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Amurica’s Nucular Situation October 20, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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‘Nuclear’ is a three-syllable, essentially phonetic word.  The listed dictionary pronunciation is n(y)oo-klee-er.  But you have undoubtedly come across people who think it is pronounced noo-kyuh-ler.  One arrives at this pronunciation through a process called metathesis, in which a speaker switches the order of sounds in a word.  Like saying pasghetti instead of spaghetti.  Metathesis is defined as a speech error, not a pronunciation choice.

Because there are plenty of people running around saying “nucular,” some argue that it is a valid alternative.  So what do the dictionaries say?  Merriam-Webster’s added the second pronunciation in 1961.  Yet the editors received so many indignant letters that since 1981 they have included a note defending its inclusion, citing “widespread usage among educated speakers.”  Today, every letter about “nucular” receives a defensive, 400-word reply explaining that they include it merely as an alternative, not as an “acceptable” alternative.  (Although I wouldn’t put it past myself, I didn’t write them a letter – I found their response online.)

Now, you may be wondering why, at the end of Bush presidency, I would decide to write about this.  My friends, we are on the verge of electing another “alternative pronouncer” into office, and that is unacceptable.

Needless to say, neither “pasghetti” nor “nucular” reflect kindly upon a speaker.  When accomplished scientists use the latter, it makes me wonder why they don’t make the effort to correct what is probably just an old habit.  But when younger people (and politicians) use it, particularly the kind of people you know haven’t been tossing the word around in casual conversation, I think less of them.  Call me judgmental, but “nucular” is not the mark of a good education.  I’m not saying that everyone should ostracize people who habitually mispronounce words, but it is cause for valid outrage when that characteristic makes a candidate more popular.

Gov. Sarah Palin is not a gifted speaker.  She frequently repeats words in the same sentence repeatedly.  She also yet but so strings together conjunctions in the middle of a thought, and appears to think that “job creation” goes at the end of every sentence right before the period.  Yet even she correctly pronounced “nuclear” during her breakout speech at the Republican National Convention.  Why?  Because it appeared on her teleprompter as “new-clear.”  I’m serious.  It was visible from some camera angles and was even in the text-version of the speech distributed to the liberal elite press.  Whether they wanted to avoid the Bush connotation or they agreed with me about the educational connotations of metathesis, somebody at the McCain Campaign wanted to make sure Palin did not say “nucular” during her national debut.   First impressions are important.  Without that extreme measure, though, she has since reverted to her normal “nucular” pronunciation.

CNN covers the RNC “new-clear” story:

“Bushisms” and simple sentence structures made George W. Bush seem more like an average Joe, and a lot of voters connected with that.  Palin strives for the same appeal (and some other appeals Bush could never hope to achieve).  As you have surely noticed, she drops the final ‘g’ off every -ing suffix when she speaks.  Does that really appeal to the American public?  As humorist Scott Blakeman wrote after the Vice Presidential debate, “That’s not endearin’, that’s insultin’.  It assumes that if you’re really a hardworking middle class American, you’re too busy to finish pronouncing your words.”

I know that speech patterns are largely a product of one’s upbringing, and that what I’m saying could be considered discriminatory if taken out of context.  But we are talking about electing the president and vice president of the United States of America.  These people are supposed to be the best we have to offer.

As I discussed in Defending Presidential Elitism, the average American is not qualified to lead the country.  Education should not be a liability on the campaign trail, it should be a prerequisite.  Our country has suffered from mismanagement for the better part of a decade, and it’s time to put our best foot forward.  Is it too much to ask that our president and vice president be able to speak properly?

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

Defending Presidential Elitism October 9, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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It’s debate season, folks, and my oh my has it been underwhelming.  Many have complained that the debates have lacked substance; the candidates aren’t answering the questions.  Personally, I am disappointed that the debates have lacked entertainment.  No gaffes, no real arguments, few jokes or memorable lines…do they really expect us to stay focused through two hours of interlocking stump speeches?  But every once in a while, the moderator asks a question for which a canned response is not prepared.  The candidates deftly pivot away from most of these situations (some more overtly than others), but you can still learn from their answers if you’re paying attention.

On Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw asked the presidential hopefuls (makes the race seem predestined, doesn’t it?) whom they would pick to be Secretary of the Treasury.  Senator John McCain seemed annoyed to be knocked off script, retorting with a grumpy “Not you, Tom” while he scrambled for an answer.  Still fumbling, McCain stalled by laying out his qualifications for a good treasury secretary: “I think the first criteria, Tom, would have to be somebody who immediately Americans identify with (video).”  Really? That’s your first priority in selecting the person to navigate our country through an economic crisis of this (or any) magnitude?  John – can I call you John? – I don’t want to be able to identify with the Secretary of the Treasury.   On any level.  This person should be so far out of my league I can’t even hold an intelligible conversation with him.  I don’t understand the economy.  Sure, I took my macro- and microeconomics.  I even turned some decent grades.  But does my winning personality qualify me to rescue our financial systems?  Hell no.  Pick someone who has the skill set and experience to get us out of this mess!

You shouldn't look at the Secretary of the Treasury (or the President) and think "man, I want to have a beer with that guy." The Secretary of the Treasury should look more like this...but, you know, be good at his job.

My friends, that Senator McCain would fall back on this line (and put it in practice with his vice presidential nomination) is symptomatic of a real problem in our country today.  Why do we so desperately want to elect leaders with whom we can identify?  The fact that I didn’t end the previous sentence with the preposition basically disqualifies me from running for office.  Senator Barack Obama is an academically accomplished man.  After graduating from Columbia University he went on to earn a law degree from Harvard.  He was even the president of the Harvard Law Review – I don’t know how to put this, but that’s kind of a big deal.  After that he became a law professor at the University of Chicago.  You may have known this, but you certainly didn’t hear it from Barack. 

Today’s candidates have to hide their education.  For those who finished in the bottom 5 of their class, that’s convenient (or would be if underachievement wasn’t so mavericky).  Yet McCain and his voluptuous veep didn’t start this trend – there’s no way you can have this discussion and not arrive at our current president.  Even George W. Bush, who actually looks good on paper with his degrees from Yale and Harvard, didn’t point to his past to placate concerns about…“mental preparedness.”  Why? Because his average guy persona appealed to voters (and he only got C’s).  If a candidate flaunts his education today, he is labeled “elitist.” 

Elitism is a strange charge to level against presidential candidates.  At the risk of quoting Jon Stewart too much: “Doesn’t ‘elite’ mean good?…I want someone who’s embarrassingly superior to me.” (Video– the entire segment is great, but the elitism bit starts at 6:50).  On a tangentially related but similarly awesome note, I present the following question courtesy of Kathleen Reardon at the Huffington Post: “Is it sexist to want the person flying the plane to be a pilot?”  Back on track, though, presidential candidates are running to be the most powerful person in the world.  Being President of the United States is like being the CEO of a global superpower (this may not be true by the time you read this, but that’s another story).  Can you imagine someone hiding her educational credentials while applying to lead a Fortune-500 company?  No.  And she wouldn’t even get a moment’s consideration without them, even if you’d want to have a beer with her.  So why are we so comfortable electing “normal” people president?

The average American is not qualified to lead the country.  This should not be debatable (although with enough preparation, one could childishly pivot to talk about job creation instead).  Nor is it contrary to the American Dream.  There are plenty of successful people who don’t live in the White House and unsuccessful ones who do.  Being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps does not mean that anyone can be president, regardless of what your mother may have told you.  I wanted to be a lion.  Life’s not fair.

Compare Bush (or Sarah Palin) to the early presidents in our nation’s history.  Picture them having a conversation.  It hurts.  I doubt Thomas Jefferson would think highly of our recent selections.  Now I’m not saying that the founding fathers got everything right – for example, I imagine they might be surprised to learn that a black man is now running for more than 3/5 of the presidency.  But they understood the value of a meritocracy.  Or at least that it takes more than an ordinary person to succeed in a decidedly extraordinary position. 

Let Average Joe enjoy his 6-pack.  I’ll drink with him (although the case is my weapon of choice).  Our president should wash down his arugula with a glass of fine wine.

The Youth Vote September 29, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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My fellow Young Americans: please vote.

The pundits have repeatedly prophesized the rise of the youth vote during the last few election cycles, but despite significant increases in participation, we have yet to become a game-changer.  Not because we can’t, but rather because we have chosen not to. 

According to the 2006 census, there are 29.5 million potential voters under age 24, and nearly a quarter of the American electorate is under the age of 30.  Yet youth voter turnout has been low over the last few decades, only recently reaching rates nearing 50%. Now, we did see greater participation during the primaries, but the youth vote still lagged well behind the other age groups.  Here on the campus of Duke University, only about 10% of registered students voted (so we’re looking at well under 10% of the student body heading to the polls). 

As a busy, active college student myself, I do not mean to suggest that all students are idle and uninvolved; students are engaged in communities around the country and the world.  Even on the national political scene, many thousands of students are currently working to exercise our collective power.

Groups like College Democrats of America and Young Republicans are thriving, and we are finally seeing presidential campaigns court the youth vote as a major demographic.   Well, we are really just seeing a campaign (singular) court the youth vote – only one of the remaining candidates has given us respect and responsibility in this election.  While I knew this intuitively, I wanted to see if I could quantify or justify my assertion.  This quest led me to some interesting statistics: there are 22 special “coalition” pages on Sen. McCain’s website.  While ‘Bikers,’ ‘Racing Fans,’ and ‘Lawyers’ get their own pages, students do not.  (I know the link is dead, that’s the point.)  Evidently to the McCain campaign we are not a demographic worth the time it takes to write a webpage.  Just to emphasize this point, Lebanese Americans (no offense to them), US citizens who trace their ancestry to a country with a population of under 4.2 million people within their own borders, are apparently of more importance to John McCain than all the students in our country (Lebanese or not).  And that’s utterly absurd.

So if we don’t get a page on McCain’s website, do we appear there at all?  A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word “students” returns just 671 hits.  The same search on barackobama.com returns 437,000 hits.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s over 650x more hits on Sen. Barack Obama’s site.  And to add insult to injury, some of the first hits on McCain’s site aren’t even about students, they clarify Sarah Palin’s position on teaching creationism in schools (she’s for it and thinks that dinosaurs and humans coexisted 6000 years ago).  Just to give you a few more comparisons, allow me to present more domain search results from the McCain website:

  • “reform” – 6,800 hits
  • “maverick” – 587 hits + 2 more hits for the misspelled “mavrick,” inspired by my favorite sign from the RNC (below)
  • “lipstick” – 358 hits (more than half of the number of hits for “students”)
No well-dressed, wealthy republican adult left behind.

Bush's education legacy: apparently well-dressed, wealthy Republican adults were left behind too. Really, nobody at the RNC saw him or said anything?

But I digress.

Let’s continue to juxtapose McCain’s website with Obama’s.  The disparity in website student emphasis is due, in part, to Students for Barack Obama.  SFBO is the official student wing of the Obama campaign that, with the exception of a handful of Obama for America Youth Vote staff, is entirely student-organized and run.  It has been operating for well over a year now and has hundreds of chapters at universities, colleges, graduate schools, and high schools around the country.  This grassroots student network has been volunteering, canvassing, and registering voters throughout the nation.  On Obama’s website, students can find or start local chapters, ask questions, submit policy suggestions, download organizing materials, peruse student blogs, and even interact with each other other the campaign’s own social network, my.barackobama.com.  In the interest of self-disclosure, I have been and currently am involved with SFBO, but my own [considerable] bias aside, it is quite telling that our group has no counterpart in the McCain campaign.  John McCain has ceded the youth vote to the Democrats.  So let’s take it.

There is far too much at stake in this election to disengage from the process.  We need to realize that our government’s actions affect our lives even if we don’t pay attention.  Presidential elections are about far more than those two candidates.  Just look at the Supreme Court, where two liberal justices are poised to retire from the presently “balanced” bench.  Given the young ages of the conservative justices that Bush appointed and the life-tenures of the court, the next election could well determine the outlook of the Supreme Court for decades to come.  And so much, such as the fate of Roe v. Wade, hangs in that balance. The time for apathy has ended.

Or not:

…but seriously, it has.  New voter registrations are trending heavily in favor of the Democratic Party, and young voters are driving many of those numbers.  But registrations don’t win elections, votes do.  If you are registered to vote, go vote on November 4th.  Tell your friends to vote.  Nag them.  If you aren’t registered to vote yet, register online now, and then vote.  It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s so important.   Plus you get a neat sticker!



I got bored in class and ran a few more searches.  Enjoy:

  • The word ‘change’ appears 1.43 million times within the barackobama.com domain.  That’s only about 300,000 times fewer than the word ‘the.’  As Sen. Biden would be happy to tell you, that’s certainly not more of the same.
  • “GILF” appears only on Obama’s domain (4 times), but both domains are graced with the term “MILF.”  I find the ‘GILF vacuum’ on McCain’s site ironic given that Republicans are far more likely to consider Gov. Palin a grandmother yet, but that’s a whole different story.
  • “Palin” appears nearly 4x as many times on Obama’s domain than it does on McCain’s…whose base is this woman rallying again? (This almost certainly derives from Obama’s site being much more expansive and the fact that his supporters are more technologically inclined, but it’s still interesting)

Please feel free to comment with any other fun searches you can think of to run.  If you don’t know how to do a domain search, type “[keyword] site:[genericwebsiteURL]” into a google search bar.  

Ex) “hope site:barackobama.com”.

If you can’t beat them, silence them September 10, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Senator Obama warned us that this election wouldn’t be a landslide, but once the party primaries sifted out, I confess that I did not believe him.  The Republican Party has been steeped in scandal, and it seemed like not a week passed without news stories on GOP corruption.  How could our country objectively look at the positions, candidates, and last 8 years and not elect Barack?  I realize this logic is naively flawed, but it has now been strangely validated – this week I discovered that the McCain campaign reached the same conclusion…and crafted a devious plan to compensate for it.

Anyone who tuned in the to Republican National Convention last week (or follows the news in any way) is aware of the recent escalation of “media bashing.”  Traditionally, the media have served as objective watchdogs of governmental power, reporting abuses to the electorate as they are uncovered.  With the consolidation of power under this administration and a GOP audaciously albeit creatively circumventing numerous laws, it is no surprise that Republicans have found themselves receiving increasing amounts of negative coverage.  As more scandals were uncovered, the national tone of reporting became increasingly anti-Republican.  This is not evidence of media bias, it is a result of unprecedented levels of illegality by GOP lawmakers and appointees.  The media calls out democrats when they misbehave as well, but that has been rare under this administration because there is only so much mischief a weak, powerless party can achieve.

In researching and following developments in environmental policy, I have been appalled by the blatant lies told by industry front groups and even brazen GOP lawmakers in their fanatical quests to sacrifice our country on behalf of the energy lobbies that fund their campaigns.  Of those politicians, my personal favorite is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who served as the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee for 5 years (and still serves as minority leader today) despite being the most outspoken climate denier in our government’s history.  This specimen deserves and shall receive his own post in the future.

But I digress.  The point here is that when politicians lie, accurate reporting will necessitate the refutation of the lie in question.  This is not partisan coverage, it’s the presentation of fact.  Since in recent years the Republican Party has chosen to wage a PR campaign of self-preservation rather than tell the public inconvenient truths (sorry), it has found itself increasingly at odds with the media.  Stephen Colbert summed up this mentality perfectly during his presentation at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 (which also happens to the best (read: funniest) speech I have ever seen – watch the first half, you’ll thank me). 

After mentioning Bush’s low poll numbers, Stephen complains: “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

So what does this have to do with the campaign?  Everything.  As Republican lies have become more outrageous (keep looking for my post on offshore drilling, I will get to it soon), the media cannot help but favor Democrats even while bending backwards over themselves to be “fair and balanced.”  And as investigative journalism increasingly gives way to the sensationalist coverage of ‘he-said, she-said’ campaign sound bites, it has become even easier to paint the media as biased.  Add Sarah Palin to the mix and I once again find myself begrudgingly blogging about the brilliance of McCain’s strategists.

Palin has two major strengths in this assault on the media.  First, because she was relatively unknown and so thoroughly unvetted, the media were completely scrambling to figure out who she was when her name was announced.  Her virtual anonymity left them asking unusual questions and even chasing down rumors.  This discredited and marginalized even the most trusted names in news.  McCain spokespeople expertly spun the situation, grouping mainstream outlets with the tabloids in their outraged denunciations so that they could level disgraceful yet not technically untruthful charges against the media as a whole.  Second, Palin is a woman.  Although the Daily Show demonstrated the humor of juxtaposing the Republican denials of sexism while Hillary was running with those same peoples’ now furious denunciations of sexist media coverage on Palin, I fear this opportunistic hypocrisy will be lost on much of the public. 

And this matters. The McCain campaign knows they could never win this election by the merits of their platform.  That is why they insist this election is not about the issues.  So in a deliberate stroke, they have masterfully silenced the media, effectively removing a crucial voice from the political debate.  Campaigns will always point out the flaws of their opponents, but even truthful charges from an opposing campaign will rarely pierce the dogma of a loyal supporter; we rely on the media to research and report what is true and what is false, particularly regarding negative campaigning.  Without the media to serve that crucial role of independent fact-checker, we are left simply with a shouting match in place of a debate. 

The Obama campaign has been accurately (if quietly) pointing out McCain’s lies and contradictions, but the elitist charge seems to have stuck and people are suspicious of a campaign’s statements about a challenger.  Now that the McCain-Palin campaign has successfully discredited the only other mouthpiece for their shortcomings, for many, the only remaining trusted narrative about that campaign will be its own – and they have nothing but nice things to say about themselves.

Play Action Fake September 1, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Nobody has ever accused the Republican Party of being bad at the political game, but the selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s Vice Presidential nominee has a lot of people asking questions.  After repeatedly questioning Barack Obama’s preparedness, how can you nominate a woman who was mayor of a town 1/20 the size of Obama’s state senate district just two years ago?  After repeatedly questioning Obama’s foreign policy experience, how can you nominate a woman whose only foreign policy experience, according to campaign surrogates (including Tucker Bounds, whom I adore), derives solely from her state’s proximity to Russia?  It seems a little hypocritical.

While her personal positions are well established and widely known (that was sarcasm), what you may not have known is that Sarah Palin is also a woman (that was too).  Does the McCain campaign really think that women are that shallow, even stupid?  No liberal woman I know is going to vote for a pro-life ultraconservative just because she and Hillary are the same gender.  As the Daily Show, my own fair and balanced news outlet of choice, put it: Sarah Palin may be the ideological opposite of Hillary Clinton, but she’s her gynecological twin.  Only women like Samantha Bee, whose “lady brain” cannot process Palin’s desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, will be swayed by this move.

Palin really is just like Hillary, see?

Palin really is just like Hillary, see?

There is also some confusion as to how thorough McCain was in selecting Palin, whom he is calling a “soulmate,” since he only met her twice before their joint rally in Dayton.  The pregnancy situation we are now just learning about also seems like the kind of thing that the VP vetting process would unearth.  The McCain campaign is insisting they knew about this private matter all along and that her daughter’s pregnancy does not make Palin less qualified to be Vice President (one could argue this is a moot point; few things would).  If this is true, we may be witnessing the newest addition to the infamous GOP Electoral Playbook.

Imagine you are John McCain: the Democratic National Convention, for all its hiccups, is generating a lot of positive press for your celebrity opponent, and the coverage reaches fever pitch when Obama nails his acceptance speech.  Yet you have on staff some of the greatest political gamesmen in the history of elections, so you are prepared for the situation.  You reveal as your Vice Presidential nominee a young, conservative woman woefully unprepared for the job at hand.  But she is a breath of fresh air, a glimmer of (dare I say it) hope, and let’s be honest, something to look at – check out the YouTube video of McCain inspecting the goods for his approval of this message.  As warranted criticism descends upon the hapless Alaskan governor, you are able to spin the attacks as sexist to rein in disenchanted Hillary supporters and simultaneously energize the evangelical base with her extremism.  And then the pregnancy hits the news.

Begin Phase II.  The media smells blood in the water as a conservative candidate’s 17-year old daughter is revealed to be 5-months pregnant.  Obviously she’s keeping it (anything else would be murder), and she and her own soulmate are getting married.  Amid the media firestorm, Palin is able to take a principled stand on behalf of her child, appealing for privacy in this personal time.  But even if the mainstream media were to back off, there are enough liberal bloggers and other sources out there to keep the story going.  The GOP cries foul and slams the liberal left for diving to a new moral low.  And finally the trap is sprung.

Just days after her nomination, Palin nobly steps down to protect her family.  McCain selects his new, true VP pick and low and behold, he is very well qualified for the position and just the kind of man Republicans are ready to elect.  As the dust settles, the McCain campaign looks back on its accomplishments: a remarkable $8 million jump in campaign contributions right before the public financing deadline takes effect, a revitalized political base with PUMAs furious on behalf of the sexist media’s latest victim, and the Democratic party backpedalling from a week of wasted attacks that have suddenly backfired.

Peyton Manning running the play

All this brilliant strategy needs is a name, and I’m on top of it.  If I might borrow the term from football, we may be witnessing Palin’s flawless execution of the “Play Action Fake:” at first it looks like she’s going to run…but then she passes.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.