Jan 202013


Barack Obama is being inaugurated again tomorrow.

We in the USA have now not only elected a black President, we have reelected him.  Despite the ubiquitous paeans to America being the world’s foremost exemplar and defender of human rights and democracy, this is still exhilarating.  In the USA, Jim Crow is still a vivid memory for many of our older citizens, and unequal  treatment because of your race is still a fact of daily life.  It is still true in America that ambitious right-wing politicians can advance their careers with racist dog-whistles (no offense to dogs intended) and where entertainers like Rush Limbaugh can still excite their audiences with explicitly racist rants.  So yes, I’m very happy that Barack Hussein Obama is now our two-term black President.

But I’m also sad.  The thrill of Barack Obama’s reelection has almost nothing to do with the actions of the man himself, Barack Obama.  The exciting thing about his Presidency remains the mere fact of his race and the willingness of the American electorate to vote for a black man for President.  Not a small thing, certainly, but I can’t overlook my continuing profound disappointment in the leadership of President Obama.

I was reminded of my disappointment today while reading a magnificent review of the movie Zero Dark Thirty.  Literature professor David Bromwich points to the similarities between the movie’s gentle treatment of its chief protagonist and our nation’s treatment of Barack Obama:

And the process by which we acquit her runs oddly parallel to the process by which we have spared from blame a young idealistic president who chose to continue many of the same policies that were unconditionally denounced under George W. Bush. It is felt to be different, somehow, when a woman does it, just as it is different when our first black president does it.

I think we overlook the responsibility of Barack Obama for transforming what in 2004 were outrageous abuses of power by the Bush administration, into today’s uncontroversial, institutionalized, status-quo.  Whether this is because Obama is black, I’m not so sure, but I think it’s as likely an explanation as any.

To get to where we are now vis-a-vis our unaccountable national security state and all its excesses of domestic violations of civil liberties and international violations of human rights required the two-step of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  It required that George W. Bush use 9-11 as an excuse for unconstitutional executive branch behavior.  He did that well, and he has been appropriately blamed for it by those who profess to value the rule of law.  But it also required the endorsement of those policies by Barack Obama to transform what used to be controversial into the daily mundane features of national life that they are today.  Zero Dark Thirty, as Bromwich points out, could not have been made without both the outrageousness of Bush and the placid acceptance of that outrageousness by Obama.

Obama should have been made to pay a political price when he reneged on his original campaign promises and ratified the lawlessness and lack of accountability of the national security state.  And this is even more true, perhaps, when it comes to the banks and the financial crisis they and their lackeys in government created.  At least Obama has nominally rejected torture.  He hasn’t done much of anything to reject the right-wing program of financial deregulation and to solve the too-big-to-fail problem.  Dodd-Frank is not a counterexample.

In his second term so far, Obama shows no sign that his performance will be any better.  John Brennan at CIA and Jack Lew at Treasury will be keepers of the status quo, just as Barack Obama, sadly, seems to like it.

So yes, cheers to us for reelecting a black man.  We continue to make progress against racism, and we should take the credit for that.  But in the spirit of rejecting racism, let’s try to hold Barack Obama to the same standards we professed to hold George W. Bush.

Jan 122013

Here’s some interesting takes on Lance Armstrong’s upcoming Oprah appearance:

Who Cares if Lance Armstrong Confesses? – Sports Roundtable – The Atlantic.

Left out of these posts, of course, is the most important thing of all — who else is Lance going to talk about?  Is he going to tell us about his relationship with the UCIs Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid?  Is he going to spill any beans ab0ut Johan Bruyneel?

I very much doubt that he will, but…

This is Lance Armstrong we’re talking about.  This is the guy that  hates to lose, and does whatever it takes to win.  Cheating, lying, bullying, suing, threatening — Lance’s toolbox is pretty complete.

And I have a hard time seeing Lance going down in flames while UCI hanger-on Hein Verbruggen continues to insist that he never had anything to do with anything.  Or, more importantly, current UCI president Pat McQuaid, who does the same thing.  Johan Bruyneel may at one time or another have been Lance Armstrong’s friend, but we’ve learned that this doesn’t count for much where Lance Armstrong is concerned. I doubt Lance will keep silent if Johan starts to look like he may get away with it.

My guess is that Lance Armstrong won’t tolerate going down in flames while co-conspirators of his go unpunished.  I think that will feel like “losing” to him.

And so if there’s anything I’m really hoping to hear from Lance, it’s how he coordinated with Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid during his reign as cycling’s dominant force.  I hope to hear how the UCIs top leadership helped Lance preserve and protect the corrupt system that Lance utterly mastered and dominated for so long.  And I’d like to hear a few juicy revelations about Johan Bruyneel, too.

Let’s only hope Oprah remembers to ask Lance some pointed questions and gives him every opportunity to take down his co-conspirators.

Jan 082013

Andrew Sullivan is taking a chance that his readers are willing to pay for subscriptions to his blog.  Good for him!

(Here’s Andrew Sullivan on his new model with links to some commentary.)

(Here’s Peter Osnos on what this means for publishing.)

It’ll be fun to see whether his business model pans out.  Especially because it’s been obvious for a while that the old big-media business models are living on borrowed time.  Traditional newspapers aren’t making money; print book publishers can’t sell as many copies now that we all have Kindles, and blogs…  I wasn’t aware that internet blogs were suffering, but I’m not an expert on these things.

The question I have as a reader is, should I pay money for access to Andrew Sullivan’s blog?

Let’s assume for the moment that I’m a faithful reader of Andrew Sullivan.  (I’m not, but I am an occasional reader of many blogs very similar to his, and like anyone else who spends any time online, I occasionally stumble onto his site and read for a bit.)  So up until now I’ve been able to read his blog for free.  As it stands now, I wouldn’t pay for a subscription, because…. his content is cheap and ubiquitous.  This isn’t meant in any pejorative sense.

If Sullivan’s blog is no longer available to me, I know of a thousand other blogs, twitter feeds, online discussion forums, etc., where I can get opinions about current events, held by other people, for free.  About the only thing special about Sullivan’s blog, is that it lets me read about what Andrew Sullivan thinks.  No disrespect is intended towards Andrew Sullivan, but he’s not particularly special in that regard.  (His award section is pretty good, though.)  He doesn’t have any special expertise; his opinions aren’t generally too provocative or too far out of the mainstream, his topics of discussion are pretty generic and easily found on hundreds of other sites.

Again, Sullivan’s content, as it stands now, is cheap (because it’s almost indistinguishable from enormous heaps of other internet content about the same subjects) and ubiquitous (because Sullivan is just a blogger — no disrespect intended — and not a subject-area expert or journalist or office-holder).

The special things about Sullivan’s blog, for me, are that he posts frequently and there’s always new content.  He posts lots of links.  His site is a good place to spend time on the internet because these two things.  But if I really need more links to Matt Yglesias (I don’t), I can easily find them elsewhere on the internet for free.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Andrew Sullivan.  It’s more a judgment about the value of bloggers generally.  Right now, the market is saturated with competent and diligent bloggers that I can read for free.  There’s just no need to spend money on Andrew Sullivan.

Here’s some of the things I would be willing to spend money for:

a) subject-matter expertise.  For example, I already spend money for Mel Herbert’s online offerings, because of the special emergency medicine subject-matter expertise his sites offer.  If sites like Corey Robin (political philosophy) or iRunFar (ultra-distance running) went behind a paywall, I would seriously consider subscribing to those sites because I can’t easily find substitutes for free, like I can with Andrew Sullivan’s opinions.

b) new information, i.e. journalism.  Reporting is still different from blogging, in that it uncovers new information that isn’t already on the internet already.  Reporting injects new facts into the public awareness, whereas blogging at its best injects new interpretations, analyses, and opinions about those facts.  Reporting is much less ubiquitous than blogging.  As soon as the Washington Post goes behind a paywall, I plan to start paying to read it, the NYT, the WSJ, etc., because I can’t find good reporting online as easily as I can good blogging.

Andrew Sullivan has said that he’s contemplating whether or not to commission some long-form journalism, and if he does that, I’m much more likely to subscribe.  I’ll spend money for opinions, but usually only if they’re really deep dives into a topic or if they’re buttressed by extensive research (these are usually published as books; a great example is Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites.  I wouldn’t pay money to access a Chris Hayes blog for the same reason I’m not paying for Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

Jan 072013

UCI president Pat McQuaid’s behavior since the fall of Lance Armstrong clearly illustrates a certain kind of leadership style.  Call it the “screw you”  or autocratic style, most familiar to Americans in the leadership style of George W. Bush.

The chief assumption of this style of leadership is autocracy — the expectation that followers or underlings are not entitled to question the leader’s decisions.  This autocracy can be term-limited, and the leader’s underlings might be entitled to change their leader every so often in very prescribed ways (usually through periodic elections), but apart from that, the autocratic leader is entitled to unquestioned deference during their term as leader.  The pithiest description of this style was given by George W. Bush after the 2004 election, when questioned about his Iraq policy:  “Well, we had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I’m grateful.”  Accountability is something that the autocratic leader is subjected to in brief moments; outside of those, he need not give an account of himself to anyone.

The autocratic style is very useful in some circumstances.  Under severe time pressure when high-stakes decisions need to be made quickly, you want an autocrat and not a consensus-builder.  When the time for debate is short, and the need for rapid execution of a plan is high, you don’t want a lot of questioning of the leader’s decision.

But is that what the UCI needs right now?

It’s certainly what the UCI has.

Ever since Lance Armstrong fell off his pedestal after the USADA convincingly demonstrated that he’d been a hard-core doper and liar for virtually his entire cycling career, Pat McQuaid has acted as if it’s outrageous for anyone to suggest that he resign.  Greg LeMond, who has called for McQuaid’s resignation, is “arrogant.”  The media is “mischievous.”  Jamie Fuller’s funding of Change Cycling Now is a “stunt.”  Even as he acknowledged that the USADA report was damning enough to strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France wins, McQuaid was criticizing USADA for having a conflict of interest and including “incorrect and incomplete” statements.

McQuaid has other options than to respond this way.  McQuaid could, very reasonably, say something like this: “I understand that fans of cycling, and riders themselves, have plenty of reason to question whether or not the UCI’s leadership has failed in its very important role of ensuring that professional cycling competitions are fair.  That riders talented enough to compete at the top level of the sport are also free of undue pressure to take performance-enhancing drugs.  I have been in this sport for a long time, and I believe that the UCI under my leadership has done its utmost to ensure fair competition.  I do not believe that anyone else could have done more.  But nevertheless, the perception of an omertà in the peloton is not insignificant or trivial.  The doubts of the fans are not inconsequential.  I love this sport.  I place it first in everything I do.  Therefore, as a way of combating the reasonable perceptions that the Lance Armstrong affair has generated for many, I think the sport would be best served by a leadership change at the UCI.  I resign because it’s the best thing for the sport.”

This would be something that many leaders might reasonably do.  But to take this step, you’d have to believe, as Pat McQuaid does not, that criticism of his leadership might be motivated by a genuine concern for the health of the sport, and that not all critics of his leadership are “scumbags.”  He’d have to believe that there are reasons to resign other than dereliction of duty, or incompetence — that sometimes even an inaccurate perception that a leader is corrupt is best refuted by a voluntary relinquishment of that leadership.

The telling evidence that Pat McQuaid is incapable of varying from his autocratic style is that he’s failed to acknowledge any of the criticisms he’s received as even remotely valid.  Every critic, according to McQuaid, is a scumbag performing some stunt or another.  Never mind that the Armstrong affair is the biggest scandal to hit cycling in our lifetimes, and that it was dragged into the light with the UCI kicking and screaming the whole way.

Is that the kind of leadership the UCI needs?  I think not.  The problem with the Armstrong affair is that it demonstrates that the UCI failed (for whatever reason) to uncover the “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”  The UCI must acknowledge its responsibility for that failure.  Because Pat McQuaid will not acknowledge its responsibility, Pat McQuaid should resign.