March 23, 2010
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Filed Under (Politics, Ponderings) by justin
Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
-Jesus talking to his followers

The tragedy isn’t that American health care provision is going to be reformed by government mandate, it’s that we needed another mandate.

My bad.

February 09, 2010
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Filed Under (Politics) by justin

I would like to think President Obama read my reactions to his State of the Union Address, but I won’t delude myself. And yet, it seems almost possible.1

I finally got around to watching his Q&A session with House Republicans. I hadn’t given it primacy because from my pundit reading I had gotten only four things:

  1. There really was no reason for things like this to be televised.
  2. The President “won” the event.
  3. The President’s only gaffe was using the wrong name for the congressman from Texas.
  4. The Republicans made a tactical error by giving the President the primary microphone, allowing him to outyell them, in effect, and still look good. And, as always, they were stupid.

In other words, nothing to see here.2

I’m glad I disregarded their gloss.

The event was a primer on American politics. The President has frequently spoken over the last two years–with little or no effect on Republicans, Democrats, his administration or, indeed, himself–about the need to move beyond political posturing. In this event, he gave that argument a test case.

First, he tried to have an honest debate. He refused to be cajoled into spewing partisan talking points and, instead, used fact, truth and open conversation as more than campaign slogans. He restated his desire not to “relitigate the past” and acted accordingly. He pointed out factual inaccuracies, but left room for policy differences.

Second, he wouldn’t let the conversation be squeezed into pre-defined molds. He mashed together taxes, health care, jobs and deficits so much they almost seemed inter-related. Apparently he forgot politicians only change topics to avoid difficult questions, not to worry about some bigger picture.

Third, he dropped the ‘if clause’. Two nights earlier, he’d told Republicans if they demand a supermajority vote on all action, “then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well” (emphasis mine). At the Q&A, he treated them as if they had a responsibility to govern because they had been elected, and he attempted to engage them accordingly.

Perhaps my favorite moment of the night was the President’s response to the final question. A former Illinois state senate colleague had engaged the President relatively congenially, providing too accommodating a finish for what Republicans hoped would be a clash of prepared talking points, so the congressman from Texas stepped up with his list of misleading grievances and fired off a closing missive. The President smilingly but clearly questioned the rant’s divisive intent, corrected the false claims, and provided a concrete example of how it could have been done. Diplomacy made politics looked stupid.

All this is not to say political problems are over. One freshman congressman notably pointed out that for all the President’s talk of engagement, the congressional Democrats were extending a hand only to stiff-arm Republicans. The rest of the Republican speakers spent their time posturing, posing and generally ignoring his calls for honest conversation (after all, they’d invited him there to make their points, not to get their questions answered). And, honestly, the President was breaking new ground by making his bipartisan rhetoric seem realistic. Change I can believe in? I’m not sure. But it at least gave me hope.

I finished my SOTU notes pointing out, “We’d be a lot better off if he could inspire himself to act in a way that might accomplish his vision [of politics that are generous and participatory].” We’re a lot better off after this Q&A.

  1. He even referred to the health insurance reform bill. I mean, really.
  2. I found it interesting that President Obama had predicted the relative silence of the media, in effect daring them to report his engagement of political adversaries. I should not have had to watch this to find out that President Obama likes Paul Ryan and his family–unless it’s politically detrimental to the congressman, of course.

February 06, 2010
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Filed Under (Politics) by justin

If you liked (and understood) my take on the State of the Union Address, you might be interested in James Fallows’s take. He has a similar take on some issues, though he comes from a different perspective.

If you didn’t like my thoughts, you might like his. Though he has a similar take on some issues, he comes from a different perspective. He more elegantly notes some of the things I pointed out, but his evaluations differ from mine in some respects.

If you like the idea of individual responses to particular statements or actions, you’ll like his article.

If you didn’t like my brief, hurried composition, you’ll like his long, detailed form.

If I haven’t addressed your feelings yet, you might want to go read someone who does.

In other words, I’d recommend Fallows’s annotated SOTU to any interested parties.

February 03, 2010
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Filed Under (Life, Travelog) by justin

Why do Americans eat more chicken than pork?

If you’re like me, this is true of you, but you can’t really explain why. So when my dinner companions asked me this the other day, I wasn’t really sure what to say. In China, pork is probably the most common meat.  It’s the fallback meat–the meat you turn to when you don’t have anything particularly meaningful for it to do. For you, it might be ground beef, but for me it’s always been chicken.

I was a little surprised that they’d even ask. So, I simply confessed my ignorance and shifted over to why we don’t really eat much mutton in America.1

Then I went shopping. For the first time in months (literally), I bought meat to prepare. Chicken.

Perhaps it was curiosity I’ve been fostering during this holiday. Perhaps it was excess time being domestic (i.e., sitting at home). Perhaps it was hunger. I decided to cook.

Saturday night, I made plum chicken and rice–a personal creation inspired by the common availability of plum juice here and my rather uncommon taste for it.  I should have replaced the rice with mashed potatoes, but I didn’t feel like going back out to the store. And the rice was pretty good too, I must say.

Sunday night, I made a sort of chicken and brocolli risotto. Sort of. While the concept is common enough, the method is personal.

Monday night, I made chicken parmesan. Drawing upon vast experience in eating it, none in making it, I created my own version, starting with crumbing my own bread (don’t get too excited–I had canned spaghetti sauce).

All from scratch. Without recipes. With nothing more than a hot plate, a microwave, and a rice cooker. I just did what seemed appropriate. None of them was perfect, but each of them was worth eating.

Now, those of you with cooking experience are waiting for the point. Those without it are rather proud of me.

I’m just grateful to the chickens, without whom none of this would have been possible.

  1. I’m glad I’ve been abroad enough to find out that mutton is good. Also, lizard.

January 30, 2010
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Filed Under (Politics) by justin

After seven hours of downloading, I finally got to watch the State of the Union Address. After that much effort, I felt obliged to record my comments as they happened, thinking I might live-blog it three days late. Considering that a chronology would require you to either re-watch the speech or vaguely surmise context, though, I decided instead to present them topically and add a few notes.


Until last weeks ago, I assumed I was about the only American who found Barack Obama’s speaking style simply annoying. Then I had a chat about him with a Chinese student. It turns out I’m the only person in the world who finds Barack Obama’s speaking style annoying.Watching this speech reminded me why. Each phrase—of his speeches—is spoken—as if it is—it’s—own—sentence—worthy of—Bartlett’s. Each phrase also gets a falling tone, a vapid gesture (most often the left-handed pinch-point) reverting to folded hands, and a smug nod. Clunky. Pretentious. Annoying.

But something miraculous happened during this speech. Occasionally, he started talking in full sentences and with standard tones and rhythms. It turns out he’s conversant in normal English. I actually liked his style in parts.

Distractions other than the President

I’ve had my share of time onstage behind a speaker, so I know it’s hard. Pelosi did too. She was so self-concious that people were going to see her at the beginning she went out of her way to look engaged and engaging. She actually looked friendly—almost human. But that gradually gave way to making faces at the audience and then a glazed stare. Biden was tall enough to keep his face out of the picture most of the time, but he did randomly rub his chest for a few minutes.

Michelle Obama scares me.

I know audience response is the only way to express feelings, so I don’t blame Boehner for raising his hand or Alito for mouthing words any more than everyone else for obviously talking and making faces to could get camera time and making a point.

That said, where did the cheering come from? I thought I was watching a Presidential address, but at times it sounded more like a high school football game. I even got a distinct “U-S-A, U-S-A”.

I wonder if the recorder was trying to record the cheers, because he was definitely punching keys during an extended ovation.

Notable ovations

Happy with himself“The true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses.” Standing O. Seriously? That’s what we call a truism, people. It doesn’t really deserve an ovation.

“All this [activity that caused the economic collapse and subsequent deficit] was before I walked in the door.” Applause. They seriously applauded the budget deficit, since Barack said it wasn’t his fault. And just to make sure, the President paused and made faces until he got sufficient response. That, my friends, was disgraceful all the way around.

We’ll get rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Huge, drawn-out ovation. We’ll get equal pay for women. Moderate applause.

Things he said that I liked:

He broached the bailout early and effectively in argument, rhetoric, and demeanor.

A focus on jobs is a good call. A really good call. I especially like one that pays attention to infrastructure needs. Sounds a little Rooseveltian, but it’s worthy.

“I know the Senate will [pass a jobs bill]. They will. They will.” I found this particularly effective. He was applying some pressure, while displaying support for the Senate he had already referred to as “gridlocked”. (Sadly, it was the last positive gesture toward political opponents.)

He was pretty heavy-handed with the lobbyists. While they are Washington’s most bipartisan whipping boys, I hope he actually does something about them.

Things he said that I didn’t like:

About those letter-writing children. Do kids really write letters asking the President why they have to move and how to afford homes and education and health care (and if they do, does he really read them every night)? ‘Cause those were either fabricated Obama talking points or some freakishly informed kids.

“[T]he best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.” Not really sure I agree, but coming from Columbia and Harvard, he obviously values world-class education. “So we’re going to improve community colleges and offer $10,000 to families trying to send kids to college.” (my paraphrase) Yup, world-class.

Anyone else pick up on the countless distinctions between himself and the American people? It started early as he told about how Americans faced a tough year, but “they” were resilient and “they” were staying busy and “they” were working hard.

“We won’t quit. I won’t quit.” Quite a way to finish a speech when you’re a President who already feels the need to deny a Messiah complex.

Things he didn’t say, but said:

If you really want to play a dominant part in the world, China, you have to join it. (Future trading partners have to “play by the rules”.)

Republican Senators, you’re the minority. Go away. (“If the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town—a supermajority [thanks, Mr. Webster]—then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.”)

Democratic Senators, let’s ignore everyone else and do whatever we want. (“Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades[.]”)

Things he said, but didn’t say:

America will double its exports over the next five years. (How, you ask? By finding new, developing markets.)

My exports plan will create two million jobs. (That exports plan he doesn’t really have. Ironically, that’s the same wildly unreliable number of jobs he claims to have created with his stimulus package.)

Things he said that didn’t make sense:

I’m not sure, but it certainly sounded as if he repeated the numbers from his famously inaccurate website to track job creation. I’d call that both deceitful and stupid. But that’s just me.

“We can’t afford another so-called economic expansion like the one from the last decade—what some call ‘the lost decade’.” Who, exactly? I’ve read a lot about the economy lately, and I’ve never heard that. Even from the most depressing pundits.

The CBO says the health [insurance] reform bill will reduce the deficit by one trillion dollars in two decades? Say it with me, Joe: “You lie!”

The Republicans’ response to deficits would be to make “fewer investments in people”—by giving tax cuts. To people.

Health care reform has been in progress for the last “century”?

Ways he contradicted himself:

He’s all about transparency. But the Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations make political advertisements with their names on them instead of doing it through a PAC is a problem.

“We could argue about who’s to blame for [lack of unity], but I’m not interested in re-litigating the past.” Other than when he just spent the last half hour blaming Republicans and Bush for all our problems.

“I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics.” “Democrats, let’s rock. Republicans, go home and die. [paraphrase—see ‘Things He Didn’t Say, But Said’ for the direct quotes])”


His agenda is worthwhile. His speaking style was lighter—almost relaxed and engaging at times. His rhetorical vision was grand, generous and participatory. His message was spiteful, dismissive and partisan. Despite my personal distaste for his delivery, I recognize that he has inspired millions to act in a way that might realize his vision. We’d be a lot better off if he could inspire himself to act in a way that might accomplish his vision.