Friday, August 29, 2008

It's A Girl! And That's Pretty Much It!

There has to be an upside to this. Let me think.

Okay, by picking 44 year old, two-year Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, John McCain now has all three electoral votes in Alaska squarely in his column...

Oh wait, they already were in his column. Never mind.

Okay, Idaho, then. Palin's home state: four electoral votes, now with McCain!

But wait, he already had them too. So no battleground state advantage here.

Maybe it's the 3 am phone call? When the phone at the White House rings at 3 am, we would want, um, Sarah Palin to answer the phone?

Okay, so it's clearly not that. Despite how McCain's been saying Obama's not capable of receiving that phone call, slamming him for being too young and inexperienced, Obama, 46, still has at least two years in age and eight years in government experience over Palin.

Because of his "lack of experience," Obama was not fit to be Commander-in-Chief, the Republicans said.

Well, Sarah Palin has been governor of Alaska for one year and nine months. Since December 2006.

But Palin's only going to be the vice presidential candidate, right? It's not like she's running for the Commander-in-Chief post! The only way that could conceivably happen is if something happens to McCain while he's president. Fat chance of that. At age 72 with multiple recurrences of melanoma?

Look, I don't want McCain to die, and I don't want myself to die either. But I am aware of that possibility, which is why I have life insurance. John McCain's insurance payout for the United States in case something happens to him now comes in the form of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska.

She's conservative. She's pro-life, she likes hunting and fishing, she supports offshore drilling, and she's a fiscal conservative. No significant difference there from Pawlenty, Crist, or even Romney, who did flip-flop on abortion, but as the former governor of a significant state, an economy expert, and the son of a very popular former Michigan governor, would have put that state into play and filled two very significant vacuums.

So why did he pick her? Family values? No. She can't beat Biden's story there.

Evangelical/Christian right appeal? Huckabee or Pawlenty would've brought that and much more.

Why? It's not the electoral votes she's bringing, it's not her experience, she doesn't trump anyone else significantly in the conservatism, values, or faith realm, and she's not putting any battleground or other states in play. So what is it?

Could it be just because she's a woman? Could this be reverse sexism?

Does McCain seriously think that all of those disgruntled Hillary voters will now flock to him for choosing a woman just because she's a woman?

What does that say about John McCain's judgment that when he does decide to choose a female candidate, it's not someone with an established record like Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, but a former Miss Alaska pageant winner who, even though she has an admirable resume, is clearly not as qualified to be vice president as many of the more experienced women in the Republican party who really have something solid to offer?

Even Cindy McCain is more qualified to be vice president than Sarah Palin. John McCain's pick makes both George H. W. Bush's Dan Quayle pick and George W. Bush's Harriet Miers pick (for the Supreme Court) look good.

Okay, look, I'm only shaken here because I lost a few bets on this one. And I'm not going to bet on this (because John McCain has clearly lost his mind), but here's a prediction: like Harriet Miers, we may see Palin reject the nomination at some point, citing a noble reason like needing to spend time with her children or Alaska needing her, while McCain regretfully "accepts" her resignation and taps someone more reasonable like Mr. Romney, Mr. Pawlenty, or Ms. Hutchison for the vacant post.

Let's hope that happens before Sarah Palin - otherwise a very impressive, successful, and attractive person - has to go up against Joe Biden in October's VP debate in St. Louis. I have a feeling that may not go well for her.

And if I'm wrong about my prediction, everyone who was sold on Obama's speech last night can take heart in the fact that he will now almost certainly be the next President of the United States.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

How Joe Biden's Pros - and Cons - Help Obama

Where Does McCain Go From Here?

They'll soon be calling it the O-Biden or the Joe-Bama ticket. Either way, Barack Obama has decided to live on the edge a little, and nab Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate.

The pros are obvious and widely known - Biden complements Obama and fills in his perceived gaps as a presidential candidate:

Foreign policy. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden made a trip to Georgia at the request of the country's president last week, and also traveled to Pakistan in February this year to oversee its landmark elections - both regions are fragile at the moment and sure to be prominent foci in the foreign policy debate from here through November. This makes Biden a legitimate, credible challenge to the people in the McCain campaign, who often pound on Obama for his lack of foreign policy experience. To top it off, Biden's son Beau, currently Delaware's Attorney General, will be stationed in Iraq in October - another factor that can put him on equal footing with McCain, whose son Jimmy has also been serving there.

Working class/blue collar white Americans. A persistent challenge for Barack Obama, who despite his modest middle-class background, can't seem to lure this demographic into his column the way Hillary Clinton did in the primaries. Biden was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Clinton's grandparents were from, and Pennsylvania is a key battleground state that Obama lost to Clinton earlier in the year. Biden is renowned there and across the country as the regular guy - a lunch-bucket, working class Democrat.

Women. Something very significant that I haven't yet heard much about today - Biden has been instrumental in the fight against domestic violence, a leading issue for women. In 1994, along with what has become known as the Biden Crime Law, Joe Biden also authored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), with avid support from the National Organization for Women (NOW), who heralded it as the "greatest breakthrough in civil rights for women in nearly two decades." The VAWA led to billions of dollars in funding for measures to combat gender-based crime, which dropped significantly since its passing and continue to do so. Biden's record here is important because it can potentially bring a large number of disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters who are now looking at voting for McCain (or not voting at all) back into the fold. As recently as today, NOW has praised Obama's pick, and even Geraldine Ferraro, a close friend of Clinton who was visibly and vocally disillusioned by Obama's winning the Democratic nomination, said today that his selection demonstrated his ability to exercise "good judgment".

Character and Faith. In recent years, this factor has become almost central to American voters, evidenced by the massive coverage given to televangelist Rick Warren's interviews with the two candidates at the Saddleback Church "Faith Forum" last week. Not only is Biden a Catholic (a key swing voter group that has so far been leaning heavily towards McCain), but he has a remarkable history of working through the tragedy of losing his wife and baby daughter in a car accident shortly after his election to the Senate at age twenty nine. Taking his inaugural oath at the hospital, Biden raised his sons - both of whom were critically injured in the accident but eventually made complete recoveries - as a single dad until he remarried five years later. To this day, as he did then, he commutes an hour and a half to Washington daily from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. This doesn't say patriotism as directly as McCain's POW experience in Vietnam, but does demonstrate the same strength of character and perseverance that will appeal to "values" voters.

Tongue. Biden may be better at "straight talk" than McCain himself. Politically, he has shown an affinity for going on the attack, and can competently shoot back the kind of one-liner soundbites that the Republican attack machine is so good at (and Democrats aren't). Obama has visibly shown a weakness and discomfort with this aspect of politics, and with Biden at his side, he is free to stay on the high road and leave the sparring to Biden.

What's interesting about this pick is that even Biden's weaknesses can work in Obama's favor.

As politically incorrect as they may seem, Biden's most famous gaffes - including the one about Obama being the first "mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean...", or the one seemingly acknowledging the stereotype of East Indians working at 7-11s and Dunkin Donuts - are, unfortunately, something that a lot of Americans relate to, specifically in the so-called "working class" demographic that Barack Obama has had so much trouble with. (I know I'm going to get blasted for saying that, but it's true.) The fact that Biden even walks into a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts from time to time paints a striking contrast between him and the arugula-eating Obama or the seven-mansion-owning, married-into-a-$100-million-beer-fortune McCain.

Biden's second potential weakness is his support for the resolution to go to war with Iraq, Obama's opposition to which may arguably be the single most important reason he's the Democratic nominee today.

In response to the McCain campaign's allegations against Obama, accusing him of being an arrogant egotistical messiah, complete with television ads sarcastically referring to him as "The One", the Obama campaign seems ready to spin the selection of Joe Biden as proof that Obama is not only aware of his weaknesses, but also willing and able to surround himself with people who complement those weaknesses instead of with sycophantic yes-men, the kind George W. Bush is widely thought to have a fondness for. This may help resolve the discrepancy in Obama's and Biden's Iraq war votes. The fact that Biden suggested sending more troops to Iraq well before McCain began actively promoting the Surge - his core claim to fame - may give him further street cred.

As a longtime friend of Joe Biden (who possesses many of the qualities that he has criticized Obama for being deficient in), John McCain will find it difficult to criticize him. Where does he go from here?

Well, a lot of his chances at winning the presidency may now depend on his own vice presidential pick.

Among the three candidates on both tickets so far, the foreign policy aspect, the patriotism factor, and the decades-of-experience factor are all now relatively balanced. So is the need to appeal to the working class/blue-collar voters who want a candidate that shares their values. With Biden's admirable record on women's issues, the Obama-Biden ticket also has many of those disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters thinking about coming back. So now, the McCain camp's idea of selecting a woman as his running mate has also been bumped down the priority list.

There are two areas that still need to be addressed:

1. A lack of executive experience: McCain, Obama, and Biden are all senators and have never actually governed. The last sitting senator to be elected president was John F. Kennedy. Both Bushes, Bill Clinton, Reagan, Carter, and Ford were governors.

2. The economy: This is the main concern for most Americans this year. There is no candidate on either ticket so far that has any sort of commanding expertise on the issue of the economy.

For John McCain, the only candidate that can potentially fill both of these holes is Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and a famously successful businessman whose credentials in both of these areas helped propel him to the runner-up position in the Republican primaries.

There are already signs that Romney is in serious consideration as the Republicans' VP pick. This includes the very public touting by the McCain campaign of Tom Ridge (governor, Pennsylvania) and Joe Lieberman (ex-Democrat and current independent Senator, Connecticut) as potential VP candidates - both of whom are pro-choice - met by the anger of many Republican base voters who already look at John McCain as a closeted liberal.

Romney, on the other hand, was initially pro-choice, and later switched to a pro-life position. If presented as a candidate de novo, this prominent flip-flop may have angered the Republican base just as much. But coming after the Ridge/Lieberman scare, Romney's selection may be seen as a welcome relief, thanks to relativity. (Well, a psycho-social extrapolation of it, anyhow.)

As for how to attack the Obama-Biden ticket, I wish I had some suggestions. But, if we're in the "His middle name is Hussein! Oh no!" vein, the insertion of the acronym for the National Liberal Alliance (NLA) right in the middle of Joe Biden's last name would cause the ticket to read:

"Obama-BiNLAden '08".

I can like, totally feel Karl Rove's eyes lighting up right now. Unfortunately, Karl, there's no such thing as the National Liberal Alliance. Yet.

Gotcha, bitch.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Tale of Two Identities

The struggle for belonging and social acceptance has always been a balancing act: conforming enough to be an accepted member of a group, yet being just unique enough to differentiate yourself from others so that you can be appreciated as an individual without risking that acceptance.

And as the world gets smaller and different cultures mix in ways they haven't before, it's getting harder and harder to pull this off.

So how do we form our sense of identity, and what are the identifiers that constitute that sense? To me, it seems that these identifiers can be lumped into two broad categories - "inborn" identifiers and "acquired" identifiers.

Inborn identifiers include factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, and gender - these are "unearned" attributes that we usually have at birth, that nobody can take away from us. The majority of us keep them for the course of our lives.

But as most of us evolve and develop, we begin to formulate an acquired identity - shaped by "earned" identifiers such as choice of profession, personal philosophy, wealth, social status, parental/marital status, and the lessons learned from consequences of personal life decisions.

Adolescence is probably the time during which this transitional interface is most visibly manifested - there isn't too much to work from on the inside at that age/stage in life, so most of us embellish ourselves externally to distinguish ourselves, through fashion, hair, piercings, makeup, and so on. The rebellion is cautious: a fragile balance between being different - but not too different to risk becoming an outcast. Being an outlier is still okay, as long as you're within the fringes of the bell curve.

From this point on, many of us continue to evolve, to develop ourselves on the inside, gain an education, form perspectives on our lives and the world through what we see and learn from our experiences, earn a definitive social and financial status in our communities by working hard and making decisions, settle into our professions, and become parents, philanthropists, journalists, artists, engineers, businesspeople, physicians; as we do, our need to cling to our inborn identifiers becomes less urgent.

For those who are not adequately able to formulate that secondary, acquired sense of self, or - importantly - who are stripped of the opportunities or resources to do so, falling back on using inborn identifiers to define themselves is convenient, and very easy: these attributes are always there, and you don't have to work for them.

This is why pride - based on our inborn identities - is so dangerous.

Proud to be American. Proud to be black. Proud to be a Muslim. Patriotism. Nationalism. All of these notions are based on taking immense pride in things you didn't achieve, you didn't work for, and you didn't earn - part of what George Carlin called "false patriotism" in his last performance. These things were always there, since birth. And precisely for that reason, they are the easiest ones to fall back on when you feel like you've been shut out.

There is nothing wrong with feeling fortunate to be born in a Hindu family, or feeling grateful for being American - those sentiments at least still retain a sense of humility. But pride comes from the ego, and when undeserved and unearned, pride can kill - differences over inborn identifiers such as race, religion, and nationality have resulted in most of the crimes, wars, and genocides in history.

"Homegrown terrorism" in Europe, for instance - facilitated by several English speaking, second-generation immigrant jihadists born and raised in Europe - is a consequence mostly of disenfranchised young people who have failed - or haven't had the opportunities and resources - to construct an acquired identity for themselves in one or more spheres of achievement in their lives. So they have fallen back on things like religion and ethnicity. Although their ultimate goal is different, what drives these neo-jihadists is the same phenomenon that drives the blue collar, red-state voters who continue to elect and re-elect politicians, to their own economic disadvantage, because of race-based or religion-based fears about issues such as gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research.

To me, it seems that a person's acquired identity develops and evolves primarily depending on three factors: (i) age, (ii) education, and (iii) socioeconomic status.

Evidencing this is the fact that most of the people who define themselves by way of these identifiers, such as jihadists, are (i) young, (ii) not very well-educated, and (iii) socially or economically disenfranchised.

Some of them get where they are because of bad decisions they have made.

But others - most of them, I believe - get there because they haven't had the opportunities and resources to move beyond their "socioeconomic adolescence" to develop their own evolved, acquired identities.

To combat factors (i), (ii), and (iii), youth empowerment, anti-poverty measures, and massive investment in education are the way to go, not bombs and sanctions, which only increase poverty and disenfranchisement, further curtailing opportunities and resources for education and socioeconomic security.

I was born in Pakistan, lived in North Africa for half a decade, then England for a little less than a year, then Saudi Arabia for eleven years where I went to an American school, then to college and university in Pakistan and Canada, and now, for the last four years, I have been living in the United States. Having no real geographical roots - or many, depending on how you look at it - I have seen that wherever in the world I've been, crimes have almost uniformly been associated with some racial/ethnic groups more than others, and wars almost always appear to be across ethnic or religious lines. Yet, factors like economics and level of education are the common denominator across the board: the main impediments to allowing the individuals in these factions to evolve beyond a blind adherence to their inborn identifiers.

And in places where educated and financially secure people coexist together, such as the university where I work, people who would be killing each other in other parts of the world - Pakistanis and Indians, conservative Muslims and atheists, Palestinians and Israelis, Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg (okay, that was unfair - sorry, Mel) - somehow get by on a bloodless, gunless, academic form of debate and discussion that, though often heated and passionate, can be civilly conducted over coffee.

How nice would it be to construct a social, political, and economic global environment where others across the world are able to avail the same opportunities and resources that these people have had, making both Lenin and Lennon happy? Imagine.