Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oprah v. Sarah

So Sarah Palin, on her book tour, stopped by Oprah Winfrey's show the other day. I didn't watch it, partially because I was at work, but mostly because I really didn't think I could take watching Sarah Palin for an hour. But one of the loyal readers of this blog told me I should watch some of it on YouTube, so I did.

I only saw a few minutes, but I think that was enough. I like Oprah, I respect her, she's obviously very good at her job, but I can't say I'm a fan. That's mostly because I am not in the target demographic. Talk shows like hers have a purpose, but not for me.

Part of that purpose is to have the conversation that many people are having, but on a national scale, and with a great deal of preparation. What exactly is the purpose of this whole book tour by a failed vice-presidential candidate? Is she running for president? Does she just want to make some money?

Probably both. She's clearly making money, and she's quite probably running for president. Why go on Oprah? She endorsed Obama last year. She has a huge constituency, sure, but she is also very much a card-carrying member of the "media elite."

Watching Sarah Palin on Oprah's show, even for a couple of minutes, I realized something about the ex-governor of Alaska. At one point, Oprah looked highly skeptical, like she was looking at a dead slug. Oprah is, we can assume, not a big fan of Palin. But that's a key part of the appeal for Palin and her base. I could see the slightest hint of fear in Sarah Palin's eyes. She might never admit it, but she's very insecure. She's terrified of Oprah, for the same reason that she's terrified of those "media elites" - they're smarter than her, and much more well-informed than her. They are much more intellectually curious. That's why Charlie Gibson was able to sandbag her with what should have been a simple question - what do you think of the Bush Doctrine? It's why Katie Couric was able to expose her as an intellectual lightweight by asking the even simpler question, What newspapers do you read?

But the fact that Sarah Palin is afraid of someone like Oprah ironically gives her all the more motivation to be on her show. Sarah Palin is incredibly competitive, and the greater the challenge, the more she wants it. You have to respect that. You don't have to like it, but you have to respect someone who takes on that kind of challenge, who is willing to overcome her own personal insecurities and fears on a national stage. Constantly.

This is a big part of her appeal to her base: she's willing to confront people who look down on her. Just the fact that she is willing to do so gives her a certain degree of credibility. It's a self-reinforcing phenomenon. She writes a book because she and her publisher know there will be a market for it. It's already a "New York Times bestseller," which means that someone like Oprah has to take her seriously, at least to some extent. So her base gives her a certain respectability, which she uses to convince Oprah to invite her onto her talk show. Once she's on stage with Oprah, she doesn't have to do much. All she has to do is hold her own. She doesn't have to prove that she's got the solution to global warming or the Israeli-Palestinian problem. All she has to do is maintain her dignity. She has to be enthusiastic, charming, and fearless. She doesn't have to be the smartest person in the room; she has to not be an idiot. She just has to prove that she is worthy of Oprah's attention. Again, a self-reinforcing phenom: her base will show up in enough numbers to demonstrate what they already believe about her: that she deserves not just their attention, but the attention of the entire country.

I don't have a problem with Sarah Palin's lifestyle, although I'm not a fan of the idea of shooting wolves from airplanes. If she wants to eat caribou meat that Todd shot for her, more power to them. But I expect my leaders to be capable of asking difficult questions, not just of their advisors and their opponents, but of themselves. Sarah Palin is very sure of herself. So is Barack Obama; his calmness in the face of challenges and crises is a big part of his appeal for me. But Obama's confidence comes from asking questions, searching for answers, and finding them. In that respect, I think his confidence is earned. I have respect for Sarah Palin's ability to charge ahead, and I think she deserves some of her confidence. But not enough to be president.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Liberal Arts Colleges and Teaching Leadership

The Washington Post has a blog called "On Leadership" (I guess it's a blog, it feels like one). Today there is a guest column about "Why colleges should teach leadership." The author is a recent (2005) graduate of Harvard. While there, he established a leadership institute, to address what he saw as a gap in the education at Harvard.

He nails the problem:

Education is a college's reason for being, and leadership needs to be a part of the classroom experience. For that to happen successfully, the definition of the classroom must evolve. It should not simply be a place where students hear lectures, but rather an interactive environment that extends beyond the confines of the room itself. Experiential learning emphasizes discussions, projects and team work rather than problem-set solving or textbook-reading.
I completely agree. I went to Swarthmore, a classic liberal arts college, with a strong liberal/progressive tradition. Every administrator, every faculty member, every board member, will tell you that the College teaches leadership, and believes very strongly in doing so.

My experience was completely different. I was the "treasurer" of the Amnesty International chapter on campus. I was effectively president, but you couldn't call yourself president of a student political organization. There wasn't any official prohibition - the College does, after all, have a president - but it just wasn't done. There was an unwritten and unspoken rule that you did not impose a hierarchy on a student political group, because it was supposed to operate by consensus, according to the Quaker tradition (Swarthmore was founded by the Society of Friends, and still hews to some of the traditions of the Quakers, but is officially non-sectarian). It was basically taboo to call proclaim yourself a figure of authority. This was but one example of political correctness.

I was co-president of the campus science fiction club, the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature. My co-president and I called ourselves "The Presidents Who Go 'Ping!'" after the hopsital scene in Monty Python's the Meaning of Life . But it was, as should be obvious, not a terribly serious organization, so no one minded if we called ourselves president. Besides, one of our predecessors had referred to himself as "Lord God Emperor" or something like that. We were modest in comparison.

The lack of title was the least of my problems learning leadership at Swarthmore. There is one key to teaching leadership that was missing at Swarthmore. Someone has to actually do it. At a college, there has to be someone who makes a commitment to teaching students how to lead. Ideally, each student organization should have a faculty advisor, a mentor who provides guidance by virtue of setting an example, answering questions, and empowering students to make decisions.

I did not have a faculty advisor when I was treasurer of Swarthmore. It never occurred to me to try to find one. I don't know of any student organization that had a faculty advisor, although it's possible that I missed something. The faculty at Swarthmore, were, to their great credit, committed to teaching undergraduates. Many of them were also committed to teaching students about issues of social justice and social criticism - I minored in Sociology specifically so that I could study Critical Theory. They were great at talking the talk.

But they had no idea how to walk the walk. Some of them were personally active in politics. But a professor providing guidance to students on how to be a leader of a political organization just was not part of the social fabric of the college. The College had other means of encouraging students to be politically active - one of the most prestigious scholarships was the Lang scholarship, provided by Eugene Lang, chairman of the board of managers. It required the recipient to take on an off-campus social change project. The college also provided grants to some students who engaged in social change projects - I got $400 to support my internship when I went to Washington to intern for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. That was great. The College also provided Amnesty International with some money out of the student activities budget, which was good. But I also had an internship with Amnesty's Mid-Atlantic regional office in Washington, and didn't get any financial support for that.

Over the course of a couple of years running Amnesty International on campus, and two internships in Washington fighting the death penalty, I had a grand total of two conversations with faculty/staff about my political activities: once, when someone told me that they were sending me a check for $400 for the grant, and once about a parking ticket (I drove a college van to an Amnesty event).

I never had a single conversation with any Swarthmore faculty about my personal political activism. Never got any guidance about how to make decisions as a leader. Never got any advice about what to do when someone in the organization is doing something wrong.

I had lots of conversations, and wrote many papers, about what is wrong with capitalism. This, of course, was a time when my real-world economic experience consisted of summer jobs as a dishwasher. But no conversations about what I personally could actually do to make a difference.
I went to Washington for my internships because I was so sick of theory that I just had to find some way of getting some hands-on practical experience. I arranged my own internships, again with no help whatsoever from anyone at the college. I had two great mentors in Washington: a guy named Jim O'Dea at Amnesty, and a woman named Leigh Dingerson at the NCADP. They both gave me good projects to work on. They were both excellent managers, with real passion for their causes. I am, all these years later, still grateful to both of them. But both of those experiences were completely removed from my college education.

Do I sound a bitter? Maybe just a little. This is one reason that I do not donate money as an alumni to Swarthmore (there are several reasons for that). After I left, the College started paying more attention to this issue: they created a position for someone to provide this guidance. I applied for that job, but didn't get it (the person who was hired was a friend, and an excellent choice). I understand that the College has spent money on building facilities to support student activism. That's all well and good, but too late for me.

I was thrilled to read this column in the WaPo, because the need is urgent.

Just like cars from Detroit, our existing educational models works, but significant advances have taken place in the field, and these models haven't always kept up.
Liberal arts advocates argue that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach students "how to think." That's great. For me, however, it was not necessary. I had a fantastic high school education (in suburban Detroit) that taught me how to think. Swarthmore did not teach me how to think - I already knew that. I got some good practice on how to argue, but Swarthmore did not teach me how to think.

What Swarthmore also did not teach me, and what I desperately needed, was how to make decisions. That is an essential duty of leadership - it's what leaders do. The problem wasn't just the lack of mentors, but my particular curriculum. I majored in philosophy, and minored in English and Sociology & Anthropology (S&A is one department at Swat). Philosophers make decisions about theory, but they do not make decisions that affect other people. There weren't a lot of role models for leadership among contemporary women poets or in Joyce's Ulysses. Sociologists may argue about what leadership is, but there aren't many opportunities to practice it in the classroom.

The problem with lack of mentors was particular to Swarthmore in the late 1980's, but there is a general porblem teaching leadership on American campuses. One thing leaders have to do is evaluate risk. But professors with tenure are insulated from risk. Leaders take risks in the hopes of reaping rewards. Any good leader is going to have their share of failures, just by virtue of being human. But any good leader is also going to be someone who learns from their failures.

Professors, however, being insulated from failure by tenure, do not have the same opportunity to learn from risks taken that do not work out. So professors, at least those with tenure, will probably be poor teachers of leadership. Tenure grants them permission to create impregnable, and very intellectually sophisticated, defense mechanisms justifying why their ideas don't match reality. My favorite joke about economists is that an economist is someone who sees something working in practice, and wonders if it will work in theory.

I would love to see more efforts at teaching leadership on American college campuses. What any effort to do so, however, must take into account one thing: there are already many high-profile people at colleges who teach students how to lead, how to make difficult decisions, and how to motivate others to achieve a common goal. These people take risks, and are held accountable when they fail.

These people are called "coaches."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Health Care Passes In The House

The House of Representatives passed its version of health care reform today. TPMDC has a great analysis of the issues here.

The bill passed the House 220-215, just a couple of votes more than needed. Abortion, a long-simmering issue, exploded in the debate in the last couple of days, as some conservative Democrats decided that they couldn't vote for Federal funding for abortions. They got their way. I'm not thrilled with that, and lots of feminists and liberals are going to be disappointed, but I'm not surprised this happened. Abortion is one of the last battles of the culture wars that is still open, and conservative Democrats need to feel like they won something in this debate. As a percentage of the actual money involved, I'm sure funding for abortion is miniscule. But it's a very high-profile issue, and Democrats from culturally conservative districts can use this vote to demonstrate their independence from "Washington elites."

Obama, as I expected, used some of his political capital at the end, showing up on Capitol Hill to bang some heads and twist some arms. Just a few days after the votes in Virginia and New Jersey that were allegedly so bad for him, he achieves a major victory.

Momentum breeds momentum. As Democrats have come together, they have, collectively, ever more reason to vote together, to make something happen. They must all hang together. They don't all have to vote for the bill to get it to pass, and I'm sure Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn have a very good sense of who they can bring on board under what conditions. As they get closer to passing the final bill, they get closer to defining the political reality. And conservatives and Republicans get closer and closer to losing a major battle. That's one reason that they are fighting so hard, and using such absurd rhetoric - if they lose this one, they don't just lose on the issue - they lose their ability to be obstructionist. Some members of the base will be ever-more frustrated and vitriolic. But a fair number of Republicans are going to be deflated and demoralized. And a fair number are going to be disgusted at the tactics of this highly vocal minority. There are still many, many moderate, tolerant, decent, open-minded conservatives and Republicans who still believe that respecting your opponent is a key quality for being successful in a democracy. Those Republicans, by definition, are not rabble rousers. They are not the ones raising signs on the steps of the Capitol. Which means that they aren't the ones being noticed in this debate. But there are millions of them, and they are paying attention.

Reading the article in TPMDC, I finally started to pick up a good understanding of what is at the core of the debate. I finally get the basic issue. We have lots of uninsured people in this country. Taking care of them costs the rest of us a lot of money. We have to get those people insured. There are a couple of ways to do that: abolish all private insurance, and enroll everyone in the same government program, or encourage/force everyone to buy insurance on their own, or encourage/force all employers to offer insurance. The problem with encouraging/forcing all people to buy insurance on their own is that many of them will not be able to afford it, and many will resent having to buy insurance when they haven't had to before. So, to make it possible, and to ease the pain, the government will do two things: 1) offer subsidies so people can afford to buy insurance, and 2) set up a government-run insurance program for people to buy into. To level the playing field, and to make insurance work better, the government will also be imposing new restrictions on insurance companies.

I finally get it. It's great not to have to worry about the constant battle over fine details of political gossip - which Senator said what about what obscure part of the bill, and how did the White House react, and how did the Senate leadership react, etc. I found the news coverage - particularly on the liberal blogs, TPM, DailyKos, and HuffPost - getting bogged down in that kind of detail. That's a subject for a post-mortem.

But the bill passed the House. On to the Senate.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

All Hail Hideki!

The almighty New York Yankees won the World Series last night! Hideki Matsui was named MVP. He had 6 RBI's in this game, which the Yankees won, 7-3. Woo hoo!

In 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated, the Lakers won the NBA championship, and now the Yankees have won the World Series. All is right with the world. Well, almost. USC has lost two games this year, and probably won't win the Pac-10 title. Other than that, tho, it's been a great year.

I watched the game at a bar in Sherman Oaks with a friend who is about the biggest Yankees fan I have ever met, which is saying something. It was her 27th birthday, and the Yankees won their 27th World Series. It was, she said, the best birthday ever.

I bought her dinner. It was the least I could do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day!

It's Election Day, but a rather boring one. There are two governor's races, in Virginia and New Jersey. Gay marriage is on the ballot on opposite corners of the country, in Maine and Washington. Given the paucity of actual data, but given the ravenous appetite of the media - and us deeply obsessed political junkies - there will be much analysis, much of it wasted. Is this good or bad for Obama? Kos is firmly of the opinion that it says next to nothing about Obama, and I agree. Like Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." These candidates and ballot initiatives are being judged on their own merits. As will Obama in three years.

I haven't commented on these races much, but I have been following them. Chris Christie, the Republican and former US Attorney, won in New Jersey. This is not surprising. The current governor, Jon Corzine, is not terribly popular. I'm not plugged into New Jersey politics enough to really know why. Corzine, however, has the baggage of being a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, at a time when investment bankers are not making friends among the populace. One good thing about Obama's background as a community organizer: he didn't go the investment banking route, which he easily could have done. Christie suffered from some minor scandals, but they were minor - an inappropriate loan to a staffer, some traffic violations. If Corzine had been more popular, those might have done some damage. But my impression is that Christie came across as the lesser of two evils.

Bob McDonell, the Republican, won in Virginia. Again, not surprising - Virginia has been a Republican stronghold for a long time. It's somewhat surprising that Virginia has two Democratic senators. The one noteworthy development in this race happened when McDonell's old graduate thesis surfaced. He took some very conservative positions, and Democrats were hoping that would alienate moderates and women. But he immediately, and apparently effectively, distanced himself from those positions.

The one fascinating oddball race is in New York's 23rd CD, where a Conservative Party candidate is competing against a Democrat. The Republican bowed out after teabaggers and their ilk made it clear they wanted an ideologically hardcore candidate. Someone at The Albany Project is calling it for the Democrat, with 70% of the vote. Wow, that would be quite interesting. That would be a rather spectacular setback for the Republican party - the district has been GOP for 100 years. If the Democrat takes that, it will spark lots of good old-fashioned internecine warfare. Gotta love the prospect of that!