February 2008
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Month February 2008

Deval Patrick, Political Speech, and Barack Obama

When juxtaposed to her slowly deflating campaign chances, the Clinton campaign’s attacks on Barack Obama for incorporating language used by his friend Deval Patrick makes perfect sense.  Democrats have a long history of responding to dicey primary prospects by firing torpedoes at one another.  Michael Dukakis successfully derailed Joe Biden’s 1988 campaign with accusations of plagiarism in a speech.  Clinton appears to be attempting a duplication of that feat. 

And it truly would, and should, be a "feat" to derail a popular political campaign with this particular attack.  Because "plagiarism" requires a higher bar than has been demonstrated here.  Sure, Obama did a riff, nearly word for word, from a speech of Deval Patrick’s.  As Deval Patrick has done, with speech language, from Obama even earlier.  As Biden did to Neil Kinnock.  As politicians have done from time immemorial.  As Patrick himself did, to the Founding Fathers and Martin Luther King.  For in none of these cases, did the politician in question start by claiming that any of these words were actually their own.  "Plagiarism" implies that such a claim has been made, and that the claimant is lying.  It implies that the speaking or writing is occurring in a context within one will be judged, and possibly rewarded, for being the actual author of a speech or some writing.

No such claim is occurring in most (if not all) political speech.  And the criteria we use for electing leaders doesn’t specify that their words must be their own.  This isn’t a final exam, and our country isn’t high school.  We don’t have a "plagiarism policy" in the Constitution, and candidates aren’t disqualified from office if they can’t "show their work" and demonstrate that they — and only they — wrote the words they deliver to us in stump speeches and debates. 

Clearly, on the other side of this coin, we voters often do want to assure ourselves that our chosen candidate can "pull their own weight" and isn’t an intellectually empty shell.  As, for example, some recent political leaders we could mention, but won’t.  Barack Obama has cleared this hurdle quite well enough in my mind, and apparently in the minds of an increasing fraction of primary voters. 

So I sincerely hope that Democratic voters in Ohio and Texas view the current flap over Deval Patrick’s speech for what it is:  a last-ditch effort by Senator Clinton to revive a campaign on the decline.  No further confirmation of her unsuitability as our nominee is needed than the sight of her striving to emulate Michael Dukakis in campaign victories — his "plagiarism" fueled defeat of Joe Biden.   Do we really want a Democratic nominee who takes Dukakis as their  example? 

Why I’m Caucusing for Obama

I’ve been mostly silent here on the subject of politics for awhile. There are any number of reasons for this, mostly practical — time, and other priorities. But at least part of my reticence comes from a feeling, in retrospect, like I’ve been holding my breath in anticipation. Not necessarily over the Democrats’ chances this year; I think they’re good (but definitely not a lock, now that McCain is the defacto nominee).

I’ve been holding my breath, I think, hoping that the “practicalities of winning” don’t overwhelm this election far too early. Ever since a mostly-unknown Barack Obama stood up in Boston at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and delivered the most stunning political speech of my lifetime (I’m too young for JFK), there’s been the possibility of idealism this time around.

Politics, at least in my adulthood, has been a grim, pragmatic affair, split by dry-as-dust tinkering in the boiler room of the Great Society welfare state for Democrats, and rigid adherence to a set of litmus tests among Republicans aimed at enforcing ideological purity on tax cuts, guns, and abortion. Politics has been thoroughly computerized, mapped, analyzed like baseball box scores and run by experts on polling, advertising, demographics, and mass fundraising. In other words, it’s a gigantic commercial ecosystem, and both sides increasingly treat it that way.

Obama has seemed, since his declaration became all but inevitable last year, like our generation’s best hope for short-circuiting the wiring of the increasingly robotic Body Politic, and perhaps — even if in small ways — re-envisioning the rules of the game. Perhaps even re-imagining them in ways which cross-cut, and thus defuse, the power of our current definitions of “red” and “blue.”

Naturally, Obama’s relative youth has laid him open, on both sides of the aisle, to those who wonder about his toughness, his experience, his ability to win. Once the primary campaigning got seriously underway, moreover, it has seemed like Obama hasn’t lived up to his 2004 performance. Early debates showed him quiet, almost deferential, and he left us underwhelmed. Polls showed Clinton with an early and massive lead, and one had to wonder, as recently as the holidays, whether it truly was the case that Obama needed more time and experience before running. A series of fairly lackluster press events and appearances have done little to change that impression.

I have to admit that despite never wanting anyone else as nominee, I have fallen prey to all of these species of doubt and skepticism, and probably a few others.

No longer. I don’t know whether Obama will make it and become our nominee, but I think it’s very possible. Nothing magical has happened, except for one thing: he’s made it thus far, all the way through Super Tuesday, and his momentum does seem to be building.

But the uphill climb is seeming more and more like a social movement, and less like a political campaign. Obama’s message of change is largely in the eye of the beholder, but it resonates precisely because much of the voter base today has only experienced the type of politics I described above. We want something more. We’re all slightly cynical about the ability of politics and government to change anything for the better; some of us are much more than slightly cynical. In part, our generation’s growing flirtation with libertarian economics and even politics stems from this disillusionment with government.

Some of that disillusionment is quite proper; we are the inheritors of a New Deal and Great Society that turned out to have noble goals but often methods that were flawed, either in the short or long terms. We are also the inheritors of the social world created when the Supreme Court short-circuited a slowly developing social consensus, as they did with Roe v. Wade, and handed a minority of the nation a rallying cry that would drive judicial nomination and set much of the political landscape for a generation.

That landscape now seems frozen and unalterable. Acquiescence in, and intimate knowledge of, this landscape, is now the mark of a “serious” politician or staffer. An entire industry of political staffers, pollsters, lobbyists, advisors, and of course politicians have a vested interest in that landscape, since knowledge of it is crucial to their employability or electability.

Obama may or may not be serious about changing that landscape, and even if he is successful in beating the odds and securing the nomination, as well as winning the general election, he may only succeed in making small alterations. But the chance — just the chance — that we may see something other than the politics of “culture war,” or the politics of “triangulation” — both manifestations of a politics of cynicism — during our lifetime, makes it well worth supporting his campaign.

We deserve something more from our collective efforts at self-government, and although we might not get it during the next President’s term, a social movement starts somewhere, somehow. Social changes always start out as small, seemingly fragile things, laughed at by the “grownups” who know “how the world works” and label anything but the status quo as “impractical” or simply sheer nonsense. In retrospect, of course, social changes always seem inevitable, when observed through the lens of history, growing seemingly logically out of preceding conditions given our knowledge of the outcome.

In the hazy middle, when those who laughed or ignored it in its early stages are caught short, and forced by the size of the crowds or vote counts to wonder whether a movement or change should be taken seriously, is the crucial moment. The moment when growth could feed on itself, or fizzle out. A moment when a little extra support and encouragement could make all the difference to whether a social movement succeeds in changing the way we think, and act.

That’s why I’m supporting Barack Obama, with a vote on my primary ballot, at the caucuses tomorrow, with donations, and hopefully on November’s ballot. And it’s why I hope you will as well.

My new Macbook Air arrived!

OK. I’m going to gush a bit. Whatever its faults, and however often Apple displays a contempt for customers (and believe me, anytime I want something outside the narrow box they sell, I’ve experienced it), sometimes they connect with the pitch and hit it straight out of the park.

It’s a simple thing these days to do just-in-time manufacturing and shipping from China, and I wasn’t expecting my Macbook Air until Feb. 12. But Apple pulled the shipping date in by a week, and was going to deliver it on Feb. 6th. I was thrilled.

It arrived this morning. Sure, it’s not that complex, but boy, do they know how to make a tech geek happy. The packaging is gorgeous — a coworker said it reminded him of a Tiffany’s box. Even the Apple skeptics in the office — the dyed-in-the-wool, live-in-Redmond-even-though-they-don’t-work-at-Microsoft types, were drooling just a little bit. When they thought I wasn’t looking. They know who they are, and today I can see that their snide comments about Apple and the Cult of Steve are just envy wrapped in sarcasm.

Then you unpack it, and the Air feels both lighter and more substantial than you expect. The screen is terrific, the keyboard very nice, and the overall experience is exactly what I hoped a subnotebook from Apple would be. Even the “Remote CD/DVD” thing works perfectly for installing software — although I bought an external Superdrive, mostly because the remote thing doesn’t work well for playing DVD’s due to the copy protection schemes.

I’m sure after a couple of days or a week of using the machine daily I’ll have the usual list of gripes, wishes, etc. But not today. Today I’m sitting on the sofa, having loaded LaTeX, Office 2008, and a few other essentials, and just enjoying that “first day” experience.

Wow. Bravo Apple.