that with the nation, and, with the Palin pick, McCain apparently sees that kind of dynamism as a key to success. And if it does the trick for McCain, then, for the first time, somebody will remember Alaska on election night.

*In fairness, Delaware only has about 850,000 people. And I do like Alaska–after all, I went to high school there and my family lives there still.

**I grew up around hunting and guns, too. Something like that is not necessarily a conservative attribute, but is boiled down to useful keywords in elections.

competition, journalism, television


When I heard of the death of Tim Russert yesterday, the grand inquisitor (in a good way) of Washington, I repeatedly thought of Mark Leibovich’s Chris Matthews profile from the NYT Mag in April:

On the morning of the Cleveland debate, Matthews was standing in the lobby of the Ritz when Russert walked through, straight from a workout, wearing a sweat-drenched Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, long shorts and black rubber-soled shoes with tube socks. “Here he is; here he is, the man,” Matthews said to Russert, who smiled and chatted for a few minutes before returning to his room. (An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, tried, after the fact, to declare Russert’s outfit “off the record.”)

I watched Chris Matthews on the MSNBC online stream last night, he was in Paris (as was Bob Schieffer). Matthews demonstrated the remarkable candor that sometimes gets him in trouble; but it was just right here. He came on after Brokaw, and said, you know, I wasn’t as close to Tim as those guys. But he kept talking, and it was clear that Matthews admired him. Leibovich wrote that Matthews seems to crave Russert’s approval. I don’t know if he ever got it or not, but that makes for a particular sense of loss when this happens.

Brokaw repeatedly mentioned Russert’s working class credentials (as well as his own and Mike Barnicle’s). It is a badge of honor, of sorts; one I sometimes try to wear. A quick look around my cohort at the journalism school ought to be enough to settle the question of whether the chattering classes tend to be seeded by the upper (or upper middle) classes. Few of my colleagues had a parent in the military, or one who worked in a factory. See? Hard to resist.

Today Leibovich has an article in the Times about Russert and his place in the Washington firmament. He does a good job of balancing Russert’s working class image with the attractions and convenience he found in his position at the top of the D.C. heap.

Another local cliché: Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. So in a town that’s in fact entirely over-populated with blow-dried preeners, it seemed entirely appropriate that the signature TV star be, if not ugly, aggressively “not pretty.” Indeed, Mr. Russert seemed to intentionally hold his face at crooked angles, like he was sidling up to a Rust Belt dive bar (as opposed to, say, his favorite lunch joint in Washington, the Palm).

Mr. Russert liked to seem sheepishly above-it-all, but was also as acutely status-conscious, befitting the local water. He was always mindful of not appearing too often on MSNBC, NBC’s cable cousin, for fear of diluting his big-league brand. He was known primarily as a TV star to most people, but often identified himself by his more hierarchical title, “Washington bureau chief.” There is no shortage of politicians, beginning with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed Mr. Russert could be bullying and prone to grandstanding at times, making excessive show of his top-of-the-heap position.

Still, the story that Leibovich seemed to remember the most yesterday was the same one I did:

My last encounter with Mr. Russert was at a Democratic debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. I was with his colleague Mr. Matthews — I was writing about Mr. Matthews for the New York Times Magazine — and we ran into Mr. Russert in the lobby of the Cleveland Ritz Carlton. He had just worked out and was wearing a sweaty Bills sweatshirt and long shorts and black loafers with tube socks. An MSNBC spokesman who was with us tried to declare Mr. Russert’s attire “off the record,” which I found hilarious, and which I was of course compelled to include in the story. When I called Mr. Russert to tell him this, and he laughed so hard, I had to move the phone away from my ear.

“Just do me one favor,” Mr. Russert said. “Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?” Done.

Black loafers?

Re-read that excerpt at the top.

anticipation, competition, politics, race, really?

It is on.

Who says politics has devolved into a slideshow? Looks more like it’s the center ring. This was recorded for the WWE, broadcast last night. I guess they really are trying to get that working class white male vote. No more direct route than pro wrestling, right?


I like how McCain suggests that he’s “the man.” Hard not to hear that and think about “the Man.” As in, don’t let the Man get you down.

While we’re at it, here’s one version of the Fatboy Slim video for “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down.” It is supposed to have multiple endings. I am not suggesting that McCain is racist.

environment, unfortunate

Lovely As a Tree: All That Remains

There it is. Or was. All that remains.

A pile of soggy sawdust and a few lost leaves. When I wrote about watching this tree being cut apart, I cited a useful Christian Science Monitor article on the value of trees in urban areas. And I am recently reminded of a terrific song called “The Trees,” by Pulp, an old favorite band from way back. In the refrain, Jarvis Cocker croons, “Yeah, the trees, those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing.”

Sort of a strange line.

My tree has probably been reduced to pulp.