February 2011: A second look at the One Percent Rule

A nod of the ski cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Back in 2006 I wrote about the emerging role of the Internet in enabling greater political communication and debate in “The One Percent Rule and the Power of One.”

Two Web-savvy observers, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, had summarized the One Percent Rule as “roughly 1% of your site visitors will create content within a democratized community.” Charles Arthur of The Guardian was even more specific: “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will ‘interact’ with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.”

In my 2006 post, I had noted that the Power of One—of an individual deciding to speak up—had even greater meaning in societies without any lasting tradition of freedom of expression, and the Internet (then primarily through blogs) made that possible as never before.

I concluded:

Even if the Internet’s latest wrinkle, the social networks and blogs of Web 2.0, fails to usher in a Golden Age of democratic political expression, it still represents progress. The One Percent Rule is, after all, descriptive, not prescriptive; the Web still offers those willing to invest the time and energy a means to manifest the Power of One.

Some six years later that progress continues. A recent survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism (“Understanding the Participatory News Consumer“) found that “37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.” The Pew Internet survey found that some 9% of Internet users had contributed their own article, opinion piece, picture, or video to an online news site.

The Pew Internet results need to be viewed with some caution. The questions asked those surveyed if they have ever participated or contributed, so it’s not clear how active these content creators actually are. When Pew asked about daily activity, a much smaller number—19% of respondents—said they looked online for news or information about politics and only 4% said they created or worked on their own online journal or blog (which might or might not focus on politics.)

The number of Americans blogging has remained relatively constant over the past several years at roughly 11-12% of Internet users; of that group, some 8-9% of bloggers focus primarily on politics according to Technorati. If you do the math, you’re left with roughly of 1% of Internet users focused on political blogging.

These survey figures do suggest a growing level of grassroots participation in political communication and discussion. One concrete example: The Huffington Post, which has succeeded through the contributions of some 3,000 bloggers, most posting content on political topics.

It’s not just the quantity of political content on the Web that impresses, but also the greater detail it offers. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal recently pointed to the renewed appreciation of political speechmaking triggered by how the Internet allows convenient and unfiltered access:

It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech — a serious, substantive one — two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.

Along with the access and opportunity for greater political participation offered by the Web comes a downside: nasty partisanship amplified by e-mail blasts and Twitter feeds, personal attacks by anonymous posters in comments sections, and ample cyber-room for conspiracy theorists and extremists. Yet, on balance, the Internet represents a marvelous tool for our democratic Republic (and for all those around the world who aspire to liberty and political freedom).

The Web offers uncensored access to information and opinion. It provides places for debate and vehicles for communication and connection. And, most importantly, it’s open to individuals who are free to voice their concerns and express their views. How can this not be a good thing? For those who care about the First Amendment, it’s a development to be applauded.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

August 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Teddy unbound, Capa: propagandist or opportunist?, charging for online news, and other observations

With a tip of the baseball cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for commandeering his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WAS THERE EVER A “ROAD NOT TAKEN” FOR EDWARD MOORE KENNEDY? Or did Kennedy’s upbringing and family expectations narrow his career options to only that of a life in politics? The obituaries of the Massachusetts Senator, who died August 25 at 77 years of age, emphasized his decades-long involvement in American politics. Newsweek described him as the “Senate’s great lion… fighting for the poor and the dispossessed” and the New York Times characterized him “as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate.”

Yet, strangely, for much of his time in the public eye, Teddy Kennedy never seemed totally comfortable in his role as standard-bearer for American liberalism, a mantle inherited from his fallen brothers, Jack and Bobby. There were signs that, even if he soldiered on, the fourth Kennedy son was conflicted about embracing the family’s political legacy.

What was behind the recurring episodes of inappropriate behavior (cheating at Harvard, reckless driving in law school, decades of binge drinking, vulgar public displays, womanizing, the tragedy of Chappaquiddick)? Was this risky acting out Kennedy’s way of expressing an unresolved internal conflict? Was Teddy Unbound trying to reject what at times had to seem like crushing expectations by his self-destructive behavior? (New York’s Eliot Spitzer—another Harvard-educated Democrat with a dominating, wealthy father—destroyed his own political career through similar out-of-bounds conduct, in Spitzer’s case with call girls.) In context, Kennedy’s famous inability to offer a coherent answer to Roger Mudd’s question as to why he was running for the Presidency in 1980 made more sense—he was running because he was expected to, not because he wanted to.

There were only fleeting moments when Teddy Kennedy could have fashioned an independent life. In 1955, the Green Bay Packers approached him to try professional football after college–was he tempted at all by the offer? In 1960, he was ready to leave Massachusetts and move out West if Jack lost the presidency, but his brother’s victory meant Teddy was tapped to run for the “Kennedy seat” in the Senate. He could have resigned after Chappaquiddick and looked for a fresh start in private legal practice or education, but he apparently couldn’t envision a different destiny.

The next generation of Kennedys has been much more ambivalent about entering political life, perhaps better understanding the tradeoffs and sacrifices involved. Caroline Kennedy’s brief foray into politics ended in January 2009 when she dropped out of contention for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York, citing personal reasons. It was clear, however, that she didn’t have the stomach for the rough-and-tumble of Empire State politics (Rep. Gary Ackerman questioned her readiness for the job, comparing her to Sarah Palin and Jennifer Lopez) or for media questioning or financial disclosure. And now former Congressman Joseph Kennedy has decided not to run to succeed his uncle in the Senate. That should be viewed as a healthy development—democracies and family dynasties are a bad match.

DID PHOTOJOURNALIST ROBERT CAPA FAKE HIS ICONIC SPANISH CIVIL WAR PHOTO, “THE FALLING SOLDIER“? Fresh research by José Manuel Susperregui, a Spanish academic, questions whether Capa’s 1936 photo, long a symbol of resistance for supporters of the Spanish Republic, actually depicted the death of militiaman Federico Borrell in Cerro Muriano or whether it was staged in community called Espejo, at a considerable distance from the front lines.

Was Capa fashioning propaganda, rather than recording history, or did he opportunistically “tart up” the photo to make it more saleable? Some have argued that, staged or not, the photo captured the truth of the bloody Spanish internecine struggle and it remains historically significant. Yet if Capa faked it, and the evidence strongly suggests it, then the photographer violated the basic tenets of his craft by misrepresenting it as real. It is particularly ironic that one of Capa’s famous dictums on photojournalism was: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

AMERICA’S LEADING NEWSPAPERS SHOULD BE CHARGING FOR ACCESS TO THEIR ONLINE NEWS BY THE NEW YEAR, and it’s a long-overdue response to the challenge of the Internet aggregators, such as Google news and others. As I argued in May, the existential threat posed to the traditional advertising model for newspapers means a paid content approach is a must for survival. Journalism Online LLC, which provides a system for charging for online content, “has signed affiliate agreements with publishers representing 506 newspapers and magazines and a Web audience of more than 90 million monthly visitors.”

IF FLORIDA’S TIM TEBOW LEADS THE GATORS TO ANOTHER NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, his third, should the quarterback be considered the greatest football player of all time? Or if he wins the Heisman Trophy for a second time? Tebow is being compared to gridiron legends like Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Sammy Baugh, O.J. Simpson, Herschel Walker, Barry Sanders and Archie Griffin. Certainly there’s never been a college quarterback with Tebow’s ability to mix bruising runs and accurate passes, but he has played on a very deep and talented team the past four years.

How would Tebow fare at the helm of a faltering Division One team? Would he be as effective as an Archie Manning (Ole Miss) or Roger Staubach (Navy) were in manufacturing wins for overmatched teams?

For impact, how does Tebow compare to former Syracuse running back Jim Brown, another candidate for the best of all time label who was ranked the No. 1 NFL player in the history of the league by the Sporting News? Brown finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1956, his senior year, despite rushing for 986 yards, the third highest total nationally that season, in only nine games. Notre Dame’s Golden Boy Paul Hornung won the 1956 Heisman aided by voting that split along regional lines. Hornung, a quarterback and defensive player in college, was Tebow-like in his versatility.

IF VENEZUELA’S LEFT-WING STRONGMAN HUGO CHAVEZ WANTS TO ATTACK THE CAPITALISTIC PASTIME OF GOLF, a ban on the game is the wrong way to go. Rather than closing courses, Chavez should democratize the “bourgeois sport” and underwrite a program of subsidized golf lessons for Venezuela’s young. His nation’s consolation prize will be that after his regime falls (as it inevitably must), Venezuelan golfers will be wildly successful on the PGA tour, no doubt diverting large amounts of prize money from the gringo pro golfers.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM NEW ENGLAND’S POET, ROBERT FROST  (1874-1963): “Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

President Obama’s magical first pitch

President Barack Obama’s awkward ceremonial first pitch at the 2009 All Star baseball game last night was saved from bouncing in the dirt by Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.

It was a shaky toss (Obama, known for his talent on the basketball court, admitted to the Fox Sports: “I did not play organized baseball when I was a kid and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren’t so natural to me”) but you wouldn’t have known that from many of the media accounts.

Barack Obama’s first pitch is a success” was the headline for Carol E. Lee’s piece in Politico, although her lead did admit: “It was low, and didn’t quite reach home plate.” Jack Curry’s New York Times blog post (“Obama to Pujols, Without a Bounce“) and ESPN.com’s coverage (“Obama gets first pitch to home plate“) reflected the generally positive spin in the mainstream media. You would have to turn to Fox News or, surprisingly, to the left-of-center British newspaper, the Guardian ( “Obama’s first pitch as president falls flat“) for a more clear-eyed account.

White House aides were apparently worried about the symbolic nature of Obama’s performance. They had to be happy with the  sympathetic media’s pro-Obama spin. Of course it didn’t really matter—so what if Obama looked uncomfortable throwing? President George H.W. Bush bounced a first pitch at an All-Star game, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney at the opening of the Washington National’s home season in 2006.  And George W. Bush demonstrated he could reach the plate, as he did at the 2001 World Series. In short, whether a politician’s throw reaches home plate or not shouldn’t be a symbol of anything (certainly not “manliness” or leadership). The losers in this silly episode: any journalist who bought into applauding Obama’s magical first pitch.

(Ted Guthrie, general manager of the minor league Charlotte Rangers, gave me this priceless tip for ceremonial first pitch throwing back in the mid-1990s: throw the ball high, aiming for a spot several feet over the catcher’s head. This compensates for the tendency to short-arm the ball, and the difficulty in gauging the distance from the pitching mound. The advice worked!)

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

The Vassiliev notebooks, American elites, and Cold War espionage

Since the end of the Cold War we have learned a great deal more about how American and British elites—government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers—spied for the Soviets, and how surprisingly widespread this activity was. Nearly twenty years after the collapse of Communism, revelations about espionage by well-placed Westerners on behalf of the KGB* or Soviet military intelligence continue to emerge.

A rich source for Cold War historians on this Soviet penetration has been once-secret intelligence files copied by two former KGB officers: Vasili Mitrokhin (who left for the West in 1992) and Alexander Vassiliev, who was provided access to the agency’s archives in the pre-Putin era. Vassiliev’s notebooks have served as a foundation for two books, The Haunted Wood, authored by Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev, and the just published Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by Vassiliev and two leading scholars of American Communism, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. (A full review of Spies can be found here.)

The donation of the Vassiliev notebooks to the Library of Congress, and a consideration of the findings in Spies and other recent research on Soviet intelligence operations in the U.S., prompted a May 21-22 conference sponsored by the Cold War International History Project held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The conference attracted leading Cold War historians, including experts on the Alger Hiss case (R. Bruce Craig, Eduard Mark, G. Edward White), the extended Rosenberg spy ring (Ron Radosh, Steve Usdin), and Soviet atomic espionage (Gregg Herken, Robert S. Norris).

Some in the revisionist camp also attended, including Hiss defender Jeff Kisseloff, who critiqued the conference on Blogging Hisstory, and two biographers of the radical journalist I.F. Stone—D.D. Guttenplan, author of the just released American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, and Myra MacPherson (All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone )—who challenged the assertion in Spies (first broached in an excerpt in Commentary magazine) that Stone had been an active Soviet agent in the 1930s, with the code-name “Blin” (Russian for “Pancake”), acting as a courier and talent spotter.

I.F. Stone and the KGB

The question of Stone’s relationship with the KGB provoked the most heated exchanges at the conference. (In one of the more humorous moments, Vassiliev pronounced himself “bewildered by the interest in I.F. Stone.”) Was the radical journalist simply exchanging gossip and information with sources who happened to be Soviet intelligence officers, as his defenders claim? Or was he consciously working under the direction of the KGB? Journalists such as Kim Philby, Whittaker Chambers, and Hede Massing stood at the center of several 20th century espionage cases, and this was not by chance. Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev note in Spies that the KGB targeted journalists for recruitment—an internal report listed 22 journalists working for the agency in the 1930s, with only engineers/scientists (49) providing more agents. The authors add:

The KGB recruited journalists in part for their access to inside information and sources on politics and policy, insights into personalities, and confidential and non-public information that never made it into published stories.

Spies asserts that Stone worked for the KGB from 1936-1938, and cites a key passage from a May 1936 letter to Moscow as proof: “Relations with Pancake have entered the channel of normal operational work.” In a presentation on the second day of the conference, journalist Max Holland summarized his Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone’s encounters with Soviet intelligence, and concluded that Stone had indeed performed intelligence functions for the KGB in the late 1930s. As for Stone’s career post-1938, Holland reviewed the few references to Blin/Pancake in intercepted Soviet cables (decrypted as part of the U.S. Venona counterintelligence effort), and comments made in 1992 by KGB operative Oleg Kalugin that appeared to implicate Stone. Holland’s conclusion: there is no hard evidence suggesting further KGB operational control of the radical journalist after 1938.

Holland also considered a different, and somewhat provocative, question. To what extent did Stone’s contact with Soviet intelligence, both covert and overt, influence his writing over the course of his life? At given points in his career, did he consciously retail KGB disinformation? Or did Stone’s radical views simply, and naturally, correspond to the Stalinist line?

It is a complex question: Holland found that Stone embraced doctrinaire Comintern positions on the Spanish Civil War and the Great Terror, but remained doggedly independent in calling for American intervention against the Nazis (even during the Hitler-Stalin pact). Yet Stone’s 1952 The Hidden History of the Korean War, which parroted Soviet propaganda in blaming a U.S. conspiracy for starting the Korean conflict, seems suspect in light of what we now know. Did the KGB encourage Stone to write The Hidden History of the Korean War? The book’s obvious bias led Richard Rovere of The New Yorker to categorize Stone as “a man who thinks up good arguments for poor Communist positions.” After Stone’s public break with Stalinism in 1956, however, Holland found Stone pursuing an anti-establishment journalism with no signs of outside influence.

Yet Stone remained remarkably quiet about the high-profile espionage cases of the late 1940s and 1950s, according to Holland. Stone was notably silent about the Hiss case (“perhaps it cut too close”) and Stone confined his commentary on the Rosenbergs to questioning the fairness of their death sentence (never directly addressing their guilt or innocence). Had he not been conflicted about his own past, what might have Stone contributed to the discussion about the extent of Soviet control of the American Communist Party and its implications for national security?

Stone’s reputation has been badly damaged by the revelations in Spies; Holland’s essay raises further questions about the nature of Stone’s relationship with Soviet intelligence after 1938. Concealing a secret past hardly fits Stone’s iconic public image of an independent journalist committed to openness and transparency, but it would have been natural for Stone to want his association with Soviet intelligence to remain hidden. One Venona intercept highlighted Blin/Pancake’s fear of exposure—while he was open to collaboration, he didn’t want to “spoil his career.” What was the psychic cost of Stone’s decades-long deception? How may it have shaped Stone’s journalism? These intriguing questions may never be answered.

Alger Hiss and “Ales”

If some ambiguity remains about the depth and breadth of Stone’s involvement with the KGB, it’s hard to find any remaining ambiguity in the case of American diplomat Alger Hiss. As Spies notes, the Vassiliev notebooks provide additional confirmation of what Whittaker Chambers long maintained and Allen Weinstein’s book Perjury confirmed: despite his protestations of innocence, Hiss spied for the GRU during the 1930s and 1940s. (A prominent New Deal liberal, Hiss was accused in 1948 by Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950.)

In his presentation to the conference, historian Eduard Marks knocked down a theory advanced by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya in The American Scholar and embraced by die-hard Hiss defenders: that former journalist Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—was “Ales,” the code name for an American State Department official spying for the Soviets. (I’ve previously written about the holes in the Bird/Chervonnaya thesis in “Wilder Foote and ‘The Mystery of Ales’.“)

Mark drew on the Vassiliev notebooks and other research to conclude (as does Spies) that Hiss alone fit the profile of Ales drawn from cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the KGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. Gorsky had informed Moscow on March 5 that Ales was in Mexico City with a State Department delegation. Bird and Chervonnaya documented that Hiss was in Washington that day, therefore, they maintained, eliminating him as a candidate for Ales. They argued that Foote, who had remained in the Mexican capital, had to be the Soviet agent.

The Bird/Chervonnaya theory presumed that Gorsky was relaying information he knew to be accurate. Yet in his remarks Mark pointed to Gorsky’s confusion about the whereabouts of Hiss’ handler (“Ruble”/Harold Glasser) as proof that the Russian was not particularly well-informed. Mark added that Hiss had been listed by the State Department as part of the Mexico City delegation on March 5. Gorsky was mistaken: he was reporting about GRU agents, not KGB-controlled ones, so his information was second-hand, and faulty. Finally, Mark found no facts during his research to support the Foote-as-Ales theory, which, it is fair to say, resembles magical thinking more than it does serious historical inquiry.

The question of closure

Many previously unanswered questions about Cold War KGB espionage have been resolved by the Vassiliev notebooks and subsequent research. Spies has “outed” a number of Soviet agents and has provided greater specificity in the Hiss and Rosenberg cases.

Yet there remains much we don’t know. Revelations about Soviet spying have continued to emerge. In 2007, Russian intelligence officials honored George Koval, “the spy who came in from the cornfields,” a previously unknown GRU agent who had infiltrated the Manhattan Project. In 2008, 91-year-old Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet agents during the 1940s. Near the end of 2008, an American scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab who had betrayed the secrets of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets in the 1950s was identified by Robert S. Norris as Darol Froman.

In May, Germans learned that the West German policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, who killed a left-wing demonstrator in 1967 with “the shot that changed Germany” and ignited violent radicalism, was actually an East German Stasi agent. While Kurras has denied he acted as a provocateur, some have suggested that the history of German extremism in the late 1960s and 1970s may need to be rewritten. Further, the head of the Stasi archives reports that there are many East German secret police files yet to be examined.

The history of Cold War espionage is incomplete. There are questions still to be resolved. What do the full KGB and GRU archives contain? What further connections might historians make if granted access to the files? Are there other members of the British or American elite who betrayed their country? Are there covert agents yet to be identified? Have the GRU’s files on Walter Krivitsky, George Koval, Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss and other agents been preserved? What might that information add to our knowledge of Soviet espionage in the 20th century?

Unfettered access to the Soviet archives would, no doubt, give us a clearer picture of the extent of betrayal of the Western democracies by some of its elites. As the Vassiliev notebooks have demonstrated, some of what we learn will cause a rethinking and reappraisal of Cold War history. With a resurgent Russia, that is as it should be, for as G.K. Chesterton once observed, we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.

*For the purposes of this essay, I use “KGB” to describe the Soviet foreign intelligence service and “GRU” for Soviet military intelligence, although both had several name changes during the 20th century.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

March 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama the Adaptive Communicator, the Oliphant cartoon controversy, and other observations

With tip of the umbrella (for borrowing his signature phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

ALREADY PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA IS SHOWING THE ABILITY TO ADAPT HIS COMMUNICATION STYLE to the audience, occasion, and purpose. Will history see him as the Great Adaptive Communicator?

It’s now conventional wisdom that Obama can deliver a brilliant set speech, although he has often toned down the soaring rhetoric when it doesn’t suit his political ends (witness his somber and workmanlike Inaugural Address). Despite mixed reviews from media critics, the new President has quickly mastered the prime-time news conference, one which plagued many of his predecessors in the White House. Where Obama has struggled, surprisingly, is in less formal settings where he lets his guard down (for example, the Jay Leno Special Olympics kerfuffle or Obama’s “gallows humor” joviality on “60 Minutes”).

Some conservative pundits have mocked Obama for his reliance on the teleprompter in public appearances, but his recent news conferences prove the President can think quite well on his feet without a canned script. He knows he gives a smoother, more telegenic performance with the teleprompter, and that’s why he turns to the device.

I think Obama will prove to be a master of presidential news conferences, as well. Unlike many of his Republican predecessors, he doesn’t disdain the press (or at least openly show that he does), and he isn’t intimidated by the prospect of fielding questions.

What Obama has apparently realized is that the President can control and shape a East Room news conference to his liking. He can pick and choose the questioners. He can slow down the pace of the proceedings by stretching out his answers (which meant just 13 questions in his last hour-long press conference). He can ignore the intent of any given question and, even when pressed on it in a follow-up, always has the last word. And if he keeps his emotions in check, and sticks to his message, he can avoid any “gotcha” moments.

The media hopes for something newsworthy from a presidential “presser”—a dramatic revelation, an insight into the president’s thinking, a policy shift. They are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Obama’s performance at his last formal news conference (before leaving for the G20) was panned as “professorial” by many in the mainstream media. Obama sounded “like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell” according to Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. True, Obama largely repeated his administration’s talking points on the economy, but that doesn’t mean the news conference wasn’t a success—from a presidential perspective.

I’d argue that Obama’s professorial style worked quite well: he projected the three C’s—confidence, competence, and calmness—which is what a national leader must project during troubled times. What about substance? Obama’s long, discursive answers—which annoyed many commentators—signaled that he has a detailed grasp of economic policy, which was enough for his audience—the average voter worried about his or her job and future—if not for Beltway journalists.

POLITICAL CARTOONIST PAT OLIPHANT STIRRED CONTROVERSY in March with Jewish groups objecting to what they called anti-Semitic elements in his cartoon on the Gaza situation. (The cartoon featured a headless goose-stepping soldier and a fanged Star of David looming over hapless Gaza refugees. You can view it here). The Anti-Defamation League called it “hideously anti-Semitic” for using “Nazi-like imagery and hateful evocation of the Jewish Star of David.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center said “the cartoon mimics the venomous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet eras.”

As a First Amendment advocate, I’ll defend Oliphant’s right to create and distribute the cartoon. And while likening Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi aggression is both deliberately provocative and ludicrous, it’s not prima facie anti-Semitic. The ADL and others are correct, however, in deploring Oliphant’s choice of imagery because it draws on a particularly ugly and hateful legacy.

ARE ASPECTS OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE (“G”) MORE LINKED TO NATURE, AND LESS TO NUTURE? Here’s how ScienceDaily summarized a recent study (from the Journal of Neuroscience): “…UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.”

Thompson and collaborators scanned the brains of identical and fraternal twins, measuring signal speed, and then compared those findings to results from traditional IQ tests. We inherit how much of a key substance (myelin) we have in our brains that allows for these fast signaling bursts.

IS “DO WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I DRIVE” THE MOTTO FOR TOP OBAMA AIDES WHEN IT COMES TO American cars? According to Politico, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner owns a 2008 Acura TSX, and other Obama economic advisors also own Japanese cars (Larry Summers has a 1995 Mazda Protege, Peter Orszag drives a Honda, and Austan Goolsbee, a Toyota Highlander).

Politico also reported: “A survey of West Executive Drive, where White House staffers park, revealed only five American cars out of 23 –a Dodge Grand Caravan, two Ford Escapes, a Jeep Cherokee and a Cadillac.”

And Obama’s car czar, Steve Rattner, apparently favors Mercedes, according to cityfile. (President Obama does own a Ford).

It is a bit awkward for the new administration to advocate massive taxpayer-backed loans for the Big Three when its top staff drives non-American brands.

HOLD THAT OBITUARY FOR CAPITALISM, AT LEAST ACCORDING TO HISTORIAN PAUL KENNEDY in a fascinating Financial Times essay focusing on the wisdom of past economic thinkers.

Kennedy predicts that in the post-crisis economic system:

…the animal spirits of the market will be closely watched (and tamed) by a variety of national and international zookeepers – a taming of which the great bulk of the spectators will heartily approve – but there will be no ritual murder of the free-enterprise principle, even if we have to plunge further into depression for the next years. Homus Economicus will take a horrible beating. But capitalism, in modified form, will not disappear. Like democracy, it has serious flaws – but, just as one find faults with democracy, the critics of capitalism will discover that all other systems are worse. Political economy tells us so.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM CHARLES DICKENS’ NOVEL LITTLE DORRIT: “A person who can’t pay gets another person who can’t pay to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking-match.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…


1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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July 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Veeps and Swing States, Che’s dark legacy, the Big Dig and the Big Lift, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WHO WOULD JOHN McCAIN AND BARACK OBAMA SELECT FOR THEIR RESPECTIVE RUNNING MATES if they put aside all considerations except winning key swing states? For McCain, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge represents the best choice for the GOP ticket to contest Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and perhaps even New Jersey (more so than McCain-Romney). For Obama, Hillary Clinton as VP would provide the most lift in Ohio, Michigan, and Florida by appealing to ethnic working class Democrats and older women.

Yet it’s unlikely Ridge and Clinton will be the vice presidential choices. Ridge’s pro-choice stance makes him a difficult sell to Republican evangelicals. Obama doesn’t want to share the stage, or spotlight, with the more experienced Clinton. So, it can be argued, the candidates will not let Electoral College math drive their VP-picks and that’s where political decision-making veers from the rational.

IT WAS TELLING THAT COLOMBIAN COMMANDOS DISGUISED THEMSELVES IN Ernesto “Che” Guevara t-shirts to trick Marxist guerrillas into freeing 15 kidnap victims. That the brutal Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, idolized Guevara—the Argentine revolutionary icon—is yet another part of Che’s dark legacy, albeit a predictable one. That an American director, Steven Soderbergh, should seek to glorify this ruthless proponent of a failed Marxist ideology (as he does in his new movie) is less understandable.

THE LAND OF THE BEAN AND THE COD can now proudly lay claim to the world’s greatest public works boondoggle—the mismanaged Big Dig. The Boston Globe reports that the error-plagued project (grandly entitled the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel) “will cost an additional $7 billion in interest, bringing the total to a staggering $22 billion…” The debt will not be paid off until 2038, according to the Globe, and the state government’s solution to the crushing debt? Borrowing more! It was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

JEFF JACOBY OF THE BOSTON GLOBE quarreled with Sen. Obama’s oratorical treatment of the Berlin Airlift (in Obama’s July 24th speech), with the often-fiery conservative columnist zinging the Democratic presidential hopeful for failing to mention President Harry Truman’s pivotal role and the courage of the U.S. pilots involved. Jacoby added:

…Obama seemed to go out of his way not to say plainly that what saved Berlin in that dark time was America’s military might. Save for a solitary reference to “the first American plane,” he never described one of the greatest American operations of the postwar period as an American operation at all. He spoke only of “the airlift,” “the planes,” “those pilots.” Perhaps their American identity wasn’t something he cared to stress amid all his “people of the world” salutations and talk of “global citizenship.”

Jacoby’s criticism is partially valid, but the Berlin Airlift was a combined Anglo-American operation, with more British pilots (39) dying than American (31) during the course of the nearly year-long resupply effort. (The 1950 movie “The Big Lift” offers an in-depth look at the harrowing conditions faced by pilots flying into Berlin.)

SPEAKING OF ANGLO INFLUENCES, LOOK NO FURTHER THAN THE NEW BATMAN MOVIE “THE DARK KNIGHT.” The two stars, Christian Bale (England) and Heath Ledger (Australia), the director (Christopher Nolan, a Brit), and two key supporting actors, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman (both Londoners) prove that Batman isn’t as American a franchise as you might think.

THE LATE DALE DAVIS, PUBLISHER OF THE SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS USED TO JOKE THAT every American man believed he could do three things well: drive a car, make love, and run a newspaper. Of course whether that proverbial guy actually could perform adequately was a completely different question, Davis would add. Sam Zell, the Chicago “turnaround maven” who engineered the takeover of the Tribune Company for $8.5 billion in 2007 has discovered that running newspapers these days isn’t as easy as it looked from the outside, and BusinessWeek calls it “a transaction that’s shaping up to be one of the most disastrous the media world has ever seen.”

As Zell slashes newsroom payrolls, sells many of Tribune’s papers, and belatedly admits he misjudged the financial situation, the question now becomes whether this self-described “grave dancer” will run the company into the ground. Zell’s hand-picked former Clear Channel executives clearly don’t know what they are doing. It adds up to hard times for some of the country’s major metros (like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.)

IT’S A TOSS UP AS TO WHETHER RAPPER LUDACRIS OR ACTOR JON VOIGHT demonstrate better the absurdity of entertainers pontificating about politics. Ludacris embarrassed the Obama campaign by releasing a rap video insulting both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, while Voight contributed a pro-McCain op-ed to the Washington Times warning about Obama’s plans to introduce socialism to the United States. With celebrity friends like these, who needs enemies?

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM JOURNALIST THEODORE “TEDDY” WHITE: “To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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