Le Plus Ça Change: 15 Years Ago, Flag-Burning Was the Issue

For the holiday weekend, a piece from the fall of 1989, when another George Bush was in office. The nation was all a-twitter about flag-burning. Iran-Contra was fresh in our minds, and Oliver North was still a convicted felon, not a Fox commentator. The invasion of Panama was coming right up. The Gulf War was a year ahead. DC was clocking more murders per capita than any other city in the country.

It happens suddenly. You open a door or turn a corner and something you weren’t ever supposed to know becomes perfectly clear:

George Bush wants us to burn flags.

It has been the habit of many Americans to do what the government tells them not to. They disregard street signs. They drink and drive. Faster than the speed limit. They consume virtually unknowable quantities of illegal and legal drugs. When the government tells them they are going to limit and then ban the importation of inexpensive weapons of mass destruction, they purchase said weapons in record quantities at two hundred, three hundred, even four hundred percent of list price.

That’s what America is all about.

So why add flag-burning to the list? It’s not because it’s been a pressing problem over the past few years. Washington DC hasn’t been dubbed the ‘Flag-Burning Capital of the US’ by the newsmagazines and TV networks, although it seems the most likely place to qualify. Dealers don’t tap on your car window in bad neighborhoods offering you flags, which you can then drive to suburbia and burn in the privacy of your own home. No one in the White House has been caught shredding documents pertaining to the shipment of flags (for burning by nationalist, fundamentalist Muslims, naturally) to the Middle-East in exchange for cash to support non-flag-burning guerillas in Central America. Money designated to buy flags hasn’t been found to have been siphoned off by senior administrators of whatever government department took care of that during the Reagan administration. No, flag-burning hasn’t been on the forefront of my mind over the past few years

But think what’s about to happen if either the Republican call for a Constitutional amendment, or the Democratic ‘compromise’ solution of a Federal statute, protecting the flag from desecration bears fruit. Civil rights organizations and ‘right-to-burners’ all across the nation will rise to the occasion and rush out to purchase flag after flag to burn. Not to mention the average joe who just likes to break the law, who’ll want a flag to burn every few Saturdays or so. A flag-burning epidemic of monumental proportions will sweep the nation. And what will we be able to do about it? Our prisons are already overcrowded. The flag-burners, who will be not only law-breakers but possibly even Constitution-breakers, will jam up the Federal court system, which will be forced to let them go scot-free, or at best with three years suspended sentence, a hefty fine that they probably can’t pay anyway, and a lifetime of public service lecturing government officials on the dangers of corruption. Meanwhile George Bush sits in his office and laughs hysterically.

Why does Bush want us to burn flags? Is it because he’s in league with the flag manufacturers of America (and Taiwan and Singapore…) whose sales are about to take off regardless of whether flag-burning is outlawed or not? Is there some more nefarious plot behind Comrade Bush’s heraldic call to arms? Or is it all just a big mistake?

Religious Nuts Say No to Godless Statue in S. Oregon

A statue placed on the dividing line between the wet and dry parts of Roseburg, Oregon by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, representing the Greek goddess Hebe is being opposed by a petition signed by 150 residents.

From the Oregonian:

Hebe, the goddess of youth, was a minor figure in Greek mythology, but she’s causing a stir in Roseburg, where civic boosters want to put up a statue of her in a city park to replace one that stood downtown almost a century ago.

Reinstating the cup bearer to the gods would bring back a charming chapter of city history, Hebe supporters say. But others see her cup of nectar as nothing less than a draft of the devil’s drink.

“She is offering an intoxicant to the gods,” resident Dick North said. “She doesn’t uphold morality. We need to have a better model for the community’s youth.”

The original Hebe stood on a fountain at the junction of Cass Avenue and Main Street from 1908 until 1912, when she was toppled in a mishap with horses.

The statue was the brainchild of the city’s Women’s Temperance Union and a group called the ’95 Mental Culture Club, which later became the Roseburg Women’s Club.

The two groups had taken up the charge of a national beautification movement and wanted to make Roseburg more appealing, said City Council member Phil Gale, who has researched town history.

About 150 people signed an anti-Hebe petition this time around — about half from Roseburg and the rest from outlying towns in Douglas County. Opponents worry that a statue of Hebe would offend Christians and foster goddess worship.

Hebe’s figure, unlike those, filthy, filthy classical statues that offended John Ashcroft, is fully clothed.

TNR: Kerry Should Have Attacked France!

Peter Beinart’s written some pretty stupid things in his stint as editor of The New Republic, but his November 22 “TRB” column pretty much takes the cake. Here’s why John Kerry didn’t win, in his opinion:

What Clinton recognized–and today’s Democrats don’t–is that, if you’re not making liberals uncomfortable, you’re not going to win.

In my view, John Kerry’s Sister Souljah opportunity was France. Liberals forget that the conflict between Washington and Paris didn’t begin with Dick Cheney; France was actively thwarting American power–and American ideals–throughout the 1990s. Jacques Chirac had the right to oppose the Iraq war, but his virtual campaign to prevent European countries from assisting in the occupation rightly outraged many Americans. Had Kerry stood up to Paris during the campaign, he would have shown he could do so in the Oval Office. And he would have proved that success in the war on terrorism–not multilateralism–was his highest foreign policy principle.

But, while Joe Biden repeatedly criticized European leaders for their complacency in the battle against Islamist barbarism in Iraq, Kerry never did.

If only Kerry had cynically engaged in France-bashing he could have won! Never mind that the French government (along with the Germans and the Russians) was rightfully dubious about the claims made by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction! Never mind that Iraq was one of the more secular countries in the Middle East–it was full of “Islamist barbarism!”

It’s attitudes like Beinart’s that are what’s really killing any attempt to put Democrats back in government. As I mentioned yesterday the DLC’s campaign to move the party to the right is not working to get people elected. At least not Democrats.

Party Divisions

Cynical pandering to the current talk-radio mindset isn’t going to win anything for Democrats. Unfortunately for Mr. Beinart, the Europeans were right about Iraq not being a major threat. And considering how the occupation’s been going, if I was a foreign leader, I sure wouldn’t be putting my troops into an American-led war anytime soon.

The DLC Doesn’t Work

Democratic Congressional standings after elections since the establishment of the Democratic Leadership Council (click to enlarge)

Party Divisions

Apart from the election of Bill Clinton — the DLC’s been a failure since its inception 20 years ago. Part of its tack-to-the-center rhetoric has been its own distancing from liberals. And by “distancing,” I mean denigrating liberals in exactly the same ways that conservatives do.

In his dedication address at his Presidential Library today, Bill Clinton had this to say (text is my own transcript of the C-SPAN video, emphasis added):

America has two great strands of political thought. We’re represented up here on this stage. Conservatism, which at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which at its very best, breaks down barriers that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place.

It seemed to me that in 1992 we needed to do both to prepare America for the 21st century. To be more conservative in things like erasing the deficit, and paying down the debt, and preventing crime, and punishing criminals, and protecting and supporting families, and enforcing things like child support laws, and reforming the military to meet the new challenges of the 21st century. And we needed to be more progressive in creating new jobs, reducing poverty, increasing the quality of public education, opening the doors of college to all, increasing access to health care, investing more in science and technology, and building new alliances with our former adversaries, and working for peace across the world and peace in America across all the lines that divide us.

Clinton and the DLC ceded the deficit, debt, crime, family, and military issues to the conservatives. This, despite the fact that at the time he came into office, the national debt had been run up by the Reagan and Bush I Administrations, the economy was thready, people like Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney were closing bases across the nation, and families all over the country were in trouble. But people like Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and others either believed that liberals were soft on crime, anti-family, anti-military, spendthrifts or they cynically used that tactic to get themselves elected.

Unfortunately for everyone else, their strategy doesn’t work. Let’s look at the evidence.

The DLC was founded in the mid-1980s, ostensibly as a response to the losses of presidential candidates like Midwestern “wimps” George McGovern (South Dakotan, WWII B-24 bomber pilot and Distinguished Flying Cross recipient) and Walter Mondale (Minnesotan, who served in the Army stateside during the Korean War). Has it been effective?

Presidents. So far, the only person the DLC has managed to get into the White House is Bill Clinton, one of its former chairs. But it’s hard to tell from one seat that’s only come up five times since its inception. A 40% average isn’t bad, but the sample’s really too small.

Senators. The 2004 election is an indicator that the DLC’s Third Way isn’t exactly wowing anyone at the polls. All of the Senate seats have come up at least two times since the DLC started up, for a total of about 230 elections. To paraphrase Ed Koch: “How are they doin’?” Well, in the 98th Congress (1983-1985), the Democrats started out in the minority with 46 seats. Now, the Democrats have 44. They haven’t had a real majority since 1994, the first mid-term after DLCer Clinton took office. From the 100th to the 103rd Congress, Democrats had a lead in the Senate equal to or greater than that of the Republicans now, but Reagan and Bush were in the White House. At best, the DLC can claim that its effect has been negligable overall.

Representatives. This is where — if the DLC has done any good for the party — it should show up in the numbers. Nearly 4,000 House contests have taken place since the 1986 elections. When the DLC willed itself into existence, Democrats regularly had between 250 and 270 members in the House, about 120% of what you need for a majority. After the Gingerich Contract with America debacle (again, the first mid-term of Clinton’s presidency), that number dropped to 204. It’s flirted briefly with the number needed for a House majority (218), but this Congress it’s back at 204. Two decades of DLC “leadership” have resulted in a 20% overall loss in the number of seats in the House.

The DLC’s Third Way has been a failure almost from the beginning. It’s going to continue to be a failure because people like DLC President Bruce Reed have only one strategy, which is to become more like the Republicans. They’ve been trying that for nearly twenty years.

No number of Reed’s exhortations “to  speak  the  rich  language  of  faith” is going to help candidates sway religious voters in and of itself. No attempt to “crack the cultural code” of voters is going to allow a candidate to finesse positions that don’t adhere to that code unless they lie. And nobody lies better than the Republicans. It’s never going to be a winning strategy for the Democrats. A Democratic Fourth Way needs to be willing to tell the truth to people.

From darrelplant.com

The National Geographic Gets Real

The National Geographic magazine has, in recent years, run its share of articles that I personally felt were pretty fluffy. Apart from articles on big cats (a kind of fluffy I enjoy), there have been many that were little more than pictorals, often with some serious fiction author expressing their thoughts in a sincere manner. Nonetheless, I’ve remained a subscriber

However, in the past three months National Geographic has run two cover articles that make up for anything that may have struck anyone as silly.

First, remember that National Geographic (the primary magazine of the Society) has an incredible circulation, somewhere around 6,000,000 copies each month in the U.S. (according to the best figures I can find), making it one of the most widely-distributed magazines in the country. They’re in homes, libraries, and schools across the nation.

In September, the cover story was “Global Warming: Bulletins from a Warmer World.” Editor Bill Allen started his letter to readers with this:

After a decade as Editor in Chief, I have a pretty good idea which articles will provoke a lot of angry letters. Whenever we publish stories that challenge widely held beliefs, some readers get mad, and they write to let us know.

Well, we’re about to do it again. We’re devoting 74 pages of this issue to a three-part series on global climate change, and I’d be willing to bet that we’ll get letters from readers who don’t believe global climate change is real, and that humans contribute to the problem. Some readers will even terminate their memberships.

The cover of November’s issue contains the provocative question: “Was Darwin Wrong?”. Eager creationist readers who flip through to page 4 will find an unequivocal answer: “No. The evidence for Evolution is overwhelming.”

Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life’s work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It’s a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth’s living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it’s “just” a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is “just” a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That’s what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.

The rest of us generally agree. We plug our televisions into little wall sockets, measure a year by the length of Earth’s orbit, and in many other ways live our lives based on the trusted reality of those theories.

It’s more than likely that you’re familiar with National Geographic from your youth, if you’re not still a subscriber. In either case, it is one mass-media outlet that is willing to unapologetically state scientific fact to its readers. They deserve your support. Write a letter. Buy a copy on the newsstand (they do that now), or—better yet—subscribe. If you already subscribe, get someone a holiday gift subscription; it’s all of $19 for a year. You get beautiful pictures, some fuzzy kitty stuff, and a dose of the truth.

Bubble, Bubble, Toil, & Statistics

Is it true, as some people (I won’t say who) have written me, that “even when there were more farms in the county, the population itself was overwhelmingly urban?”

Is that statement based on data or assumption?

It’s difficult to tell from figures I have, since the city boundaries don’t conform exactly to county boundaries, but according to the Oregon Blue Book, in 1970, when Multnomah County had 555,000 people, the incorporated city of Portland had a population of 380,000. Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village, Maywood Park, and Lake Oswego — the other cities in the county — had a total of 31,000 residents. That left at least 144,000 (25%) of the county population outside of incorporated areas; more if any of those cities extended outside of the county in 1970. Not all of those would qualify as “rural” voters, but they certainly weren’t urban. I remember what the spaces between Gresham and Portland looked like back then.

In 2000, the numbers were 660,000 for the county, 529,000 for Portland, and 151,000 for the other cities. Since the total for all of the cities in 2000 is greater than the population of the county, you have to assume that some of that growth is outside of the county, but I find it difficult to share a belief that the ratio of urban to rural voters within the county is still equivalent to what it was 30 years ago. If it is, then there should be 165,000 people somewhere in the county living outside of city limits. I think a more likely explanation is that as the population has risen and the cities have built up, the percentage of non-urban voters has dropped far below 25%.

Stan the Man in Portland

The last time I saw Stan Ridgway was during his “Mosquitos” tour 15 years ago. That show was in the same decade as his peak of popularity with Wall of Voodoo, “Mexican Radio,” and videos on MTV, and it was at the old Starry Night (now Roseland) venue.

I don’t remember how big the crowd was, but I’m pretty sure it was bigger than the 80 or so folks who turned up at Dante’s on 3rd & Burnside last night, or the 30 who saw him at the WOW Hall in Eugene the night before. What’s wrong with people??!!

Ridgway came out on stage alone for the first several songs. He was joined later by his wife Pietra on keyboards and Rick King on guitar. The set consisted mostly of old favorites: “Salesman,” “Factory,” “Call of the West,” etc., with a few deviations from the Stan-dards: “Go Ask Alice,” “Down in the Boondocks,” and a fantastic turn on Mose Allison’s “Monsters of the Id” (which is on Stan’s new “Snakebite” album).

And after the show? You get to meet Stan.

More Bubble: A County Called Metro

I got a nice letter from Jeff Mapes, one of the authors of the Oregonian “Voting in a Bubble” article I wrote about. While he was complimentary to my math, he claims it doesn’t contradict the points of the article and that I don’t understand the politics of the matter.

I think I do. And my point to Mr. Mapes was that Oregon’s county boundaries are arbitrary divisions that were set in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Multnomah County is geographically small and contains the state’s largest city (Portland) and fourth largest city (Gresham). Multnomah County’s population grew by 100,000 between the censuses of 1970 and 2000 (more than 20%) and became much more urban in the process. It’s almost completely urbanized, unlike any other county in the state. When I was a kid, there were still farms all around Gresham. Now there are subdivisions, apartment buildings, strip malls, and factories. Since urban areas tend to vote Democratic, it’s no real surprise that as people moved into the new city, that the percentage of Democratic voters would go up.

A quarter-century ago, as governments in the Portland region planned for the future, they formed an organization called Metro. Metro handles planning issues for much of Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties, covering the entire metropolitan area (at least that on the Oregon side of the Columbia River). So say things had gone a little farther and the three counties had been merged into one sometime in the late ’70s instead of just creating a new government agency. The new county — Metro County — would have cast a total of 748,334 votes. Kerry would have received 451,034 of those votes. That’s 60%. It’s just 9% over the state average, 12% over the national average. Not much of a story there.

So where do you draw the line?

Oregonian: Journalism in a Bubble

Sunday morning’s Oregonian had a conventional wisdom cover article about how out-of-touch the city folk are from the real people of the country, based on the same faulty mathematics and map-reading that have characterized similar coverage. My response:

As Barbie once said: “Math is hard.” A prime example is in this morning’s cover
story “Voting in a Bubble” by Edward Walsh and Jeff Mapes, which posits that a
gap has opened between voters in Multnomah County and the rest of the state,
nay, the country. To bolster their argument, Walsh and Mapes tout the fact that
Multnomah County’s vote went for John Kerry by “nearly 24 percentage points
higher than his national showing” and about 21 points over the statewide

What Walsh and Mapes seem not to realize is that the state average includes
Multnomah County. An average is the middle ground of a set of numbers. For
every outlying data point in an averaged set (Multnomah County for the
Democrats), there has to be some sort of balance. While it’s true that
Multnomah is the only county in the state where the vote is so lopsidedly
Democratic, much of Eastern Oregon is just as out-of-whack with the average
as Multnomah — just the other direction. Baker, Crook, Grant, Harney, Klamath,
Lake, Malheur, Wallowa, and Wheeler counties all voted for George W. Bush at
rates more than 20% of the state average this year. All but two of those counties
did so at rates higher than the 21% deviation from average they claim separates
Multnomah County from the rest of the state. Grant County, where over 78% of
the voters chose Bush (according to state figures available Sunday morning), is
over 30 percentage points off the statewide tallies of Bush voters, making them
the most out-of-touch county in the state, if you accept the terms of the article.
Not only was their vote far off the state average, but according to the majority of
Oregonians, they chose the wrong candidate.

There have been a number of official-looking graphs from news organizations in
the past few days showing “a pattern of heavily Democratic cities surrounded by
a sea of pro-Bush voters” in this election. Most of those graphs are organized by
county. At first glance, they appear somewhat intimidating for Democrats. And it
might indeed be scary if acreage — rather than people — voted.

I’ve provided a couple of charts of my own, which show the deviation from both
state and national averages in this election. There is a disparity from the norm in
Multnomah County. But there’s an equally wide deviation in most of the
counties on the other side of the Cascades. In fact, the only counties where the
vote was within a couple of percentage points of the state average were
Columbia and Washington.

open chart in a separate window

I’m surprised that a 1,300-word article managed to get to print without someone
realizing that if Multnomah County’s numbers are far off in one direction that
there has to be something of equal size on the other side of the average pulling
the other way. It took me all of about 10 seconds to see the problem in the
article’s argument, and I haven’t taken a math class for over twenty years.
Perhaps it’s time, though, for the Oregonian to send a few of its reporters and
editors to some remedial math courses.

The article points out that without Multnomah County, Bush would have won the
state by 80,000 votes. It’s no real surprise that if you eliminate a fifth of the
electorate, the results of the vote might change. Multnomah County accounted
for 343,290 of the 1,754,873 votes in the state, just over 19.5% of the voters in
the presidential race. Ignoring a similarly-sized number of ballots from the
counties with the highest percentage of Bush voters would eliminate the counts
of 19 counties (the nine mentioned above plus Curry, Douglas, Gilliam,
Jefferson, Josephine, Linn, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, and Union counties),
288,434 voters — only 16.5% of the total, and would have given Kerry a victory
margin of 161,341 votes, over two-and-a-half times the actual statewide result.
Eliminating Multnomah County from that scenario so that the counties
containing the fifth of the votes most skewed toward each candidate aren’t
counted still gives Kerry a slim margin of 8,827. To someone with even a
layman’s understanding of mathematics, it’s really no surprise that as you
eliminate data that deviates from both sides of the norm, the numbers tend
toward the norm.

I’m looking forward to Walsh and Mapes’s follow-up article, showing how
Eastern Oregon is drifting away from the state and nation because of a more
pronounced shift away from the Oregon norm than they found in Multnomah

— Darrel Plant