Browning, Michelangelo, and All That Jazz

Elizabeth Barrett BrowningA lot of interesting people were born on this day. The most important to me is probably Elizabeth Barrett Browning who was born in 1806. I tend to prefer her and other Americans (like Poe) to the British Romantic Period poets. I wish that I had one great poem I could offer you here. The problem is that she didn’t tend to write nice little poems. She wrote a lot of rather long (1000+ line) poems. And she wrote collections of poems—mostly sonnets.

The poem she is best know for, of course, is Sonnet XLIII of Sonnets From the Portuguese. Even if you think you don’t know it, you do. It starts, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” What is remarkable about it is that although that line is tired, the poem is not. Despite that beginning, it is not sentimental—at least not for a Romantic poet.

Here it is; you can skip it if you like, but I urge you to not only read it, but to read it aloud. It is quite beautiful:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

I rather like the idea of purity being deaf to praise. It is the one thing that artists most want and yet must ignore. I suspect that this idea was not foreign to her.

Michelangelo was also born on this day in 1475. I find it shocking that he lived to be 88 years old. I still remember when I saw David for the first time in Florence. Up to that time, I had no idea that art could be that powerful. It was only a week or two later that I fell in love with Rodin while in Paris. He was not born on this day.

It is Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s 86th birthday today. I have never read him (that I know of). I’ve wanted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I associate it too much with my first wife.

David Gilmour is 57 today. I am big fan of his. He is probably my favorite rock guitarist. He has a great sense of melody.

Stephen Schwartz is 65 today. I’m a great fan of musical theater and Schwartz wrote some great ones when I was a kid: Godspell and Pippin. He also wrote Wicked, which I’ve long wanted to see (especially after I learned he had written it).

Ivan Boesky is 66 and Alan Greenspan is 87. I hope that I do not have to note the birthdays next year for these evil men. One is always torn by a great artist who is a horrible human being. I mean: at least they leave us their art. But men like Boesky and Greenspan do nothing but to enrich themselves and their horrible friends. They produce nothing good for society. What is the point of their lives? They could have done something useful like plumbing. If they had, the world would certainly be a far better place.


Here is the opening of Pippin. I believe this is from a 1981 filmed version of the Broadway play. That’s 4 years after the play opened and near the end of its run. Ben Vereen came back to play the Lead Player, for which he won the Tony Award for best lead actor in a musical.

I just learned that a new ending was added to the play. The play is about Pippin who is trying to make his life meaningful. At one point he sings, “Don’t you know I want my life to be something more than long.” The Lead Player guides him through various kinds of life experiences: war, power, sex, domesticity. At the end, Pippin has found nothing that is truly fulfilling. The Lead Player then offers up a great use for his life: burn himself alive on stage and provide a great ending to the play. (It is very postmodern in that way.) Pippin is about to go through with it when Catherine and her son show up on the stage and convince him to go back to them. The Lead Player is furious. He removes the sets, the music, the costumes, everything. But Pippin decides that life with Catherine is about the best that life can be, disappointing as that may be. In the end, love conquers all.

The new addition is that the son picks up one of the gloves thrown at Pippin by the players as they went off stage. This calls the players back; they have their new Pippin and so the cycle starts again. I think it is lovely.

And here is David Gilmour doing his thing:

Body Language “Expert” Tonya Reiman

Tonya ReimanI just caught the tail end of The Ed Show. He had on body language expert Tonya Reiman to discuss Bill O’Reilly’s freak out last night. Let me be clear: I think that “body language” is mostly just a pseudoscience. Sure, there is something to it. But human behavior is fairly individuated. I think there are great limits to it. What’s more, I don’t see how it is ever disproved. Just like in cold reading, some people are good at it and others aren’t. As with other pseudosciences like astrology, it provides some basic notions along with endless caveats.

Ed Schultz made a big deal of the fact that Reiman was “Bill O’Reilly’s body language expert.” He started the segment by showing various instances of her pontificating on O’Reilly’s show. I was very struck by one in which she was looking at a meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By looking at their eyes, she determined that they didn’t like each other.

Once on the show, Ed had her look at Bill O’Reilly’s behavior the night before. She had the shocking insight that O’Reilly was angry. Who could imagine? She repeated several times that Bill was just being Bill—it’s just the way he is. But when Ed asked her if he had an anger problem, she replied, “I’m not a psychologist!”

So let me get this straight. She can tell us the motivations of Obama and Netanyahu based on their eyes. But she cannot tell us the motivations of O’Reilly who commonly loses control of his temper on The Factor. What is it? Is body language a part of psychology when it makes Democrats look bad but not when with it makes unstable conservative loons like O’Reilly look bad? Or is it just that Reiman’s real job is her own self-promotion and she would never do anything to harm O’Reilly, who has been so very helpful in selling her silly self-help books?

Regardless: let’s add Tonya Reiman to the ever growing list of conservative blond automatons.


Authentic Liberalism

Paul KrugmanKevin Drum asks, Who’s On the Left’s Television A-Team? This comes from Paul Krugman’s lackluster performance up against Joe Scarborough on the Charlie Rose Show. Afterwards, even Krugman said it was his Denver debate and, “I was tired, cranky, and unready for the blizzard of misleading factoids and diversionary stuff.” And so Drum (and even more a liberal friend of his who was very disappointed) asked, “Who do we have on the left who’s got the real-world debating skills to take on someone like Scarborough?”

There are a lot of people, of course. Let’s face it: Krugman is not and never has been good on TV or in front of a lectern. Even after a lot of experience, he suffers from stage fright. He just isn’t comfortable up in front of people. There are a lot of people like that: they never get over it. Yet in print, he shows himself to be an incredible rhetorician. But he is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. This morning he wrote about someone who called him “unimpressive”: “I’ve had the experience of being overlooked by the people who were supposed to meet me at the airport, and eventually being told, ‘We expected you to be taller’.” (I’ve had this same experience with being interviewed by people; they think based upon my writing that I will be dramatic and organized; the fools!)

One thing I don’t think we should try is to be something that we aren’t. As Dean Baker says: the facts are on our side. We have to learn to be as good as possible at explaining our ideas. What we don’t need to be is more charming. I find Arthur Laffer charming as hell. But his arguments can be easily carved up. We liberals may not be fun, but we can be effective. You can’t really learn charm. You can learn right wing canards and effective ways to counter them.

This reminds me of the film Flock of Dodos, about the fight between the scientists and the Intelligent Design folks. The ID people are very charming—they’re just like your grandmother! It looks very bad for the scientists because they aren’t good at talking on TV and the ID people seem so nice: why not let them bring their bullshit into the classrooms? But at the end, it is clear that the scientists are most effective when they they toss aside all the niceties and just say, “This is bullshit. Here is how it works. You want to go off and pray to your God and think that everything was explained 2000 years ago, fine. But that isn’t science and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

What I’m talking about is authenticity. We need to stick with who we are. Liberals don’t hold their opinions because that’s just what liberals believe. They hold those opinions because they are open to evidence—because they are looking for the best outcomes. And that is our greatest strength. If we start hiring our own Frank Luntzes and packaging talking points to appeal to the masses, we lose. The masses really are smart. They really can be convinced of our wonky ideas. And here’s the best thing of all: they already pretty much agree with us on all the issues. (Except the death penalty.)

So the only thing liberals need to do is get better at being liberals. Oh, and also: keep anxiety prone liberals off TV!


Here is 5 minutes of Baker’s lecture when he talks about this:

Bill O’Reilly and the Rise of Hate Groups

Bill O'ReillyToday, Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon wrote about, Radical-Right Wing Groups Reach All Time High. It is based upon a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In it, they show that militia and “patriot” groups are at an all time high. According the group, this is due to, “the resurgence on the down economy (hate and radicalism always tick up when things seem desperate), along with the election and reelection of Barack Obama, a push on gun control, and racial tensions over immigration and the declining power of white America.” I’m sure that’s true, but I think there is something else going on here.

Look at the following graph and see if you don’t perceive something a little more cyclical:

Militia and Patriot Groups - SPLC

I see high levels of these groups when Clinton is president, followed by low levels when Bush is president, and then an explosion under Obama. The details make it look even worse. Note that 9/11 didn’t cause the number of these groups to grow. Instead, there were actually fewer groups in 2002 than there had been in 2001, after one of the worst attacks on American soil in our history. Also, there was no spike at all in 2008; we had to wait until 2009 when you know who was president. Also, as the economy has gotten better, the numbers have only climbed since 2009, which was by far the worst year. Finally: the economy was even worse in the year 2002-2004 than it was 1995-1996, and yet: no spike in these groups during the Bush years.

Even the one trouble spot on the graph proves my point. At the end of Clinton’s presidency, the numbers dove. Part of this had to do with the strong economy. But another part of it can be attributed to the embarrassment of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. And not only that (this gets to my main point): how right wing media covered it. I remember this clearly. No one on the right would admit that they had any culpability in that terrorist attack, but they became less reckless in their rhetoric. No longer did one hear diatribes about the tyranny of the BATF and the heroes of Ruby Ridge.

My point is that these groups are primarily driven by the incendiary rhetoric that people hear especially on conservative talk, but also very much Fox News. As long as a Republican is in the White House, all is calm. The moment a Democrat steps into the White House, no matter how conservative he may be (and the last two have been quite conservative), suddenly the “Tyranny!” rhetoric starts. The president is pushing us toward socialism! The president is destroying the Constitution! The president is drowning adorable kittens!

One thing is for certain: the Southern Poverty Law Center is correct that this is a disturbing trend. What’s more, thanks in large part to the Republican House, it is likely that we won’t see much improvement in the economy for a couple of years. It is possible that the right wing talkers will calm down a bit. But I don’t see these numbers falling by much anytime soon. Last night Bill O’Reilly showed the true believers the way: ignorance and rage. Of course, if something bad does happen, Bill-O will just claim that it had nothing to do with him. How could those people think he was calling for violence?


My brief perusal of the conservative press indicates that they are thrilled with O’Reilly’s behavior last night. The liberal press is mostly just ignoring it because it is entirely “dog bites man.” This is a big part of the problem with our media: everyone expects Fox News to be crazy. And the conservatives don’t get embarrassed by the ignorance someone like O’Reilly shows, because they are just as ignorant. “Look! Friend Bill done yelled at a lib’ral!”

Republicans Don’t Need to Win

Ramesh PonnuruRamesh Ponnuru is a smart observer of conservative politics. He is also kind of a conservative freak when it comes to his own policy ideas. But he is worth reading because of his insights into what the conservatives are doing. Earlier this week, he asked an interesting question, Do Conservatives Actually Want to Win Elections? In answer, I ask, “Does it matter?”

He brings up three points. First he notes that it is madness that CPAC is claiming that Chris Christie isn’t a “real” conservative. As I’ve argued: when it comes to core conservative ideology, Christie is as extreme as any of them. Second he notes that it is just bad politics to require not just that Republicans vote no on Obama nominees, but to also filibuster. And third he notes that the Club for Growth is in the process of funding primary challenges against incumbent Republicans who have strayed a little bit from the party line.

These three points are all the same; purging heretics:

In each of these episodes, some Republicans have seemed to dislike one another more than they like defeating Democrats and enacting conservative policies. After elections in which conservatives attracted the allegiance of only a minority of voters, they have reacted by trying to kick people out rather than bring people in.

Ponnuru ends the article by quoting Michael Kinsley from decades ago, “Liberals were always looking for heretics while conservatives were always looking for converts. But that was a long time ago.” What we have with the modern Republican Party is a revolutionary movement. Those who are in control know that under most circumstances, they will never gain power; their ideas are toxic. But under the right circumstances, they can gain power.

What’s more, these revolutionaries are are supported by establishment types like Ponnuru. They understand only too well that by skewing the political debate so far to the right, the Democratic Party has yielded half the playing field. Now even when Republicans lose, they win. And soon enough, a charming radical like Chris Christie will come along who will be elected as president and he can finish the job of destroying the last bits of the New Deal and the Great Society. And when the country is laid to waste, we will elect a Democrat who will come in to see if the carnage can be managed a little better: the poor fenced in, the dead buried more promptly. But there won’t be anyone screaming for equality and democracy—at least not one who is given any attention. Because that’s crazy talk. That’s a non-starter. Everyone knows that reasonable people don’t believe in that kind old fashioned thinking.

You see, the Republican Party doesn’t really need to win elections—at least not often. You see, they have a secret weapon: the Democratic Party.

Handshakes, Assholes, and Idiots

Caitlin HalliganThe Associated Press reported this morning, Senate Republicans block Caitlin Halligan, Nominee to DC Appeals Court for Second Time. She got enough votes, of course. It is just de rigueur that Republicans filibuster her.

So what was wrong with her? I know: we don’t expect there to have been anything wrong with her other than that a Democratic president nominated her. The truth is that if you asked the Senators who filibustered why they were against her, they would not know. They were just told by their leadership that Halligan was one of them there lib’rals, and so it was a no go.

The official reason for the filibuster was simply that halligan was “too liberal.” And what made her such a liberal firebrand?

Citing her work on lawsuits against gun manufacturers and on behalf of illegal immigrants, Republicans said Halligan is too liberal to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The National Rifle Association opposed her nomination.

This is the usual reason that Republicans are against judges. It has nothing to do with abortion or “judicial activism” (which is what conservative jurists do better today than liberals have ever). It all comes down to corporate profits. If the lobbying organization of gun manufacturers (that is: the NRA) is against her, well, we can’t have that. We can’t have someone on the court who might protect the rights of individuals; that might lead to democracy!

It all makes me think back to the second Reid-McConnell handshake deal. Is Reid happy? Is the deal all that he had hoped for? Is he pleased that Boehner can make political hay out of the fact that he, Harry Reid, wasn’t able to pass a Sequester deal because of another de rigueur filibuster? I really want to know! Because I know the day is coming when Reid will admit, “These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t.” I think we should just put it on an infinite loop.


Eventually, the Republicans will control the Senate and they will reform if not eliminate the filibuster. Democrats will run around claiming foul. But the new Senate Majority Leader will say something like this, “I thought Harry Reid was an idiot when he didn’t kill the filibuster.” And all the Democrats will sit in private a fume. “Next time, we won’t trust these assholes!” But of course, they will. They’re Democrats.

Old joke that seems appropriate: “When Democratic Party strategists order tanks, they always ask for a model with 5 speeds: 4 in reverse and 1 that goes forward in case they are attacked from behind.”

Update (6 March 2013 2:07 pm)

Greg Sargent notes that one of the reforms that Merkley and Udall wanted was a requirement that those filibustering get 40 votes to continue rather than requiring the majority to get 60 votes to break it. Today, the Republicans would not have been able to sustain the filibuster, because they only got 41 votes due to Reid’s procedural vote; they would only have received 40 otherwise, and Halligan would have gotten her vote. Of course, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, one of the four absent Republicans may have come in if the rules had changed. But that’s part of the point: filibustering doesn’t inconvenience the minority in the least. If none of the Republicans had voted, they still would have gotten to keep their filibuster, because non-votes just mean “Filibuster!”

Obama’s Bland Bargaining

Obama NopeThis morning, Greg Sargent wrote, Obama Urges Republicans to Take Yes for an Answer. In it, he points back to Ezra Klein’s meeting with an unnamed legislator who apparently didn’t know what Obama had offered in terms of a Sequester deal. He notes that Obama is reaching out to Senate Republicans: “Obama will tell all these Senators that he’s offering them what they want, i.e., serious cuts in retirement programs, in exchange for less in new revenues, and that this is actually a very good deal for them.” Can Obama be this naive?

As the whole Ezra Klein meeting and then follow up shows: Republicans may not know what Obama is offering, but once they know they will just have different reasons for not dealing. What’s more, the worst thing that could happen now is a deal. Obama has already offered more than a 2-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases. If negotiations start in earnest, we all know what that means: a final deal that is almost entirely spending cuts; Obama will get some small revenue increase and claim victory because he got the Republicans to go back on their no new revenue pledge. Wow!

The Sequester is very bad. First, it will greatly slow down the economy. Second, almost no one will notice. So at this point, since any deal is going to be mostly spending cuts anyway, I’m for just leaving it alone. At least this way we get some cuts to the military. Obama is now in his traditional “panic negotiation” mode where he will agree to anything. And he is eager (as Clinton was before him) to screw our elderly citizens with Chained-CPI. Watch out for any deal coming down the pike.

Obama would like to see himself as Lincoln. The problem is that Lincoln really did believe in something. Sure, he was more or less a moderate in his day. But he was not a thread-the-needle kind of guy. If Obama had been president during the Civil War, he would have sued for peace after the first defeat, the Confederacy would be its own country today, and only now would they be abolishing slavery. I stand by what I said yesterday, but even more broadly: history will not look back all the fondly on Obama’s presidency. Deal-making is not an end in itself. The deal has to be worth making. In Obama’s case, it very often isn’t worth making. But not to worry: Obama’s post-partisan! And he has hope that when things change we won’t all be totally fucked.