Politics: January 2008 Archives

Transcending Race

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For an interesting take on all this talk of Senator Barack Obama transcending race, see this post by Too Sense. One Drop argues that those speaking of Senator Obama transcending race are actually exhibiting a kind of racism. The way some people speak of transcending race, you get the idea that Obama is making headway with white voters because he's somehow risen above the fact that he's black.

I very much appreciate One Drop's affirmation that black people who have "made it", such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, are still as black as they ever were and as black as anyone else who is black. Colin Powell, who occupied high positions both in the military and the civilian government, is black. He didn't transcend his race. It's insulting to them and to all black people to speak as if these people did.

I must note that it isn't just white people who think this way. Black people can operate from the same assumption. They don't usually say Colin Powell transcends race, though, as white people operating under this assumption will. They say he's not really black and that he's sold out to the white power structure by his willingness to hold a position in it. It's a pretty negative attitude toward the person, whereas this idea of transcending race is at least on the surface positive. But both come from the same false assumption, that blackness is incompatible with success in a world dominated by white people (and most often white men).

On the other hand, as I commented at One Drop's post, there's something very different that someone might mean by the expression "transcending race". Rather than seeing Obama as somehow beyond his race, as if his race doesn't matter at all, some people (I am convinced) are seeing him as standing for more than the issues that are particularly associated with being black. They see most blacks who have run for president in the past, most notably Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley-Braun, Jesse Jackson, and Shirley Chisholm (but most definitely not Alan Keyes) as being too focused on concerns that are black, in a way that white people who haven't adopted those concerns would be less attracted to their candidacy. In other words, Obama has a wider attraction because he deals with wider issues, and he presents the issues that are specifically related to black people in a way that white people can see that they support them too.

Now there's a different danger with this kind of "transcending race". If it assumes (or gives the impression) that so-called black issues aren't important for non-blacks to be concerned about or that what's bad for blacks isn't bad for everyone, then I think that's bad. It displays a real insensitivity to race issues. But I don't think it's quite as bad as the kind of "transcending race" talk One Drop points to. I'd say that it's a pretty unfortunate feature of the Obama campaign but one that he can do little about at this point (and I suspect wasn't responsible for in the first place). But those who participate in it are perpetuating something racially harmful.

There's actually a third group of people talking about Obama as transcending race who do neither of the above. They see him as transcending race but see that as negative. They're well aware of the fact that, for many, transcending race can be one or both of the above two things. Then they accuse Obama of inappropriately trying to transcend race (or perhaps being used by others to do so) in order to appeal to white people. Those who make this complaint will thus see him as a sort of race traitor. I don't think it's fair to go that far with it, but I do think a lot of the reason why he's got the support he's got from white people is that they see Obama as a safe black. Talking about someone as transcending race in that sense can be perfectly legitimate when it informs us about a real racial dynamic, one that can be dangerous. So it's not clear to me that all talk of transcending race is bad, even if the first kind is very bad and the second is at least unfortunate.

God the Decider

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I've been reading through the second edition of D.A. Carson's How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Last night I came across a passage that I had to read a little differently now than when he first wrote it in his first edition of 1990. Carson was responding to the view that predestination-language in the Bible is basically referring to God knowing ahead of time what people outside his control will do, which takes its start from Romans 8:29's "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son". Consider his criticism:

This way of wording things, of course, makes the human being the pivotal "decider"; God's decision is not predestination in any meaningful sense, but a kind of ratification-in-advance. Moreover, too little attention is paid to the fact that this text does not speak of foreknowing that such and such will take place, but that God foreknows the person. Many have shown that in Semitic thought "to know" a person can have overtones of intimacy: if a husband "knows" his wife, for instance, he has sexual intercourse with her. For God to "foreknow" certain people, especially in the context of Romans 8:28-30, means (as most serious commentators point out) that God has a personal relationship with the individual in advance. Those whom God foreknows in this sense, he predestines "to be conformed to the likeness of his Son". Besides, it is a strange method that takes a doubtful definition of one occurrence of "foreknowledge" and pits it against the many references in which it is clearly stated that God has chosen his people (e.g., Deut. 4:37-39; 7:6-9; Ps. 4:3; Matt 24:22, 31; Luke 18:7; John 15:16; Acts 13:48; Gal. 4:27, 31; Eph. 1:4-6; 2 Tim. 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:2).
This is part of Carson's longer argument that theological discussions of free will shouldn't first assume a particular meaning of a controversial term (in philosophy, there is no consensus on what counts as freedom) and then read the biblical text in terms of such an account of freedom, particularly if the text itself assumes a different concept of freedom. Three things came to mind as I read this paragraph.

1. Given that this use of "foreknow" is based on the Semitic concept Carson explains (which I think is highly likely if not almost certain), there is an alternative interpretation of this passage as merely corporate. God choose a people and then lets individuals decide if they want to be in it. A lot of Wesleyans and Arminians hold such a view about other passages involving predestination. I find it thoroughly implausible for other reasons, but given its availability and commonness, it's a little strange that this individualist interpretation at odds with the Semitic language persists.

2. This view makes the predestination-language pretty dumb. Why should Paul bother to add it in? If all God is doing is seeing that someone will do something and then agreeing that they will indeed do the thing that he sees them doing in the future, what's the point of saying that he predestines people? If predestining is simply foreknowing, then it's redundant, in fact tautologous. It basically means, "For whom he foreknew that they would do it, he agreed that they would do it." That's not very informative unless you're inclined to think God engages in self-deception. I'm not too fond of interpretations of Paul that make him out to be an idiot.

3. The first sentence struck me as extremely funny given a certain political moment of a couple years ago. Carson doesn't use the exact term "the decider", but by implication he's saying that God is the ultimate decider, and the view he's responding to makes humans the decider. This is pretty much the exact sense of the term the president was using when people made fun of him for calling himself the decider. So a very intelligent professor from Canada with a Ph.D. from a top U.K. institution, one who I note is very particular about his language, can write in a way that pretty much got universally made fun of as dumb Southerner hick language when the president of the United States used it. (Carson does acknowledge something funny about using the term this way by putting it in scare quotes, but the president was speaking extemporaneously, and Carson was not only writing in a prepared way, but it passed through the editorial review process and then did so again when he revised the book five or six years later.)

Ron Paul and Race

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Ron Paul is indisputably the presidential candidate who most attracts the support of white supremacists, and he has come under a lot of fire recently for not taking a strong enough stand against his racist supporters. What's worried me even more is his inability to show even a minimally decent understanding of what racism even is when he's declared himself not to be a racist.

So it's a bit surprising that Paul is also the Republican candidate with the greatest traction among black voters. Does this mean he'll be a uniter and not a divider?

I wanted to follow up on my post last week Highest-Ranked People With Last Names Ending in A. I was curious what the highest-ranked people of each final letter of the last name would be. I decided to stick with the ceremonial order of precedence referred to in the previous post, and I also limited myself to people who would be of their rank in a way that didn't depend on being in a certain location. That leaves out governors, mayors, and ambassadors in the region where they have authority. Governors do show up lower in the list when not in their state, and I did include them. I got down to the deputy secretaries of executive departments, and I couldn't find lists of former deputy secretaries for a couple departments, so I stopped looking at that point. Three letters remain unknown.

a Associate Justice, Supreme Court
b Speaker of the House
c member of U.S. House of Representatives
d President
e President
f Secretary of Homeland Security
g President
h President
i Secretary of Defense
k President
l Vice-President
m Speaker of the House
n President
o Associate Justice, Supreme Court
p Speaker of the House
r President
s President
t President
u Secretary of the Treasury
w Vice-President
x Vice-President
y President
z Secretary of State

If you know of any high officials for the three remaining letters, go ahead and leave a comment, but I wouldn't be sure it was the highest unless I could see lists of everyone occupying and having occupied all the positions in between them and where I left off. But it would be nice to have a more complete list with people of whom we could say confidently that there's someone for that letter who was at least as high as a certain position.

At some of the race blogs I read, now and then someone comes along and makes a comment about how frequently people with last names ending in A have done something. It's usually said in a sort of way that suggests names ending in A are a good representation of underrepresented groups. With Barack Obama winning the Iowa caucuses, the possibility of a President Obama all of a sudden seemed a lot more viable, and sure enough a comment appeared in the comments here wondering who the highest-ranked person with a last named ending in A might have been.

Even if there are much more precise, and probably more accurate, ways of measuring underrepresented people in government positions, I thought it was an interesting question, so I investigated it. It turns out there aren't that many in the highest positions. One problem, though, is how you measure rank. There is an official measurement of ceremonial rank for matters of state, but there's nothing to that but ceremony. Laura Bush is higher rank in terms of ceremony than Dick Cheney, but she has no official authority in reality. The mayor of a small city outranks the Chief Justice of the United States when in that city, according to this list, and that's surely not a good way to measure rank in the way this commenter meant.

The other problem is that there are three branches of equal rank, and it's hard to compare whether someone of significant authority in one should be over someone of significant authority in another. How do we compare the rank of the president with the rank of the Chief Justice? How do we compare the rank of the Majority Leader of the Senate with the rank of Associate Justices of the Supreme Court? So any answer to the question is going to be a bit messier than the question might at first make it sound, but there are some interesting answers to give.

In the executive branch, you can provide some order. The president, v.p. and then cabinet do seem to have a ranked order (because of the order of succession, although that doesn't really reflect influence: is Homeland Security less influential than Veterans' Affairs?). It turns out the highest rank in the executive branch for someone with a last name ending in A is Attorney General. That person was Joseph McKenna under President McKinley, who later became a Supreme Court Justice. But then I don't know how to rank chiefs of staff, and I think they might have more influence than some cabinet members even if they don't seem as prominent in any official constitutional capacity. Leon Panetta and John Podesta have been chiefs of staff. They do appear in the ceremonial ranking under cabinet secretaries, though.

In the judiciary branch, it's obvious that Chief Justice of the U.S. is the highest position and then the associate justices. McKenna again was the first justice with a last name ending with A, and of course now we've got Antonin Scalia. If you move down a level to appeals court judges, we've had Abner Mikva and Antonin Scalia on the D.C. Circuit. Juan Toruella and Bruce Selya are both current members of the First Circuit. Harold Medina was on the Second Circuit. Emilio Garza is on the Fifth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit has Carlos Bea, Sandra Ikuta, and Wallace Tashima. It previously had the aforementioned Joseph McKenna The Tenth Circuit has Deanell Tacha. The Eleventh Circuit has Joel Dubina. The Federal Circuit has Arthur Gajarsa. I didn't notice any on the Third, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, or Eighth Circuits.

The legislative branch is harder. The two constitutional roles in the line of succession (Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore) haven't had anyone with names ending in A. There haven't been any Majority or Minority Leaders, or Majority or Minority Whips ending in A. The only other higher-ranked positions I can think of are committee chairs. I doubt Barack Obama has chaired any major committee (although he may chair a subcommittee), but Daniel Akaka has. Joseph Montoya and Akaka's predecessor, Spark Matsunaga, also held no committee chairships as far as I can tell. In the House, 14 current members have last names ending in A. I'm not going to look through all the former members there or try to figure out who has held committee chairs, but several of them are pretty senior, and at least two are currently ranking members on important committees.

Then it's hard to know how to compare state level to federal level. I didn't look at all the states for governors, but New Mexico was an obvious one to look at, and they've had three, one as far back as a century ago (around Joseph McKenna's time).

Ambassadors might also count as pretty high-ranking. Currently, Cesar Cabrera is ambassador to Seychelles. I don't know of an easy way to look for others without a lot of time-consuming clicking in Wikipedia, but there is at least this one.

If you do go by the ceremonial order of precedence, the highest-ranked among these would be the governors (only in their state) and then ambassadors (while at their posts). If you're not in a state with a governor with a name ending in A (and Spitzer certainly doesn't) and aren't at the post of an ambassador whose last name ends in A (and I'm not in the post of any U.S. ambassador), then the highest-ranking official with a name ending in A is currently none other than Justice Antonin Scalia, by this ceremonial measure. So by that measure, the answer to the question is ironically someone the person asking the question likely despises.

Update: I found some more governors and ambassadors:

Rudolf Perina (ambassador to Armenia)
Sharon E. Villarosa (ambassador to Burma)
Cesar Cabrera (ambassador to Mauritius)
Antonio O. Garza Jr. (ambassador to Mexico)
Preston Lea (governor of DE, 1905-1909)
William Paca (governor of MD, 1782-1785)
Jonas Galusha (governor of VT, 1809-1813)
Joseph Desha (governor of KY, 1824-1828)
Henry L. Fuqua (governor of LA, 1924-1926)
John W. Dana (governor of ME, 1844, 1847-1850)
L. B. Hanna (governor of ND, 1913-1917)
Ezequiel C. de Baca (governor of NM, 1917)
Jerry Apodaca (governor of NM, 1975-1979)
Toney Anaya (governor of NM, 1983-1987)

State of the Race

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I have very little to say about the Democratic race. I was happy to see Hillary Clinton pull off a win in New Hampshire, because I think it's unfortunate when the momentum from one race pretty much decides a primary election, as happened with John Kerry in 2004. I also prefer her to Obama both because she would be a much better president and because I think she'd be easier for any GOP candidate to beat in the general election, and I really don't want the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress (which isn't likely to change in 2008) and the White House. When I agree with the Democrats, it's usually on things they can achieve with a Republican president even if a Republican isn't likely to initiate legislation on those issues. When I don't, a Democratic president isn't likely resist them, and even one that might isn't going to resist them enough. I think this would be worse with Barack Obama as president than it would be with Hillary Clinton. So I'm rooting for her to get the nomination for both reasons, but I have no idea what to make of the various theories about why she managed to pull it off in NH, and I'm not going to hazard a guess about where it's going to go in the remaining primaries and caucuses.

I do have some thoughts on the GOP race, though. I want to make one point about what people have been saying about Mitt Romney, and then I want to explain my reasons why I think almost any of the current candidates could win this thing. First, consider the following facts about Mitt Romney.

Fact 1: The general view until this week seems to have been that there are three tickets out of Iowa and two out of New Hampshire. That means those in the top three from IA and top two from NH go on. It's hard to know if the conventional wisdom here means that doing well in either if ok or if you need to do well in both. If it's the former, then the conventional wisdom says the GOP voters in these states have given tickets to continue for Huckabee, Romney, McCain, and Thompson (McCain and Thompson were virtually tied for third place in IA). If it's the latter, then the only two candidates who were in the top two in NH and the top three in IA are Romney and McCain. So the conventional wisdom, no matter which way you read it, does not rule out Mitt Romney, and on one reading he's one of the only two still in the race.

Fact 2: In terms of delegates, here is the GOP order according to this site: Romney (21), Huckabee (14), McCain (12), Thompson (8), Paul (4), Giuliani (1), Hunter (1).

Fact 3: The next primary is Michigan, where Romney and Huckabee were ahead in one of the last poll two polls, with McCain and then Giuliani falling behind them a bit, but McCain was ahead in a different poll, with Romney behind Huckabee. So Romney is probably in the top three there and maybe even in the lead, but it's hard to tell. After that are SC and NV. In SC, Huckabee was ahead in the last poll, but Romney and McCain were close enough to being tied for second place. In NV, Romney and Giuliani were tied in the last poll, with Huckabee third and no one else close. So he's doing at least as well in these states as he has been so far, and there's some chance that he'll score a win in one of them, perhaps even two. If he wins Michigan, the momentum effect could push him to do better in others. Nevada along may not be enough for that.

Fact 4: Romney won the Wyoming primary handily, even if hardly anyone is paying attention to it.

Fact 5: Romney came in second place in the other two elections so far, and in both cases it was a close enough second that he was closer to the winner than he was to the third-place candidate.

Fact 6: I've heard a lot of pundits saying Romney, having lost twice, is now pretty much out of the race. Even one of the above five claims should be sufficient for anyone of decent intelligence to see that such statements fly in the face of the facts.

This race is wide open, and Mitt Romney has a good chance of coming out well in it, as do Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani. I don't see Ron Paul or Duncan Hunter doing any better from here on out than they already have, but I really could see any of the others winning the nomination, depending on how things go. Here's my reasoning with each candidate.

Barack Obama has been getting a lot of attention since winning the Iowa caucuses. I think I understand what's going on with a lot of his popularity. Both parties are unpopular right now, and both the president and Congress (each controlled by different parties) have very low approval ratings. Obama seems like an outsider to many. He doesn't sound like a politician, some say. I understand that the way he speaks sounds different when compared with career politicians of an older generation. But what baffles me is that many, including a number of Republicans, insist on describing him as moderate. What exactly is it that gives people this impression?

Whatever makes him a moderate, it has little to do with his views. His views on abortion and pretty much any other social issue are indistinguishable from those of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, his main competitors. If anything, he is more liberal than the others. Edwards, for instance, has some resistance to the idea of gay marriage. On foreign policy, Obama is far more resistant to moderate views than Clinton. On fiscal issues, he's at least as far in the direction of Western European-style democratic socialism as the other two. So in the three main categories of issues, there seems to be nothing about his views that would make them more moderate than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. So if he's so far to the left then why is he attracting Republican voters who think of him as a moderate they can support ?

I think what's going on is that he uses language that sounds moderate. He speaks like a Booker T. Washington on race issues to draw in white voters while advocating policies indistinguishable from those Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton support. He speaks optimistically about the future and change instead of being constantly critical of the status quo, as John Edwards does. He doesn't use Edwards' class warfare motifs but supports the same views. He doesn't associate himself in an identity-forming way with feminism and abortion the way Hillary Clinton does while endorsing pretty much the same views. The one identity-forming class he could emphasize is his blackness, and he downplays that in the same way most black Republicans would, while not endorsing the views black conservatives think should result from their general attitude toward race. In other words, he tries to use language and rhetoric that sounds moderate to conservative while endorsing very liberal views, and voters are fooled into thinking he's a moderate.

The interesting question is whether this is deceptive. I think it is if he's trying to pretend he's a moderate. I don't know if he is. I don't think it's dishonest if he's genuinely optimistic and from principle distancing himself from the mindset of class warfare, liberal identity politics, and secularist opposition to religious conservatism. I don't know his intentions. I suspect that his campaign advisers have got to be aware of this effect and that he's nowhere near as moderate as he comes across. I have to wonder if he himself realizes that he's far to the left of most moderate voters. He may well not, because most of his friends are probably as liberal as he is.

So it's hard to form a moral judgment against him on this, at least without assuming motivations we can't really know about and a level of higher-order understanding of himself as compared with the voting populace that he may not have (although perhaps that level of ignorance should count as negligence in a presidential candidate). But it does seem to me that the general public is impatient enough with serious policy issues and ignorant enough of his actual views that they're being misled. The most moderate candidate in the Democratic lineup is Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Joe Biden is in the same category, but he's out of the race now. People pretend Bill Richardson is moderate, but it's really only gun control that makes them think this. The real moderate in this race is Rudy Giuliani, and I suppose John McCain might count also, at least if Hillary Clinton does. Both stand more toward the middle of their party than most of the other candidates, even if both hold positions that are decidedly not moderate. But because many people looking for a moderate are very much not moderate on the war, they're not going for Giuliani or McCain. Instead they're picking someone decidedly not moderate, and that strikes me as highly irrational.

Update: I have found one policy issue where Obama is more moderate than Clinton and Edwards. As factcheck.org puts it:

It quotes yet another newspaper saying Obama's plan "guarantees coverage for all Americans," neglecting to mention that, as the article makes clear, it's only Clinton's and Edwards' plans that would require coverage for everyone, while Obama's would allow individuals to buy in if they wanted to.

What's funny about this one in light of my thesis here is that he's trying to make his more moderate position sound more liberal rather than the reverse.


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