GOP debate

I watched the GOP debate in South Carolina tonight. I did so not long after reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, an oldie but a goodie about bad history textbooks. It struck me, watching Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul duke it out, how pervasive the ideology of American exceptionalism has been lately in the campaign. Both parties tip into that dark well of power at will, of course, but it seemed particularly naked tonight. Gingrich is the most obvious source of it, but Romney, in his closing remarks, sounded like he was ready to lead an anti-socialist pogrom, and Santorum, the last speaker, seemed disappointed he couldn’t raise it with a book-burning.

The opener, the question about Newt’s ex-wife was pretty tasteless, but 1) it was essentially a softball for Newt in that it allowed him to win the audience immediately – if I were him I would have paid money to get that as the first question – and 2) it is the first time I’ve heard the term “open marriage” on network TV. It’s too bad Dan Savage doesn’t moderate for CNN…

What I found most compelling, though, is what wasn’t talked about. No class, no race, no gender, no religion, no foreign policy, even. Very little discussion of the root causes of any problem, as the answer is always ‘government,’  as if there were nothing wrong with American society besides that. In other words, the field has turned right pretty hard, when Romney, the  supposed moderate, comes off as the pitchfork-bearer. I can’t say this strategy will prove useful in a general election for any of the participants.

GOP blues

The Romney train chugs on – next stop, South Carolina. A sizable chunk of the GOP doesn’t like this situation at all. If you add up all the poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire and any South Carolina poll, the problem asserts itself – despite his two wins, Romney still has more Republicans voting against him than for him. At some point, he has to break the 40% mark, because 40% of the GOP does not win a general election.

Fortunately for Romney, the main subparties that are holding out – evangelicals and Tea Partiers – can’t unite behind Gingrich or Santorum, much less Paul. The big winners if that narrative holds are Romney and Paul.

Paul didn’t withdraw until June in 2008 and I doubt he will do so any earlier this year. But maybe he won’t at all. His support has increased since 2008 – his polls  trend only up, unlike each of the anti-Mitts (Cain, Perry, Gingrich) who spiked quickly and then fell just as fast – and he’s not running against McCain this time. He has a deadly weapon in his new arsenal of supporters – the threat of a third party run, which would almost certainly split the GOP/independent vote in the general election, much like Perot did in 1992 and again to a lesser extent in 1996. He has no reason to drop out and go third party right now, but circumstances are changing rapidly. If both Santorum and Gingrich drop out, I expect Paul’s numbers will only continue to rise.

There is always the possibility of a brokered convention, especially if Romney’s support remains flat. We haven’t had one in awhile. I wonder how many GOP rank and file hold out a secret hope that Romney could be un-anointed by convention ballot.

A interesting call

The Supremes recently made an interesting 9-0 decision. Church fires a “called” female teacher for filing an ADA suit instead of settling things within the church (presumably via the Pauline reasoning of 1 Cor 6). SCOTUS said this was ok because the 1st amendment keeps government from meddling with how churches choose their ‘ministers.’

Religious institutions that employ teachers typically have a parallel employment clause to the ‘at-will’ status of secular employers, which allows firing for pretty much any reason if the private or public life of the employee doesn’t meet the institution’s standards. Under this decision – which more or less maintains the status quo – federal employment laws like the ADA are pretty powerless to affect this situation, just as they tend to be useless for non-federal secular employees that have no choice but ‘at-will’ employment.

I’m a big fan of the 1st amendment and religious freedom. And I have to grudgingly admit that this decision was probably right on the law. But it does strike me as ironic. A secular employer would just state some other reason for firing her and dodge the ADA suit that way; a church, on the other hand, doesn’t need to dissemble. Furthermore, it’s another gentle reminder about the power imbalance between employers and employees – especially replaceable employees.

Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape

Another vacation book review.

There has to be a reasonable middle ground between the cultural relativism that Harris dislikes and the “New Atheist” hostility to religion that he champions. I can understand the attacks on the NAs because the lot of them, especially Dawkins, are often crass. Then again they’re sort of the professional poker players of the intelligentsia – a certain degree of crassness kind of automatically comes with the position.

Now I think criticism of religion is more than fair game. As Harris says in the book, he comes off arrogant only because he takes the claims of religion, particularly Christianity, seriously, and he does have a point that the usual faith/reason attempts at synergy end up being pretty ridiculous, as his lengthy example of Francis Collins shows.

I can’t buy his total dismissal of relativism and religion, though. Relativism has its flaws, but it at least pushes us toward a default position of tolerance rather than an automatic imperialistic judgment of superiority. And religion certainly has its flaws, but good can come of it – I’m not yet prepared to throw it out with the bathwater. It may be a ‘flawed science’, but that can easily be flipped around – Harris’ science is at times an unpersuasive religion, largely powerless against the straightforward power of family upbringing. A lot of die have to fall the right way for someone to drop their upbringing, family, and core beliefs for the cold – if best currently around – embrace of scientific humanism.

David Maurer’s The Big Con

Just read this book, which I picked up on a whim. Maurer was a sociolinguist who published this book in 1940 as a kind of summary of the language and habits of American con men. It is completely fascinating from the perspective of rhetorical theory. It’s a wonder I haven’t run around mention of it before. Take this passage, for example:

Big-time confidence games are in reality only carefully rehearsed plays in which every member of the cast except the mark knows his part perfectly. The insiderman is the star of the cast; while the minor participants are competent actors and can learn their lines perfectly, they must look to the insiderman for their cues; he must be not only a fine actor, but a playwright extempore as well. And he must be able to retain the confidence of an intelligent man even after that man has been swindled at his hands.


His (the mark’s) every probable reaction has been calculated in advance and the script prepared to meet these reactions. Furthermore, this drama is motivated by some fundamental weakness of the victim – liquor, money, women, or even some harmless personal crotchet. The victim is forced to go along with the play, speaking approximately the lines which are demanded of him; they spring unconsciously to his lips. He has no choice but to go along… He is living in a play-world which he cannot distinguish from the real world… He is living in a fantastic, grotesque world which resembles the real world so closely that he cannot distinguish the difference.

Sounds like Burkean dramatism to me, with a bit of Vatz thrown in! I am also particularly interested in the dual-actor nature of most of the cons described, involving both a roper (who “ropes” in promising marks) and the insiderman (who runs the con). In all arrangements, big and small, there is the moment of the “switch” where the allegiance of the mark is handed off to the insiderman and the roper becomes the bad guy, a tricky ethos-based maneuver that I’ve not seen described previously in rhetorical theory. The switch serves to confuse the mark enough that they are swept along into the “play” that is being run without knowing of the transition to the fake-world.

Rejection, holidays

I got a split decision on a manuscript just before the holidays that has gotten me thinking about the nature of academic rejection. My hit rate is pretty high, so any individual setback is not serious, but I am reminded yet again of Mike’s Rule of Manuscript Submission: for anything you write, someone somewhere will love it, and someone somewhere will hate it. In that sense the publishing process can seem unbelievably random at times, but I can’t think of an improvement to the process at the moment.

The holidays have kept my spirits up for the most part, though I’ll admit to being moody and pensive at times. We’ve been playing a lot of board games here in addition to the usual Shanghai rummy – I brought Power Grid and Elder Sign with me, and there is always Ticket to Ride which has been the subject of dueling iPhones. We even played Monopoly the other night, and I lost horribly.